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The Political Economy of Misunderstanding

By Dawn Woolley

In ‘For a Political Economy of the Sign’ Baudrillard argues that commodity culture fixes meaning to objects in order to sell them. Adverts may seem confusing and unclear at times even to the extent that we are not sure what is being advertised, but the meaning – the social value – given to the commodity is fixed. Baudrillard writes that surrealist objects emerged as the derision and transgression of functional objects (and modernism). The seemingly random juxtaposition of implausibly placed elements makes the viewer unsure of what is being expressed, beyond some vague notion of ‘the unconscious’ and perhaps some sort of desire or sexuality. The Surrealists chose these objects because they speak in a way that is hard to comprehend. Although advertisers use surrealism as a way of creating vagueness and implausible associations between objects the actual value of the commodity is unambiguous.

Baudrillard describes the use of signs – visual and verbal language – in consumer culture as ‘the rationality of the sign is rooted in its exclusion and annihilation of all symbolic ambivalence on behalf of a fixed and equational structure. The sign is a discriminant: it structures itself through exclusion. ...Thus, the sign proffers itself as full value: positive, rational, exchangeable value. All virtualities of meaning are shorn in the cut of structure.’ He continues ‘only ambivalence (as a rupture of value, of another side or beyond of sign value, and as the emergence of the symbolic) sustains a challenge to the legibility, the false transparency of the sign; only ambivalence questions the evidence of the use value of the sign (rational coding) and of its exchange value (the discourse of communication). It brings the political economy of the sign to a standstill; it dissolves the respective definitions of Sr and Sd – concepts emblazoned with the seal of signification…’

In 'Mad Love' André Breton describes a shopping trip to a flea market in Paris with Giacometti in which they select objects due to some sort of unconscious pull: ‘the two objects, which we had been given with no wrapping, of whose existence we were ignorant some minutes before, and which imposed with themselves this abnormally prolonged sensorial contact, induced us to think ceaselessly of their concrete existence, offering to us certain very unexpected prolongations from their life.’

As an artist I hope to make images that produce ‘abnormally prolonged sensorial contact’ because they are visually enticing but complex in the meaning due to an unexpected combinations of objects. Lack of understanding and subsequent decipherment produces a pause in the chatter of commodity sign-value.

June, 2017

About the Writer:

Dawn Woolley is a lecturer in photography at Anglia Ruskin University. Recent academic publications include ‘Aberrant consumers: Selfies and fat admiration websites’ Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society, 6(2) and a forthcoming chapter ‘The Iconography of Disruptive Bodies: Social Media and Medical Identities’ in Beyond the Body by Brill Publishing, Leiden. She completed an MA in Photography (2008) and PhD by project in Fine Art (2017) at the Royal College of Art. Recent exhibitions have included; “Le Féminin” Circulation(s), Arles (2017), “From Selfie to Self-Expression” Saatchi Gallery, London (2017), “Basically. Forever” Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and “Recollection” Ruimte Morguen Gallery, Antwerp (2014).

"My artistic practice encompasses photography, video, installation and performance. I use photographs of objects and people to question issues of artificiality and idealisation. My artwork forms an enquiry into the act of looking and being looked at. Referring to psychoanalysis, phenomenology and feminism I examine my own experience of becoming an object of sight and also consider the experience the viewer has when looking at me as a female, and a photographic object. Voyeurism and exhibitionism intertwine as I attempt to disrupt relationships of power in purposefully provocative scenes."