On passivity (or not)

In their Introduction to The Presence of the Past, Rosenzweig and Thelen talked about the phrase “popular historymaking”: “Many of us [conference attendees] liked its implication that Americans take an active role in using and understanding the past—that they’re not just passive consumers of histories constructed by others.” That observation sent my brain off on a little tangent about the construction of “active” versus “passive” as it relates to consumerism.

If we play the SAT game, “active” is to “passive” as “production” is to “consumption.” That’s…not wrong, so far as it goes. But it is problematic for a couple of reasons.

We can extend those binaries so they’re explicitly gendered, with “male” as “active” and “female” as “passive,” or a number of other terms laden with cultural baggage: light/dark, right/left, positive/negative, good/bad, strong/weak, soul/flesh.* Scrubbing binaries from the language is not realistic or necessarily desirable, but it is important to remain aware of their implications, particularly the implicit value judgments.

I’d also argue that consumption is not necessarily a passive activity. The construction “just passive consumers” is overly simplistic (unless we’re talking about, say, consumers of oxygen who do not think about a process over which they literally and biologically have no voluntary control), though it is useful if you want to employ the binary paradigm (and when you’re writing, sometimes a binary is just the thing you’re looking for to make your point).

In order to consume, one must acquire the thing to be consumed. That requires effort to create, find, purchase, steal, or choose§ the thing. Those actions all have consequences, implications, and opportunity costs. Consumption can be part of the construction of the consumer’s identity, particularly in a marketplace that offers alternatives with distinct brand associations. (Fans of Apple and Fox News leap to mind. The former are unlikely to buy Blackberries, and the latter are unlikely to watch Rachel Maddow.) So while Rosenzweig and Thelen argue that Americans take non-consumer actions to make history, I’d extend that to say that even Americans’ (or anyone’s) straightforward consumption can be part of their construction of identity and personal narratives.

* R. Howard Bloch, in Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love: “Put simply, man is associated throughout the period in question with spirit or soul formed directly by God, partaking of his divinity, while woman is assumed to partake of the body, fleshly incarnation being by definition the sign of humanity’s fallen condition.” The book’s a good source for discussion of the long term implications of such binary constructions in Western Christianity.

Language is hardwired into the brain in fascinating and freaky ways. See for example this study of color categorization impacting color perception, boing boinged a few weeks ago. So no matter how much I lament certain social results of language construction, if I had a magic wand or three wishes or a primate appendage, I don’t know that I’d undo anything: I’m not remotely qualified to guess at the ultimate results of such a profound change. (Or maybe I’m internalizing too many support-the-status-quo messages.)

And I am aware of at least some of the ways in which I have uncritically absorbed and perpetuated cultural assumptions, including my perception of consumerism as negative. The irony of discussing problematic binaries as a lead in not to rejecting the binary paradigm but to arguing that “consumers get to be active, too” is not lost on me, nor is the irony of my general unease with consumer culture typed on a laptop in an air conditioned room reached after a two hour airplane flight.

§ Or not. Refraining from consumption is also the choice of the consumer. See also Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice to differently complicate the construction of the passive consumer.