The Consumer Society

When I read Simulacra & Simulation, I had a hard time understanding some of the thoughts and concepts that Baudrillard used, so I figured that I could read some of his earlier works. The only one I could find in the library at SSE was The Consumer Society. This post will be a discussion of some of the concepts Baudrillard discusses in the book.

As it turns out, this book is illuminating and refreshing in many aspects. It introduces a view on consumption and its consequences for the social that is radically different from what a student at a business school usually hears about.

Essentially, Baudrillard argues that consumption is to be viewed as a structure of signs, rather than a structure of objects. This allows consumption to be viewed as a language from a structuralist perspective. Structuralists argued that elements of language, and culture, derive their value or meaning from the way that they differ from other elements in language, or culture. A simple example that is often used is if you were to learn a completely new language and you were out walking with a native in that language. If you were to point to a tree and the native answers with a word, there is no way for you to know what that word actually means. Does the word refer to tree in general, the specific tree, the leaves, the bark, forest or nature? The only way to know would be to learn other words of the language that differ from the word for tree. In other words, the meaning of the word the native spoke derives from the difference it has from other words in the same language.

Thus, Baudrillard views the objects we consume as expressing a language of signs. Where the value of an object is not derived from the use-value, but rather from how the object differs from other objects. But that is not all. Baudrillard believes that consumption now has been “…laying hold of the whole of life…”, consumption is how we organize our everyday life. We cannot escape from consumption, nor can we escape from the inevitable sociality of consumption. One of the more persistent myths of consumption is that it is a result of an individual will, a ranking of preferences combined with a budget restriction (the economist view?). The structuralist view of consumption makes the act of consuming a social activity, since the choices we make are determined by the logic of difference and the value of the sign.

Even more interesting though are the comments on the consequences of the consumer society, and the effects this logic of significations has. Baudrillard writes about happiness and how it haunts modern civilization. He means that Happiness has had to embody the myth of Equality that arrived with the industrial revolution and all subsequent revolutions. Instead of equality, which none of the revolution has been able to deliver, we are left with the promise of Happiness, everyone has the equal opportunity to Happiness. This embodiment of the egalitarian myth makes Happiness something that must be measurable. The way in it is measurable in contemporary society is through objects and signs. In modern society we gauge the happiness of others by the objects they consume and the signs that are coupled with those objects, this explains our, sometimes, confused reaction when we hear about the suicide of affluent celebrities, CEOs etc. “They had everything.” Meaning that they had access to every conceivable object and sign that could bring measurable Happiness. But, as Baudrillard is writing below, real happiness is excluded from the consumer ideal of happiness and well-being.  

“Happiness as total or inner enjoyment – that happiness independent of the signs which could manifest it to others and to those around us, the happiness which has no need of evidence – is therefore excluded from the outset from the consumer ideal in which happiness is, first and foremost, the demand for equality (or distinction, of course) and must, accordingly, always signify with “regard” to visible criteria.”

The Consumer Society, Baudrillard. p. 69

This also connects to the concepts that Baudrillard explores in Simulacra & Simulation. Real happiness, happiness as total or inner enjoyment independent of signs, has been substituted by consuming signs and objects which signify happiness. We consume certain signs to signify happiness, and we create a simulacrum of happiness in our search for real happiness which may never arrive.

Baudrillard also, potently, explores the continual search for happiness/enjoyment/sensation through consumption. I think that the below segment is a brilliant observation of what this behavior evokes in us.

“…consumerist man [l’homme-consommateur] regards enjoyment as an obligation: he sees himself as an enjoyment and satisfaction business. He sees it as his duty to be happy, loving, adulating/adulated, charming/charmed, participative, euphoric, and dynamic. This is the principle of maximizing existence by multiplying contacts and relationships, by intense use of signs and objects, by systematic exploitation of all the potentialities of enjoyment.”

The Consumer Society, Baudrillard. p.97

This is the revival of a “universal curiosity”. Where consumerist man has to try everything. Everything that has the potential of bringing enjoyment or pleasure is to be explored. I think this is point is poignant and relevant, 40 years later, since it is even worse today. We are continuously learning that we should explore both ourselves and all the opportunities that are in front of us, at all times. We are bombarded by everything we should try out to make us “happy”. And more than ever people are plagued by a fear of missing out, FOMO, of the latest experience that has the potential to bring the slightest “sensation” into our lives. Some have talked about the rise in anxiety as something that stems from social media, and while that might be true, I think it is more likely that it stems from consumer society. It is the unease, which previously drove us to try new things, that now has turned into anxiety when consumption itself has infiltrated every little crevice of life. With social media and smartphones consumption has been driven into our pockets, where we earlier had to at least leave our bed to consume we can now do it everywhere at every time.

To sum up, this book is thought-provoking and interesting in many ways. The view Baudrillard has of consumption and consumer society is interesting. Even though one can often hear and read critiques of how capitalism and the capitalist system has changed society and humans, it seems as if fewer people think about or critique the impact of continual consumption and production of needs. As both this book and Simulacra & Simulations highlight, part of the reason why meaning, and reality seem so far away from us is the lost referential. We are so deep into the consumption and creation of signs that we cannot distinguish the signs from reality. The signs are referring onto themselves indefinitely, they are no longer referring to reality.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in acquiring new perspectives. It serves as a more digestible introduction to Baudrillard, as well as structuralist and, eventually, postmodern thought.  

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