(continued from Chronicle 286)

As we all know today, Marx’s analysis, brilliant as it was, was simply wrong. The market is not tied by “the iron law of wages” to eking out a “falling rate of profit”; the community, however fragmented and individualized, or rather, precisely because it is fragmented and individualized, evolves a symbolic culture in which its members participate by devoting part of the “surplus” to esthetic and related activities, and, in particular, to communicating with each other through what Jean Baudrillard calls the sign-system of consumption. The central deficiency of Marx’s theory of capitalism is his failure to predict and therefore to analyze the vast expansion of the symbolic exchange-function of the market that gives rise to what we call “consumer society.”

Curiously enough, this phenomenon was first recognized, if not theorized, in a nation that was far from having the most advanced economy of its day. Why is it that France, economically still farther behind England at mid-century than it had been after Napoleon’s defeat, nevertheless became the cultural engine of Europe after 1848, a role it really relinquished only at the end of the Cold War? Clearly although the French economy could not compete with the English, nor subsequently with the German or the American, there was a sharper awareness in France than elsewhere of the implications of maturing bourgeois society. The explanation of this dilemma may be found in the lessons of French political life, whose volatility ended only with the definitive establishment of the Third Republic in 1880.

The demise of the Second Republic in Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état of December 2, 1851 put an end for a generation to the democratic political activity that the liberal bourgeoisie had thought would resolve the economic resentments of market society. The ateliers nationaux were a make-work designed to curb unemployment, an ultimate expression of the illusion that socio-economic problems were above all political, and consequently amenable to political solutions. This illusion had originated with the philosophes and the horrors of the first Revolution had not dispelled it among the republicans, who continued to think on the contrary that its failure was a demonstration that still more revolution was necessary. The failure of the ateliers and the subsequent savagely repressed workers’ uprising of June 1848 led to the breakdown of the alliance between the working class and the liberal bourgeoisie, to whom the coup d’état revealed that they could continue to rule the economy only if they renounced their claim to control the polity.

It is as a result of this lesson that French culture after 1848 reflects an awareness of the displacement of the cultural center, which is to say, the principal locus where resentment is discharged, from the political to the economic, an awareness lacking in the more placid political climate of England, where the opposition among different fractions of the dominant classes could be worked out in Parliament and the dramas of “civil society” expressed in terms of conflicting interests. No English novelist before James and Joyce (neither of whom was English) could comprehend, much less espouse, the radical refusal of the world of action embodied in the novels of Flaubert. Flaubert was not merely the creator of the “art novel,” narration as a beautiful experience of an unbeautiful world; he was the first to write about the société de consommation. The two qualifications are inseparable.

Emma Bovary is typically described as a reader of romantic novels who naively hopes to realize them in life. Romantic novels correspond to the culture of the first stage of market society, in which nostalgia for pre-market relations creates a refuge from the market that not only makes the latter more bearable but promotes success within it, yet has only a marginal effect on the operations of the market itself. By contrast, in consumer society the market is driven by the need to co-opt non- and even anti-market forces. Emma is not content to read old novels; she subscribes to a fashion magazine and lets the sinister boutiquier Lheureux inveigle her into overspending her husband’s income. When she is contemplating what will become an adulterous horseback ride with Rodolphe, what makes up her mind for her is the prospect of acquiring a riding-habit (L’amazone la décida.) The nascent consumer society of Emma’s day does not yet possess an established universe of purchasable product-signs; Emma’s symbolic acquisitions serve rather to insert her symbolically into an older, precommercial universe of aristocratic pursuits. But this behavior brings out all the more clearly a universal characteristic of consumer society: its paradoxical affirmation by means of the market of values inaccessible to market exchange, whose entry into the market takes the form of a surplus: the priceless always costs a little more.

Emma, as we know, never attains “the real thing,” as exemplified by her failure to get to Paris. But the “real thing” in Flaubert is such only with respect to those who desire it. In Madame Bovary there is just enough distance between Charles and the Marquis de la Vaubyessard to lend pathos to Emma’s quest; in his later novel L’éducation sentimentale, social differences are no longer a source of envy–for the reader, at any rate–so that there is no equivalent in the later novel to Emma’s “commodity fetishism.” It is nonetheless not without significance that the dénouement of the hero’s personal drama occurs at the auction of the furnishings of the woman whom he loves because she incarnates for him the bourgeois ideal. Where Emma was ready to create a new reality from consumption, Frédéric’s adventure ends when he sees that his image of unmarketable purity is composed of mere commodities.

That the history of market society might be best told in terms of the sign-system of consumption would have seemed absurd to Marx and Engels, whose theory can be taken as a scientific demonstration that such a system could have no autonomous existence. Yet subsequent history has made it clear, to most of us at least, that the early stage of capitalism in which something like the “iron law” did apply is not full-fledged market society; the latter only comes about when the surplus is sufficient for the population at large to exchange not mere goods but product-signs. Although the exchange of goods and services takes place in private transactions whose cumulative effect determines supply and demand but creates no common bond among the members of the community, the exchange of signs of consumption is in principle public; people can see what each other are consuming. This exchange constitutes a new mode, essential to mature market society, of recycling resentment into the exchange system.

Let me suggest a division of the history of market society into stages with respect to the development of the symbolic function of consumption. In the first stage, that described by Marx and Engels, this function affected, or was perceived as affecting, only the wealthy; the resentments of the masses were taken into account only as subject matter for exhortatory literary and political texts, such as those of Victor Hugo. In the second, the age of Madame Bovary, goods begin to be marketed that compensate for the resentments of the middle classes. The scenes with Léon in the Rouen hotel in the third part of the novel epitomize the creation, at one’s own expense, of a private nest or haven to shield oneself from everyday mediocrity; we could also cite Baudelaire’s “Invitation au voyage.” This kind of consumerism is already driven by an artisanal form of advertising, exemplified by the blandishments of Lheureux or the contents of Emma’s fashion magazines. Everyday secular consumption can no longer be equated with the satisfaction of appetites in a ritually-established symbolic context; its most significant aspect, which increases in importance, is the satisfaction of desire, whose mimetic nature lends itself to advertising that can augment desire indefinitely.

Madame Bovary is characterized by a geographical linearity (Yonville -> Rouen -> Paris) analogous to the economic linearity theorized by Thorstein Veblen in his Theory of the Leisure Class. The notion of “conspicuous consumption” implies that the competition between consumers takes place in a single forum and that each knows who has “won”; the potlatch has been incorporated symbolically into the market system. In this model, those who, like Emma, are lower on the scale can only imitate their “betters”; they lack sufficient degrees of freedom to establish mimetic values of their own. At this time, the egalitarian Judeo-Christian virtues that so exercised Nietzsche influenced the market only negatively, through moralizing and denunciation.

Mature consumer society comes into its own only after WWII. The usual explanation for its expansion is the new affluence of post-war America and subsequently Western Europe and Japan, but the “affluent society” is not independent of the victimary tendency that defines the postwar or “postmodern” era. Consumerism is only weakly hierarchical; it is above all pluralistic and esthetically rather than materially based: the point is to make oneself into an object of mimetic desire by bringing together a number of attractive elements in a single “beautiful” package. The most striking change in consumption in the postwar era is, however, one not usually related to the domination of victimary thinking: the rise of the youth culture, which remains with us today and which if anything seems to grow continually younger as the decades go by. (Cf. Harry Potter.)

The first serious article I ever published, in the Cahiers internationaux de sociologie, was an analysis of postwar youth culture in what might be called neo-Marxist terms. Consumer culture had always stood on the margin of the market, and not coincidentally was most often associated with women, that is, those members of the bourgeoisie whose productive activities were confined to the domestic economy, from Emma Bovary to the wives of the wealthy whom Veblen designates as the chief exhibitors of their husbands’ wealth. Nevertheless, women and men belonged to the same economic world; the difference in their consumptive behavior, still in evidence today, may best be described as a phenomenon of the division of labor, as Veblen’s analysis makes clear. The postwar youth culture constitutes an important watershed in the semiotic system of consumption that, thirty years after the article just mentioned, I shall attempt to situate within a generative-anthropological perspective.

The substance of my analysis was that, in contrast to traditional popular culture, associated with the productive forces of the society, the postwar youth culture is a culture of consumers who have not (yet) joined the market and ostensibly reject its values. This is perhaps clearest in popular music; the traditional love-song, so to speak a symbolic marriage proposal, is replaced by a more or less orgiastic celebration of adolescent energy, sexual or otherwise. Instead of recuperating the conflicts of sexual desire for the benefit of the social order, rock ’n’ roll seeks release through the paroxysm of quasi-ritualized violence.

Culture in the broadest sense is everything that belongs to the phrase “the deferral of violence through representation.” I am not suggesting that the postwar youth culture offers, even implicitly, a challenge to this formulation. The adolescent revolt is not a genuine rebellion; knowing that daddy and mommy are there to protect you allows one the expression of revolutionary sentiments without having to shoulder the burdens of revolution–or any burdens whatsoever. The youthful consumer is no doubt a future producer, but the youth culture prepares him for an adult role in the productive sector only to the extent that it provides him with an outlet for his resentment during his pre-productive years. This is quite different from the role played by popular culture before the war. It is precisely youth’s temporary status in the margin of adulthood that makes it culturally dominant in the postwar era; this marginality supports the adolescent’s victimary claims while at the same time reassuring the world that victimage, like youth itself, is only a passing phase.

Superficially, the youth culture is a revolt against the consumerism that the young see typified by their parents (cf. Mike Nichols’ The Graduate [1967]). But outside of what was always a small minority even in the heyday of communes and ashrams, the instruments of this rebellion are consumer goods. Lenin thought that the capitalists would sell the communists the rope to hang them with, but the capitalists have had the last laugh by selling the would-be revolutionaries a symbolic substitute for revolution. In One-Dimensional Man, a 1964 book now largely forgotten but quite influential in 1968, Herbert Marcuse referred to this phenomenon as “repressive tolerance.” As the clearest statement of “1968” ideology, Marcuse’s theorization for adults of youth-dominated postwar culture marks the transition between Marxism and more recent identity-based modes of resentment against the market system.

The youth culture, both reassuring and disquieting, provides a paradigm for the evolution of market society. On the one hand, as Marcuse’s despair shows, it is a tribute to the pervasiveness of the market and its values that not merely internal maladjustments but its wholesale rejection can be transformed into marketable commodities. On the other hand, that this very despair could be so successfully communicated to those who had occasioned it is a demonstration that no exchange system is closed on itself. The resentments generated on the scenic periphery where exchange takes place can be deferred only by the common affirmation of the sacred center, not discharged within the exchange process itself. An exchange system that has freed itself from the eternal retour of ritual sacrifice is necessarily engaged in a continuous fuite en avant, mitigating one set of resentments only to generate others. The realization of this fact (whose dates may be situated between the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11/2001) is incompatible with the victimary thinking of the postwar/post-modern/consumerist era, and may therefore be said to mark the beginning of a new, post-millennial age.

The political paradigm of the postwar era, in reaction to the horrors occasioned by the Nazi doctrine of racial superiority, was the delegitimation of de jure hierarchies based on “ascriptive” or permanent, externally visible traits such as nationality and skin color, to which were later added gender and sexual orientation. Colonies disappeared, racial segregation and apartheid were ended, women were given a place in the professional workplace, and so on. The active mechanism in these developments was the legitimation of resentment. The resentments of those ascriptive groups that could be classified as  “underrepresented” were cultivated and the traditional ritual and esthetic means of deferral discredited or subverted. In these collectively legitimized cases, resentment was considered in itself proof of discrimination. Whatever the justifiability of the real conditions that aroused it, resentment gives prima facie (but not definitive) evidence of injustice; resentment is the human means for detecting interpersonal asymmetries, just as our sense of pain detects harmful imbalances in our internal or external environment.

The youth culture, as one would expect from a vital cultural mode, was a step ahead of the integrationist thrust of the civil rights movement; white youth, as they still do today, identified culturally with blacks not as integrated into a color-blind society but as outsiders of the status quo. Indeed, it is the vitality created by the cultural identification at first of the working class and then of “youth” with African American popular culture that best explains American culture’s unequaled exportability.

The potential danger of the postmodern cultural model is that the gap opened up by the fuite en avant may be filled by something more dangerous than rebellious adolescents. The more the average member of society is able to define himself through the exchange of product-signs, thereby in effect neutralizing him as a creator of culture, the more culture at the fringes must exaggerate its irreversibility–for example, in the self-mutilations characteristic of “performance art”–in order to counter the pervasive sense that everything is reversible, fungible, exchangeable. The extreme response to this frustration is terrorism, particularly the self-immolatory kind, so popular today, that is the ultimate act of resentment. In liberal democracy, the very “fairness” of the market-cum-political system pushes its enemies to extreme positions. No system is “fair” enough to make everyone happy with his fate; it is difficult enough to separate being happy from enjoying the misery of others without being expected to abolish this misery as well.

The great socio-political problem of the 21st century will surely be the integration into the market system of those who reject it and who, not being able to leave it, can express their rejection only by having recourse to violence that putatively demonstrates its failure. More specifically, anti-market resentment denounces what it sees as the victimary centrality of the market by focusing on a subset of those whom the system appears to favor and who are designated as its masters. The archetype of this operation is modern antisemitism, which singles out Jews as the putative Subjects of the market who can be held responsible when the exchange process does not go as one likes. It is no coincidence that today the United States, which dominates the global economy, is insistently associated with Israel in hostile political speech (that of Bin Laden comes to mind), so much so that one would like to invent a new term (“antisemericanism”?) for the combination of these two hatreds.

This situation suggests a few concluding theses.

  1. The end of the victimary era is the beginning of a “new maturity” in which the automatic denigration of the center and its authority is no longer seen as appropriate. We are entering what my colleague Raoul Eshelman calls a “performatist” age in which each person acknowledges his desire for centrality and attempts to persuade others by “performing” this centrality. We increasingly foreground our attempts to (re)create ourselves as esthetic objects for the contemplation and mimetic attraction of others. The unexpectedly enduring activities of body piercing and other “body modifications” make the body into the locus of an esthetic; unlike previous modes of dress and hairdo, they involve a somatic commitment to semiosis. In the context of a weak collectivity, individuals are forced to reinvent their own initiation rites.
  2. If the postmodern era was defined against the Holocaust, the exemplar of victimization that must not be repeated, it has also been marked by the recourse to terrorism in ultimate defense of “the victim.” The contemporary revival of antisemitism within a movement that began as its antidote is an important indication that the victimary paradigm that dominated the postmodern era is no longer viable; we can no longer rely on resentment as a proof of victimary status. The ethic that follows from this demands respect for immediate as well as ultimate ethical values. The end cannot justify the means; in particular, terrorism must be condemned regardless of the “oppression” it claims to oppose.
  3. Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the crux (in every sense of the term) of the post-millennial world. If the two parties can find a way to make peace, a by-product of which will be the integration of a new Arab country into the global economy, this achievement will serve as a beacon to the world in its attempt to resolve the great problem of the 21st century.