Mediating contemporary cultures : essays on some South African magazines, malls and sites of themed leisure.
In this Thesis, from the disciplinary vantage point of English Studies, I explore some of the complex meanings that may be attributed to several forms and practices of South African consumer culture: magazines, malls and themed leisure. While these contemporary cultural 'texts' are often ephemeral, and people's attachments to them fractured, transient or at least ambivalent rather than unproblematic, my argument takes issue with the pessimism that informs much local and international criticism of consumer culture. My Thesis turns to concepts of affect, image, sign and discourse which have become features of current English Studies in order to generate readings of commercial culture more nuanced than the 'hard analyses' favoured by dominant practitioners of 'radical' South African cultural studies. At the same time, though, my analyses have learnt through disparate forms of local cultural study the necessity of grounding textuality in the structures of political economy. By means of manageable yet conceptually-suggestive South African instances, I consider how commodities and commodified experiences - generated in the first instance by the vested interests of Capital and related ideologies - may nevertheless be experienced by people in a plethora of ways not directly tied to the commercially-expedient construct of the 'target audience'. This experiential process entails a rampant volatility typical of a mass-mediated lexicon which challenges boundaries between high and low, formal and unofficial, propriety and the improper. While advertising and promotion, for instance, function as corporate attempts to contain proliferating signifiers and to secure a preferred, 'authorised' meaning for cultural goods or services, it is also the case that consumers themselves, perhaps creatively and certainly in clandestine ways that escape the supposed authorities of either market researcher or academic intelligence, author meanings that rework the limitations of what still tends to be construed within the university as a culture industry at once banal and insidious. The meanings of the contemporary cultures with which I deal, then, are highly mediated and many-layered, rather than constituting the mere surface announcement often imagined by scholars of both literary culture and of media- and cultural studies. The contexts of my Thesis are particular: it was completed in 1998, and has been produced from a university in KwaZulu-Natal by an academic formally trained in English Studies. In some respects, then, the interpretations I offer are narrow: geographically, historically and disciplinarily focussed. Yet in working on South African examples of commoditised forms and practices that derive from metropolitan vectors and have convoluted international genealogies, I have also sought to theorise the shifting interrelations of regional and national, local and global, discipline-specific and interdisciplinary knowledge. Drawing widely on studies into consumer relations - and at apposite points identifying conceptual connections and differences between 'foreign' figures like Michel de Certeau and influential South African thinkers such as Njabulo S. Ndebele - I suggest that for all its shortcomings consumerism needs to be understood as active process rather than as passive effect. My argument implies that such a rethinking of the conventional binaries of production and consumption is appropriate in a South Africa which is gradually giving substance to a democratic social order. Even within a politics premised on the individual, forms of consumption such as magazine reading and shopping need not necessarily be scorned as the selfish, even hedonistic pursuits caricatured by ideological purists: the Thesis seeks to demonstrate that people are at once citizens and consumers, individuals searching after distinctive identity and style as well as desirous of achieving a variety of community inflected bonds. Overall, the commercial culture examined in the Thesis is represented not as inevitably marred by cultural deficiency and degraded value - despite the dissatisfactions, irritations and deferred pleasures which for many of us form at least one facet of consumption - but as an everyday spectacle which is available for symbolic interpretation and aesthetic investment. This investment may be emotional as well as cognitive, sensuous as well as critical, mundane as well as exceptional, since individuals come to commodity culture with a range of longings, dreams, fears and sedimented allegiances. As my readings demonstrate, it is such diversity of response - provisional and elusive rather than predictable and guaranteed - which gives the lie to theories which are 'always-already' premised on the prior inscription and encoding of consumerism as manipulation.