The removal of signifiers could be why objects are on such a strong footing with humans in AWS, a “strange world of assemblages, or inter-ontic relations among actors, where no actors hold sway over the others” (Bryant). As authors, both Marcus and Perec implicate themselves in creating their book-objects, Perec through structured and maintained metaphor, and Marcus as one of the terms of his own ‘catalog’, both sharing the same urge to inhabit their creations as their characters display. From where does this urge derive? “What we have here, is a manifestation of Freud’s death drive, a moment of longing...for an anterior state of things, the state indeed of being a thing” (David Bellos, Review of Contemporary Fiction).
The attempt to know, or become an object, is trying to know death, by taking it within, mirroring the ultimate interior of the thing inside the object. As Bellos notes on Perec: “What he achieved through intense reflection on the writer’s material...is the paradoxical assertion of the self by the conscious construction of its absence.” This also explains AWS’s morbid tone - in a world where objects and subjects are equal, how can we decide who, or what, is alive? AWS appears to describe an epoch nearing the end of the age of the human, entities filled with objects, entering into objects, attempting to fill the space vacated by the idea, but unable to break the cycle of destruction.
How did we find ourselves in the age of wire and string? In discussing Baudrillard, Richard J Lane notes “we define our societies by the technologies used, be that Stone Age, or computer age.” This ‘age’ is the post-Baudrillard time of ‘implosion’, where objects and subjects live in “visceral intimacy” with each other. Technology has advanced – if advanced is the right word – to a point where objects work without human control for no discernible reason other than human ability to make them this way: “Baudrillard discusses...the ‘interdeterminacy’...that allows a machine to respond to random outside information...an example of such an open-ended system might be an environmentally friendly temperature control system in an office building that responds automatically to changes in the weather rather than needing human control” (Lane).
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Michael MaggsThis seems a welcome leap forward, but Lane explains otherwise: “For Baudrillard, this is another moment of standing still. Automatism now has the human subject as the ideal to be striving towards, and the human subject becomes the next barrier to the development of the technological object...the subject not only blocks the technological object, but is revealed to be an object himself within contemporary society.”
As to explaining how we reached this point, Perec lends a hand, in more than one sense. During L:AUM, Perec moves the reader from one scene to the next, with a chess maneuver known as ‘the knight’s tour’, as if the reader were a sentient, obedient chess piece. Given this level of authorial control (which, paradoxically, can also be seen as the relinquishing of authorial control), allied with lengthy descriptions of furniture near the beginning of each chapter, we may note: “The relationship has become an objective one, founded on disposition and play...What such objects embody is no longer the secret of a unique relationship, but, rather, differences and moves in a game” (Baudrillard).
Within each ‘square’ of the ‘chessboard’, the reader meets the likes of Bartlebooth, Smauft and Valene, frozen inside their geographical and temporal locations. Aptly, it is the artist who senses this most keenly: “Sometimes Valene had the feeling time had been stopped, suspended, frozen around he didn’t know what expectation...the very idea of this shattered building laying bare the cracks of the past, the crumbling of its present...gave him the impression of a grotesque mausoleum raised in the memory of his companions petrified in terminal postures.”
In this mausoleum, objects stand testimony to the lives of the subjects. In the cellars of 11 Rue Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Lieutenant WilmotSimon-Corbellier, reside Bartlebooth’s “four travelling chests.” “The description of the four trunks which accompany Bartlebooth reveals the meticulousness of Bartlebooth’s planning; their contents, organization and arrangement seem to foresee every eventuality” (Schwartz). But they do not. Bartlebooth, in his bid to objectify time (his fifty year plan) and space (the five hundred geographical locations) overlooks the self. “The organizing of things, even when in the context of a technical enterprise it has every appearance of being objective, always remains a powerful springboard for power and cathexis” (Baudrillard).
Bartlebooth has exerted power over objects, but his later deterioration is the result of abusing that power. The Englishman had seen his existence as an object, but the objects, the jigsaws, ‘ally’ themselves with Wenckler, who lives through his calling of puzzle-maker and Bartlebooth cannot free himself from this tyranny.
We can see Bartlebooth’s plight, as well as that of society in AWS, as the ‘revenge’ of the objects. The travelling chests, as we find them in the cellars, contain examples of not so much conspicuous consumption, but inconspicuous redundancy. Two of the chests contained clothing and art supplies, necessary for Bartlebooth’s voyage, whereas “the third and fourth trunks were virtually never used,” crammed with camping supplies and emergency items, although Bartlebooth’s wealth ensured little need for either.
Bartlebooth and the trunks deny each other usefulness and for Bartlebooth, this means the pleasure of thoughtful evocation. “We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with” (Turkle). With the chests locked away in the cellars Bartlebooth cannot, for example, produce a suit and say ‘Ah, here is the suit I wore for that excellent dinner at Naxos’ – he has denied himself this love and those emotions are lost to him forever. This unhappy state is foreseen by Baudrillard: “What matters to him is not possession or enjoyment but responsibility...instead of consuming objects, he dominates, controls and orders them. He discovers himself in the manipulation and tactical equilibrium of a system.”
Looking at this passage in L:AUM in a meta-sense, we could argue Perec employs Barthes’ reality effect perversely, that despite the chests’ neglect, they still cast their shadows upon Bartlebooth; in their nullifying inactivity, they nonetheless enact Bartlebooth’s wasted interior life, in a similar way to Bartlebooth’s refusal to allow his art to be collected shows his bloody-mindedness to follow his program, despite the potential to create happiness for others. Bartlebooth bucks the objective system, but lacks the strength needed for a full subjective resistance and is crushed.
It is apt we should learn this process, of the subject becoming the object, through the medium of books. We read using our minds, our interior, and this seems natural to us. However, let us recall Barthes began his inquiry, into the use of objects in prose, in the age of antiquity. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430AD), himself once a teacher of rhetoric, reports in his Confessions at his surprise of discovering St Ambrose (339 – 397AD) engaged in the act of private, silent reading. “When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still...often, when we came to see him, we found him like this reading in silence, for he never read aloud.”
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public DomainOver the centuries, with the rise of book production, literacy and the novel, reading became an intimate act, more so than in the time of Augustine. As fiction proliferated, so the ‘reality effect’ described by Barthes become embedded in the consciousness of successive generations of reader, convincing us we are taking part in the world, a world which is only an opined representation of the world. The further into ourselves we travel, the greater need for texts to donate ‘concrete reality’ and so on, immersing us further within the self.
One possible need to consume fiction is to escape the world of reality, the world of commodities, alienation, and paradoxically, simulation. The realm of the object is thus extended twofold – represented increasingly within the subject’s mind as well as their outer lives, either through excessive consumption of consumer goods (e.g. books), or through the increased space allowed to objects by the retreat of the subject into their interior. And so, as Baudrillard posited, we become more object-like. For if L:AUM is a manual, it has safety warnings as it does instruction; if we fail to heed those warnings, then AWS becomes not a novel, but a survival guide, impenetrable because it is already too late.
In conclusion, we can answer Katherine Viner’s question about why modern fiction seems preoccupied with objects. Georges Perec and Ben Marcus are, like all authors, people of their time and each time mourns an earlier age. In memory, everything is, or connects to, an object. Objects are within us, and when we look within ourselves to create, we increasingly find objects, both those lost and desired. And as Bartlebooth and Valene discovered, objects, wherever located, can consume, as readily as we consume an object.
Barthes’s irrelevant objects are now Baudrillard-esque brands and labels. Perec and Marcus' fiction take us to the interior – of cupboards, of objects, of ourselves. As Sherry Turkel puts it: “When Roland Barthes writes that the objects of disciplinary society come to seem natural, what is most important is that what seems natural comes to seem right. We forget that objects have a history."