The Language of Things is a remarkable book, well worth its rather hefty price tag. It begins as a critique of contemporary consumerist culture with witty one-liners and knowing insights into what exactly makes us go shop-shop. Many of the points Sudjic punches out within the first few pages echo some of my deepest reservations against my own spendthrift, accumulating ways.
Never have more of us had more possessions than we do now, even as we make less and less use of them. The homes in which spend so little time are filled with things….They are our toys: consolations for the unremitting pressures of acquiring the means to buy them and which infantilize us in our pursuit of them.
I was compelled to sit up and read closely after that opening paragraph, so much so that I bought the book, adding to the stack of unread books on my shelf, but determined to own it, an ironic exemplification of Sudjic’s opening salvo. He goes on to add, ‘Like geese force fed grain until their livers explode, to make foie gras , we are a generation born to consume.’ It’s been many years since I’ve recovered (of course not entirely) from my obsession with shoes. Long before I knew the sexual connotations of a slinky pair of stilettos I collected them with gusto, happy for the happiness it brought me in its acquisition. But it was a brief interlude from my real passion, books. As much as I buy them I am suffocated by the guilt of consuming too much, angry with myself for being so easily seduced by binded words and remorseful at the interview that inevitably follows with my parents, ‘Yes Mum, I know you bought me a whole lot of books in India. No, I do like them. It’s just that these…I know there are more important things….’ Sudjic has become somewhat biblical with words well adjusted to my predicament:
In my own life, I have to acknowledge that I have been fascinated by the glossy sheen of consumption while at the same time nauseous with self disgust at the volume of what we all consume, and the shallow but sharp emotional tug that the manufacture of want exerts on us.
Unlike my fetish for shoes, my booklust is redeemable in its perceived nobility. But at a more basic level it functions exactly like the Imelda Marcos impersonation. It is driven by a want of objects. Our individual worlds are not constituted of beliefs, ideals and values; they are only the mortar to the bricks that our possessions. The parable of the person with the least possessions having the least to answer for in the hereafter peals an ominous sounding alarm bell. Our drive to pad our lives with inane things has become an intricately drawn out process not untouched by class and constantly philosophical about exactly what luxury is.
Sudjic is after all the not a Marxist social critic but rather the director of the Design Museum in London. He takes the view of design as a kind of language:
…design has become the language with which to shape those objects and to tailor the messages that they carry. The role of the most sophisticated designers today is as much to be storytellers, to make design that speaks in such a way as to convey these messages, as it is to resolve formal and functional problems. They manipulate this language more or less skilfully, or engagingly, to convey a kind of story….
As an attempt into understanding that language this book is vital reading. It is delightfully written, interspersed with images and quotations that in many ways embody that language. As Sudjic well points out it is a language that is key to understanding the man-made world.