In two of Jean Baudillard’s masterwork, Consumer Society and System of Objects, one is made aware of a central idea that American society is consumed with a malady called consumerism. This relatively new sociological phenomenon is characterized by the desire to possess human products and that this obsession with having the latest equipment, the state-of-the-art dwellings, the luxurious items and expensive means of transportation is dictating how a man or woman should live their lives on earth – from the moment they were born to the moment that they will go to the grave. There is a need to understand why Baudillard was adamant that this trend is not only good for human beings but it is path that leads to destruction of the soul, the mind, and even the human bod. This paper will show – using sociological concepts and theories – why the most powerful nation on earth is considered as the epitome of a consumerism society.
This study will attempt to find out why the U.S. can be considered as the ultimate consumerist society, the forces that shaped it as a nation with a very high satiety level for goods especially those that are not needed as basic necessities and yet being coveted as if the consumer’s life is dependent on it. This can be achieved using the discipine of sociology and a releated concept called postmodernism.
The United States of America as a Consumer Society
Ever since ancient times man can be considered as the ultimate consumer on the simple reason that he is on top of the food chain. This idea of consumption does not rest on the simplistic explanation that man consumes. Yet even with the modern sense of the word it can still be argued that even from early beginnings of human history man has made it his pursuit to gather, collect, purchase, and store in one roof – usualy a palace – all the booty and all the riches that has been acquired from either travel or conquest. It is a normal thing to pursue the finer things of life. Yet still consumerism is a modern day idea and all researchers and social theorists cannot help but point to America as the main culprit in exporting this kind of malaise that was perfectly described by the aforementioned works of Jean Baudillard.
Jean Baudrillard was the not the first person to hint that the United States of America and its people love to acquire wealth and to spend more and more money in the acquistion of new things that they do not need. The proof to this assertion can be found in Baudillard’s use of the phrase, “…keeping up with the Joneses” and upon reading this one is instantly reminded that the expression was already in use a long time ago. No, Jean Baudrillard did not start the discussion on American consumerism. His genius on the other hand lies in his abitlity to see the consumerist society as a whole and how the different social institutions are being forced to work interdependenty in order to create the ultimate consumer society. This was made clear when Baudrillard asserted that:
As the wolf-child becomes wolf by living among them, so are we becoming functional. We are living the period of the objects: that is, we live by their rhythm, according to their incessant cycles. Today, it is we who are observing their birth, fulfillment and death; whereas in previous civilizations, it was the object, instrument, and perennial monument that survived the generations of men (Baudrillard).
The aforementioned keeping up with the Joneses comment was one of the first commentray on consumerism in the U.S. but Baudillard went a step higher by showing that everthing in American society is trying to satisfy that longing to acquire more and more products and to desire for even more. Baudrillard was able to drive home his point by descrbing how products are made, advertised, and consumed and that modern day Americans are now reduced to nothing more than mere users of products and services and that instead of using these producs to add meaning to their lives, it is the act of buying and collecting itself that becomes the purpose of living.
The Sociological Aspect
Baudillard was one of the first to organize a systematic analysis of consumerism. His main method of analysis is in the use of the discipline of Sociology. There is no hard and fast definition of the term Socioliogy but everyone will agree to the core definition as seen below:
Sociology is the systematic (or planned and organized) study of human groups and social life in modern societies. It is concerned with the stud of social institutions. These are the various organized social arrangements which are found in all societies for instance the family, education systems, and religion … Sociology tries to unerstand how the various social institution operate, ad how they opeate and relate to one another (Browne, 2005).
When Baudrillard applied sociological principles to his study of American consumerism he found out that the negative aspect of consumerism is creating a whole new world, a whole new culture and a whole new outlook in life.
Postmodernism is the phenomenon of regression, from something that is complex and orderly to something that is chaotic. George Ritzer in his attempt to understand postmodernism made the following generalizations, “If rationality is the sine qua non of modern society, then nonrationality and/or irrationality occupies a similar position in postmodern society” (2001).
Ziauddin Sardar coming made a similar analysis of what is postmodernism and he echoed what the advocates of this new movement espouses and he wrote:
The transition from modernity to postmodernism is no exception. Our epoch will see ‘our’ total liberation from the shackles from the past, from the dogmas of the present, from the very anchors of our being that bind us to ourselves: it will be the culmination of the ‘ascent of man’, the zenith of our evolution and the final triumph of the human will. (1998).
Now, if postmodernism has already begun and in fact is permeating the social order of the 21st century then one can say that whoever campaigned for the supposed to be liberating effects of postmodernism may have made a very critical blunder for today the world is not a better place. The ‘ascent of man’ that was most recently described by Sardar did not happen. Instead man is back to the old days of chaotic, superficial and meaningless existence with the only marked difference is the presence of an overwhelming amount of goods.
It is interesting to point here that while others can use postmodernism to explain the regression and the chaos that results from rejecting the antiquated systems of the past, Baudrillard on the other hand is saying that a new system has risen from the ashes left from the destructinve forces of the environment. But Baudrillard did not say that what rose from the ashes was a good thing for he wrote that:
There is all around us today a kind of fantastic conspicuousness of consumption and abundance […] this represent something of a fundamental mutation in the ecology of the human species. Strictly speaking the humans of the age of affluence are surrounded not so much by other human beings, as they were in all pervious ages, but by objects. Their daily dealings are now not so much with their fellow men, but rather – on a rising statistical curve – with the reception and manipulation of goods and messages. (1998).
Baudrillard was not the first to realize that there is a problem with consumerism in America. But he was one of the first to present an organized analysis using sociological principles. He was successful in presenting the idea that in the 21st century man has nothing to live or die for except for the acquistion of more goods. Baudrillard’s ideas can further be explained by the use of postmodernism, an idea taken from sociology that says there is a regression in human values and as result there is chaos.
Baudrillard on the other hand acknowledge that there is indeed a change and there is radical departure from ancient paths but instead of chaos man has organized a new system of doing things and that in this new world objects rule supreme, man toils underneath its power and beauty.
Baudrillard, J. (1998). The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. C. Turner (Trans.).
London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Browne, K. (2005). An Introduction to Sociology. MA: Polity Press
Sardar, Z. (1998). Postmodernism and the Other: New Imperialism of Western Culture. London:
Ritzer, G. (2001). Explorations in the Sociology of Consumption. London: Sage Publications,