Sunday, May 15, 2011

Baudrillard’s System of Objects, or, a slightly more boring and Marxist Barthes

I just recently purchased Jean Baudrillard’s 1968 work, The System of Objects, expecting more aphoristic, clever, and poetic statements that I have come to expect from the Baudrillard of Fatal Strategies, Simulations, and the little I have read of Symbolic Exchange and Death. While I would not say that this book is completely divorced from these works conceptually, the writing resembles early Barthes-esque structuralism. Baudrillard’s descriptions of everyday objects are full of subtle distinctions, but these careful distinctions, to me, are less profound than his somewhat erratic and poetic ramblings of Fatal Strategies. As reviewers of the book have noted, there is a strong Marxist influence in this work, which I think fades as he moves into his later books.  If I were to relate this work conceptually to some of his later work I have read, I would say that the System of Objects lays out some of his basic claims about objects becoming relations among signs rather than retaining their substance: “To become an object of consumption, an object must first become a sign” (218).       

To me, this reads like Sausurre with some Marx thrown in. Consumed objects are not really the consumption of the object, but consumption of the relationships: “It [the relationship] is thus arbitrary—and not inconsistent with that concrete relationship: it derives its consistency, and hence its meaning, from an abstract and systematic relationship to all other sign objects” (218). This is Sausurrian linguistics applied to objects. Somehow Baudrillard seems to still think that the system is closed, even though these relationships can be consumed ad infinitum because, essentially, the only thing that is consumed is the “the idea of the relationship” (219). The “commodity” is not an object, but a relationship.

Perhaps Baudrillard is responsible for bringing to light the idea that consumer society is driven neither by desire nor need, but I don’t think so. The conclusion he reaches may lay the groundwork for his further explorations of society, but if this is the grand conclusion it seems dated and flawed because of its structuralist and Marxist framework.

While this may be a crucial first step, I had to stop reading the book. Baudrillard’s descriptions of everyday objects don’t really merit close reading. He argues theses that seem almost common assumptions in today’s semiotic interpretation of cultural texts. For instance, Baudrillard’s reflections (no pun intended) on mirrors seem cogent at first: “For mirrors close off space, presuppose a wall, refer back to the center of the room. The more mirrors there are, the more glorious is the intimacy of the room, albeit turned back in upon itself” (21). This kind of interpretation of the function of mirrors pales against Foucault’s brilliant analysis of Las Meninas in The Order of Things. Things in Baudrillard’s first book just seem to simple, too clean. Of course, one might argue that Foucault is not really talking about “actual” mirrors in the room, but in a work of art, which adds an external dimension to the artwork. However, the point is that Baudrillard’s interpretations seem a bit facile and dull.

Don’t get me wrong, I will still be reading later Baudrillard. Its his radical statements and elaborate conceits that get my brain going—not his application of structuralism and Marxist theory.

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