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Essay on Consumption in American Culture at the End of History

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Consumption in American Culture at the End of History


In the novel Brave New World , the denizens of Aldous Huxley’s dystopia live in a rigidly structured consumer culture. From young ages, they are conditioned to hate the outdoors so that as adults they will prefer activities that require large amounts of manufactured products and long trips that utilize the maximum amount of infrastructure. That is what keeps the world humming, and there are important similarities between Huxley’s vision of social control through pleasure and the rigid policing of tastes, activities, and consumption in our own 21st century culture. The new trend and buzzword now is globalization, and the contemporary reaction to the expansion of global capitalistic enterprise ranges from cheerful acceptance to violent protest. What is clear is that consumption seems to be the primary locus of economic activity in contemporary America just as the factory was central to the 19th century. There also seems to be a connection between the drives behind rampant consumption and the goal of liberal economics. It seems to have an eschatological character like that of many religions, in that the end goal is a state where there is no more need for the struggle that marks capitalistic economies. In like manner, on this model the individual is defined by the avenues of consumption that she chooses, and the end state is the cessation of wants, desires, and needs.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent economic expansion in the United States during the 1990’s ushered in a perspective among many intellectuals that we are witnessing the end of history, with some seeing the new world order as proof of liberal democratic capitalisms supremacy a...


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...of choices in the mainstream and living beyond bland mass culture. The contemporary sophisticated aesthete would not dream of owning a Britney Spears album, because that is just commercial pap, instead subsisting on a healthy musical diet of Belle & Sebastian albums. You see the difference, don’t you? The fact is that no one is exempt from that proliferation of signs, and the contemporary pose of being scandalized by rampant consumerism is itself just a means of legitimating other forms of consumption. The difficulty is maintaining a critical eye amidst the deluge of advertising while at the same time not thinking that such a critical reflection absolves one’s own actions from being participatory in that very system. The stance is just another aspect of the quest for a paradisiacal steady state, this one looking down on consumption even as it revels in it.


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