Has True Romance Disappeared in Consumer Society? A Morinian and Baudrillardian Reflection of the Acute Crisis of Simulation

by Keith Moser

 

Abstract

In the context of the transdisciplinary philosophy of Edgar Morin and Jean Baudrillard, this essay delves into the gap between image and reality that has further problematized the elusive quest for love and companionship living in a technologized world. Both thinkers persuasively maintain that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the postmodern subject to establish any kind of meaningful affective bond with another person due to the proliferation of idealistic images of romance that bombard us from all sides in the digital age. According to Morin and Baudrillard, celebrities play an important hegemonic role in the transmission of pervasive hyperreal fiction denoting utopian signs of love that stand in for true romance in the collective imagination of the consumer citizen. In a post-Marxist landscape in which the incessant reproduction of commercial simulacra is paramount for the survival of the capitalist paradigm, these unconventional philosophers and sociologists explain that simulated reality is the most oppressive and effective form of social control ever conceived.

 

Keywords

True Romance, Consumer Society, Edgar Morin, Jean Baudrillard, Celebrities, Hollywood, hyperreality, simulation, post-Marxist thought

 

The purpose of this reflection is to explore how symbolic representations depicting an idealized vision of romance have proliferated themselves to such an alarming extent in the modern world that they appear to be on the verge of effacing the real entirely. Through the lens of Edgar Morin and Jean Baudrillard’s philosophy, this investigation related to the inability to distinguish between reality and its representation will demonstrate that banal commercial simulacra whose only purpose is to generate revenue shape romantic conceptions of love and amorous desire in Western civilization that are grounded in chimerical fantasies. With the publication of his landmark essay The Stars in 1957, Morin became “one of the first academics to take popular culture seriously” (Montuori 5). Specifically, Morin probes the hegemonic role of the Hollywood star system in the incessant creation and dissemination of lucrative signs promoting an idealistic concept of love inextricably linked to a vast array of cosmetic products. Morin offers concrete examples that illustrate how our tenuous grasp of anything real that exists outside of this ubiquitous realm of simulation has been eroded by our unending consumption of these contrived images. Morin posits that actual couples try to mold their partners into the shape of the imaginary, cinematic archetypes that fuel their hyperreal reverie. Morin explains that Hollywood simply invented the notion that an ideal lover “closes her eyes when being kissed” (80). Heavily influenced by Morin, Baudrillard expands his theories reaching the radical conclusion that global society has entered into an “acute crisis of simulation” in which all semblance of meaning has been withered away by this avalanche of signs that now stands in for the real (48). For Baudrillard, the “nectar of simulation” has commodified every facet of the human condition including the search for love and companionship (Cline n.p.).

Both thinkers contend that the “Hollywood star system” is a by-product of what scholars such as Fredric Jameson, Michel Husson, and Francisco Louçã commonly refer to as the crisis of late capitalism (Montuori 5). In a changing economic landscape in which “all of the basic needs of the masses have been satisfied,” the capitalist paradigm predicated upon constant growth and expansion had to find a way to survive (Messier 25). According to Morin, Baudrillard, and other post-Marxist theorists, marketers developed a calculated strategy to promote incessant and frivolous consumption in order to keep the wheels of the financial system spinning at all times. Taking advantage of modern technology, Morin and Baudrillard assert that transnational corporations would begin to sell prepackaged, metonymical pieces of the good(s) life[1] reflecting a purely symbolic universe that has never truly existed anywhere with the exception of a digital screen. Morin and Baudrillard maintain that celebrities are an important cog in a larger system of post-Marxist exploitation, because stars enable the “consumer citizen” to breathe life into these utopian fantasies that have been carefully manufactured for his or her immediate consumption (Baudrillard Le Système des objets 218).

In Chapter 1 of The Stars, Morin argues “the star plays an essential role […] in the capitalist atmosphere” (2). Describing celebrities as an ideological archetype whose function is to encourage unbridled consumption of a plethora of consumer goods with a symbolic value that far outweighs their practical usage, Morin declares, “Movie stars rule over radio and television alike […] The stars endorse everything: toilet articles, makeup, refrigerators, beauty contests […] their private life is public; their public life, publicity. The stars play a social and moral role as well” (4). For the philosopher, the Hollywood star system is part and parcel of a new repressive social order that indoctrinates purchaser citizens[2] to reinforce the economic model through the power of the purse strings. Morin theorizes that the simulated chimeras endlessly promulgated by celebrities are linked to “a system which is contingent upon the domination of human and natural life” (Hardwick 372). According to Morin, traditional mores that have undergirded human civilizations for centuries are “under threat from the largely visible star culture” that has permeated all facets of the human condition at the dawning of a new millennium (Czach 145).

Demonstrating that the never-ending reproduction of commercial signs transmitted by actors and actresses has replaced production itself as the most salient feature of the capitalist paradigm in the postmodern world, Morin affirms,

The star system is first of all production […] Let us add that the star is not only a subject but an object of advertising. She sponsors perfumes, soaps, cigarettes, and so on, and thereby multiplies her commercial utility […] she is the typical merchandise of capitalism on a major scale. The enormous investments, the system’s industrial techniques or rationalization and standardization, effectively convert the star into merchandise destined for mass consumption […] she is capital merchandise. (113–115)

In a different economic climate in which having a stronghold over the means of production is less vital than controlling the dissemination of information, the nexus of power now emanates from an elaborate semiotic network comprised of enticing signs from which there is “no exit” (Kellner 128). Morin explains that the powers that be no longer need to subdue the masses using brute force, given the ideological efficacy of the images of success, happiness, and luxury that bombard the postmodern subject through a myriad of divergent screens. Moreover, the philosopher describes stars as floating signifiers that no longer refer to anything real outside of a code imploring brainwashed consumers to purchase more items at the mall or in a department store. For all intents and purposes, Morin insists that the public persona of a given celebrity, which is merely another imaginary product to be sold through a line of accessories that supposedly allow someone to live like Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, has “eclipsed” the real (Norris n.p.). In simple terms, stars have assumed the hegemonic function of convincing the public that the grandiose, far-fetched simulations that flash across our screens are somehow attainable, if we are able to acquire enough metonymical bits of these illusory pipe dreams. As the following section of this essay will highlight in a more systematic fashion, perhaps the most profitable aspect of the fantasies that stars are constantly peddling in advertisements and commercials is an image of romance that is quite disconnected from concrete reality.

As numerous critics like Alex Cline, Douglas Kellner, Kelly Maddox, Gerry Coulter, Emil André Røyrvik, and Marianne Blom Brodersen note, “Jean Baudrillard is widely considered to be one of the first post-Marxist philosophers” (Cline n.p.). Similar to Morin, Baudrillard often expresses his disquieting anxiety related to the deluge of insignificant signs that accost us at nearly every waking moment in consumer republics, a term coined by the historian Lizabeth Cohen in A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. Summarizing Baudrillard’s position about the essence of power in an age of consumer capitalism, Emil André Røyrvik and Marianne Blom Brodersen elucidate, “In the postmodern society of simulation and hyperreality, Baudrillard contends that capitalism is organized around sign-values. The modern logic of production has ended, the referent as well as depth, essence and any ‘outside’ have all disappeared and societies are organized around the play of images, signs, codes and models” (639). Proposing a similar interpretation of Baudrillard’s theoretical framework for understanding the pivotal role of simulated paradises in contemporary capitalism as Røyrvik and Brodersen, Douglas Kellner underscores, “We live in ‘hyperreality’ of simulations in which images, spectacles and the play of signs (or simulacra) replace the logic of production and class conflict as key constituents of contemporary societies” (129). Morin’s “complex theory” and Baudrillard’s reworking of symbolic exchange implore the postmodern subject to be skeptical about the signs that we internalize on a daily basis. Both philosophers attempt to dig beneath the surface of the hyperreal façade concealing the hegemonic purpose of these ubiquitous images in an effort to expose what they consider to be the latest and most oppressive type of social control ever conceived.

In his seminal essay Pour une critique de l’economie politique du signe, Baudrillard decries, “la production systématique de signes, les systèmes de valeur pour brouiller la lutte des classes et mystifier les gens” (131). The philosopher further clarifies, “la classe dominante assure sa domination et perpétue par un code, une fiction de parité […] au profit de la classe dominante” (Pour une critique de l’economie politique du signe 139). In these passages and all throughout his prolific œuvre, it is evident that Baudrillard shares many of the same philosophical convictions as Morin concerning the structure of late capitalism. Given that Baudrillard’s first work Le système des objets was published only a few years after Morin’s The Stars, it is surprising that intertextual studies comparing the theories of these fellow philosophers and sociologists are scant. Baudrillard seems to have derived a considerable amount of philosophical inspiration from Morin’s reflections about the Hollywood star system. Although Baudrillard pushes the boundaries of semiotic control through the continual transmission of commercial simulacra even further than Morin announcing “the final stage of simulation” in his later texts like The Intelligence of Evil and The Transparency of Evil, they reach many of the same overall conclusions (Barron 394).

Furthermore, Baudrillard also denounces the complicity of celebrities in the manufacturing and diffusion of hyperreal delusions that have no basis in reality. It is in his often-misunderstood essay Amérique in which the provocative philosopher most clearly articulates his derision for what stars represent in the programmed imagination of the consumer citizen. As a result of the wide-ranging influence of Hollywood culture in American society and the hollow, consumerist virtues that it reflects, “Baudrillard sees America as the ultimate simulacrum, no longer an artificial copy of an authentic original but an endless chain of copies referring to each other” (Kooijman 22). Baudrillard avers that the United States is “the land of hyperreality […] a country where the simulation of experience in film, television, museums, theme parks, and moments is irrevocably replacing the ‘real’ and ‘objective’ facts of the past, works of art, human relationships and geographic locales” (Toth 199–200). In reference to the image-based (hyper-) reality that celebrities are in part responsible for generating, Baudrillard opines, “The screen idols are immanent in the unfolding of life as a series of images. They are a system of luxury prefabrication, brilliant syntheses of stereotypes of life and love. They embody one single passion: the passion for images […] They are not something to dream about, they are the dream” (America 56). In his disconcerting analysis of the hegemonic function of the star system, Baudrillard explains that celebrities symbolize a dream that millions of people around the planet strive to emulate. Additionally, Baudrillard discusses how the meaningless clichés “of life and love” or prepackaged caricatures of romance that stars quite literally sell to the general populace have affected our ability to discern between reality and its representation. In Amérique, Baudrillard suggests that the trite vision of the ideal lover that accosts us from all sides in magazines, newspapers, billboards, and television has taken on a life of its own, thereby replacing genuine romance, because of the force of Hollywood archetypes.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Morin and Baudrillard formulated bold hypotheses for this time period related to “the impact of imaginary and subjective projections on reality” in the context of these cinematic conceptions of romance in mainstream Western culture (Margulies 68). Decades before, it was commonplace to identify an actor or actress as a “provender of dreams,” Morin affirms that the star “assists in the worldwide diffusion of a concept of love, a whole culture of love, very particular to Western society” (136; 145). Theorizing that the utopian image of perfect love epitomized by movie stars has been arbitrarily fabricated by the system in order to unload a surplus of goods in a post-Marxist atmosphere, Morin maintains, “Love thus manufactured is evidently created in the image of love in the movies themselves” (53). Explicitly linking cinematic depictions of romance to the aforementioned post-Marxist dilemma, the philosopher reveals why lovers in many Hollywood films and advertisements feel compelled to smoke a cigarette after engaging in coitus. As the philosopher clearly states, “The star is always good advertising […] she invites us to use her cigarettes” (137). Not only do celebrities promote a certain view of romance that is emblematic of pure hyperreal reverie, but Morin also reminds us that simulated sexuality revolving around the cult of the stars is often used to manipulate clients into purchasing specific items. In this vein, the researcher Michele Schreiber highlights the hegemonic role of product placement in the “postfeminist romance film” (15). Providing several concrete examples of this phenomenon in contemporary American cinema, Schreiber argues that “The high production values and glamorous, well-appointed décor and costumes in many of these films create an attractive environment for product placement, and sell romance, even if it is a failing romance, as an attractive lifestyle” (15).

In The Stars, Morin evokes the philosophical and anthropological theory of mimesis in an effort to shed light on why product placement appears to be such an effective ideological tool for dictating consumer behavior. Implying that Homo sapiens have a heightened predilection to imitate the actions of those around them in comparison to the rest of the animal kingdom to which we in fact belong, Morin posits, “The imaginary identifications are themselves ferments of practical identifications or mimetisms. The stars guide our manners, gestures, poses, attitudes […] the way we lift a glass-casually or with significant sex appeal-the way we […] refuse or permit a kiss” (136). Similar to other contemporary French philosophers like René Girard and Michel Serres, Morin contends that mimesis is the very foundation of human collective identity. From a biological standpoint, our innate desire to belong to a social group and to be accepted by others is so strong that it is an evolutionary flaw strategically exploited by marketers. As Serres theorizes in a recent conversation with Michel Polacco, “We are animals that like to imitate, who willingly repeat a gesture or a word. You tell me something, I repeat it, and a hundred other people that I tell it to repeat it in turn, as if mimesis, as if imitation is the core of the social link par excellence. This is how to explain fashion […] we are the most imitative animals, even more imitative than monkeys” (Polacco 58). In addition to tapping into our imagination thus convincing us to suspend disbelief and all critical reflection related to erotic simulacra that are utterly divorced from reality, Morin also observes that “many mimetisms focus on clothes” (136). Harnessing the power of mimesis, the financial system sells us all of the metonymical pieces that we need to conform to a preexisting mold of an ideal mate.

In Chapter 3 of The Stars entitled “The Stellar Liturgy,” the philosopher includes persuasive excerpts from interviews that he conducted in the field as a formally trained sociologist to reinforce the theory of mimesis. One of the most revealing of these recorded conversations is between Morin and an unidentified nineteen-year-old girl. Confessing that the steady diet of romantic comedies that she devours has distorted her appreciation of what true romance entails outside of the confines of cinematic (hyper-)reality, the young woman divulges, “The settings of love scenes always held my attention and I’ve always noted little tricks (which I’ve put into practice) such as curling my boyfriend’s hair in my fingers and stroking his face exactly as I’ve seen my screen favorites do in the love scenes” (Morin 80). In the remainder of this section of the essay, Morin probes the philosophical implications of this complete internalization of a code solely conceived to maximize revenue for a corporation. The philosopher argues that it is becoming increasingly difficult to establish any sort of meaningful romantic bond with another person because of the gap that exists between these prepackaged signs of love and the real thing.

In a misguided attempt to attract a partner, many people force themselves to fit into a manufactured archetype representing a Hollywood facsimile of romance. Not only has the consumer citizen been conditioned to look for a companion that speaks, dresses, and behaves in accordance with simulations of love, but Morin also emphasizes that millions of individuals fall prey to the trap of “training” their partners to be more faithful representations of screen-based images. In this regard, the philosopher asserts that romantic simulacra associated with stars are not innocent fantasies. As Keith Moser explains in his Baudrillardian investigation of hyperreal romance in the film Don Jon, the aforementioned teenager studied by Morin is an actual “victim of erotic simulations” (79). In Western civilization, Morin outlines how signs of romance have further problematized the elusive quest for love in this sense. In his dissertation entitled “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Diamonds and the Accumulation of De Beers 1935–55,” David Troy Cochrane traces the historical origins of social conventions related to engagement rings. In particular, Cochrane reveals that an aggressive De Beers marketing campaign created arbitrary rules regarding how much money should be spent on a diamond ring. As Cochrane uncovers, “De Beers’ efforts to transform the diamond engagement ring tradition were very successful. Diamonds became the singular symbol of a couple’s engagement. The aspirational component, which was intended to counter a trend toward smaller, cheaper diamonds, has become contained in the widely quoted ‘two months salary’ benchmark for what a man should spend on an engagement ring” (265). Although this fabricated “tradition” should have been dismissed immediately by everyone as an overt form of manipulation, Cochrane notes that “the nectar of simulation” to which Cline refers in semiotic terms would become the socially accepted cultural norm. This baffling and profoundly unsettling example gives credence to Morin’s theories about the prevalence and force of romantic simulacra. Given that this “benchmark” has become thoroughly ingrained in American culture, it is hard to deny that many people expect their partners to conform to hyperreal, exploitative, romantic archetypes.

In addition to the compelling evidence that Morin presents in support of his main argument that the consumer citizen is indoctrinated to seek love and affection in a symbolic universe devoid of any real meaning, the philosopher underscores how all traces of negativity are deliberately removed from the romantic images that we consume. Specifically, Morin maintains that the star system promotes an unrealistic ideal of feminine beauty that most women simply cannot live up to from a biological perspective. Even though “the socially constructed notion that physical attractiveness is one of women’s most important assets, and something that all women should strive to achieve and maintain” has been around for countless eons, Morin theorizes that this pressure to make oneself correspond to an ideal of beauty has been elevated to unprecedented heights with modern technology (Spade and Valentine find page number). In the middle of the twentieth century, the philosopher documents the cinematic techniques that producers were already using to get rid of all visible imperfections. In reference to how the innate physical attractiveness of female stars is greatly enhanced by a skilled director, Morin muses, “Beauty is one of the sources of ‘star quality,’ and the star system does not content itself with prospecting for it in merely its natural state: it has created or revived the arts of cosmetics, costume, carriage, manners, photography, and, if necessary, surgery, which perfect, prolong, or even produce beauty” (31). As Morin suggests in this passage, the embellished beauty of Hollywood actresses had already entered into the domain of the hyperreal as early as the 1950s. Lending support to his philosophical claims, Morin identifies Martine Carol and Juliette Gréco as two female stars whose new surgically enhanced faces only bare a vague resemblance to the ones that they inherited from birth (34).

For those who are wary of plastic surgery, the philosopher observes that a photographer or producer has many other options at his or her disposal, including the usage of different kinds of camera lenses, makeup, and lighting techniques. Illustrating how the star industry has long utilized various types of technology to distort the lucrative images that they sell to the public, Morin asserts, “To all of the artifices of makeup and plastic surgery are added those of photography. The cameraman must always control the angles of his shots […] must always eliminate every infraction of beauty from his field of vision. Projectors redistribute light and shadow over the stars’ faces according to the same ideal requirements” (35). After reflecting upon how seductive images of feminine sexuality and romance that are not naturally occurring are generated, the philosopher explores the philosophical and social repercussions related to the proliferation of these manufactured simulacra representing an inauthentic ideal of beauty. Morin implies that this phenomenon is a real problem because actual flesh and blood women whose image has not been digitally enhanced cannot measure up to this unachievable goal. In her review of the existing literature devoted to this contentious subject, A. Poorani offers the following assessment: “Many advertising scholars have offered cultural critiques of advertising. Some of the emergent themes in their works investigate the beauty myth. Wolf (1991) argued that portrayed images of beauty present impossible standards for women to achieve. She claimed idealized beauty is unrealistic” (6). Siding with numerous theorists who argue that trying to imitate a conception of beauty that originates from a symbolic realm is problematic on multiple levels, the philosopher ponders whether the search for love is more fraught with peril than ever before.

For Morin, it is deeply troubling that so many people judge potential mates based upon signs of romance that have conditioned them to desire certain traits that do not exist outside of simulated reality. Not only does this kind of semiotic programming lead to perpetual dissatisfaction, but it can also be a contributing factor to serious health issues. In this vein, Galya Hildesheimer and Hemda Gur-Arie investigate the relationship between Photoshopped images and eating disorders. Adopting an empirical approach, Hildesheimer and Gur-Arie undermine “myopic views” of anexoria, bulimia, and binge-eating that solely focus on the role of computer-generated imagery to the detriment of ignoring many other underlying root causes of these disorders (103). Nonetheless, these researchers have noted a strong correlation between the unnatural, consumerist simulacra decried by Morin and the increasing frequency and intensity of these medical conditions.

Beginning with the publication of Le système des objets in 1968, Baudrillard builds upon and expands the theoretical framework developed by Morin in The Stars for understanding the hegemonic purpose of all manifestations of Hollywood semiosis including signs of romance. According to Baudrillard, genuine romance is simply another casualty in the disappearance of reality on a larger scale. In the context of erotic simulations and representations of love, Baudrillard declares, “Here too one cannot distinguish between reality and its models, there being no other reality that that secreted by the simulative models” (Seduction 11). The philosopher posits that the flood of incessant simulacra that we ingest has commodified human sexuality and the search for romance. Like Morin, Baudrillard directs much of his attention to the “code of beauty” that has transformed the female body into a hyperreal sign or a mere object of consumption (The Consumer Society 26). The philosopher describes the enhanced imagery highlighted by Morin, which is supposed to exude femininity and sex appeal, as a fetish or “an object that is positioned purely for its symbolic value” (Koch and Elmore 556). For both thinkers, the problem with idealistic archetypes of romance and eroticism that are generated in a studio and disseminated to the general populace through Hollywood cinema and other expressions of popular culture is that “The fetishisation of the body through makeup and adornment creates a seductive sexuality that is not grounded in real sexuality” (Dant 507).

In a passage that is reminiscent of Morin’s apprehension about how women are judged by prefabricated signs of beauty that represent an impossible standard, Baudrillard laments, “For women, beauty has become an absolute, religious imperative, being beautiful is no longer an effect of nature or a supplement to moral qualities. It is the basic, imperative quality of those who take the same care of their faces and figures as they do of their souls. It is a sign, at the level of the body that one is a member of the elect” (The Consumer Society 92). A few pages later in The Consumer Society, the philosopher reiterates, “If a woman does, in fact, consume herself, this is because her relation to herself is objectivized and fueled by signs, signs which make up the feminine model, which constitutes the real object of consumption” (96–97). Similar to Morin, Baudrillard contends that the dominant feminine ideal of beauty in postmodern Western society is a simulated caricature that exists outside of nature. In an effort to belong to a given social group and to find love, Baudrillard asserts that consumer citizens pledge their allegiance to a preexisting model of romance linked to all of the products that are supposed to bring these utopian images to life. Baudrillard shares Morin’s conviction that it is because of the power of mimesis that there is such little resistance to romantic simulacra that do not hold up to critical scrutiny.

In comparison to Morin, Baudrillard more explicitly outlines the very real dangers of simulated femininity. Creating a rending portrait of the dark side of the cult of feminine beauty that has crossed over into the hyperreal because of technological advances, the philosopher notes that the feminine ideal “can only be slim and slender, according to its current definition as a combinatorial logic of signs, governed by the same algebraic economy as the functionality of objects or the elegance of a diagram. It even tends, somewhat, towards the scrawny and emaciated, on the lines of the models and mannequins that are simultaneously the negation of the flesh and the exaltation of fashion” (The Consumer Society 142). Baudrillard grumbles in disgust about “the skinny, emaciated models of Vogue” that have become the desired feminine body in Western civilization (The Consumer Society 142). It is in this sense in which Baudrillard’s earlier comments in The Consumer Society regarding the “perils of the social liberation of women” should be understood (97). After enduring centuries of systematic patriarchal oppression, Baudrillard explains that many women in Western society would soon become pawns of late capitalism to the point of allowing virtual simulations to define their corporal essence.

In their Baudrillardian interpretations of the crisis of simulated femininity and its real-life victims, Kathleen Dixon, Daniela Koleva, and Andrew Root highlight the schism between manufactured cinematic images and reality. Arguing that the Hollywood star system itself is nothing but a gigantic semiotic hologram from which all substance has been intentionally excised, Dixon and Koleva declare, “the […] hyperreal real world of celebrity—it exists nowhere other than in mass-mediated images and the events staged around and through such images” (n.p.). Juxtaposing “the ugliness of real celebrity lives and their real bodies” to the contrived signs of beauty that they continually display, Dixon and Koleva reveal, “We won’t see Paris and Nicole in the bathroom of a nightclub shooting up drugs (in ‘real life,’ Nicole is said to be an addict), or barfing up their dinners to keep their Size 3 bodies” (n.p.; n.p.). Dixon and Koleva’s frank analysis of the deleterious effects of cinematic hyperreality upon young women is in line with the concerns expressed by Hildesheimer and Gur-Arie in their previously mentioned study. From a medical perspective, experts agree that the skeletal image of beauty scoffed at by Dixon and Koleva is no laughing matter at all.

From a romantic angle, Andrew Root explains that the emaciated look vividly depicted by Baudrillard in The Consumer Society is a serious issue rendering the timeless quest for love even more daunting as well. Many women correctly think that potential mates will evaluate them according to an unachievable, artificial conception of beauty. As Root emphasizes, “So now mean judge real women by the sign, by the simulation, and want the simulation more than the real, measuring beauty not by the real, but by the simulation” (240). Unless they are able to mold their bodies into the ideal cinematic shape, women realize that their romantic options are limited. Given that men have been trained to seek satisfaction for their amorous desires through signs of female attractiveness, it is a rather shallow dating pool for women who do not correspond to this predominate model. Knowing that they will be ultimately evaluated according to their ability to replicate simulations of what sexy females are supposed to look like, many women spend a lot of time and energy trying to duplicate these screen-based images of femininity. In this regard, Baudrillard observes that the “ascetic practice of ‘dieting’” or what he calls “the aggressive drive against the body” was already a million-dollar industry in the 1960s (The Consumer Society 142; 142). The fact that unscrupulous companies like It Works! still generate millions of dollars in revenue from gimmicks like body wraps that exploit an individual’s need to be accepted and loved by someone else proves Baudrillard’s arguments related to simulations of romance.

In Seduction, the philosopher pinpoints another manner in which signs of sexuality have created unrealistic expectations that a partner is likely unable to fulfill. As opposed to condemning pornography on classical ethical and philosophical grounds, Baudrillard denounces it as a crime against reality. Explaining that the pornographic industry transmits an idealistic vision of sexual gratification that real lovers can never hope to achieve, the philosopher asserts, “The same occurs with hard core and blue porn: the sexual organ, whether erect or open wide is just another sign in the hypersexual panoply […] the more immersed one becomes in the accumulation of signs […] the more enclosed one becomes in the endless oversignification of a real that no longer exists, and of a body that never existed” (Baudrillard Seduction 32–33). Summarizing Baudrillard’s unconventional stance about pornography, Richard King affirms, “Telesex constructs a domain in which all the women are beautiful, always ready and always satisfied, a space in which the men are skilled lovers, with large pricks and beautiful bodies […] There are no hesitations, doubts or failures: disease, discomfort, lack of lubrication, and premature ejaculation never intrude […] Telesex is perfect; it is clean […] It is disinfected, it does not communicate disease(s), but desire” (97–98). As King underscores, the Baudrillardian view of pornography illustrates that erotic simulacra set up both men and women for chronic disenchantment. Given that many people cannot realistically aspire to imitate the bedroom antics of their favorite adult film star, Baudrillard hypothesizes that pornography is antithetical to true romance as well. For Baudrillard, the reason why couples are often frustrated with the quality of their sex life is because they long to experience the signs of pleasure on their screen. Baudrillard insists that pornographic images are yet another reason why romances often fail in postmodern society.

In conclusion, Morin and Baudrillard are two maverick philosophers who create a destabilizing vision of the postmodern subject living in a purely symbolic world in which everything is at the brink of disappearing. Both thinkers posit that how Western society responded to the challenges of late capitalism would have far-reaching effects. After the limits of production had been reached, these post-Marxist theorists argue that the capitalist paradigm was forced to evolve. With the unending reproduction of symbolic images through various communicative vectors, Morin and Baudrillard maintain that the economic system found a well that would never run dry. Whereas actual needs are finite, the capacity of Homo sapiens to dream knows no bounds. For this reason, marketers would begin to take advantage of the most profitable fantasy of all: perfect love. Given that human beings appear to be hardwired from an evolutionary standpoint to seek companionship, Morin and Baudrillard demonstrate that we are extremely vulnerable to this particular form of hegemonic control through signs. Moreover, the pervasiveness of the Hollywood star system and its hollow conception of romance would further compound our inability to discern between reality and its representation. In the wake of the acceleration of romantic simulacra representing a carefully manufactured symbolic paradise, Morin and Baudrillard arrive at the harrowing conclusion that true romance is dead, if indeed it ever existed at all. Although these highly original philosophers do not propose a way out of the crisis of simulation, their philosophy is indispensable in a brave new world in which an increasing amount of our quotidian experiences are filtered through technology. The next time that we find ourselves enthralled in the latest romantic comedy, Morin and Baudrillard implore us to think a little harder about the artificial nature of the cultural product that we are consuming.

 

 

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[1] This expression was coined by Keith Moser in Chapter 3 of J.M.G. Le Clézio: A Concerned Citizen of the Global Village (2012).

[2] Some researchers prefer the term “purchaser citizen” instead of “consumer citizen.” I am using these expressions interchangeably. For a brief historical overview regarding how post-Marxist societies condition the masses to buy products with very limited use value, see Steigerwald, David. “All Hail the Republic of Choice: Consumer History as Contemporary Thought.” The Journal of American History (September 2006): 385–403.

 

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