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Cine-Things: 1924

June 29, 2009



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.   



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



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.)



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.



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.



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. 



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. 

The Hidden Geography of Airport Security

June 14, 2009

The balance of force makes some actants stronger than others, but miniature trickster objects turn the tide without warning: a pebble can destroy an empire if the Emperor chokes at dinner.

Graham Harman, Prince of Networks

high tops

On December 22, 2001, Richard C. Reid, a 28 year old British citizen, attempted to blow up American Airlines flight 63 from Paris to Miami with bomb built into his black high top sneakers. One of the airline flight attendants noticed Mr. Reid trying to light a fuse sticking out of tongue of his shoes and was able to detain Mr. Reid (with help from other passengers) from detonating the bomb. Mr. Reid’s decision to try and use a bomb to blow up the airplane was triggered by the United States government decision to use bombs (much more sophisticated than that located in Mr. Reid’s high tops) to blow up parts of Afghanistan.  As quoted in a memorandum published in the New York Times, Mr. Reid felt that “an airplane attack, especially during the holiday season, would cause the American public to lose confidence in airline security and stop traveling, leading to a substantial loss of revenue which would, in turn, hurt the American economy” (Belluck 2002).

 Mr. Reid was conscious of the fact that his shoe bomb would have a ripple affect thought a variety of objects and experiences ranging from the ‘holiday season,’ to ‘airline security’ to ‘revenue’ and finally the ‘American economy’. As Bruno Latour says, “objects – taken as so many issues- bind all of us in ways that map out a public space profoundly different from what is usually recognized under the label of “the political” (Latour 2005:15).  The way in which objects come together to map out public space is what Latour defines as “hidden geography”. This essay will focus on the hidden geography of airport security – the place where the personal and political collide and international politics directly affect personal decisions such as how to pack one’s favorite shampoo and toothpaste for a long trip.


plastic bags - airport security

Before I continue, I feel obliged to include a disclaimer. In the last three weeks, I have passed though airport security gates 10 times, on three continents, not counting the surreal airport security system located at the entrance of a hotel I stayed at in Addis Abba, Ethiopia. I do not like airport security and I absolutely dread passing through it and having the intentionality of my objects and myself scrutinized. However I, like Mr. Reid, recognize its symbolic importance in making people feel safe. And as Oshima, a wise character in the Haruki Murakami’s book, “Kafka on the Shore,” observed, “the people who build high, strong fences are the ones who survive the best” (Murakami 2005; 316). Indeed, the United States’ political desire to control our borders and who enters into the vessels that transit them is one of our trademarks, somewhat ironic for a country who relied upon the lack of fences present when they arrived to be able to build its fortune. But I suppose our knowledge of what the lack of fences initially allowed our ‘forefathers’ to do is what inspires the government to build strong fences today.


 Airport security is an assemblage of things and the result of complicated histories and emotions. It has evolved along with technologies of war and as feelings of hatred and disgust shifted between the U.S. and “X” communist or Non-Christian country. Prior to the 1960s (when “stewardesses” had not yet turned into bitter flight attendants who yell “chicken or beef” with resentment), there was in fact very little airport security. Then, between 1968 and1972 there was a sharp rise in hijackings resulting in 364 registered attempts, largely connected to Castro’s rise to power in Cuba and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Wells and Young 2003). This prompted the implementation of “sky marshals” on US aircrafts announced as part of Richard Nixon’s anti-hijacking plan on September 11, 1970. Similar to airport police, the early airport security was focused on protecting people once on the aircraft, rather than focusing on prohibiting certain people and objects from boarding the plane. Sky marshals were not as effective as hoped, which led to the Federal Aviation Administration requiring that passengers and their belongings be screened prior to boarding in 1973.  Up until 2002, airport security was primarily a private enterprise regulated by federal laws, yet after September 11th, The Aviation and Transportation Security Act was passed requiring all screenings at airports to be conducted by Federal employees in addition to a slew of policies focused on controlling things. The Transportation Security Administration was formed and later included as part of Bush’s baby,  “The Department of Homeland Security” and has over 54,000 workers nationwide, all of whom have to pass through extensive interviews and criminal background checks prior to being hired (Wells and Young 2003). 

Private security enterprises have benefited from the ‘fear industry’, being challenged to develop new technologies to keep up with the changing nature of war, hate, and people’s goals with airplane attacks.  New technologies to detect biological pathogens, full-body scans to more effectively catch weapons, and mechanisms to detect body temperature and prevent people from boarding aircrafts suspected of carrying the Swine Flu virus have been developed. Things designed to detect other things, with the assumption that because they are machines and technology, they are somehow non-judgmental and able to better detect objects without the error of human judgment or prejudice. Yet can intentionality be discerned on an x-ray screen? Are more than 100 ml of fluid, even nail clippers or scissors bad intentions materialized? No, I would argue that they are evidence of Latour’s assertion that the “Body Politik” is not only made of people”, but rather “thick with things” (Latour 2005: 16) and the laws, businesses, and policies designed to regulate and control them. 


While the technology used to detect objects has evolved, the reasons why airplanes are targets of attacks seems to have remained largely the same. The physical body of the airplane (or even arguably that of the people on it) is not the end goal of the ‘terrorist’, but rather the politics of the explosion. The destruction of airplanes is a message that provokes fear, uncertainty and, at least in the case of attacks targeted at the United States, negatively affect the center of US power: the economy. Similar to Latour’s gun, it is not the gun or bomb that is the ‘problem’. The Transportation Security Administration and machines developed to detect dangerous things divert attention to the material manifestations of the assemblage rather the hidden geography of the political landscape that led to the gun, or bomb in this case, being on the plane in the first place. 



Belluck, Pam. (2002). Traces of Terror: The show bomb case; Prosecutors See Plot in Attempted  Bombing. The New York Times. May 24.

Harman, Graham. (2007). Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. Unpublished manuscript.

Latour, Bruno. (2005). From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Murakami, Haruki. (2005). Kafka on the Shore. New York: Vintage Books. 

Wells, Alexander and Seth Young. (2003). Airport Planning and Management. McGraw Hill Professional.

The Glass Flowers

May 28, 2009

The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants


I’m approaching the Glass Flowers as a study of a thing that presents itself somewhat explicitly as an object of our attention. Rather than attempting to cultivate an attention to everyday things whose thingness eludes us (e.g. Heidegger’s jug, Bill Brown’s window, Latour’s door), I instead want to think about how we attend to things whose thingness we might feel is already immediately available. This study tries to be less about seeing a thing as something other than an object of our use and more about seeing something more in that very quality of objecthood. The objecthood of the Glass Flowers is made explicit in their status as objects of our use as instructional tools, objects of our contemplation as works of art, and objects of representational practice as things that forefront the fact that they represent other things (“natural” flowers). I want to tell three parts of the story of the Glass Flowers as objects.


Although [the Glass Flowers] are representations themselves, they defy representation. A photograph of the glass model of a daylily or a strawberry plant looks exactly like a photograph of the daylily or strawberry plant in your garden…. It is the wonder of the copy that itself cannot be copied, which somehow is more authentic than the original.
–Lorraine Daston, ”The Glass Flowers”

The Glass Flowers, officially known as the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, are a set of approximately 3,000 life-size models of plants made out of glass, with occasional bits of wire, paint, and glue. The collection is owed by Harvard University, where the models are on disply in the Harvard Museum of Natural History. George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of the Harvard Botanical Museum, commissioned the models in 1886 from Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, a father and son team of glassmakers based in Hosterwitz, near Dresden. The Blaschkas produced the models over 50 years, Leopold until his death in 1895 and Rudolph until his retirement at age 79 in 1936.


MusaParadisiacamusa paradisiaca191580mp Picture 1mp Picture 2

fig. 1, upper left: Musa paradisiaca – “in nature”
fig. 2, upper right: Musa paradisiaca – herbarium specimen
fig. 3, lower left: Musa paradisiaca – drawing by Rudolph Blaschka
fig. 4, lower right: Musa paradisiaca – glass model by Rudolph Blaschka

The first part of this story concerns the concept of type. Goodale’s commission of the Glass Flowers was motivated by a desire for adaquate instructional tools. There was a problem of access–students in Cambridge simply did not have access to the majority of the plant world, especially not plants in their natural settings (fig. 1, above). Existing models made of wax or paper mache as well as dried plant specimens (fig. 2) were felt to be insufficient for teaching students to recognize plants in their natural settings. At the same time, even fresh plant specimens could not entirely satisfy Goodale’s pedagogical desires, for any given specimen seemed by itself too specific to stand for an entire species of plant. When Goodale turned to the Blaschkas, he charged them with producing “exact fac-similes of certain typical plants” (Daston 2004: 249). In taking up this charge, the Blaschkas’ research was based on plants they grew in their own garden from seeds sent by Harvard botanists, plants in the nearby royal gardens in Pillnitz, and drawings Rudolph made during two research expeditions to the US and the Caribbean (fig. 3).

But what does it mean to copy a “typical plant”? If these glass flowers are models, what exactly are they models of? On the one hand, working at this level of detail, the Blaschkas clearly couldn’t simply model a glass flower on a general idea of what a given species of plant looked like–there had to be specific referents. On the other hand, Goodale explicitly did not want a one-to-one correlation between each glass model and a plant specimen existing in the world. Each Blaschka model had to represent a species, not a single specimen.

Looking at the way that the concept of type has operated in botany offers something with which to think. The type method, officially adopted for botanical work in 1910, fixed each species name to an individual specimen of that species. Yet there remained a recognition that no individual specimen could be definitively typical of a species. A specimen can be a type, but it’s harder to say that it can be typical. In Objectivity, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison write of the interplay between truth-to-nature and objectivity in the rise of modern science. Botany’s type method is an example of an approach governed by objectivity–names are tied to actually existing objects in the world. Truth-to-nature, in contrast, dictates an interest in “the idea in the observation, not the raw observation itself” (Daston and Galison 2007: 73). This approach, whose persistence in botany is indicated by the relatively recent adoption of the type method, asserts a truth to what a thing is that can’t be fully captured by any single example of the thing. Goodale’s desire for “exact fac-similes of certain typical plants” suggests a desire for truth-to-nature, for glass models of the truth of things more than of specific things themselves.

This discussion of the concept of type prompts me to touch upon the tendency to talk about a thing in generic terms–when we talk about a thing, we tend to talk about a typified thing, we talk about a jug as if it constitutes the entirety of jugness–while talking about humans in specific and individual terms. This tendency confronts us as a way in which we persist in taking up human and non-human worlds on radically different terms. We persist in standardizing the variability of the non-human world, as emerges in the botanical examples of the type method and Goodale’s pedagogical desires as attempts to put into order the seeming excesses of nature.

Type also leads me to representation. Daston tells of a remark made by Harvard botanist William Farlow to a colleague about a visitor to the collection who “told me she could not imagine anything so beautiful as the models. I ventured to ask whether she did not think the plants themselves were beautiful” (Daston 2004: 250). This remark illustrates a point often made, that representation doesn’t merely represent a thing, it also replaces that thing by constituting a new thing. Yet we can maybe say a bit more about what representation does. Namely, we can ask of a thing that represents what it does and even what it wants–we can’t simply dismiss it as a thing that merely represents. There is nothing mere about representation. Maybe by addressing the idea of representation we can more clearly recognize the ways that meaning is still so much a part of our discussion of doing and being, and that it’s not the case that we wouldn’t want it to be.


The second part of this story is about the wonderment that surrounds the flowers. It’s a wonderment that I don’t want to dispel. One way that this wonderment appears is in the form of disbelief at the process by which the Glass Flowers come into being. Theories of a secret technique employed by the Blaschkas are an integral part of this story. Even people who observed the Blaschkas at work, including Goodale, struggled to account for what they saw. Goodale managed this: “Although you may see him touch a flat piece of glass with his little metallic tools, you know that it is no ordinary touch which suddenly shapes it into a living form.” (Brown 1999). What he knew just didn’t seem sufficient for what these flowers were. There’s a sense that emerges here of an excess in what these flowers are beyond that which can be accounted for by a knowledge of how they are made. It’s an excess that can’t be reduced to an inability to grasp the technical process of manufacture. Here I want to depart from Alfred Gell’s discussion of the technology of enchantment and the enchantment of technology, by which we construe objects as magical as a result of our inability to understand the technical processes by which they are made (Gell 1992: 49). It’s precisely the accessibility of the technical process that highlights the excess that remains beyond it.


Many people think that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact.
–Leopold Blaschka

Another place where the wonderment surrounding the flowers appears is in the experience of viewing them on display. This sense of wonder emerges from a play between seeing and not seeing that these flowers are made of glass. On the one hand, what’s amazing is that they look indistinguishable from natural flowers, not at all like glass. On the other hand, subtle gestures towards their material–perhaps a momentary gleam as you shift your viewing angle–contribute to an aesthetic appreciation for these flowers as not “just” natural flowers. Viewers are held in wonder, in part at least, by their minds’ play between knowing and not knowing what they are seeing.

The wonder emerges as well from the odd feeling one gets at encountering these flowers on display in rows of cabinets in a dimly lit museum hall. It’s not only that the setting strikes viewers as so unfitting for objects that seem to want to reside outdoors, attached to the ground or trees. The flowers seem also to be locked in an unaccustomed temporality–they have no past or future as flowers, they neither grow nor decay as flowers, only as pieces of glass. The Glass Flowers are simultaneously the perfect flowers and not flowers at all. If the wonder surrounding the flowers’ manufacture can be described in terms of an excess, the wonder surrounding their display seems might be described in terms of multiplicity, the multiplicity of realities the flowers enact for their viewers.


To see the flowers now made of glass, lying down on their sides, in their display cabinets, so accurate, so pristine, so without blemish, is to be in a state of wonderment. For in the end, they do not look like perfect flowers on the stems of perfect branches adorned with perfect leaves growing from perfect plants. They look real enough but as if the real is from another realm.
–Jamaica Kincaid, “Splendor in the Glass”

In taking up the idea of wonder, I’m hoping to speak to Henare, Holbraad, and Wastell’s call for a ethnographic methodology of wonder at things (Henare et al. 2007). I want to suggest that we might move towards Henare et al.’s desire to cultivate a sense of wonder at the everyday and the taken-for-granted by considering the wonder that already operates in the world without our directed attempts to produce it. The wonderment surrounding the Glass Flowers suggests that rather than thinking of wonder primarily in terms of an openess–a naivite–towards things, which can feel more disabling than enabling, we might also think of a sensibility of wonderment as carried out through a recognition of the complexity of things, a complexity that emerges in the case of the Glass Flowers in terms of their excess and their enactment of multiplicity. Perhaps this offers us a way of thinking about a methodology of wonder as a more active practice than the idiom of naivite suggests.


The third part of the story is a story of obsessiveness. It’s about the obsessive care and attention that the Glass Flowers gather around themselves. There’s of course the obsessiveness of the two men who spent 50 years of their lives under exclusive contract to do nothing with their working hours except produce these flowers. But there are other elements to this story of obsessive care and attention as well.


These people were obsessive. Not only did the Blaschkas make all 2,500 of those buds and blossoms, you have Walter Deane over here counting them.
–Susan Rossi-Wilcox, quoted in Brown 1999

Consider, for example, how the flowers made their way from the Blaschkas’ workshop in Hosterwitz, Germany to the Harvard Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts:
The finished model would be mounted on firm cardboard, with strong wire securing it. The mounted specimen was then placed in a sturdy cardboard box. Tissue paper was used to cushion it and keep the parts that could not readily be wired from moving…. Next, the cardboard box would be covered; and, when a number of such boxes were ready, they were all placed in a very large, sturdy wooden box with a sufficient amount of straw padding to keep the individual boxes from touching one another or the walls of the wooden box. The wooden cover was then screwed on, and the box was embedded in more straw padding before being wrapped in burlap. The finished bale, which was nearly the height of a person, was then sent to a seaport, loaded onto a ship, and transported to America. Here, the packing procedure was reversed, much care being taken in the final process of removing the models from their cardboard boxes. (Schultes and Davis 1982.)

And then there’s this anecdote about how the flowers traveled from Cambridge to New York and back for an exhibition:
The models, packed in wooden cases…, were to be flown from Boston to New York in a small plane. But the question of how they could be safely transported over the icy, potholed streets to Logan Airport in Boston and from La Guardia to Manhattan remained. What type of automobile had the best springs to give the smoothest ride? Although the obvious conclusion was the use of a limousine, test runs indicated a hearse was even better. So, one afternoon in March, two large black hearses, each with a driver in funereal dress, backed up to the doors of the museum, and the boxes were loaded. The automobiles proved to be such a perfect answer that, after a well-attended month-long showing, the models were not returned by air but were driven the 200 miles back to Cambridge in two hearses. (Schultes and Davis 1982.)

Photo 10Photo 9

It becomes clear that instead of just asking about the flowers as things that are human-made, we ought to ask about all the things that the flowers make humans do. “The Glass Flowers did more than crystallize labor; they multiplied it,” Daston writes (Daston 2004: 240). The flowers call upon an obsessive level of care an attention in anyone who encounters them, from the Blaschkas to the museum visitor and, crucially, everyone who encounters them in between. This quality of the Glass Flowers calls particular attention to the materiality of these objects by making people so careful about specifically their materiality. The flowers make us ask so intently what their materials are, how we can work to preserve and restore them, and how we ought to behave around them.

DISEASED glass1-250


  • Brown, Nancy Marie. 1999. “Flowers Out of Glass” [article online]. Research/PennState 20.3. Accessed 17 May 2009. Available at
  • Daston, Lorraine. 2004. “The Glass Flowers.” In Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science. Edited by Lorraine Daston. New York: Zone Books. 223-256.
  • Daston, Lorraine and Peter Gallison. 2007. Objectivity. New York: Zone Books.
  • Gell, Alfred. 1992. “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology.” In Anthropology Art and Aesthetics. Edited by Jeremy Coote and Anthony Shelton. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 40-66.
  • Henare, Amiria, Martin Holbraad, and Sari Wastell. 2007. “Introduction: Thinking Through Things.” In Thinking Through Things: Theorizing Artefacts Ethnographically. Edited by Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad, and Sari Wastell London: Routledge. 1-31.
  • Kincaid, Jamaica. 2002. “Splendor in the Glass” [article online]. Architectural Digest June 2002. Accessed 17 May 2009. Available at
  • Schultes, Richard Evans and William A. Davis with Hillel Burger. 1982. The Glass Flowers at Harvard. New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc.
  • [photo credits: none of the photos belong to me, most come from Schultes and Davis 1982, contact me for specific information]

Market Research Things: An Opportunity for Collaboration

May 26, 2009

1. Remarks on Collaboration

“To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied.”
–Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

We find ourselves compelled, but perplexed, by Henare, Holbraad and Wastell’s call for an ethnographic methodology of engaging heuristically with things. They write, “Rather than going into the field armed with a set of pre-determined theoretical criteria against which to measure the ‘things’ one already anticipates might be encountered, it is proposed that the ‘things’ that present themselves be allowed to serve as a heuristic with which a particular field of phenomena can be identified, which only then engender theory” (5). We’re interested in what might help us continue to think about how to craft such a methodology. In this context, we want to explore where the idiom of collaboration takes us. We want to bring to bear on our work with things some thoughts on ethnographic relationships configured as collaborations. Where does it take us to think of things as collaborators in research?

Collaboration strikes us as an interesting idiom because of some particularly rich discussions of collaboration in ethnographic work, collaboration both as a methodology for research and as an object of analysis. We are being, we recognize, a bit playful in exploring the idea that–in the same way that we have registered a parallel between a post-colonial interest in whether the subaltern can speak and a materially-oriented interest in whether the thing can–we now want to suggest a productivity in sketching an incipient parallel between a shift in the focus of ethnographic relationships from an other to an informant to a collaborator and a shift in the focus of our relationship with things from radical ontological alterity to collaborative potential.

The discussions of collaboration in ethnographic work are useful in this context in that they not only proceed with a sense that collaboration is possible across multiple epistemologies (or epistemic communities), but in fact that the multiplicity is what makes collaboration so necessary. The question we want to pose is whether we enact a similar move for ontologies, and thereby see collaboration as a way of conceptualizing how we relate to things.

2. Ethnographic Collaborations

Looking at Doug Holmes and George Marcus’s recent article “Collaboration Today and the Re-Imagination of the Classic Scene of Fieldwork Encounter,” we can imagine a parallel between the way they talk about relationships among people and about knowing, on the one hand, and a way of thinking about relationships between people and things and about being very much along the lines of Henare et al.’s discussion, on the other hand. They write, “Working amid and on collaborations significantly shifts the purposes of ethnography from description and analysis, inevitably distanced practices for which it has settled, to a deferral to subjects’ modes of knowing, a function to which ethnography has long aspired” (2). “The point is, again, to integrate fully our subjects’ analytical acumen and insights to define the issues at stake in our projects, as well as the means by which we explore them” (8).

In her ethnography Friction, Anna Tsing makes the point that collaboration is not at all inhibited, but rather enabled, by divergence among collaborators. “Through the frictions of such collaborations, global conservation projects–like other forms of traveling knowledge–gain their shape. Collaboration is not a simple sharing of information. There is no reason to assume that collaborators share common goals. In transnational collaborations, overlapping but discrepant forms of cosmopolitanism may inform contributors, allowing them to converse–but across difference. Attention to collaboration moves discussion beyond the eternal standoff between opposing interest groups…but not because it assumes that compromise is always imminent. Collaboration creates new interests and identities, but not to everyone’s benefit” (13).

Annemarie Mol, writing about artherosclerosis in her ethnography The Body Multiple, brings us even closer to applying a this way of seeing collaboration to a discussion of ontologies. She makes the point that a capacity to act does not rest upon shared ontology. “A shared, coherent ontology is not required for treatment and prevention practices. Incompatibilities between objects enacted are no obstacle to medicine’s capabilities to intervene….That the ontology enacted in medical practice is an amalgam of variants-in-tension is more likely to contribute to the rich, adaptable, and yet tenacious character of medical practice. Distributions separate out what might otherwise clash” (115).

Working with this idea that collaboration doesn’t require similarity but rather proceeds through dissimilarity, collaboration as a different way of talking about the rhizomatic entanglements of things can perhaps move us away from considering thingness primarily in the breakdown of things. The question we pose, which we’d like to consider in light of a question about alternatives to hyper-humanism and post-humanism, is not “What do things want?” or “Why do things resist?” but rather, what do things and we together enact? To speak of collaboration attunes us to enactment, and in particular to the practices through which enactment occurs.

We turn, then, to a particular site, where this idea of things as collaborators in research can finally take on some actual thingness. We want to look at market research as a set of practices through which our relationships with things are organized, keeping in mind the question of whether the idiom of collaboration is at all useful for considering these practices. Does considering market research as collaboration help us to recognize, yet feel neither alienated nor overwhelmed by (and thus still entangled with), the force of things?

3. Market Research Things

And so for four years and maybe more they explored and interviewed and analysed. Why are pure-suction vacuum cleaners selling so poorly? What do people of modest origin think of chicory? Do you like ready-made mashed potato and if so, why? Because it’s light? Because it’s creamy? Because it’s easy to make – just open it up and there you are? Do people really reckon baby carriages are expensive? Aren’t you always prepared to fork out a bit extra for the good of the kids? Which way will French women vote? Do people like cheese in squeezy tubes? Are you for or against public transport? What do you notice first when you eat yoghurt? – the colour? the texture? the taste? natural odour? … Do you like frozen food? How much do you think a lighter like this costs, eh? What do you look for in a mattress? Describe a man who likes pasta. What do you think of your washing machine? …

There was washing, drying, ironing. Gas, electricity and the telephone. Children. Clothes and underclothes. Mustard. Packet soups, tinned soups. Hair: how to wash it, how to dry it, how to make it hold a wave, how to make it shine. Students, fingernails, cough syrup, typewriters, fertilizers, tractors, leisure pursuits, presents, stationary, linen, politics, motorways, alcoholic drinks, mineral water, cheeses, jams, lamps and curtains, insurance and gardening. Nil humani alienum… Nothing that was human was outside their scope.

Georges Perec, Things: A Story of the Sixties

The interview (individual or focus group) is only one of the many technologies of market research.  There are national surveys sampling the population across every relevant variable and correlating them with sale statistics.  Segments are identified based on affinity and made into target groups.  There are blind taste tests where consumers evaluate beer for drinkability, bitterness, gas and foam, and chocolate for sweetness and if it does not stick to the tongue too much. Ethnology students—Malinowski in hand—move in with “regular people” do participant observation of their coffee brewing practices.  Others hang out with the cool kids to study new trends.  In a lab in Warsaw an expert in neuromarketing puts electrodes to subjects heads to measure how their frontal lobes respond to certain commercials.

A vast industry in every market economy, market research makes the consumers visible to the marketers—literally, as in the case of a moderated discussion in a room with a two-way mirror, and more figuratively through statistics and quantitative models of economic behavior, psychological studies of consumer unconscious and ethnographic research into the consumer’s everyday.  This knowledge is used to develop and refine mass-produced things or gauge the price people will be willing to pay for them.  More importantly, it gives input to the work of branding and advertisement, which invest the products with subtly designed and controlled meanings and emotional appeal beyond their utilitarian use.  (For example, a particular brand of beer may expected to speak about masculinity and male bonding, symbolically addressing perceived emotional and social needs or lacks in its target group.)

We plan to explore market research as a site of mediation and collaboration.  Firstly, it is a set of practices bringing together the producers and the consumers in performing the market—their mutual relationship figured as “supply” and “demand” through statistical description and probabilistic reasoning.  Secondly, in this interaction a lot of attention is given to localizing or nationalizing the products and brands in transnational circulation (market research is expected to articulate the “local difference” within the global capitalist economy).  Third, marketers are careful to use research to negotiate the manufactured versus authentic binary.  Hence their preoccupation with ethnography and questions of everyday appropriation of consumer products in everyday life of “real people,” as well as interest in psychology of the subconscious (thus “real”) needs and desires that consumers have.  Finally, in market research there is a tension between the immateriality of the abstract “market” and the materiality of actual things that are manufactured, advertised, sold and consumed.

We will be interested in market research as a site of knowledge production, where it is not only information that is produced, but through this process new kinds of people and new kinds of practices.
market research is a field where things and people collaborate to produce a new kind of subject, the consumer, and new kinds of consumption practices.

Thinking about an ethnography of capitalism focused on practices engaging affect that perform the consumer market we are inspired by Michel Callon et al.’s (2002) notion of the economy of qualities.  In an effort to present a description of the market that follows from an analytical symmetry between human and non-human actors Callon et al. offer a conceptualization of a product that foregrounds its unstable and fluid nature.

The product is a sequence of transformations.  This notion of product is contrasted with a more traditional economic notion of a good.  For example, a car as an economic good is a stable object with predetermined qualities, use and value.  As a product, however, it does not have qualities; it has to constantly be qualified.  “[I]t starts off by existing in the form of a set of specifications, then a model, then a prototype, then a series of assembled elements and, finally, a car in a catalogue that is ordered from a dealer…” (p. 198).

It is through this process of qualification (aided by techniques of market research) that stable marketable things emerge: “All quality is obtained at the end of a process of qualification, and all qualification aims to establish a constellation of characteristics, stabilized at least for a while, which are attached to the product and transform it temporarily into a tradable good in the market” (p. 199).

Such a “thing theory” positing the ontological stability of products on the market as something achieved and temporary rather than given enables us to see that market research is equally concerned with reflexive stabilization and destabilization of products (see Foster 2007).

4. Collaborating on/with bottled water

Marketing concept:

I usually drink water when I’m thirsty. Don’t wait for thirst. Do you know that a 2% loss of water in your body can make your body’s efficiency drop by 20%? Remember, drink 1.5 liters of the water X everyday, even if you’re not thirsty.


Q (researcher): If I was a Martian and had no idea was thirst is, how would you describe it?

A (consumer): Your lips are dry.

Q: Uhuh, dry lips, what else?

A: You can’t concentrate, you can’t focus, all you think about is that you want something to drink. And then this drink will bring relaxation, a sort of relief, will take the stress away. Because this dryness in the mouth is the kind that you think that in a moment you’re going to die.


Q: What is the difference between fizzy and still water?

A: The still one, you can say, is tasteless. It’s like that. And you know I’ve been married to my husband, such a long time, and he always says that still water is like drinking that awful tap water. So this influences me, this talk, and he keeps telling me that fizzy is good and still is bad. And I also tried this Lemon Arctic brand, but it was too sweet. So maybe now this water I’ll be experimenting with will have this something which will be awesome. And maybe it will be a substitute for the water I drink in my fitness club. But with water I’m more theory than practice. Theoretically I know that one should drink the still kind.

Q: OK, so I understand, theoretically it’s the still water, but what does it do to your body? Does it do something else with your body than other beverages?

A: Yes, I think so, because it doesn’t have all these chemicals in it. It’s made of natural ingredients. So one feels better after drinking this. Physically, because your bowels work differently. Your stomach acids work better. And the whole digestion is just better. It’s healthier than stuffing yourself with bubbles. You know, bicarbonate. Because a lot of fizzy waters, you know, they have this bicarbonate. And you burp.

Q What do you think would happen if you drank that much water every day from now on?

A: … if this water was a kind of like everyday ritual… I don’t know if my skin would be even be more supple, softer, but maybe, you know, all your skin would get better on the legs and everywhere, because in every human being the skin on the legs is thicker, it’s both in men and women. And older women have drier skin because they don’t have water in their body. These processes of, you know, hydration are not happening. I noticed that my skin was softer after these two weeks. And because I earlier had problems with it, because you know my skin has this tendency to get dry, on my hands. My husband, by the way, has horrible hands because he got frostbite when he was in the military. But my skin now is very nice. You can touch it if you like. Is it OK for researchers to touch women?

Q: Yes, I think we do it sometimes. I was more interested in how it makes you feel.

A: It feels nicer, my skin is more silky. I feel better with it, I feel comfortable. It’s about my pleasure really because I’m not the kind of person who’s looking to others to tell me that I look good. But it’s also nice to think that your hand feels better in contact with another person, like when you shake hands or a man kisses you on the hand.

Q: So what else happened during this experiment?

A: Psychologically, I got pissed off. All this drinking and constant going to the bathroom. Physically, I feel lighter. I lost 1.5 kilos.

Q: After drinking this water for two weeks everyday, if you were to write a letter or give a speech to a friend to convince her to do this, what would you say?

A: I would say, Ursula, I strongly recommend that you drink still water, because in a two-week experiment I noticed that I got thinner, I feel lighter, I feel more toned, and you don’t get this feeling of being full like you get with the fizzy water. Oh, oh, and my skin is better moisturized and supple. So I strongly recommend it, even though I know you hate still water.


Callon, Michel, Cécile Méadel and Volonona Rabeharisoa. 2002. “The economy of qualities.” Economy and Society 31:2: 194-217.
Foster, Robert J. 2007. “The work of the new economy: Consumers, Brands, and Value Creation.” Cultural Anthropology 22.2: 707-731.
Henare, Amiria, Martin Holbraad and Sari Wastell. 2007. Thinking Through Things: Theorizing Artefacts Ethnographically. London: Routledge.
Holmes, Douglas R. & George E. Marcus 2008. “Collaboration Today and the Re-Imagination of the Classic Scene of Fieldwork Encounter,” Collaborative Anthropologies 1:136-70.
Mol, Annemarie. 2002. The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham, NC: Duke Univerity Press.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Object Study: The Hudson River / great waters which are constantly in motion, either flowing or ebbing

May 22, 2009

“As the evening approached, the channel grew more narrow; the banks more and more precipitous; and these later were clothed in richer, more profuse, and more somber foliage.  The water increased in transparency.  The stream took a thousand turns, so that at no moment could its gleaming surface be seen for a greater distance than a furlong.  At every instant the vessel seemed imprisoned with an enchanted surface, having insuperable and impenetrable walls of foliage, a roof of ultra-marine satin, and no floor…The channel now became a gorge…the crystal water welled up against clean granite, or the unblemished moss, with a sharpness of outline that delighted while it bewildered the eye.[i] 

                                                                             – Edgar Allan Poe, Domain of Arnheim




How do you describe a river to someone who has never known one?


The Hudson River, a thing of beauty, of nature, of history; a river with as many narratives as bends in its journey from dewy moss droplets to titanic sea.  It is a river steeped in meaning – it is a bountiful river, a strategic river, a sacred river, a perilous river, a chameleon river, a river of controversy, a river of commerce, a river of reprieve, a river of conscience, a river that mirrors, a river that brings together and tears apart.  It is a river that is constantly doing.  The Hudson is a river of change and relations, since its birth as a ‘drowned river’ it has sculpted the landscape around it and been sculpted by it.  The billion-year-old Storm King Mountain that buttresses the river’s side has yielded to its power, and plant and animal life have emerged and disintegrated along its shores and in its waters.  People have been drawn to its resources and battles have been raged over it.  It has helped build a nation, and it has assisted in the devastation of its own inhabitants.  It has cultivated the arts, it has spurned growth, it has been a harbinger of decline. 


The Hudson River is a thing that is more than beauty, more than nature, and more than history.  Its agency spills out over its edges and its power resides in its many variations over space, time, and imaginations.  By looking at, listening to, reminiscing about, imagining towards, speaking out about, asking questions of, intermingling with, and writing about the river, I think we can learn something simplistically important about the way things go.  Perhaps we can also experience how creativity flows, the interconnectedness of things, and the way we are bound up in things and things are bound up in us. 


When I look upon the Hudson, an unexpected line comes to mind, John Locke’s remark that, “In the beginning, all the world was America.” Freedom was found at the frontiers and it was the river that took the hopeful traveler into those lands of promise and possibility.  I imagine that in the river’s murmur, in its glimmer, its fortitude, and its bend, Locke’s statement locates a spirit that embodies the social imaginary of his time, of our time, and perhaps of all time – that of great ideals, expansive hope, and coursing potential. 


The river I look out on almost everyday is the Hudson.  Usually I take note of only the very simple and superficial things.  The color of the water and the texture of its surface, then maybe the things floating on top of it, the sun upon it, and perhaps the smells that accompanies it.  I take for granted that it will be there, whether I look upon it or not, whether or not I detour my route to ride alongside of it.  I also take for granted the cool breeze that it generates, the break that it ensures so that the buildings are not all that I can see and feel.  I enjoy the longer daylight hours that it affords and the birdlife that it attracts. 



The River as Enchantment


When something captivates us, it escapes us.  Early humans gazing at the night sky, observing the movement of the stars, or mimicking the flight patterns of migrating birds begin to dance.  Here nature was teacher, mother, and maker.  Following the river, I am going to attempt a move from rootedness to distributedness.  The story will be about the connection between things and the arrangement that is produced.  When we act on the world, we act upon ourselves…the river can more than metaphorically show us this.


Landscape has the potential to inspire.  And the inspiration falls upon the animate and the inanimate. 


A vista of the Hudson snaking its way through the Highlands inspires a person to write a poem or paint a picture.  The curvature of a mountain near Storm King inspires an animal to create a place to spend the winter months.  The unknown territory of the upper reaches of the river inspire inventions that seek to explore, cultivate, and develop.  The power of a waterfall inspires a new way of creating and distributing power.  A grove of trees drowned by a corporation inspires the fury and formation of a collective.  A great river inspires a valley to yield, a lake to supply, and life to gather.



The River Divides 


Bill Ingold finds there to be an artificially enforced separation between what we call nature and culture, and that this error can be overcome by going back to nature and to materials.  He urges us to follow the materials themselves.  The river straddles the nature/culture divide.  As a thing it is of nature, it is something that the earth created as it is constantly metamorphosizing.  The river is where we go when we want to be with nature and commune with nature, but it is also a place we go when we want to connect with our own nature.


The river also challenges the human/non-human dialectic. The river is a place that also has a culture of its own, it gathers, it has a practice, a mode of communication, a shared set of veracities.  The river is not human but it has been integral in the development of our humanity.  The generations of fishermen, scores of Native American tribes that lived along its shores, the tycoons that built their fortresses along its bluffs, the painters and poets that were inspired, the villagers that called it home, the conservationists that dedicated their lives to it, all these humans imparted themselves in the Hudson and became entangled.  The river is a hybrid being.



The Power of the River 

As a thing that has had a great many interactions over the course of its existence, the river has done many things.  It has defended, it has poisoned, it has spawned, it has inspired.  Jane Bennett writes, “Thing-power entails the ability to shift or vibrate between states of being, to go from trash/inanimate/resting to treasure/animate/alert.”[ii]  I walk along the Hudson and I must acknowledge its thing-power.  It changes things, it changes me, it itself changes.  I overheard it once said that you are never looking at the same Hudson.  There are so many relations bound up in this thing we call the Hudson River.  When considering the river, I want to explore its relations, alliances, and trials of strength.



The River as Rhizome


The river is clearly rhizomatic in many fundamental ways, especially when you take all of its webby relations into account.  Having no subject or object, the rhizome is composed of ‘directions in motion’ and grows from the middle, extending its lines of flight.[iii] The Hudson’s original name, the river that flows in two directions, speaks to the rhizome’s characteristic of being comprised of ‘directions in motion.’  As the rhizome grows from the center outwards in all directions, any one relation occurring within the realm of the river, can be traced outward, as it joins with other relations forming alliances and breaking them as well.  We can enter at any one of an infinity of openings.  Deleuze and Guattari propose that perhaps the rhizome’s most important characteristic is that it always has multiple entranceways.[iv]


A tree that is nourished by the river drops one of its branches into it during a storm.  The branch is bathed by the river and baked by the sun until in becomes a bleached piece of drift that the current and tide carry to and fro.  The piece of wood joins others like it along with bits of debris and end up getting washed up on a long stretch of rock on the west side of the river’s Manhattan shoreline.  After time passes in its rocky crevice, someone picks it up and places it within a sculpture that stands for several days and then collapses back into the river.  The wood is adrift again and eventually breaks down into its organic elements and settles on the bottom of the river where it is fed on by small invertebrate whom are then eaten by a river fish.  The river fish travels up a not so distant feeder river and spawns, not so far away from where that branch from the tree over the river fell.


The rhizome has no beginning or end, it is all middle.  It is an alliance with no center, it is a multiplicity of dimensions, and it is constantly in motion.[v]  Any point within the rhizome can be connected to anything else, it can be ruptured at any point, but it will start up again forming a new or already existing connection.[vi] “The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, and offshoots.”[vii]  At any point in this description, you can substitute the word ‘rhizome’ with ‘river.’  The river does the work of a rhizome, you can chose a moment, a dimension, a material, a happening, and see it as if it is captured in the momentary flash of a camera, or you can take in what is beyond the edges of the frame and go beyond its singular dimensionality and recognize the work of the rhizome.



The River as Assemblage


I am borrowing the concept of assemblage from Deleuze: an ad hoc collectivity that is historically situated, alive, decentralized, and constituted of the human and non-human, the material and immaterial..[viii]  The Hudson River is an assemblage.  It contains things animate and inanimate, stories, sounds, collectivities, energy, time-past, time-present, and time-future.  It has an effect that is at once reflective and transparent; it is iridescent.  It acts as a lens that enables one to simultaneously see through and reflect back.  The dual ability to penetrate and mirror has inspired me to think about the Hudson as a thing anew, a thing among things, one that can give insight into what a thing does, how it does it and how figuring out what it all means is not really the point. 


The Hudson is not a tool, a paradigm, a symbol, a resource, an icon, an idea, a landmark, a treasure, a way of life… its more all of these things, in addition to those things that allude categories, that are not able to serve as descriptors.  Ferreting out the meaning of the assemblage is an exercise that is as futile as picking up a piece of driftwood on the banks of the Hudson’s Upper Westside and trying to figure out where it came from and how exactly.  Perhaps more interesting and rewarding is to pick up that piece of driftwood and integrate yourself into the assemblage by creating a work of art.  In this way, you just may feel more connected to the river and to yourself, as you are swept up in the current of not why it all matters, but simply that it does.


Just one aspect of the Hudson’s assemblage consists of the creatures and life forms that depend upon its waters.  If we examine this webby world of life that ebb and flow in and out of the river we encounter a sundry and dynamic arena.  The most numerous of the Hudson’s plants are phytoplankton.  Marsh plants form the most productive denizens.  And trees of all shapes and sizes hem the river’s edge, something that Henry Hudson was astonished by.  The animals of the Hudson River include white-footed mouse, moles, Norwegian rats, river otters, mink, shrew, and muskrats.  The bird life consists of geese, swans, ducks, sandpipers, egrets, herons, gulls, warblers, blackbirds, bald eagles, osprey, and wrens.  The amphibians and reptiles that travel in and out of the water include frogs, toads, salamanders, snapping and painted turtles, terrapins, water snakes, and garter snakes.  Fish enact ecological choreography, flowing in and out, up and down the river on the tides dictated by their animal instincts.  Common Hudson River fish include shad, catfish, sturgeon, flounder, striped bass, bluefish, carp, river herring, hogchokers, and eels.  Invertebrates live below the surface and in the muddy bottom, creatures like crabs, mollusks, aquatic worms, and insect larvae.


Spinoza also has something to say about nature, suggesting that it is a place where bodies seek to forge alliances with others in order to enhance their power, much like ideas increase their power when they ally themselves with other ideas.[ix]   As for the role humans play with regards to nature, we are not outside of the assemblage, “we may learn to alter the quality of our encounters, but not our encountering nature.”[x]


Spinoza said, “It is never we who affirm or deny something of a thing; it is the thing itself that affirms or denies something in us.”  Now, I take issue with this assertion.  It is a statement I have previously believed in, but now I find it lop-sided and problematic.  For we do affirm and deny things – everyday and every moment we do.  And things do, in turn, act on us.


I walk to the river and I affirm it.  I opt to bypass it in order to take a more direct route to my intended destination, and I deny it.  When I am constructing a sculpture out of bits of driftwood and debris on the side of the Hudson, I select my pieces one by one, combing the surface and crevices of the rocks, affirming certain pieces and denying others a place in my construction.  But the power is not all mine, the determination is not solely my own.  Things do affirm or deny something in us.  Standing alone on the banks of the Hudson, I am captivated by something that eludes descriptive words, for it is pure feeling and communion which resists intermediaries.  


The world is alive with constantly configuring compositions, alliances and rivalries.  Look at the world with a Spinozan lens and you will be incited to ask which alliances and configurations are able to assemble most productively, and are capable of adding positive intensities.  For these will be the strong assemblages, the ones that if you join, will allow you to do well by doing good.



The River Wants


The river wants us to take note of the effects of ‘progress.’  If we harness the iridescent nature of the river – its ability to both see through and reflect back – the river reveals particular relationship with, and narrative of, progress.  Can we think of the river in the way that Walter Benjamin thought about his Angel of History?


“His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings spread…his face is turned towards the past.  Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward, this storm is what we call progress.”[xi]


The river is all-seeing, it does not have the ability to blink out an irritation or selectively see.  The river is open wide; it is receptive.  Unlike you and I, who are swept in the current of what we perceive to be our realities, the river, whose existence and experience of reality stretches over a billion years, has an encounter that is total, like that of gravity, where any moment is all moments, and each singularity is also a multiplicity.  And what we perceive and deem to be progress, is not so different from debris, for it builds on itself and fills things up, and collects in heaps.  Time, progress and history do not move in a single direction, just as this river does not.  And the question of redemption is left open – watch a storm moving up a river and you will shiver with fear and delight.


 The River Weaves


Heidegger felt that we are not able to build anything up unless we already dwell within our surroundings.  He said, “Only if we are capable of dwelling, only then can we build.”[xii]  Here I think we can distinguish ‘building something up’ from the modern notion of ‘progress’.  To live is to be capable of building things – things being ideas, relationships, self-identity, achievements, stories – the things we make of our lives.  The lives we lead (or as Ingold would put it the lives we weave) are determined by our capacity to dwell.  And how is one capable of dwelling in the world?  Dwelling implicates interacting with the materials and forces around us, being able to integrate oneself into the net that is the sieve through which life flows.  It encourages us to know the world for ourselves, and to participate in it.  For Ingold,


“Dwelling in the world, in short, is tantamount to the ongoing, temporal interweaving of our lives with one another and with the manifold constituents of our environment.  The world of our experience is, indeed, continually and endlessly coming into being around us as we weave.”[xiii] 


I believe that the river carries out these acts of dwelling and building up.  It sensuously engages with the worlds around it, not by choice but out of necessity.  It dwells upon the earth because of forces and materials that interacted before the dawn of man.  One of the things that it has contributed to building up is our story.


 The Unfolding River


Heidegger says the world worlds, Ingold says the world unfolds.  When I think about what the river does, the idea of unfolding resonates.  The world unfolding is something experienced, and no thing will experience it in the same way.


As I stand on the shores of the Hudson, the world unfolds – at that moment I am thinking thoughts that related loosely to the vista, to an old friend, and to the play of light; I am inhaling the smell of organic matter; I grow older by five minutes, my body temperature lowers slightly, my eyes take note of several details that my mind may not.  The rock half-submerged at the river’s edge is getting lapped by the water’s rhythmic banter, little by little the rock’s surface is changing; every once in a while a larger wave cracks over it and it reacts stoically.  Two mallard ducks bob on the surface of the river, occasionally diving down and then resurfacing not too far away.  The tree overhead is in blossom, the light and moisture that the river provides has allowed the tree to grow fast and strong, it is taking in both of these nourishments as it sheds a few blossoms into the river below. 


To the river, the unfolding encompasses all of these becomings and more.  If we follow the paths along which things, “flow, mix, and mutate”[xiv] we will not be telling separate stories of unfoldings.  For the river, what is emerging is a story that is told through its involvement with its total surroundings, “and from the manifold ways in which it is engaged in the currents of the lifeworld.”[xv]

The River as Polluted

To progress or to preserve?  The Hudson is a river has something to say about our contradictory desires.  What is a pure thing?  And what contaminates a thing?  When change happens and it is deemed detrimental or disadvantageous to a thing, if it breaks a thing, exposes its ‘black-box’ and pollutes it, the thing becomes something else.  When the Hudson River was polluted by industrious people and things, it went from being a river of revelry to a river of refuse.  At the turn of the century the river’s contamination became an unavoidable topic.  A Pollution Commission was set up to investigate the extent and causes of the problems.  It was found that every quart of harbor waste contained at least an ounce of human waste, that balls of grease clogged the few sewers that existed, the gaseous bubbles were arising from subterranean muddy deposits, petroleum slicks coated parts of the harbor, and industrial wastes of many types were being deposited ranging from sulfuric acid to caustic sodas.[xvi]  In the 1970’s 175 million gallons of raw sewage was let out into the Hudson every day.  On a map created by the New York Geographical Society, the river was marked by a blackened out line because it was deemed a river for industrial use.


The Hudson River is the largest federal Superfund site in the US, covering a 200 mile stretch. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) dumped by General Electric continue to contaminate both the Upper and Lower Hudson River. GE’s dumping, most of which was done without permits, occurred from 1946 until 1977, when PCBs were banned. PCBs cause cancer in animals and are a probable human carcinogen. PCBs cause neurological, reproductive, and endocrine problems, as well as birth defects in both humans and wildlife.[xvii]


The birth of the modern environmental movement was born on the banks of this river.  In 1962, a battle to save the eroded root of an ancient mountain chain, a picturesque mountain named Storm King became the site for upon which people started to join together and to speak out for things – for mountains, for the environment, for the rights of non-human elements.  Campaigns were waged to save things from ourselves: mountains were lobbied for, fish were petition for, chemicals were sanctioned against, trees were made to be inalienable, animal species were monitored, earth and landmarks were sanctified. 


The River as Network 

The river is something that flows; it is not static, it is not stagnant.  It may have seasonal and diurnal cycles, but its actions are not altogether predictable.  The river combines many forces – natural, physical, social, temporal, spatial.  It provides a medium for creativity to flow, connecting ideas, resources, and people.[xviii]  These connections form networks that reach deep within and stretch far beyond the formal confines of the river.


A tree is felled by a man in the Catskills in 1889 that joins an assembly of thousands of other fallen soft-wood tree that float down the Hudson for over 100 miles, propelled on their way by scores of dams upstream that are released at precise times.  This tree is just one of over 1 billion board feet that floated down the river to Glenn Falls during the height of the Wood Rush.  This tree maybe pulped into paper, burnt into charcoal, nailed into railroad tracks, food for new steam engines, or fed into fiery factory furnaces. 


A side of a mountain is cleared of its surface by a fire sparked by a passing locomotive.  The next spring the earth cannot hold the waters from the mountain snow melt and a deluge is sent down the river which floods towns like Troy and Athens.  Businesses are lost, workers are out of jobs, and children get days off to rejoice and play. 


An electric company empties its waste into the nearby river.  The toxins mix with other natural and unnatural substances and form a new brew that diseases the fish.  The fish are caught and consumed by river dwelling people who get ill.  People activate and demand an investigation.  Research is performed on the water and wildlife, and science and capital are activated in order to appease the people and save the business. 


An engineer is commissioned to connect two states divided by the river.  The engineer employs knowledge, labor, nature, commerce, and politics to transform his idea into steel, suspension, and locomotion.  For many moons men live and die to create this thing and when it is finished, serves as an artery and a synapse.  Communities are created and destroyed, the world is one measure more connected.



The River as Nature


The Hudson is technically a river valley into which the ocean water has been admitted by subsidence of the land, transforming a large part of the valley into an inlet. The Hudson’s tidewater extends almost half the river’s 315-mile length (from Troy to its mouth), and twice a day the waters run downstream, and then at slack tide the tidal portion stills and with the flood tide the water reverses and flows north upstream.  It is this action that gave this river its original name and its otherworldly characteristic of defying nature’s advice. The nutrients are held in place by the ebb and flow of the tides, instead of being washed out to sea, the richness of the Hudson waters are retained in an even push and pull that require life and death, give and take.


The Hudson crosses in a north-south direction near the eastern boundary of New York State.  Arising from the most remote parts of the Adirondack Mountains, 4000 feet above sea level, the head of the river is considered to be Lake Tear-of-the-Clouds, which pools near Mount Marcy.  This lake is younger than the glaciers but older than man.[xix]  This section of the Hudson has many falls and rapids and several large tributaries join this part of the river, including Fish Creek and the Mohawk.  The river’s tortuous course is further propelled by mythical sounding sources like the Opalescent River, Calamity River, and the Falls of the Hanging Spear, as it sweeps around obstacles like Balm of Gilead, Bad Luck Mountain, and Ruby Mountain, and makes its way towards Glenn Falls.


The lowland region of the river is embedded with ancient Paleozoic rocks.  The scenery in this part of the river consists of gently sloping hills of colorful of woodland and patch worked farmland, along with the occasional village.  Thirty miles from Troy the Catskill Mountains loom in the west.  Along the banks of the river are great beds of clay.  The river then widens as it approaches Albany sweeping past now post-industrial landscapes.


The river enters the northern portals of the Highlands and for16 miles the river is bordered by steeply rising hills, offering striking views of grand variety.  It is here that the river crosses a belt of ancient crystalline rocks of moderately high relief, comparable in geological structure to the Adirondack region.  The lowest section of the tidal part of the Hudson extends from the lower end of the Highlands to New York Bay.  This is a region of ancient and metamorphic Paleozoic rocks on the eastern side, and mainly Triassic rocks on the west.  Because they are less resistant to denudation, these rocks have permitted a broadening of the valley which reaches a width of four miles wide close to the Tappanzee.


Through the Gateway Peaks of Storm King and Breakneck, just below Piermont, the range named the Palisades rises picturesquely from the water’s edge to a height of between 300 and 500 feet.  They are formed of trap, a form of lava rock that was intruded as a sheet into the Triassic sandstones, developing prismatic jointing upon settling.


At its mouth the Hudson broadens and branches, giving way to islands and a broad harbor. The Hudson empties into the Atlantic and its true end reaches over 100 miles into the sea, as the river bottom dives down and the seawater rolls in on top of the river waters.  A submerged valley, traceable over the continental shelf, is thought to map out an earlier course of the Hudson when land stood over 2000 feet higher than today, and when the inner gorge above New York was being excavated.[xx]



The River as River


[i] Dunwell, Frances F.  The Hudson: America’s River.  (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 320




[ii] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 354

[iii] Delueze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1988. Introduction: Rhizome. In A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 23. Athlone Press

[iv] Delueze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1988. Introduction: Rhizome. In A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 13. Athlone Press

[v] Delueze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1988. Introduction: Rhizome. In A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 23. Athlone Press

[vi] Delueze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1988. Introduction: Rhizome. In A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 7, 10. Athlone Press

[vii] Delueze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1988. Introduction: Rhizome. In A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 23. Athlone Press

[viii] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 446.

[ix] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 353

[x] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 353

[xi] Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 257-8

[xii] Ingold, Tim. 2000a. On weaving a basket. In The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, pp. 348. Routledge, London.

[xiii] Ingold, Tim. 2000a. On weaving a basket. In The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, pp. 348. Routledge, London.

[xiv] Ingold, Tim. 2007. Writing texts, reading materials. A response to my critics. Archaeological Dialogues 14:35

[xv] Ingold, Tim. 2007. Materials against materiality. Archaeological Dialogues, 14:14-15.

[xvi] Dunwell, Frances F.  The Hudson: America’s River.  (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 242


[xviii] Dunwell, Frances F.  The Hudson: America’s River.  (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 305

[xix] Carmer, Carl.  The Hudson. (New York: Rinehart and Company, 1939), 3


Want Do Gnomes Want? Freedom!

May 21, 2009

           On a clear September morning in 1998, local residents of Briey in eastern France awoke to a grisly sight: 11 garden gnomes hanged by the neck from a bridge. A letter found nearby indicated the true horror of this tragedy, that these gnomes took their own lives ( The letter read (translation courtesy of “When you read these few words we will no longer be part of your selfish world, where we serve merely as pretty decoration.” Driven to the brink by their slave owners, these gnomes saw no alternative but to end it all, or so the Garden Gnome Liberation Front (Front de Libération des Nains de Jardin) would have the public believe.

          Since their initial manufacture in Germany in the 1800s, the garden gnome statue has spread to gardens and front lawns throughout the world. Not content with expanding their geographical domain, the gnome has penetrated and colonized popular culture: appearing in movies, on TV, in books, on billboards, hosting ad campaigns, and printed on everything from t-shirts, to calendars to coffee mugs. In addition, there exist countless websites, fan clubs, collecting clubs, and liberation groups devoted to various aspects of the garden gnome. One can even take a vacation to one of the few gnome reserves and sanctuaries throughout the world and view the gnome in its “natural habit.” What drives this fascination with the garden gnome? It is inanimate, a thing, an object created by and for human beings, so why is it treated as alive by so many, young, old, owners and liberationists alike? At first glance, one may be inclined to believe the people obsessed with the garden gnome are simply in need of some special professional help. Yet the attribution of life to inanimate objects is a process one enacts almost every day. As W.J.T Mitchell explains in What Do Pictures Want? this process of animating the inanimate is not something that one does as a child and grows out of as an adult, or learns to not do as a modern person (2005: 8). Garden Gnomes present a case of the modern fetishization of the object. They act as a secular deity, a new form of idol, unrecognized as such by the people who worship them.  This paper will first investigate the origins of the garden gnome, describe three dramatic forms of animate ‘life’ attributed to gnomes, and conclude with a discussion of whether the gnome represents a modern example of a fetish, an idol or something quite different.

Origins of the Gnome

            In order to gain insight into situation of the modern gnome, it remains important to understand the context it derives from. The path to the garden gnome stature began as a legend of the gnome as a living, albeit magical, creature among many peoples of central, northern and eastern Europe. Their magical powers included the ability to transform into mushrooms when threatened by animals or humans and to become invisible at will with only children possessing innocent eyes having the ability to see them (Mennes 2004: 9). According to Will Huygen’s book Gnomes, the definitive modern source of gnome culture, Gnomes are small humanoid woodland creatures that stand approximately six inches tall and live for exactly 400 years (1976). Male gnomes, the most common kind seen in gardens, typically have a long beard and dress in boots, trousers, a brightly colored shirt and a red conical hat (Huygen: 1976). Gnomes generally live underground in elaborate tunnels, and remain unseen (Huygen: 1976). Gnomes act as guardian of woodland life, aiding wildlife in times of need and generally acting as protectors of forests and gardens (Huygen: 1976). Additionally, gnomes have the ability to travel large distances on the backs of other animals (Mennes 2004: 9).

            During Medieval times, there existed a legend that gnomes lived in the earth guarding its minerals, but when humans began to dig mines, the gnomes become displaced (Mennes 2004:10). Many roamed the forests, building colonies in the roots of trees, with other taking up habitation with humans on farms and in gardens (Mennes 2004:10). German legend describes gnomes as farm helpers (Mennes 2004: 11). Even today, in Scandinavia, many people leave milk or porridge on their doorstep for the gnomes, who if neglected, would become a household pest (Mennes 2004: 10).  A more modern legend tells of how in the past, gnomes lived in harmony with humans until humans began destroying nature, driving the gnomes away and estranging our races (The Gnome Tavern).

              Some scholars suggest that the garden gnome statue represents a descendent of the Greco-Roman fertility god Priapus, whose statue was often found in ancient gardens (Mennes 2004). Early gnome representations depicted them as gnarled old men with long white beards or as misshapen dwarfs, all characterized by their small size ( In Germany, gnomes were often first portrayed as miners, and the pointed red hat on many garden gnomes today was originally a representation of the hat once worn by miners in the mountains of south-east Germany ( Gnome statues are believed to bring good luck to a household and to aid in the growth of plants (Mennes 2004: 5). The popular myth states that garden gnomes help in the garden at night when everyone is asleep. Only when no one is around will they awaken from their statue-state and work on the gardens and lawns in which they reside (Mennes 2004).  Their magic causes flowers to bloom, leaves to change colors and streams to saturate the soil surrounding plants (Mennes 2004: 12).

            The first modern garden gnome statues came from Gräenroda, Thuringia, Germany in the mid-1800s. The region was already well-known for its ceramic production prior to the manufacture of gnomes. Gnome mass-production is attributed to two German craftsman, Philipp Griebel and August Heissner in 1872 (Mennes 2004: 26). Griebel made terracotta animals as garden decorations and began producing gnomes based on local myths as a way for people to enjoy the stories of the gnomes’ willingness to help in the garden at night (Mennes 2004). Gnome manufacutre quickly spread across Germany, with numerous other large and small factories each possessing their own particular style and design. Gnomes spread into France and England, where gardening remained a serious hobby (Mennes 2004).

Lampy the Gnome

            The Garden Gnome was first introduced to the United Kingdom in 1847 by Sir Charles Isham, when he brought 21 terracotta figrues back from a trip to Germany and placed tham as ornaments in the gardens of his home, Lamport hall in Northamptonshire (Mennes 2004: 23). For the next 50 years, Isham crafted an elaborate shrine to the gnomes in his garden, for as a practicing spiritualist, he believed his gnomes were able to come alive and communicate with him (Mennes 2004: 24). After his death, his daughters, who hated the gnomes, had them removed and destroyed, except for one, which they missed in the recess of a wall in the garden’s grotto. This gnome, now named Lampey, was discovered and excavated in 1997 when workers refurbished the grounds. Lampey is the world’s oldest known garden gnome statue (Mennes 2004: 24).

            Today, there are an estimated 25 million garden gnomes in Germany and another 12 million in France (Sampson 2000). Traditionally manufactured from clay molds, many modern gnomes are made from resins, plastics, or concrete. Most gnomes are now produced in Poland or China (Mennes 2004). Germany was once so protective of its own gnome production that authroities up until the late 1990s regularly seized alrge shipments of imported gnomes at the German border (Mennes 2004: 27).

The Roaming Gnome

            The first report of a  Roaming Gnome appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on September 24, 1986.  A gnome-owner was distressed when she discovered her gnome had been stolen at the weekend. A note was found in its place reading “Dear mum, couldn’t stand the solitude any longer. Gone off to see the world. Don’t be worried, I’ll be back soon. Love, Bilbo xxx,” ( Since that first report, thousands of copycat roaming gnome storeis have surfaced and the roaming gnome has entered the phsyche of mainstream popular culture. The most promanent popular culture examples are the gnome from the French film ‘Amelie’ and the Travelocity website’s advertising campaign mascot, simply called the roaming gnome. The roaming gnome phenomena has proliferated on the internet via websites such as Jerome the traveling Gnome’s blog and Jerome blogs about his travels in the first person and claims to be the first Gnome to visit both the north and south poles ( is a forum for various traveling gnomes to post blog entries, pictures, messages to other gnomes and their owners and friends and to track the travel adventures of other gnomes.

Amelie gnome                Gnome_globe-sm

            While the roaming gnome presents a comical practical joke for many, it technically remains a crime, and can cause the gnome owner much unwanted grief.  Two cases, one from the US and one from England demonstrate how the owners are affected by their gnome ‘wandering off.’ In 2006, Karen Walker’s gnome was stolen from her front garden, much to her distress (Hetzel 2006). After a few months, she eventually gave resigned herself to the gnome’s dissappearance and replaced it with another. Her wandering gnome was eventually returned to her, with a gift of over 56 photos of the gnomes travels, and a lengthy note. While Karen and her husband were delighted to have their gnome back and even more delighted by the adventure he went on, she now had the dillema of what to do with her now, two gnomes (Hetzel 2006). A woman in Gloucester, United Kingdom, in 2008 had here gnome stolen and later returned with an album full of travel photos. While distressed by the loss, she too was very pleased with her gnome’s retrun and  the gift, but was saddened that the gnome was damaged on its trip, for it had lost its feet (BBC News).

Gnome Liberation

            There exist various gnome liberation groups across the globe who fight for gnome rights and to ‘stop oppressive gardening,’ ( The Front de Liberation des Nains de Jardin (FLNJ)  of France, is the oldest and most prominent gnome liberating organization. Established in 1996 it achieved immediate success, liberating, more than 200 gnomes in a forest ouside the town of Alencon in Normany, France ( Upon the gnome’s discovery, the statues had been repainted, were wearing spectacles in order to see in the dark and were found with large stores of pasta, supposedly so the gnomes would not go hungry in the wild (Mennes 2004: 46). Throughout 1997, the FLNJ stole over 150 garden gnomes, stating that the gnomes desrved the same freedoms as people. That yetar, the police arrested and convicted three mean of the possession of 184 stolen gnomes. The men were given a prison sentence of two months each (Mennes 2004). Following the mass suicide in 1998, the FLNJ remained quiet until the 2000 Paris garden show, which displayed over 2,000 gnomes. In a nighttime riad, the FLNJ ‘liberated’ twenty gnomes from the show. Following this reemergence, police in France issued a gerenal security alert to gnome owners (Sampson 2000). Many gnome owners resorted to taking their sculptures indoors at night. The people of Gignac, near Montpellier even formed a vigilante patrol using a truck with an elevated platfrom and a powerful serachlight to thwart any potential liberators (Sampson 2000).






            According to Harpers Index from 1996 to 2001 the FLNJ relocated over 6,000 gnomes to the forests of France (Mennes 2004: 47). Not all have been found. In 2001, 100 gnomes were discovered in a forest in the Vosges region of France, and the following day, 74 gnomes were arranged on the stpes of a cathedral in Saint-Die (Mennes 2004: 47). That same year in Chavelot, dozens of gnomes were arranged in a traffic roundabout to spell out the words, ‘free the gnomes,’ (Mennes 2004: 47). As recent as 2006, the FLNJ stole 80 gnomes in the central Limousin region of France (

            Many sister organizations to FLNJ now exist all over the world such as the Gnome Liberation Front and Gnome Liberation Army in the United Kingdom and Los Gnomos de Jardin Quieren Viajar in Spain. Others include Free The Gnomes in the United States and the Movimento Autonomo per la Liberazione delle Anime Giardino (MALAG) from Italy.

            FreeTheGnomes, an american based gnome liberation group, is one of the youngest, founded only in 2006, but most widespread via the internet on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace (  Unlike other groups, they do not advocate gnome theft or criminal acts, but instead call upon their supporters to peacefully protest and petition gnome owners and govenrments to end oppressive garding and emancipate captured gnomes. They also encourage the formation of local chapters of freethegnomes to work within the community. They have ongoing petitions to governments to legislate for gnome freedoms and long standing boycotts against businesses like Home Depot, which they referr to as Home Despot, who supply gnomes to potential slave owners (

Gnomes in Their Natural Habitat

            Movimento Autonomo per la Liberazione delle Anime Giardino (MALAG) in addition to calls for general gnome liberation, expressed the goal for the establishment of a European Gnome Sanctuary in Barga, a small town in Tuscany, Italy. They achieved the constitution of the sanctuary in 1999. The Barga News published an articale about MALAG’s efforts, noting the following:  “For a number of months gnomes have been moving inot a small valley in the Province of Lucca in Tuscany, Italy. Most have decided to settle in the town of Barga, where they have found a sympatheitc population known as Barghigiani who are not only prepared to tolerate the gnome way of life, but are even prepared to protect it! We are proud to anounce the first European Gnome Sanctuary here Barga….Life here is protected, no more small garden prisons, no more torture, opression is a thing of the past here in Barga,” ( The Sanctuary includes the city’s parks, the Castle of Barga, the town’s main council offices and the Teatro de Differenti (

            The Gnome Reserve in Devonshire, England is home to more than one thousand gnome statues and constitutes over four acres of woodland, streams, ponds and gardens. The Reserve allows guests to view gnomes in their natural habitat, and even loans guest gnome hats and fishing rods so they will blend in and not frighten the gnomes ( The reserve houses the largest collection of garden gnomes in the world according to the Guiness Book of World Records (Mennes 2004).

Gnomes: Idol, Fetish, or Something Completely Different?

            Mitchell asks the question of how people can maintain what he calls a double conscious about objects (2005: 7). How can a person believe that a garden gnome is made in a factory out of clay and also believe it comes alive at night to help in the garden, or leaves to travel the world?  Mitchell postulates that this double consciousness about images is a ‘deep and abiding feature of human responses to representation,’ (2005: 8). Thus Mitchell frames the question “what do pictures want?” not “what do they do?” (2005: 10). In his explanation of the importance of this question, Mitchell emphasizes the double meaning of want, as both desire and lack. Perhaps it is the physical semblance of life that drives humans to supply what this semblance lacks in substance: actual life. This lack is filled both by gnome owners and the liberationists alike. The former attributing the statue the life and powers of the mythical gnome beings, the latter by extending the rights of human beings to gnomes.

            Peter Pels writes that “the fetish foregrounds materiality because it is the most aggressive expression of the social life of things,” (1998: 91). He continues by stating that fetishism demonstrates how a thing’s materiality can communicate its own message, for the materials themselves speak and act (1998: 94). Gnomes do not manifest this aspect of the fetish, for the belief in their life thoroughly rejects their materiality. People view the materials of a gnomes construction as unimportant, as not defining the essence of a gnome. The materials themselves that are not simply animated, but transformed magically into the flesh of a living thing. Both Mitchell and Pels discuss the double attitude of the fetish; to fetishize something is to designate it an “other” in relation to the accepted definition of a thing by its use and exchange value (Pels 1998: 98). The fetish manifests some other type of value and forever remains an object of abnormal traffic (Pels 1998: 94). This aspect of the fetish does manifest acutely in the case of garden gnomes. While originally purchased for a proscribed monetary value, their subsequent value derives from their perceived power and their ‘personality’ as developed and granted to them by their owners. Once brought home from the store and placed in the garden, the gnome leaves the realm of exchange and suddenly finds value in the joy it brings to its owner, or the prosperity it bestows upon the garden.

            Christopher Pinney (2001), in his discussion of the use of chromolithographic deity prints for worship in the homes of rural Indian villagers, relates the need for the ritual installation of prints in the home to turn them from simply paper into the deities themselves. In this way, the ritual installation transcends the materiality of the image, transforming it  from a mere image of the god printed on paper, to the god itself. Pinney observes that the villagers do no care about the artist who originally created the image, for they view themselves as the people who truly create the picture as a representation of the deity, because they actively install and transform the picture in their homes through worship (Pinney 2001: 171). Gnomes, in order to transcend their materiality and exchange value, must undergo a similar installation process, but one of a less uniform and more personal nature. A gnome is not just a gnome it is my gnome, or your gnome, with a distinct personality and life-history. It is through this process of personal possession that the gnome then gains the ability to act as the helper and household guardian. It is also this ‘life’ granted to the gnomes through installation by their owners, that the liberationist’s take advantage of.

            W.J.T. Mitchell and Alfred Gell (1998) discuss in one form or another the question of what constitutes life. What differentiates the living from the inanimate? Mitchell recites the criteria for a living thing as a being that: is highly organized, is homeostatic, can grow and develop, can adapted, can take energy from the environment and change it from one form to another, can respond to stimuli and can reproduce itself (2005: 52). He writes how life remains one of the primitive concepts that grounds the whole human process of dialectical reasoning and understanding (Mitchell 2005: 52). It is for this reason that attributing life to something clearly, logically, not alive, remains so very dangerous. The fetish threatens to disrupt and throw doubt on this primary classification (Pels 1998: 112). The anxiety created by the fetish stems from the problems of classification that the fetish as an object presents for the subjects (Keane 1998:13). Mitchell continues by stating definitively that the definition of a living thing is something that can die (2005: 52). Gnomes are both subject to birth and death, as the following two examples illustrate.

            The website,, describes the ‘birth’ of the garden gnome as follows with corresponding photographs from a hidden camera. During the spring in Thuringia, Germany, when the temperatures have warmed, deep in the ground, little bits of clay begin to join together, to create a new gnome. It takes 14 days for a gnome to fully coalesce and emerge from the ground ready to be ‘picked.’ While the website later states that of course the process just described is nonsense, they do describe explicitly that the  process of forming a gnome from clay is another form of giving birth. The process needs the “love of a parent to let gnomes become little creatures in your hand.” The website continues, describing the firing process as granting the ‘breath of life’ to a new gnome, and that a gnome’s exit from the kiln constitutes its birth. Following the birth, a new gnome is then ‘dressed’ by a painter.

            In the example given at the beginning of this paper of the gnome suicides, the gnomes hanging from the bridge clearly died. In fact, it was staged specifically to look as though they took their own life. Unfortunately, no information is available as to whether the gnomes afterward were taken down and given back to their owners, or whether they were disposed of, or perhaps buried as dead. I suspect, that the gnome owners would not want their gnomes back after being mistreated in such a horrible manner, but that remains pure conjecture.

            This attribution of life perhaps derives from the myths of living gnomes that have been embodied in the inanimate garden gnome.  The idea is that these gnomes only awaken when no one is around to see them presents a scenario that can neither be proven, or disproven, since no evidence can possibly exist for or against the idea. Thus the idea, or belief, must be taken on faith alone, or dismissed by similar faith. It is in this manner that the roaming gnome phenomena operates. Roaming gnome stories and pranks are carefully crafted to leave no trace of human involvement. The notes are written in the first person by the gnome and the photos are always simply of the gnome in a foreign place, not posing with people. The gnome left and came back of its one accord and no evidence can prove otherwise. Human agency is always implied, but cannot be proven. The gnome simply leaves one night, when gnomes always come alive, and decides that instead of working in the garden, he will go on a trip. Upon the return of the gnome, once again at night, all evidence for the trip remains devoid of any human intention, save for whomever takes the photographs. Since no evidence exists that this travel is not simply of the gnome’s own doing, except for the ardent belief that it is impossible for gnomes to move or be alive, it remains theoretically a plausible possibility.

            According to William Pietz, the fetish differentiates from the idol because the fetish possesses an ‘irreducible materiality’ while the idol derives from some immaterial origin (Keane 1998: 13). The gnome presents a case more akin to idol worship than to the fetish. Idols are not depictions, not portraits, but created bodies (Gell 1998: 98).  Yet, the gnome does not provide a meeting place for a spirit, as described be Keane of the practices of marapu follows on Sumba, nor does it function as a vessel for a spirit that can go elsewhere. It simply has the ability to animate and possesses an individual gnome spirit that does not and has not resided anywhere else but within the gnome statue.

            Gell writes that idolatry emanates from the same fund of sympathy which allows us to understand the human, non-artefactual ‘other’ as a copresent being, endowed with awareness, intentions and passions akin to our own (1998: 96). The idol is acceptable as a social other on the basis of ‘fitting in’ to the role expectations for idols as a particular category of social agents (Gell 1998: 131). The artists must produce a ‘faithful’ rendition of the features of the accepted image of the body of the god, triggering ‘recognition of the god among his worshippers (Gel 1998: 99). The gnome must look like a typical gnome to be recognized and treated as one. Idols my be animate without being endowed with animal life or activity (Gell 1998: 122). In fact ritual animacy and the possession of life in a biological sense are far from being the same thing (Mitchell 2005: 122). Yet some semblance of possible life, such as orifices assist the idea of animacy. Once something is equipped with ‘orifices’ such as eyes, nose, mouth, it would be possible not just to imagine that it had a mind, perceptions, intentions, but to actual believe this (Gell 1998: 132). Orifices indicate access to an interior, something that the gnome lacks, thus we provide the gnome with an interior that the orifices can access in the form of life. “Pictures are things that have been marked with all the stigmata of personhood and animation: they exhibit both physical and virtual bodies; they speak to us, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively; or they look back at us silently across a gulf unbridged by language,” (Mitchell 2005: 30). While more than pictures, gnomes also do possess the ‘stigmata of personhood’: the look like little people, complete with eyes, ears, noses, mouths, arms and legs.

            Gell writes that primitives are animists, while moderns are not (1998: 121).  Then why do people continue to attribute life and animation to gnomes? While moderns have perhaps developed this double conscious to a larger degree than non-moderns, we have not managed to let go of our animist beliefs, only to push them to one side. Mitchell writes that we are stuck with our magical, premodern attitudes toward objects, especially images, and the task remains not to overcome these attitudes, but to understand them and work through them (2005: 30). While garden gnomes do not represent deities in the classical sense, they do represent a modern idol, one that is “worshipped” daily in gardens all across the world. The people who animate their gnomes are not delusional; they have simply embraced the other side of their double-consciousness.

            To take Gell’s description of agency, as “attributable to those person and things who/which are seen as initiating causal sequences of a particular type; events caused by acts of mind or will or intention, rather than the mere concatenation of physical events,” (1998: 16) then gnomes certainly possess agency. Their very presence has allowed for the wide variety of actions previously described: nurturing by owners, liberation by radicals and world travels by pranksters.

There does exist something special about the gnome statue that allows for the types and forms of behavior described previously. If pure vandalism was the goal, gnomes would simply be stolen or smashed for fun, not elaborately released in the wild, or hung from bridges with suicide notes or sent trekking around the world. Is it simply that it looks like a little person? That because it has eyes, a nose, a mouth and arms and legs it is easier for someone to believe that it can walk off? Or does it derive from the ancient myths and stories about gnomes as real, living magical creatures and that as magical creatures anything is possible? Perhaps it stems from the process of ad hoc ‘installation,’ that first divorces the gnome from its materiality and exchange value that allows for the second step of animacy to occur? Or maybe we are simply supplying the lack of life that a gnome “wants.” The answer perhaps lies in the confluence, or network of all these factors.











Bibliography: “Barga Gnome City: European Gnome Sanctuary.

BBC News. 08/12/2008. “‘Itchy fee’ gnome returns home.”   Free the Gnomes Official Website Front de Libération des Nains de Jardin (FLNJ) Official Website.

Gell, Alfred. 1998. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Clarendon Press. “History of the Garden Gnome.” Dorset Gnome Reserve, UK.

The Gnome’s Tavern. Official Website.

Hetzel, J. 08/09/2006. “Edgar the roamin’ gnome is home.” The Fulton Sun.

Huygen, W. 1976. Gnomes. Abrams: New York.

Keane, W. 1998. “Calvin in the Tropics: objects and subjects at the religious frontier.” In Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces, edited by P. Spyer, pp. 13-               34.Routledge, New York.

Mennes, M. 2004. The Garden Gnome Book: An Illustrated History. Philadelphia: Quirk Books.

Mitchell, W. J. T. 2005. What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images. University of Chicago Press.

Pels, P. 1998. “The spirit of matter: on fetish, rarity, fact and fancy.” In Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces, edited by P. Spyer, pp. 91-121. Routledge, New             York.

Pinney, C. 2001. “Piercing the skin of the idol.” In Beyond Aesthetics: Art and the Technologies of Enchantment, edited by C. Pinney and N. Thomas, pp. 157-180. Berg

Sampson, R. 05/21/2000. “The Garden Gnome Liberation Front.” Daily Telegraph UK. Accessed at: Jerome the Traveling Gnome. “How a Gnome is Born.”

Object Study: Refuse Sculptures

May 18, 2009


By: Alina Enggist

I envision this piece to be an exercise of the dialogical imagination where objects are themselves real dialogues – active forms of communication between living entities.  I intend to take this serious idea of Bahktin’s in a whimsical direction and conduct a study of a community of things that I have come to call Refuse Sculptures.  As a succession of nomadic, shape-shifting, anonymous works of art, these Refuse Sculptures prompted me to capture their images, take this class, and re-think things.  I intend to create an inter-subjective and polyphonic back-and-forth that I hope will allow you to find meaning in the in-between and to hopefully also locate a space into which you can insert your own meaning. 


The portions in italics are to distinguish one side of the dialectic, the one where I believe the things were speaking through me.  I was often in contact or in close proximity to the things themselves as I wrote these sections, even to the point where I recorded portions on-site.  Following Jane Bennett who was inspired by Thoreau, I hope to augment my receptivity to thing-power through writing about it, “by giving an account of the thingness of things that might enable me to feel it more intensely.”[i]  The portions in non-italics are the sections in response to my experiential meditations, an attempt to induce a conversation with some of the thing-theoreticians that also have something to say.  I reference thinkers whose ideas regarding ‘things’ I felt resonated with this community of things that captured my imagination as I made my way to the university each day.


For the presentation portion of this piece I will pair italicized text with color images, and non-italicized text with black and white images.  My hope is that ideas and images will be coupled in a way that is loose enough for the viewer to be able to participate in the drawing of references, connections, dissonances, conclusions, and expansions.  There is space built into the structure, which can function like silences do in musical composition.  These are all techniques that I am experimenting with in order to draw out the dialogical imagination.



The structure is tall, it is short.  It leans tenuously, it is rooted firmly.  It is made up of ugly unsavories, it is a construction of beauty and balance.  It finds the north star, it is swallowed by the coming tide.  It is smooth and weathered, it is rough and ravaged.  It swings freely with the southerly wind, it stands stout with boorish authority.


The water’s edge is where the community gathers, like the far-off image of the animals of the Southern African landscape, navigating hundreds of kilometers in pursuit of the water’s lip.  These objects have found themselves here presently, the migration a combination of many, many trajectories some spanning long and meditative water-borne miles, some originating in foreign lands or subterranean worlds, and others just a short flight from suspension to the earth. 


When approaching these objects it is not clear whether they are facing us or have their backs to us.  Are they more intent on watching us go by and by, or are they staring out into the water, transfixed by the shifting surface and the steady rhythms?  As sculptural forms, they do not have a face, they are multi-faceted and have eyes on all sides.  Set against the backdrop of the water, they appear more fixed than they actually are.  The water, sky, ships, distant buildings, flying creatures and machines make up an ever-changing canvas that methodically brightens and darkens like a very slowly blinking eye.



Following Bill Brown, I would like to explore these Refuse Sculptures relationally and look at all the things that set this relationship on the ground and against the skyline.  These sculptures stand and fall, they are made of material and immaterial substances, they assemble and dissemble, they exist and then they do not.  When I happened upon these sculptures, I became a part of their relational hold.  And now I would like to imagine what that world may entail.  Enchanted and entangled as I may be, I will try not to stray from the things themselves.  However, my vehicle will be my imagination which, like the things themselves, is a shape-shifting, webby, and capricious force. 


When in the presence of these sculptures, many intensities advance: the city meeting nature, the solid ground giving way to water, the western shore facing the eastern, the verticality of the sculptures against the horizontality of the landscape, the lifeless materials laying about just beside a living work of art made of the same materials.  These sculptures incite an awareness of gravity’s participation, the relationship of the elements to materialities, and the overlap of the invented with the extant.



What is invoked in this space where structures are built not to last or to endow or to valorize?  When in fact they are constructed knowing that they are going to soon retreat back to the state that they were created (wood and debris caught between the rocks) and are built by people who will not be recognized for their effort.  A shape-shifting, but bounded and real space has been created by these people and their sculptures. 


And the space that is created and all that it encompasses is a fringe space.  The fringe is the most alive territory of the ecological, political, social, and psychological realms. Who or what do we find at the fringe?  The mad, the sorcerers, the artists, endangered animal species, the discarded, the anachronistic, the ethnographers.  The fringe is usually a wild territory, a frontier.  Far from the locusts of power, this area is a space of flux.  The vacillation between proliferation and retraction can be disorienting.  The violence can be on a massive scale.  The creation that follows the destruction can be astonishing. 


These sculptures are fringe elements in multiple senses.  Constructed by unconventional creators (anonymous and transient), out of unconventional materials (washed up refuse and natural materials), they are also physically located on the fringe.  They have no monetary valued assigned or designed.  They seem not to be created for any particular audience.  And they have no signature attached.  One must walk as far west as one can before hitting water.  And the stretch of rocky shore that they are located on is one of the longest stretches of coast without access from the Manhattan streets.  Bounded by 96th street on the south and 131st street to the north, a parkway to the east and the Hudson River to the west; this patch of Riverside Park can get as narrow as 15 feet.  Unless one pulls their car off the highway in a perilous manner, the only way to access this stretch is at one of the entrance points 35 blocks from each other.



Ingold writes about an environment that continually unfolds, and the materials that make up the world occur as opposed to exist.   Forms come “into being through the gradual unfolding of that field of forces set up through the active and sensuous engagement of practitioner and material.”[ii]  The materials engaged are processual and relational.  When describing the properties of materials, we must tell their stories, and locates the currents within these material narratives where they flow, mix, and mutate.  (Ingold, 14)


Flow, mix, and mutation… the currents of the Hudson bring the refuse to these shores.  The current of life in 2009 bring the refuse to these shores.  The sun, or the drone of the city, or an event, or a whim, bring the sculptor to these shores.  In the case of these driftwood and refuse sculptures, the artists are the invisible builders, balancers, fasteners, and schemers who travel to the banks of the Hudson and create a structure.  Or perhaps they are already at the river’s edge and they are inspired by other sculptures and feeling urged on to create one of their own.  A marked and undisputed act of individuality and communion is performed.  It is sensuous and vigorous engagement of hand, eye, light, current, temporality, form, and material.   Purpose, rigidity, amalgamation, and adherence are implicated.  Every parts story is equally important.  The miner of the tin, the waters that carried it there, the rock that dammed it into place, the person who balanced it on the end of a curved stick, the passerby whose eye lingers, the gull who rests upon it, the foot that kicks it over.  What can be perceived is a story of things coming together and things coming apart, so it is a story like so many others.


Ingold writes that, “things are not active because they are imbued with agency but because of the ways they are caught up in the currents of the life world.”[iii]  And so we are caught up in the currents of the world, being animated and dissembled and persuaded and persecuted. 


So I walk along the river, past these sculptures I can imagine the relations holding each other, my eye with the silhouette and the light; the driftwood with gravity and the rocky crevice; the passing ship with the suspended fishing wire against the uprighted root. 


“Things are in life rather than that life is in things.”[iv]


So things are in life, and I keep walking and nothing will be as it was, the light shifts its angle, the boat keeps moving towards the open sea, my eye wanders on.  Watching the Husdon’s current flow, it becomes clear what is meant by Ingold when he speaks of a current of materials that humans swim in, and how we are but one of the materials.  It is from within this current that life is manifest.  The materials are of an iridescent quality, we/they are transparent yet reflective.  They can be isolated as points in time, but never extracted from the flow.  Past, present, and future states are overlaid in holographic displays of interconnectedness. 



Alfred Gell forwarded the notion that art is not about observing, it is about doing.  Who or what is doing these Refuse Sculptures? 


They are of and in nature.  They are also by and through people.  They are in and out of time.  In one structure there is old wood weathered so much that it is less dense than the water that carried it to this piece of shore, there are twigs that came free from the live tree above, there are plastic bottles drained of their sugary innards, plywood pock-marked with gnarled nails, and nautical rope unraveled from its long-entwined fate. 


The materials have partially been assembled, and partially assembled themselves into a structure which hovers on the water’s edge like that most famous American architect situated the thing that brought him so much prestige.  A house of dreams, a house of fortune, a house of intrigue, a house of refuse.  The visionary house that is brought to the water, built for the water, and now accommodates not dwellers but transients- and the small house of congregated refuse, that will imminently fall away into the water – these two houses (one macro one micro) standing for the time being, whose being-in-the-world differs wildly, but whose participation with the world is less dissimilar.  It is possible to contemplate nature in a remarkably similar way when confronted with these two structures.  And I imagine the makers of these two structures may have had similar impetuses and impulses when embarking on their creations and working with their materials.  The materials themselves do not vary, wood, metal and plastic.  Both structures eventually will be reclaimed by their surrounding environments in time, pulled down by gravity, reintegrated into the current.


Spinoza said, “It is never we who affirm or deny something of a thing; it is the thing itself that affirms or denies something of itself in us.”

 fishing rod


In a Gellian and Spinozan paradigm, the Refuse Sculptures are extensions of intensities that stem from both subjects and objects.  With the way that these sculptures affect me, I understand Gell’s idea that certain objects, through creative or representative involvements, acquire the capacity to become indexes of individuals and can thus extend and project ‘self’ beyond the corporeal.  I would then expand this line of thought to the material, for these sculptures also affect a further realization, that they acquire the capacity to become indexes of materiality, and can thus extend and project ‘object-power’ or objecthood beyond the material.  So in this extended expanse of inter-relations I imagine distributed personhood and distributed objecthood enmeshed.  And at the liminal boundaries of this expanse is where the formations occur, and these formations in this instance are the Refuse Sculptures that bring the projectiles of person- and object-hood into contact with each other.  At the boundaries, the friction of contact and movement, are generative. 


In a Latourian sense, this liminal area can be considered quasi-object and a place from which other hybrid objects can be generated and assembled.  In this sense, I can imagine the community of Refuse Sculptures coming into being by their very make-up.  Again bringing together an imagined mis-en-scéne of the edges or beginnings of all things, the universe, I see the unstable fringe as the moment when the material, immaterial, and imminent are forced into contact and create a quasi-object, quasi-event that then makes some other association, connection, or disintegration.  Hybrids, as it were, are not planned or preordained, they are forcefully thrown together and what sticks sticks, and what does not fall away. 


  1. And this man here, he is either fighting a futile battle, or dismantling one of the few enchantments that this city hasn’t already extinguished.


Christopher Tilley once wrote, “through the making, using, exchanging, consuming, interacting, and living with things people make themselves in the process.”[v]  Things are extensions of us and we are extensions of things.  Value is to be found in the in-between, the dialogical relations, and the rainbow-spectrum of connections.



The sculptures form a community, they are communal.  I have covered the entire 250 block long Manhattan coast along the Hudson and this parcel of land is the only with such sculptures inhabiting the landscape.  In this space there are some spots that almost always contain a sculpture, there are others that are almost always barren.  On certain days there are clusters of sculptures, seemingly one on top of each other.  During certain times of the year, there are less than four standing, in varying states of decrepitude.  On other days, there can be several dozen.  Going from one structure to the next has a lyrical affect.  Taken in a collective way, there can be a harmonic or dissonant result, all sorts of trajectories can be gleaned, and never to be experienced in the same way again.  Together they stand, separate they fall, in varying speeds, attuning the collective to a new modality.


Jane Bennett’s work centered around the agency of assemblages.  The concept of assemblage is borrowed from Deleuze, and she appropriates the following principles to inform her discussion: an ad hoc collectivity that is historically situated, alive, decentralized, and constituted of the human and non-human, the material and immaterial.  She uses the assemblage to illustrate, “the distributive and composite nature of agency” across “an ontologically diverse range of actors-or actants.”[vi]  The human and non-human actants interact each possessing agency, and she furthers that the assemblages that they construct and that construct them also possess agential propensity. 


These assemblages are: simple, matrixed, tied together, balanced, captivating, irregular, feeble, weathered, deconstructed, grandiose, reminiscent, hardly noticeable, scorched, rotted, figural, lyrical, scientific, mimetic, grotesque, beautiful.  In terms of material, they are primarily made up of driftwood, but also include: other types of wood, roots, scraps of cloth, a tennis shoe, athletic balls, plastic bottles, string, plant fiber, rubber, sticks, leaves, stones, aluminum, and unidentifiable bits of debris.  In terms of the immaterial, they are made up of: dreams, skill, patience, frustration, silence, communion, enchantment, creativity, impulse.  The elements intervene: the sun, wind, water, humidity, snow.  Nature plays: the tides, the seasons, the weather patterns, centripetal and centrifugal forces.  Humans participate: they create, destroy, overlook, contemplate, revisit, collaborate.


Jane Bennett put forward the concept of ‘thing-power’ that I find potent.  She paints a mise-en-scéne where relationships and intensities exhibit their power on a stage that is shared with us.  On this stage, objects become things that resist being reduced to the contexts which we situate for them.  Things that are considered inanimate like a sculpture or a piling of garbage animate, perform, and produce effects that resonate across recalcitrant dualisms.  “Thing-power entails the ability to shift or vibrate between states of being, to go from trash/inanimate/resting to treasure/animate/alert.”[vii]


The Refuse Sculptures possess thing-power, I have experienced it.  Thing-power can have a radical potential.  The eyes take in form, light, contrast, depth, balance, scale, and material.  Once it enters our system, the effects are manifold.  Things possesses a universe of potentialities, and thing-power is constituted of different gradients of presence and agency.  The assemblage, which was itself a creation, gains the ability to create.  A proliferation of the creative principle is at its apex revolutionary.  Mini-revolutions that move an individual to tears or to ecstasy or macro-revolutions can construct philosophies or tear down regimes.  Thing-power has the ability to give substance to fermenting potentialities.   But be sure not to overlook the fact that even at the zenith of its power, things are always is dependent on what they is made of: the viewer, the historical moment, the engulfing milieu, the substances that instantiates it, the medium that supports it. 


And as Bennett examined her particular assemblage of a glove, rat, bottle cap, and wood, she was struck by their singular materiality, “brought to light by the contingency of their co-presence, by the specific assemblage they formed.”[viii]  She experienced the thing-power of this assemblage and was able to appreciate what Merleau-Ponty meant when he observed how, “our gaze, prompted by the experience of our own body, will discover in all other ‘objects’ the miracle of expression.”[ix]


These structures and the space they encompass have presence.  In order to grasp this presence, one has to find an opening.  These structures are endowed with voice and verve, perhaps because there are no signs, no interpreters, and no mediators present.  The platform on which they perform is free of constructs and naturally ephemeral.  When walking past this stretch of sculptures, one begins to notice the way time works in different ways – sometimes destroying, other times enhancing.  The drifting material potentialities would accumulate indefinitely, but each structure was intrinsically time-bound.



Progress through throwing out theories,

through wreckage and refuse the pile forms a structure,

a layered uneven sculpture,

slipping into place as different parts are applied and tried.


Each configuration distinct,

relying on the past and the disregarded for structure,



grace and distinction.


The sculpture is left for others to view,




Sometimes it is a natural destruction,

sometimes man-made,

sometimes they last a long time and then are submerged,

as consciousness levels rise and fall,

as winds blow from west to east. 


Sometimes you can only see their outlines

set against a greater backdropping landscape,

nevertheless, they are made of us,

we can look or not look, 

we can add to the structure,

the authorship is communal if we make it so.


Sometimes we use material from one to add to another, 

the material will surely float down the river,

at some point,

and get picked up from amongst the rubble,

and weighted for its relevance,

and its utility,

its beauty,

its strength,

its hidden potential,

its well worn endurance.





[i] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 349.

[ii] Ingold, Tim. 2000a. On weaving a basket. In The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, pp. 342. Routledge, London.

[iii] Ingold, Tim. 2007. Materials against materiality. Archaeological Dialogues 14:1.

[iv] Ingold, Tim. 2007. Materials against materiality. Archaeological Dialogues 14:12.

[v] Christopher Tilley, “Objectification,” in ed. Handbook of Material Culture (London: Sage Publications, 2006), 61.

[vi] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 446.

[vii] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 354.

[viii] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 350.

[ix] Bennett, Jane. 2004. The force of things: steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 350.

Magical Things

May 17, 2009

Thing Magic or Magic Things


Easton J. Anspach 

Magic is a faculty of wonderful virtue, full of most high mysteries, containing the most profound contemplation of most secret things, together with the nature, power, quality, substance and virtues thereof, as also the knowledge of whole Nature, and it doth instruct us concerning the differing and agreement of things amongst themselves, whence it produceth its wonderful effects, by uniting the virtues of things through the application of them one to the other.



Three Books of Occult Philosophy or Magic


The Extra in Things

            Agrippa was a magician, theologian, astrologer, alchemist, occult researcher, and writer in the early sixteenth century.  The opening quote is taken from his magnum opus on the occult and magical thought, Three Books of Occult Philosophy or Magic.  Agrippa argued that magic was the point where the natural world came into contact with the greater celestial universe.  Magic, he says, “doth instruct us concerning the differing and agreement of things amongst themselves…by uniting the virtues of things through the application of them one to the other.”  Magic, it would seem, is actually just knowledge of how things work together, but this knowledge is at the same time mysterious and secret.

            The mysterious nature of things is by no means a new topic among thing theorists.  In fact, it is one of the few elements of things that seems to be ubiquitous.  Brown speaks of things having excess and ambiguity, Gell (1998) discusses their captivation, Heidegger (2001) points to their thingness, Miller (2005) calls upon their materiality.  But it is Bennett’s (2005) assemblage and Latour’s (1993) network which come closest to Agrippa’s understanding of magic: a world in which the virtues of things unite and intertwine in a complex and mysterious manner that escapes simple understanding and instead requires profound contemplation.


Things and Magic

            As a result of this shared understanding, things are often deployed as items that transcend earthly and cosmological realms.  Consider, for example: communion bread, which is able to bring together bread, the physical body of Christ, the heavenly body of god, the practical sins of earthly existence, and the purification of heavenly redemption; Voodoo dolls which are able to permeate time and space to assemble pain within the bounded human body; or sage incense which wipes the supplicant clean so that the Great Spirit may reside within the mind, collapsing heaven and earth.  The magic of things is their ability to bring people into contact with a larger universe from which they are normally isolated.


            Magic is subsequently apart from humans and objects at the same time it is part of them.  This is evident in the language used to speak of magic.  Witches and warlocks are believed to tap into the larger pool of energy which they call magic.  Plains shamans do not create magic, they are possessed by spirits who are able to put them in touch with the abilities they seek.  Voodoo practitioners are chosen by the magic itself: it is not they who decide who will be granted the gift.  Magic is often portrayed as an extremely powerful entity that has the potential to dwarf its practitioners, escaping their limited control.


Advent of Rationalism

            And yet, in the West magic has all but disappeared as a practical influence on humanity.  The Protestant Reformation brought about a particular insistence on self-help and individual stoicism that undermined traditional reliance n necromantic forms of assistance.  The scientific and philosophical revolutions reconstituted the universe as something subject to immutable natural laws.  New technical aids such as fire-fighting and property insurance, which guard against life’s unexpected misfortunes, removed the need for supplication to cosmological protectors.  Urbanization undercut the intimate personal relationships on which accusations of sorcery depended.  Theoretical innovations in mathematics, psychology, and sociology provided victims with novel intellectual tools for explaining the causes of the disasters in their lives (Cook 2001:164).

            These developments were paralleled by the Cartesian divide between mind and body, subject and object, which marked Western societies’ movement into the “modern age” (Latour 1993).  As a result, things and magic were separated from the constitution of the human mind which became paramount in the makeup of the human experience.  Magic, in turn, became separated from things so that the only mystical objects belonged to the delusions of the fetish held by marginalized “others” (Frazer 1998).  In the Western humanist hierarchy, science reigned supreme while magic became the result of unsophisticated and faulty understandings of the working of the universe.

            Magical things were subsequently rendered as belonging to the Other, the foreign, the exotic.  While in colonial areas this increased the mystery and power of magic (Taussig 1987), in the western world magic was taken out of the hands of respected medicine men, healers, and leaders and placed in the realm of mediums, swindlers, and conmen (Edinburgh Review 1895:82).  Instead of acts of reverence, supplication, and respect these new magicians took on roles as fortune tellers, good luck charms, and communicators with the deceased through the use of raps, cards, levitations, and trickery.  Magic and magical things seemed destined for extinction


Out of the Ashes

            We have already noted, however, the ambiguous thingness of magic which is not so easy to destroy.  At the same time that magic was slipping into debauchery it was being reconstituted and reinvented within the new framework of science.  A single individual will serve to illuminate this development: Harry Kellar.


            Kellar was known variously as the “Dean of American Magic,” the “Greatest American Magician,” the father of modern magic, and the founder of American magic.  He served as mentor and teacher to Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston, the greatest magicians of the twentieth century (Milbourne 1973:198-199).  His success reveals the reinvention of magic that took place in the face of the advent of modernism.

           Kellar practiced what he termed as “true magic” (1903:1256), a high-brow phenomenon based on large stage illusions and reenactments of feats of natural wonder which he witnessed during his world travels.  Distancing his profession from the lowbrow hokum which had come to be known as “magic,” Kellar actually made a name and career for himself by exposing fraudulent mediums and spiritualists.  The goal in doing so was to carve out a niche in the burgeoning science obsession for magic by couching his work in scientific, Victorian terms.

            Kellar even added the title professor in a series of articles he published about the magic abilities of Indian fakirs and Native American shamans:

Fifteen years spent in India and the far East have convinced me that the high caste fakirs, or magicians, of Northern India have probably discovered natural laws of which we in the West are ignorant.  That they succeed in overcoming forces of nature which to us seem insurmountable, my observation satisfies me beyond doubt (Kellar 1893).

We see here a complete new package for magic, one associated with upscale travel, the rank of high caste fakirs, and which calls upon unknown, mysterious natural laws. 


Magic of Things

            The separation, then, between the lowbrow magic of mediums, which would come to be known as spiritualism, and the highbrow magic of Kellar, was things.  Legitimate magic included trunks, handcuffs, levitating bodies, saws, playing cards, rabbits, top hats, etc. Spiritualism, on the other hand, took place in a more ephemeral realm including ESP, communing with the dead, psychical phenomena.  It would seem as if Agrippa’s definition of magic hinged on things.  The removal of things leaves only people, and the connection between virtues of people lies in psychology, philosophy, and religion.

            As a result, the move to demystify magic has taken place in the push to strip magicians of their things.  The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have witnessed an increasing exposure of the “gimmicks” and “tricks” behind magic.  Consider the popularity of the recent show on Fox, The Masked Magician, where a professional magician actually reveals the “secrets” behind magic “things,” or the popular saying, “magic is nothing but smoke and mirrors.”  We are left echoing John Frow’s query, “Is it really true that the world is becoming emptied of things?” (Frow 2004:357).


            Perhaps the world is being emptied of magic things, but not of magic.  In truth, the highest grossing live performers in the United States are magicians.[1]  Magicians are still household names: Chris Angel, David Copperfield, David Blaine, Penn & Teller, Siegfried and Roy.  In popular culture, magic still makes up one of the most pervasive and highest grossing genres: Harry Potter, Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Wicca, a religion based on magic, is one of the fastest growing religious groups in England and the United States.[2]  Magic is increasingly attributed to concepts and institutions such as capitalism and the stock market (Taussig 1987). If the world is stripped of magic objects and magic people are dismissed, why does magic persist?


Performing Thing Magic

            The answer lies in the performance of magic things.  If we accept Ingold’s statement that “Movement [is] truly generative of the object rather than merely revelatory of an object that is already present” (2000:346), then it is magical movement that truly generates a magical object.  But what is magical movement?  Magical movement interweaves the subject and object, it defies the immutable natural laws which govern the Western philosophical world.  Magical movement reminds us that we have never been modern (Latour 1993).

            Magic performance shows us what Agrippa observed four hundred years ago, things have virtues which interact and intermingle, many times in mysterious ways.  Science has revealed a great deal of this mystery, but its sterilization of objects has obscured what inspired the research in the first place.  Magic performance continues to create magic objects because science still cannot answer the totality of how the virtues of things interact with one another.



Perhaps the answer lies in shifting the perspective from magic things as intermediary between magician and audience to mediator of the perception of the world.  As things construct social relations, so do magical things construct a society in which our relationship with things is not one of dominance over sterile objects, but one of interrelation with things with virtues: virtuous things. The continued fascination with magic shows a desire to escape the limitations of the “modern” world, a need to believe in a larger, powerful force (assemblage, shi, network, magic) that exists beyond the edge of pure modern scientific comprehension (captivation).

Take, if you will the following quote: “Magic is not a practice. It is a living, breathing web of energy that, with our permission, can encase our every action (Morrison 1998).  Magic, then, shows us that everything is connected.  It reveals a world in which we, as humans, are no longer the sole owners of virtue.  Objects are virtuous too.  It is precisely this observation which leads Bennett to link her idea of assemblages to Shi, “the dynamic force emanating from a spatiotemporal configuration rather than from any particular element within it” (Bennett 2005:461)”.  The force which says that everything in the world is connected and we must be accountable for our actions within this field of connections.  Magic, in other words, requires us to perform in a way that once again recognizes the things of the world as virtuous.



Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius.  1993.  Three Books Of Occult Philosophy. Trans. J. F. Edited by Donald Tyson. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn.

Bennett, Jane.  2005.  The agency of assemblages and the North American blackout.  Public Culture 17(3):445-465.

Brown, Bill.  2001.  Thing Theory. Critical Inquiry, v.28 (1):1-22.

Cook, James. 2001. The Arts of Deception. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari.  1988. Introduction: Rhizome.  In A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 3-28. Athlone Press.

Frazer, James George.  1998 [1922].  The golden bough: a study in magic and religion.  Oxford University Press.

Frow, John. 2004. A pebble, a camera, a man who turns into a telegraph pole. In Things, edited by Bill Brown, pp. 346-361. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Gell, Alfred.  1998.  Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory.  Clarendon Press, New York.

Heidegger, Martin. 2001. The thing. In Poetry, Language, and Thought, pp. 165-182. New York: Harper Collins.

Henare, Amiria, Martin Holbraad and Sari Wastell.  2007.  Introduction: thinking through things.  Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically, eds. Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad, Sari Wastell.  Routledge.

Ingold, Tim. 2000.  On weaving a basket.  In The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill, pp 339-348.  Routledge: London.

-2007. Materials Against Materiality. Archaeological Dialogues 14:1-16.

Kellar, Harry.  1893.  High Caste Indian Magic. The North American Review 156: 75.

-1903.  The Wizard at His Tricks. The Independent 55: 1254-1259.

Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Milbourne, Christopher.  1973.  The Illustrated History of Magic. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell.

Miller, Daniel. 2005. Materiality: an introduction. In Materiality (Politics, History, and Culture), edited by Daniel Miller, pp. 1-50. Duke University Press.

Edinburgh Review.  1895.  Modern Magic. The Edinburgh Review.

Morrison, Dorothy.  1998.  Everyday Magic: Spells & Rituals for Modern Living.  Lewellyn Worldwide.

Taussig, Michael.  1987.  Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man : A Study in Terror and Healing.


[1] According to the Society for America Magicians accessible at


A Digital Anomaly

May 16, 2009



Proof We Are All Thumbs


Easton J. Anspach



             For the most part, object studies take as their subjects (the irony is appreciated) items that stand apart from the material human being: Heidegger’s jug, Brown’s window, Ingold’s stone.  These things, while exhibiting various degrees of agency, actancy, and embeddedness, exist as bounded entities distinct from the material human thing.  Their recognition and portrayal as such reifies a Cartesian bifurcation of the world even as modern theorists work to transcend, destroy, or evade the divide between subject and object.  Even in the protean matter-energy flows of Bennett’s assemblages (2005) and the abstract hybrid networks of Latour (1993), the separation between humans and nonhumans is quite evident. 

            Where then, if not in the trash, power grids, door-closers and speed bumps of modern thing studies, are the true hybrids to be found?  Not humans acting as or with objects or non-humans acting as or with subjects, but humanobjects and/or nonhumansubjects?  A network of people and things still allows for human actors to position themselves in a privileged hierarchy over objects. In a true, post-colonial, postmodern, posthumanist discourse on things, this cannot be acceptable (if indeed it can be avoided).  So how do we attempt an escape?  Let us examine something simultaneously subject and object, human and non-human: the thumb.

Thumb is Human

            Perhaps when you think about what it means to be human, the thumb is not the first ‘thing’ that comes to mind.  Perhaps it should be.  The fully opposable thumb is actually a uniquely human adaptation first associated with Homo habilis, the forerunner of Homo sapiens (Wills 2000).  Starting about one million years ago with the evolution of Homo erectus, the truly prehensile thumb developed via a series of intermediate anthropoid stages culminating in the indispensible digit Homo sapiens sapiens currently depend upon.  Although many animals sport an opposable thumb or toe including koalas, opossums, Pandas, and a great number of monkeys and primates, the human thumb is the only one which can rotate 180 degrees to face the fingers.

            But the adaptation of a unique appendage is only the tip of the thumbnail, pollically[1] speaking.  Biological anthropologists argue that the evolution of the opposable thumb is also intimately tied to the development of the human qua human.  The prehensile thumb, due to its position, severely hinders the use of the hands for walking.  Therefore, its development paralleled the gradual pithecanthropoid and anthropoid adoption of the erect bipedal walking gait (Harcourt-Smith and Aiello 2004).  Although there is some debate as to the driving factor (did busy hands lead to upright walking or upright walking allow for busy hands), the opposable thumb effectively separated humans from apes who still utilize their hands as feet.ape-hand-reaching-out

Subsequently, neuroscientists have shown that the adoption of an erect stature by hominids led to a corresponding restructuring of the vascular system which allowed for greater brain size and mental efficiency (Falk 1998, 2009).  This augmented intellectual faculty, along with the freedom of the hands and increased manual dexterity, provided hominids the necessary means for superior development, refinement, and use of tools (Owen 1981).  Tools, in turn, played a primary part in the adaptation to and manipulation of environment, a process which resulted in explosive human population growth and expansion across the globe (van Schaik et. al. 1999).  They also had a pivotal role in the formation of human social processes and researchers have shown that gendered tool use was a significant component of human sexual division and dimorphism (Balme and Bowdler 2006; Marlowe 2007). 

Thumbs, it seems, are a crucial aspect of the embodied human experience.  From physiological makeup to evolutionary success to social structures, the thumb is an indispensable part of what it means to be physically, mentally, and socially human.  Even in the modern age, handwriting, typing, and texting reveal a continued salience for the thumb in the composition and deployment of the human identity.  Given this, perhaps it is faulty to discuss the thumb as human.  Instead, it seems more accurate to state the thumb is human.

Thumb is Thing

             And yet the thumb is not entirely human, nor human in its entirety.  The thumb, like all things, retains an essence not captured in full by designation as simply “human.”  Close examination brings to the surface a little of Brown’s ambiguous excess, Ingold’s materiality, Gell’s captivation.  The thumb is a thing, and it things its Heideggerian thingness in ways that transcend its definition as (part of) the human object.

            The thumb is precisely that: a thumb.  As such, it is a finger and, at the same time, not a finger.  As a finger, the thumb has a skeleton of phalanges joined by hinge-like joints that flex toward the palm.  It is part of the hand.  It looks, moves, and behaves in a similar fashion to the rest of the fingers.  It has a “back” that features hair and nail.  It has a hairless palm side with a fingerprint. 

            But somehow the thumb is not a finger, it is a thumb.  It is opposable and stands in contrast to the fingers.  It has only two phalanges as opposed to the fingers’ three.  It is close to the wrist, not the top of the palm. It is shorter and fatter than the fingers.  It is attached to a mobile metacarpus.  It has a distinct name, not as a token (ring finger) but as a type, (thumb).

            The thumb, as thing, affords and constrains.  As noted previously, its full opposability allows the hand to grip in ways no other animal can.  The thumb allows for incredible manual dexterity which results in precise and skilled tool creation and use.  It provides impetus for bipedalism, brain development, and social stratification. It serves as a security blanket in the mouth of a child.  The thumb allows as write, to draw, to type, to trace out Thanksgiving turkeys in elementary school.


            But the thumb, as thing, also constrains.  Its opposability eliminates the ability to walk as the apes.  In fact, its placement in opposition to the palm makes it one of most injured joints of the body (Neff 2006).  Its (over)use as security blanket manifests in oral fixations and orthodontic visits.  Its dexterity and grip have made humans highly dependent on its use.  Try and zip up a pair of jeans without the use of a thumb.  Pick up a heavy glass or can using only the fingers.  The loss of the thumb is in many ways the loss of humanness.

            What is more, the thumb has come into an existence of its own.  Its participation in networks outside that of human anatomy is almost too prolific to follow:  As the iconic insult which would eventually lead to Romeo and Juliet’s untimely demise, “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?”;  the saving grace or everlasting damnation of gladiators in the mighty Coliseum; the spirit of Gaia which manifests in a gardener’s green thumb; the guide to moviegoers worldwide thanks to Siskel and Ebert (and whoever they Roeper-ed into it after that); the force of the tyrant who strives to keep you “under their thumb.”; fairytale princesses named Thumbelina and folk heroes named Tom Thumb, the latter of which would gain a military commission in Barnum’s militia;  the rules of thumb by which humans guide their lives.

            So the thumb is a thing, but what kind of thing is it?  It would seem, given the discussion above, to be a human thing.  After all, the thumb is part of the human body: it is made of flesh, blood, and bone.  It affords and constrains as far as it allows a human hand to grip or to write.  Its use as insult, critique, and symbol are all as extensions of the human body in response to human society.  The thumb is encompassed by the boundary layer of the human skin.  So it is a human thing, a Latourian quasi-object.  But as such the thumb is still solidly human and, therefore, does not seem to help bridge our Cartesian divide.  Right?  Maybe.  Let us complicate the issue.ThumbWar

 Losing a Thumb War


In January of 2002 a friendly-fire incident during MOS training with the 75th Ranger Regiment left three United States soldiers dead and a fourth unconscious and without a thumb.  Well, not quite without a thumb.  A bullet struck the soldier’s second pollical phalange causing a series of cascade fractures which left the skin of the thumb mostly intact but destroyed almost the entirety of the underlying bone structure.  The soldier was flown to Texas where he was fitted with a cadaver thumb, still unconscious.

Already, the thumb begins to lose some its unique humanness.  Western humanist philosophy has created a world in which individual humans are viewed as matchless.  A world in which the words of Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson are seen as a universal proclamation of truth: “A human being is so irreplaceable. So valuable and so unique.”  And yet, we can replace a thumb, a part of the unique human being.  We can take pieces of one human and place them in another.  Does this mean that Persson would have been more accurate in stating: “A human being is only partially replaceable?”  In that case, which parts are the inimitable ones?  Where exactly, in the human body, does humanness reside?

The answer, in part, is nowhere, at least nowhere in the body.  This question of the particular residence of humanness returns once again to Descartes and the divide between mind and body.  The trend in the West has been to place the essence of humanity in the mind and, therefore, to construct the body as a kind of Heideggerian (2001) vessel whose void is to contain the human spirit.  The body, vacant of mind, is an empty shell, a cadaver ready for deployment in Foucault’s (2003) clinic.  The thumb, it would seem, is not human at all.  The human body, in fact, seems to slip away from humanity.

But Heidegger would not allow this to happen to a human vessel any more than he would allow it to happen to a clay one (2001:170-171).  As the container of the void of humanity, the body still holds certain humanness, empty or full.  It has the potential to ‘give forth’ human, and as such contains a certain ability to human that maintains its unique character as humaning.  The replacement of the thumb, then, is a translation of types.  Humans are held together by their shared ability to human, and the replacement of the thumb is just one (empty or dead) human humaning another (full or alive) human.

Dead Thumb

Perhaps, but the vessel is broken.  Our soldier is no longer entirely intact.  The structure of his body has been compromised and another compromised body has been used to affect repairs.  What do we now make of our repaired human?  Heidegger said nothing of a broken vessel.  We must turn to medicine and philosophy; they have knowledge of repairing humans.

 How does one reckon the technologies of the human? But there is no such thing as the human. Instead, there is only the dizzying multiplicity of the cut human, the human body as interminably cut, fractured. In the clefts of history and at the limits of representation, the cut body of humanity tells the story of the indeterminability that haunts the dreams and nightmares of the “fully there” (Athanasiou 2003).

  It is the thingness of humanity, the “indeterminability”, that is at stake in our soldier’s thumb, then.  It is the replacement of the thumb that reveals the fractured ambiguity of humanness.  We are all cut humans but in the imaginary we exist as whole.

 Separate Worlds 

            Not to make the question too easy, our soldier is also a Lakota and follows the spiritual beliefs of the Ogallala Nation.  The thumb as thing and the thumb as human are now joined by the questions of the thumb as Lakota thing and the thumb as Lakota human.  Our ‘simple’ thumb is now enmeshed in questions of competing worldviews, or perhaps more accurately, questions of competing worlds (Henare et al. 2007).

            The Lakota believe that humanity is only one of the life forces imparted to the residents of Earth and resides in the physical human body, full or empty, cut or not.  Life and death are mere stages in a greater cycle of spirit creation, movement, and regeneration.  The “dead” body, in this case, is just as much human as the “live” one.  The replacement of the thumb is not a translation of types but a transplantation of the individual human tokens.  You can imagine, therefore, our soldier’s consternation in awakening to discover he was no longer one, but two.  The thumb is once again human, or at least part of one (or two).

            The United States military under Constitutional law is required to respect all religious beliefs and, being thoroughly embarrassed by the decision to insert the thumb without first consulting with the soldier, agrees to remove that part of the (empty) human from the other (full) human.  No other option for repair presents itself to the military doctors so the remaining pieces of the thumb are to be amputated.  The thumb, it seems, has finally come to rest.  It is human, that is, it is a human thing, and it is to be no more for this one soldier.

We Have the Technology

             But a story this complex cannot come to a simple conclusion.  One of the soldier’s doctors makes a last minute phone call to a nearby medical research institution and explains the dilemma.  It just so happens the institute has a department specializing in prosthetics and robotics, and that they have recently worked on constructing an automaton arm to play piano for a robotics exposition.  The researchers, slightly giddy from their success, agree to look at the case of our fallen soldier.

            They come to a series of conclusions.  First, no fully functional thumb prosthetic has ever been created to repair this amount of damage.  Second, the technology exists but would require an original construction on a tight medical deadline.  Third, the thumb would cost approximately $340,000 before hospital bills, materials, and physical therapy was factored in.  Things were looking up for the thumb, but down for the soldier.  Our soldier is a young man hard up for cash and the surgery is just too expensive.  Alas, where there is a will, there is a research institute eager for publication and copyrights.  It is agreed that the institute will cover the cost of the surgery in turn for publication rights and ownership of the prosthetic.

            The thumb is now thing again, but this time as a commercial product.  And, given the human essence of the thumb, it is a fetishized commodity beyond the extent imagined by Frazier or even Marx.  Ownership of the thumb is ownership of the body: slavery.  Our soldier’s humanity (or at least the cut, thingness part of it) is to be the property of a commercial corporation.  But this cannot be legal.  The United States has legislation in place to outlaw the valuation and trade of humans as well as human organs.[2]

The truth is the property rights and ownership of the human body is a contentious issue still unresolved by the U.S. courts.  Technology has continuously reduced the amount of material scientifically and commercially viable as part of the human body.  This fact, along with the aforementioned separation of mind and body, has lead to an increased commerce in human body parts, especially in intrastate cases or when a “greater good” is in question.  In fact, the California Supreme Court in the case of Moore v. Regents of the University of California denied a “patient ownership rights in his own cells for fear that the establishment of such rights would inhibit the advancement of the nascent biotechnology industry, which the court saw as crucial to the future of health-care” (Gold 1996).

            So where does that leave our soldier and his thumb?  The National Organ Transplant Act defines the term ‘‘human organ’’ as

 …the human (including fetal) kidney, liver, heart, lung, pancreas, bone marrow, cornea, eye, bone, and skin or any subpart thereof and any other human organ (or any subpart thereof, including that derived from a fetus) specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services by regulation” (NOTA 1998). 

It is these parts which cannot be traded or valuated.  The question is, will the prosthetic thumb qualify?

 Thumb Print

             The removal of the skeletal structure and the needs of the underlying tissue, tendons, and skin of the soldier’s thumb called for a certain amount of alacrity in the scheduling of the soldier’s medical procedures.  As a result, the fabrication of the prosthetic included a number of repurposed materials that wouldn’t normally be considered for an operation of this sort.  Specifically, the researchers utilized the ceramic swivel joints from two high–efficiency 3-D model printer/copiers.  These are highly-precise joints to which printer nozzles are attached in order to render complex graphics on 3-dimensional scale models.  The rest of the prosthetic included titanium guide rods (also from the printers), sheathed tinsel wire to work the joint, and screws. 

The new thumb, therefore, is not an organ by NOTA’s definition.  Ownership and copyrights were secured, the surgery went forward, and the soldier received his thumb.  But if this thumb wasn’t an organ, what was it?  It was an object: it contained metal, ceramic, and it was foreign to the uncut human body.  It was also subject: under the human surface of the skin, under control of the soldier, part of the cut human body.  It was part man, part machine, “…a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” (Haraway 1991:149).  Our thumb, as well as our soldier, is both human and nonhuman, machine and organism.  They are cyborgs.


Haraway has studied this subject intimately and she informs us that to be a cyborg is to be many.  Or to be more precise, it is to be many-in-one; “The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self” (1991:163).  It is a thing which, like our thumb, knows of borders and at the same time bridges them. 

 There is no drive in cyborgs to produce total theory, but there is an intimate experience of boundaries, their construction and deconstruction. There is a myth system waiting to become a political language to ground one way of looking at science and technology and challenging the informatics of domination– in order to act potently (1991:181).

 The cyborg, then moves freely between the subject and object, between man and machine, between thing and object.  It reflects the nearly infinite, polymorphous ways in which the “home, workplace, market, public arena, the body itself- all can be dispersed and interfaced in nearly infinite, polymorphous ways” (1991:163).

            Lest we think this to be a purely cerebral endeavor, consider the recent work of Kevin Warwick, a British scientist who successfully implanted one hundred electrodes into his nervous system and connected them to the internet:

With this in place he successfully carried out a series of experiments including extending his nervous system over the internet to control a robotic hand, a form of extended sensory input and the first direct electronic communication between the nervous systems of two humans (Warwick et al. 2002).

 Here we can see, quite literally, the cyborg as a distribution of self.  Beyond Gell’s (1998) dividuation, the cyborg is able to physically circulate itself across boundaries: not through the molting of ephemeral skins but by establishing tangible connections to the dispersed world.


             Where does this leave us?  I would argue it leaves us not at all but carries us forward.  In the question of subject or object, there no longer seems to be a question.  Warwick, the first human cyborg, puts it this way: “In the game of life and evolution, there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines”‎ (2004:60).  I agree, except I would substitute cyborg for machine.  As Haraway points out, the world is an intricate mess of differentially distributed arenas in which the body is only a small part.  You may chose to follow Deleuze and Guattari (1988) and call it a rhizome, Bennett (2205) and call it an assemblage, or Latour (1993) and call it a network, but the interrelatedness of the world, or worlds, is no longer a question.  What these models lack is a practical understanding of humanity’s part, precisely because they still see humans and nonhumans.  Cyborgs allow for both the recognition and transcendence of this barrier by carrying us into a dynamic universe with weak boundaries, strong cybernetic humanobjects, and endless possibilities.  I give that perspective a mechanical, commoditized, cut-bodied, reconstituted thumb’s up.


Athanasiou, Athena.  2003.  Technologies of humanness, aporias of biopolitics, and the cut body of humanity in Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies.

Balme, J. and S. Bowdler.  2006.  Spear and digging stick: The origin of gender and its implications for the colonization of new continents.  Journal of Social Archaeology v.6:379-401.

Bennett, Jane.  2005.  The agency of assemblages and the North American blackout.  Public Culture 17(3):445-465.

Brown, Bill.  2001.  Thing Theory. Critical Inquiry, v.28 (1):1-22.

Chaisson, Eric J.  2007.  Paths Towards Humanity.  Cosmic Evolution – Epoch 6 – Biological Evolution. Tufts University.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari.  1988. Introduction: Rhizome.  In A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 3-28. Athlone Press.

Falk, Dean.  2009.  Updating the Radiator Hypothesis. Florida State University.  Accessed May, 2009 at

Falk, D. & T. B. Gage 1998. Radiators are cool: A response to Braga & Boesch’s published paper and reply. Journal of Human Evolution v.35:307-312.

Foucault, Michel. 2003 [1963].  The Birth of the Clinic.  Routledge.

Gell, Alfred.  1998.  Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory.  Clarendon Press, New York.

Gold, E. Richard.  1996.  Body Parts: Property Rights and the Ownership of Biological Materials.  Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton.

Haraway, Donna.  1991.  A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge. pp.149-181.

Harcourt-Smith, W. E. H. and L. C. Aiello.  2004.  Feet and the Evolution of Human Bipedal Locomotion. Journal of Anatomy; v.204 (5).

Heidegger, Martin. 2001. The thing. In Poetry, Language, and Thought, pp. 165-182. New York: Harper Collins.

Henare, Amiria, Martin Holbraad and Sari Wastell.  2007.  Introduction: thinking through things.  Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically, eds. Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad, Sari Wastell.  Routledge.

Ingold, Tim. 2007. Materials Against Materiality. Archaeological Dialogues 14:1-16.

Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lovejoy, C. Owen.  1981.  The Origin of Man.  Science 23 v.211 (4480):341–350.

Marlowe, F.W.  2007.  Hunting and Gathering: The Human Sexual Division of Foraging Labor.  Cross-Cultural Research v.41:170-195.

Meyers, Ron Lee.  1997.  A review of Body Parts: Property Rights and the Ownership of Biological Materials in Harvard Journal of Law & Technology v.10:2.

Neff, Tony.  2003.  Personal communication.  Dr. Neff is an orthopedic surgeon at Des Moines Mercy Hospital specializing in the hands.

United States Congress.  National Organ Transplantation Act  (As amended by the Charlie W. Norwood Living Organ Donation Act – January 2008).

van Schaik, Carel, Robert Deaner and Michelle Merrill.  1999.  The conditions for tool use in primates: implications for the evolution of material culture.  Journal of Human Evolution, v.36:6:719-741.

Warwick, Kevin.  2004.  I, Cyborg, University of Illinois Press.

Warwick, K, Gasson, M, Hutt, B, Goodhew, I, Kyberd, P, Schulzrinne, H and Wu, X.  2004.  “Thought Communication and Control: A First Step using Radiotelegraphy”, IEE Proceedings on Communications, 151(3):185-189.

Wills, Christopher.  2000.  The Evolution of the Human Species in Evolutionary Theory:
An Esalen Invitational Conference.


[1] Pollical is the adjective for thumb.

[2] In 1984 Congress passed the National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA), which prohibits the sale of human organs.

Stir Crazy: The Power of Pop

May 15, 2009

Stir Crazy

Confinement is an intangible noun that is felt more often than it is seen. A common effect of confinement is feeling restless or to use a common expression, “stir crazy”. In very specific settings, such as prisons or popcorn makers, the effects of confinement are more obvious. For example, in the 1980s classic comedy “Stir Crazy,” Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor found a way to make long term and unjust confinement behind bars funny. Stir Crazy is also the name of a well-known and beloved hot air popcorn-making machine invented in the late 1970s in the United States. Stir Crazy as what Arjun Appadurai would term a “commodity with a social life” (Appadurai 1986) presents an opportunity to explore the complex relationship between objects, humans and science. In this short essay, I will argue that Stir Crazy paradoxically contains, imprisons, and liberates corn for human consumption in a process of what Tim Ingold calls, “creative engagement” (Ingold 2000: 345) between the corn, machine, and consumer.


Corn is the only grain with a disputed origin (Smith 1999). As with many attempts to uncover histories regarding the disputed origins of things, the academic discussions surrounding corn are fraught with controversy. Yet historians, social anthropologists and archeologists seem to agree that corn has been around for a very long time (roughly 8,000 years) and trace the roots of popcorn specifically back to the Incas, Amerindians and even sixteenth century China (Smith 1999). The controversy surrounding corn in many ways is reflective of its wild, hybrid nature. Its complicated genetic structure and hundreds of varieties reminds us of the “power of things” to provoke human curiosity and shape our relationship with everything from the land, to the economy, to academia.

As a wind-pollinated plant, corn did not lend itself easily domestication and confinement. In “The Origins of Agriculture,” David Rindos (1984) combines the perspective of evolutionary biology with an analysis of cultural change to describe the origins of agriculture. He argues that plants have relied on humans as much as humans on plants. In essence, humans and plants are both the domesticated and the domesticators: humans have modified their behavior due to the biological properties of plants as much as plants have been domesticated and cultivated for human beings. Contrary to earlier perspectives that placed human agency at the center of agricultural revolutions, Rindos argues for a turn to the agency of the crops themselves. For example, he details how isolating small samples of corn caused what is termed as “inbreeding depression” which led to the corn decreasing both its “vigor and yield” (Rindos 90; 1984).


The origin of popcorn makers is less controversial.  One of the first popcorn makers was called a “Fire over the Wire,” and made in 1837 out of what today may be known as chicken wire. Corn was simply placed in a box shaped out of wire and held over the fire until it popped (Smith 1999). In 1866, the first patent for a popcorn popper was granted and the first electric machine was made in 1907. There was little advancement in the popcorn machine industry until the 1950s when “E-Z Pop” and “Jiffy Pop” became permanent fixtures in American households. Microwave popcorn emerged in 1976, yet it did not diminish the success of Stir Crazy, the hot air popcorn machine launched around 1978 that is still is popular enough to inspire more than 400 people to write about it on today.

Stir Crazy Diagram

Stir Crazy is a hot air popper meaning that the popcorn pops when outside heat sources convert moisture inside the popper into steam, increasing the pressure inside the machine and causing the popcorn to pop. As the diagram above shows, it has a “popper cover” which serves both to contain the pressure and a bowl for the popcorn when it is done. The “stirring rod” ensures even popping and the “non-stick popping surface” makes it a real crowd pleaser as it is easy to clean. Stir Crazy may have even enjoyed a recent increase in sales after concerns about the “dangerous chemicals” produced in microwave popcorn production was proven to cause a condition termed “Popcorn lung” in microwave popcorn factory workers (Kreiss et al. 2002).

Pop Corn Lung - diacetyl structure


“Popcorn lung” was caused by the microwave popcorn workers’ cumulative exposure to diacetyl, a chemical used in the artificial butter flavoring (pictured above). The confinement of the factory workers in the popcorn factory was responsible for the workers inhalation of “volatile butter-flavoring ingredients” which caused the illness (Kreiss et al. 2002: 330). 


In 1978, Clifford Geertz wrote a review of Foucault’s book “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison” in which Geertz defined the focus of Foucault’s work as being ‘“confinement” in all its particular, discontinuous forms” (Geertz 1978). Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder would be far from laughing in the prisons Foucault describes in his book, yet Geertz appropriately titled his book review “Stir Crazy” (Geertz 1978). This is of course a digression, but a useful one nonetheless for thinking about the ways in which Stir Crazy could be viewed as an instrument created by humans to confine corn to the point of explosion for our own culinary enjoyment. In this analogy, perhaps those last few kernels that remain while all else has been transformed to white puffs could be seen as “deviant”.

 Yet the inspiration for this object study does not come from bad 80s comedies, a love for popcorn, or even Foucault. It is inspired by “Popcorn Day” which is takes place weekly in one of Foucault’s favorite institutions – the court system. A twenty-year tradition, my father is responsible for popping the corn every Thursday at 1:00 pm sharp as part of his other work duties at the Kansas Judicial Center.

After witnessing my father in action, I too was captivated by the power of Stir Crazyã and understood what had motivated 427 people to write about it. My father and I stared at the popcorn together as it popped: captivated in the Gellian sense by its ability to transform hard kernels into soft editable puffs, and foster relations between me and my father and my father his coworkers. As Stir Crazy worked its magic, the smell of popcorn drifted out into the attorney’s offices letting them know that it was Popcorn Day. Thousands of years of agriculture, archeological research, scientific experiments, product designers, physics, and politics seemed to converge inside the Stir Crazy machine.

Finally (or inevitably as Latour would likely argue), we have arrived at the human component of Stir Crazy, the object. Designed, bought, and used by humans, it is a product of human invention built around the agency of corn.


Appadurai, Arjun. (1986). Introduction: commodities and the politics of value. In: Social Life of  Things. A.Appadurai, ed. Cambridge. pp. 3-63.

 Geertz, Clifford. (1978). Stir Crazy. The New York Review of Books. 24 (21&22).

 Ingold, Tim. On weaving a basket. In The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, Routledge, London339-348.

 Kreiss, Kathleen et. al. (2002). Clinical Bronchiolitis Obliterans in Workers at a Microwave Popcorn  Plant. New England Journal of Medicine. 347 (5):330-338.

 Rindos, David. (1984). The Origins of Agriculture: An evolutionary perspective. Orlando: Academic Press.

 Smith, Andrew. (1999). Popped Culture. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

The Ralph E. Whittington Collection

May 14, 2009

In the museum network, there are many famous collectors and collections: Nelson Rockefeller and his collection of “primitive” art, Henry Clay Frick and his collection of European art, J. Paul Getty and his questionable collection of antiquities. Perhaps the most unique collector in this network is Ralph E. Whittington, a relatively new player in the game, with his collection of pornography and erotica, which the Museum of Sex in New York City acquired in 2002. Whittington, a former Library of Congress archivist, has spent approximately the last 30 years collecting porn in the attempt to create a credible archive for this category of materials. Today, the collection consists of nearly 700 boxes, each full of objects that relate to a specific entry within the entire collection, all organized by Whittington and the system he devised to archive his materials, and approximately 300 large envelopes marked “Miscellaneous” kept in two plastic crates. The majority of the collection is still housed in the original boxes, only a small percent has been integrated into the rest of the museum’s collections and an even smaller percent is actually on display, and the boxes are kept in their own room on the third floor of the museum’s building on 27th Street and 5th Avenue in New York City. Basically, the collection isn’t getting a lot of action these days.

Although there is a lot of variation in the collection, there are three categories that encompass the majority of the entries: individuals, most of which are porn stars or other women in the sex industry in addition to a few individuals who are famous in mainstream popular culture like “Vanessa Del Rio” and “Jayne Mansfield,” respectively; fetishes, which include things like “Asian” and “Scatology”; and the niche – boxes that contain objects related to any number of things, like “Crash” and “Screw Magazine.”
According to Whittington himself, “The important thing is the diversity. That’s where my collection stands out” (Carlson). This statement is not only true about the different categories in Whittington’s collection, but also is applicable to the contents in each individual box. In the box labeled “Jenna Jameson #3” (out of three), you encounter a wide range of objects: the requisite DVDs expected to be attributed to a porn star, photos (including one that is signed), a copy of her auto(ish)biography, magazine cut-outs and articles, trading cards, and the anatomical models of Jenna’s mouth and pussy. In a box labeled “Shoe Dangle”, there are two videos and 16 photographs illustrating the concept of the shoe dangle, which is when a woman’s high heel shoe dangles on her toes, exposing her heel. Perhaps the strangest and most interesting box in the collection is “Porn Cereal Parody,” which contains four sets of four DVDs, 16 total, and four corresponding cereal boxes. To go with the Cheerios cereal box, we have the “Cherry Hos” DVD set, Frosted Flakes has “Frosted Facials,” Kixx has “Trixx,” and, although technically not a cereal, Cream of Wheat has “Cream of Meat.” And these are only three out of nearly a thousand boxes …

Inherently, a collection consists of any number of objects gathered together by an individual or group of individuals for any number of reasons. Collections can be thought of as assemblages. Jane Bennett, who follows the work of Gilles Deleuze, writes on the subject, “An assemblage is, first, an ad hoc grouping, a collectivity whose origins are historical and circumstantial, though its contingent status says nothing about its efficacy, which can be quite strong” (Bennett 445). The Whittington collection, and the way that the collector and the individuals at MoSex who decided to purchase the collection think about the collection, fits well within this definition. In an article in the Washington Post by Peter Carlson, Grady Turner, the curator at the time of the acquisition of the collection is quoted saying, “It’s an incredible time capsule of a period in American pop culture when pornography went from an under-the-table, plain-brown-wrapper kind of thing to the mainstream, where you could buy it in any community” (Carlson). It is clear that time and space are important components in the ways people think of this collection: it stands as a marker of a certain time period in the sex world. Carlson continues,
Whittington’s collection captures the era when court decisions made most pornography legal and the advent of the VCR took porn out of peep shows and made it a multibillion-dollar industry. ‘When there were technological changes and new genres emerging, Ralph was collecting it and cataloguing it,’ Turner says. ‘This is a collection you could not make now. It will be a primary source for historical research and a great repository of pop culture.’
It is clear that there is a strong intention of this collection: to serve as a marker of a specific time and place: the development of the sex industry in the 1970s through the present. But this is only one aspect of the assemblage and the collection.

Bennett continues, “An assemblage is, second, a living, throbbing grouping whose coherence coexists with energies and countercultures that exceed and confound it” (445). Each object in the collection came into being for any number of reasons, and each box was then assembled because of one aspect that ties them all together, creating a coherence, but then that is again disrupted when the collection is seen as a whole. Most people who see the collection are shocked by its size, a fact that trumps the subject of each box. The entire collection becomes more impacting than each box. Back to Bennett, “An assemblage is, third, a web with an uneven topography: some of the points at which the trajectories of actants cross each other are more heavily trafficked than others, and thus power is not equally distributed across the assemblage” (445). In addition to this point describing the entire collection, this point of the assemblage also relates back to the collection: some pieces were actually integrated into the museum collections and displays, while others are relegated to the Ralph Whittington room on the third floor. Also, some aspects of the collection are more known among the general public, so they have different types and levels of agency.

The assemblage gets further complicated when Bennett writes, “An assemblage is, fourth, not governed by a central power: no one member has sufficient competence to fully determine the consequences of the activities of the assemblage” (445). Despite some objects or boxes being better known to the public, there is no central entry that governs the entire collection. The only thing that could be said to unite the entire collection is that they are some way related to sex, and some of them are not even that explicitly about sex. Perhaps the tie that governs them is the collector himself, but, again, he is not explicitly apparent in each entry except for the fact that he collected them. And if Whittington really is trying to document a time period in American history relating to sex, as he is claiming, then there are entries in the collection that have no relation to him and his sexual preferences. And now that the collection is no longer in his possession, the Museum is another actant determining what this assemblage has the possibility to do and what it actually does. Today, the collection sits without use – so where does the agency lie? Is it in the fact that it even exists rather than what each individual box is, making the assemblage the primary agent? After working with this collection for the past three months, I can say without a doubt that the answer is yes. This collection does more just being in existence then it does in use (which may be because it is not really being used, but that is a formality).

There is no question about whether the last definition of an assemblage relates to the Ralph Whittington Collection: “An assemblage, finally, is made up of many types of actants: human and nonhumans; animals, vegetables, and minerals; nature, culture, and technology” (445). All materials and all people are equal parts in this assemblage; where else could you find “Candy Stripers” next to “Puffed Pussies”?


Bennett, Jane. 2005. The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout. Public Culture 17(3): 445-65.

Carlson, Peter. 2002. ‘King of Porn’ Empties Out His Castle: New N.Y. Museum Buys His 30-Year Collection. Washington Post, August 24: C01.


May 14, 2009

      lace      What is the difference between a naked female figure and one clad in lacy, revealing garments known as lingerie?  The physical appearances are indeed different, but they have both come to stand and symbols of desire and sex appeal.  Lingerie is a unique object in that its power lies in its ability to hide something else.  Or is it rather that is exposes something, but still manages to leave something up to the imagination of the viewer?  There is no way to know for sure, but what lingerie desires is to inflict thoughts of nakedness, thereby heightening the anticipation of viewing a naked body in its entirety.  By acting as a physical barrier between a viewer’s eye and the naked body, lingerie utilizes a sense of prolonging the waiting period before viewing the naked body will be realized.  This object has come to stand as a symbol of desire that references the naked body without actually showing it, and has proliferated in the mainstream culture despite, or perhaps because of, what it has come to stand for.

            Although lingerie has come to serve as a symbol of desire, it was not originally intended for this.  Lingerie was once a term that referenced the undergarments worn by women that were not shown in public, but rather were kept to themselves.  With the development of companies like Frederick’s of Hollywood and Victoria’s Secret, lingerie was transformed from functional undergarments to the desirous thing it is today (  In addition to standing as a symbol of desire, images of women in lingerie infiltrate our everyday lives through every aspect of advertising, from television to city billboards.  So, if a naked body and a body in lingerie have to come to stand for the same thing at times, why is it ok to show one so freely and the other with restrictions?

            One text that is helpful in thinking through this question is Roy Ellen’s “Fetishism,” which explores the different realms of the fetish, particularly in both psychological and anthropological terms.  The term fetish refers to many things in different disciplines, with the psychological treatment providing the most aid in thinking through the concept of lingerie and what it stands for today, a sort of standard, commercialized and nationalized fetish, a symbol of sex and sexuality through the naked form. 

Ellen writes, “In the psychological literature fetishism refers to the use of a non-genital object to achieve sexual gratification, or an erotic attachment to inanimate objects or ordinarily asexual parts of the human body” (217).  Here, the objects is imbued with a sexual purpose and comes to stand as the embodiment of desire, turning the immaterial into a material. Lingerie works here on a double level: both the actual fabric coming to stand as the barrier between the viewer and the body, and the images of women in lingerie used as a symbol of desire. 

Ellen addresses this when he continues, “The sexual goal is the body part (a hand, an armpit or a buttock), body products, items of clothing (frequently shoes and items of female under-clothing), fabrics (fur, leather, rubber), even inanimate objects such as collar studs and safety pins” (217).  There is much that could possibly be explored in terms of the materiality of these objects, how different materials like lace and silk work within the context of discussing desire, and indeed there are fetishes in the sexual world based around different types of fabric; however they are not the most important aspect of lingerie in broad terms of desire.  The body that wears the lingerie is important, but what I argue is the most important aspect of lingerie in terms of desire is the purpose of it: to hide.  There is an erotic attachment to different materials, but the greater attachment is to the sense of waiting and hiding when viewing an almost-but-not-quite naked body.  Lingerie is a powerful thing in that it takes a subject, objectifies it, but then reifies it within a whole new context of the fetish. 

Ellen also provides in this piece a useful discussion of Freud, a figure who cannot be ignored when talking of the fetish.  Ellen writes,

The Freudian definition and explanation is altogether more specific.  In his essay on the subject, Freud describes fetishism as the ‘after-effect of some sexual impression, received as a rule in early childhood.’  The fetish stands—he argues—for the missing penis of the woman.  Thus, a foot and shoe fetishism reflects the inquisitive desire of young boys to approach a woman’s genitals from below—from her feet upwards—whereas fur and velvet fetishism becomes a fixation on pubic hair.  By comparison, underclothing crystallizes the moment of undressing—the last moment in which a woman can still be regarded as phallic” (218). 

This theory adds a new dimension to the discussion of lingerie.  Although the proliferation of images of women donning lingerie has no doubt affected the ways we think about it, first being presented to us at an early age and desiring to be thought of as desirous, I do not think that lingerie stands as the last moment when a woman can be considered phallic.  Because lingerie does not just command desire from males, females are also targets of lingerie, whether it is sexual desire, or the desire to replicate, or purchase, or a million different other actions of desire.  Lingerie stands for something else; it hides the body to create a sense of waiting, but that waiting is individualized.  

A body wearing lingerie, at least in terms of mainstream popular culture, is often times more important in what it means than the person who is wearing it.  This can also become apparent when again discussing gender, and what lingerie desires from both males and females.  Generally speaking, to a female, the lingerie wants to be worn, but this can be convoluted by the expectations that our popular fetish with lingerie brings: not being “desirous” enough, or desiring to look different in the garments.  And, generally speaking, to a male, lingerie wants to reference a naked body and create arousal or desire in the viewer. 

The question of desire, particularly in regards to images, is one that W.J.T. Mitchell explores in his book “What Do Pictures Want?”  When addressing desire explicitly, he writes, “The question of what pictures want leads inevitably to a reflection on what picture we have of desire itself.  Some might argue, of course, that desire is invisible and unrepresentable, a dimension of the Real that remains inaccessible to depiction” (57).  But that’s not what lingerie, and many other sex products for that matter, wants us to believe.  Lingerie, and the companies and networks behind the production and consumption of these products attempt to embody desire by referencing the naked body and standing as the waiting period before that will be revealed. 

Mitchell continues, “It seems, then, that the question of desire is inseparable from the problem of the image, as if the two concepts were caught in a mutually generative circuit, desire generating images and images generating desire” (58).  The same could be said for lingerie (and by extension, images of bodies wearing lingerie); by being a thing meant to create desire, it has come to stand for desire itself, becoming inseparable from the term.  But what exactly creates this desire?  The person wearing the lingerie?  The skin revealed by the wearing of the lingerie?  Or the knowledge of what is underneath the garments, the waiting period prolonged by extra material standing between two extremes?  The question may never be answered, but perhaps the questioning of this thing is more important than the answer.
PORT-INT-Lingerie torso





Ellen, Roy.  1998.  Fetishism.  Man (N.S.) 23:213-35.

Lingerie.  2009., accessed 22 March 2009.

Mitchell, W.J.T.  2005.  What Do Pictures Want?  University of Chicago Press.


May 14, 2009

BH1-00026_01_BT_Nov2007_overallPlease allow me to introduce Object number BH1-00026— the accession number for the decorative fireplace surround in the Claude Room of Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina.  I spent 12 intimate weeks treating the fireplace surround for my job as an Art Conservation Technician.  Conservation deals primarily with the materials of objects, so I thought of the treatment of the fireplace surround while reading on the topic of materiality, specifically Tim Ingold’s article “Materials against Materiality” and Martin Heidegger’s article “The Thing.” Ingold stresses in his article that people should be more aware of the material makeup of objects.  What about Art Conservation? What about fields of study that are already concerned with materiality, that do not need to read articles advising the use of placing a stone nearby in order to remember that what makes up an object may be important.  I decided to take a closer look at the treatment of BH1-00026.

 Professors in the interdisciplinary field refer to Art Conservation as a three-legged stool, with each leg of the stool representing art history, studio art, and chemistry.  A good understanding of how materials work on a chemical level is highly important because one must know how substances will react with one another.  The Hippocratic oath of “do no harm” is only possible in conservation if one knows information like how certain materials will deteriorate over time, or which solvent will dissolve dirt, but not paint.  The academia provides a foundation of knowledge, but the hands-on aspects are learned while one is a conservation technician, like an apprentice.  Hours upon hours of conservation work under the guidance of a trained professional conservator teach the proper techniques and common tools and methods.  To be a conservator, one must have the appropriate coursework, minimum number of hours of technician work, and pass a grueling interviewing process to secure one of the 28 spots available each year in the U.S. in the main conservation programs.

 (For more information on Art Conservation, consult each school’s website: The University of Delaware, New York University, and Buffalo State College, or the website for the American Institute for Conservation.) 

 On my own lowly journey to become a conservator, I worked for two years at Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned home in America that was built by George Vanderbilt in 1895.  I was hired, appropriately enough, in the “Objects” Conservation Department to assist with a restoration project to open a suite of four rooms that previously had not been on the public tour.  Each room included a fireplace and Object BH1-00026 was dirty and needed treatment in order to fit in visually with the other lavish decorations of the restored room, as well as stabilization to prevent further deterioration.  One of the biggest concepts of conservation is the use of documentation.  The whole treatment process is documented so future museum staff will know what kind of work the object endured.  The object description for the fireplace surround was written following the appropriate terminology and investigation that is taught in conservation.  It is described as follows:


“Object is a carved marble fireplace surround with gold leaf and/or paint installed in the Claude Room.  The mantle and columns are white marble, while the inner marble is mottled orange with a brass trim lining.  The gold along the mantle is believed to be gold paint, while the gold along the columns is believed to be a gold leaf.  This object is very similar in style and design to the fireplace in the Damask Room (BH1-00027), although the decorative elements in the carvings differ between each room.  For example, the statues atop the columns flanking the sides of the Claude Room fireplace are eagles, while the statues are lions in the Damask Room.  Both fireplaces were “antiques” when George Vanderbilt bought them.”

 If the same object were described by an art historian, curator, or anthropologist, its description would probably have less to do with the intricate details of its materials and more to do with the history and context of the piece. 

 BH1-00026_13_BT_Nov2007_PR detailThe condition of the object is then described:BH1-00026_07_BT_Nov2007_PR detail

“The object is in fair condition.  The surface is covered with a layer of dark dirt and soot, from years of use in Biltmore House and use prior to purchase by George Vanderbilt.  Several crevices, especially the beading spanning across the top of the mantle, were filled with soot ash. Also in crevices and carvings along the sides of the mantle are patches of white plaster that have adhered to the surface and will not wipe off, but require mechanical removal.   The marble itself is in good structural condition, but there are small areas of loss along the bottom edges of the columns.  The gold painted area on the top portion of the fireplace, however, is in poor condition.  The proper right half of the painted area is friable and actively flaking off of the marble.  There are areas of complete loss throughout the painted surface, although the Claude Room mantle is in better condition than the Damask Room mantle.  The gilded background on the sides of the mantle also has areas of loss, but is in good condition overall.”

After these observations, a treatment method for cleaning was outlined and carried out.  Listed are but a few of the steps in the process: lab_images_001

  1. Mixed the cleaning solutions for the treatment in the conservation lab.  The (Wolbers) marble cleaner is an aqueous solution containing chelating agents TEA and Citric acid, with ammonium hydroxide to adjust the pH level, and Triton XL80-N to act as a surfactant.  The pH of the marble cleaner was adjusted to 8.5-9.0.  The (Wolbers) 102.7 cleaner also is an aqueous solution containing a surfactant (Triton XL80-N) and a chelating agent (ammonium citrate), adjusted to a pH of 8.0.  In addition to liquid form, each solution was made into gel form by adding Methyl Cellulose.
  2. Removed loose ash and soot in crevices using wooden skewers.
  3. Mechanically removed plaster using dental tools and wooden skewers.
  4. Applied marble cleaner in gel form to the white marble around the gilded surfaces.  Using a gel allowed us to focus on cleaning a specific, controllable area.  The marble cleaner was gentler on the gilded surface, not removing any gold as long as the cleaner was rinsed off the surface immediately.  The gel was removed using sponges and water.
  5. Rinsed the surface with water using sponges to ensure no cleaner remained on the surface.  Although the pH level was adjusted to ensure the cleaner was not too acidic to etch the marble, care was taken to rinse all cleaner from the mantle to ensure none would remain to etch the marble over time.
  6. Applied 102.7 cleaner in gel form to the white marble around the painted surface.  The painted surface was more likely to dissolve if in contact with the marble cleaner, but not the 102.7.  Therefore, marble around the painted surface was cleaned using 102.7.  The gel was removed using sponges and water.
  7. Cleaned painted and gilded surfaces using cotton swabs dipped in liquid 102.7 cleaner, and rinsed with sponges and water.
  8. Mechanically removed stubborn staining on the white marble using a scalpel.


BH1-00026_27_DT_Nov2007_brass removed

BH1-00026_24_DT_Nov2007_PL detail

Other types of objects were treated at Biltmore in a similar manner-by inspecting the materials of the object, then selecting other materials to carry out treatment.  Surfaces, varnishes, paint layers, corrosion, etc. are analytically tested to discover the exact materials as closely as possible.  All treatments are reversible (with the exception of cleaning) so that if alternative materials/adhesives/epoxies are discovered in the future that are better, the old treatment may be removed and the new one applied. 

Because of this experience in treating the fireplace surround, I did not agree with Ingold’s quote on page one of his “Materials against Materiality” article that “anthropology and archaeology literature that deals explicitly with the subjects of materiality and material culture seems to have hardly anything to say about materials” (3).  Although art conservation is not explicitly anthropology and archaeology, the fields cross and intertwine, as I am sure many archaeologists would agree with when trying to conserve finds from an excavation.  One must know how corroding metals or fragile ceramics will react to different solutions in order to stabilize or clean them, especially when the environment is unstable.

Ingold stresses that people have become too preoccupied with the materiality of objects, that the “concept of materiality, whatever it might mean, has become a real obstacle to sensible enquiry into materials, their transformations and affordances” (3).  We have taken the materiality of the objects for granted, forgetting that the object is what it is because of its materials.  “Thenceforth it is the objects themselves that capture our attention, no longer the materials of which they are made.  It is as though our material involvement begins only when the stucco has already hardened on the house front or the ink already dried on the page” (9).  Although we see the house as a whole and not as a sum of parts and materials, these materials continue “to mingle and react as they have always done, forever threatening the things they comprise with dissolution or even ‘dematerialization’. Plaster can crumble, and ink can fade.” (9).  Ingold even points out that curators and “conservationists” (he uses the imporper term- conservationists deal with the environment) are constantly struggling with this fact, as indeed we are.  Conservators are fully aware that “Materials always and inevitably win out over materiality in the long term” (10).   Conservation differs from restoration in that the main objective is the stabilization of the object.  Conservators wish to slow down the battle of materials over materiality. 

putti front before

clean putti

An important way to slow deterioration is to monitor and control the environment, establishing a stable temperature and relative humidity.  Ingold discusses the environment as a

“world that continually unfolds in relation to the beings that make a living there.  Its reality is not of material objects but for its inhabitants.  It is, in short, a world of materials.  And as the environment unfolds, so the materials of which it is comprised do not exist– like the objects of the material world- but occur. Thus the properties of materials, regarded as constituents of an environment, cannot be identified as fixed, essential attributes of things, but are rather processual and relational.  They are neither objectively determined nor subjectively imagined but practically experienced.  In that sense, every property is a condensed story.  To describe the properties of materials is to tell the stories of what happens to them as they flow, mix and mutate.” (14) 

Ingold concludes this article in saying that “properties of materials … are not attributes, but histories” (15). 

So… that’s all well and good.  Pat yourselves on the back, conservators, for thinking of the materials of things, not just the materiality, and how that relates to the environment.  But wait, isn’t there more?

What about those objects that have more value to them than their materials? What about sacred objects?  Should they be treated simply as materials? The efforts to preserve sacred objects enacted by museum professionals are not viewed in the same exalted manner by the indigenous people to whom the objects originally belonged.  Quite the contrary, these efforts are viewed as harmful to the objects and disrespectful to the cultures because of a lack of understanding of the power residing in the objects.  

Native American George Horse Capture expressed his sadness over the display of objects in museums at the 1980 American Association of Museums by stressing the importance these objects hold in his culture.  George Horse Capture stated that “Indian people utilize special items to help communicate with the One Above,” and that these items have a “vital function” for native religion (Ferguson 1983: 2).  An article in the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation entitled “Ethical Considerations in the Conservation of Native American Sacred Objects” calls for conservators to reconsider traditional conservation practices in light of native views.  The authors recognize that “the very process of handling, documentation and treatment could constitute interference with the integrity of the objects and destruction of its functional and spiritual value” during the “modern, scientific conservation treatment” that conservators practice (Wolfe and Mibach 1983: 1).

Without an understanding of the meanings and values placed on these objects, a conservator may treat the materials while disrespecting the materiality.  Perhaps there is more to an object than the materials.  It was on this point that Heidegger’s article “The Thing” was significant.

When determining what makes the jug a jug, he states that “the jug’s void determines all the handling in the process of making the vessel.  The vessel’s thingness does not lie at all in the material of which it consists, but in the void that is holds” (169).  While examining the jug—

“To learn what nearness is, we examined the jug nearby… at that moment, in fact, when the illusion intruded itself that science could reveal to us the reality of the jug … conceived in terms of physical science, that is what the void really is; but it is not the jug’s void… We had given no thought to how the containing itself goes on… We failed to give thought to what the jug holds and how it holds.” (171)

Perhaps my marble/gilded/painted fireplace is more than materials and surface dirt and surfactants and chelating agents.

 “The jug’s jug- character consists in the poured gift of the pouring out.  Even the empty jug retains its nature by virtue of the poured gift, even though the empty jug does not admit of a giving out.” (174) 

Heidegger ends his article with “Things, each thinging from time to time in its own way, are heron and roe, deer horse and bull.  Things, each thinging and each staying in its own way, are mirror and clasp, book and picture, crown and cross.”  (182)

Although this fireplace surround did not have a religious function, perhaps it should be investigated further.  Perhaps there is more to its thingness than its parts.  Perhaps Latour was correct in his encouragement to stop reducing. 

Museums are structured institutions that allot specialized jobs to different departments.  Conservators act on the materials, while the curators are in charge the knowledge of the context of the object.  Curators know more of how the objects are used, for what purpose, the life history of the object, etc.  The source communities from which those objects came will know even more.  Curators, communities, and conservators should form a three-legged stool of their own and should all be in collaboration to investigate the many aspects of an object, in order to discover how the thing is a thing.  In an article on “Conservation and Meaning,” the author Douglas Greenberg stresses the importance of conservation, but also the importance of consulting communities.  He states that “this is not a theoretical matter either; in a culturally diverse society whose institutions of art and memory are multiple and occasionally conflicting, those that fail to accompany the conservation of objects with a conservation of meaning will themselves fail from their own stupidity and irrelevance” (44). 

This semester has helped stress the importance of all characteristics of objects and things; that many aspects of BH1-00026 contribute to making it an object.  We should heed Ingold and study the materials, while remembering Heidegger’s investigation of the importance of the materiality of things.  It is acceptable for an object to have materials and materiality, and we should recognize that, especially conservators.


 Ferguson, T.J.  1990.  “The Repatriation of Ahayu:da Zuni War Gods:  An Interview with the Zuni Tribal Council on April 25, 1990.”  Museum Anthropology. Vol. 14, No. 2: 7-14. 

Greenberg, Douglas.  2004.  “Conservation and Meaning.”  In Stewards of the Sacred.  Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums.

Heidegger, Martin.  1971.  “The Thing.” In Poetry, Language, Thought.  Translated by Albert Hofstadter.  New York: Harper & Row.

Ingold, Tim.  2007.  “Materials against Materiality.”  In Archaeological Dialogues.  Cambridge University Press.  Vol. 14, no. 1.  Pp. 1-16.

“Treatment Report- BH1-00026.”  2007.  Personal document by Fran Ritchie.   

Wolfe, Sara J. and Lisa Mibach.  1983.  “Ethical Considerations in the Conservation of Native American Sacred Objects.”  Journal of the American Institute for Conservation.  Vol. 23, No. 1: 1-6.

Dead Matter(s)

May 14, 2009


Humans: We’re the brains of this operation.  We’re the subjects in this subject-object equation.  But what happens when we’re not?  How do humans become the object?  The dead body/human cadaver, seems to be the ultimate example of Bill Brown’s reasoning–that we are most aware of the thingness of things when they break down.  As Brown states, “We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls. . .” (Brown 2001:4). When the human body “breaks down” by dying, we are able to view it in a different way; we are able to objectify it.  This corpse does not talk like us- the living humans.  It does not think, eat, dance, etc.  It does not have a say on what happens to it.  In fact, we are able to talk about the cadaver as an “it,” rather than “he” or “she,” and not feel guilty because the cadaver will never know.  This type of objectification concerning dead bodies is crucial for some people, mostly the researchers and doctors who spend their time around cadavers, performing tasks that would be unthinkable upon living bodies.  The research on cadavers may be gross (literally), but it has had many contributions to the society of living people and is a necessity. 


This topic is prominent in the book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach.  Roach examines different fields that use cadavers as study objects, from surgeons to safety inspectors.  The author adds humor to her writing in hopes of lessoning the shock of the experiments done to the cadavers, to help the reader transition into the objectification of the human body.  This is evident in the headings of the chapters of the book, which include:

A Head is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Practicing surgery on the dead

Dead Man Driving: Human crash test dummies and the ghastly, necessary science of impact tolerance

Beyond the Black Box: When the bodies of the passengers must tell the story of a crash

The Cadaver Who Joined the Army: The sticky ethics of bullets and bombs

Holy Cadaver: The crucifixion experiments

Eat Me: Medicinal cannibalism and the case of the human dumplings

Out of the Fire, Into the Compost Bin: And other new ways to end up


While collecting research for her book, Roach interviewed the living people who do the gruesome, smelly, and often times weird work with cadavers, frequently asking them how they are able to perform their jobs with a dead person sitting in the room.  From the chapter “A Head is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Practicing Surgery on the Dead,” the author observes a facial anatomy and face-lift refresher course for “face-lifters”.  The heads of cadavers have been cut off directly below the chin and placed in aluminum trays, similar to those used for cooking a Thanksgiving turkey.  The trays are laid on long rows of tables covered with lavender table cloths.  When a cadaver is dissected, the head and genitals are usually covered to help the dissector focus on the task at hand.  When the head IS the part of the body being dissected, how do the medical professionals react?  The woman who sets the heads upon the tables responds “What I do is, I think of them as wax” (21). 

The chapter “Life after Death: On human decay and what can be done about it” features the “Body Farm” at the University of Tennessee where anthropologists study the rate of decay of human bodies under various conditions.  Roach asked one employee what it is like to conduct his research at the farm.

 “What do you mean? You want a vivid description of what’s going through my brain as I’m cutting through a liver and all these larvae are spilling out all over me and juice pops out of the intestines?  I don’t really focus on that.  I try to focus on the value of the work.  It takes the edge off the grotesqueness.” (63)

As the bodies decay, they become discolored, bloated, eaten by insects, foul-smelling, and messy, to name a few characteristics.  Despite this change in appearance, a worker must still overcome the fact that these were once living humans, to get over their “humanness.”  Although the worker at the Body Farm did not admit it at first, he later commented that he used to turn the bodies over onto their stomachs so that he would not have to think about the fact that they were humans. 

There are several of those types of coping mechanisms throughout the book that allow people to saw bodies apart, shot them, place them in crashing vehicles, and study them.  People imagined the cadaver as something different, something fake, found humor in the situation, such as picturing the dead body as a cartoon, and focused on the importance of the work at hand, in order to ignore the fact that the cadaver could have been a friend of yours if you had meet a few months prior.

Roach points out these workers are

“practicing a time-honored coping method: objectification.  For those who must deal with human corpses regularly, it is easier (and, I suppose, more accurate) to think of them as objects, not people.  For most physicians, objectification is mastered their first year of medical school, in the gross anatomy lab, or “gross lab,” as it is casually and somewhat aptly known.  To help depersonalize the human form that students will be expected to sink knives into and eviscerate, anatomy lab personnel often swathe the cadavers in gauze and encourage students to unwrap as they go, part by part.” (21)

Objectification is so necessary because cadavers

“look so much like people.  When dealing with our meat selection, we don’t say we’d like a slice of pig, but we say we’d like a slice of pork.  Dissection and surgical instruction, like meat-eating, require a carefully maintained set of illusions and denial.  Physicians and anatomy students must learn to think of cadavers as wholly unrelated to the people they once were.  Dissection requires in its practitioners the effective suspension or suppression of many normal physical and emotional responses to the willful mutilation of the body of another human being.” (21)

Cadavers must turn from the human subject to the nonhuman object.  They must lose their humanness.  Just as Roach stated in her book, it is important for medical students to go through this transition, to see bodies as objects.  The use of technological equipment is quickly replacing the use of cadavers, but many in the field recognize the importance of the real thing.  In a New York Times opinion article on the topic, the writer Christine Montross recognizes that the issue deserves the attention.  She discusses:

“But what kind of doctors will they be, these students who have never experienced human dissection? They would have been denied a safe and more gradual initiation into the emotional strain that doctoring demands.  Someday, they’ll need to keep their cool when a baby is lodged wrong in a mother’s birth canal; when a bone breaks through a patient’s skin; when someone’s face is burned beyond recognition. Doctors do have normal reactions to these situations; the composure that we strive to keep under stressful circumstances is not innate. It has to be learned. The discomfort of taking a blade to a dead man’s skin helps doctors-in-training figure out how to cope, without the risk of intruding on a live patient’s feelings — or worse, his health. We learn to heal the living by first dismantling the dead.” (“Dead Body of Knowledge”)

When a person dies, it is easier to regard them as something else, such as the hull of the former person, because the body becomes inanimate.  The cadaver loses the agency it once had as a living person; it can no longer defend itself when someone wants to dissect it, no longer has a say in the decision to include it in crash tests.  With medical students, forensic anthropologists, and other professionals examining the cadaver, the materiality of the human becomes even more apparent.  Once able to talk or gesture, the cadaver is now only able to relate to others through its materiality.  The agency of the human takes another form when dead, similar to the agency given to other inanimate objects.  The agency is there, even if it cannot be explicitly observed.

As Peter Pels points out in his article “The Spirit of Matter,” “the fetish functions to question the boundaries between things and the distinctions they are held to delineate” (92).  When a human cadaver is objectified, it is able to be viewed as a fetish. Like a fetish, the dead human body blurs the line between subject and object.  The human form reminds the living of the subject, but the materiality of the dead and the fact that its agency is no longer explicit makes the body more like an object. 

Even after death, the agency of the person may be enacted by following of their will.  Perhaps the family members do not want the body of their loved one to be cremated, but carry out wishes anyway to please the person (who may or may not even know that their wishes are being enacted, depending upon your beliefs of the afterlife).  Such was the case for Roach’s father, who requested to be cremated and placed in a white pine box.  Her mother complied, but felt guilty for not burying him, and was even chastised by members of the community who wanted a memorial service. Leaving requests for what happens to your body after you are dead is a way of asserting control and influence over the living.

Organ donation is another way dead bodies may have agency, as Roach editorializes upon her in book.

“It is astounding to me, and achingly sad, that with eighty thousand people on the waiting list for donated hearts and livers and kidneys, with sixteen a day dying there on that list, that more than half of the people in the position of organ donor H’s family was in will say no, will choose to burn those organs or let them rot.  We abide the surgeon’s scalpel to save our own lives, our loved ones’ lives, but not to save a stranger’s life.  H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her.” (195)

Using human cadavers as the ultimate example of Bill Brown’s definition of a thing only works depending upon one’s belief of the spiritual world and what happens after death.  However, as Roach’s research shows, professionals working with dead bodies typically had to objectify the bodies in order to perform their tasks.  The cadavers lost their explicit agency they held as living humans and blurred the line between subject and object. The fact that living family members carried out the transformed agency of the cadaver through wills and organ donation places the cadavers in the realm of the fetish; the human is the object.   



Brown, Bill.  2001.  “Thing Theory.” In Critical Inquiry.  Vol. 28, no. 1. Pp. 1-22.

Montross, Christine.  “Dead Body of Knowledge.”  In The New York Times.  March 26, 2009.  On-line.  <;

 Pels, Peter.  1998.  “The Spirit of Matter.” In Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces.  Ed. Patricia Spyer. New York: Routledge.

Roach, Mary.  2003. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Cadaver photographs from:

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.

    gowanus canal

    May 7, 2009


    Mike Harrigan, who has spent 29 years on harbor duty with the Police Department, really considers Gowanus a ‘region of the dead,’ like the River Styx of mythology. He should — he has picked up, he recollects, ‘a couple of thousand bodies’ while on duty there . . . .” Brooklyn Eagle, June 23, 1952

    The Hudson River / great waters which are constantly in motion, either flowing or ebbing

    May 7, 2009

    “As the evening approached, the channel grew more narrow; the banks more and more precipitous; and these later were clothed in richer, more profuse, and more somber foliage.  The water increased in transparency.  The stream took a thousand turns, so that at no moment could its gleaming surface be seen for a greater distance than a furlong.  At every instant the vessel seemed imprisoned with an enchanted surface, having insuperable and impenetrable walls of foliage, a roof of ultra-marine satin, and no floor…The channel now became a gorge…the crystal water welled up against clean granite, or the unblemished moss, with a sharpness of outline that delighted while it bewildered the eye.”

                                      – Edgar Allan Poe, Domain of Arnheim


    How do you describe a river to someone who has never known one?

    The Hudson River, a thing of beauty, of nature, of history; a river with as many narratives as bends in its journey from dewy moss droplets to titanic sea. It is a river steeped in meaning – it is a bountiful river, a strategic river, a sacred river, a perilous river, a chameleon river, a river of controversy, a river of commerce, a river of reprieve, a river of conscience, a river that mirrors, a river that brings together and tears apart. It is a river that is constantly doing. The Hudson is a river of change and relations – since its birth as a ‘drowned river’ it has sculpted the landscape around it and been sculpted by it. The billion-year-old Storm King Mountain that buttresses the river’s side has yielded to its power, and plant and animal life have emerged and disintegrated along its shores and in its waters. People have been drawn to its resources and battles have been raged over it. It has helped build a nation, and it has assisted in the devastation of its own inhabitants. It has cultivated the arts, it has spurned growth, it has been a harbinger of decline. The Hudson River is a thing that is more than beauty, more than nature, and more than history. Its agency spills out over its edges and its thing-power resides in its many variations over space, time, and imaginations. By looking at, listening to, reminiscing about, imagining towards, speaking out about, asking questions of, intermingling with, and writing about the river, I think we can learn something simplistically important about the way things go. Perhaps we can also experience how creativity flows, the interconnectedness of things, and the way we are bound up in things and things are bound up in us.



    The personal file

    May 7, 2009


    I. There are basically three players in this game. In order to protect their identities, they will hereinafter be referred to as:

    1. Mr. K:

    “K. now had no more thoughts of shame, the documents had to be prepared and submitted… Above all, he could not stop half way, which was nonsense not only in business but always and everywhere.  Needless to say, the documents would mean an almost endless amount of work.  It was easy to come to the belief, not only for those of an anxious disposition, that it was impossible ever to finish it. This was not because of laziness or deceit, which were the only things that might have hindered the lawyer in preparing it, but because he did not know what the charge was or even what consequences it might bring, so that he had to remember every tiny action and event from the whole of his life, looking at them from all sides and checking and reconsidering them”. Franz Kafka, The Trial

    2. The collector:

    “33) NATIONAL CORPORATION OF THE BLESSED KEEPERS OF COLLECTIONS AND THEIR HOUSES OF COLLECTION (all the houses of collection, and idem, houses, warehouses, stores, archives, museums, cemeteries, prisons, asylums, institutions for the blind, etc., and also all employees in general of those establishments). (Collections: example: an archive saves files in collection; a cemetery keeps corpses in collection, a prison keeps prisoners in collection, etc.)”. Julio Cortazar, Rayuela.

    3. Everyone else involved (a veritable legion, for there are many, medley, noisy, and meddlesome).

    II. The Godhead will have to remain absent in its presence (or vice versa).

    The Glass Flowers

    May 5, 2009

    The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants


    “Although they are representations themselves, they defy representation. A photograph of the glass model of a daylily or a strawberry plant looks exactly like a photograph of the daylily or strawberry plant in your garden…. It is the wonder of the copy that itself cannot be copied, which somehow is more authentic than the original.” –Lorraine Daston

    Materiality of Music?

    May 5, 2009

    My project intends to discuss music as an object/thing/subject. How does music create and interact with networks? In what ways does the material of music (soundwaves) affect these interactions?

    To prepare for this, I have two examples: the first is from Disney’s Fantasia and please focus only on about the first three or four minutes. The second is a poor recording of an amazing piece entitled Resonances I (wordpress won’t let me upload the mp3 version of my ensemble performing it, I call that visual discrimination) which I would consider a rhizomatic musical piece. Enjoy!


    May 5, 2009

    M Sanger

    Mirrors are dangerous things. They routinely blur not only the lines between subject and object, but also inside and outside, self and other, immanent and manifest. If we accept the collapse between object and subject as being the emergence of fetishes and/or hybrids then the danger of the mirror is obvious. Along with fire, lightning, the ocean, the volcano – the mirror is an object that acts of its own accord. The action of the mirror is one of creation – the reflection is a reality that exists only within the mirror and is fashioned out of its actions. This paper will explore the ways in which the mirror acts, how those actions create and destroy alliances, and the broader network of relations dependent upon these alliances.

    But first we must look closer at the mirror (and look is all we can do, more on this later) – are we speaking of a single entity, an amalgamation of forces, or some essence or ability when we address the mirror?

    Standing with a towel wrapped around our waist, toothbrush in hand – we address the mirror as a single entity, that of our own reflection. But as a material thing, are mirrors individuated entities? Can we recognize one mirror within a group? Can we only recognize it for virtue of its frame? De-framed and standing naked before us will we recognize our daily morning acquaintance or will it become hidden and lost amongst its brethren?

    We are straying dangerously close to saying that the mirror is at essence only an essence. Without a secondary framing agent our companion looses individuality and appears to revert to its true nature as nothing more than an ability, a purchase, a flat plane in a world of three dimensional things. Obviously, we must take Bjonar Olsen’s (Olsen 2003))cavalier attitude and attempt to “defend” the mirror from this fate through the tracing of our sensual experience with this entity opposite of us.

    Our sensory experience with the mirror is above all, and perhaps to the exclusion of all other senses, one of vision. The tyranny of sight has been discussed as a defining quality of modernity (see (Lefebvre 1991) that arose at about the same time (the early to mid-1700’s) that mirrors became readily accessible items for the masses rather than expensive playthings of the wealthy (see (Melchior-Bonnet 2002) for a history of mirrors). Are the two related? The daily alliance between mirror and woman, mirror and man – could this not be the groundwork for a fabulously powerful alliance between self, vision, and reflection with the mirror as integral member of the cohesive group? Was it this alliance, along with the one between person and written word that banished the other senses to the outskirts of power? I will return to this question later in this paper in an attempt to trace out the mirror’s ability to form powerful alliances and the effect of those alliances on a broader network of relations. But first, the visual nature of mirrors must be drawn out and the subsequent difficulties detailed.

    Along with the written word, photographs, and paintings, mirrors are one of the few things that are approachable, or encounterable, only through sight or vision. Vision will play a key constructive role later in this paper – but the mirror’s subservience to vision also makes it extremely difficult to talk about using traditional “material” vocabulary. Largely textual and semiotic terms such as symbol, sign, manifest, replicate, display, contemplate, and meaning are all deeply connected with mirrors and attempting to divorce the two appears difficult, if not impossible. The semiotic or symbolic aspect of the mirror has been heavily utilized by numerous researchers, but perhaps none so much as Jacques Lacan. Lacan (Lacan 2007) suggests that there is a “mirror stage” in child development in which babies first constitute their Ego through the identification of their reflection as a symbol of themselves. According to Lacan, this initial understanding of the mirror’s reflection as a symbol of self provides the base for all symbolic understanding. This symbolic approach is obviously an injustice to the materialistic project, so how do we offer another alternative?

    Simply stating that vision is a material encounter as particles are either emitted or received by the eye is a tempting way out of this difficult position. Indeed, myths about the mirror – such as Perseus and the Medusa – suggest such a solution. Nonetheless, I find this solution to be shallow and unsatisfactory largely because it does not explain the relation between the thing viewed, the thing viewing, and the thing imagined. While we are obviously coming close to the realm of signs and symbols this paper attempts to take the materiality project seriously by testing its applicability to a thing – the mirror – that appears to be discussable in only non-material terms. As such, this paper will use terms like reflection, conceived and perceived things, and hidden and manifest characteristics while attempting to stay true to the materialist project and take things seriously. A return to asking what mirrors do, what are their actions may move us in the right direction.

    Before examining the actions taken by the mirror I first ask, where does the mirror perform these actions? Mirrors, as locatable things, are slippery. One does not look at a mirror – one looks into the mirror. Rather than being present immediately in front of us – there is something deeper within the mirror. Stories like “Through the Looking Glass” (Carroll 1871) reflect the mirror’s ability to be located in multiple places at the same time. In this way, the mirror is a point of a travel from one location to another.

    But this ability to travel is also dangerous as the points that the mirror connects are not always of the same quality. While one point may be the physical realm of our bathroom, the other is a place far more foreign. The mirror opens a portal to other times and places allowing scrying and fortune telling. The mirror creates passageways between life and death as spirits can be both released and caught within. So while the viewer can locate one side of the mirror – right in front of them – the other side maybe more distant, even unknown.

    Examining the location of the mirror has brought us to a discussion of what mirrors do. While mirrors can be portal-like – this is more of a by-product of their slippery locational nature. This is not what they do – what mirrors do is reflect.

    The mirrors ability to reflect is a creative practice in which a duplicate that is the same, yet different – a doppelganger – of the mirror’s collaborator is made visible. The details of this action and the actants involved are intricate, varied, and paradoxical. The precise nature of the doppelganger is the first difficult question.

    Whether this doppelganger is made manifest or created out of thin air is unclear to the collaborator. This is one of the ways in which the mirror is dangerous – does it simply reflect, is it no more than an intermediary, or does it choose what to show and create of its own accord? The collaborator’s anxiety and fear is rooted in their inability to answer this question because the mirror chooses whether to faithfully reflect or to mediate the appearance of the doppelganger. But how do mirrors mediate? In what ways do they alter the doppelganger so that it is a less faithful reflection of the collaborator?

    Paradoxically, the mirror may provide a less faithful reflection by creating a more accurate doppelganger. Despite the general conceit that mirrors only operate on surfaces, reflection, in both a perceived and conceived manner, allows access to information otherwise not visible on the surface of the material. In this manner, the doppelganger may have manifest characteristics that are hidden and invisible within the collaborator. Hidden virtues and vices are brought to the surface of the doppelganger through the mediation of the mirror. Our Western mythology is filled with examples of the mirror acting in such a way; the vampire’s true nature made visible, the man with the hidden guilt sees his crimes in his countenance, the mirror shows the inner beauty hidden under ugly skin. Mirrors also create doppelgangers that are twisted versions of the collaborators. Versions that do not uncover, but rather distort. The fun mirror of the circus is an obvious example.

    While there is always concern about the accuracy of the doppelganger – the real power of the mirror is when it accurately reflects its collaborator. It is in this scenario where we find the alliance building (as per (Latour 2005) between collaborator, mirror, and doppelganger to be the strongest. But what is the nature of this alliance? How, and why, is it formed?

    Mirrors obviously reflect, but so do people – we reflect on problems, on difficult lines in our books, on meanings of unknown words. But more than anything, we reflect on ourselves. To reflect on ourselves we create a mental image of ourselves – but as all non-material things, this image is fleeting. The mirror provides a doppelganger that is relatively stable and constant with which we engage in reflection. With the risk of appearing reductionistic, the act of reflecting in an encounter with both form and content of the reflection or doppelganger.

    We consider our physical aspects as we inspect the face and body of the doppelganger. While the doppelganger may show us beauty or may show us a less comely appearance – it is the doppelganger that we think of when we think of ourselves. The doppelganger is the reflection of our form – our material nature. It would be simple to underestimate this point, to suggest that a reflection of our physical form is no more than a narcissistic event would significantly reduce this important event to a symbolic action. It is through our forms, our bodies, our material nature that we enter into and reside within the realm of things. Our form or perhaps more accurately, our conception of our form, circumscribes our ability to enter into alliances and the nature of those relations. The proscriptive and constrictive nature of our form, as conceived, perceived, and lived, is dramatic and should not be underestimated.

    Likewise, the doppelganger in the mirror is also the point at which we reflect upon our motives and desires, our actions and our thoughts. In other words – in our content, if such a rough division between content and form is allowed. How often have we “looked into the mirror” to search and question ourselves? When we reflect upon the content of our minds and hearts do we not call upon the doppelganger provided by the mirror – either in our imagination or through a material encounter with the reflection? The collapse between material and imaginary reflection was understood by both Socrates and Freud who suggested the use of mirrors to cause the distraught to look within themselves for the cure.

    While form and content have been provided above as a dualism – and are usually divided as such in philosophy – the mirror paradoxically relies on and negates this division. The doppelganger is itself only a surface – it appears to have no content. However, it is a reflection that compounds the form and content of the collaborator into a single plane. This collapse of form and content into a single plane is integral to the collaborator’s ability to self-identify with the doppelganger. As an entity with a perceived notion of having both form and content, the collaborator would find it difficult to identity – to form a strong alliance – with a thing that reflected only a single aspect of itself. While a thing that reflects only the form – perhaps a photograph – or only the content – perhaps a journal entry – would have the ability to enter into an alliance with the collaborator, could it be as strong as the one offered by the mirror which contains both form and content?

    Self identification is at the heart of the triadic relationship between mirror, collaborator, and doppelganger – with out it the mirror is more akin to a television screen filled with unknown actors or a window through which a familiar scene is played out. Animals that pass the “mirror test”, such as elephants, magpies, and many primates, are said to have a comprehension of “self hood” that other animals do not. Does the mirror cease to be a mirror within these relations as its defining characteristic – reflection – is misunderstood?

    Rather than becoming mired in a circular argument regarding the possible relational and subjective definition of what a mirror is – it may be more beneficial to instead return to the more material discussion of the alliances built by the mirror. Obviously, the alliances built between an animal that does not recognize its reflection and the mirror is different than the one between a person, the doppelganger, and the mirror. I argue that the primary difference is that the latter alliance is potentially far more powerful in that it can expand beyond the triad.

    We have already touched on the alliance built between the triad and vision, suggesting that the force behind this alliance expanded beyond the individual level and incorporated a much larger web of alliances. In historical terms, this expansion to a larger web is described as a paradigm shift in which vision became the primary source of information while the other senses were ignored, belittled, or marginalized. While there were certainly multiple shifting relations, including increased access to the written word, the mirror also played a part.

    As access to mirrors became easier and less expensive in the mid-1700’s ((Melchior-Bonnet 2002), mirrors quickly became a staple embellishment in nearly every Western household. With ubiquity both in presence and encounter the mirror entered into relations with enormous numbers of people on a daily, if not more often, occurrence. These relations were based on a single sense – sight. As stated above, it is through their relation with the doppelganger, as mediated by the mirror, that the collaborators reflects upon and envisions themselves. This relation is primarily one of information gathering for the collaborator. Information based on their body, its relation to the world around it, and its place within a larger sphere of relations with other people. It is in this last relation that the mirror’s alliance becomes far more expansive than the singular reflection upon the physical and mental nature of the individual.

    While the collaborator/mirror/doppelganger alliance leads to the creation of a self-identity based on vision, the relation continues to expand to incorporate other triadic alliances. The relation between their “self” – as made visible in the doppelganger – and other people becomes largely dependent on sight as this is the nature of selfhood for the collaborator. Conceptions of beauty, success, sexuality, power, and weakness enter into tight relations and alliances with sight based on self identification with a visually dominated sense of self. Can we ask ourselves what success sounds like – what power tastes like – what beauty feels like? Answers to these questions, while feasible, pale in comparison to when we ask what such things look like. A picture is worth a thousand words because vision is the currency in which we encounter ourselves, and therefore the world around us.

    What we find as we follow the relations of the mirror, is that people become dependent upon their alliance with the mirror for information about their identities, and this identity is itself a standard of examination and a unit of worth that is basis of relations to the surrounding world. Above all, these relations are based on sight to the reduction, if not exclusion, of all other senses. While the mirror certainly played a part in the historical trajectory of sight it was not alone. Vision is a busy alliance builder and is closely related to other things – locomotion, perspective, distance, reading, capitalism to name a few. I suggest in this paper how vision and self identity also built an alliance through their relation with the mirror.

    Rene Magritte, Portrait of Edward James

    Carroll, L. (1871). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Adamant Media Corporation.
    Lacan, J. (2007). Écrits: the first complete edition in English, WW Norton & Co Inc.
    Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: an introduction to actor-network-theory, Oxford University Press, USA.
    Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space, Blackwell.
    Melchior-Bonnet, S. (2002). The mirror: a history, Routledge.
    Olsen, B. (2003). “Material culture after text: re-membering things.” Norwegian Archaeological Review 36(2): 87-104.

    What this picture wants?

    May 5, 2009

    Airport Security

    May 5, 2009

    nunfriskI hope to discuss politics


    and a moment of breakdown in airport security systems (looking specifically at shoe bombs).

    High heeled shoe bomb