- Personification and Consumption
This essay investigates some of the mechanisms of mass culture that dramatically set it apart from the world that we have come to regard as artistic culture and even, perhaps, as culture per se. One of the major problems expressed specifically in mass culture is a changing attitude toward the face as an object of perception or, putting it in broader terms, the problem of subjectivity within this culture—that is, those rules of individuation and identification that actually account for the various ways in which the face is presented and, in this sense, for this or that form of personification.
However, before dwelling on the face, we should say several words about mass culture itself. Here we are confronted with two extreme positions: First, there is the habit of reducing what we presently call mass culture to age-old ideas about large groups of people who comprise some kind of “cultural” community (based on ritual, religion, or popular culture). Second, there is the identification of mass culture with a simple expansion of a consumption that has basically stayed the same. Here, what was considered a “special” commodity addressed to relatively few consumers, according to an individual, authorial tradition, is now a property of the masses. In the first case we are unable to unveil the specific nature of the present moment, of a time when new forms of communication have emerged—forms that make mass culture what it is. In the second instance, it turns out that mass culture may exist only when there is an abundance of commodities, which is only apparently the case.
One may recall that the intense development of Hollywood took place precisely in the conditions of an economic crisis (the Great Depression). However, the situation that reproduced itself for decades in the Soviet Union presupposed an almost total absence of commodities. One may even draw a distinction between the American “consumer society” that remained what it was even during the Great Depression and the Soviet “society of needs” that knew nothing of the possibility of consumer choice. [End Page 525] In either case, we can register the effects of mass culture, although their origins and functioning are quite different indeed.
The consumer society erases the dividing line between commodity and image: the image appears as a commodity (here one can give examples of cinematic images created by the cinema industry), whereas the commodity, in its turn, is in constant search of its “own” image, its difference from similar commodities being so insignificant that what really counts is either a set of minute nonfunctional distinctions that give the commodity its “own” face or the system of advertising images that sort out a particular commodity from a host of others, which, in other words, personify it.
As for the society of needs, it does not offer its subjects a choice of commodities. Indeed, it offers no commodities at all, instead producing only necessary goods, although even those are constantly lacking. Therefore, their imagistic duplication is not so important. (Hence, it is quite logical that in the USSR there was practically no advertising after the 1920s.) Moreover, there is no need to embody an image of a thing precisely because it is always already given, as an image of desire. But even here we may discover an important, although less evident, issue having to do immediately and precisely with mass culture: the difference between sign and image becomes null. This is exemplified best of all in the Soviet Stalinist cinema, which was meager in terms of quantity, totally censored, and abounded in “ideological signs.” One may say that, in the society of needs, “ideology” is the only commodity that demands advertising, this constant imagistic equivalence.
So, we may argue that a commodity is not simply a thing or just another object in a world explained by certain economic laws, but that a commodity is always something with a surplus, with an unnecessary supplement in the form of an image born and effaced in the moment of consumption. A sign, however, is always that of ideology and induces us to “read” images—that is, to...