Notes from the bookshelf 9: Miller’s Theory of Shopping

Today I am going to review a book by Daniel Miller – a professor of material culture at UCL and one of my favourite theorists of consumption. My first acquaintance with his work was through already mentioned “Consumption and its Consequences” – a thoroughly engaging book about the nature, implications and potential solutions of the problem of unsustainable consumption. Today’s hero is Miller’s earlier work – a Theory of Shopping (1998) – which presents a fresh and rather unconventional approach to understanding the intrinsic nature of shopping by locating it within the frames of anthropological studies of sacrifice.

Miller’s goal is to offer an alternative perspective on such a mundane activity as shopping by setting it free from associations with materialism, individualism and hedonistic satisfaction of whimsical consumer desires. Instead, he uncovers its deeply cosmological nature by drawing a provocative analogy between the act of shopping and the ritual of sacrifice. Based on a year-long ethnographic study, the book goes beyond pure theorisations and brings in empirical evidence gained through observations of day-to-day household provisioning on a street of North London. To draw a convincing analogy between the acts of shopping and sacrifice, Miller first uncovers the cosmological meaning of the sacrificial ritual. The work of the French philosopher George Bataille, although eventually disputed by Miller, serves as a springboard to the equation of consumption with sacrifice. For Bataille, sacrificial ritual is an act of negation of the logic of cumulative consumption intended to restore humanity in the world reduced to pragmatic pursuit of interest and utility. For Bataille then, sacrifice is a profitless act of spending, a violent destruction of what could otherwise be used with utility. For Miller, however, sacrifice is anything but profitless, and supposedly destructive act of consumption serves a much higher goal – it becomes an activity through which relationships with the divine are built and maintained. In many societies, sacrifice symbolises the end of the production stage and defines the moment when consumption begins. Such ritual is necessary to avoid the immediate consumption of products of labour which would reduce them to basic subsistence and lock in the logic of pragmatism. Instead, the first and most perfect produce is used to constitute and sustain spiritual relationships – “the very best of what the society has produced is effectively and efficiently spent to obtain not merely mundane provisioning but the benefits of a relationship of love and devotion to a divine force” (Miller, 1998, p. 83). By dedicating the most important spending to the deity, people make the rest of the yield open to human consumption. This is when the final stage of the ritual begins – that which denotes the return of attention from the spiritual and the divine back to the real world. At this stage, a very specific and strictly prescribed way of distributing and consuming the sacrificial meal serves to recognize, confirm and reify existent social relations – hierarchies, castes, and other forms of social divisions and difference.

Such a deep insight into the nature of sacrificial ritual allows Miller to draw parallels between the practices of sacrifice and shopping focusing on three key stages inherent in both activities. First, just like sacrifice, shopping represents a moment when accumulation of resources turns into expenditure thereof. The second stage, at which the negation of wasteful expenditure of resources must be achieved, occurs through thrift which, according to Miller, is inherent in every act of spending. The practice of thrift receives special treatment in Miller’s theory of shopping. The fact that many of the shoppers he studied were often unable to explain what they were trying to save money for, yet were desperately hunting for sales and bargains regardless of their financial means leads Miller to conclude that the logic of thrift  goes beyond simply husbanding of resources or money management. Instead, it represents a “devotional gift to the future” (p.102) – an act of recognition of some transcended future goal that is more important than satisfaction of immediate and transient desires. Thrift, therefore, represents an objectification of the larger life goals and values which is equated with the giving of sacrifice to sustain the relationships with the divine in a sacrificial ritual.

At the third and final stage, part of the sacrificial giving returns back to the real world to re-establish the social order. In the act of shopping, sacrificial remains – that which has not been saved (read – sacrificed to the transcended) return to the intended recipient in the form of a devoted purchase. Crucially, Miller conceives of such purchase not as an object, a thing or a commodity, but objectified relationships and, specifically, relationships of love. Through consumption and shopping for specific commodities and objects, shoppers (in Miller’ study – predominantly females) construct and sustain idealised images of a husband, a child or any other beloved person, and project these images onto concrete people and relationships.

Miller’s theory of shopping negates the view of consumption which regards objects and things as commodities and reduces them to mere utilities. His theory of shopping illustrates how in the acts of mundane household provisioning material objects are transformed into relationships whose nature and outcomes are anything but material, and reveals a deeply cosmological meaning of everyday shopping.

References

Miller, D. (1998). A theory of shopping. Cornell University Press.

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