"Commodities can provisionally be defined as objects of economic value." (Arjun Appadurai, "Commodities and the politics of value," in The Social Life of Things, p 3)This economic value, following Simmel, is defined as a reciprocal formation in the possibilities of exchange. "The sacrifice or renunciation that is interposed between man and the object of his demand is, at the same time, the object of someone else's demand. The one has to give up possession or enjoyment that the other wants in order to persuade the latter to give up what he owns and the former wants." (The Philosophy of Money, p 78)

Read More


"When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping."

Consumerism is an acceptance of consumption as a way to self-development, self-realization, and self-fulfillment. It makes a clear separation between producers and consumers. In a consumer society an individual's identity is tied to what s/he consumes. People living in consumer cultures have a tendency to satisfy social, emotional, and spiritual needs with material things.

For critics of consumerism, such as Zygmunt Bauman (Consuming Life), “the consumerist society has to rely on excess and waste” (p.38) The advent of consumerism augurs the era of ‘inbuilt obsolescence” and the insatiability of needs. New needs need new commodities; new commodities need new needs and desires, and this dynamic makes individuals wish to do what is needed for the to enable the system to reproduce itself. Thus consumption is a “hedonic treadmill” (p.45). Its promises of satisfaction remain seductive only as long as the desire stays ungratified.

Read More

consumer / citizen

"Consumers are poor substitutes for citizens." Benjamin Barber

"In a nutshell, the governing impulse of the consumer is "I want". The governing impulse of the citizen is "we need".

Mutual respect does not imply uncertainty or skepticism about the good; it implies, instead, a certain higher-order good, a vision of the citizen as an active searcher for what has worth, whose sincere engagement in that search should be allowed to unfold in freedom, even if it should lead to what seems to be error -- unless it inflicts manifest harm on others." (Martha Nussbaum, in Ethics of Consumption)

In and 2.0, Cass Sunstein distinguishes between "consumer sovereignty" and "political sovereignty". For Sunstein, consumer sovereignty takes preferences and priorities as given, as matters of personal taste that are neither amenable to, nor in need of, public justification. The main question for consumer sovereignty is whether consumers are getting what they want, and it often draws on market research to manipulate them into thinking so. If we believe in consumer sovereignty, we are likely to think that freedom consists in the satisfaction of private preferences -- in the absence of restrictions on individual choices. (p.45)

Political sovereignty, by contrast, "does not take individual tastes as fixed or given. It prizes democratic self-government, understood as a requirement of 'government by discussion,' accompanied by reason-giving in the public domain." (p.40) Within the political sphere, decisions have impact beyond the purely individual, and decisions need to take into account the potential impact on others.

Read More


The idea of ethnicity is the idea of a naturalized group identity. It is usually linked, since Max Weber, to some sort of extension of the primordial idea of kinship. In this primordialist concept, group identity is a one-way process in which larger social units draw on the sentiments of family and kinship to gain emotional force.

Read More


Ford's factories required a disciplined and deskilled workforce, willing and able to perform repetitive tasks on the assembly line. F. W. Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management published in 1911 had already described how labor productivity could be radically increased by breaking down each labor process into component motions and organizing them according to rigorous standards of time and motion. 

Read More


The political representative of the Dalai Lama objected to the word "victory" in a UN resolution drafted by Dag Hammerskjold in support of the Tibetan struggle with the Chinese. When asked what they would call a state of affairs in which their side won, he answered, "We do have words for that. We call that very excellent best peace." 

Read More

place / identity

"Find your place, dig in, and defend it." --Gary Snyde

Oliver Sachs describes how his paralyzed leg had "vanished, taking its place with it...The leg had vanished taking its 'past' away with it. I could no longer remember having a leg." (See Oliver Sachs, A Leg to Stand On, New York, 1984,)

More and more of us live in what Edward Said has called a "general condition of homelessness," a world where identities are coming to be deterritorialized, or differently territorialized. In a world of diaspora, transnational culture flows, and mass movements of populations, in which familiar lines between "here" and "there", center and periphery, colony and metropole become blurred.

Read More

popular culture

In " Avant-Garde and Kitsch", Clement Greenberg describes a second new cultural phenomenon that appeared in the industrial West: Kitsch. For Greenberg, the new urban masses lost their taste for the folk culture of the countryside, discovered a new capacity for boredom, and set up a pressure on society to provide them with a culture fit for their own consumption. For Greenberg, Kitsch is produced by a rationalized technique that draws on science and industry and erases the values that permit distinctions between good and bad art. 

Read More


The tradition of Platonic and idealistic philosophy separates theory from practice in much the same way as it does mind from body, privileging in both cases the "conceptual" (or moral) over the "material".

Praxis philosophies give primacy to a theory of action. The original expression is Aristotle's and refers to a symbolically meaningful activity, whose very doing, not its result, is the fulfillment of a cultural commitment. It can be defined as meaning rather than function.

For the Frankfurt school in its earlier period, prior to 1937, truth was defined as "a moment of correct praxis." Subsequently, in the face of Fascism and Stalinism, the relation between theoretical truth and the political praxis of specific social groups began to appear increasingly remote.

Read More


According to the liberal tradition, the modern individual, at home in its private spaces, regards the public as its outside. The outside is the place proper to politics, where the action of the individual is exposed in the presence of others and there seeks recognition. (This is the notion of the political elaborated by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, which she calls the space of public appearance 
Public space is civic space. It is the space of civil society, shared by citizens -- individuals who have aquired a public voice and understand themselves to be part of a wider community. 

Read More


How long can we sustain the unsustainable?

The rapid increase in the world's population as a whole, the presence of many people that live below the level of any equitable living standards, the emergence of large and rapidly developing economies such as India's and China's, and the profligate model of the American lifestyle (and to a slightly lesser extent, the Western European) have all contributed to concern over the "carrying capacity" of the planet. How many people can obtain adequate amounts of clean water, food, and shelter, let alone automobiles, computers, and a constant supply of consumer goods? The environmental group calculates that if everyone on earth adopted the British lifestyle, it would require three planets to support. The American lifestyle would require seven planets, but we still only have one. Will wars and catastrophes be the only way to know when those limits have been reached?

The growing awareness of environmental consequence, and the sense that "we can't go on this way" without serious adverse consequences for future generations underlies the development of the term sustainability. The expression was first put into widespread political use by the United Nation's World Commission on the Environment and Development, which issued a report in 1987 known as the Brundtland Report, named after its chairperson, Gro Harlem Brundtand, the former prime minister of Norway.

Although it draws on scientific study and environmental forecasts, the concept of sustainability is a political and moral term, like justice or freedom, and the history of sustainability as as much social, political, and economic as it is environmental.

Read More


In Totem and Taboo, Freud introduces the term taboo as a Polynesian word that means both sacred, consecrated and uncanny, dangerous, forbidden, unclean. The taboo seems to have a strength all its own. "Taboo restrictions have no grounds and are of unknown origins." (Standard Edtion, vol 13, p.18) nor are they subject to question.

Freud describes taboo as a magical power which is inherent in persons and spirits and can be conveyed by them through the medium of inanimate objects. He compares their dangerous charge to electricity and infection.

For Mary Douglas, taboos are reactions to events that seriously defy established lines of classification.

Read More


In foraging societies men go to war to get or keep women. Access to women is the limiting factor on male's reproductive success. The most common spoils of tribal warfare are women. Raiders kill the men, abduct the nubile women, gang-rape them, and allocate them as wives. Leaders may sometimes use rape as a terror tactic to attain other ends, but it is effective precisely because the soldiers are so eager to implement it. In fact, it often backfires by giving the defenders an incalculable incentive to fight on, and probably for that reason, more than out of compassion for enemy women, modern armies have outlawed rape. (Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 513) 

Read More


In his reassesment of the "hardships" and "poverty" of hunter-gatherer societies, Marshall Sahlins describes the effect of the market-industrial system as instituting scarcity and sentencing us to "life at hard labor." (Stone Age Economics, p.4)

Read More