Sunday, January 14, 2007

Post-Modernism and shopping

Of course Long Sunday beat me to the punch on this and I also noticed that this excellecnt blog by Gary Sauer Thompson covered an article on post-modernism's impact on marketing and retail. The Economist ran an article in December's issue called Post Modernism and Shopping which asserted that the the POMO philosphers inadvertanly are to blame/praise for a wonderful shopping experience! The article gives the riches to riches story of British retailer Selfridges and how they ditched a meta-narrative of retail for a fragmentary, DIY, eclectic shopping bliss. Snarkiness asside it is an interesting piece and critics of post-modernist critique may find much to agree with.

from the Economist:
Lyotard's name would not be the first that springs to mind when tracing the roots of contemporary retailing and business. Of course many unlikely thinkers and doers, from Sun Tzu, a Chinese general and purveyor of top strategy tips, to Sir Ernest Shackleton, a British explorer celebrated as the ultimate team-builder, have been unwittingly roped into management. The sub-genres of marketing, branding, trend-spotting and business organisation all have their own thought-leaders.

That said, the French philosophers whose interest in accessories was limited to a Gauloise drooping stylishly from the corner of the mouth do not seem natural retail gurus. Yet there is a curious (and, given their contempt for consumption, somewhat ironic) relationship between today's shops and the ideas of the French post-modernists.
Pomo power

Lyotard, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida were all from the far left. The pomos (as they are affectionately known to adherents) wanted to destroy capitalism and bourgeois society. The students whom they inspired took to the streets in May 1968 hoping to do just that. Yet, paradoxically, the pomos predicted with eerie precision how capitalism would reinvent itself in the 1980s and 1990s. Even worse (for them), they gave modern retailers, advertisers and businessmen the tools to do so.
Perhaps though what is actually the most relevant part of the artcile is this assertion:

the “fragmentation” of narratives and the individual's ability to be “the artist of his own life”.

Modern business uses a different language to discuss the same ideas. In “The Long Tail”, an analysis of the impact of the internet on the music industry, with wider ramifications, Chris Anderson describes the “shattering of the mainstream into a zillion different cultural shards”. The post-modern “fragment” becomes a “niche” and the mass market is “turning into a mass of niches”. “When mass culture breaks apart,” he writes, “it doesn't re-form into a different mass. Instead, it turns into millions of microcultures which coexist and interact in a baffling array of ways.” That is a good description of what post-modernists were trying to achieve, and pretty much what a shop like Selfridges actually aspires to look like.

Ok, I can forgive the cheesy nature of "artist of his own life" but the observation on fragmentation is getting at a real phenomenon. I'm just don't think 'liberated' choice is the natural result of mass fragmentation nor intrinsically a positive whether it is a result or not. This article is a glib appropriation of the post-modern "project' which I think can easily be argued as something not cohesive and even as a body of thought that is still largely yet to be 'decided'. Of course all concepts can be co-opted as nothing is immune to influence or coersion. Still I do think that looking at how capital under globalization, does embed itself into the fragmentation process and successfully trades on it - that is so apparent not only on the political level but on the artistic pysche as well. I think one could assert that the art market actually pioneered long ago the ability to incorporate myriad messages and styles and trade on them.

For fun, I'd like to close with this summary by David Graeber on POMO and the Global Market.

David Graeber:

POMO summary/caricature

1. We now live in a Post Modern Age. The world has changed; no one is responsible, it simply happened as a result of inexorable processes; neither can we do anything about it, but we must simply adopt ourselves to new conditions.

2. One result of our postmodern condition is that schemes to change the world or human society through collective political action are no longer viable. Everything is broken up and fragmented; anyway, such schemes will inevitably either prove impossible, or produce totalitarian nightmares.

3. While this might seem to leave little room for human agency in history, one need not despair completely. Legitimate political action can take place, provided it is on a personal level: through the fashioning of subversive identities, forms of creative consumption, and the like. Such action itself is political and potentially liberatory

Globalization summary/caricature

4. We now live in a Global Market. The world has changed; no one is responsible, it simply happened as a result of inexorable processes; neither can we do anything about it, but we must simply adopt ourselves to new conditions.

5. One result is that schemes aiming to change the world or human society through collective political action are no longer viable. Dreams of revolution have been proven impossible or, worse, bound to produce nightmares; even any idea of changing society through electoral politics must now be abandoned in the name of “competitiveness.”

6. If this might seem to leave little room for democracy, one need not despair: market behavior, and particularly individual consumption decisions, are democracy; indeed, they are all the democracy we’ll ever really need.


Anonymous said...

High Low, thanks for the link. I like the Graeber quotes - I think that what comes to be called "postmodernism" can easily be confused with the inevitability of globalization. From some of the comments at Long Sunday, I got the feeling that folks thought that I was endorsing the marketing appropriation of Lyotard, Foucault, etc... I just thought it was interesting that a magazine like The Economist, which is clearly not leftist or academic, thought it was a topic worth writing about. I am not sure what it suggests but thought it worth noting.

Thanks again.

highlowbetween said...

With pleasure. I'm having a blast reading Long Sunday and getting turned onto so many new blogs.I picked up the issue at the airport over the holidays and couldn't believe it actually. The tone of the article bugged me but I was nevertheless intrigued by the points you mention. I also though of some many artists that are investigating shopping and often by appropriating Prada bags, etc.
As far as your commentators well,people have there battle lines you know! I know what you mean. There is something there that needs further consideration.