ON THE UNHOMING OF FAMILIAR THINGS

 What follows is from a forthcoming publication  with the above title by eyeglass books  which  contains extracts from my lockdown diary. 

Home is wherever what is to hand feels familiar and trustworthy. Unlike the Archbishop   cited by Lewis Carroll,  we instantly know what it is and where to find this or that . That sense of secure dwelling is often embodied in objects, which remain faithful to their location, unless some outside disruptive force intervenes. This is perhaps why we take things so much for granted as part of the fabric of our lives, until they go missing, get broken, stolen,  or thrown away.

Objects, even mass produced ones, which often exist in sets, once housed in a dedicated spot, become homely and singular. Yet even as they stand alone, they are embedded in processes and relations  of production, distribution and consumption  which connect them to a whole host of other objects. If we are always already in the thick of things, it is because things are mediating the way we navigate and make sense of the world and their thick description is a necessity for finding our way about.

Yet there is a class of objects which exist beyond any possible use or exchange value, and which we invest with special meaning because they are the vehicle of stories, whether about their own provenance or about their relationship to us. Some of these stories are hidden in the things themselves and require a special form of archaeological investigation to excavate their sense; other stories are external but attached to chosen objects without their permission, by us, their owners, in an act of emotional investment that relies on their capacity to trigger memories to which we might not otherwise have access. Souvenirs, which, of course, are ready made for this purpose, and which usually present stereotypical features of a place or event are no substitute for the imaginative effort of actual memory work.

Although for most of the time most objects remain mute, unless summoned into life by an intentional act or automatic prompt, in our dreams they often appear spontaneously, unbidden, disguised or speaking in foreign tongues and embedded in landscapes at once familiar and strange. These different kinds of object relation are the subject matter of this little book.

 Object Relations and the Other Scene

As an ethnographer, I have always been curious about how cultures work to render some people, places and events familiar and hence safe, whilst other, often not dissimilar phenomena are perceived as alien and hence dangerous.  The advent of Covid 19 and the measures taken to suppress it, have both reinforced and redistributed these distinctions[i]. Hitherto friendly things like door handles, letter boxes, keys and mobile phones suddenly became death traps, either to be avoided at all costs or requiring continual disinfecting. Equally areas we might normally avoid, like shooting galleries and alleyways where heroin addicts congregate to get their fix, became safe places to take the dog for a walk. . The pandemic has turned us all into hysterical materialists!

Such sudden and seemingly arbitrary changes in our relations with the external world inevitably impact on our inner lives, and in particular on our dreams. Bringing together these two very different kinds of material, the first about the deceptive solidity of objects, the second dealing with the equally deceptive insubstantiality of dreams is not fortuitous. We are, after all, living through a moment in which a flimsy, microscopic, virus has shaken many of our largest and seemingly most permanent institutions to their foundations. Our customary view of the scope and scale of things has been upended. We find ourselves caught up in a global panic which feeds off ancient fears of the lethal and its association with the Other and punctures the protective membrane of ‘common sense’ which usually governs our daily transactions with the world.

It was Freud who first drew our attention to this ‘Other Scene’, a space that is at once real and imaginary, frightening and familiar, bewildering in its topography  yet containing signposts and paths that, if we know how to follow them, lead us back to what is known of old.[ii] He called this  space ‘ das unheimlich ‘, or the unhomely (usually translated as  the Uncanny). In the essay with that title, Freud traces the circuitous route that transforms what is all too familiar into something dreadful or awesome. He argues that this regression of meaning draws on our ambivalent relation to the maternal body, as at once our first home to which we long to return, and a site of eviction and interdict. What comes back to haunt us in the Other Scene is the repressed experience of that primordial landscape whose navigation provides the symbolic template for all our later explorations of the world around us.

The experience of the Uncanny, especially in its common rendering as the déjà vu, haunts us precisely because it is not exotic, not a spectral figure of the fevered gothic imagination but all too mundane. Our haunts, the people, places and things we compulsively return to again and again, especially in times of stress, are precisely those which flesh out for us the embodied nature of our interaction with the world, an interaction whose fragility has become so terrifying tangible and mysterious during lockdown.  Yet here, where we most long to be, is also where we are never fully present to ourselves, hovering, as we must,  between an irretrievable past that never quite happened and a future beyond reach which is its nemesis. Here, where the times are ever  out of joint, even the most solidly material appearances turn into apparitions. [iii]

How should we grasp this involuntary process  in which familiar things can suddenly reveal their darker, unhomely side? We know that objects can serve as homing devices for stories, and for the impressions and memories that those stories evoke in their telling. But, as Wallace Stevens reminds us, objects also resist these projections and survive them. In their obdurate thinginess, they have a life of their own quite apart from the narratives we wrap around them to explain their presence and meaning.[iv] That is why they can teach us how to speak or write about places where words do not easily go, but where they often come from, especially in poetry. Wallace Steven, for example talked of his ‘quest for a poetry of pure reality/untouched by trope or deviation/straight to the transfixing object/ at the exactest point at which it is itself/transfixing by being purely what it is. Zybignew Herbert likewise in his poem about a pebble called it ‘a perfect creature/equal to itself/mindful of its limits/filled exactly/with a pebbly meaning- pebbles cannot be tamed /to the end they will look at us/with a calm and very clear eye [v].

Another, less poetic, way of putting this is to say that the uncanniness of objects resides in the fact that they exist in an in-between space : between what we might call the unthought known, all the stuff we take for granted about how the world works and our place in it, and the unknown thought, the latent or emergent notions which often surface in dreams or in states of reverie where we turn inwards and ‘lose ourselves’ in our own cogitations, or outwards to immerse our senses in the environment around us, suspending  judgment about what is significant there. [vi]

As the psychoanalyst D.W.Winnicott pointed out it is especially in play that we explore this in-between space, where everyday objects become de-familiarised and take on another, often phantasmagoric dimension of meaning : a chair becomes a boat or a space capsule, hands turn socks into Muppets, a comb and piece of paper combine with lips and breath to play Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. [vii] It is a very special kind of magic, a poetry made by and for all which enables everyday objects to metamorphose into other things, to change places, to suddenly materialise or disappear into thin air, So many ways to re-enchant the world and break free for a moment from the iron cage of rationality in which have been taught to live..

Conjuring, the skilful manipulation of people and objects so that taken for granted assumptions about how the world works, including the laws of physics, are temporarily and enjoyably suspended is child’s play by other, entirely adult, means. Whether it involves dexterous sleight of hand with coins and cards, or the use of special devices to produce rabbits out of hats or turn water into wine , the audience knows that  these little miracles rely on their unwittingly complicity as witnesses to  the illusion. It is this sympathetic magic which does the trick. In fact the only truly magical thinking that takes place is on the part of those who imagine that they can deduce from observing the conjuror’s actions how the trick is done. Children who have an intense curiosity about the physical properties of things, and who routinely attribute magical efficacy to them, are not so easily duped because they are not encumbered with the ruses of adult reason, and notice the slightest departure from what they regard as normal adult behaviour.[viii]   But this is only half the story . If the conjurors props are the technical affordances required to  demonstrate that an object can be in two places at once, then the illusion still depends on an all -too -human act of misdirection, a gesture or remark designed to distract the audience’s attention from the essential ‘monkey business’ by focussing it on something intriguing but irrelevant. What is otherwise the politician and spin doctor’s stock in trade, ( throwing a dead cat on the table, as it is called in the trade) here takes on a more innocent, ludic dimension : the cat that is let out of the conjurors’ bag turns out to belong to Shroedinger’s thought experiment , and is simultaneously  there and not there, alive and dead.

So the play’s the thing, and by the same token, a thing may make the play. What would Othello’s jealousy – the engine of Shakespeare’s tragedy- be without Desdemona’s handkerchief to provoke and sustain it? Made by an Egyptian as a secret charm, a gift from a husband entrusted to a wife, its safekeeping becomes a marital obligation and a vow of faithfulness, its loss or gift to another a material sign of betrayal. The handkerchief is thus a key actor in a ‘magic web’ linking all the main characters in an infernal network of intrigue and mutual suspicion. Sometimes, as here, it is the very materiality of the thing, its innocence of the human manipulation of its meaning, which is exploited to make it lie.

Our attachment to objects may thus take many forms and change according to our moods or circumstance. Just think of how as children we treat our teddy bears: at one moment we may cling to them for dear life, at another throw them away in anger or disgust. They are our best friend and playmate, whom we may also delight in punishing for imaginary crimes. It is the fact that they lend themselves to the expression of our ambivalences yet survive intact, that makes them so valuable to us[ix]. When we grow up things are not so easily arranged. We may become hoarders, terrified of letting go of anything, or wilfully neglect and mistreat stuff in our environment because ‘it has nothing to do with us’. In the best case scenario we learn to take pleasure in sharing or giving our things away, whether as presents or legacies, releasing them from their bondage to our own self-centred narratives and ensuring they have an afterlife as a surrogate for our own less certain post-mortal futures..

We entertain an especially ambivalent relation to those object-devices which have a prosthetic function. We rely on them to help us see, hear, walk and even talk but we also hate them because of what they signify about our disability. And so we ascribe a malign as well as a benevolent intent to them: spectacles that slide out of sight, or lie in wait for us to crunch them into the ground; dentures that scuttle away and hide as soon as they are allowed out of our mouths ; hearing aids that secrete themselves in tiny crevices about our person and refuse to respond to our cries of distress.

To attribute human will or intention to inanimate beings is the purest form of magical thinking and adults, at least, should know better. But perhaps after all , it is to unconsciously acknowledge that these things, however intimately we relate to them, however much they are designed to be ‘user friendly’ remain resolutely foreign , they belong to another world to which we only have limited and indirect access. We can attempt to describe what such an object is in itself, but we can only imagine/dream/hallucinate what it might be for itself.

 To the things themselves?

So, do we only care for things if they give us pleasure or are useful? Perhaps what matters is how we deal with their ambiguous status. Do we simply ignore the object’s tricky ontology because it threatens our omniscience, or recognise and value it as a source of curiosity, wonder or perplexity? Or as a site of precautionary action? The latter choice has been highlighted by the advent of Covid 19. Do we recognise that the virus has its own built- in homing device, which enables it to reproduce itself without necessarily producing symptoms so that many people catch and transmit it without becoming aware of the fact. Or do we deny that the virus has any independent reality,  and treat it simply a device to weaponise government edicts to  the benefit of the rich and powerful, in which case the only thing to do is to ignore them and suffer the consequences.[x]

At this point, the reader may be getting a bit impatient and interrupt: all this talk about things, what about the human subject in all of this? There is a new generation of  philosophers who would like, not just to de-centre the human subject but to get rid of it all together as a reference point for thinking about the world, on the grounds that its presence is a hangover from the Romantic movement and gets in the way of establishing a thoroughgoing materialist outlook. In my view this is a bad case of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Human subjectivity may be a nuisance, and mess up the dispassionate perspective of a certain kind of analytic philosophy or  social scientism ; but what is lost in the process is the capacity to address fundamental human concerns and emotions. That seems to me of greater importance than what is gained: a permanent safeguard against the lurch into collective species- specific self regard.

This issue is not exactly new[xi]. In the 1960’s a group of French writers inspired by linguistic structuralism invented the ‘nouveau roman’ which dispensed entirely with traditional narrative conventions of character and plot, and instead concentrated on the meticulous detailing of objects and their environments[xii] . Some of this writing has an immersive, even mesmerizing quality, but it is ultimately sterile. It encloses the reader in a world of abstract commodification without interruption or escape. The aim was  to show us in close-up the alienated universe we inhabit and take for granted but the resulting sense of claustrophobia made the reader, or this reader anyway, long for a return to a verifiable world of human motivation and desire.

Today in any event that strategy has been reversed. Now the hope is that the less we treat things as if they were nothing more that the proxies or support of our projects, the less we ‘humanise’ them, for example by giving our cars or computers pet names, the more unnatural it will seem to treat human beings  as if they were objects, whether of sexual desire or economic exploitation. Anthropomorphism and reification, in other words, are two side of the same counterfeit coin.

If we no longer take the world of objects for granted as simply being there for us, or treat it as if it were no more than a blank wall onto which we project our desires, then we might instead consider it as constituting an ecological system in which the human and the non-human, social constructs and material givens,  the conscious and unconscious, nature and culture are always and already enmeshed, and where, whatever relations between them may obtain in any instance, they  remain provisional and tactical rather than inherent or essential. Perhaps we  could then consider objects as occupying a notional  ‘phase space’  that contains not just the active consequences of our immediate perceptual encounter with them, but all the  possible consequences ,past, present and future   [xiii]

From this starting point it may be possible to see our material culture in a new light, as a form of cohabitation with things that is always open to change. For example try the following thought experiment: assemble in particular places all the things in your house which you a) would like to throw or give away, b) mend, clean or re-purpose, c) wish you had never acquired, d) would like to replace with newer versions. Then consider what physical and aesthetic properties these things have in common and then relocate them in your house, grouping them together according to the classification system you have established. Finally compare this new domestic order with the old one. If it is identical you can congratulate yourself on the extreme rationality of your arrangements, or alternatively begin to worry that you have early onset OCD. If it is not then you have achieved a new concord with the material world without having to resort to Feng Shui.

This contingency of things does not mean that their materiality and agency is completely unknowable. Things have a history, which includes their modes of manufacture, their patterns of ownership and use, how they are circulated, distributed and exchanged, all of which can be unearthed and narrated. Even traces of wear and tear can be documented as the tell tale signs of how a thing interacts with its environment. Equally the fate of things is intimately bound up with that of the material culture it inhabits and this too changes over time . Paradoxically today, in an era of planned obsolescence, where we tend to throw things away the minute they go out of fashion, or perform less well, the philosophy of make-do-and -mend is no longer just a survival strategy for the poor; it has become a form of virtue signalling for the well-to-do who want to save the planet from their own excesses.

Yet despite this variability  our , taken for granted   attitude to objects as consisting of perduring entities remains undisturbed. This  allows us to treat – and often mistreat – them as mere affordances to our projects, what else is that corkscrew there for if not to open bottles, and help us get drunk with a little help from the wine and our friends ?  Perhaps this attitude is best seen as a rather fragile defence against giving full weight to the  relative autonomy of things. For once we allow them to escape our technical or imaginative control, they become the focus of a diffuse anxiety. The devices we design to serve us now appear as our potential masters. We are in danger of being enslaved – or rejected – by our own creations[xiv]. As witness the current moral panic about Artificial Intelligence.

Perhaps then it is to defend ourselves against this anxiety of influence that we so readily conflate human emancipation from the realm of material need with the domination and exploitation of Nature. Only, of course, to fall prey to the fear that Nature will strike back. If it has done nothing else good, the pandemic has at least  brought home to us  the unhomeliness of such an attitude and its dire consequences for the survival of our species on this planet.

NOTES

[i] See Phil Cohen There must be some way out of here:Mapping the pandemic from left field Compass June 2020

[ii] See Sigmund Freud The Uncanny Penguin Books 2013 Also the contributions to The Uncanny :a centenary published by the Freud Museum 2019.

[iii] For a discussion of the spectral as a dimension of historical experience, especially in relation to the repression of political memory  see Jacques Derrida’ Spectres of Marx’ new left review 205 1994 . For its role in popular culture and especially music see Mark Fisher The Weird and the Eerie Repeater Books 2016

[iv] This is the burden of much contemporary nature writing. See for example Richard Mabey The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the imagination Profile Books 2016

[v]  Both Wallace Stevens  and Zybignew Herbert have been described as ‘phenomenologists of the alien’ in that their poems describe the otherness of objects as they are given to perception. The philosophical context of this ‘object oriented poetics’ is explored in Ian Bogost Alien Phenomenology,or what it is like to be a thing University of Minnesota Press 2012.

[vi] See Guy Rosolato Le relation d’ Inconnu (Gallimard 1978 )and Christopher Bollas The shadow of the object: Psychoanalysis of the unthought known Free Association Books 1987

[vii] See D.W.Winnicot Playing and Reality Routledge 1982

[viii] For an interesting discussion of the ethics and philosophy of conjuring by a practioner see Derren Brown Confessions of a Conjuror(2010)

[ix] A good example of this process is to be found the story by Colette which provided the libretto for Ravel’s  operetta L’Enfant et Les Sortileges.It features a child who is angry about having to stay in to do homework and vents his or her anger on various objects and animals to hand. The objects ( a clock, a tea cup etc) come to life and tell him off. The child is terrified at first  but then begins to feel sorry for his cruel behaviour and seeks to make reparation; the ‘victims’ in turn reciprocate with expression of concern. Melanie Klein uses this story as an example of how material objects take on symbolic meanings in the context of early child/mother relations and their impact on psychological development. See Melanie Klein Contributions to Psychoanalysis (1948) It is worth noting that the title of the opera is often translated as The Child’s Enchantments, or Spells, but ’sortilege’ refers to the use of objects  as a means of foretelling the future, for example through the casting of lots.

[x] For a discussion of responses to the Covid 19 pandemic see Phil Cohen There Must be Some Way out of Here : mapping the pandemic from Left Field Compass 2020.

[xi] For a concise ,if evangelical exposition of this philosophical tendency see Graham Harman Object Oriented Ontology : A new theory of everything Penguin 2019

[xii] The key exponents of this school were Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute , Claud Simon and Michel Butor.

Robbe-Grillet wrote the manifesto For a New Novel, published in 1963. His screenplay for Last year In Marienbad, directed by Alain Resnais is a good introduction to this approach. Another is George Perec’s experimental novel Life, A User’s Manual with its detailed inventory of the material culture of a Parisian apartment block.

[xiii] It is the great achievement of actor network theory, as developed by Bruno Latour and his colleagues, to have established a non-reductive and non-binary model of this ecology and a method for mapping it. See  www.brunolatour.fr

[xiv] In Marx’s theory of alienation, this is attributed to the power of capital in expropriating the value of labour ,transformed   into a  commodity  form. This is an essential critical perspective. But even in non-commodified labour, for example in a painting or a poem it is quite possible and even desirable to feel that the work takes on a creative life of its own, quite independently of its author’s initial intentions. Creative work always undergoes an alter-ation once it leaves the painters studio or the writers desk. This ‘objectification’ is the condition of the work’s reception by others, who will make of it what they will. Commodification may, of course, enter into this process of othering – anyone who has encountered one of their works  in a bookshop or gallery is likely to have experienced a sense of alienation (not to mention déjà vu), especially if it has ended up in the remainder bin!