Identity, choice and consumer freedom – the new opiates? A psychoanalytic interrogation

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Psychoanalysis opens a variety of windows into understanding contemporary consumption and consumerism. The psychoanalytic theory of defence and the unconscious enables us to understand why commodities, from fast cars to luxury chocolate, so readily stand in to offer substitute gratification for deeper repressed desires and why the meaning of such commodities is liable to become mobile and unstable (Baudrillard, 1988 [1970]). The psychoanalytic concepts of narcissism (Freud, 1914) and the mirror stage (Lacan, 2006) provide powerful entry points into understanding our culture’s obsession with image (Cluley and Dunne, 2012), whilst the theory of neurosis offers significant insights into the addictive and deeply irrational qualities of contemporary consumption (Lasch, 1980). Object relations theory (Winnicott, 1964) enables us to understand how material objects, from early childhood attachments to teddy bears, act as bridges between our sense of self and what we come to view as an external world deeply indifferent to our desires. Several other psychoanalytic concepts and ideas have proven particularly helpful in contemporary discourses on consumption. This essay draws its inspiration from Freud’s theory of religion (Freud,1927, 1930) to test the view that the consumer’s freedom to choose and construct an identity is an illusion in the technical sense – a fantasy that discloses deeper desires and offers substitute gratifications for the discontents inflicted on us by contemporary consumer culture. Like earlier illusions, the illusion of freedom and the derivative illusions of choice and identity may provide some consolation, but, arguably, then deepen the discontents for which they purport to offer comfort.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25-30
Number of pages6
JournalMarketing Theory
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2015


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