An A to Z of Theory | Jean Baudrillard: Critique of Alienation – Draft 1

In the third instalment of his 14-part introduction to the work of Jean Baudrillard, Andrew Robinson explores the French thinker's book 'The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures', and explains Baudrillard's view that consumption is a socially-imposed duty.

In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Saturday, April 14, 2012 0:00 - 0 Comments



Baudrillard is best-known for his recent works on simulation and fatality, but in his earliest works, he advanced a novel Marxist-structuralist critique of consumerism. Andrew Robinson reflects on Baudrillard’s view that consumption is a socially-imposed duty.

While his theory of symbolic exchange provides an unusual account of how a non-alienated society might work, Baudrillard’s critique of alienation provides his account of how capitalism today actually functions.  This work has evolved significantly over time.  From an activist point of view, his early work is arguably more accessible and useful.  This early work gives a glimpse of a more politically radical Baudrillard, a sense of what Baudrillard might look like when paired with Situationism or autonomism.

In The Consumer Society, a work from Baudrillard’s early period when he was more sympathetic to Marxism, consumerism is assessed in terms of the replacement of use-values with sign-values.  In designer goods and brand-names, such as Nike trainers and Apple Ipods, the brand does not actually add any use-value.  It is a way of conveying or possessing particular signs, so as to project a particular self-image or pursue social status.

In a system of sign-values, people consume the relations between objects – not only the objects.  Sign-value is also open to endless slippage: any object can in principle signify happiness, functionality, prestige and so on.  It is quite similar to Barthesian myths.  Baudrillard also tends to endorse the Lacanian view that the slippage of signification stems from an unmeetable desire for social meaning.  Because the desire is unmeetable, needs are insatiable.

In this work, Baudrillard is trying to answer the classic question of the New Left: why workers and other oppressed groups fall for capitalist ruses and remain attached to the system.  His hypothesis is that consumer society operates as a kind of social status competition, which carries a particular ideology.  This prefigures his later break with Marxism.  Already Baudrillard is suggesting that consumption, rather than production, is at the heart of capitalism.

Baudrillard uses the word ambience for capitalism’s control of society through its incorporation into consumption.  It produces a kind of diffuse, mobile experience of life.  The lack of situatedness is partly compensated by the role of objects.  In consumer society, we are surrounded by objects – often objects split from their place and function.  We become object-like from living among objects, much as wolf-children become wolf-like.  The code is substituted for the referential dimension of language.  People are caught in a world much of which is merely an internal, technical product of the code.

The system destroys direct personal ties an social relations.  It then systematically creates simulated relations which can be consumed, instead of those it has destroyed.  It also eliminates the singular, radically different content of each person, putting in its place differential signs.  And it eliminates real conflict, putting abstract competition in its place.  Everyday life is constructed through a split between the everyday and the abstract or transcendent sphere of the social, political, historical or cultural.  The closure of the everyday sphere, the exclusion from history, is tolerable only because it is accompanied by alibis or simulations of participation.  The exclusion from history is also given value, because it is identified with security – in contrast to the scary historical events shown on TV.

Alienation impacts especially on how we relate to our bodies.  The body in capitalism is both capital and fetish, object of investment and consumption.  Its many uses include fashion, adverts, mass culture, discourses of hygiene, diet and therapy, cults of youth and femininity, and sacrificial practices such as slimming.  It is exploited in a managed narcissism, perfected externally so as to exploit it to produce socially valued signs – to appear as happy, healthy, young, spontaneous, beautiful and so on.  The various uses of the body are replaced by a single signifying function.  Appearances such as fitness are deemed near-necessities in environments such as management.  They express hostility to the body, seen as a menacing object which needs to be watched over by the self.

The body is turned into a package, like clothes, and consumed like an object.  One’s relationship to it thus becomes neurotic and repressive.  The body is socially encoded so as to meet normative demands to produce and consume.  This is even more alienating that the use of the body as source of labour-power.  It is only after the body is reinvested in this way that the demand for objects as signs occurs.  People will only pursue objects as signs once their body is seen as an object.

Similarly, sexuality is turned into an instrumental code of signs instead of individual desires.  Especially in downturn periods, sexuality becomes frenetic but anxious.  The profound contradictions of sexual problems and desires are covered-up.  External censorship is replaced with an internalised censorship prohibiting liberation.  A private, narcissistic, personalised sexuality protects the status quo from the effects of sexual liberation.  Sex is everywhere but in the sex-act itself.  It is overwhelmed by signs.

There is also a new kind of imaginary “subject” or self generated by consumerism.  Consumer society portrays all its objects for sale as carefully formulated for an impersonal “you” to whom they are addressed.  It is a kind of myth which presents consumption as common sense, consuming the spectacle of consumption itself.  Without the myth of consumption, it would not exist as an integrative social function.  It would simply be a set of differentiated needs and desires.  The word ‘consumption’ actually expresses a restructuring of social ideology.  It is not in fact a victory of objects, or of earthly pleasures.  Rather, it is a set of reified social and productive relations and forces.  In this world, revolutions are replaced by fashion cycles.  Even the retraining of workers is little more than a fashion cycle.  It’s a way of imposing “low-intensity” constraints and a threat of exclusion so as to ensure conformity.

Baudrillard is highly critical of the view that consumerism amounts to liberation.  It is true that certain older regimes of authoritarianism have decayed.  But the new regime is also a system of control.  Repression persists, but it moves sideways.  The image of a sterile, hygienic body and fear of contamination establishes an inner control which removes desire from the body.  The ranking of bodies in terms of status leads to a re-racialisation.  Puritanism becomes mixed-up with hedonism in this ranking process.  The body as locus of desire remains censored and silenced, even when it appears to undergo hedonistic release.  Sexuality is expressed in consumption so it can’t disrupt the status quo.  What is now censored is the symbolic structure and the possibility of deep meaning.  Living representations are turned into empty signs.  Because of this change, the old resistances to repression no longer work.

Similarly, groups supposedly liberated – such as women, black people, and young people – are denied the effects of liberation by being re-encoded in terms of myths.  Once labelled as irresponsible, people’s liberation is attached to a coded meaning which demands and bars responsibility and social power.  Real liberation is avoided by giving people an image of themselves to consume – women are given the image of Woman, the young an image of Youth, technological change by Technology (gadgets), and so on.  Liberation is thus nullified, and re-encoded as a role and as narcissism.  Concrete gains for liberation movements are side-effects of this immense strategic operation to disempower oppressed groups through their reduction to a function or role.  We are drip-fed little bits of democracy and progress to ensure the system’s survival.  They operate as its alibis.  Even if income equality is encouraged, the system can survive by moving inequality elsewhere, to status, style, power and so on.

At this point in his work, Baudrillard still believes in desire, happiness, the real, history and so on.  He sees them as alienated in the system’s insistence on artificial, simulated and quantitative versions of them.  The system only knows about its own survival.  It doesn’t understand the social or individual forces which operate inside it.  Hence, changing its contents never changes how it works.  The system tries to conjure away the real and history with signs representing them – replacing them with the truer than true and so on.  Simulations are objects which offer many signs of being real, when in fact they are not.

Moral ideology has not become more tolerant.  Rather, the decline of strict morality and the peaceful coexistence of belief-systems is due to the reduction of beliefs and ideologies to equivalent signs.

The idea of leisure-time expresses a new puritan morality disguised as hedonism.  Time in capitalism is turned into private property, especially as leisure-time.  It is bought (through labour-saving devices) or earned (such as holidays), then consumed in an appearance of wasting it.  In fact it is constrained by capitalist time.  People seek to create a free time in their leisure time, perhaps returning to childhood.  But in fact their free time is structured by the dividing effects of capitalism.  The functional division of time assigns to leisure time the same ethic of performance that operates in the world of work.  People are subordinated to a ‘fun-morality’ which obliges them to simulate having fun.  This appears hedonistic, but in fact is ascetic and duty-bound.  It is paradoxically an imperative of self-indulgence in order to impress others.  It also requires people to be permanently unsatisfied.  If someone is satisfied, they become asocial – no longer part of consumer society.

Leisure-time is connected to status rankings and the appearance of unproductive consumption.  It is expended to produce signs.  Free time is “free” in the same sense as labour: it is extracted from its symbolic implications and turned into exchange- and sign-value.  In this regime, control is too total to allow for freely available time.  Baudrillard constructs this model of time to indigenous models.  He argues that indigenous groups have no ‘time’ to be planned, but rather, a rhythm of ritual.  Another difficulty is that people are simultaneously subject to two contrasting demands, the obligations of fun-morality and the obligations of collective responsibility and ascetic social morality.  People are double-bound by these two moral codes, which are both part of the system.

Adverts typically portray the system as if it were a gift-giving abundance, rather than a commercial system.  The main function of adverts is not to sell individual products.  Rather, it is to promote an entire simulated basis of sociality.  Advertising and PR establish the managerial elite and the public as a united social model.  This economic integration compensates for the failure of political power to integrate.  It fuses the gift ambiguously with the demand.  It also turns the object into a “pseudo-event”, replacing the real event of everyday life.  In general, adverts avoid direct statements which could be shown to be false.  Instead, they rely on persuasive attempts which are neither true or false, especially on self-fulfilling prophecies which produce tautologies.  In adverts, the code speaks only of itself.

Baudrillard also sees communication and sociality being corrupted into sign-values to be consumed.  This occurs through the consumption of ‘services’ based on sociability.  The loss of genuine, spontaneous, reciprocal human relations (which require a symbolic dimension) is covered up by the standardised production of signs of social warmth and participation.  As with the smile of the salesman, receptionist or PR executive, or the “have a nice day” of McDonald’s, it simulates intimacy.  These simulated signs are what now counts as abstract ‘interpersonal skills’.  In practice, Baudrillard observes, such false sociality is shot through with the flaws of the mode of production, including aggression and frustration.  It turns into an entire value-system dressed-up as functionality.  It has a constant repressive effect, pacifying social relations.

The act of conforming to a model is presented as narcissistic self-assertion through small signified differences.  People think they are creating themselves when in fact they are consuming themselves, or their images.  For example, femininity and masculinity are models which govern, rather than express, women and men.  Baudrillard believes that such models shape how people see each other, regardless of whether people actually conform to them.

Similarly, sites such as holiday resorts are constructed as planned communities and total environments realising a particular ideal of abstract happiness.  These sites replace distinct elements with homogeneous ones.  People set up signs of happiness in the hope that happiness will alight on them.  There is a ‘fun system’ of enforced enjoyment, which imposes a duty (not a right) to happiness and denies any right not to be happy.  Consumption is a morality, an institution and a system of values with functions of social integration and control.  The anarchic consumer, free to consume or not, is a thing of the past.  People are now pressured to consume in standard ways and even to seek out new experiences.  Yet this pressure destroys enjoyment from the inside.  Consumption is haunted by its inner puritanism, rendering it compulsive and limitless.  It is both lived as an affirmative myth, and endured as a kind of social adaptation to a new collective regime.  At the same time as socialising people, it atomises people into private consumption.

Beauty products and the like often claim to be drawing out an inherent personality, or recovering one which has been lost.  In fact they are products of the industrial mass-production of systematic differences.  These differences are derived from a model and are only artificially diversified.  They mark conformity with the code, not individuality.  Baudrillard writes of ‘monopoly concentration of the production of differences’.  The system is based on abolishing real difference (and for instance nature) so as to usher in a process of differentiation (and naturalisation, etc).  Difference within the code is based on the smallest marginal difference, used as a sign of hierarchy.

Excessive social contact due to urbanism leads to psychological pauperisation.  People gain an increased need for objects as signifiers of differentiation.  Consumption actually excludes the possibility of enjoyment.  This is because consumption is always collective, at least indirectly, whereas enjoyment is personal.  The disappearance of altruistic forms of integration leads to an expanded role for state repression.  Atomisation leads to bureaucratic control, disguised as freedom.  Credit is used to condition people into capitalistic forms of action.  The ‘people’ or consumers are glorified as long as they do not try to exercise their putative sovereignty on a political or social stage, and instead stick to consuming.

Consumer goods are experienced as miraculous, because their production is concealed.  They seem as if they come from technology, progress or growth.  In fact we have only the signs of affluence, coexisting with ever more impoverished social relations.  Competition, generalised across social life as consumption as well as production is ranked, leads to generalised fatigue.  Such fatigue is really a resistance, akin to a slowdown by workers or boredom in school.  Such resistance, as the only resistance available, becomes habitual and ‘grows into’ people’s bodies.  It is a partial revolt necessary to prevent total breakdown, which is also instantly available as a source of discontent in crisis situations.

The real social effect of the pursuit of system-promoted goals is an exhausting rat-race.  The system of unstable, precarious employment creates generalised insecurity and generalised competition for status.  The constant treadmill of work, retraining and status-competition leaves some on the scrapheap and others successful but exhausted.  But the ideology of consumption lulls people into believing that they are affluent, fulfilled, happy and liberated.

Baudrillard writes of the production of a new kind of character-armoured subject: the sociometric individual.  Sociability is mis-perceived as something personal, while in fact being rendered simply functional.  Instead of being autonomous, people display marks of ‘personalisation’.  A person thus transformed is at home everywhere and nowhere – able to display superficial intimacy, but belonging nowhere.  Social action is subordinated to the pursuit of status.  Rather than conformity, the system demands of such people that they be maximally sociable and maximally compatible with others across a wide range of situations.  Such people are part of an enforced mobilisation, always available as calculable and accountable units for use in political and sociometric planning.  They become psychologically dependent on gaining approval, and lose individual transcendental aspirations.  This in turn leads to a new social morality.  Ideology and individual values are replaced in this morality with relativity, receptivity, agreement and anxious communication, all of which render people programmable.

Baudrillard’s critique also extends to politics.  The contradiction between ‘services’ and democratic ideology leads to an entire simulation of absent reciprocity.  A superficial layer of minimal communication is used to paper over the hostility and social distance which are everywhere.  This layer is ‘functional’ enough to personalise and pacify power, but is stripped of every affective and psychological aspect.  Instead it is constructed from the calculated model of an ideal relationship.  People can no longer trust themselves or each other.  It is for this reason that they demand signs of sociability and sincerity.  But the signs only reproduce the mistrust.  They have become empty signs in a closed system, which no longer convey real trust.

The welfare state is criticised as a way to portray an exchange society as if it were a service society, giving back what it takes from workers.  Equality and democracy conceal the real system of discrimination, based on whether or not one can decode consumer goods.  Furthermore, the system conditions people to constantly want a little more than they have.  The system produces the needs it satisfies (through advertising and demand management), produces only for its own needs, and hides behind the alibi of individual needs (inventing an idea of economic man to prop itself up).  It rests on real needs being misrecognised.  And it produces needs which it then refuses to satisfy, instead using them as inducements to conformity.

[Part Four will be published next week. Click here for other essays in this series.]


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