Author Archive

Cine-Things: 1924

June 29, 2009

 

I.

One of the recurring fascinations within early film theory was cinema’s unique ability to animate and enliven the normally lifeless, material objects of our everyday world, to reveal their ‘personalities’ and ‘faces,’ even to grant them a kind of mute ‘voice.’ In doing so, film was understood to transform the relationship between people and inanimate objects: to place a whole array of non-human things into different and far less marginalized positions with respect to speaking human subjects. This new status of things on the cinema screen was not only recognized by early theorists of film but became an important productive principle for various film-makers of the interwar avant-garde period and beyond––film-makers who made explicit their attempts to de-familiarize our habituated relationships with material objects and commodities, to grant them a new mysterious life through the technology of cinema, and ultimately to point towards a new visual relationship between humans and their non-human companions. The aesthetics of what I am calling the ‘cine-thing’ is admittedly rather simplistic, but it is powerful nonetheless. It rests on some of film’s most basic capabilities: to make things move, to enlarge them, to isolate things from their familiar contexts, and to encourage us to see them anew.

In his 1924 study, The Visible Human, or the Culture of Film, Hungarian film theorist Béla Balázs describes this new relationship between people and things that emerged within the era of silent cinema:

In the world of the speaking human, silent things are far more lifeless and insignificant than the human. They acquire life only of a second and third degree, and this only in those rare moments of especially clairvoyant sensitivity on the part of the people who consider them. […] This difference of value disappears in film. There, things are not so neglected and degraded. In the shared silence, they become nearly homogenous with man and thereby gain in vitality and significance. Because they do not speak less than people, they therefore say just as much. This is the riddle of that particular film atmosphere, which lies beyond any literary possibility.1

In addition to this nearly equivalent living presence of people and things on the cinema screen, Balázs’s film theory understands the birth of cinema to mark the return of a long submerged symbolic language. This visual language is comprised of facial expressions, gestures, and the general outward appearances of moving forms, which allow the subject’s inner soul to ‘speak’ through its outer physiognomy and thus express inner states without the use of verbal language.2 Particularly interesting is how Balázs radically expands this notion of physiognomy to include not only humans but things as well, “for [in film,] all things make a physiognomic impression on us, whether we are conscious of it or not.”3 By stripping familiar objects of their functional properties and presenting them in pure visual form on the projection screen, cinema is capable of revealing the “living physiognomy that all things have.”4 And if things obtain lives and expressive faces on the cinema screen, then the human subjects depicted are likewise made more thing-like.

A number of other examples from early film theory help to give a sense of the widespread fascination with the living, animated thing of cinema. In a 1924 essay titled “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie,” French film theorist and filmmaker Jean Epstein describes how cinema,

attributes […] a semblance of life to the objects it defines. […] Through the cinema, a revolver in a drawer, a broken bottle on the ground, an eye isolated by an iris, are elevated to the status of characters in the drama. Being dramatic, they seem alive, as though involved in the evolution of an emotion. […] To things and beings in their most frigid semblance, the cinema thus grants the greatest gift unto death: life. And it confers this life in its highest guise: personality.5

Epstein’s discussion of “personality” here has quite a bit in common with Balázs’s understanding of the “living physiognomy that all things have.” One could also point to earlier theoretical articulations like those of American writer Vachel Lindsay, who writes in 1915 that: the “non-human object […] is apt to be the hero in most any sort of photoplay while the producer remains utterly unconscious of the fact. Why not face this idiosyncrasy of the camera and make the non-human object the hero indeed?”6 Another excellent example comes from a 1916 manifesto for the largely unrealized project of Futurist Cinema. F.T. Marinetti, along with other prominent Italian Futurists, declares that, “[Our films will be:] Filmed Dramas of Objects: (Objects animated, humanized, baffled, dressed up, impassioned, civilized, dancing––objects removed from their normal surroundings and put into an abnormal state that, by contrast, throws into relief their amazing construction and nonhuman life.)”7

A number of key features of the cine-thing begin to emerge from these related articulations. (1) Cinema is understood to grant an expressive and animated life to the normally inanimate thing. (2) These newly enlivened things stand to challenge the usually dominant position of humans with respect to the world of things; they become themselves “nearly homogenous with man,” “characters in the drama,” or “the hero in most any sort of photoplay.” (3) Their personalities or physiognomies suggest an unruliness and irreverence with respect to the audience and filmmaker alike. And (4) there is a sense that cinema’s ability to grant life to the thing brings with it a new visual knowledge––that by isolating objects and removing them from their familiar contexts, film allows the viewer experience the usually hidden “construction and nonhuman life” of things.   

 

II.

To provide some actual living images8 to go along with this discussion, I would like to turn to the short avant-garde film Ballet mécanique (1924) by French painter Fernand Léger and American cameraman Dudley Murphy. Like Balázs and Epstein, Léger privileges in particular the cinematic technique of the close-up shot as that which most clearly grants the cine-thing its strange life––for the close-up has ability to isolate and defamiliarize the thing, reveal its particularity through visual detail, and endow it with its own animated personality. In Léger’s retrospective notes on the film, he explains: “I used the close-up, which is the only cinematographic invention. Fragments of objects were also useful; by isolating a thing you give it a personality.”9 Here we can detect the possibly direct influence of Epstein on Léger’s understanding of the cinematic medium.

 

Ballet mécanique (1924)  part 1 

Ballet mécanique (1924) part 2

 

What do we want to say about the personality of things in Léger and Murphy’s experimental film? First, we can clearly see how Ballet mécanique radicalizes Balázs’s understanding of silent film: the lives of humans and things are not simply made nearly homogeneous; instead the flurry of fragmented objects and abstract shapes nearly wipe out the human, or at least reduce it to a thing among things. A woman’s head––that of Man Ray’s lover, Kiki de Montparnasse––is reduced to a rotating plastic object or fragmented face with mechanical movements. At the same time, the film integrates through rapid rhythmic editing the moving images of various mass manufactured commodities and machines, which are just as lively as the human figures they are juxtaposed with. With regards to the animated living things of the film, we might convincingly relate them to the modern culture of the spectacle and commodity fetishism and understand the film to revel in the strange, animated life of Marx’s commodity form.10 We could understand the film––as Bill Brown suggests in his interpretation of Léger’s writing––as operating according to an “aesthetics of the commodity.”11

Towards the end of the film, a playful intertitle appears that declares in French, “we have stolen a 5 million dollar necklace.” These words are quickly followed by a series of pulsating zeros to accentuate the necklace’s exchange value. One of the digits then materializes into a concrete object, a horse harness, which no doubt works as a critical, visual pun. But it also presents a mysteriously animated commodity that plays with its status as abstract exchange value, enjoying the same mysterious life described by Marx’s analysis of the commodity form. Here we might point to a structural parallel between the commodity fetish and the cinematic image. The cine-thing as well as the commodity as abstract exchange value are both severed from any possible use-value. And cinema, like Marx’s commodity fetish, hides the means of production, thus granting the image the animated, magical quality that it has for the viewer. The viewer cannot experience the technical means of how the image is produced (out of separate stills), only the illusion of a continuously moving, living object.12

At the same time however, cinema is not just a way in which inanimate things gain a strange new life, but an instrument for producing knowledge about these objects as well. Cinema may give things a face or personality, but following Balázs, this also includes a physiognomy through which we are supposedly able to understand the inner nature of the thing. This aspect of early film theory, that cinema is an instrument for producing knowledge about visual realities inaccessible to the human eye, is widespread and includes not only Balázs and Epstein, but the more familiar work of Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin. The Soviet avant-garde film-maker, Dziga Vertov, describes the revelatory potential of cinema this way: “A shot of a banker will only be true if we can tear the mask from him, if behind the mask we can see the thief.”13 Vertov expresses here a direct, iconoclastic application of the physiognomies of film: to destroy the illusion of outer appearances and reveal an inner “truth,” however it is understood. It is through the new technology of film and innovative editing practices that Vertov attempts to probe beneath the surface of appearances and realize a revolutionary, Marxist critique of society through film. His cine-things are thus animated to reveal their imbedded social relations, whether through the animation of a wealthy capitalist’s dining table in Vertov’s 1924 Soviet Toys commercial or reverse-projections to trace the production of meat back to the living cow in his Kinoglaz film of the same year.

 

 Soviet Toys (1924)

 Kinoglaz (1924)


It is within this same context that Bill Brown refers to the utopian project of the Soviet Constructivists of the 1920s, quoting Alexsandr Rodchenko, that “our things in our hands must be equals, comrades,” and that revolutionary art, including film, must help to overcome “the rupture between Things and people,” which characterizes bourgeois society.14

 

III.

In contrast to the iconoclastic gesture underlying Vertov’s cinematic work, I want to make a far less radical and utopian claim about cinema and the relationship between people and things that it facilitates. There may be a revelatory potential in the living things of the screen, but the things themselves are hardly transparent as to what they reveal. More important is the subtle and ambiguous relationship that cinema establishes between the viewer and the animated thing, the ability to see what eludes one’s everyday visual experiences and the uneasy experience of seeing the familiar and lifeless object magically come to life. Béla Balázs sums up this relationship quite well, writing:

The cinematograph shows you what your hand does––which you neither consider nor notice––while it caresses and hits. […] It shows you the intimate face of all your living gestures, in which your soul appears, but which you do not recognize. The magnifying glass [Lupe] of the cinematic apparatus will show you your shadow on the wall, which you live with without noticing. It will show you the adventure and fate of the cigar in your unsuspecting hand and the secret––but unnoticed––life of all things, which are your companions and together make up life.15

For Balázs, cinema activates a kind of animistic relationship with the visual world that lies otherwise dormant in our everyday lives. The simple fact of seeing the moving and living pictures (lebende Bilder) of cinema is already enough to access this new experience of the visual world. What may seem foreign to our experience of film today was in fact the source of its original attraction and fascination around 1900. Between 1895 and 1906––before D.W. Griffith and the beginnings of narrative cinema––the short films of Edison, the Lumière Brothers, and others presented their viewers with various kinds of exciting spectacles, rather than the immersive narratives of later cinema. As Tom Gunning explains, these spectacles could be of documentary interest in themselves, or could be created through exciting camera and editing techniques like close-ups, slow motion, reverse projections, and multiple exposures.16 (The arrival of a train, 30 seconds of a boxing match, a close-up of a kiss, etc.) The appeal of what Gunning calls the “cinema of attractions” was in cinema’s simple power of “making images seen.”17 

The ambivalent relationship to the lebende Bilder of film can be seen quite clearly in cinema’s ur-myth: that during the first screening of the Lumière Brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat in 1895 the audience actually jumped up from their seats, waved their canes at the image of the approaching train, and ran to the back of the theater. While there is no historical evidence to support this reaction, it makes for a perfect example of the type of “double consciousness” described by W.J.T Mitchell in What Do Pictures Want?: the feeling that pictures are in fact alive and magically powerful, and at the same time knowing that this feeling is only illusory. The strategy that the early-nineteenth-century moviegoer develops to deal with this double consciousness is the same that Mitchell describes: to attribute the belief in living images to the naïve country bumpkin, the child, or the primitive.18 And surely enough, there are plenty of early films that dramatize this encounter––the comical folly of taking living pictures to be real living things.

If we want to take the idea of living pictures seriously, we might, like Mitchell, ask what it is that they want. And we could specifically ask what it is that the cine-things of Léger’s Ballet mécanique want––things that are caught up in a multiplicity of moving forms, abstract exchange values, and modern cultures of spectacle and commercial display. Compared with the unmasked commodities of Vertov’s films, Léger’s objects seem intent on their irreverence towards their human counterparts, both resisting the demystifying efforts of critique and mimicking the lively motions of the human body and face. Not only do the things of Ballet mécanique ‘say’ as much as the humans in the film––who are made even more thing-like through their fragmentation and mechanical motion––but they seem to silence the viewers themselves, who (at least this viewer) find it hard to speak on the meaning of the things in the film. These things would rather mock the attempts of an iconoclastic critique of the commodity such as Vertov’s. At the same time that our gaze as spectators is staged by the close-up of the eyes in the film, these same eyes are also staring right back at us with a mocking challenge. Apparently the face of things wants to laugh in our faces.

 

Ballet mécanique

(All film stills are from Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy, Ballet mécanique. 1924.)

 

Notes

1 Béla Balázs, Der sichtbare Mensch oder die Kultur des Films (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2001), pp. 31–32. All translations from this text are mine.

2 For a discussion of physiognomy and the revelatory function of early film, see Tom Gunning, “In Your Face: Physiognomy, Photography, and the Gnostic Mission of Early Film,” Modernism/modernity 4, no. 1 (1997), pp. 1–29.

3 Balázs, p. 70.

4 Ibid., p. 59.

5 Jean Epstein, “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie,” in French Film Theory and Criticism, Vol. I: 1907–1929, ed. Richard Abel (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988), pp. 316–317.

6 Vachel Lindsay, The Art of the Moving Picture [1915] (New York: MacMillan, 1916), p. 35.

7 F. T. Marinetti, et al., “The Futurist Cinema” [1916], in Futurist Manifestos, ed. Umbro Apollonio (New York: Viking Press, 1973), p. 218.

8 Especially during the early history of film in Germany, the moving pictures of the cinema screen were often referred to as “lebende Bilder,” literally “living pictures” or “living images.”

9 Fernand Léger, “Ballet Mécanique,” in Functions of Painting, ed. Edward F. Fry (New York: Viking Press, 1973), p. 50. My emphasis.

10 See Marx’s analysis of “commodity fetishism” in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol 1., trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage, 1977), pp. 163ff.

11 See Bill Brown, A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), pp. 8–13, here p. 13.

12 See Chapter 5, “The Secret Life of the Object,” in Rachel O. Moore, Savage Theory: Cinema as Modern Magic (Durham & London: Duke UP, 2000), pp. 73–83

13 Quoted in Gunning, “In Your Face,” p. 1.

14 See Brown, p. 187, and note 33 on p. 192.

15 Balázs, p. 49.

16 Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser (London: BFI, 1990), p. 58.

17 Ibid., p. 56.

18 See W.J.T Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), pp. 7–8.

Turning Tables

June 22, 2009

 

It has often been the case that we fail to notice the natural phenomena lying closest to us, that we disbelieve those nearby observers who are attentive to such things and pass them by with only a smile.

             –– Justinus Kerner, The Somnambulant Tables (1853) 1

 

 A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies human needs, or that it first takes on these properties as the product of human labour. It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.

             –– Karl Marx, Capital (1867)2


 Illustration of a table-turning séance from Félix Roubaud’s 1853 text, Les Danse des Tables.

Illustration of a table-turning séance from Félix Roubaud’s 1853 text, Les Danse des Tables.

 

 I.

In 1853, fourteen years before Karl Marx would publish his first volume of Capital, the German Romantic poet and medical doctor Justinus Kerner completed a book-length study of the history, theory, and practice of table-turning: The Somnambulant Tables: On the History and Explanation of this Phenomenon. In the same year, a German newspaper described as “epidemic” the popular interest in spiritualist table-turning that had been spreading throughout Germany since the late 1840s.3 By 1867, when Capital was first published, the table-turning craze had largely subsided in Europe, but Marx’s brief allusion to the animated, dancing tables of the 1850s would have been no doubt familiar to the majority of his contemporary readers. Marx’s specific formulation––that the mysterious inner life of the commodity is “far more wonderful” than even the dancing tables of the spiritualist séance––is part of a larger rhetorical strategy to disclose the magical, mystical, and ghostly qualities of even the most basic of our modern manufactured commodities.

 

Marx’s more general analogy with fetishism, as W.J.T. Mitchell explains, functions as, “a violent yoking of the most primitive, exotic, irrational, degraded objects of human value with the most modern, ordinary, rational, and civilized.”4 The very notion that there is a Fetischcharakter to the commodity form stands to accuse a supposedly modern, civilized, and rational nineteenth-century society of a secretly pre-modern or primitive core: a fetishistic relationship with the most basic of its material objects––the commodity. This modern relationship with material things––after being derisively linked to the “misty realm of religion”5 and the Enlightenment discourse on fetishism––receives the full ire of Marx’s iconoclastic critique, which claims: (1) to first de-familiarize the commodity form, to expose “ the whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour”6; and (2) to finally dispel this false relationship with things, to enlighten the “mysterious character of the commodity form”7, and to ultimately correct it through revolution and transformation of the mode of production. Marx’s reference to the European table-turning craze of the 1850s intends to evoke a more recent and familiar folly in the mind’s of his readers, and to stress that our relationships with commodities are now even more dubious than the belief in the dancing, turning, and rapping tables of recent memory. For Marx’s rhetoric to remain consistent, the fetish-character of the commodity must be “more wonderful” than the turning tables of the 1850s séances. (Marx’s table not only dances, but “stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas.”) For Marx to acknowledge that an enthusiastic and public belief in animated, living things was already well at home in the mid-nineteenth-century would be to dull the edges of his iconoclastic critique. Better to quickly close the doors on the darkened parlors of Europe, where only a decade earlier a strange and sentient life seemed to awaken in the dead wooden matter of the séance table.

 

Despite his best efforts, Marx’s table remains a tricky and unwieldy thing, far more stubborn and resistant to critique than he would prefer to admit. I would argue further that Marx’s theory of the commodity fetish (as exemplified by his description of the table cited above) in fact exhibits many striking parallels with the slightly earlier theories and practices of table-turning of the 1850s, thus linking Marx’s critical notion not only to the older Enlightenment discourse on fetishism but to more contemporaneous, scientific investigations into spiritualist phenomena. Citing the specific example of commodity fetishism, Bruno Latour reminds us that, “even as textual entities, objects overflow their makers, intermediaries become mediators. […] the textual fetish does much more in the text of Marx than what Marx himself reduces the fetish to do.”8 The multi-valency of Capital’s evocative and figurative language accounts for both the strength and unintended consequences of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism. Most important of these consequences is a common occurrence in such iconoclastic critiques: that the accusation of “fetishism” persistently turns against the accuser. Even as a textual entity, Marx’s fetish-concept is, in Peter Pels words, “matter that strikes back.”9

 

In the case of Marx’s table, the concept of commodity fetishism is granted a particularly concrete and resilient presence, which also embodies a number of key contradictions in Marx’s theory. Rather than simply accepting Marx’s critical analogy between modern commodity relations and so-called ‘primitive’ fetishisms, I would like to suggest that Marx’s theory of the commodity fetish in fact shares many similarities with more contemporaneous, scientific theories of animated and ‘talking’ matter as explored through the practice of table-turning. Following W.J.T. Mitchell’s reading of Marx in Iconology, I would like to re-explore commodity fetishism as a “concrete concept” (i.e. a concept traceable back to a concrete and historically-situated situation or image)10, but make the commodity fetish concreter still: by locating Marx’s table in roughly the same historical moment that gave rise to the turning tables of the séance and investigating their surprisingly similar conceptualizations of how the most familiar and domesticated of objects could take on such a ghostly and mysterious life. I hope to draw out some of the structural parallels between the practice and theories of table-turning and Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism––finding in both, the table as a strange and paradoxical thing: at once material and immaterial, real and illusionary, a physical mediator between persons and a ghostly embodiment of their collective energies.

 

 II.

In his fairly recent book, A Sense of Things (2003), Bill Brown singles out the same ‘table-passage’ in Capital to elaborate what he considers the central contradiction of Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism: “The unruly table seems all the more unruly because of its unwillingness to abandon its physicality. Perhaps the table alone exemplifies the contradictory doubleness of commodities as such, their materiality and immateriality both, their status as “sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible”.” 11 (This contradiction is expressed even more directly in the original German, where commodities are described as “sinnlich übersinnliche” [“sensory supra-sensory”] things.12) What Brown correctly identifies here is the stubborn physicality and materiality of Marx’s fetish-concept. While Marx’s theory of the commodity marks a clear binary––between the sensuous, material quality of the table as use-value and its abstract, ethereal side as exchange-value––his articulation of commodity fetishism “amounts to the eradication of this doubleness.”13 Whereas the Fetischcharakter of the commodity is clearly linked to the commodity as exchange-value––as a product of abstract labor for exchange, and completely detached from its use or physical form––Marx’s table expresses this ghostly, animated side of the commodity-form in strongly material terms: as developing whims or strange ideas [Grillen] out of its wooden brain [Holzkopf] and acrobatically flipping over onto its head in relation to all other commodities.14 As Brown explains: “This is Marx’s way of representing a metaphysical condition as a physical event.”15

 

This striking image of the acrobatic and sentient table brings into focus the same fraught sense of materiality that Marx’s commodity fetish shares with the turning tables of the spiritualist séance––yet another physical event with a mysterious metaphysical nature. From the numerous observational accounts of table-turning from the early 1850s, we know that both participants and outside observers paid close attention to the exact material circumstances of the experiment, often in hopes of isolating variables influential on the strange movement and noises excited in the table. In addition to the ages, names, and social standings of participants in the experiment, the exact dimensions, structure, and materials of the table were recorded, along with flooring type, indoor and outdoor temperatures, barometric pressure, wind direction and general weather conditions.16 Participants seated themselves around the table, created a chain with their hands while resting their fingertips lightly on the edges of the table, and then waited, sometimes up to an hour, before the table would begin to rock and turn, apparently of its own free will. While skeptics were quick to dismiss the phenomenon as a hoax, or speculate that unconscious motor activity in the hands and feet was the cause, many respectable scientists approached table-turning with the same inquisitive and discerning eyes they devoted to other fields. After a number of successful experiments were confirmed by scientists and circulated in the press, theories started to develop to account for the phenomenon. Whether expressed in terms of electricity, galvanism, or animal magnetism, the theories had the same general character: that some form of energy was flowing from the human participants into the dead organic matter of the table and thus granting it life. 17                 

 

To convincingly assert and defend such theories proved difficult during the 1850s since no reasonable or predictable correlations could be found between experimental variables and outcomes. Experiments with magnetizing or electrically charging the tables, for example, had no discernable effects on the results. In The Somnambulant Tables, Justinus Kerner paraphrases a number of modest conclusions from his own observations as well as from others: that humidity or moist hands seems to increase the chance of movement in the table; that higher success rates are found in cases with women and children participants; and that light has an overall negative effect [!] on table motion.18 In addition, the moving object in question need not be a table: similar experiments found success with hats, wine glasses, rapiers, and boats. Kerner goes on to offer his own term for the fluid form of energy responsible for animating the objects: “Nervengeist” [“nerve-spirit”]. From Kerner and others, it seems that the close attention paid to material details in the experiments were largely in vain, as the objects seemed to turn and dance according to a whim all their own. Like the ghostly exchange-value side of Marx’s commodity, the strange life of the turning tables could not be found in their physical, material form. If Kerner were looking for signs of exchange-value rather than Nervengeist, he would have no doubt agreed with Marx that, “not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values; in this it is the direct opposite of the coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects. We may twist and turn a single commodity as we wish; it remains impossible to grasp it as a thing possessing value.”19

 

From a rhetorical standpoint, Marx and Kerner have then a very similar challenge: to convince their readers that the most common and familiar of objects (a table) is capable of (or indeed already) possessing a secret and mysterious life. Their arguments, however, proceed from opposite and yet complementary directions. Kerner’s starting point is the physical and directly observable evidence of the turning-table séance, from which he postulates the influence of a mysterious and undetectable spirit-fluid, emanating from the human participants and enlivening the dead matter of the table. Marx, who would no doubt scoff at Kerner’s notion of Nervengeist, nevertheless sets about animating the table in a surprisingly similar manner. If we consider that, “as exchange-values, all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour-time,”20 then Marx’s labor theory of value must attribute the ghostly, fetish character of commodities to a quantifiable accumulation of abstract human labor, or, in other words, to a collection of detached human energies, expended not to create a usable, physical object, but to lend that object its mysterious social life as exchange-value. Unlike Kerner, however, Marx claims no direct observations of dancing tables with wooden brains. Rather, proceeding from his theory of the commodity-form, Marx develops a language of material evidence to give concrete shape to his concept of commodity fetishism: a ‘textual fetish,’ which, as already noted, does far more dancing than Marx bargains for. The critical afterlife of his concept of ‘commodity fetishism’ is evidence enough.

 

With the comparison to Kerner and table-turning, it seems then that Marx’s accusation of fetishism on the part of 19th century bourgeois society looses quite a bit of its critical bite. We might even wonder how appropriate his analogy with fetishism is in the first place. Clearly absent from Marx’s theory of the commodity is the sense of arbitrary materialism and attachment to crude material forms that characterizes the Enlightenment conception of the fetish. Marx’s ‘unruly table’––being both material and immaterial, sensory and suprasensory––occupies rather the unstable boundary between animism and fetishism, between (again in Peter Pels’ terms) “spirit in matter” and “spirit of matter.”21 This uncertain condition is nicely encapsulated in Marx’s own formulation of “ghostly materiality” [“gespenstige Gegenständlichkeit”], which he uses to describe the abstract, exchange-value side of the commodity form.22 (Is the material in fact ghostly itself or is it instead haunted by an inhabiting ghost?) To conclude with an image of my own, I would place Marx alongside Kerner in the darkened parlor of the table-turning séance, ready to encounter for himself the animated table of his own invention––but this time in observable, physical form. If from his detached and enlightened position, Marx were to succeed in inverting the unruly table, in flipping it right side up and back on its feet through sheer critical force, I doubt very much that it would cease its mysterious movement. Instead, the table would continue to dance on its feet to the morbid delight of the room. 

 

 Notes

1 Justinus Kerner, Die somnambülen Tische: zur Geschichte und Erklärung dieser Erscheinung (Stuttgart: Ebner & Seubert, 1853), p. 1. My translation.

2 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol 1., trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage, 1977), pp. 163f.

3 See Timo Heimerdinger, Tischlein rück’ dich: Das Tischrücken in Deutschland um 1850: Eine Mode zwischen Spiritismus, Wissenschaft und Geselligkeit (Münster: Waxmann, 2001), p. 9.

4 W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 191.

5 Marx, Capital, p. 165.

6 Ibid., p. 169.

7 Ibid., p. 164.

8 Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (New York: Oxford UP, 2005), p. 85.

9 See Peter Pels, “The Spirit of Matter: On Fetish, Rarity, Fact, and Fancy,” in Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces (New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 91.

10 See Mitchell, Iconology, pp. 160–164.

11 Bill Brown, A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 28.

12 Marx, Das Kapital: Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie, vol 1. (Berlin: Verlag für Literatur und Politik, 1932), pp. 76 and 78.

13 Brown, A Sense of Things, p. 28.

14 For the original German, see Marx, Das Kapital, p. 76.

15 Brown, A Sense of Things, p. 28.

16 On the scientific observation and description of table-turning experiments around 1850, see Timo Heimerdinger, Tischlein rück’ dich, pp. 64–69.

17 See Heimerdinger for a much fuller account of the various table-turning experiments and competing theories.

18 See Kerner, Die somnambülen Tische, p. 34.

19 Marx, Capital, p. 138.

20 Marx, Capital, p. 130.

21 See Peter Pels, “The Spirit of Matter,” pp. 91–102.

22 Marx, Das Kapital, p. 42. Ben Fowkes translates this as “phantom-like objectivity,” which seems less to the point. See Capital, p. 128. 

Out of the Woods

April 22, 2009

I wish I could write that I found something productive in the circuitous reasoning, dead-ends and restarts, rhetorical questions and etymological exercises of Heidegger’s “Thing” essay. But mostly I was just baffled by Heidegger’s completely un-nuanced or downright crude understanding of technology and the natural sciences. We might remind ourselves of Latour’s critical departure from Heidegger in the Pandora’s Hope essay: “[For Heidegger] technology is unique, insuperable, omnipresent, superior, a monster born in our midst which has already devoured its unwitting midwives.” And a bit earlier: “By rationalizing and stockpiling nature, science plays into the hands of technology, whose sole end is to rationalize and stockpile nature without end” (176). Having learned from Latour’s humans and non-human mediators, I have no problem agreeing with him that “Heidegger is mistaken.” The sort of omnipresent and uniform domination of nature that Heidegger attributes to science and technology enters into his “Thing” essay to demonstrate how this mastery leads only to illusions: the illusion of nearness with the annihilation of distance, the illusion of scientific representations of objects. Scientific knowledge and its technological culmination, the atomic bomb, have somehow annihilated the thing. But Heidegger gets me no nearer the thing than his caricature of scientific knowledge. I cannot read his discussion of the jug as anything other than an anti-modern, philosophical phantasm, set on resurrecting the spirit of antiquity in the forests outside of postwar Freiburg. Reading Heidegger with Latour, might we consider his jug a forced reconstruction of a long-gone hybrid? When talking about things, Heidegger seems to be looking in all the wrong places. Good that we can leave Heidegger’s hut for Latour’s lab.

Visible Objects

April 15, 2009

One of the more productive moments that I found in Reassembling the Social, was Latour’s discussion of the visibility of objects and their activities (which the discussants point to in question 6. of their posting). With their tendency to fall silent, to go unnoticed in their connection with humans, objects of all degrees of complexity continuously slip from being visible mediators into invisible intermediaries, fulfilling their intended functions but obscuring their status as ever-present actors. For the student and historian of things, the ability to animate objects, to “make them talk” depends on a combination of good timing and methodological “tricks”. Latour nicely breaks down a number of strategic moments, which we have already been isolating (both implicitly and explicitly) in our study of things (79–82).

For Latour, the avid observer of scientific production and laboratory work, the privileged moment (1) is that of innovation, the coming-into-being moment in the life of the object, when its status as mediator is most visible––through interference and translation between agents, blackboxing, and the circuitous line of composition, etc. (Pandora’s Hope, 176–190). The second instance, what Latour describes as (2) distance, might be productively rephrased as the ‘moment of encounter’ with a new object, existing as a mediator for the limited moment when it is still strange and novel, still magical, unwieldy, and unaccountable. This is the frequently privileged moment in the history of technology and media, when the technological artifact is given full weight as actor before it is domesticated, habituated, or completely forgotten. Latour’s next instance is quite familiar by now, (3) the breakdown, although as someone who witnessed the exploded Columbia shuttle all the way from the New Mexican desert, I would take issue with the aptness of his example. Sadly, my chosen strategies for engaging with things are what Latour relegates to last ditch attempts: (4) historical reconstructions and (5) fictions. My challenge to Latour might be to consider how imaginative fictions are in fact very much in play in the constitution of innovation and discovery, distance and encounters, and narratives of breakdown and crisis. Sociologists not only have a lot to learn from artists, but they must acknowledge the imaginative fictions very much imbedded in the social lives of things.

Session 10: The Collective

April 1, 2009

Some talking points for our discussion, put together by Sydney, Easton, and Brook.

1. New Terminology 

In this week’s readings, Latour offers us a new set of critical binaries to discuss and compare with other terms from earlier on in the semester.

Introducing human-nonhuman not to “overcome” the subject-object distinction but bypass it completely. How is a “nonhuman” different than an “object”?  And what do you think of Latour’s argument that “There are no visible objects and there never have been (Berlin Key, p. 11).

Changing the term “agent” to “actant.”  (E.g. A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans, Latour, p. 180) For instance, how does the term “actant” differ from Gell’s social or secondary agent?  Does the actor-actant idea successfully bypass the subject/object divide?

The confusion of “human/inhuman” with “figurative/non-figurative” (Johnson, 303). Is Latour setting up new ideas, or renaming already established concepts?

How do we understand Latour’s “collective” and what are the possible (ethical) implications of breaking down the boundaries between “nature” and “society”

2. Ethics

The work of Bruno Latour and his critics brings to the forefront a host of new considerations for our engagement with things––one of the more obvious additions: the question of ethics. In his 1988 essay (written under the pseudonym Jim Johnson), Latour borrows the term prescription to describe, “the behavior imposed back onto the human by nonhuman delegates” (301). The continuous string of silent moral and ethical imperatives originating in the technological artifact (the nonhuman) are either tacitly obeyed by the compliant human or ventriloquized in training sessions, transcribed into instruction booklets. Again, the example of the gun illustrates the point and raises the stakes: “The military are especially good at shouting [prescriptions] through the mouthpiece of human instructors who delegate back to themselves the task of explaining, in the rifle’s name, the characteristics of the rifle’s ideal user” (301). The prescriptions of the rifle-actant, which silently shape the gunman, are thus codified in the exaggerated screams of the drill sergeant. (One might ask how the ethical imperative of the rifle changes with the association of additional actants, say a telescopic sight.) 

As this example suggests, the question of ethical responsibility is not limited to the human actor, but is shared and dispersed among the various actants (and additional actors) involved in a given event. The question of ethical responsibility, however, remains nebulous in Latour’s writings. Aaron Smith takes up the question of ethics by considering the consequences of Latour’s theory from the legal standpoint of culpability. Smith sees a benefit in a Latourian framework for developing ethical stances with respect to large-scale systems, where culpability must be dispersed over a wide range of actors and actants, rather than allowing a small numbers of humans take the fall for a crime while the responsible system remains intact. How might we imagine a legal system that takes up a Latourian stance on the agency of nonhumans? How is culpability punished? Might the legal system (already) “punish” the nonhuman in the form of regulations? (For example: the confiscation of guns and the regulation of their production and sales.) Is there a way to think about the ethics involved in Latour’s positions that lie outside a legal discussion of culpability? 

3. Composition

One of the interesting things that comes out of this weeks readings is Latour’s statement that over time, human/nonhuman associations are requiring an ever-increasing number of delegates.  For example, in the Jim Johnson article he points out that originally all we needed was doors, then we needed signs, then we needed springs and hydraulics, and even these are not sufficient.  This idea is extremely intriguing, especially in light of the quote we addressed at the very beginning of class that the world is becoming emptied of things.  What Latour doesn’t address and what strikes me is why is there this ever-increasing number of delegates?  Are we resisting non-human actants in some way that calls for this increase?  What does increasing the chain of delegates do to the overall association and path of transformation?  What makes some things, ie a stoplight, resist this trend?

4. Networks and Assemblages

Another question that came to mind was how does Latour’s philosophy fit in with that of Jane Bennett’s assemblages.  In many ways they seem similar.  A network of interaction that includes a number of actors and actants all essential to the overall working but each with their own level of influence.  But there also seem to be subtle differences. While Jane focuses on connecting all the nodes in her assemblage, Latour seems to liquefy these nodes so that they no longer exist at all.  Instead we are left with constant paths of action in which individual objects no longer exist.  What does this difference mean for methodology, for culpability, for future investigations into things?  In addition, Bennett sees things as representing society (hence the legislation is reflected in the power grid) but Latour sees actants as making social interactions.  This is a nuanced difference but holds major implications for the future of social sciences. Would Bennett and Latour agree on this point?  What would an assemblage of the Berlin key or an association of the power grid look like?

5. Semiotics?

Many articles we’ve read this semester speak of things in terms of texts and signs.  “The Berlin Key,” Latour writes that the key “does not ‘express,’ ‘symbolize’, ‘reflect’, ‘reify’, ‘objectify’, ‘incarnate’ disciplinary relations.”  Instead, such mediators “make” and “form” these relations (p. 19).”  How does his interpretation of things differ from other perspectives we’ve read?

Turning Tables

March 27, 2009

In 1853, fourteen years before the appearance of volume one of Marx’s Das Kapital, the German Romantic poet and medical doctor Justinus Kerner published an over fifty-page, scientific study of the spiritualist practice of table-turning: Die somnambülen Tische: zur Geschichte und Erklärung dieser Erscheinung [The Somnambulant Tables: On the History and Explanation of this Phenomenon]. In the same year, a German newspaper described as an “epidemic” the frenzied interest in table-turning that had been spreading throughout Germany since 1848. By 1853, the dancing, turning, and rapping tables of the spiritualist séances had caught the attention of all levels of German society, including the watchful eyes of intellectuals and scientists. The darkened parlors of Europe became a space to personally experience, observe, and experiment with the strange, sentient life that seemed to awaken in the dead wooden matter of the séance table.     

Close readers of Das Kapital (Bill Brown and W.J.T. Mitchell among them) have been frequently drawn to Marx’s curious allusion to this very same table-turning craze in his discussion of commodity fetishism.

From Chapter 1: The Commodity – 4. The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret:

A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies human needs, or that it first takes on these properties as the product of human labour. It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will. (Capital, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage, 1977), pp. 163f.)

While Marx is largely dismissive here of the “dancing tables” of the spiritualist séance––exposing his claim to the superior position of an enlightened observer, who can see through and unveil the illusion of the commodity form––I would like to argue that his understanding of the commodity as “ein sinnlich übersinnliches Ding” [“a sensory supra-sensory thing”] in fact bears many striking similarities to the spiritualist understandings of the animated table. 

In my presentation, I hope to draw out some of the structural parallels between the practice and theories of table-turning and Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism––finding in both, the table as a strange, paradoxical thing: at once material and immaterial, illusionary and real, a physical mediator between persons and a ghostly embodiment of their collective energies.

(The above image is from an 1853 French publication, Les Danse des Tables by Félix Roubaud.)

The Force of Things

March 10, 2009

While reading Jane Bennett’s “The Force of Things” I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was avoiding an explicit discussion of a central aspect of her argument: the aesthetic discourse underlying her use of the term assemblage. In describing her encounter with the trash-mise-en-scéne in front of Sam’s Bagels on the morning of June 4, 2002, she writes:

“Here each thing is individuated, but also located within an assemblage—each is shown to be in a relationship with the others, and also with the sunlight and the street, and not simply with me, my vision, or my cultural frame. Here thing-power rises to the surface. In this assemblage, objects appear more vividly as things, that is, as entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects set them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics.” (351)

While I don’t dispute that the articles of refuse, the sunlight, the street might have some relationship with one another, independent of an observer—the sun bleaching the trash, the activities of the street pushing it aside to the storm drain grate, the trash items colliding and overlapping as they blow about—I would argue that it is precisely Bennett’s culturally trained vision that lends them the “thing-power” she so values. Montage, juxtaposition, defamiliarization. The techniques of the historical- (prewar) and neo- (postwar) avant-gardist movements provide the aesthetic training for Bennett’s experience of the scene not as trash-objects but as irreducible things. In this instance, the power she attributes to the assemblage of things has less to do with the things themselves than with her perception of them as an integrated aesthetic object. Knowingly or unknowingly following the 20th century avant-garde, Bennett is simply applying a particular aestheticized visual practice to the realm of the everyday. (Alinae is right on when linking Bennett’s perspective to the experience of a Rauschenberg “Combine”.)

To drive home this point, it would be interesting to compare Bennett’s perception of the trash-assemblage with Thoreau’s famous description of the thawing sand-bank at the end of Walden (in the chapter “Spring”, see paragraph [6]: http://thoreau.eserver.org/walden17.html). Both are visions of the dense web of material forces and flows that entangle the human and the non-human. And both are highly aestheticized. But the aesthetic discourse structuring Thoreau’s visual perception is obviously vastly different from Bennett’s. I doubt very much that Thoreau would see in a pile of garbage what she does.

This might be a long way of going about asking a more general question about how central a certain aesthetic sensibility is for a “theory of things.” Is this how academics animate the inanimate? What are the consequences of aestheticizing things in different manners? Bill Brown is explicit in harkening back to the revolutionary aesthetics of the historical avant-garde. Gell on the other hand, with his theory of “captivation”, seems to see things more through the “Sunday painter” aesthetics of the bourgeois dilettante.

Beyond visual art, we might also think about the role of writing and literature in our engagement with “things.” Bennett writes that, “like Thoreau, I hope to enhance my receptivity to thing-power by writing about it, by giving an account of the thing-ness of things that might enable me to feel it more intensely” (349) . . .

Miller, Materiality (and DeLillo, too.)

February 25, 2009

Daniel Miller’s point of departure for considering materiality addresses the often-overlooked (yet intimate) connection between humanity’s own self-understanding––whether expressed in religious, economic, political, technological, or aesthetic terms––and its (often antagonistic) stance towards the various crude material forms that make up the external, physical world. Rather than assuming an historical and cultural indifference to materiality, Miller argues that, “in a given time and place there will be a link between the practical engagement with materiality and the beliefs or philosophy that emerged at that time” (15).

Theorizing materiality involves two explorative moves: “the first, a vulgar theory of mere things as artifacts; the second, a theory that claims to entirely transcend the dualism of subjects and objects” (3). For the first, Miller draws on the work of Pierre Bourdieu to explain that everyday material things, and their temporal and spatial ordering, are central to processes of socialization and normalization. “Material Culture” thus forms a powerful, foundational structure for any given society (7). Miller’s second theoretical move was harder for me to follow. Here he evokes first the tradition of dialectics in German philosophy from Hegel to Marx and on to 20th century Marxist thinkers. Miller’s main interest in dialectical theory is its alleged ability to integrate subject and object, humanity and materiality. Latour he understands to reach similar ends, though by very different means. I can’t address Miller’s reading of Latour until I become a bit more familiar with his work, however I think we should be more than a little uncomfortable with how Miller leans on Hegel’s teleological arguments to give philosophical weight to his project.

Much more to say, especially considering C. Pinney’s substantial critique of Miller. But I’m sure we’ll address that in class.  

For now, let me admit that I’ve been shamefully unable to live up to Mitchell’s challenge: to determine what (particular) pictures want. But in the prevailing spirit of sharing outside material, I do have a short literary excerpt that forced itself upon me while reading Miller. In discussing Michael Rowlands’ article, which considers the material power and material extensions of the Cameroon chief or Fon’s bodily presence, Miller goes on to describe personhood under capitalism, which grows and expands with greater material production and consumption. With Miller’s stress on material consumption, I couldn’t help but think of Don DeLillo’s Hitler Studies professor, Jack Gladney, and his uninhibited, family shopping spree in White Noise:

“I shopped with reckless abandon. I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies. I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise I had no intention of buying, then buying it. I sent clerks into their fabric books to search for elusive designs. I began to grow in value and self-regard. I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I’d forgotten existed. Brightness settled around me. We crossed from furniture to men’s wear, walking through cosmetics. Our images appeared on mirrored columns, in glassware and chrome, on TV monitors in security rooms. I traded money for goods. The more money I spent, the less important it seemed. I was bigger than these sums. These sums poured off my skin like so much rain. These sums in fact came back to me in the form of existential credit. I felt expansive, inclined to be sweepingly generous, and told the kids to pick out their Christmas gifts here and now. I gestured in what I felt was an expansive manner. I could tell they were impressed.”

– Don DeLillo, White Noise (Penguin: New York, 1985), p. 84.         

Some Thoughts on Mitchell

February 17, 2009

I found a number of helpful moments in W.J.T. Mitchell’s freewheeling discussion of desiring and living images, which offered me a broader perspective to balance out Gell’s rigorous and focused theoretical work. (To me, the sections of Mitchell’s book that we were assigned had the feel of a collaborative effort––evinced by the frequent (and often informal) references to the works and comments of other academics across a broad spectrum of disciplines, as well as the FAQ-coda to the second chapter. A nice demonstration of the productive, interdisciplinary model of research that comes out of the theoretical turn we are studying.)

1. After some frustrations with what I consider Gell’s lack of historical specificity, I was happy to encounter Mitchell paraphrasing Marx so: “if people make images that seem to have lives and desires of their own, they do not always do it in the same way, nor under conditions of their own choosing […] How does [the phenomenon of the living image] change over time, and from one culture to another? And why does it impress itself so forcibly on our attention at this specific historical moment?” (11). I think this is an important series of points, though I am less convinced by Mitchell’s treatment of the two specific images he uses as examples. His discussion of Dolly and the burning World Trade Center seem more focused on the complex discourses surrounding these figures than the actual images themselves. Following the Marx comment, I expected a more serious assessment of the contemporary modes of image (re)production, circulation, and mass reception. It seems to me that the ubiquitous image-saturation of our contemporary media networks already makes a ceaseless mockery of the remaining iconoclasts of our world.

2. Mitchell states explicitly an assumption (which I believe he shares with Gell): that “the phenomenon of the living image or animated icon is an anthropological universal” (11). Are these sorts of universalist claims something we’re all comfortable with or convinced by? At least Mitchell leaves open an historical and cultural variability in the status, selection, and potency of living, “wanting” pictures.

3. I was very convinced by Mitchell’s discussion of “double consciousness,” in which all people are understood to vacillate “between magical beliefs and skeptical doubts, naïve animism and hardheaded materialism, mystical and critical attitudes” (7). Mitchell develops from this understanding some wonderful catachrestic formulations for the intellectual position of the academic/critic: “critical idolatry” or “secular divination” (26). There is a productive subtlety and tension to this that I did not find in the fetishist stance taken up by many of the writers in the Border Fetishisms volume.

Week 4: The Art Nexus

February 10, 2009

(Apologies for the late posting. My 5-year-old iBook decided to die on me this afternoon and took with it all of my careful reading-notes. As with Gell’s hypothetical Toyota-breakdown, “this is an act of gross treachery for which I hold [my computer] personally and morally culpable” (p. 19).)

Working through Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency (1998) this past week has left me with a wonderful sense of excitement and possibility. This is no doubt in part due to the relative novelty for me of reading rigorous anthropological theory. (I’m trained in literary studies.) But it is also that I find in Gell an amazing theoretical model for the subtle push and pull that operates within the relational networks surrounding the work of art—itself a locus for the complex interactions between (in Gell’s terms) the artist, the work’s recipients, and the prototypes it “represents.” Whatever criticisms we might level against the nuts-and-bolts of Gell’s theoretical framework, it is clear that his work poses a formidable challenge to anthropologists and art historians alike. By focusing on the agency of art objects (indexes) within networks of culturally specific social relations, Gell creates a space for explorative research that is no longer limited by institutional definitions of what art is (and is not) and generations of Western art theory focused on questions of representation and meaning—which, when applied to so-called “ethnographic” art, are at best artificial impositions. Asking not what art ‘means’ but what it ‘does’ in a substantive social context is a truly exciting project.

With such a complex and substantial work on our hands, I am having a bit of trouble formulating any productive ideas or critiques for our in-class discussion. So instead maybe I’ll just pose a question. Perhaps it is due to my specific academic training, but I was distracted throughout Gell’s work by his apparent lack of historicization. The art-objects he uses as examples range wildly across historical periods (in addition to the obvious diversity of cultural contexts). And while it is perhaps unfair to demand historical specificity in a clearly abstract theoretical work that claims a certain broad applicability, I would like to ask how we might understand the historical dimension of the ‘theory of the art nexus’: both in terms of (1) how Gell’s theory responds to clear historical changes in art production, reception, and circulation, and (2) the historically situated intervention of Gell’s theory itself within academic debates of the 1980s and 90s. The second part of the question goes back to our introductory readings and is something I hope to get a better grasp of over the course of the semester. The first part is something we might think about when going into the details of Gell’s book in class.

Perhaps one preliminary way of answering this question is that Gell’s theory of art leaves open a space for historical contingency. Instead of defining art in aesthetic or semiotic terms, he writes: “The art object is whatever is inserted into the ‘slot’ provided for art objects in the system of terms and relations envisaged in the theory. Nothing is decidable in advance about the nature of this object, because the theory is premised on the idea that the nature of the art object is a function of the social-relational matrix in which it is embedded” (p. 7). Implicit in this statement is that we cannot simply insert some arbitrary object into Gell’s theory, but that built-in selection criteria determine which objects are substantially related to the “social-relational matrix” of the art nexus. The historical dimension of Gell’s theory would then be that different types of objects become more strongly enmeshed in social relations at different historical moments. And that these objects are the most rewarding and productive to study through Gell’s theoretical framework. An important point, I think, for ‘thing theorists’ looking for ‘things’ to study.