The Discourse of Demand: Another Paradox

(Back to Contents)

Though my analysis below will focus on what I call a "theme of opposition", I must acknowledge that other analyses are certainly possible. The discourse of demand might be credibly represented as struck from the template of the discourse of supply. For example, the bare fact that my informants; Maggie, Betsy, Vincent and Linda, have bought tract houses in Antelope Valley might be taken as evidence of the structuring power of the discourse of supply. Yet, this discourse alone did not bring about homeownership: the structures and values of our social polity, expressed in tax tables and a host of bureaucratic institutions, have also done their part. Each of my four home-buying informants characterized her/his house first and foremost as an "investment". Each cited tax "write-offs" and long-term financial planning as the primary motivation for purchasing a house. Yet, if tax codes alone could bring about homeownership, why does a discourse of supply exist; and why does it take (among others) the forms I have already described? Obviously, this is not simply a matter of selling houses, but of reproducing a mode of life--a vast and complicated business if ever there were one. My presentation of a theme of opposition recognizes this vast complexity by noting, where appropriate, the convergence of the discourses of supply and demand. I begin this presentation with three "leitmotivs" of opposition, one from each of the households I studied, arranged from least self-conscious and oppositional to most.

Vincent and Laura: Home as Oasis:

(Back to Contents)

Predominant in the discourse of demand expressed by Vincent and Laura is the conception of the home as an escape from the workplace. They have invested a great deal of time and energy in furnishing, decorating and landscaping their dwelling in accordance with this conception, as the following excerpts illustrate:

VINCENT: Okay, the swimming pool is Grecian style and Laura and I designed it with the builder and as we went along we had to change things here and there, we have lions heads that spit water into the pool, and a dam from the Jacuzzi that flows in, and we picked a dark blue tile with a gold ribbon an..........and we just wanted to make it look Grecian......comfortable, you know, a nice place to be, you know like a little oasis or paradise, whatever you want to call it...... to get away from the outside world....and it turned out really well so far, we've still got a lot of work to do on it.

LAURA: Yeah, sorta want the backyard to be a place that, like he said you ca, we can escape just sort of feels like we have to make.....We'd like to make this a, y'know, a place we'd like to come home to....

VIN: Spend time there?

LAU: Yes, to.......we work like mad people and the time we're home we'd like to be able to y'know really make it quality time and enjoy it rather than "Oh we're just home" ...we want to look forward to being here and having fun or relaxing

VIN: Yeah we want to be happy at home instead of just you know.......

LAU: Our vacations many times are not together....I'm stuck uh, I'm off when my office is closed and when my office is closed that's when my vacation time is......and with his plant they close down and when they're closed down that's when his vacation is and for the past four years they haven't matched.....we miss each other by about three we many times don't even go on a vacation...we have our little, we want to make our little oasis back there so we can have our little vacation here

[in response to my question of where they spend time outside of home and work, the conversation turns to entertainment and Laura says:]

LAU: as far as entertainment goes.......I don't know maybe bowling..........there's not really ..........I can't think of a whole lot up's kind of sad to say .......... just sort of go to work and stay at home.......that's why we wanted to make our home a place we wanted to enjoy being....'cos we spend so much time here.

While I would not argue that this conception of home as haven from the workplace be seen as resistance, it certainly expresses a criticism in that the workplace is a place to "escape from". Work is a domain of constraint and relative powerlessness: for example, neither Vincent nor Laura is free to choose when to take vacation. Further, though their lives are essentially lived either "at work" or "at home", Vincent and Laura never spoke of their work, except to mention the constraints it put upon them: e.g. Laura speaking of having to "kow tow" to her boss's wife. Vincent and Laura's self-presentations to me centered on the work they put into their house and, in spite of my many questions about it, they remained rather reticent about their "on the job" lives. Thus, I came to see that "home" is opposed to "work", not simply as a place of rest and leisure, but also as a place to articulate claims about the self that contrast with their working identities. That the home is a site from which to broadcast status claims, as well as other claims of identity, is particularly evident from my analysis of the interior furnishing of Vincent and Laura's house.

In decor and function, Vincent and Laura's house is divided into formal spaces of status display and informal spaces of leisure. Their front entry opens on to a living and dining room, both decorated in "formal Victorian": dark reproduction furniture, crimson velvet upholstery and such miscellany as lace doilies, crystal candle holders and sculptural figurines. The Victorian motif is carried over in their bedroom by a "brass and wrought-iron bed", a reproduction antique wardrobe and flowery fabric prints. In contrast, the family room, spare bedroom, bathrooms and kitchen are decorated in a style Vincent and Laura describe alternately as "country", "country French", or "poor man's antique". The formal/informal dichotomy and its associations are evident in the following excerpt from an interview conducted in Vincent and Laura's living room:

LAURA: . . . we wanted a room that you walked into and you almost just sort of stop and....y'know "Wow!"...we jus, we both wanted that for a very long time

VINCENT: She's a snob

LAU: [mouth agape]......I uh.... "I am not" [feigns a Scarlet O'Hara voice]...I just wanted it to be very nice, I'm in love with the Victorian era and all the little things that go along with it and I just thought that's what we would like and he likes it and uh...we were fortunate enough to find a house... ...that was one of the things that we wanted, a separate living room from the family room......we wanted our room in the back that's our comfortable room that we kick our shoes off in and put our feet on the couch and watch TV at night........ or read a book and here this is the room that we can um.... you walk in and it's very nice and it's formal and it's beautiful and people walk through it//

VIN: \\ people go to the other room

LAU: Or you can, if you would like, like at Christmas time my office had their party here, we had a huge tree and it was, it turned out very nice

VIN: It was a real nice party

LAU: Yes, it was...just sort of went with the Christmas thing and uh that's just what we wanted, we wanted to be able to walk in and um, not.....not take your breath away, but just sort of, just kinda think "Wow, this is really nice!"

VIC: She wants people to ogle.

LAU: No I don't, I want to ogle, you know....I've just wanted things for a long time and we've both worked very hard and I think we deserve this and um......the kitchen, it's sort of a different type of thing.....of course I don't know if there's such a thing as a formal kitchen, but we've got kind of an easy country style in there......

This excerpt reveals, not only the division of domestic space into formal and informal, but also the functional rationale for such division. The formal living and dining rooms are sites of display: that they serve this function is made explicit by Vincent and Laura's statements that these rooms are meant to be looked at, "ogled" and "walked through"; they have been furnished to "take the viewer's breath away". Thus, the formal rooms serve to broadcast Vincent and Laura's claims of identity and status. They are used primarily on ritual occasions (e.g. a Christmas party): their formal dining table had "only been eaten at twice" in past two years. Moreover, these formal areas are the most public in the house, a further reflection of their function, since status claims must address an outside audience.

In contrast, the informal family room, bedrooms and kitchen--invisible from the front entry--are coded as spaces of rest and leisure. As Laura says, the family room is "just our room to be comfortable with, you can't see it from the front room and if you want to be laying in there just sacked out, that's fine". The "country-style" kitchen is for "hanging out": it is the site for most of Vincent and Laura's casual entertaining. As I came to know this couple better, our interviews moved from the formal living room, to the family room, until, finally, most of our interactions were taking place in the kitchen. Thus, social distance is also coded into the use and conception of these spaces. Though there is certainly much overlap, the formal, more public spaces articulate status claims vis vis the outside world, while the informal, more private spaces express claims of identity having less to do with status, in the ordinary sense, than with alienation, in the Marxist sense. The furnishing of both kinds of space is marked by nostalgia. I will support these assertions by discussing the claims of identity articulated in Vincent and Laura's "formal Victorian" rooms; and then by examining those articulated in informal rooms in terms of alienation.

Vincent and Laura's Victorian style of furnishing expresses a high degree of formality, decorum and archaism, and is associated with leisure, aristocracy and "gentler" days now past. Laura characterizes the Victorian era as follows:

It just seems like a gentler time...the detail in the sofa, the way they carved the wood to the fabric that they used, the delicate things in the tapestry.....things just aren't like that anymore.

Though Laura says she has loved this style since she "was a little girl", she also "reads the Victorian magazines" from which she gets decorating ideas. The popularity of this style can be gauged from the existence of several periodicals and catalogs that explicitly evoke the Victorian era in their names and merchandise, e.g. Victorian Magazine, Victoria's Secret. I would argue that one source of this style's popularity is that its connotations, allow the consumer to make claims of self-identity that express a more ideal self.

As the following excerpt indicates, the Victorian style, evocative of the bourgeois leisure class which emerged in that historical period, signals not only wealth and power, but also a variety of subjective capacities associated with "class":

ME: What do you think your house says about know..uh...different rooms might say different things...

VINCENT: Well,....[laughs]............that's a hard question...... it's kinda like bragging on

LAURA: Clean.....spotless clean.......this is Mr. Clean//

VIN: \\

LAU: Yes......his friends call him ....yes.......I think to answer that question ....I mean as far as what it says about us um.......things are whole house doesn't have to be Victorian..... there's a Southwest room upstairs........... backyard's going to be Grecian......that's what we like......that's just a lil'.......little adventurous...

Thus, Vincent and Laura's decor shows them to be "classy" people in two ways: first, it evokes the bourgeois leisure class in their most conspicuous days; and second, it demonstrates the couple's knowledge of, and facility with, a number of different furnishing styles (e.g. Victorian, Grecian, Southwest). At work, they may be relatively powerless and may be seen (by themselves and others) as lacking the expert knowledge and capacities of the professionals they work with. (In Vincent's case these are Borax executives, in Laura's, the dentist for whom she worked) Yet, in contrast, their home shows them as people of refinement and taste who know a variety of historical styles and can employ them artfully, "adventurously". Their home broadcasts: "we are people worthy of your respect, not only because we have the means to buy and furnish a house, but also because we have the savoir-faire to do so in a high-class manner".

That furnishings articulate status claims and upward social mobility is further evident in the couple's frequent contrasts between the decor of their new home and that of their previous residence. For example, in explaining their choice of carpeting, Laura says: "Victor had wanted our little hallway size trailer we had blue and I didn't even want to look at blue, forget it". That their status claims are addressed to the outside world is clear, first of all, in Laura's hosting of the office Christmas party, and second of all, in the fact that the couple worked "to make the outside of the house look nice before the inside looked nice".

Like the formal, the informal areas of Vincent and Laura's house betoken the status of having leisure and cultural competencies, e.g.: distinguishing between "country" and "country French"; knowing that light woods like pine are "rustic" and informal, while darker woods are sophisticated ("civilized") and formal. However, "free-time" and cultural competence are not simply status markers, they are also part of the very important, on-going process of "working on" the home. Though Vincent and Laura spend "over ten hours a day at work" (including commutes), much of their "leisure" time is spent working around the house: cleaning; landscaping; gardening; and making structural and decorative improvements. In marked contrast to their reticence about paid work, Vincent and Laura speak with pride and enthusiasm about their accomplishments at home:

LAURA: ...this is therapy for Vincent to be out in his yard and it shows and I'm so happy he does it because I'm so horrible at it....

VINCENT: Yeah, she's not into that....I trim the bushes and keep everything up.....I help out the neighbors and things like's just something I enjoy doing...

LAU: I'm glad he's so giving as far as helping with the neighbors. . .even if it's just helping them carry something into the house. . .or they're wanting their yard to look nice because ours looks nice...and they don't want theirs to look funny. . .it's nice that a lot of folks have caught on and we see some of the things that we've yards down the street. . .

VIN: But I wouldn't consider myself a trend-setter...I just like to get out and do it....

ME: But do you notice borrowing of.......

VIN: Of ideas?

LAU: Definitely, definitely....

VIN: a little here and there....the neighbors down the street ....I've helped them do their yards and they have some rocks and things in their looks similar to what ours does, but I don't really mind's kind of flattering, really....

Vincent and Laura clearly take pride in their home-making expertise and, I would argue, one source of this pride is the unalienated nature of home labor. This interpretation emerges more clearly in the context of the "country" decor in their informal rooms.

The "easy country look" of the kitchen, with its "farm animals, cow things and barnyard type...copper"; the family room's quilt, dried flowers and other handicrafts; and the "pelts and rustic looking" objects in the Southwest room; does not betoken a time and place of leisure. Rather, it evokes a rural past of home production and economic self-sufficiency, a time when labor entailed recognized skill and was, in large part, an end in itself (i.e. it was less alienated, in the Marxist sense). Even their Victorian style furnishings are spoken of in terms of craftsmanship, for Laura appreciates "the detail in the sofa. . . the way they carved the wood". Therefore, my reading of a theme of opposition in Vincent and Laura's discourse of demand rests on, not only their conception of home as an "escape" from the workplace, but also their claims of identity. In working on their home and in their allusions to a rustic past, Vincent and Laura present themselves as people of skill and productive capacity.

While this theme of opposition hardly constitutes a "counter-discourse", it certainly contains an embedded criticism of the dominant social order. The workplace is a place "to escape from" and self-identities are constructed in manifest contrast to job identities. However, these criticisms take up elements of the dominant ideology and are, thus, inertial. Vincent and Laura's discourse of demand echoes the discourse of supply in many ways. For example, it accedes to the idea of society as a ladder: this couple's goal of upward mobility is evident in their saving for a house, working to get out of their "hallway-sized trailer", and asserting their status in the hierarchy via furnishing and landscaping. Further, they accept consumption as the standard against which to measure status: the physical structure of the house and its material contents articulate self and status identities. This is a particular manifestation of what Marx called commodity fetishism: social relationships appearing as relationships between things. A convergence of the discourses of supply and demand also emerges from my research with Betsy. Yet, here, too, I find a theme of opposition, this time articulated more self-consciously, but caught up, just the same, with the discourse of supply.

Betsy: The Protestant Ethic and American Dream

(Back to Contents)

More than anything else Betsy sees her house as a testament to her hard work. When I asked how owning a house made her feel about herself, she replied:

. . .that I've worked hard and I feel that I work hard here and I think that this is a result of hard work, that's how I feel...I feel know. . .there's a truth in dad taught me when I was growing up .....if you work hard your hard work will be good results and I....I've worked very hard in my years and....and...and I continue to and I think that this is a result of it, so that's how I think it makes me my personal, like this is a result of my know...and here's my house and isn't it nice. . .and isn't my work nice... and not so anyone else can pat me on the back and say: "Oh gosh, she's just doing so good". But just because I can say and look and say: "I'm doing okay!" "I'm doing good, my hard work does pay off and here's an example of it". For me you I guess that's what it, to own a house, is about, I guess, or to own this particular house...

Betsy's conception of her house as the embodiment of her hard work expresses claims of self-identity and subjective capacities similar to those of Vincent and Laura. Betsy, too, spoke freely only about her domestic labors, never about her paid employment, in spite of the fact that I knew her from her workplace and often visited there. Further, I see in her statements that, by working on the house, Betsy forges a self-identity of skill and accomplishment:

ME: Would you say the outside or inside of the house says more about you?

BETSY: I think the inside does.....coz the stuff in it is ours, I think the things that we do in it are ours, but then the backyard is, that's us, I mean we fixed it, we did it, it changed from dirt to a garden now, you know there's still dirt but there's grass now, and a patio. . .

ME: So you continue working on the house mostly for your own comfort?

BET: ummm hmm.....yeah.....'cause it feels good, I like the result, I like it when I'm doing it, but I especially like it when I'm done and I go "Wow, that was hard work" when we put the patio in, I put all the bricks in myself and I'm not done yet 'cause I got into a stall, felt really good when I got done and I got to see.....It was like I didn't even know I could do that stuff, I didn't know we could do cement know.....I didn't know that I could make curtains, I didn't know this 'cause I've never ever done this stuff before, but we bought books and we did it and it's's a great feel.....feels really good, yeah it does, I like it a lot.....

I only infer that this discovery of new competencies and her pleasure in them reflects a more ideal self-identity than she derives from paid employment because Betsy rarely spoke about her job. She certainly never spoke about it with the sense of pride and accomplishment she takes in her domestic labors. While Betsy's ethic of hard work is consonant with that dominant ideology known as the "Protestant ethic", the hard work with which she identifies is carried out in the home, not the workplace. Her sense of herself as a person who "knows"--knows how to make curtains, lay cement, etc.--comes from her labors of home improvement. Indeed, as Betsy indicates, one motive for these improvements is the sense of competency derived from making them. As with Vincent and Laura, I interpret the subjective capacities developed through "home labor" as opposed to a workplace identity of relative incapacity and powerlessness.

Yet, Betsy's identification of and with her home as an example of her hard work also reflects her participation in the idea of a social ladder. In addition, it takes up commodity consumption as measure of status. That is, like Vincent and Laura, Betsy sees and uses her house as a means by which to articulate claims about her status in the social hierarchy. Moreover, the facts of her residence history recapitulate the goal of upward social mobility. The following interview excerpt illustrates these points:

BETSY: all my life I've wanted to live someplace nice you know, it's like you don't want to live in a dump...and you want to live someplace that, that you can bring people to and feel proud of and you want it to represent who you are in some don't think of it that way, it's like you're asking me questions that I never really thought about but.... this house was that for me, it was's so nice to me and I think I can make it nicer and I can be part of it and so I guess it makes me feel I'm finally getting to live in the style, or in the way, that I wanna have, always wanted to live you know.....I don't have to ashamed of where I'm living and . . . in my life I have done that, I think all of us have had to live....less than know in dumps places that were within our daughter and I lived alone for a long time and we lived in a neighborhood that was really, really, really lots of break-ins and it was just old and dirty and run down, and the house we lived in wasn't much of anything either.....but we always wanted more, you want to live someplace that you feel like, this is nice, you know, this is our house and...this is good an.....I think that this house gave me that on some level that's what.....that's how it feels....I don't know what else to say......'cause I never really think about that stuff.

Betsy's home clearly broadcasts something about her to the outside world, it is a place she "can bring people to and feel proud". Yet, her adoption of commodity consumption to express status claims is not the only indication of her conversance with the discourse of supply (and the ideologies it evokes). As the following statement by her daughter shows, Betsy takes up the deep association of house and family that I identified as the first analytic theme of the discourse of supply:

HOPE: I think my mom had this idea that...'cause they've always had marital problems and stuff, but I think they had this idea that if they did buy a house that....that it would make everything better and would bring the family closer together and I don't see that that happened, I see that it actually tore the family more apart than it already was...

It seems that Betsy associates self-owned, detached houses with "family" so deeply that purchasing one is a strategy for bringing "the family closer together". However, as Hope tells, this strategy proved ineffective and, as I will discuss below, its failure seems to have given Betsy some critical insight into what she, herself, refers to as "this American Dream".

When we first began interviewing, Betsy spoke very positively about her experience of homeownership, as is evident from the first excerpts in this section. Owning a home was a goal she had set for herself and achieved. Considered in the context of her marital and job histories, and her struggle with alcoholism, this achievement takes on a deeper significance. Yet, as our conversations continued, it became clear, not only that Betsy found homeownership more of a "struggle" than she expected, but also that she had some insight into the nature of the struggle.

Betsy perceives that her current marital difficulties are not simply the result of personal incompatibility. She is quite aware that many of these problems are related to the market's penetration of social relationships: "I hear that's one of the biggest things that breaks up marriages, is finances". Moreover, she is quite articulate about the specific character of market penetration. As the following excerpt shows, she recognizes that her social relationships are being "eaten away" by the combined constraints of: (1) having to sell her labor and life (as time) on the market--the social relations of production; and (2) expressing claims of status and self-identity via commodities--consumption.

ME: You've talked about the positive aspects of how it has made you feel to achieve this goal, what, if any, are the negative aspects....the negative ways your life has changed?

BETSY: I think that it's eaten away at my relationship with my husband......I think that it's been really hard for [Hope]... 'cause I'm not here you know, 'cause she's home at 3 [p.m.] and I'm not home until 6.30 [p.m.]...and I'm not here [cries] so that's really hard..................................I don't want to cry ..........................but I think just the time, the time that you put into the drive and the time that you put into the work .....and I think that because I own the house I have to keep working hard so that things stay nice.....I don't think that nice things stay nice ....if you don't take good care of them and I......I think that about physical things, your body or your health, I think that about your home and I think that about relationships.....and I think when you're tired all the time.......and you're on the road all the time and you're doing work........ . . you know I think it gets messy....or....uh....falls apart if you don't keep working on it. . .because. . .all relationships have problems, but I think when you don't have work on the relationship....or both parties, or one party, is very tired and doesn't want to do the work ends up with nothing and nothing to work on....and I think that the result has been very, very devastating on our marriage...and it's sad, it's very sad to me...[talks about the strain on her relationship with husband and daughter].....those are the worst things that have happened to me..... because it hurts relationships when you don't have time, I think it really hurts a lot when you're tired. . .and it gets real gets really..... overwhelming. . . what's right, what are you going to do ...where am I going to find the time.....that's the worst thing that has happened since....and that's a lot....I think to own a house that's a high price.....too wouldn't do it again......... I wouldn't move out here again...

Again, I have no grounds for calling this a "counter-discourse", but Betsy certainly makes an insightful and articulate criticism of the conditions of her existence. Further, she articulates, albeit unselfconsciously, a sound criticism of the commodity status of labor. That is, I read in the excerpt above a protest that domestic labors are also productive labors, that social relationships and "physical things, your body your health" also require work. The capitalist separation of production from the domestic realm, and resulting intensification of the split between a private world of family and consumption, and a public world of society and production, has served to define labor as a commodity. Yet, Betsy's discourse subverts this definition, like the proverbial "old wives", she knows that "things get messy" and "fall apart if you don't keep working on them". She knows that sustaining social relationships, raising children, managing entropy--in short, those labors that still, generally, do not take commodity form--are labor nevertheless; and she chafes against the fact that they are defined otherwise in our society. It is not merely that Betsy suffers and expresses her feelings clearly, for she also identifies the source and nature of her difficulties. Certainly hers is no thorough-going analysis of the social relations of production, but then when would she have the time for such endeavor? I simply wish to demonstrate that my informants' apprehensions of the world cannot accurately be described as "false" or "mystified". Of course, they are bound up and conversant with, embedded and implicated in, a number of dominant discourses, yet even this fact is perceived by my informants.

From our interviews, it is clear that Betsy has experienced and perceived the ideological constellation of homeownership, family, and consumption. Moreover, she as much as identifies this constellation qua ideology, calling it "this American dream", a name rather like those I have employed in my analyses, and one that often appears in scholarly literature (e.g. Starr 1973). The following two excerpts illustrate my point:

ME: What do you think drives most people to want to be a homeowner, if indeed it is, as you say, more work?

BETSY: I think that like myself people that have never owned a house.....seriously, that they just have no idea what it is to own a house....I think that it's this American dream that we're fed, spoon-fed, since, you know, you grow up, you get married, you buy a have kids...that...that they don't realize, just as with having children, how much work is truly involved it's not, it's looks real easy ... you know TV makes it look easy and just even watching other families . . .but the struggle that goes on is not...

ME: Do you think that there are many people who can afford to decorate and landscape like the model homes?

BET: Very, very few.....many people come in on a shoe-string, that's why we're here....So, I'd have to say no, I'd have to say they're sold a bill of goods in that sense.......all of the backyards in the model homes are landscaped beautifully...... trees, big trees, you don't know how long it takes for a put a twig in and you expect it to turn into a tree in a year and it doesn't, it takes five, ten, fifteen years, you know, so yeah.......I think we're sold a bill of goods in some sense...........I think it's like you buy an image, you know what I mean, and when you get it it's not the image that you bought....I think that's the way the models are deceiving, it's like.....I couldn't grasp what it was . . uh........about the model homes are selling a bill of goods........and I couldn't get it until right now when we were just talking about it, 'cause it's the truth, you buy this image that you walk into in all of the model homes.....

Again, Betsy's observations do not comprise a "counter-discourse", but they do express an insightful criticism. However, Betsy's discourse shares with the discourse of supply a common set of "values", or vocabulary of ideals--a cultural tool-kit made up of notions of: "the family"; homeownership; community; "the ladder of society"; and asserting status via consumption, among others. Thus, Betsy's opposition, like Vincent and Laura's, is inertial. Yet, recognizing these oppositions, their insight and value, as I will argue in the final section of my findings, is important to understanding the nature of ideology and cultural reproduction.

Next Chapter