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Consumption and Public Spaces

In: Philosophy and Psychology

Submitted By chrisguts
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Introduction The role of hyper-consumerism on culture as a source of control and power relations has been discussed by a variety of scholarly voices. Among the most prominent is Michel Foucault, who described the various ways that consumer markets circumscribe public spaces, placing important distinctions between class members. In particular, Foucault discusses heterotopia – the public space which carries both physical and psychological gravity. For Foucault, public spaces are characterized by existing without truly existing. The heterotopia serves as a metaphor for a larger context while having the appearance and characteristics of other everyday spaces. Tyndall takes this notion a step further by developing social rules that are attached to consumer places, such as malls and shopping districts (Tyndall, 2009). This version of consumer-driven rules – culled from qualitative research and personal interviews – depicts a new notion of public-ness that is less egalitarian than ever before. It is a version of public space that is not entirely open to the public. Baker adds to this perspective by historicizing the commercialization of public space, dating the use widespread use of public space for advertising purposes to before the dawn of the 20th century (Baker, 2007). This argument inextricably links the notion of “culture” with “consumerism”, and sets the stage for the potential for access to public spaces to be consumed, or purchased. Finally, Klingle underscores this spatial history of consumption, placing the transaction of consumer power contexts as diverse as Thoreau’s Walden to the challenges environmentalists face in today’s high-powered, consumer-driven society (Klingle, 2003).
Problem Statement However, a systematic and historical chronology of public spaces that conveys power relations borne out of consumerism has yet to be fully developed. This gap in knowledge is most closely depicted in Cohen’s work, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass-Consumption in Postwar America (Cohen, 2003). Cohen describes the massive impact that consumer activity has on the public landscape, and the ability of the consumer to act freely within it. Consumer patterns and behaviors are the dominant variable in the formulation of public spaces. Extrapolating further from this point, public spaces are closely circumscribed by the ability of the people who populate them to have dominion over them. It is consumer practices that dictate the roles we play, the shape our cities take, and the nature of our public life. It is not – as it has been depicted in other forums – the actions of a few corporate elite or collective government machinations that dictate how public space is shaped. Furthermore, our hyper-consumer state makes this a driving force in our culture; to the point that every public space is at once exclusionary and marginal. In this case, a historical perspective that relates consumer instincts to public spaces is particularly important, because it points us in the direction of the future of public spaces, given an increasingly cluttered cultural landscape.
The primary methodology of this paper is to historicize a chronology of the ways in which public spaces are shaped by consumerism. Toward this end, this paper will follow the framework established by Cohen to explore the nature and profound manner in which public spaces – particularly urban spaces – evolve over time. However, this effort extrapolates further by developing the underlying concepts utilized by Foucault to circumscribe marginalized and “other” public spaces, or so-called heterotopias. It also points us forward by developing the potential future shape of a society driven by hyper-consumption and the Internet, and how these developments could potentially reformulate the nature of exclusion and power relations.
The role of the consumer in the creation of public space and the way people relate to each other can never be swept under the rug. In our age of recrimination and demonstration – in which the 99 percenters bemoan the power of corporate giants and corporate giants publicly vie for deregulation and public bailout funding – it is important to keep in mind the power of the consumer in shaping the public landscape. The commodification of public spaces, in which luxuries are transformed into necessities as quickly as possible, drives the construction of entire cities and the virtual obliteration of others. According to Cohen, postwar America was ripe for a “new dynamic mass consumption economy”, which created a cycle of consumer buying (Cohen, 2003). This created more jobs and an affluent society that poured its income back into the country. This cycle of consumption catapulted America to its mid-20th century superpower status is an integral part of our country’s narrative. It was our consumer culture that drove the economic engine. It created greater pieces of the pie that obviated redistribution, and made more Americans more wealth than any country ever. Cohen pinpoints the consumption of single-family homes in postwar American as the great cultural bellwether – offering most families a chance to start a new life while delineating where and how a person could live. Minor differences in income – perhaps along racial, ethnic, gender, or religious lines – made substantial impacts on neighborhoods. This in turn impacted the availability of services such as education. Time magnified these differences, as gaps in education and resources perpetuated differences in income, and neighborhoods continued to be segregated and exclusionary. Cohen claims that this process had the affect of having “advantaged some kinds of people over other kinds” (Cohen, 2003). Men tended to benefit over women, whites tended to benefit over blacks, and middle-class Americans had advantages over working-class ones. Eventually, this added up to certain people having dominion over specific public spaces, while others were systematically excluded. Stratifications were cemented and lines were drawn. Lines that always existed in the past were emboldened by physical structures that served as dividing lines. Commercial areas developed to covet residential areas told the story. Discount stores were built adjacent to low-income areas, and luxury stores were built next to upper-class residential areas. A person’s neighborhood was attached to their self-identity, with the implicit potential for some to upgrade down the line. This is similar to the various brands of General Motors cars in the mid-20th century, with anything from the Cadillac for upper-class motorists, Buick’s for the middle-class, and Chevy’s for young people just getting started. The burgeoning growth of the housing boom and mass availability of cars in the postwar decades contributed to a consumer-driven culture that meted out exclusion and marginalization, based on access to public space. In fact, access has always contributed to self-identity. The ability to purchase access, and the need to do so, is the 20th century development. The concept of dominion over a physical space implies exclusion and marginalization – some people can have dominion over a space and some cannot. Class identification produces space identification, and that contributes to self-identification. A person can be aligned with certain public spaces and be circumscribed by it. This includes homes, schools, jobs, roads traveled and businesses frequented. These heterotopic places convey meaning to the people who occupy them – they are a thing beyond the visible properties therein. Therefore, membership to a country club is inherently exclusive. It implies prestige to the people who purchase membership. To some people, a country club might be a home-away-from-home; to others it might as well be a foreign country. The country club environment may have rules or protocol or jargon that people without access will never observe. This can be extrapolated beyond urban spaces. A person who has good shoes has obtained access to the wilderness. Similarly, a boat conveys access to the water, a plane offers access to the skies, and a wagon used to offer access to the great frontier. It can also be extrapolated by the purchaseable – e.g. physical beauty might offer entry into a beauty contest. The absence of the resource needed to reach a public space has always implied inaccessibility. If the 20th century innovation was the consumer culture’s role in defining public spaces, the 21st century’s contribution is likely hyper-consumerism, in which personal identity is transacted daily, inclusion carries more rewards, and exclusion carries more penalties. In hyper-consumerism, substrata develop so that layers upon layers of access are implied. Neighborhoods are divided and subdivided, meaning that people in low-income housing are even further removed from inclusion into upper-class public spaces. The pervasiveness of the Internet has the potential to perpetuate this notion through instant communication and knowledge. Social media makes language paramount, so that a language of inclusion and exclusion develops to mirror the public spaces that people occupy. In other words, certain websites offer access only to certain people. In Cohen’s words, some kinds of people are advantaged over others. It is not difficult to imagine Foucault embracing this point – places that exist without really existing.
The role that consumerism plays on culture has been studied by many scholarly voices, each adding to the notion of public spaces as defined by capitalism. Among the most significant is Foucault, who was a prominent voice describing the transaction of power relations. Two concepts that are worthy of further exploration are the notion of a historical chronology of consumerism vis-à-vis public space, and the potential changes that hyper-consumerism signals. In this case, the impact of the Internet on hyper-consumption is largely speculative, and points the discourse in the direction of further analysis. However, it is certain that this study treads upon the sturdy ground of previous scholars – the public spaces we occupy will continue to be circumscribed by the heavy hand of consumerism.


Baker, L. (2007, December). Public sites versus public sights: The progressive response

to outdoor advertising and the commercialization of public space. American

Quarterly, 59 (4). 1187-1213.

Cohen, L. (2003, December). Is there an urban history of consumption? Journal of Urban History, 29 (2). 87-106.

Foucault, M. (1967). Of other spaces. Retrieved from

Klingle, M. (2003, December). Spaces of consumption in environmental history. History

and Theory, 42 (4). 94-110.

Tyndall, A. (2010, May). It’s a public, I reckon’: Publicness and a Suburban

Shopping Mall in Sydney’s Southwest. Geographical Research, 48 (2). 123-136.

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