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“The Error of our Ways: Historians and the Birth of Consumer Society” - page 17 / 19





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Debate about consumer society was, once again, a debate about the character or nature of the consumer.

While much of the historical literature inspired by The Birth of Consumer Society mirrored the concerns of the first phase of the mid-twentieth-century consumer society debate, the interest in consumer practices and identity formation grew out of the second phase of the consumer society debate with its neo-liberal preoccupation with individual choice and its reconceptualisation of consumer society as an overarching, all-embracing semiotic order.

The context for these developments was a new emphasis on flexible rather than mass production, the greater distancing – both physical and psychic - between production and consumption, the focus on forms of consumption that emphasized individuality rather than conformity, and the growing importance of technologies of reproduction and simulation.  If the mass-society critique that consumption was numbingly conformist had achieved some purchase, and not just on the Left, its puritanical sense that consumption beyond basic needs was false, unnecessary and alienating came under fire, and not just from free-market liberals.  

Thinking of consumption as a means to produce meaning, as the articulation of signs and symbols, and therefore viewing consumer society as a semiotic system, had two rather contradictory outcomes.  On the one hand there were those who followed the extremely influential work of Michel de Certeau on everyday life that emphasised that even within the constraints of contemporary capitalism consumers had agency  - could create something with its own meaning, shape their world and identity in their own image.  On the other was the view, associated particularly with Jean Baudrilliard, that consumption was totalising, all-embracing, inescapable, a regime or

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