Symposium: Conspicuous consumption in Africa

31 Mar 2014
31 Mar 2014

Symposium on

Conspicuous Consumption in Africa

Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA)

University of Cape Town

4 – 5 December 2014


Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’ in his critique of nineteenth century American society, as an indictment of the extent to which the need for personal recognition – or ‘honour,’ as he put it – was vested in public displays of material acquisition.  The phrase immediately caught on, infiltrating vocabularies of social commentary and popular conversation in the USA and beyond. By now, it seems to have a self-evident resonance with experiences of ostentatious accumulation in many parts of the world. 

Africa is certainly one of them.  And there are some striking resemblances between the America of the late nineteenth century that Veblen was writing about, and many parts of Africa today:  buoyant economic growth, rampant and loosely regulated accumulation, along with rapid upward mobility in the higher reaches of the society, coupled with abiding or deepening poverty and marginality for most, within states doing little to manage or ameliorate the inequalities.   It is an interesting place and time, then, to revisit Veblen’s critique, and to make sense of the contemporary phenomenon of conspicuous consumption in Africa and its history.  We would like to explore the specificities of consumerism on this continent along with the formative global genealogies of aspiration, acquisition and conspicuous display.  

We are especially interested in the contestations and collisions that conspicuous consumption has provoked.   As is typically the case with explosions of heated public argument, the immediate site of contestation erupts atop deeper sensitivities and fault-lines, embedded in longer histories of power and difference. We therefore hope to historicize and contextualize spectacles of consumption in relation to genealogies of modernity, sovereignty, class, gender and generation on the continent.  And, given the emotive intensity that conspicuous consumption generates, we want to pay particular attention to the affective contours of such histories – such as questions of pride, honour, courage, envy, lust, shame and humiliation, greed.  We are also interested in the cultural registers and repertoires of such spectacles. As genres of popular culture have become increasingly profitable and profit-driven, questions about conspicuous consumption direct our attention to the intersections of culture, representation and commerce on the continent, and how these have shifted over time and place.

How do we explain the varied repertoires of conspicuous consumption on this continent, now and in the past? What do these repertoires reveal about the modalities and limits of global and transnational linkages? How have economic, technological, political and social factors articulated with the scale and scope of conspicuous consumption?  Why has conspicuous consumption in some places become so much more controversial now than in the past? Why do some variants of conspicuous consumption ignite more argument than others?  What are the arguments really about?  What are their cultural registers and repertoires, and how do the dynamics of local and global markets shape these collisions and their impact on political life?  We propose to hold a symposium that opens up these questions to interdisciplinary conversation. 

The challenge is both theoretical and substantive.  If the meaning of the term seems uncomplicated in everyday parlance, its analytic usage is more elusive, if also powerfully suggestive.  Veblen’s own use of the term is vague and mercurial; subsequent studies of conspicuous consumption offer varying, often conflicting, versions of their objects of study.  So we need to twin our historical explorations with theoretical discussions of consumption and its genres of ‘conspicuousness’.

We suggest the following broad themes:  

Conceptual and theoretical questions

Although the field of consumption studies has burgeoned of late, the basic terms of debate are often elusive.  As the conceptual boundaries of the category of consumption are increasingly elasticated to include the consumption of texts, images, and ideas, it’s appropriate to revisit what we mean by ‘consumption’.  Likewise the notion of conspicuous consumption merits critical scrutiny. How is it usefully defined? What analytical work do we want the concept to do, and why?

In what ways do questions about conspicuous consumption engage with and contribute to theories of modernity and its counter-assertions in Africa?  What are the productive theoretical horizons of debate about consumption in Africa?  

Living with inequality

 As was the case in Veblen’s study of the USA, desires to consume have gathered momentum in tandem with deepening inequality in Africa.  In South Africa for example, apartheid produced a highly unequal society; its formal abolition has produced what some regard as the most unequal society in the world, which is the context for recent explosions of consumerist fervour.  How do we make sense of this contiguity analytically?  And how is it rendered discursively and rhetorically, in the post-apartheid public sphere? How, in the midst of surging prosperity for some, has the problem of inequality been named and disclaimed, acknowledged or evaded?  And, in the case of deeply asymmetrical societies on the continent more widely, what is the impact of consumerism upon the politics of class and inequality?  How are these themes and issues refracted in modes of popular culture, as well as in the public sphere? 

The stuff of race and the race for stuff

 The way race works, as an instrument of power and status, has never been separable from regimes of accumulation and consumption. In colonial Africa, racial categorisations and classifications were partly a direct expression of the perceived relationships between orders of ‘civilisation’ vested in modes of dress, deportment, leisure and communal life, and entitlements to social and political standing. Colonial whiteness was profoundly bound up with material prosperity and its overt performance.  Being classified black was tantamount, inter alia, to being deemed unworthy of certain modes of consumption, which politicized practices of acquisition among black people as modes of ‘talking back’.   The acquisition and display of consumable goods has been saturated, then, with racial meanings.  If this is so, we need to consider both the abiding residues and the new traces of race, in recent spectacles of stuff.  And, given the extent to which contemporary repertoires of consumerism are bound up with new social media and technologies – cell phones, facebook, twitter, etc – how do these sites and devices in turn impact on performances of race and consumption, particularly within younger generations, on the African continent?    

Revisiting histories of status, upward mobility and honour.

Conspicuous consumption, by its very nature, entails audience/s to whom these acts of consumption are intended to speak.  If postcolonial theories emphasise the racial character of these audiences in Africa, with extravagant displays on the part of black people as modes of ‘talking back’ to the colonial politics of racialised lack, we are also interested in going beyond the question of race.  Veblen stressed the centrality of honour – in turn tied to the dynamics of gender – in the quest for upward mobility and social status.  Is it useful, for example, to revisit the articulation of marriage, property and honour – familiar enough in the anthropology of Africa – in making sense of patterns of lustful consumption, past and present, and the quest for social standing?   How do we factor trajectories of consumption into ‘the politics of the belly’, with political power inextricably linked to wealth?  By contrast, can peoples’ relationships to things refigure and challenge established hierarchies of power and status?  Might the conspicuous wearing and sharing of famous brands by people across long-standing social divides enable new modes of recognition that refashion old identities?  What are the generational dynamics in the quest for fashionable upward mobility?  How do global and local dimensions of aspirations to honour and status intersect?

Dressing up, dressing down and showing off

The seduction of luxurious stuff – having it, wanting it, being denied it – has often been as conspicuous as the consumption itself.  The primary site upon which conspicuous consumption is focused among its new practitioners is the body, dressed and (imaginatively) undressed. Lavish expenditures on, and desires for, particular objects to decorate and display the body – diamonds or shoes, for example – have been intimately connected to long social and psychic histories of sexuality, gender and power. We are interested in discussing the erotics of conspicuous consumption in relation to these wider histories, and through the kinds of objects that have made them visible.  Alongside the hedonistic celebration of the dressed body, we also seek to position the more severe and inhibiting habits of responsible, respectable sociality – for which the dressed body is equally profound. How have repertoires of conspicuous consumption been implicated in the performance of moral authority and status?   Then again, the dressed body has also been a stage for the declared rejection of material value, for an anti-consumerism manifest in the deliberate flaunting of both extravagance and respectability, in conspicuously casual, sloppy dress – or in the equally conspicuous austerity of fierce un-adornment. In all cases, histories of gender and generation are central and formative, as is a focus on how local and global forces and predilections intertwine. 

Queering consumption

If connections have always existed between conspicuous consumption, sexuality and gender, then it is no surprise that this relation has become prominent in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender identities, and with some unsettling effects.  Conspicuous consumption has complicated the politics of gayness, for example.  Critics have pointed to the doubled-edged consequences of consumerised ‘global gay’ identities.  The aspiration to a shared, typically flamboyant, look promises inclusiveness; yet, for those who can’t afford to buy the look, the invitation to partake is alienating.  A similar conundrum arises in the case of the fiercely contested Gay Pride ventures.  While seen as making social injustices visible, they also stage a celebration of excess, which emphasises harsh divisions of class and status.  Fashion, style, glamour, and at times access to hormonal therapy, symbolise the making of a ‘queer’ identity.  Queer becomes a material commodity, inserted into markets along with social movements.   How might we understand the relation between consumption, queer, lgbt identities, and the cultural and political tensions arising in the African context?

Cornucopia of things

With material things saturated with symbolic meaning, the objects of conspicuous consumption are seldom arbitrary.  Tacit or explicit hierarchies of value determine chronologies and priorities of acquisition – in strongly gendered and generational ways.   We invite contributions that attend to the objects of conspicuous consumption themselves:  what are they?  how do they look and feel?  why are they selected?  And how does their materiality contribute to the social and cultural meanings they acquire and the emotions that attach to them?   Cars, guns, cigarettes, cosmetics, shoes, hats, jewels, furniture, sacred texts, books, antiques, artworks, sushi, champagne, cell phones, to name a few – any number of objects promise to hold a revealing lens to the cultural, political and social etiquettes of conspicuous consumption in respect of varied groups, audiences and interests.

Piety, excess and religion

Regulating peoples’ relationships to things has been central to all religions – including those that prioritise ascetism.  For example, the definition, purification and containment of consumer goods, and their separation from spiritual concerns, have long defined Christian and Islamic religious traditions in Africa.  Recent years, however, have seen a shift in the meanings and politics of worldly goods.  Across the continent, fundamentalist Christians have enthusiastically embraced new churches that define prosperity and wealth as blessings from God – and poverty as a demonic affliction.  In these churches, extravagant cars, designer clothes and luxury goods have become markers of religious piety and grace.  Similarly the upsurge in fundamentalist Islam across Africa has seen believers mark their piety with new forms of consumption – including the emergence of designer hijabs, headscarves and thauwb.  How do we make sense of these changes in religious consumption?  And how do they articulate with more secular modes of consumption?  Is the question of consumption a fruitful avenue for revisiting the relationship between secular and spiritual concerns? 

Food and fashion

Food has become hugely fashionable – and is variously consumed: on the plate, and in the traffic in images thereof.  Cooking programmes have proliferated on dedicated food channels as well as in more mainstream TV, at the same time as the affluent obsession with diet, health and well-being intensifies.  Environmentalists, meanwhile, have also politicized the consumption of food as a symbolic locus of waste, environmental damage and bodily pollution.   How do notions of indulgence and deprivation intertwine?  In South Africa, the recent practice of izikhotane – in which aspirantly upwardly mobile black youth ritualize the spectacular destruction of expensive goods – has included the willful spoiling of foods that have become treats for the poor (such as KFC and Ultramel custard). What meanings are being accorded to the practices of eating, and how do these feed into the experience of inequality?  What versions of selfhood attach to the fashionable consumption of food and how are these contested?

Celebrity, excess and power.

As a counterpoint to versions of cultural studies that remain largely confined to the realm of representation, we are interested in the articulations of images and markets, culture and commerce, and in how the continental traffic in goods and images intersects with consuming desires and performances of display.  How has culture been marketed, and how have markets been acculturated?  These dynamics have powerful political resonances too.  For example, histories of conspicuous consumption are inseparable from the making of celebrity culture, which has had a profound impact on contemporary modes of political mobilisation and leadership in Africa.  How do we understand these histories in African countries, and their global resonances and linkages?  

The ethics and politics of consumption: what constitutes excess and how do we regulate it

If lavish consumption has triggered explosive public argument about its merits and demerits, the terms of popular debate have typically been starkly polarized:  heroic or obscene; legitimate displays of newfound power or insensitive performances of newfound megalomania.  The registers of argument are either wholesale applause or unmitigated outrage, with little modulation in between.  How might we reformulate the terms of this important public debate in the light of more subtle and historically sensitive analyses of the politics of consumption?   And relatedly, what might be appropriate measures of restraint?  How can and should consumerist excesses be regulated?  What have been the terms of anti-consumerist social movements, and how effective have they been?  



If you are interested in participating in this symposium, please email us an abstract of your paper with a title by no later than June 15, 2014.   Notifications of those abstracts accepted will be sent out by the middle of October.   Send your abstracts to

We have limited funds available to contribute to the travel and accommodation costs of our participants.  Should you require financial assistance, please send a motivation along with your abstract.