consumption + affluent society

consumption + affluent society
  ---- by David B. Clarke
  A society in which 'an ever-accelerating procession of generations of products' results in a 'luxuriant growth of objects' (SO, 3) calls for the kind of taxonomical effort normally reserved for flora and fauna, Baudrillard suggested - not least because such an abundance of goods marks 'something of a fundamental mutation in the ecology of the human species' (CS, 25). Baudrillard's initial forays into the prosperity and profusion of the affluent society sought to take stock of the brave new world of consumerism, capturing the sense in which we now live 'beneath the mute gaze of mesmerizing, obedient objects which endlessly repeat the same refrain: that of our dumbfounded power, our virtual affluence, our absence one from another' (CS, 25). While ours is far from the first society dedicated to excess, as Georges Bataille revealed, it is nevertheless a striking development in capitalist society, one detected in Thorstein Veblen's study of the leisure class, but now extended to the masses in a manner unanticipated by Marx: 'The bourgeoisie negated itself as such (and capital along with it), engendering a classless society' (Baudrillard, 1992a: 237). Accordingly, Baudrillard's analysis of consumption incorporates an appreciation, critique and extension of Marx's analysis of the commodity, and a radical retheorisation of our relation to objects. In a quasi-structuralist vein, Baudrillard refuted conceptions of consumption defined in terms of individual pleasure, insisting on the importance of a system of objects as a means of grasping consumption's increased centrality to the reproduction of capitalism.
  The 'fundamental theorem of consumption', Baudrillard proposed, is 'that the latter has nothing to do with personal enjoyment . . . but that rather it is a restrictive social institution that determines behavior before even being considered in the consciousness of the social actors' (CPS, 31). This does not, therefore, entail that perennially unlikely scenario whereby capitalism reduces consumers to dupes. Rejecting 'simplistic ideas like "the manipulation of needs" and denunciations of "artificial needs"' (CPS, 136) as naive conceptions that assume the existence of 'real' needs in some idealised social arrangement elsewhere, Baudrillard argues that the very notion of 'needs' - and the corresponding conception of 'use-values' geared to their satisfaction - arises from a peculiarly modern relation to the world, one Marx failed to do more than reflect in naturalising use-values and needs rather than recognising their role as alibis of the system of exchange-value. Thus 'consumption does not arise from an objective need of the consumer, a final intention of the subject towards the object' (CPS, 75), which would be analogous to explaining language in terms of an individual need to speak, nor from an intrinsic finality of concrete objects in their ability to serve as use-values, which would be analogous to the pre-Darwinian argument that eyes have the properties they do because people need to see with them. Just as Marx demonstrated that 'production is no longer in its present finality the production of "concrete" goods, but the expanded reproduction of the exchange value system' (CPS, 134), for Baudrillard consumption has become 'the most advanced form of the rational systematization of the productive forces at the individual level' (CS, 75). Hence his insistence that, '[f]ar from the individual expressing his needs in the economic system, it is the economic system that induces the individual function and the parallel functionality of objects and needs' (CPS, 133). Because 'needs are not produced one by one, in relation to the respective objects, but . . . as a consumption power, as an overall propensity within the more general framework of the productive forces' (CS, 74-5).
  Whereas Marx distinguished productive from unproductive consumption, a consumer society marks 'no fundamental difference between "productive" consumption (direct destruction of utility during the process of production) and consumption by persons in general' (CPS, 133). The latter was classically regarded as the 'reconversion of economic exchange value into use value' (CPS, 113). However, insofar as Baudrillard demonstrates that use-value accords to a logic of equivalence in precisely the same manner as exchange-value - use-values are not the natural properties of objects but emanate from a system - the Marxian distinction breaks down: 'no more "productive" or "unproductive" consumption, only a reproductive consumption' (SED, 28) to which even conspicuously unproductive consumption contributes. In demonstrating that use-values, like exchange-values, have 'no more meaning than a phoneme has an absolute meaning in linguistics' (CPS, 64), Baudrillard shows that consumption involves not only the reconversion of exchange-value into use-value but also 'the conversion of economic exchange value into sign exchange value' (CPS, 113). To recognise only the functional aspect of the object, as a use-value and a source of individual satisfaction, is to fail to recognise the priority of the system of objects. Rather than its meaning deriving from its use-value (functionality) in relation to the subject, '[the object] finds meaning with other objects, in difference, according to a hierarchical code of significations' (CPS, 64). As such, the object is 'reified into a sign' (CPS, 65): we should speak of 'sign-objects' rather than 'objects'. And 'sign-objects exchange among themselves' (CPS, 66), possessing the structural properties common to all sign systems. The 'functionality of goods and individual needs only follows on this, adjusting itself to, rationalizing, and in the same stroke repressing these fundamental structural mechanisms' (CPS, 75).
  The repression entailed by the naturalisation of use-values and needs simultaneously disavows that dimension of consumption detected in Marcel Mauss's and Bataille's accounts of archaic consumption practices - the gift, potlatch, sacrifice: the 'accursed share'. For the 'act of consumption is never simply a purchase (reconversion of exchange value into use value); it is also an expenditure . . . it is wealth manifested, and a manifest destruction of wealth' (CPS, 112). Such profligate expenditure once served to symbolise an ambivalent social relation - for example, in the inalienability of the gift and the giver - whereas the sign-object 'only refers to the absence of relation itself, and to isolated individual subjects': 'it is no longer the mobile signifier of a lack between two beings, it is "of" and "from" the reified relation (as is the commodity at another level, in relation to reified labor power)' (CPS, 65). The alienation achieved in commodity production is thus paralleled by 'a labor of expanded reproduction of use value as an abstraction' in the sphere of consumption (CPS, 134). And so the mythology of consumerism prevails: 'Affluence does not exist, but it only has to make us believe it exists to be an effective myth' (CS, 193). Only the consummation expressed in expenditure 'escapes recycling in the expanded reproduction of the value system - not because it is the destruction of substance, but because it is a transgression of the law and finality of objects' (CPS, 134).
   § gift

The Baudrillard dictionary. . 2015.

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