Baumann’s theory of the seduced and repressed depicts modern society as one where consumption dominates people’s material existence and helps to understand the division between the included (seduced) and excluded (repressed). In this essay I will discuss this concept of seduction and repression and highlight some of its strengths as well as some of its shortcomings by drawing on the theories and statements of other social scientists and by looking at the historical emergence of the consumer society.
Until the latter part of the twentieth century societies in industrialised Europe were referred to as “industrial societies” in which people’s identities were defined by the social norms of their class or their professions. Since then, aided initially by the development of department stores and a retail orientated infrastructure, a shift away from a production dominated economy to one motivated by consuming has led to the use of the label “consumer society”, in which consumption has become the delineating factor.
Consumption, in this context, means the purchase of goods, services and experiences and the consequent usage of these commodities. The term consumer society therefore identifies a society which is defined as much by what people use as by what they do (Hetherington, 2009) and where the processes of consumption have a central role. The changes in the role of consumption in society prompted Zygmunt Baumann (cited in Hetherington, 2009) to replace the old class divisions with two different social categories: the seduced and the repressed.
The seduced represent members of our society that have the means to buy into the imagery of the in-crowd, that are of the right age and have the right physique. Their social identities are characterised by lifestyles that reflect choices, self expression, a sense of belonging and freedom. As commodities have become the essence of our existence, “they have become associated with the themes of family, sexuality and individuality as vehicles for the fulfilment of each”. (Friedman, 2007, p. ) But commodities must, by default, be purchased, which means that not everyone can gain access to full membership in the club of consumers – notably the poor, the infirm and the immobile are excluded, either socially or physically, because they lack the funds or the required social skills or the means of mobility and communication. They are Baumann’s “repressed”. The purveyors of the consumer society’s commodities do not consider them as target customers and so they are left with dwindling opportunities to better their handicapped status and consequently find themselves sidelined and frequently considered failures.
Bauman’s theory builds on the thoughts and works of Veblen and Susman, who studied the transformation in America from a puritan and “thrifty” society to a culture of abundance and excess. Veblen first coined the expression “conspicuous consumption” which he used to describe consumerism in terms of status and display. (Akst, 2009). Warren Susman argues that the change from concerns about “character” to concerns about “personality” centred around the new methods and locations of consumption.
The idea of seducing people into buying goods not only as necessities but as items of luxury and to aid self worth and further social standing was first introduced in the mid 19th century, when department stores arrived on the scene and offered not only affordable goods necessary for daily living, but also a sense of safety, luxury and, by clever visual merchandising, entertainment and spectacles. All goods were on display, inviting shoppers into a domain of visual wealth where they were able to not only browse but to interact without seemingly being obliged to purchase.
Rosalind Williams (cited in Hetherington, 2009, p. 41) calls consumers “an audience to be entertained by commodities, where selling is mingled with amusement”. Today’s retailers operate on much the same principles by creating a stage upon which promises of the desired lifestyles are being acted out. Shopping malls, large brand supermarkets and internet shopping providing an occasionally all too easy access to all commodities, combined with creative and seductive advertising, allure the seduced onto their stage, to become themselves performers. Susman, cited in Hetherington, 2009) As the mouthpiece of business, advertising has become ubiquitous and has moved away from simply stating the obvious, such as describing basic use and cost, and has morphed into an art form, using professionals from the world of film and stage. Brand names and labels are sending messages of being “with it”, being “cool” and of being part of the in-crowd. Children and young people are made to feel inadequate if they do not wear, eat, watch or listen to whatever is considered the latest trend.
Advertising companies tend more and more to produce intriguing story lines portraying ordinary people in order to target a wide spectrum of potential customers and to sell not only the commodities but also the underlying success stories. This creates pressure not only to realise one’s own ambitions in life style, but also to “keep up with the Joneses” (even if the Joneses are on their second mortgage) and so creates an ever upward spiralling excess in spending and consumption.
Bauman’s arguments are useful for the purpose of defining the role of consumption, but they present a very pessimistic view of modern society and give a rather unilateral view of the consumer’s motivations (Warde, 1994). One might argue that there should be a third and fourth group in Bauman’s model of society: The “oppositional”, as Hetherington calls them, and the “enlightened”. The former would include people who actively avoid the temples of consumption, because of either environmental or political convictions.
The enlightened on the other hand realise that the choices on offer are driven by profit and determined by the merchants/retailers and can see through the make-believe and stage make-up, costumes, props and special effects of the manufacturing dream weavers and choose not to be influenced by either marketing, advertising or promises of a perceived desirable status. In addition there is nowadays a general growing concern about the self perpetuating nature of consumption.
Commodities have shorter and shorter life spans, be it because of the way they are manufactured to suit a throw-away society or because they go “out of fashion” . So by purchasing a consumer item, the dream of and need for its replacement start almost immediately, leading in many cases to debts and unhappiness and eventually to the transition from being seduced to being repressed. Reckless spending and reckless investments have only recently caused a worldwide recession and people are waking up to the fact that the feel-good factor that consumption can give you also leads to a severe hangover when the bubbles burst.
Rising awareness of health and environmental issues is a further factor in bringing about change of consumer thinking. Most notable the ban of cigarette advertising is a perfect example of the market having to yield to the seemingly non-seduced. But are they non-seduced? As Bauman tells us, consumers are simultaneously both free and seduced – seduced not entirely by the commodity itself but also by the associations conveyed and are free to choose which life-style to follow.
In this light, the earlier described groups of the oppositional, enlightened, sceptical and aware can all be classified as seduced, even though their seduction does not necessarily aid the capital growth of the market. To summarise, with the concept of the seduced and repressed Bauman provides a clear cut, if simplified, schematic of the included and excluded members of a modern consumer society and paints a contrasting picture of their identities. The clarity resulting from this simplification makes it easier to get an understanding of the underlying complexities of the modern consumer society.
Akst, D. (2009) ‘Saving Yourself’, The Wilson Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 3 [online], http://www.questia.com (Accessed 17 July 2010).
Friedman, M. (2007) ‘The Consumer Culture Research Landscape’, The Journal of American Culture, vol. 30, no. 1 [online], http://www.questia.com (Accessed 19 July 2010).
Hetherington, K. (2009) ‘Consumer society? Shopping, consumption and social science’ in Taylor, S., Hinchcliffe, S., Clarke, J. and Bromley, S. (eds) Making Social Lives, Milton Keynes, The Open University.
Warde, A. (1994) ‘Consumers, identity and belonging’ in Keat, R., Whiteley, N. and Abercrombie, N. (eds) The Authority of the Consumer, New York, Routledge.