Signs, signs — everywhere, the signs.
Nothing seems easier than to want things. Desire presumably wells up within us, unprompted, driving us to find something — a product, an activity, a person — to satisfy an altogether natural hunger. As neoclassical economists and the gurus of human potential movements alike have assumed, the capacity for humans to want things is limitless. We can be whatever we want to be; we can create and re-create ourselves with entirely fresh sets of impulses and wants.
Desire is presumed to be an input into the economic system that comes cost-free — a given, not produced at all but spilling out of humanity by its very nature. The presumption of free desire allows economists to deduce the tractable incentives that can be charted with supply-and-demand curves and marginal-utility functions, positing a rational system of longing based on insurmountable scarcity.
If any mental effort is involved with desire, it is not to stimulate it but to try to come to terms with not being able to have everything we want. Desiring, from this perspective, is inseparable from a kind of spiritual budgeting, which translates desire into tangible action. After all, the moment of acquisition is the death of desire, whereas the drawn-out expanses of time spent scheming about how to get something is when desire flourishes and becomes practical.
But why would we be budgeting and scheming in the midst of what appears to be an unprecedented abundance of objects? With digital-reproduction methods, the cultural surplus is virtually infinite. There’s no automatic requirement to predicate our motivations on a lack. And why, if limitless desire is so natural, do consumer societies require massive persuasion industries to massage the appeal of all these things it produces?
Rather than naturalize limitless desire, we should probably question exactly why wanting more things, far more than we can feasibly consume or assimilate in the amount of time we have, can so often feel like common sense. Limitless desire becomes necessary once mass production threatens to make a virtually limitless amount of goods. To keep these goods circulating, they must be translated into emblems of inexhaustible feelings. Consumers needed to develop a penchant for fantasizing about the sort of person objects could make of them; they had to make the meanings that would bring the goods to life as fetishes.
The need for that sort of meaning production ushered in the shift to a “post-Fordist” economy, to use the jargon of the Autonomists. They argue that as production methods have become increasingly automated, a new, flexible sort of laborer becomes necessary from whom a different sort of value must be extracted. Services replace manufacturing; the management strata expands. Knowledge work replaces craft work or factory-line labor. In the cubicle world, labor, as Paolo Virno argues in A Grammar of the Multitude, is mainly a matter of “developing, refining, and intensifying cooperation,” and coming up with new cooperative procedures. These feed into a pool of social knowledge, which becomes the primary productive force in society, and boils down to “communicative competence.” This competence must derive not from suspending our sense of self in the midst of working but developing it — extenuating our identity becomes a prerequisite to being a useful worker.
In the climate of proliferating signs, a powerful appetite for things can itself stand in as a sign of the inexhaustible depths of our personality.
These communication skills, it turns out, are synonymous with the consumption of cultural goods: “Where are these techniques and procedures created,” Virno asks, “if not in the culture industry?” Labor, now reconfigured as productive communication according to Virno, must become “virtuosic” — it yields not a product but a moment of spectacle, a performance, and it requires an audience. So conceived, labor can embrace our gestures of public consumption — the conspicuous displays Veblen detailed in The Theory of the Leisure Class, the distinction-making gestures that forge cultural capital. Consumption as communication produces value, and this value becomes the basis of the contemporary media industries, which in Virno’s view, produce the means of production. The growing valuations of Web 2.0 companies seems to bear this out.
So it is that meaningful work can no longer be found in making things. But decoding and making meanings through consuming objects has emerged as a substitute, allowing us to perform the most meaningful-seeming work of all, the production of ourselves. Because this process begins in vicarious fantasy, it seems voluntary, even though we are being goaded into thinking of ourselves as though we were an alienated thing, a mere potentiality. The compensation for this lies in our new-found ability to exchange our own identity as a sign, to accrue value as a brand, to seem to valorize ourselves and the same time we augment the meaning of goods and activities. This is the apotheosis of individualism, the IPO of the self.
In the climate of proliferating signs, a powerful appetite for things can itself stand in as a sign of the inexhaustible depths of our personality. A proud insatiability takes root. Knowing what else to want — knowing the right things to lust after, what sorts of things will establish our credibility, our contemporaneity, our coolness — becomes a mark of distinction, giving occasion for a ceaseless series of flourishes of our good taste, always in the process of evolving toward a higher perfection. If I can want more, I am more.
Once we slip out of our accustomed context, however — if, for example, we are traveling — the difficulty of desire can surprisingly be revealed. The rituals and routines that facilitate our consumption in our everyday life stripped away, it suddenly takes more effort to consume. If in a foreign culture, the meanings of what we might want in our new environment are opaque, the advertising incomprehensible, in a strange language and directed at someone who is clearly not us. If we opt out of tourist spectacles, the choices we end up making — where to eat, where to go, what to do — can seem arbitrary, nearly pointless. Once we lose sense of the meanings we produce by consuming, our desire can recede to basic subsistence, and even these can be hard to accommodate. Perhaps this is why so many tourists end up eating in Friday’s and Applebee’s in Times Square. Maybe it’s why I walked the length of Mariahilferstrasse on a recent trip to Vienna, unable to choose a sandwich shop to eat some lunch. Instead of feeling something like liberation from consumer desire, I felt instead an anxious restlessness, an emptiness.
The ease with which we can want things — and, by extension, the solidity of our sense of self within consumerism — is ultimately bound up not with our physical needs but with the ways in which we understand the language of objects, the ways they can signify identity and lifestyle and, most of all, status, as opposed to their mere functionality. An object’s supposed usefulness and the need that usefulness corresponds to has little to do with the circuit of desire. As Jean Baudrillard asserts in “The Ideological Genesis of Needs,” “Use value no longer appears anywhere in the system.” In other words, moments of actual enjoyment and fulfillment have little to do with the system of consumption. Just as meaningful physical work disappears, so does consumer satisfaction; instead we have productive consumption, spurred on not by the pursuit of pleasure so much as status insecurity and existential angst.
Baudrillard argues that “the definition of an object of consumption is entirely independent of objects themselves and exclusively a function of the logic of significations.” Consumption is not a process of using something up but instead is an act of communication, a kind of immaterial production enhancing the meaning of goods, provided we are confident that our gestures are being received by an audience that recognizes and comprehends them. This immaterial production, and not the consumption of the goods themselves, provides us with satisfaction, such as it is, particularly when the code of signs is richly elaborated, as it is in consumer societies. That is, the various sensual satisfactions that goods might supply have all been supplanted by the overarching satisfaction of having our identity, as expressed through a particular consumption act, recognized and validated. Then we know it mattered, that it meant something. Without that recognition, it becomes harder to consume at all.
This is no accidental psychological quirk. As Baudrillard explains, our needs are no longer a personal, private matter of “spontaneous craving” (assuming they ever were) but a “productive force required by the functioning of the system” of the existing economic order, which increasingly exploits the meanings we produce to make the abundance of goods it is capable of producing more palatable, consumable.
The needs invested by the individual consumer today are just as essential to the order of production as the capital invested by the capitalist entrepreneur and the labor power invested by the wage laborer. It is all capital.
Our desire, though it makes our own identity, is someone else’s capital. Though it registers to ourselves as integrity and psychological complexity, it is at the same time an impersonal measure of our productive capacity as immaterial laborers. As we deepen our sense of self through our judgment and use of objects, we enrich the language they constitute. They take on the aura of our social status, materializing social capital in the various ways we demonstrate how they can be used and enjoyed. In this way, they can replicate the nuances of class in a register that seems open-ended and flexible, democratic and innovative and responsive to individual creativity when in fact the process, as Pierre Bourdieu argues in Outline of a Theory of Practice, naturalizes the hierarchy’s arbitrariness.
We can’t stop ourselves from producing the terms of our own exploitation.
What we say through consumption seems to justify the social capital we already possess, even though that social capital to a degree predetermines the way in which a gesture will be received: The confidence with which one creates “cool” preexists the cool gestures and merely plays itself out through them. The meanings we create are thus stamped by class, but in a way that obfuscates the source of the meaning, promising a social mobility to everyone through the very consumption that marks us more particularly and indelibly with our status. So the richer language we create for objects further entrenches consumerism, as a democratic ideal, while growing it, mobilizing more needs as potential terms in signifying chains of objects and consumption gestures. The faux open-endedness compels us to a perpetual re-expression of ourselves. We have to continue to reassert our status through new consumerist iterations of it, reinforcing the system of consumerism all the while. Our efforts at distinction and cool further embed us within consumer relations.
This presents seemingly insurmountable problem: We can’t prevent our consumption from serving as immaterial labor, and anything else we do is easily translated into a sign, into consumption. As Baudrillard argues, “everything, even artistic, intellectual, and scientific production, even innovation and transgression, is immediately produced as sign and exchange value.” Virno puts it this way: “Labor and non-labor develop an identical form of productivity, based on the exercise of generic human faculties: language, memory, sociability, ethical and aesthetic inclinations, the capacity for abstraction and learning.” Basically, if we are thoughtful about our consumption, it becomes labor. There is no way to consume our way out of the traps of consumerist conformity, no matter how alternative or distinctive our consumption practices are; there is no setting a positive example. We can’t stop ourselves from producing the terms of our own exploitation.
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