Volume 11, Number 1 (January, 2014)
Author: Dr. Keith Moser
Euphorically championing the excessive lifestyle of opulence so often lauded by the mainstream media, the sports icon Andre Agassi asserts in a Canon commercial which aired in 1990, “Image is everything.” Although this affirmation might initially appear to be rather banal given that such messages continually inundate television screens across the globe, it is actually quite revealing. First, it should be noted that a transnational corporation which specializes in the reproduction of visual representations unequivocally declares that a seductive image of success and happiness has replaced concrete reality in Western society. As this study will elucidate, the French thinker Jean Baudrillard and the contemporary Franco-Mauritian author J.M.G. Le Clézio maintain that this phenomenon should be lamented rather than celebrated. By underscoring the nefarious effects of the ubiquity of the simulated object that seems to have entirely consumed the modern subject, this comparative exploration of two extremely divergent writers will expose the disquieting indictment of consumerism and its hollow virtues that the reader discovers in La Société de Consommation and La Guerre.
Since the vast majority of the planet now has little authentic contact with the material world that surrounds us and sustains our very existence, how divorced from reality have we become? Summarizing the profound identity crisis that is emblematic of an alienated, disconnected subject drowning in simulacra, Andrew Root ponders, “What is real? In our media-filled world, have we mistaken the image for the real thing?” (237). Further elucidating the disconcerting anxiety of Jean-Baudrillard concerning the simplistic portraits of contentment disseminated to the masses, Root posits that “an image-based digital world makes it more difficult to construct meaning, seeing how it is that our screens may hollow out our experience of reality” (238). Echoing similar fears and noting the challenges of educating young people, whose grasp of concrete reality appears to be tenuous at best, Kaye Cederman explains, “There is no longer the ability for us to confront how ‘reality’ itself has been altered […] what Baudrillard calls the hyperreal world of simulation […] proliferates in a myriad of regurgitating forms denoting the search for happiness, fulfillment, and comfort” (17; 20).
Both Baudillard and Le Clézio wonder if our lives have become too virtual given that many people spend most of their day in front of a TV, computer, Ipod, or Ipad screen. Despite the undeniable utility of such devices that render instantaneous communication and the rapid exchange of information possible,1 have we become enslaved by the machines and gadgets that we invented to maximize prosperity, security, and happiness? Incessantly bombarded by artificial simulacra in our homes, workplace, shopping centers, and everywhere we go, do images now encompass the totality of our quotidian reality? At the dawn of a new era in which an individual can ‘thrive’ while avoiding any meaningful contact with other human beings or the remainder of the planet, what are the intellectual, ethical, and ecological ramifications of allowing the simulated objects that now concretize the human condition to engulf the subject entirely?
Agassi’s aforementioned declaration is also significant on another level because it ironically represents an overt confession from a corporate titan which indicates its complicity in the creation of consumer republics2 . Canon freely admits that when a consumer purchases its products, they are acquiring part of a larger materialistic dream. Given that the multinational conglomerates which dominate the contemporary economic landscape benefit the most from the current system, it is hardly surprising that they are the most ardent defenders/promoters of the ideology of consumerism. Canon realizes that not only are they marketing cameras, printers, and camcorders, but they are also selling an alluring image of what a good life entails. Baudrillard and Le Clézio affirm that the role of these transnational giants cannot be overstated given that they are the core of an economic system that is predicated upon the notion of continuous growth. If the monetary cycle can never be interrupted and profits must always increase, then there are no limits to frivolous consumption of goods and services. As Adele Flood and Anne Bamford underscore, “Needs are created by objects of consumption and exist because the system needs them” (92). Highlighting the stark realities of media consolidation and corporate ownership of news outlets, Baudrillard and Le Clézio reveal that it is not by accident that the same companies which manufacture products that are allegedly vital for happiness have purchased the means to disseminate their consumerist propaganda to every household.
How do the exploitative monopolies that have now reached the furthest corners of the globe justify their existence and their expeditiously increasing sphere of influence? Perhaps the most effective ideological tools employed by marketers are the overlapping notions of the sovereign spender and the “power of the purse strings.” Advertisers have convinced potential clients that they dictate market forces by making informed decisions concerning the utility of a given item. If a certain product is not useful or it does not deliver on its promise to improve the quality of one’s life, then it will supposedly disappear. In other words, marketers insist that they are providing a useful service to all of humanity. Moreover, rational, well-informed consumers possess the power to shape the global economy because of their inherent autonomy. However, Baudrillard and Le Clézio refute this simplistic view of the empowered individual that ultimately controls the market. Expressing his deep skepticism related to complete consumer freedom, Baudrillard scoffs, “Les objets ne servent pas tellement à quelque chose, d’abord et surtout ils vous servent” (252-253). The ironic tone of this statement is quite striking. Baudrillard asserts that it would incredibly naive to think that the proliferation of objects that encapsulates the modern subject only exists to render our lives more meaningful and luxurious. Cleary mocking marketing techniques which inform prospective clients that living without a specific good or service is not an option if one wishes to attain true bliss, Baudrillard explains, “les gens sont incapables de se comprendre, de savoir ce qu’ils sont et ce qu’ils veulent, mais nous sommes là pour ça” (269). Baudrillard deconstructs the pervasive logic that consumer products have placed everything at our fingertips including the possibility of greater self-actualization because he realizes that ontological significance or existential remedies cannot be purchased or sold to the highest bidder.
In an interview with Pierre Boncenne, the 2008 Nobel Laureate in Literature denounces the “le langage publicitaire, le langage des slogans, de la politique, de la sociologie, de tout ce qui tourne autour de l’homme et qui a l’air de le servir, mais, en réalité, se sert de lui” (44). Similar to Baudrillard, Le Clézio is cognizant that the objects that we are told hold the key to our happiness are manufactured and distributed by transnational behemoths that only seek to expand their social and economic stranglehold. Given that the corporation is an artificial construction whose only goal is to increase revenue for its shareholders, why would it have any vested interest in human contentment? Furthermore, if the acquisition of a particular invention were able to fill a subject’s existential void entirely, then the cycle of consumption would be broken. This grim reality or the inability of consumer goods to keep their lofty promises explains why individuals are susceptible to continual marketing ploys that peddle “new and improved” versions of the same exact product that consumers already own. For instance, a person that has purchased the Iphone 4 must upgrade to the Iphone 5 even if the enhancements are marginal or even entirely insignificant. As the author elucidates in the same aforementioned interview, “la publicité ou le grand commerce visent à ce déséquilibre, à cette impression d’insécurité, pour que les gens produisent et achètent davantage” (Boncenne 38). Informing the customer that he or she suffers from a void that only the acquisition of a certain product can heal effectively lays the foundation for the next model or the latest accessories after the unmitigated failure of the original gadget to render the subject happy.
Despite unending skepticism from modern thinkers including Baudrillard and Le Clézio in addition to empirical evidence obtained from the budding field of “happiness research3 ” (see Grant, 85-108) which dismiss the simplistic logic of consumerism, the message of every single advertisement that bombards the subject unequivocally asserts that a direct correlation exists between the acquisition of material possessions and contentment. As Robert Crawford explains, “consumption is depicted as the shortcut to happiness and well being” by the same hegemonic forces that are selling the products that we consume on a daily basis (115). Baudrillard notes that a consumer citizen, indoctrinated from birth with the notion that frivolous consumption is patriotic4 [As Baudrillard affirms, “Bref, ils ont accompli leur devoir civique. ‘Thrift is unamerican’… ‘Economiser est anti-américain” (115)], must “rechercher sans l’ombre d’une hésitation son propre bonheur; A donner sa préférence aux objets qui lui donneront le maximum de satisfactions” (93). However, Baudrillard adamantly maintains that the incessant quest to acquire a plethora of mass-produced objects is a reflection of a “bonheur abstrait” which is carefully manufactured by transnational conglomerates that govern the global marketplace (25).
Furthermore, Baudrillard highlights the role of celebrities in reinforcing the ideology of consumption. By parading icons like Agassi in front of television screens, marketers attempt to convince clients that their latest invention has now rendered it possible for everyone to experience the life of luxury. Underscoring the undeniable influence of stars that urge a subject to consume a given object, Mark Poster reveals, “Consumers identify cultural objects not with corporations […] but with stars/directors, musicians, and authors” (421). In a similar vein, Andrew Root decries the fact that “Most American [sic] know more about the latest reality show celebrity than they do about the neighbors across the street. And all their real experiences are filtered through Twitter and Facebook. Real experience, Baudrillard believes, now must bend a knee to the simulation; the real has been replaced by the hyper-real” (240). As Root outlines in his essay, Baudrillard also exposes the fantasy structure of these lucrative simulations that often have little connection to reality. Specifically, these enticing simulacra serve to conceal dire socioeconomic inequalities and to prevent any real dialogue related to issues of social justice including the redistribution of wealth (See Baudrillard, 1970: 35-39).
In an article entitled “La vie urbaine-mort urbaine,” Fredrik Westerlund notes that a salient feature of Le Clézio’s fiction from 1963 to the present is the author’s denunciation of the nefarious effects of the artificial images of “le luxe et la gloire que dépeignent les medias” (76). Whether a consumer is financially able to purchase a certain item or not is a rather moot point, given that he or she will never experience the inaccessible pipe dream portrayed by sports and film icons for a single moment of his or her existence. Le Clézio realizes that for many disenfranchised and marginalized individuals the idealistic vision of success and opulence that is supposed to represent the crowning achievement of humanity is merely a seductive mirage or an ironic caricature. For this reason, it is in this context in which certain ethical decisions made by Leclézian protagonists such as Lalla (Désert) and Laïla (Poisson d’or) should be understood. Both of these female characters are on the verge of international stardom, yet they willingly turn their back on a life of fame and fortune. In addition to returning to their respective traditional civilizations and intentionally fleeing modernity, Lalla and Laïla refuse to be complicit in an exploitative system that systematically manipulates and debases other human beings. Fully aware that money cannot buy happiness nor will most people ever be able to taste the succulent fruits of the inaccessible images of fulfillment lauded by the mainstream media even for a fleeting instant, numerous Leclézian protagonists seek a more authentic existence far removed from the simulated glamour and glitz that epitomizes modernity.
In addition to deconstructing the unfounded notion that purchasing a good or service will automatically result in the attainment of a greater state of happiness, Baudrillard and Le Clézio contend that today’s consumers are not autonomous agents capable of making calculated, informed decisions. Instead, both authors describe the modern subject as a robot conditioned to consume spontaneously without any reflection whatsoever. Affirming that “la liberté et la souveraineté du consommateur ne sont que mystification,” Baudrillard clarifies, “Le monde des objets serait ainsi celui d’une hystérie généralisée […] Ce n’est donc pas un temps de réflexion, c’est un temps de réaction […] l’homme soit affronté à son image […] il n’y a plus que la vitrine […] où l’individu ne se réfléchit plus lui-même, mais s’absorbe dans la contemplation des objets/signes […] il ne s’y réfléchit plus, il s’y absorbe et s’y abolit” (99;154;310-311). In these passages, Baudrillard underscores the “death of the subject” that has now become entirely consumed by the very objects that he has created to maximize comfort and prosperity.
The author describes the purchaser citizen as an individual that is slowly drowning in the symbolic realm of signs. No longer knowing what or who we are supposed to be outside of materialistic simulations, the subject compulsively devours every product that is offered to him in order to avoid confronting his existential emptiness. As Wang Chengbing affirms, “consumer culture can lead to alienated, irrational consumption with the identities of individuals subsumed by their consumption […] They try to raise their status by raising their level of consumption” (295). Should we truly believe that the deplorable events which transpire every “Black Friday” in the United States, such as pregnant women being trampled as the doors of the shopping center open, are the actions of rational individuals expressing their materialistic fervor? Or, is this disconcerting behavior a desperate cry for help from millions of people that have become so disconnected from concrete reality and themselves that the mindless acquisition of gadgets is all that matters?
In her analysis of Le Procès-verbal, La Guerre, and Les Géants, Geraldine Mcllwaine delves into the dissolution of identity that is emblematic of Leclézian protagonists trapped inside of a menacing urban space that appears to threaten their very autonomy itself. Summarizing the tragic state of modern man that the reader discovers in the author’s fiction, Mcllwaine elucidates, “In short, surrounded by consumer goods man is further alienated from himself and his fellow man […] Thus language threatens the individual subject, bombarding and assaulting them, leaving very little room for reflection or independent thought” (135;138). The language to which Mcllwaine is referring is the hegemonic discourse of advertising disseminated in magazines, on billboards, the Internet, and on television screens. Given that these messages or signs have now invaded our homes obliterating any meaningful distinction between public and private space, can we ever be free from the pervasive influence of what Le Clézio calls les maîtres du langage in La Guerre and Les Géants? With no safe haven that seems to be uncontaminated from the taint of commercial greed, how often can we really think critically about the society in which we live?
Similar to Mcllwaine, Mauricio Segura highlights Le Clézio’s deconstruction of the comforting concept of the sovereign spender. In the context of Le Clézio, Georges Perec, and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s fiction, Segura explains that each author describes “une société de consommation” as a:
société qui, par la publicité, suscite des besoins chez les individus pour les rendre étrangers à eux-mêmes, pour les ‘aliéner,’ comme aurait dit un intellectuel de l’époque […] Les personnages croient savoir ce que devraient être leur ‘bonheur’ et leur ‘liberté,’ mais en réalité ils n’ont que l’illusion d’être libres, puisque leur jugement est faussé par le discours de la publicité poussant à la consommation (51).
First, it should be noted that the ‘intellectual’ to which Segura alludes is clearly Jean Baudrillard. Moreover, Segura and Mcllwaine both underscore the robotic  behavior of numerous Leclézian protagonists that appear to more closely resemble zombified automates than autonomous agents. In fact, these tortured characters have been hypnotized and seduced by the omnipresence of objects and the ideology that they represent to such an extent that they are rendered utterly defenseless against the onslaught of signs compelling them to consume.
Explaining that the ubiquity of the seductive image of happiness from which there appears to be no escape has quelled independent thought, the narrator of La Guerre confesses, “On était muets. On n’avait plus rien à dire. La machine pensait pour vous, c’est vrai, je vous jure, c’était elle qui avait toute la pensée […] la machine envoyait durement ses ondes dans les cerveaux […] et C’ÉTAIT CELA LA PENSÉE” (42). In this passage, nearly every parcel of the earth seems to have been conquered by the calculated “war” against humanity launched by the transnational corporations to which the author alludes throughout the text. Moreover, in this complex and nuanced work, Le Clézio decries several other conflicts including the Vietnam War, the exploitative relationship between humanity and the remainder of the cosmos, and the quotidian struggle for survival that is emblematic of each species that must consume or take from the earth on a regular basis in order to sustain its existence.
Yet, despite the proliferation of wars decried by the young writer in this early seminal oeuvre, perhaps the most tragic saga is the disappearance of critical reflection due to the barrage of electronic devices that epitomize the modern lifestyle. As the author specifies at the end of the narrative, “La guerre, c’est la destruction de la pensée” (283). Explaining the negative philosophical, spiritual, and ethical byproducts of the myriad of useful objects that surround us at home, work, school, grocery stores, and shopping centers, the narrator elucidates, “Y avait-il seulement un espace libre […] Les hommes habitaient ces cavernes, prisonniers. Ils croyaient qu’ils pouvaient vivre dans l’instant, ils imaginaient qu’ils étaient encore les maîtres” (174). The writer reminds the reader that the edifices of brick, concrete, and steel that have radically transformed the face of the biosphere are artificial human creations. Ironically, our own attempts to transcend matter or to ‘master’ the universe in Cartesian terms have gone terribly awry. Furthermore, the filtered reality that we experience in modern homes and buildings through various types of technological advances has lured us into a false sense of security and luxury. In the virtual world comprised of digital screens and other mediums in which billions of people now spend the majority of their day, it is becomingly increasingly difficult to stop consuming mass-produced goods and to think about our lives including what we have done to ourselves and the planet. In the manufactured, lucrative cyberspace that concretizes the human condition at the dawn of a new millennium, is it still possible to control one’s destiny by somehow escaping the insidious and all-encompassing ideology of consumerism?
Expressing similar fears as Le Clézio in La Guerre, Baudrillard affirms, “la technostructure étend son empire […] Ainsi la machine à laver sert comme ustensile et joue comme élément de confort, de prestige, etc.” (106). Given the pervasive nature of the virtual realm and its simulations in which we now reside, Baudrillard reaches the following conclusion about modern society, “sous le regard muet des objets obéissants et hallucinants qui nous répète toujours le même discours […] Nous vivons le temps des objets: je veux dire que nous vivons à leur rythme et selon leur succession incessante” (18). Like Le Clézio, Baudrillard asserts that the brainwashed consumer citizen has been indoctrinated to believe that the acquisition of the latest ‘must-have’ gadget is a reflection of his or her freedom. However, the enticing simulacra that have encroached upon what were formerly private arenas have utterly subdued the subject. In La Société de Consommation, Baudrillard leaves us to ponder if authentic communication and independent thought have been appropriated by the objects that we are endlessly encouraged to purchase in addition to what these consumer items supposedly represent.
Illustrating that many facets of our lives have now been commodified, Poster declares,
In the USA and in most industrialized countries, individuals in their everyday lives are bombarded continuously by advertisements. Walking in the street or driving through it, one’s eyes are assaulted by billboards, store signs, huge electronic monitors, brand names on the clothing of others [….] the visual space of contemporary urbanity is a mosaic of images and texts all selling something, all competing for the attention of the passers-by with bright colours, tempting imagery and large size (409).
Poster further explains, “The purchase itself is no mere acquisition but a submission to the publicity departments of untold corporations of one’s preferences” (409). As Poster notes, the subjugation of humanity by the omnipresence of the signs disseminated by corporate titans is inextricably linked to urbanization in Baudrillard’s essays. Likewise, Le Clézio’s marginalized protagonists often attempt to flee the hostile confines of urban spaces in search of a more authentic existence. In La Guerre, the enigmatic character Bea B. urges Monsieur X to destroy the system before it is too late because she is unable to find any solace or real contentment in the alluring simulations that call to her.
In the same vein as Le Clézio, Baudrillard insists that the search for identity, meaning, and happiness has become more problematic than ever because of the simulacra that we impulsively devour every waking moment. As Root elucidates, “He (Baudrillard) pointed out the utter proliferation of images both in advertising print and billboards, but even more so in television, and contended that this escalation of images, most directly mediated to us through screens was making it harder […] for people to construct meaning and to hold on to something real among all the fluid flashes of light images from their screens” (239). Both Le Clézio and Baudrillard observe that despite the benefits of technology that have rendered instantaneous communication and other forms of exchange possible, many people are profoundly unhappy. If opulence has now been made affordable and readily available to the masses, why are so many individuals unsatisfied with their lives? The simple answer to this question is that the quest for happiness is much more complex than the dominant materialistic paradigm suggests. Moreover, given that the alienated and compulsive subject only receives one message (i.e. consume), all alternative solutions to finding existential significance and fulfillment are minimized.
The transnational entities that control the media through the ongoing processes of consolidation and deregulation (see Andrew Kennis), would quickly refute Le Clézio and Baudrillard’s assertion that humans have been reduced to despondent machines that are never quite able to attain a true state of happiness. Yet, although universally accepted logic maintains that the global marketplace provides an array of goods and services that allow each individual to express himself or herself in a significant way, both authors affirm that all models are created by the system itself. In other words, does it really matter if someone ‘chooses’ to be a goth, punk, or a preppie since all of these labels are artificial images created by multinational companies to reap colossal profits? Even expressions of youthful rebellion often reinforce the system by lining the pockets of businesses that sell a certain image of what it means to revolt against society. If you want to voice your dissent or disapproval of social conventions, refuse to cut your hair like the tennis superstar Agassi and purchase all of the products that he endorses.
Underscoring that so-called reflections of individuality are produced for us, Baudrillard reveals that “la production industrielle des différences” is a multi-billion dollar industry (125). The author explains, “Si bien que se différencier, c’est précisément s’affilier à un modèle, se qualifier par référence à un modèle abstrait […] C’est ainsi que tout le processus de la consommation est commandé par la production des modèles artificiellement démultipliés” (126). Instead of defining oneself, the modern consumer is simply pledging allegiance to a pre-existing paradigm. What sort of lasting satisfaction and contentment could possibly be derived from affirming a sense of belonging to a seductive simulacra fabricated by a marketing department to generate revenue? Reiterating that conforming to a model that has been carefully promoted and packaged for us is inauthentic and completely meaningless, Baudrillard underscores, “ainsi la personnalisation consiste en un recyclage quotidien sur la P.P.D.M. (Plus Petite Différence Marginale)” (128). For Baudrillard, the differences between the pre-packaged models disseminated to the masses are so minute that they might as well not even exist. Instead of offering clients an array of enticing products that allow the modern subject to express himself or herself, consumer republics are indicative of the complete effacement of genuine individuality. Baudrillard notes that personal distinctions have become rather marginal and entirely inconsequential given that they are all manufactured by the same system.
While in a nightclub with her mysterious companion Monsieur X, Bea B. observes a concrete example of the phenomenon of depersonalization described by Baudrillard in La Société de Consommation. In addition to wearing the same clothing and accessories, the zombies identified by the narrator are indistinguishable from one another given that they perform the same corporal movements on the dance floor. As the narrator affirms, “Ils bougent comme on leur a dit de le faire, ils se ressemblent tous. Personne ne pourrait les reconnaître” (109). Although the narrator never specifies exactly who ordered this homogeneous mass to dance and behave in this fashion, Bea B. remarks that these robotic individuals are interchangeable because of their collective identity. Whereas market logic contends that the objects that we are incessantly instructed to acquire in the pursuit of happiness are emblematic of an era of unheralded freedom, Baudrillard and Le Clézio negate this simplistic ideology by illustrating that the actions of consumers in popular culture appear to be conditioned by the omnipresence of an artificial image.
Moreover, Bea B. observes that the signs of meaning and contentment that the people in the night club proudly display have all been purchased at massive shopping centers such as the fictitious Monopol. In an affirmation reminiscent of the sinister space Hyperpolis in Les Géants, Bea B. offers the following description of Monopol: “Il vit aussi au centre des villes, et il fait construire de grands édifices de béton et de verre, où l’on doit aller acheter. Il a des foules d’esclaves, habillés tous pareils et qui pensent tous la même chose […] et il donne des ordres à l’armée des flics et des esclaves […] il n’a jamais assez de richesses. Il aime l’or et l’argent” (193-194). Instead of venerating benevolent entities that offer useful services to humanity which allegedly place a life of luxury within our reach, the narrator urges the reader to consider who is deriving the most benefits from our unbridled consumption. Furthermore, the transnational corporations that create the appealing simulations and the models that we aspire to achieve are purely motivated by profits. If a consumer stops to think before purchasing a certain item, this reflective behavior is bad for business. For this reason, the lucrative image must be everywhere and its fantasy structure must never be questioned. The multinational behemoths that now own all major media outlets across the globe have replaced true individuality with simulations of what it means to belong to an artificial social group that has been previously constructed. Given that Bea B. does not even notice marginal differences between the human robots that she observes in the mall or in the club, it appears that Le Clézio is even more skeptical than Baudrillard concerning questions of autonomy and reflections of individuality in consumer republics. As Bruno Thibault summarizes in the context of La Guerre and Les Géants, “Dans ces deux romans, les machines ont remplacé le corps des hommes et les mass media ont remplacé leur pensée” (366). Thibault correctly asserts that the alienated characters of La Guerre and Les Géants have been entirely reduced to automated consumption machines that are no longer capable of independent thought because they live in a world of pure narcissistic reverie.
For Baudrillard and Le Clézio, what a consumer good simulates is even more significant than the object itself. When a client acquires an item, he or she is actually attempting to purchase an idealistic vision of fulfillment and luxury. In other words, possessing all of the latest inventions is to own a part of the good(s) life [As David Walker notes, “The discourse of consumerism is thus metonymic: the customer has access to the totality via the purchase of one part of it” (38)]. Highlighting that shoppers are constantly endeavoring to access a materialistic dream, Root states, “Baudrillard concludes that, thanks to our screens, we live in an age where symbols and actualities are no longer necessarily connected, where life becomes about consuming images, about correlation to un-real (hyper-real) simulations of beauty, wealth, and celebrity […] We then consume these celebrity signs, using these signs to construct meaning-to decide what to wear, how to talk and what is worth caring about” (241). Providing a similar analysis of the grim situation of the disconnected modern subject drowning in a fake ocean of simulacra, Arthur Frank explains, “Consumer society is where signs are taken more seriously than the objects they signify […] For the consumer, the actual object will always be an imitation of the advertisement that initially created that object as a sign” (207). Additionally, Frank underscores that the problematic “Acquisition of these signs of happiness” does not truly provide any lasting sense of contentment or existential meaning (207). Root and Frank highlight the distance between what a customer thinks that he is purchasing and what he is actually obtaining. Given that a fantasy deliberately conceived to urge individuals to buy objects of mass consumption can never be appropriated regardless of how much one buys, the modern subject often feels nothing but emptiness after the initial euphoria quickly fades.
Affirming that the subject has succumbed to the ubiquity of the simulated object linked to an alluring image of success and happiness, Baudrillard declares, “Le miraculé de la consommation lui aussi met en place tout un dispositif d’objets simulacres, de signes caractéristiques du bonheur, et attend ensuite […] que le bonheur se pose […] L’opulence, l’affluence n’est en effet que l’accumulation des signes du bonheur” (27). Since the pervasive influence of marketing through mass media, television, computers, Ipads, Iphones, tablets, and other electronic gadgets has blurred the distinctions between personal and private space, a consumer good has now become a metonymical reflection of a sign. In theory, the key to happiness is to obtain as many simulacra as possible. Yet, this solution proposed by the content of every single advertisement is entirely chimerical.
Elucidating that the realm of seductive images that the subject attempts to procure through consumption is far removed from concrete reality, Baudrillard affirms, “La pratique des signes est toujours ambivalente […] Le réel, nous le consommons par anticipation ou rétrospectivement, de toute façon à distance, distance qui est celle du signe” (30). In this passage, Baudrillard explains that the idealistic portraits of fulfillment that we devour are manipulative depictions of a life of comfort, leisure, and fortune that will forever elude the vast majority of the earth’s inhabitants. Moreover, these signs, which have been fabricated and transmitted by transnational entities to generate record profits thereby ensuring that the wheels of consumption keep turning, are emblematic of an exploitative ideology that has been exported to all corners of the globe. How can a modern subject hope to find happiness inside of an illusory product of the human imagination intentionally designed to deceive the masses? Even for the minuscule percentage of people like Lalla and Laïla that will ever experience this pipe dream for a few ephemeral instants, the ability to amass objects cannot satisfy real human needs such as friendship, love, and a true sense of belonging to a given community. Baudrillard demonstrates that nothing but broken promises and disappointment lie underneath the appealing façade of consumerism.
Inside of Monopol, Bea B. suffers from a constant barrage of enticing signs similar to those described in La Société de Consommation. As the narrator confesses, “Les boutiques illuminés avaient de grandes affiches pour séduire, des affiches qui disaient doucement : ‘Achetez ! Achetez-moi ! Soyez toujours jeune & belle ! C’est extra ! Achetez-moi’” (273). In this passage, it is evident that the cosmetic products to which the narrator refers are selling a seductive image of eternal youth that is far removed from reality. When a client procures these items, he or she is actually purchasing a chimerical fantasy generated by transnational corporations that have attempted to commodify every facet of the human experience.
Cognizant that claims such as eternal youth are preposterous, Bea B. attempts to defend herself from the incessant commercial propaganda that surrounds her. Although Bea B. has yet to lose all of her autonomy in stark contrast to the urban zombies that she observes, her distress continues to mount throughout the novel. As the narrator explains, “Je veux voir la guerre. Je ne suis pas de ces gens qui se cachent au fond de leurs terriers et qui pensent que le monde n’existe plus” (59). However, it becomes increasingly difficult for Bea B. to resist the manipulative and alluring simulacra that seem to be everywhere. Revealing that her personal freedom is quite precarious in such a hostile environment, the narrator asserts, “Elle était un morceau du magasin, une marchandise comme les autres, un article dans le rayon du premier étage. Cela, c’était peut-être la place enfin trouvée au milieu du chaos des siècles et des territoires” (56). The narrator realizes that these commercial signs are attempting to appropriate her very humanity by creating an artificial image of what her life should encompass. Consequently, the reader wonders if Bea B. will ultimately lose this uphill battle. Can the modern subject thrive when his or her entire existence has been objectified and commercialized to such an extent?
Affirming that her ontological sovereignty has been compromised by an elaborate technostructure that endlessly disseminates the same message through various mediums, the narrator elucidates, “Ampoule électrique, dans laquelle j’ai été […] Il n’y a plus de moi, ni de toi, ni de ils, au milieu de l’ampoule électrique […] Peut-être que le monde n’est rien d’autre qu’un réseau de fils et de bobines, avec, çà et là, les petits cylindres des transistors et des condensateurs” (81-83). Momentarily taking the form of a light bulb, Bea B. asserts that there is no escape from the hyper-real atmosphere that has invaded our homes, workplaces, and shopping centers. Moreover, this transformation into a bulb mirrors the profound apprehension of other Leclézian protagonists which appear to be paralyzed by electricity itself. This fear might initially seem irrational or even paranoid, but it should be noted that electricity is what renders the digital worlds in which we reside possible. The author’s reflections about the energy that powers modernity and which now covers the globe are indicative of larger concerns related to the realm of simulacra that epitomizes the modern subject’s problematic search for authenticity and happiness5 .
Furthermore, as Thibault notes in his aforementioned analysis, Bea B.’s body is no longer her own. Her very essence has been reduced to an object of mass consumption. When a customer acquires certain products, he or she is actually purchasing an image of how men and women should define themselves in society. In order to correspond to an ideal of feminine beauty in Western society, women must dress and accessorize in a certain fashion according to pre-fabricated social models. Moreover, it is through lucrative simulacra in which women are encouraged to explore their sexuality. For instance, red lipstick is synonymous with sexual desire and freedom because of the simulations that tell us what qualities are attractive6 . The disconcerting example of Bea B. illustrates the stark reality that perhaps the final frontier or the war to which Le Clézio alludes has now been forever lost. In a world in which ‘reality’ is filtered through digital screens by industry giants, has the modern subject relinquished his soul and entire body to live in a universe of enticing signs? Is it even possible to attain a state of self-actualization or to create a raison d’être in such an artificial, ontological realm?
Noting this same loss of existential identity decried by Baudrillard in La Société de Consommation, Hélène Cherrier and Jeff Murray explain, “Baudrillard argues that market relations are influencing and penetrating ever more areas of life. Domains of society once separated from exchange, such as human relationships, are becoming increasingly defined by exchange values. Consequently, humans and culture are interpreted as thing-like, they are treated as commodities whose fundamental substance is their value on the open market” (519). Cherrier and Murray further elucidate, “In addition to viewing people as things, Baudrillard argues that objects have come to dominate subjects […] since the individual’s sense of identity rests upon having the object […] consumers have become dependent on objects as a source of identity […] the relationship is one of deadness and despair. The object has robbed subjects of their human qualities and capacities” (519-520). Outside of the artificial parameters of pre-existing models intentionally designed to sell a given product, how can the modern subject define himself? How can we avoid getting lost in the proliferation of things or even becoming an object of consumption ourselves? When one’s identity and self-worth are entirely predicated upon what he or she possesses, Baudrillard posits that objects enslave the subject that owns them. This troubling phenomenon explains why Bea B. asks Monsieur X, “Je pourrais te demander QUI SUIS-JE? ” (158).
Highlighting the commercial appropriation of the human body that is at the heart of this identity crisis which has afflicted many victims like Bea B., Baudrillard laments, “Le corps n’est que le plus beau de ces objets psychiquement possédés, manipulés, consommés” (203-204). Although how young men perceive their corporality has been undoubtedly influenced by icons like Agassi, Baudrillard notes that women find themselves in an even more vulnerable situation. As the author reveals, “La beauté est devenue, pour la femme, un impératif absolu, religieux. Être belle n’est plus un effet de nature, ni un surcroit aux qualités morales. C’est la qualité fondamentale, impérative, de celles qui soignent leur visage et leur ligne comme leur âme” (206). Baudrillard observes that women in particular are constantly being targeted and pressured to conform to a stereotypical image of beauty. Additionally, Baudrillard maintains that notions of female attractiveness no longer have any ethical component in superficial, consumer republics. Traditional virtues such as compassion, empathy, and loyalty have been effaced by a compulsive desire to control one’s waist line with the guided assistance of consumer goods designed to help women lose weight.
For both Baudrillard and Le Clézio, the fetishisation of the human body is indicative of a much greater problem. The pervasive influence of consumerism and its hollow values have essentially replaced all other ethical systems. We are living in a period of moral degradation in which market fundamentalism has trumped all other ideologies. The modern subject no longer knows what it means to live a virtuous life. Frivolous consumption has become the “new opiate of the people” (Langman and Morris n.p.). For this reason, Baudrillard and Le Clézio note that shopping centers are the new churches where believers seek spiritual edification and existential meaning. Clients “shop until they drop” in a desperate, misguided effort to fill a void left by the disappearance of humanistic values.
Summarizing the ongoing effects of this crisis, Baudrillard asserts, “Nous sommes au point où la ‘consommation’ saisit toute la vie” (23). Baudrillard further clarifies, “Comme dans le Panthéon romain venaient syncrétiquement coexister les dieux de tous les pays, dans un immense ‘digest,’ ainsi dans notre Super-Shopping Center, qui est notre panthéon à nous, notre Pandémonium, viennent se réunir tous les dieux, ou les démons, de la consommation” (26). In these scathing passages, the author identifies the mall as the modern temple to which most of the world now submissively bows. In these massive commercial spaces, the consumer citizen exercises his or her “bonne foi dans la consommation” (29). If shopping centers are cathedrals as Baudrillard unequivocally suggests, then celebrities are the prophets that preach the simplistic religion of consumption.
In La Guerre, Le Clézio also notes the catastrophic effects of people putting their faith in simulacra. Whereas churches were often located in the center of urban spaces in the past, malls are now strategically placed in the heart of the city. As the narrator elucidates, “La jeune fille qui s’appelait Bea B. regardait l’espèce de temple immense construit au milieu de la ville […] Tout le monde allait vers le temple. On l’avait construit là, exactement au centre de la cité, et les gens obéissaient à son appel” (48-49). Moreover, the author expresses his anxiety related to the fact that the insidious religion of consumerism is at every corner. Frantically trying to flee the world of simulated objects, Bea B. is struck by the following epiphany: “C’étaient les idoles de la guerre, du bruit, du meurtre, enfin révélées aux yeux des hommes. Il n’y avait pas un endroit au monde où on pouvait leur échapper, il n’y avait pas un endroit libre; leurs temples étaient donc partout, leur religion partout” (281). The end of this apocalyptic narrative offers little hope that Bea B. will be able to find any lasting contentment or ontological significance. The signs of despair are written on every wall, screen, and billboard that surrounds her.
In conclusion, in La Société de Consommation and La Guerre, both authors prophetically bear witness to the omnipresence of simulations that were already beginning to replace concrete reality itself as early as the 1970’s. Although these warning signs might have easily been dismissed as exaggerated decades ago, it is difficult to deny that any meaningful distinction between public and private space has been almost entirely effaced. In the world of simulacra in which the vast majority of the earth’s inhabitants now resides, the filtered messages that we devour through our digital screens and myriad of gadgets have alienated us from ourselves and nature7 . Is it even possible to obtain a true state of happiness by consuming an artificial image that corresponds to a pre-existing model of success and opulence that has been created for the sole purpose of generating revenue for transnational giants?
Despite the fact that she often succumbs to the enticing signs all around her in addition to the rather ambivalent ending of the narrative, Bea B. does offer some advice that could represent an invaluable point of departure for the (re)-awakening of the modern subject. However, she also realizes that perhaps it is too late given that her concerns appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Imploring Monsieur X to revolt against the calculated war waged against humanity by the all-encompassing force of simulacra, the narrator declares, “Monsieur X, que fais-tu? Regarde le soleil qui brille sur ton épée de fer! Regarde! Je t’en prie, arrête-toi, et regarde le reflet du soleil sur ton épée. Mais lui ne regarde rien” (123). Unless we all want to become ‘Customer X’ that impulsively purchases whatever he is told to acquire, maybe we should make a more concerted effort to escape the seductive confines of our hyper-real prisons. Do we need to stop and smell the roses more frequently or momentarily contemplate our small place in the larger cosmic forces that created all life forms? Is there still time for the subject to defeat the object and the symbolic fantasies that it represents?
About the Author
Keith Moser is Assistant Professor of French at Mississippi State University. He is the author of J.M.G. Le Clézio: A Concerned Citizen of the Global Village (New York: Lexington Books, 2012), ‘Privileged Moments’ in the Novels and Short Stories of J.M.G. Le Clézio: His Contemporary Development of a Traditional French Literary Device (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2008), and J.M.G. Le Clézio dans la forêt des paradoxes. (co-editor with Bruno Thibault, Paris, France: L’Harmattan, Collection Études transnationales, francophones et comparées, 2012). He has contributed several essays to peer-reviewed publications, such as The International Journal of Francophone Studies, Romance Notes, Dalhousie French Studies, Les Cahiers Le Clézio, Modern Language Review, French Cultural Studies, Janus Head, Sprachkunst, Moderna språk,and The EFL Journal. Although the majority of his research focuses on the Franco-Mauritian author and 2008 Nobel Prize recipient J.M.G. Le Clézio, he has also published material related to Camus, Proust, Sartre, Claude Lanzmann, Michel Serres, Jean Baudrillard, Antonin Artaud, Fatima Besnaci-Lancou, Dalila Kerchouche, Zahia Rahmani, Bruno Doucey, Messaoud Benyoucef, and Driss Chraïbi. Moreover, he organized the first campus visit in the United States for the 2008 Nobel Laureate in Literature, J.M.G. Le Clézio at Mississippi State University from March 28-April 4, 2009.
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1 – Although Le Clézio appears to have shifted to a more moderate point of view concerning technology as evidenced in his Nobel acceptance speech “Dans la forêt des paradoxes” in addition to the recent short story “Barsa, ou Barsaq,” the author has nonetheless remained very skeptical of the inauthentic images of happiness and success that are emblematic of Western society. For a systematic discussion of this literary evolution, see Moser, Keith. J.M.G. Le Clézio: A Concerned Citizen of the Global Village. Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2012.
2 – A term coined by the historian Lizabeth Cohen frequently used by researchers from numerous disciplines to describe the modern world in which consumption is the most important social activity.
3 – In an essay entitled “A la poursuite du sacré en compagnie de J.M.G. Le Clézio,” Antoine Wyss provides the following explanation for this disquieting, mechanical behavior: “Les objets omniprésents, multipliés, variés à l’ infini, n’existent cependant pas pour eux-mêmes […] Ici également se déploie le langage de la publicité conçu pour imposer des comportements stéréotypés, pour induire des automatismes” (51).
4 – Other Leclézian protagonists such as Naja Naja from Voyages de l’autre côté appear to be able to break their ontological shell of being for a few fleeting instants and to transform into another material shape
5 – Explaining what electricity represents in Le Clézio’s early works, Geraldine Mcllwaine underscores, “Electricity is an omnipresent feature of urban life in Le Clézio’s novels […] Electricity is something to be feared, it is the modern day equivalent of the natural element, only it is dangerous, destructive and negative and now it is everywhere […] Electricity is a force that can be used to destroy the individual, as people are incapable of resisting the lure of the electric and neon lights” (130).
6 – As Tim Dant notes, “The fetishisation of the body through makeup and adornment creates a seductive sexuality that is not grounded in real sexuality. It is no more than a sign or simulacrum, a circulation of meaning through which the subject is transformed by sign objects into a fetishised object” (507).
7 – Both authors express their disquieting, dystopian fears related to the destruction of the environment. However, this subject merits a systematic exploration that transcends the limitations of this study.