work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Consumer Daydreams and Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto Death

12.26.2009 · Posted in Uncategorized

I realised I should read a bit more Kierkegaard when one of our undergraduates made reference to him when writing on consumer culture and commodified selves/identities – and I found I had overlooked a thing or two in my first reading of him a decade ago. Delving into the Sickness unto Death, what I found was a romantic concept of the self that not only supports to the notion of the Romantic self as “occasionalist” (Carl Schmitt), built on an never-fading horizon of endless possibility, but it also adds to the distinction Colin Campbell (1987: 83ff.) makes between daydreams and fantasies.   (For romantic consumerism according to Campbell and beyond see my earlier post. Campbell does not elaborate on the consequences of this distinction – but it may be crucial for an argument that the consumer self is not “de-centred” after all, but only “eccentric” – and thus quite centred.)  As an extra, Kierkegaard also insists on the initialtheologicalnature of this self (again, adding weight to Campbell’s argument for a genealogy of the Romantic ethic of consumerism that goes back to “the other Protestant ethic”) – and by doing so highlights the need of the romantic self for an anchor that is not at its disposal (at least not in the same way as its imagination is).Kierkegaard defines the process of selving as follows:

‘The self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude, which relates to itself, whose task is to become itself, which can only be done in the relationship to God. To become oneself, however, is to become something concrete. But to become something concrete is neither to become finite nor to become infinite, for that which is to become concrete is indeed a synthesis. The development must accordingly consist in infinitely coming away from oneself, in an infinitizing of the self, and in infinitely coming back to oneself in the finitization. If, on the other hand, the self does not become itself then it is in despair, whether it knows it or not. Yet a self, every moment it exists, is in a process of becoming; for the self κατά δΰναμιν [katà dúnamin – potentially] is not present actually, it is merely what is to come into existence. In so far, then, as the self does not become itself, it is not itself; but not to be oneself is exactly despair.’ (Kierkegaard 2008: 31)

Of course, the need for God has gone. But only to be, in Durkheimian manner, be replaced by Society – “selving” cannot be done in isolation. With Gehlen and Plessner (again: see below), one can argue that infinity and potentiality are part of the human condition, inherent in the blueprint of the human organism. But traditionally the infinitising aspect, the openness to the world, was not necessarily seen as an opportunity but an outright nuisance (as still for Gehlen). “Becoming” at best was an inconvenient run-up to “being” (or, as in Plato, an unsatisfactory surrogate for unavailable Being). The glorification of adventurous infinite becoming (as opposed to serene eternal being) is a Romantic innovation. Before, the openness to the world was a threat – it was the vulnerability of what Charles Taylor (2007) aptly termed “the porous self”. Religious practices made sure that where becoming is unavoidable is made relatively safe (rites of passage…), but otherwise be avoided altogether. (Taylor, [2007: 45ff.], drawing on Victor Turner’s analysis of the carnivalesque, suggests that in the world of codified and structured belief a recourse on anti-structure, indeterminacy etc. is nessecary from time to time in order to avoid the total ossification of the social order). The Romantic enthusiasm for becoming, growing, venturing into the unknown in the world and inside reverses this. Not to develop, not to long to become, is to be as good as dead. Anti-structure is not something to be dipped into occasionally, but something that needs to be present all of the time. For Kierkegaard, narrow mindedness and fatalism are modes of despair (and hence of sin). As for the Romantics, and as for the romantic consumers of today, potentiality is a central category in there ordinary lives:

‘For only possibility saves. When someone faints, people shout for water, Eau-de-Cologne, Hoffman’s drops. But for someone who is on the point of despair, get me possibility, the only thing that can save me is possibility! A possibility and the despairerbreathes again, he revives, for without possibility it is as though a person cannot draw breath.’ (Kierkegaard 2008: 43)

So far, this backs up the point on occasionalism – but there’s more. Schmitt denounces the Romantics as lost in their dream worlds, as unable to act in the real world as any realisation would curtail the realm of possibilities. Kierkegaard sees that danger as another form of despair:

‘… the self is a synthesis in which the finite is the confining factor, the infinite the expanding factor. Infinitude’s despair is therefore the fantastic, the boundless; for the self is only healthy and free from despair when, precisely by having despaired, it is grounded transparently in God.’ (Kierkegaard 2008: 32)

Again – for “God” read “Society”… or “Reality”, actually: any Third will do (so we might as well read: “God”).   Despair is the failure to be a self – a failure that can come about through a lack of imagination (i.e. a one-dimensional narrow-mindedness that by denying or being ignorant of possibility kills off anything that could be called a “self”) – or by an over-indulgence in the fantastic (i.e. imagination that loses touch with reality – and hence cannot add to a self that lives in that reality).

‘Fantasy is, in general, the medium of infinitization. It is not a faculty like the other faculties – if one wishes to speak in this way, it is the faculty instar omnium[for all faculties]. What feelings, understanding and will a person has depends in the last resort upon what imagination he has – how he represents himself to himself, that is, upon imagination. Imagination is the infinitizingreflection, which is why the elder Fichte quite correctly assumed that the imagination is the source of the categories even with regard to knowledge. The self is reflection and the imagination is reflection, the self’s representation of itself in the form of the self’s possibility. The imagination is the whole of reflection’s possibility; and the intensity of this medium is the possibility of the self’s intensity. The fantastic is generally speaking what carries a person into the infinite in such a way that it only leads him away from himself and thus prevents him from coming back to himself.’ (Kierkegaard 2008: 32f.)

Earlier critiques of consumer culture tended to see the bourgeois self being destroyed in a one-dimensional mass society (the Adorno tradition), a world in which is devoid of transcendence, imagination – more recent critiques (the Baudrillard tradition) and celebrations (e.g. Firat/Schultz 1997) focus on the fantastic nature of consumer culture. Colin Campbell is occasionally cited as a witness for that fantastic nature as anticipated by the Romantic movement of the 19thcentury – with the emphasis on the desparate longing emerging from the discrepancy of achievable realities and romantic consumer dreams (e.g. Brown et al. 1998: 7). And surely, frustration is a key element in the romantic consumer experience. But it is a frustration that does not amount to the despair of an unachieved selfhood. I think this is backed by experience: It is quite difficult to locate the de-centred, fragmented, discontinuos self when speaking to people: most will, in their narratives, construct a multi-faceted selfhood that is host to quite a number of contradictions that are often openly admitted to – but all in all most narratives achieve an integration of these contradictions and complexities into a coherent personality, a meaningful biography, a reasonably consistent moral agency. In contrast to the projected schizophrenic character we’re supposed to be dissolving into (Baudrillard 1983: 133), most are pretty good at defining the boundaries between self and world, are not lost in the fantastic mediatic delusions. Not, as Baudrillardprojects, the impossibility of distancing, mirroring oneself (i.e. the loss of the ability to actualise the anthropological potential for autonomous selfhood described by Plessner) is the hallmark of the romantic imagination. As Campbell points out:

“It would seem that, at least in principle, fantasies present greater possibilities for pleasurable for pleasurable experiences than do day-dreams, as no restrictions are set upon the circumstances and events which can be conjured up. This advantage is offset, however, by the loss of ‘possibility’ associated with the more extravagantly fanciful scenarios, and thus some of the vividness and power which comes with a sense of ‘reality’. There is thus a basic tension in imaginative hedonism between the pleasures of perfection and those of reality potential, between the joys of unbridled imagining and those of anticipation. It is for this reason that dreaming of a fairly modest alteration in an existing pattern of life may actually provide more pleasure than the most magnificently impossible fan-tasy, an awareness that the former might come true more than compensating for the greater theoretical pleasure afforded by the latter.  As this observation suggests, day-dreaming possesses a dimension which is not present in fantasizing proper, one which stems less form the nature of the images brought into view than the contemplation of these becoming real.” (Campbell 1987: 84f.)

The imaginative consumers (following their prototype: the imaginative readers of fiction), comes back to themselves – if there is one antidote against both forms of despair diagnosed by Kierkegaard, it is reading novels, watching movies… realistic novels, realistic movies that is. Strangely, fiction serves the purpose better than factual narratives – particularly if the latter are badly written. The point is not to be realistic in the sense of “likelihood to what actually is or was”, rather it is what Gregory Currie (1998) calls “realism of character” – not that the events and situational contexts are plausible or even possible, but that the way the characters react to them and act within them resembles ways we could imagine to act ourselves; so that we, in turn, can imaginatively interact with those situations and characters:

‘… one very important way of understanding the minds of others is by imaginatively projecting ourselves into their situations in imagination. To the extent that our own minds are models of theirs, we are then able to understand their thoughts and actions on the basis of our own imagined response. I say that a work possesses realism of character when it enables us to engage in that same kind of empathic understanding with its characters. When we can respond that way to its characters, we are responding to fiction as to life.’ (Currie 1998: 173)

Currie points out that according to that definition, in fact, most works of fiction are realistic – as those few that are not just don’t manage to hold our interest. A common pattern in popular fiction (be it movies or books) is to repeat the experience of the reader, the transposition into another often wholly unrealistic world while retaining a realism of character is repeated as part of the plot. Classic examples would be the Narnia books where the adventures do not even disrupt the temporal structure of the Victorian and WW II daily routines of the protagonists. But even where events do not connect to a realistically portrayed historicaltime, parallel routine existences are often constructed to do the same job (the rural idyll of the Hobbits, for example).  And like the readers themselves, the protagonists mostly return from the adventure into the everyday. They are changed by the experience (Currie acutallysuggeststhey can be better moral agents), they transcended themselves… but in doing so also become themselves.

In a way there is a template for this in one of the most important works of early Romanticism – Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancyent Marinere”. Here the story of the despairing sailor is not related directly to the reader but to the reader’s representative within the poem, the Wedding Guest. The Wedding Guest is, as it were, reenacting the Ancyent Marinere’s journey and adventures and is transformed by them. He is absorbed in the story, in a way lives it through and is transformed by this employment of the imagination as

A wiser and a sadder man / He rose the morrow morn

But in contrast to the Marinere he is not lost in the narrative, and hence does not share in the despair of the sailor who cannot exit his fantastic world. By leaving his self behind for a fictional journey and returning to his everyday existence he has continued becoming himself…

Baudrillard, Jean (1983): ‘The Ecstasy of Communication’, in: Hal Foster (ed.): Postmodern Culture, London: Pluto Press, pp.126- 34

Brown, Stephen/Doherty, Anne Marie/Clarke, Bill (1998): ‘Stoning the Romance: On Marketing’s Mind-forg’d Manacles’,  in Stephen Brown/Anne Marie Doherty/Bill Clarke (eds): Romancing the Market, London: Routledge,  pp.1-21

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

Currie, Gregory (1998): ‘Realism of Character and the Value of Fiction’, in: Jerrold Levinson (ed.): Aesthetics and Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.161-181

Firat, A. Fuat/Schultz II, Clifford J. (1997): ‘From Segmentation to Fragmentation: Markets and Marketing Strategy in the Postmodern Era’, in: European Journal of Marketing, Vol.31, No.3/4, pp.183-207

Kierkegaard, Søren (2008): The Sickness unto Death, London: Penguin

Taylor, Charles (2007): A Secular Age, Cambridge MA: Belknap.

hat tip: Daniel Smith

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