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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.
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on September 25, 2012
In 1968, Jean Baudrillard had spent more than a decade teaching sociology and translating German texts before he found his true vocation: using his vast store of erudition to critique what he saw of a society that could not be adequately accounted for by orthodox production oriented Marxist tenets. Where Marx saw a product built by human needs, he saw that product only in terms of the interaction between worker and capital used to roll that thing off the conveyer belt. Where Baudrillard would see that same thing, he would see not the mechanics of manufacturing that thing but the utility it had and how the consumer would react emotionally and viscerally to possessing it.

The term "consumer" had a special resonance for Baudrillard. Most contemporary theorists used it mostly to designate one who purchases a product and pretty much uses it as the manufacturer intended. Along came Baudrillard to expand the definition to include the "why" and the "how" one consumes the object. What needs does consuming that thing satisfy in the user? What lengths will a user go to horde multiple copies? And most important, what is the interaction between designer and manufacturer to produce a product that will subtly shift the consumer from viewing that product from its traditional orthodox use to an unorthodox use that imparts to the consumer a driving sense to view, use, and ultimately horde it so as to ensure a continuing profit for all concerned in the manufacturing process? In The System of Objects, Baudrillard combined theories from Saussure, Barthes, Bataille, and other counter-culture critics to account for the then burgeoning discipline of consumer science modification.

The world of low-tech objects and commonplace gizmos were to Baudrillard the arena in which Marx's triangle of capital, worker, and process had to give way for a more sophisticated method to determine why consumers buy and use as they do. After all, who looks at mirrors in any way except as a reflecting device? Well, for Baudrillard, a mirror spoke volumes about the social pecking order of its user. The more cumbersome, the more ornate a mirror was, the more its affluent owner prized it. Further, to capture one's image in a mirror was a most ephemeral synchronic affair. The next step was to retain that image for a longer diachronic period. Thus, photo albums (equally ornate and pricey) become the pseudo-mirror. The "System" of the title was Baudrillard's vision of Marx transformed taking objects on a journey that begins in the objective world of calculable functionality and terminating somewhere in the incalculable world of human psychology in which the Yellow Brick Road of consumerism swirls ever outward never reaching completion.
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on June 24, 2016
Note: A number of 5-star ratings refer to delivery and condition of the book and/or do not indicate whether buyers read or understood the book.
Indeed, it's a challenging read. In my case it was required for a class. The work encapsulates much 1960s thinking and French philosophy/world view. At first one wonders whether the confusion results from an unsuccessful English translation. Then, the sheer number of words employed for the delivery of a single concept serves to frustrate and delay comprehension. Run-on sentences take seemingly contradictory trajectories. There are many noteworthy insights and concepts worth pondering once they have been gleaned. However, the delivery system will stymie seekers for whom time is a precious commodity or who do not enjoy extreme verbosity.
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on September 22, 2004
Baudrillard's SYSTEM OF OBJECTS stands as a landmark... the first book by one of France's leading men of letters, an astute social critic (and deconstructionist?! critical theorist?!). The author discusses the roles objects play in our lives, from mirrors to automobiles to furniture. He dissects the role and purpose of credit (in the late 1960's; his ideas about the expansion of credit purchasing are humorous in hindsight). Author devotes sections to gadgets, gizmos, and robots.

Some of OBJECTS' highlights: a discussion of why the rich and other status seekers acquire old things, a critique of collectors and their motivations ("everything that cannot be invested in human relationships is invested in objects."), and a commendable exegesis of the personalization of cars (since the 1970s this critique could be expanded to houses). In addition the section on credit is juicy: "the credit system is the acme of man's irresponsibility to himself."

Should I credit the translator with handling a difficult text well? I can't say. I don't read French (at least not on Baudrillard's level). However, the reader is left with some of the most pompous and opaque prose. Nothing is stated simply. Example: "In the love relationship the tendency to break the object down into discrete details in accordance with a perverse autoerotic system is slowed by the living unity of the other person." Another: "We may thus trace functional mythologies, born of technics itself, all the way to a sort of fatality in which the world-mastering technology seems to crystallize in the form of an inverse and threatening purpose." Here's a favorite: "Thus freed from practical functions and from the human gestural system, forms become purely relative with respect both to one another and to the space to which they lend 'rhythm.' "

These overwrought and ridiculous passages would be humorous, but they impede the reader's understanding of the text. Various worthwhile statements pepper the book throughout, which could be condensed into a sort of "famous quotes by Baudrillard," perhaps as captions in a book of photographs, a coffee-table book. I recommend this currently nonexistent product. Until its creation, we must be partially satisfied by SYSTEM OF OBJECTS.

Ken Miller
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on July 30, 2010
Very mind-boggling key points on the shifts in our material culture of before industrialization and after. Even though some passages as aforementioned were confusing because of those loaded sentences caused by translation, this is a must-read. There are some very well-stated thoughts on the shortcomings of industrialization which I was delighted to discover. There are also some analysis on color in mass-production and this and that which were enlightening. This book is half prose involving observations of societal changes, and half persuasive reasoning with theory and proof.

I wish more industrial/product designers could read this book. I agree with the point about how the gesture of an action is missing from many of our functional objects. The myth of the functional object was interesting to think about. As a Sculptor, it helped me question my role as a maker in this era.
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on October 29, 2015
The quality is very good! Thanks you so much!
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on November 16, 2015
Nice book. Worth it.
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on March 17, 2010
Hardly seems to have been written in 1968 (Year of publication) the writing still relevant. I especially
appreciated the essays on Warhol and contemporary art in general, and the interview in which the author clarifies some of his most extreme published statements. (I've only read about half of this book so far)
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on April 14, 2014
Shipping was timely, product was prefect!

The book was for a class, so it is alright. A bit dated in spots, but a good deeper look at objects in our lives.
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on May 11, 2000
If you're academically inclined and into semiotics, this book should be part of your library. Any designer of systems, whether they be Web applications, lemon squeezers, or a marketing campaign, would probably find use of the insights offered here.
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