After ‘The Day After’: On Anti-Consumerist Consumerism

With Boxing Day sales beginning, Jason Goldfarb gives a Lacanian reading of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, the sales, and consumerism. 

Another Black Friday has passed, which means another wave of Black Friday news cycles have arrived. In fact, such cycles—featuring videos of shoppers fighting over discounted goods and ‘door buster deals’—are so prominent today that they are becoming part of the holiday season itself. During the day after ‘the-day-after-thanksgiving’ (Boxing Day in Europe), Americans are subjected to a media-wide reflection on consumerism and a condemnation of its excesses. ABC, Fox News, CNN, Yahoo, and Time, among numerous other outlets, all run features on Black Friday shoppers in a plea for consumptive modesty. Popular liberal outlets post yearly compellation videos of the ‘Best (or worst) Black Friday Brawls,’ while conservative outlets (See: Tucker Carlson) feature segments haranguing rampant consumer culture for ‘destroying’ family values and causing social immiseration.

These news features and brawl videos, it seems, divide the world into two: there are the material hedonistic consumers (bad), and there are the refined anti-consumerist consumers (good). The former are engulfed in consumption as an end-in itself, while the latter consume on the side, as a means to an end. Some stampede for 25 percent off, while others shop on Cyber Monday, comfortably reading Amazon reviews from the seat of their couch.

This has a strong moral component as well. Black Friday videos and commentary portray consumption as an excess requiring social containment. Like every Hallmark movie, they preach that one must not get too carried away with the commodity’s allure. That is, commodities are not, as Marx had thought, ‘abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’ but ordinary objects that demand de-fetishization. The ‘day after the day after,’ then, presents itself as a measured attempt to restore non-capitalist values after a collective commodification orgy. Its injunction reads: thou shall partake in a restrained consumerism and abstain from its excessive, gluttonous form.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, however, this bourgeoning anti-consumerist tradition reveals something else entirely: a further dependence on consumerism. As Jacques Lacan develops in The Other Side Of Psychoanalysis (Seminar XVII), direct attempts at negative critique, like the anti-consumerist Black Friday commentary, often depend upon that which they negate. Put in Lacanian terms, Hysterical critiques of the Master position (here, consumerism) require the Master to confer coherence. The statement’s ‘enunciation’ (the position of the speaker), betrays the ‘enunciated content’ (what is materially said). In terms of Black Friday, the enjoyment one receives from anti-consumerism is, for Lacan, the consumerist enjoyment par excellence. The distance one takes from the Black Friday brawls, the mocking laughter found in the mainstream media, cannot be separated from everyday consumerist logic.

This dependence is demonstrated in a myriad of ways, spanning across the political spectrum. On the right, conservatives use the figure of the ‘barbaric’ shopper to define themselves, by contrast, as the principled defenders of traditional values.  On the center-left, liberals rely upon Black Friday culture to promote what Slavoj Žižek has pejoratively termed “California Buddhism,” or an embrace of the futility of desire in favor of inner-peace. What is missed for both is how each position itself is incorporated into consumer society. The ‘barbaric’ shopper is only a modern-day spectacle for the wealthy to consume, a figure disguising the excess and violence of ‘ordinary’ consumption. Similarly, the California Buddhist requires previous accumulation of consumptive wealth in order to renounce consumption (only the wealthy who have made their money from consumerism can afford to flee and live in a secluded, ‘anti-consumerist’ community). In each case a disavowed consumerism sustains an anti-consumerist enjoyment.

The conservative and liberal logic that mocks excessive consumption is thus entirely dependent upon the structure that it purports to critique. Those who patronize Black Friday shoppers (the news cycles and brawl videos) simply use them to define and affirm their own subjective position in negative, oppositional terms. Yet, as psychoanalytic theory observes, one cannot escape an obstacle by running away from it (since the obstacle conditions the very running away). Those who mock the shoppers depend upon them to affirm their very position of mockery. The laughter directed at the Black Friday shoppers is the hypocritical laughter of the bourgeois, disavowing their imbrication in consumerism.

What the day after ‘the-day-after’ permits, in other words, is a reprieve from consumerist guilt. The figure of the Black Friday shopper (Europe’s Boxing Day shopper) allows for a social disavowal of the barbarism of everyday consumer society. It functions as a psychological pardon, allowing the social structure which sustains consumerism—and one’s own participation in that social structure—to remain intact without feelings of responsibility. Black Friday shopping is thus the Truth of capitalist shopping in general. Anti-consumerist remorse functions as a necessary supplement to consumerism; day-after reflections, in an instance of retroactivity, are the conditions for day-off consumerism. An authentic challenge to consumerism, then, lies not in its reflective negation—the media commentary—but in Black Friday shoppers themselves.

The task, to risk a positive claim (or a negation of negation), is thus to join their ranks: not exactly to take place in Black Friday and Boxing Day traditions (the stakes of this would be relatively low), but to see how the ordinary consumer does not exist, to imbricate oneself in excess, and to think all consumption as barbaric consumption. To paraphrase Brecht, ‘what is the violence of stampeding a store compared to the violence of opening one?’

Jason Goldfarb is a PhD candidate at Duke University. Most recently his work appeared in The International Journal of Žižek Studies, The Hong Kong Review of Books, and Counterpunch among other publications. He is also an editor at Polygraph: An International Journal Of Culture and Politics.

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