Mainstream America’s obsession with sign value can be extrapolated to celebrities, who have in a sense become catalysis for consumption and paradigms for identity construction. The onslaught of branding seduces the public to adopt the “lifestyle of a brand over their own, merging individual identity with logo” (Whitbeck 23). In tandem to this conspicuous consumption, the deification of celebrities has converted icons into products of mass distribution and consumption. Is this obsession with brand names a desperate attempt at authenticity in the age of postmodernism or a perverse reflection of the American psyche? Dissecting the complexities of sign value, the social evolution of consumption practices can be traced via a temporal juxtaposition of the postmodernist work of Jean Baudrillard and the socioeconomic theories of Karl Marx. Yet this societal shift towards branding flesh takes roots deeper. Swaying between being both a critic and product of popular culture, Andy Warhol and his (in)famous reproduction of Marilyn Monroe unveils the perverse phenomenon of the mass distribution and objectification of celebrities. Icons such as Paris Hilton further reinforce the entangled proliferation of both brand names and pop idols, demonstrating how this sign consumption and the dedifferentiation of consumption has imperialized American taste culture.
Convinced that capitalism was driven by production, Karl Marx once said, “sell a man a fish, he eats for a day, teach a man how to fish, you ruin a wonderful business opportunity.” (Karl Marx).“Preeminently a theorist of capitalism” (Martin 115), Karl Marx was a prolific political activist, economist and social philosopher gracing the nineteenth century. His socioeconomic theories were revolutionarily deconstructed the capitalist system, which he viewed as “as a contradictory set of production relations that conditioned the entire realm of human association” (Martin 115). Despite his cynicism, he conceded that the progressive economic structure did indisbutably harbor the inherent ability to incessantly modernize its means of production. However, it is this mechanism of mass production that fuels the conspicuous consumption intrinsic to the Western world. He believed that “the production of too many useful things results in too many useless people”(Karl Marx). According to Marx, the value of an object should be derived from its use and exchange value. Over a century later, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, on the pretext that the consumption patterns have evolved since Marx’s time, altered the aforementioned theory in adaptation to the socioeconomic conditions of contemporary society. A predominant theorist of the postmodern era, Jean Baudrillard was heavily influenced by Marxism, which is perhaps why many twenty-first century critics sweep his views under the discourse of poststructuralists and situationist. During his lifetime, he composed several books aimed at the reinterpretation of Marx’s work, most notably: The System of Objects, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, and The Consumer Society. Lacing the pages of these sociological critiques, Jean Baudrillard formulates a superlative slant on the nature of consumerism. Extrapolating the first two concepts from Marx, Baudrillard theoretically extends the discourse, subdividing the worth of an object into four frames of assessment: the functional value of an object, the exchange value, the symbolic value and lastly the sign value.
The functional value of an object refers to the case wherein a product is appraised according to its functional use. Mirroring Marx’s theory of use-value, this view deems that the worth of a manufactured good stems from utility. For instance, the practical purpose of a pocketbook is to carry one’s personal belonging, its worth is thus determined by it ability to carry out this role. For Marx, “as a general rule, articles of utility become commodities”(Marx 3). However, Baudrillard critiques Marx’s concept of use-value on the pretext that it is naïve to assume that the public consumes solely out of shear necessity. Dissecting the paradigm of capitalism, Baudrillard claims that the economy, contrary to the Marxist belief, is driven by consumption, rather than production. This intrinsic relationship unveils the ugly truths that needs are manufactured by the capitalist system to fuel manufacturing. In other words, “the masses consume because they have been infected with artificial wants dreamed up by the international league of producers” (Appleby 247). Informed by structuralism, this view presents the paradox that “consumption is a mere shadow of production; that audience negotiations are fictions, merely illusory moves in a game of economic power” (Storey 132)
Exchange value is another theory of Marx appropriated by Baudrillard to shed light on the societal shift in consumption patterns elicited by the socioeconomic circumstances of postmodernity. In short, this term purports that a products worth is ultimately determined by its monetary or economic value in the world market. For instance, the aforementioned pocketbook can be a pricy purchase due to the nature of its fabrication. In other words, the red leather jacketing it’s exterior may come from Argentina and it’s inner lining may be Venetian silk. These aesthetic details justify why it may cost the earnings of countless hours of work. Ultimately, one exchanges their time for its purchase. However, one must also be weary that the value of an object is by no means fixed insofar as the price of a particular product can and often is manipulated by economic agents to serve in their own self-interest.
The symbolic value of an object is a relational or subjective value assigned to a certain product by an individual. Oftentimes there is an ideological signification lacing the object. In other words, the worth of a product is symbolically conferred. The red leather pocketbook may be a vintage bag handed down to you by your grandmother and thus may be a symbol of family heritage, or for lack of a better example, a diamond ring symbolizes the marital union of two individuals in love. In short, it is the pretext that goods are “not consumed because of their value as utilities but because of their desirable symbolic attributes” (Parker 361) and thus it is the “symbolic qualities of an object that determined the worth of a commodity”(Parker 361).
The sign value of an object is rendered through the aura assigned to it by a certain corporate label and is exemplified best by the proliferation of brand name. Let’s say that the red leather pocketbook is a vintage Louis Vuiton clutch, tiny and quite impractical to say the least, yet nonetheless it’s worth more than, say, a canvas backpack because the item itself signifies wealth, expensive taste and social status. Marx argued that beneath of surface of “commodity fetishism” there are legitimate needs met that justified the objects consumption. Baudrillard, on the other hand, contradicts this assumption, claiming that fetishism and fashioning of the self have emerged as the principal objectives behind postmodern consumption practices. Hence, in the context of a consumer society, the importance of a products utility dissipates; rather it is the symbolic and sign value of an object that determines its worth (or exchange value) on the market.
The birth of sign value transpired in tandem to the industrial revolution, which facilitated the mass production of identical objects fabricated for mass distribution. However from this economic development stemmed a paradox: “although capitalist technique of mass-production were very good at making identical product in great volume, economies of scale were less efficient at producing unique and therefore desirable goods”(Parker 361). Thus, with aspirations to surmount the complexities of this predicament, multinational corporations “exploited forms of advertising to construct symbolic virtues for their products”(Parker 361). In sum, sign value emerges as a distinctive mechanism of capitalism stemming from industrial culture and mass production.
From sign value came a proliferation of corporate branding. Brands are logos, slogans or particular designs that renders a product distinctive and thus desirable, its aura is oftentimes fueled by its representation in the media via advertisements. The symbolic meaning attached to a brand name lends a commodity a particular image and furthermore instills a certain expectation in the client. “Certain brands of athletic shoes (Nike) and trekking gear (Timberland shoes) are identified with ‘urban’ – i.e. ‘ghetto’-cultural styles”(Zukin 834). As follows, the fashioning of the self has developed an intrinsic relationship with brand names. The perverse irony is, however, that a consumer after having been influenced through ads to purchase a certain product later becomes a “walking advertisement” (Bryman 38) for the brand. A perfect example of this is the (in)famous GAP sweatshirt, which for several years was a staple American wardrobe accessory. Furthermore, in the past several decades “merchandising and licensing have proliferated” (Bryman 36) concurrently to the emergence of sign value and advertisement. Now even restaurants, such as the Hard Rock Café, market themselves through “the promotion of goods…bearing copyright images and logos, including such products made under license” (Bryman 36).
The relationship a consumers merges with a brand is rooted in how the sign value of an object functions as “social markers to indicate taste, status and style”(Parker 367). The stigma lacing certain brand names unveils the mechanism in which commodities are consumed as signs of symbolic wealth denoting an individual’s social status and taste. However, more often than not, the sign value of an object is manipulated through advertisement. After all, America is an “image saturated society where advertising, entertainment, television, and other culture industries increasingly define and shape urban life” (Gotham 227). Entranced by the hypnotic nature of the media, the masses devolve into passive spectators blindly embracing ideologically infiltrated images fabricated with ulterior motives (Gotham 227). Laced with the agenda of multinational conglomerates, the media broadens the manufacture of “fictitious, artificial, and imaginary needs”(Lefebvre 161). The culture industries bred by capitalism infect the American social psyche with hegemonic ideologies that not only cement the social hierarchy, but also construct “powerful images, descriptions, definitions and frames of reference for understanding the world” (Storey 132).
Even more alarming, Americans seem oblivious to the destructive implications of their consumption. They drink Starbucks because it’s convenient, and go Wal-Mart because it’s cheap. It is not that they don’t care about the countless sweatshops in China manufacturing their clothes or the cultural imperialism rendered by Starbucks. Rather, “they haven’t been taught to think of consumerism as something that extends beyond their own enjoyable trip to the mall, just as they haven’t been taught that their personal consumer decisions are political” (Rockler-Gladen 12). Yet where can one place blame on this proliferation of brand names: on the consumer or the multinational conglomerates? Arguably both parties are at fault. Yet in the words of Andy Warhol, “what’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest.” His insight on American popular culture stripped away its guise of glamour and unveiled an even uglier truth: the perverse paradox that this mass distribution and consumption of brand names can be extrapolated to celebrities who have been commodified and consumed as products.
Obsessed with fame, wealth and superficiality, Andy Warhol is, in retrospect, pop arts seminal icon. His fixation on popular culture situated his art in the mainstream. Warhol’s prolific body of work was predominately inspired by the artificiality of mass consumerism, mechanical reproduction and the media. “When you think about it, department stores are kind of like museums”, he once exclaimed. He was the first to commercialize on commercialization, commodify on commodification and profit off a hypocritical critique of mass consumption. Furthermore, “his acute awareness of the intersection of the body and culture; the way in which the body produces culture at the same time as culture produces the body…prefigured the way American film and media today exult the media fabrication of selfhood”(Suarez 38). With mediums ranging from photography to film, printmaking to painting, his artistic motivation was to delineate an insight into the perverse complexities of consumer society. Appropriating commodities of mass culture, he exploited the fetishism that fueled blind consumption. In sum, Warhol’s art mimicked the media. Fueling the discourse that the taste hierarchy has been overcome by popular culture, his work blurred the distinction between fine and commercial art and commercial art and commerce. He once said, “making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art” (Andy Warhol).
The versatile technique of photographic silk-screens allowed Warhol to manipulate and duplicate images, enabling him to construct a social critique by visually reproducing products quintessential of popular culture. He conceptualized commodification through the artistic reproduction and appropriation of iconic images. The ironic visual proliferation of the Campbell Soup brand as well as the silver-screen goddess and sex icon Marilyn Monroe constructed a perversely enlightening social critique. For Warhol, Marilyn Monroe was a glamorously packaged commodity mass distributed to the public. The multiplication of her flawless image presented the perverse paradox that she, like Brillo Boxes, was not a human being of flesh and blood but rather a product. Warhol’s work unveiled the mechanisms of the Hollywood culture industry and how its production of icons fueled the exploitation of individuals simultaneously shackled and socially elevated by the limelight. Ironically, after dedicating half his life to artistically rendering American icons, Warhol himself became one. “Once you ‘got’ Pop, you could never see a sign again the same way again. And once you thought Pop, you could never see America the same way again.” (Andy Warhol)
The international exportation of celebrities further strengthens the argument that stars can be understood as commodities of mass distribution and consumption. The global recognition of certain celebrities unveils the facility in which their fame can breach cultural and even linguistic boundaries. The term mediascapes is a word coined by Arjun Appadurai to describe not only the distribution of images around the world via the media, but also the “images of the world created by the media” (Appadurai 34). This idea serves to explicate the unpredictable transnational flow of media text across the borders of countless countries via newspapers, magazines, television and films. The pervasive presence of media icons on the global stage sheds light on the fact that even outside the context of American popular culture their flawless image and seductive nature lures an international audience. The recognition of celebrities is due in part to multinational media conglomerates and their facility to transgress cultural boundaries.
This commodification and mass distribution of stars become even more alarming with the realization that many of these media icons are famous for absolutely nothing. It seems as if nowadays, “one can become a public person just by being a person, in public.” (Greene 13). This superficial stardom has emerged in tandem with society’s perverse tabloid obsession. The incessant exploitation of celebrities’ private lives fuels an unending love/hate relationship, wherein stars are worshipped one day and stripped of their accolades the next. The repercussions of a celebrity’s entanglement in a scandalous affair unveil the fragility of fame. The pages of tabloids, often laced with images of stars pumping gas or jogging, serve as a bizarre reflection of the public’s perverse curiosity. Yet what fuels this ceaseless gossip about famous strangers? Is it that the public vicariously lives through stars like Paris Hilton, thus signifying that contemporary identity construction is built on the act of mimesis? Or has mass society grown so big and so foreign so suddenly that this obsession stems from the desire to create a smaller community within? The complicated nature of these questions promise a splintered explanation. Instead, I propose to focus on a single media icon in hopes of better understanding the obsession and commodification of celebrities of contemporary pop culture.
Voted the “Most Overrated Celebrity” Paris Hilton is said to be “famous for being famous.” Spending her entire life in the public eye, the socialite, heiress, “actress,” and “musician” earned $7 million dollars last year alone just for being who she is. She has had minor roles in several films, most notably Zoolander (2001), Wonderland (2003) and The Cat In The Hat (2003) as well as the Fox reality series The Simple Life. Despite her age, she has already released an autobiographical book Confessions of an Heiress: A Tongue-in-Chic Peek Behind the Pose which ended up becoming a New York Times bestseller. She also established the record company Heiress Records in tandem to the release of her first album entitled Paris. She has fabricated four fragrances: Can Can, Paris Hilton, Just Me, and Heiress and has designed a line of expensive purses for the Samantha Thavasa- a brand out of Japan. The list goes on and on, getting increasingly ridiculous. Paris has branded DreamCatchers hair extensions, a line of footwear (Paris Hilton Footwear) and of course has a nightclub named after her (Club Paris). So, what are the implications of these celebrity-branded products?
Alan Bryman defines dedifferentiation of consumption as the instance when different forms of consumption become intertwined. I would like to extrapolate this cultural phenomenon from the spatial sense to one which refers to individuals in spotlight. It has become increasingly common that celebrities are not only mass distributed commodities but also exist as intersecting spheres of consumption. Contemporary musicians now work also as models and actresses, fashioning their own self-branded perfume, magazines, toiletries, clothing and jewelry lines. For instance, Jennifer Lopez is not only a musician, but also a model for Louis Vuiton, an actress, has her own branded fragrance and of course a line of apparel. Other examples of this dedifferentiation of consumption can be extrapolated to Kate Moss, George Clooney and Uma Thurman. Like Marilyn Monroe, these celebrities have been branded and commodified through several means of consumption. In sum, celebrities are recognized in contemporary society not as people but as a breathing manifestation of a brand name.
The “post-war western world has grown up with the association between happiness and consumption” (Rockler-Gladen 12). In the throwaway culture of America, the evolution of consumption patterns has perversely progressed to the point where self-identity is fashioned through corporate branding and the branding of flesh. “Consumption has been the primary means through which individuals have participated in culture and transformed it” (Bermingham 14). Even Jean Baudrillard’s reinterpretation of Marx’s theory of use-exchange value fails to fully deracinate the roots of the problem. Even more alarming is this obsession with sign value infecting the mainstream can be extrapolated to celebrities, who have evolved into catalysis for consumption and paradigms for identity construction. The conspicuous consumption and deification of celebrities has resulted in the mass production and distribution of icons as if, as Andy Warhol beautifully illustrated, they are products. Dedifferentiation of consumption and mass distribution associated with celebrity icons such as Paris Hilton unveil how the proliferation of sign consumption has imperialized American taste culture “The proliferation of signs, dedifferentiation of institutional spheres, depthlessness, cultivated nostalgia, and the problematization of authenticity and reality”(Bryman 43) are all intrinsic aspects of post-modernity. Thus, identity construction is influenced from a two-tire paradigm of sign value obsession: the brand-product and the brand-name. “Fiske describes shopping centers as ‘cathedrals of consumption’” (Storey 150)
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