The Chronicle Review

The Object as Subject

Stuart Bradford for The Chronicle Review

April 24, 2015

Did you know that since 1985 errant golf balls have killed eight people? "Sometimes death was sudden; sometimes it came after several days." Most deaths come from strikes on the head, usually the temporal area of the skull. "In at least one case the ball caromed off a tree before striking the victim." Of course, few errant golf balls hit, much less kill, anyone. In fact, some 300 million golf balls go astray each year in the United States. No one knows the ecological consequences.

If this information interests you, you’re in luck. It comes from the recently published Golf Ball by Harry Brown, an associate professor of English at DePauw University. The book is part of a new series from Bloomsbury Academic called Object Lessons that promises to harness "recent movements in material culture studies and critical theory" to illuminate "everyday objects" and their significance. So far three other volumes have appeared, Driver’s License, Drone, and Remote Control. Many more are in the offing with titles such as Blanket and Phone Booth. The editors of the series, Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg, hold positions in media studies and English respectively. As part of his academic activities, Bogost designs videos games. Schaberg — somewhat worryingly — has been identified as an expert on airport cultures and has co-edited a book titled Deconstructing Brad Pitt (Bloomsbury, 2014).

The books in this series are small-formatted volumes, well designed and well packaged, under 150 pages; they fit easily into the palm. They not only discuss everyday objects but they are handsome objects in their own right, which bespeaks their place in the current zeitgeist. They look like things one might want to collect and showcase. In their subject matter and their presentation they tap a fascination with objects, which is hardly new, but seems to be intensifying. Why?

Perhaps accelerating income inequalities have produced an increasingly affluent class with the means and inclination to acquire designer items. Hip stores pop up in gentrified quarters that sell organic biscuits for dogs, artisanal olive oil, or oxygenated water. Once upon a time a bicycle shop was a bicycle shop; half sales and half service, it served those who wanted and liked bicycles. Now the bicycle boutique has emerged. In central Paris I recently stumbled across a gleaming store with sparkling objects in the window. It looked like a jewelry store, but it was a bicycle shop with none of the grit associated with old tires and oily chains. Instead the objects cried out to be collected or fondled. They consisted of gorgeous multicolored bicycles, dazzling tools, and opulent leather accouterments — saddles, bags, gloves — all for eye-popping prices. Welcome to bicycles as objects of obsession.

Nor is this just a fact of city life. On the Internet, people discuss espresso machines or juicers with inexhaustible energy. We have entered the era of the fetish of everything.

It doesn’t take a leap to see this also as a byproduct of the dimming of political hopes. Fundamental social change is not on the horizon. The best most of us can hope for is to slow a worsening crisis — global warming, Islamic terrorism, racism, an underclass. To slow a continuing crisis is surely worthwhile, but hardly seizes the soul. Under these circumstances even socially minded members of the well-heeled class become passionate consumers prizing fine objects.

Not only new consumerism feeds object study of the professorial caste. Few can pretend that the remote control or shower curtain will become something to venerate, although other items in the "new objects" series — such as doorknobs — might. (If you think this is an exaggeration check out the doorknobs and their descriptions at Rejuvenation Hardware, an outfit that itself evidences the new consumerism: "Delicately incised Eastlake-patterned hardware like our Eastlake Door Knob combines asymmetric geometric patterns with Japanese-inspired motifs like bamboo and sunbursts — typical high-style design of its heyday — the 1880s.")

By necessity single objects loom large in the world of archaeologists and art historians; and stray scholars have always focused on single commodities. The botanist Redcliffe N. Salaman wrote a study of the potato in 1949, the writer John McPhee the orange 20 years later. Lately this trickle has become a torrent of studies of single objects — to stick just to the C’s — such as coffee, cotton, and cod.

The appeal of these studies is evident. Theory-fatigue has struck the professorial class, especially English-department inhabitants. Do we need another "reading" of Pride and Prejudice? Better to take up Jane Austen’s wooden desk. The professors have noticed theory burnout, shut down tired outlets, and launched new studies of sleek objects. Already in 2001 Critical Inquiry put out a special "Things" issue. In a programmatic introduction titled "Thing Theory," the University of Chicago English professor Bill Brown reassured nervous colleagues, who feared the new turn might put them out of business. "Taking the side of things hardly puts a stop to that thing called theory," he announced.

For sociologists of academic life, Brown’s essay is worth studying as a classic effort to demarcate, control, and populate a new terrain. From its opening epigraph ("Le sujet nait de l’objet") by a French philosopher, the frequently opaque Michel Serres, to its telephone directory of anointed thinkers and its simulated profundity, the essay encapsulates academic empire building in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Stuart Bradford for The Chronicle Review

Of course, Walter Benjamin figures heavily in Brown’s account, along with everyone else: Lacan, Derrida, Lukacs, Latour, Heidegger, and numerous contemporary worthies. Each adds an insight to the ecumenical "thing theory." Thick English department prose glues the whole enterprise together. "If thing theory sounds like an oxymoron," Brown states, it may be because things lie "as a recognizable yet illegible remainder or as the entifiable that is unspecifiable. Things lie beyond the grid of intelligibility the way mere things lie outside the grid of museal exhibition, outside the order of objects. ... Thing becomes the most compelling name for that enigma that can only be encircled and which the object (by its presence) necessarily negates."

The special issue includes essays on Soviet flapper dress, Italian coffeepots, and the film The Maltese Falcon. Little connects these subjects, but what matter? They are all things. This too makes object study appealing as an academic field. The domain is endless. Christopher Schaberg, one of the editors of the Object Lessons series, notes the "infinite scope" of the series with potential volumes on dust and hoods. Why stop there? Why not nail clippers and refrigerator magnets?

The tendencies here reflect new academic fashions that seem to move in two opposite directions — fields get larger and subject matter smaller. We have new fields of global studies or material culture — allied to object theory — which seem to cover everything; but they frequently serve as licenses to study very small things. The connections, in any case, between larger fields and microstudies are hardly addressed. A recent issue of the Journal of Material Culture, for instance, has an article on energy shortages in an African city ("Infrastructure turned suprastructure: Unpredictable materialities and visions of a Nigerian nation") and the incompatible standards of electrical plugs in Western Europe ("Plugging in: Power sockets, standards and the valencies of national habitus").

There is nothing wrong with this — except that after all the theoretical panting we are left gawking at unrelated items in the display case of history. For all the references to Lukacs, object study bespeaks reification, turning social relations into things. Perhaps an awkward French translation for reification, "chosification" — "thingification" in English — captures something of Lukacs’ concept. Historical material subject to potential change gets transmuted into things subject to passive viewing.

The process may be more obvious in popular versions of object appreciation such as A History of the World in 100 Objects, a book published to great acclaim in 2010. Written by Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, the 700-page volume originated in a BBC program that drew on the museum’s collection. As MacGregor explained, each week his BBC and museum colleagues spun the globe and looked at "five snapshots of the world through objects at that particular date." The selected objects had to cover the whole globe "as far as possible equally." The result is encyclopedic, spanning a million years and the entire world. The entries run from a Tanzanian hand axe, 1.2 million years old, to a VISA credit card, six years old. With 98 other objects, such as a Japanese bronze mirror and a North American buckskin map, the volume offers much to contemplate. It is a gift book, feeding off the venerable desire to consider objects for amusement and edification. No problem there.

At least in pretension, the new academic interest in objects stands far apart from such enterprises. What are the precursors of the recent professorial surge? A full history could pursue myriad avenues, but one in particular is worth recalling. Germany of the 1920s saw the announcement of a "new objectivity" that first designated painters breaking with Expressionism. The term derived from a 1925 art exhibit in Mannheim; its curator wrote that the new objectivity ("Neue Sachlichkeit") referred to a new spirit, "a healthy disillusionment" with idealism. He called it a "new realism bearing a socialist flavor." The polemical materialism captured in the "new objectivity" surfaced in much oppositional Weimar culture, including in Brecht’s famous line from The Threepenny Opera, "Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral." First food, then morals.

Little trace of this subversive materialism can be found in "object lessons" or "thing theory."

Bill Brown, in fact, almost reverses the materialistic accent — to the extent he can be followed. "If modernism, when struggling to integrate the animate and the inanimate, human and things, always knew that we have never been modern, this hardly means that you should accept such knowledge as a fait accompli." If this is murky — how did modernism know and when did it know it? — Brown reaches to Adorno to clarify because the latter understood "the alterity of things as an essentially ethical fact." Really? Brown explains, "Most simply put, his point is that accepting the otherness of things is the condition for accepting otherness as such." Still stumped? The University of Chicago Karla Scherer Distinguished Service Professor in American Culture enlists Lacan. "It would be possible to relate this claim to the way that, for Lacan, the Thing proves to be the center around which the drive achieves its ethical force." Polemical materialism vaporizes into an ethical fog.

The volumes that have so far appeared in the Object Lessons series wear theory lightly. Golf Ball cites Heidegger in the introduction, and we never hear of him again. The worst offender is Adam Rothstein’s Drone, which is obsessed with "narratives." "The drone is a collection of different narratives." In fact, Rothstein, a freelance writer, enumerates nine: definitional, invention, historical, contemporary, speculative, intentional, social, aesthetic, and expressive. He courageously tells us that "this book will not commit to one narrative over the others, but seeks to engage with all of them." Unfortunately, his courage does not flag.

He provides some solid information — basically that the drone remains a tool of the military, which developed it — but his love of narrative cripples his book. Anytime the topic heats up he pulls out the wet rag of narrative jargon. He reviews some of the protest against drone surveillance and killings, but is content to conclude that various groups have "different ways" of approaching "the drone narrative." He wraps up his discussion of public protest with these insightful sentences. "The reality of the drone is that it is quickly becoming a social narrative, and that the social conflict will be reflected in how the technology is used and conceptualized. Any objective determination of future intentions for the drone will always be channeled through this social discourse, and so it must be factored into our drone narrative."

The other volumes are serviceable, but lack passion and — as short as they are — seem padded. A History of the World in 100 Objects gives three to five pages to each object. In Object Lessons the authors have over 100. By Page 12 of Driver’s License, Meredith Castile, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford, is interviewing her husband about creating a fake driver’s license with his high-school pals:

"What was the identity you guys chose?"

"Jeff Mase (pronounced ‘Mace’) aged 22. We thought that name was a hilarious average-white-guy name."

"How many times did you use the ID?"

"Oh, all the time. Four times a week. Maybe five. All through high school. And we also used it to rent hotel rooms for parties — you had to be over 18 to rent a hotel room. One time the police nearly caught us."

"So ‘Jeff Mase’ got away?"

A spoiler alert would be necessary to quote more of this interview.

Reproductions of TV advertisements enliven Caetlin Benson-Allott’s volume, which half-heartedly offers a feminist interpretation of TV remote controls. Such devices tell us about "U.S. gender roles and family dynamics" in the 20th century, writes Benson-Allott, an associate professor of English at Georgetown. Moreover, like other cultural artifacts, remote controls are not "passive" but "produce profound changes in their environments." While the radio remotes appealed to women, Benson-Allott tells us, advertising for the first TV remotes of the 1950s focused on men and their threatened masculinity. The remotes "facilitated new forms of patriarchal control." Presumably men could control their TVs, if nothing else in life.

Perhaps, but even the print advertising Benson-Allott highlights show women using remotes; and the notion such devices profoundly alter the environment can hardly be maintained. By the end of her book Benson-Allott herself qualifies these points away. Today, remotes are "irritants rather than historical agents." Meanwhile she often circles around, repeating herself. "By 1988, 63 percent of U.S. households had at least one remote control; as of 1992 that number surged to 84 percent." If these facts are not sufficiently uninteresting, two pages later we read, "In 1981, remotes were in just 16 percent of U.S. homes. They would be in 51 percent by 1987, and by 1989 they would reach over 72 percent penetration."

The study of objects has an honorable past and a promising future. But the Bloomsbury series — so far — has not helped the cause. Indeed, instead of spending $12 on one of these smartly packaged but less smartly written volumes, a frugal reader can purchase for $25 a classic five times the size and 10 times their intellectual weight. Sigfried Giedion’s 1948 Mechanization Takes Command, which is still in print, goes unmentioned in these books. (The 2013 University of Minnesota Press edition returns to the large size of the first printing. Those who know the book only from the squeezed format put out by Norton in the late 1960s must take a look at the new edition.) Giedion, a Swiss architectural historian trained as an engineer, was influenced by the "new objectivity," and undertook to study what he called "humble things, things not usually granted earnest consideration." With a subtitle, "A Contribution to Anonymous History," in almost 800 pages Giedion examines everything from the Yale cylinder lock to the modern chair, shower, vacuum cleaner, and refrigerator.

What distinguishes Giedion’s book is not simply the illustrations or the sure-footedness with which he discusses the wire mattress or bathtub, but how he enmeshes the details in larger questions of leisure, work, feminism, health, and — the overriding theme — mechanization. For instance, one section considers and ponders the effect on health of mechanized bread production, especially the onset of soft bread and soft food generally. Even fruit, he remarks, is now typically consumed as juice or diced in fruit cups. He follows with "Mechanization and Death: Meat," a chapter in which he surveys in brilliant and horrifying detail animal slaughter, discussing hammers, electric saws, and spine-cleaving machines. He wonders if the drawings in the U.S. Patent Office on mechanized killing machines are more impressive than paintings of death by 19th-century artists such as Alfred Rethel. He concludes this chapter asking us to turn away from the "idolatry of production" in the raising and killing of animals that has led to the degradation of nature.

Giedion is hardly perfect, but he wrote with clarity, vision, and passion. If "thing theory" or "object lessons" is to be more than a gray academic empire, it could do worse than to recapture his ethos and ardor.

Russell Jacoby is a professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles.