The White Noise of Consumption

Published 12 May 2017

In “The Real Meaning of Consumer Demand,” Don DeLillo points out a number of motivating psychological factors that drive American economic consumerism. His approach is not designed to explore economic theory or to talk about the gross domestic product. Rather, he shows the severe problems associated with excessive consumerism and how it makes pawns out of those people wishing to make purchases.

At the core of the article’s assessment is the notion that people are manipulated into making consumer purchases. Such a notion reiterates common questions of consumerism that ask “Do you buy something because you need it or because you are ‘supposed’ to buy it to keep up with the Joneses?” For DeLillo, the answer is obvious. People purchase items because they believe they are supposed to buy things to stay modern and up to date.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Honestly, DeLillo’s statements are sweeping generalizations that lean towards the notion that such a decision is a misguided one. While this may be true for some people, it is not necessarily as negatively impactful on others. But, DeLillo does make a number of wise points.

Namely, when a person is constantly purchasing items because societal marketing says he/she should, the person is being perennially reactive. No real individual human thought is going into the process. Rather, people react in an automaton way because this is how they have been guided. As such, whatever positive benefits that people receive from the objects they acquire are short lived. They will dissipate with the advent of another upcoming fad that will emerge on the horizon. Again, this is because people are being reactive and guided like sheep as opposed to being fully realized and self-actualized human beings.

One of the more darkly humorous approaches DeLillo puts forth is his description of the “home improvement movement.” The use of the word movement has a somewhat ironically comic overtone to it. Movement is a word usually associated with politics and religion. In the context of DeLillo’s work, it becomes apparent that he sees the concept of home improvement as a devious way of selling items related to doing things yourself. While most people will venture into the realm of home improvement with dreams of being more useful and productive, the fact remains (per DeLillo) that they are being ‘played’ by a consumer mindset that is having them purchase items for home improvement. At the core of home improvement is really the improvement of the self. But, is it? Or, is it merely a means of creating an external construct – an improved home – with the intention of creating a self-image that has been purchased from another source as opposed to coming from within?

DeLillo asserts that there are many external social pressures that guide people to make such consumption decisions. However, such pressures are not as pronounced as DeLillo assumes. Rather, these pressures are subtle and simple exist within the realm of society. Consumption is part of the landscape and it will remain that way forever more. It is simply how the American society is devised.

However, DeLillo does provide a decent amount of food for thought regarding the dangers and problems associated with excessive consumption. As such, it is well worth examining his theories and weighing the themes presented therein. While overstated at certain points, DeLillo does provide excellent insight into how people harm themselves with their excessive consumption habits.

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