Volume 13, Number 2 (July 2016)
Author: David McFarlane
In a revealing interview with Marcel Bénabou and Bruno Marcenac that has been cited by numerous researchers including Andrew Leak, Thomas Petruso, Leroy Day, Yuji Oniki, and David Walker, Georges Perec adamantly underscores that his first novel Les Choses has often been misunderstood by the academic community. Specifically, the author criticizes literary scholars who have interpreted this text as a scathing indictment of consumer society. Nonetheless, this study will elucidate that although Les Choses is “not primarily intended to be a condemnation of consumer society itself,” it offers a rather bleak assessment of what it means for the modern subject to live in a consumer republic (Leak 131). As the aforementioned researchers have noted, Perec expresses his disquieting anxiety that signs of reality are on the verge of replacing the real. On a semiological level, Georges Perec and Jean Baudrillard clearly share many of the same philosophical sensibilities. Indeed, Les Choses undoubtedly inspired Baudrillard as evidenced by the philosopher’s interpretations of Perec’s work in Le Système des objets.
However, despite the direct intertextual relationship between these two divergent authors in addition to the fact that they pose the same disconcerting semiological questions, only a few essays have examined these evident connections. Thus, this specific study attempts to begin to fill this significant research gap by exploring Les Choses from the lens of Baudrillard’s complex philosophy. Moreover, several critics have asserted that Les Choses has garnered “little critical attention” in comparison to the author’s other works such as La Vie mode d’emploi (Day 248). Given that Perec’s first novel is one of the most important texts in the writer’s entire œuvre, this comparative exploration also endeavors to encourage other researchers to (re)-examine the nuances of this seminal work. As the provocative thinker Baudrillard does throughout his entire career, Perec exposes the void that lurks beneath the surface of enticing simulations of happiness, prosperity, and self-actualization. Les Choses is a cautionary tale that problematizes the search for happiness in the realm of pervasive signs that have no real meaning outside of empty self-referential images of the good(s) life which incessantly bombard us from all sides.
II. Contextualization of Les Choses
Published in 1965, Les Choses “chronicles the life of a young couple, Jérôme and Sylvie, who have dropped out of the university to take jobs as interviewers collecting data on consumer preferences” (Strickland 32). Yet, as the subtitle “une histoire des années soixante” indicates, the personal lives of the protagonists are a microcosm of a universal problem that afflicts modern society. Les Choses is a deeply troubling “sociological document” that probes the dire consequences of living in world where hyper-real fictions often stand in for the real (Bénabou 20).
Explaining that Perec’s first novel asks questions about the ramifications of allowing symbolic fantasies, which are generated by corporate titans for the sole purpose of maximizing profits, to replace the real, Andrew Leak affirms that the author highlights “the inevitable fate of all those who mistake the image for reality” (130). In the previously mentioned interview, Perec confirms Roland Barthes’s reading of Les Choses as an attempt to deconstruct signs that supersede reality. As the author himself explains, “The words I use do not designate objects, or things, but signs. They are images” (Bénabou & Marcenac 28). Similar to Baudrillard, Perec maintains that the signifier has become entirely “unhinged from the signified” (Root 240). Les Choses is an unsettling novel that delves into the existential implications of seeking contentment and ontological significance when both any semblance of concrete reality and meaning appear to have been ‘murdered’ in Baudrillardian terms. Can the incessant acquisition of signs of happiness actual render anyone happy given the banality of the image concealed in simulacra that take the place of reality? Furthermore, by purchasing a certain item, can a consumer citizen truly hope to live the alluring simulations that flicker across his or her myriad of digital screens? These are a few of the fundamental questions that inspired Perec to write this poignant work which examines the pursuit of happiness in the modern world.
III. The Ubiquity of the Code and Its Pervasive Dissemination
Perec and Baudrillard observe that it is becoming more difficult with each passing day to find a space that has not been tainted by the ubiquity of the code. Even if one wishes to live authentically by fleeing the hegemonic empire of signs, both writers wonder if it is still even possible to define oneself outside of the confines of the hyper-real. Endlessly saturated by images due to modern technology that has obliterated any meaningful distinction between public and private space, do simulations of happiness and prosperity now concretize the totality of our quotidian existence?
Summarizing the tragic situation of the modern subject who is a victim of this crisis of simulation, the narrator of Les Choses describes, “ces images scintillantes, toutes ces images qui arrivaient en foule, qui se précipitaient au-devant d’eux, qui coulaient en un flot saccadé, intarissable, ces images de vertige, de vitesse, de lumière, de triomphe” that are emblematic of the misguided “quête éperdue du bonheur” fueled by hyper-real reverie (114; 116). Although they are astutely cognizant of the corporate origins of lucrative simulations that laud a life of luxury and opulence supposedly accessible to all, Jérôme and Sylvie continue to search for happiness in a symbolic universe far removed from reality. In this passage, Perec appears to imply that the images of a good(s) life that assault us from all sides are now so pervasive that they have effaced any other viable alternatives for actualizing a genuine state of contentment. In a society where the majority of our daily experiences are simulated, is there anywhere that the protagonists can turn after the decrystallization of their shattered, consumerist dreams? Buried under an avalanche of insignificant information that sells an idealized vision of happiness to the masses, can Jérôme and Sylvie escape the hyper-real thereby living otherwise?1 Or, have we arrived at the final stage of simulation where signs have eclipsed reality?
Throughout his prolific body of work, Baudrillard also suggests that the phenomenon of proliferation is to blame for the present semiological calamity. As Douglas Kellner notes, “As simulations proliferate, they come to refer only to themselves: a carnival of mirrors reflecting images projected from other mirrors” (128). Trapped inside of a self-referential network of simulacra whose chimerical fantasies delineate the parameters of “the search for happiness, fulfillment, and comfort,” Baudrillard also ponders if there is any refuge from the ubiquity of the code that has perhaps permeated all facets of contemporary life (Cederman 20).
Articulating his fears about the advent of hyper-reality ushered in by technological advances in the service of transnational entities, Baudrillard laments, “la profusion est évidemment le trait le plus frappant” (La Société de Consommation 19). The philosopher further clarifies, “Nous sommes là au foyer de la consommation comme organisation totale de la quotidienneté, homogénéisation totale, où tout est ressaisi et dépassé dans la facilité, la translucidité d’un bonheur abstrait […] La masse des consommateurs ne vit-elle pas la profusion comme un effet de nature, environné qu’elle est par les phantasmes du pays de Cocagne” (La Société de Consommation 25; 29). Similar to Perec in Les Choses, Baudrillard underscores the nefarious effects of the sociological reality of symbolic communication through the exchange of insignificant signs. The code is so omnipresent that it seems to have destroyed everything else along its destructive path.
Moreover, Baudrillard also links profusion with idealized representations of happiness that have been carefully packaged for our consumption. Baudrillard notes that every purchase is an attempt to live the appealing simulations of a life of luxury that is allegedly at our fingertips if we procure the right consumer items which are capable of maximizing our happiness. Given that symbolic fantasies of a consumer paradise actualized by the acquisition of a given invention are merely a product of the imagination, these grandiose visions can never come to fruition in reality. Yet, despite the fact that this quest to procure happiness through the power of the purse strings is doomed to failure from the outset, Baudrillard notes that the modern subject is constantly immersed in the hegemonic discourse of consumerism. Hence, Baudrillard reaches the same alarming conclusion as Perec regarding the proliferation of the code. Hyper-real fictions cannot provide any semblance of real meaning or lead to a deeper appreciation of our ephemeral existence on this earth. Unfortunately, Baudrillard and Perec hypothesize that the semiological crisis is so great that simulated happiness is perhaps the best we can hope for in a consumer republic predicated upon the endless reproduction and exchange of hollow signs.
Baudrillard and Perec also propose similar theories to explain why few individuals question the hyper-real artifice that masquerades itself as reality. Given that it is quite naïve to place one’s faith in contrived images of contentment and affluence disseminated to us by advertisers and the corporate media, why is there such little resistance? According to Perec and Baudrillard, the hypnotic power of the television screen answers this question. Additionally, television is one of the most effective hegemonic tools ever created because this product ensured that consumerist simulacra could now take over every aspect of our daily lives. Both writers describe the television viewer as a passive receptacle that consumes enticing, idyllic images while engaging in very little critical reflection. For Baudrillard and Perec, the power of the image is so strong that it spellbinds the masses. Given that television allowed advertisers to attack the visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile sensibilities of clients like never before with seductive signs that appeal to all five senses, consumer citizens could now be hypnotized to obey market forces.
Elucidating that the utopian world of television and cinema created the perfect medium for continually transmitting empty, reductionist simulations, the narrator of Les Choses explains, “Ils étaient cinéphiles; ils s’y adonnaient chaque soir, ou presque. Ils aimaient les images, pour qu’elles soient belles, qu’elles les entraînent, les ravissent, les fascinent” (59). Reiterating Jérôme and Sylvie’s fascination with images and their unending consumption of TV/cinematic hyper-reality, the narrator reveals, “L’écran s’éclairait et ils frémissaient d’aise. Mais les couleurs dataient, les images sautillaient […] Ce n’était pas le film dont ils avaient rêvé […] Ou, plus secrètement sans doute, qu’ils auraient voulu vivre” (62). Since it is evident that the protagonists are often extremely disappointed after viewing a film at home or at the movies, the reader wonders what drives their insatiable appetite for devouring images of happiness that flicker across their screens.
Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the fact that the consumerist dream exported to the masses on a global scale is deeply embedded into TV/cinematic images given that television and marketing are mutually supportive entities. In other words, Perec unequivocally suggests that the mesmerizing invention in front of which we spend countless hours on a daily basis might not be an innocent form of entertainment. TV/cinematic reality is replete with consumerist simulacra that reflect a larger hegemonic system of social control. Although Jérôme and Sylvie are fully aware of the fantasy structure of the symbolic universe that they help to create, they have a difficult time dismissing these artificial paradises altogether. Despite the reality that only the Happy Few will ever even be offered the remote possibility of having access to the extravagant life of glitz and glamour incessantly promoted by advertisers, the protagonists of Les Choses are simply too captivated by a consumerist pipe dream that has intoxicated the populace to let go of these materialistic obsessions entirely. Even when it becomes painfully apparent that they will never be wealthy enough to acquire all of the metonymical signs of happiness that are necessary to ‘live the dream,’ Jérôme and Sylvie hope for a miracle. The ideological pull of the pervasive images that inundate the modern subject does not allow these victims of simulation to escape from the semiological abyss of the manufactured hyper-real.
Baudrillard also identifies television as the hegemonic device par excellence used to proliferate the code thereby indoctrinating the “citoyen consommateur” (Le Système des objets 218). For Baudrillard, most TV viewers are also mindless robots that impulsively internalize the idealistic simulations on their screens. As Gerry Coulter affirms, “television is the ideal medium of a hyperreal world because it is image-based and between reality and the image exchange is impossible” (28). Coulter also adds, “cinema is progressively coming to resemble TV” (165). Coulter notes that Baudrillard devotes a considerable amount of time to analyzing the effects of television and cinema throughout his diverse œuvre. The philosopher posits that the birth of television allowed corporate entities to harness the force of the image and to develop these signs to their full exploitative potential. Additionally, as Coulter underscores, image-based reality is a type of informational warfare because the ‘exchange’ is entirely one-sided. The TV/cinematic image informs us about the world and our place in it by projecting a carefully filtered version of (hyper)-reality for our immediate consumption. In his later works such as Le Pacte de lucidité ou l’intelligence du Mal, Baudrillard discusses the nefarious effects of the computer generated image (CGI).
In Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe, Baudrillard highlights that the subservient role of the TV/cinema spectator is evident. As the philosopher muses, “Il n’y a pas de réponse à un objet fonctionnel […] la TV […] par sa présence même (représente) le contrôle social chez soi […] elle est la certitude que les gens ne se parlent plus, qu’ils sont définitivement isolés face à une parole sans réponse” (211). First, Baudrillard asserts that image-based reality is indicative of a form of non-communication where any sort of genuine dialogue is impossible. Drowning in the hyper-real, people exchange insignificant signs that are part of the simulations that flash across their screens instead of engaging in an authentic conversation. To swim in an ocean of simulacra that are grounded in complete artifice is to seek fulfillment and self-actualization in a world where meaning has been abolished. This is the daunting reality that confronts Jérôme and Sylvie at every turn in Les Choses. How are these protagonists supposed to construct meaning and form a stable identity when the images that define them conceal only emptiness? Is it possible to ever attain a true state of happiness when symbolic representations of the real have taken the place of actual reality?
IV. Displaying Signs of Happiness and the Disconnect Between Pervasive Simulacra and Reality
Given that the semiological degradation to which Baudrillard and Perec refer is perhaps nearly complete because of the proliferation of the code through a variety of hegemonic channels including television, cinema, and the media, Jérôme and Sylvie continue to display signs of happiness throughout the novel. In the wake of the utter destruction of meaning and communication itself, the protagonists symbolically ‘live it up’ in a despondent effort to transform signs of happiness into actual bliss. David Walker notes that the protagonists’ appreciation of expensive and trendy restaurants offers a concrete example of their desperate attempts to actualize consumerist fantasies. As Walker asserts, “the world of Jérôme and Sylvie in Les Choses is nourished by mere appearances. Their approach to food is symptomatic […] The exotic or elaborate or extravagant appearance hides the fact that the ingredients are really quite humdrum” (33). Walker illustrates that the shaky edifice of the hyper-real that undergirds Jérôme and Sylvie’s culinary tastes is transparent when the thick layers of simulation are peeled away (see also pages 56-59 of the novel itself). Moreover, even when they attempt to bond in a socially approved manner by sharing a hearty meal together, they are pledging their allegiance to a code that has no basis in reality. For this reason, it should come as no surprise that the couple derives little enduring satisfaction from the past times that they theoretically enjoy together. Their identities in addition to their efforts to relate to each other in a meaningful way are part of the internal logic of the hyper-real.
Although the life of extreme opulence endlessly touted by marketers, the mainstream media, television programs, and films appears to be out of reach for this middle-class couple, it should be noted that Jérôme and Sylvie are affluent enough to have access to certain simulated paradises. Yet, true happiness seems to elude them because of the disconnect between signs and reality. As Thomas Petruso explains, “these characters try to find fulfillment semiotically, but signs can never satisfy them […] Their desire leads them only to the pursuit of signs which can never take way the void in their being” (56). Regardless of how many consumer items that they are able to purchase, Jérôme and Sylvie will always be disappointed due to the emptiness that it is at the very core of the images that they consume. As Petruso underscores, the protagonists of Les Choses are profoundly unhappy since they compulsively acquire simulacra that have no significance whatsoever outside of a fantasy structure. The initial euphoria of the purchase quickly fades, but Jérôme and Sylvie only plunge deeper into the existential abyss longing to transform a dream into a tangible reality.
Furthermore, numerous passages suggest that the protagonists actually have a chance to attain happiness and create meaning if they are willing to renounce unrealistic consumerist aspirations. However, instead of confronting the void of the artificial images that they play a role in disseminating as market researchers, Jérôme and Sylvie obstinately cling to simulations of contentment, prosperity, and self-actualization. Les Choses conveys the message that we should take advantage of what life has to offer. Nonetheless, our dreams should be tempered with a stoic appreciation of reality that prevents us from falling prey to the realm of signs. As the author himself explains in the aforementioned interview with Bénabou and Marcenac, “What poisons the lives of Jérôme and Sylvie is the tension between these minor moments of real happiness and the art of living they dream of” (26). In Les Choses, the exploitative nature of simulations of happiness that engulf the modern subject is evident, but Jérôme and Sylvie deviate from an authentic ontological path and continue to embrace the hyper-real. A good life with its highs and lows is not enough; this couple wants to live inside of a symbolic universe. In this vein, Leroy Day notes that the main characters envision a consumerist utopia in which they will experience “perfect moments” all the time (255).2
In Perec’s first novel, the seductive force of the “Terre Promise” beckons his early protagonists to exhibit signs of happiness by immersing themselves in the ubiquitous hyper-real (25). Despite their intimate knowledge of how hegemonic messages are fabricated and transmitted, Jérôme and Sylvie “succombaient aux signes de la richesse: ils aimaient la richesse avant d’aimer la vie” (25). Instead of accepting the ‘minor moments of real happiness’ within their grasp, the protagonists become obsessed with the idea of happiness and all of the perfect moments that this chimerical quest entails. As the narrator elucidates: “ Certes, il y avait encore, dans l’image un peu statique qu’ils se faisaient de la maison modèle, du confort parfait, de la vie heureuse, beaucoup de naïvetés, beaucoup de complaisances : ils aimaient avec force ces objets que le seul goût du jour disait beaux, ces fausses images […] Ils rêvaient encore de les posséder […] Ils savaient ce que seraient leur bonheur, leur liberté” (27). This passage highlights the protagonists’ zeal to transcend the banality of the image and to live these simulations of a good(s) life. By constantly displaying signs of happiness and exchanging codes, Jérôme and Sylvie choose to reside in the hyper-real rather than the real. The seductive force of the inaccessible dream causes this couple to turn their back on reality. In the process of losing themselves in the enticing realm of simulacra, Jérôme and Sylvie spoil their chances to be happy.
Numerous researchers have asserted that the problematic search for fulfillment and meaning in the empire of signs is also a salient feature of Baudrillard’s philosophy. In reference to medical enhancements that supposedly improve the quality of one’s life, Arthur Frank underscores, “Consumer society is where signs are taken more seriously than the objects they signify […] For the consumer, the actual object will always be an imitation of the advertisement that originally created that object as a sign” (207). Frank reiterates, “The consumer is constantly forced by medical promotions […] to ask: What would my life be like with this or that enhancement? How much happier might I be?” (207). Similar to Perec, Baudrillard explains that the client often feels an inner void after acquiring a given product because the true object of one’s desire (i.e. the image) can never be appropriated. The gap between simulacra and the real is so great that the customer is always dissatisfied. In simple terms, symbolic fantasies of a life that never existed in the first place outside of the universe of simulation are impossible to actualize. Yet, the modern subject, as evidenced by the example of Jérôme and Sylvie, now valorizes the signs of happiness more than actual contentment. Given the pervasiveness and enticing power of images that literally sell us a vision of happiness, Baudrillard maintains that the consumer citizen endlessly attempts to procure an elusive form of “bonheur abstrait” (Société de consommation 25).
In a section of Le Pacte de lucidité ou l’intelligence du Mal that mirrors Perec’s scathing critique of privileged moments, Baudrillard discusses the “exploitation of happiness” (145). After revealing that “we go on dreaming of perfect happiness,” the philosopher contends, “It is to such an evangelization that we can ascribe all the manifest signs of well-being and accomplishment offered to us by a paradisiac civilization to the eleventh commandment, the commandment that sweeps away all others: ‘Be happy and show all the signs of happiness’” (147). When they eat gourmet food at home in the presence of company or in an elegant restaurant, Jérôme and Sylvie are respecting this ‘eleventh commandment.’ Showcasing these outward manifestations of happiness for the whole world to witness does not appear to result in any lasting appreciation of their existence. However, the protagonists of Les Choses are responding to an ideological summons that compels them to pursue happiness by consuming signs that reflect idealistic representations of the good(s) life. In order to ensure that the monetary cycle is never interrupted, Baudrillard posits that advertisers saturate clients with an idealized version of happiness that has assumed a life of its own. The hyper-real fiction of happiness bears very little resemblance to actual contentment. Completely supplanting the real, these exploitative simulations of happiness have made it increasingly difficult to find any sort of inner fulfillment and ontological significance in the modern world.
Positing that the modern subject is constantly marketed “signs of one’s happiness, success, affluence […],” Baudrillard explains, “Le miraculé de la consommation lui aussi met en place tout un dispositif d’objets simulacres, de signes caractéristiques du bonheur, et attend ensuite (désespérément, dirait un moraliste) que le bonheur se pose” (Koch & Elmore 565; La Société de consommation 27). It is in the Baudrillardian sense in which the title Les Choses should be understood. Jérôme and Sylvie are unable to find happiness or serenity because they continuously “consume objects laden with symbolic meaning” (Koch & Elmore 565). Given the meteoric rise of the consumer republic on a global scale, astutely observed by Perec and Baudrillard, the destruction of meaning is a universal problem that afflicts most of humanity. Drowning in a hyper-real world where there is no reprieve from the ‘perfect crime’ against reality due to the proliferation of the code, the protagonists of Les Choses unsuccessfully try to consume their way to happiness by acquiring signs.
In Les Choses and throughout Baudrillard’s work, both writers assert that a pure symbolic fiction concocted to market goods and services cannot render anyone happy. Consumerist fantasies and the idealistic vision of contentment that they promulgate are too far removed from the real. Highlighting the distance between simulacra and reality, Baudrillard reveals, “La pratique des signes est toujours ambivalente […] D’une certaine façon, la consommation généralisée d’images, de faits, d’informations, vise elle aussi à conjurer le réel dans les signes du réel […] Le réel, nous le consommons par anticipation ou rétrospectivement, de toute façon à distance, distance qui est celle du signe” (La Société de consommation 30). This passage explains why Jérôme and Sylvie often miscalculate how much pleasure that they will obtain from buying certain items. The commonplace reality of the purchase does not measure up to the grandiose image of the life that they would like to live. Nevertheless, this couple obstinately refuses to abandon their simulation-fueled dreams. Despite their unmitigated failures to appropriate manipulative signs that flash across their screens, Jérôme and Sylvie still have a voracious appetite for consuming meaningless images at the end of the novel.
V. The Dawning of an Existential Crisis and its Exacerbation by Pre-Fabricated Models and Free Market Ideology
In Les Choses and throughout Baudrillard’s entire repertoire, devouring images of happiness that are divorced from the real has induced an unprecedented existential crisis. Instead of discovering ontological fulfillment in the ubiquitous realm of simulation, Jérôme and Sylvie “feel utterly ‘erased’ by commodity culture” (Oniki 114). The protagonists have no real identity outside of consumption and the code. When the layers of the hyper-real are stripped away, nothing remains but empty, commercial signs. Attempting to escape the ontological abyss of a consumer republic, the protagonists embrace yet another chimerical illusion at the end of the novel (their efforts to flee modern society will be briefly analyzed in the final section of this essay).
The inability of their consumerist vision of happiness in addition to their naïve expectations of the ‘simple life’ in Tunisia to project meaning upon their absurd existence leads them to an impasse in the closing pages of the narrative. The existential crisis that has been intensifying throughout the text suddenly implodes. Underscoring this cerebral anguish, the narrator states, “Ils n’éprouvaient ni joie, ni tristesse, ni même ennui, mais il pouvait leur arriver de se demander s’ils existaient encore, s’ils existaient vraiment” (138). In this passage, it is evident that Jérôme and Sylvie suffer from debilitating existential pain to the point of wondering if they even exist at all. On the surface, it might seem ludicrous for a sentient being to question his or her existence. However, this portion of the novel emphasizes the numbness that the protagonists experience when signs fail to deliver on their lofty promises. Given that their entire life has been constructed upon artificial simulations of happiness, they might as well not even exist for all intents and purposes. Jérôme and Sylvie are hollow shells that have been withered away by the conflation of images with reality.
Based on his keen observations of the modern world, Baudrillard reaches similar conclusions as Perec. Numerous researchers have noted that the philosopher underscores that the elusive quest to procure signs of happiness and affluence only induces feelings of ontological despair. Moreover, Baudrillard theorizes that the hegemonic discourse of consumerism is intentionally designed to create an inner void that cannot be filled. As Alex Cline elucidates, “The capitalism of the code attempted to induce existential crises amongst its subjects; to get them to change their job, partner or lifestyle on a regular basis and become fanatical consumers of media, the nectar of the simulation” (n.p.). According to Baudrillard, the first step to eliminating any resistance to the code is to erode all other paradigms through proliferation. After all other alternatives to the system have been systematically effaced, the modern subject has nowhere else to turn when the acquisition of an item does not magically conjure a semiological, utopian space. Furthermore, Baudrillard maintains that the incessant transmission of commercial signs is in essence a necessary deliberate conspiracy in a post-Marxist3 world because of overproduction. In a society “where all of the basic needs of the masses have been satisfied,” chronically dissatisfied customers keep the wheels of the machine spinning (Messier 25). If people are happy with their lives, they will stop buying things and the system will not be able to sustain itself. This historical phenomenon outlined by Baudrillard explains Jérôme and Sylvie’s insatiable thirst for consumer goods. These protagonists have fallen into the snares of an exploitative economic system that thrives the most when its citizens are perpetually unhappy.
However, even though Perec and Baudrillard both assert that the modern subject is indoctrinated to seek existential remedies in the realm of simulacra, a close reading of Les Choses and Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe reveals an important philosophical distinction between these two authors. In Les Choses, Perec contends that the middle-class is the most vulnerable to the enticing logic of simulations. As the narrator explains, “il est vrai […] qu’il existe des individus pour lesquels ce genre de dilemme ne se pose pas, ou se pose à peine, qu’ils soient trop pauvres […] Mais de nos jours et sous nos climats, de plus en plus de gens ne sont ni riches ni pauvres; ils rêvent de richesse et pourraient s’enrichir: c’est ici que leurs malheurs commencent” (71). For Perec, people in the middle-class like Jérôme and Sylvie cannot rid themselves of consumerist fantasies because they have just enough wealth to keep chasing the dream. In stark contrast to the poor for whom omnipresent signs of the good(s) life are an ironic caricature that is perhaps easy to dismiss, Perec hypothesizes that the middle-class buys into the existential remedies proposed by the metonymic discourse of consumerism more fully than the lower classes.
In opposition to Perec, Baudrillard asserts that anyone who is not part of the integrated social and political elite is conditioned to seek ontological redemption in objects replete with symbolic value. In reference to “les lower et les middle classes” that cannot resist the lure of the “phantasmes du pays de cocagne,” Baudrillard muses: “Il faut se demander si certaines classes ne seraient pas vouées à faire leur salut dans les objets, vouées à un destin social de consommation-héritières des classes serves et subalternes […] donc assignés à une morale d’esclave […] opposée à une morale des maîtres […] Alors qu’elle est une institution et une morale et, à ce titre, dans toute société advenue ou à venir, un élément de la stratégie du pouvoir” (Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe 58; 57).
In Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe, Baudrillard is even more direct than Perec concerning the hegemonic aspects of the dominant ideology that compels consumer citizens to search for meaning and happiness in objects. According to Baudrillard, anyone who does not have access to the fantastical vision of a life of luxury that inundates his or her screen(s) is equally defenseless against the ‘masters’ who manufacture consent through the ubiquitous dissemination of signs. Although Perec and Baudrillard might disagree regarding which specific groups are the most susceptible to alluring simulations, they express the same conviction that the omnipresent logic of consumption is a form of social control. Corporations have derived unprecedented wealth from selling pipe dreams and fake ontological remedies to the masses. Thus, these transnational entities have a vested interest in ensuring that the modern subject will continue to consume impulsively in a misguided effort to maximize happiness.
For Perec and Baudrillard, the dire existential crisis to which they often refer has been exacerbated by simplistic concepts that are the foundation of free market ideology. Consumer republics are predicated upon the notion that autonomous clients influence the market by deciding which products improve their quality of life. In other words, the ‘sovereign spender’ possesses the freedom to choose which items make him or her happy. However, Perec and Baudrillard posit that this alleged liberty is illusory given that nothing exists outside of the system. As Trevor Norris affirms, “Any form of resistance is readily incorporated and assimilated back into the code” (n.p.). Corporations often sell an artificial image of subversion that only serves to reinforce the current social paradigm. For example, by dressing and speaking in a certain fashion, Goths and Punks are supposedly voicing their discontent. In reality, these subcultures are drinking what Alex Cline calls ‘the nectar of simulation.’ Consuming a pre-packaged image of what it means to defy authority that lines the pockets of billionaire CEOs hardly constitutes genuine revolt.
In Les Choses, the fact that Jérôme and Sylvie define themselves according to a pre-existing model intensifies their existential anguish. Perec and Baudrillard both note that the code is transmitted through the proliferation of models. These consumer archetypes are a powerful hegemonic tool because they offer the illusion of freedom. Yet, it is evident in Les Choses that acquiring the signs of autonomy which correspond to a specific model does not allow the protagonists to live their fantasies. Intoxicated by the archetypal images of a good(s) life advertised in l’Express, Jérôme and Sylvie lose any semblance of personal identity (Day 250). Ironically, their efforts to “express their individuality” and “distinguish themselves as individuals” lead to utter conformity (Strickland 32). Instead of projecting meaning upon their existence through the array of choices provided by the free market, Jérôme and Sylvie bow to hegemonic forces that have drawn them in to their seductive logic.
Explaining how every facet of the couple’s life centers around commercial signs published in l’Express, the narrator reveals, “ils étaient des gens pour l’Express […] ils le lisaient […] ils s’en imprégnaient […] L’Express leur offrait des signes du confort […] Ils rêvaient, à mi-voix, de divans Chesterfield. L’Express y rêvait avec eux” (47). The narrator adds, “le groupe qu’ils formaient les définissait presque entièrement. Ils n’avaient pas, hors de lui, de vie réelle” (54). In this passage, Perec illustrates that many people have fallen into the trap of identifying themselves too closely with an artificial model that is grounded in hyper-reality. Due to their fidelity to l’Express and all of its recommendations for enhancing their life, Jérôme and Sylvie cease to exist as autonomous agents. In a post-Marxist society, archetypical images of success and fulfillment are everywhere because the system needs them to survive. Yet, these simulacra obliterate meaning thereby preventing individuals from actualizing an authentic state of happiness.
Similar to Perec, Baudrillard also cautions the reader about the perils of searching for happiness inside of “a code or model that finds its origins outside of concrete reality” (Jordan & Haladyn 253). In reference to the “production industrielle des différences,” the philosopher notes, “Si bien que se différencier, c’est précisément s’affilier à un modèle, se qualifier par référence à un modèle abstrait” (La Société de consommation 125; 126). In a later section of La Société de consommation aptly entitled “Distinction ou conformité?,” Baudrillard contends that models urge consumers to embrace their ‘uniqueness’ by expressing marginal differences.
Illustrating that these superficial distinctions are entirely insignificant outside of simulated reality, Baudrillard concludes, “Il y a d’abord une logique structurelle de la différenciation, qui produit les individus comme ‘personnalisés,’ c’est-à-dire comme différent les uns des autres, mais selon des modèles généraux et selon un code auxquels, dans l’acte même de se singulariser, ils se conforment […] on voit que le système ne joue jamais sur des différences réelles […] entre des personnes” (133-134). Both Perec and Baudrillard maintain that consumer archetypes which have been pre-designed and wrapped for our consumption have little to offer the modern subject. As opposed to helping us find our inner selves, models are detrimental to the process of identity formation due to the very nothingness that they conceal. Indeed, it is because of l’Express that Jérôme and Sylvie no longer know who they are in the real world from which they have become alienated. The nefarious effects of this existential crisis, induced by the omnipresence of hyper-reality, explain why Baudrillard places the word “personnes” in italics. Have Jérôme and Sylvie been effaced to the point where they can no longer be considered to be subjects at all? Furthermore, Perec and Baudrillard imply that this tragic situation now concretizes the human condition.
VI. Possible Remedies for the Existential Crisis Actuated by Simulation?
Neither Perec nor Baudrillard offers any facile optimism that the existential crisis actuated by simulation will be resolved anytime soon. In Les Choses, Jérôme and Sylvie dream of exiting Western civilization in order to follow a more authentic ontological path. The protagonists envision Tunisia as an idyllic space that is free from hyper-real artifice. This idealistic vision begins to decrystallize immediately upon their arrival. As several critics have noted, this couple does not find any real serenity, redemption, meaning, or happiness while in Tunisia because they have merely substituted one image for another. Given that what compelled them to leave France was an alluring fantasy of living the ‘simple life’ in a bucolic setting, Jérôme and Sylvie are once again disenchanted because of the gap between idealistic reverie and reality. Summarizing their disappointment, Leroy Day explains, “This view of rural life is obviously idealized and is an extension of, rather than a solution to, their dilemma” (255). Day highlights that the protagonists only experience frustration and dissatisfaction because they are trying to capture signs of happiness and tranquility that are an illusory product of the imagination. Before returning to France even more jaded than before, the narrator reveals, “Leur solitude était totale” (134).
In Baudrillardian terms, Jérôme and Sylvie are discontent in Tunisia because they are enamored with the idea of nature. In Le Système des objets, Baudrillard underscores that consumer society sells the masses an image of getting away from the hustle and bustle of urban centers by vacationing in isolated, rural areas. As the philosopher affirms, “Ce n’est pas la nature ‘vraie’ qui vient transfigurer l’ambiance quotidienne, ce sont les vacances, ce simulacre naturel, cet envers de la quotidienneté qui vit non pas de nature, mais de l’Idée de Nature, ce sont les vacances qui jouent comme modèle […]” (Le Système des objets 47). The author further clarifies, “Objectivement, les substances sont ce qu’elles sont: Il n’y en a pas de vraies ou de fausses, de naturelles ou d’artificielles. Pourquoi le béton serait-il moins ‘authentique’ que la pierre” (53). Even during their stay in Sfax, Tunisia, Jérôme and Sylvie continue to devour signs of happiness. The protagonists appear to be hopelessly trapped inside of the realm of simulacra. Their appreciation of nature is a reflection of hyper-real representations of the grandeur of the cosmos. Therefore, this dream is just as intangible as their previous one. At the end of the narrative, Perec’s central message becomes clear: be wary of any type of signs that stand in for the real. Throughout his illustrious career, Baudrillard outlines this same phenomenon in his varied philosophical works. Given that both writers posit that the modern subject internalizes these ubiquitous simulacra from birth, is there an exit from the Perecian and Baudrillardian ‘hell of simulation?’
Perec and Baudrillard do not always concur regarding which social groups are the easiest to manipulate by the incessant dissemination of hyper-real fictions. However, both authors reveal similar disquieting fears about the problematic quest for happiness in the universe of simulation. Due to the semiological void that lies beneath the image, genuine fulfillment and self-actualization cannot originate from exploitative simulacra. Moreover, Perec and Baudrillard hypothesize that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find true happiness in a world where meaning itself is at the brink of disappearing. The images that endlessly bombard us on our plethora of screens are undoubtedly seductive, but these empty symbolic representations of the good(s) life have eroded the quality of our existence to epic proportions. Elusive signs of comfort, leisure, affluence, and happiness only lead to a trail of bitterness, deception, and existential malaise.
About the Author
Dr. Keith Moser is a professor of Classical and Modern Languages and Literature, Mississippi State University, Starkville, Mississippi, USA.
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1 – The protagonists’ unrealistic attempts to flee Western society in search of a more authentic existence in Tunisia will be examined later in the essay. Jérôme and Sylvie seem to exchange one naïve, simplistic vision of happiness for another.
2 – Day also underscores that Perec deconstructs the notion itself of a “perfect moment.” Moreover, Day links the notion of “moments privilégiés” to contemporary myths that are the foundation of the ideology of consumerism (255). In his monograph entitled “Privileged Moments” in the Novels and Short Stories of J.M.G. Le Clézio: His Contemporary Development of a Traditional French Literary Device, Keith Moser explores the nuances of “privileged moments” in the works of Proust, Camus, Sartre, and Le Clézio. As Day and Moser highlight, Sartre offers a harsh critique of this concept. In Les Choses, Perec appears to espouse a view similar to that of Sartre in La Nausée. Indeed, the protagonists’ pursuit of “perfect moments” is one of the main reasons why their search for happiness remains ultimately unfulfilled at the end of the narrative.
3 -Several scholars including Douglas Kellner have identified Baudrillard as a ‘post-Marxist’ philosopher (130). For Baudrillard, the reproduction of images has replaced the logic of production as the salient feature of capitalist societies.