Alice and Jean
Is it possible to be an ethical consumer?Jennifer Stock
i start following alice on Instagram in 2011. Alice photographs her cat curled up in an Eames chair, her Chemex transfigured by the sun. She scatters peonies and garden roses across her kitchen table. She paints her walls a moody slate. She illuminates her collection of succulents and her morning waffles like Caravaggio crucifixions. Over time I conclude that Alice lives—like I do—in a small apartment somewhere in New York: light from an unseen window bathes her still lifes in high-floor isolation. She’s Vermeer Lite, with a schmear of West Elm catalogue. I punctuate odd moments of my day—shuffling in lines, waiting for the subway, lingering on the toilet—with hits of Alice’s feed, her iterations of cats, flowers, and coffee.
One day in 2014, Alice posts a picture of a Lincoln SUV. It’s like a strange insect suddenly burst into my field of vision; I’m confused and repelled. I continue to scroll. The next day the car is back, this time presented frontally, its lacquered hood next to a galvanized steel guardrail and pond. Alice is on a road trip, I think, but why is she taking pictures of her rental car? I study the composition. A small tree to the left of the car, a shock of dead branches at its crown. A claustrophobic strip of forest slashed across a pressurized sky. A pond with a metallic sheen. The agnosticism of a depleted landscape? I wonder. My eyes drift in befuddlement to the caption, and then I spot it, sponsored. Alice writes, “Today we’re exploring Jackson, MS with @lincolnmotorco then heading to New Orleans.” I unfollow Alice, but every once in a while I sneak back to see what she’s posting.
in the consumer society, Jean Baudrillard creates an ontology of consumption, considering the ways in which it dominates affluent societies. When I first read The Consumer Society, I feel like a child sent to detention, forced to write some sentence out a hundred times: I must stop buying so much shit. The StuffFest of my childhood in suburban Indianapolis in the 1990s flashes with disturbing immediacy before my eyes. I suffer from the latter-day guilt of someone who has lived in a dream, her life a carefree siphoning off of biophysical resources. Once woken up, she sometimes just wants to go back to sleep. I read in fits and spurts, occasionally casting The Consumer Society aside to jump online and buy refills of K-beauty cream. Still, Baudrillard is hard to ignore.
Consumption, according to Baudrillard, traps consumers in cycles of acquisition and calculus. Calculus is his term for the near-debilitating level of choice available to a consumer. It’s the word for the twenty hours one spends differentiating gimcracks on a new washer before purchasing (steam cycle? Wi-Fi control? lingerie drawer?). Perhaps Baudrillard’s key contribution, though, is an argument for why so many people become ensnared by consumption. Broadly construed to include travel, entertainment, and media as well as objects, consumption acts as a social language, conveying social messaging. Baudrillard overlays the Marxist concepts of use value and exchange value with the more numinous sign value. Consumers continuously signal status and taste via the acquisition of objects and experiences; sign value can be thought of as a capitalist narrative of self. Regarding shopping as language helps elucidate one aspect of capitalism’s relentless growth drive: language is infinite. Capital glues itself to a social language—signing contributes to its moto perpetuo.
Americans’ current level of consumption makes Baudrillard’s fretting appear almost quaint.
The Consumer Society was first published in 1970. If Baudrillard considered consumption a “jungle of ugliness” then, imagine what he would make of the scale of consumption today. According to Juliet Schor, a sociologist at Boston College (whom I think of as an Elizabeth Warren-style remake of Baudrillard), “In 1960 the average person consumed just a third of what he or she did in late 2008.… What transpired in the late years of the bubble was an almost manic speedup in the flow of goods through households and the larger economy.” Looking at charts showing “hockey stick” accelerations of consumption in the United States since the early 1980s—not to mention the corresponding ascent of carbon emissions—is enough to make anyone queasy. Americans’ current level of consumption makes Baudrillard’s fretting appear almost quaint.
Or just prescient. With consumption ballooning, his concern and condemnation have gone mainstream. The global success of Marie Kondo, staging interventions for consumers overwrought by excess, is testament to a widespread awareness that capitalist plentitude backfires. Kondo, like a good psychotherapist, helps consumers redress trauma without guilt, but like a bad psychotherapist, she fails to excavate the underlying reasons for that guilt. Baudrillard could be a good psychotherapist, but you’d want to fire him immediately because who wants a cold water shock of revelation when life as a consumer can be so cozy, or at least so distracting?
In my late twenties, after the deaths of my parents, I frequently curled up in a fetal position on my bed holding my phone two inches from my face, on Instagram, shopping. I found an influencer named Courtney Adamo, who I didn’t know was an influencer because I’d never seen the word. I didn’t yet understand Instagram’s ability to fuse the personal and the commercial; this was several years before a bloodbath takedown of Adamo in Vanity Fair. From her Instagram feed, I gathered that Adamo traveled the world beautifully dressed with five young beautifully dressed children. Her kids looked like expensive pioneers, packaged in impeccable linens and pulling wooden toys around minimalist palaces. I felt guilty for succumbing to Adamo’s fantasy world, but I was unable to resist her clothes. I tapped her outfits, hoping to pin down the source of her magic, and found that these dresses cost four hundred dollars; they are ethically hand-loomed for Brooklyn design duo Ace & Jig.
I started stalking Instagram posts with Ace & Jig tags, scrutinizing their new collection when it came out in Vogue. Months later I geared up and bought my first Ace & Jig garment, on sale. When the package arrived I tore it open, my hands shaking. It was a tomato-red jumpsuit with threads of gold woven into it. I burst into my partner’s study in a fever of triumph, showing off my conquest. He examined the baggy jumpsuit judiciously, a little puzzled. That looks good, he said, the pitch of his voice flaring with uncertainty toward the end of the phrase. Later I can admit that even models look like technicolor Mennonites in most of the line, but at the time all I could think was, I’m wearing something special, something unusual, something I saw featured in Vogue. In Baudrillard’s terms, I was signing; I had “raised myself to the second power.”
I have a friend named Jean who has a developmental disability. Jean is eighty-four but has the energy of someone in her sixties. There’s something wry and birdlike about her; she scoots behind her walker in spry bursts. Her blue eyes are like pristine pools set into the craggy landscape of her face. She dresses oddly, pairing a pink tracksuit with a fluffy sweater, or a shiny velour hoodie with khakis. The staff at her group home gives her manicures, purple or teal lacquered onto fingers hobbled by arthritis. They dye her short gray hair with punk streaks of color, watery red or rivulets of pink. Tough gray hairs sprout from her face. She has a small and slender frame, yet she’s surprisingly loud and unflappably friendly. When we go to Target she greets anyone in her vicinity with enthusiastic shouts. “Hello, sir!” she booms to a man shelving towels. People generally are first startled, then friendly; as with small children, their guard instantly drops.
I met Jean eighteen years ago as a college freshman volunteering for the Best Buddies program. Over time, she has become a close friend, and this year I became her guardian. She lives in a home with six other women all of whom, with one exception, cannot speak. When I’ve asked her about her cohort over the years, Jean is unusually laconic. “Sarah screams,” she says, shrugging. Instead she tells me stories about the staff, with whom she seems to identify.
Because Jean lives in suburban Connecticut, we hang out at strip malls. Stuck much of the time at the group home and unable to drive, Jean craves mobility. She adores capitalism’s chief nodes of leisure: restaurants, movies, travel, and shopping. But Jean is poor. Early on in my relationship with Jean, I began to understand what I think of as the terms of our friendship. I give Jean access to a world she desires, the ability to associate with environments away from her group home. I take her to the movies; I buy her things. In return, Jean provides a continual check to my ego and assumptions. Jean’s disability makes her relationship to capitalism’s semiotics sketchy, provisional. “Red Log,” she murmurs, as we drive by Red Lobster. When I take Jean shopping, she generally finds what she wants right away. We enter the jewelry department at a box store, and Jean surges up to a rotating kiosk of necklaces. “EWWW isn’t it PRETTY,” she exclaims. She grabs the first thing she sees, a pink enamel heart with a fake diamond at its center.
I imagine Elon Musk trapped in a group home watching Ellen.
“Jean, don’t you want to look around some more?” I pick up a more tasteful necklace. “This is nice,” I tell her.
“You don’t have enough money?” she shouts. At this point usually a few people begin to stare.
“No, Jean, I have enough money,” I shout back. I need to say it loudly; she’s hard of hearing. “I just think you should look around some more. Pick out your favorite thing.”
“I want this,” Jean insists.
Later we return to her group home. Women in robes and sweats are crammed on a fluffy tan sofa watching soaps. The staff—primarily women of color working for low wages—camp out around them in folding chairs. The first few times I meet the women that care for Jean, I’m mortified as a sense of my rarefication spreads over me. I shift uneasily in expensive jeans. The staff are kind; they’re grateful I take Jean out. Yet faced with so much unfairness in one room, I flounder with a sense of uselessness. I imagine a scenario in which Jean’s staff is swapped out for white male CEOs, who instantly hand over their capital to these women as reparation. I imagine Elon Musk trapped in a group home watching Ellen. I imagine, more practicably, the work of caregiving being as highly compensated as my tutoring work for wealthy youth. I imagine the architecture of a group home given the deference of an airport or a business school. After a moment I realize I must look stricken, and I take Jean to her room to put her necklace away.
after her lincoln suv posts, things shift for Alice. As a successful influencer, she is inducted into a regime of luxury. Planes propel Alice in energetic bursts around the planet: Aspen, Reykjavík, Los Cabos, Lisbon, Park City, Shanghai, Mumbai, Tokyo, Las Vegas, Paris, Paris, Paris. In her Instagram feed, Alice references these cities yet never seems entirely within them. Locality becomes a tonal effect highlighting luxurious consumption. She photographs an eight-hundred-dollar handbag in the Mediterranean sun. She reflects the roofs of Paris in a Chanel compact. She reclines at a resort in a striped bathing suit for a Vince Perfume ad, her head turned away from the viewer. Her photos have the secluded cast of a luxury hotel, even when the shot is outside. Through Alice’s lens, Mumbai appears underpopulated. When she travels to Kenya to promote a Tiffany’s partnership with an elephant refuge, the only Kenyans pictured are those who tend to the elephants or are paid to drive her.
Corporations attach like parasites to Alice’s feed: J. Crew, Mercedes, Grey Goose, Chase Sapphire, Armani, Cartier. Alice’s love of light and beauty, as well as her taste, shift effortlessly from cats and peonies to handbags and speaker systems. The color scheme of Alice’s feed becomes more disciplined, centering around expensive neutrals—dove, alabaster, linen, sand—interrupted by occasional pops of color—a Tom Ford lipstick, a cherry Prada bag. There are flirtatious snippets of Alice in crisp and expensive silks. Alice videos herself wearing fine jewelry for Matches Fashion, the UK equivalent of Net-a-Porter. She sits alone in parallelograms of light, tapping the curve of her cheek with fingers sheathed in pearls, pensiveness verging on boredom.
In Baudrillard’s terms, Alice has become “immanent in the signs she arranges.” She trains her followers in the “unconscious discipline of a code.” She leaves mysterious traces of aspirational spending. She makes a high-consumption lifestyle look weightless. There is never any discussion of costs or money. There is no discussion of carbon. Her freedom is a solo, virtuosic pursuit; it is the ability to control, maximally, one’s body and environment, to focus on a battle of beautiful appearances, continually optimizing and reshaping one’s bubble like an infinitely fluid stage set. Highlights of a Western middle-class lifestyle are smoothed into a steady state continuum. Alice is the ad for late capitalism, the promise of unprecedented mobility coupled with the ability to curate reality around expensive and well-groomed isolation. She suggests an asymptote of consumption, what Baudrillard refers to as “the prophylactic whiteness of a saturated society, a society without history.”
ooh la la!
Love this. It’s golden hour all night long. sooooo good
Oh shit that’s beautiful
Of course you have something gorgeous! poetic
just stunning, no words Breathtaking
Love Stop. I die.
one fall, inspired by TV ads, Jean begs to go to a casino. At first I dodge her request, taking her to see The Incredibles 2 instead, but Jean is persistent. “I’m gonna win you know what and stuff it under the mattress,” she tells me, agitating her thumb against the tips of her fingers, raising her eyebrows suggestively. She keeps bringing it up, so one day I cave. With equal parts reluctance and curiosity, I drive Jean, my partner Geremy, and a woman on her staff named Connie along the I-95 corridor to one of Connecticut’s largest casinos. It’s a sprawling complex, teal-capped vanilla pavilions assembled like a haphazard Lego project. Inside, sequences of stores, restaurants, and gaming rooms stretch into a confusing windowless warren. Stairs and elevators convey us between seemingly identical floors. Soon I start to panic with an obscure sense that the outdoors has disappeared. In the gaming rooms, slot machines fan in all directions: Sphinx, Star Wars, Love on the Nile, Crystal Forest, Cowboy Treasures, Trojan Treasures, African Dream, Fortunes of Sparta.
I wheel Jean up to one of them. I feed it some change, and she squeals with delight as it explodes with light and sound. It’s called Wheel of Fortune, and it towers over Jean in her wheelchair like a neon obelisk. My eyes ricochet over its glossed exterior: GOLD GOLD GOLD, Triple Gold, Jackpot, Gold Spin. Geremy shows Jean which button to press, and when she does the machine excretes the ultra-bright babblings of a Fisher-Price toy. Because the noises are exciting, Jean universally interprets them to mean she has won. She transposes decimals and begins to shout out her winnings. On a sixty-nine-cent roll for which she spent a dollar she screams ecstatically, “Sixty-nine dollars! WOW. THANK YOU, LORD.” People from other corners of the casino begin to drift over to check out Jean’s winnings.
I’ve brought her to a place which sublimates the vicissitudes of capitalism into a game.
I look at the people around us, content with pretzels and soda and an occasional cigarette. Later in the day these will be swapped for expensive, terrible sushi and cocktails in jumbo glasses. I look at Jean’s happy and absorbed expression. I’ve brought her to a place which sublimates the vicissitudes of capitalism into a game: here Jean can participate in a system that has shut her out. My body churns with a graceless mix of disdain and excitement. The junk consumption nested in junk semiotics sets me on edge, and yet I can’t hate it the way Baudrillard would, the way a good socialist would. I’m tangled up in it. I’m its child. I’ve only been acculturated to seek out more rarified forms of pleasure. Due to privilege, my consumption verges toward B Corps and jet fuel instead of Target and casinos. Instagram is my slot machine, and I probably spend as much time on the app as anyone here does at the casino. I start to laugh and cheer Jean on. After a few hours she wins seventy-two dollars and buys a small silver watch with vines etched in its band. We get Juniors cheesecake and have tostadas drowned in strange white sauce.
a double-scoop ice cream cone drips on an arthritic hand, twisting like a decaying magnolia blossom.
In an Edison-bulb-clad restaurant, a folding walker casts a shadow on a subway-tiled wall.
Perfect latte art gets swirled away as a hand spoons in Thick-It Medical Grade Food and Beverage Thickener, a powder to prevent choking.
A woman with wildly ungroomed facial hair models @warbyparker sunglasses.
increasingly, I try to resist signing. I start to see it as not a mere expression of personality but, as Baudrillard frames it, a form of social segregation. It’s hard to shake off a lifetime of trying to improve myself and impress people, but I take little steps. I start to feel an exhilarating freedom when around people who fail to sign, or at least who fail to sign in a way that’s intelligible to me, or who sign in ways that work against class or stereotype. I flee Brooklyn (too much signing! complicated signing!) and drag my partner to live in New Haven. Why are you moving there? ask our friends. Do you work at Yale? ask acquaintances. No one can understand the idea of living in New Haven just for the sake of living in New Haven. In our cohort, a move to the Hudson Valley signs. The Berkshires sign. Portland signs. New Haven fails to sign. Or maybe it signs something uncomfortable: that we choose to live in a city that visually articulates, in a compressed amount of space, the inequity that undergirds capitalism.
On Instagram, I follow as many people as I can who don’t make me want to buy things or beautify my environment. The poet Eileen Myles routinely takes pictures of their sink or cracks on the sidewalk. I find disability advocates who photograph their spaces modified for accessibility and functionality. I become obsessed with a Japanese man who hunts down odd city infrastructure: ventilation fans and disjointed pipes emerging with strange geometry from concrete walls. I unfollow influencers.
But even when I do all this, Instagram shows me ads: a living room overflows with plants in Brancusi-esque planters, small crystals stud a headband (later I see a writer I follow wearing the same one), an infant in a linen bonnet clutches a stuffed fox, a mystery bottle advertises itself as an “ENERGY BOMB,” kitchens gleam with marble and brass. I’ll find my finger paused, hovering in midair, wanting to scroll on, but curious. I like weird street photos of Japanese air conditioners and these fancy kitchens. In her essay “Inside Out, or Interior Space,” Rebecca Solnit describes meeting “a prodigal leftist at his house, where the infinitely intricate old Victorian sofa reupholstered in Indonesian ikat fabric amazed me.” Solnit may be surprised that a Marxist would indulge in the aesthetic hedonism of a gorgeous couch, but it makes perfect sense to me, this duality of decrying capitalism and yet being lured, like a moth to a flame, to enticing private possessions.
Shopping, it turns out, still appeals to me even divorced from social performance. During months of COVID quarantine, when no one sees much beyond my earring choice on Zoom meetings, I enjoy executing my taste in private. Calculus can be a lonely pursuit, and if consumption is a language, as Baudrillard suggests, there can be a propulsion to keep communicating in the form of soliloquy.
but private consumerism is not private; it exists in a social context and comes at a cost to others. Most clothing, for example, requires a violence skillfully hidden from the consumer, a violence that lands on the bodies of garment workers or ends up tinting distant rivers red. It alters the chemical composition of our atmosphere. While Baudrillard addresses the labor and environmental exploitation of consumption, he doesn’t focus on it—his central critique lies elsewhere. His analysis obviously predates widespread awareness of climate change and the onslaught of emissions from 1980 on; he terms environmental degradation a “nuisance.” Now the undeniable harm of Western consumption has become its own philosophical problem.
Instagram is my slot machine, and I probably spend as much time on the app as anyone here does at the casino.
Recently I saved a photo of a Bangladeshi man lofting his toddler over the increasingly severe flood waters that surround his home. I thought this photo would be a reminder that I should be able to meet this man’s gaze without feeling like a criminal, an acknowledgment that my consumption—that new bikini, for example, no matter how little fabric was involved and how woke the designer—bears a direct relationship to the water’s rise.
A few nights after I save this photo I have a dream: I peek into my daughter’s room to check in on her during a nap. She’s floating in a few inches of water, lapping tranquilly through the bars of her crib. The shallow water blends with the colors of her nursery, a seaside brew of driftwood, sand, blues, and greens. My gaze shifts from the light and airy atmospherics to my daughter’s body, which I realize with sudden shock is stiff. Her eyes are open, blue and still, her arms outstretched. At the sight of her immobile gaze I wake up unable to move, horror locking my body like a straightjacket.
Later that day I recall the picture of the man and his toddler and feel sick at the misalignment of my gesture with reality: there is no way to look this man in the face without reconfiguring the terms of my existence. As a consumption-prone member of an affluent society, with, as the energy expert Vaclav Smil puts it, an “expectation of unrestrained energy use,” my life rests on a substratum of consequences. Even a fountain of personal kindness, good motivations, and relentless activism won’t materially undermine this fundamental fact.
alice posts a picture: a glass of seltzer on an airplane. She balances the glass on her tray table with slender fingers, nails shellacked a chic glossy oxblood, wrist encircled by a minimalist gold band. A brilliant wedge of lemon floats in the bubbles. Light from her window refracts through the glass, scattering luminous skeins across the plane’s interior. Bubbles and gold, light and lift: from the confines of her business-class seat, Alice has created an effortless shrine to consumption, an homage to capital as gravity-defying as flight itself.
ultimately, Baudrillard believes that consumption deflates culture, like one of those insects which, after liquefying and draining out the interior of its prey, leaves behind a semblance of the original in the form of a misshapen skin. Of course, the word culture is a shapeshifter, so it’s worth explaining precisely what he thinks it is. He spells it out somewhat late in the book: “1) an inherited legacy of works, thought and tradition; 2) a continuous dimension of theoretical and critical reflection—critical transcendence and symbolic function.” For Baudrillard, the rapid cycling through experiences, objects, and information—the method by which consumption takes place—creates a shallowness in our lived experience, relegating us to surface-level connotations and the play of signs. Baudrillard calls this accelerated motion “combinatorial modulation” and likens it to fashion—“arbitrary, transient, cyclical.” He believes there are serious consequences to a slot-machine style of existence: it chips away at our capacity for understanding both past and present, not only weakening our engagement with culture but diminishing our capacity for collective action. I often think of this now when scrolling through the many bright windows of my Instagram feed, its “play of colors, the play of variants” entering my nervous system with a wash of “something between indifference and fascination.”
Baudrillard’s emphasis on the “symbolic function” of culture gives me an epiphany about his critique: symbols haunt his book like aggrieved ghosts. They become a catch-all for everything that has been lost via the funhouse-mirror effects of consumption. When some person or thing is an object of true passion, it can hold “intense symbolic value”; symbols have “soul.” The consumed object, on the other hand, “loses its symbolic meaning… and tends to peter out into a discourse of connotations.” Signing eviscerates symbol; a sign is a symbol that has been squashed into mere affect. Alice’s light show on the airplane, for example, could be symbolic—it could act much as a Turrell light installation does, or a shard of light in a Borges poem, renewing the viewer’s or reader’s perception of light. But because it predominately signals status, mobility, and capitalist privilege, it functions as a sign.
It makes perfect sense to me, this duality of decrying capitalism and
yet being lured, like a moth to a flame, to enticing private
Since it’s the mode and not the content of consumption that is the problem, Baudrillard doesn’t sort objects or experiences into tidy piles of culture and anti-culture. Theoretically, at least, you might relate to your nacho platter or your Manet print with the same “ludic curiosity.” Yet he undeniably casts a severe gaze toward the mass-produced. He dismisses tchotchkes and kitsch as “cancerous excrescence[s]” for “generations of parvenus.” He mocks the middle class’s metabolization of culture (“Beethoven is fabulous!”). I picture Baudrillard sneering knowingly at my Barnes & Noble youth, with its indiscriminate dips into coffee-table remainders or Saddle Club books. My beloved childhood backyard becomes prefabricated “countryside” land, packaged and “served up ‘at room temperature.’” While he possesses unlimited bandwidth for invoking the signing involved in a lower- or middle-class person’s “aspiration to elite culture,” he doesn’t give much consideration to motion in the other direction, to the ways in which his “jungle of ugliness” becomes symbolic.
i go to visit jean in the hospital. She has pneumonia, and she’s been placed in a critical care unit. I see her as soon as I enter, through plate glass, in one of many rooms clustered around a nucleus of doctors. She looks diminutive wrapped in sheets, her room overly lit, the whiteout glare of linoleum like an IKEA with all of the products removed. Cracker wrappers, Styrofoam cups, and straws are strewn across her tray. She’s not allowed to have flowers, so I bring her a Get Well bear from the gift shop.
“How are you, Jean?”
“I feel good, Jennifer! Very good!” she shouts. “When can I get outta here?”
I hand her the bear.
The resin beads of the bear’s eyes have been fashioned to approach something resembling kindness, its polyester fur whipped into a soft lawn by some miracle of industry and extraction. A pink heart is embroidered on its belly, and a small pink tongue protrudes from a smiling mouth. Its arms are permanently outstretched in mute receptivity. Jean squeezes the bear’s paw, and it pronounces “GET WELL SOON” in a robotically cute voice.
Jean explodes with delight. “AWWWWWWW.”
Baudrillard might say that the bear is a weak signifier, a diluted reference to creature comfort, a pointless piece of shit. But the expression on Jean’s face seems to say that the correct gesture has been made; this perverse bear symbolizes for her that someone made an effort, that she is, like other people who are both sick and cared for, loved. Jean is luminous as she holds the gift. After she returns home, every time I visit I’ll notice the bear, a strange sentinel perched by her pillow.