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Ilya Parkins
The Culture of Things
A Review of
Daston, Lorraine, ed. 2004. Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science.
Brooklyn: Zone Books.
Lorraine Dastons edited volume brings together the work of nine art historians and
historians of science, who collaborated as a working group in 2001-02 on the topic
of talking things. The volumes interdisciplinarity and breadth are admirable, as is
the specificity of each contribution; these are not attempts to theorize things in general,
but rather to understand (in most cases) the cultural location of a very particular
thing. Dastons brief introductory essay sets out the challenges that necessarily attend
the books theme, acting as a guide to the epistemological perils of thinking with
things (20). As she outlines it, no doubt reflecting the discussions of the working
group, the goal of the volume is to make things eloquent without resorting to
ventriloquism or projection (9, emphasis added). This curious formulation recurs
several times in the collected essays: everyone seems to be concerned to make things
talk, and none of the authors express a reflexive awareness of the implications of
human mastery that attend to the activity of compelling speech from objects. The
tension that surrounds this question in Dastons own introduction is remarkable, for
she is clearly aware of the dangers of human misappropriations of things, as her
injunction against ventriloquism or projection makes clear. It is a disconcerting
note to begin on, and a disappointing one considering the editors clear awareness of
the epistemological minefield that is the current study of things.
Notwithstanding their oddly coercive stance toward the objects of their study, several
of the authors in the collection make valuable contributions to the burgeoning field
of thing theory, as it was dubbed by literary theorist Bill Brown in an issue of
Critical Inquiry (2001) devoted to the subject. The essays that work best are those
that uncover the precarious boundary between subjective and objective, as it is
instantiated in things (a goal of the collection, according to Dastons introduction).
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Not surprisingly, these are also the essays that straddle the fields of art and science,
disciplines whose ideological constitution is mired in conceptions of the subjective,
in the case of art, and the objective, as in science. And so we have Simon Schaffers A
Science Whose Business is Bursting: Soap Bubbles as Commodities in Classical
Physics, which builds on work by social historians about the ideological uses of soap
as Empire-builder in the Victorian era. Schaffer traces the development of bubbles as
the subject in mass-produced art, which occurred alongside the growth of a popular
scientific discourse about bubbles in England. His underlying argument, that the
commodification of things in the modern era helps to sell or consolidate scientific
authority (along with such values as moral purity), is effective in enacting the tension
in which material things exist and the bridges that they build between apparently
disparate worlds.
In a similar vein, Joel Snyders Res Ipsa Loquitor explores how the constitution of
things has historically acted to complicate a strictly conceived divide between the arts
and sciences. Tracing the history of photography through mid-19th-century debates
about the verisimilitude and veracity of photographs, Snyder effectively overturns
key assumptions about the development of this art form. He traces legal objections
to the use of photographs as evidence in the 1860s and 1870s, explaining that the
medium was considered hearsaythe hearsay of the sun!hence deemed
inadmissible in American courts of law. Perhaps most importantly, Snyders interest
in photographs as hearsay and gossip makes the volumes most credible use of the
theme things that talk. While not at all heavy-handed, he takes the phrase seriously,
almost literally, to admirable effect. Other essays, in which the meaning of the phrase
seems lost, would certainly have benefitted from such rigorous thinking through of
their structuring theme.
Peter Galisons contribution, Image of Self, is a similarly successful treading of the
line between art and science, with their seemingly competing ideological contexts.
Here, Galison, a historian of science, outlines the history of the notorious Rorschach
inkblot test to argue, in a Foucauldian vein, that it has functioned as a technique of
self. Galisons essay is a neat exercise in theoretically informed, local history. He
offers a nuanced account of the history of the Rorschach test to demonstrate that the
modern self in its 20th-century incarnation insists on the relation between depth
and surface, inner and outer life.
What is compelling about Galisons piece is its attention to the ideological and even
political dictates of objects. It is well matched with Schaffers contribution, with M.
Norton Wise and Elaine M. Wises Staging an Empire, Antoine Picons The
Freestanding Column in Eighteenth-Century Religious Architecture and Caroline
A. Joness Talking Pictures: Clement Greenbergs Pollock. This set of essays does
justice to the books theme in a way that other contributions do not. For Daston
claims in her introduction that [a]ll these things threaten to overflow their outlines
(23). The authors named in this list have interpreted that overflow as an ideological
act. None is afraid to name and explore the material consequences that things can, and
do, have. Their work shines with a recognition of this material agency. Dastons own
essay, The Glass Flowers suffers from its failure to understand things heavy
consequences in the political lifeworld of the modern era; along with pieces by Joseph
Leo Koerner (on Bosch) and Anke te Heenen (on newspaper clippings), this essay
shirks the materialist work its own author has set out for it.
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The recent interest in thing theory has flourished with the promise of a badly
needed, reworked materialism. The notable essays in this collection are not afraid of
what this might mean; they can deal with the baggage carried by that weighty term,
materialism. More than anything, the term lends these essays some of its heft, and
they are beautifully crafted, subtly yet always strongly argued meditations. In itself,
this discursive labour of materialist theory points to the need for a renewed materialism,
one that will stand up to the demands of a critical era shaped by poststructuralism.
Things That Talk is a patchy step in that direction, with moments of soft shine.
References
Brown, Bill, ed. 2001. Thing Theory. Critical Inquiry 28(1).