Money and consumption

Money and consumption play critical roles in the lives of the major characters in Absolute Beginners by fostering a negative cycle of exploitation and greed. Money is obtained through mostly harmful sources, such as drug dealing and prostitution, while mass consumption engenders selfishness and a lack of individualism. The novel represents this through the eyes of an unnamed Narrator as he makes his way through his last summer as a teenager in 1958. Significantly, the 1950s was the decade in which commercial television was first broadcast, and it is regarded as the decade that bore the first generation of teenagers. Commodities were presented to the masses via advertisements that were aimed primarily at this new socioeconomic group. Post-war regeneration meant that the boundaries between the classes were suddenly lucid and teenagers found themselves with money to spend. The novel represents how, in buying the commodities and fashions that were advertised, the teenagers could attempt to express their own style and individuality. This led to the emergence of subgroups within the teenage culture, such as Teddy Boys. Paradoxically, the members of these subcultural groups expressed their individuality through the same fashion, vernacular and music, and thus became indistinguishable from each other, losing the individuality they were striving for. This loss of individualism is a prominent concept of Friedrich Jameson's theory of postmodernism. In his critical essay Postmodernism and Consumer Society (qtd. in Lodge 542) Jameson argues that there are several elements that identify a society as postmodern. These include the aforementioned lack or loss of individualism as well as a commercialised culture that revolves around consumption, the disappearance of a sense of history and the premise of pastiche.

The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the beginning of an economic revival in Britain. Postwar regeneration, soaring employment levels and increases in production brought about an era of affluence and improved living standards. The introduction of commercial television broadcasting in 1955 allowed, for the first time, the advertisement and marketing of consumer goods and products. Viewed as a largely imported and American way of life, this new consumer-based culture drew negative commentary from critics such as Robert Hoggart, who denounced it as indicative of social and communal decline ("The Uses of Literacy" 1957). However, despite such protest from the intellectual elite, the commodities that Hoggart so derided proved hugely popular with consumers in Britain - and arguably none more so than with the newly emergent teenage phenomenon.

The 1950s is now commonly regarded as the epoch in which 'the teenager' was born. This new cultural group had money for the first time and a rapidly expanding arena of leisure and entertainment activities with which to spend it on. Mark Paterson argues that from the introduction of advertising and mass marketing in the 1950s, teenagers were a prime new marketing category: "the buying of commodities and the formations of identity within subcultural groups is an index for the sheer, unbridled hedonistic pleasure in consumption that youth could enjoy after the stringent restrictions and rationing of wartime" (45). The economic affluence and social mobility of the young consumers led to the emergence of new socioeconomic identities based on categories of age, fashion, race, gender and sexuality (Robinson 11). On the peripheries of society and within the teenage revolution itself formed the unfamiliar subcultural groups that are the focus of MacInnes's novel. Each expresses itself in unique ways through style, vernacular, sexuality and music but, paradoxically, the uniqueness of each group is a homogenous product of their consumptive society.

In the attempts of these groups to differentiate themselves individual identity is lost as they frequent the same coffee bars and jazz clubs, buy the same commercial products and adopt imported styles of fashion and dialect. Rather than individual subjects with an assured sense of identity, the young people align with Jameson's view of lost individualism and become identical "products" (MacInnes 52), defined by their uniforms and devoid of any personality. One such group is the Teddy Boys, or Teds. Setting out to distinguish themselves, their trademark uniform of a "velvet-lined frock-coat", "bootlace tie", "four-inch solid corridor-creepers" (MacInnes 42) and drainpipe jeans is still clearly associated with their identity even today, over fifty years later. Thus, the consumption of fashion was critical to these subcultural groups in expressing their identity, and such expression through style is an enduring legacy. Irony, however, lies in the attempts of these young people to mark themselves out as individual through their choice of clothing; in doing so, they impose boundaries around their particular group, within which they all look the same and thus lose the rebellious individuality they were striving for. Katie Milestone illustrates the irony of this, highlighting that "youth culture is full of contradiction: the desire to express individuality by wearing the same clothes as your mates, and rebelling against capitalism at the same time as being a perfect capitalist slave" ("Youth Culture" 1999). The consumption of fashion and money to buy into the style of the moment were critical factors in the formation of subcultural identity within the homogenous "teenage" category. Despite the rebellious attempts of the teenagers to differentiate themselves they end up looking identical. This supports Jameson's theory that individualism ceases to exist in postmodern society, and is, in fact, an ideological concept.

Jameson's theory also contends that a key feature of postmodernism is what he calls pastiche, or "the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask ... a neutral practice of mimicry" without the "satirical impulse" or "ulterior motive" of parody (Lodge 545). Jameson argues that as a general rule and consequence of pastiche, and thus of postmodern society, "stylistic innovation is no longer possible" (Lodge 546). This concept is readily evidenced in Absolute Beginners, particularly in the arenas of fashion and vernacular:

'Hi, darl,' she said.

'Hi, hon,' I answered.

That's how we heard two movie stars address each other at a film we went to ages ago that rather sent us, in the days when Suze and I were steady (MacInnes 17).

The employment of a stylised American idiolect is the most significant example of pastiche in the novel. Nick Bentley argues that the "hybridized" language style of the novel "challenges and transforms 'standard' English, and articulates a moment of transition in national identity" ("Writing" par.19). Notably, the characters also wear Italian-style clothing and read "Yank mags" (MacInnes 23), and the Narrator obtains an Italian Vespa scooter, which according to Mark Paterson remains "an icon of affluence, progressive design and the cultivation of style and distinction" (45). Furthermore, the consumption and reification of products such as the Vespa in Absolute Beginners presents the teenagers as passive recipients of cultural artefacts - individuality is merely a faade.

The lack of individualism felt by Jameson to be a key element of postmodern society is further exemplified in the novel through the absence of any discernible character names. The Narrator remains unnamed throughout the novel, save occasional references to him in terms that identify him only by age. Other central characters are also only identified by nicknames, slang terms or reference to their jobs, such as 'Call-me-Cobber' and 'the ex-Deb of Last Year'. This namelessness supports Jameson's perception of lost individuality and the views of the critic Stuart Hall, who argues that identity is a continuous production rather than an historical fact. Hall asserts that "instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact...we should think, instead, of identity as a "production" which is never complete, [and] always in process" (qtd. in Rutherford 222). If, then, our identities are products, it follows that identity is interchangeable and available for consumption - simply another commodity. This suggestion separates the individual from any conscious application of identity, since identity is an evolving production. Any individual sense of 'being' or owning one's identity is removed. At worst, this indicates a removal of individual responsibility, which is demonstrated in the novel through the potential of collective group identity to become mob mentality, as with the race riots. This homogenous behaviour is highlighted by the character Dean Swift, who observes that "these teenagers are ceasing to be rational, thinking, human beings, and turning into mindless butterflies ... all of the same size and colour, that have to flutter round exactly the same flowers, on exactly the same gardens ..." (MacInnes 66). The reference to the teenagers as "mindless butterflies" presents them as an en-masse entity, with one identity and mind between all of them. There is a suggested lack of originality or individual thought, which insinuates a sense of their being 'brain-washed' by the commercialisation of their culture.

In highlighting the mindless consumption of the teenagers, the novel raises an important question about exploitation. The Narrator rages that "they buy us younger every year" (MacInnes 11), while his friend Wiz argues:

It's been a two-way twist, this teenage party. Exploitation of the kiddos by the conscripts, and exploitation of themselves by the crafty little absolute beginners. The net result? "Teenager"'s become a dirty word or, at any rate, a square one (MacInnes 12).

To use a key idea of Frantz Fanon (qtd. in Lodge 127-139) in this context, the Narrator's reference here to an unseen, unnamed entity - simply "they" - has the affect of "othering" the teenagers. In this way, the novel poses an 'us and them' representation of 1950s youth - are the teenagers a group of passive victims, naively exploited by the dominant corporate economy, or are they "crafty kiddos", revelling in and exploiting their new affluence and social opportunities? The Narrator believes that exploitation is something which "splits humanity up into two sections absolutely. It's nothing to do with age or sex or class or colour - either you're born a mug or born a non-mug ..." (MacInnes 17). The innocence of this perception suggests that Wiz is perhaps correct: the exploitation that takes place in the novel is indeed a two-way game. Stuart Hall suggests that one response to the cultural exploitation experienced by the teenagers is for them to invert upon themselves and create their own society: "their leisure world absorbs and consumes all the emotional vitality and imaginative projections of adolescence, and becomes a wholly self-enclosed universe" ("Absolute Beginnings" 20).

The formation of subcultural identities further enhances the "othering" of the teenager by the older generations, who blame them for buying into the consumer culture. The Narrator's mother argues that teenagers have too much spending money and are lawless as a result: "'All that money,' she said, looking at me as if I had pound notes falling out of my ears, and she could snatch them, 'and you're only minors! With no responsibilities to need all that spending money for!'" (MacInnes 39). The Narrator retaliates against this view by blaming the older "conscripts" for the privileges afforded to his generation:

'You made us minors with your parliamentary whatsits,' I told her patiently. 'You thought, 'That'll keep the little bastards in their places, no legal rights, and so on,' ... That also freed us from responsibility, didn't it? And then came the gay-time boom and all the spending money, and suddenly you oldos found that though we minors had no rights, we'd got the money power' (MacInnes 39).

In this context, the teenagers are presented as simply making the most of the privileges available to them; not necessarily a form of exploitation but rather enjoyment of the freedom and mobility afforded to them in the post-war years. The teenagers of the late 1950s would have been babies and young children at the beginning of the Second World War. Having lived through the rationing and restrictions of that period, it is arguably perfectly reasonable for them to enjoy the new opportunities and products that became available. Furthermore, this suggests jealousy on the part of the older generations in the novel such as the Narrator's father, who wishes he had "'had my youth in the 1950s, like you have ...'" (MacInnes 36).

Thus, consumption in the novel is inextricably linked with the issue of exploitation. Much critical writing of the teenage decade, such as that by Robert Hoggart, portrays the era as one of rampant consumerism. Nick Bentley argues that 1950s youth was represented by New Left writers as "a politically passive and ideologically nave social category" ("Young Ones" 80). This, Bentley continues, shows that the representation of youth was bound up with recurrent anxieties and concerns in 1950s culture and society generally: consumerism, Americanization, classlessness, the 'affluent society' - all of which appeared to be partly responsible for disaffected and delinquent teenagers bent on undirected violence and uncontrolled sexuality (67).

Bentley's argument supports the view that affluence and mass consumerism had led to the marginalising or "othering" of youth groups, and that teenagers were viewed as classless beings aiming only for immediate satisfaction through consumption. This is exemplified in the novel through Suze's character, as she seemingly sleeps her way around London with little thought for consequences or without any apparent self-respect. Her choice of sexual partner is indiscriminate - she'll sleep with "any Spade she likes the look of" (MacInnes 16) - and her decision to engage in an unsuitable marriage is based on her desire to marry a man of money and social status. Whilst this suggests that Suze is a selfish and greedy 'product' of the consumerist postmodern society, it also reflects her sexual autonomy and ambition to progress socially. Thus, the issue of exploitation is again concurrent with consumption and the pursuit of money, and further highlights the difficulty in identifying the perpetrators and victims of exploitation in the novel.

The Narrator decides that he must find a way to make enough money for Suze to leave her unsuitable marriage to be with him, and will do so by taking "top-flight" (MacInnes 109) pictures for an exhibition where the "culture-vultures get all the art kick they want" (109). He casts his friend, The Fabulous Hoplite, and an acquaintance, the "ex-Deb of last year" as his stars for the photographs. The Narrator openly admits to using his connection to Dean Swift (a known drug dealer) to encourage the ex-Deb to agree to be his leading lady, because "though you couldn't precisely describe her as a junkie", the ex-Deb "climbs on the needle when being beautiful is just too much for her" (110). The Narrator defends his actions, arguing: "if you're going to tell me hooking her this way is unethical, I'm perfectly willing to agree to that, but please understand my situation in regard to Suze is urgent and rather desperate ..." (110). The Narrator's willingness to use people for his own means is an example of how humans are portrayed in the novel as yet another commodity for consumption. People can be bought; through money, drugs, social acquaintances and a seemingly endless cycle of exploitation, as favours of sexual and non-sexual kinds are traded in the pursuit of money and pleasure.

The prostitution and pimping which take place throughout the novel add a further, sinister dimension to the representation of people as a form of currency. The treatment of the characters in this way is particularly clear where minority groups are concerned. For example, the "idiotic chicklets" (50) exploited by Big Jill, who allows them sleeping room in her basement whilst prostituting them; the black people who are demonised by the media and attacked during the riots; and the homosexuals such as Hoplite. These groups are often vilified and exploited by the media, most obviously the black community, who are presented as a threat to national purity and traditional English morals:

By and large, said the article, English people were renowned for their decent and orderly behaviour. But no so the immigrants, it seemed ... they liked haggling in shops ... leaving the hi-fi on all night, dressing in flashy clothes ... worse still ... driving about in even flashier vehicles, which they had somehow managed to acquire (170).

This extract from a newspaper article published by the character Amberley Drove links the black community with "flashy" consumerism and reflects the power of the media in exploiting cultural anxieties of difference. Immigration was a relatively new phenomenon in the 1950s and the novel demonstrates the ways the media could abuse minority views and spread them to a mass audience. The Drove article calls for action including the immediate halting of all immigration "by coloured persons" (171) into Britain. One result of such propaganda in the novel is the formation of racist groups, who believe it their duty to 'protect' white people. The headlines are thus consumed by the mass public and used for harmful purposes. The riots serve as the foremost example of mob mentality and a distinct loss of community feeling or respect for others. People are judged by homogenous labels and not as individual human beings. This demonstrates an inexorable connection between identity and consumption.

A further example of the relationship between consumption and identity in the novel is the use of jazz music. Jazz is readily consumed by both young and old generations, and jazz clubs are presented as safe havens where different groups converge and social opposites are brought together through a shared love of the music. Jazz is also presented as a notion of high culture in the novel, despite it being consumed by people of all ages, sexualities, races and classes. Thus, jazz music serves as an exploration of the changing class boundaries of late 1950s society. Stuart Hall argues that there is a "quiet revolution within the teenage revolution itself ... here are the very smart, sophisticated young men and women of the metropolitan jazz clubs" ("Absolute Beginnings" 23). Thus, jazz was open to all.

Change in class structure is also a feature of Jameson's theory of postmodern society, notably "the erosion of the older distinction between high culture and so-called mass or popular culture" (Lodge 543). Social affluence and new opportunities meant that distinctions between the post-war classes were less rigid. Commodities previously only available to the wealthy upper echelon of society were suddenly accessible to other, less wealthy social groups. As Lucy Robinson suggests:

Changing patterns of consumption and increased wage earning potential meant that the working class could buy the trappings of the middle classes ... those who would have previously been objectively defined as working class, subjectively experienced their lives as middle class (14).

Consumers had the means to buy into the culture industry and an increasing array of products to choose from, up to the point where the products themselves became standard features of daily life. Still today the majority of people and especially younger generations would be unable to imagine life without mobile telephones or access to the Internet. Mass consumption and the rapid advancement of technology have engendered an ever-growing desire for bigger, better, faster products to make our lives more convenient and comfortable. What is perhaps concerning is our reliance on these commodities and their potential to dominate our lives. The Narrator observes that "we're all too much set on gadgets, and let the dam things rule us" (MacInnes 142). This is particularly ironic in light of his need for his camera in order to make a living.

The changing class boundaries, affluence and new opportunities available to the 1950s youth imbued their culture with a sense of optimism and prosperity. Thus, it is interesting to note that the general feeling of optimism in society was not wholly reflected in the literary output of the era. Writing by particular novelists and playwrights, later categorised as a group of 'angry young men', reflects a sense of social alienation and disillusionment with traditional society. They felt that the new social autonomy had resulted in a society that was fragmented and unpredictable. The pace of change is arguably a key element in creating this sense of a rootless culture, which features as another of Jameson's key notions of the postmodern society. Jameson argues that the late capitalist culture suffers from

The disappearance of a sense of history ... the way in which our entire contemporary social system ... has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social formations have had in one way or another to preserve (Lodge 554).

This is evident in several features of the novel. Notably, there is little reference to the past, and the references that do exist are usually spoken by the older generations and tinged with nostalgic lament for easier, pre-war times. Overall, the novel is forward-looking; even the episodic form serves to continually move the story and the reader on with little chance to pause for reflection. The form of the novel also breaks with literary tradition, as Alan Sinfield highlights, "the book is organised with none of the tidy structural anticipation that is supposed to characterize the literary" (194). Thus, the structure of the novel and absence of a strictly linear story enhance the disappearance of a sense of history. It is arguably difficult, however, to blame the teenagers for enjoying the present and focusing on the future after spending their childhood years experiencing desolation and despair.

Money and consumption, then, are largely negative influences in the novel and foster a culture that revolves around exploitation, greed and unoriginality. Money, usually obtained through illegitimate means, often comes at a human price. The Narrator, for example, eventually acquires the money that he needs to convince Suze to leave her husband for him, but he inherits the money as a result of his father's death. Money allows the central characters temporary freedom, particularly from mainstream work, but ultimately does not bring any of them lasting happiness. The Narrator's rejection of his camera and Vespa scooter toward the end of the novel reflect his growing maturity and his eventual rejection of the consumerist lifestyle. Consumption in the novel is inextricably linked with exploitation and the novel presents both sides of the debate as to who the perpetrators and who are victims are. Nick Bentley argues that "the radical potential of the teenage 'revolution' is ultimately diluted through its commodification and incorporation into hegemonic capitalist power structures" ("Young Ones" 77). Whilst the teenagers are not wholly innocent, passive receptors of the consumerist culture, neither are they a threat to the "dominant economic ideology" ("Young Ones" 77). The riots exemplify a disturbing extreme of human consumption; of how groups can treat other groups in abhorrent ways based on group identities such as 'black' or 'teen'. According to Stuart Hall

The truth is that we live in an age in which the very flow between human beings ... has become distorted ...If we are willing to accept this state of affairs for the sake of a high rate of technical and industrial growth, then we are laying in store for our own society deep social disturbance, of which racial riots, floating juvenile delinquency and petty crimes are merely unpleasant forerunners ("Absolute Beginnings 21).

Rather than recognising individual merits of people regardless of their race, gender, class or sexuality, the novel demonstrates the potentially lethal power of a consumptive society in reducing people to products.

Works Cited

  • Bentley, Nick. "The Young Ones: A reassessment of the British New Left's representation of 1950s youth subcultures." European Journal of Cultural Studies. London: Sage, 2005. 65 - 83.
  • --- "Writing 1950s London: Narrative Strategies in Colin MacInnes's City of Spades and Absolute Beginners." Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation. Sept (2003): 21 Jan 2010 <http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/september2003/bently.html>
  • Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora". Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Ed. Rutherford, Jonathan. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990. 222-237.
  • --- "Absolute Beginnings." Universities and Left Review 7. 1959. 17-25.
  • Hoggart, Robert. The Uses of Literacy. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958.
  • Lodge, David and Wood, Nigel, ed. Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2008.
  • MacInnes, Colin. Absolute Beginners. London: Allison & Busby, 1980.
  • Milestone, Katie. "Youth Culture." The Guardian. 18 Dec 1999. 21 Jan 2010 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/1999/dec/18/weekend7.weekend5 >
  • Paterson, Mark. Consumption and Everyday Life. Oxon: Routledge, 2006.
  • Robinson, Lucy. Gay Men and the Left in Post-war Britain: How the Personal Got Political. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2007.

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