I write about technology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek.


October 9, 2011

I Am Not Deceived

A common critique of consumer society and luxury goods in particular rests on Marx’s commodity fetishism read with Baudrillard’s notion of “sign-value”. In this view, objects acquire the ability to stand as symbols of status via advertising, which deceives us about the true cost of their production, typically far less than the price. Deception and belief are key to this account of status symbols, and there’s often an implicit reference to the premodern superstitions about certain fetish objects venerated as having magical properties.

To me, this is way of thinking about status symbols is not only not useful, it is actively counter-productive and advances the very phenomenon it opposes.

In psychoanalysis, a fetish is not an illusion but a disavowed belief. Žižek illustrates this with a joke: a man is believes that he is a kernel of corn, and goes to a psychiatrist who, after several treatments, finally convinces him otherwise. He leaves the office relieved, until he runs into a chicken on the street. He turns and runs back, terrified of being eaten and asks the psychiatrist what he should do. The psychiatrist replies, “But why are you afraid? You know you aren’t a kernel of corn!” The man replies, “Yes, but does the chicken know?”

Žižek claims that this is how belief functions. We do not subjectively assume our beliefs, instead they are imputed to an Other - in the joke, it’s the chicken. In fact, it isn’t necessary for anyone to literally believe in a superstition for it to have efficacy, it is enough that everyone believes that someone else believes. The other example Žižek gives is Santa Claus: the parents obviously don’t believe, but neither do the children, they just play along to not disappoint their parents. Despite no-one really believing, the idea of Santa Claus has its effects.

We can apply a similar insight to advertising and status symbols. It is not necessary for anyone to literally, subjectively believe that a particular commodity conveys status for it to function as a status symbol, it is enough that everyone presumes that someone else believes in it. Even if I “know very well” that a luxury car is just an ordinary object that has been suffused with signifying power through advertising, it still has efficacy for me if I believe that everyone else is naïve. I will continue to act as if the owner really does have higher status – acting deferential or whatever – even if I believe it’s fake, because I believe I will incur some social cost for violating the expectations of the Other who believes in my place. I am afraid of the chicken eating me because it thinks I am a kernel of corn, even though I know I am not.

The usual critiques of status symbols only enhance this effect. By telling us that advertising is deceptive and that everyone is duped by it, we come to believe even more strongly in an Other who believes. This even enhances advertising itself. I claim that the presumption that advertising is deceptive is implicitly included in it’s message. Reading between the lines, brands include the “radical” critique of advertising in the advertisements themselves. The message of advertising is effectively, “Everyone is deceived by our marketing. Buy our product, and everyone will think that you really are what we say you are.”

The illusion that advertising creates is not that owning this status symbol really turns you into a high-status person. Instead, it makes the same claim as this pseudo-radical critique: that there is an Other who is duped, and believes that owning a status symbol really turns you into a high-status person.

Žižek’s insight is necessary to explain the strange effectiveness of fast-food advertising. From time to time, blogs and forums on the internet post links to series of images showing “ads vs. reality” – the carefully-staged fake food that appears in advertising juxtaposed with what you are actually served, highlighting the great disparity between the two. The strangeness lies in the way that we know perfectly well that the sad-looking flattened burger on the tray looks nothing the advertising that is displayed everywhere in the restaurant.

There is no effort to hide it, it’s right under our noses. Isn’t the message of this kind of advertising to say, “You know the crap you’ll be getting, but don’t be embarrassed, here is what everyone else will think you are eating.”

Here again, advertising promises us that there is an Other who believes for us. The pseudo-radical subject that criticizes consumerism, claiming “I am not deceived, but everyone else is,” turns out to be the ideal consumer subject. Or as Lacan says, “Les non-dupes errent” – those who do not let themselves be caught in the deception err the most.


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