Frankfurt School Theories of Consumer Culture

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It would, though, be wrong to assume that all members of the Frankfurt School agree that consumer culture has totally captured the consciousness of the individual.  First, consciousness cannot be totally integrated in a society in which contradictions have not been reconciled (Huyssen 1975, p. 10).  Second, the consciousness of consumers is split between the fun being supplied to them and recurring doubt about its cost (Adorno 1975, p. 134).  Consumers participate in their own deception; it is in some sense chosen.  “[T]hey force their eyes shut and voice approval, in a kind of self loathing, for which is meted out to them, knowing full well the purpose for which it is manufactured” (Adorno 1975, p. 132).  This process is not hidden but fully transparent to consumers so that they have the simultaneous perception of their desire for an incapacitating culture industry and self-loathing as a result of their desire.  Without admitting it, they “sense that their lives would be intolerable” as soon as they “abandoned the satisfactions that are none at all” (Adorno 1975, p. 132).

Adorno argues that the culture industry is characterized by repression rather than sublimation.  Marcuse, however, argues that all modern society is characterized by repressive desublimation.  Repressive desublimation describes the process whereby consumer culture whips up libidinal energy only to put it in the service of consumer culture.

Marcuse rejects the assumptions of Freudian analysis even as he utilizes Freudian concepts to analyze the modern American psyche.  Freudian analysis is obsolete, according to Marcuse, because it presupposes an individual ego in conflict with an authority (such as society or the family).  This conflict is, in fact, the basis of the superego.  Specifically, Freud assumes that the family is the unit of socialization.  The individual develops in conflict with the father and eventually by identifying with him.[1]  Now, Marcuse argues, institutions socialize the individual directly.  The mass media, peer groups, school and, we might add, Lasch’s “helping professions” are all now more responsible for subject formation than is the family.  Now, Marcuse argues, individuals identify directly with society; its leaders become surrogate fathers.  While this eliminates the conflict between the individual and the father, as well as that between the individual and society, it also produces conformity and weak egos.

Marcuse argues that advanced industrial society absorbs all opposition.  Efficiency becomes the only end and technology and scientific rationality the only means.  Arguments about moral and critical ends lose their persuasiveness precisely as the individual loses his capacity for critical judgments.  Even worse, critical judgement becomes unnecessary because, as material abundance increases, power no longer has to be legitimated.  Marcuse thus finds the origins of fascism not in the irrational authority of the family but rather in the “totally administered society” that will bring the “end of the individual” in herdlike conformity.

The body, Marcuse argues, remains as the only source of energy that cannot be totally reconciled to modern industrial society.  However, modern industrial society makes use of the body through repressive desublimation.  Repressive desublimation, the whipping up of libidinal energies, can only be satisfied by the further enslavement of the individual.  Subsequent members of the Frankfurt School, Haug in particular, have argued that human sensuality is itself molded by commodity aesthetics (see Haug 1986).  Domination is achieved through the cultivation of a fascination with artificial appearances.   Commodity aesthetics captures people’s sensuality such that they are dominated through the image of the commodity rather than through the commodity itself.

There are three interrelated criticisms of the Frankfurt School’s analysis of the culture industry that concern me here.  First, although the critique is in the service of democracy, many have argued that it is anti-democratic.  The distinction between high and low, or between art and popular culture, requires constant policing by the critic.  Adorno’s analysis reproduces the distinction between reproductive and productive labor in the distinction between popular culture and heroic creative art.  The decline of heroic culture and the rise of the culture industry signifies the feminization of culture.  Lowenthal quotes Nietzsche to illustrate the pernicious effect of the culture industry; in mass culture “artists flatter women, sufferers and indignant folk” (Nietzsche quoted in Lowenthal 1989, p. 189).

Second, as we have seen, the critique offered by Marcuse, Lowenthal, and Adorno is informed by nostalgia for the autonomous, adult personality that is displaced.  But the existence of this adult personality is presumed rather than demonstrated.  Lowenthal states, “[w]e wish to know whether the consumption of popular culture really presupposed a human being with preadult traits or whether modern man has a spilt personality: half mutilated child and half standardized adult” (Lowenthal 1989, p. 197).  The existence of a mutilated bourgeois ego is presumed and so the limitations of that ego and the costs of its production remain uninvestigated.

Third, Adorno and Horkheimer in particular assume that the promotion and exploitation of ego-weakness gains a foothold among powerless members of society; it moves from periphery to core.  Minorities, women, children, and adolescents lead the way into the culture industry because of their weak egos.  They are most vulnerable to control by the culture industry.  The solution to the destruction of the autonomous person by the culture industry for most members of Frankfurt School was thus to strengthen egos; they propose shoring up the ego weakness that the culture industry exploits and exacerbates.  However, when the Frankfurt School suggests strengthening egos to develop critical individuals they are not suggesting strengthening the egos of the vulnerable.  The nostalgia for the bourgeois ego thus leads to the conclusion that the only way to strengthen egos, without also strengthening advanced industrial society, is to strengthen the “father,” or the patriarchal role.  It is, though, unclear how the patriarchal role is to be strengthened beyond merely empowering individual fathers.

Contemporary Critical Theory

Contemporary critical theory often, as I shall argue presently, also responds to consumer society with calls to revive paternal authority.  David Harvey and Fredric Jameson, for example, seek to overcome the disarming impact of consumer culture by rearming a particular version of criticism.  Indeed, when Harvey and Jameson’s accounts of postmodernism are read in the context of the Frankfurt School diagnosis of consumer society, it is difficult to tell what is new about the postmodern condition, for both Harvey and Jameson describe postmodernism as an intensification and extension of the processes described by the Frankfurt School.

Harvey and Jameson offer two of the most influential recent evaluations of consumer culture, which they both call “postmodern.”  Consumer culture signals for both the triumph of investment capitalism, while postmodernism signals the abandonment of oppositional critique by social theorists.  Jameson claims that “modernism entailed a critique of the commodity and an attempt to transcend it; postmodernism is the consumption of commodification as a process” (Jameson 1999, p. X).  Postmodernism, as well as the loss of distinction between high and low culture that accompanies it, signals the end of the semi-autonomy of culture.  All culture is now mass culture; all culture is commodified because there has been an expansion of culture until everything is in some respect “cultural” (Jameson 1991, p. 48).  Rather than mass culture threatening high culture from below, Jameson and Harvey agree with the Frankfurt School that mass culture is the intentional homogenization and integration from above; it is the culture of corporate power.

David Harvey’s work is influenced by Henri Lefebvre, as well as by the Frankfurt School.  Following Lefebvre, Harvey replaces the traditional Marxist emphasis on history and production with an emphasis on space and consumption.  Harvey argues that consumption is now as transformative of social space as is production.  The “modern,” according to Harvey, is an era when space was organized and reorganized in terms of production, while the “postmodern” is the era when social space is organized around consumption.  Yet Lefebvre makes no such distinction; capitalist societies, he argues, have always organized space and hence social institutions around consumption.  Lefebvre refers to capitalist societies as “societies of controlled consumption” (see Lefebvre 1971).  The organization of space by and for consumption, according to both Lefebvre and Harvey, is significant.  They argue that the spaces we inhabit and negotiate reflect as well as constitute human relations and human desires.  In Harvey’s work there is the sense that this process is accelerating, or qualitatively different, in the contemporary or “postmodern” era.  Lefebvre, conversely, argues that the ability to constitute spaces of normalizing consumption is the original quality of post World War-II era capitalist societies.  Lefebvre, therefore, may be he first theorist of postmodern consumption.

Lefebvre provides insight as to why the commodification of everyday life, the organization of space, and its domination by images of consumption might lead to the penetration of capital into the psyche, as both Harvey and Jameson argue.  The society of controlled consumption, according to Lefebvre, turns everyday life into an object to be manipulated through the conscious exploitation of consumption.  A society organized around consumption accomplishes what the society organized around work could not: the total control of everyday life.

Everyday life – the commute to work, opening mail, shopping for groceries – is where and how an unstable society dominated by images creates the impression of stability.  Everyday life has the appearance of being natural or necessary, as being tied to the needs of the body and beyond history.  Its inhabitants claim that “this is the way it is, has been, and always will be” (Lefebvre 1971, p. 124).  But the history of everyday life reveals its ideological structure; it is neither natural nor necessary.  Everyday life in the modern world is the result of corporate and state power.  Everyday life is increasingly dominated by consumption such that social control happens less through the police and the bureaucracy and more through omnipresent images of consumption.  The consumer society is a terrorist society, but with a friendly face; “[C]onsuming is no joke…the whole of society is with you…[o]ur visible family is duplicated by this invisible one, better and especially more efficient.  Who can be ungrateful enough to be uneasy?” (Lefebvre 1971, p. 108).  Everyday life structured around work required repression, but consumer society requires no repression; it works at the level of desire.  And it “succeeds mainly on the level of women or ‘femininity'” (Lefebvre 1971, p. 98).  Lefebvre calls the new consumer society he sees being organized around him the Bureaucratic Society of Controlled Consumption.

Lefebvre argues that consumer society came into existence the moment that the truth of the commodity became the truth of us all.  But this did not signal the end of sexual difference.  Consumption works on and through women; it simultaneously universalizes a “feminine personality” and disproportionately subjects women to its imperatives.  Consumer society fosters childlike personalities who need approval and desire from the place of the other; consumers ask not “what do I want?” but “what do you want me to be?”

On the one hand, the consumer society seems to empower women since, the bureaucratic society of controlled consumption works through women.  Women are the symbols of this society; as objects of advertising they are increasingly visible and valuable.  And, of course, they are superior consumer goods; the use of women in advertising presents the object as fully consumable and as, simultaneously, more than an object (Lefebvre 1971, p. 73).  On the other hand, the universalization of the feminine further prevents women from having access to their own lives.  Actual women are increasingly invited to experience their own bodies and subjectivity through an ever more pervasive feminized consumer ideal.  The ideology of femininity and the ideology of consumption depend on the same belief: women posses the secret of happiness (Lefebvre 1971, p. 97).  The feminine promises a return to plenitude.  It is an ideological compensation for the subject of lack who cannot get his needs met in a society that is all about meeting needs.  The “feminine” thus becomes the symptom of, and the solution to, the malaise of consumer society.

Lefebvre argues this society cannot reinforce individual self-repression to the point of “closing the issue” (Lefebvre 1971, 66).  Everyday life, like the unconscious, can never be fully systematized; it can only be turned into subsystems that remain separated by irreducible gaps.  Thus the alternative to the Bureaucratic Society of Controlled Consumption is to “turn everyday life into a work of art” (Lefebvre 1971, p. 204).  Everyday life as a work of art holds out the possibility of overcoming the terror and compulsion of the Bureaucratic Society of Controlled Consumption.  Lefebvre’s prescription is for sex, desire, play and festival that are more authentic and perhaps subversive of the sexuality, desires, and play sanctioned by the Bureaucratic Society of Controlled Consumption.

In the Bureaucratic Society of Controlled Consumption women signify all desire and desirability.  It is a burden for women and it impoverishes men.  Harvey, however, seems to proceed “as if” woman representing desire and desirability in “postmodern” society is the cause rather than the effect of the gendering of consumption.  He proceeds as if the feminizing consumption were descriptive rather than constitutive as in Lefebvre.  That is, Harvey proceeds as if, consumption is observably feminizing rather than as if consumption has been laboriously constructed as feminine.  The enemy then is consumption per se rather than the organization and representation of consumption within capitalism.

Jameson’s reading of postmodern consumer culture, conversely, owes more to the Frankfurt School than it does to Lefebvre.  Jameson is, like the Frankfurt School theorists, nostalgic for the ego haunted by anxiety.  Jameson sees the process described by the Frankfurt school as intensifying.  He argues that “we could say” that capital is in the process of colonizing the last part of the human mind: the aesthetic.  “Consumer culture is a thorough-going push into the area of mind; culture, the unconscious and a final rationalizing, modernizing, industrializing, commodifying, colonizing, of the non-or-pre-capitalist enclave left surviving there” (Jameson 1982, p. 76).  This does not mean the end of culture; rather it means that everything is in some sense cultural.  Jameson is most self-conscious about the dynamics driving criticism.  He claims that it is “very plausible to me, for example, that certain moments of cultural history are determined, at least in part, by a whole male backlash and instinctive defense of privilege, that is by fear of feminism” (Jameson 1982, p. 91).

Jameson’s postmodernism began in the 1950’s when mass manufacturing for wartime was turned toward meeting manufactured consumer needs.  Accordingly, late capitalism, an economy geared toward mass production and mass consumption, produces postmodernism as its “cultural dominant.”  While modernism maintained oppositional space from which to critique the commodity, postmodernism does not.  Jameson is less interested in telling us about the transition to late capitalism than in describing the consequences of a postmodern culture, while Harvey is more interested in describing how late capital and postmodernism came to be the dominant economic system and “structure of feeling” of our time.

Meghan Morris astutely remarks that Harvey’s condition of postmodernity isn’t like a detective novel because he announces his thesis at the beginning; he tells us who did it (Morris 1992, p. 255).  However, it does read like a suspense thriller; we feel ourselves more completely in the grip of global capital and vulnerable to fascist politics with every turn of the page.  This may be due to his reliance on the “regulation school” but it also has to do with his understanding of his object of study – postmodernism.  The regulation school argues that any regime of accumulation has an accompanying mode of social and political regulation.  The mode of regulation is a body of interiorized rules and social processes – norms, habits and laws – that make individual behavior consistent with the demands of social reproduction (Harvey 1989, p. 121).  Any mode of regulation, the regulation school argues, makes use of a mix of repression, habituation, co-optation and cooperation (Harvey 1989, p. 122).  Just as modernism is a response to the condition of modernity produced by modernization, postmodernism is a response to the condition of postmodernity produced by postmodernization.  Harvey calls the relationship between the first set of terms “Fordism” and the relationship between the second set of terms “flexible accumulation.”

The Fordist regime manufactured a “sham individualism” with false needs for self-expression, security, identity, self-respect, and status – needs which Fordism could then pretend to meet.  Education, the mobilization of sentiments, and psychology cultivated this sham individual and his or her needs.  Fordism had its own arrangement of pleasure, leisure, seduction and erotic life; but within Fordism the family, the state, and the economy had opposed interests.  The father, for example, possessed pre-capitalist authority.  But now the market, allied with the media, makes it possible to bypass these institutions and to penetrate the unconscious directly.  Postmodernism thus no longer relies on intermediary institutions for regulation.  The crisis in the institutions of the Fordist regime paradoxically created a more perfect form of regulation, which Harvey calls “flexible accumulation” and “flexibility in the mode of regulation.”  Flexible accumulation, or postmodernization, refers to the commodification of daily life: the mobilization of fashion, pop art, television, and media to stimulate desire and fantasy.  Culture, once semi-autonomous and liberatory, is the new agent of regulation.  This new mode of regulation is flexible and diffuse, centralized and homogeneous; it is more organized and complete because it is flexible, dispersed and mobile.

Harvey begins with the narrative of Fordism to tell us where postmodernism came from, but the retelling of Fordism serves another purpose as well.  For Horkheimer and Adorno (and Lefebvre) the Nazis and the New Deal are analogous developments.  Both are cooperative ventures of a bureaucratic state and a rationalized economy to extend the reach of the state and of corporate power into daily life (Jameson 1999, p. XVIII).  Harvey needs to break this link between Fordism and fascism in order to rescue state planning and high modernism from its association with fascism.  On Harvey’s telling Fordism still has its origins in a bureaucratic state and a rationalized economy that creates a “new man” (sic) but, contra Horkheimer and Adorno, Nazism now has its origins in aestheticized politics.  Harvey links fascism to romanticism, not to the Enlightenment, and portrays postmodernism as a new romanticism.  This retelling establishes a series of oppositions that work throughout his survey of interlocking developments in the economy, politics, and culture: place / space, aestheticized politics / ethics, being / becoming.  Just as the emancipatory potential of modernism was thwarted by myths that effaced class; such as Heidegger’s myth of rootedness in place and aestheticized politics, so too is the contemporary moment thwarted by a new ‘myth.’  “The Nazi’s also [like the postmodernists] told the best stories, were charismatic, aestheticized politics and junked history” (Harvey 1989, p. 210; italics added).

Here it becomes clear that both Harvey and Jameson are using postmodernism in at least two senses.  There is the postmodern process, the real transformation of global space to meet the demands of a new consumer society and the increasingly commodification of goods once thought beyond commodification.  But there is also postmodern theorizing which is complicit in this process because it is not sufficiently oppositional.  Postmodern theorizing, or postmodern discourse, is true empirically because it is merely descriptive but false normatively and politically because it is not critical or oppositional.  The political, normative and aesthetic vision it offers, or fails to offer, is the new ‘myth.’

Postmodern theoretical discourse, according to Harvey and Jameson, is not adequate to the task of cultural criticism.  For Harvey postmodern theory is an attempt to mirror an unruly world but in a way that confuses or disorients (Harvey 1989, p. 98).  Postmodernism as process produces imaginary appetites and takes us beyond reality into imagination and postmodern theory exacerbates rather than unmasks this process.  Postmodern theory is mimetic of social, economic, and political practices, it is a bad mirror because in conditions of stress and space-time compression reality gets created rather than interpreted (Harvey 1989, p. 306).  The modern imaginary had the dual project of unmasking reality and creating new masks.  Postmodern discourse is content to be a bad mirror; it neither seeks to find meaning or to create new emancipatory images.  Even worse, the postmodern commentary conceals the ideological function of masks behind aesthetic commentary.  Postmodern theory thus conspires rather than criticizes (Harvey 1991, p. 210).

In both Jameson and Harvey postmodernism as theory and process signifies the intensification and extension of the grip of capitalism; it is the perfection of capitalism as a form of social control.  As modernity signified the transition from a market economy to a market society, postmodernity signifies the transition from a market society to a psyche fully determined by capitalism.  In postmodernity individuals come to be dominated by images of consumption; the organization of everyday life creates one seamless opportunity for the spectator / consumer to be interpellated by images of consumption.  The commodification of everyday life, the organization of space, and the dominance of images heighten and intensify the effects of one another until at last we have thoroughly capitalist psyches.  Contemporary capital, through its reliance on images, organizes social reproduction at the level of fantasy, pleasure, and desire.  The consequence of this loss of spatial orientation is the inability to resist postmodern corporate and state power that dominates the individual through images.  Capitalism now dominates not only economic and social reproduction, but also cultural reproduction.   All of which signals to Harvey and Jameson the impossibility of an oppositional culture.

Once we are within the postmodern, Lefebvre’s call to turn everyday life into a work of art loses its liberating potential because art has been commodified and everyday life thoroughly rationalized.  For both Jameson and Harvey, “postmodernism” “signals nothing more than a logical extension of the power of the market over a whole range of cultural production” (Harvey 1989, p. 62).

Harvey and Jameson further argue that each stage of capital had its own spatial constellation.  For each theorist, understanding how the mode of production produces a particular spatiality enables a spatial analysis of culture.  However, this argument goes further and concludes that it is through spatiality that capitalism produces a culture.  Jameson, for example, claims in “Cognitive Mapping” that there are three distinct moments in spatial organization.  In the first stage, classical or market capital reorganized sacred and heterogeneous space into a grid-like Cartesian homogeneity.  In the second stage of capital the spaces produced by new global realties are inaccessible to consciousness; they are unrepresentable, absent cause.  The movement from market capitalism to monopoly capitalism led to the growing contradiction between lived experience and structure or between the phenomenological experience of life and the structural conditions of life (Jameson 1988, p. 278).  Accordingly, if individual experience is true it cannot be authentic; but if it is authentic it cannot be true (Jameson 1988, p. 339 ).  The third stage is “our” own moment, late capital, when the nation-state ceases to play any important function.  What is unique or original about postmodernism is the suppression of distance, the relentless saturation of any voids or empty space and the fact that the postmodern body is exposed to a perceptual form which there is no buffer and no reprieve (Jameson 1988, p. 351).  “Our insertion as individual subjects into a multidimensional set of radically discontinuous realities, whose frames range from still surviving spaces of bourgeois private life all the way to the unimaginable decentering of global capital itself” (Jameson 1988, p. 278).

Calls for “mapping,” which should be understood metaphorically rather than literally, are an attempt to reconstitute the real, or at least a representation of the real.  This real would then serve emancipatory political aims.  The call for mapping is predicated on the argument that capital has produced a postmodern hyperspace (time-space compression) in which the individual can no longer locate himself.  As Jameson argues, “we need a pedagogical political culture, a way to grasp our own positioning as individuals and collective subjects to regain the capacity to act and struggle” (Jameson 1991, p. 54).  Theoretical discourse cannot generate this new pedagogical political culture.  Theoretical discourse, according to Jameson, is now a search and destroy mission; the critic can only unmask, destroy, and develop negative discourse.  According to Jameson cognitive mapping is thus code for class-consciousness, “the moment when the group masters the interpellative process in a new way and becomes capable of interpellating itself and dictating the terms of its own specular image” (Jameson 1991, p. 346; italics added).  Postmodern politics must have as its “vocation the invention and projection of global cognitive mapping on the social as well as spatial scale;” it will be a politics of space informed by historical consciousness (Jameson 1991, p. 54).

Jameson calls for mapping not in response to the inability to locate oneself in shifting space but instead in response to the way space makes it impossible to construct a bounded ego.  There are, according to Jameson, two relevant positions on the subject.  One, the subject was always an ideological mirage.  Two, the subject dissolved after the passing of classical capitalism and the nuclear family (Jameson 1991, p. 15).  Jameson prefers the second.  The loss of this bourgeois ego means both the loss of its psychopathologies and the waning of affect; it is the end of anxiety but also the end of joy for there is no self to feel (Jameson 1991, p. 15).  On the one hand, Jameson argues that the subject who experienced alienation is disappearing and modern anxiety has been replaced by postmodern schizophrenia.  This is necessary because the postmodern subject is not integrated enough for anxiety; the ego is too fragmented to even feel anxiety, making schizophrenia the hallmark of the postmodern subject.  On the other hand, Jameson continues to use alienation as a diagnostic and critical tool.  His political project, like Harvey’s, entails the regeneration of a subject that is capable of experiencing alienation.

While Harvey doesn’t provide an explicit theory of the subject, as Jameson does, it is possible to reconstruct one from The Condition of Postmodernity.[2]  Capitalism produces an ostensibly free and autonomous subject; however, this freedom and autonomy are illusory.  The mode of regulation ensures that this subject will be produced in such a way as to facilitate the social reproduction necessary for capitalism.  But behind the false masks of this faux-subject there is a real subject, one concealed only by the masks and illusions produced by capitalism.  The task of critical theory is therefore to unmask this subject, to expose the “real person” beneath the image.  Harvey argues that alienation presupposes a coherent, rather than fragmented, sense of self from which to be alienated.  Accordingly, the loss of the alienated subject makes it impossible to consciously construct alternative social goals (Harvey 1989, p. 53).

Conversely, Jameson’s account of subject formation is informed by Lacanian analysis.  Yet Jameson’s reliance on Lacan makes it difficult to understand how he can ignore Lacan’s account of the specular production of the ego.  There are, in fact, two incongruities in Jameson’s use of Lacan.  First, Jameson treats the ego and the subject as interchangeable terms; the loss of the ego is the loss of the subject and vice versa.  Second, Jameson’s understanding of postmodernnity is that it is the moment when the ego becomes dominated by images.  Lacan’s account emphasizes the imaginary status of the ego and the specular generation of ego.  For Lacan the ego is already dominated by images; it is the product of literally falling in love with an idealized image of oneself.

For Lacan the ego itself is a product of narcissistic libidinal investment.  Lacan rereads Freudian narcissism in light of the myth of Narcissus.  In his account, narcissism becomes an erotic attachment to one’s specular image.  The narcissist does not value himself for what he is but is in love with an imaginary image of the self.  Constant vigilance is required to prevent the realization of the disconnect between image and reality.  The consequences of realization would be self-destruction.  Contrary to much of Western philosophy Lacan is claiming that the ego works hard to maintain misrecognition, and chooses an imaginary relation with the self, rather than self-knowledge.

For Lacan the ego and the subject are distinct formations.  The ego is formed for the infant in the mirror stage, which lasts from about six months to eighteen months.  During this period the infant first experiences himself as separate from the mother.  The reflection of the whole self in the mirror is internalized as an ideal of anticipated autonomy and self-mastery.  This ideal autonomous self will never be achieved and is dependent on constant mirroring and recognition from the other to maintain the fantasy of self-completion.  This ego is narcissistic and maintains its fantastical self-image at the expense of truth and the other.  The subject, conversely, is formed with the entry into language.  During the Oedipal stage the lying narcissistic ego is forced to confront its incompletion, the constitutive lack that is the core of its being.  The resulting subject assumes a position within the symbolic order, which for Lacanians means he / she has assumed sexual difference as well; assumed, that is, a relationship to the phallus as the signifier of sexual difference.

Lacanians maintain that a strict separation exists between the narcissistic ego and the subject of the symbolic.  However, feminists have questioned how dissimilar the ego and the subject are.  Is the subject also dependent on constant mirroring from the other, like the ego?  Might the ego already have a relationship to sexual difference, to the phallus?  For such theorists as Teresa Brennan, Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray and Teresa de Lauretis, the subject, like the ego, depends on relations of vision that are gendered as well as hierarchical.  By returning to the Lacanian account of the subject and feminist engagements with this subject I seek to make three points central to my discussion of contemporary criticism of consumer culture as narcissistic.  First, both the ego and the subject depend on denied identifications.  Second, both are taken up in a logic of sexual difference as a defense against the other / mother.  Third, both depend on the myth that there is a final identification that freezes the identification process and assures the stability of identity.

I begin with a brief rereading of Lacan’s mirror stage in light of his later lectures, “Of the Gaze and Objet Petit a” and “Anamorphosis.”  These later lectures make clear that the ego of the mirror stage already has a relationship to the phallus and hence has assumed sexual difference.  Second, I will turn to feminist critics of Lacan to argue that the subject continues to have a constitutive relationship to images and depends on that relationship for the fantasy of completion.

For Lacan the specular image, “the jubilant reflection” of the infant in the mirror, forms the body for the psyche. When Lacan says that the infant’s body is incomplete he is not referring to the fact of maternal dependence, but to the fantasy of the “body in bits and pieces.”  Why does the infant have the fantasy that his body is in bits and pieces?  Why does he become “jubilant” in his reflection in the mirror?  To answer these questions we must consider the gaze that maps the body for the child.

In the mirror stage the fragmented body finds unity in the reflection in the mirror.  The imaginary structuring of the ego around the specular image of the body starts with the image of the other in the mirror and continues with the gaze.  The fantasy of completion requires constant reiteration in the gaze to create the fantasy of bodily autonomy and control over desire.  The gaze for Lacan is only a noun; it is the partial object of the scopic drive that comes after the resolution of the Oedipus complex and acceptance of castration when the subject has entered the symbolic (Evans 1996, p. 72).

The function of the gaze then is to provide an answer to the question of why the body appears to be fragmented to the infant – from the perspective of the gaze.  The gaze of the infant on the surface of the body presumes the idealization of the phallus.  The gaze gives paternal birth to the body.[3]  The mother and the maternal mirror provide formless matter, but only the paternal gaze can form an autonomous body.

The relationship with the mother and her renunciation as an object create forms of desire.  The child desires the mother.  The child wants to be the object of desire of the mother.  The child desires what the mother desires.  The child desires a desire of his own to defend against the desiring mother.  In the whole narrative the only one who appears, at least from the perspective of the child, to have autonomous desire is the mother.  At several points Lacan claims that children experience the desire of the mother as threatening (see Lacan 1977, p. 264 and Lacan 1982, p. 101).  They desire that her desire will abet or take another object, but they also desire to have a desire of their own to defend themselves.  The Law of the Father emerges, in Lacan’s narrative, not only as a prohibition against the child’s desire to be the object of desire of the mother, but also as a defense against being the object of desire of the mother.  The Law of the Father is not just loss; it is a defense against a reengulfing primordial mother.

Lacan’s account of the subject depends on both an imaginary pre-linguistic time of fullness and plentitude and the fantasy that there are those among us who retain access to this lost realm of fullness and plentitude.  The existence of these others (the first threatening other is the mother) is simultaneously threatening to identity and a necessary condition of identity.  The threat of enjoyment without speech and without limit is what induces the ego to take up the “armor of alienating identity” presented in the mirror and what induces the subject to accept castration and enter the symbolic.  The alienated ego / subject gives up on the satisfaction of desire in order to have control over desire, to specify the form and object desire will take.  The consequence of this feminist rereading of Lacan’s mirror stage is that it becomes clear that the subject never exits the mirror stage and the phallus is projected back into the mirror stage.

Judith Butler provides the best account of why the Lacanian subject of desire will not save us from the narcissistic ego.  Lacan is concerned about the conflation of the ego and subject.  The ego is a product of imaginary identifications while the subject is a symbolic position.  For Lacan the imaginary identifications of the ego are partial, illusory and fractious.  The ego is dependent on others, on the image of others and what the ego is for the other to maintain its lying self.  The subject’s assumption of a position in the symbolic is final; and determining; it requires no maintenance and no others to sustain the subject. However, Butler argues that the subject that can resist the lure of the image is fabricated through the denial of any constitutive relationship to images; that is, by denying its specular construction (see Butler 1989 and 1993).

For Butler, sexual difference is an imaginary identification not a symbolic position.  Through the coordinating fantasy of sexual difference the ego has an answer to the question of what the other wants from him and what he needs to be to become the object of desire.  The fantasy of sexual difference reinforces the original idealization of bodily autonomy and wholeness.  Lacan’s subject of desire, Butler argues, is then dependent on the policing of woman’s desire because sexual difference is maintained by imaginary identifications.  If the woman desires other than to be object of man’s desire (takes another object) there is a loss of self.  If she desires other than to be the object of man’s desire (takes him as an object) there is also a loss of self for him.  Lacan’s insistence that sexual difference is a symbolic position is an attempt to rescue the subject from his dependence on mirroring.  She argues that the retroactive threat of being mired in imaginary relationships with images is the threat that induces the subject to embrace the fiction of being invulnerable to images.

Kaja Silverman agrees that the line Lacan draws between the narcissistic ego and the subject is not persuasive.  Splitting at mirror stage means that the object acquires value as that without which the subject can never be whole or complete.  She concludes that to the degree the object has been lost the subject has been found (Silverman 1988, p. 7).  The subject still depends on maternal reflection, but his cultural identity depends on the rejection of the maternal object.[4]

As feminists theorists such as Butler and Silverman have noted, the denial of the specular production of the subject turns sexual difference into an immutable law.  Jameson and Harvey scrupulously avoid making explicitly declarations about sexual difference.  Nevertheless, their discourses reveal their investment in sexual difference at crucial points.[5]  Harvey’s discourse, for example, reveals its gendered component in its refusal to grant constitutive power to images, the power to constitute the spectator specifically.  Harvey wants to find meaning “in” images but he fails to realize the meaning of the image is how it produces the spectator.  Jameson and Harvey’s anxiety about postmodern cultural production, as well as the destruction of the possibility of oppositional cultural, is anxiety about the loss of a specifically masculine subjectivity.  This is the subject that has an exclusive franchise on the ability to think or act critically and whose existence is predicated on the existence of oppositional spaces.[6]  This, however, is also the subjectivity that is constituted by a need to control its relationship to images, that is voyeurism, and is predicated on a denial of its exhibitionism.  This is the subject that only assumes the “alienating armor of identity” under (imaginary) assault from the mother.

Teresa de Lauretis has argued that femininity and gender are created and recreated through representations, and self-representation, in such social discourses as cinema, theoretical discourse, and daily life.  These images interpellate and constitute viewing subjects, or spectators.  Spectatorship, she argues, produces social subjects that are in the clutches of narrativity and are prey to the Oedipal logic of desire (de Lauretis 1987, p. 149).  The relations of visions between the spectator / consumer / subject and the object of consumption are hierarchical and gendered.  For many feminist theorists[7] such images interpellate a specifically masculine spectator, with his disavowed specular construction coming back as the scopic drive.  It is thus in their failure to interrogate the construction of the spectator that Harvey and Jameson’s gender politics appear.  Indeed, Harvey and Jameson’s treatment of postmodern culture and their readings of particular postmodern cultural production suggest that their concerns about postmodernity are concerns about a specifically masculine subject.[8]

I shall consider Harvey’s account first.  According to Harvey, postmodernism rejects authoritative art (Harvey 1989, p. 53), refusing authoritative standards of aesthetic judgment (Harvey 1989, p. 57).  As he notes, “minimizing the authority of the cultural producer creates an opportunity for popular participation and democratic determinations of cultural values but the price is incoherence and vulnerability to mass market manipulations” (Harvey 1989, p. 51).  Emblematic of this refusal of authority, according to David Harvey, is Cindy Sherman.  In her “passive production,” “it is not always clear who is influencing whom” (Harvey 1989, p. 62).

Postmodern culture, according to Harvey, is a simulational culture that puts the cultural critic in an awkward position.  Either he speaks the truth about the image and what is most critical escapes him or he enters into imaginary play and loses the ability to speak truth through language (Durham 1998, p. 45). The discourse of truth can neither master simulacrum from without, nor can it enter into the play of appearance without sacrificing its discursive authority (Durham 1998, p. 45).  For Harvey, the simulacrum[9] is “such a near perfect replication that the difference between the original and the copy becomes almost impossible to spot” (Harvey 1989, p. 289; italics added).  Harvey is consistent with his treatment of the images he encounters, but it is nevertheless a curious definition of simulacrum.  Simulacrum is typically understood as either a copy of a copy whose original is lost or as a copy of a copy with no original.  The danger, or the promise, of the simulacrum is that it is impossible to determine how good or bad a copy it is.  Simulacrum as the result of a lost original is nostalgic, while simulacrum as the copy of a copy with no original celebrates the creative and subversive capacities of inauthentic copies (Durham 1998, p. 8 / 9).  The power of the simulacrum is not in how good or bad a copy it is but in its reiteration or repetition.  Repetition is then powerful, not because of the agent who repeats, but because it denaturalizes the position of the spectator.  Thus the simulation itself doesn’t create agency; it creates a power vacuum on the side of the spectator (Braidotti 1994, p. 148).

Yet Harvey’s definition of simulacrum allows him to refuse the ambivalent position that the simulacrum puts theoretical discourse in.  By defining simulacrum as an almost perfect copy Harvey can refuse this ambivalence, sending his reader off on a nostalgic hunt for the original.  This reestablishes the autonomy of critique but the price is that simulation and parody have now lost political efficacy.

Postmodern culture, in Jameson’s account, is also linked to the loss of authoritative standards for aesthetic judgment.  Parody requires authority, he argues, for without authority parody becomes merely pastiche, a sort of nonsubversive mimicry.  It is without the satiric effect that a parody of authority can create.  The lack of authoritative standards also undermines cultural criticism.  The cultural critic is immersed and no longer has denunciation available as a tactic; there is no critical distance because everything is cultural (Jameson 1991, p. 46).  Cultural criticism thus cannot avoid being implicated in what it seeks to reject.[10]  It is in the Hotel Bonaventura and the photography of Cindy Sherman that Jameson and Harvey respectively experience the boundaries of the self being undermined by shifting spatiality and relations of vision within that space.  And the self that is undermined in each of these encounters is a specifically masculine self.[11]  These postmodern cultural productions transform the social critic from diagnostician to patient.

In the Hotel Bonaventura Jameson finds that postmodern hyperspace has finally transcended the ability of the human body to locate itself, to organize immediate surroundings, and to map itself (Jameson 1991, p. 44).  Logically, it is difficult to imagine how a paradigmatically postmodern building can be constructed in such a way that it prevents consumers from finding their way to the shops within it.  Massey claims this is the difference between the familiarity of the shop girl or janitor who must negotiate it daily versus voyeuristic desire for total view and knowledge, which is the knowledge that is unavailable to Jameson (Massey 1994, p. 253).  Is it the ability to locate the self that is lost?  Or is it a space you have to navigate to know and cannot know through vision alone?  According to De Certeau the voyeur / critic strives for knowledge through vision alone (De Certeau 2002, p. 36).  This knowledge doesn’t allow you to live in and negotiate these spaces, like Massey’s shop girl or janitor who can certainly find their way around, so it must serve some other function.  This perspective functions to allow the spectator to posses what he sees in knowledge; it is not the ability to navigate those spaces but the ability to control or posses through vision that is at stake.  The impossibility of finding oneself in space that must be negotiated becomes the impossibility of possessing those spaces through vision, which would then confirm not only control over the self but also the self’s ability to control his relationship to image / possessions.

Or consider Harvey’s often remarked-upon reaction to the photography of Cindy Sherman.  His encounter with Sherman is often criticized not only because she is a photographer that many feminists argue is engaged in subversive parody but also because it illustrates many of Harvey’s problematic assumptions about the relationship (or lack thereof) between spectacle and spectators and the importance of distance.[12]

Harvey takes the photographs of Cindy Sherman as representative of the new “postmodern” cultural aesthetic.  According to Harvey, “[t]he interest of Cindy Sherman’s photographs (or any postmodern novel for that matter) is that they focus on masks without commenting directly on social meanings other than on the activity of masking itself” (Harvey 1989, p. 101).  For Harvey, Sherman’s art is reactionary rather than subversive (pastiche rather than parody) because she fails to reveal the ‘real’ woman behind the poses she assumes. As Harvey writes:

The photographs depict seemingly different women drawn from many walks of life.  It takes a little while to realize, with a certain shock, that these are portraits of the same woman in different guises.  Only the catalogue tells you that it is the artist herself who is that woman (Harvey 1989, p. 7; italics added).

Harvey continues, “Sherman, for example, uses photography and evokes pop images as if from film stills in the poses she assumes” (Harvey 1989, p. 59; italics added).  And finally he comments, “Cindy Sherman photographs mask the real person” (Harvey 1989, p. 316).

There are two revealing vacillations in Harvey’s discussion of Sherman.  Harvey, first, says the photographs are of women “drawn from many walks of life” but then recognizes that they are taken from popular culture images and film stills, thus revealing Harvey’s (or anyone’s?) inability to tell the difference between real women and images of “woman.”  In Harvey’s account Sherman becomes responsible for the masks even as he concedes that they’re taken from pop images and film stills.  The second ambiguity is that Harvey doesn’t quite know how to refer to Sherman.  Is she the artist – the creator of her work – or is she merely the subject assuming poses that were created for her?  In Harvey’s account Sherman is responsible for creating the masks she assumes, but she is not the creator of the photographs of the masks.

Sherman’s repetition of images enacts femininity as simulacrum; there is no truth about gender outside of its repetition.  This repetition is not the staging of female identity but of masculine desire; the truth about the feminine is how it interpellates a masculine voyeur.  “I have paid in my very body for all the metaphors and images culture has produced on the subject of ‘woman’” (Braidotti 1994, p. 148).  The “truth” about femininity is not the woman it conceals but the spectator it interpellates.  Sherman self-consciously exploits and appropriates the pleasure-in-looking of the voyeur to make it apparent that femininity has always been a production for a male spectator created both by men and by women.  Harvey’s discourse is not able to engage with Sherman’s production because there is no place outside the picture, the artist Cindy Sherman, from where he can look in on the image.  Sherman’s photographs don’t allow the distanced voyeuristic attitude of more traditional artistic representation.

Harvey’s treatment of Sherman and his concern about the crisis of representation are not indicative of an explicit attempt to stabilize shifting sexual difference.  For both Harvey and Jameson parody requires authoritative standards and “distance,” but does parody really require distance or does it expose disavowed connections?  What Harvey’s discourse requires is a secure place outside of simulation and masquerade from which to impart social meaning on the mask, which can then be unmasked for the sake of the “real” person underneath.  By arguing that the power of the image is its accuracy, not how it interpellates spectators, Harvey denies his own position as spectator.  The connection between the spectator and the image is denied to maintain the autonomy of the voyeur and the authority and truth of his discourse (see Deutsche 1991).  In both, it becomes clear that it is the masculine subject, not parody or cultural criticism, which requires distance.

Harvey’s confrontation with Sherman sheds new light on his argument about postmodern consumption.  Consumption was once about merely consuming objects, but now Harvey’s analysis implies that consumption has become the way in which we engage with signs and signification in general.  When a pair of shoes is like a work of art has high art lost the ability to distinguish socially or has everyday consumption acquired the ability to make social distinctions?  Harvey’s encounter with Sherman illustrates exactly what is at stake.  Sherman asks the spectator to consumer her art first as an object of vulgar or low consumption – she asks them to enjoy it.  Her pictures confront the viewer first as undemanding, easily consumable and enjoyable.  It is this enjoyment which then becomes the object of high or aesthetic consumption.  Sherman asks for an interrogation of enjoyment but to interrogate that enjoyment one has to at first admit that he or she enjoyed, that he or she was caught in a guilty pleasure.  Bourdieu writes,

The object which ‘insists on being enjoyed’ as an image and in reality, in flesh and blood, neutralizes both ethical resistance and aesthetic neutralization; it annihilates the distancing power of representation, the essentially human power of suspending immediate, animal attachment to the sensible and refusing submission to the pure affect, to simple aesthesis  (Bourdieu 1984, p. 489).

The postmodern confronts the critic with the annihilation of the distinction between high and low consumption, or rather it confronts the cultural critics with his or her own enjoyment.  Harvey’s response to this confrontation is vehemen; “I do not enjoy” or rather “I am not a voyeur.”

Despite Jean Baudrillard’s announcement that consumer society is the moment when all culture becomes enjoyable or seductive Baudrillard’s insistence that we consume the sign and not the object appears as yet another strategy to safeguard the critic from enjoyment, from vulgar consumption, or from his critical perspective being mistaken for voyeurism.  Jean Baudrillard agrees that external critique has lost its efficacy in the postmodern era.  However, Baudrillard’s response to this loss is equally, if not more, problematic.  Baudrillard insists that if postmodernity is the triumph of femininity then the social critic must learn to speak the feminine.  Baudrillard’s appropriation of the feminine relies upon the assumption that feminine speech has value only for its seductive quality.  Feminine speech may be used to seduce but never to speak the truth and it is never the voice of authority.  Yet on further examination it does not appear that Baudrillard does, in fact, reject the possibility of a critical perspective that eschews enjoyment.

Baudrillard is one of the first, along with Lefebvre, to note that consumption has not been given adequate attention by social theorists interested in understanding social reproduction.  In The Mirror of Production Baudrillard argues that consumption and the reproduction of consumption is at once the real task of capitalism and the blind spot of Marxist theory.  He argues that the “mirror of production” has pervaded Marxist social theory.  In much social theory influenced by Marx, the metaphor of production dominates: the unconscious produces desire in Deleuze’s “factory of the unconscious”; Lacan’s mirror stage chronicles the production of narcissism; and various thinkers, such as Roland Barthes, have emphasized how the text produces effects.

Baudrillard’s own analysis reads political economy through structuralist linguistics to develop a critique of the signifier, the signified, and the referent.  Consumption is thus analyzed as though it were a mode of discourse, a language, or even a kinship system.  Consumption is treated as a system, a code of signs; it has a morality and a social function.  For Baudrillard consumption is the “unthought of political economy.”

Baudrillard is interested not in consumption and its relationship to labor, but rather in consumption as a system of signification.  For Baudrillard the commodity is consumed as sign; he analyzes the commodity for what it signifies, not for what it is.  The separation of the signifier from the signified and referent is, according to Baudrillard, the essence of political economy.  In the play of signifiers the relationship between signified and referent is thus eradicated and consumption becomes the deployment of signs rather the annihilation of the object.  Yet Marxism, which hoped to subvert capitalism in the name of radical productivity – a de-alienated hyperproductivity (Baudrillard 1975, p. 16), conceals the labor of the signifier and the production of meaning by focusing on the signified (Baudrillard 1975, p. 18).

More recently Baudrillard has argued that the sign value of the commodity has obliterated its use value, allowing substitute use values to be assigned to commodities.  The assigning of substitute use values means that the original use value of the commodity is lost forever.  According to Baudrillard, we live in a simulational world where all originals and referents are gone; we have only copies and signs.  This loss of referents means the end of the social and the triumph of culture. “’Take your desires for reality’ becomes the slogan” (Baudrillard 1988, p. 179).

Analyzing consumption in terms of structuralist linguistics leads Baudrillard to speculate on the analogical properties of consumption to women and words.  Consumption is, he argues, the regulated circulation of objects and commodities – the same as women and words (Baudrillard 1998, p. 47).  “Commodities and objects, like words and once like women, constitute a global, arbitrary and coherent system of signs; a cultural system which substitutes a social order of values and classifications for a contingent world of needs and pleasures, the natural and biological order” (Baudrillard 1998, p. 47).  Commodities are produced, whereas women are not, and commodities are produced differently than words.  While Baudrillard claims that women are not produced, he certainly believes that femininity is produced.  Although women no longer constitute a “global, arbitrary, coherent system of signs,” the feminine does.

Baudrillard argues that femininity, like masculinity, is produced by a narcissistic investment in the spectacular image.  This narcissistic investment serves the needs of capital.  In the consumer era having self-worth means showing oneself off to advantage.  Masculine consumption, however, is styled as agnostic, ascetic, and aristocratic; it is marked by virtue (Baudrillard, 1998 p. 97).  Feminine consumption is on the model of women playing dolls with themselves; they please themselves in order to be more pleasing (Baudrillard 1998, p. 97).  A woman thus becomes a consumer so that she is more desirable as a consumer object (Baudrillard 1998, p. 97).   What we are witnessing, writes Baudrillard, is the extension of the feminine model throughout society: the consumer is a woman, or at least feminized.  The consumer society, according to Baudrillard, enjoins us to enjoy ourselves and to be more enjoyable to others; it calls on us to become woman (Baudrillard 1998, p. 98).


[1] The mother and, in fact, the entire pre-Oedipal stage disappears in Marcuse’s account.  More than any other Frankfurt School theorist, he literally erases the mother in his account of subject formation.

[2] My reconstruction of the subject in Harvey relies mostly on his discussion of the “regulation school.”

[3] Although Lacan is usually careful to distinguish women from the feminine and men from the masculine his discussion of the paternal gaze seems to be rather more essentialist.  He means, I think, not the masculine gaze but the father, or perhaps any third term that disrupts the mother-child dyad.

[4] Silverman and Butler’s conclusions are very similar.  While Butler develops her conclusions by considering images Silverman is concerned with the maternal mirroring of the “sonorous envelope” of the mother’s voice.

[5] All texts are engaged in the construction of gender, especially feminist theory texts, according to de Lauretis.  However, Jameson and Harvey’s texts function as technologies of gender by presuming to be gender neutral.

[6] This is not to say that Harvey and Jameson are engaged in a reactionary attempt to reestablish gender.  Instead, their discourse deploys and depends on leaving spectatorship unexamined to maintain the authority of their discourse.

[7] Feminist film theorists argue that the spectator is assumed to be masculine in most mass culture images with very rare exceptions.  See Silverman, Kaja. 1992. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York: Routledge., De Lauretis, Teresa. 1986. Feminist Studies, Critical Studies. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.and Modelski, Tania. 1986. “The Terror of Pleasure: The Contemporary Horror Film and Postmodern Theory.” In Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, ed. Tania Modleski. Bloomington: Indiana University Press..

[8] In History After Lacan Brennan suggests it is time to stop thinking about this subject as specifically masculine.  Indeed in de Lauretis there is no logical connection between male bodies and the masculine subject, and what Brennan calls the sadodispassionate subject can just as easily be the subjectivity of a female body.  Brennan argues this subject is Western more than masculine.  The danger of calling it specifically masculine is to risk assuming it can only be the subjectivity of male bodies.

[9] Harvey’s definition also seems to link simulacrum with technological innovation, the perfection and hence danger of the simulacrum increases as the ability to copy is improved.

[10] An ironic demonstration of this is Harvey’s treatment of Lyotard.  Lyotard means to denounce the popular culture that Harvey reads him as celebrating.  See Morris, Meagan. 1992. “The Man in the Mirror: David Harvey’s Condition of Postmodernity.” In Cultural Theory and Cultural Change, ed. Mike Featherstone. London; Newbury Park: Sage Publications.

[11] That is a self that disavows the centrality of exhibitionism and voyeurism to the maintenance of identity and imagines that rather then depend on these images he controls these images.

[12] See Massey, Doreen B. 1994. Space, Place, and Gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Deutsche, R. 1991. “Boys Town.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 9: 5-30. Morris, Meagan. 1992. “The Man in the Mirror: David Harvey’s Condition of Postmodernity.” In Cultural Theory and Cultural Change, ed. Mike Featherstone. London ; Newbury Park: Sage Publications.

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