The significance of consumerism in our everyday lives has long been understood to reach far beyond the economic, with consumption so intimately tied to the creation and production of a sense of self. Undeniably, products are imbued with a greater significance than what their primary function may be and embedded with certain symbols of identity acquired by the buyer, whether deliberately or unwittingly.
Jean Baudrillard, the famed French cultural theorist and philosopher, claimed that consumerism, or late capitalism, was an extension of the ‘hyperreal’. Hyperreality, in academic thought, essentially refers to a blending of reality and fiction. Baudrillard, in particular, saw hyppereality as a sign without an original signifier, i.e. going further than a merging of the real and the fabricated, he saw the hyperreal as creating symbols or signifiers representing things that did not exist. In this model, the world that we live in has essentially been replaced by a simulation, where meaning is constituted entirely within these simulated stimuli and nothing more – a simulation completed through the production and consumption of goods.
Examining the circulation and purchase of goods as language, thus allows us to unpack both the significance of desire within the framework of consumption and the understanding of consumerism as a language or code of social communication. In the first instance, the focus lies on the individual’s needs and wants, detailing a clear relationship between consumption and the psychological production of self; while in the latter case, the focus is on the cultural forces that enable this model, producing a cycle of desire and hope of fulfillment that cannot be satisfied with mere simulated signs. Functioning as a commentary on this consumerist culture that subsumes us, Shan Bhattacharya’s Blow further still, viscerally draws our attention to the associations between consumption, decay and disease.
A body of work from 2012, Blow in the artist’s own words, “takes a metaphorical, almost surreal look at modern-day consumerism and how it affects our inner state.” The collection of diptychs juxtapose diagnostic imagery of diseased human bodies with decayed or discarded leftovers of what we put into our mouth, presenting both structural and metaphorical analogues. Even while individual diptychs may draw wider interpretations, the collection as a whole presents a rather disturbing window into the politics of consumption.
In Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, the act of consumption assumes several metaphorical meanings – becoming an intimate reflection of the self, pigeonholed by gendered social and cultural expectations and realities (or hyperrealities). Its protagonist, Marian, working in market research at a consumer-survey company slowly begins to lose her sense of self, followed by a complete body/mind disconnect reflected by her inability to eat and consume as a regular participant in a material-patriarchal society. In one passage in the book, speaking to this very idea of consumption and decay and its intersections with our selves, Atwood writes:
“She looked around the room at all the women there, at the mouths opening and shutting, to talk or to eat…They were ripe, some rapidly becoming overripe, some already beginning to shrivel; she thought of them as attached by stems at the tops of their heads to an invisible vine, hanging there in various stages of growth and decay.”