Fun morality

From Jean Baudrillard’s The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. Baudrillard argues for the productive function of consumption, which makes consuming more or less mandatory within the consumerist system. “The order of production does not `capture’ the order of enjoyment (strictly speaking, such an idea is meaningless) for its own ends. It denies the order of enjoyment and supplants it, while reorganizing everything into a system of productive forces.”

I’m always arguing that social media (which capitalism ultimately needs more than we do) has made this dynamic more explicit and makes it harder for us to swallow the ideological alibis for consumption, which has more to do with producing status and signifiers than yielding direct personal satisfaction. In other words, consuming doesn’t let us experience private pleasure, it binds us in a system of communication but forces us to speak of ourselves and identity as an alienated thing — an object about which economic calculations are constantly being made. That is to say, consumerism allows capital to subsume the personal-identity-making process, creates “structural penury” at the experiential level.

Baudrillard connects this with the imperative to accumulate, the growth economy:

Because the system produces only for its own needs, it is all the readier systematically to hide behind the alibi of individual needs. Hence the gigantic growth of private consumption by comparison with public services (Galbraith). This is no accident. The cult of individual spontaneity and the naturalness of needs is, by its nature, father to the productivist option. Even the most `rational’ needs (education, culture, health, transport, leisure), cut off from their real collective significance, are taken up, in the same way as the incidental needs deriving from growth, into the systematic future perspectives of that growth.

Here’s the key graf where he defines one of my favorite crutch phrases, “fun morality”:

There is no question for the consumer, for the modern citizen, of evading this enforced happiness and enjoyment, which is the equivalent in the new ethics of the traditional imperative to labour and produce. Modern man spends less and less of his life in production within work and more and more of it in the production and continual innovation of his own needs and well-being. He must constantly see to it that all his potentialities, all his consumer capacities are mobilized. If he forgets to do so, he will be gently and insistently reminded that he has no right not to be happy. It is not, then, true that he is passive. He is engaged in — has to engage in — continual activity. If not, he would run the risk of being content with what he has and becoming asocial.

Hence the revival of a universal curiosity (a concept to be explored further) in respect of cookery, culture, science, religion, sexuality, etc. `Try Jesus!’ runs an American slogan. You have to try everything, for consumerist man is haunted by the fear of `missing’ something, some form of enjoyment or other. You never know whether a particular encounter, a particular experience (Christmas in the Canaries, eel in whisky, the Prado, LSD, Japanese-style love-making) will not elicit some `sensation’. It is no longer desire, or even `taste’, or a specific inclination that are at stake, but a generalized curiosity, driven by a vague sense of unease — it is the `fun morality’ or the imperative to enjoy oneself, to exploit to the full one’s potential for thrills, pleasure or gratification.

I like the “invention of curiosity” angle in that; not autonomous but determined by socioeconomic relations. Novelty is not an intrinsic desire then (as evo-psych likes to imagine) but a structural product of the economy, something we recognize we must have for our economic survival

Under the sway of Galbraith’s ideas about administered capitalism, Baudrillard writes, “We may therefore predict that the heyday of the system of individualist values is just around the corner, that system whose centre of gravity is currently shifting from the individual entrepreneur and saver, those figureheads of competitive capitalism, to the individual consumer, broadening out at the same time to the totality of individuals — keeping step in this regard with the extension of the techno-bureaucratic structures.”

I would adjust that slightly. I think consumption itself is increasingly viewed as entrepreneurial, and the self becomes a kind of small firm that one invests in through consumerist activities. Thus we become competing firms in the economic realm of “the industrial production of differences” as Baudrillard calls it — the sytemic requirement to make new meanings for an economy capitalizing on sign values.

As a result “personalization consists in a daily realignment to the smallest marginal difference, seeking out the little qualitative differences by which style and status are indicated.” That is the dismal fate of self-actualization aspirations in consumerist culture; pettiness and Freud’s narcissism of small differences.

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