Significant Objects and Authentic People
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AbstractIn this essay, I will explore the relationships between human beings and the objects that surround us. I will draw heavily on Jean Baudrillard’s argument in The System of Objects about the consequences for human life that follow from our living in a world saturated with objects. In discussing this saturation, I will explain different categories of objects and different tactics that we employ in our interactions with them. In the age of industry and technology, we find ourselves entering into relationships with objects in our environment as a means of achieving the lifestyle that we desire, of developing our personality, and of seeking understanding about our place as human beings in the world around us. According to Baudrillard, it is through our relationships to objects that we learn how to attribute value to the things, ideas, and people that are important to us. Furthermore, as we grow and learn about ourselves and about the world we live in, it is through our relationships with objects that we signify who we are and what we stand for. In this essay, I will offer explanation of how and why relationships with objects saturate our lives on a practical and emotional level, and I will criticize the cultural apparatus that produces and teaches us how to interact with these objects. I will argue that there is an underlying and all-pervasive value-structure that dictates human-object interaction—a value-structure that arises from societal standards of successful living, shared aspirations and shared responsibilities that govern our approach in relating to objects. I will argue that this value-structure—which teaches us how to interact with objects—gets carried over into our relationships with other human beings in our community, on both a local and global scale. There are certain assumptions about the project of being a successful human being that inform the production and distribution of objects and that encourage our attachment to them. These assumptions give rise to the set of rules, guidelines, and justifications that allow for the perpetuation of the system of objects as a cultural tool (and a cultural necessity) for achieving what is greatest in human life. By interacting with objects all around us, we participate in a kind of new morality, because we believe that there are better and worse ways to incorporate objects as parts of our lives. Since we practice human-object relationships almost incessantly, it is impossible to separate ourselves from the rules and implicit assumptions governing these relationships when we seek to interact directly with other human beings. Baudrillard argues that the presence of objects and the goals of the apparatus responsible for producing them affects our ability to genuinely and articulately address what is most important or most real in our lives. In this essay, I will criticize the value-structure represented by the system of objects as partially-incoherent and necessarily unbalanced as a facilitator of human growth and a teacher of human emotion and human desire. I will employ Charles Taylor’s argument in The Ethics of Authenticity as an attempt to offer a revised account of what a meaningful life amid the system of objects might look like—an account that acknowledges the values of the system of objects as part of our world while seeking to push beyond them. Despite the shortcomings in the espoused language of technology and industry, which infiltrates our culture through advertising, we do indeed have access to other voices and other perspectives on what is truly most important. I will argue that the value-structure of the system of objects—as a purely mechanistic and individualistic explanation of how we fulfill the existential requirements for living a successful life—is insufficient, imbalanced, and ultimately working against some of our most deep-seated intuitive concerns. We all want to be successful in our life pursuits, and the cultural rhetoric praising instrumental rationality and individualism as ideological means to this end presents problems that must necessarily be addressed by critiquing and supplementing common modes of attributing value and searching for meaning.
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