Devil May Care

In The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (1970), Jean Baudrillard discusses the 1930s silent film Student of Prague. His analysis begins the book’s conclusion, entitled “On Contemporary Alienation or the End of the Pact with the Devil.”

Baudrillard writes that the film focuses on a “poor but ambitious student impatient for a more prosperous life” (187). The Devil sends a beautiful woman to entice him, but she is wealthy and thus beyond his grasp. One day the Devil appears, primed to make a deal: in exchange for the student’s image in the mirror, a pile of gold.

Success after success ensues. There’s no desire out of reach. But then, as happens after signing contracts with the Devil, problems arise. While walking through town the student is amazed to see his flesh-and-blood image, “his double put back into circulation by the Devil,” conducting his affairs without a care in the world. There’s a murder; the double is guilty, but the student can’t prove that he himself didn’t do it.

Back in his study the student fires at his image in the mirror. But he is bleeding now, having shot himself. The student realizes the horror of his pact, but with death approaching, in a moment of self-renewal, relief: “he can see himself again” (188).

Clever story, but according to Baudrillard, this is an outdated tale of alienation in the age of production. It follows the logic of a Marxist critique of early-twentieth-century capitalism. Today, however, in the age of consumption, “there is no longer any soul, no shadow, no double, and no image in the specular sense” (191).

No more relief at seeing our “true” image after we’ve sold our soul. No soul, actually. And no Devil. Contemporary society “has bartered all transcendence and finality for affluence, and is now haunted by an absence of ends” (192).

Baudrillard wrote The Consumer Society over forty years ago. How much deeper into the feverish quest for consumption have all of us sunk?