For want of anything better, another excerpt from The Age of Aesthetics. This one is a bit rough — still needs work (too many undigested quotations, for one thing).
The drive for aesthetic innovation goes far beyond the sale of individual products. “Ultimately,” Wolfgang Fritz Haug says, “the aestheticization of commodities means that they tend to dissolve into enjoyable experiences, or into the appearance of these experiences, detached from the commodity itself… By selling the commodity in the form of absolute consumption, the market remains unsatiated.” The aim of brands like Nike, Disney, Apple, Microsoft, and Sony is to market an experience, an entire lifestyle; to commodify a total organization of feeling and behavior. To fashion a world. “The corporation does not create the object (the commodity),” Mauricio Lazzarato writes, “but rather the world in which the object exists. It also doesnâ€™t create the subject (worker or consumer), but rather the world in which the subject exists.” Itâ€™s Bill Gates’ world, or Steve Jobs’ world, or Disney’s world; we just live in it.
Aesthetic innovation, therefore, doesn’t just mean releasing a particular new product or design. It means creating a whole new world for that product or design to inhabit. And buying aesthetics is never just choosing one particular item over another. Rather, it means acceding to, adapting to, and learning how to live in this new world. It means adopting new habits, and moving to new rhythms. Every advertisement asks us, like the billboard looming over Gerard Depardieu in Jean-Jacques Beineixâ€™s film The Moon in the Gutter (1983), to “Try Another World.” (It’s an advertisement for a brand of vermouth). The narrative of The Moon in the Gutter records the failure of Depardieuâ€™s embittered working-class character to cross over into the hypercommodified dream world signaled by the billboard, and embodied in Nastassja Kinski’s elusive socialite. But the “look and feel” of the film — flawless surfaces, bright colors, sumptuous lighting, and carefully composed gestures — suggests the total triumph of commodity aesthetics, even for those who cannot afford to purchase its products. The world of The Moon in the Gutter is already entirely aestheticized and commodified,as if the whole story had been played out in advance. It’s a world where even Depardieu’s failure, disgust, and abjection are so perfectly sculpted, so carefully self-contained, as to offer no possibility of difference, no hope of an exit.
This is why advertising goes beyond particular products,to market the brand or the whole corporation. It is as if these stood apart,in a world of their own, beyond the commodities in which their value is embodied. Advertising today, Lazzarato says, is “an incitation, a solicitation, to adopt a manner of life, that is to say, to adopt a manner of dressing, a manner of having a body, a manner of eating, a manner of communicating, a manner of inhabiting, a manner of moving, a manner of having a style, a manner of speaking, etc.â€ It’s not what we have that matters, so much as how we act, and who we are. “What we call the market,” Lazzarato continues, “is really the constitution/capturing of a clientele.” That is to say, Apple doesn’t just want me to buy one of their computers; it wants me to become a customer, to become part of their clientele. And indeed, I identify myself as a Macintosh and iPod user,and I buy Appleâ€™s products again and again. I am never done purchasing a lifestyle.
What Marshall McLuhan says about the innovative power of (technological) media applies as well to aesthetic innovation in product design and marketing. “All media work us over completely,” McLuhan says. “They are so persuasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.” And again, “any invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies, and such extension also demands new ratios or new equilibriums among the other organs and extensions of the body. There is, for example, no way of refusing to comply with the new sense ratios or sense ‘closure’ evoked by the TV image.” But Haug similarly notes that commercial aesthetic innovation “continually changes humankind as a species in their sensual organization, in their real orientation and material lifestyle, as much as in the perception, satisfaction, and structure of their needs.” For commodities “breed modes of behavior, structure perception, sensations, and power of judgment, shaping our language, clothing, and understanding of ourselves, our attitudes,and above all our relationship to our bodies.” Aesthetic innovation, in short, involves a remaking of the human body, and a mutation of the whole human sensorium.
In the Age of Aesthetics, we become monstrous: hybrids, chimeras, cyborgs. McLuhan attributes these changes to the new electronic media technologies of the twentieth (and now, the twenty-first) century. But we also need to grasp this monstrous metamorphosis as a process intrinsic to Capital itself, in its infinite, ever-expanding circulation, its relentless process of self-valorization. If Capital, in Marxâ€™s famous phrase, is “vampire-like,” and if we as workers provide the “living labor” on which the vampire-capital feeds, then we as consumers are the vampireâ€™s fanatical devotees, Renfields to its Dracula: heralds of its arrival, and celebrants of its exploitative excess.