Baudrillard's Vision of the Postmodern Society and the Hope for Human Action

By Gian Carla D. Agbisit
2014, Vol. 6 No. 03 | pg. 1/2 |

This paper is about the numbing of man’s critical impulse brought about by consumer society, a society obsessed with speed, and is characterized by a constant consumption of products—of good things turning into goods, of culture with price tags, and of the generation of the unreal to cover up the loss of the real. But this paper also argues that despite the radical change of focus—from the modern society’s concern for freedom and political change to the blurred postmodern distinction between real and unreal—there is an underlying political concern that must be addressed by the postmodern man. The technological advances that threaten to overthrow reality contribute to this change of focus. Man, because his concerns do not involve the political, could easily be manipulated and oppressed in this postmodern society. But this oppression is of a new kind; it is stronger but more subtle. It seeps through the political, the economic, and the social, all of which have lost clear distinctions from one another. It controls production and consumption; it dictates the aesthetics and the direction of culture; it prescribes a new way of thinking.

Jean Baudrillard
Image from "On Jean Baudrillard," Obsolete Matter

The Consumer Society

Today’s society is a chugging machine that gobbles up the goods produced by Capitalist industries. It feeds on the newest technological devices and fashionable products. Its appetite is whet by ideas of “culture,” ambiance, style, novelty; every hunger for identity, every thirst for freedom, every desire for social differentiation, is satisfied in the consumption of products.

In this society, to live is to consume. Everything is up for consumption. And life is organized around commodities. And for Jean Baudrillard, the totalizing effect of consumption has seeped through all aspects of life, from culture and art to human relations. He writes:

There is all around us today a kind of fantastic conspicuousness of consumption and abundance, constituted by the multiplication of objects, services and material goods, and this represents something of a fundamental mutation in the ecology of the human species. Strictly speaking, the humans of the age of affluence are surrounded not so much by other human beings, as they were in all previous ages, but by objects.2

Baudrillard, influenced by the Frankfurt School critical theorists, emphasizes how everything good has been turned into goods. Health and well-being translates to a membership in a gym and drinking bottled fruit juices. Avant-garde art is reduced to a few songs sung by gyrating Madonna wannabes. Literature is no longer literature, but a product that must conform to the latest fads. After the reign of vampire literature—each book following roughly the same plot—comes, perhaps, the zombie literature takeover. Movies are either remakes or rip-offs. Even education has been made into a commodity, and to avail such would give the girl with the Eiffel tower pendant the right to critique the hoi polloi.3

Even particularities, physical or otherwise, could be sensationalized, universalized, and sold through the help of advertisements. Man is made to believe that he needs to buy whitening products to attain good skin. He buys the promise of 25-hour silky smooth hair. He buys the zero calorie food, and pays for sugar-free, gluten-free, MSG-free. He eats an organic food that comes in a foil pack.

In this consumer society, consumption excludes no one. Man is offered a million choices. The capitalist industries make sure that all taste and sense of style could be bought. Even the self-proclaimed communists and Marxist fanatics are catered to. Che Guevarra T-shirts are mass produced, and sent to the market.

But Baudrillard extends the Frankfurt School’s critique of culture industry to highlight consumption as the new social order; and here, Baudrillard argues for the linguistic character of commodities. For Baudrillard, the late capitalism is not just about production. It is about the consumption, not merely of goods, but of signs. While Marx, and the Neo-Marxists insist that the value of products depend on their exchange-value, Baudrillard focuses on a different perspective. For him, commodities are consumed for their sign-value. Each particular commodity has a meaning attached to it. Poster writes: “The object has its effect when it is consumed by transferring its ‘meaning’ to the individual consumer.”4 Starbucks coffee seizes to be a mere coffee. A consumer who drinks Starbucks coffee gains prestige in the same way that a person who drives a red sports car becomes cool.

The consumers, however, do not just buy a sign. They consume a system of signs. Consumption has become a “systematic purchase.”5 An avid fan of rock music does not merely buy the records; he buys the fashion, the look. He buys the leather jacket, the tattoos, and the long hair.6

The consumer society gave way to a change in behavior and ethical concerns. Baudrillard highlights the change from the work ethics of the modern society to the fun morality of the consumer society. In the consumer society, the hedonistic morality is being legitimized. The repressed and discontent man of the modern society has been given license to enjoy life through consumption. His drive, his wild and unrestrained unconscious, has been liberated. Through the consumer society, man seemed to have found a civilization without its discontents.

The only condition for this freedom is that it must culminate in consumption. Baudrillard writes:

The goal is to allow the drives that were previously blocked by mental determinants (instances) (taboo, superego, guilt) to crystallize on objects, concrete determinants where the explosive force of desire is annulled and the ritual repressive function of social organization is materialized.7

This freedom to go for one’s desires has been preconditioned. Baudrillard writes: “The irrationality of drives increasingly more ‘free’ at the base will go hand in hand with control increasingly more restricted at the top.”8 The system has been able to calculate and redirect this hedonistic freedom. It balances the reciprocal relation of desire and consumption, and to a certain extent, the relation of production and consumption.

The desires of man have to materialize as products. They have to be commodified. For example, partly because everything has become accessible to everyone, and partly because of mass production, today’s generation is in frantic search of identity. People desire social differentiation, but their search has been made easier by consuming the sign-value of products. The search for difference has become fashionable and fashion-oriented.

Jean Baudrillard

At the same time, all products have to be desired. Here, in a sense, is the idea of production-consumption dialectic. The change in production demands a change in consumption. The efficiency and speed in producing movies, for example, needed to convince movie-goers to keep watching movies. But at the same time, the change in consumption also affects the techniques of production, the quality of products, etc.9

Because consumption has become the new order of society, there has also been a change on the arrangement of goods in display, the change on marketing strategies, the birth of malls, and the evolution of advertisements. The production-consumption-desire relation is manifested in these changes. Baudrillard mentions the importance of sign-value and the system of signs in the game of consumption, and how consumption has become a systematic purchase. The “advertising philosophy” makes sure that the systematic consumption of man will retain. Advertisements do not just inform the viewer of the products; they do not just persuade. Man responds to

advertising’s underlying leitmotiv of protection and gratification, the intimation that its solicitations and attempts to persuade are the sign, indecipherable at the conscious level, that somewhere there is an agency (a social agency in the event, but one that refers directly to the image of the mother) which has taken it upon itself to inform him of his own desires, and to foresee and rationalize these desires to his own satisfaction.10

In fact, for Baudrillard, even advertisements have become objects of consumption. Not only are advertisements longer than the actual show, even the show itself advertises something. There are product placements. The actor promotes a specific product. The show also creates products. Everything in television has become one big advertisement.

Baudrillard also mentions the existence of malls, and how their organization—café, cinema, book stores, clothing, food, grocery, tailor, beauty salons, spa and “wellness centers,” gym, computer shops, dental clinic, hardware store, kiosks, benches, fountains and artificial trees—caters to consumption. It offers everything at once, and in one place. It offers convenience. It is the new public space. It has the monopoly of needed products. One may intend to just buy a book, but he will also be enticed to dine, or watch a cinema, or have a haircut. The mall preconditions man’s behavior.

We have reached the point where ‘consumption’ has grasped the whole of life; where all activities are sequenced in the same combinatorial mode; where the schedule of gratification is outlined in advance, one hour at a time; and where the ‘environment’ is complete, completely climatized, furnished, and culturalized.11

Now, man also believes in style, ambience, and interior design. He buys the vacation package to a luxurious hotel and resort that artificially combines colored cocktails, palm trees, sand, and man-made pools to fulfill the promise of “natural.” The irony, however, will go unnoticed in the individual who came to the movie theater to drowse off or find distraction.

Zygmunt Bauman emphasizes the dull critical impulse of man in Baudrillard’s world. He writes:

The world [Baudrillard] paints seems to be one likely to be seen by a person glued to the television screen; a person who replaced with TV screens the windows in the apartment he inhabits and in the car in which he travels to his university lectures; a person whose attention is at its sharpest during the commercial breaks in the constant flow of televised images he so avidly ingests… Baudelaire suggested that the right way to observe and make sense of the modern world is to stroll along the streets and past the shops of the urban metropolis… The stroller does not stroll any more. It is the TV images, TV commercials, the goods and joys they advertise who now stroll, and run, and flow in front of the hypnotized viewer.12

Man has not been oriented to the subtle oppression brought about by the consumer society. Because of his outdated concepts of tyranny and domination that were informed by the modern society, man cannot seem to notice the oppressive tendencies manifested by consumerism. His belief in the freedom offered by the consumer society, and his constant thoughtless indulgence in the world of consumption has dulled his critical impulse. For him, these things are necessary and normative.13

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