November 17, 2005

Commodity fetishism, Sign-value, and Seduction

[In capitalist societies] it is only the definite social relationships of men themselves, which in their eyes takes on the phantasmagorial form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world, the products of the human mind appear as independent beings endowed with life, as entering into independent relations both with one another and the human race. The same way are in the world of commodities the products of men’s hands. This I call the fetishism which is attached to the products of labor, as soon as they are produced as commodities, and which therefore is inseparable from the production of commodities. Marx(10)
This section shows how similar the structure of Marx’s diagnosis of commodity fetishism is to Feuerbach’s critique of religious belief as outlined in The Essence of Christianity (11). There Feuerbach argues that religious convictions merely represent unfulfilled human desires. We create idols in order to bestow them with powers, we do not possess. The subsequent religious belief is an expression of the powers one has attributed to the idols. Marx picks up on this motif and constructs his description along the lines of a form of naturalizing anthropology. (12) The important difference between the religious and the commodity oriented model seems to be, that in the latter the appearance is a result of a process of production rather than a thought process. Marx presents a moral criticism of the state of illusion that is connected to the form of fetishism of the commodity that we have analyzed. It is bad
  • (1) because it is a manipulation of people’s minds and it functions
  • (2) in order to stabilize the structures that allow other people to enlarge profits. by Mario Wenning
On Baudrillard's analysis, advertising, packaging, display, fashion, "emancipated" sexuality, mass media and culture, and the proliferation of commodities multiplied the quantity of signs and spectacles, and produced a proliferation of sign-value. Henceforth, Baudrillard claims, commodities are not merely to be characterized by use-value and exchange value, as in Marx's theory of the commodity, but sign-value — the expression and mark of style, prestige, luxury, power, and so on — becomes an increasingly important part of the commodity and consumption. This position was influenced by Veblen's notion of "conspicuous consumption" and display of commodities analyzed in his Theory of the Leisure Class that Baudrillard argued has become extended to everyone in the consumer society. For Baudrillard, the entire society is organized around consumption and display of commodities through which individuals gain prestige, identity, and standing. In this system, the more prestigious one's commodities (houses, cars, clothes, and so on), the higher one's standing in the realm of sign value. Thus, just as words take on meaning according to their position in a differential system of language, so sign values take on meaning according to their place in a differential system of prestige and status.
Baudrillard interprets seduction primarily as a ritual and game with its own rules, charms, snares, and lures. Seduction does not undermine, subvert, or transform existing social relations or institutions, but is a soft alternative, a play with appearances, and a game with feminism, a provocation that provoked a sharp critical response.[6] Baudrillard's concept of seduction is idiosyncratic and involves games with signs which set up seduction as an aristocratic "order of sign and ritual" in contrast to the bourgeois ideal of production, while advocating artifice, appearance, play, and challenge against the deadly serious labor of production. His writing mutates at this point into a neo-aristocratic aestheticism dedicated to stylized modes of thought and writing, which present a set of categories — reversibility, the challenge, the duel, — that move Baudrillard's thought toward a form of aristocratic aestheticism and metaphysics. Stanford

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