Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Fragments: Production, Consumption, and the Readymade

Academic journal article Postmodern Studies

Fragments: Production, Consumption, and the Readymade

Article excerpt

No ideas but in things.

-William Carlos Williams

I fall to pieces each time I see you again.

-Patsy Cline

Things and Words

On his fantastic travels, Lemuel Gulliver encounters scholars busily inventing new forms of language. These include a large mechanical device that makes texts at random, an attempt to reduce language exclusively to nouns, and, taking that idea to its logical conclusion, the practice of substituting objects for words. From the perspective of the twenty-first century, Jonathan Swift's descriptions sound like a prescient catalog of avant-garde practices. Indeed, his story of a language made of things seems like an allegory of the twentieth century and the rise of art under the sign of mass production and the commodity form. As Gulliver puts it: "An expedient was therefore offered, that since words are only names for things, it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express the particular business they are to discourse on."1 For Swift, the eighteenth-century satirist, the joke is at the expense of these would-be experimenters, for surely there is just too much in human experience to be reduced to a set of brute, material objects, and certainly these fools are missing the very point of language itself-a more convenient and efficient form. And yet, from our vantage point three centuries later, it seems clear that marketers seek to reduce almost every human desire, thought, or experience to the commodity form. Indeed, in the consumer economies of the Global North, we now do a vast amount of communication through just such brute and material things, and much as Swift imagined it, we seem to use our designer clothes, customized kitchens, and electronic accessories to explain who we are: human experience has never been so overwrought with things. Indeed, rather like the Laputian experimenters, we find that the most seemingly successful among us exist more in a world of things than of words, much as how Swift describes the mad Laputians:

[M]any of the most learned and wise adhere to the new scheme of expressing themselves by things, which hath only this inconvenience attending it, that if a man's business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be obliged in proportion to carry a greater bundle of things upon his back, unless he can afford one or two strong servants to attend him. I have often beheld two of those sages almost sinking under the weight of their packs, like pedlars among us; who, when they met in the streets, would lay down their loads, open their sacks, and hold conversation for an hour together; then put up their implements, help each other to resume their burthens, and take their leave. (178)

In this language game, one's range of expression is tied directly to one's wealth, for what one might say is in direct proportion to the objects one carries. Swift's historical position at the beginnings of consumer society renders our contemporary interpretation of this activity far more forceful, for while Swift notes that these interlocutors resemble "pedlars," they are different in that they do not sell their vast bags of objects but make rhetorical use of them. Swift cannot quite put his finger on just what this practice might be, for he lacks its true name: consumption.

Perhaps a time-traveling Gulliver would not be at all surprised to come face-to-face with the work of Heidi Cody, a contemporary artist responding to a world of commodities through the use of readymades, collage, and the multimedia techniques of contemporary marketing and advertising. "As Americans, we are surrounded by the white noise of our consumer culture," explains Cody in her artist statement. She readily admits her complicit role as a consumer, "but with the critical perspective of a cultural anthropologist. I hope my overall body of work will eventually be seen as a sort of art documentary about advanced consumer culture."2 One of Cody's most striking works is a series entitled American Haiku, which includes the piece entitled American Haiku-The Mountain. …

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