COMN 4790 York University 2018-2019, Reflections on Consumer Culture

This course examines consumer culture, its development and the mechanisms that not only enable it but also stand antagonistically against its continued extension. We will consider how consumer goods are used as a form of communication and identification, and further, how our systems of media and communication are impacted by the dominance of commercial interests in our culture.

Modernity, or the period in which consumer culture and capitalism have become universalized and globalized phenomena arguably traces its roots to the invention of printing. As one of the first mass media, the printed word was instrumental (eventually) in changing the way knowledge was produced, disseminated and learned. Mass production and reproduction has since come to dominate the way in which we understand and interact with the world. This system of global resource extraction, and the conversion of energy and matter into consumable goods has placed an enormous strain on the ecological systems that sustain life. This is one way of understanding what is meant by “antagonism”.

Course Readings and Timetable:


I Course Introduction:

September 11, Lecture: Consumption, or, How a Disease Became a Way of Life.

Williams, R. “Consumer” in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, revised ed. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 79-80.

Williams, R. “Culture.” in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, revised ed. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 87-93.

Seminar: No seminar today, but we will be reviewing the syllabus and the course requirements uniquely before the short lecture.

September 18, Lecture: Mass Media, Mass Market; a Brief History of Stuff.

Benjamin, W. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. In Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks edited by M. Durham and D. Kellner. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006, 18-41.

Eisenstein, E. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005, Chapter 1.

Horkheimer, M. and Adorno, T. “Englightenment as Mass Deception”. In Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks edited by M. Durham and D. Kellner. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006, 41-73.

Seminar: Today’s seminar will be a formal debate. After the preparatory period, you will elect team captains, and we will be debating the disagreement between Benjamin (who thinks that there is the possibility of art in mechanical reproduction, and Horkheimer and Adorno, who do not). You will have half an hour to prepare and half an hour to debate the proposition we come up with.

September 25 Lecture: Semiotics and Marketing or, What Does the Sign Say?

Lury Chapter 3: “Objects, Subjects and Signs”.

Baudrillard, J. “The Precession of Simulacra” from Simulations, New York, NY: Semiotexte, 1983, 1-30.

Seminar: Part I Baudrillard, Simulation and The Matrix and Part II Workshopping Bibliography (Subject/Thesis)

October 2 Lecture: He Sells Materialism by the Lakeshore: Consuming McLuhan

Lury Chapter 1: “Material Culture and Consumer Culture”.

McLuhan, M. “The Medium is the Message” from Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

Seminar: Workshopping Bibliography (Sources/Annotations)

October 6-12 Fall Reading Week


II Consumer Culture, Consuming Culture:

October 16

Lury Chapter 8: “Consumer Culture, Identity and Politics: When are You (Not) a Consumer”?

hooks, b. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance”. In The Consumer Society Reader eds. Schor, J. and Holt, D. New York, NY: New Press, 2000, 343-359.

Seminar: Approaching Consumed Culture: Nike, Kaepernick and the Just Do It Campaign (Student led discussion, sign up needed).

Annotated Bibliography Due

October 23

Lury Chapter 2: “Exchanging Things: The Economy and Culture”.

Lukacs, G. “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat”. In History & Class Consciousness, London: Merlin Press, 1967.

Seminar: Let’s play Monopoly! We will be playing Monopoly in groups using Statscan economic data for Toronto, for Vancouver, for Montreal and for Halifax (housing and other fees will be adjusted using data as well). You will be asked to keep tabs on rankings a) from the start and b) when each player bankrupts and c) at the end of the games. A discussion of group norms for winners and losers before the game starts will inform outcomes. 30 minutes of discussion will end the experiment.

October 30 Lecture: Consumption as a Way of Life.

Veblen, Thorstein. Conspicuous Consumption. In The Consumer Society Reader eds. Schor, J. and Holt, D. New York, NY: New Press, 2000, 187-204.

MAN. Directed and Animated by Steve Cutts, 2012, Youtube.

Seminar: Thinking about consumption, and making a budget. How much do we spend on (we will be looking at collectively how much money we spend as a group on different items/categories per year using an anonymous survey (first we will estimate the collective answers as a group then we will see the aggregate actuals, bring your laptop).

November 6 Lecture: Public Relations, Brands and Marketing “Needs”.

Lury Chapter 6: “Brands: Markets, Media and Movement

Goldman, Robert and Stephen Papson.  “Advertising in the Age of Accelerated Meaning”. In The Consumer Society Reader eds. Schor, J. and Holt, D. New York, NY: New Press, 2000, 81-98.

Seminar: Student Led Discussion of Brands, PR and Advertising (Sign up needed).

November 13: Aesthetics and the Question of Taste: Consuming with the Kardashians.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Aesthetic Sense as a Sense of Distinction”. In The Consumer Society Reader eds. Schor, J. and Holt, D. New York, NY: New Press, 2000, 205-211.

Adorno, T. “On the Categories of the Ugly, the Beautiful, and Technique”. In Aesthetics, New York: Continuum Press, 1997, 45-60.

Seminar: Screening of Pink Flamingos John Waters, Director, Starring Divine, David Lochary, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Peirce, Edith Massey, Cookie Mueller. New Line Cinema, 1972.

November 20 Lecture: Work in Neoliberal Times.

Asquith Chapter 3. “Crafting the Consumer Workforce”, Belisle, D.

Asquith Chapter 16. “Paying Our Dues: The Culture of Unpaid Internships” Jacobson, and Shade, L. R.

Seminar: Commodity U: Workshopping your CV for today’s job market

November 27 Lecture: Globalization and Environmentalism: Capital Will Eat Itself.

Banet-Weiser, J. (2012). Brand Culture, Commodity Activism, and the Consumer-Citizen,

Authentic TM: The politics of ambivalence in a brand culture. New York: NYU Press, 2012.

Carducci, V. “Culture Jamming: a Sociological Perspective”. Journal of Consumer Culture, 2006.

Seminar: Anthropogenic Global Warming and the Consumer. Can we buy or fight our way out of a crisis? (Student led discussion).

Research Paper Due

December 4: Last Day of Class Fall Term, Field Trip TBD


III. Case Studies, Canadian Consumer Culture and Consuming Indigenous Identity.

January 8 Lecture: Blankets, Voyageurs and History, What is a Canadian, Anyway?

Asquith, Chapter 7: “The Hudson’s Bay Company, Canadian History, and Settler Colonialism”, Fresco, E.

Marx, K.  “Fetishism of the Commodity” in The Consumer Society, Schor, J. and Holt, D eds. New York, NY: New Press, 2000, 331-342.

Seminar: I am Canadian? Idle no More and Reconciliation.

January 15 Lecture: Future Present, Brands, Identity and Being Canadian.

Asquith Chapter 1. “Canadian Contributions to the Study of Advertising and Consumer Culture”, McGuigan, L.

Asquith, Chapter 6: “Always Fresh, Always There. Tim Hortons and the Consumer-Citizen”, Cormack, P. and Cosgrave, J.

Asquith, Chapter 8: “Sport, Beer Advertising, and Corporate Nationalism in Canada: Molson’s Articulation of National and Masculine Identity to Consumer Citizenship”, Jackson, S.

Seminar: Student debate II, “Is Tim Horton’s a National Icon” and “What does Hockey Mean to Canada in a Globalized World” (student led discussion).

January 22 Lecture: Professionals, PR and Dirty Oil: Selling the Unsellable.

Lury Chapter 7: “Consuming Ethics, or What Goes Around, Comes Around”

Asquith Chapter 15. “Beyond Bitumen: How Advertising Sells the Myth of Canada’s Oil/Tar Sands”, McCurdy, P. and Thomlison, A.

Seminar: Climate change and activism. Is there such a thing as ethical oil? Ethical consumption (student led discussion)?

January 29 Lecture: Celebrity and Poverty: Selling Socioeconomic Class.

Asquith Chapter 13. “Influencer Marketing, the Commercial Forces of Social Media Celebrity, and Challenges for Canadian Advertising Regulation” Asquith, K.

Asquith Chapter 14. “Promoting Pity or Empathy? Poverty and Canadian Charitable Appeals”, MacLennan, A.

Seminar: Class and Education, Universities and the Canadian Establishment (student led discussion)

February 5 Lecture: Race, Myth, and Consumption, Roots and Recent History.

Baudrillard, J. Consumer Society: Myths & Structures. New York, NY: Sage Publications, 1999, 25-69.

McClintock, Anne. “Soft Soaping Empire: Commodity Racism and Imperial Advertising”.  The Gender and Consumer Culture Reader. Scanlon, J ed. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Lury Chapter 5: “Circuits of Culture and Economy: Gender, Race and Reflexivity”.

Seminar: Looking at myths. We will be developing a list and description of the kinds of myths used in advertising and consumer culture that are current in Canadian society.

February 12 Lecture: Consuming Queer.

Asquith Chapter 9. “Canada’s M.A.C.nificent Make-up Company: AIDS, Gender, and the “Original” M.A.C Cosmetics RuPaul VIVA GLAM Advertising Campaign” Benoit, A.

Forbes, J. A. and Danjhal, A. “Tweening the Twink: Gay Men, Peter Pan Syndrome, and ‘Girl Power”, (manuscript).

Seminar: Pride Inc: Gender, Sexuality, and Identity in the 21st century (student led discussion).

Midterm Take Home Due

February 16-22 Winter Reading Week


IV: Case Studies, Film, Television, Popular Culture, Art.

February 26 Lecture: Commodifying Black: Old School, Sugarhill Gang, RAPture, Run DMC and the Roots of Rap.

Walcott, R. “Keep on Movin’: Rap, Black Identities and the Problem of Nation”. In Black Like Who: Writing Black Canada. Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2004, 113-130.

Seminar: Fear of a Black Planet? Public Enemy Brings the Noise and NWA do Gangsta, a discussion of authenticity, the commercial and the use of stereotypes in 1990’s Hip-Hop. We will be looking at videos by PE, NWA, and excerpts from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

March 5 Lecture: Hip Hop’ Revenge?: Trap, Twerkin’ and the Southern Underground.

Crenshaw, K. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color”, 1994.

Seminar: Gender in Hip Hop, from Lady’s “Twerk” to Minaj’s “Anaconda”. What is Black Feminist Hip Hop anyway? A look at the popular and the profound. How the intersections of race and gender illustrate and obfuscate the power of the commodity sign.

March 12 Lecture Zombies I

Bailey, M. “Dawn of the Shopping Dead”. In Braaaaiiinnnsss! From Academics to Zombies, Ottawa: U of Ottawa Press, 2011, 195-208.

March 19 Lecture Zombies II

Cameron, A.  “Zombie Media: Transmission, Reproduction, and the Digital Dead”. Cinema Journal, Vol. 52(1), 66-89.

Screening and Discussion: Dawn of the Dead (2004).

March 26 Lecture: From Disco to House: Institutions of Dance Music from New York to Montreal, the Saint, Paradise Garage, Limelight, and Stereo.

Dyer, R. “In Defense of Disco”. In Electronica, Dance and Club Music, Butler, M. Ed, London: Ashgate, 2012.

Abiez, S. “Post-Soul Futurama: African American Cultural Politics in Early Detroit Techno” in European Journal of American Culture, 24, 133-52.

Seminar: Salvatore Ganacci at Tomorrowland. Homage, Entertainment, or Bad Parody?