The Merchandise Revolt

François Cheval

There was a time when modern man considered himself to be a creator and manufacturer of objects. This model is no longer valid. Homo faber is fast disappearing and is being replaced by homo consumer. Photography has accompanied this major transformation in contemporary society. Since Pop Art, the frantic quest for abundance and the resulting consequences have been the main subject of the representation sphere. So, what can we see today that we haven’t already spotted? Excess and extravagance have covered painted surfaces and photographs since the sixties. However, in a new development, we no longer pray at the altar of profusion. The reduction of the individual to the status of consumer and client has not happened completely. Images have transformed the individual into a witness to his own alienation: in order to have, one watches one’s own destruction. For a time, the consumer believed the party line that recommended satisfying all ones passions and exalting all ones needs, but when one is free to make one’s own choices, one finds oneself to be a mere plaything of the false.

Desire, that never-photographed, obscure thing, is constantly being hunted. The entrepreneur and advertising man imagine that they control all yearning, so full of assurance are they and so convinced of the relevance of their concept. By making sure they correctly, benevolently satisfy diverse and infinite appetites, they presume to hold the keys to understanding and, as such, creating shifts in society. 

The official economic line where man is bombarded with needs that are resolved advantageously by satisfaction is a fable. Nevertheless, the insatiable consumer enters into a terrible spiral of destruction and submission to merchandise. The photographer, who is involved, sees this situation in another way. Obviously, the photographer is not the only one to bear witness to the general alienation of the individual, but, from another angle, he attempts to grasp the signs of dependence.

It takes only a few documents to prove that the notion of need is conceptually useless. Coveted objects have lost their value of use. Our relationship to things and our often hysterical behavior as consumers, correspond to other intentions. Our so-called insatiable appetite is no longer but a pretext. It is moving away, and being replaced by a corpus of signs that establish a new social code of values. Enjoyment is no longer, as we are told, the truth behind individual consumption, but a suite of dictated and integrated acts. Working, acquiring and destroying is both a planned way of life and a system of communication.

The private sphere has disappeared. Merchandise has colonized all of the spaces of the intimate and destroyed the last of the collective bodies. Narcissus survives in the middle of a hallucinatory universe of representation without reality. He prowls, rootless, with no sense belonging and devoid of all morality. He cannot answer all solicitations. The market wants him to remain dissatisfied, impatient and nervous. His addiction to credit makes him hand on to the new. The obsolescence of devices is his nirvana. In the Empire of things, man is beaten by matter.

Ostentation and emulation are the two moments of competition between consumers. In the most expressive of circumstances, one shamelessly preens in front of the camera. Modesty has no place in today’s world. Consumption has become a means of differentiation. Possessing assigns not only a social position but exposes a status. We treat ourselves, we enjoy, but we no longer weigh up. The era of saving, work, assets, and the morality that went along with it, has been rejected by the spending economy. Satisfying one’s needs is, in the end, is only a basic level that is soon reached. Through the possession of goods and services, the system of signs redefines the mode of communication, language and code of modern times. Man looks at himself and others in and through the objects they consume. The real world withdraws, replaced by signs, the illusion of the real.

The object, whether consumed or not, is but a desired appearance. Once it is rid of all mystery, on show, we have a right to ask if matter has not itself become nothing but a sign outside of that which can be felt. The social collective unconscious has replaced need in this mode of communication between the consumer and the seller. While consumption regulates the social body, the consumer imagines that he is an actor. He wanders among the merchandise, surrounded by his illusions, waiting for the transaction that will set him free. The act of consuming, a little or a lot, constrains and institutionalizes. By ingesting, destroying and corrupting things, the modern consumer does not savor, he is accomplishing his duty as a citizen! And when the words separate, the conspicuous signs re-establish fake social links. Waste and pollution matter little, habits impose themselves as legitimate, they are never called into question and reign over the domestic sphere. 

In the end, this is all quite rational. Merchandise prospers without us ever realizing the violence it inflicts on the world. The individual is trained to consume and is prepared to adopt the values that enable the system to reproduce itself without end. In exchange for the relative ease that the fiction of the spectacle procures, we accept the dependence of our lives. This production-consumption mode needs images to ensure its control over all of our activities. It subjects the individual to passivity and unconsciousness and, in the end, a form of abstraction. Chained to the fake communication of social networks, mobile telephones and entertainment in all its forms, individuals pursue chimera that they imagine to be original.

Communication amplifies and transforms the nature of the imagined and our vision for happiness. Linked to the unification of the planet through merchandise, the new forms of message have found a universal platform of pseudo-desires. The human being is being redefined. He remains a social subject, but one that is characterized by banal impulses that are imposed on him and shared by all. Photography, like a surreal echo, bears witness to the mutation that is underway. Its most extreme consequences lead to McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”, but photography turns this around. We are the message of the merchandise, its product and its waste, the consenting victim of infinite entertainment, without an end.

August, 2016