When is a thing an object? Or rather, when does an object become a thing?
Bill Brown, in his seminal essay, "Thing Theory," argues that "We look through objects because they are codes by which our interpretive attention makes them meaningful." Thus objects are imbued with meaning that is relevant to the objects’ owner/s. By contrast, "we begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us." (Critical Inquiry 28, no.1, Autumn , 1-22). Things are dead objects.
Something about this analysis troubles me. This feeling of unease stems from a semantic disagreement between Brown’s use of the terms "object" and "thing" and our everyday deployment of the terms in the English language. When was the last time you told someone that you had remembered to bring your "objects" with you?
"It’s okay, I have my things with me."
"Put it with the other things over there."
"I don’t want to leave my things lying around."
We play with things, use things, buy things, worry about things. We own things. At the point of ownership, the object undergoes a metamorphosis and becomes a thing.
The object is the mass-produced Polaroid camera made by a corporate retailer with a nation-wide chain of stores. The object is boxed and packaged to look like a million of the same, identical objects. It sits on a shelf in a store and we, the customers, are objective to it. It is just another Polaroid camera.
Someone buys a Polaroid camera. It is no longer a camera but their camera, the camera which will travel with them on holiday, catch fleeting moments at parties, remind them of the time they visited such-and-such for Christmas.
"I’ve had this thing for ages, I hope this bit doesn’t come off. It would be such a shame if it broke."
"I wonder why she hasn’t swapped to digital? I guess using Polaroid is just her thing."
The thing is an object imbued with life, meaning and personality. The thing is an individual; the object is one of many. The poet Charles Baudelaire describes how ‘the overriding desire of most children is to get at and see the soul of their toys" (The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, New York: De Capo Press, 1994). This is what we do when we use our things, as their proximity and familiarity to us slowly reveals them.
When their lives are over, our things become objects once more. They are thrown out, burnt, destroyed, ripped up, sold on. Our things become dead objects. In second-hand shops, our things become objects become things again. In museums, things are taken to represent entire cultures or societies. They are stripped of their individuality. They are made anonymous, generalised and objectified in glass cases and displays.
Curators say: "I have a wonderful collection of objects."
But what of stuff? Is stuff going to be the next big thing?
Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) Annual Conference
"Objects--What Matters? Technology, Value and Social Change," 1-4 September 2009, Manchester
CRESC is an ESRC-funded international research center bringing together Manchester University and Open University academics from disciplines as diverse as Accounting and Finance, Business, Census and Survey Statistics, Geography, History, Media Studies, Social Anthropology and Sociology to analyze socio-cultural change. The centre's research is separated into four themes, and this year's conference was put together by Theme 4, 'Cultural Values and Politics,' and focused on objects. (http://www.cresc.ac.uk/research/theme4/index.html)
The academic planning committee, consisting of Penny Harvey (University of Manchester), Hannah Knox (University of Manchester), Elizabeth Silva (Open University), Nick Thoburn (University of Manchester) and Kath Woodward (Open University), put together panels on 'Artefactual Pleasures', 'The Materiality of the Image and Knowledge', 'Objects, Art and Time' among many others, and each panel was based in different disciplines. Travelling between rooms, I was confronted with wildly different approaches to objects, a panel of art and cultural historians might contest whether a machine could be classed as an object, while another comprised of
sociologists and anthropologists might refer to something as diffuse as the BSE crisis as an 'object'. How these different disciplinary approaches complemented and clashed with each other was one of the major challenges
facing both panels and audiences. Keynote speakers included philosopher Graham Harman, sociologist Patricia
Clough, art historian Griselda Pollock, philosopher Annemarie Mol and anthropologist Kathleen Stewart. Pollock's paper on 'Sarah Kofman's Father's Pen: Trauma, Transmission and the Strings of Virtuality between
the Psychoanalytical and the Aesthetic Understanding of the Object as Link not Lost' was particularly moving, analyzing the object's role as focus for memory, a subject explored further in two panels addressing 'Objects
and Memory'. Artists, curators and art historians took part in 'The Object Research Lab' which sought to allow the audience to interact with a set of 'neutral' blob shaped objects brought along by the artists and to respond to a number of questions about their interactions. Curator, Dieter Roelstrate, discussed 'Thing Theory' with artist Yvonne Droge Wendel. Yvonne Droge Wendel's (http://www.yvonnedrogewendel.nl/index.html) work engages with things, be they sticks, pieces of furniture or broken down cars. Roelstrate has recently curated an exhibition on 'The Thing' as part of a larger event 'All that is solid Melts into Air' in Mechelen. ( http://www.muhka.be/toont_beeldende_kunst_detail.php?la=en&id=2807 ).
Both discussed the differences between objects and things and grappled with whether objects can speak or listen, and when and how they die. Peter Buse of Salford University spoke on the fast dying media of polaroids in his paper, 'Polaroid Mosaics: On Photographic Tiles'. He has recently finished working on an AHRC project on 'Polaroid Cultures'. Artist Hilary Jack (http://www.hilaryjack.com/) both exhibited and spoke at the conference. She also works with dead objects. She collects broken umbrellas, discarded and broken jewelry, repairs them and then puts them back where she found them. She recently took part in an exhibition at Manchester's Castleford Gallery entitled 'The Social Lives of objects'
( http://www.castlefieldgallery.co.uk/Archive.asp?eKey=310&eP=2 ).
Another paper of particular interest was anthropologist Nicole Vitellone's on 'Just Another Night in the Shooting Gallery'? The Syringe, Affect and Space' which studied the social life of the syringe through an ethnographic study of heroin users and their relationships with the syringe. These different disciplinary encounters with objects demonstrated how, and why we should, study the object and specifically the object's death.
Abstracts of all the papers can be found at http://www.cresc.ac.uk/events/conference2009/documents/ABSTRACTSCRESCCONFERENCE2009FINAL.doc
--Karolina Kendall-Bush, 14 September 2009