- Consumption and Violence: Radical Protest in Cold-War West Germany by Alexander Sedlmaier
Alexander Sedlmaier’s Consumption and Violence: Radical Protest in Cold-War West Germany is a politically profound, economically sound, and historically complex study of various dimensions of consumption and violence in postwar Germany. The author critically examines regimes of provision as a key political, economic, and cultural phenomenon in his thorough analysis of complex dimensions of consumption in Germany between the late 1950s and the time of Unification in 1990.
The world-famous linguist, philosopher, and political commentator Noam Chomsky once said that “capitalism makes us buy things we do not really need, with the money we do not really have, to impress people we do not really like.” In addition to analyzing consumption as a driving force of capitalism per se as well as the semantics of consumption, Sedlmaier adds a whole new dimension to the process – that of violence. The study is informed by different sources – ranging from works by philosophers and critical cultural scholars, inhabitants of squats and communes, prominent – often radical – militants, to political activists involved in various protest campaigns. On that understanding, the book’s focus is everything but a study of average consumers: far beyond that. It is about the multiplicity of practices, meanings, ideas, performative acts, economic outcomes, and political interpretations of consumption. And the complexity of the plot constantly suggests both the undeniable embedded-ness of consumption in history, and also its interwoven-ness with such phenomena as war, terrorism, violence, revolution, and genocide. Therefore, the author constantly brings into conversation consumption, on the one hand, and conflict, destruction, and violence, on the other.
From the linguistic point of view, the book is fascinating. Not only does the author investigate the etymology of various consume- and violence- related [End Page 303] concepts as cognates – he constantly emphasizes the power of the semantics and multiple connotative readings of certain terms as powerful tools to affect human behaviors. Though a solid command of the German language would certainly be of advantage for the reader who might get lost in the avalanche of fascinating examples when semantics and elements of psycholinguistics are discussed, the latter however truly enrich the reading and strengthen the main theme of the book – that centers the dimensions of political, social, and cultural violence, inseparable from consumption. Notably, French sources used in the book are left without translation in the actual text and are randomly translated only into German in the footnotes.
The book offers seven chapters, preceded by a lengthy and well-structured introduction. The latter is particularly worth mention – as one of the strongest and at the same time most challenging passages of the book. Paradoxically, the overabundance of historical, political, and cultural context as a “setting” for the argument and its consequent manifestations produces a two-fold affect on the reader. On the one hand, it engages the reader in intellectually stimulating conversations ranging from the subjects of the Cold War, the infamous Kitchen Debate between former American vice president Nixon and former Soviet premier Khrushchev, the revolutionary work by Vance Packard’s on persuasive mechanisms of advertising, gender dimensions and feminists impulses related to the regimes of provision, the English, American, and French Revolutions, cultural memory of consumption and strategic propaganda in Hitler Germany, to American, Italian, and French literally classics such as Aldous Huxley, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Henri Lefebvre, as well as critical intellectuals Adorno, Veblen, Horkheimer, and Galbraith. On the other hand, however – as thought-provoking, captivating, and humbling as it might read – the introduction is trying to do too much work in the given space; and the author runs a double risk of distracting and “losing” the reader, as well as proving too much information simply in passing and thus delivering insufficient coverage of numerous sources addressed in that lengthy piece.
The two main re-occurring themes in the chapters are performativity of consumption-related violence, and the politics of symbolic reflection and manifestation of violent acts, correlated with regimes of provision. All seven...