Jean Baudrillard

The System of Objects



We consume the product through the product itself, but we consume its meaning through advertising. Picture for a moment our modern cities stripped of all signs, their walls blank as an empty consciousness. And imagine that all of a sudden the single word GARAP appears everywhere, written on every wall. A pure signifier, having no referent, signifying only itself, it is read, discussed, interpreted in a vacuum, signified despite itself - in short, consumed qua sign. What indeed can it signify except for the society itself that is capable of generating such a sign? By virtue of its very lack of signification it mobilizes an entire imaginary collectivity. It comes to stand for a whole society. In a way people end up ‘believing’ in GARAP. They consider it the mark of advertising’s omnipotence, and judge that if only GARAP would assume the specificity of a product, then that product would meet with an immediate and sweeping success. Nothing, however, could be less certain, and the cunning of the advertisers lies precisely in the fact that they never reveal this. Were a specific referent to be made explicit, individual resistance would certainly come back into play. But consent (even ironic consent) thus founded on faith in a pure sign is self-creating. Advertising’s true referent is here apparent in its purest form: like GARAP, advertising is mass society itself, using systematic, arbitrary signs to arouse emotions and mobilize consciousness, and reconstituting its collective nature in this very process.

Advertising is a plebiscite whereby mass consumer society wages a perpetual campaign of self-endorsement.


Serial Conditioning

It should now be easier to grasp the nature of the system of conditioning that is at work behind the themes of competition and ‘personalization’. That same ideology of competition which formerly, under the banner of ‘freedom’, constituted the golden rule of production has now been transposed without restrictions into the realm of consumption. Thanks to thousands of marginal distinctions and the often purely formal diffraction of a single product by means of conditioning, competition has become more aggravated on every plane, opening up the immense range of possibilities of a precarious freedom - indeed, of the ultimate freedom, namely the freedom to choose the objects which will distinguish one from other people. In fact the ideology of competition is arguably bound to fall here into the toils of the same process, and hence to meet the same fate, as it did in the realm of production: although consumption may still take itself for a sort of liberal progression in which personal expression has a part to play, whereas production is inescapably governed by planning, this is merely because the techniques of psychological conditioning are far less advanced than those of economic planning.

We in Europe still want what others do not have: in the West, at any rate (the question having been deferred in the Eastern bloc), we are still at the competitive, the heroic stage in the choice and use of objects. The regular replacement and cyclical synchronization of models have not yet established themselves here as they have in the United States. Should we attribute this to psychological resistance, or perhaps to the strength of tradition? Probably the cause is a simpler one: the majority of Western Europe’s population is still a long way from achieving the sort of economic status that makes it fundamentally possible, with all objects of consumption aligned on the same maximal standard, for a single repertoire of models to hold sway, for diversity to become in effect less important than owning the ‘latest’ model, which is the essential stamp of social worth. In the United States 90 per cent of the population aspire solely to the possession of what others possess, and from one year to the next they massively choose the latest model, which is in every single respect the best. A solid class of ‘normal’ consumers has thus been constituted which, for all practical purposes, coincides with the entire population. Although we have not yet reached that stage in Europe, we are already very well able, on account of the irreversible pressure exerted by the American model, to perceive the ambiguity of advertising: it provokes us into competing, but at the same time the imaginary competition thus set in motion already bespeaks a profound monotony, a demand for uniformity, the sinking of the consuming masses into a regressive contentment. It tells us to ‘Buy this, because it is like nothing else’ (‘the meat of the elite’, ‘the cigarette of the happy few’, etc.) - but it also tells us to ‘Buy this because everyone else uses it!’ Nor is there any real contradiction here. It is quite possible for each person to feel unique even though everyone is alike: all that is needed is a pattern of collective and mythological projection - in other words, a model.

We may well conclude that the destiny of consumer society (thanks not to Machiavellian technocrats but, rather, to the simple structural play of competition) is the functionalization of the consumer himself, the psychological monopolization of all needs - a unanimity in consumption which will at last harmonize with the concentration and unbridled interventionism that govern production.

Freedom by Default

Moreover, the ideology of competition is now giving way everywhere to a ‘philosophy’ of personal accomplishment. Society is better integrated, so instead of vying for possession of things, individuals seek self-fulfilment, independently of one another, through what they consume. The leitmotiv of discriminative competition has been replaced by that of personalization for all. Meanwhile, advertising has transformed itself from a commercial practice into a theory of the praxis of consumption, a theory which now crowns the whole social edifice. Expositions of this theory are to be found in the works of American advertising men (Ernest Dichter, Pierre Martineau, et alii). The thesis is simple: (1) the consumer society (objects, products, advertising) offers the individual the possibility, for the first time in history, of total liberation and self-realization; (2) transcending consumption pure and simple in the direction of individual and collective self- expression, the system of consumption constitutes a true language, a new culture. The ‘nihilism’ of consumption is thus effectively countered by a ‘new humanism’ of consumption.

As to the first point, the question of personal fulfilment, Ernest Dichter, director of the Institute for Motivational Research, does not hesitate to define the problematics of the ‘new man’ as follows:

The problem confronting us now is how to allow the average American to feel moral even when he is flirting, even when he is spending money, even when he is buying a second or third car. One of the most difficult tasks created by our current affluence is sanctioning and justifying people’s enjoyment of it, convincing them that to take pleasure in their lives is moral and not immoral. Permission given the consumer freely to enjoy life, and proof that he has the right to surround himself with products that enrich his existence and give him pleasure - these should be the cardinal themes of all advertising and of all attempts to promote sales.

The manipulating of motivation thus apparently ushers in an era in which advertising will assume moral responsibility for society as a body, replacing puritanical morality with a hedonism founded purely on satisfaction and introducing a new state of nature, so to speak, into the bosom of hypercivilization. There is an ambivalence in Dichter’s last sentence, however: is the goal of advertising to free man from his resistance to happiness, or is it to promote sales? Is society to be reorganized for the sake of satisfaction or for the sake of profits? In his preface to the French edition of Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet maintains that ‘motivational research is no threat to individual freedom and in no way prejudices the individual’s right to be rational or irrational’. But this claim is simple-minded, if not disingenuous. Dichter is more frank, and makes it clear that the freedom in question is conceded. He talks of ‘giving consumers permission’ - in other words, people must be allowed to be children without being ashamed of it. ‘Free to be oneself really means free to project one’s desires onto commodities. And Dichter’s ‘free to enjoy life’ means free to be irrational and regressive - and hence adapted to a specific social organization of production. The ‘philosophy’ of selling has little use for such paradoxes, and it appeals to rational goals (enlightening people as to what they want) and to scientific methods as justifications for its attempt to provoke irrational behaviour (i.e. accepting the role of being nothing but a bundle of unmediated drives and being satisfied so long as those drives are satisfied). Even drives can be dangerous, however, and the neo-sorcerers of consumption are very careful indeed not to liberate anybody with a rousing call to happiness. Rather, they offer merely to resolve tensions - that is to say, they offer a freedom merely by default:

… whenever a person in one socioeconomic category aspires to a different category, a ‘tension differential’ is developed within him and this leads to frustration and action. Where a product promises to help a group overcome this tension, achieve its level of aspiration in whatever area it may fall, that product has a chance of success.

The aim is to allow drives hitherto inhibited by psychic agencies (taboos, superego, guilt) to crystallize upon objects, which themselves thus become capable of negating the explosive force of desire and materializing the ritual repressive function of the social order. What is dangerous is freedom of being, for it pits the individual against society. Freedom of ownership, however, is harmless, for it unknowingly serves society’s purposes. Such freedom is highly moral, as Dichter points out; indeed, it is the very acme of morality, because it reconciles the consumer with himself and with the group at one and the same time. It is the perfect form of social being. Traditional morality required merely that the individual conform to the group, whereas the philosophy of advertising requires that he conform to himself, that all his personal conflicts be resolved. This is a morality that invades the individual as never before. Taboos, anxieties and neuroses, which tend to make individuals into outsiders and outlaws, are thus supposed to be removed in favour of a reassuring regression into objects calculated to buttress the images of the Father and the Mother in every possible way. The increasingly ‘free’ irrationality of drives in the depths is to be accompanied by an increasingly strict control as they emerge into the light.


Let us now consider the second claim mentioned above: does the system of objects-cum-advertising really constitute a language? The whole philosophy of idealized consumption is based on the replacement of live, conflictual human relationships by a ‘personalized’ relationship to objects. ‘Any buying process’, Pierre Martineau tells us, ‘is an interaction between the personality of the individual and the so-called “personality” of the product itself.’ The pretence is that products are now so differentiated and so numerous that they have been transformed into complex beings, and that consequently the relationship involved in buying and consuming is equivalent to any human relationship. But this is the whole point: is there a living syntax here? Do objects inform needs and structure them in a new way? And, reciprocally, do needs inform new social structures through the mediation of objects and their production? If so, then we may speak of language in this connection; if not, then all this is nothing but the self-serving idealizations of managers.

Structure and Demarcation: Brands

Buying today bears no resemblance to a free or living form of exchange. It is a predetermined operation in which two strictly incompatible systems confront one another, one being the mobile, inconsistent individual, with his needs, his conflicts and his negativity; the other being the codified, classified, discontinuous and relatively consistent system of products in all their positivity. There is no interaction between the two, but there is certainly a forced integration of the system of needs into the system of products. Of course, the net result does constitute a system that signifies as well as a system for procuring satisfaction. But for there to be ‘language’ there has to be syntax, and in the case of objects of mass consumption all we have is an inventory.

Let me try to explain in more detail. At the stage of craft production, objects reflected the contingency, the uniqueness, of needs. The two systems were adapted to one another, yet their combination lacked coherence - indeed, the only coherence was the relative one of needs, which were mobile and contingent: objective technological progress did not exist. With the advent of the industrial era, manufactured products acquired a new coherence, one bestowed on them by the organization of technology and economic structures, while the system of needs now became less consistent than the system of objects. The latter, by imposing this new coherence, ‘the machine has replaced an unlimited series of variables’ - i.e. objects ‘made to was able to mould a civilization. At the same time, as Lewis Mumford notes, ‘the machine has replaced an unlimited series of variables’ - i.e. objects ‘made to measure’, adapted to specific needs - ‘with a limited number of constraints’. This development does undoubtedly lay the foundations for a new language: internal structuring, simplification, transitions to the bounded and the discontinuous, the constitution of technemes and their growing convergence. And if craft objects may be said to be on a par with words or speech [parole], it must be acknowledged that industrial technology institutes a linguistic system [langue]. But a linguistic system is not language in the full sense [langage]: it is not the material structure of the motorcar that gives that car its voice, but the form, colour, contours, accessories or ‘social standing’ of the car as an object. And what we have here is a Tower of Babel, for each speaks in its own idiom. Even so, serial production contrives, by means of its calibrated differences and combinatorial variations, to carve out meanings, to generate a repertoire or lexicon of forms and colours via which recurrent modalities of ‘speech’ can be expressed. But does this amount to a language? No, because this vast paradigm lacks any true syntax. It lacks the rigorous syntax of technology and it lacks the loose syntax of needs, and it wafts back and forth between the two, a sort of two-dimensional repertoire which tends to exhaust its possibilities on the day-to-day level in an immense combinatorial grid of types and models where needs, in their incoherence, are effectively assigned places, but no reciprocal structuring occurs as a result; inasmuch as products are better integrated, it is needs that flow towards them and manage - by cutting themselves into pieces, by becoming discontinuous - to insert themselves, with difficulty and in arbitrary fashion, into the grid of objects. The fact is that the system of individual needs swamps the world of objects with its utter contingency, yet this contingency is somehow inventoried, classified and demarcated by objects: it thus becomes possible to control it - and this, from the socio-economic point of view, is the system’s real goal.

If the industrial organization of technology acquires the power to mould our civilization, it does so, then, in a dual and contradictory way: by virtue of its coherence but also by virtue of its incoherence. By virtue, at a ‘high level’, of its structural (technological) coherence, but also, ‘at the base’, by virtue of the astructural (but controlled) incoherence of the mechanics of the commercialization of products and the satisfaction of needs. It is clear, therefore, that whereas language, because it is neither consumed nor owned in any true sense by those who speak it, always retains the possibility of access to the ‘essential’, to a syntax of exchange (structured communication), the system of objects-cum-advertising, for its part, overwhelmed by the inessential, by a destructured universe of needs, can satisfy such needs only in piecemeal fashion and can never found new structures of social exchange.

Here, once again, is Pierre Martineau:

There is no simple relationship between kinds of buyers and kinds of cars, however. Any human is a complex of many motives… [whose] meanings may vary in countless combinations. Nevertheless the different makes and models are seen as helping people give expression to their own personality dimensions.

And Martineau offers several examples of such ‘personalization’:

The conservative in car choice and behavior wishes to convey such ideas as dignity, reserve, maturity, seriousness… Another definite series of car personalities is selected by the people wanting to make known their middle-of-the-road moderation, their being fashionable… Further along the range of personalities are the innovators and ultramoderns…

No doubt Martineau is right: this is indeed how people define themselves by means of their objects. What is also clear, though, is that those objects do not constitute a real language, but merely a range of distinguishing marks more or less arbitrarily keyed to a range of stereotyped personalities. Everything suggests that the differentiating system of consumption is a powerful tool for demarcating (1) categories of needs within the consumer himself which now have but the remotest of relationships with the person as a living whole; and (2) categories - or ‘status groups’ - within society overall which can be identified by means of some particular set of objects. Hierarchies of products and objects thus come to play precisely the same role as that formerly played by a range of distinct values: they become the basis, in short, of the group’s ethos.

Both the aforementioned functions entail the solicitation, impressment and classification of the personal and social world - a compulsion, exerted through objects, towards integration into a hierarchical repertoire with no syntax, that is to say, into a system of categories that is distinctly not a language. It is as though there were, not a social dialectic, but a social process of demarcation by whose means an order is imposed, an order which in turn dictates a sort of objective fate (materialized in objects) for each subgroup: in short, a set of pigeonholes within which relationships can only become more impoverished. Our enthusiastic and devious philosophers of ‘motivation’ would love to convince themselves, as well as everyone else, that the reign of objects is still the shortest road to freedom. As evidence of this they need this spectacular muddle of needs and satisfactions, this profusion of choices - this whole carnival of supply and demand - whose sheer effervescence creates the illusion of a culture. But let there be no mistake: objects work as categories of objects which, in the most tyrannical fashion, define categories of people - they police social meaning, and the significations they engender are rigidly controlled. In their proliferation, at once arbitrary and coherent, objects are the best possible vector of a social order that is equally arbitrary and equally coherent, and, under the banner of affluence, they indeed become a most effective material expression of that order.

The concept of ‘brand’, which is advertising’s prime concept, sums up the prospects for a ‘language’ of consumption rather well. All products (with the exception of perishable foodstuffs) are now offered under brand names. Every product ‘worthy of the name’ has a brand which may sometimes even become a generic term (e.g. ‘frigidaire’). The brand’s primary function is to designate a product; its secondary function is to mobilize emotional connotations:

Actually, in our highly competitive system, few products are able to maintain any technical superiority for long. They must be invested with overtones to individualize them; they must be endowed with richness of associations and imagery; they must have many levels of meaning, if we expect them to be top sellers, if we hope that they will achieve the emotional attachment which shows up as brand loyalty.

The psychological restructuring of the consumer may thus turn on a single word - PHILIPS, OLIDA or GENERAL MOTORS - capable of connoting at once a diversity of objects and a mass of diffuse meanings: a synthetic word covering a synthesis of emotions. Such is the miracle of Martineau’s ‘psychological label’. And this is the only language, ultimately, in which the object speaks to us - the only language that it has invented. Yet the basic lexicon that covers our walls and haunts our consciousness remains strictly asyntactic: different brands succeed one another, are juxtaposed, or replace one another, without articulation or transition; this is an erratic lexical system in which brands devour one another and the lifeblood of each brand is interminable repetition. There can be no more impoverished language than this one, laden with referents yet empty of meaning as it is. It is a language of mere signals, and ‘brand loyalty’ can never, therefore, be more than a conditioned reflex of manipulated emotions.

The philosophers of advertising will doubtless object that the satisfaction of ‘deep motives’ can only be a good thing (even if these motives are then integrated into an impoverished system of labels). ‘Free yourselves from your inner censor!’, they are liable to cry. ‘Outsmart your superego!’ ‘Have the courage of your desires!’ But the question is: are these deep motives really being called up so that they may be articulated as a language? Can a system of reference such as this really invest hitherto hidden areas of the personality with meaning - and, if so, with what meaning? To quote Martineau one last time:

Naturally it is better to use acceptable, stereotyped terms… This is the very essence of metaphor… If I ask for a ‘mild’ cigarette or a ‘beautiful’ car, while I can’t define these attributes literally, I still know that they indicate something desirable… The average motorist isn’t sure at all what ‘octane’ in gasoline actually is… But he does know vaguely that it is something good. So he orders ‘high-octane’ gasoline, because he desires this essence quality behind the meaningless surface jargon.

In other words, no sooner has the discourse of advertising awakened desire than it subjects it to generalization of the vaguest kind. Reduced to their simplest expression, the deep motives are keyed to a ready-instituted code of connotations, and ‘choice’, fundamentally, can only seal the collusion between this moral order and the individual’s deepest wishes. Such is the alchemy of the ‘psychological label’.

In actuality, this stereotyped calling-forth of deep motives is nothing but a form of censorship. The ideology of personal fulfilment and the triumphant illogicality of drives supposedly freed from guilt are in fact merely a tremendous effort to materialize the superego. What is ‘personalized’ in the object is primarily censorship. No matter how much the philosophers of consumption may revel in the notion of deep motives as potentials for immediate happiness which have merely to be freed, the fact remains that the unconscious is conflicted, and inasmuch as advertising mobilizes it, it mobilizes it as conflict. Advertising does not liberate drives; first and foremost it liberates phantasies that serve to inhibit those drives. Hence the ambiguity of the object, in which the individual finds no route to self-transcendence, but merely an ambiguous retreat simultaneously to his desires and to the forces that censor those desires. We thus once more encounter the overall pattern of gratification/frustration described above: with its purely formal reduction of tensions and its ever-vain regressions, what the object invariably ensures is a perpetual renewal of conflicts. Here, perhaps, is a definition of the form of alienation particular to our time: our internal conflicts or ‘deep tendencies’ are mobilized and alienated in the process of consumption, in exactly the same way as labour-power is alienated in the process of production.

Nothing has really changed - it is just that strictures on self-fulfilment are here no longer imposed by means of oppressive laws or norms of obedience; repression is ensured instead through ‘free’ actions (buying, choosing, consuming), through spontaneous cathexes, through a sort of internalization operating within gratification itself.

A Universal Code: Status

The objects-cum-advertising system therefore constitutes less a language, whose living syntax it lacks, than a set of significations. Impoverished yet efficient, it is basically a code. It does not structure the personality, but designates and classifies it. It does not structure social relationships, but breaks them down into a hierarchical repertoire. In its formal expression it constitutes a universal system for the identification of social rank: the code of ‘status’.

In the context of ‘consumer society’, the notion of rank as a yardstick of social being tends to assume the simplified form of ‘status’. Status in this sense is still measured in terms of power, authority and responsibility, yet fundamentally the message now is ‘There is no responsibility without a Lip watch!’ Advertising always refers explicitly to the object as to the essential criterion: ‘You will be judged by such and such’, ‘The elegant woman is recognizable by such and such’, and so on. No doubt objects have always played an identifying role of this kind, but formerly they did so in parallel - and this often in a purely auxiliary way - with other systems: gestural, ritual or ceremonial systems, language, rank at birth, codes of moral values, etc. The peculiarity of our own society is that all such other means of gauging rank are gradually giving way to the code of ‘status’. Naturally this code applies in varying degrees according to socio-economic level, but the social function of advertising is to bring everyone under its sway. It is a moral code, for it is sanctioned by the group, and any infraction of it entails the apportionment of some measure of guilt. It is a totalitarian code, for no one escapes it; escaping it in a private sense cannot prevent us from participating every day in its collective development. Not believing in it still means believing sufficiently in other people’s belief in it to adopt a sceptical stance. Even actions intended as resistance to it must be defined in terms of a society that conforms to it.

Nor is this code without its positive aspects. In the first place, it is no more arbitrary than any other code. After all, even in our own eyes, value resides in the car that we change every year, in the part of town where we live, and in the multitude of objects with which we surround ourselves and which distinguish us from other people. True, that is not the whole story, but have not codes of value always been partial and arbitrary (and moral codes more than any)?

Secondly, the code of ‘status’ does constitute a socialization, and a total secularization, of distinguishing signs, and consequently contributes to the emancipation - at least in the formal sense - of social relations. Not only do objects make material life more tolerable by proliferating as commodities, they likewise make the relative standing of people more tolerable by gaining general acceptance as identifying signs. One thing may be said in favour of the ‘status’ system: it has the virtue of rendering obsolete all the old rituals of caste or class, along - in a general way - with all preceding (and preclusive) criteria of social discrimination.

Thirdly, this code offers a universal system of decipherable signs for the first time in history. Perhaps it is to be regretted that it is usurping the place of all other codes, but it is arguable, conversely, that the gradual exhaustion of other systems (birth, class, function), the widening of competition, a greater social mobility, the accelerating fissiparity of social groups and the growing instability and proliferation of languages all created the necessity for a code which, by virtue of its straightforward universality, could guarantee clear and unencumbered communication. In a world where millions of men and women pass one another every day without being acquainted, the code of ‘status’ fulfils an essential social function by addressing people’s vital need for knowledge of others. The fact is, however, that this universalization and this effectiveness are achieved only at the cost of a radical simplification, an impoverishment and a well-nigh definitive regression of the ‘language’ of value: ‘Individuals define themselves through their objects.’ Coherence is achieved through the institution of a combinatorial system or repertoire - a language that is functional, certainly, but symbolically and structurally immiserated.

What is more, the fact that a system of identification is now in place which is clearly legible to all, that the signs of value are entirely socialized and objectivized, by no means implies any true ‘democratization’. On the contrary, it would appear that the insistence on univocal reference merely exacerbates the desire to discriminate: within the very framework of this homogeneous system, a perpetually renewed obsession with hierarchies and distinctions is to be observed. Even though barriers of morality, social convention and language have been overturned, new barriers and exclusions have arisen in the realm of objects: a new class or caste morality is thus enabled to colonize the most material and hitherto unchallengeable of spheres.

So, while the code of ‘status’ is at present coming to constitute a universal apparatus of signification that is immediately readable, facilitating the free flow of social representations from one end of society to the other, this does not mean that society is becoming more transparent. The code produces an illusion of transparency, an illusion of readable social relations, behind which the real structure of production and real social relationships remain illegible. A society would be transparent only if knowledge of the apparatus of signification was simultaneously knowledge of social structures and social realities. This is not so in the case of the objects-cum-advertising system, which offers nothing but a code of meaning that is always complicitous and always opaque. What is more, though it may provide a formal security thanks to its coherence, this code is also the best means for the global social order to extend its immanent and permanent rule to all individuals.

Posted: June 2018
Category: Essays