Livin the American Dream

I was relieved to hear Professor Moon say that this week’s reading would be the most difficult all semester. Marx and Baudrillard’s theories on consumerism weren’t exactly easy bedside reading. I guess it does make sense to lay a foundation in theory for this course and then further explore the topic. Consumerism is the study of the consumption of commodity goods. We will be exploring the history of the American economy, focusing on key words such as gift, barter, need, want, and capitalism.

First, we tackled Marx‘s, “The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret”. Marx reflected on humans’ irrational obsession with commodities. He explores the concept of value. Use value, says Marx, is the utility or function of a commodity. Exchange value, on the other hand, is determined by the effort put into an object. With these two factors in mind, society consents to assign value to objects. This process, as mentioned before, is often irrational. This is where Marx’s theory of “fetishism” develops. Borrowing ideas from religion and the devotion to religious objects, Marx says that fetish objects are commodities that aren’t inherently valuable, yet society for one reason or another assigns them value. Continuing with the religious metaphor, Marx says that commodities obtaining value is in a sense “mystical”. Last summer, when I was studying in Italy, I purchased a beautiful wooden rosary from the church of St. Francis in Assisi. Although these wooden beads were simple and to some people, have no use value, I shelled out 20 euros for them. I didn’t pay so much for this rosary because it was inherently more useful than any other rosary I could buy, but rather because it was from the hometown of St. Francis. When society assigns value to an object, it is not based on its usefulness or inherent worth. Rather, it’s value is determined by its “fetish” quality. The determinance of value occurs at the moment of exchange.

Jean Baudrillard‘s essay, “The Ideological Genesis of Needs”, echoes a similar theme. This French theorist turned to psychology to explain capitalist phenomenon, or, the systems of symbols. Baudrillard focuses on three types of value: use value (functionality), exchange value, and most importantly, sign value. Sign value represents symbolic exchange. This dictates capitalism. Like Marx, Baudrillard believed in the mystical power that assigns value to objects. Instead of fetish, Baudrillard uses the term mana. Mana is a vital force that binds us to all things. It is the spiritual otherness that exists in all objects separate from its use value that assigns it exchange value. Baudrillard focuses a lot on the social psychology behind consumerism. According to Baudrillard, the scale of status dictates what people consume based on their social position in society. What someone purchases dictates their taste. One’s taste reflects their class or status. Baudrillard also refrences Veblen, a Norwegian economist, in his theory about leisure. Leisure is not inherently useful, but those who can afford it do so to show others that they can. This is called conspicuous leisure. Finally, Baudrillard explores the contrast between want and need. Primary needs are for survival – you NEED food and water before seeing these objects because they are essential to survival. This is the opposite of how consumerism works. People see objects and WANT to buy them. Wants are driven by the market rather than human inclinations.

Reflecting on all of that makes it a little easier to digest and understand. All of us in class could relate to the mystical quality that some objects, such as Madden 2009 or Crocs possess. The market tells us we need things, although these are in actuality wants. Now that we have all that theory under our belt, it will be fun to see how it is reflected in American society in the 20th century.

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