Thursday, 4 October 2018
Review: Jean Baudrillard The System of Objects
This book was published fifty years ago in 1968 as Le Système des Objets. It was a doctoral dissertation, examined by Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu and Henri Lefebvre. That fact is surprising since the book is written in the style of (French) higher journalism or belles lettres – think Roland Barthes Mythologies – with no bibliography or index and very few footnotes. Maybe the dissertation was made suitable for popularisation by taking out all the usual apparatus. Most of the few footnotes refer to American works of the 1950s and 1960s which address themselves to the understanding of “consumer society” and which Baudrillard had read in English – in itself, rather unusual at the time. Vance Packard figures prominently.
Vance Packard was an author I was given as supplementary reading in 1963 - 64 as a sixteen year old grammar school pupil in England. I have found my handwritten review of The Hidden Persuaders which lists its implications for neo-classical economics. So advertising seeks to make demand less income and price elastic, thus raising average revenue curves (I summarise); advertising also makes Says Law (“supply creates its own demand”) true and postpones indefinitely the onset of diminishing marginal utility; advertising distorts resource allocation, distorts consumer choice, and undermines consumer rationality.
Though these may be implications of Packard’s work, Packard was writing popular social psychology / sociology not economics. I have simply put his book into relation with my “A” level Economics syllabus and re-framed the material.
Baudrillard puts Packard through the laundry of Parisian thought. The result is sometimes straightforwardly derivative, notably of Roland Barthes (who is very occasionally cited). For the rest, the washing powder is provided by a very generalised “Freud and Marx” who are rarely named and maybe only once (page 203) more precisely referenced. A cultural collusion between author and presumed reader exists in the very simple assumption that everyone will know what you are talking about and that everyone will assume with you that it is all true. A reasonable assumption in 1960s Paris. That it is now a period piece is perhaps attested by the fact that this 1996 translation was financially assisted by the French Ministry of Culture.
The trouble with the laundry work is that the result is a very diffuse and essayistic text. It’s undoubtedly full of ideas but you would need an eight week seminar course to go through it, pick out main themes, and subject them to scrutiny to see if they stand up and cohere. I’m not going to do that here.
At some point in the distant past I owned copies of the French paperback of this book (with a flat iron on the cover) and of its successor Pour Une Critique de l’Economie Politique du Signe (1972). In the early seventies, Penguin sent me a copy of one of these books – I forget which though I suspect the latter – and asked my opinion on whether it was worth translating. I can’t find my report, but I know that I answered “No”.
Nearly fifty years later, I can see that the wide sweep of this book has many merits and that along the way Baudrillard does in fact italicise numerous fairly precise claims that he wants to make. Baudrillard is making a serious attempt at understanding what is distinctive of “consumer society”, how it changes human relationships towards objects, how objects move from having primarily use value to having primarily exchange value – not monetary exchange value but exchange value as signs within systems of signification – and how those signs connect to desires and libidinal drives about which Baudrillard is insistent (and in a way which I think would now be less fashionable in a more prudish society).