I spent two weeks recently scrolling through laptop bags: leather bags, faux leather bags, polyester bags, anti-theft bags, bags with trolley straps and bags that have iPad compartments. After hours of browsing, I finally ordered one eventually. I still kept looking for a few days after, though, in case I find something I like more.
Earning a salary again has made me look forward to purchases - what can I spend on that'll bring me joy and happiness? The question also makes me queasy, though. Am I buying things I need, or just giving into impulses?
I already have a backpack. It doesn't have a laptop compartment, and it's now about 8 years old, but it's still functional. It would be nice, though, to have a bag with a trolley strap.
What we actually buy
In his book, 'The Consumerist Society', Jean Baudrillard argues that what we purchase is not commodities, but signs. It's not about the laptop bag, per se, but that I want one that shows some sign of personality. I would hate to buy a boring black bag that looks like all the other bags when I lay it on the scanning tray at an airport. When people look at my bag, they should think, 'Oh, this guy is not like everyone else. He's different.'
Baudrillard would say that I'm not consuming a product, but rather a message about my own self. What I've wanted to project lately is a sense of vitality. I've wanted to seem like someone who, despite how difficult life is, figured out how to thrive. A nice bag, I'm more than a little ashamed to admit, would be a sign: here is a person who is doing well.
My image of a thriving person is someone who has the perfect mix of financial abundance, intellectual depth, meaningful relationships and physical health. When I finally buy a bag or anything else, I want it to be one that someone like that would have.
From Baudrillard's point of view, consumers like me are trapped in a kind of magical thinking. We purchase products for the signs they claim to produce. The product is the bag. The sign is vitality. What I get in exchange is not the sign itself, only the hope of its arrival.
He takes an interesting analogy: a group of Melanesians see aircraft flying by, carrying abundant goods that they crave. To summon the aircraft, they put together a few branches and creepers as a kind of fake aircraft, and mark out a landing ground. Putting this together, they think, will attract the aircraft to their land.
Baudrillard claims that humans in a consumer society are like this. We buy a few things that resemble a happy life and wait for happiness to miraculously arrive.
The beneficiary of the consumer miracle also sets in place a whole array of sham objects, of characteristic signs of happiness, and then waits (waits desperately, a moralist would say) for happiness to alight.
'Affluence' is, in effect, merely the accumulation of the signs of happiness. The satisfactions which the objects themselves confer are the equivalent of the fake aircraft, the Melanesians' models, i.e. the anticipated reflection of the potential Great Satisfaction, of the Total Affluence, the last Jubilation of the definitive beneficiaries of the miracle, from whose insane hope daily banality draws its sustenance.
Buying Templates of Life
This kind of magical thinking is most blatantly visible, of course, in the famous Axe ad. Wear this perfume, and beautiful women will run towards you. Of course, nobody really believes it does, but the sign itself is valuable enough to make us want to buy it. I want to be the kind of guy who wears Axe.
Consumption, in Baudrillard's definition, isn't restricted to the act of buying products, though. To go a bit further, I've been feeling like I'm consuming a template of life - get a nice job, exercise regularly, hydrate, buy yourself and those around you nice things, and see how magically vitality will arrive. See how, magically, you will start thriving.
I think magical thinking does its most important work in such templates. I remember when my parents use to say, 'Just have to work hard for the IIT exams, beta, uske baad toh masti hai.'
Despite knowing otherwise, I'm still very gullible to this kind of magical thinking. If only X, things will be awesome. So I bought myself the image of a thriving person: I have a cool laptop bag. I bathe much more frequently, and I'm good at my job. I got myself a gym subscription, and I'm paying attention to my diet.
All I have to do now is look up at the sky and wait for vitality to alight.