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Commodifying community | Bart Woodhouse [ANVIL vol 33 issue 3]

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The use of ‘community’ as a new housing marketing strategy

Bart Woodhouse
Bart Woodhouse is a Methodist Venture FX Pioneer missioner working on The Bridge development, a new housing context near Dartford, Kent. Bart grew up in the “Bible belt” of north Lancashire, and then after a powerful encounter with Jesus went to Cliff College to study Evangelism and Biblical Studies. He went on to complete his PhD. in Postmodern Biblical Studies at Sheffield University in 2009, with a continuing interests in the philosophy of culture, post-structuralism, contemporary Marxism, and “revival” studies. Bart will also be launching a new Methodist church plant in the Ebbsfleet Garden City development later next year.

When reflecting on the house building industry, and its methods of marketing particularly, we have to face the ubiquitous presence and potency of capitalism. Any glance under the surface of this industry reveals the pressures and drivers of any other modern commercial operation, but these forces come to bear on uniquely fundamental elements of our social structures, the notions of ‘home’ and ‘community’. How these ideas are massaged and manipulated in response to the pressures of the capitalist market space is of particular interest. How is the idea of community both understood and represented by the ‘market driven’ house builders, and to what extent is their narrative of community simply a cynical mimetic spin of a cultural memory that has little relation to reality?

The further question for this brief exercise relates to how the mode of marketing influences the expectations and relationships that the consumer of their housing product has towards ‘community’. These are broad questions and require much more than the few words and pages here, but I believe becoming better acquainted with this discourse will help us understand the missional context of new housing better. The critique of these inquiries resonates (to a certain degree) with the arguments of thinkers such as Theodor Adorno and the controversial artist and revolutionary philosopher Guy Debord. It is these strands of thought that we will follow, while always recognising there are many other, and arguably more fruitful, ways to unpick these questions. Adorno’s development of the idea of a ‘Culture Industry’ at work at the heart of a capitalist cultural drive towards complete domination and control provides us with a potent arsenal of critique to engage with the forces that wish to alter cultural ideas of ‘community’ to their profit making advantage. These themes are then powerfully, and playfully, expressed through the notion of the “spectacle” within Debord’s seminal work The Society of the Spectacle. We can only touch on these points of critique, which open up a far broader discussion about capitalism and culture that is far beyond the scope of this article, but we do examine some of their ideas and ultimately ask how the church’s response to new housing either reinforces or counters the capitalist rendering of community within a new housing context.

The gap between perception and reality

Cover: Commodifying community
Commodifying community
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There is a distinct difference between the sales pitch, presented within the glossy images of the sales pack, and the actual community that families and individuals are set to join. As the more mundane reality slowly becomes apparent, once the diggers and ‘high-viz’ jackets have moved on, the new house owner is faced with a far more difficult and onerous task than the sales pack had suggested. Since, once the dust settles the new community quickly solidifies into the usual routine of every established group of neighbours, and as such begins to soil its utopian hope with conflict, isolation, and unrealised promise. Here, the ordinary is again wrapped up to be something ideal, all in the interests of increasing market value, suggesting that money can purchase the fulfilment of our aspirations and longing for community. Community, as a feature of the product, sets up a similar relationship to the one suggested by certain male perfumes, the suggestion that an individual’s chances of attracting members of the opposite sex will be instantly increased. Sex is commodified as a means of adding value and saleability to perfumes, community is commodified in a no-less cynical and manipulative manner to increase the market performance of the housing product. The suggestion that buying the new home will bring with it a certain ideal experience of community is seeded in the mind of the new owner every time they are faced with the images and narratives of the sales machine.

The high level of careful marketing associated with new housing evokes the already suspicious paradigms depicted by Adorno’s “culture industry”[1], which in this case, influence the perceived notion of the ideal community, creating a heightened expectation of the impossible through manipulative use of image, art, and the human aspiration to be ‘at home’, that is, at ease with oneself and the world. This is not the place to fully explore the implications of Adorno’s (et al) insights into western culture, fuelled by capitalism and its bedfellow materialism, but some helpful observations will assist our questioning of the new housing industry.

Buying an illusion

The idea of the ‘new community’ is presented as a commodity in much the same way as every other aspect of modern life has also had its market potential realised; it is something that can be purchased by a compliant consumer. It is therefore already the experience presented and only awaits enjoyment when the purchase is complete, little different to acquiring any other service or product. A rather simplistic and unconscious set of beliefs are relied upon here; and these beliefs, that we have been taught, on most every other page and screen since before most of us could even talk, invite us in to the image (or imagination) of “becoming what we own” and “being what we experience”. The image of community as mediated through the marketing team of the house builder encourages the same imagining.

Representing ‘community’ as an image, and thereby, more easily constructing a commodity, evokes the words of the controversial Marxist Guy Debord when he argues, “the real consumer has become a consumer of illusions. The commodity is this materialised illusion, and the spectacle is its general expression.”[2] Here begins another moment of mass compliance drunk on the image, willing to play the game, despite its cruel postponement of the promised rest, of belonging, of safety, of identity, of real value, and authentic purpose. The house is sold to us within this same game, beyond the economic factors and the number of bedrooms exists the wider and often more subtle question of “who will I be” once I own and live in this fictitious place, in this illusory construct of community. We see that Adorno moves in a similar vein in his discussion of “culture” as now being defunct, in its true meaning, becoming instead a commodity of the capitalist “culture industry” when he writes,

Culture is a paradoxical commodity…it merges with advertisement. The more meaningless the latter appears under monopoly, the more omnipotent culture becomes. Its motives are economic enough.[3]

Community, in as much as it is caught in the idea of culture, has merged with advertisement within this new housing setting, becoming a fallacy, an abusive dream, but still functioning as a highly manipulative presence beyond the sales pitch.

Community confers identity

Community is always an unconscious and highly complex moment, ever changing and responding, but still being founded a priori by a sense of identity and belonging. This moment requires the constant presence of a conceptual border maintained and informed by conversation, conflict, submission, desire, risk, and safe retreat. The commercially driven image of community within the glossy context of sales, will exploit an individual’s desire, or hunger, for this community, suggesting that the community that’s ‘for sale’ will be the kind of generous and affirming space that she feels safe to be the ‘self’ she hopes to be.

Moreover, within the house building industry and its techniques of marketing, this idea of community has been air brushed into an undemanding climax, nothing more taxing than the de facto experience realised on purchasing and living in their ‘mass’ product. Capitalism now lays a claim to the very idea of community directly in the sale of “homes” as image, or the illusion of the impossible communal existence, as something to be bought. Again, drawing from Adorno,

The culture industry endlessly cheats its consumers out of what it endlessly promises. The promissory note of pleasure issued by plot and packaging is indefinitely prolonged: the promise, which actually compromises the entire show, disdainfully intimates that there is nothing more to come, that the diner must be satisfied with reading the menu.[4]

The idea of community becomes the packaging of the new “home”, but ultimately leaves the new house owner with an unfulfilled hunger.

Through personal missional experience I would suggest that there is a moment of interest in this unfulfilled hunger. While only ever an anecdotal observation, during our initial few years living on a new housing estate the new residents seemed to be more open to forming a ‘community’ than later in its more established state. Is this more than simply a product of dislocation and the human need to make connections, and are there elements of a collective expression of an unfulfilled desire, a hunger for a promised meal? Do we find a craving for the real in the wake of the purchase, in the waking from the illusion for a moment of disappointment and hunger as reality resets, a quiet moment in the consumer’s rollercoaster to listen to another gospel? These questions would suggest there are significant benefits of early engagement within new housing, and that the engagement should be centred on community formation, inclusive, real, marked by encounter, and producing an expression of communal identity, a common story, that no longer belongs to the glossy brochure. The idea of community needs to be rescued from its servitude to the market, and rather rediscovered via an old route, one that puts to work the real dynamics of conflict (in the sense of honesty), hospitality, and conversation. A work that allows the shepherd’s voice to be heard above the deception of mass culture and its images (John 10:7-18).

Community as means of control

The other element of this commodification is the standardisation of ‘community’ as a reproducible form. The idea that, given the right building programme and planning infrastructure a community will follow suit, and that certain economic and social characteristics of a community can be controlled as a reproducible form. These elements of control better enable the market to function with more predictability, and are expressed in the maintenance of difference, or to paraphrase Adorno, this difference is simply a construct of consumer segregation and statistical divisions, reinforcing social categories as a mechanism of the ‘culture industry’,[5] but increasingly only ever offering the illusion of value difference as “the amount of investment put on show”.[6]

This reinforcement does not seek to compound any ‘real’ difference, but rather affirm a narrative of difference that seeks to dehumanize the other, keeping the social strata layered appropriately for the market’s benefit. The social housing must be slightly smaller, in an enclave to one side of the new housing area, making it clear that they exist in a different economic place, literally and metaphorically. This affirms the value and status of the privately owned homes and plays the capitalist game as it gives structure to the new community in the form of both physical and social borders. This game is played in many other settings, for instance, Bluewater (an out of town shopping centre) has not yet asked Poundland to grace its marble clad malls, nor has Harrods sought to open a store in Peckham, they are wooing an economic and social class that values a selective space and it is this same strategy that grows the profit making capacity of ‘house building plc’. Risking a caricature of the new house buying process, potential private buyers are often told how near (or far) the “social renters” will be to their new property, with discounts being argued for and premium statuses been given accordingly.

A moment to consider the more philosophical forms of cultural manipulation and invention within a capitalist society better places us to prayerfully consider a response, lest we risk unthinkingly advocating the same game but with different language. A theme for another day. However, on a simple practical note, when a church buys into a new development, perhaps with a view to establishing some form of incarnational presence, we need to be very mindful how our presence either unconsciously affirms or challenges this game. In this artificial construct of human value and difference, on which side are we more strategically effective, and more importantly, where does the gospel place us (Luke 5:27-31)? Our church plants and missional activity are always at risk of some form of compliance to the process of community commodification, using similar strategies of advertisement, image identity, conflict avoidance and social labelling to ensure a positive response from the target group.

As a brief aside, well-meaning planning authorities do try and offset this tendency towards social segregation within new housing estates, but more often than not some form of ‘posh end’ develops, usually at the end of the building process where maximum profits can be realised. Therefore, early incarnational engagement best places missional workers to become effective bridge builders, when these differences are still working themselves out.

Social cleansing of ‘the other’

Community only ever exists as a moment born out of conflict in motion, conversation as relating and negotiating, risking the empowerment and necessity of the ‘other’. The cost and work of community is found precisely in the moments of its greatest reward, that differences are understood and accommodated within relational networks. Both the investment of relating and the presence of the ‘other’ are not good marketing concepts, rather, in line with capitalism, what matters to the market and the culture produced by it is the eradication of conflict and the unsettling ideological questions social conflict and negotiation might bring. Difference – as poverty, the immigrant population, the abused, dispossessed, those with mental and physical health issues, the domestic abuse victim, the paroled sex offender – is removed from any idea of the community set to arrive, these ‘others’ belong to another community which the buyer is conditioned to always avoid, a position unusually sanitised with a degree of unconscious apathy, in line with the wider culture industry. The new house builders have the opportunity to offer the sterile and conflict free community that the markets and the ideal consumers desire, sprinkled with carefully placed and conscience-alleviating social housing.

Again, the church’s mode of mission must not simply maintain the sterile environment, doing ‘nice’ things for ‘nice’ people within these new housing contexts. We need to consider, with some seriousness, what our role is in giving voice to the ‘other’, whether that is a deprived neighbouring community that feels forgotten and neglected, or disaffected young people, victims of the quiet alcoholism of ‘middle England’ or the isolated single mother with a nice new flat but living in an economic foreign land. The ‘other’ voice will be unique from context to context but in order that we resist the commodification of both community and the gospel we must facilitate and host the ‘other’ voices, which will bring honesty and subsequent conflict but is how a real community might be forged, in opposition to a capitalist agenda.

The Jesus model of community invites the ‘other’, the sinners, the prostitutes and the outcasts, as they must be invited if any true gospel community is to form. Our presence within new housing must confidently ask awkward questions that give voice to the other and truly present a counter cultural, counter capitalist, and counter commodification idea and experience of community, inviting people into a story they do not own; rather, a much wider history with complexities, conflict and character. This history invites participation in something much larger than the narrow game of superficiality and manipulation offered by the marketing suite.

Colluding with the ‘cult of the individual’

Lastly, Debord warns of a pseudo-community being engineered to maintain the supremacy of the individual, even mentioning housing developments as a specific example. He writes,

This reintegration into the system means bringing isolated individuals together as isolated individuals. Factories, cultural centres, tourist resorts and housing developments are specifically designed to foster this type of pseudo-community.[7]

Debord is making these statements out of a sense of revolution and resistance to capitalism as it is expressed culturally as well as economically, here highlighting the need of the system to maintain a high level of isolationism without losing entirely the notion of community. Isolated individuals make good and compliant consumers, but they need to be integrated into a larger system, which as he argues, can be achieved through modern urbanism, where individuals are brought together to exhibit and affirm their individualism through consumption and mass production. This pseudo-community becomes nothing more than an opportunity for exhibition. 

The commodification of community colludes with the cult of the individual, creating a space where the community is a type of audience, making consumption more fulfilling, as the ‘show’ makes no sense without the affirmation of being seen. The marketability of the new build homes increases if a subtle element of envy provocation and status affirmation can be woven into the imagination when choosing where to live. New housing, like most other suburban settings, has had this element of consumerist life beating within its streets for many decades, but new housing contexts do tend to encourage and exaggerate these forms of behaviour, or self-belief and delusion. The Jesus life of self-giving humility, of being a “fool for Christ” is what must be evidenced by our presence in these contexts. How this works itself out may need careful thought and prayer, but I would suggest a countercultural movement that seeks to demonstrate the fruit of humility and the ‘better’ community, or someplace the individual can stop hiding in the perceived safety of his ‘castle’ and exhibition, where actions and activities make communal demands of the ‘self’ apart from the material clutter. Creating opportunities to serve the ‘other’ and, just as importantly, to be served, help make a mockery of materialism, and also speak of the servant Jesus, who, while Lord of all that is created, had his feet washed with the tears of a prostitute and then washed the feet of those who followed him.

An alternative model of community

The church can uniquely draw from many diverse levels of education, financial income, and life experience within the borders of its community, as one centred on the communal experience of grace and the presence of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. In this sense we model a community that counters and undoes the modes of manipulation necessary for the growth of profit and ever more invasive forms of commodification. We invite the very real potential of conflict, taking the holy risk necessary for love, so that the nature of true community can be most wonderfully evidenced, both as a work, as a commitment, and as an expression of Christ-like love.

Our moments of reflection regarding the missional mode of engagement with ‘new housing communities’ must be acutely self-aware of the persistent encroaching pedagogy of the ‘culture industry’. Moreover, this self-awareness should push us into a far wider conversation where our reflective questions include an honest appraisal of what we mean by engaging ‘culture’ when,

in some quarters culture has become a way of not talking about capitalism. [And this] capitalist society relegates whole swathes of its citizenry to the scrap heap, but is exquisitely sensitive about not offending their beliefs.[8]

Capitalism and the markets that drive it are shaping our lives more and more, and as Adorno and Debord argued over 50 years ago, are dictating and manipulating the phenomenon we have obsessed over, namely culture. Community is now becoming a commodity, in as much as everything is being brought into some form of servitude and self-giving to the market. The message of Jesus and the community that follows him must evidence thoughtful revolution against the encroaching commodification of life, culture, and even faith. The church must not become “exquisitely sensitive”, but rather genuinely counter-cultural, opening up the power and potential of the gospel in opposition to, rather than in sympathy with, the industry of cultural consumerism, where there are no absolutes and the ‘self’ fearfully admires the emperor’s new clothes. The church must be mindful to not keep talking about culture as a means of avoiding dealing with capitalism.

Notes

[1] Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry (New York: Routledge, 1991), 78-80

[2] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (London: Rebel Press, 1967), 24

[3] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 131

[4] Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, 111

[5] Ibid, 96-97

[6] Ibid, 97

[7] Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 96

[8] Terry Eagleton, Culture, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 35