Magical Thinking

Baudrillard’s basic premise in The Consumer Society is that the logic of exchange value in consumption has rendered all activities equal – distinction through goods is impossible because they all essentially signify the same thing. He outlines a theory of consumption based on the acceptance of “formal rationality,” which assures an individual pursues his individual happiness through objects expected to provide the maximum satisfaction. This ideology is founded on the myth of “needs,” which Baudrillard is anxious to refute. In a useful survey of consumer behavior theory, he explains that utility and conformity/emulation motives amount to the same thing; and that neither are accurate. Galbraith is closer when he suggests the “revised sequence” – consumers don’t initiate the production process, producers do – conditioning the needs of the consumers to what they produce. The implication is that man studies man’s psychology when it becomes more difficult to sell him something than it is to make it. In short, needs are not inherent in either the good or the consumer, needs are produced by the system of production. This makes the imposed “freedom of choice” the hallmark of industrial ideology, an idea Williamson corroborates in Decoding Advertisements when she claims that “We are trapped in the illusion of choice. Freedom of choice is in fact part of the most basic ideology, the very substructure of advertising.” Baudrillard pushes the critique further than most economic critics by refusing to see a basis for distinguish real from artifical needs. “The pleasure obtained from a television or a second home is experienced as ‘real’ freedom. No one experiences this as alienation.” Individual needs are nothing, there is only a system of needs, which represents “the most advanced form of the rational systemization of productive forces at the individual level, one in which ‘consumption’ takes up the logical and necessary relay from production.”

According to Baudrillard, consumers are not passive victims, but actors within a social system that is perpetuated by the use of it, no matter for what end. Consumption, and its attendant social system, survive as a language, which consumers choose to speak through, perpetuating it. Consumption “is directly and totally collective.” “When we consume, we never do it on our own (the isolated consumer is the carefully maintained illusion of the ideological discourse on consumption). Consumers are mutually implicated, despite themselves, in a general system of exchange and in the production of coded values.” Consumption “assures a certain type of communication” in society; failure to communicate would be regarded by others in this context as anti-social. Needs are like symptoms in a hypochondriac, a hysteric. There is no necessary connection between need/symptom and object/body; just an arbitrary one. The “need” is an unfulfillable desire for distinction; it has nothing to do with pleasure, except for maybe the denial of pleasure. Pleasure is the rational end, not the objective, it is a constraint, a compulsion, a social imperative without which one becomes anti-social, inexplicable, alien and scary. This is “fun morality,” which mandates a universal curiosity and a complete exploitation of things according to the rules for extracting pleasure.

Credit is one means of socializing groups to the fun morality; it prevents their having an excuse for not participating. Finally, consumption helps atomize the individual, enhancing social control and legitimizing an increase of bureaucracy which circumscribes the freedom simultaneously offered within the system. So one is urged to consume, and then urged to accept the social responsibility inherent in the consumption. The world of goods treats consumers as a group in order to classify them into different statuses, but the individuals within the group feel no collective impulse; have no sense of being a part of a group – so the process is impervious to collective resistance. The individual feels his voice as a consumer is strong and powerful as long as he is consuming; if he refused to consume, he would be stripped of the power/pleasure afforded him – this is even more true of women, who are constituted as subjects primarily by consuming in the early days of commodity capitalism. This explains why consumerism is embraced and accepted early on, it shows what task culture performs; illustrating the “power” of the “freedom” of consumer choice; illustrating the “autonomy” one has over her own experience of pleasure (when in fact such pleasure is less autonomous, more dependent, or at least as dependent on the social system that classifies and neutralizes the individual).

Consumption as magical thinking – “happiness” appears when the signs of happiness are assembled. We consume to remain at a safe distance from the real – “the consumer’s relation to the real world . . . is not a relation of interest, investment or committed responsibility – nor is it one of total indifference: it is a relation of curiosity.”

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