Russell Belk’s essay, Are We What We Own? suggests that in our commercial-industrial culture, “Buying becomes a transformative ritual intended to precipitate a totally new life”.
The idea is that the act of shopping is an elaborate ceremony of identity adjustment in which shoppers enter a store seeking material objects that hold sufficient symbolic power to act as talismans, changing not just what shoppers are able to do but also who they are able to be.
Through our shopping rituals, Belk suggests that we set the stage for larger rites of passage, maintaining our sense of integration with our psychological and social identities in the present, but also engaging in a kind of material meditation on the narrative arc of the identity transformations we have been able to achieve in the past, and those we face in our futures. “Our accumulation of possessions provides a sense of past and tells us who we are, where we have come from, and perhaps where we are going,” he writes.
These ideas are at the core of the insights of ritual marketing. Where ritual marketing deviates from Belk’s vision, is that a ritual analysis holds that human beings as psychological and social beings are not separate from the physical objects they purchase, any more than a metaphor can be detached from the physical symbols from which it is constructed. Ritual marketing does not accept that being and doing are separate states of experience from having, but considers these aspects of human experience to be fully intertwined with each other.
We are not beings of abstract thought, trapped in a material prison. Who we are, what we do, how we feel, and how we think are not merely reflected in the objects that we own, but are made possible through our ritualized relationships with the objects we own, and the processes of transformation we go through in order to gain purchase upon the. In our culture, most ritual transformation is achieved in the proximity of a checkout counter.
Russell Belk’s insights about the richness of symbolic consumption are unfortunately contained within a book, I Shop Therefore I Am, that tends to regard emotionally-invested shopping as a form of pathology, rather than as a legitimate form of ritual. Truly compulsive shopping certainly exists, but then again, so does compulsive washing, compulsive exercising, compulsive organizing, compulsive talking, compulsive eating, and so on. As with these other compulsive disorders, when people’s shopping spirals out of control, it isn’t the shopping itself that’s the problem. It’s the rare case of compulsive attachment to it.
Ironically, the publishers of I Shop Therefore I Am seem to have been consumed by an economically pathological practice themselves: They offer the book at a list price of $120.00. Ouch. It seems that the people involved in the production of this book have some issues of low self-worth that they need to work through.