Role of Advertising, Pt. III

Clyde Davenport (clyde@BUS.HIROSHIMA-PU.AC.JP)
Mon, 11 Mar 1996 18:22:34 +0900

"Competition has widely shifted on to the level of images: now image
fights image, incurring a drain on the national economy that runs into
billions." (Haug, p. 31).

In the case of the U.S., 6.5 billion dollars was spent on advertising in
1950, 40 billion dollars in 1970, and 56 billion dollars in 1980 (which is
more than the amount of money spent on education) (_Critical Theory,
Marxism and Modernity_, Douglas Kellner, Johns Hopkins University Press,
1989, p.165). The vast amount of money spent on advertising is an obvious
point of criticism, but I think that Haug's passage somehow suggests a more
profound interpretation: it is not that this money could somehow be more
usefully spent on other areas of human life (a use value interpretation),
but rather that the vast sums of money spent represent in a very crude but
graphic way the unbelievable scope of this process of the circulation and
recirculation of images.

"This point [where the world of the commodities breaks from reality] has
long been passed in the illusory realm of commodity aesthetics, which does
not mean however that the commodities no longer have any use-value at all:
but that they really provide almost nothing of what they promise
aesthetically." (p. 35)

And we can expect that the use of computers will intensify this whole
process, although this is of course an obvious point with all the hype
about virtual reality and cyber-space.

"With the aid of examples, we can now investigate and at least outline how
and in what form human sensuality is moulded by commodity aesthetics, how
sensuality for its part reacts to this, and how human need and instinct
structures are altered under the impact of a continuously changing prospect
of satisfaction offered by commodities. Before this, however, we need to
consider one particular aspect of human domination over nature--the
domination of and arbitrary and unlimited illusory reproducibility of
nature's appearance. But what we have called here the technocracy of
sensuality means more than this kind of domination. It means domination
over people that is effected through their fascination with technologically
produced artificial appearances." (p. 45)

Here what Haug is saying is similar to the point Williamson made that ads
create an artificial world of "the natural."

"The individuals whom capital conditions to be either its functionaries,
capitalists themselves, or its wage labourers, share, at least formally, a
common instinctual fate in spite of their radical differences: their
sensual immediacy must be disrupted and rendered absolutely controllable."
(p. 47)

Here Haug is talking about something that in an earlier Marxism was called
alienation. However, alienation is still a concept that is tied to a
modernist notion of individuals. Can, though, "individuals" who have lost
their sensual immediacy (both in terms of themselves and the world) really
be thought to have any sort of existence? One question, though, which Haug
does not answer is who it is that is doing the controlling in such a case.
The answer is obvious, though: no one. The system itself does the
controlling through a kind of homeostatic process (corporations are after
all not people, or even groups of people, but rather semi-autonomous
entities that capitalist culture has spawned).

"The illusion one falls for is like a mirror in which one see's one's
desires and believes them to be real. The people, as in monopoly
capitalist society, are faced with a commodity world of attractive and
seductive illusion and here, despite the outrageous deception, something
very strange occurs, the dynamics of which are greatly underestimated. An
innumerable series of images are forced upon the individual, like mirrors,
seemingly empathetic and totally credible, which bring their secrets to the
surface and display them there. In these images, people are continually
shown the unfulfilled aspects of their existence. The illusion ingratiates
itself, promising satisfaction: it reads desires in one's eyes, and brings
them to the surface of the commodity. While the illusion with which
commodities present themselves to the gaze, gives the people a sense of
meaningfulness, it provides them with a language to interpret their
existence and the world. Any other world, different from that provided by
the commodities, is almost no longer accessible to them.
"How can people behave, or change themselves, when continually
presented with a collection of dream-images that have been taken from them?
How can people change when they continue to get what they want, but only
in the form of a illusion?" (p. 52)

There is little for me to add to Haug's account of the commodification
process here as a process of surreptitious substitution. One point I could
make, though, is that it seems to me that commodification at a
phenomenological level (phenomenology as the study of the structure of
consciousness in its concrete experience of the life-world) involves the
colonization of the mode of "dreaming" as well as the extension of the mode
of "eating" (as "consuming," rather than its religious sense of "receiving
a gift") to all realms of life.

"The suppression of instincts plus the simultaneous illusory
satisfaction of instincts tend towards a general sexualization of the human
condition, called by Max Scheler *Gehirnsinnlichkeit* or 'sensuality on the
brain'. The response of the commodities is to reflect sexual images from
all sides. Here it is not the sexual object which takes on the commodity
form, but the tendency of all objects of use in commodity-form to assume a
sexual form to some extent. That is, the sensual need and the means by
which it is satisfied are rendered non-specific." (p. 55)

Ray Scupin's example of the crude ad for a hamburger joint in St. Louis
(his 3/1/96 contribution to Anthro-list) shows this process of the
commodity taking on a sexual form clearly (as well as perhaps a general
fusion of sex/commodity/eating). In a similar context Baudrillard says:
"Sexuality does not vanish in sublimation, repression and morality. It
vanishes more effectively in what is more sexual than sex: pornography.
The hypersexual is the contemporary of the hyperreal" (_Jean Baudrillard:
Selected Writings_, Mark Poster, ed., Stanford University Press, 1988, p.
188, from his 1983 work _Les Strategies fatales_)

"The general sexualization of commodities has also included people. It
provides an outlet for expressing previously suppressed sexual urges.
Adolescents, most of all, make use of this possibility, and their demand
generates a further supply. With the help of new fashions it is possible
to advertise oneself as, above all, a sexual being." (p. 56)

"The body on whose behalf all this advertising is happening, adopts
the compulsory traits of a brand-name product; in the same way, it is not
the body itself but the effective advertising image which is being
promoted." (p. 83)

The logic of commodification does not simply mean that we desire illusory
things; rather we also become signs in this process of the loss of meaning
in becoming advertisements ourselves: the object as commodity (the
product) has no concrete existence just as the commodity as subject (the
body) has no concrete meaning.

"Without discrimination, commodity aesthetics smiles invitingly on
everyone, the soul of the commodity being as ingratiating as it is
promiscuous. To stimulate desire in every possible way as commodity
aesthetics does indiscriminately, 'by prostituting [the] body to the lust
of another' [quote from Marx], as the commodity does, can only make sense
from the standpoint of exchange-value. Whoever buys such commodities,
which in effect advertise the body, prostitutes their appearance, packages
their sexual attributes into something that can be bought, and offers them
to anyone who merely looks at them." (p. 86)

While some may object to the use of the word "prostitute" in the above
passage [since our image of the prototypical prostitute is a woman,
although in fact there are also male prostitutes], I think the meaning of
what Haug is communicating is quite clear through the metaphoric use of
this word: sex becomes not a means of communication, or the expression of
real desire, but an advertisement. We advertise ourselves as sexual
objects through commodities (or more subtly we commodify our bodies). As
an aside, a cross-cultural exploration of the history of prostitution
(prostitution as sex for sale vs. "prostitution" as a religious activity
which seems to be its origins) would be quite illuminating. When does it
first arise? What changes does it undergo in the various stages of
capitalism? A related issue, too, would be pornography, of current
interest because of its ubiquity on the internet.

Here, I believe I have offered enough quotes from Haug to give the reader a
good idea of what his notion of commodity aesthetics mean. Haug's views
are important because he brings together elements which are most often
treated separately by social theorists: sexuality (or more broadly
sensuality and the body), advertising and commodification. And personally
I find his account of the commodification process to be persuasive. Thus, I
cannot agree with John McCreery when he states that advertising merely
reproduces the terms established in our cultures through which we "think,
dream, fantasize and, sometimes even practice, sex." Rather, I believe
following Haug and others that the colonization of sexuality (as well as
sensuality in general) is an essential feature of modern (or postmodern

Before concluding this contribution to the list, I would like to briefly
examine one common critique of critical theories which treat the process of
commodification in a global fashion. Let us look at Kellner's previously
cited work.

"Commodities are thus conceptualized as alluring sirens whose symbolic
qualities and values seduce the consumer into purchase and consumption.
Commodity fetishism and false needs, then, supposedly enchain willing
consumers into the institutions, practices and values of consumer
"There is, however, a latent Manichaeism and puritanism in this
perspective. Commodities and consumption are negatively presented, simply
as means of class domination, and the model also assumes a magical,
diabolical power on the part of capital to create false needs which it is
then able to manipulate in its own interest. It assumes that if
individuals submit to (bad) consumption, they are weak malleable and
deficient as human beings precisely the puritanical attitude toward sex and
pleasure. . . .
" . . . To begin, we need to break with totalizing and homogenizing
theories which take a monolithic, puritanical view of consumption, and
instead acknowledge that commodities can be what Marx described as 'objects
of enjoyment and activity', as well as instruments of social integration
and manipulation. We need a more discriminating perspective which
differentiates between artificial and real needs, useful and useless
commodities, and nonfulfilling and life-enhancing consumption." (pp.

That a puritanical element exists in the thinking of some members of the
Frankfurt School is undeniable, particularly their elitist conception of
the superiority of high art over mass culture. What the charge of
"puritanism," though does is to hide the fact that the world of the
"commodity" and more concretely the corporation is also a "puritanical"
world. Lears made this point in terms of the influence of the managerial
approach on early corporations, and its appearance in advertising.
Regarding sexuality and the body, while apparently no complete theory
exists of the mutations with which sexuality and sensuality underwent with
capitalism, I think we can tentatively say that early capitalism (in the
West, at least; Japan may be different in this sense although there are
some "puritanical" elements to the Confucian tradition) was directly
puritanical in outlook (Weber's thesis), but in its modern moment it
allowed images of the body and sexuality to slip back in (although as
transformed commodified images). However, even in the modern moment there
is a tension between the managerial mentality of cold efficiency and the
sleek (but also ultimately cold) images of sensuality. In the postmodern
phase of capitalism, total fusion of sensuality, science, and the commodity
is achieved, a kind of "puritanical" liberation, a "heaven" on earth.

Of course, and I think Kellner is indirectly making this point, what has to
be remembered is that capital's domination of our lives is not total.
While precapitalist modes of experiencing the world have been seriously
compromised, capitalism itself displays an unevenness. If some sectors of
capitalism have already achieved the postmodern moment (or probably more
accurately are approaching it, for example personal computers still handle
video and sound information rather clumsily and so will not for some time
replace TV), others are stuck in the modernist moment, and needless to say
small businesses do exist. The problem is that the logic of the system is
to proceed to ever greater levels of commodification (small businesses get
more and more difficult to profitably maintain, and monopoly-style
companies are merged into transnationals which themselves grow ever bigger,
for example in the publishing/entertainment field--as an aside, why should
anyone really be surprised that Cambridge University Press should behave
like a corporation when it comes to publishing books, a commodity even in
the case of scholarly works).

It is obvious that "we need a more discriminating perspective which
differentiates between artificial and real needs, useful and useless
commodities, and nonfulfilling and life-enhancing consumption" as Kellner
suggests, and the precapitalist standpoint from which we can make the above
differentiations, although compromised, still exists. What the problem is,
though, is that capitalism never stops to rest to give us time to make
these differentiations, and destroys their relevance even if we do make
them (for example, I am personally nostalgic about the loss of singing and
dancing as non-commodified modes of being in the world, and have even gone
so far as to begin to develop a perspective which will be able to
differentiate their pure from their commodified forms: but what of it?
What actually changes if I do this?). It is for this sort of reason, that
I feel that a more overtly political theory of commodification is
necessary. This kind of theory, though, need not imply, as John McCreery
fears, the necessity of "dictating to others what they should and should
not be consuming," rather such a theory would be about how we decide
*together* as societies what goods will be produced and how they will be
allocated. Limits to consumption exist (particularly for manufactured
items) and we must collectively recognize these limits and work out fairly
and impartially how distribution will proceed. This will no doubt be
difficult socially (for example, think of the impossibility of everyone on
the planet owning a car), but difficulty in no way means it can't be done.
What has to happen, first, though is for advertising to end in its role as
the mediator of consumption, and for corporations to be denied the
"freedom" (why should corporations have "human" rights when they are not
human?) to take upon themselves the decisions concerning what products are
good (or not good) to produce and distribute in society. In other words
people should mediate their own consumption and choose the kind of products
which will be produced. The specter of state planning need not be invoked
here: what I am thinking of is local planning, giving communities back the
right to control their own affairs (something which is taken away from them
in both capitalism and communism).

John McCreery also states in regard to commodification that "to assert that
mystification is at work one has to assume a third-party perspective." In
other words, one has to be able to step outside the commodification process
in order to be able to see it. And he is right that in a sense postmodern
philosophers like Baudrillard do not allow us this ability since they say
that there is no escape from the commodity since it is fused in a semiotic
synthesis with the sign. However, a Marxist (or Hegelian) would have no
difficulty in replying to this problem because this third-party kind of
perspective can be achieved dialectically. Personally, though, I find the
dialectical method to be too rigid and mechanical, and am anyways turned
off by the Marxist idea that the conquest of nature is a "natural" human
goal (and the related idea that "communism" can only be achieved after
going through the stage of "capitalism"). To me, "communism" as much as
"capitalism" is part of the problem, although I am willing to use the
language for the study of commodification which Marxist scholars developed
for the simple reason that it is apt. There is another solution to the
third-party problem, though. And that is not to go forward, but to go
back. We must return home (the original meaning of "nostalgia") to the
life-world of a non-commodified world of real communication. Habermas's
thought moves in this general direction, although for him the going back
only extends to a recovery of the enlightenment tradition of modernity.
This perhaps is too limited of an approach, and it has opened him up to
criticism from feminists (more on this later, but here let me also say that
the enlightenment tradition of modernity is a European one, and thus I feel
it is inappropriate to universalize it). To my mind, though, one meaning
of "going back" is to recover pre-capitalist ways of experiencing, and
communicating with, the world through things like stories, song, dance,
eating and growing delicious food, having meaningful sex and family lives,
etc. This is its aesthetic dimension. In regard to the problem of what to
do with the superstructure of scientific thought and technological
inventions, it is not a matter of either throwing all this away or leaving
it exactly as it is, as the charge of Luddite is meant to imply. Rather it
is the harmonizing of these edifices of science and technology with what
gives them meaning, human life in the context of the living environment.
At present, science and technology both follow the
rationalization/commodification logic of late capitalism. What is
necessary is for these endeavors to be decoupled from this logic and
instead recover their human meaning.

In saying the above, I am basically following Bookchin (see his _The
Ecology of Freedom: the Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy_, Black
Rose Books, 1991). He clearly states that the three "tools" which humans
devised for achieving freedom, reason, science and technics, have been
transformed into their opposites in capitalist (or communist) society:
"rationalism, a cold logic for the sophisticated manipulation of human
beings and nature," "scientism, an ideology for viewing the world as an
ethically neutral, essentially mechanical body to be manipulated," and
"modern technology, an armamentarium of vastly powerful instruments for
asserting the authority of a technically trained, largely bureaucratic
elite" (p. 268). Perhaps there are points on which Bookchin's theory needs
to be improved (some people object to his privileging of human experience
over that of other life forms), but I believe the general thrust of his
work is correct in pointing out that we must return our sensibilities to
the world of nature: we must "evoke nature as the source of an objectively
grounded ethics," here nature in the sense of "a nature interpreted
nonhiearchically, in terms of unity in diversity and spontaneity" (p.
274). He also quite correctly points out that there is one very concrete
way in which we all have a most concrete type of access to the effects of
our industrial/bureaucratic type of society. This is in the destruction of
our shared ecological environment (p. 273). The destruction of our natural
environment also I feel shows something else, too. This is that the
commodification process has reached global proportions. And in this
context I would like to say that those critics who dismiss the idea that
commodification can become a total social process (and object to the use of
totalizing language in theories attempting to explain the total social
phenomenon of commodification, etc.) have only to look at the condition of
global environment to see how their conception of the impossibility of
totalization may indeed be "dead" wrong.

I will end with a quote from Baudrillard, on the subject of waste, which
perhaps is a relevant one in anthropology since one of its subfields,
archeology, can be considered in a sense as the study of things which
people throw away.

"The worst of it is that, in the course of this universal recycling of
waste, which has become our historic task, the human race is beginning to
produce itself as waste-product, to carry out this work of waste disposal
on itself. What is worst is not that we are submerged by the
waste-products of industrial and urban concentration, but that *we
ourselves are transformed into residues*. Nature--the natural world--is
becoming residual, insignificant, an encumbrance, and we do not know how to
dispose of it. By producing highly centralized structures, highly
developed urban, industrial and technical systems, by remorselessly
condensing down programs, functions and models, we are transforming all the
rest into waste, residues, useless relics. By putting the higher functions
in orbit, we are transforming the planet itself into a waste-product, a
marginal territory, a peripheral space. Building a motorway, a hypermarket
or a metropolis automatically means transforming all that surrounds it into
a desert. Creating ultrarapid communication networks immediately means
transforming human exchange into a residue. . . ." (_The Illusion of the
End, Jean Baudrillard, Stanford University Press, 1994, p. 78)

Well, I have not quite finished yet as just as I was about to send this off
to Anthro-list, John McCreery sent the following which I would like to
briefly comment upon.

At 11:14 PM 96.3.9 +0900, John McCreery wrote:
>Kalex Griffin asks,
>"What is the validity of the various views presented by Jean
>Baudrillard in terms of his conclusions as to contemporary forms of
>"culture," their ethnographic "presentation," and his "conclusions"
>derived from his constructs of reality?"
>My own response is conditioned(1) by a failed attempt to read
>_Seduction_, which I find too vertiginous to entice me beyond the first
>few pages, and (2) _Forget Baudrillard?_, a fascinating collection of essays
>edited by Chris Rojek and Bryan S. Turner. I quote from the introduction:
So far so good, although it is usually considered a good academic practice
to read more than a few pages of someone's work before one starts
criticizing them. We have to admire, though, John McCreery's (ironic)
"honesty" in saying he is using only secondary sources. Oddly, though, is
this kind of honesty not in itself a form of postmodernism, and thus does
it not represents a victory of what could be called the unrepressed?

>"A recent review of one of Baudrillard's most important books,
>_Seduction_, illustrates the difficulty of commenting upon his work. The
>review, written by one of the shrewdest analysts of Baudrillard's oeuvre,
>begins by ocnveying the right air of gravitas. Baudrillard is described as a
>'subtle,' 'powerful' thinker. His work is considered to be at the cutting
>edge of social and cultural theory. However, quick quickly the reviewer is
>also driven to observe that many of Baudrillard's arguments are
>'ludicrous'; and that his manner of presentation is often 'maladroit'. Yet
>the conclusion that one would predict from these serious criticisms is
>absent. We are _not_ invited to reject Baudrillard....'Unsatisfactory as it
>obviously is,' writes Mike Gane (1992:184)--the reviewer in question--
>'unclassifiable as it is, it nevertheless throws up disturbing quesitons
>which will be dismissed only with a bad conscience.'"

Here the reviewer is debating whether to treat Baudrillard as a postmodern
stylist, or a postmodern philosopher with an important message. He ends up
tentatively treating Baudrillard as a philosopher.
>I hazard, then, the suggestion that validity not the issue in deciding
>whether or not to forget Baudrillard. It is, instead, what makes the
>questions his work throws up so, almost literally, nauseating.
Here like the reviewer in question with Baudrillard, I have a problem in
deciding whether John McCreery is just an interesting stylist (using skills
he has honed as both an academic and a copywriter) without a message, or
whether he is making a meaningful contribution to evaluating the
significance of Baudrillard. "Throwing up," however, could be conceived of
as one kind of authentic response to the over-consumption prevalent in
modern (or postmodern) society. I will, thus, give John McCreery the
benefit of the doubt.

>In the opening pages of seduction Baudrillard fantasizes a world in which
>the central issue of economics--the allocation of scarce resources--no
>longer has any relevance--a world in which any and all desires can be
>satisfied instantly. Here, in particular, is a world in which sex is totally
>polymorphous. Perversity is not an issue. The dissolution of patriarchy
>has not produced a reversal of male and female, with the feminine now
>the dominant principle. Gender has disappeared, taking with it the
>baggage of repression that makes sexual satisfaction a rare and precious
>commodity. What form is left, then, for social interaction? Baudrillard
>says "seduction." Here, however, seduction is no longer an instrumental
>technique for securing scarce sexual goods. It is, instead, a game played
>with artificial signs that have no meaning either in or beyond themselves.
>The game is only a pseudolife, but when it is over, the players are dead.

Here John McCreery summarizes what others have summarized about
Baudrillard. What he has written seems accurate perhaps, although I have
only one exerpt from _Seduction_ printed in the previously cited _Selected
Writings_ to guide me. One criticism I could make here, though, is that
John McCreery does not contextualize the comments of Baudrilliard on
seduction with Baudrillard's theory of commodification. If one
contextualizes Baudrillard's views on seduction, I think they become easier
to understand and more relevant. The signs have been emptied of meaning in
their fusion with the commodity form, and seduction has been transformed
from a perlocutionary act parasitizing real sexual needs into a postmodern
phenomena of the seduction of the image, which is actually not about sex at
>The obvious objection is that the world that Baudrillard describes is, after
>all, a fantasy. Economic scarcity and sexual repression are facts of life for
>people everywhere. Just suppose, however, that both were magically
>eliminated. In a world of perfect freedom and equality....what would we be
>left with?

Here we have a different John McCreery than the one who seemed to imply
that the world of advertising only reduplicated the freedom we have to
explore the various cultural ways of thinking about and practicing
sexuality. A more conservative voice emerges. Concerning his latter
question, I think again he fails to contextualize the work of Baudrillard.
To me, what Baudrillard is saying is that in the postmodern condition the
elimination of economic scarcity and sexual repression does not bring about
any real liberation. In the postmodern world, in fact, there is even less
freedom and equality. I would agree with John McCreery, though, that
Baudrillard provides us with no way out of this condition.