Posted by: Dan | July 26, 2007

Heidegger & Baudrillard: Functionality, Desirability, Capitalism, & Self-Worth

I have spent a good deal of time recently considering the ways in which capitalism disciplines our desire and those reflections are the spring-board for my thoughts here.

Because capitalism is based upon a system of ever-increasing consumption, it leads us into a world where everything can be consumed. Everything can now be sold and bought. Consequently, everything, if marketed properly, can become an object of desire (since it is some form of desire that undergirds all of our consumption).

Martin Heidegger once made similar comments about the impact of technology upon the world (cf. The Question Concerning Technology). Heidegger argued that technology is far more than a mere tool used by people to accomplish certain tasks. Technology is actually a means of revelation (an “enframing”) that shapes how we see and understand the world. And the problem with technology is that it causes us to see things only in terms of their usefulness as means to certain ends (everything becomes a “standing-reserve”). Consequently, George Grant concludes that it is now impossible for us to apprehend this world as other than a “field of objects considered as pragmata” (cf. In Defense of America). Similarly, Albert Borgmann concludes that we have transformed meaningful things into commodities (cf. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life). Things do not have any sort of transcendent being or inherent meaning, they are only meaningful to the extent that they can be used or consumed.

Heidegger, Grant, and Borgmann all argue that usefulness, that functionality, becomes the all-determining factor in how we see the world of objects around us. Jean Baudrillard takes this way of thinking and pushes it to its necessary conclusion: not only objects but “things” like space, colour, time, forms, materials, and designs are all incorporated into the “functional system” that has come to dominate our world-view (cf. The System of Objects).

However, Baudrillard then goes on to diverge from Heidegger & Co. in a significant way. Rather than defining “functionality” as “usefulness” or as something “goal-oriented,” Baudrillard argues that “functionality” is simply the ability to become integrated into this functional system. Hence, he argues that:

An object's functionality is the ability to become integrated into an overall scheme. An object's functionality is the very thing that enables it to transcend its main 'function' in the direction of a secondary one, to play a part, to become a combining element, an adjustable item, within a universal system of signs.

This, then, leads us back to my initial comments on capitalism. How so? Because I believe that it is capitalism that governs the “functional” system that is envisioned by Heidegger, and most fully described by Baudrillard. To slightly revise Baudrillard's words: An object's functionality is the ability to become integrated into the scheme of capitalism. Therefore, it is the dollar-value that capitalism puts on everything that becomes the “secondary function” — which is really the most important function — of everything. Consequently, capitalism believes that everything is useful to the extent that it can be sold and bought. Functionality is all about consumability. And consumability, as I suggested at the beginning of this post, is all about desirability — which is why capitalism spends so much time teaching us how to desire (i.e. desire without end), and what to desire (i.e. anything that it wants to sell us).

That this way of thinking has become so ingrained within us becomes obvious when we consider the ways in which our attitudes towards ourselves, and other people, is dictated by desirability. That is to say: I am taught that I am only valuable to the extent that I am desirable. Consequently, the sort of functionality that is valued in me is either the ability to accumulate capital or the ability to become capital. I am desirable as either a consumer (just as we desire to be, or be with, the wealthy and successful businessman or woman) or as an object of consumption (just as we desire to be, or be with, the ruggedly handsome man or the beautiful woman).

Outside of that cycle of consumption I have little value — which is why our society relegates the old, the disabled, and the poor to the margins. Quite often they exist outside of this cycle and so they are considered to be without value. Furthermore, because they often participate within the same system, once they become old, disabled, or poor they also often undergo a crisis of meaning and are trapped living out lives that they feel are no longer significant.

Consequently, if we are to live Christianly in the presence of this system, we must reconsider things like functionality, desirability, capitalism, and self-worth. But more on that anon.

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