18th Jan 2011
G7, Pavilion Parade, University of Brighton
The market driven ‘consumerist’ lifestyle has long been defended and promoted as an agent of ‘freedom and democracy’ and the advancement of generally progressive agendas on race, gender and sexuality. But it is also widely condemned for its social exploitation, and now increasingly for its environmental destruction and unsustainability. Affluent societies are thus entering upon a cultural moment of unprecedented disquiet about unchecked consumption. The upshot is the emergence of consumer culture as a site of new forms of democratic concern, political engagement, and cultural representation.
In addition to the environmental and ethical reasons for this new concern, there is the evidence of growing disaffection over the negative legacy of the ‘consumerist’ lifestyle for consumers themselves. The ‘alternative hedonism’ implicit in these forms of consumer ambivalence will be analysed with a view to disentangling its outlook on human needs and fulfilment from both earlier leftwing critiques of commodification and from postmodernist celebrations of consumer culture as a resource of ‘identity politics’ and self-styling. ‘Alternative hedonism’ is presented in this context as the impulse behind a new ‘political imaginary’ that could help us to move towards a fairer, environmentally sustainable and more enjoyable future. How, it will be asked, can this new outlook on the ‘politics of prosperity’ be best promoted and represented; and how might consumption now come to function as a pressure point for the relay of political changes needed to secure a sustainable economy.
Kate Soper is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy in ISET, London Metropolitan University, and Visiting Professor at the University of Brighton. Her more recent writings include What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the Non-Human (Blackwell, 1995), To Relish the Sublime: Culture and Self-Realisation in Postmodern times (with Martin Ryle, Verso, 2002); Citizenship and Consumption (co-editor, Palgrave, 2007) and The Politics and Pleasures of Consuming Differently (co-editor, Palgrave, 2008). Her recent study on ‘Alternative hedonism and the theory and politics of consumption’ was funded in the ESRC/AHRC ‘Cultures of Consumption’ Programme (www.consume.bbk.ac.uk). She is a former chairperson of European Nuclear Disarmament and has been a member of the editorial collectives of Radical Philosophy and New Left Review, and a regular columnist for the US journal, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism.