From Global Media and Communication 5:1 (Apr 09), pp. 121-25
Reviewed by Patrick D. Murphy, Southern Illinois University, USA
In the Preface of Consumption and the Globalization Project: International Hegemony and the Annihilation of Time, Edward Comor asserts that as a `historically constructed way of thinking, acting and relating'
consumption has become `the core indice of not just individual "success" but also of national development"' (p. x, emphasis in original). It is this tension between the individual and the national that shapes and guides Comor's examination of the global growth of commodity hunger.
Accordingly, Comor engages with what is often talked about in calls for research on globalization and culture but too often not performed: a deciphering of the politics and practices of consumer culture through a balance of critical political economy and cultural studies. Like many examinations of the political economy of globalization, at the base of this examination lie issues of political reform
and economic liberalization tied to neo-liberal philosophy; namely, deregulation, decentralization, cross-media marketing and other changes
in structural networks and relationships of capital. But rather than focus directly on these foundational issues, Comor works his way towards them by directing his attention to what he views as the mortar that holds this edifice together: consumer capitalism. Here the author concentrates on teasing out how, as a historical process, consumption has become
The analysis that unfolds is guided primarily by neo-Gramscian thought, although Comor also draws from the work of thinkers as diverse
as C. Wright Mills, David Harvey and Neil Postman. As a result, much of what Comor productively dwells on is grounded in questions concerning
the intertwining of the material and psychological elements of consumption shaped and massaged by hegemonic leadership. Indeed,
Comor argues that, with increasing frequency across a range of national contexts, capitalist consumption has emerged not only as a means
through which the hegemonic order secures participation, but also as a
mechanism through which subjects exercise a personal sense of agency, framed and enabled via their own `sovereign' consumerist choices.
Hegemonic culture is thus able to win and maintain consent by channelling dissent in such as way that the dominated `become co-authors of their own oppression' (p. 33, emphasis in original), directly in relation to consumerism and its various practices of commodification.
This is not explicated as a mechanical process and, as a thesis anchored in neo-Gramscian theory, it is perhaps not surprising that, looming large within Comor's analysis of consumption and globalization,
is the issue of `common sense' - a construct given great weight in the work of Gramsci, and which at one time held considerable fascination for scholars of Cultural Studies, especially Stuart Hall. However, the significance of common sense as a measure of the exercise of political power, and its penetration into the social imagination, largely faded from
view in globalization studies in the 1990s to 2000s amid tides of postmodern theory and later much of the work on cultural hybridity, which, in different ways, tended to celebrate the autonomy of the subject
and the resilience of local culture. Lost in these tidal shifts was a focused engagement of not only how ideas and practices associated with hegemonic
ideology became normalized and naturalized but also a sense of how, through an internalization of individual subordination, people's horizon
of the imaginable was shaped in concert with what was held to be unimaginable. As such, Comor's resuscitation of the politics of common sense as a viable site of critical analysis is welcome and, one could easily argue in our post 9/11 world, an overdue interpretive manoeuvre. Indeed, herein lies one of main contributions of Consumption and the Globalization Project to the broader discussion of globalization, namely commercial
capitalism's ability to make commonsensical the kinds of dreamscapes that hegemonic leadership is reliant upon to build and maintain consent.
Within this theoretical context, Comor's attempt to decipher the institutionalization of capitalist consumption is both ambitious and provocative. However, it is precisely from within the socio-historical context of a post-9/11 emphasis on consumption-as-freedom-as-political-agency which serves as the point of departure for Comor's investigative trajectory, tracing both backwards in history and through his engagement of contemporary socio-economic developments. This interrogation of
origins and practices is directed at a system that has come to celebrate consumer choice as a measure of democratic participation and that frames
public (civic) life as a question of lifestyle (e.g., citizens as consumers), while constructing a universe where the only requirement is participation
in consumption (or at least the aspiration to participate), and the only unacceptable activity the refusal of that participation (which Comor notes
can range from frugal spenders to `culture jammers' to al-Qaeda).
To gauge these processes Comor trains his focus on patterns, tendencies and conceptual systems, which he does in two different ways. First, by charting patterns in the historical ascendancy of consumption
in pre-19th-century England and early 20th-century United States. Second, by analysing the dynamic between commodity hunger, material life and psychological factors played out in everyday life in contemporary national contexts (e.g., China and India). Both paths are taken to assess, more broadly, the `structuring of consciousness' (p. 47) in different social and historical contexts, and how these shifts in consciousness have influenced other social institutions (religion, education, family) and thus individuals. In doing so he reminds the reader that the structuring of institutions of social consciousness cannot be achieved without citizens
themselves acting as unwitting agents of reproduction and dissemination.
But through his analysis Comor also punctuates the idea that, though hegemonic leadership is built on consent, behind that consent is the threat of coercion (e.g., `free market forces' backed the `rule of law').
As these notes indicate, Consumption and the Globalization Project is a book that deliberately works against the grain of what its author sees as
a `progressive' tendency in globalization theory to fetishize pluralistic identities and interests as if negotiated and expressed in some localized
historical vacuum. Indeed, in Comor's view what history and contemporary cultural dynamics teach us is that the interventions of the
powerful are in fact increasingly played out through commoditized ways of seeking identity and meaning. In fact, in `developing' nations these
currents of consumer identification may even hold more power as they often come in the face of a precipitous decline in political authority of
the state and the rapid emergence of democratic reform.
But as Comor shows, these are not tidy transformations because as an institution, consumption is often being elaborated at the same time as groups opposed to `modernity' are reinvesting in traditional cultural practices and/or the articulation of anti-capitalist values. These
reinvestments often surface in relation to events that are culturally traumatic (e.g., geographic displacement; trade agreements that alter
traditional subsistence; armed conflict). So, it is perhaps no small irony that such reinvestments are often performed in concert with an internalization of the boundaries of the rules of consumption. That is,
most citizen-consumers come to find that they are hesitant to sacrifice that which is perceived as beneficial or that one day might be beneficial
(e.g., the freedom to make money or own private property). Thus, both materially and psychologically the promises of the market `facilitate a
pragmatic kind of quiescence' (p. 35), the boundaries of which are mediated by consumer capitalism's underlying discourse that happiness, well-being
and freedom are accessible through products.
Comor's interest in these social adjustments is connected to how the interventions of the powerful are masked through a matrix of culture, meaning and identity, which involves an uneven and contentious
reorganization of how people experience time and space. Though leaning toward the agendas of the powerful, this process of transformation is still
`up for grabs' (p. 107) as it is marked by social realities and ontological tensions that make it hard to clearly locate when and how (and if)
hegemonic culture manages to convincingly take on the properties of and become embedded in local/national cultures.
Overall, Comor provides an excellent analysis of globalization as an unfolding project of patterns, tendencies and conceptual systems, shaped by
powerful interests with the institution of consumption at its core. His application of neo-Gramscian theory to address some of the truly
globalizing aspects of globalization, particularly with his reclamation of common sense as a tool for analysis and site for future inquiry, is overdue.
But perhaps even more valuable is how this historically informed analysis of the politics of consumption invites within the field of globalization
studies a robust follow-up conversation about the limits of a market-driven social imagination and its implications for responsible resource control
and environmental stewardship.