Living Rhythmically

Baudrillard and the Rhythms of Consumer Society

Jean Baudrillard wrote a book called The Consumer Society in 1970 in which he considers an enormous number of phenomena from the perspective of consumerism, including time. The way in which time itself is changed or re-conceptualized in consumer society is especially evident in the idea of “leisure time.” We work for leisure time as much as we work for money. In fact, in consumerism, money and time are entirely exchangeable in an almost one-for-one correlation evidenced by the adage “time is money.” Baudrillard says “Divisible, abstract, measured time thus becomes homogeneous with the exchange-value system: it forms part of that system on the same basis as any other object. As an object of temporal calculation, it can and must be exchanged against any other commodity (in particular, money).” (Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, 153). When we pay for the convenience of something (pre-made orange juice rather than oranges themselves is Baudriallard’s example) what we are in fact buying is time.

In order for this to be possible, for time to be part of the exchange system, it must become absolutely empty, available to be filled with whatever activities the time-consumer desires. It can have no residual meaning or content that would get in the way of the freedom of the consumer. Contrast this with what Baudrillard calls “primitive” societies:

In primitive societies there is no time. The question of whether one ‘has’ time or not has no meaning there. Time there is nothing but the rhythm of repeated collective activities (the ritual of work and of feasting). It cannot be dissociated from these activities and projected into the future, or planned and manipulated. It is not individual; it is the very rhythm of exchange which culminates in the act of feasting. (Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, 152)

In other words, “primitive” societies simply are rhythms of activities. The idea of time without the rhythmic form given by communal life does not exist. He then contrasts this with the temporal cycles of the consumer society:

The apparent division into working time and leisure time – the latter ushering in the transcendent sphere of liberty – is a myth. This grand opposition, which is increasingly fundamental at the lived level of consumer society, remains nonetheless a formal one. This gigantic orchestration of annual time into a ‘solar year’ and a ‘social year’, with the holidays as the solstice of private life and the beginning of spring as the solstice (or equinox) of collective life – this gigantic ebbing and flowing is a seasonal rhythm in appearance only. It is not a rhythm at all (a succession of natural moments of a cycle), but a functional mechanism. It is a single systematic process which splits two ways into working time and leisure time. We shall see that, as a function of this common objective logic, the norms and constraints which are those of working time are transferred to free time and its contents. (Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, 154)

Leaving aside whether or not Baudrillard’s definition of rhythm is correct here, he seems to be saying that there is actually no rhythm involved in consumer society at all in the sense that there is no real opposition between different spheres of life. A single, systematic process is going on in leisure time as much as in working time. That process is the process of “production.”

This may sound like a strange claim, but what he means is that leisure is the consumption of time and consumption is always also production – the production of status; the production of self. Consumption does not really just occur as the consumption of an object for its own sake. Instead, you have a choice between any number of versions of the same object so that your choice of object always becomes a question of identity. In choosing a Mac over a PC, you are projecting a certain identity. So, within a consumer society, we produce ourselves as identities, differentiated from each other and simultaneously identified with certain groups, on the basis of what we buy. In consuming, we are also always simultaneously self-producing.

We likewise engage in self-production when we consume time. Baudrillard asks us to think here of the vacation. Typical ways of spending the vacation include tanning and tourism (which we all know only really counts if you have photographs). These are ways of producing a self, of saying “I am the type of person who does-such-and-such with my free time.” “I am cultured,” or “I am athletic” or “I am wealthy and luxurious.” Staying home and doing nothing that can be produced as a cipher-of-self consigns one to the bottom of the social hierarchy because one is refusing to produce one’s identity and is therefore not successful in terms of the consumer society.

Baudrillard’s point is that we cannot think of time any longer in terms of natural rhythms with work and leisure as simply one more oscillation within the rhythms of life. The situation is more extreme. Production-consumption is not a rhythm at all but a static totality. We cannot escape it.

Interestingly, though, Baudrillard seems somewhat ambivalent on this point. He says above that consumer society is not a rhythm but a functional mechanism. But he also says this:

We live by object time: by this I mean that we live at the pace of objects, live to the rhythm of their ceaseless succession. Today, it is we who watch them as they are born, grow to maturity and die, whereas in all previous civilizations it was timeless objects, instruments or monuments which outlived the generations of human beings. (Baudrillard, The Consumer Society, 25)

In part this seems to be a difference of definition. Above, Baudrillard describes rhythm as a succession of natural moments as opposed to a functional mechanism. Here, perhaps, he is less concerned about whether or not consumption is “natural” and is simply describing its cyclical form.

Nevertheless, I think there is more going on here. His argument seems to be that rhythm itself has been displaced. Rather than a feature of human reality, rhythm has instead become a property of consumed objects. We ourselves do not really move. We are stuck in a static and totalizing production-consumption machine. But we experience simulacra of our rhythms in our objects. In consuming objects with inbuilt obsolescence, we consume their rhythms of birth-life-death-afterlife-replacement and are therefore part of those rhythms by proxy. Rhythm is not something in which we are couched, but something we consume as a feature of self-production. So we require that our objects die if we are to continue our own self-production. We now participate in rhythm only by a constant repetition of self-production by consumption of the new, which is not really a rhythm since it is constant; there is no other reality with which it oscillates. It is only the objects themselves that are rhythms. These rhythms are alien to us, they are not our own, but they have nevertheless become our reality; we are, according to Baudrillard, their slaves.


Image: By Jonathan McIntosh – Own work, CC BY 2.0,

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