Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Entangled Objects, Week 5: Food Stuff

Like most folks who read and enjoyed Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle in the early '00s, I was influenced by his vivid portrayal of the coffee houses of Restoration, Jacobite, and Glorious Revolution London. Posited as loci where the new rising class of natural philosophy divines, professional civil servants, old-style Renaissance-man nobles, and "rude mechanickals" could mix and interact, Stephenson's fictional and real-life figures mix and discuss and, in the coffee-houses, lay the groundwork for much of modern-day information-age capitalism (including banking, international commodity trading, and cryptography), unsurprising considering the Cycle is a prequel to his Cryptonomicon, whose "modern" setting takes place during the first Internet bubble and the fight for "strong crypto."

The Baroque Cycle was completed a few years before Brian Cowan's The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse, but you can feel those same Internet revolution impulses informing his work. While much of the first part of Cowan's book is dedicated to the very intriguing story of how coffee became popular in London (and how its benefits were extolled by a group of "early adopters," neophiles that Cowan calls "virtuosi," those same Renaissance men in search of foreign exotic novelty), it is in Cowan's examination of coffee-house as space that the book really shines.

The coffee-house couldn't exist without the crucial sideline of the dissemination of news. The coffee-house and the newspaper grew up side-by-side in London, and that unique mix of coffee-house patrons allowed men (and it is pretty much almost always men, although women sometimes owned coffee-houses and hawked newspapers there) of different social strata, occupations, and political alignments to exchange information. Like the modern Internet, governmental authorities sought to regulate this place of exchange of information and in some cases even close them down. But the sheer number of coffee-houses and their patrons' desire for a place to socialize and to become more informed was much stronger. This tension between king and courtier was seen throughout the reigns of Charles II and James II (for obviously very different political reasons).

If I am focusing more on the back half of Cowan's book it is only because that social and informational role looms large by the time you finish the book. I am a great believer, as my co-host and I posited in a very short digression on my podcast (at around 26:00), in the theory that modern capitalism was fueled by the very different physiochemical experience of caffeine in stimulating thought and trade, as opposed to Europe's long use of the depressant alcohol as their main beverage. Cowan gives that theory some faint appraisal here, but mostly asserts that coffee, tea, and chocolate's psychosocial position as a novelty to the European led to the coffee-house being frequented by people interested in new things and ideas. Coffee, tea, and chocolate also contained more opportunity for their partisans to associate the drinking experience with luxury goods, apparatus to accentuate the aesthetic experience of consuming (especially for tea later in the 18th century: china, silver, etc.). There were few houses in London where bhang, betel nut, or opium were openly consumed, and these were also commodities that filled the British "virtuoso" with the interest in the new (Cowan's chapter on the rampant experimentation involved in "early modern drug culture" was probably the biggest revelation for me personally; as I've said, British coffee-house culture has long interested me but I had no idea that the impulse to tinker with one's internal "alchemy," as it were, with new commodities from outside Europe was so strong so early in the West and especially Britain, although Cowan does not ignore the "nativist," Paracelsian impulse to keep using the native plants of Europe as medical treatments and not resort to the foreign.)

And it's made clear that while the novelty of coffee was made domestic and was accepted by the intelligentsia and idle nobility of London, it was never quite made British in the time period Cowan discusses. Just Cowan's survey of how many coffee-houses used the iconography of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire to represent coffee tells you that. In fact, the whole enterprise of entering a coffee-house in Restoration Britain smacks of safe rebellion, of a taste of the dangerous, of liminality. My undergrad thesis was on the medieval student clerk in both history and contemporary literature. Like the British "virtuoso," the student clerk was another son of privilege inclined to enjoy and embrace new ideas and to exist outside the narrowly-codified life prescribed for sons of nobility. They acted rowdy, they got together in groups to paint the town red, they experimented with new types of writing (Goliardic poetry), and they existed in a liminal space, neither adult nor child, neither holy nor secular. The typical coffee-house patron in 17th century London also existed at the edges of the traditionally-codified space of a "gentleman." Surely, the reality of the Restoration has something to do with that, as well as the larger economic and mercantile changes happening in Western Europe in the second half of the 1600s.

In Tom Mueller's Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, we are essentially given a non-Mediterranean's culinary, social, and economic tour of the history and present of olive oil production. The author's love of the stuff, as well as the producers', is apparent throughout this book; even the arguable adulterators and mass producers of "extra virgin" olive oil have wistful nostalgia over growing up on small farms where the oil was ground by ancient millstones. Mueller's travelogue, while vivid, reiterates the same set of points: that mass production means an inevitable adulteration and weakening in the very qualities that make olive oil desirable, health-wise and aesthetically.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Entangled Objects, Week 4: Literary Stuff

One thing that reading The Prose of Things: Transformations of Description in the Eighteenth Century by Cynthia Sundberg Wall amply demonstrated to me is what a lacuna I have when it comes to 18th century British literature. I'm conversant with the Restoration and okay on Victorian literature, but the Augustan/Georgian period is a big black hole. The history I know pretty well, which is why I think I found Wall's book so approachable and important. I'll confess, diving into her thesis and looking at how the British literature of this period approached descriptions of things and spaces and how they changed over the century was a little overwhelming.

But let's begin looking at her thesis. I'll blockquote it here from the Introduction:
This book argues that the changes in the rhetoric about and the employment of description to accommodate and then absorb the ornamental into the contextual are related to at least four larger cultural changes: experientially, to technologically new ways of seeing and appreciating objects in the ordinary world through the popular prostheses of microscope, telescope, and empirical analysis; economically, to the expansion of consumer culture in the increasing presence and awareness of things on the market, in the house, in daily life; epistemologically, to the changing attitudes towards the general and particular, the universal and the individual; and, narratively, to the perception and representation of domestic space. (Wall 2)
That's pretty persuasive all by itself, before even getting into Wall's manifold analyses. The one historical fact I brought to this book before even cracking the cover was the knowledge that 18th century Britain saw an enormous increase in the availability of exotic consumer goods and luxuries, and that the seeds of many of Britain's most notable modern museums began germinating in this century. The acquisition and cataloguing of things was a particularly 18th century obsession. But with her detailed literary analysis of works stretching back (and forward) from the 18th century in Britain, Wall reinforces these purely economic and social causes of the expansion of description over the 18th century, using literature to extrapolate into psychology and the changing epistemology of the regard of objects.

Why take the time to describe a scene in a narrative? To the contemporary reader, or even the Victorian one, the answer would be "to set the scene, to give context, to allow the reader immersion in the world of the narrative." Yet to the pre-18th century rhetorician (and even to some 18th century thinkers), this sort of description was believed to be counterproductive, to take away from the work as a whole. I thought it was very clever of Wall to find examples of anxiety over description, and how looked down upon it was in the period prior to the 18th century in her first chapter. Literary critics and thinkers in the English Renaissance and afterwards found pure description to be "surplusage" (Wall 27) or bring the work to a freeze through "refrigeration" (Wall 27). To these theorists, influenced by the ancients, economy of words brings clarity and perfection.

What changes the philosophical and epistemological imperative to describe? I feel like Wall is trying to say it all comes down to utility. The "why" of description in the 17th century gets taken in many different directions. The Puritans, whose political and scientific influence after the English Civil War was profound and even dwelled in British style after the Restoration, shunned ornament, but also desired an ability to read the world for spiritual reasons. This meant a new attention to detail and interpretation (Wall 77-78) enabled through technology like the microscope. And in the spiritual world of other nonconformists like Pilgrim's Progress author John Bunyan, detail and description of people and things took on the allegorical and emblematic imperative. While Bunyan himself denies that his work is a straight allegory, and that instead his characters are characters named after traits to make the work instructive (Wall 105), the things and objects and places that Bunyan takes the time to describe are important: he shows great plenty laid upon the tables of the moral characters of his world, and the immoral characters dwell in penury and sickness and violence who wander without a home.

The "why" of description in later, 18th century literature has more to do with psychology, especially the psychology of the home and of material gain. Daniel Dafoe's works Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders both revel, but revel in fairly succinct descriptions of the objects around them. For the character Crusoe, while we may be merely reading lists of the plenty that his island provides, Wall asserts that there is a catalog of pleasure being presented here, and so the reason behind this particular description is to demonstrate God's/nature's bounty on the island and the pleasure taken in it (Wall 109). Likewise, Moll Flanders's catalog of thefts are described again succinctly, but with much demonstration of the envy that Moll feels in stealing them (Wall 111-112). In Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, the uncannyness of the giant objects raining on Manfred's castle serve the Gothic imperative of demonstrating a family and a place haunted; but why choose giant objects other than simply the reason that the image sprung from the oneiric logic of Walpole's dream-imagination (Wall 117)? It is the weight of memory made material; another allegorical emblem, made alien by its literally outsized intrusion into the "real" world.

Domesticity also changed in the 18th century, and as such, the reflection of the home in both novels and in more utilitarian texts (home decor instructions and catalogs) slowly unfolded into greater depths of description. The 18th century women romance novelists that Wall cites in chapter five find the importance of detail in events related to action and trauma: when plucky protagonists are pursued, chased, or captured, their surroundings are described in greater detail than probably any authors we've looked at thus far. Is this just an extension of the "refrigeration" theory mentioned above, meant to "chill out" the narrative as it heats up?

By the time we get to chapter six on lists of goods, catalogs, auction listings, and advertising, we are on the ground that I assumed this book (by its cover!) would deal with. This chapter was solid scholarship, although you feel Wall again needing to concede that this topic has been dealt with elsewhere in greater detail. But if we again get into the questions of why writers are all of a sudden taking care with lists and descriptions of objects, we get the pure economic reasoning – there is simply more "stuff" to describe on the market and available for the expanding middle class to buy, sell, and spectate – but there is also that same emblematic purpose. Is this plenty not the same plenty of the tables of Pilgrim's Progress, except instead of directed towards a symbol of salvation, now is a symbol of world-spanning empire, of power? Surely the average "consumer" on the streets of London in the 1770s reading a newspaper may not have been aware of this, but the matrix in which he or she lived has been powerfully riven by this profound change in Britain's place in the world.

This brings me to one of my few complaints about the book. It is called The Prose of Things, and yet I feel like, with her intriguing discussions of maps for travelers/consumers in chapter two, of interior spaces in novels, and then in her discussion of interior decoration and population of the new 18th century house with objects in chapters seven and eight, Wall is making this book just as much about the Prose of Places as things. The eye sees, and where the eye cannot see the word describes, and for the allegorical homes in literature just as the aspirational homes in late 18th century auction guides and country home surveys, the surveying of interior space is crucial. Surely, things make up a house but it is their context and relation spatially to one another that makes a difference. Perhaps spatial relations are outside of the scope of Wall's work (and to be fair, she does talk about clutter increasing in the 18th century), but I do feel like ontologically, "spaces" and "objects" are different. This might be nitpicking. Edit: And aware as I am of Wall's citation of Barthes on the still life from Le monde-objet (Wall 153) about the psychology of place and thing being tied together, I am still not convinced that these topics of space and geography dovetail neatly with the topic of objects.

Just a fun set of random observations: there were so many analogues to modern anxieties in this book, especially on the consumer side! The idea of the roads and buildings in the geographical guidebooks changing from chapter two made me think of modern mapping programs and apps, and how sometimes Google Street View will present you with a house that is no longer there. Even the 21st-century panopticon fails when confronted with the fourth dimension of time. And the idea of cheap, clear glass creating the modern storefront was fascinating; technology again impels trade, which in turn speeds up technological development. It was like a case study out of a modern tech company.

Two questions for class, related to my questions above: 1) Do you feel, as I do, that objects and spaces are fundamentally different ontologically and as such cannot be treated as the same in the same work? 2) Can you think of any examples from periods/places you've discovered where social or economic change impels a change in the artistic style/quality of that place and time?

American Psycho, well, what can be said. Again, as the lesser of the two reviews this week, this is the book I did not read for class but I read it as an undergrad. Not knowing what I was getting into. But paired with the work by Wall, it takes on new meaning. Patrick Bateman can only relate to his frankly interchangeable co-workers and colleagues by what they wear, what they own, what kind of typefaces are on their business cards. The music he "listens" to is banally interchangeable as well; as a young 19-year-old music snob in 1994, I was made angry by his entirely missing the point of Genesis, of his embrace of Whitney Houston's most banal platitudes, by his unironic love of Huey Lewis and the News, of his inability to enjoy the Joshua Tree tour (except to get hidden subliminal messages from Bono). Yes, the mostly women victims of his tortures are also objects, and Ellis's descent into violence, dissection, rot, and abjection serves as the counterpoint to the literally gleaming surfaces of Bateman's life. American Psycho and the world it describes are a world of objects, of people as objects, of 18th century mercantilism and cataloguing taken to its parodic, satirical extreme. While I do, knowing what I know now in 2016 about Ellis, doubt the sincerity of this critique (and honestly, sometimes it shows in 1991 Ellis, simply in how seductive his authorial voice finds all the consumption and the violence), it still stands independent of the author. To bring back Barthes from Wall's book, Ellis is channeling the late-80s hypercapitalistic, existentially violent zeitgeist as "scriptor," as the way in which late capitalism has perverted and twisted all human relations helps write the work.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Entangled Objects, Week 3: The Power of Touch

Let me preface my look at these two books for Week 3 of Entangled Objects with a small proviso: from 1993 to 1997, I studied medieval History and Literature as an undergraduate. My focus was mostly on vernacular literature in Middle English, Old French, and Tuscan Italian and my senior undergrad thesis was on the historical person and the literary stock character of the student clerk in both historical accounts and in vernacular literature of the 13th and 14th centuries.

While it has been a long time since I've delved full-on into medieval Europe, I've definitely kept my oar in, so to speak, on medieval studies. The field is going in exciting new directions in the past two decades, but I'd not yet encountered either of the books on this week's syllabus. Also please note: I spent much more time dissecting Christian Materiality than Medieval Robots.

I reacted to the thesis of Caroline Bynum's Christian Materiality: As Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe as conveyed in its introduction with a good deal of skepticism. While I was intrigued and excited by her initial statements about ideas of generation and corruption being central to the medieval experience (Bynum 30), I was a little more curious about how she would explain her idea that the materiality of late medieval cult objects as objects was central to their meaning and importance as objects of devotion (Bynum 28).

Through the next four chapters of argument, Bynum wanders far and wide through much of medieval and early Renaissance theory and praxis on relics, sacramentals, and other holy objects in Christendom. And her logical steps in explaining her theses are ultimately very satisfying, even if in the middle of the journey I was not always certain about where I was being led.

As an undergrad, I always had problems understanding the non-representationism of medieval art. I think in high school I was programmed to find Renaissance art's use of perspective, realism, and aesthetics to be superior to medieval art. Bynum assuages this long-standing discomfort in her first chapter by conveying that different values were placed on the specific aspects of medieval devotional art and what it chose to represent. For both the medieval parishioner and the medieval theologian, the symbols of martyrdom – "the Wheel," "the Eyes," "the Arrows" – became a symbolic shorthand for the saint's identity (Bynum 61), so these would often be given visual importance in pieces of art. The materials from which the icon, statue, reliquary, or image was made were also essential to understanding the powers and identity of the figure depicted (Bynum 59). The moving parts of works of art, especially those meant to move, transform, open, or close in reliquaries or effigies, also provide the worshipper with a new experience depending on time of week or liturgical year. And the tangibility of relics was essential to their purpose (Bynum 65); the devout were meant to touch, kiss, and taste the surfaces and products of the miraculous relic.

In chapter two, the power of relics to change and heal and inspire and primarily to transform is discussed. Bynum's discussion of visions of real flesh and blood in the Eucharistic bread and wine (Dauerwunder) is fascinating and one I was not familiar with. In ancient and medieval Eucharistic theology and Christology, leading right up to the Fourth Lateran Council, there is this feeling of... an indicator needle that needs to be precisely balanced between purely symbolic transformation in the Eucharist and a full physical one. Much like the duality of Christ himself, the duality of the Eucharist is a dangerous balance to strike. One false move and you are a heretic. But just because these paradoxes are abstruse to the modern reader does not mean that they were as difficult to understand for the medieval worshipper. And these changes, these unreal bleedings and be-fleshings and the other excretions of statues of miraculous oil and milk, these denials of the usual earthly cycle of generation, these tangible miracles are the things that fill the medieval observer with a powerful inspiration and faith. Understandably, these expressions of folk faith sometimes made theologians and clergy anxious, as they moved that needle I mentioned above solidly into materiality.

It is in chapter three that we find ourselves face to face with the flipside of spontaneous miraculous generation: the anxiety over the nature decay or unnatural preservation of body parts in relics. Incorruptibility isn't a necessity for a relic, but it can and does provide power in its denial of the ordinary cycles of generation and corruption. For those relics that are the product of decay, the glory of gems, gilding, and fine art or the symbology of unchanging gems or flourishing flowers on a permanent, decayed body part (bones or ashes) is meant to lend the aura of immortality and of the Kingdom of Heaven to the relic (Bynum 71, 181-182). The anxiety over relic as piece of the whole is assuaged with the promise of eventual miraculous bodily Resurrection as well as the idea of Eucharistic concomitance (Bynum 208 et subseq.); Christ's body and blood can be in multiple places with the same holy power during many celebrations of Eucharist, and the power of Christ dwells simultaneously in both bread and wine.

Bynum rounds out the book with a fourth chapter which brings back medieval anxiety about matter, generation, and decay by examining the medieval philosophical and "scientific" view of earthly matter. I was amused at Bynum's citation of St. Isidore's linguistic games around the concepts of corpus/corruptus, materia/mater, and caro/creando (Bynum 231-232), knowing that many of these same late antique/early medieval linguistic games, some by Isidore himself, grounded much of medieval theology. A universe where there was no sense to the changes that happened in matter was unpredictable, and in the medieval scholastic Aristotelian schema, undesirably disorderly. So natural processes of decay as well as influence (such as astrology) were encoded into both learned and popular views of matter. This lends enormous conceptual power to the changes that occur to relics and to objects of devotion! Relics could heal, cause unnatural visions, change themselves from decayed things to things full of vitality and freshness. This conveys intimately and materially the power of God and the saints.

Thinking of my own reaction to the text, I feel like the most convincing aspect of Bynum's book is this idea of anxiety and fear around normal cycles of generation and corruption. It cannot be overstated how connected all medieval persons were to these cycles, at least as compared to us in the 21st century. One's continued survival depended on the natural cycles of agriculture – unsurprisingly, there are many stories about people stealing hosts and using relics to ensure good harvests and to protect their food from decay (Bynum 169-170) – and almost all disease had no systematic scientific cure. Nature and its processes must have seemed immensely inscrutable and profoundly frightening to the medieval person, whether peasant, priest, or noble. In other words: medieval people loved their technologies and objects for the same reasons we love ours: because they promise health and, ultimately, immortality.

Medieval Robots was also a very good look at a previously-underserved area of research: automata in the Christian Middle Ages. The automaton begins, to the Western Latin Christian, as an exotic technology, reserved for the Eastern Mediterranean (those ancient lands like Egypt and Greece and their successors in Byzantium), the Muslim world and the Mongol world. It is in this role that automata appear in early romances. Truitt then looks at the fact that the automaton is a relic of the ancient world, and that the human making of a counterfeit of life is (imperfect, fallen and corrupted) analogue to the person of "Natura artifex" making life on her forge. The linguistic background of the idea of what we would today call "technology" as "magic" in classical Latin is investigated here. This basis allows Truitt to explore what medieval "magicians" were seen to do; the scholastic/scientific holy men who created oracular heads to tell the future find their root in a medieval conception of Virgil as the first among oracular head-makers. The chapter on automata as devotional objects looks at their way of counterfeiting life as a memorial; this chapter made me think of the place of the zombie/undead on the modern uncanny valley chart. Like the physically-transforming relics and religious puppets/automata that Bynum describes, memorial automata's unnaturality added potency to their impact. Truitt's final chapters on late medieval lords finally owning their own automata and the coming popularity of clocks, puts us on the way to the Renaissance prince's desire to own and display clockwork wonders and the making of clockworks part of the common late medieval person's life and universe. What was once exotic is now within reach, not only of the noble but also the commoner.

To tie both these books back together to an earlier post on this blog, I do like how so very little has changed in the idea of material objects as objects of devotion/granters of boons from the mechanical oracles of Roman Egypt to medieval Europe a millennium later.

Edit: Oh, I now realize I have another old post that is at least somewhat related to Bynum: at the outset of chapter four, she speaks of prodigies and omens (Bynum 219, footnote on 369), and so I thought it would make sense for me to link to my post on ancient Roman Fortean events as religious prodigies.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Entangled Objects, Week 2: Inner Voice & Transitional Spaces

Well, given the stated aims of this pair of books, it's going to be hard for me to not present my personal, emotional impressions. Both of these essay collections are edited by Sherry Turkle of MIT, date to the late '00s, and discuss human relationships with objects. Evocative Objects: Things We Think With focuses mostly on objects with emotional resonance, while The Inner History of Devices focuses more on technology and objects of utility. Of course, this distinction may be a false one, but it's a useful one for me to draw. All that being said, I'm going to talk fairly rapid-fire about my observations and flit freely between the two books.

There's a heavy layer of psychology in both books, which makes sense given Turkle's background. Not every essay is written by a trained psychologist but almost all have a basic familiarity with postwar (post-)structuralism. The relationship of a human being to the objects in their surroundings is a big part of the developmental process, so it's no wonder that many of the objects in Evocative Objects possess childhood and adolescent significances to the human subjects.

So there's a lot of emotional/psychological language in these essays. As such, it's hard not to try to put oneself in a position to empathize with and understand these authors and their relationships to their objects. And this was where I found myself a little at sea. I don't possess many singular objects with strong emotional resonances from childhood. Most of my big, hotline-to-memory nostalgia-type associations are with, ironically, seemingly cold and unfeeling devices, and even forms of media themselves: books, comics, music, and primarily television, but also dead forms of technology like old computers, old games, old forms of social media like BBSs and dial-in online services. My nostalgia for these old ways of doing things is, well, one of the main reasons I started Renfusa.

One thing I've discovered in doing the podcast I've been involved with for the past year-plus (and my 1970s/1980s TV Guide deep-dives on Facebook) is how much I was raised by TV. I had a family where both parents worked, and a grandmother who was a giving, yet elderly, caretaker. So in the gaps between these three caretakers, I had Television. In the Orit Kuritsky-Fox essay in The Inner History of Devices, she speaks of how her family did not give the television a place of prominence in the household, favoring instead totems of "high culture" like books and art. We didn't have that in my household; the television was the center of the living room and often the center of my life. I was not physically active, I didn't play outside. I watched, and consumed, television and the culture it brought into my home. Kuritsky-Fox talks about how for her ultra-Orthodox uncles, television is anathema not just for religious reasons but also because it provided an opportunity for "cultural participation"; for a kid like me who never fit in at school and had no siblings, television was indeed a ticket to the larger world, for all the good and for ill that connotes.

To get back to nostalgia, and media, and the podcast, and the emotional connection between old objects and the present-day state of mind, in her introduction to Evocative Objects Turkle cites Lévi-Strauss's idea of bricolage as a revelation for her in her studies in the late '60s. It's something I've been thinking about as my podcast partner and I plumb our childhood nostalgia to reevaluate and rethink the media that shaped us in our formative years. At first I felt a little bit self-conscious about gorging on so much pop culture nostalgia, and so publicly. But on the other side, I've really been looking at the podcast, this silly (over-)analysis of a '70s/'80s sitcom, and the work we do in recontextualizing the show in terms of both its contemporary history and today's society, as a form of bricolage. Cultural recycling, if you will. It's a way to fight against the "constantly new, constantly shiny" impulses of 21st century consumerism and pop culture. It also allows me to look deeper into hauntology, one of my personal hobby horses, as an aesthetic to look at the world of my childhood. I definitely need to post solely about hauntology at some point in this blog.

Some random observations from both books, mostly from Evocative Objects:

  • I found Gail Wight's piece on drugs in Evocative Objects to be fascinating, especially given my love of Infinite Jest and the connection between her blue Ludiomil, her mental health, David Foster Wallace's own biography and psychology, and the significance of blue throughout Infinite Jest, from cover art on down to the final scene's "Mt. Dilaudid"; I could write a piece just about that juxtaposition, and perhaps I will to celebrate IJ's 20th anniversary.
  • Not gonna lie: the essay about the martial arts balm dit da jow and how one could trace a lineage from author Susan Spilecki's sifu's recipe for the balm all the way back to Wong Fei Hong himself made me geek out in a kung fu movie fan sort of way.
  • The Baudrillard quote on page 102 caused some raised eyebrows from me; I'd need to read the entire piece that it's from to confirm if this is the gist, but the idea of the "cold seduction" of "functional perfection" not having anything to do with beauty or horror just seems wrong somehow to me. Even myself, an admitted technophile, sometimes finds something very uncanny about things fitting together perfectly.
  • Trevor Pinch on the synthesizer made me think of Simon Reynolds's Rip it Up and Start Again on the postpunk scene and how many of those artists had to assemble their own synths in the late '70s.
  • The one essay in Evocative Objects that had a profound emotional effect on me was the one about The World Book Encyclopedia by David Mann. Those full-color encyclopedias were also my favorites at the public library growing up.
  • And an observation from The Inner History of Devices: when writing a history of technology and media, what seems current in the year a book is published (Slashdot, Motorola RAZR phones) can seem almost humorously dated a mere eight years after publication.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A New Series on Renfusa: Entangled Objects, Week 1: Introduction

As I've mentioned in previous posts, Renfusa's been on a fairly fallow posting schedule due to a big change in my life a year ago. It's been just about a year since I took a part-time position at Harvard's Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. In the past year I've worked on a few ongoing projects, including the provision and devising of content for our gallery iOS app, now available on the App Store.

Also in the past year, I've formally joined the Master's program in Museum Studies at the Harvard Extension School . And this semester, I am taking a course as a Special Student at Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. It's called History of Science 289: Entangled Objects: Or the Stuff of Science, Culture, and Society. As its final project, my classmates and I will be putting together an exhibit in the History of Science department, and so this course is directly applicable to my Museum Studies degree.

This course also has a good chunk of reading, and all of these books are the type of thing I'd probably read just for fun. So as a part of my course prep this semester, I'm planning to write up short reviews (probably not as long or as formal as my "Five Things I Learned" entries) on the books and articles I'm reading.

So, to begin, a very quick link to and look at our first reading, on the favorite objects of Harvard professors: rich in personal meaning, these objects are pretty much all one-of-a-kind, even Jamaica Kincaid's bag of Mohave sand. After all, no random sampling of sand will have precisely that mix of granules ever again, or will have been gathered on that particular Mohave sojourn.

Does an object need to be unique to be favored or loved?* How is Professor Hu's gallium arsenide model different from any other molecular model constructed from this particular off-the-shelf brand of teaching tool? The rust and wear on the model indicates its age and the fact it is being used well beyond its normal lifespan, so in one sense it is "vintage," having survived past its expected use-life. But it is a also tangible connection to her former research team.

All these objects evoke and preserve emotions, passions, and memories personal to the individual. Does an outside observer's recognition of the objects' beauty or worth depend upon these stories? Certainly, the observer is going to appreciate these objects on a vastly different, and perhaps lesser, level without the backstory.

What do we choose to save or preserve? What is the role of remembering or emotion in these decisions? How can we decide what to preserve in a world with multiple frames of reference for "value"? These are fascinating and fundamental questions to consider in collection curation, and in museum display, in object description and labeling.

*I'd like to look in future class sessions at the idea of value in mass-produced objects, or in objects designed expressly to be "collectible"; I have a feeling that William D. King's Collections of Nothing will be very useful in exploring these questions.