Interview with Paolo Fabbri

Da: Twirl, 17/03/2016.

In 1996 I met up with the semiologist Paolo Fabbri in Paris, having known him professionally for several years. We discussed and reflected on our work during a long chat in his sitting room. Even today, after many years, I still find his observations really interesting and stimulating.

The object as a go-between and the object of meaning
“[…] in our reflections on objects, we have now reached the point where we need to distinguish between the productive aspects of the object – i.e., its being an articulated product thanks to, and with, an attributed meaning – and the object as a go-between, that is to say the object as a connection either between an individual and himself or between several individuals. When we say that an object acts as a go-between for an individual and himself, we mean that it is possible to be both the giver and the receiver of the object at the same time.”

The division of the object
“In the first case, namely that of different parts, we should stress the importance of two further aspects that add to the problems of form (which have always be developed by designers using a rationalist and above all ‘actionalist’ model). The first of these two aspects concerns the internal shape of the objects, i.e. their ability to be broken down into separate parts; in other words, this is the relationship between the object as a whole and its separate parts. This we call the ‘division of the object’. Let us take the Brionvega radio as an example here: its success was due precisely to the fact that it was divided into several parts. Objects could, therefore, be called diptychs, triptychs, quadriptychs, etc., that is to say, ‘articulated things’.
The other aspect to be taken into account concerns substances. Objects are made in the world and form part of the world, even if created using artificial, non natural substances”.

Anthropomorphisation and biomorphisation of the object
“The elemental context is crucial here, that is, the context within which the objects have a role to play and the elements used to create these. This issue has been given a lot of thought, especially when it comes to separating the natural from the artificial. We are surrounded, on the one hand, by objects that are not only fed up with being artificial, but which we would also like to see pervaded with an active power; objects that are not really anthropomorphic, but biomorphic, almost alive. On the other, however, we are filling our homes with artificial Nature (witness the passion for bonsai trees).
Just as there are household electrical appliances, so there are now ‘natural’ appliances. It would therefore be interesting to discover all those objects in-between, from the ‘alive’ to the ‘non-alive’. Science is now studying natural units, such as viruses, that make us wonder if they can really be classed as being ‘alive’. What are the criteria for such a classification? It is most curious, this new obsession of ours. In an age of increasing artificialisation, we are reacting by trying to make objects alive, active, a fetish. On the other hand, there is the process of making natural objects artificial: the object/plant is, somehow, the same as the plant/object.”

Aesthetic understanding
“It is very interesting here to take into consideration both the aspects of how an object is used in the world’s elements and how we feel about the substances making up the objects.
There is a pertinent paradoxical episode here. Some years ago, in France, there was a move against those little toy-like vaguely anthropomorphic objects made from a material with a viscous texture… There was a wave of indignation: ‘Get rid of these horrible things.’ The objects in question were slightly gooey little monsters, at the time when “Gremlins” was on general release at the cinema… Now the example of gooeyness is very interesting. Gooeyness is horrible. The Alien is gooey: that is why we do not like it, not because it eats people; tigers, too, eat people, but they are soft, smooth, beautiful, photogenic, while the Alien is ugly, gooey and gloopy.
The question of our rapport with substances in the world, and our various ways of seeing them, needs looking into. The question of the consistency, the texture of an object is of great importance. Much is made of an object’s smoothness, likewise dryness, but perhaps we should now experiment by looking in another direction, i.e. a taste for the distasteful.
What is this taste for the distasteful? It is the question of ‘aesthetic contact’ vs. ‘non aesthetic contact’. Aesthesia is the relationship between substance and perception.”

Thesis – Antithesis – Prothesis
“Let us also consider the artificialisation of the human body and the naturalisation of objects: the reification of subjectivity. In other words, this is,, as MacLuan has always called it, the problem of the prothesis. People are becoming ever stronger thanks to the use of protheses: the cane that extends the hand; the stick used by the blind to touch things… it is the tip of the stick that actually touches things, allowing the blind to ‘feel’; the stick therefore becomes part of his body. Some time ago I jokingly said that we were no longer in the age of thesis – antithesis – synthesis, but that of thesis – antithesis – prothesis. So we have body – man – object (thesis, antithesis and prothesis): artificial man. However, we are forgetting the phenomenon of the reification of the subject, which is the exact opposite of the phenomenon of the anthropomorphisation of the object. We need to look at it in both ways: there is a kind of subjective pathos in the idea that we are losing our whole subjectively, if such a thing has ever existed.”

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