<Ź īćėąāėåķčž õšåńņīģąņčč.







Motto: “...much social behaviour is unreflective, even though informed by emotional dispositions”


“...emotions are at the root of apprehension of temporal order.”

(Barbalet 1998, 115, 185).


When I asked my students a couple of years ago what sorts of goods they liked or disliked, one of them said he loved Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. He had seen it 25 times. Another student said that she hated liver casserole when we discussed foods we avert or accept with pleasure. When asked why, she said that she had been forced to eat it as a child, although she had found its taste repulsive. These are just some examples of people’s relation to consumption objects. They show, however, that our relationship to them may be strongly emotional. This has been known for long (remember, for instance, Marcel Proust’s celebrated example, the Madeleine tart, in his The Lost World). In spite of this, there has not been much systematical research on our emotional relationship to goods.


This paper does not pretend to correct this situation. Instead, it tries to outline some conceptual starting points for an analysis of our passionate relationship to commodities. I will begin by discussing sociology’s omission of the role of emotions in a social fabric. The I will continue on what I think emotions are about. I will argue that emotions are about involvement or devotion to somebody or something. Then I will ponder how the intensity of emotions or involvement is related to goods. I will round out my paper by showing how emotions may be related to consumption and time.


Emotion: a social force neglected by sociologists


All of the “founding fathers” of sociology paid attention to the emotional aspect of action. Marx wrote about solidarity, which workers in the same social position in the labour market may, or rather should, feel for each other. Durkheim stressed that all sorts of social collectivities must periodically come together in order to revitalize their feeling of affinity and their sense of identity. Weber pointed out that there are at least four types of action, one of them affective action. He also paid attention to a passionate devotion to work in his famous essay “Science as a Vocation” (1988).


After the time of the classics, there has been much less talk about emotions and about the role they play in the social fabric. There are, of course, exceptions. For instance, Robert Merton lectured on feelings in the 1940s (1940), David Riesman wrote in the 1950s about changing emotional conduct in the USA in his famous “The Lonely Crowd” (1950), and Erwin Goffman insisted that not only formal rationality, but also the emotional process of embarrassment is a sustaining mechanism of organisation (1956, 271).


However, generally speaking, emotions have been out of the sight of sociologists later in this century. There are evidently several explanations for this. Most sociological thinkers in the classical period stressed how “market relations destroy the veracity and efficacy of emotional factors in social relations” (Barbalet 1998, 105). Weber, for instance, was ambiguous about the role of feelings, admitting that emotions are an important category if we want to completely understand the nature of our action. But he also stressed in his organization theory that a bureaucracy will work the better, the more it gets rid of all kinds of emotional elements (‘sine ira et studio’). Sociologists who followed Weber and focused on working life completely neglected the study of emotions and instead stressed the rational aspects of enterprises (e.g. Blau 1955; Gouldner 1954; Parsons 1956).


Marx was also ambivalent about the role of feelings in capitalist society. Alhough workers may, in his opinion, have passions, bourgeois people have already lost them. Thus, Marx and Engels tell us that since the rise of the bourgeoisie the only ties between persons are “naked self-interest” and that the “most heavenly ecstasies...of philistine sentimentalism (have been drowned) in the icy waters of egotistical calculation” (Marx & Engels 1970, 38). Those who followed Marx enlargened his view of the bourgeois class to workers. They centered on workers’ consciousness and made them emotionally anorectic. They replaced emotions with interests. This led their attention in a completely opposite direction than emotions would have done. As Agnes Heller has stressed, to advocate one’s own interests demands ‘the household of feelings’. This is an expression of, and leads to, calculative and strategic action rather than free expression of feelings (Mansfield 1995).


Durkheim, in turn, although stressing the importance of the feeling of affinity, informs us how anomie is spreading through industrialization and commercialization. As a consequence of this “economic anomie” reality becomes worthless, because people only “thirst after novelties, strange desires...that lose their charm as soon as they become known to us” ( 1985, 308). Sociologists who followed Durkheim, however, did not take this route, but like Talcott Parsons they ignored emotions and looked for “affective neutrality” (Parsons 1951) and focused their attention on norms and values instead of emotions. And those who rose against Parsonian sociology and were influenced by Husserl and Heidegger – the ethnomethodologists – also dropped emotions from their vocabulary, although they wanted to ‘bring men back in’, as the saying went. They paid, instead, attention to language and cultural meanings. For some reason they did not consider the possibility that meanings receive their content not only culturally, but also emotionally, and that meanings could be emotionally loaded.


Georg Simmel makes an exception among “the founding fathers” of sociology in the sense that although he stressed that monetary relations spread indifference, he was also convinced that there are counterbalancing mechanisms. He thus admitted that the promotion of self-interest leads to conflicts that bind their parties emotionally together, although they share nothing else together. In contrast to Marx, Simmel thinks that such kinds of conflicts are integrative rather than destroying mechanisms of a social fabric (Simmel 1970, 109). Simmel also believes that concurrence on a market place allows a person who is not cruel to commit all sorts of cruelties to other competitors, and even with a good consciousness (op.cit.88). Still, concurrence is not a destructive force in a society. “Many times it succeeds with something that only love succeeds” (to bring about, KI) (op.cit. 62). According to Simmel trust has the same effect as concurence. It is “one of the most important synthetic forces within society (1964, 318).


The rise of the paradigm of cultural sociology did not radically change the situation, although it owes much to Simmel. Even though there have been studies of fashion or what has been called the pleasure industry, there has not been much discussion about what kinds of pleasure and feelings these give to people. I do not want to claim that the language of emotions has been totally non-existent in these studies. However, it is clear that people’s feelings have not been the main target in these analyses. It should not always be like this. I believe that it is time to give emotions more weight in sociological research, especially within the sociology of consumption.


‘To give more weight’ does not mean that we should replace, for instance, research into fashion or style with the study of emotions in consumption. The first-mentioned research objects are by their nature and status quite different from emotions. They are consumption mechanisms that create, so to say, objective cultural meanings of what it means, for example, to be ‘trendy’ or to have a ‘good taste’. They are objective meanings in the sense that they can be regarded as Durkheimian social facts. Meaning, however, has a subjective aspect too. Things have a special meaning for each of us. It is precisely our emotions that create this meaning. It is quite different from, for instance, the Bourdieuvian habitus, although it also has a subjective side. The meaning I am talking about is connected with the experiencing, or sensing, of things.


Cultural, objective meanings and experienced, subjective meanings are naturally interconnected. Norbert Elias, especially, has described how experienced meanings are transformed in the long run into cultural meanings or habituses. These, in turn, restrain the showing of some kinds of emotions by labelling them signs of weakness (like love and pity in the case of the Germans) and encouraging some other kinds of feelings (like hate) by taking them as signs of strength (Elias 1997). In what follows I will not pay much attention to this transformation of objective meanings into subjective ones, and vice versa. I will, instead, focus on subjective meanings, particularly on the way emotions attach subjective meanings to consumption objects.


Secondly, it is worth noting that an emotion cannot be such a social mechanism as, for example, fashion. It is, instead, intertwined with such mechanisms. Emotions can be only one aspect among others in a consumption process. As an aspect of this it can, however, deeply imprint this process. As consumption routines, emotions might undermine the role of rationality in both consumption choices and consumption processes as a whole. When emotions get a stronger status than rationality in a choice, they might lead to both arational and irrational choices.


As protagonists in a- and irrational action, emotions do not necessarily lead to anarchy and chaos, as, for instance, economic discourse has for long made us believe by stressing ‘realism’ in an economic policy (McCloskey 1986) as well as the importance of advancing one’s own interest in society at large (Hirschman 1977). On the contrary, emotions might be a very strong maintainer of social order (Simmel 1971). If emotions really have such attributes, one should ask what emotions then are about.


Emotion as involvement


A vast number of psychological studies, therapy books, philosophical investigations, etc., have been written about emotions. From an outsiders’ viewpoint, they remind one of taxonomies à la Linne (see e.g. Heller 1977), which have very little to do with emotion itself. Emotions are experienced, and as such it is not possible to talk about them without doing violence to the experienced side of emotion. Therefore, one should perhaps keep quiet about them in the Wittgensteinian fashion. (“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann darüber muss man shcweigen”). I, however, intend to take a different route here.


Although we can come to grips with emotional experiences only indirectly, we can still say what an emotion is about. I’m prone to think like the philosopher Agnes Heller. She has suggested that an emotion means involvement in something. This ‘something’ must be understood as ‘whatever’. One can be involved in living creatures, things, regions, and abstract ideas. As Heller herself admits, this definition of emotions has its problems. If an emotion is related to involvement in something, what, then, does ‘involvement in something’ mean? (Heller 1977, 7) In this paper I try to offer only preliminary elements for an answer. This requires a couple of conceptual specifications.


It is usual to talk in English in the same way of sentiments, emotions, feelings, passion and affect. I regard the first three as synonyms and make a difference between them and the latter two concepts. I understand involvement to mean that someone is committed to some thing or person for a longer time. I am inclined to connect emotions, feelings and especially sentiments (see Th. Kemper 1978, 47–48) to these kinds of long-term ties. Affects and passions are not of this kind. They are usually quick outbursts related to something or someone and in this sense manifest short-term commitment. But when they are over, this commitment ceases to exist, although it might have long-lasting effects.


Secondly, I want to make a difference between what in social psychology is called ego and response involvement. Ego involvement refers to the extent to which the attitudinal issue (person or thing) under consideration is personally important. This should be distinguished from response involvement that points to the extent to which a particular attitudinal stand adopted toward an issue is of personal importance to the individual (Park & Mittal 1985, 204). I will reserve the concept of involvement for ego involvement.


Thirdly, involvement in some issue may be general or specific. The latter kind of involvement refers to commitment to a particular position on an issue, whereas the former refers to the general level of concern about an issue without reference to a specific position. For example, one can be generally interested in cars or have a very passionate view of one of them (especially of one’s own car). I regard only the latter case as an indication of emotional commitment. Although a general view of some issue might also be emotionally loaded, cognition usually precedes emotion.


The above separation is of a qualitative nature, but it is important to realize that involvement is, fourthly, a continuous variable. It might vary from low to high. When it is low, cognition, once again, precedes emotion. And ‘as the level of involvement increases from low to high, the sequence of hierarchy changes’ (Park & Mittal 1985, 208). This means that only in cases of high involvement can one expect a strong connection with emotion and consumption.


Fifthly, ‘to be involved in something’ includes two possibilities. Involvement itself, i.e. a feeling, can be in the centre of our attention, but so can the object of involvement. When feeling as an experience is emphasized, its object shifts into the background (Heller 1977, 11–12). This is usually the case when a strong emotion like fear, hatred or love overwhelms us. The same happens when our action is prevented for one reason or another. The target of involvement in turn rises into the foreground when our attention is focused on solving a problem, on a specific situation, or on the way in which something happens. It is important to recognize, however, that irrespective of whether it is the object of our involvement or our involvement itself that rises into the foreground, both are always present in an emotion. If one is missing, feeling is extinguished.


This object-oriented nature of emotion means that an emotion can be separated neither from the act of observing nor from the (pre)conceptions about the object of observing. They are, however, ‘objectivated’ in this object. This should, however, not be understood to mean that involvement consists of a neutral or objective relationship to its object. Rather, emotions are connected with the processing of the information about the object – with our ways of seeing and experiencing that object. Emotions include a cognitive component. They give us important information about our relationship with the object of emotion, which is subjectivized, or internalized, in the experience and allows us to act in subjectively meaningful ways in relation to it (see Hochschild 1983, 30–31, 222; Heller 1977, 50). Emotion is a motion. It includes a “motor component of expressive gesture” (Barbalet 1998, 84, 114); it is acted out. However, before and while we act it out, there exists a physiological component of arousal and bodily sensation of emotion. In this sense ‘involvement is nothing but the regulative function of the social organism (the subject, the Ego) in its relation to the world’, as Heller somewhat enigmatically says (1977, 22).


Our involvement not only informs us about our relationship with the world; it also provides others with information about us and our relationship with the external world. Therefore, we need to both learn to identify our own feelings and to interpret those of others and identify their objects (Heller 1977, 112–113). This is not an easy task, because in the course of the civilizing process (Norbert Elias) we have learnt to use our emotions to spread false information, to lie with our emotions in order to influence others. However, ‘lying’ may be too strong a word. Perhaps we should talk about ‘handling’ or ‘managing’ (Wouters 1992) emotions instead. Nonetheless, to be able to control one’s emotions, one must know how to ‘locate’ them.


Organistic vs. constructivist theory of emotions


Arlie Hochschild, who has studied air hostesses, argues that the location of emotion has in principle been explained in two ways: organistically and interactionistically (or naturalistically and constructionistically). They are based on a different kind of ontology. The former explanation starts from the premise that emotions are based on biological and physiological needs and are thus always inside us. We are, in a way, vessels for emotions. When they get filled, emotions ‘spill over’. In this view emotions are seen as irresistible; their expression resembles the eruption of natural forces. We cannot do anything about our emotions. They just spurt out from within. If this were a valid view, the above-described way to understand emotions in terms of involvement would evidently be misleading.


There is, however, a lot of evidence to suggest that emotions are not beyond our control like natural forces. First of all, as already mentioned, emotions are intertwined with cognition. The fact that we can identify our emotions and can place them within a cultural context changes their character. This is passed by in the organistic conceptualization of emotions, in which expressions of emotions and the cognitive views that modify emotions are regarded as external to emotions (Hochschild 1983, 206). In reality they are intertwined in emotions. For example, our understanding of the character and value of the emotion of love affects its expressions and their intensity. If love is seen as a weakness, its expression is avoided or it is valued negatively, as argued by Norbert Elias in his discussion of German national character (1997 , 102, 106–107). If, by contrast, love is understood positively as a basic life force (cf. the Freudian libido), its expressions are given a lot of scope (see Giddens 1991, 1992).


Secondly, emotions are entangled in our goals and in the interactive situations necessitated by our attempts to reach them (Heller 1977, 94, 115). The latter not only ‘trigger’ but also modify our emotions (Hochschild 1983, 206–207, 211). Although I am angry at my superior, I ‘know better’ than to reveal my anger. Instead, I neutralize it or transform it into a way of behaving that is less risky for myself, with the result that my whole state of mind may change.


I put the verb ‘trigger’ into quotation marks, because it implies an organistic way of understanding an emotion as something that pre-exists within us. If by the endogeny of emotions one means that they can be produced consciously only in an artificial form, that view can be defended. It is, however, a different question what this endogeny is attached to within us. Emotions are not necessarily ‘located’ in organistic need states; they can also be attached to the cultural ways of thinking we have adopted. If we have learnt to regard some things as shameful, bringing them up in a social event may make us blush. Our emotions are thus rooted in adopted norms, not in our biological constitution, and breaking them produces an emotional reaction (see Levi-Strauss 1969, 92). Precisely the opportunity to connect emotions and experiencing with norms subjects them to external control. In the Durkheimian tradition ritual action is seen as one way of invoking the desired emotional states. Ritualizing action is thus a powerful way of controlling emotions as well (Bell 1992, 171–180).


Fourth, an organistic interpretation of emotions does not reach their experiential dimension. It is, however, one of the central dimensions of an emotion. The strength or weakness of an emotional experience reflects the character of our involvement and shows to both ourselves and others how seriously we take the object of our involvement. As in the case of an emotional state, modifying the strength of an emotion blurs our relationship to (and understanding of) its object. In consequence, our behavior in relation to the objects of our emotions becomes more complex to ourselves and others.


Because of the above presented criticism is cuite crushing, there has arisen a need for a new kind of understanding of emotional life. The cultural turn of sociology has offered some tools to handle emotions analytically. They are connected to the new-born interest in the problem of identity. In this train of thought the cultural and social construction of the “ego” and its identity are emphasized. Emotions have been seen also in this light. As J.M. Barbalet stresses, “the constructionist approach typically holds that emotions are principally strategic evalutional claims associated with local meaning systems”. However, this perspective on emotions is biased too. In the constructionist view emotion remains a consequence of external forces, and its ability to influence social processes is neglected. In other words, the constructionist view (à la Hochschild) “emphasizes actors’ manipulation of emotion rather than the effect of emotion on their actions” (1998, 23).


Thus, although the constructionist approach offers evident advantages in comparison to the organistic view in dealing with emotions, they have been got at a high price. The neglect of the capacity of emotions to influence our action is, however, not the only shortcoming of the constructionist view. It is naturally right when it argues that we are able to manage our emotions. But emotions are not thinglike, easily manageable objects. They are highly volatile and always in motion. Emotional experience is continuous and varies in intensity. Moreover, one emotion leads to the second. Emotions do not change only as a result of each interactive situation and our manipulative practices, but also have a dynamics of their own (see also Barbalet 1998, 23).


The constructionist viewpoint has also another problem in dealing with emotions. It claims that sentiments are brought about socially and culturally by naming, but mere naming does not produce any emotions. It is not easy to make oneself feel love (“to think positively”) when one is sad or angry. This would be a mislocation of one’s feeling. Besides, it is not easy to capture emotions conceptually because of their fluidity. On the other hand, the absence of a word for an emotion does not mean that an emotion is not experienced. The constructionist view completely bypasses this part of our emotional life. However, it is evident that it does not capture only the experiential side of our feelings either. Moreover, emotions arise and are felt in our bodies. Emotions are always embodied, whether named or not. The physiological component of emotions has been steadily underestimated by constructivists in their eagerness to criticize the organistic view. It surely also has its legitimate validity claim concerning the explanation of our emotional life.


Thirdly, as Barbalet argues, the constructionist view can at its best offer description of emotions and especially descripitons of only those emotions that are socially preferred in the prevailing culture. “Constructionism, therefore, is not simply an account of cultural processes, it is itself captive of cultural preferences” (1998, 24). This is fateful for it in two senses. Firstly, in the constructionist way of thinking the conceptual presentation of emotion “is taken to be what emotion is”. However, social representions are incomplete images. Secondly, these images are collective by nature. Therefore, constructivism overlooks the individual and necessarily subjective nature of emotions. By naming a state of feeling as “love” it does not take into consideration the huge variation of intensity in the feeling of love and the qualitative meanings given to love that are connected to an ego’s biography and life-situation.


The constructivist approach is thus faulty, but it must not be completely rejected the way Barbalet does. He rejects it because this serves his interest to focus on emotions that must be understood within the frameworks of status and power. Not all emotions, however, are status- or power-related and, therefore, cannot be understood within such structural reationships. Even shame and pride, emotions that are usually seen as power-related, could also be addressed within the relations of equals. Thus, Barbalet draws too dramatic conclusions from the criticism of constructivism. His view, of course, has its merits. One must just keep in mind its limitations. The constructivist view does not capture all aspects of our emotional life.


The intensity of emotion and consumption


As has become apparent, ego involvement and response involvement are, in practice, intertwined. However, these should be kept distinct for analytical reasons when studying the entanglement of emotions and consumer goods. This is what the market researchers have done while studying involvement and the choice of trademarked products. On the one hand, they have been interested in the emotional significance of a given commodity or trademark to their subjects (Zaichkowsky 1987). On the other hand, they have been interested in finding out how instrumental some preconceived attitude towards a product group is to the interviewees. Predictions based on those particular kinds of questions have been made about the likelihood with which consumers would choose a given product. Nevertheless, the results have been less than encouraging. This is due to a central theoretical weakness in these approaches: it has been assumed that a personal involvement produces just one result: the desired one (Park & Mittal 1985, 206).


Market researchers face a problem similar to that of all opinion polls. As Bourdieu has pointed out in his criticism, the polls have usually not established whether the interviewees had a pre-existing opinion on the matter at hand or not. Thus Bourdieu writes that ‘one of the most harmful effects of opinion polls is precisely the fact that people are expected to answer questions that they have not been asked’ (Bourdieu 1985, 192). The same is true of market research. People cannot always answer the questions because they do not have the competence to do so. When discussing involvement and consumer goods, it can be said that not everyone has an emotional response to certain groups of products. For many consumers, food is just fuel. They do not have an emotional response to various meals or trademarks within the food industry (Ilmonen 1993). For others, food can be one of the most important things in life (Fine 1996).


If, on the other hand, the interviewee had established emotional ties to some commodities, market research may have been unable to determine the intensity of that tie. If it has been determined, the particularity of ego involvement has not been made clear. Thus we have to make do with research that has taken the intensity of commitment into account.


An example of such research is Judith L. Zaichkowsky’s studies of the relationship between consumer choice and emotion, carried out in 1985 and 1987. She has, however, made a peculiar distinction between thinking and emotion. This is reminiscent of the distinction between rationale and emotion peculiar to Western culture (see e.g. Zajonc, who makes a similar distinction, 1979). Lately it has been severely criticized by organisational sociologists, among others (see e.g. Fineman, 1993 and 1995). According to the critics, these two notions are intertwined, and they are never manifested in their pure forms. Yet it is obviously possible to conceive that they can carry a different weight in different situations and in relation to different things. In that case, I would not employ the concept of thinking, though; instead, I would talk about rational consideration and emotion.


All in all, Zaichkowsky uses a conceptual apparatus that is different from the one used here. She does not define in detail what she means by ‘emotion’, but in her line of thought it resembles attitude, in other words, a person’s predisposition to respond in a particular way to an object. Instead, she distinguishes emotion and involvement from each other. A closer scrutiny reveals that her concept of ‘involvement’ can be substituted with ‘commitment’ because the terms, although not quite synonymous, are – according to sociopsychological estimates – strongly connected with each other (Rajaniemi 1984, 16). We can thus create the following table, into which the commodities listed in Zaichkowsky’s study can be placed:





Discretion is emphasized

Emotion is emphasized

High commitment

A. cars, furniture, new commodities

B.jewels, cosmetics, fashion items

Low commitment

C. food, household items, sweets

D. cigarettes, alcohol



(see Zaichkowsky 1987, 32)


Zaichkowsky’s material is American. Perhaps that is why food, for example, is in the field of low commitment and discretion is emphasized. This is hardly the case in Italy or France, for example. In addition, the classifications she uses for consumer goods are, of course, too general. It is unlikely that even in the United States all food is chosen using discretion. Instead, some dishes and ingredients are certainly chosen for highly emotional reasons (e.g. American apple pie and mummy’s chocolate-chip cookies).


Besides, when interpreting the table, it needs to be born in mind that Zaichkowsky’s interest, like that of other market researchers, is directed to consumer choices. They, too, are seen as taking place ‘in a vacuum’, without prior experience that reinforces the accompanying positive or negative emotional ties to commodities. In addition, she is not interested in finding out what kinds of emotional ties are formed to commodities after the purchase, and how strong these ties are. However, commodities are usually subjectivized only after buying – in other words, they are transformed through appropriation from anonymous to personalized objects. Had she paid attention to these appropriated and possessed objects, cars and furniture would hardly have been placed in slot A, but perhaps rather in slot B. A car is not, at least to all car owners, just a vehicle for getting from one place to another, but it has a ‘character’ too. It is appreciated, the owners are proud of it or they loathe it, etc.


The car may be a special case, after all, because according to several studies consumer behaviour is mostly low-involvement behaviour (Park & Mittal 1985, 216). The car, together with alcohol, for example, belongs to a category of so-called ‘super commodities’, which have created worlds of their own or, as Henri Lefebvre puts it, ‘subsystems inside the everyday routine’ (1971, 98). These ‘super commodities’ have relatively well-defined symbolic boundaries. Interest groups have been set up to guard them, and they have their own discourses (concepts, viewpoints, etc.). These days personal computers have reached the same status as cars. They do not leave anyone indifferent, either. People commit themselves strongly to computers, or at least they are regarded as either exciting or annoying. (Zaichkowsky 1987, 34; Lupton 1998, 141–142).


Super commodities not only evoke a strong emotional response, but are also wrapped inside a veil of moralizing and morality. Even as novelties they have aroused either fierce opposition or great enthusiasm (see e.g. Schievelbusch 1996). When their novelty has worn off, the intensity of people’s commitment to them may have diminished, but at the same time the emotional ties have introduced new permanent and emotion-ladden cultural meanings. Now these meanings exist and are available for the categorisation of people who use these super commodities (Cohen 1982; Park & Mittal 1985). The driver of a Jaguar may be labelled a ‘show-off’, the drinker of strong spirits morally unfit, etc. In other words, it is not just people who commit themselves to commodities. Commodities also “commit” themselves to consumers, labelling them with meanings. The subjective meanings linked to commodities are transformed into objective ones, thus giving commodities new meanings, which can then be used to classify the users of those commodities.


Sentiments as epiphanies and goods


Not all goods are super commodities, however, and the intensity of our commitment to even them vary in time and place. Here I will restrict myself only to the time aspect in our involvement with goods. I will start by focusing on our involvement with goods from our past. Then I will go on to analyze the relationship of future-related goods and involvement.


Consumers commit themselves to goods through appropriation at the time of purchase and especially afterwards. Appropriated commodities come in at least four distinct categories. First, there are the collectibles. Secondly, there are the objects that are connected to memories, situations or people regarded as special. They are ‘good’ objects, in the true sense of the word (see Falk 1995). The third group consists of objects that are not part of a collection or related to the particular situation but have become otherwise dear in one way or another while in use. Old shoes, pieces of furniture, records, books, etc. may be such objects. The fourth group comprises objects that are simply left lying about or put away with the intention of using them in the future. Levi-Strauss’ concept of bricolage can be used to describe this last group of objects. The objects in the first and last group do not necessarily carry any emotional weight. Rather, people may relate to them rationally or instrumentally. By contrast, objects belonging to the remaining two categories involve strong feelings. In the following I will restrict myself to discussing only the second group of goods, mementos.


Generally speaking, mementos are of two kinds. On the one hand, there are mementos that are kept in the family either out of duty or as a tradition. They do not necessarily entail significant emotional attachment. On the other hand, there are objects that are kept because they preserve a vivid memory of some past event felt to be either positive or frightening. Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton, for instance, found that for some people a certain piece of furniture was considered special because it reminded them of the early days of marriage (1981, 60). Such things prove that memory is – contrary to popular belief – strongly ladden with emotions. These kinds of objects have taken the form of epiphanies.


Epiphany is a memory that is constantly present in our minds. It is a memory of some important event that was experienced a long time ago and that has continued to live on in our hearts. Some of our mementos epitomize those moments that we hold significant. Some of us may even surround ourselves with these kinds of epitomized moments, like the newspaper tycoon in Orson Welles’s Citizen Cane. These objects express our yearning back for those moments that are gone for good. The objects as such are not important, but the subjective feelings we attach to them are. In that respect epitomized epiphany is close to the feeling of nostalgia. Nostalgia is a kind of home sickness; the emotional charge is what matters most.


Many kinds of goods can function as objects of nostalgic feelings, and I think that all of us furnish our homes or work places with some of such epitomized goods, and we yearn for not only these goods but also the emotions they succeed in bringing about in our consciousness. Somebody yearns for dolls, someone else for mother’s meat balls. However, I think that there is one group of goods that is important for almost all of us. I mean pieces of music called “schlagers”, or hits. They constitute very special kind of music that raises strong feelings like hate or great enthusiasm among people. Although schlagers are seen as a genuine part of low culture and, therefore, have been considered repetitive rubbish (e.g. Adorno & Horkheimer 1979, 136), they are not meaningless things. On the contrary, they are able to condense meanings of everyday life. As two Finnish essayists, Peter von Bagh and Ilpo Hakasalo, say rather poetically, a schlager is based on the “realism of dreams” (1986).


Like all music, hits are related to time and especially to us as beings in time. They represent fixed points in our memories. They open a space for sensitizing. It is no wonder, therefore, that the angel of hits is usually a bit nostalgic and backward-looking. They are surrounded by the aura of woeful melancholy and dreams. A schlager is like a “symbolic key” to the doors that we have closed in our past and that hide things, people and accidents that we have experienced as important. This hidden memory material may be a source of both joy and anxiety. By listening to hits we can live again those memories and let them shake our bodies emotionally (Lehtonen & Niemelä 1999, 49). They are able to do so because they register tiny “heart beats” that have been excluded from the “official historiography” (von Bagh & Hakasalo 1986).


Although most schlagers do not register epoch-making or great historical moments that might label an entire generation, they still form a basis for a loose collective identity. One obvious reason for this is that as condensed packages of dreams and emotions, hits function well as a basis of involvement. As music researchers Kimmo Lehtonen and Merja Niemelä found out in their studies, many hits that were considered especially important were connected to experiencers’ childhood and youth, especially to those phases of life that were seen as personally important. According to the experiencers, schlagers gave an excellent expression to feelings that they had felt in these phases of life ( 1999, 46). They were treated as identification objects of a kind.


As identification objects, hits offer important autobiographical content to given time periods. In this sense they not only touch us as such but more precisely touch us in a certain phase of our life. Some schlagers seem to tell us something about our feelings, difficulties and hopes precisely within this period of our life cycle. They function in the same fashion as some myths or fairy tales that have been of very special importance for us, because we have identified ourselves with some of the persons depicted in them. In the identifying process as listeners we will undertake the role of “silent narrators”. In this role we can relive experiences that have moved us strongly in our past.


It is not always easy to say which element in a hit has the greatest importance for us. Sometimes it might be just the lyrics of a song. Lehtonen and Niemelä give an example of one member, an axious woman, in a singing group of elderly people. After a long period of withdrawal she wished to hear an old Finnish schlager that then reduced her to tears. It included the following verse: “Stay by me as a sister, wind, while the night sings its songs and rain hits the dark window like cold tear drops. There are many strange walkers passing by, but the one I once waited for will never arrive”. These words reflected the period in her life when Helsinki was bombed and her husband died on the front. This song took her back to the Helsinki of the forties. After listening to it she told the singing group that she had not been able to talk about these experiences to anybody. Singing it out was a therapeutic act that changed the whole experience (1999, 46).


Sometimes only the tune of schlager might be significant. We might not remember a word of the song’s lyrics, but a tune can continue to “haunt” us for a long time. This is because it is able to give form to our restless feelings that relate to, for example, the highlights of our life. It is like Sting singing about Cottonfields of Gold, about a love-making experience out in the open. It is said with good reason that music is ringing in our souls, but it could also be said that a hit song is playing with the mood (“stimmung”) of our souls. The mood gets a form from the schlager’s tune. Marlene Dietrich puts this nicely into words when she sings “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf der Liebe angestellt. Das ist mein Welt und sonst gar nichts”.


Mostly, however, it is the combination of words and tune that touch the sentimental us. In order to do so it must be very concretely present for us. What might be meaningless noise to someone can reduce someone else to tears because of the epiphanies it brings to his or her mind. Hits and the sentiments these bring about in our minds are not understandable for outsiders and those with an alienated attitude à la Adorno. They can be approached only with great empathy. Meanings that hits carry along are subjective (or private) and hardly objectivatable. Hits are only manifestations of our epiphanies, not of their content. They themselves are our emotions as little as the concept of love is love (Barbalet 1998, 79).


However, although sentiments that schlagers make us recall are deeply private, an entire generation may still share them. This is because the individuals who have these sentiments have lived through the same kinds of experiences. The experiences of the old lady who reminisced about the bombing of Helsinki and the loss of dear friends are shared by others belonging to her generation. The same is true of my own generation. We had our Jailhouse Rocks and Singing the Blueses, which were followed by Blowing in the Winds and Time is on Our Sides. We have made them into tiny pieces of our identities. They belong to the “sensus communis” or “cum sensualis” (consensus) of one generation that is in its character “rather sentimental or emotional than rational”, as M. Maffesoli puts it (1995, 80). This sort of “sensus communis” includes songs, foods, etc. that have been enjoyed during the same period and that have – precisely because of this shared enjoyment – produced meanings that have become a basis for the affinity of the whole generation (ibid., 31). Therefore such goods are so dear to us. Therefore we are so involved in them.


Emotions, goods and the future


The preceding analysis hopefully shows that not only goods but also sentiments are at the root of apprehension of temporal order. In the case of commodities this is a largely accepted view. Fashion is a temporal category, as G. Simmel (1986) and W. Benjamin (1990) already noted. Goods develop in time and their central aspects are aging at different speeds in time (Ilmonen 1993, 206–208 ). That emotions too are both structured in time and especially that they are able to structure (our) time has been less obvious, if we omit epiphanies and nostalgia for a while. Of course, discourses of postmodernity have stressed how the experience of now-time and related fleeting passions have become important (e.g. Lash & Urry 1994, 242–245). It has been even claimed that the whole time dimension has been reduced to or compressed in now-time in the consciousness of people. This is naturally an exaggeration. Even within these discourses the typical claim of the growing importance of the sense of hic et nunc raises objections with good reason. We should not underestimate the power of nostalgia, people’s expectations of their future and their attempts to anticipate future events. As Barbalet puts it, without emotions “persons would be lost in time, the past would remain remote, and the future inaccessible” (1998, 185).


Both expectations and anticipations of the future strengthen intentionalities that are imminent in the present and shadow it. These shadows of intentionalities are coloured by emotions, as phenomenological philosophy has stressed. For instance, M. Heidegger ( 1962) and M. Merleau-Ponty (1989) discuss temporality with references to particular emotions.


The two most important emotions that are infused in our anticipation of the future are fear and hope. They strongly influence our present action. As Max Weber pointed out, action in political community is “determined by highly robust motives and hope” (1970, 79). By saying this Weber placed himself into a long tradition of Western political analysis dating back to T. Hobbes, T. More and Campanella. When Hobbes tries to deal with future fears, More and Campanella focus on future hopes. They are visualizing an affluent society that focuses mostly on enjoyments that consumption can bring about.


Although Hobbes, More and Campanella seemingly focus on different things, they in a sense talk about two sides of the same coin. As B. Spinoza maintained, fear and hope imply each other (1994, 153) “as negative expectations are structured by positive possibilities, and vice versa” (Barbalet 1998, 150). However, I will here focus on only future fears related to goods and consumption. Before that I will make a clarification related to the feeling of fear and action.


A conventional understanding of fear and action is that fear is stimulated by danger and that it manifests itself in flight. This is, of course, a one-sided view of fear-driven action. Fear might also give an impulse to a fight. That there are seemingly opposite types of orientation to danger requires explanation. According to Barbalet, it can be attempted by distinguishing the object and the cause of fear. To him the object of fear is “what emoting subjects are orientated to in their fears”. What, in turn, forces us to orient with fear to these objects is that we experience them as threatening. Therefore, it should be asked what constructs some objects as threatening and some others as not threatening. According to Barbalet, who here refers to Th. Kemper, the defining line goes between those objects and situations that can be dealt with and those that cannot (1998, 153). In effect, Kemper sees the cause of emotion in a structural inbalance between fearing agents’ resources that are available and the complexity of the situation or, as he expresses it, in the “sructural conditions of insufficient power” (1978, 56). It is precisely the lack of power either to deal with or anticipate future events that makes us experience helplessness. It is a risky condition and a good growing ground for negative or pessimistic expectations. It pushes us to focus on negative aspects of risks and to anticipate failures. “Rather the object of fear is an expectation of negative outcome” (Barbalet 1998, 155). A dark forest as such is not dangerous, but our lively imagination, which conjures up ideas of what might happen in the midst of darkness, makes a dark forest fearful.


As human beings we are naturally capable of being afraid of anything, but consumer goods have had a very special role in raising our fears (see Pantzar 1996, 10–11). Of course, not all sorts of commodities have been able to do that, but only commodities of a very special kind. Our fears seem mainly to be linked to two sorts of goods: novelties and novel luxuries.


Not all novelties will raise fears. On the contrary, such novelties that are a mixture of familiarity and newness might be accepted with great interest and even raise feelings of joy and pride. To this group of things belong durables that include small technical improvements and a new design. However, fashionable goods are also included in this category. Ann-Mari Sellerberg, for instance, has pointed out that although fashion per se has no content, clothing fashions share one common feature. They must contain some elements of old fashions. Otherwise they are considered too strange or “sick” and are not accepted by consumers (1987, 32–54).


The pride and joy that “almost” familiar durables and fashional clothes offer to their possessors is, however, short-lasting. If these sorts of novelties are in continuous use, as cars, refrigerators and phones are, or if they are used at regular cyclical and predictable intervals because their use is tied to the natural rhythm of everyday life or seasons of the year, like cycling to work or driving to the summer cottage, they will in the long run lose their ability to produce strong pleasures. Albert Hirschman goes even further when he insists that they are “especially prone to generating disappointment”. This is because the pleasure–comfort balance is different from that “experienced in conjunction with nondurables”. Frequent use keeps “discomfort permanently at bay”, eliminating the pleasure-generating “trip from discomfort to comfort” (1985, 34–35). In his analysis Hirschman hits the nail on the head, but what he says applies, in effect, to some nondurables too. For example, fashionable nondurables are usually in heavy use just because they are fashionable and, therefore, prone to lose their emotional attraction fairly soon.


However, not all durables fit into the category described above. Every now and then there are introduced into the markets really new novelties, that are known as innovations, whose functions and other properties are completely new. These are generally commodities that are epoch-making, the basis for a new economic upswing, and prone to become time-consuming supergoods, in other word they demand a high involvement. They may have a familiar function like an ability to carry people from one point to another or to connect them spatially by other means etc., but their influence on society is unknown to us. It is just this last aspect of these goods that makes them objects of all sort of speculation and raises new fears. These are normally of two kind. On the one hand, although it is commonly admitted that these innovations may be useful, it is at the same time feared that they destroy people’s souls in general or those of particular social groups. Consumer services like train trips and durables like cars have belonged to the former category. Wolfgang Schiewelbush describes in a lively manner fears that were attached to travelling by train. When it was still a new experience, it was maintained that the speed of 30 km/h was unbearable for the human organism. It caused necessarily headache and all kinds of mental disorders. After the First World War a new disease, the “train syndrome”, was invented. Its symptoms resembled those exhibited by people who suffered from the nervous breakdown caused by grenade bombardment (1996, 129–147).


Electronic equipment like TV, video recorder and microcomputer are included in the last-mentioned category. They have been praised as giant steps of development in history, while they have enormously improved human communication. However, at first they were considered peculiarities best suited for expert use (Pantzar 1996, 22–28). That is because of the commonly shared fears that they would destroy the basis of the social fabric. They would loosen family ties, as women (!) would just watch TV series instead of, say, cooking meals (ibid, 34–35). It has also been and still is claimed that electronic entertainment is guilty of destroying civic engagement and consequently the foundations of democracy (Putnam 1995). In particular, there have been and still are worries that the new technology will corrupt the souls of the youth by making them analphabets and video idiots (“vidiots”), completely distorting their world view, making them indifferent to the sufferings of humankind, and offering them only aggressive solutions in human relationships, etc. etc. The list is almost endless.


Fears raised by novelties are not only tied to mental imbalances and disorders. They are also related to our bodies. New electronic media are believed to cause different kinds of bodily damages. The mobile telephone is claimed to damage the brain by means of dangerous radiation. Microcomputers produce unknown bodily handicaps. A category of its own is biologically engineered food. A heated debate is going on about its conequences. All the answers still seem to be open. Nevertheless, genetically manipulated food is felt to be highly threatening and as such it will have enormous political implications.


As innovations include unknown elements that may frighten people, markets are also reached by another type of novelties that raises fears among people, but for other reasons than innovations. I refer here to goods that are considered luxuries. There is a long train of thought, starting from Adam Smith and ending with Tibor Scitovsky and Kenneth Galbraith, that has been preoccupied with the role of luxuries in human life. They have been considered useless leftovers that change the consciousness of humankind (especially of men!) and prevent people from doing more serious things (like working hard for the growth of wealth or for a revolution). Smith, for instance, characterizes luxuries as “trinkets and baubles, fitter to be the play-things of children than men” (1981, 388). This is, however, not the only fear they raise.


Luxuries are seen as threats to humankind also from two other points of view. They are, firstly, dangerous because they feed discontent. Because of their transient nature, we cannot rely on their price and their ability to function as luxuries. In this sense they only “keep off the summer shower, but not winter storm” (Smith 48). Scitovsky expresses the very same attitude in more dramatic, orgiastic terms. He says in his Joyless Economy that novel luxuries offer only temporary relief from boredom. After a short period of enjoyment there is only the famous Baudelairian spleen: countervailing displeasures and discontents that might be fateful from the point of view of the workings of the economy (see Hirscman 1985, 54), but that might also have much farther-reaching consequences. It might even promote anomy within society (Durkheim 1985, 308).


Secondly, there has since ancient times been the fear that novel luxuries include a double bind that will destroy the basis of social order. On the one hand, it is argued that if luxuries filter down to the masses, they will lose their status of luxury. Then their value is inflated, which will in the end threat the legitimacy of the status of elites. Nouveau riches, especially, are seen as dangerous to social order. Because they cannot handle luxuries in a proper way, their behaviour will devalue luxuries morally. The moral devaluation of luxuries precipitates not only their economic devaluation, but also that of the moral value of their owners. On the other hand, if only the rich are able and allowed to have access to novel luxuries, the moral basis of social order can be destroyed (see also Hirschman 1985, 55–56) because of the widening gap between rich and poor. That is exactly what is claimed to have happened in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. When the noblesse started status competition by consuming novel luxuries, it destroyed the basis of the so-called moral economy and in the long run also the basis of the former social order (e.g. Thompson 1982). That is also argued to be the case today, when the income gap between rich and poor is growing as a result of neglecting the reproduction of the welfare state (e.g. Martin & Schuman 1998).


Since the Second World War fears connected with novel luxuries have expanded to all sorts of novelties that are introduced at an accelerating speed to markets and to the whole consumer society. It has been claimed that such luxuries not only destroy the morals of people (by e.g. transforming them into “one-dimensional men”) but also our ecological environment (e.g. Marcuse 1969; M. Bootchin 1982). Fears like these have been highly pronounced since the sixties, but they are not in any sense new. They actually manifest themselves in Western mythology. Myths ranging from the Fall and Expulsion from Paradise to Pandora’s box give a form to these fears. They contain a severe lesson. There will always be a punishment after an orgy and gorging. To put it in other words: Every advance in our comfort creates more problems that are unsolvable. This has recently been formulated in the sociological theory of risk society. Whether its proponents admit it or not, the theory of risk society is ultimately rooted in ancient fears of humankind.




The aim of this paper has been to show how important our sentiments are in analyzing contemporary consumption. In doing so much depends, of course, on the way in which emotions are understood. Emotions are fluid processes that are not easy to capture and wrap into a package. Therefore, they are not easy to define and separate. Furthermore, most modern writings in psychology, social psychology, sociology and philosophy focus on only some emotions regarded as more fundamental than others (love, anger, fear, etc.) (see Lupton 1998, 15). That is seen as a legitimate way to approach them. Problems arise, however, when the origins of emotion are pondered on. There seem to be two opposing camps: organistic and constructivist. The former ties emotions to our inner physiological states. The latter emphasizes the social construction of emotions and their connection to our linguistic expression. When the former says that a human being has emotions, the latter insists that people produce their emotions (mostly by means of language) (see Lupton 1998, 16). To me, both approaches are biased. Emotions have their phsysiological reference points within us. Sentiments move (“I was shaken” etc.) or petrify us bodily, but much of this movement or solidity is constructed situationally in social encounters (Goffman 1967). Emotions are, however, not so easy to put into words. This is due to the fact that as soon as one tries to describe one’s feelings, one realizes that something very important is left out. Emotions are deeply personal and tied to the subconscious level of our personal history. It is also obvious that men in the Western hemisphere have a poorer language for feelings than women do, because they are, for example, ashamed of some emotions (Lupton 1998, 27, 115). In this paper I have adopted a mediating view between these two schools of thought. I have defined emotion as involvement in something.


To see passion as involvement has its drawbacks. It means that I have to leave out of my examination those feelings that quickly come and go. Instead, I focus on long-lasting sentiments. This has its advantages. I can concentrate on the relationship between time, emotion and consumption. I have tried to show in this paper how sentiments and consumption are intertwined in time. Their fusion in time is, however, not only an external relation. One could go further and argue that sentiments and their obcjects, consumer goods, together construct our sense of past and future. Without consumer goods that we can carry through our lives and that embody our emotions we could lose important parts of our past. We would then very likely suffer from personal amnesia. This can be proposed to be a counterpart to epitomized epiphany. Here all objects that bring back emotionally charged memories are destroyed. This can happen on one’s own initiative in divorce when one or both parties want to get rid of all the objects in their possession that remind them of the former spouse. But it can also happen against one’s will under the conditions of wartime. Very often invaders intentionally destroy precisely those goods that they see as the dearest among the invaded (Lupton 1998, 147). This could be called mental cruelty, because it implies an attempt to destroy important pieces of people’s past.


Not only our past, but also our future is constructed by consumer goods and emotions. Fears and hopes tied to consumption play an enormous role here. I have focused only on fears, because they, fused by consumption, belong to the Western mythological arsenal. Fears are usually tied to special kinds of goods, novelties and especially innovations introduced into markets. Because nobody can really say how they are utilized in the last resort and how they influence our futures, they usually raise fears. In the twentieth century these fears have expanded to touch the whole market or consumer society, and we are threatened by a vision of risk society that resembles closely the myth of Pandora’s box (interestingly, TV was seen in the 1950s as Pandora’s box; see Pantzar 1996, 34). According to this view, the progress of modernity turns against itself, and what is left is an endless bubble of contingency. Of course, there is also an alternative view of our future, a really fearful dystopy. It is a picture of a completely managed and administered consumption society, where there is a consumption duty and where huge printouts warn us: “In Golden Greens a machine gun mowed down eight hundred consumption deserters...” (Huxley 1981, 60–61 ).




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