Center Stage: Recuperating the object in Debordian discourse

Debord’s critique of our alienated consumer society, which is caught within the illusion of a life of merchandise and fantasy desires, is useful for understanding the many woes and wrongs that this system engenders. But, I believe it is also a critique that vilifies objects and hinders a better comprehension of our relation with them. For instance, La Société du spectacle deplores how modern capitalist society projects an illusionistic spectacle of real life in which all interactions between persons have been reduced to mediations by images or objects.1

Debord also explains how the commodity market thrusts spectacular life at us: this is not a reflection of real life or actual needs but a vision made to enslave people in  their current condition and hypnotize them from having any critical distance.2 In short, Debord blames products for isolating people and deplores the lack of any possible relations we may have with each other due to merchandising.3 Thus from Debord’s project emerges a distinct loathing for objects since these are always understood as commodities or products caught up in the capitalist market.

Albeit these are valid points and I am not lauding the actions of aggressive neo-capitalist markets, Debord’s theory instills a certain disregard and even fear of materiality and objecthood.Yet our relations with objects have always been strong. Objects have been our tools and prostheses and even self-extensions (think of a spear or arrow). The product, on the other hand, is the object caught up in the economics of the market. Therefore, I want to ask, can the object and our relation to it be saved from playing a part on the stage of Debordian spectacle? Such a pejorative view of objects as being opposed to subjects does not allow for a conception of being that is closer to a Deleuzian assemblage.4 I therefore want to complicate Debord’s notion that we are completely alienated by the object.

Debord’s critique of our alienation from each other in fact creates a hierarchy of relations, locating human to human ones at the top and those with inanimate things at the bottom. Therefore, another problem with La Société du Spectacle is that it privileges the subject and is, in fact, very much a polarization of the object/subject. On the other hand, the theory of vibrant material that Jane Bennett proposes in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things erases such a divide by reinstating agency to the non-human and consequently validating potential relations we may have with it.5 Unlike Debord, Bennett proposes that relations and affects between innate matter and animate matter are just as important as between human and human, a proposition in my view that is much more horizontal than hierarchical.6

Bennett suggests that instead of viewing the subject as the only affecting agent, we should consider a “swarm of vitalities,” made up of all things that interact together to form a group or whole, where each element is an actor with some capacity to affect the other parts to which it relates.7 If we consider objects as part of our extended selves, our relation to these will not necessarily be one of consumer/commodity and can instead become a positive one. It is therefore useful to recognize that objects have a certain amount of agency or power of affect that causes other things to react as this helps us understand the roles objects play in our assemblage or make up.8 This is why it is also important to bring to our attention the objects and images that make up and are a part of our environment because these can help us forge meaningful socio-spatial relationships and even aid in creating our identities.

Quebec artist Cynthia Dinan-Mitchell’s installations do just this: they bring to the forefront a slew of images and objects, which construct decorative environments that encourage us to question our relation to objects and spaces. For instance, if we consider her installations Saloon Story III (2011) and Western Wasabi (2012) we can observe this play between autonomous individual parts and assemblage of wholes.9 The autonomy of the parts resides in the difference we notice between the elements such as the various media employed (pottery, print, decorative objects), the textures (from paper to textiles and flocking), the degrees of shades and patterns (bright citrus yellow to gold  and gingham to flowery prints) as well as the various objects’ intended functions. All these differences bring a semantic distinction and individuality to the elements. Here we are forced to play a game with the objects, one that invites the gaze to spot both alterity and similitudes between elements.10 Indeed, we perceive the interconnections between elements due to the unifying yellow background and the Western/Eastern lexicon formed into a pattern that, in the hallmark of true decorative sets, finds its way onto all the elements. Ultimately, though we spot the differences, the overwhelming connections between the elements come to highlight the assemblage they are all part of.

Through Dinan-Mitchells’ installations, not only do we become aware that there is a connection between all these objects but we can also observe the affect of objects. We find in the details of objects and prints a certain analogical tension in the representation of the incongruent juxtaposition of East meets West and this baffling unfamiliar mixture of cowboy meets samurai/geisha. This tension between battling characters at the micro level of the decoration is a potent reminder that in each relation between elements there is a story that deploys, one of affect.

Furthermore, Dinan-Mitchell transforms the gallery space into an almost curated home space where the work no longer has a distinct semiotic and spatial difference from the gallery wall or the viewer. Instead, it forms an environment that envelops and incorporates the viewer and transforms the gallery, stressing the fact that we are part of these intimate relations. The relation is no longer one of a passive viewer looking at a work from a distance,  but instead one of being incorporated into the work and the whole ensemble. In short, such an installation can bring to our attention the fact that we, along with objects in our space, are all part of assemblages.

Dinan-Mitchell’s installations draw our attention to the object and materiality, but, unlike Debord, it is not a relation of dichotomies stressed between object and subject. Rather, her installations bring a certain awareness of the space surrounding us and in fact they work to make up and construct that environment. By playing with seriality, she intentionally stresses the connections between elements in a given environment and reminds us that these not only affect each other but also have the capacity to affect us. Ultimately, we are reminded that spaces are created and that we are as much a part of them as they are a part of us. In the relational whole of the decorative environment, we are all actors and all objects, we are all, to borrow Bennett’s term, vibrant matter.

The decorative commodity can indeed divide society by strengthening the separation between classes and the alienation of the product with its maker. But at the same time, objects can create intimate spaces and intimate relations with their owners. Though the images and objects in these installations may not be specific to a viewer’s personal experiences, they bespeak a familiar vocabulary of interior decoration. This is why Dinan-Mitchell’s installations can recall our intimate relations with objects in space. Perhaps these are spectacular spaces in the sense that interior spaces can display identity constructions, but they are not so spectacular to be devoid of meaningful relations.

 

Julie Boivin lives in Barcelona, Spain and is a PhD candidate in art history at the University of Toronto. She holds both a Master’s and BA degree in art history from Concordia University, Montreal. She is interested in the ontology of ornament, and relations between space, identity and perception.

 


  1. Guy Debord, La Société du spectacle, [Paris : Gallimard, 1992 (1967)], p. 21-22.
  2. Ibid., p. 20.
  3. Ibid., p. 37-38.
  4. See : Claire Colebrook, Gilles Deleuze: A Critical Reader (London; New York : Routledge, 2002), p. 55- 61. For a discussion of the use of Deleuze’s concept of assemblage in the context of this article see also Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC : Duke University Press, 2010), p. 22-24.
  5. Bennett, Vibrant Matter.
  6. Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. 6. To experience the relationship between persons and other materialities as non-hierarchical is to begin to have a more ecological sensitivity, which is Bennett’s whole point and is why she restores agency to materiality. See: Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. 10.
  7. Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. 32. For Bennett an actant is neither a subject nor an object but an intervener. The term is borrowed from Bruno Latour. See Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. 9.
  8. Patricia Ticineto Clough, “Introduction,” in The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, eds. Patricia Ticineto Clough, and Jean Halley (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 10.
  9. Saloon Story III was shown in 2011 at L’ Œil de Poisson, Quebec City and Western Wasabi was shown in 2012 at Plein Sud, Longueuil.
  10. Mimi Hellman discusses the potential of seriality in furniture and decorative objects of 18th century France to invite the scopic gaze to spot the differences and similitudes between things. See Mimi Hellman “The Joy of Sets: The Uses of Seriality in French Interior,” Furnishing the Eighteenth Century What Furniture Can tell US about the European and American Past, eds. Dena Goodman and Kathryn Norberg (New York, NY: Routledge, 2007), p. 142-143.