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Cultures of Consumption in Asia and Europe

The Cluster of Excellence Summer School 2011 explores the multifarious ways in which consumer goods and cultural frameworks of consumption have provided crucial interfaces of entanglement between Europe and Asia in a global context. Desired objects and traded commodities functioned as the chief media of exchange in Eurasia long before other complex forms of communication stepped in. And although ‘consumer society’ has become a prominent term of the description of the ways of life self-consciously connected with a globalized and western-spurred modernity, the particular mode of experience and of interaction with things to which it points is neither exclusively modern nor exclusively occidental. Referring to the recent innovative insights provided by cultural and economic history, social sciences and anthropology, and enlisting the expertise of foremost scholars working on both European and Asian themes, the aim of the programme is to gain a sounder and truly transcultural grasp on the networks of circulation of consumer goods and the patterns of domestication of commodities across borders.

The practices of consumption might seem to be singularly determined by the materiality of the perishable goods that are acquired and used (up), and as such relatively free of culturally contingent meanings. That is however a disputable picture. Consumer goods that are obtained and used enter always into pre-existing cultural contexts. Their appropriation is therefore shaped by these culturally contingent circumstances even while the process of appropriation itself in its turn transforms the cultural patterns of use, display and perception. These processes are so pervasive that a full reflection of their ubiquitousness comes to challenge the very notion of a purported stable identity called ‘culture’ as a source of ‘tradition’ and ‘authenticity’ against whose background the phenomena of global spread of commodified goods could be identified as ‘westernization’, ‘McDonaldization’, ‘hybridization’ or ‘acculturation’. Instead, it appears more promising to focus on the ongoing integration of new elements into the existing frameworks by tracing the networks of circulation and dissemination of consumer commodities, and on the concomitant transformation of those frameworks as the new kinds of consumer goods are actively appropriated and domesticated. Despite their ostensibly unquestionable materiality, consumer goods thus seem to share to a surprising extent the fate of such eminently immaterial goods as ideas, concepts and institutions.

The programme of the Summer School combines lectures by foremost researchers in the respective disciplines with the interactive format of seminar and workshop. The topics treated will be particularly relevant to the graduate students with background in social sciences, area studies, cultural and economic history as well as ethnography and anthropology. The following questions will be at the centre of discussion:

  • Given that the classic accounts of the ‘consumer society’ have located its cradle into 18th-century England, do we need to redefine its spatial or temporal pedigree in the light of the recent accounts of the parallel rise of especially East Asian cultures of consumption?
  • How can we conceptualize ‘consumption’ as a phenomenon at once ubiquitous and yet conditioned by particular cultural settings?
  • What were the past accounts of the phenomena of consumption and consumerism?
  • What moral, psychological, political, economic vocabularies have been used to make sense of what has been termed the ‘consumer society’?
  • Can the things that are traded and consumed be said to have agency of their own in inserting new meanings and transforming practices in the cultural contexts into which they newly enter?
  • What, shown on concrete case-studies, are the actual forces that determine the spread and appropriation of consumer goods in the new cultural contexts?