“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” – Socrates
You’re browsing the high street nonchalantly on a Saturday or in your lunch hour, or procrastinating on Asos or Ebay on a slow Friday afternoon at work praying that your boss doesn’t catch you. Then it catches your eye. It seems to beckon you in. You must have it. It appears to glow. It is your holy grail. It will complete you.
Obviously this isn’t the kind of feeling that accompanies buying bog roll, bin liners, kitchen foil, milk and the like. It’s those shoes that you imagine strutting through the office wearing. It’s that car you imagine parking in your driveway that makes passersby do a double take. This feeling is reserved for a specific kind of purchase – a purchase that you consciously feels defines you, a purchase you feel will trump all others. It’s that ‘ultimate buy’ where you gasp at the price tag but somehow find a way of justifying not eating for a few weeks so you can have it.
“I won’t need to buy anything else for a long time,” or “it ties all my wardrobe/living room décor/record collection together,” or “if I didn’t buy it I will regret it, somebody else might get it and it will be gone forever,” are things you tell yourself as you whip out your heavily over-drawn debit card and push it promptly into the chip and pin.
For me, this feeling occurs maybe once a month. That’s right, I find my holy grail once a freaking month. Other than many of our monthly expenditures and earnings, something doesn’t match up here. What’s more, the frenzy with which we buy these objects abates so quickly that we find ourselves relegating them to the back of the wardrobe/bookshelf/attic, stuffing them into bin-liners to drop off at the local charity shop, or even forgetting that they exist entirely within a few months.
Useful vs Frivolous, Work vs Play and Oniomania
For Baudrillard, as I mentioned in my introduction, these such items are not bought with their use value in mind. Rather, we buy their intangible, non-functional meaning. Two sweaters perform essentially the same function, although one may be thicker and more useful for winter, you could not say that a red jumper is categorically more useful or functional than a blue one. A ‘dry clean only’ label has never put me off buying an item of clothing, which is irrational, because dry cleaning anything is expensive and time-consuming. Stephen King writes in ‘What is a Brand?’ “the non-functional pleasures that we ourselves get are more intense and meaningful than the functional.” This is why, on the whole, we get so het up about what colour a jumper is more than whether it can be tumble dried.
We like ‘splashing out’, or ‘splurging.’ Bataille, a Surrealist art theorist, wrote (in a less-kinky-than-the-title-suggests book, ‘Eroticism’) “Our only real pleasure is to squander our resources to no purpose.” Bataille draws a distinction between ‘work’ and ‘jouissance‘ (his poncy term for ‘play’ I suppose). Work is what differentiates us from our animalistic nature and makes us ‘civilised’. Work is man saying no to nature, saying he wants to be in control of his destiny and his surrounding world and not let nature get the better of him. Work, at it’s extreme, is a high flying banker who watches his figure, goes to the gym and only drinks bottled water. Jouissance, however, is going against what is ‘productive’. It’s being a bit rebellious. It’s putting two fingers up at your ‘civilised’ self and embracing an animalistic instinctual desire for pleasure. Jouissance, at it’s extreme, is a couple going dogging.
Making music, getting drunk, nutting one out at a rave, splashing out at a restaurant, procrastinating, youtube-ing at endless cat videos and buying a shit-ton of things we don’t need are all part of our quest for ‘jouissance’. These aren’t ‘useful’ or ‘helpful’, in fact, quite a lot of the time these kinds of activities are downright unhelpful. This is why for many ‘irresponsible’/’freespirited’ people a new pair of trainers is more important than having enough money to buy bog roll or decent food. This is why some people find spending money more fun than saving it.
A Series of ‘Upgrades’
“The unique object is in fact simply the final term, the one which sums up all the others, that it is the supreme component of an entire paradigm (albeit a virtual, invisible or implicit one) – that it is, in short, the emblem of the series” – Baudrillard, The System of Objects
(Stereotypical Caricature of a Philosopher)
Collecting is all about ‘series.’ One thing after another. Things that follow other things. The last thing in a series, Baudrillard argues, somehow manages to sum up all the other things that preceded it. If you think of your wardrobe as a ‘series of purchases’ rather than as a collective entity, ‘my clothes’, I think this may shed some light on Baudrillard’s lofty claims.
My ‘wow’ buys are always shoes. Sneakers to be precise. Today I bought some silver brogues (I am a bit of a magpie at the moment) for an interview. The interview was the ‘rational’ justification that I used to try to alleviate some of the guilt that can precede/follow ‘jouissance’ or splurge buying. I already have some perfectly smart black shoes. What was really going though my mind was, “These shoes will make you feel like an adult, it’s time you got out of trainers, trainers are for teenagers. You will feel like an adult worthy of a salary in these shoes.” My big shoe purchase before this was a pair of Nike Janoski’s, all black. What went through my mind was “you have a job now, you need to stop wearing glow in the dark Nike limited edition Dunks.” I bought these glow in the dark monstrosities before the all black Janoski’s because I thought they would suit being a nightclub promoter at Uni. Each of these purchases trumped the ones before in my quest to have my feet taken seriously in the working world.
“This term is the unique object, defined by its final position and hence creating the illusion that it embodies a particular goal or end [making me an adult]. This is all well and good, but it shows us how it is quantity that impels towards quality, and how the value thus concentrated on this simple signifier [my silver brogues] is in fact indistinguishable from the value that infuses [making me an adult] the whole chain of intermediate signifiers of the paradigm [my shoes as a whole].” – Baudrillard
The thing is, I could have bought all of the shoes in the shop. I could have then decided that I didn’t have a ‘grown up’ handbag and needed one. I could have gone on a spending rampage worthy of my bank blocking my credit card for ‘exhibiting unusual spending patterns.’ It wouldn’t have mattered how many items, or indeed, what items I bought, a very similar feeling would have pervaded my shopping spree. All these purchases would be trying to fulfil the same symbolic function. One after the other I would have felt that one item ‘trumped’ the last one in making me the person I want the world to see me as.
“Any collection comprises a succession of items, but the last in the set is the person of the collector” – Baudrillard, The System of Objects
Baudrillard’s statement might help us understand why fashion fads come and go so quickly. I remember when wearing ‘Geek’ across your chest was some sort of ironic/witty fashion statement. Like Von Dutch caps, this fashion trend burnt out, and burnt out fast. I have a feeling that this is because the more people you see wearing a variant of your jumper, or even your exact same jumper, the less you feel that this item expresses you. You are now just one of the crowd. You ditch it from your collection pretty pronto. We want people to know from a once-over that we are autonomous individuals with our own personalities. This could be why it is considered a bit of a faux pas to turn up to a party wearing the same dress as somebody else.
Yet, at the same time, we might aspire to be like Cara Delevingne or Pharrell. These fashion icons show us how to ‘stand out from the crowd’. They inspire us with new and ‘out there’ shit and they give us the courage to depart from the flock and be ‘out there.’ This courage might see us wearing acid yellow this summer or an over-sized hat. We know we aren’t ‘out there’ alone. We are torn between belonging and not belonging to a crowd. When does a crowd become a crowd? I suppose the answer to this question, is, in a way, an expression of how ‘mainstream’ you are.
I have enough clothes, trust me, but quite often I will feel that nothing in my wardrobe ‘expresses’ me anymore. Quite often this isn’t because the Spring collection has arrived at Topshop or because everyone suddenly seems to be wearing acid yellow. Instead, it is when I’ve had a bit of a personality shake-up. Something important has happened that has affected how I see myself and how I want the world to see me. This could be a break up, a new job or a even a change of address. This is when I go out with my little plastic friend. I hope to find something that will help me to express who I am to the world in this new context. I want to express how I have evolved as a person as my clothes no longer fit me symbolically (rather than physically).
Collections ‘evolve’ because we ‘evolve.’
Tattoo collectors might talk about various stages of their lives when they talk about different tattoos or regret and cover up ones they have outgrown. Record collectors might relegate their trance records to the attic to make way for their current techno phase. Perhaps the most extreme manifestation of this kind of behaviour is when artists destroy all their past works. These past works reflect their former selves in perhaps the most intense and direct way possible. These physical objects represent their previous naivety or warped perceptions of the world and confronting them can make them cringe. It’s that feeling when you look at a photograph of you three years ago, or flick backwards through your Facebook photos. Its that strange uncomfortable feeling when you read your high school diary. You’ve moved on psychologically, but the objects you have left in your wake haven’t. Then comes Baudrillard’s eureka/the-painfully-obvious-that’s-been-left-unsaid-gets-said moment.
“One cannot but wonder whether collections are in fact meant to be completed… The presence of the final object of the collection would basically signify the death of the subject, whereas its absence would be what enables him merely to rehearse his death (and so exorcize it) by having an object represent it.” – Baudrillard
Annoyingly he over-complicates what is actually quite simple. Those ‘wow’ buys are objects we choose to express our personal evolution. If I only replaced those glow in the dark Nike dunks like-for-like and ended my shoe collection with them, then I would probably never feel like I had ‘grown up’. I would feel that I had reached the pinnacle of ‘me-ness’, that I had somehow reached an abrupt end. Would this not be a little deathly?
What Baudrillard is articulating very poorly is that existential crisis when you finish a box set. Or when, as a kid, you collected that last pokemon card. Or when you finish an Xbox game. We don’t like ending things that we have been so caught up in, that we spent hours involving ourselves in. What we are most caught up in everyday is our own evolution, our own lives and this includes the objects we choose to surround and express ourselves with.