Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. August 2006

1.2. Gesellschaftliche Reproduktion und kulturelle Innovation. Aus semiotischer Sicht
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Institut für Sozio-Semiotische Studien ISSS, Wien)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Consuming signs, space, and pleasure: The Culturally Embedded Social Reproduction

Ewa Rewers (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland)



It is apparent that in recent years we have witnessed a dramatic upsurge of interest in the issue of consumer culture. Once on the periphery of social science disciplines, cultural studies, and semiotics has now been thrust increasingly towards the centre of the fields. We can understand this in terms of two processes which must be interrelated: 1) The way in which culture is produced, reproduced and accumulated in the form of cultural capital (P. Bourdieu); and 2) The way in which the culture of Western societies seems to be consuming, evaluating, and conceptualizing (M. Featherstone). First is the view that cultural reproduction and cultural capital are used to draw the lines of social relationships (social capital, social reproduction). Second, there is the question of the cultural experience of consumption, its aesthetic evaluation, and theoretical perspectives of interdisciplinary studies on consumer culture.

From this perspective I argue that innovation, the ‘logic of the novelty’ associated in semiotics with avant-garde in art, is given recently a new significance through the saturation of the ‘logic of the commodity’. Innovating signs, cultural spaces, and pleasures (eg. in city space), we can reproduce or renegotiate differences in lifestyle which demarcate social relationships. This enables a general speed-up in the movement in social reproduction process as well as new ways of dividing up in space a new cosmopolitan cultural elite and old cultural diasporas. It involves a rethinking of the concepts of transparency and hybridity with their implications concerning the relation between systems of signs produced by consumer culture and the social structure.


It is apparent that in recent years we have witnessed a dramatic upsurge of interest in the issue of consumer culture. Once on the periphery of social science, cultural studies, and semiotics has now been thrust increasingly towards the centre of the fields. We can understand this in terms of two processes which must be interrelated:

  1. The way in which culture is produced, reproduced, and accumulated in the form of cultural capital, "which is convertible, on certain conditions, into economic capital and may be institutionalized in the forms of educational qualifications"(1); and

  2. The way in which the culture of Western societies seems to be consuming, evaluating, and conceptualizing.

First is the view that the system of reproduction strategies and cultural capital are used to drew the lines of social relationships. Pierre Bourdieu’s starting point implies "the contribution which the educational system makes to the reproduction of social structure by sanctioning the hereditary transmission of cultural capital"(2). Second, there is the question of the cultural experience of consumption, its aesthetic evaluation, and theoretical perspectives of trans-disciplinary studies on consumer culture. Mike Feathersone identifies three main perspectives on consumer culture as follows: "the expansion of capitalist commodity production which has given rise to a vast accumulation of material culture; [...] the different ways in which people use goods in order to create social bonds or distinctions; [...] the question of the emotional pleasures and direct bodily excitement of consumption."(3)

Nevertheless, production of signs, their consumption and resulting from it ecstatic pleasure, although long separated have been more and more boldly connected since the 1960s. Spiral to the Stars, not carried out project for the World Expo in New York, is an example of avalanche of such practices at the end of the 20 th century. It was a very sophisticated architectural example of modeling the ecstatic experience understood as the space for consuming free time. Any primeval contexts of ecstasy - religious, mystical, erotic, aesthetic - were moved into the background but definitely not forgotten. In a visually very attractive spiral design of ecstasy presented as an explosion in space, its range, the universe, plays an important role. This way, the ecstatic consumption of free time, the pleasure of yielding to its rhythm, goes beyond the experience of a single subject, reaching out into the world (The World Exhibition). It is thus worth thinking over the place of consumption in contemporary cultural spaces, because at the end of the 20 th century consumption appears in the urban studies and media culture, and in designing and advertising practices as a phenomenon of primary importance which we can neither contain, nor stop. It is connected with the resumed analyses of cultural capital, with discourses on the public sphere, especially when we need to answer the question "Who is the culture of consumption addressed to?"

"Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world" suggests Salman Rushdie(4). Novelty, once the most relevant value and description category of the avant-garde art, has been taken over in full view by the consumption culture and turned into an adage, advertising slogan. We buy a novelty rather than merchandise, we consume being en vogue and hardly swallow being passé. Pleasure of the cognoscenti (acquainted with new rules of the game) and rage of the excluded (shut off from the novelty) spin the consumption wheel. They also disturb the divisions in the area of culture confusing the symbolic with the consumptive, complicating the tasks of semiotics and axiology. At the same time, they revolutionize the sphere of sign and sense and re-define the notion of autotelic values (which is commented by the 20 th century aesthetics).

Paradoxically, the consumption culture is a fulfilled utopia of the historical avant-garde dreaming of an aesthetic rehabilitation of existence, of aesthetic experience penetrating everyday life, of a new society capable of reproducing and experiencing of beauty as a value giving sense to life as an integral whole. Gianni Vattimo calls the utopia constructed by the 20 th century artistic avant-garde "the grand utopia"(5), consciously referring to "the grand theory" as the evolving theory of beauty was called over the centuries in the history of aesthetics. Vattimo, however, before he showed the decline of the grand utopia at the close of the 20 th century linked it to the emancipating mission of aesthetic experience in the social world analyzed by Theodore W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Jürgen Habermas. In other words, he tried to show how the merging of aesthetic experience with political and social elements was approached by the critics of processes occurring in the culture of modern societies, who believed in its emancipating power and in the aesthetic promesse de bonheur of the modern society. Yet, Vattimo revealed only partly the roots of the grand utopia, calling it ‘a synthesis’ of avant-garde transformation of relations between aesthetic experience and everyday life. From this perspective I argue that innovation, the ‘logic of the novelty’ associated in semiotics with avant-garde in art, is given recently a new significance through the saturation of the logic of the commodity.

Anyone who read Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization will have remembered its 1966 preface, where the author depicts a dramatic defense of the body against the political, corporate, cultural and educational machine which bonded blessing and curse into one rational whole.(6) There, Marcuse asked questions, trivialized by now, about the relation between erotic and political practices, about the "life’s urge" repressed by the capitalistic model of technological efficiency, about the "fatally effective organization of the affluent society", about the "revolt of the backward peoples", about different symptoms of aggression and the sense of their social justification. He tied consumption, the biological function of the human body, with cultural practices and their outcome - the cultural capital.

Reference to those readings and ideas of aesthetic society leads to Vattimo’s conclusion: we take part in utopia fulfilled. I perceive these matters differently though. It seems that we have lost not only an interesting utopia produced by our civilization by also Marcuse’s commitment in adjusting it to the changing realities of social life. Everything that we have done runs not inside but at the side of the grand utopia. What is it then, this consumption of the world, this source of pleasure of the human body reintroduced to social attention? When we talk of religious services and their consumption, of educational services, of consuming the city, art, science, do we mean the avant-garde utopia of transforming life into art, or rather the "glutting" of the global, amorphic "body"?

Rushdie, however, had in mind another "novelty" not sharing much with the historical avant-garde - the new members of the consumption societies, who arrive from their cultures known mainly to anthropologists and tourists and who try to find a seat at the common table spread with dishes. The city space, most of all, is this common table - a diversified, glittering object coveted by both the rich and the poor, by us and by others. Not ignoring its other forms, I think about the consumption culture as a diversified bundle of practices, producing its own semiotic environment at the cost and effort of another, earlier environment not associated with consumption. It is this environment that I call the urban cultural space, which similarly to the public space, is a metaphorical representation of some kind of values and practices within the semiotic milieu they produce. In all concepts of the public sphere known to me, by Habermas, Hanna Arendt, Richard Sennett, Seyla Benhabib, its linguistic character has been, quite naturally, considered to be of primary importance. In this context, terms like the cultural space or public space should be understood not only as topographical metaphors but as attention signs indicating that public communication takes place in situations about which it is always possible to talk but which cannot be replaced by a talk. These terms draw attention not only to extra-linguistic ways communication, such as architecture, urban systems or public art but also to consumption styles, which unquestionably take part in shaping the communication community. Cultural differences that interest me appear between two cultures - the rational citizen culture and the ecstatic consumption culture. Innovating signs, cultural spaces, and pleasures we can reproduce or renegotiate differences in lifestyle which demarcate social relationships.

City space is sui generis simultaneously social and semiotic; it is a social product resulting from conscious, long-term reproduction realized in the practices of groups, organizations, institutions and individuals. On the other hand, however, it is first of all mental space of competing systems of values, convictions, rules, norms, conventions, evaluations. Melange, hotchpotch, Mischmasch - differentiation running against the trend towards homogenization - defines the current state of the urban culture utilizing geopolitically oriented, national imagination and consumption explicitly relating to it. Parallel claims to tell one’s own story in the urban space are directly connected with the congesting of semiotic space. Cultural consumption should be located on this map. I consider the skill in using this map to be a precondition for assuming a reflexive attitude towards the risk of social violence, which appears in the dispute of parallel claims in the sphere of consumption.

And it is not only the ’etnopluralism’ versus ‘the world civilization’. Nowadays the city space results, most of all, from what Bourdieu described(7) when he showed how style, aesthetic taste, and cultural consumption create social differences on which the class structure is based and in this way they are of primary importance in establishing common interests. New groups, new social communities arise on the grounds of shared opinions of taste. Aestheticized consumption creates social bonding just as effectively as common history or social background. "The experience of the beautiful, then, more fundamentally than the experience of a structure we simply find pleasing, is the experience of belonging to a community"(8). The more so that quite frequently the aesthetic experience of urban spaces is used to celebrate collective ecstasy, which no longer is an ephemeral supplement to life, transforming itself into the very "nature" of the urban space. "There is a certain erotic charge in being able to slip between spaces with a notion of ecstasy as the final reward"(9) says Nigel Coats. Common consumption culture would then be a deceit rather than an illusion, simulation, not a utopia.

Modern societies have been based on urban culture since the beginning of the 19 th century, when the process of free movement of goods and people started. A hundred years later, Europe had twenty-two metropolies with over a million inhabitants, which sent out fashions and models, cultural trends and patterns of behavior, ideas and tastes. Urbanization of culture is not only the effect of global equalization in the number of city and non-city dwellers (in Europe more people live in towns) but also of the global spread of the urban culture as domineering globally. Urban culture is to a large extent formed by newcomers from other parts of the world, who enrich and transform European cities. Jonathan Friedman says that "the greater the movement in culture, the greater the number of mixtures"(10). Increasing detradionalization of European urban culture, characteristic of post-traditional societies, is supplemented by the cultural offer of traditions and consumption styles coming from the outside. The trend is clearly visible drawing the urban strategy consumption ‘topics’ from different cultures, turning the city space into "the Swedish table". This is an example of the double meaning of ‘cultural economy’: seen first as tending to supplement and retain a permanent, varied cultural offer, and then as co-modifying cultural spaces. What does "the Swedish" table look like from the point of view of semiotics?

The problem lies in the fact that in European cultural space, hybridization occurs simultaneously as a result of conscious crossing of the same borders by the rich and the educated, the European intellectuals. The Europe of intellectuals still cherishes the old idea that it is the intellectual, successor of the Enlightenment, who best represents the cultures of ‘Others’, creating their above-average combination, who is capable of reading them, and who is prepared to assume a reflexive position towards the found diversity. Identity hybridization takes place according to the model called by Friedman ‘we are the world’ hybridity, and it must be perceived as a political concept. This new, cosmopolitan model has little in common with partly forced mixation, which takes place at the level of cultural diasporas. These two incompatible experiences in hybridization shape different attitudes and competences in relation to both the public sphere and the consumption culture. Only on the grounds of postcolonial studies become clear the theses of postmodern philosophers like e.g. Wolfgang Welsch. Identity as a peculiar bricolage assembled at the border of different languages, religions and traditions is not only a hedonistic practice of new professionals circulating the world in search of challenges and experiences, but most of all an everyday, compulsory activity of millions of immigrants. Interestingly though, this hedonistic pleasure and the compulsory activity meet in the consumption space, even if occupying its different floors. This enables a general speed-up in the movement in social reproduction process as well as new ways in dividing up in space a new cosmopolitan cultural elite and old cultural diasporas.

Habermas’s dislike of postmodern hybridization is widely known. Characteristically, in his lecture on Modern and Postmodern Architecture, Habermas reprimanded Robert Venturi, "a pop artist"(11), for being disloyal to the spirit of the modern movement in architecture, the only tradition from its very beginning not only created across national frontiers but also crossed the borders between the private, everyday life, and the public. He criticized Venturi as the founder of the hybrid architecture, who, separating form and function, transformed it into an ironic mixture of quotes, glittering like "the neon lights". Habermas was defending the aesthetic logic of "what functions well looks well", characteristic for functionalism, against the "consumption ecstasy" supplanting it in the architectural practice. Originally marginal, the consumption ecstasy was emerging to prevail in the main movements of contemporary architecture. It involves a rethinking of concepts of transparency and hybridity with their implications concerning the relation between systems if signs produced by consumer culture and the social structure.

In 1997, a significant exhibition, with accompanying seminar, was organized in the British Royal Academy of Arts, which was to outline an answer to the question on the extent to which the ecstatic consumption space defines art, architecture, city and its inhabitants’ life. In modern culture, ecstasy and consumption have been related with the search for ideal language of expression, ideal correspondence between form and function. Jean Baudrillard and Fredrick Jameson describe ecstatic closeness and cancellation of distance, mainly communicative, characteristic of the culture of contemporary, postindustrial societies. Now that any shape building can be designed, when the new computer technology provides unlimited possibilities for the selection of artistic strategies, one can easily justify the temptation to carry out crazy, unreal, ecstatic dreams with the use of the latest building materials.

Architecture, like film, is infected with fluctuations of modernity. Architects are not interested in forms, textures and beautiful facades, but in conveying emotions, transplanting into architecture things that happen in society. Ecstatic architecture creates thinking based on liquidity, dematerialization of matter, mixing forms, crossing shapes, and light explosions. In contemporary architectural discourse, the explosion of space and light has been the most common representation of ecstasy. Its essence lies in the dynamic passage from geometrical to organic forms - from stasis to ecstasies, from standstill to life, from cube to spiral. Introducing confusion, the chaotic, polymorphic, ecstatic architecture uses it in the positive sense as a source of aesthetic pleasure. In this way, it also creates contemporary consumptive culture of desire, fever, delight and dynamic movement, which accepts divergent categories and anticipates constantly form metamorphoses. This architecture is raised quickly so as not to lose any necessary element of violence, building passion, movement idea, and is meant to remain not understood. The architects themselves think it should not be studied too closely.

Terminal in Yokohama, Reiser&Umemoto, 1995

At the end of the 20 th century, ecstasy stopped being an ephemeral ornament added to the experience of urban spaces or a kind of firework display. Paolo Portoghesi was the first to show that architecture becomes a general principle of urban culture, transforming the experience of the city into the desire of consuming the city like a sensual body. So we have arrived at the architecture providing city dwellers and tourists with collective ecstasy - trance, euphoria, rhythm, narcotic, music, dance - which Nigel Coates believes to have always been in the nature of cities, just waiting for the right time and representation to appear. Portoghesi derived urban ecstasy from one of the oldest analogies between the city’s "body" and the man’s body. "Ecstacity combines the image of the body and the much larger scale of the city itself."(12) And although "natural" sensuality of the city results not only from architects’ work, their participation in the collective urban ecstasy can be well seen in the large, glittering, euphoric belly of the new city hall designed by sir Norman Foster at the south bank of the Thames. The body’s exuberance is expressed here by many high-tech architectural means: dynamic forms generated virtually, ornamental constructions, abundance of slippery glistening materials, eruption of light. In the urban ecstasy, however, it is not its dependence on aesthesis that is most upsetting and remarkable, but the merging of order and delight, which baroque discovered so cleverly. So when Coates’s exhibition in 1992 opened a discussion of ecstasy in modern culture, consuming the city meant a promise of extreme experiences. Having read Baudrillard’s book on communication ecstasy, Coates distanced himself from the idea of linking ecstasy with city’s carnality, emphasizing rather the urban forms’ elasticity, liquidity and their metamorphic abilities. Nowadays all processes of evolution, of becoming, processes related to creativity, movement and lust seem to the most important sources of ecstasy.

"Golden Terraces" in Warsaw, David Rogers, 2005

Ecstacity is not just an architects’ project, it exists. Koolhaas describes it in Delirious New York as Manhattan consistently causing architectural ecstasy ( towards architecture) in observers. Koolhaas, naturally, began his book with the definition of ecstasy. It is Las Vegas as well - silly to the point of hysteria, stereotypical, delirious and ecstatic at the same time. It is the Disneylands and Worlds, promoting the architecture of leisure immediately changing into a substitute of entertainment and architecture. Paradoxically, the ecstatic space produces the utmost ecstasy when it serves persuasion, when it is a background for the museum, church, when it is a seat of music and mystical experience. Similarly to the Experience Music Project by Frank O. Ghery, the interactive rock-and-roll museum opened in Seattle in 2000.

Yet, if we look closely at the ecstatic architecture, at for example Wolf Prix’s projects, it turns out that the exploding, anti-gravitational architecture, exploring possibilities of penetrating frontiers, differentiating categories and mixing senses, uses disorientation in the critical sense. The ecstatic ‘liquid space’, diffusing, dissolving facades pulsating with movement can be read, according to Prix’s intention, as continuation of the Babel Tower project, which, as we remember, was directed against God’s order. This time the project is directed against the urban order, with the growing confusion of architectural languages, in which urban spaces are to be liberated and pluralistic. In our culture, the return to the Babel Tower is also a return to Peter Breughel’s Babel Tower, to the painting depicting an unfinished edifice of the spiral shape.

© Ewa Rewers (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland)


(1) Pierre Bourdieu, The forms of Capital, trans. Richard Nice, file:// A:/The Forms of Capital.htm, p.2.

(2) Pierre Bourdieu. op. cit. p.3.

(3) Mike Featherstone, Consumer Culture and Postmodernism, London: SAGE publications 1991, p.13.

(4) Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, London: Granta 1991, p. 394.

(5) Gianni Vattimo, The Transparent Society, trans. David Webb, Cambridge: Polity Press 1992, p. 64.

(6) Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization; a philosophical inquiry into Freud, Boston: Beacon Press 1996.

(7) Pierre Bourdieu, Homo Academicus, Cambridge: Polity Press 1988.

(8) Gianni Vattimo, op. cit. p. 67.

(9) Nigel Coats, Ecstacity, in: Ecstatic Architecture, Charles Jencks (ed.), London: Academy Editions 1999, p. 88.

(10) Jonathan Friedman, The Hybridization of Roots and the Abhorrence of the Bush, in: Spaces of Culture. City, Nation, World, Mike Featherstone, Scott, Lash (eds.) London: Sage 1999, p. 230.

(11) Jürgen Habermas, Modern and Postmodern Architecture, in: Architecture Theory Since 1968, Michael hays (ed.), Cambridge, Mass, London: The MIT Press 2002, p. 418.

(12) Nigel Coats, op.cit. p. 88.

1.2. Gesellschaftliche Reproduktion und kulturelle Innovation. Aus semiotischer Sicht

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For quotation purposes:
Ewa Rewers (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland): Consuming signs, space, and pleasure: The Culturally Embedded Social Reproduction. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005.

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