I will be speaking at the University of York on 31st May on ‘Resistance in Advertising, or the Problem of Interpassivity’ as part of the Centre for Modern Studies ‘Advertising and Consumer Culture’ conference.


In a society where there has recently been a re-emergence of resistive sentiment – with heightened activism and radical discourse in the wake of the financial crisis – it has become more crucial than ever to consider the nature of this resistance. For instance, we must ask questions of what the role of resistance is and in what medium it plays out so that we can establish its effectiveness in overcoming the current ideological framework.

It could, for instance, be seen as problematic that resistance and rebelliousness is so often used in advertising and consumer culture (often insinuating a resistance against the very consumer society that it is a part of). This paper intends to present a few examples of this ‘anti-consumer consumerism’ and suggests a fundamental problem that this presents for any contemporary resistive project: interpassivity.

Interpassivity (Pfaller 2003; Zizek 1989; Fisher 2009) refers to the relieving of the passivity of the subject through an ‘other’. For example, when we watch a comedy on the television that contains canned laughter, we tend not to laugh ourselves and yet somehow feel relieved. The canned laughter can be said to act interpassively on our behalf – enjoying the programme for us – so that we don’t have to.

This paper suggests that this concept could be applied fruitfully to resistance because anti-consumer products could be said to “perform 
anti‐ capitalism
consume with 
(Fisher 2009:12). By demonstrating potential examples of this in advertising, the aim is to show how the concept might be applied to the analysis of consumer culture in order to reconsider the nature of resistance in our society.

The (provisional) programme looks quite exciting for anyone interested in consumer culture, and includes a keynote talk from Dr Jo Littler (author of “Radical Consumption: Shopping for Change in Contemporary Culture”):

(Provisional) Programme:

9:30am Registration: Berrick Saul Bulding (BSB) Foyer

PANEL 1: The Politics of Consumerism: America & the Eastern Bloc

10:10am Andrea Vesentini (Humanities and Cultural Studies, London Consortium – Birkbeck, University of London) ‘It’s Cool Inside: the Advertising of Air-conditioning in Postwar America’

10:30am Sarah Cullen (English Literature, Newcastle University) ‘See The Conquering Hero Comes – in a Viyella Robe Roche’

10:50am Polona Sitar (Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, University of Ljubljana) ‘“The Drink of Our and Your Youth”: the Case of a Local Socialistic Brand in the Era of Globalisation

PANEL 2: Gender Construction and the Language of Advertising

11:50am Joelin Quigley-Berg (Sociology, University of Warwick) ‘What Counts as Sexism? Regulating Sexist Offence in UK Television Advertising’

12:10pm Rachael Alexander (English Literature/Marketing, University of Strathclyde) ‘The Quest for the Perfect Home: Consumption, Consumerism and Advertising in Ladies’ Home Journal and Canadian Home Journal’

12:30pm Irina Koteyko (English Literature & Language, University College London) ‘The Language of Modern British Advertising: a Linguistic Approach’ 

PANEL 3: Advertising Aesthetics and Commodity Culture

2:00pm Helen Taylor (English, Royal Holloway, University of London) ‘“You and Père Ubu holding hands in Piccadilly/ Walking off into the COCA COLA sunset”: the Shorthand of Brands, Adverts, and Lists in the Poetry of Adrian Henri’

2:20pm Giulia Simi (History of Art, University of Pisa) ‘Consuming the Renaissance: Tano Festa and Mario Schifano in Italian Pop Art’

2:40pm Rona Cran (English Language and Literature, UCL) ‘Movies, Department Stores, and Modern Art: Frank O’Hara and Commodity Culture’

PANEL 4: Anti-consumerism

3:40pm Paddy Johnson (English, University of Sussex) ‘False Advertising: Parodies of Adverts in Chris Ware’s ACME Novelty Library

4:10pm Sam Burgum (Sociology, University of York) ‘Resistance in Advertising, or the Problem of Interpassivity’

4:30pm Lydia Nicholas (Anthropology, UCL) ‘Fixing our things, fixing our selves: crafting an anti-consumption identity’


Conference Description:

Commercial speech – advertising – makes up most of what we share as a culture . . . As the language of commercialism has become louder, the language of high culture has become quieter.

                – James B. Twitchell, Twenty Ads that Shook the World

Throughout the modern period, advertising and consumer culture have dominated everyday life; moreover, the trappings of commercialism permeate much of supposed ‘high culture’. Commodities clutter the pages of novels from Dickens and Zola to Bret Easton Ellis; works by Joyce and DeLillo are enlivened by advertising jingles and slogans; brands and trademarks pervade the practice of artists from Picasso to Warhol and the visualisation of consumer desire is appropriated and challenged in the work of Richard Hamilton and Martha Rosler.

Whether celebrating or critiquing advertising and consumer culture, art reflects our enduring fascination with them, despite research into the psychological effects of advertising, concerns over the evils of consumerism, and the often sinister nature of market research. The recent television show Mad Men, for instance, has revivified interest and scholarly debate surrounding the power of advertising and the consumer, as well as restaging debates around sexism, truth and the heteronormative ideal. Meanwhile, sociology in the wake of Erving Goffman continues to explore advertising’s uses and abuses of gender, identity and desire. Countervailing against consumerism and advertising’s many critics, theorists such as Michel de Certeau and the critical movement Thing Theory have endeavoured to examine advertising and consumer culture from a standpoint that goes beyond the model of the ‘passive consumer’ or Marx’s account of commodity fetishism.


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