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. 

MATERIAL DREAMS : SOME  AFTERTHOUGHTS

Edwin and Morcar, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria, declared for him: and even Stigand, the patriotic archbishop of Canterbury, found it advisable–“‘`Found what?’ said the Duck.` Found it,’ the Mouse replied rather crossly: `of course you know what “it” means’` I know what “it” means well enough, when I find a thing,’ said the Duck: `it’s generally a frog or a worm. The question is, what did the archbishop find?’    Lewis Carroll  – Alice in Wonderland

 

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  it . 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 in error.

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.

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 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 usually present stereotypical features of a place or event; they  are no substitute for the imaginative effort of actual memory work. This requires  objects , which  serve as  transit points helping us  to find our  way through to the stories they have to tell us. In the  first half of this little book I assembled twelve such transitional objects, mementoes in the true sense of the word..

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  visitations from  what Freud called ‘the other scene’ ,  they are the very stuff that dreams are  made of and   formed   the subject matter of the second part of the 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. 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, attributing malfeasance to the most innocent of things.[i]

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 material world.[ii]

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.[iii] 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. Heimlich ,in German, not only means homely but has the connotation of something hidden or secret.  Home is where family secrets  are  kept locked away in the attics  of our minds. Freud  argues that this inversion  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 of desire 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,  visitations from an elsewhere that is not otherwise accessible to us[iv]

I had a recent experience of the Uncanny when I returned briefly to my London flat , which, as discussed in the preface  has been  handed over  for an extended period to friends.  It began with  a set of keys. The originals were with my visitors , but they sent me some copies they had made. The keys were quite badly scratched and on the train  journey back to London I became increasingly anxious that they were not the right ones and would not fit.  In that case  I would find myself locked out and  in a sense home-less. Would I have to call a locksmith or the fire brigade to gain entry?  Would I get into trouble  for making forcible entry, albeit  to my own premises ? Memories of my squatting days flooded back. My fate lay in the hands of these wretched  keys, or rather of the lathe that had copied them. In the event the keys worked and as they turned in the lock and the door opened a whole missing aspect  of my  world   clicked in to place! A common enough experience- who hasn’t been locked  out of the house at some time – but here compounded by the fact that I was uncertain how far I would feel at home in this apartment  where so much of my past life was stored  yet  was no longer fully mine. And sure enough as I got over my immediate relief at gaining entry I began to feel disoriented . The apartment was at once familiar and strange, things were no longer effortlessly to hand , I felt awkward, as if I was a trespasser in my own backyard, visiting stuff that once belonged to me but which had fallen into other hands, taken on another life,  as it were behind my back.

There is another kind of unhomeliness which arises  from a form  of hysterical materialism: when  things that have a rich symbolic meaning for us, as the vehicle of stories or memories,  suddenly become reduced  to inert , meaningless matter which then takes on a life of its own. Here is a  graphic description of this occurring to a second hand bookseller :

‘He has this strange sense now that the book is just a material object. Over the years, from time to time , the bound wodges of paper, board,  card, leather and ink, nothing in themselves without a visiting intelligence, lifeless as stone, have all started shouting, bursting into a confused bedlam. Thank God its only ever been a split second awareness , all those impacted words like the energy of the sun in coal’.[v]

How should we grasp this involuntary process of transition  in which familiar things can suddenly reveal their darker, unhomely side? As discussed earlier, 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 in our lives.[vi] 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 [vii].

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. [viii]

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. [ix] 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 we 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 members of the audience 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.[x]   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. This principle of distraction , which  is otherwise the politician and spin doctor’s stock in trade, ( throwing a dead cat on the table, as it is called) here takes on a more innocent, ludic dimension. In fact the cat that is let out of the conjurors’ bag could be likened to the one in  Shroedinger’s famous thought experiment, it is simultaneously  there and not there,  in a state of ‘superposition’ until the moment when it collapses  into  a  specific conjecture about a given state of affairs.[xi]

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 more or less  intact, that makes them so precious  to us[xii]. 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.[xiii]

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 hear or  respond to our cries of distress.;toupes or wigs that wait for the just  right moment to slip and reveal heir wearer’s  a naked pate.

Then there are those  fetish-objects which are either expressly designed to  substitute themselves for human subjects,  the notorious  example being  inflatable sex dolls  or to enhance our self-esteem, like the  luxury goods which are   made to impersonate  the passion for  possession  they arouse , without ever quite satisfying,  in their  owners. Jewellery and other ornaments have become  the agit props of an increasing aggressive culture of  narcissism , supported by expensive cosmetics , toiletries  and fashion as part of multi-million dollar industry dedicated to making the few who can afford it  feel and look good.[xiv]

Another example of hysterical materialism at work ? Yes, but all that glitters is not gold. This aristocracy of things  has become democratised.  We are living in a society in which all manner of things have taken on a power of enchantment by virtue of their existence as private property.   Mammon and Modernity join forces to  consecrate even the most mundane  things as sublime objects of personal fulfilment : vacuum cleaners that claim to make house cleaning into a joyful song and dance routine, wrist watches with ‘fitbits’  that tell us when to exercise and offer  to  turn us into health food junkies. This work of transubstantiation is the subtle religion  practiced by   today’s advertising industry, those high priests  of consumerism who make  the  earning of our  daily bread into  a perpetual  quest  for  beatitudes only available  from Amazon .[xv]

 All things (not) being equal….

To attribute human feelings  or intention to inanimate objects is  the purest form of magical thinking and adults, at least,  are supposed to  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 reality  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.

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 pathogen  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.[xvi]

At this point, the reader may be getting a bit impatient and interrupt: all this talk about things, what about  human beings 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  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[xvii]. 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[xviii] . 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, no doubt,  to show us in close-up the alienated universe we inhabit and take for granted but the resulting sense of claustrophobic detail 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  clearer the distinction between them and us, and the more unnatural it will seem to treat human beings  as if they were objects, whether of sexual or economic exploitation. Anthropomorphism and reification, in other words, are regarded as two sides of the same counterfeit coin.

But are they? Or is a rather different trade off taking place?  Most people would agree that It is preferable to kick a chair because it is getting in our way than to assault a fellow human being for a similar offence.  Things, after all,  do not have feelings, other than those we project on to them.  Just because they can  be so easily damaged,    they  lend themselves to such displacement activities , allowing us to discharge our fury  that world does not always  live up to our expectations, in a relatively safe way. Objects are on the whole more forgiving than humans  when they are ill treated; indeed nowadays  many  have in- built  safety  mechanisms for dealing with misuse, whether accidental or deliberate ; in contrast  our psychological defences against similar vicissitudes are far less robust.

It is only hysterical materialists,  for whom  things only  really matter when  they interfere with human  freedom of action, who  think it is a category error to consider objects on their own account and that this encourages indifference to the  human condition. The  main challenge  to this position has come from  advocates of ‘flat ontology’ who reject any a priori hierarchy of meaning or cause and proclaim  the ‘democracy of objects’ . Bruno Latour, the doyen of this approach likes to demonstrate how the sheer heterogeneity and entanglement of things in the world defeats all attempts to reduce them to any kind of pre-existing order of significance  :

‘Sunspots, thalwegs,  antibodies, carbon spectra, fish, trimmed hedges,  desert scenery ,mountain landscapes in Indian ink, a forest of transepts; lions that the night turns into me ,mother goddesses in ivory; totems of ebony… we cannot hope to separate them and discover clear unique origins to their powers’[xix]

So until proven otherwise  a punctured bicycle tyre, a skin cancer, the International Monetary  Fund , a hurricane, an apple orchard  and a wheelbarrow filled with spare computer parts, are all of equal potential significance and indeed might well all be actors in the same unfolding  drama in which,for example , it is the bike puncture not the  hurricane that throws a spanner in the plot works and determines the outcome.  At first sight  adopting this standpoint  seems like a good move, cutting supposedly big things down to size and breaking with the tyrannical equation between scale and scope which dominates so much political and economic thought, on both the Left and the Right. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, his famous satire on Stalinist regimes in the Eastern bloc, written shortly after  the crushing of the Prague Spring of 1968 by Warsaw pact forces, Milan Kundera turns the tables on the proponents of ‘Might is Right’ in these terms:

‘Russian tanks invade the country and all  Mother is thinking about are some pears in her garden. But are tanks really more important than pears? As time passed, Karel realized that the answer was not so obvious as he had once thought, and he began sympathizing secretly with Mother’s perspective–a big pear in the foreground and somewhere off in the distance a tank, tiny as a ladybug, ready at any moment to take wing and disappear from sight. So Mother was right after all: tanks are mortal, pears eternal.’[xx]

Of course all things being equal we would want a pear tree to not only survive military invasion but to flourish as in image of a world in which conflicts are resolved by other, peaceful means without destroying the natural environment.  Yet however much we may treat things as if they are formally of equal importance and value, we know that substantively they are not.

An approach in which the udon noodle and a nuclear war head find themselves on the same level playing field  as objects for philosophical speculation or empirical investigation lays itself open to the charge  of fiddling with scholastic niceties  while  playing with fire  as  the planet burns. Indeed  to call such speculative manoeuvres ‘realist’ is perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that all the talk of ‘entanglement ’is a gloss on the all  too real and subsuming  power of global capital  to transform everything it touches  into an inter-changeable  simulacrum of itself.

It is not good enough then to just invert the established  hierarchy of things, for then  we are in danger of  exchanging  one arbitrary principle of order for another. So somehow we need to enable the tension between the real politik of things , their substantive inequalities of effect and  meaning,   and  how we treat them formally  as equivalent units of observation , we have to make that tension intrinsic to any creative engagement with the material world. I think that was what Adorno was getting at when he asserted that the failure to do this opened the way  to that spectacular collapse of perspectival value he called barbarism.

Novum Organum

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 canvas  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, albeit unequally, and  where, whatever relations between them may obtain in any one instance, 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 encounter with them, but all  its  possible consequences, past, present and future. [xxi]

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  challenge and change via the scales and scopes of our interaction with them .That  may lead us to a fresh appreciation of the fragility of our arrangements. For example, try the following thought experiment: assemble in different places all the things in your home 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.  Observe what physical, narrative and aesthetic properties these things have in common as distinctive sets , and then  consider how far these properties might extend across sets. Then relocate them in your house, grouping them together according to the classification system you have just 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 domestic 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, I have suggested,  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.

The revolt against mass produced  goods may have started, and still be largely confined to the cultural elite,  but it has increasingly  put down roots in popular culture, in the widespread practice of customising, i.e. individualising,   things  bought  off the shelf, and in do-it- yourself making of many kinds.   Equally  no object is too trivial or insignificant  to become a collectible : beer mats, bottle tops, chewing gum packets, clothes labels ,  the detritus of consumerism is lovingly assembled into so many little cabinets of curiosity  .

At the same time the status of commonplace things as artefacts  valued  for the  work that has gone into them rather than as items of  utilitarian  consumption is on the increase.Tthe artisan’s pride in the thing made, as a testimony to the material skill deployed in its construction means that it is  valued in and for itself, and not just for its market price.[xxii] Once located within  a moral economy , things cease to be  commodities, they become gifts, tokens of  affectual  exchange or mutual interest, material signs of  friendship, trust, gratitude,  patronage,  guilt or reparation . What makes a thing precious within this frame is that it is  literally priceless. [xxiii]

In the case of old things, which may be well past  their sell by date, they may be preserved for that very fact, not  so much out of antiquarianism, but because they have great sentimental or symbolic value for their owner. Their maintenance and restoration  becomes a labour of love, often combining the application of traditional craft skills with the latest machine technology. Here the de-commodification of the object and the dis-alienation of the labour required go  hand in glove.[xxiv]

Surrounded by hype, false promises, fake news   or ‘post truth’ , we long for things to be what they seem to be  and  for what we see to be what we get. But the authentication  of things is always tricky. It can no longer be guaranteed by their mode of making or their provenance. Online you can buy a fake Gucci bag or Omega  watch   which looks just like the real deal for a quarter of the price.

The complex ontology of objects  is inscribed in the word used to describe their making: fabrication. Fabric refers both to a manufactured material and a texture, structure  or frame . We talk about the ‘urban fabric’ to  refer both to the  physical infrastructure of a city ,its buildings, streets etc and  to the overall impression  that  its form makes on us. Fabrication , making things up- with its connotation of artifice or even dissimulation is intrinsic to the process whereby things take on meaning .

Sometimes the very concreteness  of the thing conceals  its  counterfeit existence.  I remember visiting a museum in East Berlin,in  1980. The museum portended to tell the story of the creation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as a bulwark of socialism in the front line of the cold war. As you entered the large portico you were confronted with a full size steam locomotive, resplendent in the colours of the GDR. Children were enjoying  climbing into the  cab and imagining themselves driving it down the tracks. But where did these imaginary tracks lead? If you looked closely at the base of the engine you could read a small plaque which announced that this was one of trains which had hauled bricks to help build the Berlin Wall, constructed entirely with volunteer labour, by workers  who were defending  socialism  against its enemies. A story then of East Berliners enthusiastically volunteering to cut themselves off from their families and friends in the West, and to live in an open prison from which many of them died trying to escape. So here we have a material  artefact transformed into a protagonist  in a narrative which its presence authenticates  and which is in fact a piece of state propaganda. The very materiality of the exhibit provided its alibi as a mute witness to the fabrication of a historical untruth.

So these is no ‘one size fits all ‘ approach to understanding  material culture. Some objects may be garrulous, bursting to tell you all about themselves, while   others  are much more reticent, resisting interpretation , withdrawing from even the most  penetrating research. Yet despite this variability,  our  taken- for- granted   attitude to objects as consisting of stable enduring entities in our environment  remains largely undisturbed, as Wittgenstein pointed out. This increases  their seductive appeal in times of great uncertainty , they become fixtures  adorning  lives become all too precarious and risky.

At the same time this constancy   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, and  as Marx might have put it , we become in danger of being enslaved – or rejected – by our own creations[xxv]. As witness the current moral panic about  algorithms and the applications of Artificial Intelligence[xxvi].

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  .In the age of the Anthropocene, there is no shortage of conspiracy theories that attribute the origins of Covid-19 to the  malpractices of Chinese animal husbandry or even germ warfare. But the fear is much closer to home. The notion that we might find ourselves sharing our habitats with creatures other than those we treat as pets fills most people with horror. Mice, rats, hamsters ,pigeons ,spiders and bugs, although a source of fascination for those who adopt them, are generally regarded as dangerous  pests requiring immediate extermination. By no coincidence the same set of distinctions ( friendly pets/dangerous pests) is mapped on to  popular perceptions of immigrants and other human beings regarded as somehow alien. If it has done nothing else , the pandemic has brought home to us  the unhomeliness of such an attitude and its dire consequences for the survival of our species on this planet.

END NOTES

[i]  See Phil Cohen  Material Dreams: studies in the unmaking of modernity (Forthcoming)

 

[ii] For a discussion of this see Phil Cohen There must be some way out of Here:Mapping ther Pandemic from left Field Compass Publicatrions 2020

 

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

 

[iv] 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

 

[v] Adam Thorpe  Missing Faye page 195 Jonathon Cape 2020

 

[vi] 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

[vii]  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.

[viii] 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

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

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

[xi]  For a discussion of the wider implications of  Schroedinger’s thought experiment  for the arts and human sciences see Douglas Hofstadter Godel,Escher,Bach :an eternal  golden braid Basic Books 1979

[xii] A good example of this process is to be found the story by Colette which provided the libretto for Ravel’s  short opera 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 the child 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.

[xiii] See the discussion of legacy and memory politics in Phil Cohen  Archive That, Comrade: Left legacies and the counter culture of remembrance PM Press 2-18

[xiv] See Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre  Enrichment: A critique of commodities Polity 2020

[xv] See Eugene McGarraher  The Enchantments of Mammon :How capitalism became the religion of Modernity (2019) Belknap Press

[xvi] For a discussion of official and popular responses to the Covid 19 pandemic see Phil Cohen There Must be Some Way out of Here : op cit

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

[xviii] 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, albeit one in which  human subjects are allowed as much voice and agency as their possessions..

[xix] Bruno Latour The Pasteurisation of France Duke University Press 1993

[xx] Milan Kundera The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Harper Collins 1996

[xxi] 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

[xxii] See Richard Sennett The Craftsman Methuen (2009) .

[xxiii]  See Michael Sandel What money can’t buy: the moral limits of markets Penguin 2019

 [xxiv] The popularity of the TV programme ‘Repair Shop’ , where people bring in family heirlooms to be restored  is one sign of these new times.

[xxv] In Marx’s theory of alienation, this is attributed to the power of capital in expropriating the value of labour ,as it is transformed   into a  commodity  . This is an essential critical perspective. But even in non-alienated  labour, for example in making 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, and even contrary to them . 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!

[xxvi] See for example Louise Amoore   Cloud Ethics: Algorithms and the attributes of ourselves and others Duke University Press 2020