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communication and culture

By lawrencep Feb 25, 2014 2216 Words
Consumption is ‘the purchase of economic goods that directly satisfy human wants or desires, such as food, clothes and pictures.’[1]  It is ever central to our lives, particularly in an increasingly post-modern society where the latest technology and the newest designer brands are at the hub of everyone’s yearning. But why do consumers crave these items so badly? Why is there such an appeal for the latest trends? Why do we insist on having the best items? Whether consumers realise it or not the answers to these questions contribute to the creation of their identity.  In modern societies, self-identity becomes an inescapable issue[2]. The central notion of consumption is that modern identities are structured around their experience, and in this case our consumption of trends. When we consume there are two things we get, the material element (the actual cultural product) and a symbolic element (the values and status the product portrays and ensnares us with); one must consider the rhetoric of the image the product depicts, beyond the object denoted there is a complex web of cultural connotations. 

Part of my investigation focused on designer versus high street clothing, and why we pay such high prices for garments that are practically the same, some even produced in the same factories (source) with a price difference of hundreds of pounds. I researched this using the primary source of a questionnaire. My primary research conducted highlighted that several people of all different ages were asked if they would choose designer or high street if they could and why. The majority (only one anomaly) said they would choose designer, (with the choices of Primark, Topshop, H+M and D&G, Chanel and Prada), stating a variety of reasons; that it would be better quality, because celebrities wear it and most interestingly, because the labels act as a signifier of high status and wealth. This result could perhaps be attributed to the consumption of symbols, put forward by Baudrillard, who claims that commodities are bought and displayed as much for their sign-value as their use-value, and that the phenomenon of sign-value has become an essential constituent of the commodity and consumption in the consumer society. For Baudrillard, the entire society is organized around consumption and display of commodities through which individuals gain prestige, identity, and standing. In this system, the more prestigious one's commodities (houses, cars, clothes, and so on), the higher one's standing in the realm of sign value. Thus, just as words take on meaning according to their position in a differential system of language, so sign values take on meaning according to their place in a differential system of prestige and status.[3] Socialisation teaches us the cultural values and norms that provide the guidelines for our everyday life[4].In the UK we are socialised to place prestige on vanity and consumerism in our Westernised mass culture society. Someone could argue that the index of a Primark top could be a signifier of a person with low power or one who doesn’t care about the way in which they present themselves, potentially due to the low price and quality of the products, and their easy availability. Someone wearing designer (think: Prada, YSL, Chanel etc.), on the other hand, encodes messages of being upper class and holding power over others in the sense of cultural capital, probably as well as economic. From such elements a system of classification develops whereby people learn what is tasteful, or what consumption is appropriate, good or bad, from within their social group. We learn about what is acceptable from our peers, the majority of people accept the dominant ideology aforementioned that circulates the media, but there are a few sub-groups, for example; punks, who go against it in the vein of rebellion, or simply to ‘appear individual’. So do the clothes we choose represent our underlying values? We could take examples from different subcultures and the ways we identify them by their presentation, in which they dress in different ways in order to show their identity, this choosing how they represent their selves. An example of this is Goths, which are stereotypically associated with black and dark make up, contrasting with that is the perception of hippies who are typically associated with bright colours. Goffman suggests we ‘wear masks’ in order to represent ourselves in different ways to people. Identity in this sense could be seen in the post-modernistic way as a hyper-reality in which our identity is our own creation and we choose exactly how we represent ourselves. But is this really the case? The findings of my questionnaire all point to the views perpetuated by the media. For example, on Chanel adverts we always see glamorous celebrities we wish to be and it holds connotations that if you purchase these items you will be viewed in the same way.  Celebrity culture is a huge influence on the prestige associated with designer clothing, it’s seen as exclusive to that group, one could argue, as a form of lower class oppression, furthering the divide between classes. Our media saturated society as pointed out by Strinati influences our views; we feel pressure to fit in as we are told who we should be and what we should value dictated through the dominant ideology suggesting that we are subject to manipulation by those in power who control the media. Some accuse mass culture (in the form of the media & magazines) for the perpetuation of such ideologies in regards to designer clothing. Mass culture is popular culture which is produced by mass production industrial techniques  and is marketed for a profit to a mass public of consumers , those being us which has been heavily influenced by American practices; so, essentially, Americanisation. ‘It is common place that we are being Americanised’ (Webster) Leavis is a staunch critic of mass society and sees America as the embodiment of it; he saw this cultural change as ‘an irrepressible shift to a mass culture dominated by mass media involving the sporific pleasures of a superficial culture and exploitation of a rootless and uneducated public’[5]. It involves new technologies of production and dissemination in which products are constantly innovated to cater every need imaginable. In the eyes of Leavis we are merely clones of a mass-consumerist society, which can be applied to the ‘trend sheep’ in regards to fashion, new trends are constantly innovated to cater to every need in regards to self-presentation. Another example of mass culture is in our western society where ideal looks and personality are perpetuated throughout the media, by which the issue of self-representation has become increasingly prevalent. Brands represent themselves in desirable ways with their own philosophies in order to persuade individuals to buy their products, which will in turn represent the consumers underlying values. An example of this is Apple, whose mission statement includes the phrase ‘Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world[6]’ By labeling Macs as ‘the best’ computers Apple have instantly made their product desirable, it is human nature to want the most prestigious products and by presenting themselves in this way Apple have enabled themselves to be portrayed as this, not only selling a good product, but a status symbol. When asking people what made them like Apple they unanimously stated that it was because they were innovative, never broke and, of course, due to the connotations owning one has. By purchasing a Mac you’re not only getting a good computer, you’re becoming part of the Apple family- an elitist group (those who can afford the £1000+ for a laptop), you’re gaining a lifestyle. However, the pricing of Apple’s products could be said to be the true cause of such elitist connotations, the purchase of designer groups such as these could be due to conspicuous consumption; which is the notion of spending on goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth. In the mind of a conspicuous consumer, such display serves as a means of attaining or maintaining social status[7], as cited by Thornstein Veblen. Self-presentation in the form of using cultural products can be a means of attaining social status is evident in the world of designer brands, many copies at cheaper prices are made yet people still want the originals, conspicuous consumption also may explain this.

 Another function of the media is as a means of conveying myths which present ideologies to the public.  ‘A myth is a system of communication that is a message... a mode of signification, a form... a type of speech conveyed by a discourse’-Barthes, although myth isn’t an unconscious process according to Barthes its consumers take it at face value and accept it as inevitable. The Sex and the City movie is a classic example of myths being disseminated by the media, it transmits ideas about consumerism and placing prestige on designer clothes. The ladies all have glamorous lifestyles which many people would envy, and so in that sense the film is a good way of marketing. This idea is in line with structuralism which suggests meaning is produced and reproduced within a culture through various practices, phenomena and activities that serve as systems of signification[8]; in this case designer items act as signifier of a good life and status. Marx emphasised this technique in his heavily critical views of the current socio-economic form of society, capitalism, which he called the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie", believing it to be run by the wealthy middle and upper classes purely for their own benefit. In terms of designer brands, it could be said that the high pricing strategies and prestige could be due to the dictating classes wanting to maintain the divide between upper and lower class in the form of higher class oppression. A contrasting view of the impact of designer brands can be found when analysing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which proposes that self-esteem is crucial in self actualisation, so although some consumerism is seen as bad it may be seen as more beneficial when considering the effect new clothes have on a person’s esteem. When people wear clothes they like they usually feel more confident to represent their selves, this confidence is implicit within their NVC and appropriate messages in regards to this are encoded by others (usually positive ones) which are reflected through Cooley’s looking glass, helping to build the individuals esteem further. So are expensive clothes and fashion really that bad? Regardless, this emphasises the effect clothes as cultural products have on defining who we are. However, Marcuse proposes the idea of false needs opposing this. Marcuse argued that our "advanced industrial society" creates false needs that are superimposed and integrate individuals into the existing system of production and consumption. Mass media and culture, advertising, industrial management, and contemporary modes of thought all reproduce the existing system and attempt to eliminate negativity, critique, and opposition. According to him, the result is a "one-dimensional" universe of thought and behaviour.[9] Suggesting that in the form of clothing all of our thoughts and ideas are controlled by the bourgeoisie; those who own the upper class designer brands. So perhaps it is those who define who we are rather than our consumption of cultural products. Contrastingly; according to Modleski women are the most passive to the imposession of these needs, she refers to the sexist constructions of femininity and masculinity to be found in wider society assessing that women are accused of being responsible for mass culture, yet males for high culture.[10] However, these ideas aren’t concurrent with the clothing industry; the majority of high fashion shows and latest trends are directed towards women, which would refute Modledski’s ideas. In regards to fashion shows the gaze theory can be applied. Anthropologist Paul Messaris notes differences in facial expression between models in high-fashion and those for less expensive products:

Models who display moderately priced clothing usually smile and strike ingratiating poses. But high-fashion models such as those for Dior are generally unsmiling and sometimes openly contemptuous. So pronounced is this contrast that it is tempting to formulate it in a simple rule: the higher the fashion, the more sullen the expression. The supercilious expressions on the models’ faces serve to increase the desirability of what they’re selling by evoking status anxiety in the viewer. (Messaris 1997, 38-40)[11]. Thus influencing them to buy designer products to re-affirm themselves, suggesting that it is those who dictate the high fashion brands (bourgeoisie) also in an indirect manner dictate our own representation and thus definition through cultural items.

There will always be stereotypes associated with those who buy designer goods and those who buy high street. Some may fall victim to the pressures associated with status in regards to cultural products, whilst others use self-maintenance strategies in order to deflect the dominant ideologies perpetuated by the media.

[5] Dominic Strinati – An introduction to the theories of popular culture. [6]
[8] [9]

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