||[19 Oct 2009|11:14pm]
I’ve read The Consumer Society by Baudrillard. I didn’t read 2 of 11 chapters and I did skip some parts since they were irrelevant for me now. If Uncle Felix and Aunty Marisa read this book, they would have more insights but I’d like to get it out of my mind now.
Baudrillard’s writing divides society into then and now. By now, it could be society after industrialization. I disagree with his constant praise of society then as it paints a positive picture of it and poses society now as its negative reflection. I think both societies have their good and evil sides. He writes that ‘we are at the point where consumption is laying hold of the whole of life’. It has laid hold of life as many things we do today require some form of consumption, as they did yesterday. I think today, consumption has become unquestioned, having more of the same, the illusion of unlimited choice, giving more than mere products and services.
It is clear that Baudrillard dislikes consumption. He writes that the profusion of products and services (Henceforth P&S) is a sign of abundance today. But this abundance is also a sign of scarcity as not everyone is able to benefit from P&S. This profusion is packaged, in a literal and figurative sense, to appeal to people, becoming a commodity. Such a commodity is replete with signs. A sign can be color, image, language (speaking and writing), layout, body language… He mentions the washing machine that serves to wash clothes but acts to indicate comfort and prestige (Remember, he wrote in 1970). This harks back to the denotative or literal meaning of a sign and the connotative of figurative meaning of a sign, also to de Saussure’s langue and parole. Baudrillard recognizes that the sign is ambivalent, it can have many meanings but such meanings must be anchored as P&S cannot mean anything and everything. I’d say signs are motivated, like Kress & van Leeuwen, as they are chosen for purpose(s). I don’t like his way of saying that we live ‘sheltered by signs, in denial of the real’. This begs the question- What is real? To whom? Why? The sign is always subjective.
Consumption manipulates both use value (literal) and exchange value (figurative) of a sign but it’s the exchange value that is more variable, more profound, more magical, as there is less in way of regulation, I think, compared to the use value (Law, ethics). This then, makes consumption a sort of magical thinking, giving joy to consumers. Of course, we know such joy is fleeting and has to be replenished, because the exchange value of P&S is relative.
I like his statement that waste is a sign of abundance as only if you have abundance can you waste. While waste might have been common of consumption in the 70s, it does seem that consumption is trying to reduce waste, to green itself, in order to perpetuate itself. I wish to be cynical here and doubt the sincerity of corporate social responsibility.
Baudrillard writes that growth produces inequality. We experience this as poverty does not expire despite economic growth, like the NEP has not helped all Malays. There must be other factors to attend to before growth can benefit all. And to ask the type of growth, its sustainability, the people it influences…
The point that struck me was his line that ‘Consumption… is a class institution’. We all participate in consumption, apparently, but at distinct levels in distinct degrees, to distinct ends. Baudrillard writes that class provides entrance to P&S and also interpretation of P&S. I think he means some people can afford a Mercedes and some people can benefit from the prestige and pride of a Mercedes. It is such entrance and interpretation that come to simulate status. He uses stimulate here as P&S in themselves do not mean status, but their use value and exchange value. Plus, I feel that such P&S must come in company with related P&S for status. Status is not a Mercedes alone but in company of Chanel and um… (I lack brand memory). As he says ‘a particular individual is a member of a particular group because he consumes particular’ P&S. Consumption becomes a ‘whole system of values in terms of group integration’, layered by class, status, entrance and interpretation of P&S. Well said. He later writes that we should have the lowest common culture (LCC) to access this consumer society, but it would be better put to say an individual or group has need of a LCC to access a particular class.
Baudrillard mentions personalization, the event P&S try to become ‘different’ from other P&S. Personalization can be from your bank services with Priority Banking or Typical Banking, unit trusts for hedge funds or overseas stocks, your MSN color options, your browser decisions, your Zara or your Top Man, all to create the smallest marginal difference (SMD). While we think P&S have catered to our individuality, we are not individualized because such personalization has been predetermined. You do not have free choice in your MSN color options. So, by being you, you are actually conforming to some mould. P&S exploit the signs available (color, image, language (speaking and writing), layout, body language…) to give the veneer of personalization. And this is a focus of my own work, like when I did brochures. Some language used to this end would be the use of pronouns like we and you, the decrease of formality, more imperatives, the use of select adjectives/adverbs, nouns and verbs/tenses. This makes consumption an act of solicitude, of gratifying the consumer (Smile and greeting at McDonalds, beauty consultant at Bella, personal trainer at Fitness First, May I Help You? at Carrefour, service points for bank counter…), servicing the consumer, to construct him/her as a free and ready consumer. And we are becoming better at this.
There are Marxian strands here because he realizes that consumption requires production. We consume food to produce shit and companies produce P&S to consume resources to make P&S. Both cannot be separated but consumption has taken the front seat although production does peek in front at times, as when we are told where our coffee beans come from, how organic products are manufactured, how movies are produced…
In this book, we find the early mention of the simulacra but Baudrillard mentions it as simulation, where the original is lost and all we have are signs collaged to imitate the original. He writes that simulation is a trend, like the housing estates that bring nature closer to you (Were the original forests they replaced any further from nature?), our Little India, Geylang Serai, China Town, Fort Cornwallis, retro clothing, cetak rompak… all in a way simulate original(s). He thinks such simulation leads to kitsch and gadgetry but I am prone to think that simulation brings new signs into being by recycling, adding and subtracting old signs. I do not see it as depression but progression.
I feel that Baudrillard laments the loss of sincerity that supposedly characterized society then. Communication is no longer uncomplicated but manipulated. He tries to lay bare the code or structure as to how this is. Baudrillard comments that consumption is a ‘process of absorption of signs and absorption by signs’. Hasn’t this been so for any period of time? Maybe now it is more pervasive and we are less critical of such signs but I don’t feel consumption per se is negative. Rather, its execution must be regulated. Change is a constant in society. He ends by saying that the discourse of consumption provides a counter-discourse against consumption. Capitalist vs. Socialist, in simplest terms. But the very negation of consumption serves to strengthen it, as by exposing its faults, it can or cannot right itself. What we need is to dis-identify.
I started the book pumped up, that I would accept all his words. But I must have become soft, as I am not and do not want to be in this wave of anti consumption. How do we deal with this, transparently?