By Lilián González
Objects as metaphor
Objects and their aesthetic experience in postmodernity
The importance of the invisible in objects
The previous chapter showed a perspective of everyday objects from the point of view and critical analysis of Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno, and Regis Debray, mainly on art concerning design, which results in the situation of how objects have evolved from social and cultural changes, which is what primarily generates a rupture in how objects can be designed today.
This text is about the relationship of objects with the human being in its most profound sense. These reflections will help to establish a theoretical framework for the development of «Social Experience Design» projects. It is emerging from the analysis of the designer’s profession in Mexico and the increase of the professionalizing study of the discipline in the last decades, with the emergence of hundreds of design offices and design boutiques that emerge under the premise of generating new aesthetic proposals without prioritizing design for social welfare. Proposals in which most of them are remakes and styling that aspire to international publications and exhibitions, proposals that move away from the contemporary needs and problems of the world and the country.
From this, we start with the reflection of Nietzsche’s text to confront it with postmodernity and what it generates of singularity in the objects, providing them with a greater cultural and social benefit.
Objects as metaphor
The reflection of Nietzsche’s text in «On truth and lies» provides some connections that turned out to be relevant for the critical analysis of design objects. This is based on the notion of metaphor that is present in the reflection and that supports the discourse of creation and generation of concepts for its development.
Nietzsche, in his text, begins by recognizing that the intellect is the means of conservation of the individual, so that man has to formulate strategies to conceal his weakness to his environment and to the other through flattery, lies, deception, the stage game to others and to himself. Here is his vanity and the first statement he makes: truth is beyond the reach of men.
Nietzsche points out that man is content to receive new stimuli and allows himself to be deceived instead of being led to the truth, and his only fear is to be prejudiced. His instinct of self-preservation vis-à-vis other individuals is to use the intellect for dissimulation, and this is a lie. The dissimulation that is the linguistic displacement, the being in the place «of,» which can also allude to what later is the idea of «becoming» for Gilles Deleuze in «A Thousand Plateaus.» An example is the man who wants to become a woman but does not «is,» although inside, he «is.» In this sense, there is a game of dissimulation in which man is displaced, and the concept of truth is hidden. Deleuze finds becomings everywhere: in war; man who becomes beast, in prison; man who becomes animal, in animals; bee who becomes orchid, etc.
These becoming are also displacements, concealments, lies, but also metaphors. A first question can be raised about this: how are these becoming and displacements similar to some objects? There are metaphorical objects, objects that become something else, that mutate, that deceive, that seduce, that dissimulate. Let us think, for example, of smartphones as mutant objects in their increasingly disguised and more neutral forms; of the seduction caused by household appliances that become more complex and at the same time more useless; of machines that metaphorize man’s work in an attempt to replace it, although the value of handmade works is always appreciated and sometimes it is what generates them to have greater monetary value since error and irregularity obtain greater appreciation by some consumers.
Nietzsche, in the idea of truth and lie in his text, goes into the concept of metaphor, which for him is the one that is used whenever the intellect of man tries to reach a truth, which is opposed to Plato in which truth was reached through the rhetorical use of knowledge. For Nietzsche, man makes use of metaphor to find his «truth» through linguistic displacement or transposition, which he uses to lie. Finally, for Nietzsche, man does not find the truth only because of his vanity.
Deception is disguised as «truth,» and man allows himself to be deceived; he knows it and does not care. We see this day by day in the unbridled consumption of products that are «good for nothing,» but that generate the need through a lie and the idea of living an experience or simply consuming products to generate the image/lie that they want to project to others. In this way, the lie is assumed as a truth about the appearance that will give the individual and the social configuration.
On the other hand, further on, Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) reflects on an individual who is consumed by fashion to belong to his social group but at the same time seeks to distinguish himself as an individual among the masses even though it may seem contradictory and whimsical. The individual is always confronted with the «other» but also wants to find in him a principle that tells us about the basics of being part of a community.
The consumption of objects does not make him stronger or richer, or greater than anyone else, but the individual uses these strategies as part of his deception; hence the notion of metaphor is very important to understand the global configuration critically and that according to Nietzsche’s text, that metaphor (which is dissimulation) is the one that turns.
The individual, the singular in generic words, and general perceptions that are not reality. When we say and point out the tree, it is not that singular tree with singular leaves, but we put it into general categories to be able to confirm it as a concept of the general image of our reality and to be able to create a concept of tree. The reality of a bird is not the same as that of man either, as if the only reality that exists is that of man, that is why this concept of truth falters, and Nietzsche’s text itself is suspended in an abyss.
Truth itself is a word continually trapped in its linguistic displacement, and here another notion is born, which is the «relative» and the «different .»Nietzsche bets on the latter, which is also the otherness and not the relative, the otherness as truth and error or truth and appearance; it is not the relative but «the other .»The irony is part of this, which is precisely the tension between truth and lie, what makes one laugh and in which he was very interested. That which makes one laugh is precisely that game between truth and lie in which the discourse hesitates, but it is also the tension of singularities, and it is what gives an object its singularity, its difference, its rupture.
Man must have the capacity for forgetfulness (a figure that possesses truth) and will play illusions for truths. At this point, language has to play its game in metaphors since designations are pure arbitrariness, forgetting that things have been made metaphors and taking them as truths (like things themselves). «We divide things into genders, and we say that the tree is masculine and the plant, feminine: what arbitrary transpositions! How far we are from the canons of certainty!» (Nietzsche, F. 1873, p. 3). At this point, we can remember the surprises that new technologies such as virtual reality, immersion, hyperrealism, interactive installations that from the technique surprise to such an extent that virtuality can be diluted, making them seem true, this is their fascination, and it is what hesitates between truth and lie.
«What is truth, then? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short, a sum of human relations that have been enhanced, transferred, poetically and rhetorically embellished, and that, after long use, seem to a people to be firm, canonical, and obligatory: ‘truths are illusions that have been forgotten to be so, metaphors that have been worn out by use and have lost their sensible force, coins that have lost their effigy and can only be regarded as metal and no longer as coins’ (Nietzsche, 1873, p. 5),
This concept is powerful; words, like things, evolve, are alive and in continuous movement. Words that at some point were bold, strong, and loaded with meaning with their daily use become trivialized and lose their strength, or the opposite happens to them: they become canonized and become truths. All this is what finally makes up reality; it is a fragmented vision of the world with a constant coming and going, moving in the infinity of language, trying to glimpse truths that are always torn apart. And what happens with objects, then? Objects, like language, evolve and are alive; they become canonized or banalized, currency acquires its value per se; objects become singular, symbolic, fetishes (they acquire magical powers), they become necessary and personalized, forgetting the illusion with which they were created. Others are decontextualized and acquire new functions; some fortunate ones become iconic or lose their strength through wear and tear and lose their value.
Nietzsche perceives the world as primitive and full of metaphors that man forgets that they are, believing that everything he sees is true, forgetting himself as a subject. He finds it hard to think that animals perceive the world differently, «Perception is a unit of measure not given […]. Its procedure is to take man as the measure of all things» (Nietzsche, 1873, p. 6). For Nietzsche, we cannot do without metaphors because man continually wants to search for truth and generate new metaphors, «the awakened man wishes to shape the world as enchanting and eternally new as the world of dreams» (Nietzsche, 1873. p. 9).
In conclusion, the critical consequences that bring the term metaphor are very powerful for the designer and the conception of objects from its creative stage, its production, and finally, the experience that the user will have with the designed objects. The perceptive level of users or consumers and language as a configurator of reality is then the metaphor, which revolves around the dialectic of this discourse on which there is no «truth» and on this the panorama that shows us is that of falsehood in every sense, but the weapon that powers the speeches that the designer can use to enhance speeches or positive actions for the benefit of others.
Objects and their aesthetic experience in postmodernity
Objects have been evolving naturally, as has art, society, and not only from an aesthetic and functional point of view; the idea of the object has exploded and has become more complex. Lipovetsky speaks of a trans-aesthetic moment in which the majority wishes to have an aesthetic experience through the way we dress, the places we frequent, and even how we decorate our homes regardless of economic status. That is to say, society is no longer satisfied only with the architectural beauty that cities gave us or the beauty that surrounded palaces but has now surpassed any social and economic barrier.
Aesthetics conceived as beauty in the traditional sense of the term can already be found in other places contaminated by the desire to create their environments and aesthetic experiences, and it is not that this desire is new, but the mass products, the large production, and distribution of these products make them available to anyone, whether high or low quality but they have to be under the regime of a fashion trend and also generate an experience, and if not, the user will not consume it.
It is here where trans-aesthetic experiences are found, places that generate experiences, restaurants that not only offer food but also experiences of encounter, experiences, objects that awaken the user’s interest and that talk to him, that respond beyond their function to his emotions. Clothes that not only position you in a status but also arouse interest, curiosity, help, like brands that tell you stories in which they show you the process or the people who help with your purchase, to give an example. We see how the individual that has generated this consumer society and capitalism now seeks new products, new emotions and experiences. There are too many products that are generated every day, so now we are looking for those that are unique, those that seem that only I have them and that are unique but at the same time are fashionable and make me belong to a group.
The postmodern user is not only looking to satisfy his aesthetic desire, which is what has been fought against throughout history (beautification of objects) but a movement in which the object has to give something more than its mere function and beauty. Now it must also give an experience. But why has society moved in this direction? Why not be satisfied only with good functionality and beauty?
Because objects responding to user demand (and we all know this) is a response that must be almost immediate to ensure the success of an object, but besides this, avant-garde objects, as well as art, reflect the situation of society: they criticize, denounce, show, evidence, satiate and confront.
What happened to the user? Mainly we live in an extremely accelerated world, and we live at high speed. This situation distances people from the real world. It distances them from their neighbor, from the one next to them (we chat with the one we have a meter away instead of talking to his face). It seems that connectivity brings us closer, but the individual gets lost in this multi-connectivity between the virtual and the real world, which generates an isolated and, at the same time, multi connected individual. Lost in the multitude, in the screen and image saturation. So far, we have talked about certain features that have modified the user and have isolated him; however, this position is not as radical as it may seem. It should also be mentioned that in addition to this isolation, the individual thirsts for encounters and experiences, not only for virtual mutual connectivity.
What happened to the user? Mainly we live in an extremely accelerated world, and we live at high speed. This situation distances people from the real world; it distances them from their neighbor, from the one next to them (we chat with the one we have a meter away instead of talking to his face). It seems that connectivity brings us closer, but the individual gets lost in this multi-connectivity between the virtual and the real world, which generates an isolated and, at the same time, multiconnected individual. Lost in the multitude, in the screen and image saturation. So far, we have talked about certain features that have modified the user and have isolated him; however, this position is not as radical as it may seem. It should also be mentioned that in addition to this isolation, the individual thirsts for encounters and experiences, not only for virtual mutual connectivity.
With this it can be seen that objects have become more complex; there are too many factors that now interfere with them.
Zygmunt Bauman, on the other hand, conceives today as a liquid society in which everything is diluted and constantly changing; they are no longer the solid and durable objects of before; now, they are disposable and replaceable all the time. People change jobs constantly; they do not aspire to last a lifetime in their job, not even in the same city. This generates a speed of life that changes the relationship with objects. This is why their life cycle is so short, but in addition to that, these objects have evolved to meet the needs of the liquid society. Objects can be customized. They are mutable, interchangeable. In a way, the nomadic user seeks his identity, rootedness, belonging (the symbolic part), and finally that it generates an experience.
This is why the designer must have a great sensitive capacity to generate objects that respond to these needs and that also speak of the past and the future. For Baudrillard, these would be objects with a mixture of nostalgia and extreme anticipation since the past and the future coexist. That is to say, the objects must have a load of the past, of the symbolic, of what reminds the user of something, of tradition, but these objects must also have extreme anticipation; they must anticipate, be futuristic, avant-garde, anticipate the user. We know that the market is managed in advance, that objects are designed years before their debut, and it is here where the game is played between the past and the future, a future that has to respond to the uncertain social movement.
The importance of the invisible in objects
The objects that seduce, according to Baudrillard, are those that cause illusion. Illusion for him would be that which is veiled, which is not transparent; it is the deception of the eye in the traditional sense and not by means of virtual reality that wants to hide rather than a veil. «In a space like the Cartier Foundation -where he voluntarily mixed real image and virtual image-, this means that in the same plane, I never know if I see the virtual image or the real image[…], I do not know if I see the reflection of the sky or the sky in transparency» (Baudrillard J. and Nouvel, J., 2007, p.16).
What causes seduction is what creates destabilization, what is not resolved, objects without referent «unidentified,» singular objects that become enigmatic and obsessive. It is evident that objects do not respond to or satisfy all needs since there is always a black hole; this black hole is what the masses do not reflect, what they do not make conscious, as Baudrillard says in this same text cited above. So if an object was designed for something, surely its meanings will be diverted. This black hole will be what the designer will have to understand and know about in order to play with its multi signification.
«Then there will be what is left unsaid. There always remains a part that is of the unsaid, that is part of the game. And, on an ethical level, it is unsaid is a thing apart, something that does not go against what one is going to sell or exchange, against economic notions, but it means something vital. That is the stake» (Baudrillard and Nouvel, 2007, p. 17).
Baudrillard emphasizes that which remains hidden and generates enchantment; in some way, it is the indecipherable experiential experience. This generates deviations of destabilization that somehow generate, in Baudrillard’s words, something intangible that obsesses us. In his dialogue with Jean Nouvel, he comments: «What I love about what you do is that it is not seen, things are invisible, they know how to become invisible. When one arrives, one sees them, but they are invisible to the extent that, in effect, they put in check the hegemonic visibility, that which dominates us, that of the system, where everything must become immediately visible and immediately decipherable» (Baudrillard and Nouvel, 2007, p. 18) Today more than ever we are in the greatest visibility that humanity has ever had in front of others, the world in an instant is unfolded, screened, naked in front of others through a system that now dominates everything.
It is, therefore, quite relevant for the designer to understand the invisibility and concealment proposed by Baudrillard. An object can contain within itself great surprises and generate experiences, but it also has the power to make everything visible, in any case, to show itself explicitly and vulgarly without much sense, or to be very intrepid and promote the visibility that can be something very dangerous for culture, as smartphones are now to name one of many of these super-powerful objects.
If we think about the relationship of experience with the object and read this statement by Baudrillard: «A programmed seduction does not exist. Therefore, we cannot say much about it» (Baudrillard and Nouvel, 2007, p. 29), this helps us to think that the seduction in the objects was not pre-designed, but it is given until the user interacts with the object and it will always be a surprise what can happen and the experience for each one will be unique. But the main idea would be to find how to reach the Punctum, that inexplicable thing that Roland Barthes warned about in photography.
«Duchamp transposed a very simple object, the toilet, into an art object. He transposed banality to produce an event in the aesthetic universe, de-aestheticizing it, to make banality burst in, to make an effraction in aesthetics and put it in check, and, paradoxically, he opened the way to the generalized aestheticization of our time. […] It is desperate. Not only the geographical, urban context but also the human context, the commissioning context, the financial context, everything is desperate. And graduate architects stumble upon this reality» (Baudrillard and Nouvel, 2007, p. 34-48).
This last quote strongly highlights the aesthetic situation we live in and a large number of design graduates and related disciplines that trivialize the profession, and how the impact of their proposals are responding to the latter mentioned by Baudrillard, «the commission on a financial basis.»
Baudrillard, J. y Nouvel J. (2007). Los objetos singulares. Arquitectura y filosofía. Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Bauman, Z. (2002). Modernidad Líquida. Fondo de cultura económica.
————– (2013) La cultura en el mundo de la modernidad líquida. Fondo de Cultura Económica.
Deleuze, G. y Guattari, F. (1980). Devenir-intenso, devenir-animal, devenir-imperceptible.Mil mesetas. Capitalismo y esquizofrenia (pp. 240-315). Pre-Textos.
Nietzsche, F. (1873). Sobre verdad y mentira en sentido extramoral, trad. Pablo Oyarzún.