consuming individuality

It occurs to me that, rather than individualism leading to consumer culture, it is the other way round. Perhaps this is obvious, but it is only recently that I have become aware how – with each choice I make; for the clothing I wear, the furniture I have in my home, the kind of soap I use, the kind of food I choose to eat – I distance myself from my fellow man. I see him and cannot help noting the choices he has made and reflecting on – judging, even – what this says about him. When he looks at me, no doubt, he draws his own conclusions.

This process of ‘becoming by consuming’ has deepened as I have grown older and, concurrently, as the amount of ‘things’ I can purchase have become ever more diverse. It seems to be this very diversity that is one of the primary reasons that people everywhere crave the ‘consumer lifestyle’. Those who live in consumer cultures claim, and are claimed to be, individuals – this seems surely true, however I do wonder what exactly this ‘individuality’ consists of. How much is this ‘individuality’ merely a description or classification of the mass of objects and lifestyle choices that has a human being at its centre? If a consumer has the misfortune to lose all his possessions, by becoming a refugee for example, does he cease to be an individual; and, if he does so, does this come about because of how he sees himself, or how others see him – or both?

Is it possible for someone to become an ‘individual’ without the consumerist system that supplies him with the objects that he uses to define himself – to others and to himself? Is it possible that a person belonging to an isolated Amazonian tribe might not be able to become an ‘individual’ – at least in the sense that this self-identification transcends that of the group. In the Amazon everyone, presumably, would have access to the same materials with which to make artefacts and to adorn himself. The need for artefacts to be functional, and the limited repertoire of such functions and of the methods for creating such functions, must necessarily make most everything that he possesses indistinguishable from that that his fellows possess. Unable to sufficiently accentuate and differentiate his ‘individuality’, would the group naturally become his primary mode of identification?

It seems to me that an argument can be made that, the more consumerist a society is, the more atomised it becomes. When choice of clothing is essentially unlimited, even a random selection of clothing would leave you dressed differently from other people. Thus ‘individuality’ is forced on us more by the circumstances in which we live, rather than by being inherent in a person. Consumerism amplifies the small variations there are between you and others, until these become prominent both to other people and, crucially, to yourself. Seeing yourself as different from other people isolates you from them – they become ‘other’. By this means, surely, social cohesion is increasingly diminished. People end up isolated in their individuality. What part does this play in explaining how unhappy and unsatisfied we are in consumer societies?

Posted by Ricardo

writer and blogger

4 Replies to “consuming individuality”

  1. that is an interesting perspective. I have tried (and mostly) failed to reject the “commsumer” mindset. Have you ever watched “the story of stuff”? I try to limit purchases. Which may be my way of expressing individuality.


  2. Ricardo:
    In first place, I would like to say that I liked very much of earing you at the Feira do Livro de Lisboa in 2010. I buy The Chosen but, unfortunatly, I haven’t read it yet. I’m a very slow and chaotic reader.

    After this off-topic, I think this is a very interesting discussion. In my perspective, like Rollo May said, individualism start to appear at Renaissance. In Middle Ages, the individual was defined only by some general category (race, people, party, family, etc.). In Renaissance the individual appears as a discrete entity in the social setting, a free and autonomus individual.

    Then the development of capitalism and the downfall of the religious power led to the rise of the modern society. The actual consumerism is only a sign of the affirmative power of the individual. Without it, the person still have the chance of being an autonomus individual. After all, the consumerism only appears in the begining of 20th century, with a increasing affirmation in the post-war era.

    In today’s world, the consumerism serves to underline our individuality, by one side, and to create a sense of community, in the other, in this fragmented era. Then the individuality is not dependent of consumerism.

    P.S. – I appologise if I maked some error in my bad English.


  3. Great thoughts! I would agree that the world gets atomised that way but I have two things that I would add:

    The fact that unlimited choice is available for clothes for example doesn’t necessarily mean that distinction is my prime mode of decision making. In fact, Buying certain clothes specifically to conform plays a big role for most people. At least to conform to a certain way they see themselves, which is often as part of a certain group. You buy things you hope identify you as a member of a specific group. This grouping is now a matter of explicit choice and not so much defined by place and rank of birth. I think that makes you think about what defines you and what you would like to define you more than you usually would and thats a great thing!

    Secondly: I think the internet is the great antidote to that. While “natural” associations fall apart, “cultural” associations build. you create a group of friends from a pool much larger than you originally had at your disposal. You are able to build friendships and post on authors websites with other readers who you never had the chance to interact with before. The possibilities for entirely new molecules (relationships between “atomised” individuals), tailored to individuals in wholly new patterns, which I think is quite exciting.


    1. you make good points, though I think you’ve identified a different side of this issue: namely atomisation by ‘molecular clustering’ *grin*

      What I’ve noticed is that, for example, that when amazon gives me recommendations, it is on the basis of what other people, who have liked the same thing as me, like… Surely this is a recipe for creating closed groups of similarly minded individuals. If I follow those recommendations, rather than widening my field of interest, I narrow it…

      This, then, seems to me to be the predominant result of the internet effect you describe and so it doesn’t seem to me that this is an antidote, but rather the opposite. Whereas, before the internet, we were all compelled to overcome the differences between us, and find friends from the limited number of others that were available to us, now we can avoid that effort and merely link up with other people like ourselves…


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