Yet another example of the growing attention to objects at the intersection of design and science and technology studies.
Subject to experimenters’ manipulations, objects can seem to be exposed to human curiosity and imagination; controlled through experimental systems (Rheinberger 1997) and design (Latour 2008). But the purpose in both contexts is often to ‘tickle’ objects, to make matter ‘speak’ (Latour 2004). Experiments can reveal that, far from being mere things ‘out there’, indifferent to human attention until addressed, neatly bounded, predictable and knowable, objects are secretly lively, elusive, recalcitrant, responsive and changeable (Barad 2007).
I’d be curious to know if, and if so how, OOO figured into the workshop. While Latour provides a point of connection between OOO and design and science and technology studies, within those fields, use and users still take center stage. Its not clear to me if, or how, STS and design studies can (or should) divorce themselves entirely from the issues of use and users. Nonetheless, workshops such as this signal a change in perspective towards the object, if not placing it center stage, then at least giving it more of starring role. If any videos or proceedings from the workshop are put online, I’ll be sure to post links to them on this blog.
Charles and Ray Eames are among the most renowned 20th Century designers. Their influence on the field of design in immeasurable, and their furniture is iconic.
In addition to designing furniture, the Eames were also prodigious film makers. For them, these films were not separate from, but very much an integral part of, their design oeuvre. They are perhaps most well known for their film Powers of 10, which begins with a view of a couple picnicking in Chicago, and then zooms outward and then inward by orders of magnitude, presenting us with perspectives ranging from the outermost galaxies to the innermost regions of human cells.
What stands out about their films is their treatment of objects. Indeed, many of the films focus on a single object or a collection of objects. For example “Blacktop: A Story of the Washing of a School Play Yard” (1952) is a short film that is nothing more than the camera following soapy water as it moves across an asphalt surface, encountering various bits of debris along the way. “Tops” (1969) is a 17 minute poetic documentary on the wide variety of tops and their spinning motions.
These films are delightful meditations on objects. To be sure, these meditations are highly structured and mediated by editing, soundtracks, and in some cases narration.
Unfortunately, few of these films are available to view online. (They can, however, be purchased.)
One of the few Eames films available on line is “Lounge Chair Assembly” (1956), shown below.
One of the exciting aspects of the discourses of objects and things is their diversity. Disciplines seems to be reaching out to one another in new ways, learning from each other, through texts that might otherwise go overlooked, due to differences of method or field. The obvious example is Harman’s engagement with Latour. As another example, in a recent post on Larval Subjects, Levi Bryant discusses Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman. And of course there is the work of my colleague Ian Bogost, as he brings together OOO and Digital Media Studies.
The work of Bill Brown is important to include in this growing corpus on objects and things. In 2001 Brown edited an issue of Critical Inquiry on the topic of “Things.” Brown also edited a book entitled Things, which includes essays from Critical Inquiry as well as other essays, bringing together scholars from across the humanities and social sciences.
The open paragraph of Brown’s essay for Critical Inquiry is provocative.
Is there something perverse, if not archly insistent, about complicating
things with theory? Do we really need anything like thing theory the way
we need narrative theory or cultural theory, queer theory or discourse
theory? Why not let things alone? Let them rest somewhere else-in the
balmy elsewhere beyond theory. From there, they might offer us dry
ground above those swirling accounts of the subject, some place of origin
unmediated by the sign, some stable alternative to the instabilities and
uncertainties, the ambiguities and anxieties, forever fetishized by theory.
Something warm, then, that relieves us from the chill of dogged ideation,
something concrete that relieves us from unnecessary abstraction.
Later in the essay Brown states,
If thing theory sounds like an oxymoron, then, it may not be because
things reside in some balmy elsewhere beyond theory but because they
lie both at hand and somewhere outside the theoretical field, beyond a
certain limit, 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. If this is why things appear in the name of relief from ideas
(what’s encountered as opposed to what’s thought), it is also why the
Thing becomes the most compelling name for that enigma that can only
be encircled and which the object (by its presence) necessarily negate.
Something about characterizing things as the “illegible remainder or as the entifiable
that is unspecifiable” troubles me. Things are legible – the challenge is how to read them. Or maybe the challenge is not how to “read” them, but how to engage them in some other way, beyond the notions of reading that terms such as “illegible” suggest.
Regardless, Brown’s work is thought-provoking, and too, enjoyable to read.
Now, of course the argument can, and should, be made that there are important distinctions between objects and things (more on that in a later post). Brown himself points to this when he states “…Thing becomes the most compelling name for that enigma that can only be encircled and which the object (by its presence) necessarily negate.” So, the intention here is not to conflate object and things, but rather simply to claim they belong together. They certainly swirl together in Latour.
And Brown’s “Thing Theory” provides us one more way to consider this world of objects and things.
Cosmic Thing, 2002
Volkswagen Beetle 1983,
stainless steel wire, acrylic
Damián Ortega’s piece Cosmic Thing is particularly interesting object: it is work of art made from a canonical design artifact. Of course, there are innumerable such works of art. Beginning with Dada and continuing through the 20th Century design objects have repeatedly, and relentlessly, been transformed into works of art. Often this transformation from product to sculpture occurs by recontextualization — by placing the object in a gallery or museum. Jeff Koons’ sculptures are perhaps the most emblematic of this tactic (for example see New Hoover Convertibles, New Shelton Wet/Drys 5-Gallon, Double Decker).
But Cosmic Thing is a fundamentally different kind of sculpture than those of Koons. It does a different kind of work: it reveals the object-ness of its subject. In Cosmic Thing, the classic VW Bug is presented to us not in its iconic form, but as an exploded view of its parts, each of which becomes an object in its own right for our consideration.
In a poetic way, it calls to mind Harman‘s phrase ““…the object is torn asunder from itself in two directions.”
More on Ortega’s work can be found here:
Objects and things have fascinated me for quite some time now. Given my background in design and design studies, this is perhaps not surprising: objects and things are central to both the practice and scholarship of design.
In contemporary design practice and design studies however, objects and things are often eclipsed by discussions of “users.” Again, this is perhaps not surprising as design tends to be concerned with objects and things in use. And yet, I wonder if in our relentless pursuit of understanding use and users, we are missing something important when it comes to objects and things. Too often, it seems, objects and things are considered as either merely symbolic entities or as means for an ends.
This blog is an endeavor to reconsider objects and things in design, and too, in art. I might even say it’s an endeavor to “recover” objects and things in design and art — to reassert their importance as entities of study in and of themselves.
Over the past year, I have followed the lively discussions of objects and things unfolding online. I have also had the opportunity to engage in many a discussion about objects and things with my colleague Ian Bogost, who encouraged me to “join the conversation.” And so, with this post, it begins…