Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

28: Jean Baudrillard part II:
The Ambient Consumer and Postmodern Ethics

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         The Ambient Consumer
         We are consumers. Traditionally this means that we have needs which direct us to consume so as to get some satisfaction. But Baudrillard points out that we can never be satisfied with what we consume. We want more and more with the only real limit being our budget. As our budget increases, magically, so do our needs. This is a hint that what we call 'needs' are not needs at all.
         The concept of need is problematic for Baudrillard. All definitions of a 'need' tend to be sophisticated tautologies that reduce to: a need is what a need is.
         What we have in our socio-economic consumer system is: freedom of choice. This freedom of choice is actually imposed on us by the system itself. We are presented with hundreds of choices every day and we have to choose. In our world, in which millions of different things are produced, people have had to be enticed, seduced and forced to choose between the alternatives that are presented. Our system requires this process in order to keep growing and as we 'get richer' (as individual and as a society) we have more and more choices to make.
         The Signs and Relationships of Consumption
         Consumption produces meaning. There is a code of consumption in which objects are differentiated and organized into systems of relationships. The objects that we consume differentiate us from each other and establish a relationship to everyone else based on the perception of the signs each object emits. Consumption for Baudrillard is our manipulation of these signs and relationships.
         Every object has a denotative use or purpose but every object also has a connotation. All objects connote a relationship with all other objects. As a result of connotations every object becomes a sign of some relational distinction. Some of the more common relational distinctions are: prestige, status, wealth, intelligence, functionality, class, etc.
         Our needs in this postmodern world follow connotative relational signs much more than denotative use based signs. Objects are more for social meaning than for actual use. If this is true there is no need that can ever be satisfied.
         Postmodern Ethics
         We are all in a sense crazy or at least neurotic when we speak of needs because needs cannot be satisfied. But this craziness or neurosis has a function. Repression in the Freudian sense, has found an outlet in which it can sublimate the drives of the Id into a socially acceptable action: Consumption. Baudrillard claims that objects take our anxieties and absorb them or hide them or at the least distract us from having to face them.
         Repression in the Freudian sense is all about duty to society – consumption is a duty to society too. A consumer is supposed to seek (has a duty to seek) pleasure but NOT enjoyment.
         This is the ethics of postmodernism: fun morality.
         Enjoyment is passive; it is part of our inner life, one does not need anything. Pleasure, for Baudrillard, is external and requires things. It is never satisfied for long and continues to seek out more and more and therefore is very conducive to consumption.
         “Needs” are therefore a plausible but false reason (what Baudrillard calls an alibi) or an ideology to support consumption; so are signs. Signs of reality and meaning are alibis that make the production and consumption of signs appear as the natural way of things. However, signs, in the postmodern sense, are distractions designed to support and encourage the economic structure of production.
         1. Psychologists claim that a need is something that is deep in our core and arises out of our drives and desires. Sociologists claim that needs are learned and come from the demands of a social group. Economist believe that needs are rational choices we make to further our lives and ambitions. Do you agree or disagree with Baudrillard that these definitions can reduce to tautologies such as: 'a need is what a need is' or 'a need does what a need does'?
         2. People have had to be enticed, seduced and forced to chose between the alternatives that are presented. You are outside and thirsty, so you go into a convenience store and are presented with 100 different drinks all enticing you to buy. Some (sports drinks) seduce men by connoting images of strength and vigor; others (diet drinks) seduce women with promises of health and S-curves. Finally you are forced to buy something because having gone into a store and then leaving without buying is weird and suspicious. How often and to what degree do you feel this enticement, seduction and force? How often do you give in? When you do not give in what kind of excuse do you give yourself (or others)?
         3. When Baudrillard defines consumption as our manipulation of signs and relationships, what do you think? How does this strike you? Is that really what we do when we shop? Can there be degrees of successful consumption? Can we fail in our consumption?
         4. Do you consider connotative relational signs much more than denotative use based signs when deciding to make a purchase? If connotative signs are more important that denotative signs, do you agree with Baudrillard that a connotative need is never satisfied?
         5. The person who collects things, like stamps or records, is really searching for wholeness. The person who likes antiques is really searching for origins and authenticity. The person who has a pet is searching for a successful relationship. A wrist watch absorbs anxiety over one's approaching death. These are examples of how consumer objects repress, distract or hide anxieties. Do our irrational consumer eccentricities really reveal our secret anxieties? Or does Freud's claim that they are compensations for something, sound more convincing? Is there another explanation for our irrational consumer eccentricities?
         6. “Don't knock it till you try it.” and “I'm willing to try anything once.” these are two common mantras of postmodern ethics. Do you subscribe to postmodern ethics? If so to what degree? Can you think of any more postmodern mantras?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren