Never have more of us had more possessions than we do now, even as we make less and less use of them. We have a plasma screen TV in every room. We have cupboards full of sheets, and have recently discovered an obsessive interest in the term ‘thread count’. We have wardrobes stacked high with shoes. We have shelves of CDs, and rooms full of games consoles and computers. We have rowing machines we never exercise on, dining tables we don’t eat at and triple ovens we don’t cook in.
The middle classes have kitchens full of electric appliances that we buy, dreaming of the domestic fulfilment that we hope they will bring. We are secure in the belief that these are not indulgences but investments in the family. And our children have actual toys: boxes and boxes of them that they discard within days of acquiring.
Our possessions have swelled to match the obesity epidemic that afflicts most Western cultures. When every household that is ever going to buy a TV has done so, all that is left is to persuade them to replace the sets by inventing a new category. As a result, TV screens have gone from 70cm to 150cm. Domestic ovens have turned into ‘ranges’. Refrigerators have become bloated wardrobe-sized behemoths.
Like geese force-fed grain until their livers explode to make foie gras, we are a generation born to consume. But geese panic at the approach of the man with a metal funnel ready to ram grain forcibly down their throats, while we fight for a turn at the trough that provides us with the never-ending deluge of objects that constitute our world.
It is just possible that we might be on the verge of a wave of revulsion against the phenomenon of manufacturing desire, against the whole avalanche of products that threaten to overwhelm us. However, there is no sign of it yet, despite the outbreak of millenarian anxiety about the doom that faces us if we go on binge-flying.
I have to acknowledge that I have been both transfixed and fascinated by the glossy sheen of consumption, while at the same time becoming nauseous with self-disgust at the volume of goods we all consume and the shallow but sharp emotional tug they have on us.
Objects, so many people believe, are the unarguable facts of everyday life. ‘Clothes, food, cars, cosmetics, baths, sunshine are real things, to be enjoyed in themselves,’ John Berger claims in Ways of Seeing, the best-read contemporary analysis of visual culture to be published in the past half a century. ‘Publicity begins by working on the natural appetite for pleasure. But it cannot offer the real object. It is important not to confuse publicity with the pleasure or benefits to be enjoyed from the things it advertises,’ he argues.
‘Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today, in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is, and what is not, desirable.’
The ‘real’ things that Berger regards as having authentic qualities – the car with a door that shuts with an expensive click, and which evokes a 60-year tradition in doing so, or the aircraft that integrates fuel efficiency with engineering elegance, and which makes mass tourism possible – are themselves susceptible to the level of analysis that he applies to the late portraits of Frans Hals. Objects can be beautiful, witty, ingenious and sophisticated, but also crude, banal or malevolent.
If he were writing Ways of Seeing today, what Berger calls ‘publicity’ might just as well have been described as ‘design’. Certainly, there is no shortage of those who have come to understand the word in as negative a way as Berger saw publicity.
Overuse of the word ‘designer’ has rubbed it clean of earlier meanings. But it is also important to understand that the design of objects can offer a powerful way of seeing the world. Berger’s book belongs to a crowded literature of art. However, since Roland Barthes wrote Mythologies in 1957, few critics have subjected design to the same close analysis. It is an unfortunate gap. Now that the world of objects has erupted so convulsively, spraying product unstoppably in every direction, there is a quantitatively and qualitatively different story to tell from the conventional narrative of the emergence of Modernism as the deus ex machina to deal with the Machine Age.
Our relationship with possessions is never straightforward. It is a complex blend of the knowing and the innocent. Objects are far from being as innocent as Berger suggests, and that is what makes them too interesting to ignore.
The Language of Things, by Deyan Sudjic, is published by Allen Lane this week, priced £20