A person is a web of psychological, social, and external factors that ultimately shape consumption behaviors. In modernity, each individual is faced with an array of options, information, and experiences that create their character and shape their perceptions. Amid the normalization of consumptive character, a common misconception is that consumption is detached from identity. The individual slowly disappears into collectivity in an urban setting, making their consumption patterns predictable and detached from the core of their being. At first glance, humanity’s complex nature is incompatible with consuming mass-produced goods envisioned for a uniform clientele. This disconnection begs the question: at what point do individuality and consumption converge? In what context is it possible to pursue full individual development of the character in an urban setting? This article examines the relationship between individuality and mass-produced goods consumption, focusing on the consumption process and the sociological phenomenon of individuality in an urban context.

A traditional view of the matter is given by sociologist Georg Simmel, who defines individuality as the existence separate of social forces with a dual character: we develop our character from within, but we also embed the traits of society towards our unique personality. Therefore, identities are forcibly social identities, meaning that they are formed in the continuous process of social interaction. The idea of social individuality can be summarized by the concept that we know who we are, we know who others are, and we know who they think they are. Again, according to Simmel, individuality is largely due to internalized social factors, especially in a city. Big cities enable anonymity, which provides a great degree of personal development but reduces individual influence and visibility. This is the first instance where we can observe the convergence between individuality and collectivity regarding consumption patterns. The ever-stimulating nature of cities leads people to become indifferent. That indifference is then translated to rationalization and allowing money to measure what is lost in homogeneity. As defined by Georg Simmel: “The money economy in the city reduces everything to a matter of how much it is worth, making the differentiation of elements indifferent.” This trait is embedded in the psyche of individuals living in cities, making the production for these areas general for the market, for anonymous purchasers who never pass through the thoughts of the suppliers–in individual terms.

At this point in the article, the first question can be answered. According to Simmel, consuming mass-produced goods makes any individual expression nearly null. But, this is not an entirely negative concept, individuality and collectivity are mutually dependent rather than opposing thoughts. It is only through living in a mass that an individual may have complete freedom to choose their own beliefs, political orientation, religion, and whatsoever. The paradoxical nature of these two elements is evident in the sense that pursuing full self-expression is impossible in small, controlled environments that oblige the individual to have an emotional relationship with each of its members. In the city, the scale of the infrastructures coupled with the fast pace of life and aggressive competition do not compel the individual to acquaint and be in agreement with a set number of beliefs. It is only in this context where the person can act freely, but also compete aggressively through intellectual and rational relations. In their consumption, this is translated to viewing money as a unit of measurement of quality and expression rather than a medium of exchange. Following this line of reasoning, an urban individual would express himself to the extent they can, as opposed to expression based on unhinged desire.

The urban person follows a path of rationality and internalizes the money economy, making individuality an outcome of collectivity. The relationship between individuality and collectivity is paradoxical, as the clock-like workings of the urban lifestyle dictate how an individual develops rather than the other way around. The irony is that a person is exclusively able to gain individuality amid being ‘one of the bunch.’ Popular thinkers such as Nietzsche strongly opposed this ideal, suggesting that individuality can only be pursued in an extreme form that is reserved for the few in a rural environment rather than for all the population in an urban city. It is then needless to say that Nietzsche was strongly anti-urban. For the sake of this study, we will follow Simmel’s train of thought, arguing that the money economy erases the incomparable nature of each person, which results in collectivity but then provides the freedom for individuality through anonymity.

In a post-industrial world, the landscape for consumption is largely based on the idea of how money exchange reduces quality and individuality into a quantitative practice. According to the previous definition of individuality, subjectivity is another key term Simmel introduces when speaking about consumption. Subjectivity is the ability of people to become cultivated, meaning how people become reflecting and participating members of society. Following the rule that collectivity determines individuality, consumption objects are a means for people to be incomparable and free to display their characters, consequently making consumption a moral activity. In modernity, however, consumption is characterized by the increasing commodification of money exchange, making the goods separate from the subjects for whom they are meant for. Money exchange makes this relationship impersonal, as production leaves little space for the person elaborating the good to express himself. Today, each individual has more money obligations to an anonymous receiver, further highlighting the indifference in the relationship between producer and consumer. Yet, this impersonality also makes room for autonomy, as consumption is not entirely personal and on a local basis.

The increased variety of mass-produced goods allows consumers to compare other people through objects. When this is coupled with the specialization of labor, and taking into account that the worker is not meant to express its identity or a set share of beliefs through the final product, this process results in the product itself being commodified in terms of money. Producers are not meant to fit consumers’ social needs, so it becomes the job of the consumer to integrate the product into their individuality. Once again, the money economy reduces all quality and individuality to a question of how much is something worth in terms of money. This complex process of integrating a mass-produced product into the personal identity of a person makes the worth shift from valuing what a product is to what a product costs. In other words, products are quantified. Although this may seem obvious, this concept hides an important pillar of today’s consumptive society: in modern times, people view the means to consume (money) as the main goal. Consumers become an instrument of a rationalized, objective urban setting, rather than the opposite.

Following this train of thought, Simmel theorized that there are two types of consumers: the so-called cynic and the blase-attitude consumer. A cynic consumer is one who has a sense of integrity by adopting the ways of modern life. The cynic individual then participated in the formulaic way of consumption, making money the final goal to then pursue stimuli through purchasing. In other words, the urban cynic is completely alienated to individuality. On the contrary, a blase-attitude consumer refers to the individual who rejects these conditions and refuses to adapt to the valueless approach to consumption. Nevertheless, this person results being indifferent towards the many distinctions between products and is therefore unable to engage in the conventional social life, as it is not inviting because of its foundations in the money exchange. This individual can’t interact with the rational culture of urban life.

From a certain point of view, Simmel’s view on modern consumption patterns is very radical and could be deemed narrow-minded; but, its relevance lies in the disconnection between producer and consumer. This breakage between parties is the causant for the breakage between the object-subject relationship, thus resulting in complete indifference or submission. It is important to note that in both of these types of consumers individuality is lost or shaped by external factors. Again, Simmel was a believer that individuality was a result of collectivity. An individual can not exist in modern times without producers telling the consumer where they can find pleasure in. Today, this is quite evident. There is constant bombardment of publicity in every form of media. Extreme consumerism is applauded, which is a possible reason why massive unboxings go constantly viral in social media. As subjects of urban life, pursuing individuality has to be an extremely intentional task, but this is borderline impossible in the face of the pressure that social institutions exert towards being cynic consumers. This article does not attempt to villainize the current system of the internalized money economy, but it is inevitable to note how there is a clear loss of individuality when consuming mass-produced goods.

Finally, to answer the second question, in an urban setting, it is possible to achieve individuality by becoming a part of the formulaic lifestyle of the city. It is only through anonymity and constant indifference that individuality is achieved. The pressure society exerts to impose its rules on the individual makes one believe that the full development of the character comes at the cost of social ineptitude. As noted by Simmel, the people who reject this model gain indifference and boredom from consumption and therefore social life. Each person is worth what they can buy. Everything indeed has a price, and in a money economy, the higher the price of what a person can buy makes them more worthy to participate in the social life. Individuality is a dual concept, made of the relationship of how an individual develops their character from within, and the extent of how internalized are the traits of society. Like everything in economics, social adaptability becomes a trade-off between expressing one’s character from within and merging the individual identity with the rules of society. In conclusion, the possibility of developing a strong sense of self may be more aligned with Nietzsche’s idea of seclusion from urban life, depending on how you would like to define individuality. In the city, to become extremely individualistic means to become a master capitalist, so the definition of your individuality is the commodification of quantity.

One thought to “Anonymity and Individualism: individuality and the consumption of mass-produced goods”

  • temp mail

    I do not even know how I ended up here but I thought this post was great I dont know who you are but definitely youre going to a famous blogger if you arent already Cheers.


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