Consumption as Postmodern Ideology in China

By Christopher E. Barnett
2016, Vol. 8 No. 11 | pg. 1/1

Jean Baudrillard makes the argument that in a postmodern globalized world, in which competing utopian metanarratives from both sides of the political spectrum have been exposed as failures, society is no longer constructed or ordered through common political ideology. The phenomenon has spread globally to nearly every modern city. Individuals no longer subscribe to the exposed metanarratives like liberalism or communism, and are instead consumed by consumerism. Hypersaturated by media that promotes consumerism, individuals are also incessantly distracted, tempted by advertisements, “news” and entertainment to no longer be concerned with how their beliefs and values measure up to any meaningful understanding of political ideology.

“Consumption has become the chief basis of the social order and of its internal classifications... consumer objects have their effect in structuring behavior through a linguistic sign function” (Baudrillard 2).

Deprived of a common political truth, the individual looks elsewhere for narratives to formulate a sense of identity. Advertisements are quick to fill the void. Advertisement campaigns exploit the individual for profit by selling goods not for their actual utilitarian value, but as a symbol of something more. This scenario is unfolding, particularly, in modern China.

Take the automobile manufacturer Jeep as an example. Jeep prides itself as producing vehicles that are well utilized as an off-road vehicle. Going to their website, you will see pictures of Jeeps plowing through snow in the mountains. The vehicle sells reasonably well in the US. In China however, Jeep sells more articles of clothing than it does vehicles. Gear is so popular that there are more than 1,500 licensed clothing outlets in the country, compared to only 160 auto dealers (Autonews). How is Jeep able to reinvent itself as a clothing store? Through selling its image, the narrative that is created through media advertisements like those seen on Jeep’s website, Jeep is able to market any object that they can put their brand on.

"The individuals in a Harley Davidson club did not actually use the Harley motorcycles that they purchased. Instead, owners towed their Harleys to social functions and took pictures with other club members standing next to their similarly towed motorcycles"

When asked about the company in China, customer’s responses are telling: “A Jeep driver is one who doesn’t give up when faced with adversity,” says Ding Qi, a Shanghai businessman, who bought his wife a Jeep Grand Cherokee in 2004 (Bloomberg). Buying a Jeep is more than purchasing an automobile, it’s about buying what Baudrillard calls a linguistic sign. In Qing’s case, a Jeep driver is someone who “doesn’t give up when faced with adversity.” Not only is Qing spending money to buy this package deal, a car and a linguistic sign of his ruggedness, he is spending an exorbitant amount of money to do so. Steep import tarrifs and the lack of local manufacturing plants cause a Jeep Grand Cherokee to cost about $91,064 compared to $26,995 in the US (Foreign Policy Magazine).

Following up on his impression of ruggedness, Qi goes on to say, “That’s the impression I get because we’ve had to deal with floods, landslides closing off roads and other obstacles, but the club members always pull together” (Bloomberg). The second part of his statement, that “club members always pull together,” is perhaps the most interesting element of Qing’s answer. In China, owning a particular brand, like Harley Davidson for example, is reason to have a weekly social function. In one reported example, the individuals in a Harley Davidson club did not actually use the Harley motorcycles that they purchased. Instead, owners towed their Harleys to social functions and took pictures with other club members standing next to their similarly towed motorcycles (CarNewsChina).

The example is almost too perfect. Jeeps and Harleys are not being utilized for their designed purposes, but instead, are being utilized as something more: a sign function. Individuals are buying things they don’t use, and arguably do not need, because they are able to then share some limited form of commonality with others. This social exercise is important because it allows the individual to not only express their desired personality characteristics through purchasing things, but also create an opportunity to meet with others to reaffirm their shared choice of identity by gaining recognition. Being a member of a Jeep club or a Harley group exemplifies what Baudrillard means by having a consumer object have an effect in structuring behavior through a linguistic sign function.

Jeep China

An online advertisement for Jeep in China. Image:

Yang Yang, 35, had this to say about Jeep, “I love the Jeep for its ruggedness. I remember one time we were going deep into the mountains in Anhui province and the villagers from surrounding villages came out to watch us. You don’t really feel it driving in the city, but when you get into the mountains or on a riverbed, you have this sense of superiority and joy,” (Bloomberg). Yang Yang loves the idea of the ruggedness of the Jeep, and the sense of superiority and joy that is gained from driving it in the mountains. For Yang Yang, the Jeep is much more than a vehicle, and was happy to buy it.

A perfect storm of obsessive consumerism is further enhanced by the individual's need to acquire recognition. By publically displaying purchased goods, individuals attempt to legitimize their identity by seeking recognition from others. Society becomes centered on this process of purchasing identity and seeking affirmation. Affirmation of chosen identity then becomes reasons to organize socially. Book clubs for particular books, sports bars for particular sports, clothes stores for a particular style, technology stores for a particular brand, the list cannot be exhausted.

The individual’s desire to find enduring satisfaction through this type of identity consumerism can only be realized through endless purchasing

The individual’s desire to find enduring satisfaction through this type of identity consumerism can only be realized through endless purchasing. If an object is no longer purchased because of a need, but instead a desire to associate with a certain symbol that represents an identity, the object isn’t serving a real purpose, rather it is serving a symbolic purpose. A symbol means nothing unless someone else agrees on its meaning. If an object loses popular agreement as to what it signifies, its value and utility becomes undesirable, sending the individual searching for the next socially accepted sign that fits in to the narrative of the preferred identity of the moment. Yang Yang replaced her 2004 Grand Cherokee with a Volkswagen Tiguan because she thought the newer Jeeps had become less rugged (Bloomberg).

The cycle of consumerism is kept alive by the impossibility for shared interpretation. A symbol's meaning is never wholly shared from one individual interpretation to another. It is both the tragedy and beauty of communication. The desire for individuals to find a place in some sense of a socially shared narrative pushes the mind to find acceptance and acknowledgement by others. Therefore, the individual becomes seduced into continuously attaining objects that are temporarily meaningful, without really achieving satisfaction. However, the condition persists. In China’s cities, consumerism can be seen plainly. Objects and what they symbolize are sometimes hilariously far apart from what they symbolize in the west, however the desire to purchase those objects still persist, because of the desire to be understood and to understand oneself as part of an acceptably popular narrative.

Recently, a consumerist fad in China was to buy synthetic sprouts to wear as head decoration. People could be seen walking the streets of Beijing looking like a plant was growing out of the top of the skull (CNN). According to a story on CNN, Some Chinese Internet users have speculated the idea for the sprouts came from a Japanese emoticon of a sprout coming out of a cute creature's head. In addition, in Chinese folklore, putting grass into someone's hair could signify a wish to sell oneself or one's children due to poverty. But the article claims those who wear the clips don't seem to be aware of these things. Meanwhile, one bestselling store on Taobao, China's most popular online shopping platform, has sold more than 1 million clips (CNN).

Baudrillard argues that the system of capitalism in today’s society is inescapable until death. Every aspect of society has become a reinforcing agent of the capitalist culture that we live in (Foucault 219). Stores become sellers of culture, and people have become slaves to culture. Consumption has created a complete and totalizing environment of production and consumption for the purpose of self-identification. This purpose is a conditioned response to the all-encompassing media created and employed by competition and capitalism. There has become a separation in desire and pleasure. Capitalism has changed the desire to consume from a feeling of gratification to one of the conditioned need for self-identification. The basic desire for pleasurable gratification is no longer what entices the majority of competition and consumption. Instead, the nature of consumption found in society today has become the basis for social order and internal classifications, and governments see it as a political tool of control.

Consumption has reached a point where pleasure is no longer the only reason for beings to consume. Buying things has also become a way to acquire signs that identify each other’s ‘culture’ or ‘individuality.’ Purchasing items advertised to represent a particular code of culture has become a driving force in postmodern consumerist habits participating in the capitalist system.

The Jeep store in the Beijing south railway station carries branded shirts, shoes, belts and backpacks, but not vehicles. The walls are covered with advertisements showing rugged looking men, or women hiking mountaintops. The store exemplifies the postmodern phenomenon. Jeep is selling a brand that represents a concept that people want to assimilate into their identity, without selling Jeeps.

In conclusion, in a time where universal metanarratives don’t exist for people to identify with, individuals tend to feel more paranoid and schizophrenic. A good way resolve this feeling is to find comfort in recognition by others. A good way to find recognition by others is to socialize. And in the postmodern age, apparently a good way to find others to socialize with is to buy objects that can signify certain values or narratives and display them. If others recognize the sign and are attracted to connect with the individual than the object has helped reaffirm the individual’s confidence and sense of identity. Our body and mind have a basic desire for pleasure and recognition of the self is satisfying. Media conditions individuals to apply that basic desire for satisfaction ad nausea by marketing fear, sex, anxiety and the body till the act is a conditioned response. Postmodernism is resulting in consumerism, or individuals buying objects out of insecurity, a feeling caused by the deconstruction of common universal metanarratives. Corporations and governments support this excessive behavior because because of the symbiotic benefit of over-consumption and control that results. People work more than they have to, so that they can earn more capital to buy things they don’t need. The result is people are constantly working. When people are constantly working they are slaves. When people are slaves they are orderly. Governments enjoy this order because it means they can keep control. It's a powerful cycle, and it’s in Chinese cities the same as anywhere else.

If reality is based on a parameter, the edges that are used to define objects relative to limited space, philosophy has evolved to push the parameters of existence to be bound only by the limits of the imagination. It is a wonder that the desire to rush towards that limit, to attain it, has not yet been recognized as futile. Perhaps someday, a more self-satisfied sense of self will develop from a better awareness and appreciation for being.

References (2015) Jeep ramps up dealers in China as production commences. Crain Communications. Accessed 15 January 2016.

Baudrillard, J. (2002) Selected Writings. Second Edition. Stanford University Press.

Ebhardt, T. (2016) Jeep Sticks to China Expansion Plan Amid Market Turmoil. Bloomberg Business. Accessed 15 January 2016.

Feijter, T. (2015) The rock crawling Jeep Wranglers of Beijing. CarNewsChina.com Accessed 15 January 2016.

Foucault, M. (1984) Ed. Rabinow, P. The Foucault Reader. Pantheon Books, New York.

Harvey, D. (1990) The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Blackwell Publishers.

Keating, J. (2012) China’s expensive love affair with Jeep. Foreign Policy Accessed 17 January 2016.

Lu, S. (2015) In China, grassy fashion trends sprouts on people’s heads. CNN Accessed 15 January 2016.

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