Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Did Derrida (not) shop at IKEA?

[Our first post of the new year comes courtesy of The Wife.]

I must have been under the spell of a recent visit to the huge blue and yellow box next to a nearby motorway exit when, on leafing through the opening pages of Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (in the hope to find some weighty cites for a paper I’m currently working on), I stumbled over a passage that seemed to fit my recent experience. Now, Derrida’s book is a reply to the “end of history” hype of the 1990s (though this sinking academic ship has by now been abandoned even by its former captain, Prof. F.), which investigates both the self-deceptive euphoria of that hype and makes a strong argument for the enduring relevance of Marxism in European culture.

Never in my life would I have expected to find a comment on the opium of IKEA – of which I, too, shamefacedly partake – in this book. Yet there it is, in the exordium, which begins as follows: “Someone, you or me, comes forward: I would like to live finally.”

Maybe because of said shopping spree, the English words somehow stimulated a part of my brain that brought up the ubiquitous “Wohnst Du noch oder lebst Du schon” (roughly translatable as: “Still dwelling or finally living?”), which is the slogan IKEA has been bombarding us with over here for the past few years.

Cunning though it may be by advertisement standards, I have never liked it.

Hoping that the late Godfather of deconstruction would help fuel my anger about the Swedish design democracy, I read on, and, lo and behold: I knew, this was all written just for me and my momentary state of IKEA rage.

“To learn to live: a strange watchword. Who would learn? From whom? To teach to live, but to whom? Will we ever know? Will we ever know how to live and first of all what ‘to learn to live’ means? And why ‘finally’?”

Exactly. That IKEA slogan is so preposterous it should make us all reel. Why would flimsy tinsel mass-produced cheaply in the East (both Far and European) and bought by thousands of people all over the planet to create the desired (though undesirable) effect of organised clutter championed by the IKEA-think tanks, make me “live”?

“For from the lips of a master this watchword would always say something about violence. It vibrates like an arrow in the course of an irreversible and asymmetrical address, the one that goes most often from father to son, master to disciple, or master to slave (“I’m going to teach you to live”). Such an address hesitates, therefore, between address as experience (is not learning to live experience itself?), address education, and address as taming or training [dressage].”

It’s true, IKEA exerts a sense of paternal mastery over its customers (and even those who don’t shop there) – especially because it uses the informal German pronoun “Du” in all its advertising, thus combining the familiar with the authoritarian. This has been getting on my nerves for ages (and I swear they didn’t do this in the early years, when IKEA was still truly hip and only for educated liberals with “Nuclear Power, No Thanks” stickers on their cars. These days, OAPs like to go to IKEA, because the breakfast is ridiculously cheap and you can have as much coffee as you like). The most hateful slogan is “Hier kannst Du Dein Geschirr abstellen” (“this is where you can put your dishes”) in the cafeteria – the unstated threat (a verbal gunpoint) being: or else!

There is a threatening undertone of all this, a latent violence (like that explored by Henning Mankell’s disturbing crime novels set in the south of Sweden), which only reflects the violence of uniformity dressed up as individual chic of Annika, Holstebro, Saltkrokan and co. And of course, as a clever person recently pointed out, the whole informality collapses when someone is told, via the shop intercom, to remove their car from the lot or their unruly offspring from the play area.

Most cunningly, IKEA defies its own claim to be hyper-democratic by being deeply exclusionary. It’s a little bit like Robert De Niro’s “circle of trust” spiel in Meet the Parents: either you’re with us, or against us. In IKEA terms, being against might mean having bought bedding anywhere but. If I want to use IKEA covers – which admittedly tend to be rather pretty, like all their fabrics – I will have to buy duvet and pillows there, too. But we already have plenty of bedding and it’s all in pretty good nick. Should I chuck it out (like Britons were told to chuck out their chintz a few years ago), just because it doesn’t fit the set I bought for €7 downstairs at I’s?

The picture frames, too, are always too small or way too big for the fancy posters you buy at spectacular conferences across Europe to wow your guests. Any flicker of individual taste outside the tightly knit (but expanding IKEA community) is punished – bang, shame on you, your are outside the circle of trust.

And sooooo alone.

“Duh”, says the Husband. “Didn’t you know? It’s like bloody Microsoft”.

So for those of you out there sharing my woes (which, admittedly, are maybe a wee bit frivolous considering its the beginning of a new year and time to reflect on how to improve on the last one), here’s more from Jacques D. on the issue:

“To live, by definition, is not something one learns. Not from oneself, it is not learned from life, taught by life. Only from the other and by death. In any case from the other at the edge of life. At the internal border or the external border, it is a heterodidactics between life and death.”

I leave you to ponder – and maybe dip into the whole book if you have the time. In the meantime: don’t go to that place. It’s full of consumption-eager people, screaming kids and cunningly-placed gadgets by the tills (“a purple furry plunger – I always wanted one of those!”).

Buy your curtains at the flea market. Or don’t bother to buy any at all.


Chris Williams said...

Hi Anja - Some time ago, British cartoonist Steve Bell wrote a script featuring his stock 'Trotskyist' look-a-like being told "You are a Marxist subversive - it's written all over your face." The punchline was that yr man really did have 'Marxist subversive' written on his face - but for our purposes the interesting thing about him was that he was also wearing a badge that read "I farted in Habitat".

Anja said...

Thanks Chris,

'ang on: are you saying my subversiveness is just skin deep?


Should you stumble across one of those badges -- do get me one, please.