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A R T S I N C I R C U L AT I O N

On the Ikeaization of France

Tod Hartman

Tableaux: The Workshop and the Refuge

Faites le plein dides! the French arm of the Swedish


home superstore Ikeas enormous product range enthusiastically encourages the
consumer. As one proceeds through the store, one is confronted by a series of
stagelike tableaux suggesting different productive activities carried out in the
home: writing, gourmet cooking, serious reading, and artistic pursuits. These
are not the impossibly tidy, unattainably beautiful montages of highbrow inte-
rior decorating magazines. Rather, they are eminently democraticattainable,
unpretentious, and inexpensive. Now, there is no longer any need to actually be a
painter, a sculptor, or an architect, when one can acquire the material rudiments
of the studio at cost pricea distressed Provenal armoire suggesting an interior
full of years of half-used paint tubes, an artists wooden model figure, or an archi-
tects table and a heavy pivoting professional-style lampand put them together
in a pleasing configuration in ones home. Likewise, framed prints by artists such
as Mark Rothko or Robert Doisneau, heavy books on the coffee table featuring
photographs of natives in exotic locales, and a cafetire and coffee mugs next to
a cluster of open files crammed with magazines and journals invoke an entire life
given over to erudite contemplation and sensitive global travel.
Not every model here evokes images of elite intellectualism. Another popu-
lar tableau consumers can construct with objects from Ikea is that of the urban
farmercumserious chef: Le Creusetstyle cast-iron cookware, thick wooden
chopping boards, and 1950s-inspired kitchen accessories hint at a longstanding
expertise in gourmet cooking, while rustic pine furniture, brightly colored plant

I am very grateful to Jehanne Balcean, Jacob Copeman, Jose Laurent, Daniel Miller, Nikolai
Ssorin-Chaikov, Paul Stephenson, and Clarissa de Waal for their comments on early drafts of this
essay.

Public Culture 19:3 doi 10.1215/08992363-2007-006


Copyright 2007 by Duke University Press 483
Public Culture pots, and a watering can serve to craftily place the idea into guests heads that
one grows ones own vegetables. Transposed into the home, as these tableaux
inevitably are, various intensifications or relaxations of their elements can lead
one back toward the real world or, alternatively, into the realm of pure theater and
high campas when a subject-consumer is truly playing the part. One might
view the Ikea store as a kind of enormous prop room, where huge quantities of
merchandise and low prices make creating constantly changing backgrounds and
shifting identities in ones homean activity once necessarily restricted to the
highest level of economic elites or the schizophrenican easy affair.
Although Ikea sells objects, the nexus of Ikeas decorative power, the ultimate
tableau, is one of minimalism, of nothingness. This pure, white space may consist
of some colored lights, some Japanese-style furniture, or objects incorporating
transparent glass.1 Whereas the tableaux above are workshops, this is a refuge.
The inhabitant of this space, it might be imagined, is so engaged in productive,
self-fulfilling activity in the workshop that he or she must seek a well-earned
respite in a world of simple forms and relaxing colors. If from an aesthetic point
of view, this type of room constitutes sophisticated (absence of) design, from a
practical perspective, and an existential one, it is fundamentally unbearable. What
does one actually do in such a room? How does one entertain oneself? Yet this
is the ultimate articulation of consumption as difference (cf. Baudrillard 1968,
Bourdieu 1979), and a rather sly way of circumventing that seemingly inescap-
able linkage between social position and material possessions and the tyranny of
choice: there can be no empirical comparison of status between one consumers
minimalist lounge and anothers Louis XIVthemed drawing room, in the sense
that one cannot compare something to nothing. In the hierarchy of taste, minimal-
ism always wins out because it cannot be disproved.
It is rather difficult to underestimate the global reach of this aesthetic of the
workshop and the refuge, a function of the awesome worldwide presence of the
Ikea store itself. Ikeas 2006 facts and figures report reckons that 458 million peo-
ple visited its stores in 2006a figure approaching that of the entire population
of the European Union.2 In France alone, Ikea was the second-largest supplier in
all sectors of the furniture market in 2005, outdone only by the styleless, no-frills
Conforama chain (Garnier 2006), and, at this rate, may well be set to achieve first
place by the end of 2007. Ikeas most popular product, the Billy bookcase, has

1. It is ironic, in the consumer universe of Ikea, that the path to achieving a living space that is
distinguished by its minimalist simplicity lies in acquiring more objects rather than disposing of the
ones that one already has.
2. See www.ikea-group.ikea.com/corporate/PDF/FF2006english.pdf, 15.

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sold 28 million units worldwide since its inauguration in 1978, a figure slightly On the Ikeaization
more than the population of Iraq.3 The Swedish superstore was generating an of France
annual income of some 17.3 billion euros by 2006,4 which has allowed farmers
son Ingvar Kamprad, who founded the business in 1943, to become one of the
richest men in the world.
In the past decade, Ikea has expanded its sales from its traditional base of west-
ern Europe, bringing its range of inexpensive, practical, and design-conscious
products to elite consumers in locations such as China, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia,
Romania, and Russia. If cheap labor and cultural imperialism are often seen as
the dark side of the global advance of neoliberalism, then Ikea styles itself as
the fun side, importing chirpy Scandinavian design and suggestingwith its
low prices and its highly publicized stances on environmental concerns and work-
ing conditions at its developing-world suppliersthat corporate domination and
progressive social concern about the entire worlds peoples are now no longer
incompatible. Is this the new standard of a twenty-first-century global consump-
tion of justice? Has Ikea got it right?
This is the logic of modernization through Ikeaization: (many) products are
manufactured in Third World locations under conditions that are responsible
toward the environment and respect the rights of the worker, who, thanks to the
injection of capital into the communitys economy, will soon be able to afford to
shop in the newly opened local Ikea store him- or herself. For consumers in west-
ern European countries such as France, Ikea is thus able to present a third way
paradigm of consumption, not only rebelliously undermining rigid, old bour-
geois, hierarchical assumptions that spending power, good taste, and class must
be mutually dependent (through its celebration of minimalism and functionality
for all), but also mediating between crass consumerism (getting as much as one
can for as little as possibleeffectively Ikeas modus operandi) and progressive
ideals (global justice, environmental responsibility, etc.). Ikea may be a global
chain (perhaps the global chain par excellence), selling more or less the same
products in markets from Canada to China, offering a standardized ethic and
customer experience. Yet in France, as, no doubt, elsewhere, the large-scale inva-
sion of a set of cheap and cheerful objects embodying a single globally unified
aesthetic has a very particular resonance with certain pressing questions about
consumption-derived identities and responsibility, questions that are embedded
as much in the local as in the global.

3. See www.ikea-group.ikea.com/corporate/PDF/FF04.pdf, 7.
4. See www.ikea-group.ikea.com/corporate/PDF/FF2006english.pdf, 14.

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Public Culture Sets and Individuals

At home, the genuine antiques, the heirlooms, the objects on their own, cannot
exist in peace with their newly arrived fellows from Ikea. There is something
highly problematic about the coexistence of these two types of objects in the
same space, a sense of unease and hostility, not to mention a very jarring aesthetic
clash.
The single decorative object or traditional set has been content to get by on its
own, calmly basking in the light of its history, its patina, its ostensible function, in
relation with yet slightly detached from other objects in the room. Ikea objects, by
comparison, only travel in aggressive packs, bent on the total domination of what-
ever space they happen uponand they are generally successful in this venture.
Their claims of Scandinavian sensibleness with a touch of fun, of pure functional-
ity, effectively mock the raison dtre of any other decorative object, even the most
distinguished. One is reminded of the Diderot effect, a reference to the author
of the Encyclopedies essay Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown:
Diderot recounts how he has been given a particularly elegant new dressing gown,
and little by little unconsciously changes the decor of his office to fit in with the
stylish sophistication of the new garment. Before he knows it, the familiar unity
of the room with its comforting, old objects has been replaced by an alien con-
figuration of soulless, new items, and he comes to lament this unwelcome change
(McCracken 1988: 11819).
A friend, a mid-level administrator in the French public sector in her late twen-
ties, lives in a flat in Lille furnished almost entirely by two separate groups of
objects: heirlooms that came into her possession upon the death of her grandfa-
ther and items from Ikea. One assemblage of Ikea objects in the lounge suggests a
tableau of architect-designer: the Vika Artur architect-style adjustable trestle
table with glass top; the Fallet work lamp, capable of being moved in any direc-
tion, its head similar to that of a jewelers magnifying lamp; the industrial-style
green metal Helmer set of drawers; the simple Billy bookcase displaying nov-
els, books on design, and reference books; and the inevitable Grestalta artists
wooden model figure. All these objects invoke a highly specialized functionality
related to a specific occupation. They are not flimsy or cheap items, but rather the
very solid tools of a serious professional architect or designer, seemingly designed
to support the pursuit of a focused artistic or technical career. Several hardback
Taschen books (Taschens relationship to the world of books might be seen as
entirely analogous to Ikeas relationship to home decorencapsulating seem-
ingly every conceivable facet of sophisticated art and presenting it in attractive,

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inexpensive, mass-produced volumes) piled on top of the deskWalter Gropius, On the Ikeaization
Architecture Now!, Erotic Cinema, and Digital Beautiesseem to drive the of France
point home.
On the other side of the room, peering across sheepishly at this tableau of cre-
ativity and diligence, sat the dead grandfathers mismatched old articles: an art
nouveau bookcase, a weathered leather armchair, an oriental carpet, and a large
home entertainment cabinet from the 1970s. What chance did these objects
possibly stand? These objects, we determined over the course of a discussion,
returned her glance and said, affectionately, but stupidly, We like you, but to us
you are no more than what you are, you work in an office, you are a bureaucrat;
like us, you fulfill a function. These objects were eventually removed to a less
public space in the flat, some of them placed in storage.
The set of Ikea objects, by comparison, by constituting a complete, tight sys-
tem of functionality on its own, seems to invoke a world that is full of possibility,
or, rather, to symbolize that world and then put itself as its gatekeeper at the com-
plete disposal of the consumer. This is not the invocation of the fantasy of actually
being a successful young urban architect but the idea that one is plugged in to a
world that consists of effortless modern design. One might view the system of tab-
leaux, minimalist, artistic, rustic, and so on, as a sort of mirror, but one that sends
back liberating, desired images rather than real onesI am not a bureaucrat but
an artist, says one; I am not a worker but a writer, says another; and so on. Ikea
sets allow the consumer to find comfort in the agency of creating new identities,
all the while benefiting from competitive prices.
Previously, French consumers bought (and continue to buy, although with much
less frequency) furniture sets: a bed to sleep on, a wardrobe to put ones clothes
in, a night table on which to put a reading lamp, a clock, and a glass of water.
This was especially true for nonelite consumers in the nineteenth century, who
would often purchase the all-in-one chambre complte: a bed, a table, a bedside
table, two chairs, a small rug, mattress, box spring, linen, and armoireclearly
intended for the poorest of couples setting up housekeeping in one room (Aus-
lander 1998: 33031). The relation between the individual objects in a set was
generally a nonessential one; they were all decorated with the same motif: Napo-
leon III, cottage style, pine, and so on. Different themes occupied different
places in a hierarchy of cost and taste (see Bourdieu 1979), but the meaning of
the interactions between the different objects in the set was always a surface,
aesthetic one. For those with the means to afford costlier furnishings, the most
expensive furniture was rarely sold in sets (although it was often displayed that
way). Wealthier consumers appear to have wanted to believe that they were mak-

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Public Culture ing choices and assembling their rooms themselves, while the poor were not given
that option (Auslander 1998: 331).
What goes on at Ikea is this ostensible creation of agency through the democ-
ratization of choice and self-assembly, although in reality what now constitutes
a set is not completely dissimilar to the chambre complte. At Ikea, sets sup-
port various areas in the home that are consecrated to specific, serious activities:
writing, designing, or creating. Ikea products are presented in such a way so as
to encourage the formation of an aesthetic that crystallizes around notions of
simplicity, occupation, and achievement, rather than accumulation or leisure. The
Ikea aesthetic is not content for its customer to be a Veblenian conspicuous con-
sumer, or a mere bourgeois, at least, as that term is commonly understood.
Above all, this ideal, intelligent consumer does not waste timean offense
that has become again, as for Max Webers Protestant capitalist, the first and
in principle the deadliest of all sins (1930 [1904]: 157). All his or her moments
are geared toward productivity, toward the exponential accumulation of knowl-
edge and results. Pretension, extravagance, and ornamentation must be banished.
Anyone who goes around in a velvet coat today is not an artist but a buffoon or a
house painter, writes the Viennese architect and great proponent of minimalism
Adolph Loos in his Ornament and Crime (1970 [1908]: 24). Ornamentation
for Loos was the hallmark of a decaying, senseless society, and minimalism cel-
ebrated as the style of a new, triumphantly definitive modernity: The evolution
of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects
(20). One should take note of the Viennese parallel here, the way in which con-
cern about the very structure of society and a mania for minimalism in aesthetics
seem to coincide in the same historical period.
In this hierarchy of conspicuous nonconsumption, the most expensive leather
furniture suite, or a drawing room full of the most distinguished collection of
tasteful antiques, pales in comparison with the humble pine Ikea work area
where important activity is done and objectives achieved. The respite from all
this creative labor in the tableau of the workshop is provided by retiring to the
tableau of the minimalist refuge, described earlier. Yet even here, the absence of
any objects suggesting cheap leisure activity implicitly suggests that meaningful
pastimes (Buddhist meditation, reflection on serious matters, intellectual cathar-
sis, etc.) are to continue.
Even activities that previously seemed somewhat less than rsum-worthy can
be validated through notions of engagement and dedication in the Ikea universe.
One does not listen to music, one is an audiophile, and one acquires the pre-
scribed set of objects that will serve to testify to the seriousness of ones audio-

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phile commitment, laid out conveniently in the form of a tableau in the displays On the Ikeaization
in the Ikea store. Even watching television, that ultimately passive activity, now of France
takes on implications of professionalism through the use of such products as the
Benno TV stand, whose glass-fronted cabinets can be used to display the seri-
ousness and diversity of ones video or DVD collection. To be worthwhile, every
activity must be a serious pursuit, and everything must be done to avoid evoking
that term that has now taken on the quality of an obscenity: hobby.
From the point of view of the engaged artist or intellectual who inhabits the
Ikea tableau, actually going to the store to acquire the objects would not be a
pleasant experience. Ideally, they would materialize as if by magic, or somehow
have always been there, attesting to the longevity of the productive occupation.
However, from the point of view of the consumer who has yet to become the
carpenter, the gourmet chef, or the oenophilic expert whose place he or she will
occupy once the requisite objects have been acquired, shopping at Ikea is enjoy-
able because it endows one with the agency to make choices liberally and freely
from a huge range of products and identities that are economically unattainable
elsewhere. It is the never-ending possibility of multiple states of becoming, activi-
ties and accomplishments in different domains, the idea that the subject-citizen
of a modern state can no longer accept his immersion in some particular social
role that confers on him a determinate place within the organic social whole
(iek 2006: 240), and the desperate feeling that nothing must be ruled out that
drives the tableau to be endlessly reconstituted and remade, both in the display in
the Ikea store and in the home.

Transcending Consumption

Georges Perecs 1965 Les choses recounts the story of a young Parisian couple
caught in a typically pre-Ikea conundrum. The opening chapter of the book gives
an intimate description of the elegant spaces in their spacious flat, full of scattered
antiques, knickknacks, and charming clutter: Their apartment would rarely be
tidy, but its disorder would be its greatest charm. They wouldnt so much be tak-
ing care of it, as simply living there. Comfort would be taken for granted, given,
part of their nature. Their attention would be elsewhere: in the book that they
would open, in the text that they would be writing, in the record they would be
listening to ... (2005: 15; my translation). The description is written entirely
in the conditional tense because this apartment exists only in the imagination.
Shaped by a bourgeois society in which consumption is taken as the universal and
self-justifying form of satisfaction, the two protagonists, Jrme and Sylvie, have

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Public Culture the taste and the education and move in a milieu that permits them to appreciate
the elite objects of a life characterized by sophistication and intellectualism. Yet
they suffer from the agony of lacking the material wealth to acquire the tasteful
goods that are displayed everywhere in shop windows, in magazines, and at auc-
tion houses. The disparity between the home and the life they feel they naturally
should have, and the tiny two-room flat that they occupy in reality, with its dirty-
clothes hamper that must double as the dining-room chair, becomes a preoccupa-
tion, eventually an obsession, consuming all aspects of their lives.
Today, with its mass production of tasteful, functional, sophisticated, or artistic
objects, sold at prices that previous generations of consumers would regard as
almost free, Ikea has neatly resolved this dilemma for young French consumers
with bourgeois ambitions. Yet just as one problem is solved, another emerges.
The social schizophrenia that surrounds practices of consumption in France today
is no longer that of the desired bourgeois lifestyle that one cannot have, but a
concern about the very nature of consumption itself, often expressed as a dis-
dain for a mythical demographic referred to as the bourgeois-bohmes (or bobos,
even more pejoratively).5 One cannot overemphasize the salience of this term as
a marker of dialectical social identification in urban, middle-class France over
at least the past few decades, an idea of a mode of consumption that juxtaposes
two assemblagesrampant capitalism and consumerism, and leftist bohemian
sensibilitythat contemporary thinking has dictated must be kept separate.
It was arguably the 1968 student movement in Paris that gave both terms, bour-
geois and bohme, a particular connotation of laughable pretence in the popular
imagination: the offspring of a family of prosperous factory owners or conserva-
tive politicians, the student activist was merely a bourgeois playing at being a
bohemian revolutionary, who soon went on to join the family firm, perpetuating
the sort of capitalist exploitation that he or she had so vociferously denounced
in the streets of the Latin Quarter in the late 1960s and early 1970s (while still
retaining some superficial leftist sympathies). Bourgeois-bohme is also an
appellation given to a new class of young consumers who possess superior spend-
ing power and have the pretensions of seeking some artistic, politically progres-
sive, socially responsible, or otherwise profound meaning in life that transcends
mere capitalist consumerism.
The term seems to be deployed across various swathes of Francophone society

5. David Brooks (2001) popularized the term bobo, to describe a group of left-leaning U.S.
elites whose wealth allowed them to combine elements of both corporate capitalism and hippy
proclivities.

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as an expression of a fundamental problematic of late capitalism: simultaneously On the Ikeaization
desiring (material comfort, the luxury and freedom from work-related hierarchy of France
to pursue a progressive lifestyle, sophisticated achievements in the arts and
intellectual life, etc.) and disdaining (the necessarily antiegalitarian exclusivity of
such a privileged position and those lucky enough to have the spending power to
actually achieve it), and anyone who has ever enjoyed affluence and comfort, and
at the same advocated progressive ideals (however largely defined), can be seen
to fall into the hypocritical trap of the bourgeois-bohme.
The archetypical occupations of the bourgeois-bohmewriter, photogra-
pher, designerare freer from the constraints of traditional capitalism and work-
related hierarchy, and thus their space of actualization is more properly the home
than the office. Indeed, theoretically, the bourgeois-bohme is so fulfilled in his
or her occupation that there need be no distinction between work and leisure, or
between work space and home space. It follows that what looks good in interior
design is dictated by an aesthetics of ostensible functionality, rather than evoking
the possibility of leisure.
It should not be surprising then that, as the popular singer Renaud Schan
claims in a recent release titled Les bobos (2006), the bourgeois-bohmes livre
de chevet, their bedtime reading material, is the Ikea catalog, the free publication
that the company prints and distributes each year in quantities already, by 2003,
allegedly greater than the worldwide circulation of the Bible (Burkeman 2004).
In France, Ikea has fulfilled the remarkable function of democratizing bobo-ism,
offering objectsembodying not merely bourgeois good taste but serious pro-
ductive activityat cut-rate prices. Yet Ikea throws in another twist: not only
does an Ikea purchase allow the consumer to transcend or scale a Bourdieusian
social hierarchy of taste and aesthetics; it also allows for negotiation with issues
of morality and ethics.
Instead of being sold in finished form, larger pieces of Ikea furniture are packed
into flat, efficient cardboard boxes, and it is up to the buyer to carry them home
and assemble thema kind of delimited Lvi-Straussian bricolage (cf. Lvi-
Strauss 1962) that suggests the removal of one level of dependence in the system
of production and exploitation. In addition, Ikea regularly launches high-profile
campaigns that address a whole range of green issues: the preservation of for-
ests, the introduction of energy-efficient products, and so on. It denounces child
labor and abusive working conditions and spurns traditional, hierarchical labor
structures: at Ikea, there are no employees, only a cohort of ostensibly equal
coworkers. Consumers may be perfectly aware that underneath its responsible,
environmentally friendly, Scandinavian veneer lies the global multinational cor-

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Public Culture poration par excellence, ruthlessly obliterating local independent businesses, mer-
cilessly slashing prices in the pursuit of profit, imposing a monolithic tyranny of
aesthetics. Yet its practical functionality and the suggestion that Ikea is somehow
more ethically responsible than are other design stores balance out the fact that it
serves to put other design stores out of business, effectively precluding the very
possibility of choice by presenting itself as the only thinkable option. Ikeaization
is analogous to abandoning the revolution for good and resigning oneself to a
kind of progressive capitalism, a Smithian political economy where the invisible
hand, like Ikeas moral aesthetic, is at least superficially more progressive, more
sensible, and more egalitarian.
Imposing a superficial aesthetic of greenness, covering up actual social and eco-
nomic inequalities with moralizing invocations of vague terms such as respect
and responsibilitythese are tactics one is more used to recognizing in govern-
ment than in a furniture manufacturer (the patronizing vocabulary of New Labour
in Britain is a case in point). And was there not a kind of Ikeaization, inverted
but implicit, in the conservative then interior minister Nicolas Sarkozys handling
of the race riots in France in 2005? Rather than explicitly acknowledge objective
conditions of discrimination and the glaring lack of virtually any possibility of
upward mobility for second-generation African immigrants, Sarkozy attempted
to reconstitute the riots as a series of self-interested gang attacks, the underlying
causes of which were conveniently sublimated into the vague and unknowable
moniker of delinquency. Just as the Ikea store recycles all previous forms of
aesthetics into an easily consumable parcel whose authenticity and moral stand-
ing cannot be questioned on any front (who, after all, would publicly denounce the
preservation of the environment or the fight against child labor in the developing
world, or contest the egalitarianism implied in expanded consumer choice for
nonelites?), so what one might call national Ikeaization operates on the same
principle, re-presenting rhetoric that will be comforting in its simplicity as (osten-
sibly) uncontroversial political dialogue, here, reissuing the nineteenth-century
trope of the classes dangereuses in newly ethnicized packaging, as Sebastian
Budgen writes of the government response to the 2005 riots (2006: 150).

The Lesser of Two Evils and the Next Best Thing

It becomes apparent that the Ikea tableau promotes a certain antisociality by


stressing the value of productive yet solitary labor over communal activity. This
is the polar opposite, for example, of a consumption that might encourage dia-
lectical, socially productive labor, where objects become integral aspects of

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processes which are constructive of social relations, as in Daniel Millers study On the Ikeaization
of a North London housing estate (1988: 370), or Mary Douglas and Baron Isher- of France
woods view of consumption rituals as normal marks of friendship and the flow
of goods as a map of social integration (1996 [1979]: xxii). Rather, the tableau
suggests to its owner that socializing and communality must be subordinated to
the urgent realization of personal accomplishment in the workshop, accomplish-
ments that will ostensibly be presented to the rest of the world at some later stage.
Ikeaization is thus necessarily a disengagement with the collective sphere, a sense
that the most beneficial work is carried out when one is sheltered from, rather than
an active participant in, the social reality.
The feeling of a certain nonattendance at the level of public culture, what Jean
Baudrillard referred to in 2005 as the threat of societys own absence, its loss
of reality, seems especially salient in French society today (2006 [2005]: 6).
A whole genre of writing enthusiastically announcing the cultural and politi-
cal decline of France has appeared in recent years (e.g., Duhamel 2003; Ander-
son 2004a, 2004b; Baverez 2004; Smith 2004; Supiot 2006). Increasing public
awareness of the elitism operating within the highest ranks of national politics;
the presence of extreme-right Front National candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in the
second round of the 2002 presidential elections; staggering levels of unemploy-
ment; rioting in the banlieues in 2005 by disenfranchised, second-generation
African immigrants; the recent fiasco of the contrat premire embauche (first
employment contract); and the absence of any truly progressive candidate in the
2007 presidential electionsall these things have contributed to a palpable feel-
ing of cynicism, both in the national and international press (and not least in the
Anglo-Saxon press of the Left).
The governments introduction of the contrat premire embauche in March
2006 represented an unprecedented attack on previously sacrosanct employees
rights, long among the most extensive and proworker in the world: on the pre-
text of creating a more dynamic job sector and countering high levels of unem-
ployment and stagnancy, employees under twenty-six years of age subject to this
contract would be subject to dismissal on virtually any pretext, with little or no
severance benefits. Although the measure was later withdrawn in the face of pro-
test, it served to exacerbate the feeling that the state could no longer be counted
on to provide protection to its workforce from the worldwide advance of neo-
liberalism (Anderson 2004a: 7), a protection that has long been the touchstone
of what is often referred to as the French exception. Alain Supiot refers to the
processes behind the weakening of social protections in the face of the primacy
of the market as a dlitement, the sense of a gradual coming undone, or unbed-

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Public Culture ding (2006: 24). Among friends in Paris who have obtained contrats dure
indtermine (permanent job contracts implying virtual immunity to dismissal
or extensive severance benefits), the sense now sometimes seems to be that one is
lucky to have a job that one can hold on to, with the ensuing benefits, regardless
of whether the work is intellectually or morally fulfilling.
Into this perceived feeling of national discontent appeared Ikea, whose recent
advertising played explicitly and wittily on the cynicism surrounding the upcom-
ing elections in 2007. With the generally recognized lack of a widely admired
contender for the presidency, Ikea stepped into the ring and declared itself as a
candidate. In one 2006 television commercial (part of a sequence of ads with the
same theme) the viewer was presented with a series of scenes featuring dejected-
looking, prototypically Gallic citizens, as a narrator, in the voice of a professional
announcer rallying a crowd at a party conference, declaimed, Today, France
is dragging its feet. France isnt advancing. France is fed up, France grumbles!
France is tired. It must wake up! But to wake up, it has to sleep well, and to sleep
well it needs bedrooms that are comfortable and well designed. With Ikea, say
yes to a dynamic France. Vote Ikea!6 At the mention of Ikea, the montages
abruptly shifted theme to feature happy couples of all generations, bouncing up
and down joyfully on Ikea beds. In the background, typical Ikea-style tableaux,
attractively color coordinated, suggested domesticity and the well-needed, sen-
sible repose that would first be required in order to get France back on track.
As this ad indicates, Ikea is capable of sublimating even pressing social con-
cerns into the status of playful, ironic kitschand in the process selling even
more furniture. Yet, on a more profound level, Ikea is itself always sublimated,
drawn into, and captured for local and national debates, wherever it exists. In
France, TV commercials conceptualized by and produced by a French agency
for Ikea highlight fundamental continuities between consumption and political
choice, and between consumption and political cynicism, that already exist. At
Ikea, one can purchase a chair that replicates the minimalist styling of Philippe
Stark, a ceiling lamp suggesting the modernist simplicity and sleek industrial
forms of the Bauhaus, or kitchen accessories redolent of 1950s Americana for a
small fraction of the cost of the actual chair, the genuine lamp, or the real
antiques. Just like shopping at Ikea, which is the next best thing to acquiring these
genuine objects, voting or holding on to ones job becomes a matter of choosing
the lesser of two evils or the next best thing. Was this not explicitly the case in

6. See www.lachose.fr/campagnes/IKEA.php; my translation of the original video clip (accessed


July 2, 2007).

494
the 2002 presidential elections, when, with Lionel Jospin eliminated, and faced On the Ikeaization
with the choice of Jacques Chirac or Jean-Marie Le Pen, some leftists went to the of France
polls to vote for the former wearing white surgical gloves, a symbolic attempt not
to infect themselves while electing a candidate they knew very well to be reac-
tionary and corrupt? Ikea allows one the consolation of being able to acquire the
accoutrements of an existence not bound to work-based hierarchy; it allows for a
transcendence of the opposition between consumer and creator and grants to any-
one with the spending power to patronize its stores the agency to create multiple,
desired identitiesthe next best thing to actually living those identities. Yet, as
in national politics, the compromise of choosing the next best thing necessarily
precludes any real change.

Disposing of Ikea

That Ikeaization is an embodiment of the transitory, the superficial, that it sub-


verts actual change, is illustrated by the brutally short lifespan of the Ikea objects
themselves. An obvious metaphor for the consumption of Ikea objects might be
eating and excretion, rather than collecting. They are acquired at the Ikea store in
large quantity, and the choice of which objects one buys is carried out with less
discernment than would be the case at a more expensive store. It is not uncom-
mon to visit the Ikea store with little or no specific buying projects, yet, inspired
by the tableaux-displays presented throughout the store, to leave with an entire
ensemble of objects. These objects are then digestedplaced in a living space in
sets fulfilling various functions and suggesting various occupationsuntil a con-
sumer tires of them, and they are excreted: left behind, traded, sold, or sometimes
replaced by new Ikea products.
These objects are the absolute opposite of heirlooms. Nor is it easy to con-
ceive of them as potential gifts: in Western Europe, the idea of giving someone
an unsolicited Ikea object as a birthday present seems bizarre, a joke gift. From
the moment they are purchased they become virtually valueless. Indeed, from
the moment the object enters the shopping trolley after catching the eye of the
consumer its fate as a constituent of one specific tableau in one specific place is
sealed. Consequently, Ikea objects fall into that lowermost category of posses-
sions that are left behind at the time of moving, often because the cost of trans-
porting them exceeds their original cost in the store.
Just how far one can go with the idea of tableau is another issue that deter-
mines the longevity of Ikea objects. In the case of pure minimalism, the stay-
ing power of the consumer-tableau configuration is relatively short because the

495
Public Culture amount of activities that can be properly carried out in such a space is severely
limitedin other words, one gets bored. (I recall that my own attempt at creat-
ing such an ambience did not last more than a few weeks before sets of objects
suggesting other activities began to stealthily creep into the picture and provide
the material noise that spells the death of the minimalist aesthetic.) And, of
course, the purchase of sets of Ikea objects suggesting serious artistic or literary
accomplishment has little effect on whether or not certain consumers struggle
with the self-doubt, failed attempts, and actual labor that are inherent to success-
ful production in those domains. In France, what the Ikea tableau presents is the
spectacle of pure, attemptless accomplishment, and the Ikeaization of France
is accomplishment without attempt, without meaning or substantiation, a condi-
tion that parallels, as Supiot writes, the problem of having social inequality and,
underlying it, a formal equality (2006: 25). Perhaps the most marked form of
Ikeaization is the triumphant invocation of Integration with a capital I as a
means to solve Frances political woes and, ultimately, the lack of any content
at its center. Baudrillard, writing on the 2005 riots, was trenchant on this point:
The sorry spectacle of successful integrationinto a banalized, technized,
upholstered way of life, carefully shielded from self-questioningis that of we
French ourselves. To talk of integration in the name of some indefinable notion
of France is merely to signal its lack (2006: 5).
We must see Ikea and Ikeaization for what it is: not necessarily a force of evil
in the world (unless of course one finds imposing a monolithic Scandinavian tyr-
anny of aesthetics across the globe objectionable), but, rather, eminently dispos-
able, a realm that in affluent societies (if France is anything to go by) makes an
illusory claim to a third way, sublimating the worries about the real contradic-
tions of contemporary capitalism and social inequality that exist in local contexts
into facile solutions and cheerful kitsch, producing nothing of lasting value, medi-
ating between bourgeois and bohme, between an imagined spectrum of vulgar
consumption and a transcendent creativity and global responsibility.
On this latter point, it is worth noting that behind Ikeas egalitarian ethic lies
a very particular cartography of global affluence. If one imagines a map of the
world, and the locations in which Ikea stores exist represented as flashing red
lights, then entire swathes of the globemost conspicuously Africa and Latin
Americaremain dark. For, at the global level, Ikea is the reward of moder-
nityor rather the benevolent avant-garde of a certain vision of modernity, the
logic of which is the wholesale importation of the tastes and sensibilities of the
Euro-American middle classesgiven only to those regions and states lucky
enough to have experienced long-standing capitalist affluence, successfully

496
embraced structural adjustment programs and neoliberal reform, or adopted a On the Ikeaization
business climate that enforces flexibility. Just as Ikeaization is a lens through of France
which local realities are reflected, so Ikea at the level of the global simply pro-
vides an almost pure demographic reflection of gradients of prosperity and pov-
ertyand citizens of those states without a www.ikea to their national Internet
suffix can almost without exception consider themselves unfit for membership in
what is an increasingly exclusive new world society (Ferguson 2002).
Recently, another friend in Lille did a spring cleaning and a sorting out of
objects in preparation for a move to a new flat. A hapless set of Frosta wooden
stools, a low-style Billy bookcase, and a glittery, jellyfish-like Vedum table
lamp had to say their final adieux in the purge, relegated to the grassy space
outside next to the rubbish bins to await collection, never to be seen again. One
can imagine such a picture constituting a final, supplementary chapter in Roland
Barthess Mythologies: the obituary of Ikeas cheap-but-cheerful Billy bookcase.
What other now-iconic image provides such an incisive metaphor for the spec-
tacle presented by this late period of the Fifth Republicsoulless, a compromise
perhaps satisfactory for a time, endlessly disposable and replaceable, with little
perspective of real change on the horizon?

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