If you are looking at the Object – products as we call them – then you would be well advised to look at the critiques of consumption. In this Baudrillard is particularly significant – both his categories of objects and the notion of the object as a sign.
In his early books, such as The System of Objects, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, and The Consumer Society, Baudrillard’s main focus is upon consumerism, and how different objects are consumed in different ways. At this time Baudrillard’s political outlook was loosely associated with Marxism (and situationism), but in these books he differed from Marx in one significant way. For Baudrillard, it was consumption, rather than production, which was the main drive in capitalist society.
Baudrillard came to this conclusion by criticising Marx’s concept of “use value.” Baudrillard thought that both Marx’s and Adam Smith’s economic thought accepted the idea of genuine needs relating to genuine uses too easily and too simply. He argued, drawing from Georges Bataille, that needs are constructed, rather than innate. Whereas Marx believed that uses genuinely laid beneath capitalism’s “commodity fetishism,” Baudrillard thought that all purchases, because they always signify something socially, have their fetishistic side. Objects always, drawing from Roland Barthes, “say something” about their users. And this was, for him, why consumption was and remains more important than production: because the “ideological genesis of needs” precedes the production of goods to meet those needs.
He wrote that there are four ways of an object obtaining value. The four value-making processes are as follows:
1. The first is the functional value of an object; its instrumental purpose. A pen, for instance, writes; and a refrigerator cools. Marx’s “use-value” is very similar to this first type of value.
2. The second is the exchange value of an object; its economic value. One pen may be worth three pencils; and one refrigerator may be worth the salary earned by three months of work.
3. The third is the symbolic value of an object; a value that a subject assigns to an object in relation to another subject. A pen might symbolize a student’s school graduation gift or a commencement speaker’s gift; or a diamond may be a symbol of publicly declared marital love.
4. The last is the sign value of an object; its value within a system of objects. A particular pen may, whilst having no functional benefit, signify prestige relative to another pen; a diamond ring may have no function at all, but may suggest particular social values, such as taste or class.
Baudrillard’s earlier books were attempts to argue that the first two of these values are not simply associated, but are disrupted by the third and, particularly, the fourth. Later, Baudrillard rejected Marxism totally (The Mirror of Production and Symbolic Exchange and Death). But the focus on the difference between sign value (which relates to commodity exchange) and symbolic value (which relates to Maussian gift exchange) remained in his work up until his death. Indeed it came to play a more and more important role, particularly in his writings on world events.