French social theorist, commentator of postmodernity Jean Baudrillard moved from a Marxist-infected critical commentator of the affluent consumer society to an ambiguous position that can be seen either as either bleakly lucid perception that there is no escape from the society of the spectacle or as a horrified fascination with the shallowness of a postmodernist society where the sign has become a simulacrum that signifies nothing.
Influences: Baudrillard's early works on consumer society ("System of objects" and "La société de consommation: ses mythes, ses structures") are influenced by several trends in sociology (Guy Debord's "society of spectacle" to Mcluhan's "medium is the message") and philosophy (Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism to Barthes of mythologies and Fashion System)
His early work ("System of objects, Consumer Society" and "For a Critique of the political economy of the sign") consists of social theory, semiotics, and psychoanalysis. The first two works analyses the system of objects in a consumer society, and the latter, on the relationship btw the consumer society and semiotics. Baudrillard borrowed from semiotics an analysis how objects are encoded in a system of signs & significance that constitutes contemporary media and consumer societies. This inception of a theoretical concentration in semiological studies, Marxian political economy, and sociology of the consumer society led to a constant occupation with a system of objects and signs that encode our life.
For Baudrillard the consumer society is dominated by a system of object signs, which are consumer goods and gadgets that circulate endlessly and constitute an order of signification similar to the signs of Saussure's linguistic system. The use value of these object-signs is less important than the ability to signify the status of the consumer. While the possession of a car may allow one to go places, it also signifies membership of a social group.
Since the importance of economic production is in decline in a postindustrial society, consumption is actually the glue that binds society together. This sketch of society resembles George Perec's depiction in his novel "Things" where a rich couple live entirely off the stuff they buy and consume.
Baudrillard lays out the most sustained exposition of his later theory in "Symbolic Exchange and Death", a complete abandonment of the quasi-Marxist framework of his early work. An encompassing analysis that juxtaposes Saussure, Mauss theory of the gift relationship and Freud, Baudrillard insist that the era of postmodernity is characterized by the replacement of signs by simulacra and the reality of "hyperreality". The game of seduction replaces consumption where nothing real is ever at stake, as well as a simulation where sexuality itself is submerged and absorbed into a vacuous hyperreal pornography that is far more 'real' than any authentic sexual encounter can ever be. In "Seductions", thanks to postmodernity the masquerade of sex is now the reality of sex. Production and labor are no longer relevant, and the aspiration of political change is little more than the yearning of nostalgia for an era of signification representative of the bygone industrial age.
The Basic message of late Baudrillard:
- The subject is dominated by the object
- The prime mover in the social order is consumption
- Media-propagated ideals and images increasingly form our behavior, language, perceptual experience
- Therefore, we live in "hyperreality", a world of signs far removed from any external reality that may help us to keep account of what we take to be signified. In hyperreality the real and the "televisual" merge, and fantasy has institutionally replaced reality. Baudrillard's example, the imaginary Disneyland is a construct calculatingly created to indoctrinate people the reality of America as a hyperreal simulacrum of itself.
Since historical and causal context are lost, then the real distinctions (the social or economic that images represent) also disappear, and political life as well.