Author Archive

Bear with me

May 10, 2009

Countless children since the beginning of the twentieth century have found friendship in the teddy bear.  Often the bear is more than a toy or a mere plaything.  It is not always an object, but becomes a subject – one in which a person confides, seeks comfort, travels with, and relies upon.  This relationship springing between a teddy bear and a human is so heavily imbued with many of the same issues we touch upon in thing theory.  For example, if we treat the teddy bear like it is alive and recognize it as so, are we viewing the world with childlike naïvete?  Are we simply fetishizing the teddy bear?  Or is the teddy bear forgetting its place in the hierarchy of things by starting to act like a subject and blurring the human/nonhuman divide?

To help me through this fuzzy dilemma, I’d like to call on Martin Heidegger as one possible person to help me tackle this “bear-y” large problem.  (I apologize profusely for the puns, I couldn’t help myself).  So, I’ll begin with a question myself:

What makes a teddy bear teddy bear?

According to Heidegger, as he speaks about the jug, “What is the jug?  We say: a vessel, something of the kind that holds something else within it.  The jug’s holding is done by its base and sides.  This container itself can be held by the handle.  As a vessel the jug is something self-sustained, something that stands on its own.  This standing on its own characterizes a thing is a self-supporting, or independent” (Heidegger 166).  Though obviously different than a jug, a teddy bear can too be seen as a thing by Heidegger’s terms.  So, what is the teddy bear?  It too is a vessel, holding stuffing inside.  The holding is done by the void encompassed by the teddy bear’s “skin,” which essentially functions in the same manner as the sides of the jug.  Instead of having a handle, the bear has appendages and a body by which it can be held.  The bear, too, can stand on its own, making it a self-supporting, independent entity.

Like Heidegger’s potter, the teddy bear was made by a person as well. People first envisioned the teddy bear as a hybrid of the “natural” bear and human qualities.  According to tradition, the American teddy bear was born out of Clifford Berryman’s cartoon from 1902 entitled “Drawing the Line in Mississippi” which depicts President Theodore Roosevelt refusing to shoot a bear cub.  Marianne Clay from Teddy Bear and Friends writes that,“This cartoon inspired Morris and Rose Michtom of Brooklyn, New York, to make a bear in honor of the president’s actions.  The Michtoms named their bear ‘Teddy’s Bear’ and placed it in the window of their candy and stationery store.  Instead of looking fierce and standing on all four paws like previous toy bears, the Michtoms’ bear looked sweet, innocent, and upright, like the bear in Berryman’s cartoon” (Clay).  

So, if we let the bear stand forth I posit that, like the jug, the teddy bear’s thingness does not lie in the material that it consists of, but in something else.

The teddy bear is qua teddy bear, meaning that the maker – or the process of making – does not make the teddy bear teddy bear.  Many people (children and adults) cling to teddy bears that they do not even remember being given or picking out, let alone knowing who made it.  Sometimes the most “loved” teddy bear is not the newest one, but the threadbare, well-traveled companion with a life history aligned to that of their human “owner.”

However, a new phenomenon in the world of teddy bears has come onto the scene.  In the unique situation of Build A Bear, the process of making the teddy bear should be considered in more depth than Heidegger dedicates to the process of jug making.  The Build A Bear process relays the importance of the bond between human and teddy bear.  Additionally, it reinforces the teddy bears ability to teddy bear since it encourages humans of all ages to engage with and recognize the teddy bear as more than a mere object.  Perhaps, in this way, we may be closer with the teddy bear than we are with Heidegger’s jug

Build A Bear Process

1) Choose your Friend

Pick out an unstuffed/“empty” animal.  There are many options available, each kept in a bin according to type.  Keep in mind that “teddy bear” may be a misnomer here since there are so many options to choose from including, but not limited to, bears, dinosaurs, dogs, unicorns, and Hello Kitty.

2) Stuff your Friend

At the “Bear Stuffing Machine” an employee will help you stuff your friend to the desired firmness.  The employee will manipulate the “empty” animal so that stuffing is equally distributed to all of its appendages while you pump a foot pedal that helps to power the machine.

3) Give your Friend Life

Before sewing up your friend and making it whole, you will give your friend life through a “Heart Ceremony.”  You can also elect to include a voice box which can be recorded with a personal message or play a pre-programmed sounds such as children’s laughter.

The employee will sew your friend up!

4) Bathe your Friend

Although the teddy bear is not actually dirty, you will get the chance to bathe your friend in a waterless bath.  I’m not totally clear on the reasoning behind this, but, perhaps, this is like a symbolic baptism?

5) Dress your Friend

At the “Bear Dressing Station, add clothes and accessories as you please to make your friend your own.

  • “This was definitely the most overwhelming and costly part of the adventure. At one point LL had her cheetah completely dressed but she decided that the tiara she had chosen didn’t go with the outfit and she wanted the “change” her clothes, but we had already taken the tags off so we “owned” the original clothes she chose. It’s an interesting lesson in making choices and living with them.” –  From the Blog “Adventures with Yo and Mo”

6) Name your Friend

It’s time to fill out a birth certificate for your new friend and make everything official.  Here, you will need to include its date of birth (the day it was made), name, height, weight, a physical description, and who the friend belongs to (you).

7) Buy your Friend

Who says you can’t buy friends? At Build A Bear, you make and buy your friend all in the same day.  To make sure your friend is adequately cared for, Build A Bear provides your friend with a brand new “Cub Condo.”

  •  “In total—after selecting your empty bear, your outfit, your voice box, your accessories—and even your Build-a-Bear furniture (!), the well-dressed bear can easily come to $35…and can range up to $65 if you choose a detailed outfit.)” – –  From “Build A Bear Store: Bear-stuffing fun in Downtown Disney Anaheim!”

Back to Teddy Bears Teddy Bearing

If we think of things thinging and humans humaning in the world, how does the hybrid “natural” bear-human (aka the teddy bear) act in this world?  Is a teddy bear a subject or an object?  Does the teddy bear actively engage with humans?   Or is it totally passive and subject to human whims? 

 The Build A Bear process seems to imbue life into an inanimate object by filling the “husk” of the animal, actually encouraging children and adults alike to recognize it as a subject because this limp thing is now substantive.  Each step of the production process acknowledges the teddy bear as a nonhuman with wants and needs – What does your friend want to wear?  Does your friend need a voice?  Be sure to rub its heart to your tummy so your bear never gets hungry!

By superficially enhancing and accelerating the bond existing between human and teddy bear, Build A Bear recognizes an essential facet of Heidegger’s argument.  For Heidegger, the jug is a jug because it gives a gift, meaning that the object itself was constructing a social interaction and stepping out of the realm of thing and into the realm of subject.  Though bears do not pour out their contents, they do work to construct a web of social interactions.  If they did not, they would not dominate the world of literature with characters ranging from Winnie the Pooh to Paddington to Corduroy Bear.  Teddy Bears are iconic as gifts on Valentine’s Day.  Adults and children alike cuddle with a teddy bear as they lay down to sleep.  We are nearer 

to teddy bears than jugs since we discern humanlike traits within them.  They have eyes, ears, and – in the case of Build A Bear companions – hearts.  The hybrid nature of the teddy bear makes any social interaction with this nonhuman appear to be more “socially acceptable” than, say, chatting with Heidegger’s jug.   We are near to the teddy bear, so we extend their social roles to include positions as security items, play things, best friends, confidants, and tokens of affection. The social interaction occurring between a jug and a human still functions along the subject/object divide; yet relations between teddy bears and humans get quite furry as the teddy bears teddy bear.



“Build a Bear!!!” from the blog “Adventures with Yo and Mo,” posted on Jan. 5, 2008, found at <>

“Build A Bear Store: Bear-stuffing fun in Downtown Disney Anaheim!” from Family Vacation Getaways found at <;.

“Build A Bear Workshops” found at <;.

Clay, Marianne, “The History of the Teddy Bear” from Teddy Bear and Friends: The Ultimate Authority, found at <>.

Heidegger, Martin, “The Thing.” In Poetry, Language, and Thought, pp. 165-182. Harper Collins, New York, 2001.


May 9, 2009

“The girl with low and sensible heels is likely to pay for her bed and meals”

            – Anonymous, 1950s

In this discussion of the assemblage of Ground, Stiletto, Foot, Woman, I suggest that by using Jane Bennett’s thing-power materialism it becomes clear that these subjects – both human and nonhuman – work together in a network.  As defined by Bennett, thing-power materialism “is a dynamic flow of matter-energy that tends to settle into various bodies, bodies that often join forces, make connections, form alliances…humans are always in composition with nonhumanity, never outside of a sticky web of connections or an ecology” (Bennett 365).  Through recognizing the alliance of such bodies, we see that the stiletto does not have quasi-human agency.  Instead, its thing-power resides in the ecology of its specific context at a given moment in time.  There is no denying that the stiletto itself exists as an independent entity, but its power is inherent in the play of forces into which it enters.  The flexibility of the assemblage allows the network to constantly renegotiate its balance of power; therefore, the network embodies a variety of interpretations of which humans are the actor most capable of recounting.  Before continuing this discussion, let’s meet the actors in this assemblage:

  • Ground – The ground can range in texture and solidity from mud or loose soil, to grass or sand, to wooden floors or cement.  “Ground” is not only something that humans must interact with since things too are in contact with it in a similar manner.  Therefore, “ground” engages with nonhumans and humans in a non-discriminatory way, treating each with equal disregard.  Humans and nonhumans rest on the ground, stand on the ground, move across the ground, mar the ground, and are absorbed by the ground – just to list a few of the interactions.  Whatever manifestations of “ground” that humans encounter, they acknowledge it as a surface that they must navigate.  This surface is not only the landscape which humans traverse, but the earth that provides them with vegetable sustenance.  Since humans are in constant contact with the ground – whether directly through their bodies or mediated by a nonhuman actor – they depend on the ground to be solid and unmoving beneath them. 


    • Stiletto – Shoes, though utilitarian and intentionally designed as protective wear for the soles of the feet, have changed greatly in purpose and design over time, but continue to remain an essential part of the human wardrobe (Pederson 8-9).  On average, the American woman owns thirty pairs of shoes, many of which are high heels (O’Keefe 13).   Stilettos, however, transcend the traditional functionality associated with shoes. The word stiletto comes from the Latin stilus meaning: “a stake; a pointed instrument” and was originally the name for a Sicilian fighting knife that was about five inches in length and tapered into a rigid point to enhance deep penetration (Cox 79-81).  The name “stiletto” was borrowed and, as a shoe, the stiletto grew in popularity and took on a number of connotations as it was interpreted through various assemblages.  The stiletto shoe is marked by a heel that is at least four inches in length and has a diameter of less than one centimeter at the point of contact with the floor.  Additionally, the thin stiletto heel transmits a large amount of force (i.e. the entire weight of the wearer) onto a small area and are therefore often strengthened by a metal tube and capped with a metal or hard plastic tip.

    • Foot – As humans, the foot is the lowest structure on the human body, meaning that it is closest to the ground and most likely to be directly effected by it.  We are dependent upon our feet to work in conjunction with the rest of the body and our neurological system in order to afford us mobility and balance.  The human foot has evolved over time into a mechanically complex and structurally strong appendage that accounts for our ability to locomote bipedally.  The structural arches of the foot act as shock absorbers and the big toe provides stability (Stanford, Allen & Anton 305).

    • Woman – What does it mean to be a “woman”?  In one sense, it is a state determined biologically through the appearance of external female genitalia, female sex organs, and the genetic determinant of the XX sex chromosome.  For others,  “womanhood” is a portion of the life cycle marked by menstruation and fertility.  Yet, what it means socially to be a “woman” is not standard across the spectrum of human experience and is not even limited to biological sex, does this imply that “woman” is also a socially constructed, culturally determined identity?

    Back to the Assemblage:  Ground, Stiletto, Foot, Woman

    Like Bennett, “I don’t seek the thing as it stands alone, but rather the not-fully humanized dimension of a thing as it manifests itself amidst other entities and forces” (Bennett 366).  So now that we have met the various participants, I want to look at the thing-power coursing through this particular assemblage.

    As witnessed in the video as well as in the images, the combination of stilettos, feet, and the human body have a unique relationship with the ground.  The wearer, upon slipping on a pair of gorgeous heels, compresses the bones in their foot, altering their balance and the distribution of body weight that evolution worked so diligently to spread throughout the foot’s bones.  Rather than being spread throughout the entire foot, the entire weight of the wearer is now concentrated on spike heel and the dime-sized cap, meaning that a great deal of pressure focused on a small point can damage the surface of ground, denting hardwood floors or piecing the soil.  Damage is not solely limited to the ground, though, since the wearer can experience back pain, blisters, disfigurement of the foot, and can even permanently shorten their Achilles tendon making walking a painful experience.  In totality, the design of the stiletto is entirely impractical for the human wearer and the ground, yet their popularity is ever-growing.

    Bennett discusses joy as a possibility for bridging the gap between thing and concept, recognizing “joy as one expression of the thing-power of the human body, joy as animating energy generated in part by affection for a material work experienced as vital and alive” (Bennett 363).  It is this kind of energy that the stiletto animates in its wearer that Columnist Meghan Cleary, New York-based fashion authority and author of The Perfect Fit: What Your Shoes Say About You, acknowledges when she writes, “It does not matter if you are a clog girl, a flip flop girl, a platform girl or a motorcycle boot girl, single or married, kids no kids, stepkids, adopted kids or pets. House or apartment. City or country.  When a woman chooses her shoes, she chooses the way she operates in the world.  How she is physically occupying the world and how she relates to it” (Cleary).  Nothing rings clearer than this concept when the stiletto is viewed in context of the assemblage of the ground, stiletto, foot, and woman.

    The assemblage allows humans to interpret the concept of “woman” in multiple manners because it depends on what role the stiletto plays in the particular moment as at a particular time.  One interpretation of “woman” is linked to sexual prowess and sexuality. “The stiletto is one expression of our feminine power that gives us the ability to tower, to command our strength to show off our divine feminine form, our light, even if just for a moment, for all the world to see” (Cleary).  The stiletto reshapes the body, “The silhouette of the stiletto wearer becomes unmistakably female.  Its very design limits the range of action in the foot and restricts the walk of the wearer, while at the same time it pushes the body into a most alluring feminine shape with breasts thrust out and bottom behind for balance” (Cox 106).

    By compressing the foot to exaggerate the arch and ankle, stilettos allude to the natural reflex of the foot and toes that Alfred Kinsey, in his research into the sexual modes of and mores of the American woman in the 1950s, observed occurring during orgasm.  The teetering, wobbling gait by attempts to balance on a needle point also promotes an exaggerated change in posture” (Cox 104).  Stilettos give the optical illusion of a longer, slimmer leg, a smaller foot, and a greater overall height.  They also alter the wearer’s posture and gait, flexing the calf muscles, and making the bust and buttocks more prominent. “Sensible shoes command respect, but high heels solicit adoration” (O’Keefe 16).   Therefore, woman and drag queens alike look to these shoes as a transformative vehicle for change since they embody high fashion, sexuality, and female empowerment.


    Works Cited

    Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things: Steps Toward an Ecology of Matter” in Political Theory, Vol. 32, No. 3, 347-372 (2004).

    Cleary, Meghan. “In Celebration of the Stiletto” in The Huffington Post, posted June 2, 2008. Found at <>

    Cox, Caroline. Stiletto. London: Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., 2004.

    O’Keefe, Linda.  Shoes: A Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers & More. New York: Workman Publishing, 1996.

    Pederson, Stephanie. Shoes: What Every Woman Should Know. Brunel House: David & Charles, 2005.

    Stanford, Craig, Joan S. Allen, and Susan C. Anton, eds. Biological Anthropology: The NaturalHistory of Humankind.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc., 2006.

    The Bear Necessities…

    May 4, 2009

    …or what makes a teddy bear teddy bear? 

    …and what makes that bear bear when you make it at Build-A-Bear?

    Bears bearing

    Bears bearing

    April 28, 2009

    Throughout this semester, I was consistently struck by how combative the various authors that we read seemed to be with one another. They all seemed to write in a manner that only allowed for one true understanding of what an object is and how they fit into this crazy world that they share with humans. In a way, it seems slightly ironic that each of the authors attempts to analyze the “world” of objects, but none can do this while completely separating themselves from the human experience. I don’t think that this gap has to be reconciled, but it has been something that I’ve been thinking about since the beginning of the semester.
    The role that objects play – whether an actant as Latour marks them, a secondary agent as Gell labels them, or any of the other titles/roles which are bestowed upon objects – determines our understanding of the human experience as well as we constantly redefine the subject-object divide. Thinking about the divide that we have socially constructed between subjects and objects, I have turned to the various readings through the lens of museum studies. For example, through Latour’s framework, humans and nonhumans exist as actants, equals in the world and have power only through their involvement in networks rather than something inherent inside of them. In this scenario, humans have attempted to be modern by purifying the nonhuman object and relegating it to a non-subject status. Museums, then, could be seen to function as a part of the project of purification, sanitizing the object by placing it behind glass and using the object as a “fact” of the human experience. In trying to look at museums through Latour’s perspective, I wonder if this is totally possible. By placing the object behind glass, often on a literal pedestal, the network in which the object is a part also seems to empower it in addition to its purification. The museum staff cleans objects, preserves them, and researches them – granting their life an importance that is often denied to the mere object. The visitors gaze upon the objects, spending more time in recognizing and really looking at the object. So, what does this actually do to the object?

    April 21, 2009

    Bill Brown writes that we tend to use objects as windows which we look through in order to glean information about history or culture, meaning that we only glimpse things instead of actually seeing things. Heidegger addresses our inability to see a thing for a thing, as more than a jug qua jug, when he writes, “We shall not reach the thing in itself until our thinking has first reached the thing as a thing.” A shift in thinking about objects as “what stands forth” instead of “that which stands before, over against, opposite us” is similar to the shift that Brown sees in the difference between seeing the window as an object and seeing the thingness of the window. For Heidegger, we must move away from the scientific stance in which “The thingness of the thing remains concealed, forgotten” because we have failed to give thought to what a thing can do, does, and how it does it. In asking these questions, I wonder if Heidegger almost arrives at a Latourian actor network theory “solution.” The thingness in the jug rests in its ability to “gift” its contents, implying that the jug can only be understood as an assemblage of the person pouring its contents out, its liquid contents, the jug’s container qualities, and the void pushing out the walls of the container. Is Heidegger’s “gathering” another way of looking at an assemblage? Is “presencing” a mere recognition of its place in a wider network of things/actants/people?

    “Around here, if someone commits a crime they are jailed,” Gomez said — “no matter who they are”…even if they are a donkey

    March 31, 2009

    In thinking about Latour’s division between humans and non-humans, I wonder where this leaves the animal. After taking Brian Boyd’s class on Human and Animal Relations last semester, I think that the question of the animal is a pertinent one, especially since the animal (as conceived of in the Western world) seems to lie in the gray area between human and non-human. In The Animal That Therefore I Am, Jacques Derrida struggles while attempting to deal with the question of animal consciousness. He recognizes a moment in which he is naked in his house and completely comfortable being in such a state since he is alone. Yet upon noticing the gaze of his cat, he immediately feels a sense of immodesty and shame. Though “mute” in terms of their ability to communicate using human language, Derrida’s cat holds some sort of human-like quality, which doesn’t make it unlike the car that refuses to start on the cold morning.

    We seem to recognize a hierarchy of animals in terms of those which we accord the most anthropomorphic tendencies (dogs, chimpanzees, cats, etc.) and those that most Westerners grant the status of unconscious “thing” (insects, fish, animals consumed as food). People can be sentenced to jail for abusing animals and for vandalizing buildings – inflicting harm upon the Other. People opt to be vegetarians so as not to inflict cruelty upon animals, but plants are living as well, yet I’ve never heard calls for plant cruelty. People own animals in the same way they own books. Just as with animals, humans cannot seem to interpret their relations with non-humans/not living/breathing objects separately from a human framework/perspective.

    So, what got me thinking of the question of the animal in relation to the conceptualization of the separation between humans and non-humans is Aaron Smith’s discussion of how Idhe makes this distinction based upon decisional ability. So non-humans, like a coffee mug or a computer lack the ability to make decisions. Animals, also, are recognized as being reactive, instead of agentive. Yet, there are instances in which animals can be accorded with guilt, though it’s not completely removed from their human “owner.” For example, take the case of the donkey jailed for disrupting the peace in Mexico:

    Mexican jail releases disruptive donkey

    TUXTLA GUTIERREZ, Mexico (AP) — A donkey doing time in southern Mexico for assault and battery has been freed from jail.

    The Televisa network on Wednesday showed “Blacky” gobbling food from a bucket after spending three days in a jail that normally holds people for public drunkenness and other disturbances.

    Blacky was jailed for biting and kicking two men near a ranch outside Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of the southern state of Chiapas.

    Officials freed the donkey after its owner paid a fine of $36 and the $115 hospital bill of the men, who suffered bites to the chest and a broken ankle. Authorities say he also must pay $480 to each man for missed work days.

    The animal was locked up at a local jail that normally holds people for public drunkenness and other disturbances after it bit and kicked two men near a ranch in Chiapas state, police said Monday.

    Officer Sinar Gomez said the donkey would remain behind bars until its owner agreed to pay the men’s medical bills. “Around here, if someone commits a crime they are jailed,” Gomez said — “no matter who they are.”

    The owner, Mauro Gutierrez said he would try to reach a friendly arrangement to pay the men’s bills, estimated at $420 at the time. The victims said the donkey bit Genaro Vazquez, 63, in the chest on Sunday and then kicked 52-year-old Andres Hernandez as he tried to come to the rescue, fracturing his ankle. “All of a sudden, the animal was on top of us like it was rabid,” Hernandez said.

    Police said it took a half-dozen men to control the enraged burro. Chiapas police have thrown animals in the slammer before, including a bull that devoured corn crops and destroyed two wooden vending stands in March. In 2006, a dog was locked up for 12 days after biting someone. His owners were fined $18.

    Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

    Found at

    The Body as an Object?

    March 3, 2009

    Ingold’s conceptualization of Gibson’s “ecological approach to visual perception” distinguishing between the medium, substances, and surfaces reminds me, perhaps in an indirect way, of the artwork of Ana Mendieta. However, her artwork does not place her in the general category of “human architect” since she uses her own body as the interface of medium and substances – or the surface. Mendieta’s focus is not on her body as evidence of a human body, so like Ingold writes “here the surface of the artefact or building is not just of the particular material from which it is made, but of materiality itself as it confronts the creative human imagination” (Ingold 5). Mendieta’s work, therefore, challenges Ingold’s framework of materials to include the human body as a potential material to add to the discussion of materiality since it takes on “thingliness” and loses some of its “human” quality.

    Ana Mendieta, Silueta Works in Mexico                                                    Untitled (Body Tracks),1974

    20 x 13 inches, 1973-78, C-Print                                                     35mm-slide documentation of a performance with blood and cloth


    In Zoe’s class, the Archaeology of Contemporary Conflict, we’ve delved into the idea of the corpse as no longer being associated with whatever is essentially human; therefore, leaving it just another material object.  The living body, though, when separated from the idea of personality or personhood could be viewed as an object as well.  When the body is simply a body and not a person, then, we’re looking at its properties and not its qualities (as defined by Pye in Ingold).  Would it be possible then to bring the human body into the conversation of material and materiality?

    Material Engagement Theory

    February 24, 2009

    A few weeks ago in class, the discussants raised the question of how much of thing theory was reconciling our own animism. While I think animism and/or posthumanism is one extreme of the spectrum of object agency and objects as inanimate, agency-less things having absolutely no affect on humans exists as the other pole, I still find agency to be a difficult topic. Although this may be a naïve/poor reading of the texts which we have worked with to this point, I feel like the agency which the authors speak of is almost always secondary in nature. Viewed through the lens of Renfrew’s material engagement theory, objects seem to take on a more primary form of agency since, through daily social interaction, children learn about the world in which they exist. Perhaps, since I work in a children’s museum and see children learning through social engagement with objects regularly I am particularly influenced by this discussion. Unlike Gell, Renfrew does not focus on the distributed personhood of the object’s “maker” as giving the object agency, but bypasses this by recognizing that objects were made; however, it isn’t their creation that gives them agency, but their engagement in a social network. While it could be construed then that Renfrew’s recognizing objects as symbols of culture, I think that this is not the case when you consider learning from the object alone, learning because it’s thingness is efficacious. Furthermore, I think Renfrew is on to something in terms of adjusting the way that we identify agency in material things. Yet, I would like to take this one step further to see if it would be possible to extend material engagement theory to social engagement between an object and another object, instead of solely between an object and a person.

    Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography

    February 24, 2009


    Corridor, 1997

    “The eerily lit interiors in Kalpakjian’s pictures do not exist in three-dimensional reality. Devoid of human presence, these virtual spaces are created on a computer with sophisticated architectural design programs such as Form Z and Lightscape. Kalpakjian begins by drawing a simple model on the screen, then uses the imaging software to manipulate the light, shadow, surface texture, and tone. Finally, he selects a view of the virtual space and renders the resulting digital image as a photographic print. This anonymous institutional corridor, with its vaguely unsettling feeling of airlessness, offers an apt metaphor for the sterile functionality of contemporary bureaucratic culture.”

    Here’s the link for the special exhibit at the Met that I mentioned in class last week:

    What the Discussants Want

    February 17, 2009

    1) In making the switch from what do images do to what do pictures want, Mitchell implies a shift from agency to desire.  How are wants and needs different?  Do the images actually lose agency in this shift?

    2) Each reading presents a different way in which we are confronted with images from newspapers to art galleries to religious icons, how does the relational context in which we come into contact with images structure our interaction with them? 

    3) Pinney noted that “images have had a great freedom to act on their own” (166), but Knappett implies that art is imbued with the artist’s essence.  What is the relationship between the technology of art production and the viewer?  How does this change when the viewer has the opportunity to interact with the art?

    4)  When we discussed the fetish, we briefly touched on the possibility of a feminist reading of object studies.  This week, Mitchell writes that “the default position of images is feminine” (35).  How could a feminist reading of what images want be useful?  How could this relocate our understanding of images’ desires and needs?

    5) If Mitchell had read Gell’s concept of the distributed mind, how would that have informed/changed his work?

    6) Davis argues that by applying Gell’s theory in an effort to give agency to art that we actually end up taking it away by abducting it from it’s material history.  In this context, could the relationship between the artist and the object be seen as a tug of war of agency? Perhaps, could Knappett’s concept of layering and networking be a response to avoid the abduction of the agency of art?  

    week 4

    February 10, 2009

    By redefining the goals of an anthropology of art, Gell moves away from “the project of ‘indigenous aesthetics’” (3) and symbolic interpretation of art, towards the creation of a framework in which art can be understood by emulating existing anthropological theories.  He asserts that an anthropological theory of art must not recognize a distinction between the human and the art object as an agent by accounting “for the production and circulation of art objects as a function” of social relationships (11).  Although Gell believes agency to be a major component in the discussion of the anthropology of art, he does not consider objects to be agents in the same primary manner as humans.  Instead, objects are secondary objects because their agency is based upon the relational context in which they exist, meaning that they are simply physical manifestations “of the power or the capacity to will their use” (21).  He bases this off the conceptualization that there can only be an agent if a patient exists.  Through the very formulaic “Art Nexus” that he constructs and demonstrates, Gell frames art and agency within a seemingly simple system of relations and interactions.  After reading Gell, I am left wanting more.  It just seems far too simple and far too neat, which leaves me feeling as though at the end of everything Gell is still recognizing objects as having very limited agency on their own. Perhaps this is a misreading on my behalf, but even within his discussion of art captivating the viewer, captivation is reduced down to feelings of wonder/unease/threat in the spectator upon encountering “unimaginable virtuosity,” which, then, brings the agency back to the human actors since the audience is unable to interpret the work of the artist.