A Critique of Desire:

Distaste and Dislike in Consumer Behavior

 RICHARD R. WILK

Anthropology Department Indiana University

Bloomington, IN 47405 Wilkr@indiana.edu

 

This paper focuses on some often neglected aspects of the ways material culture, particularly consumer goods, play active roles in the creation of individual identities and social relations.1 Social scientists from many different disciplinary backgrounds have made the relationship between goods and identity an important arena for debate in the last decades, with important ramifications for understanding such issues as nationalism and ethnicity, global economic integration, and continuing technological changes in communications and computing. There is no question that explosive growth in demand for consumer goods is a, perhaps the, crucial world cultural and economic transformation of the late twentieth century.

Much academic and lay discourse about this transformation is explicitly or implicitly moralist, in the sense of taking a position on whether increased demand for things is good or bad for individuals, or cultures, or for social justice, the environment, or some particular interest group or cause. As Belk pointed out some years ago, the moral critique of consumption runs deep in major world religions, and the desire for and love of worldly goods is usually seen as dangerous if not inherently corrupt (1983). The obverse of desire for goods is usually cast as an ascetic lack of desire, or other emotions which promote social relationships, altruism, citizenship, and the good of others. In this paper I argue for a more dimensional approach to human emotional relationships with goods, an approach which recognizes different kinds of both positive and negative emotions towards goods and their various attributes.

 

The Commodity Critique

 

In the United States conservative elitists often adopt a moralistic anti-consumption position, since they see mass consumer culture as a symptom of what they hate; the commercialism of democracy based on wealth and power instead of culture, position and education. From this perspective, mass culture is a pale substitute for the real thing--an opium for masses who no longer know their place, and don't have the knowledge and taste to appreciate the finer things. But the same critique is advanced in a different form by liberal commentators like Roland Barthes, Christopher Lasch, and Stewart Ewen , who tend to portray modern consumption as a shallow "dream of identity" or wholeness; modern life is so anonymous and people are so rootless and isolated by individualism that they seek goods to substitute for an internal emptiness, assembling a "commodity self." "The marketing engines of style depend on anomic subjects seeking to become splendid objects." (Ewen 1988: 79). Here the culprit is, instead of the tasteless nouveau riche, the capitalist class of advertisers and marketers, whose wealth depends on cultivating "false" needs among the hapless boobs who would otherwise be pursuing arts and literature, or whatever else the critic deems an "authentic" value.

Such is the power of moralistic approaches to consumption that they establish a framework for criticism, a vocabulary for discussion and power that forces all discourse, even that which seeks to explicitly challenge its foundations, into familiar polarities (see Latour 1993). Fresh attempts to look at, for example, the ways goods and possessions play roles in building teen-age identity, easily end up mired in questions about whether objects are used habitually or creatively, if they are tools of oppression or resistance, autonomy or conformity. In order to break from these molds, we need to question the underlying basic assumptions on which they are built, which are themselves part of the culturally-constituted common-sense, the "habitus" that Bourdieu says is the bedrock of any hegemonic system (1978).

One fundamental block of the moralistic approach to goods and consumption is the equation of consumption with desire. In both the moralistic and utilitarian universes, the reason people want to acquire, posses, claim and display goods is because they expect the goods will make them happy, satisfy needs, or give them some other pleasure. Whether you approve or disapprove of this hedonic search for pleasure, the strength of desire is the engine that drives the marketplace. This assumption leads any search for the origins or causes of modern consumerism towards the issue of needs, desires, wants, and the ways that people achieve happiness, satisfaction, or at least satiation through consumption. In the process, we bypass a whole complex terrain of less direct processes that entangle goods with emotions that are more equivocal, difficult, and sometimes dark.

Sahlins (1996) traces the history of a modern model of human nature based on pleasure and pain, and of a society premised on the need-motivated human in search of satisfaction. The trail he traces leads back through post-enlightenment social philosophers, to Christian theologians, and eventually back to the biblical Adam. When he disobeyed God and was turned out of paradise, Adam was burdened with "wants ever beyond his powers" and became homo economicus (1996:397). Thus the very foundation of Western religion and morality places desire at the root of human nature; evil and sadness flow from frustrated desire, or form the punishment for desires that transgress. Western Christian theology, therefore laid the intellectual groundwork for subsequent notions of utility, satisfaction, and even Marx's distinction between use-value and exchange-value.

 

The Primitive and the Modern

 

Our captivation with desire, wants, and needs also has roots in 19th century critiques of industrial commodity culture and modernity, the lament of the passing of authentic social values and their replacement with unending and insatiable desire for goods (see Falk 1994:109). Attention has been directed towards modernity as a system where desire is out of control, where the dream world of goods replaces the social and moral pleasures that restrained consumption in traditional society. In the literature on consumerism, objects build identity, and desire is an investment of meaning in things, in a process of building the self (Czikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981). Denial, in the form of disgust or phobia is on the other hand treated as a pathology, as the rejection of identity, failure to become a separate individual, to mature, or to form normal attachments.

The social-competition theory of consumption descended from Veblen does provide a more complex view of consumption as more than a simple response to need or desire, because it accepts that people are also motivated by negative emotions like pride, fear, and envy. These negative emotions never get directly projected onto the material world, however. Instead a general emotional dissatisfaction, and social competition, is inverted and projected into the pathology of endless need (Heller 1985). In consumer fetishism, fear is transmuted into lust. But what, then, of objects, foods and fashions we hate? Are they inverted fetishes, transformations and projections of our positive emotions? If, as Bataille says, the violence of refusal is the precondition of desire (1985), what is the precondition of distaste? The commodity critique therefore, accepts that people can have negative feelings, even hatred towards each other, but does not make a place for those negative emotions when it comes to the emotional relationships people have with things. It still suppresses and hides most distastes, and has no place for the disgust, hatred, and other strong negative emotions that so often play a daily part in consumers' relationships with the material world.

The hegemonic power of desire in thought about consumption draws tremendous power from social-evolutionary thinking and the notion of social progress. As Bruno Latour argues persuasively in We Have Never Been Modern, the polarity of the traditional versus the modern underlies much of the order western people impose on the world. This idea of a radical break with the past at the beginning of the modern era underlies most of our thinking about the dynamics of consumption too. This is why anthropological studies of so-called primitive consumption play a key supporting role in the commodity critique.

Only in primitive society, goes the story, does rejection, fear, and distaste play an essential role in the relationship between people and objects, in the form of the taboo and the fetish. Consumption in pre-modern society is, in the classic anthropological treatments, a product of the direct mapping of symbolic objects onto the social order. Avoidance behavior towards relatives belongs in the same universe as the avoidance of particular foods. Social passages from one category to another are marked by changes in permissible consumption, in dress and ornament, as part of the ritual regulation of the passage of time (e.g.. Falk 1994:82). While envy in modern society is said to drive consumption, the fear of envy and witchcraft is usually seen as a major restraint on consumption among primitives and peasants, who are trying to fit in rather than stand out. Therefore relations of non-consumption are as fundamental to primitives as relations of consumption are to moderns.

For structural and cognitive anthropology in the tradition of Mary Douglas, Edmund Leach, and Marshall Sahlins, all tastes are social and categorical, forming neat pairs of opposition, defining bounded categories of time and identity. As such, the classic "primitive" has no individual tastes at all, only categories of proper and improper, clean and dirty. So "primitive society" has been constructed as one shaped by constraint rather than demand, and these constraints are categorical and typological instead of operating at the level of the individual or in a singular and interior process of identity formation. Primitives, they say, do not have individuality and therefore do not create identity through consumption. Where consumption and desire do operate, as in the competitive gift-giving of the Potlatch, the result is social cohesion and solidarity rather than individuation (Wilk 1996).

Modernity is then presented as the inversion of the primitive, where constraint has failed and desire is on the rampage, and where desire comes to dominate as an interior individualizing force (Bell 1976:54). While primitive denial is social and conservative, modern indulgence is profoundly anti-social and dangerous, concerned with mobility and change rather than stability. This is suspiciously close to the perspective of the middle-class social reform movement in the United states beginning at the turn of the century. As clearly documented by Horowitz (1988), their efforts were aimed at teaching the working class some restraint, and policing the improper desires of the poor for luxuries and indulgences.

There are a number of good reasons to mistrust any sort of evolutionary model that poses a radical break between one kind of relationship to goods and another. Marx's notion of change from simple use values to exchange values, for example, rests on shaky empirical grounds that are now frequently challenged. Recent generations of ethnographers question the degree to which the "primitive" societies studied by previous generations were really isolated and untouched They have also directly challenged the dissolution of the individual into society in classic ethnography, the timelessness, the depiction of order and harmony at the expense of conflict, struggle, and inequality. Just because desires and tastes were at one time suppressed, stereotyped, or hidden among the Zuni or the Tiv, or because they were rarely discussed in public or with the ethnographer, does not mean they were absent, stereotypical or unimportant. Ethnographers are frequently accused, these days, of exoticising and orientalizing their objects of study, making them appear as mirror images of the west (Obyeskere 1992). In a linked process, they also "occidentalize" the west, suppressing the complexity and diversity of so-called modern society in the interest of sharp distinctions between the self and the exotic other (Carrier 1995). I suggest that distaste and desire for goods have been caught up in both orientalizing others and occidentalizing the self, creating an enormous blind spot in the study of consumption in general.

 

A Full Range of Emotions

 

The commodity critique and the evolutionary distinction between primitive and modern focus our attention on desire as the only motive for consumption. These paradigms are powerful, indeed dominant, forms of discourse which suppress alternatives because they are so thoroughly taken for granted. The main goal of this paper is to undercut these paradigmatic approaches by attacking one of the pillars of their foundation, the centrality of desire in consumption. I suggest instead, that negative emotions, including a range from indifference through dislike to visceral disgust, play an important role in human relationships with goods and material culture. The goal is not to replace the dogma of desire by elevating negative emotions in it's place. Instead I hope to broaden our thinking about human emotional relationships with the material world to include a much wider range of possibilities, not simply organized along a polarity from desire to disgust, but along other possible dimensions as well.

Bulimia, as a disorder of consumer society, is instructive because it points directly to the close relationship between the extremes of desire and disgust, to the way they are often entangled in the same practice. Drawing on the French philosopher Georges Bataille, Pasi Falk (1994) argues that disgust and desire are the polar ends of a circular continuum that bring the opposites into proximity. In other words, rather than being complete opposites, desire and disgust are perilously close to each other, explaining particular forms of fetishism and inversion.2

I suggest instead that the relationship between positive and negative affect in consumption cannot be captured along any single dimension or scale, no matter how contorted. Similar conclusions are reached in consumer-research and social psychological studies of emotions and feelings towards goods that have already been purchased or consumed; a number of studies find that consumption emotions are multi-dimensional, and cannot be scaled as a range of satisfaction, and that there are a variety of both positive and negative emotions that may be linked to each other in complex ways (e.g.. Westbrook and Oliver 1991, Russell 1980). Other work has elaborated on the variety of satisfactions to be gained from consumption, and the diversity of goals that motivate consumer behavior (e.g. Richins 1994). These studies suggest various scales of arousal, sensual or intellectual pleasure, and satisfaction, though they rarely question the relationship between positive and negative states. I think these relationships deserve further attention, and want to consider the possibility that when it comes to goods, taste and distaste can be entirely separate, learned in distinct ways, and have different social meanings.

One way to rethink the issue of emotional relationships towards things is to ask if the choice to obtain or consume a particular thing is simply the reverse of a choice not to consume many others. Perhaps not. It may be an entirely ethnocentric and historic bias to focus on the "choice for," which tends to render the "choice against" as a shadow. The choice to consume something is readily visible, and it has an immediate result. The choice not to consume, the rejection of consumption, leaves no material trace, and can be completely invisible. Not consuming may be less of a conscious matter in daily life, in the sense that choices against are part of the taken-for-granted aspect of existence, what Pierre Bourdieu calls the "habitus." (1978) But it may also be possible that decisions not to consume are more frequent, more obtrusive, and more important in forming personal and social identity than choices to consume. It is just that our presuppositions and ideology make them less conspicuous.

Since 1990 I have had many discussions with informants in both the United States and the Central American country of Belize about learning tastes, and experiences that shaped their likes and dislikes. In unguided interviews it is remarkable how often people focus on how they learned or discovered not liking particular things. In accounts of childhood experience, people make it clear that they learn the world of goods through pain as well as pleasure, by foul as well as pleasant tastes, and as much by learning what not to wear, eat, listen to, drive and hang on the walls as by learning what is good. This in turn suggests that learning good taste is largely a matter of learning what bad taste is, as well as learning what tastes bad.

Being in fashion, as daily practice for the majority of my informants, is more a matter of knowing what is out of fashion, than of knowing what is at the cutting edge of the latest trends. Wearing the wrong thing usually gets a stronger social reaction than wearing the best or the latest. In my interviews with Belizean high school students about fashion and taste, they told me a lot about their anxiety over consuming the wrong things. Only a tiny minority pursued the most fashionable, the most up to date, the name brand clothes and running shoes and haircuts that would place them in the fashion elite. Most were more concerned with not being out of fashion than they were with being in the latest style. Fashionability therefore has two sides; learning to like something new, and learning to hate, or a least avoid something old or foreign. These are not the same processes at all, nor do they call upon the same skills, or have the same social meaning and consequences. I would argue that by far the most important daily consumption skill is that of knowing what not to wear. As Grant McCracken notes in Big Hair, it is easy to tell when you are having a "bad hair day," but it can take a lifetime to find the right style, the one that suits you best (1996).

Negative emotions of all kinds towards goods are generally repressed and hidden in most discourse about fashion, which is portrayed instead as an endless quest for the new. Schneider's analysis of the rise and fall of synthetic fabrics (1994) is one of the few that recognizes that the rejection of the old is as much a part of fashion as the desire for the new. How this rejection is cultivated is largely unknown. Simmonds' analysis of English "foodies" (1990) suggests that magazines are crucial media for signaling when something is going "out," but how consumers translate this into negative opinion, or internalize it as a negative bodily experience, is an open question.

Distaste and rejection is often more important than taste and consumption in making social distinctions. The statement "you are what you eat" fails for this very reason. You are often more defined by what you don't eat, as Mary Douglas pointed out so eloquently in Purity and Danger (1966). The boundaries of social groups are often defined by a series of practices of denial, of refusal to consume alcohol, pork, coffee, meat, or other powerful sorts of substances. Similarly, in an anthropological classic, Radcliffe-Brown demonstrated that in many cultures, people are socially defined by avoidance or joking relationships (1952). In other words, the salient aspects of roles are defined by the people you cannot associate with, those you cannot touch, speak to, or eat with.

I would argue that consumption in modern market economies works in a very similar way; as daily practice it creates identity and social boundaries through practices of non-consumption, non-association, avoidance, and taboo. Consumption always carries the relations of non-consumption as a silent partner. Yet my whole shelf of recent books in anthropology, cultural studies, history and sociology has almost nothing to say about this shadow.3 Everyone is writing about what people want, and what this signifies. The world in this view is a system of changing desires, when in fact it could equally be cast as a system of changing avoidances and dislikes. While philosophers like Bataille and Derrida have argued that all desire is ultimately rooted in disgust or rejection, and there is a general consensus that dark emotions of fear, envy, and even self-loathing underlie the ever-expanding desire for goods, there has been very little explicit research on the rejection or denial of goods, on the things that people hate as well as love.

 

Mapping Dislike: Some Examples

 

My intention here is not to suggest a focus on dislikes and distaste to the exclusion of positive relationships with goods, but to argue that both need to be considered. In reality, no form of consumption is really separate from non-consumption. Choices based on want or need are always and also choices based on aversions and distastes as well, but they are not alternatives or opposites. Instead they have a more complex and interesting relationship. Both can be seen alternatively as having socially or individually positive or negative valences, as being materialistic or spiritual, active or passive. Not having, not wearing, not eating, can be just as much a form of conformity or social distinction as having, wearing, or eating.

This became clear in a survey I conducted in Belize with over 1200 high school students in four schools. In one question I asked them to imagine what they would buy if I gave them an immediate gift of BZ$100 ($50 US). Running shoes were the single most common choice, and some students knew exactly what shoe they wanted ("white BK's with a red stripe and bright green laces" for example). But more than half who chose running shoes named several different brands, or just said "tennis" (the local generic term for running shoes) without naming a brand at all. In focus groups when I asked about the importance of brands, I was told that what was important was to have any socially acceptable 'name brand' shoe; no "tennis" at all would be better than having one with the "wrong name." For most of these students, the goal of consumption was not simply to satisfy desire or stand out from the crowd, to compete for status. Instead they wanted to avoid censure, to be safe or inconspicuous. In fact, many students criticized shoes that were "too flash" or exclusive, too risky, expensive, or fashionable. An approach that focuses solely on the erotic attraction of running shoes, (their imagined connection to American sports figures, or the symbolic movement of names like "Air," "Flight," and "Troop"), would entirely submerge this important and complex set of emotions and motives, and miss a key aspect of the popularity of running shoes in Belize. They are popular because they form a complex field in which both desire and dislike can be played out in many different ways.

In my work on food preferences in Belize, I found that both desires and distastes can function as relations of inclusion or exclusion. People can define themselves as members of a group because they share tastes with others, or because they share distastes; "we belong because we all like the same clothes" or "we belong because we all hate unclean food." People can also exclude others on the basis of not sharing a taste ("you don't share our love for fine wine"), or of not sharing a distaste ("you don't belong because you like rap music"). As figure 1 shows, using the example of two types of beans that make social distinctions in Belize, the combination of likes and dislikes with inclusion and exclusion, creates four possibilities, none of which are mutually exclusive. The key point is that taste and distaste do not form simple complementary pairs; taste cannot be seen simply as the inversion, opposite, or mirror of distaste in forming social boundaries.4

The practical uses of the four possibilities on figure 1 are quite unequal and asymmetrical. We usually expect them to occur in simple diagonal pairs, as when our group likes something that another group hates and vice versa, but there is no necessary reason why likes and dislikes should be linked in pairs. This is because in social groups, likes are so much more easily signaled than dislikes. It is easy to see what you do like to wear, but it isn't possible, without careful and close daily observation, or a close social relationship, to tell with reliability what you don't like to wear. Therefore, only in a closed small scale society, can likes and dislikes effectively mirror each other. We would have to see you every day to know both your likes and your dislikes. Only a close face-to-face setting, a workplace or a small village, can we know what you dislike as well as what you like, so both can equally serve to identify you to us, and to yourself.

In public in a mass society, in settings where we can't monitor what you are not doing, similar likes are much more prone to function as signals of inclusion. In other words, you belong by virtue of your visible agreement with a standard list of likes, you wear what we wear and eat what we eat. Equally, the best way to place boundaries around a group in this setting, is through a system of dislikes. If you consume what we hate, you don't belong. Again, this makes the contrast socially visible. Of course there are some categories of goods, like uniforms, that accomplish the task of inclusion and exclusion at the same time, regardless of likes or dislikes. But in the absence of overt rules that prescribe a practice for one group and exclude others, group differences in consumer society are best marked by not-consuming something that the excluded group conspicuously consumes, or vice versa, consuming something like pork or short skirts, which you know they do not. This helps explain why sumptuary laws and taboos focus on boundary making through exclusion.

The different social signals sent by consumption and non-consumption also help to explain why, in mass consumer society, dislikes are key in creating explicit boundaries between the individual and other people, in creating a sense of unique identity. Our dislikes and aversions are known to friends and relatives, while our likes are publicly stated in our conspicuous choices of clothes, cars, houses and other goods. Likes might therefore often take conformist, categorical forms that signal membership and consensus, while dislikes set boundaries and build distinctive personal interior identities.

This became quite clear in my work with urban consumers in Belize, while conducting a preference survey. The survey had 389 respondents from three different communities; 250 from Belize City, 81 from the small but cosmopolitan city of Belmopan, and 58 in a small Creole village. The survey was modeled on Bourdieu's research instrument in Distinction, though I paid more attention to foreign travel, having close relatives abroad, ethnic background, exposure to media, and gender than Bourdieu did in France (1984, see also Wilk 1993 and 1995).

Bourdieu asked only what people liked, about their favorite practices. (In retrospect this is a peculiar choice for a book about social distinctions.) I blindly followed his lead. My survey covered all kinds of tastes and preferences in music, interior decoration, clothing, music, television, films and reading matter, usually by asking respondents to pick their favorites from a list. The survey also included a bank of Lickert-scaled opinion questions about political and cultural issues, and a large section devoted to various measures of social and economic capital.

While I was making up the survey and pretesting it in focus groups, though, I was struck by the uniformity of Belizean preferences. Most people, regardless of class and ethnicity, seemed to like pretty much the same foods, the same TV shows and the same music. In interviews people rarely got excited about things they liked, and rarely picked out something unusual as a personal favorite. This was reflected in my statistical analysis of the survey results, which found few clear relationships between specific tastes, and any of my social, income, class or ethnic variables. On the other hand, even in the early stages of designing my survey form, people would often get interested and deeply involved in discussing the things they hated or disliked.

In interviews, when I tried to discuss why people liked particular foods, TV shows, or music, I found them very inarticulate, which is very unusual for Belizeans. I heard a lot of statements like "Well, I just like it." "It just tastes good to me, that's all." But when I got people talking about what they did not like, I often couldn't stop them. Strong distaste was evocative of personal events, family connections, politics, cultural differences, aging, and life philosophy - the full rich range of ways that taste and preference is part of life. I found it very interesting that particular senses were often invoked when people spoke about their dislikes. Odor and texture were particularly important in the strongest kinds of distaste, in the kinds of disgust and revulsion that are experienced physically. A number of people told me in great detail how particular odors or textures acted as triggers for physical revulsion, and they could sometimes relate them to childhood or other life experiences.5

Because of this response in the pretest, I added a few distaste questions to my survey. For example, one item was a list of 22 kinds of music, asking respondents to pick their three favorites. The next item asked them to pick two that they "really don't like and would not listen to." I also offered a list of 21 common and uncommon food items, which respondents rated on a four part scale, "love," "like," "no opinion," and "dislike."

I have been working for some time on the preference data, looking for the kinds of relationships between social and economic capital and preference that Bourdieu found in France. In contrast to the clear French ranks and hierarchies of taste, Belize is much more heterogeneous and fragmented. Wealth, income, education and occupation matter much less in determining tastes and preferences in Belize, while personal connections, travel, and communication to other countries, particularly the US, matter much more. In explaining overall preferences, age, gender, ethnicity and rural/urban differences explain as much or more variation than measures of education and class. But more important for the present discussion, none of the preferences for particular items correlate strongly (r2 > .45) with any measured social, ethnic, or personal variables. The only general rule seemed to be that greater education, increased wealth, and foreign travel led to a greater diversity of desires and likes, a broadening of tastes. Otherwise preferences alone do not make important social distinctions, certainly not to the same degree as in France. The point is that liking things has many valences, purposes, and meanings, especially in a society that is crosscut by so many different divisions, with four major languages, open cultural borders and few sharp class boundaries. From the conventional perspective of consumption preferences, these social divisions hardly existed at all.

On the other hand, even my limited data on distastes shows that they are much more powerful social predictors than preferences. For example, taste for Country & Western music was quite widely distributed among the population with some slight concentration among older and poorer people. On the other hand, dislike of Country music is dramatically more common among more educated, wealthier, and more traveled people. Similarly, liking classical music is quite common, with higher frequencies among the highest educated. But dislike for classical music is highly concentrated among the less educated, the poor, and the least traveled.

Besides looking at the characteristics of people revealed by their distastes, I have used a combination of data on likes and dislikes to map the characteristics of a range of competing items, according to their average scores on the two dimensions. On figure 2, 22 kinds of music are ranked in three groups from the most to the least hated on one axis, and then again from the most to the least loved on the other axis. The resulting crosstabulation sorts musical genres with four extreme poles at the corners. These are types of music

 

1. a lot of people love and a lot of people hate

2. few people love, but many people hate

3. many people love and few people hate

4. few people love and few people hate

 

Box four may be best described using Bourdieu's term doxa. These are items that are so much a part of the landscape that they are unconsciously accepted, or items so new or foreign that they lack significance. They are comfortable and accepted parts of common culture or are so alien that nobody cares about them Boxes 2 and 3 are in a situation that Bourdieu calls orthodoxy, where there is some disagreement about values, but power is being exercised to push towards uniformity. These were once controversial or highly charged genres, which people still feel strongly about, even though the majority opinion is now quite clear. The tastes of the conservative majority occupy box 2 and those of unpopular or marginal minorities are in box 3. The remaining corner, Box 1 is the locus of heterodoxy, where there is significant dissension and active conflict between contending tastes. The newest Belizean genre of music, a local invention based on the traditional music of an ethnic minority, called "Punta Rock," presently occupies this highly unstable position.

It is possible to use figure 2 as a way of thinking about changing tastes over time, defining a style system. If new genres or styles enter in box one, and become the object of active disagreement and controversy, they should then move towards either corners 2 or 3. The final fate of genres seems to be to fall into the indifferent doxa of corner four, or to reach some sort equilibrium in the center.

I have also used some of my survey data to look in more detail at the balances between tastes and distastes, broken down for individual goods and genres. This is easiest with responses on food items, where the frequencies of the four possible responses (love, like, neutral, and dislike) yield profiles that are particular to groups of food items. The national staple dishes were loved or liked by almost everyone; like soul music, scarcely anyone hates rice and beans in Belize (these are the foods that belong in box 2 on figure 2). Another group include snack foods like hamburgers which very few people feel strongly about one way or the other. Recent imported "trendy" foods like Pizza are the most widely hated and least loved. Interestingly, the controversial, high-hate, high-love foods are local foods with a long history, but with clear associations with youth, the working class, and rural areas.

The overall results of my analysis of the survey are that food dislikes are much more powerful social indicators than positive tastes. The foods that Belizeans dislike are much more revealing of their social position and life experience than the things they like. Furthermore, the number of things on my list of 21 foods that people love and hate, the simple count of things that they responded strongly to, is itself an interesting variable. I correlated the raw number of each person's food "Loves" and "Hates" with all the other social, ethnic and locational variables from the survey. The average person loved 6.1 foods on my list (range from 0-19), while hating 4.3 (range from 0-14). Figure 3 gives one example of how the food hate count looks, when broken down by the occupational categories of respondents.

The "Loving" food index correlated significantly (1-tailed at p < .01) with only one variable, education level, though the relationship was weak. More highly educated people tended to love fewer foods (perhaps a sad commentary on the value of education). On the other hand, my index of food hatred correlated significantly with eight out of ten social variables. Urban people tended to hate more things, and members of the Creole ethnic group had significantly more hates than members of other ethnic categories. People who were richer, had higher household incomes, were better educated and in higher status occupations all tended to have fewer hates. The fraction of the population that would in Belize be considered the urban poor, were much more likely to dislike a broad range of foods, though the number of things they liked were almost the same as the best educated and richest Belizeans. This suggests that rising in class is more a matter of learning to stop hating things, learning tolerance, rather than the conventional account of class mobility, which stresses the acquisition of new tastes.

These results are based on only a few survey items, added as almost an afterthought to a more conventional study of likes and preferences. I had originally intended to use them to develop contrasts with work on consumers in developed countries. This has not proven possible, because there has been almost no systematic empirical work on distastes and dislikes in developed countries, with the exception of a relatively narrow body of work on consumer dissatisfaction with items that have already been purchased.

 

Broader Issues and Conclusions

I have suggested here that dislikes form a complex and varied social field that cannot simply be reduced to the opposite of desires or positive emotions. That distaste and taste are far from simple opposites would account for their frequent juxtaposition. Sherry et al. (1992), for example, describe the complex ways that both negative and positive emotions, from love to hatred, are attached to gifts received in western society. Battaglia (1994) makes the same point for Melanesians, whose gift-giving practices cannot be understood without including practices of dis-owning, separation, abandonment, and "willed forgetting."

Images of distaste and desire are also juxtaposed in much of the imagery and rhetoric of mass consumerism. In popular magazines devoted to promoting all kinds of consumption, we are told both "what's hot" and "what's not." Fashion mistakes, the worst dressed celebrities, and "bad hair" provoke a very different kind of reaction from the images of perfection and trendiness that grace most pages. In the advice columns of Teen and Seventeen magazines, we can hear people accepting that their dislikes are somehow their own fault: "I keep hearing that pink is the hot makeup color for summer, but when I wear it I look washed out."

The July 1995 issue of "Lose Weight and Stay Fit" magazine, for example, is dominated by a full-color photo of a large slice of chocolate layer cake. Many writers on diet culture have noted how dieters' feel both desire and disgust towards food, that food can be simultaneously "naughty" and "nice" (Williamson 1986:73). As long as we insist that these are opposite emotions on a single scale, we are forced to view this as a form of pathological dissemia, war between different part of the mind, or alternating mental states (as if multiple personalities occupied the same body). It seems to make more sense to accept that desire and distaste towards the same food may each, to use medical metaphors, have different etiologies, pathologies, and even cures.

It is important to make a distinction between disgust or distaste and anti-consumption and asceticism. While promoting distaste is one tactic of anti-consumption movements (as in the animal-rights movement's anti-fur campaign), anti-consumption is often aimed largely at changing tastes and desires instead. Diet for a Small Planet and other similar tracts generally promote substitution of one desire for another, of soybeans and grain for meat, for example.6 Neither distaste nor taste are inherently pro-consumption; they are instead dispositions that can combine to restrain or promote, or do both at the same time. But how and where do we learn these complex sets of restraints and impulses, and how do they function in daily social life? I would argue that answers to these questions will require a life-history approach that considers the full range of emotional relationships formed with goods through learning taste and distaste, preferences and aversions, passion and disgust.

Just a quick sort through transcriptions of interviews I have conducted with consumers in Belize and the US, as well as informal discussions with friends, turns up a surprising number of different ways that people have come by their distastes, hinting at a rich and fertile field for further research. Sometimes people seem to be explicitly defining themselves by contrast with the tastes of others, as when some of my informants stressed the things they disliked intensely in order to reassure me that they were not the kind of person who wears those kinds of clothes, drinks that kind of liquor, or eats those sorts of dishes.

I have been told many stories about bad personal associations. Dislikes often seem to form from unpleasant or traumatic encounters, events, or conditions. For example, several Belizeans told me they did not like a particular kind of liquor because it had once made them very sick. Sometimes these bad experiences lead to classic psychological symptoms of avoidance and phobia, the kind anthropologists usually associate with filth and pollution caused by transgression of symbolic boundaries. Bodily excretions may be an archetype for visceral disgust, but the emotion is often extended to foods, odors, places and even groups of people.

Sometimes people make conscious overt statements through public nonconsumption or avoidance; perhaps the most extreme example is the hunger strike, or the 'Breatharian' religion that seeks a life without food as the ultimate freedom. Many Belizean men refuse to wear dark suits and ties because of their association with the British colonial regime. Non-consumption, as all dieters know, is an effort to impose conscious will on the complex natural and social world

I end with some prospects rather than conclusions. I explicitly want to avoid the temptation to suggest grand evolutionary schemes that try to refigure the traditional/modern dichotomy in terms of changes in the balance of likes and dislikes. It is both facile and wrong to simply use my observations to conclude that in primitive societies dislikes (as taboos) are public and social while likes are private and individual, in contrast to modernity where likes become public and social, and dislikes private and interiorized. Since there is no comparative data with which to test these ideas, such schemes can only project our own sense of time and modernity onto others (see Latour 1993). We run the same risk in generalizing about the play of likes and dislikes in stages of development. That is why. at this point more empirical research on the relationships between tastes and distastes, passions and aversions, learning and forgetting, is urgently needed.

 

Notes

 

1. The first version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, in November of 1994, in a session titled "Inequality, Emotion, and Identity Through the Prism of Consumption," organized by Elizabeth J. Chin and Josiah McC. Heyman. Many thanks to Anne Pyburn for inspiration and suggestions that became part of that paper, to Danny Miller for conversations that led me in this direction, and also to James Carrier for his usual superior job of putting things in context and asking the right questions. A version was presented in a workshop, "Learning to Consume" at Lund University in 1995, where I heard many excellent comments and suggestions from seminar participants including Colin Campbell, Orvar Lofgren, Jonas Frykman, Russ Belk, and several others. My research on consumption in Belize was funded by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and a Fulbright Fellowship. I especially appreciate the conceptual and material assistance of my daughter Elvia Pyburn-Wilk.

2. In a similar way, Bersani's discussion of homosexuality is based on negating the usual polarity of need and desire (1995). He argues that desire does not have to be based on need or lack of something, as is generally assumed. Instead, the lack of something may not be the reason why we desire, need, and want. Ultimately, Freud may be the source of modern ideas about the similarity of disgust and desire, for he often wrote about the close relationship between the erotic and the excretory (Kahane 1992).

3. There are a few exceptions. There is some literature on religious and political renunciation, that is non-consumption for explicit and conscious reasons, as with Bayly's (1986) study of Ghandi's resistance to European cloth in India. The psychological theories of consumption discussed by Berger (1992: chapter 4) include ideas of phobia, fetish, and ambivalence which at least have the virtue of including desire and dislike in the same theoretical system.

4. Certainly some things are disliked because they are associated with a despised class or group, but it does not follow that all dislikes are formed in this way, as Bourdieu argues in his famous study of France (1994). Bourdieu never effectively links the class-based conscious judgment of others as having "bad taste" with the very personal bodily experience of disgust or dislike for a particular food, style or fashion. It is not clear if he thinks people project an inverted image of their own taste onto other classes, or actually form their tastes through conscious inversion of others' actual practices. Bourdieu's notion of class distaste is reminiscent of the conscious renunciation of particular kinds of food by medieval monks, for whom rejecting meat and other luxuries was "a repudiation of the values of a society that placed eating first among worldly values." (Montanari 1994:24) Renunciation in modern consumer society can take some bizarre twists. On the pages of Catfancy magazine (Nickolin 1995), I found people projecting dislikes onto their animals, who were praised for their incredibly finicky tastes: "Many people might find this behavior irksome, but I find it sweet." Over 45% of cat owners reported that they had to prepare special diets in order to get the animal to eat!

5. Rozin and Fallon (1987) argue that disgust is a biologically-based cultural universal found in every society, and suggest that animals and feces are consistent sources of disgust on a cross-cultural basis. The notion that disgust is always based on a visceral and almost uncontrollable fear of contamination is widespread in the literature, but it did not seem to be very relevant to the interview material I collected in Belize. There, disgust often reflected a good deal of thought and judgment, and most people reported that their experience of disgust or revulsion had changed a great deal during their lifetimes.

6. Williamson diagnoses this perfectly when she remarks that "In many ways the anti-social is patterned in the same form as the social"(1986:226). Protest against consumerism becomes another form of consumption.

 

 

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