Notes on Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer society (1970)

Baudrillard’s basic premise in The Consumer Society is that the logic of exchange value in consumption has rendered all activities equal – distinction through goods is impossible because they all essentially signify the same thing. He outlines a theory of consumption based on the acceptance of “formal rationality,” which assures an individual pursues his individual happiness through objects expected to provide the maximum satisfaction. This ideology is founded on the myth of “needs,” which Baudrillard is anxious to refute. In a useful survey of consumer behavior theory, he explains that utility and conformity/emulation motives amount to the same thing; and that neither are accurate. Galbraith is closer when he suggests the “revised sequence” – consumers don’t initiate the production process, producers do – conditioning the needs of the consumers to what they produce. The implication is that man studies man’s psychology when it becomes more difficult to sell him something than it is to make it. In short, needs are not inherent in either the good or the consumer, needs are produced by the system of production. This makes the imposed “freedom of choice” the hallmark of industrial ideology, an idea Williamson corroborates in Decoding Advertisements when she claims that “We are trapped in the illusion of choice. Freedom of choice is in fact part of the most basic ideology, the very substructure of advertising.” Baudrillard pushes the critique further than most economic critics by refusing to see a basis for distinguish real from artifical needs. “The pleasure obtained from a television or a second home is experienced as ‘real’ freedom. No one experiences this as alienation.” Individual needs are nothing, there is only a system of needs, which represents “the most advanced form of the rational systemization of productive forces at the individual level, one in which ‘consumption’ takes up the logical and necessary relay from production.”

According to Baudrillard, consumers are not passive victims, but actors within a social system that is perpetuated by the use of it, no matter for what end. Consumption, and its attendant social system, survive as a language, which consumers choose to speak through, perpetuating it. Consumption “is directly and totally collective.” “When we consume, we never do it on our own (the isolated consumer is the carefully maintained illusion of the ideological discourse on consumption). Consumers are mutually implicated, despite themselves, in a general system of exchange and in the production of coded values.” Consumption “assures a certain type of communication” in society; failure to communicate would be regarded by others in this context as anti-social. Needs are like symptoms in a hypochondriac, a hysteric. There is no necessary connection between need/symptom and object/body; just an arbitrary one. The “need” is an unfulfillable desire for distinction; it has nothing to do with pleasure, except for maybe the denial of pleasure. Pleasure is the rational end, not the objective, it is a constraint, a compulsion, a social imperative without which one becomes anti-social, inexplicable, alien and scary. This is “fun morality,” which mandates a universal curiosity and a complete exploitation of things according to the rules for extracting pleasure.

Credit is one means of socializing groups to the fun morality; it prevents their having an excuse for not participating. Finally, consumption helps atomize the individual, enhancing social control and legitimizing an increase of bureaucracy which circumscribes the freedom simultaneously offered within the system. So one is urged to consume, and then urged to accept the social responsibility inherent in the consumption. The world of goods treats consumers as a group in order to classify them into different statuses, but the individuals within the group feel no collective impulse; have no sense of being a part of a group – so the process is impervious to collective resistance. The individual feels his voice as a consumer is strong and powerful as long as he is consuming; if he refused to consume, he would be stripped of the power/pleasure afforded him – this is even more true of women, who are constituted as subjects primarily by consuming in the early days of commodity capitalism. This explains why consumerism is embraced and accepted early on, it shows what task culture performs; illustrating the “power” of the “freedom” of consumer choice; illustrating the “autonomy” one has over her own experience of pleasure (when in fact such pleasure is less autonomous, more dependent, or at least as dependent on the social system that classifies and neutralizes the individual).

Consumption as magical thinking – “happiness” appears when the signs of happiness are assembled. We consume to remain at a safe distance from the real – “the consumer’s relation to the real world . . . is not a relation of interest, investment or committed responsibility – nor is it one of total indifference: it is a relation of curiosity.”

Happiness is made measurable in order to perform a distinctive function, to register in a consumer society. It becomes measured in accordance to the egalitarian ideal that equal amounts will be distributed, but this is just an alibi. This measuring of happiness rules out immeasurable inner happiness, and only accepts as happiness that which can be displayed, signified. We accept this change because it promises a means to legislated equality.

The “right” to happiness signifies the disappearance of actual enjoyment of happiness. Just as the right to clean air indicates clean air’s manufactured scarcity. 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.

“Consumption makes maximum exclusion from the (real, social, historical) world the maximum index of security. It seeks the resolution of tensions – that happiness by default. But it runs up against a contradiction” between the old morality of action and the new values of passive, removed consumption. “Hence the intense sense of guilt which attaches to this new style of hedonistic behavior, and the urgent need, clearly outlined by strategists of desire, to take the guilt out of passivity. . . .In order for this contradiction between puritanical and hedonistic morality to be resolved, this tranquility of the private sphere has to appear as a value preserved only with great difficulty, constantly under threat and beset by the dangers of a catastrophic destiny. The violence and inhumanity of the outside world are needed not just so that security may be experienced more deeply as security (in the economy of jouissance) but also so that it should be felt justifiable at every moment as an option (in the economy of the morality of salvation).” “The consumer society see itself as an encircled Jerusalem, rich and threatened. That is its ideology.”

Baudrillard defines “heroes of consumption” as those who fulfill the function of prestigious wasteful expenditure by proxy for a society – this makes real affluence feel like scarcity, since the inability to waste prodigiously registers as a lack, a scarcity. This keeps people feeling like they need more, even if it is only to destroy that “more” conspicuously. Thus advertising, in this light, “achieves the marvelous feat of consuming a substantial budget with the sole aim not of adding to the use-value of objects, but of subtracting value from them.” Fashion supplants use, and fashion is the cover for planned obsolescence. Is the representation of gambling an aspect of this heroic wastefulness? Of course it is. We get the proxy of destruction coupled with the reinforcement of an instrumental rationality. Later Baudrillard argues that modern economies are “growth” economies, that grow both penury and excess structurally in order to maintain itself as a growth economy. “Growth is a function of inequality.” Structural inequality prevents the harmony and balance that would prevent growth. The system produces wealth and poverty for itself, not for the wealthy.

Needs come from competition, not appetite. Needs thus have no limit, they may be socially produced infinitely, according to the logic of endless difference. And the lived experience of these needs as personal mystify the fact that they serve only the growth system. By fulfilling needs for the sake of distinction instead of appetite or their “collective significance” authentic needs are corrupted, and 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 experienced true symbolic exchange/communication, experienced wealth as the sum of “concrete exchange between persons,” as the collective amount of human interaction uncorrupted by power or profit.

Advertising: the industrial production of differences, the production of the system of consumption. This creates the individual’s goal of “personalization” through seeking out smallest marginal differences. “All men are equal before objects as use-value, but they are by no means equal before objects as signs and differences, which are profoundly hierarchical” – that sums up conspicuous consumption’s logic, and why that logic is rigorously reproduced – it allows not only for individuals to compete for distinction, but also products for market-share and profit margin. Advertising helps produce conformity, not in the naïve, particular sense, but in the sense that all share the code of differentiation through objects. Thus revolutionary tensions are diffused not through luxury but the code itself, which channels such energy into fashion revolutions. People become invested in the rules they are playing by, don’t want to discard them even though they subjugate.

In consumer society, pleasing oneself appears the key to pleasing others. Pleasing others, then, becomes important as a means of pleasing oneself, which is the ultimate goal. One consumes oneself in an act of self-indulgence, in the attempt to create oneself – this is akin to the paradox of self-conscious sensibility –spontaneity is celebrated so that it may be contained and effaced
Baudrillard distinguishes ads by sex – ads for men emphasize particularity, informed choice, flattering us by suggesting we meet the challenge offered by choices; ads for women emphasize self-indulgence and narcissistic concern for one’s security. Women gratify themselves however only to streamline their entrance into the male world of fetishized choices. They consume themselves in self-indulgence, thus reifying themselves, becoming object among objects offered for the male choice meant to flatter the connoisseur in him. Women ultimate experience satisfaction by proxy, by being chosen, as the self-indulgence is not satisfaction, but merely preparation for the being chosen, which will provide the fulfillment. The feminine model is extending itself over all of consumer society, B. claims, but his explanation is unclear.
The truth about advertising is that it is beyond true and false in the same way objects are beyond use value and fashion is beyond beauty – such things, he might say, are the alibis of those discourses. Advertising is “prophetic language, insofar as it promotes not learning or understanding, but hope”.

Also included is a chapter discussing 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”. The body is alienated in the process of its social “liberation” and is exploited – it displays, lives the structures of the consumer society, embodies them without choosing them or profiting by them. Example: woman’s sensible, expressive body in the culture of sensibility – it demonstrates the cultural prerogative without really gaining through it – conforming to that ethic is disciplinary rather that pleasurable. B. develops this further: “the ethics of beauty, which is the very ethics of fashion, may be defined as the reduction of all concrete values – the use values of the body – to a single functional exchange value, which itself alone, in its abstraction, encapsulates the idea of the glorious, fulfilled body, the idea of desire and jouissance, and of course thereby also denies and forgets them in their reality and in the end simply peters out into an exchange of signs.” The alienation of labor power, individual freedom, and the body itself finally are all enlisted in order to support the “productivist option.” All is turned to account by the productivist system, but apparently, not individual producers.

B. notes the “medical cult” develops from the notion of body as prestige object – this creates “a virtually unlimited demand for medical, surgical, and pharmaceutical services . . .health today is not so much a biological imperative linked to survival as a social imperative linked to status”.

A chapter on time as commodity, on wasting time as an impossible but necessary prestation. “we are in an age when men will never manage to waste enough time to be rid of the inevitablility of spending their lives earning it”. Leisure would be time away from rational scheduling, from productivity, but holidays themselves become rationalized pursuits of pleasure, which can only be found through producing distinctions. Which makes leisure, like consumption itself, a reinforcement of the productivist option.

A chapter on solicitude, which reminds me of the sub-discourse of gratitude within sentimental literature. This chapter would help explain Grandison’s paradox, why his solicitude is a kind of imprisonment. All solicitude is basically terroristic, B states baldly, and explains it on 169, a familiar point about paternalism. Gratitude is signified human warmth, its simulacrum rather than the thing itself. It is in fact rationalized personal relations, which lubricate the distance created by the productivist ecomony – we consume intimacy rather than experience it, this preserves our freedom from the unpredictable nature of real interaction, preserves the system from that same unpredictable energy.

A point I am most interested in is his contention that “sociabilty” means precisely a willingness to play by the rules of the code of consumption, its differential logic. Failure to communicate through objects makes one anti-social by this new definition; and this seems to have a crucial relation to the evolution of sensibility that I haven’t worked out yet. It has to do with quantifiable happiness, and produced relations, produced intimacy. Relating is liberated from tradition and formality only to be exploited in some fashion (172, Sennett also) – spontaneous relating does not follow from this liberation, in fact we have only a new tyranny. The cult of sincerity works like a new “right” – it celebrates a value whose presence has slipped away.

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