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.

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