Baudrillard and the Barn

by John on April 3, 2007

There’s a lot of talk amongst West Marin’s latterati about preserving Giacomini’s old barn and the Park Service and some of the old-timers have weighed in on the discussion. What value does it have?  Baudrillard,  the French philosopher famed for his work in semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, assigns four levels of values to objects: a functional value, a transactional value, a symbolic value and a ‘sign’ value.  Usually, I am not a fan of  French postmodern critics, and found it very funny when physicist Alan Sokel submitted an entirely fictitious research paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity to the journal Social Text to see if they would “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editor’s ideological preconceptions.”  They did.

However, it  would be a mistake to throw out all modern criticism, and in the case of Baudrillard, his ideas are very relevant to how we look at objects in our communities.  His work on semiotics, shows  the manner in which modern society has become a simulacra, created by an untrammeled bombardment of signs and images.  He posits that we are at risk of living in a simulation of our own making.  If you doubt that Baudrillard’s views resonate in our culture, keep in mind that the Wachowski brothers used him for the inspiration for their hugely successful film, The Matrix, even though he said the brothers got it wrong.

Baudrillard , in Symbolic Exchange and Death,  says that Western societies have passed through “orders of simulacra” from the original to the counterfeit to the produced, mechanical copy, to the last stage, where the copy replaces the original.  He uses the example of a refrigerator to show the first two levels of value.  The refrigerator performs the function of keeping things cool, and has a transactional value in cash or the labor required to earn the money.  Beyond that, there is the symbolic and a ‘sign’ value.  To continue the refrigerator example,  the $12,000 stainless steel glass door built in unit justifies its price to the owner on its symbolic and sign value within a system of objects reflecting prestige, status, class and such.

The functional value, available for a tenth the cost, is rendered trivial. Bombarded by such distorted values, Baudrillard claims that society will enter a state of hyperrealism, a ‘simulated’ version of reality.  Integrating the accelerating flow of cash, signs and symbols, the world does not become unreal, but appears more insecure and unstable, creating a fearful populous clinging to simulacra, not a shared reality. West Marin not only has a differing sense of reality from the rest of America  but also a different hyperreality: community and hypercommunity; environmentalism and hyperenvironmentalism, defined by deriving value based only on Baudrillard’s symbols and signs while ignoring function and value.

The barn was built to enable the dairy ranch to produce milk and provide a living for the Giacomini family. It was not only real as a structure but gained authenticity from its function in a working dairy farm. Now the cows are gone and so is the barn’s context.  Functionally, it is a worn-out structure on the edge of a newly revived wetland,; a cobbled-up series of repairs, a decaying Douglas fir structure at the end of its economic life.. From some angles it’s not unaesthetic, but functional value in its original context is zero.  The current economic value of the barn is essentially zero, too.   If the barn were simply restored, it would be a counterfeit barn.

Baudrillard implies that if we lose the values of functionality and exchange, we become powerless. The barn’s functional value was defined in a community in which farmers and their employees who lived here, sent their children to school, shopped in the local stores, could afford (and wanted) the items sold there, and spent sufficient time in town to create a commons, or at least outnumber the tourists who come to enjoy the signs and symbolism of West Marin. If all that remains are copies of the past and their signs and symbols, Baudrillard claims that we are living in a simulacrum, a Las Vegas or a Disneyland. Raised of peasant stock in France, he would have said a lot about a community that exchanges the functional and transactional value of a dairy farm for a wetland yet wants to keep the barn.

Wetlands are valuable and important, yet one cannot have one’s environmental cake and make the community eat it. Economic loss from eliminating the dairy affects the businesses and services that make us a community and can’t be replaced by the semiotics of a restored barn. To make up the loss, what goes on in the barn would be something new that replaces the values lost when the dairy closed.  Baudrillard’s four types of value are worth debating in West Marin, especially if we want to keep it real.

The photo shows the current state of the barn, now kept standing by federal recovery funding.  I originally wrote this column after some members of the community accused me of being insensitive to philosophical matters, so the working title of this piece, first published in the Point Reyes Lights, was “The semiotics of a defunct dairy barn”…promptly vetoed by the editor.  However, the column caught the eye of Krissy Clark of American Public Media, which lead to an interview with Weekend America.  You can read (and hear it) at: Towns in transition often start to take themselves a little seriously which can result in some delicious irony. Long after the article was written, I often wonder what Baudrillard, who had a few things to say about self parody and reality, would have made of  the fact that the barn now owes its existence and its semiotic value to TARP/bailout funds.

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