ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 5, Number 1 (January 2008)
Author: Dr. William Pawlett
Note: This paper appears as Chapter One of William Pawlett. Jean Baudrillard: Against Banality. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.


The description of the system of objects cannot be divorced from a critique of that system’s practical ideology.1

Baudrillard’s first full-length study, Le Systeme des objets/The System of Objects (c1968, 1996) is rich and insightful, and is notable for worked examples and careful elaborations of position which are not present in most later works. Yet by no means is it a conventional sociological analysis. Baudrillard approaches everyday objects – clocks, cars, chairs, cigarette lighters – as an artist or photographer as much as a sociologist.  This is both a strength and weakness of the study. It offers a “thick” or detailed description, almost a cataloguing, of the “functionality” of the modern system of objects, but it lacks both the sustained critical force and experimentalism characteristic of later works. As a result the arguments of System are, at times, hard to distinguish from conservative denunciations of new technology and the state of “modern life”. However, close attention to the text reveals far more interesting lines of argument, which are developed and reworked many times in later studies.

Only in the final section of System is the system of objects treated in a critical sociological fashion which emphases their ideological role within an integrated consumer capitalist system. Earlier sections are empirical and descriptive, exploring the “grammar” of objects as Barthes had recently discussed the grammar of clothing in The Fashion System.2  Section two deals with subjectivity and is a fascinating, but not truly distinctive, psychoanalytic reading of the processes by which people invest time, money and, above all, desire in the objects they possess. At many points Baudrillard’s argument is recognisable as Freudo-Marxist: an intellectual synthesis in vogue throughout the 1960s and 1970s but from which Baudrillard would very quickly break. Indeed, what is fascinating in this early work is that Baudrillard is already clearly dissatisfied with Marxist and Freudian positions, and it is through critical social theory that Baudrillard opens up distance between his position and that of Freudo-Marxism. The most significant influences in this regard are the social anthropology of Marcel Mauss and the Poststructuralist semiology of Roland Barthes. Also notable is the influence of the American popular sociological study The Lonely Crowd (1961) by David Riesman.  Mauss’s influential essay The Gift feeds Baudrillard’s emerging notion of symbolic exchange. Barthes provides a means for interpreting the semiotic orders, and especially the central role played by fashion. However Riesman’s work plays an important role too in helping to focus Baudrillard’s thinking on how the structures of the sign displace the symbolic order at the level of the subject and lived experience.3  These influences enable a series of fascinating insights into the functioning of objects through the consumer system that moves beyond the confines of Freudo-Marxism.

The Profusion of Sign-Objects

To become an object of consumption an object must first become a sign…it must become external, in a sense, to a relationship that it now merely signifies.4

Baudrillard begins this study by noting that while “mankind”, as historical category, remains relatively stable, there are rapid changes in the world of objects and technology. Baudrillard argues that increasingly objects have short life-spans: where pyramids and cathedrals saw the passing of many generations of human beings, today an individual will live through many generations of consumer objects. Objects are increasingly disposable; they are highly valued, prized and cherished – but only for a short time. We no longer seek a sense of the timeless in our objects, rather our use of objects, and our object’s use of us, binds us to a temporality of constant renewal. If modern man “finds his soul in his automobile”, as Marcuse claims,5  it is a transient soul obliged to relocate every few years.

System inaugurates Baudrillard’s career-long concern with the object: as form, as image and as principle, inaugurating Baudrillard’s project to “sweep away” the problematic of the subject.6  But subject and object are not, of course, treated as a binary opposition. Baudrillard’s theories do not “escape” but rather displace the problematic of the subject, approaching it from the perspective of objects. The focus of System is the way objects are possessed, arranged, consumed and invested with meaning by the subject, which they, in turn, constitute and define.

In System Baudrillard actually writes in the subject, criticising other accounts of the new technological objects precisely because they assume a “consistent” level of analysis “unrelated to any individual or collective discourse”.7  Baudrillard’s interest is in objects, technical and decorative, which form a cultural system of meaning. It is the system of meaning that is given priority, not the subject’s interpretations and engagements with it. Indeed Baudrillard contends that humans increasingly appear “irrational” in their desires, in comparison to the functional “rationality” of objects.8  For Baudrillard, influenced by Structuralist theory, the system has constraining power over individuals; indeed it is only through the system that the notion of “individual” is meaningful. Yet there is, for Baudrillard, something within us that resists inscription within the system. The desires and emotional investments of the subject “surge back” through the object system finding means of expression: the subject is decentred in Baudrillard’s work – but very much alive!

The object system, organised by the codes of fashion and the imperative of functionality, operates as a principle of “ideological integration”.9  The subject becomes “person” through the process of “personalisation”, the terms of which are set by the sign-object system. Of course individual choices are made and internal dialogues are carried out but always vis-a-vis objects, images or signs. The process of personalisation is a site of contestation and active investment, not a fait accompli determined from above the system. Personal and emotional “inessentials” are expressed through objects in unpredictable ways, as in the case of the collector of objects, but whatever choices are made, and whatever choices are resisted, the object system translates drives, emotions and their ambivalences into Sign form. Once rendered into signs they are managed and regulated by the system as commodities. All signs are exchangeable and, in a sense, equivalent with other signs: their differences are at the level of content and combination, which is made possible by their similarity at the level of form. Signs separate, abstract, order and render “thing-like” the complex of ambivalent symbolic relations between people and objects.

The subject in Baudrillard’s analysis is, at this stage, the subject as Freudo-Marxist theories portray it.  Drives, such as aggressiveness and erotic cravings, are processed through signs. Increasingly sexual and aggressive drives are promoted by the consumer system; we are encouraged to realise our desires, to indulge our cravings. In Marcuse’s terms drives are “repressively de-sublimated”, or channelled into the consumer system. We are entreated to follow our desires but “our” desires have been coded and mapped, in advance, to appropriate objects. For example sexual desire is supposed to be something to do with busty young women and muscular young men: sexual drives transcribed into signs.

In System Baudrillard remains attached to a Marxist framework, arguing that physical toil and the visible bodily gestures of working hands gradually disappear, replaced by machinery and labour-saving devices.10  In The Consumer Society Baudrillard reworks the Marxist notion of alienation while in System he admits that there are tangible benefits in the overcoming of constant toil simply for the purpose of survival; there are also, he insists, many costs. Firstly, there is a profound effect on social character. The functional universe of sign objects is a world devoid of “secrets” and “mysteries”.11  The social self exists in a state of anxiety, it needs to connect through technological means, to get close to others but not too close. Baudrillard develops what Riesman (1961) called the “other-directed” form of social character. This refers to the individuated being, uprooted from tradition (“tradition-directedness”) but also distinct from the “inner-directed” individual that Weber (1905/1992) famously linked to the morality of Protestant Puritanism. The “other-directed” individual requires a social “radar”12  which enables constant self-monitoring and adaptation in terms of what others are doing. We each must become our own public relations officer, rather than our own priest or policeman. That is we must define ourselves in relation to others by both conforming and crucially by introducing small or “marginal” differences that we promote in order to define our distinctiveness, individuality or “personality”.13

III. The Functional System and the End of the Symbolic Dimension
It is very quickly apparent that Baudrillard regards modernity as an impoverished system that has lost “the expressive power of the old symbolic order” and has nothing to “replace” it.14  Like workers and classes before them, objects are “freed” from relatively fixed traditional meanings and symbolic ties. In the process, Baudrillard insists, many objects become banal or “nondescript”.  Several examples are given; traditional beds in solid wood are compared with modern, fashionable, functional beds (think Ikea). The latter are devoid of ritual or ceremonial meaning; a “marriage” bed cannot be distinguished from any other double bed. The bed no longer has “absolute” value, or value in itself, rather it has “combinatorial” value in that it is designed to complement other items in the “bedrooms” range. The functional bed may well be invested with meanings in the course of experience and may come to signify love or passion. However the meaningfulness of this process is predicated on the individual subject making choices based on “needs” from a pre-coded range and then accumulating or accruing experiences to their “identity”. Baudrillard develops a powerful critique of subject/identity as constructed through “needs”, themselves generated by the sign-code: “personalised” or customised personalities are, he insists, given by the code. But surely traditional society was even more constraining, so what exactly makes the traditional bed different and more “expressive”? Much of Baudrillard’s argument, even at this stage, is based on such a distinction being possible without resort to mysticism or nostalgia, so it is very important to clarify this distinction.

To begin with objects in the traditional order are craft-produced rather than mass or serially produced. To put it bluntly they are produced by humans using tools rather than by machines using humans. According to Baudrillard there is an important relationship of human muscular effort and gesture (le gestuel) involved in the use of tools that disappears with the use of push-button technology. These very gestures symbolise sexual acts in an “obscene” way, without shame, according to Baudrillard’s soon to be revised Freudianism, and sexual desires are sublimated through symbols. Objects in the traditional order then are “symbolic” in the sense that they symbolise the lived relations that exist between desires (primarily sexual) and culture (respectable, hierarchical, normative).15

Further, the form that these relations take is governed by rule and ritual – the marriage bed is only available to couples that have symbolically exchanged rings in a marriage ceremony. There is little freedom of choice concerning such ritual, the form is prescribed and the “individual” must follow. They can refuse the ritual, or back out at the last minute, but if they do they cannot attain the status of married couple. In this sense the notion of the autonomous individual as master or mistress of their destiny, or as free and equal “consumer” before a range of choices, is not meaningful in the symbolic order. Constrained by class and status hierarchies, dictated by ritual and ceremonial procedures, sublimated through toil and effort – there is no sense in which the individual self is “free” in the traditional order. And for this reason Baudrillard argues there is little about which to be nostalgic.16  The sign-object system offers a form of “liberation”, but, according to Baudrillard, this freedom is formal, not actual, and must be critiqued. The sign system offers relief, or even deliverance, from the ambivalences and restrictions of the symbolic order, from the constraints of ascribed status. Choices are offered: we become the designers of our own lives, or at least our own interiors! To pursue the example, functional furniture is often very affordable and not always of poor quality.  The uses that furniture is put to are, at least partially, “desublimated” as we see attractive models and young couples draped on new beds and sofas on our TV screens. There is nothing “obscene” in this process, and we all have fun on furniture at one time or another, so what’s not to like? Baudrillard’s critique is directed at the form of the sign system, not at particular contents of signs. Considered as form, signs are the material of reification, they make living social relations into things, into units – they are, in a sense, the material of materialism.  What this implies is that objects no longer possess essential values rooted in lived experience. The meaning of objects is dictated by the fashion cycle. For example, that special (meaning-rich) sofa from your student days is soon rendered unattractive by changes in fashion styling. If kept too long (for “sentimental” reasons) it becomes an anomaly that could threaten the individual’s positioning of himself or herself as a desirable and liberated modern person (i.e. their position within the sign-code). The old sofa is not charged with collective, ritual meaning, though it may be charged with individual, psychological meaning.17  There is no obligatory ritual processes to prevent you throwing it away and buying another; it is an autonomous commodity, your ownership is total and you dispose of it as you wish. And when do you wish to dispose of it? When it is ugly, aged, and old-fashioned according to the terms set by the sign-code. So the sign-object system offers a sense of freedom, autonomy and sovereignty to consumers but only on condition that we accept the sense of individuality and personality that is given by the system.

Other examples of the shift from a symbolic to a functional order, discussed in this study, include the use of colour in domestic environments. “Strong” colours tend to be replaced by pastels and thereby “lose their unique value … the direct expression of instinctual life … and become relative to each other and to the whole. This is what is meant by describing them as ‘functional’”.18  For Baudrillard, pastels are not living colours “but signs for them”. Further elements of this transformation include the replacement of the grandfather clock with a number of smaller clocks, scattered about the house according to principles of tone and combination. The large centrally-placed mirror, family portraits and Wedding photographs also tend to disappear from modern interiors: time, space and (reflections of) self are literally decentred and disavowed.

The system constructs us as free consumers, as people who buy the products that are for sale because we want them as they satisfy our needs. Indeed Baudrillard rails against the academic disciplines of sociology and economics for accepting the idea of “the consumer” as a given: as an ontological fact. For economists such as the influential J.K. Galbraith, humanity consists of free and self-conscious individual beings with identifiable sets of needs and the desire to satisfy them. But needs are not freestanding essences, instead “the system of needs is the product of the system of production”.19  Needs do not come about in response to particular objects, one by one, but are generated from a grid or code “as system-elements”, not within a unique relationship between individual and object. The code then is a collective and unconscious social constraint, a morality, an obligation. The tautology that Baudrillard seeks to expose then is the mutually constructing nature of needs, desires and consumer goods – an unbroken circuit. Once we are convinced we possess “needs” we have already consented to the consumer system because it generates the principle of abstract needs in search of satisfaction.  We may recognise that the consumer system does not satisfy our needs “properly” or fully, or that it rips us off in the process – but we tend not to question the existence of these freestanding, objective “needs”. The principle of “need” is, for Baudrillard, the crucial ideological construct of the capitalist system.20  And once consumers have invested value in the commodities they consume these values are “real”, they cannot be dismissed as false or fake, though they are certainly ideologically structured.21  To be a consumer is to be self-coding and is a considerable accomplishment demanding much time and effort. The consumer is required to act: to reflect, to decide, to choose – yet always within the particular, ideologically structured frame of reference that they exist within.

There is no question that the symbolic order and the modern semiotic system are both forms of social discipline.  There is little in the way of genuine “freedom” in either of them (though it is not an either/or situation because they are always found together). The key distinction is that the symbolic order does not purport to offer freedom, its constraints are cruel and manifest but the meanings generated are intensely charged, while the semiotic order purports to offer freedom, its constraints are (largely) hidden and the meanings generated are lacking in intensity. This is a rough summary of Baudrillard’s key distinction in its earliest or least developed form, and his thinking on this distinction soon becomes far more developed, as I show in the following chapters.
The abstractness of signs, as lifted out of lived relations, makes possible their ever-changing combination and recombination in a limitless process of integration: “no object can escape this logic, just as no product can escape the formal logic of the commodity”.22  So the consumer society does not simply involve a shift in the economic sphere from the primacy of production to the primacy of consumption. Rather, Baudrillard argues, there has been a shift in the very nature of social reality that in scope far exceeds the confines of economic structures and institutions. Traditional objects “tools, furniture, the house itself”23  were “symbolic”. This means that as carriers of intense meaning they mediated social relationships as a living force binding human action and endeavour to durable and lasting sets of meanings. For example, the hearth and kitchen table express strong emotional bonds: family loyalty and conviviality, comfort and protection.  Such symbolic values and sentiments are relatively inflexible; they tend to be binding rather than open to debate or questioning, though of course they do alter over time.  Furthermore they are, according to Baudrillard, characterised by ambivalence – that is they tend to inspire opposed emotional attitudes within the same person, for example love and hate, fear and desire, attraction and repulsion.24  The emotional-symbolic bonds of human relations are not, then, presented as the unproblematic “positives” of a world now “lost” or submerged by the “evil” of the sign-system; Baudrillard privileges ambivalence, only ambivalence – and the related emotional intensities, not the norms or structures of a “symbolic” society.

Symbolic relations are singular and unique, never abstract, never interchangeable, never equivalent to anything.  However symbolic and semiotic are not binary oppositions: to speak of an opposition between symbol and sign is a mistake. Signs “stand-in” for lived relations; they refer to and express them in abstracted, coded and therefore reductive fashion. Both symbols and signs (and symbols are signs) mediate human experience. The important distinction is that the system of signs “bar” or disallow the rich ambivalence of symbolic expression.25  Signs actually replace the lived relation; they present a coded, stereotyped version of reality, one that is more manageable, less threatening but also less “meaningful” or intense than the world of symbolic ambivalence. Signs suggest, claim or “simulate” symbolic relations; they are abstracted from symbolic relations. The relationship between them is complex and it is as important to bear in mind the closeness or proximity of the symbolic and semiotic as it is the distance and distinction between them.

The process of replacing symbolic relations with coded signs is greatly accelerated by consumer capitalism, but it is not identical to it. From the early 20th century onwards capitalism restructured itself around the consumption of goods rather than their production, creating a more manageable environment for commercial exchange, one less dependent on the productive force of organised, unionised labour. In a sense, of course, objects have always been produced, but they are produced for very different purposes. Objects were produced for worship or devotion long before they were produced for sale. Sacred objects were “produced” through sacrificial ritual that could only be performed by the proper officiant; there was no “freedom” regarding production and no “economic” surplus was allowed to be produced. Any “surplus” was social rather than “economic” and was devoted to religious expression, often sacrifice.26  Yet for hundreds of years, and in Western Europe on a considerable scale since the 16th century, objects have been produced in surplus for the purpose of sale for profit. The key distinction between this form of production and contemporary consumer capitalism is in the sort of objects, goods and services that are considered marketable. In the consumer society people seem to be willing to buy almost anything. According to Baudrillard we reach a situation where: “All desires, projects and demands, all passions and all relationships, are now abstracted (or materialised) as signs and as objects to be bought and sold”.27

But is the sign-code really this powerful? Are people really taken in, convinced by this “reality”? And if so, in what sense is the notion of a symbolic order of ambivalence meaningful or distinct? These questions are answered by a close reading of Baudrillard’s early texts. The sign-code takes itself to be this powerful, it functions as if it is, but, ultimately, it is not. People are not convinced by it. And, Baudrillard is clear, this refers to all people not just a select band of vanguard intellectuals. Resistance to the sign-code does not follow a dialectical pattern, there is no revolutionary agency as Marxism conceives it, but there is refusal and defiance, rejection and withdrawal. Finally, the ultimate “stakes” at play in consumer capitalism are symbolic. The sign-code is founded on principles of the symbolic order abstracted and put to use, as the next section shows.

Advertising as Gift

Your happiness loves Cadbury’s.28

Towards the end of System there is a lengthy discussion of advertising, which opens with a starkly oppositional stance: “Advertising in its entirety constitutes a useless and unnecessary universe”.29  Advertising maintains the whole system of “imposed differentiation” – the choice of coded differentials by which individuals are integrated into the system. The available range of choice offers “personalisation” so that individuals define themselves in opposition to other individuals. The codes of fashion in advertising are a language in the Saussurean sense, that is they are a system of arbitrary signs that derive their meaning from their position in relation to other terms in the system, never by absolute, intrinsic or essential value. How do we know how to look “cool”, “trendy”, “wealthy”, “powerful”, “alternative”, rebellious? We do so by displaying signs or terms in the system that are not (yet) being displayed by those from whom we wish to differentiate ourselves and are being displayed by those whom we want to resemble. Thus the meaning of our sign displays are arbitrary, coded and only meaningful in negative terms. Any particular item of dress or furnishing is only fashionable while certain people do not possess it: there is nothing intrinsically cool or uncool about any particular fashion: objects draw their meaning from their relative position within the ever-changing system or code.

Crucially Baudrillard does not present consumers as passive dupes of the capitalist system. He is clear that capitalism, operating through the commodity system, is able to wield an immense degree of social control but his interest is in the forms of refusal or defiance that emerge. Social control occurs, primarily, at the level of the medium or form of advertising, not through its specific messages or content. As Baudrillard indicates, we may well reject the hyperbole: the inflated or impossible claims made for certain products. We may reject the imagery of the “chic” and “successful” “lifestyles” depicted in many campaigns for luxury items and we may be critical of newer trends in TV advertising where such “lifestyles” are invoked only to be suddenly punctured by a “get real” message: of course the product won’t make you look like a model but it’s good anyway (Kellogg’s Special K, Ocean Spray fruit juice), or even – this is bad for you but we know you will enjoy it (Knorr Pot Noodles, varieties of chocolate).  But this is merely to critique content. For Baudrillard the mechanism of control, at the deepest level, resides in the fact that advertising as form is a free gift: it is for us. It reassures us that society exists and that it is thinking of ways to satisfy our desires, solve our problems, and assuage our anxieties. The consumer system, at the general systemic level Baudrillard theorises it, need do no more than this. The system is willing to suggest what “type of person” we are, what we might desire and enjoy, what we ought to try. And it doesn’t matter what we try, it matters only that we do try: “Try something different today” (Sainsbury’s Supermarkets Ltd. UK).

As individuated beings, with symbolic ties broken, we are ill-equipped to be “social” animals, we need help – for example in displaying “our” fashion sense or “our” social status – and the system provides it. According to Baudrillard it is a mistake to think that consumerism attempts to mould us to the demands and pressures of modern society, “nowadays it is society as a whole which must adapt to the individual”.30  Somebody, somewhere cares about your happiness – not for your deepest wishes or ultimate peace of mind, for these things are impossible, but simply about your day-to-day happiness. This is profoundly reassuring and it has a powerful integrating effect because who can argue with happiness?

We are taken as the object’s aims, and the object loves us. And because we are loved we feel that we exist; we are “personalised”. This is the essential thing – the actual purchase of the object is secondary. The abundance of products puts an end to scarcity; the abundance of advertising puts an end to insecurity.31  Baudrillard has a point here. Imagine a young man on a shopping trip in a chemist’s or drug store browsing the men’s products. Lynx deodorant is marketed as if it possesses aphrodisiac qualities (Women will follow strangers, undress and even spank each other when they detect its aroma) and many shampoos claim to thicken receding hair. The shopper does not really believe that the deodorant will confer sex appeal or that the shampoo will thicken his hair, yet he takes them to the counter. Such product choices position him as relatively affluent; as a thoughtful, possibly “metro sexual” consumer who cares about his appearance and perhaps the possessor of an ironic “post-feminist” sense of humour. But imagine the horror, the speechless indignation, if our shopper were asked by the sales assistant to explain and justify these choices. That this could not happen is indicative of the social and ideological functioning of consumerism, because, as Baudrillard argues consumption is not a passive process, it is an active, self-aware, collective and social one: a consensual myth, a language we speak to each other. The mythic language of consumption forges the pact between shop assistant and shopper. The social act of understanding yourself and others as consumers, as beings who use products in an active and reflective way to satisfy needs and desires, is to inscribe ourselves in the code. The consumer society delivers tangible benefits; it gives us the gift of self, suggesting not who we are but what we can become.32

Baudrillard does not, as is sometimes suggested, pit his notion of symbolic relations and exchange against the consumer system as its contradiction; his position is far more complex. Consumerism is described as a “festival”, that “subtly renews links with archaic rituals of giving, of offering presents”.33  The society of consumption is both orgiastic and circumscribed; it offers riches, dreams, and transformations but only through commodities. The “festival” of buying is highly sexualised and not just because underdressed young women are used to sell many products. More than this, Baudrillard insists, buying involves us, personally, in an elaborate ritual performance, an “amorous dalliance”34  involving much to-ing and fro-ing, advance and retreat, seduction and abandonment. The buyer may lead the salesperson on to greater and greater demonstrations, only to abandon them and their product for a more coy and understated competitor. Consumerism then is sexual in its form as well as in its content and this is crucial to its ability to reproduce and expand, to enchant and compel. But, Baudrillard argues, consumerism is not simply driven by profit and by sex: its success, its ability to eliminate alternative forms of social organisation and to present itself as the highest form rests upon its ability to work at the unconscious level. It protects us like a mother, it tends to our every need, has solutions for our every problem:

Whether advertising is organised around the image of the mother or around the need to play, it always fosters the same tendency to regress to a point anterior to the real social processes, such as work, production, the market, or value, which might disturb this magical integration.35

In the absence of full and active participation in the social, which Baudrillard, following Durkheim and Mauss, associates with the earlier social forms (symbolic exchange, ritual and sacrifice) consumer society offers only “a travesty of the social entity”.36  But this is still something; it creates a “superficial” yet “vivid” sense of “warmth” and belonging. We do not live in a world of atomised or fragmented individuals, constantly at war with one another for the best jobs and most desirable lovers – the system could not function if this was the case. We do belong, we are alike, but it is a belonging and likeness of the code.

The Social Logic of Consumption

Consumption defines precisely the stage where the commodity is immediately produced as a sign, as a sign value and where signs are produced as commodities.37

Baudrillard’s second major work La société de la consommation/The Consumer Society offers a greatly expanded treatment of consumption and is certainly Baudrillard’s most recognisably sociological work. It is very important to emphasise, from the outset that the French term “consommation” does not translate as “consumerism”, but as consumption. Where consumerism is the idea or ideology of the consumer society, consumption is the act of consuming, or of being consumed. It implies being used, making use of and using up. For Baudrillard consumption is, fundamentally, the act of consuming, spanning conscious and unconscious levels, the idea of the self as a consuming self, or, as he terms it, “the consumption of consumption”.38

The study begins, characteristically, by puncturing some of the myths of the consumer society. According to Baudrillard the consumer society does not entail any genuine progress, it does not attempt to alleviate poverty or generate greater equality between classes, sexes and ethnic groups and it does not seek to promote affluence or abundance. Rather its purpose is to maintain a system of social privilege, invidious distinction and discrimination; a vast game of customized or personalised identity types competing for status through objects.
Firstly, two specific myths are tackled; the myth that growth promotes affluence and, secondly, that affluence leads to democracy. The “growth” economy, Baudrillard argues, actually generates a structural poverty – a permanent “underclass” or excluded minority. Contrary to the protestations of economists and politicians this class is not merely residual as it is never “cleared up” by continued growth (and how much truer this is today). Baudrillard has already moved far from a Marxist position:

There is not in fact – and never has been any ‘affluent society’…whatever the volume of goods produced or available, wealth is geared both to a structural excess and a structural penury. At the sociological level there is no equilibrium. Every society produces differentiation, social discrimination and that structural organisation is based on the use and distribution of wealth (among other things). The fact that a society enters upon a phase of growth, as our industrial society has done, changes nothing in this process.39

Inequality drives the system, providing the underlying dynamic for the games of invidious distinction. Baudrillard does not contend that the capitalist system is “deliberately bloodthirsty”40 simply that it seeks to maintain privilege, domination and, through these, control. It is simply that a new car for a private consumer is a more effective means of social control than a new public hospital, while a visible “underclass” of the marginal and rejected serves as a potent reminder of what happens if you refuse to play by the rules.

It is important to emphasise that at this stage of Baudrillard’s thought there is a strong sense of “determination by social structure”; a social level of causality which is quite real though it is largely hidden or unconscious.  Baudrillard’s analysis attempts to penetrate beneath or beyond the “metaphysical” notions of growth and affluence, of needs and uses, to expose the workings of the system through “a genuine analysis of the social logic of consumption”.41  This analysis reveals fundamental inequality and divisiveness – a social status war. The level of ideology with its notions of equality, fairness, and of technological progress, is secondary and offers signs of freedom which mask “real” lived inequalities (though the distinction between real and apparent is abandoned in Baudrillard’s next study For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign).

In a fascinating section of Consumer entitled “Waste” Baudrillard begins to develop a new position which will be elaborated and re-articulated many times throughout his career – the comparison between cultures dominated by the principle of symbolic exchange and those dominated by signs and simulations. In The System of Objects the notion of the symbolic dimension had played a pivotal role but it referred exclusively to objects, gestures and lived relations characteristic of pre-industrial Western societies: vestiges or remnants of which were fast disappearing. Symbolic exchange, by contrast, is a living, dynamic principal.

The methodology Baudrillard adopts in developing the notion of symbolic exchange is, initially at least, paradigmatically sociological. He opposes the common-sense view that waste is immoral and socially dysfunctional through an appeal to sociological sense that would bring out the “true functions” of waste:

All societies have wasted, squandered, expended and consumed beyond what is strictly necessary for the simple reason that it is in the consumption of a surplus, of a superfluity that the individual – and society – feel not merely that they exist, but that they are alive.42

Baudrillard, drawing on Mauss (1950/1990), develops a comparison between the restrictive frame of reference offered by economists and a more general “total social logic”. From the latter perspective waste has a positive function.  It is the site of the production of social values: the values of prestige, rank and status – symbolic values in Baudrillard’s sense. Affluence is given expression through wastage: being able to spend the equivalent of a teacher’s entire annual salary on a new car signals affluence; spending the same amount on a fur coat even more so. Here the economic values of pounds, dollars and Euro are consumed: transformed into the symbolic values of status and power. The crucial difference between the consumer society and earlier forms of social organisation is that once collective, festive, ceremonial forms of wastage are now individualised, personalised and mass-mediated.  This distinction is far more complex than it first appears:

[W]e have to distinguish individual or collective waste as a symbolic act of expenditure, as a festive, ritual and an exalted form of socialisation, from its gloomy, bureaucratic caricature in our societies, where wasteful consumption has become a daily obligation.43

This distinction is crucial to Baudrillard’s project. In consumer society expenditure no longer erases or annuls the individual subject in a convulsive moment, an experience of sacredness or ritual festivity,44 rather it seals the subject as an individual unit within the consumer system.

Baudrillard’s third major text, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972/1981 – hereafter Critique) clarifies and develops the distinction between the symbolic and semiotic orders by presenting a systematic account of the different forms of social “value”. Baudrillard even represents this as a table entitled “general conversion table of all values”.45 There are four different logics: “the functional logic of use-value” based on utility, the “economic logic of exchange value” based on equivalence, and the “differential logic of sign value” based on coded differences. Finally “the logic of symbolic exchange” characterised by ambivalence, is neither law nor value strictly speaking but “anti-value” or anti-economy. The table is not a static typology but one of conversions, re-conversions and “transit”. Use, exchange and sign value operate together to bar or deny symbolic exchange. There is undeniably a theory of power relations here, though most commentaries fail to recognise it: “economic exploitation based on the monopoly of capital and “cultural” domination based on the monopoly of the code engender each other ceaselessly”.46 The difference between sign-exchange value and symbolic exchange is frequently missed, feeding the mistaken notion that Baudrillard has no theory of power. To clarify, sign exchange involves practices of waste or conspicuous consumption (consommation) in order to achieve and maintain social status differentials (value). However symbolic exchange consists in the consummation or “destruction of values”.  There is no separable or autonomous “value” that can be appropriated at the end of the symbolic exchange process: indeed the process must not come to an end. Symbolic exchanges are obligatory and cyclical, dual or collective, not individual choices or expressions of status or wealth through possession of circumscribed or autonomous objects or values. In Baudrillard’s words:

In symbolic exchange…the object is not an object: it is inseparable from the concrete relation in which it is exchanged, the transferential pact that is sealed between two persons: it is thus not independent as such. It has, properly speaking, neither use value nor (economic) exchange value.47

But the relationship between signs/values and symbolic exchange is not binary or contrastive but highly unstable and volatile. All the forms of value must be suspended in order to achieve symbolic exchange, and inversely, all forms of value (use, exchange, sign or representational) work in unison “breaking and reducing symbolic exchange” further; “[o]nce symbolic exchange is broken, the same material is abstracted into utility value, commercial value, statutory value”.48

Marxism enables a critical theorisation of the relationship between use-value and economic exchange value, of sorts, by exposing the unequal social relations of ownership. However, for Baudrillard, Marxism fails to critically theorise the sign and representation, the field of language and culture. The economic or commodity sphere loses the power of determining social relations but this is not merely transferred to signs; rather the two levels merge producing the political economy of the sign. In this complex, integrated system or code, only symbolic ambivalence has the power to challenge or suspend the system, it “brings the political economy of the sign to a standstill.49 Baudrillard attempts a critical social theory of political economy and representation by proposing that “exchange value is to use-value what the signifier is to the signified”, and further, “exchange value is to the signifier what use value is to the signified”.50 This involves a re-definition of the concept of ideology. The ideological nature of signs, of representation, is to be discovered at the level of form not content, not at the level of the meaning of the signified but in the mechanics of the sign itself. Ideology, for Baudrillard, “is the process of reducing and abstracting symbolic material into a form…as value (autonomous), as content (transcendent), and as a representation of consciousness (signified)”.51 Ideology then resides not only in the content of particular signs but, more fundamentally, in the form or process of abstraction and equivalence.

The play of signifiers generates the illusion of a stable signified; the play of signs the illusion of reference; the play of commodities the fiction of use-value. For Baudrillard the signified (meaning) and the referent (the “real” object out there in the world) are both a “fiction” and are ultimately indistinguishable because their contents are “assigned to them by the signifier”.52 Similarly “real” or “natural” use value is a fiction assigned by the system of commodity exchange value. Both use and need, the subjects or individuals who possess them, and the representations they produce have, as their very condition of possibility, the breaking up of the world into sign units, the severing of symbolic relations into abstract “things”:

The ‘real’ table does not exist. If it can be registered in its identity (if it exists), this is because it has already been designated, abstracted and rationalised by the separation (decoupage) which establishes it in this equivalence to itself…there is no fundamental difference between the referent and the signified.53

For Baudrillard then “[t]he process of signification is, at bottom, nothing but a gigantic simulation model of meaning”, since the “real” is “only the simulacrum of the symbolic, its form reduced and intercepted by the sign”.54 “Reality” then is a “phantasm by means of which the sign is preserved from the symbolic deconstruction that haunts it”.55 Symbolic exchange forever haunts the sign, threatening to “dismantle” all the formal oppositions on which it depends: signifier and signified; sign and referent; and the binary oppositions that flow from them: nature/culture, male/female, good/evil, black/white, adult/child. Yet the symbolic cannot be defined since this would render it semiotic and representational, the symbolic “cannot be named except by allusion, by infraction”:

Of what is outside the sign, of what is other than the sign, we can say nothing, really, except that it is ambivalent, that is, it is impossible to distinguish respective separated terms and to positivize them
as such.56

A theory of the media?

There is no theory of the media.57

The Consumer Society58 and Critique59 discuss of the effects of electronic media on human relations at length. Baudrillard wrote on electronic media long before “the mass media” became a fashionable topic of sociological enquiry, and long before “media studies” had attained the status of an academic discipline. Influenced by Marshall McLuhan’s pioneering studies (see Genosko 1999) and by the American sociologist Daniel Boorstin (see Merrin 2005) Baudrillard argues that media are a central mode of social control and integration in consumer society. Contrary to some critics (the usual suspects) Baudrillard does not re-iterate the Frankfurt School attacks on the “mass” media as producing isolation and alienation.60 In fact, Baudrillard takes issue with these very terms, arguing that they are inadequate to an analysis of contemporary culture.61 Far from “isolating” or separating people, the media integrates through solicitation, through the offering of the gift of “self”: the types and codes through which we are able to understand ourselves. The multiplication of object/sign values disseminated by the media are invested with meaning to the degree that alienated and unalienated attachments to sign-objects cannot be distinguished. But such sign values do not float free of power relations, they are saturated by them. Baudrillard is clear that the system of consumption drives the sign productions of the electronic media. Signs are implicated in power relations, but as “the caricatural resurrection, the parodic evocation of what already no longer exists”.62 Baudrillard alludes here to Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,63 suggesting the farcical nature of events which occur twice, the first time as meaningful and of historical import, the second time as a mere parody. Mass media signs refer to what is lost, what has disappeared or is disappearing, or they refer to other media signs in a closed circuit.
Baudrillard’s initial example of this process are petrol service stations which insist on selling log fire and barbecue kits; the same oil companies that have rendered the “real” log fire, and its symbolic meanings, obsolete.  Extending Baudrillard’s example, the growing fad for barbecues can be seen as a forced, parodic restoration in sign-form of the act of cooking as gift and communion. Cooking over hearth or stove symbolically connect nature and culture through the burning of gathered wood and connect people through the coming together at table. With the barbecue, by contrast, we stand about in back gardens where prim lawns and patios merely signify nature, not nature as awkward, tangled “reality” but as processed and manicured, reduced to signs – a simulation of nature. And if it rains we give up and go back in doors, that is, if nature does intervene, it is as inconvenience.64

Modern communications replace the presence and “communion” of lived relations with “that modern, technical, aseptic form of communion that is communication… communion is no longer achieved through a symbolic medium, but through a technical one: this is what makes it communication”65 Baudrillard draws an important distinction here. Communion, meaning spiritual intercourse or contact, is replaced by technologically mediated social contact. Both communion and communication are derived from the Latin term communis meaning common. Both communion and communication imply contact and exchange between beings via a form of mediation. Baudrillard is not bemoaning the loss of religious rituals of communion, indeed these have not been lost but endure both in their traditional form as well as expanding into the technological sphere: the Internet offers many sites for virtual religious ritual. Further, Baudrillard’s words suggest that some sense of communion is still present in modern electronic communications generally. There is a spiritual dimension in the “form” of communication, a form of contact and commonality. There are then continuities within this shift from communion to commun-ication. According to Baudrillard mass communications replace symbolic ritual with technological ritual. Cultural practices of communion, in Baudrillard’s Durkheimian reading, had marked the “lived presence” of the social group or community. With the shift to commun-ication symbolic practices are “replaced” by signs. In order to do this, signs must be capable of fulfilling the role of symbolic exchange to some degree. And signs do, indeed, link people together – but as similarities and differences on a scale of value, as types of individual, and as types of consumer.

There is a certain sense of communion in wearing the same brand or garment as your favourite celebrity, and there is no point in denying or scoffing at this. Nor is it new. For many years there has been a market for objects that were once owned by the famous. Yet symbolic practices, as Baudrillard theorises them, are distinct. In the practice of symbolic exchange communion annuls individuality, the group is expressed and affirmed in its communality. In this sense symbolic exchange is sacrificial. There is no scale or logic of value, at least not in the moment of communion. Symbols are fixed and unique, they are not commutable or equivalent as signs are. For example, in the Catholic communion the wafer and the wine are not signs of the flesh and blood of Christ, they are symbols. In the moment of communion they are said to become the flesh and blood, they do not signify it because the signified absorbs the signifier. With the commun-ication of signs, by contrast, the signifier tends to absorb the signified.  The replacement of symbolic practices of communion by semiotic practices of communication enables a shift from the symbolic act of consuming, to the semiotic process of consumption: the very principle of the consumer capitalist society.

To exemplify his position regarding information, Baudrillard focuses on news reports where there is “a discontinuum of signs and messages in which all orders are equivalent.66 News reports on “war, famine and death are interspersed with adverts for washing powder and razors” and, we might add, with the self-advertising of journalists, news organisations and TV companies. But this is not merely a chaotic, confused abundance of signs:

[I]t is the imposition upon us, by the systematic succession of messages, of the equivalence of history and the minor news item, of the event and the spectacle, of information and advertising at the level
of the sign.67

Not only events, but the world itself is “segmented”, cut up into “discontinuous, successive, non-contradictory messages”. We do not consume a spectacle or an image as such, but the principle of the succession of all possible spectacles or images: “there is no danger of anything emerging that is not one sign among
others”.68 Baudrillard engages with the theories of McLuhan and his infamous slogan “The medium is the message”, arguing that the really significant level at which media influence people is not that of the content of its messages. It is in “the constraining pattern – linked to the very technical essence of those media – of the disarticulation of the real into successive and equivalent signs”.69 Marxist attempts to theorise the effects of the media on audiences and consumers fail because such critiques focus on the ideological nature of content and the ownership of networks but pay little attention to the medium itself and to its possible affects on perception and social relations.70 In exploring the medium Baudrillard postulates a “law of technological inertia”71 suggesting that the closer the medium gets to “the real”, through techniques such as documentary style film-making and live coverage, the greater the “real absence from the world”. In other words, “the world” as space of perspective – of seeing and knowing – is increasingly replaced by a sequence of images whereby “the primary function of each message is to refer to each message”.72 In this way the medium, not the message, imposes a certain way of seeing the world on the audience. Rather than a space for reflection and critical distance we have information sliced and diced as a commodity-sign. This is no Luddite hatred of technology. Both McLuhan and Baudrillard note that the medium of the printed book, dating back to the 15th century, imposes a particular mechanics of perception, a form of constraint favouring solitary reflection and linearity. But the distinctive nature of the electronic mass media is, for Baudrillard, that they “function to neutralise the lived, unique, eventual character of the world and substitute for it a multiple universe of media which are homogeneous.73 The electronic media are ideological in the sense that they declare through their form, and often also in content, “the omnipotence of a system of reading over a world become a system of signs”. The “confused” and “conflicted” world is transformed into an abstract, ordered one. A world of consumable signs where “the signifier becomes its own signified… we see the abolition of the signified and the tautology of the signifier.… the substitution of the code for the referential dimension defines mass media consumption”.74 For Baudrillard the media are, in fact, “anti-mediatory”.75 They prevent response, the reciprocal exchange of meaning, allowing only simulatory responses, that is responses drawn from a pre-defined range or code. Indeed, for Baudrillard “the code is the only agency that speaks”.76 Today “interactive” TV is far more developed but the “interactivity” on offer remains that of the medium or the Code: we are confronted with a myriad of choices, channels, spectator angles, phone in options but all are generated from the medium: we merely complete the circuit. Human interaction is replaced by simulatory interactivity.

Baudrillard admits his ideas concerning the recent the transformation of society into one dominated by sign consumption applies only in limited circumstances, that is in those parts of the world that consider themselves the most “advanced”. Baudrillard acknowledges that “traditional forms of praxis” have not disappeared, and indeed remain dominant such that the ideas he expresses only apply in very limited circumstances – those where a “high technical level has been attained”.77 This is a very important clarification, overlooked by many of Baudrillard’s critics despite being reiterated many times.78 As Baudrillard said much later in his career “theory must anticipate”.79

About the Author
Dr. William Pawlett is from the department of Sociology and Cultural Studies, University of Wolverhampton, UK.

1 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:11.

2 – Roland Barthes. The Fashion System (c 1967). New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.

3 – Baudrillard’s use of the term symbolic order is quite different from Lacan’s. For Baudrillard it refers, at this early stage in his thought, to “traditional” or pre-industrial social practices and sensibilities. He contrasts the “ambivalence” of the symbolic order with the “equivalence” of the semiotic orders.

4 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:200.

5 – Herbert Marcuse. One Dimensional Man. London: Routledge, 1964:9.

6 – Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations with Francois L’Yvonnet (c 2001). New York: Routledge, 2004:3.

7 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:5.



10 – At this stage Baudrillard seems to be supplementing and reworking Marxist concepts, rather than ‘breaking’ with them. His assertion that “the object is liberated only in its function, man equally is liberated only as a user of that object” (The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:18, emphasis in original) strongly recalls Marx’s critique of the capitalist pseudo-liberation of the worker, who is free but only to work, a formal freedom rather that an actual freedom. There is a strong sense then in which Baudrillard, at this stage, attempts to be more sociological than Marx by insisting on the existence of a far wider network of “ideological integration” than Marx envisaged. Quite simply, Baudrillard’s approach is sociological in that he insists that society is changed fundamentally by consumption.

11 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:29.

12 – David Riesman. The Lonely Crowd. New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1961:126-160.

13 – Jean Baudrillard. The Consumer Society (c 1970). London: SAGE, 1998:87-98.

14 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:17.

15 – Baudrillard, at this stage, writes of desire in the psychoanalytic sense, as an impersonal force of the unconscious rather than as the desires or wants of particular individuals for particular things. In The Mirror of Production (1974/1975:102-3) Baudrillard argues that within the symbolic exchange order the producers and users of goods are not distinct and so share a common ‘desire’.

16 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:54, n.33).

17 – Baudrillard, in common with many Poststructuralist thinkers, follows Nietzsche in regarding individual psychological meanings as superficial and indeed illusory because they depend upon the discredited Cartesian notion of mind/body dualism. The psyche is not autonomous at all but is dependent on environment, material resources and, above all, the structures of language which constitute its very possibility of awareness. Baudrillard develops this critique in Symbolic Exchange and it is discussed in the present volume in chapter three.

18 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:35.

19 – Jean Baudrillard. The Consumer Society (c 1970). London: SAGE, 1998:74.

20 – Jean Baudrillard. For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (c 1972), St. Louis, Mo: Telos Press, 1981:63-87.

21 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:153.



24 – Ambivalence is an important term in Baudrillard’s early work and it is developed, in For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign and Symbolic Exchange and Death in contrast to the more usual psychoanalytic connotations it has in System. The important point is that ambivalent emotions cannot be tracked or coded by the consumer system, they can be reduced to the level of signification and thence to the buying and exchanging of commodities but the undercurrents remain: the ghosts of the symbolic relation haunt semiotic reality.

25 – Jean Baudrillard. For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (c 1972), St. Louis, Mo: Telos Press, 1981:88-101.

26 – Marcel Mauss. The Gift (c 1950). London: Routledge, 1970; Pierre Clastres. Society Against the State. (c 1974) New York: Urizen Books, 1977.

27 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:201.

28 – Cadbury’s Chocolate Advertising Campaign 2001.

29 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:164.



32 – As a very simple example of the operations of the sign code: a return to the bottle of designer shampoo that does not actually thicken hair. We do not really ‘consume’ this individual object (plastic bottle with brightly coloured ‘funky’ label filled with indeterminate chemical gunk); rather we consume the social relationship established between ourselves (as desirable, fashionable etc.) and others in society who will recognise us as such. This process positions us within the code, at the very least above those who do not use a designer shampoo. Signs exist only in relationships of coded connections to other signs: they operate in combinations or commutations, readily interchangeable precisely because they are arbitrary, abstract and plastic. A number of possible strategies of resistance to consumerism can be envisaged. We may decide not to follow fashion or to be so cool we are ahead of fashion; we may make our own clothes. But even if we manage to bypass the system of exchange value (very unlikely) we cannot avoid being defined and located by the sign-exchange system – this is the fundamental level of control: individualisation, personalisation and integration.

33 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:171.




37 – Jean Baudrillard. For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (c 1972), St. Louis, Mo: Telos Press, 1981:147.

38 – Jean Baudrillard. The Consumer Society (c 1970). London: SAGE, 1998:193-196.






44 – Emile Durkheim. Elementary Forms of Religious Life (c 1912); Marcel Mauss. The Gift (c 1950). London: Routledge, 1970.

45 – Jean Baudrillard. For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (c 1972), St. Louis, Mo: Telos Press, 1981:123.










55Ibid.:156, n.9.



58 – Jean Baudrillard. The Consumer Society (c 1970). London: SAGE, 1998:99-128.

59 – Jean Baudrillard. For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (c 1972), St. Louis, Mo: Telos Press, 1981:164-184.

60 – Theodore Adorno  and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Seabury Press, 1972.

61 – Jean Baudrillard. The Consumer Society (c 1970). London: SAGE, 1998:187-196.


63 – 1852/1969:394.

64 – A further example: the canteen at my university features enormous banners with the words ‘Go Eat’ and images of those attractive, relaxed young people that populate the world of advertising. ‘Go Eat’ is a truly redundant and absurd injunction in what is, by definition, an eating place. What is even more ridiculous is that very little food is actually available: there is little choice, the food is of poor quality and is more expensive than comparable high street outlets. The magnitude of the sign-images expand as the ‘real’ possibilities diminish.

65 – Jean Baudrillard. The Consumer Society (c 1970). London: SAGE, 1998:103.





70 – Jean Baudrillard. For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (c 1972), St. Louis, Mo: Telos Press, 1981:166-172.


72 – Jean Baudrillard. The Consumer Society (c 1970). London: SAGE, 1998:122.



75 – Jean Baudrillard. For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (c 1972), St. Louis, Mo: Telos Press, 1981:169.

76 – Jean Baudrillard. For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (c 1972), St. Louis, Mo: Telos Press, 1981:179.

77 – Jean Baudrillard. The System of Objects (c 1968). New York: Verso, 1996:29, n. 10.

78 – Jean Baudrillard. The Mirror of Production (c 1974). St. Louis, MO.: Telos Press, 1975:121; Symbolic Exchange and Death (c 1976). London: SAGE, 1993:115; The Transparency of Evil. New York: Verso, 1993:5).

79 – Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm. New York: Verso, 1998:24.