Day 30: Baudrillard and Alienation


I have been writing a lot about Baudrillard lately (in my dissertation, that is) and felt the need to just reiterate one more time that he actually said some pretty important things. It seems as though Baudrillard has two simulated public personae: first, the hero of cultural studies and PoMo hipsters, who still think it is the shit to experiment with the idea of reality in order to appear smart (acting as thought the ultimate horizon of Baudrillard’s work was to make people go “woooh, that is sooo trippy!”), and second, the so-called enemy of traditional Marxists, since he attacked the idea of false needs that lies at the heart of traditional Marxist definitions of alienation and ideology, which, when considered from a rigorous theoretical angle is nothing more than the knee-jerk reaction of orthodox Marxism opposed to rethinking its own system (which is what Marxism is supposed to be famous for), which is precisely why orthodox Marxism has such problems describing the present situation accurately (luckily, there are many very smart non-orthodox Marxists out there who do amazing work–not Laclau and Mouffe, however!).

In order to do some reconstructive surgery on Baudrillard’s public persona I would just like to share with you his theory of contemporary alienation, which, I think, can be extended in very interesting ways in relation to descriptions of “affective labor.”

“Free to be oneself” in fact means: free to project one’s desires onto produced goods. “Free to enjoy life” means: free to regress and to be irrational, and thus adapt to a certain social organization and production. (…) The goal is to allow the drives that were previously blocked by mental determinants (instances) (taboo, superego, guilt) to crystallize onto objects, concrete determinants where the explosive force of desire is annulled and the ritual repressive function of social organization is materialized. The freedom of existence that pits the individual against society is dangerous. But the freedom to possess is harmless, since it enters the game without knowing it. (…) The ideology of personal fulfillment, the triumphant illogicality of drives cleansed of guilt (deculpabilisees), is nothing more than a tremendous endeavour to materialize the superego. It is a censor, first of all, that is “personalized” in the object. (…) This could possibly be a definition of the specific form of contemporary alienation: in the process of consumption internal conflicts or “deep drives” are mobilized and alienated in the same way as labor power is in the process of production.”

First: I did it again. I changed the font and have no idea how to reverse it. Second: I believe this to be a definition of alienation that has dramatic implications when discussing productive processes within an immaterial economy based upon information exchange, forcefully challenging Jameson’s assertion that theories of alienation do not apply to the postmodern condition. Two literary works I just wrote about that in different ways illustrate the force of Baudrillard’s argument are Ellis’ American Psycho and, how else could it be, Pattern Recognition. More on that, however, at a later point. I have to keep this short again today, as I have lots of writing left to do, but I promise to also post something in the future on the significance of this definition of alienation in times of immaterial labor.


  1. And of course there is also the third simulated persona of Baudrillard – namely of those who detest him because he’s the guru of those PoMo hipsters. I often fall into the trap of dismissing Baudrillard to soon.

    The quote you presented reconciles me because it seems to be echoing Adorno for me (but remember, I see Adorno in anything;-):

    Emphatische Differenzierungen wie die von A- und B-Filmen oder von Geschichten in Magazinen verschiedener Preislagen gehen nicht sowohl aus der Sache her vor, als daß sie der Klassifikation, Organisation und Erfassung der
    Konsumenten dienen.

    In a similar way, the desires which are projected onto consumer goods are preformed, prefabricated, and freedom an illusion.

    Whilst trying to get the concept of contemporary alienation right: Could one say that
    a) contemporary consumption is a form of regression (because it celebrates the drives, not the super-ego or the negotiated position of the id)
    b) desiring consumerism’s objects is not seen as an act of regression (thanks to the current forms of social organization and reproduction, i.e. instant gratification through exchange of money)
    c) the current form of alienation is achieved through shifting the mode form superego control to celebration of drives

    ??? Not sure whether this is an accurate interpretation of the piece above.

    The part where I am making up most is probably c – it triggers thoughts of all those wellness disciples who are getting on my nerves big time these days. You know, this people who are constantly afraid that they might “not be doing enough for themselves”, “Ich muss mir häufiger was gutes tun”, “Ich muss mehr für mich tun”. Interestingly enough, they feel gratified or think that they’ve achieved their goal of self-improvement, if they book a wellness weekend or go out for dinner at a posh place.

    I don’t think that any of this is necessary for self-improvement, but my ideas of self-improvement have very strong superego connotations (self-discipline, sublimation, restraint), whereas the wellness people seem to be after instant gratification (regression?) above all.

    Does any of this make sense to you?

  2. ARF!

    a) contemporary consumption is a form of regression (because it celebrates the drives, not the super-ego or the negotiated position of the _I_
    b) desiring consumerism’s objects is, CONTRARY TO A, not SEEN as an act of regression (thanks to the current forms of social organization and reproduction, i.e. instant gratification through exchange of money)
    c) the current form of alienation is achieved through shifting the mode form superego control to celebration of drives

  3. […] any clearer, I’d like to wait for a response from Jetsam on my response to his most recent Baudrillard post (don’t feel pushed into anything […]

  4. Hi there. So sorry this took so long, but I am in the middle of a lot of writing. The Adorno example is actually a perfect segway. I put it in very similar terms in my dissertation, meaning that the distinction between Adorno’s discussion of difference and, say, Baudrillard’s lets us gain deeper insight into the workings of contemporary capitalism and its supporting ideology.

    So: Adorno writes,
    “the permanent compulsion to produce new effects which yet remain bound to he old schema, becoming additional rules, merely in creases the power of the tradition which the individual seeks to escape. Every phenomenon is by now so thoroughly imprinted by the schema that nothing can occur that does not bear in advance the trace of the jargon, that is not seen at first glance to be approved.”

    “This promise of the work of art to create truth by impressing its unique contours on the socially transmitted forms is as necessary as it is hypocritical. By claiming to anticipate fulfillment through their aesthetic derivatives, it posits the real forms of the existing order as absolute. To this extent the claims of art are always also ideology.”

    and finally:
    “Anyone who resists can survive only by being incorporated. Once registered as diverging from the culture industry, they belong to it as the land reformer does to capitalism.”

    Why this whole mass of quotations? Well, as you rightly say, in Adorno’s description the subject’s relation to art is one mediated by an inreasingly hegemonic system of inclusion that saturates possibilities for thinking, well, even something as simple as popular movies. Aesthetic forms become part of a larger agenda and are pressed into pre-existing, recognizable forms in order to function within the limits of an ideological system. The joy we often feel when watching movies, as described by Adorno, is the joy that we feel a certain degree of control, since we are so familiar with the basic structures of e.g. cinema. Point here being that the form of alienation described by Adorno is one of containment–the outside becomes repressively drawn into the inside and thus becomes subject to the forces of regulation and equalization Adorno describes.

    Today, however, the situation works quite differently. We have to note that the forces of centralized containment correspond precisely to the rigidity of Fordist capitalism, precisely built upon the existence of centralized mechanisms of determination and regulation. During the major economic crises of the 60s and 70s, however, capitalism was,as is now well known, forced to abandon the Fordist structure and transition into a situation of deregulation, as Fordist rigidity contradicted precisely the world we transitioned into after the abolition of the Bretton-Woods agreement in 1973. I.e. what used to be the logic of the previous system (i.e. rigidity and centralized regulation) became the polar opposite of the way contemporary capitalism functions (now, we have to note that, as R. Williams suggests, not social force is always completely dominant in any historical moment, so there are still what is being referred to as “Fordist peripheries,” but the general logic of society moves into one of deregulation and the precise abolition of the central mechanisms of regulation that characterized Fordism). Now, no mode of production can exist without creating forms of subjectivity and social norms that support it. Consequently, the form of subjectivity that supports post-Fordism is the very subject postmodern theory describes as liberating: the decentered subject.

    What, however, does all this mean for alienation? You say quite correctly that it is a question of the abolition of the superego. The superego is precisely thy symbol of the sum total of centrally policing structures that identified Fordist rule. The idea has always been that the erasure of the superego, which limits access to enjoyment, would be the way to gain total freedom and total enjoyment. One of the interesting things contemporary capitalism illustrates with its increasing dismanlintg of the superego in a society in which marginalization per se and transgression does not exist any more (i.e. transgression is not a possibility for resistance as much as it is a productive impulse for consumer capitalist innovation, however not leading to sameness as described by Adorno, but to a new form of totalitarian difference within a decentralized network) is that this idea of enjoyment via reaching its object is logically false. Zizek describes this as the paradox of desire: the point of desire is not to reach its object, but to perpetually replicate itself. I.e. post-Fordism’s structure of erasing the margin as structurally connected to the superego, of erasing the superego itself in the attempt to celebrate difference as a productive force of instability that generates innovation and surplus value in an increasingly decentralized economy, is not perceived as liberating, but, on the contrary, as on a libidinal level quite totalitarian.

    Alienation as described by Baudrillard thus precisely identifies the “freedom” the drives gain within this structure, however, a freedom directed at the production of innivation, which remains infinitely tied to the ever-expanding network of immaterial productin, knowledge-exchange etc. The subject becomes thus alienated from her affective production, which forms a large part oft the economy (see Youtube, Myspace, blogs, the NIN marketing strategy, or Cayce Pollard’s problem in _Pattern Recognition_).

    I might not have made this as clear as I wanted to, so please feel free to ask follow-ups–I am just in a hurry to get back to my writing. =) cheers

  5. Thanks for taking the time for this long reply, it is very much appreciated!

    I must admit that I have hitherto been unaware/neglected the distinction between Fordism/Post-Fordism – it actually came to me as a surprise to read that Fordism was a system of regulation and control (sounding almost socialist; I could have guessed from the name though, thinking assembly line).

    [Just a note on the side: I guess that Adorno would have rejected this distinction as another attempt to cloud the workings of ideological control – by which I mean to say that the situation that Adorno described has maybe _not_ changed, its just different obstructions and systems of retainment]

    I’ll come back with some thought on immaterial production, yet need to turn to Pattern recognition first and then the bed (P.R.: like it a lot, but tend to be a bit irritated by the explicit use of Baudrillard for beginners – e.g. the line that said that Hilfiger was the simulacrum of the simulacrum of the simulacrum.)



  6. Dear Jetsam

    please ignore my last post for the time being – after having had a chat with Greg about this, one can probably concede that the notion of post-Fordism, Jameson or not, is largely ignored in Europe, so I cannot contribute much too that.

    But we also sat down today with a printed copy of this thread to discuss it (your blog is making waves already;-)

    I know you are very busy at the moment, so don’t feel obliged to answer while other things have a higher priority for you at the moment.

    Both of us got stuck at two particular points, the first one being about the materialization of the ego – maybe we’re just missing the (…) ellipses to makes sense of it (do you have a reference?)

    But let me backtrack to the first bit where we were struggling:

    (…) The ideology of personal fulfillment, the triumphant illogicality of drives cleansed of guilt (deculpabilisees), is nothing more than a tremendous endeavour to materialize the superego. It is a censor, first of all, that is “personalized” in the object. (…) This

    The question: If the superego has been annulled/abolished, how/why can it reemerge as a censor (personalized in the object)?

    Do you maybe have an example how that could work?

    That is probably already related to the next question:

    Alienation as described by Baudrillard thus precisely identifies the “freedom” the drives gain within this structure, however, a freedom directed at the production of innovation, which remains infinitely tied to the ever-expanding network of immaterial productiin, knowledge-exchange etc. The subject becomes thus alienated from her affective production, which forms a large part oft the economy (see Youtube, Myspace, blogs, the NIN marketing strategy, or Cayce Pollard’s problem in _Pattern Recognition_).

    Question: We didn’t quite get the full consequence/meaning of

    a) the production of innovation – what form of innovation
    b) affective production

    Are these two terms the same? If the the drives are released because of the abolition of the superego (and because of their annulment in the from of consumption/consumer goods), then how can this at the same time spawn immaterial production?

    And a completely different notion on the side: How is the related to the phenomenology of the digital, which – in my view – was a prerequisite for the separation of knowledge from concrete objects?

    Hope we are not asking too much at this time.

    Alright, gotta hurry to get some food at the supermarket, had another half liter of goat milk on Monday, but this time it was rather funky, making the corners of my mouth itch. Maybe the first one was just exceptionally fresh….

  7. […] I wouldn’t have dug him up from the sediments of my memory nor have been receptive to other folks’ writing about him. If you look at the phenomenology of Twitter, you’ll soon find out that it takes on the form […]

  8. Hi there–I am so, so sorry that I have not yet found the time to respond. My life is truly crazy at the moment. I promise to get right to this after I have turned in the 3 million pages of writing that are due today/tomorrow. I hope to be able to write a substantial response by tonight.
    Just this much: the Fordism/post-Fordism distinction is actually a Europan product and is quite popular among radical economists. It is not very well-known in the US and mainstream theorists have not touched it (apart from Harvey). Journals such as _Capital and Class_ as well as _Marxism Today_ are the main media that have been estblished by these theorists to provide an outlet for their writings. This line of economic analysis is especially popular in Germany, France and England.
    See, for example, the gigantic body of similar work produced by the Krisisgruppe.

  9. Oh! I must have had a complete blank there – but yesterday stumbled upon a website on digital Fordism. Must fill that gap some time.

    It’s always a pleasure to read you on this blog, but the PhD comes first!

    Kraft und Energie derweil!

  10. Ok, so here some thoughts on Baudrillard and his applicability in respect to contemporary capitalism:

    you write: “The question: If the superego has been annulled/abolished, how/why can it reemerge as a censor (personalized in the object)?”

    Maybe a good way to think about this would be in terms of the split between public and private sphere. The traditional superego bridges precisely these two elements (wich is why I think that the distinction between pleasure principle and reality principle actually still has more critical rigor than the Habermassian split, as Freud focuses on what is ultimately important: consciousness). In other words, the superego is the mediator between individual impulses and public discourse. It is responsible for processes of socialization that lead to a dialectical form of consciousness. In Hegelian words, what Baudrillard describes is the end of the dialectic due to consumer capitalism, where the superego as a structuring principle for society is removed from the private sphere (i.e. it is no longer the possible for capitalism to operate upon centralized mechanisms of regulation and repression, the principles that characterized the previous capitalist stage) and is absorbed and therefore contained in the rampant individualism of the private shpere. There it works again as a censor, but this time as a censor that is not the basis for a dialectical process of socialization, but rather a personaized and individualized training program within which the individual desires that drive capitalism are constructed. It is thus singularly the liberation of the drive, of individual desire, not of the individual proper, that characterizes the “freedom” of neoliberal capitalism. It is not an overall, social freedom, as the social dimension is increasingly deconstructed (and not just as part of the logic of privatization and the deconstruction of the state, even though this could serve as one material example). What Baudrillard thus wants to criticize are the ways in which contemporary capitalism operates upon the level of desire, which is the truly productive force in an increasingly immaterial economy. Hence the liberation of drives equals not only the dismantling of society and dialectical forms of developing consciousness, but also equals the individualization of society, however an individualization in a post-Foucauldian sense (i.e. individualization is no longer connected to Foucauldian categorization for the purpose of classification and surveillance–these strategies have become entirely obsolete in contemporary capitalism, as well as contemporary society–as you will see in Cayce Pollard’s case: surveillance is not something new, it is just how stuff is done at the moment–it is the dominant logic–however it is not meant to have a repressive, but a liberating/productive effect–it is encouraging).
    Ok, granted, this may be more my own theory taken from my dissertation that Baudrillard’s own words, but I think that this is precisely the ways Baudrillard’s logic worked back then and is in slightly altered form can work to describe the present situation, which essentially is characterized by an acceleration of the trends Baudrillard points out.

  11. Oh–I will put up a post on affective labor tomorrow as a separate strand.

  12. You’re back amongst the living:-)

    Will print this and get back – the first about the trainings camp already made sense to my flimsy mind, just need to go about a couple of classroom preparations first.

    Looking forward the affective labour strand. Am still reading PR (Greg read it in one day; I think I enjoy it to much to want to read it quickly) and find the tension that builds up almost unbearable at points. But I am just very receptive to fictional stimuli, so that’s normal.

  13. Hiya!
    I’ll post the affective labor thing in a little while–gotta finish some writing first. Glad to hear you’re enjoying _PR_!

  14. […] I just don’t get around to write them down. I also need to answer a couple of comments still (Baudrillard in particular, and read about Capitalism 3.0 and learn about the different epochs of American […]

  15. AFter having taken some time off, I’ve have now finally returned to this thread – which confirms for me that computer-mediated, written communication, even if written, is more like the spoken word. It’s like trying to continue a heated discussion that you had an enjoyed two weeks later. Most of the time one doesn’t get any further that just mention what one thought should still be mentioned. But the flame has gone a bit cold. Trying to rekindle it!

    The split between public and private sphere is definitely one of the trademarks of computer-mediated society (I put that on the list of my To-Considers for my PhD proposal – still not sure whether I am going to submit it or not, but if I do, it’d have to happen soon). Having read your post, I suppose that one can say the same of the postmodern society (they coincide anyway, but are they the same? To be explored). Something written in the privacy of the HCI (human computer interface) seems to be oddly ‘not public’, at least not in the sense that this type of publicity would imply the opposite of privacy. I blog about the most personal things that would have caused a huge fight between my mom and I as a kid had I ever gotten to know that she’d read it. Not intended for her! But these days, any stranger is most welcome to. I am very picky about the real life people with whom I share my blog address – but the VR stranger, engaging in comments, is most welcome…

    But let’s forget that for the moment.

    Turning back to JB.

    I very much like this idea of the training programme – it pinpoints exactly what has been puzzling me about present society/culture. Today I stood at a station 30 km away from here, gazing at the teenagers that loitered there, set against the backdrop of the rising mountains (thought of taking a photograph for you, but my cellphone camera is not good enough). I’ve often said to myself how glad I was that I am already my age:-) And when it comes to education and raising children, I would say the most important thing is to allow them to become immune towards the incentives to partake in the training programme. I do admire my uncle and his wife in that respect, who is a fairly ‘old’ father (50 kids, 3 and 7). They don’t have a TV, I don’t know anyone who devotes more quality time to their children (it wouldn’t be called that here though;-) and they have started to teach them to play instruments and made sure they engage in theatre plays etc. very early. The aim of such an anti-programme that I have in mind would be to give children something to allow them to develop a personality that is so rich and multi-facetted that they’d become immune towards the instant gratifications the consumer culture has to offer.

    Which also means that I believe that – consumer culture or not – there is an innate desire within each of mankind to develop, to engage in what you called the dialectical process of socialisation, to become ‘ a human’.

    I’ve wrote such things before – I really am a humanist through and through. And an optimist, surprisingly, when I look at the power of education. A pessimist, again, when I look at the masses, e.g. those teenagers clad in their ridiculous collection of fashion items … moon boots, bizarre beanies, low riders with hips springing up above the waistband, boys, exposing their underwear, identical manga hairstyles, cell phones glued to their ear or held in their hand, playing identical nonsensical and little edifying tunes, cigarette in mouth… the people I’ll teach in three years if I don’t get out of here soon!

  16. Yep, I completely agree. Of course, this is where it would from a Baudrillard-angle get tricky, since he would argue that even the very idea of humanity, or of humanism is not something we develop out of a vacuum, it is not an instinct, but rather a product of endless iterations of what our society thinks proper humanism looks like–hence for him this impulse would remain entirely contained within the limits of the network of symbolic signifiers that overwrite each and every part of our existence. I.e. even the idea of humanism must be considered to be simulated, thus part of the hyperreal.

    Whatever the actual critical force and ideological purchase of this argument, it seems to point to me at an interesting and enduring question: what is the value of assuming that there are true needs, a correct form of consciousness and a space exterior to the hyperreal we can return to? Is there any political value in this? Does this logic not always run the risk of necessitating vanguard politics? Does opposing this kind of “return to the real” idea truly have to result in a form of hopelessness and political inactivity?
    questions, questions, …

    P.S.: yes, this is the good old argument that made Baudrillard rather unpopular with traditional Marxism. He suggested that Marxism might not be the opposite of capitalism any more. From all of our recent discussion this is actually a statement that can purely as an heuristic be used to produce some interesting insights. Also, it seems to me to be at least partially true–especially dogmatic Marxism, or its various perverted forms one encounters in certain political groups falls exactly into the group to which B’s criticism is applicable. There is, however, great stuff in Marx’s own writings that make logically a very similar argument and are incredibly important for an accurate account of contemporary capitalism. Sadly, oftentimes Marxists are strangely so hostile to changing their analytical system (something Marx always emphasized must be the case) that they do not see the radical sections on change and the sections that directly apply to our present context (i.e. on capitalism and instability) that are contained in Marx’s work.

  17. Just to clarify: I would, if pressed, identify myself as a Marxist. I am, however, quite opposed to the tendency within this school to angage i territorial pissings in order to defend concepts that only do onw thing: hold back the progress of an actual critique of capitalism (as has historically always been he case–the left splinters up and hinders its own project–see the Spanish Civil War, or _Life of Brian_). One such fight that bugs me is the fight between “Marxism” and “post-Marxism.” It is strangely racial in its logic: you can be one and not the other. Even worse, you can be contaminated! People are scared to use the wrong theoretical reference in the wrong context, because one quotation from Baudrillard might make you a post-Marxist (virus logic, or in fact the equivalent to the “one-drop-rule”). Marx himself would not be very happy to see this, since his own strategy was to take whatever is valuable from all existing systems of theory to create an accurate account of the social and economic dimnensions of capitalism. I am simply saying that we would be well–served to rediscover this strategy as a virtue, hence my willingness to engage with Baudrillard and use whatever I find valuable in his writings–even if opposes Marxism. I just find it important to be willing to perpetually question Marxism itself and with that precisely follow Marx’s argument–I do question the value of considering Marxism to be an identity category people attach too much affect to–that creates all kinds of additional problems we do not need.

    **this has been a communicee by the Judean People’s Front**

  18. just to further clarify: the message above as a quick explanatory note addressed to some hostile supposedly lefty-revolutionary messages I have gotten that try to keep widening the old and boring assumed trench between Marx (whom they clearly have not read enough) and Baudrillard. I have chosen not to post these messages due to their tone. Also, and please remember this, because it may be the opposite of what your teachers have told you thus far: there are, indeed, stupid answers to some questions. What makes them stupid is that they do not help us resolve anything here–in fact they are the very enemy of the dialectic (read Marx on regressive thought and regressive historical movements, which he considers to be anti-dialectical tragedies). I simply refuse to let this thread deteriorate into an accumulation of hissy-fits about party politics that only serve the purpose of defending the respective party’s name without having ANY critical insight into what theoretical baggage and responsibility some of these names carry with them. Sorry, but this is the enemy of actual progressive, critical thought–save these discussions for your next appearance at anti-Bush protests where you can wear your respective party-outfits and continue the tradition of using these protests to fight more amongst each other than against Bush.
    Feel free to send me e-mails. I might discuss things with you that way. But I will not post such rants on this blog.

    P.S.: and please, PLEASE, do not ever quote contemporary punk-rock lyrics to me again in the stead of making an actual theoretical argument. I promise, I will find you and smack you upside the head with a copy of Green Day’s _Tour Diary_ I will for that purpose buy at Wal Mart.

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