Jean Baudrillard died recently and the obits – this one in particular – persuaded me to give his writing a try, starting with The System of Objects (1968), which addresses the interaction of the technical and the cultural. In conversation with Steven Poole a few years ago, Baudrillard said – apparently of this book – ‘I did this critique of technology, but I would not do that any more. I am not nostalgic. I would not oppose liberty and human rights to this technical world’.
The System of Objects is aphorism dense. It is also somewhat puritanical. An example of the first:
The fact is, however, that automating machines means sacrificing a very great deal of potential functionality. In order to automate a practical object, it is necessary to stereotype it in its function, thus making it more fragile … so long as an object has not been automated it remains susceptible of redesign …
And an example of the moralising:
… sexual perversion is founded on the inability to apprehend the other qua object of desire in his or her unique totality as a person … the other is transformed into the paradigm of various eroticised parts of the body, a single one of which becomes the focus of objectification.
It’s hard to read The System of Objects without feeling fingered. Personally. Whether it’s your tastefully muted yet minimally accented interior decor (‘nothing but an impossible echo of the state of nature … aggressive … naive’), or your small collection of Galaxie 500 B-Sides (‘in short, there is something of the harem about collecting’), or the iroko antelope head sculpture you and your girlfriend brought back from Africa (‘… narcissistic regression … imaginary mastery of birth and death’), your way of living holds moral lessons for you. Yes, your plan was to pass a pleasant sunny afternoon reading on the sofa; but look, a swamp of guilt and self-doubt is rising around you, and it comes from all the things around you which you thought were good, or at least OK.
Baudrillard connects the moral to the everyday, the mundane, and so his net is cast very wide. This follows from his initial purpose of giving a systematic account of popular culture. The author’s opening challenge to himself – ‘Could we classify the luxuriant growth of objects as we do a flora or fauna, complete with tropical and glacial species, sudden mutations, and varieties threatened by extinction?’ – is followed up with a granular chapter structure that at first takes on items such as ‘… Walls and Daylight, Lighting, Mirrors and Portraits … Seats … The Lighter …’ and then shifts by way of cars and robots to broader classifications: ‘The Ideology of Models … The Ambiguity of the Domestic Object’. Ungenerously, you imagine Baudrillard starting out in his apartment – and writing about everything in it – then shifting his attention out the window (some cars down there), reminiscing briefly about that kinky phase he went through (embarrassing, frankly), then trying to remember how it was that time he went shopping at Christmas and found all the advertising incredibly irritating. In other words, The System of Objects has some of the qualities of a confessional. And because you too, reader, are bourgeois, your milieu will be very similar. And so you can connect, no?
The ambition to write big, to write it all, but then not to finish, also seems reassuringly European. (Being and Time remains two-thirds incomplete to this day, measured against its own table of contents.) Then again, Baudrillard’s contemporary, Roland Barthes, seems to have tackled the issue of popular culture by means of postcards and essays, and his piece on the Citroen DS from Mythologies (1957) is conveniently pocket sized.
I haven’t read enough Barthes to be able to convincingly compare him with Baudrillard (and I haven’t read enough Baudrillard either) but I suspect that not only did Barthes get there first, he had more poetry:
It is obvious that the new Citroen has fallen from the sky inasmuch as it appears at first sight as a superlative object. We must not forget that an object is the best messenger of a world above that of nature: one can easily see in an object at once a perfection and an absence of origin, a closure and a brilliance, a transformation of life into matter (matter is much more magical than life), and in a word a silence which belongs to the realm of fairy-tales.
Baudrillard’s metaphors, though similarly starry, are less beguiling:
… the intimacy of the car arises from an accelerated space-time metabolism and, inextricably, from the fact that the car may at any time become the locus of an accident: the culmination in a chance event – which may in fact never occur but is always imagined, always involuntarily assumed to be inevitable – of that intimacy with oneself, that formal liberty, which is never so beautiful as in death.
Yet when he is not reaching, he is often impressively direct:
Objectively, substances are simply what they are: there is no such thing as a true or a false, a natural or an artificial substance. How could concrete be somehow less ‘authentic’ than stone? We apprehend old synthetic materials such as paper as altogether natural – indeed, glass is one of the richest substances we can conceive of.
The modern idea of the nobility of materials is still very widespread; perhaps more entrenched now than it was in 1968, having acquired an environmentalist gloss. You can test the modernity of this idea yourself by taking a pocket knife into an eighteenth century grand house and having a (discreet) poke: underneath the gilding it’s cheap softwood and plaster.
So why would Baudrillard ‘retract’? One possible reason is that reactions to modernity are easily connected with fascism. And although technological ‘lock-in’ (‘fragility’ is Baudrillard’s term) remains a reality, a counter-force is technological entrepreneurship. And then there are computers, of course.
(My thanks to Alex and David for letting me guest post at AFOE.)