order whose object was to endlessly reproduce itself. “Consumption’, he wrote, “is neither a material practice, nor a phenomenology of “affluence”. It is not defined by the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the car we drive, nor the visual and oral substance of images and messages, but in the organization of all this as signifying substance. Consumption is the virtual totality of all objects and messages presently constituted in a more or less coherent discourse. Consumption, in so far as it is meaningful, is a systematic act of the manipulation of signs”. Consumer society is a semiotic world marked by constant change and permanent stasis. This is not so much a thesis of individual manipulation – as in the critique of the Frankfurt school – as of massive and collective delusion, the source of post-modern resignation and despair.
But, yet again, we face the same problems that we have seen in every version of ‘consumer society’ – an archetypal consumer – the free chooser, or the maker of signs – and a general characterisation of consumer society bereft of any middle ground. Indeed the general characterisation of consumption as a signing and symbolic practice has had the effect of treating consumption as an almost totally autonomous realm devoid of economic and social context, of seeing the distancing of consumption from production as a real rupture or divorce.
What then to conclude? If I am pressed to answer the question did the late eighteenth century see the Birth of Consumer Society, I will answer, ‘no’. But my preferred answer is to say that this isn’t a very good question, because it is not a very good way of thinking about either consumption or consumerism in the eighteenth, twentieth or twenty-first century. This isn’t just because of the political freight the consumer society debate has had to carry – though it has largely been a non-too-covert debate about the market and its role in our lives – but because its language, assumption