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on 29 September 2008
Baudrillard (pronouced "Bodra-jar") was one of the most important thinkers of the 20th Century, a landmark giant of the (post)structuralist movement (a term I'm sure all involved would refuse), which includes such figures as Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard and Lacan amongst others. Baudrillard began from a more orthodox Marxist position (whereas Derrida took his starting place from Heidigger and Foucault from Nietzsche, an under-appreciated fact), but inspired by the structuralist anaylsis or Roland Barthes in "Mythologies", he worked through Marxism to produce his own original work.
By "working through" I mean that where Marx saw commodites as containing surplus value which was "expropriated" (or stolen) by the capitalist, Baudrillard sees them as semiotic signs. Which means that all consumer objects are symbols, have values with which people can communicate. This works on four levels - the functional value (the use of the object); the exchange value (the market price); the symbolic value (such as wedding rings); and the sign value (which occurs within a system so that all objects have a relation to each other - one pair of jeans will be more urban, more niche, than another; one car will be be more powerful, more upper-class, more independence-giving, than another). Thus consumption rather than production is the key determinant in society, the most important signifier of "class".
In this early (1968) work Baudrillard looks at the relations of objects and the manner in which they are consumed, and how this determines the consumer. It's become so commonplace nowadays that self-realisation (becoming the person you want to be) happens through consumption of shopping, holidays, clothes and labels, cars, all the way to household furniture, that the fundamental shift this entails isn't fully appreciated. But Baudrillard documents that shift and saw the full implications of it, and for this reason this book is vitally important. The text is relatively straighforward for Baudrillard (much more than his later works on simulacra, for which he is probably best known thanks to "The Matrix"), and one of the best introductions to his work and ideas - along with the 1970 work, "The Consumer Society", which further develops his analysis.