Jean Baudrillard is one of the most important and provocative writers of the contemporary era. Due to the vast scope and various themes of his work, this paper will closely focus on the analysis of consumption in his books The System of Objects (1968) and The Consumer Society (1970), as these illustrate the foundation of thought upon which Baudrillard based much of his later work. They provide an analysis of the system of objects within the structure of a consumer society and are sympathetic to Marxist concepts of political economy in their understanding of consumerism as assessed in terms of the replacement of use-values with sign-values. They attempt to reconstruct political economy and Marxism on the basis of semiological theories of the sign (Kellner, 1989, p. 7). It is these tensions between a Neo-Marxist foundation of political economy and more abstract notions that accompany postmodernist thought that make these early works so salient.
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This paper will argue that Baudrillard’s early analysis of consumption is therefore both brilliant, because it goes beyond other critiques in terms of its conception of the sign, yet flawed as it remains contradictory and ambiguous in its reconciliation of two apparently adverse theories. It is evident that there are contradictions in the postmodern term and Baudrillard’s commitment to some form of political economy. Furthermore, because Baudrillard is almost always labeled a postmodernist, he is vulnerable to the attacks launched upon postmodernism more generally; it is a broad, elusive movement of thought, his writing style is hyperbolic and declarative and often lacks a necessary sustained, systematic analysis, resulting in totalizing insights (Merin, 2005, p. 4), (Kellner, 1989).
Part I will provide an overview of Baudrillard’s analysis of consumption throughout the two books, highlighting its success in the advancement of the neo-Marxist critique of capitalist society. Part II will look at the tensions within Baudrillard’s analysis of consumer society and his failure to truly reconcile his foundation of political economy with notions of the sign. It will also look at the other areas of his theory, which mark Baudrillard’s break from Marxism and the criticisms of his work as a result of his association with the postmodern. Part III will look at abstract elements of his work, and the consequence of his complete separation of the material from its signification.
Baudrillard’s early works provide an important insight into the new world of consumption, which developed in the post World War Two era. This historical context of his writing had a significant influence on Baudrillard’s understanding and analysis of consumption (Kellner, 1989). It was this new social formation that Baudrillard understood as ‘The Consumer Society’. Baudrillard’s attempts to merge the Marxist critique of capitalist society with studies on consumption, fashion, media, sexuality and the consumer society could be understood as an attempt to update Marxist thought in light of developments occurring in France in the 1960s (Fine, 2002, p. 57).
Not only had the 1940s seen the inauguration of state planning in France (Kellner, 1989, p. 2), but the modernization of the 1960s brought with it the growth of monopoly firms and the technocratic state sector (Merin, 2005, p. 16). In addition France saw the emergence of expressions of capitalist society in the form of commodities, drug stores and the advent of a mass media that transformed French life (Kellner, 1989, p. 2). Social historians explicitly state that France of the 1950s was qualitatively different to the France of the 1960s (Kellner, 1989, p. 3). This was a world organized around the consumption, display and use of consumer goods.
New theories emerged in response to these rapid socio-economic developments, one of which was Semiology. They attempted to rationalize the changes, spawning new critical narratives. Semiology, focused attention on language, representation and the signification of discourses, images, codes and culture in everyday life. Baudrillard was deeply influenced by this new ‘science’ of Semiology, which sought to study the system of language and the ‘life of signs within society’.
In semiotics, a sign can be interpreted subjectively, the meaning being something beyond or other than itself. This sign is therefore able to communicate information to the person reading or decoding the sign. Baudrillard builds on the Saussurian dyadic, two-part model of the sign, where the sign is seen as being composed of a signifier (signifiant)- the form that the sign takes, and the signified (signifié)- the concept it represents. Baudrillard’s work on the political economy of the sign attempts to marry semiological and neo-Marxist perspectives, providing an important insight into the power of production and the behavior of consumers. The books explore the problem of commodity and its role in society and culture; this problematic can be traced back to Marx’s general thesis in ‘Capital’ where he argues that the underlying logic of capitalist societies is the accumulation of wealth through ‘immense collection of commodities’ in which ‘the individual commodity appears as its elementary form’ (Mendoza, 2010, p. 42).
Kidd and Nicholls (page 42) put it quite clearly, that ‘in the new formulation the proper study for the historian becomes discourse: human culture is understood as a system of symbolic ‘signs’ to be read as ‘texts’. We can see that taking this logic to the extreme on the part of the postmodernists has resulted in the complete separation of consumption from the material content of the commodities purchased and thus from the material processes by which they have been supplied (Fine, 2002, p. 68).
The System of Objects
In The System of Objects (1968), Baudrillard analyses the role of the object, or commodity, in modern consumer culture. This book is a tour de force of the material semiotics of early Baudrillard, and he marries Freudian and Saussurian- semiotics and psychological- analysis with a Marxist explanation of the commodity in society (Kellner, 1989). He goes beyond the technological analysis of how ordinary objects are intended- by the companies that manufacture them- to operate and be used, to study the ‘directly experienced psychological and sociological reality of objects’. Within this, he considers the various social constructs that have evolved around objects, such as advertising and functionality, giving the illusion that objects present much more than mere utility. Baudrillard posits that the system of objects is essentially a system of meanings, and through considering the secondary meanings of everyday objects, Baudrillard finds that these quotidien considerations, when considered as a whole, constitute a cultural system. For him, objects ‘are all in perpetual flight from technical structure towards their secondary meanings, from the technological system towards a cultural system’ (Baudrillard, 1968, p. 8). For example, when Baudrillard considers the mirror, he sees it as an important fixture of well-to-do bourgeois interiors: an opulent, expensive object, which ‘permitted the self-indulgent bourgeois individual to exercise his privilege- to reproduce his own image and revel in his possessions’ (Baudrillard, 1968, p. 22). The book covers various aspects of objects: form and function in objects, the collection of objects, automation and personalization, and consumption as an active process.
The form and function of objects is particularly interesting. Form itself is often functionless, but rather operates as a sign, thus conveying information to the consumer who can read the code. Baudrillard talks of the ‘allegorical form’ of objects, or rather how the ‘function’ of the sign is actually to evoke an imaginary ideal function, beyond the limited real one. Specifically, Baudrillard uses the example of the tail fins on cars, which although presenting no actual practical function, evokes an idealized speed (Baudrillard, 1968, p. 59).
It is this system of objects that is essential compared to the subjective system of ‘needs’ and values (Baudrillard, 1968, p. 12). The modern individual is portrayed as a ‘cybernetician’ (Baudrillard, 1968, p. 41), who is induced to order objects into new environments to provide new ambiances. In this technical civilization, the cybernetician is a mental hypochondriac, obsessed with the perfect circulation of messages (Baudrillard, 1968, p. 29). The intercommunication and relationality of sign-objects to each other takes precedence over the specificity of each. All objects are equal in their belonging to this universal system of objects. It is a result of this system of objects that people adopt new behaviors. To succeed in this new world of commodities they need to become the master rationalists of created (irrational) desire, and learn how to read the system. Baudrillard provides a multi-dimensional analysis of this new world, and his work is related closely in spirit to the theories of the ‘technological society’ that were circulating in France at the time (Kellner, 1989, p. 11).
For Baudrillard, consumption is a contemporary phenomenon in its semiotic organization and governance by a code of signification. Consumption is not therefore the physical act of buying or using an object but the idealistic act of appropriating a signifier, the idea and meaning of the object or message. It is an activity consisting of the systematic manipulation of signs (Merin, 2005, p. 16).
Consumption is viewed as an active process, where objects are not the objects of consumption; rather, consumption is of meaning and signs by means of the objects. He concludes that in order to become an object of consumption, the object must first become a sign. That is, it must become external in a sense, to a relationship that it now merely signifies. It is thus arbitrary, deriving its meaning only from an ‘abstract and systematic relationship to all other sign-objects’ (Baudrillard, 1968, p. 200). So, these objects can never be consumed in their materiality, but rather in their difference to other signs within the system. According to Baudrillard, choice causes us to participate in the culture value system. This is not freedom but an imposed structure. Choice, he argues is determined by class dynamics, where ‘personalization’ is seen as an ideological concept in order to integrate people effectively (Baudrillard, 1968, p. 141). The priority given to sign shows that the model of an object is actually just the idea of the model, it is the ‘generic image manufactured through the imaginary assumption of all relevant differences’, and here, self-individuation is based on serial distinctions, ‘personalization and integration go strictly hand in hand. That is the miracle of the system’ (Baudrillard, 1968, p. 144).
Although comprehensive, Baudrillard’s analysis tends to be psychoanalytically and unilaterally charged, in that he takes singular examples and draws totalizing conclusions, making them speak for the larger phenomena. He essentially arrives at the conclusion that all consumption is depraved and that all objects are signs (Baudrillard, 1968, p. 200).
The Consumer Society:
Baudrillard’s second book ‘La société de consommation’ continues his systematic theoretical and empirical investigations of objects and activities in the new world of consumption. This is arguably Baudrillard’s most accessible text and the most easily assimilated to conventional, or Marxist, sociology. The basic premise of this book is that the logic of exchange value in consumption — where the worth of an object is represented by the type and quantity of commodities with which it could be exchanged — has rendered all activities equal thus distinction through goods is impossible as they essentially all signify the same thing. Therefore, his theory relies on the acceptance of ‘formal rationality’ whereby individuals pursue their own happiness through the accumulation of objects expected to provide the maximum satisfaction, and he works from the conviction that a deeper understanding of consumption is needed to comprehend the fundamental dynamics of neo-capitalist societies (Kellner, 1989, p. 12).
In The Consumer Society, Baudrillard presents once again a picture of society thoroughly imbued with mass media output. He argues that the masses are caught up in the play of images and spectacles which assume at least as much importance as any reality supposedly external to those images. Once again, the myth of hyper-reality, where the individual consciousness is incapable of distinguishing reality from a simulation of reality, seems to creep into his theories and to negate the masses as critically active. For example he says that ‘we consume to remain at a safe distance from the real, the consumers’ relation to the real worldâ€¦if not a relation of interest, investment or committed responsibility-nor is it one of total indifference; it is a relation of curiosity’ (Baudrillard, 1970, pp. 31-32). Baudrillard also tried to answer the classic questions of the New Left in his analysis- the question as to why workers and oppressed groups fall for capitalist rules and remain attached to the system. He explains this by arguing that the consumer society operates as a kind of social status competition, which carries a particular ideology. The world of goods/ products treats consumers as a group in order to classify them into different statuses, but the individuals within that group feel no collective impulse (and have no sense of being a part of the group), so the process is impervious to collective resistance. This is very similar to Marx’s idea of class conflict.
Structuralism is at the heart of the consumer society. It re-situates the rhetoric of consumption and treats the world of consumption as a mode of discourse similar to language. Considering consumption as such, we can view it as a mode of communication and it permits us to employ a panoply of tools derived from structural linguistics such as sign, signifier, code and semantics etc. (Baudrillard, 1970, p. 8). Baudrillard explains that consumption is constrained at two levels; on the one level by constraints of production, and on another, by constraints of signification. He could not be clearer; he is trying to incorporate elements of Marxist thought into structuralism, but rather than trying to integrate them I would argue that he is trying to get them to operate side by side (Baudrillard, 1970, p. 7).
Again we see his sympathy to Marxism, where consumerism is assessed in terms of the replacement of use-values with sign-values. It is within this system of sign values that people consume the relationship between objects as opposed to the objects. In both this book and his following one, For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972), Baudrillard focuses on the ‘logic of social differentiation’ whereby individuals purchase commodities to distinguish themselves from others within society (Kellner, 1989, p. 13).
We can see from Baudrillard’s early work that although there is a move towards postmodernism, there is clearly a continued commitment to aspects of Marxism. Despite popularly being labeled a post-modernist, Merrin argues that this label has survived largely because of its usefulness in situating Baudrillard in the field of sociological theory. In reality however, Baudrillard has an enormous body of original work, with a multilayered corpus that draws in a radicalized range of influences. This makes it resistant to easy interpretation (Merin, 2005, p. 6). This is not aided by the fact that in his later works, Baudrillard returns to and continues to provide complicated re-interpretations of his earlier themes.
As has been demonstrated, in his first two books, Baudrillard attempts to supplement the classical Marxian critique of the political economy with semiological theories of the sign. This section will look at the tensions within Baudrillard’s analysis of Consumer Society and the criticism of the postmodern. It will begin by first looking at Baudrillard’s reduction of consumption to social meaning and the critiques of his relationship to Marx, before considering the oversimplification of Baudrillard’s presentation of consumers as passive. It will then consider Schor’s criticism of consumer agency, before finally examining Baudrillard’s understanding of commodity fetishism.
Throughout Baudrillard’s work, there is a neglect of sociology of consumption through reducing consumption to social meaning. For Fine, Baudrillard’s work is fundamentally flawed and represents a mirror image of conventional economies’ relative neglect of sociology of consumption. Fine (2002) is uncomfortable with this reduction of consumption to social meaning and the neglect of production, arguing that it is necessary to understand how commodities are historically specific and constructed. Furthermore, he suggests a ‘systems of provision’ approach that seeks to once again place production at the center in combination with an analysis of the social (Fine, 2002, p. 79). He says that the code of products can only be read separately and he ignores the material, providing a macro-level analysis. He believes that it is necessary to study the totality of a thing and demonstrates that within Baudrillard’s works there is a tension between use-value and the symbol of the objects.
Baudrillard was a key proponent of the criticism that Marx’s value theory was deficient in understanding consumption, because of its prioritization of production, and dependence on use-value (Fine, 2002, p. 59). Baudrillard believes Marx to have fetishized the role of commodity fetishism through his single-minded critique of the reification of social relations of production, and so sought to avoid this error in his own analysis (Fine, 2002, p. 67). Fine however, argues that this critique of Marx is incorrect, pointing to the fact that Marx’s economic analysis of consumption is contingent upon, if not determined by, the production, distribution and circulation of value. This holds true even in the absence of analysis of the social construction of the meaning of particular commodities (Fine, 2002, p. 59). As Fine responds, Marx only examined production relations at the expense of assigning the significance of use value itself to the realm of ideology and superstructure where he could quietly neglect it (Fine, 2002, p. 67). Commodities are seen to be created in two senses; they are produced as physical objects, but are also created culturally according to how they are interpreted, as items of consumption for example, as has been explained above.
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However, Baudrillard arguably uses Marx’s work as a useful starting point; use values are socially constructed and, as such, cannot be derived from the material properties of the items of consumption (Fine, 2002, p. 59). Despite this, Baudrillard makes two significant errors in his analysis of consumption. Firstly, he takes this insight of use-values too far, to the point that he denies the significance of the material properties of commodities in determining their use-value. Secondly, he presumes the corresponding irrelevance of Marx’s political economy for the understanding of consumption, as a result of his emphasis on production (Fine, 2002, p. 60). However, regardless of what use-values mean to the consumer, a qualitative as well as a quantitative grasp of the relations governing consumption is a precondition for examining who gets to consume what, and this in turn will influence how such consumption is construed over and above the role of other cultural determinants (Fine, 2002, p. 67).
Another theorist of significant influence on Baudrillard’s analysis is Thorstein Veblen and his theory of conspicuous consumption. Although most other mainstream theorists have ignored Veblen, Baudrillard uses Veblen’s theory to construct his own ideas (Ritzer, 1998, p. 6). For example, whereas middle classes may participate in conspicuous consumption, the elites participate in their own form of inconspicuous consumption in order to create new and subtle differences between themselves and the rest of society; emphasis here is on the fact that they do not need to participate in conspicuous consumption. This is similar to Veblen’s idea of conspicuous leisure (expand point) This leads Baudrillard to conclude that it is impossible for people to ‘waste time’ in this way since they are actually participating in something and producing something of value- prestige (Ritzer, 1998, p. 6).
So, it is clear that in his early works, Baudrillard tends to take a critical Marxian posture towards the consumer society, suggesting that consumption constitutes a total homogenization and organization of everyday life. For Marx, commodities were fetishes because, as values-as opposed to use-values- they have social power, purchasing power; they can be converted into money and, from there, into commodities of one’s choice. Baudrillard however has developed a new understanding on this commodity fetishism.
After having examined some of the issues that arise from Baudrillard’s reduction of consumption to social meaning, this section will consider the more abstract elements and problems that arise from his complete separation of the material from its signification. This section will therefore consider consumption as meaning, as a discourse of language, and will analyze Baudrillard’s understanding of the ‘Myth of Needs’ and his perceived lack of freedom through constructed choice.
Another point of contention with Baudrillard’s analysis of consumption is his presentation of consumers. It is evident that structuralism is at the heart of the consumer society, and in these early works he re-situates the rhetoric of consumption, treating the world of consumption as mode of discourse- like language. Considering consumption as such, we can view it as a mode of communication and it permits us to employ a whole panoply of tools derived from structural linguistics such as sign, signifier, code and semantics etc. (Ritzer, 1998, p. 6).
Baudrillard does not consider consumers to be passive victims, but rather actors within a social system that is perpetuated by the use of it, no matter for what end. For Baudrillard, consumption is much like a language, the fact that consumers choose to speak it engenders it survival. This discourse assumes a certain type of communication, where the failure to communicate on the part of an individual would be regarded as anti-social.
Baudrillard argued that there are new levels of affluence that are especially characteristic of ‘consumer society’ which mean that we come to live increasingly under the silent gaze of deceptive and obedient objects. As a result, we are more and more alienated from one another. So, whereas Marx spoke of commodities having use-value and exchange value, Baudrillard adopts Veblen’s approach in thinking of commodities as having status or ‘sign value’ as well.
Much like Galbraith’s and Veblen’s, (explain who Veblen is) Baudrillard’s theory of consumption is totalizing and presents consumers as overly passive and oversimplifies their motives for consumption (Schor, 2007, p. 16). Any theory of consumption that provides analyses of only production or consumption is always partial and risks either incompleteness or falsehood. Baudrillard provides a consumption-dominant line of argument (Schor, 2007, p. 23). Furthermore, Baudrillard fails to give the consumers sufficient credit for acting intentionally. Schor also argues that they are reactionary in their privileging of high rather than popular culture. In line with this idea of an underestimation of the consumer, postmodern consumer theory also rejected Veblen. Although social differentiation was an essential principle for foundational postmodern consumer theorists such as Baudrillard, as the characterization of postmodernity as an era of fragmentation, pastiche, and bricolage developed, it became less compatible with the single minded, consistent, purposive Veblenian status seeker (Schor, 2007, p. 19)
Formulation of agency, also termed subjectivity, is seen as being increasingly construed by producers, rather than being deployed against them. If we accept the view that individual agency is now central to the operation of consumer society, it is companies who conceptualize how to successfully sell agency to consumers that thrive. So, agency is seen to be a product of the system of production, as opposed to existing prior to it. This does not mean however that this subjectivity or agency is ‘false’, but that it is market driven and constrained. So, whilst consumers gain one sort of power, since they are essentially the source of market innovation and so influence what is being produced, they are also seen to have lost the power to resurrect consumption as a way of life, they cannot escape it (Schor, 2007, p. 25). Good. Is this what B says, or what his critics say?
The loss of meaning and differentiation within the consumer society is of particular interest to Baudrillard. However, it could be argued that meaning and differentiation are precisely the sorts of culturalizing or moralizing processes that he seems to be objectifying in the first place. He also claims that consumption is a system of meanings and communication, so it is unclear whether consumption negates or generates meaning. It is also unclear as to whether Baudrillard is assuming the existence of meanings, which are better than those available within the system of consumption. Furthermore, it could be argued that all meanings are ultimately a structural phenomenon. Are not arbitrariness, conventionality and tautology inescapable features of all meaning, and meaning-generating systems? If so, then what is so upsetting to Baudrillard on the specific meaning created by the system of consumption?
In his book The Consumer Society, Baudrillard talks of consumption as a language, a dialectic. It survives because people continue to talk this language furthermore, it assures a certain type of communication. Not only are objects required for the construction of an identity, more importantly, they are required for the destruction of these objects. So, there is a shift in media from an interest in heroes of production towards heroes of consumption. Heroes of consumption are those who fulfill the function of prestigious wasteful expenditure by proxy for a society. This gives the impression that real affluence is scarce, since the inability to waste prodigiously registers as a lack, a scarcity, and so this upholds the illusion that people need more, the ‘myth of needs’. Needs in themselves however are limitless, since they arise from competition, not appetite. They can never be satisfied. They may be infinitely socially produced, according to the logic of endless difference. Here, waste is considered the insane action of subjects living for the present, and it appears that Baudrillard is providing a cautionary message- that consumption, although not damaging to the economy, is for the environment.
In the Consumer Society, there are numerous examples of consumer objects as code. Baudrillard’s critiqued discussions of consumer society in the field of economics and sociology, arguing that these disciplines were unable to capture the novelty of consumerism because economics was burdened by a doctrine of homo economicus- the free individual acting in the marketplace- and sociology was hampered by a notion of individual taste and a determinist concept of society.
In a system of sign-values, people consume the relations between objects, not simply just the objects. Baudrillard uses the term ambience to describe capitalism’s control over society through its incorporation into consumption. In the consumer society, objects surround us. Objects split from their place and their function and we become object like from living among objects. In his book, Baudrillard posits that there are four ways in which an object obtains value. The first is the functional value – instrumental purpose- of an object, the second focuses on the exchange or rather economic value of an object. The third considers the symbolic value- this is a value that the subject assigns to an object in relation to another subject- and the fourth is the sign value, or its value within a system of objects. We can see Baudrillard’s sympathy with Marxist thought here again as he argues that the first two ‘value’ components are interrupted by the third and fourth elements. In his later works, however, he goes so far as the reject Marxism completely.
Second, is the idea of the ‘myth of needs’, this is something that Baudrillard is anxious to refute. Although Baudrillard is sympathetic towards Marx, he criticizes Marx for his ready acceptance of the idea of genuine need relating to use-values. Instead, he posits that needs are constructed rather than innate. Through the discourse of the ‘myth of needs’, he explains that needs themselves are limitless as they are based on competition and are thus insatiable. Furthermore, he argues that needs are not inherent in either the good or the consumer, rather they are produced by the system of production. Individual needs are nothing, there is only a system of needs, which represents ‘the most advanced form of the rational systematization of productive forces at the individual level, one in which consumption takes up the logical and necessary relay from production’ (reference).
This results in the ‘imposed freedom of choice’, which is actually the illusion of choice. Baudrillard pushes his critique further than other economic critics this further than other theorists of consumption by positing that there is no distinction between real and artificial needs. For example “the pleasure obtained from a television or a second home is experience as ‘real’ freedom. No one experiences this as alienation’ (get reference).
He believes that ‘authentic needs’ are corrupted because they fulfill the need for the sake of distinction as opposed to satisfying appetite or their ‘collective significance’; as a result they are made to serve the system. Baudrillard contrasts this to a primitive society, which knows ‘true affluence’ instead of its mere signs, our profusion of goods and so on. This Maussian nostalgia is built on the idea that humans outside the code of consumption, experience true symbolic exchange/ communication; they experience wealth as the sum of ‘concrete exchange between persons’, as the collective amount of human interaction uncorrupted by power or profit’. (reference)
Baudrillard, in The Consumer Society, essentially posits that capitalism systematically turns natural values into rights, or commodities, which enable economic profit and mark social privilege. So democracy’s victories in providing rights cloak the scarcity of those things that its economic system produces.
Within this book there is also the idea of the body as ‘the finest consumer object: as both capital and fetish: ‘one manages one’s body, one handles it as one might handle an inheritance; one manipulates it as one of the many signifiers of social status’.
Baudrillard was sympathetic to Marxist ideology in his early works and sought to advance a novel Marxist-structural critique of consumerism. Although Baudrillard maintained a key difference- that consumption as opposed to production was the heart of capitalism and indeed the main drive in capitalist society- we can see his sympathies reflected in various ways. It was his foundation of political economy and class difference as a motivator for consumption and his understanding of use-values and sign-values. Indeed, these early works of Baudrillard prefigure his later break with Marxism. We can see however that already Baudrillard is already vulnerable to inconsistencies and tensions as he tries to push his post-modern perspective on a neo-Marxist concept of political economy.
His analysis remains per
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