Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives


SRB Archives

This review appeared in Volume 1 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Describing The Consumer Society: The Problem Of Pleasure

by Grant McCracken

The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. By Colin Campbell, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987 (ISBN 0-631-15539-2)

In the last decade, historians and other social scientists have cultivated a new interest in the origins of the "consumer society". Each new season sees the publication of one or two monographs and a raft of articles. Indeed, if this scholarly enterprise were a developing economy, it would be possible to say that Rostow's "take-off" has been accomplished, and that the many intellectual debts incurred by this vigorous little sub-field are now probably safe from default.

The investigation of the origins of the consumer society is potentially a very large and various scholarly undertaking. It is hard to imagine very many historical topics or social scientific perspectives that are not germane. Certainly, there is a great diversity of treatment and topic, including studies of England's 16th century (Mukerji 1983, Thirsk 1978), 17th century (Weatherhill 1988), 18th century (McKendrick et al, 1982), 19th century (Forty 1986; Fraser 1981), as well as 18th century Holland (Schama 1987), 19th century France (Miller 1981; Williams 1982), and 19th and 20th century America (Ewen 1976; Fox and Lears 1983; Horowitz 1985; Marchand 1985, Pollay 1984; Pope 1983), to name recent monographs only.

This diverse work shares the common conviction, first suggested by Braudel (1973) and best articulated by McKendrick et al. (1982), that we are wrong to suppose that the chief engine of the transformation of western societies in the modern period was the industrial revolution. Changes in patterns of supply were simply impossible without commensurate changes in the nature and degree of demand. Each of these works makes its own effort to illuminate the consumer revolution, and the many cultural, social, and intellectual transformations it set in train.

One of the most resent and provocative contributions to this body of scholarship is Colin Campbell's The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. Campbell has chosen one of the most central questions in the field: how it was that individuals in the western culture should have been persuaded to relinquish relatively modest material desires and possessions, and give themselves over to a schedule of perpetual desire. As Leach (1984) and O'Neill (1978) have observed, the modern and now virtually reflexive desire for goods has no obvious cross-cultural or historical precedent. Western societies have had to "learn to want". The modern desire for consumer goods is an historical artifact and a cultural invention. And it is, to this extent, important quarry To the present search for the origins of the consumer society.

But Campbell has an even more particular objective than merely determining how it is that western societies cultivated consumer desire. He wants also to understand how these societies give this desire a self perpetuating quality, so that the consumer's attention to the object world is no sooner consummated than renewed. He wants to know "how individuals manage to develop a regular and endless programme of wanting in relation to new goods and services" (58).

Campbell's treatment of this topic is unexpected. He argues we cannot understand the "new propensity to consume" without appreciating the influence of the Romantic ethic. The argument is complicated and circuitous but I shall endeavour to give it summary form.

The modern consumer economy depends for its existence on an emotional posture Campbell calls "Modern Autonomous Imaginative Hedonism". Unlike traditional hedonism, modern hedonism does not pursue pleasure through the manipulation of external stimuli and the cultivation of the senses. It seeks pleasure, instead, from more easily controlled internal stimuli and control of one's emotions in the cultivation of a fantasy life.

This modern version of hedonism interacts with the consumer society in a curious way. It sees consumer goods as the opportunity to possess the pleasures of the fantasy life in concrete form. Consumer goods are, from this perspective, fantasies made material and accessible. They promise the consumer the opportunity to insinuate the pleasures of the imagination into the realities of the world. The difficulty is, of course, that this promise is a false one. The objects in question fail inevitably to realize imaginative pleasures in the world. And it is this, finally, that gives the desire occasioned by a consumer society its perpetual quality. When consumers suffer an inevitable disappointment with one consumer good they move onto another. The cycle of hope and disappointment drives them from purchase to purchase and helps to perpetuate consumer desire.

What does all of this have to do with the Romantic ethic? Campbell argues that the manufacture of fantasy/pleasure through the manipulation of the emotions/imagination is not possible without a special kind of self control. Modern autonomous imaginative hedonism demands, in other words, a sophisticated control of the emotions, the imagination, and the self. Pleasure cannot be got from fantasy without the control, and it is precisely here that the Romantic ethic comes in. Campbell seeks to show that it was the Romantic ethic, along with developments in Protestantism and English philosophy, that helped to endow the western individual with the self control modern hedonism requires. The Romantic ethic aided the consumer revolution because it created the necessary emotional conditions and abilities. It instructed people in how and what to want.

For Campbell, the Romantic ethic promoted the spirit of consumerism in much the same way that a Protestant ethic is seen by Weber to have helped promote the spirit of capitalism. Campbell calls his book as a "companion" piece to and a "mirror image" of Weber's own. Certainly, this book has some of the most admirable qualities of Weber's work. It demonstrates bold originality, existing logic, penetrating analysis, and powerful control of argument. It is, however, not without its problems.

There is no question that Campbell is right to refuse Veblen's conspicuous consumption as an exhaustive account of the consumer revolution. But we must look with regret on his claim that there is "no satisfactory account of modern consumer behaviour" (36) especially when he shows no evidence of having even a dismissive acquaintance of the volumes of work now available on this question in the fields of anthropology, psychology, American studies, semiotics, and, yes, consumer behaviour. Campbell seems to think that economics is where one looks for this theory, but this field by its own admission (e.g., Scitovsky 1976) and longstanding acknowledgment suffered disqualification some years ago. Further, we must ask why Campbell pursues his account of the nature of hedonism without reference to the substantial psychological literature that exists here as well.

But what is still more baffling is the argument itself. Campbell does not demonstrate the connection between modern autonomous imaginative hedonism and the consumer society in a way that satisfied this reviewer. It is not clear why this ideology, having achieved a great improvement on (and autonomy from) the slavish habits of the traditional hedonist, should then tie itself to the world of goods. Nor is it clear why, when the first and inevitable disappointment with this world became apparent, it would persist in this relationship. It is, in sum, not clear that the consumer society is indeed tied to hedonism in the way that Campbell suggests it is. He has done us a great service by calling attention to this issue, and he has made the issue of the self perpetuating nature of desire a central one in the new research agenda. It is not quite clear he has provided the answer we need.

The theory disappoints in other respects as well. Campbell spends some several hundred pages discussing the consumer society without actually talking about any particular pattern of consumption or consumer good. We have a fleeting reference to 18th century novels at the start of the book and then not a word on the goods that are so central to Campbell's theme. This is, in my opinion, no accident. The great difficulty of psychological explanations, especially those which resort to the force of affect, is that they give no grounds for the explanation of particular cultural or material cultural phenomena. Psychological forces simply have no analytic power to explain the specific character of consumer wants, consumer goods, consumer fantasies, or patterns of consumption. Campbell's book leaves all of these matters out of account. The real irony here is that he begins his work by dethroning "status" and "status competition" as the monolithic explanation of the consumer revolution only to offer another that is perhaps even less able to account for the compelling historical particulars before us.

Campbell's argument is, as I have said, a circuitous one, and this reader suffered moments of difficulty and frustration as we travelled "up hill and down dale" over the surface of an argument that cares very little for rules of parsimony and elegance. Campbell makes all of this worse by refusing a larger perspective on the argument until the final chapter of the book. The reader must make their way with painstaking caution, staying very close to Campbell as he negotiates the trail that only Campbell knows. To make matter still worse, Campbell does not edit his arguments very closely, so that much, perhaps all, of the reasoning with which this argument was constructed is still in the book. The three characteristics together make reading The Romantic Ethic ... hard work, but Campbell makes things still more difficult by indulging in a prose style that is prolix. Page 106, for instance, has five sentences over 5 lines long. And even the short sentences can be tough sledding: "Given that indulgence in emotion is given legitimacy as a consequence of being linked to a display of virtuous feelings, what makes them so?" (147). With writers such as Schama (1987) setting new standards of clarity and precision in the field, this sort of prose is less and less forgivable.

If this reviewer appears unsympathetic, it is no doubt because he has proposed his own account of the consumer revolution (McCracken 1988a) and especially the psychological dynamic that Campbell describes (McCracken 1988b). But I hope this criticism will not obscure the admiration I have for the intelligence with which Campbell has identified and examined key questions for the history of the consumer society. This book has established a brilliantly original perspective and used this perspective to offer carefully reasoned and acutely intelligent observations. It deserves a place in the library of all of those who are concerned with the birth and development of the consumer society.


Boorstin, Daniel J. (1973), The Americans: The Democratic Experience, New York: Random House.

Braudel, Fernand (1973), Capitalism and Material Life 1400-1800, trans. Miriam Kochan, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Campbell, Colin (1987), The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Ewen, Stuart (1976), Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Forty, Adrian (1986), Objects of Desire: Design and Society from Wedgwood to IBM, New York: Pantheon Books.

Fox, Richard Wightman and T.J. Jackson Lears, eds. (1983), The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, 1880-1980, New York: Pantheon Books.

Fraser, W. Hamish (1981), The Coming of the Mass Market, 1850-1914, Hamden, CT: Archon Books.

Leach, William R. (1984), "Transformations in a Culture of Consumption: Women and Department Stores, 1890-1925", The Journal of American History, 71 (September): 319-342. ...

Lemire, Beverly (1988), "Consumerism in Preindustrial and Early Industrial England: The Trade in Secondhand Clothes", Journal of British Studies, 27 (January): 1-24.

Marchand, Roland (1985), Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1925-1940, Berkeley: University of California Press.

McCracken, Grant (1988a), Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

----(1988b), "The Evocative Power of Things: Consumer Goods and the Preservation of Hopes and Ideals." In Culture and Consumption: New Approaches to the Symbolic Character of Consumer Goods and Activities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 104-117.

McKendrick, Neil, John Brewer and J.H. Plumb (1982), The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commercialization of Eighteenth-Century England, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Miller, Michael B. (1981), The Bon Marché: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, 1869-1920, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mukerji, Chandra (1983), From Graven Images: Patterns of Modern Materialism, New York: Columbia University Press.

O'Neill, John (1978), "The Productive Body: An Essay on the Work of Consumption", Queen's Quarterly, 85 (2 Summer): 221-230.

Pollay, Richard W. (1984), "The Identification and Distribution of Values Manifest in Print Advertising,1900-1980". In Personal Values and Consumer Behavior, (eds.), Robert E. Pitts. Jr. and Arch G. Woodside eds.). Lexington. MA: Lexington Books: 111-135.

Pope, Daniel (1983), The Making of Modern Advertising, New York: Basic Books.

Scharria, Simon (1987), The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Scitovsky, Tibor (1976), The Joyless Economy: An Inquiry info Human Satisfaction and Consumer Dissatisfaction, New York: Oxford University Press.

Thirsk, Joan (1978) Economic Policy and Projects: The Development of a Consumer Society in Early Modern England, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Williams, Rosalind H. (1982) Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth Century France, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Weatherhill, Lorna (1988) Consumer Behavior and Material Culture in Britain 1660-1760, London: Routledge.

Grant McCracken is Associate Professor in the Department of Consumer Studies University of Guelph and Visiting Scholar (1989-1990) at the Northrop Frye Centre Victoria College University of Toronto; He is also Research Associate at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Go to Semiotic Review of Books Home Page
Go to SRB Highlights
Go to SRB Archives