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Rewarding 1968 analysis of psycho-sociology of consumption
on July 28, 2003
Some contemporary French philosophy is a fascinating and invigorating mix of psychology, sociology, semiotics and, dare one say it, poetry. In the English speaking world, Marshall McLuhan is probably the philosopher whose style is most similar to this first, 1968, book by the now well known Jean Baudrillard.
What is the book about? In a sense it is about the meaning of low tech everyday objects, and thus it is also about the psycho-sociology of our technology. Take mirrors, for example, which were frankly disappearing as an element of interior decoration when Baudrillard wrote his book. Yet for years, mirrors were an important fixture of well-to-do bourgeois interiors; they were opulent, expensive objects which in Baudrillard's words permitted "...the self-indulgent bourgeois
individual to exercise his privilege --reproduce his own image and revel in his possessions". Family portraits and photographs represent diachronic mirrors of the family, and thus played a similar narcissistic role in decoration. Baudrillard analyses clocks, lighting, glass, seating, antiques and the drive to automate and miniaturize gadgets and tools, and always comes up with provocative, sometimes maddening, insights into modern society and one's place in it --and after all what is philosophy
for but to make you think?
There is a brilliant and probably timeless exploration of the passion of collecting and leads up nicely to what the bulk of the book is devoted to: the study of systems of objects (one of the main chapters is aptly titled "The Socio-Ideological System of Objects and Their Consumption"). What do we yearn to express through technology? What is it it that fascinates us about robots? Why is there such a proliferation of automatism, accessory features, inessential features to the point where
an object's dysfunctions are as important as its functions? Baudrillard acknowledges his debt to some of Lewis Mumford's ideas, and deplores with him that too often we try to solve problems by building a machine (perhaps nowadays we would tend to develop software, or in Baudrillard's terms simulate) and thus not only fall wide of the mark but also reveal clear signs of social ineptitude and paralysis. Fashion, consumption, technology are intertwined themes in modern society, feeding off each other and leading to a world that is at once systematized, fragile and baroque, in the sense that the proliferation of forms seems to be more important than mining for substance. It is interesting to compare some of these insights with a more recent book by another French philosopher, Gilles Lipovetsky, on fashion in modern societies ("The empire of the ephemeral", 1987).
The book ends by looking at the role credit and advertising play in the consumption of systems of objects, and thus completes what the book's jacket indicates is "a cultural critique of the commodity in consumer society". Baudrillard is a humanist critic of technology and consumer society and uses psychoanalytical ideas as weapons to grapple with his subject. The book is by turns, infuriating, keen, stimulating but in the end one feels that, curiously, it lacks a certain depth; it plays with
mirrors and is content with catching the light and obtaining the occasional blinding flash; but sometimes that the criticisms seem a little too one-sided or perhaps I simply prefer more constructive criticism. Still, the book is a tour-de-force, and I feel that the translator, James Benedict, did a fine job with a difficult text.