Reordering mass consumption

By , Rosalind Williams teaches in the Writing Program of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is author of ''Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late 19th-Century France.''

We have a word for the national goal of retooling production: reindustrialization. We still need a word for the equally critical goal of restructuring consumption.

The term is missing because the under-lying concept is largely so. Industrialization is thought of as turning gears and spinning lathes, as the ceaseless flow of conveyer belts and assembly lines, or, in the case of rein-dustrialization, as nifty robots and computerized machine tools. This is production, the awe-inspiring spectacle of heroic workers and energetic captains of industry conquering the material world.

Consumption, on the other hand - although it is supposedly the ultimate reason for all this noble effort - seems banal and faintly shameful. There is nothing heroic about it. Acts of consumption are trivial, everyday ones like driving a car, eating a hamburger, putting on shoes, or watching TV.

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Perhaps this is why the need to restructure consumption has not called forth the same ringing declarations of national resolve as the need to restructure production. The two problems are inseparable, however. Mass production and mass consumption are the two sides of the industrial coin. Amitai Etzioni, who declares himself ''the proud father of the thesis of 'reindustrialization,' '' writes that mass consumption (''decades of overconsumption and of underinvestment in the nationwide economic machine'') is in fact the basic cause of our need to shore up productive capacity.

Before this nation invests billions of dollars to modernize tools of production, we should stop to consider how to modernize patterns of consumption also.

The entrenched patterns are both material and psychological. The physical infrastructure of American consumer society, especially in housing and transportation, is outmoded and inefficient. Vast suburban tracts are scattered with large, poorly insulated homes, each with a separate heating system and array of appliances, and readily accessible only by automobiles. Suburbs cannot be closed down like outdated factories, for they represent a staggering national investment. More investment and even more imagination will be required to retrofit, recycle, and rehabilitate what can be thought of as the physical plant of American consumption.

Yet psychological structures will be even more difficult to alter. Beginning in childhood we form a largely inarticulate but potent image of the goods we expect to accumulate as grownups - what sociologists call a ''standard package.'' For postwar, middle-class Americans, that package has included most of the items mentioned above: a single-family home with furnishings, appliances, and yard, at least one and probably two cars, college educations for the kids, annual vacation, and regular medical care. None of these desires is wicked or even extravagant, but they are becoming ever more expensive and less attainable.

Here lack of vocabulary cramps our imagination when we talk about overhauling existing patterns of consumption. If the disease has been, as Etzioni says, ''overcon-sumption,'' then the cure must be undercon-sumption, or some equally harsh and un-pleasant word like austerity, asceticism, or sacrifice. All these terms imply a scaled-down version of the present model of con-sumption.

Instead, we need an alternative model, expressed in the appealing language of art rather than the threatening one of moralism. In consumer society, after all, art and industry are not adversaries but allies. ''Consumer taste'' is lauded as the supreme arbiter of a free economy - and what is taste if not an artistic category? Selling a ''life style'' has become more important then selling products - and what is style if not aesthetic awareness? Daily acts of consumption can be banal, but with aesthetic imagination they may be elevated to the arts of living.

The term ''high-tech,'' so often uttered in the same breath as ''reindustrialization,'' may serve as a link between new models of production and new models of consumption. ''High-tech'' originally referred to efficient, intelligent computer-based devices used in factories and offices, but the expression has since been used to describe a quasi-industrial look in interior decoration. Although that particular style proved short-lived and trendy, it opens up the possibility of a new style of consumption, one less ponderous and elaborate than that of the past, simpler and more efficient, but still attractive and appealing.

Industrialization - and reindustrialization - include both making goods and using them. The concept of ''high-tech'' is a reminder of the links between production and consumption, as well as those between industry and art. It reminds us that as we restyle production, we must also retool consumption.

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