The ideology of design fails to deliver on its promise of a democratization of aesthetics and instead mires people more fixedly in the dreary procedures of consumerism.
Sunt lacrimae rerum. – Virgil
Recently I found opportunity to watch Objectified, a 2009 documentary by filmmaker Gary Hustwit, whose previous outing, Helvetica (2007), peeled back the many-layered mystery of that ubiquitous font style. (Who’d have thought Helvetica, or “Helvetty” as Hipster Runoff’s Carles calls it, would prove so revolutionary? Send words out sans serif and liberate nations!) Hustwit brings must the same sensibility to Objectified that he did to Helvetica, one which consists of extended montages while plinky-plonky indie rock drones on in accompaniment.
I requested Objectified from Netflix because I thought it might offer some incisive critical commentary on design and designy things. I figured that any self-respecting documentarian wouldn’t put himself to the trouble of making a film if he lacked interest in closely scrutinizing his subject. What purpose do documentaries serve, after all, if not to present the sort of sustained and objective (admittedly a fraught term) treatment otherwise lacking in popular media generally? Documentaries ought to be a countervailing force against the marketing slogan, the sound bite.
Objectified, unfortunately, does not live up to this expectation. It makes a pretense of objectivity, but mostly Objectified takes an uncritical, even loving, approach to its subject. Many feet of film (or perhaps megabytes of memory) are spent in lavish regard for design and the fingerprints it leaves all over both public and private space. In this respect, Objectified leaves one with the impression of its being more a visual love letter to designers and other luminaries of the creative class — many of whom appear in the film — than a documentary, properly speaking.
My experience viewing Objectified I can best describe as one of irritation shading into revulsion. The self-indulgence of leaving the camera trained on objects undergoing manufacture annoyed me, but I chalked it off to it being sort of cinematic Hamburger Helper — filler meant to extend what is really quite meager conceit. My annoyance turned to revulsion, however, precisely as a consequence of the attritive effect of these very scenes. In their frequency and duration, these scenes helped (quite unintentionally I’m sure) the film effect a sort of deconstructive jump in place: Certain implications quite other to the filmmaker’s design (pun intended) began to as it were peek through that which actually appeared on the screen. The effect of this rather reminded me of some ideas of the French theorist Pierre Macherey, who in his 1966 work For a Theory of Literary Production identifies two registers inhering in all literary discourse: the “spoken” and the “unspoken.” This is so because literary texts “say what they do not say,” an admittedly cryptic way of expressing the idea that the particular way of wording the literary representation of some subject is at the same time a suppression of other ways of wording, and thus, of representing, this same subject. The latter are banished to “the margins” of the literary text. The actual wording appearing on the page stands as simply one rendering among myriad possible others, yet one which becomes valorized (in the Marxian sense) simply by virtue of actually being on the page. Criticism conducted in the spirit of Macherey, then, is an act of recuperation; the “spoken,” i. e., the literary representation appearing on the page, presents a point of entry through which the many marginalized other significations can be accessed in order to be brought dialectically to bear on the former — in order to produce what the French Marxist thinker (and uxorcide) Louis Althusser (who was Macherey’s teacher) calls a “symptomatic reading.”
A symptomatic reading of Objectified reveals an urge for impeccable order, an incurable desire to purge from public view the irregular, the odd, the heteroclite, and even the excessively ornate or strictly utilitarian, in order to place in their stead a whole array of everyday things boasting clean lines and soothing orbicularities — a regime of Platonic functionality, in other words, vouchsafed to an auxiliary of designers equipped with the latest drafting software and laser-guided precision instruments. Objectified comes across as a fever dream of the sort which brings the sufferer visions of the world to come: namely, the dictatorship of the creative class.
Design, like fascism, leads people to misunderstand the fundamental verities of their existence.
Lest I stand accused of exaggeration, let me point out that at one point in Objectified, the dictatorship of the creative is explicitly endorsed. One designer interviewed (whose name I have subsequently forgotten) basically made the point that designers, already unacknowledged legislators of taste by virtue of their creative-class status, ought not only to win acknowledgment but access to the corridors of power for their trouble. Her point (and I paraphrase): Like philosophers in France, to whom is referred every debate concerning culture, designers should be so empowered in every nation, and their pronouncements on culture should not simply be matters of passing interest, but binding decrees.
The authoritarian tone of this one designer’s remarks I find chilling, for they point to power relations that lurk at the heart of any discussion of the true, the beautiful and the good. Pull back the folds of any discourse on aesthetics and one is bound to discover principles participating in an ideology that tends to justify the existing order. Or so the German thinker and critic Walter Benjamin concluded. In his seminal 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin writes,
The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life. The violation of the masses, whom Fascism, with its Führer cult, forces to their knees, has its counterpart in the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.
The ascendancy of design seems to break along similar lines, offering the consumer the opportunity to express herself while at the same time backstopping existing order by salvaging surplus value from what to all outward appearances is an almost completely automated. The strongest impression (in a Machereyan spoken–unspoken manner) Objectified made on me is how thoroughly rarefied actual labor is from the manufacture of designed goods. Indeed, the involvement of actual labor is attenuated almost to the point of being merely metaphysical. Some whittling of models, some free-hand sketching, a few clicks of the mouse — such is the extent of the human touch. From there, machines of various sorts take over. Even the most intricate details are etched into components by laser-and-servo instruments, which execute this exceedingly fine work in a matter of seconds. The ultimate implication of all this is, of course, that the value added by “design” is dubious at best. The question as to whether humanity really needs articulated toothbrushes or fluted plungers aside, the almost complete automatization of not only the production process, but the design process as well, leaves one wondering why “designy” stuff still costs so damn much, because the cost of production should be far closer to zero than say toothbrushes and plungers of past years, which required more direct human attention than they apparently do now. In other words, the various production processes on display in Objectified suggest that the single most intractable matter with regard to production — the cost of labor — has been definitively put to rest.
The only natural conclusion one may draw is that design, like fascism, leads people to misunderstand the fundamental verities of their existence. Objectified, with its many depictions of almost complete automization, should be showing them the way to emancipation; instead, it leads them down the primrose path to an ever more suffocating consumerism. How does such a state of affairs come to pass? In his 1972 work, Ways of Seeing, the British novelist and critic John Berger writes,
Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable.
This false standard thus mystifies an issue which is at its root political and transforms it into an aesthetic one. Once this transformation takes hold, the phantasmagoria that is consumer culture diverts the attention and dissipates the energies of the majority into small matters of taste and personal expression, frivolities which at any rate pose no threat whatsoever to the status quo (despite claims to the contrary by those who insist that by shopping this way or that, one can effect political change or can promote proper ethical conduct). Design’s extension to things as mundane toothbrushes and plungers (I can’t understand why any designer would channel her creativity into an item whose sole function is to free turds from clogged toilets) to my mind represents the absolute triumph of aesthetics over politics. And the fact that it managed to do so with few rallies, bonfires or parades — though certainly with a great deal of spectacle — only highlights the truth that fascism the second time around will present itself in an altogether new guise.
Canons of taste help to keep the existing order in place.
Indeed, designers — and the cult of design generally — strike me as features of the phenomenon of “inverted totalitarianism” that the term’s coiner, the American political theorist Sheldon Wolin, sees as having Americans in its grip. “The Nazi and Fascist regimes were powered by revolutionary movements whose aim was not only to capture, reconstitute, and monopolize state power but also to gain control over the economy,” Wolin writes in his 2008 book, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism:
By controlling the state and the economy, the revolutionaries gained the leverage necessary to reconstruct, then mobilize society. In contrast, inverted totalitarianism is only in part a state-centered phenomenon. Primarily it represents the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry.
The recommendation, as made by one of the designers interviewed in Objectified, that citizens of every nation refer their cultural questions to designers can only be of use to citizens who have lost sight of the fact that cultural questions are not answerable in strictly aesthetic terms, precisely because aesthetic questions are fundamentally political questions. Canons of taste help to keep the existing order in place. And design, with its purported aim of conferring aesthetic value upon the humblest household items, has the effect of simply attaching more articles and subsections to these canons. Design represents, in other words, a peculiarly de-politicized form of democracy, which, it goes without saying, is a most convenient form of democracy if one happens to rank among the wealthy elite who wouldn’t like to see their privileged perches rocks by a form of democracy with any real substance to it. And the creative class is apparently all to happy to oblige them.
Anton would love to hear from you. Drop him a line at generationbubble [at] gmail [dot] com.