The Consumer Becomes the Everyday 'Artist'
Of course, many designers strenuously disagree. Several of those interviewed in Objectified justify their work by appealing to a purity of use value, arguing that they are paring away unnecessary aspects of goods and making them easier for people to use or consume. Jonathan Ives argues that design is a matter of establishing the “hierarchy of what’s important and what’s not important” and disguising or removing the clutter to help clarify our lives. But fundamentally, the appeal to usefulness is, as Baudrillard would say, an alibi.
More often than not, designers are merely the paid professionals who take the first crack at imbuing objects with emotional valency, with sign value. That value will later be authenticated and amplified by the products’ actual users—the immaterial labor that we consumers perform constantly, enhancing the meanings that circulate with a product or a brand. When we use an object we articulate a new way for it to mean something—in a new social context, to a different group of people, through an unexpected way of using it. We renew its sign value simply by revealing our willingness to use it. All of these gestures (which are not unlike the artists’ gestures in signing their works) accrue as brand equity or as an object’s “coolness” if they are made publicly.
Companies are sometimes able to enlarge their profits because of this unpaid labor. The social signals goods can send because of how we use them makes them more valuable on the market. MIT professor Renee Richardson Gosline’s recent research into luxury-goods consumption quantifies some of this, as this report in MIT News explains: “Gosline has quantified Veblen’s famous observation: Consumers are willing to pay twice as much for luxury apparel when they can use those products to send or receive social signals.” There is a relation between what goods can mean (a product of our using them) and what they can be sold for
For we the consumers, the primary compensation is a better-defined sense of self. In the film, Rob Walker, who writes the Consumed column for the New York Times Magazine, talks about consumption in terms of the narrative we tell to ourselves through the object we choose and use and cherish. With consumer choices, he argues, “you’re making a statement to yourself about yourself, and in sort of an abstract way you’re thinking about what they might be thinking of you ... but the crucial thing is the self, is your own audience, your own story of ‘I’m not that guy,’ ‘I am that guy.’ ” This touches on the double nature of consumption: It registers to ourselves as self-fashioning, but the way we must project our identity to establish it makes our effort into a kind of exploitable labor. Designers direct this immaterial labor process, teaching us its rules, starting us going on it, seeding a product with some potential meaning to prompt us to develop them further.
The differences, the distinctive qualities they build into products establish the terms by which we attempt to manufacture difference and distinction ourselves. In the social world of consumerism, that means design sets the terms for our self-production, in its industrialized and commercialized image. Design facilitates the consumerist approach to self-fashioning as public consumption – elaborate displays of brands and objects meant to stabilize a sense of ourselves while redefining subtly the meaning of those brands and objects. The various social media tools now available are supplying the infrastructure for this kind of subjectivity. We can make every consumption gesture public and permanently archiveable, and we can receive immediate, archiveable feedback about the degree to which our gesture was influential.
From a certain point of view that sounds creative and empowering – design teaches us how to manipulate the language of things that shapes our world and our identity. And we become artists, making socially valuable meaning out of our everyday choices. But it consigns us also to a particular form of identity based on novelty and to the treadmill of perpetual identity mongering, since the identity only appears during the publicized consumption gestures. Baudrillard points out that once artists’ signatures becomes more important than what they create art about, then they are condemned to repeating the same gesture of creation over and over again. “There is a discontinuity and reconstitution of the subject from act to act, of which the signature is the socio-culturally encoded index.” Thus any contemporary art work—and any gesture of self-creation as well—“is caught up in its subjectivity, in its very act, by that seriality against which it registers itself in the external world.”
To a degree, subjectivity has become seriality, the repeated need to make a self-defining gesture again and again, to keep signing all our works, on Facebook updates for the world to see. As financial blogger Felix Salmon has recently noted, (“Who’s the Warhol of fine-art photography?” Reueters, 7 December 2009) “the most expensive artists, even on a per-artwork level, are also the most prolific”—which is a reason why the Warhol market remains so lucrative, as this Economist story details (“The Pop master’s highs and lows”, 26 November 2009).
The gesture of consuming itself matters more than what it is we consume. The dilemmas of musical taste exemplify this—one’s listening to Billie Holiday, say, is always complicated by having to also be regarding oneself as the sort of person who listens to Billie Holiday. The music is consumed as sign and becomes unhearable as just plain music. Likewise, though we may intend to demonstrate our practicality and austerity by using only efficiently designed items, we are nonetheless signaling our intention to come across as austere and practical. No gesture, no object can be innocent once we’ve begun using them for our internal narrative about ourselves.
The language of objects is shaped by how the objects are used and discussed in the public sphere, by peers and marketers and media figures and so on, and we can try to control the degree to which we participate in the shaping of that language. We can opt out, lay low, consume less media, try to disappear into anonymity. But if we choose to exist socially, we are doomed to become the social meanings we make and remake. Unfortunately, most of us lack the calm confidence of professional designers, of cool hunters, of marketers, who are paid for such work. Instead, we can feel ourselves hanging existentially in the balance of each twitterable moment, driven by insecurity, always wondering if our efforts will be ignored or misunderstood or rendered incomprehensible by the rapid change of fashion. How will I survive if my next tweet is so five minutes ago?