Consuming The Urban Space

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 Words by Neil Harrison

‘Humanities In Public’ (HiP) Inaugural Lecture: Professor Steven Miles.

As part of the Institute of Humanities and Social Science Research’s new ‘Humanities In Public‘ programme, prominent Sociologist and Editor of the Journal of Consumer Culture, Professor Steven Miles, gave his inaugural lecture at MMU earlier this week.

The lecture, entitled, ‘Choosing Consumerism: Space, Place and the Art of Identity’, was an entertaining and thought-provoking discussion about society’s role in ‘consuming’ its urban surroundings, particularly its public spaces and cultural centres. Using his own life experiences and academic career as a framework for this discussion, Professor Miles proceeded (via The War of the Worlds, Lloyd Grossman and a large sculpture of a bottom at the entrance to an art gallery) to make the case that, in a consumer society, we consumers are far from symptoms or victims, rather, we are complicit participants.
Professor Steven Miles
“Over the years I’ve been dragged, not only geographically all over the country, but in[to] a whole number of different areas of research – in consumption … in exclusion, gambling, re-generation, sociology of China, the city, social theory and, at one stage, dance. But, despite the distractions I’ve experienced over the years, the central point of my interest has always been consumption”.
“I have been interested in the experience of consumption, and how that experience … plays a role in structuring our relationship with the social world. A key, and as yet unresolved, conundrum of social and cultural thought at the beginning of the 21st century, centres around the complex subtleties of what it actually means to be a consumer”.
Professor Miles went on to describe the ways in which his research (a vocation which he argues has become widely commodified itself) has sought to challenge the academic and political zetigeist surrounding the nature of the ‘profound effect of consumption on the human condition’. His conclusion: that the act of consumption is a way for us to actively negotiate with and, therefore, maintain some sense of control over, our social and cultural environment, hasn’t always made him popular amongst his peers. Nevertheless, this intriguing notion provided the centre-point for a series of anecdotal examples throughout the rest of the lecture.
Invoking memories of The War of the Worlds radio series (described as the soundtrack to his childhood), in which alien forces attempt to gain earthly dominion, he continued,
“It’s a metaphor; the leader of the alien forces was Margaret Thatcher, the likes of whom had never been seen before. The world which Thatcher envisaged was a world in which collective biographies were apparently forgotten. [It was] a world in which consumers slowly and surely came to be seduced by the promises of individualisation.”
To consolidate this point, the sociologist relayed the story (illustratred with photographs) of how, upon returning to his childhood town of Bracknell during, in his own words, a mid-life crisis, in place of his old school he found a giant Tesco Superstore.
To conclude a highly biographical (and highly amusing) lecture, during which he tracked the increasing commodification of public spaces and art; a process which he maintains took place with the compliance of those ‘consuming’ them, Professor Miles briefly summararised some of the theories he has developed over the course of an obviously varied and interesting career,
“I am suggesting that consumption offers a kind of ‘citizenship’ – whether we like that or not. It actually offers some kind of exit from the political realm and provides a kind of public/private concoction. The question I would ask as a sociologist is whether this citizenship is illusory, and whether it provides the sort of support that an individual requires. Or whether, alternatively, it simply ties that individual to the culture of consumption, and a culture that he or she has no control over”.
“My argument is that the degree of control that is available to this individual is, in a sense, immaterial. For example … a society full of CCTV cameras could easily condemn that world as being an invasion of human rights, that we live in a world where we have no control. My argument would be that we are complicit in that process. It’s not that our lives have been invaded and we have no control … but that we actively accept the world, and that we are willing to be surveilled in order to access those freedoms that the protection offers”.
For information of future HiP lectures and events please visit

Neil Harrison is a Social History student at Manchester Metropolitan University, he is an aspiring journalist and a terrible guitar player. Follow him on Twitter @looseriver


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