October 6, 2009

The Little Miseries of Human Life

"In 1843 Grandville published Petites misères de la vie humaine, based on a text by his friend Forgues.  In a series of genially perverse illustrations, Grandville gave us one of the first representations of a phenomenon that would become increasingly familiar to the modern age:  a bad conscience with respect to objects.  In a leaky faucet that cannot be turned off, in an umbrella that reverses itself, in a boot that can be neither completely put on nor taken off and remains tenaciously stuck on the foot, in the sheets of paper scattered by a breath of wind, in a coverlet that does not cover, in a pair of pants that tears, the prophet glance of Grandville discovers, beyond the simple fortuitous incident, the cipher of a new relation between humans and things.  No one has shown better than he the human discomfort before the disturbing metamorphoses of the most familiar objects [. . .] Under his pen, objects lose their innocence and rebel with a kind of deliberate perfidy.  They attempt to evade their uses, they become animated with human feelings and intentions, they become discontented and lazy.  The eye is not surprised to discover them in lecherous attitudes.

Rilke, who had described the same phenomenon in the episode of the coverlet from Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, observed, with a revealing expression, that the ‘relations of men and things have created confusion in the latter’.  The bad human conscience with respect to commodified objects is expressed in the mise-en-scène of this phantasmagorical conspiracy.  The degeneration implicit in the transformation of the artisanal object into the mass-produced article is constantly manifest to modern man in the loss of his own self-possession with respect to things.  The degradation of objects is matched by human clumsiness, that is, the fear of their possible revenge . . ."

—Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas:  Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (1977)

He could have been writing about this:

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