What matters about objects – a book review

A somewhat gratuitous picture of a thing, the trace of an object

A somewhat gratuitous picture of a thing, the trace of an object

Inspired by recently meeting a couple of people involved in putting together the impressive (and expensive) Objects and Materials: A Routledge Companion (Penny Harvey, Eleanor Conlin Casella, Gillian Evans, Hannah Knox, Christine McLean, Elizabeth B. Silva, Nicholas Thoburn, Kath Woodward) here are some thoughts on it.

A product of the path-breaking interdisciplinary team at Manchester’s Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC), the book’s essays written by over forty international scholars from many disciplines include many many theoretical and methodological approaches. This certainly justifies the way that in the first sentence of the introduction its authors, Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox, invoke the crazy Chinese encyclopaedia described by Borges and imported into social theory by Foucault in Les Mots et les Choses (The Order of Things). Objects and Materials really is more of an explorer’s companion than a guide along well-beaten paths!

To summarise the work briefly is impossible, and I can only mention a handful of its themes or authors.

Still, deep breath: the collection sets out to address a relatively new but now core question in social thought: What matters about objects? Thus the back cover and the main introduction and the introductory texts to the five sections into which the volume is divided, rehearse a vocabulary familiar from humanities and social science investigations of the current condition: practice, relations (or relationality), mediation, agency (particularly non-human agency) and affect. The most prominently cited authors are, unsurprisingly, Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour, but it is perhaps the latter whose influence is most felt. This is reflected also in the editorial line that gives generous room to empirical illustrations but also to ethnographic investigation as a type of analytical work.

The book will interest readers from very divergent backgrounds with very different methodological toolkits (even mutually contradictory ones). Its strong anthropological  content will appeal to those already immersed in the literatures on socio-technical change, or the many different ways in which that small word, ‘thing’, has been subjected to scholarly scrutiny by so many thinkers from Martin Heidegger to Elizabeth Grosz.

But the issues are not just of academic interest. Several texts consider the shared crises that beset our times and which are increasingly framed as symptoms of earlier intellectual and even academic mistakes, notably of misplaced trust in the continuities of the material and object(-ive) world. This is perhaps the area where Deleuzian thought, especially around the concept of ‘affect’, becomes prominent: it gives the volume’s authors tools for keeping in view both instability and resistance to change.

The first section, ‘Material qualities’ offers provocations to think in new ways about what exactly the material could be, or how it could be understood, and thus rehearses philosophical questions around epistemology and ontology. The second part is titled ‘Affective objects’, the third ‘Unsettling objects’. These sections include texts that explicitly draw out emotive responses as they consider material, often fleshy processes of human suffering, but also the virtual dimensions of experience. Both consider time, objects and experience altogether in often eloquent writing. Part four turns to ‘Interface objects’ and to the capacities that objects have in different domains, such as in the household or in scientific research and, of course, the ways these are animated in human interaction. The fifth and final part, ‘Becoming Object’, left me thinking that whatever it is, the thing is stably unstable and consistently inconsistent.

Depending on the reader’s preferences, these texts may feel like an excess of self-consciously unsettling ideas and modish vocabulary, or like a timely intervention into the ways contemporary life could be rendered more adequately thinkable. Or they may inspire to think about the fragility of things these days in unexpected and helpful ways.

Considering the insights about the generative powers of materials and objects spelled out throughout its chapters, it is a little disappointing that more space was not given to ‘stuff’ understood as either consumer desirables or infrastructures, which are part of the reason for the growing interest among sociologists and anthropologists, in ‘the material’.

The volume does not pretend to offer a uniform theoretical framework for the study of materials and objects. Nor does it appear to build consistently on a specific scholarly heritage despite the Deleuzian and Latourian references or, indeed, recurrent mentions of Tim Ingold’s anthropology and other (implicitly or explicitly) Heideggerian approaches to knowing, being and becoming. What is taken as given is that to make sense of the world as social thinkers or, indeed, as artists or activists, it is necessary to understand the world as complex and relational. On the other hand, the relationship between objects and materials is something that each text deals with on its own terms. And so some of them end up labouring what should be the obvious complexity. Fortunately the authors manage to say constructive and novel things about as philosophically a tricky terrain as this without getting stuck on binaries. In a textual (predominantly) work such as this there will always be pairings that both writer and reader know to be tricky, such as matter and affect, thing and object, detached and attached.

Without a doubt, the topics in Objects and Materials brush on many important problems in political life and scholarship. So it is still worth highlighting Graham Harman’s text, ‘Objects are the root of all philosophy’, which takes aim at no less than “several centuries” of “anti-object-oriented trends” (p. 238) in philosophy. Harman also suggests that many scholars simply find grappling with the world outside the mind boring. I find the “weird model of objects” (p. 245) that he proposes anything but boring, but what bores and what excites in this varied collection, will depend quite simply on each reader’s predispositions.

This is all very academic and the hard-back version is massively expensive. But it is due out electronically and in paperback.

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