How can we decrease the commodification of these empty signifiers? We can continue to build spaces, both virtual and material, that can be utilized by people who share common goals. We can continue to evolve as people and avoid over-identification with easy to replicate symbols of identity. Our interests and digital footprint aren’t who we are. We mustn’t let the map of our identities — personal or social — become the territory. But the border skirmishes on that map are never ending.
This is far from easy. Products themselves have become secondary, as symbols have overtaken the things they symbolized. Fight Club parodied this tendency as the “Ikea nesting impulse.” This is a challenge of modern life, but it’s hardly a singular observation. Guy Debord’sSociety of The Spectacle, now a standard text amongst neo-Marxists and counterculturists alike, deals with this matter in nearly aphoristic style,
The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of being into having. The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy leads to a generalized sliding of having into appearing, from which all actual “having” must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function. At the same time all individual reality has become social reality directly dependent on social power and shaped by it. It is allowed to appear only to the extent that it is not.We live in a culture where appearances count for a lot more than reality, and so it is little surprise that we may have a hard time actually making this distinction. We are what we seem. When Ludwig Feuerbach wrote the introduction to the 2nd edition of his The Essence of Christianity, he was speaking to Hegel and Marx’s world, the rapidly industrializing 19th century. But he may as well have been speaking of the present,
But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence … illusion only is sacred, truth profane.Symbols of success matters more than the things they represent. The symbol becomes the value, rather than the thing signified. The sports car, the expensive watch, the designer suit are all, from a utilitarian perspective, equally or even less valuable than items half their cost. Though luxury items such as these are said to cost more because of increased craftsmanship – which may well be true – the customer is still buying them because they are symbols of wealth and success. To have either of these on their own is not enough; the symbols are of greater value. We are performing wealth at one another. Though this seems harmless enough in itself, a common indulgence of the upper class, it is the same mis-match of value (weighing the symbol over what is represented) that characterizes the ennui of our lives. Nihilist Arby’s quite simply wouldn’t make sense as a joke if we didn’t grasp this on an implicit level.
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