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Object Theory and the Postmodern Novel (Part Two)

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Perec’s characters lead themselves into an ineluctable journey of reification, as Bartlebooth and Valene attempt to build their lives into forms of solidity, both projecting a fear and intrigue of death (an object is immortal; creating an object ‘contains’ death). Marcus warns readers of taking a similar journey into the object, at the end of his ‘Argument’: “For it is in these things that we are most lost, as it is in these things we must better be hidden.” Marcus begins from the point of the interior, while querying if we can ever reach such a place – we can become lost within the object, blocked from any exterior view or communication. To avoid becoming extinguished, we must somehow hide and keep secret the loss of our self.

Regardless of how we encounter objects (such as books), we all live in a world of objects. After all, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty said (quoted by Bill Brown) “the body is a thing amongst things,” and with this in mind we turn to another French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard. A literary theorist, Barthes’ interest lay in how objects made novels seem realistic to the reader, while Baudrillard looked at why objects are now such a societal force.

Jean Baudrillard
In L:AUM, both Barthes and Baudrillard would be interested in Valene and Bartlebooth’s artistic projects; Barthes through description's destruction in the ‘wiping’ of Bartlebooth’s water colors (Barthes mentions the “painted scene which the language takes up” in his discussion of Flaubert) and the use of “useless details” by Valene in his painting of the apartment block; Baudrillard in the symbiotic relationship of tyrannical possession between Bartlebooth and the objects in his life (from The System of Objects: “By controlling this space, he holds sway over the roles they are capable of assuming...what matters to him is neither possession nor enjoyment but responsibility”), and the critique of consumerist collecting exemplified by the art collector Beyssandre, desperate to buy the artwork before Bartlebooth destroys it all (see ‘The Object as Passion’ chapter of The System of Objects).

 Valene’s desire to capture 11 Rue Simon-Corbellier in paint, and his mournful litany of its contents (“...the rugs, jugs, firedogs, umbrella stands, dishstands, radios...”), conforms to Barthes’ theory. The more objects Valene depicts, the greater claim to reality his picture can hold (and perhaps, to add another layer, to Perec’s depiction of Valene’s painting) and the more of his life attains preservation.

However, Barthes also comments each depiction is no more than an act of verisimilitude, the opinion upon an object (“...because verisimilitude is nothing but opinable: it is entirely subject to public opinion.”), deprived of its connotative idea. In the end, as he dies, Valene’s “painting, in fact, contains only an outline of the building, empty and unoccupied,” the exterior

van houten cocoa
structure of the object. Valene cannot capture the wholeness of the thingness of objects, or his full experience of objects – where, for example, can there be room for the past? “Where were they now, the Van Houten cocoa tins, the Banania cartons with the laughing infantryman...the boxes of thermogene wool with its fire-spitting devil drawn by Cappiello, and the sachets of good Dr Gustin’s lithium tablets?”

As Valene nears the end of his life, he retreats into his past, seeking what once he had known, falling prey to “the nostalgia that each era tends to feel for an earlier one, seen as an imaginary Eden of objects”(Schwenger). Baudrillard, commenting on Perec’s debut novel Things (1965) remarked on this anodyne longing, “...the thick mellow nostalgia that envelopes this interior...nothing in it has the slightest symbolic value any longer.”

AWS shares this sense of loss which, according to Peter Schwenger, is part of our experience of the object, an ongoing longing: “The melancholy...is generated by the act of perception, perception of the object by the subject. The perception is always falling short of full possession, gives rise to a melancholy that is felt by the subject and is ultimately for the subject.”

A tin of Van Houten’s cocoa would be of little help to Valene, even if one were to appear in his flat; its meaning for him is absent and not contained in its simple ‘presence’ and would leave him no happier than before. Marcus amplifies this effect of impenetrability, by using the non-existent. What else are we to make of the “penetrating gavorts box” mentioned in ‘The Enemy of House Culture’, a Barthesian voided referent to the next degree, an object described as a wooden construction made in America in 1987, yet part of a “dream collaboration”, “non-useful and abstract”?

The definition suggests a method of communication (“inscriptions on the walls and floors”), but ends on a note of self-induced destruction, and sadness at the destruction: “Destroy it; smash it into powder; make a burial. Knock it back. Mourn the lost home.” Valene’s longing for the tin of cocoa is our longing to know the purpose of the ‘gevorts box’, with Marcus emphasising an object’s definitively unknowable ‘thingness’ (and the arbitrary nature of our naming of objects).

Marcus’s ‘The House’ section of AWS is well-named, for in our attempt to house ourselves within the object, we destroy the object and are once more lost; the object has shattered but its void remains. In this context, only our desire and the inevitable loss are real. If we try to inhabit the object, mistaking it for the absent idea of the object, we destroy it, leavening us further alienated.

This alienation, Baudrillard suggested, stems from our inability to know objects despite their ever-burgeoning number. Baudrillard warned of society turning into AWS where, as Douglas Kellner puts it, “alienation is total...where individuals can no longer perceived their own true needs or another way of life.” The society in AWS is so sated with objects, they exist at an equal status with humans. Baudrillard believed this the result not only of object proliferation, but also our methods of their production: “Baudrillard argues that the process of social homogenization, alienation and exploitation forms a process of reification in commodities, technologies and things come to dominate people, divesting them of their human qualities” (Kellner). This culminates in a society where “human beings become dominated by things and become more thing-like themselves” (Kellner).

This develops into the hermetic society of L:AUM. Valene dies mourning the lost objects of his life (with their attendant memories), while “the description of Bartlebooth’s final stillness precedes an inventory of his room 17a” (Schwenger). Bartlebooth expires, surrounded by “an unsorted miscellaneous of objects and books.” Schwenger comments: “This rich jumble seems to exemplify the power of possession, not only of objects but of knowledge. Yet, as we have seen, it is not so much objects, as it is we who become possessed; “our life is not our own that we use it as though it were.”

Bartlebooth cares nothing for his possessions and they in return do nothing to help care for their owner. An overview shows this relationship between people and objects as far from dormant. Barthes pinpointed its origins in the rhetoric of antiquity; Perec covered its flourishing in the present day; Baudrillard, and then Marcus, foresaw its triumph in the future. Baudrillard believed existence would become evidenced by “an over-proximity of things, a foul promiscuity of things,” an “implosion,” where images, signs and identities are free-floating and language begins to fail: “The otherness of things in relation to language: words and things seem fated to an absolute difference. They may be fated, indeed, to an actual fatality – or so it is asserted, in a constant metaphor” (Schwenger, Critical Inquiry).

Such a view can help us clarify some of the obscurities of Marcus’s text. For example in ‘The Golden Monica’, “an intruder, a mad invader” gains entry to the home of a family to become an object. At first the invader “arranges the appliances to emit the sensations of music” before his last act to become “a self-created corpse,” the only release from objects' subjugation.

By the time we reach this age of wire and string, the nature of our relation to objects has transformed to the effect that our language now struggles to cope with their ‘activities’, as if Barthes’ tripartite structure of words (sign, signifier, signified) had somehow broken apart. The idea of the object has overtaken its real function, abetted by the increase of fictionalization generated by a consumerist society which requires consumption sustain itself, by the use of hyperbolic advertising.

The relationships of Bartlebooth and his servant Smautf in L:AUM demonstratethis breakdown of language, the gradual separating of object, truth and meaning. Bartlebooth’s torment at the hands of his own works we have already noted and as for Smautf, we learn that his “memory lets him down with increasing frequency.” Smautf kept a diary of sorts, but “the result of it today was far from clear, particularly as Smautf was convinced rereading a single word which then summarized the whole scene perfectly, would be enough to reawaken his integral memory of it.”

Sadly, entries made over 30 years earlier, such as “copper change given wrapped in paper” and

Board game
“it’s calf’s foot jelly,” now mean as little to Smautf as Bartlebooth’s paintings. The port towns, lost from their original sensory context, now, ironically, despite the detailed method of their construction, have no ‘backing’: “They were now only bizarre playing-pieces in an interminable game...the sole material substance of a lonely and bloody-minded replay...Majunga was neither a town or a port, it was not a heavy sky, a strip of lagoon...it was only seven hundred and fifty variations on grey.”

Their chosen methods of recording alienate both servant and master from their own pasts. “All things are inscribed with textuality,” (John Frow, Critical Inquiry) but all Bartlebooth and Smauft can read is their own reduction. Objects, “the custodians of our memories,” (Schwenger) have ejected Bartlebooth and Smautf by their own hands.



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