Jessica Helfand | Essays

Things, Part I

Things: A Story of the Sixties, cover design by Stephen Raw, Collins Harvill, 1990

In George Perec's first novel Things, published in 1965, the protagonists are a pair of disillusioned dropouts who are quickly revived when they join the (then-newly minted) field of market research — a choice that ultimately traps them in a kind of closed loop of consumer greed. It's easy to perceive this story as a fictional depiction of bourgeois culture (the characters become puppets in a modern retelling of an ancient parable, proving that no good ever comes of wanting too much) when, in point of fact, Perec's narrative is stunningly, even disturbingly accurate as a modern-day portrayal of capitalist greed.

Yet wanting things is what people do, and today, material culture is even a serious academic discipline. (And a beat at The New York Times, thank you very much, Rob Walker!) We continue to fetishize things, but now we recognize — indeed, pathologize — our bourgeois longings. There are conferences, websites and books that examine our visceral attachment to objects. On the retail level, there are consciousness-raising tactics like Buy Nothing Day, and efforts to ease our philanthropic guilt by a kind of split-fulfillment: purchase something and a percentage of the sale goes to help someone in need. (Or you could benefit even more by buying two of something, and sharing.) Children are told to make lists, while movies like "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" remind them that wanting stuff is a bad thing. (Entire theses could be developed, and probably have been, on the subtle consumer parodies in the entire Seuss oeuvre, not least of which is manifested in The Cat In The Hat's maniacal, if appropriately-named characters Thing One and Thing Two.) Lest we forget, Charles Addams, in his tales of the Addams Family, introduced Thing T. Thing ("Thing" for short) in the early 1950s — a disembodied hand living in a box. And more recently, domestic diva Martha Stewart has redefined thing-ness with her ruling on everything from pomegranates to pet hygiene with a sobering: "It's a good thing."

Here in the season of the gift guide — those pre-sanctioned inventories of goods parsed by price, number, gender, even greenness — we revisit those conflicting urges by reconsidering the thing against a host of emotional, environmental and economic issues. DIY or buy? Toss or re-gift? Stuff or nonsense?

To be fair, there are important reasons to consider better ways of integrating things into the world we inhabit. Things That Think, the MIT Media Lab's largest consortium, coordinates efforts in science, engineering, design and art to do precisely this: under their stewardship, things are examined for their potential as meaningful catalysts, across a convergence of disciplines.

Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, MIT Press, 2007

But part of that meaning comes from our emotional connection to things: to this end, a recent book compiled by Sherry Turkle (also at MIT) has focused on the degree to which specific objects possess unusually profound and long-lasting capacities for emotional evocation. In her introduction, Turkle recounts how, as a child, she loved to spend time rifling through photo albums in her grandmother's apartment, not realizing until many years later the degree to which this activity represented a kind of deeply emotional fact-finding. (Turkle never knew her father, and searched for the missing pieces of her family puzzle in these repositories of photographic documentation, ultimately with little success.) Her book succeeds in part because she provides so many different kinds of examples — from a rolling pin to a suitcase to a 1964 Ford Falcon — many of them from the kinds of cerebral, scientific types of people you'd hardly expect to retain such memories, let alone write about them so compellingly.

There will be those who are quick to relegate Turkle's new book to sentimental simplicity — who perceive her premise as saccharine and self-serving. But consider this: Kid Robot founder Paul Budnitz tells us nostalgia is death, yet produces grown-up toys that prey on our childhood memories. Are any of us really impervious to the impact of object-provoked recollection? And why is it such a point of pride for some of us — you know who you are — to resist what is a fundamentally human response?

Taking Things Seriously, cover design by Carol Hayes, Princeton Architectural Press, 2007

In Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance, editors Joshua Glenn and Carol Hayes went in search of mundane, forgettable objects that for whatever reason achieved extraordinary significance in people's lives. Their interest was to delve into the human drive, to look at our "capacity to invest inanimate objects with meaning." The result (excerpts of which will appear on Design Observer in the near future) is a kind of analog variation on Reality TV: its got a down-to-earth feel, an unrehearsed sort of quality that privileges personal anecdote over objective reason. Much more visual (and ironically, despite its title, far less serious) than Turkle's book, Glenn and Hayes's volume delivers on its promise by offering a kind of reassuring look at the day-to-day things that pass by, and are, for whatever reason, preserved indefinitely on our shelves and in our hearts.

A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature and Things, University of Chicago Press, 2003 and 2004

Based on an award-winning special issue of the academic journal "Critical Inquiry," Things features eighteen provocative essays by contributors including Matthew L. Jones, Bruno Latour, W. J. T. Mitchell, Jessica Riskin, Jeffrey T. Schnapp, Peter Schwenger, Charity Scribner, and Alan Trachtenberg, as well as Bill Brown, who edited the issue. (Brown's A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature, explores the roots of America's fascination with things at the turn of the century.) The overall approach to — and analysis of — material culture is arguably denser in these books, but Brown also casts a wider net: both he and his contributing authors consider things in the context of cultural production (the still life, the art museum) as well as more quotidian objects (outsider art and camp) and more intimate objects, like pencils and clothing, paper and food. (Henry Petroski's books come to mind.) Things in Brown's orbit are phenomenological and symbolic: he does, indeed, take things seriously. (Brown also teaches a course at the University of Chicago called Thing Theory.)

Things: A Volume of Objects Devised by Man's Genius Which Are The Measure of His Civilization, Hawthorn Books, 1957

Fifty years ago, this book offered an abridged glossary of seminal inventions: from the abacus to the zip-fastener, these selections were grounded in precise questions about utility and circumstance. When did we ... first use false teeth, fountain pens, water-closets, lawnmowers, violins, vacuum-cleaners, safety-pins and thermos flasks? In an illustrated anthology that includes everything from gunpowder to lace to surgical instruments to valentines, things become beacons of social history — less a function of abject materialism than an expression of humanity. Comparatively primitive by today's standards, they are positioned, nevertheless, as measures of civilization. (Civilization being what it is, there is an entry on Spit sandwiched between the entries on Spectacles and Steam-Engines.)

In an age characterized by elevated environmental awareness — reducing our carbon footprint, enhancing our sustainable output — we remain nevertheless obsessed with our attachment to the material world. By all indications, our responses to things tell us who we are, what we value, why we do (or don't do) the things we do. Material culture is social culture, and social culture is intrinsically connected to making — and yes, to saving things. (The opposite may be equally revealing: in Part II, I'll take a look at how we respond to material loss.) You can choose to reject nostalgia, or to embrace market research, or even sell all your belongings on eBay and join a monastery, but at the end of the day, everyone has a story to tell. And a good many of those stories, it turns out, involve actual things.

Posted in: History, Media

Comments [9]

I think the key word here is memory. Things that we cherish trigger our positive memory, and things we don't want triggers bad ones.

That's not just part of it I think. That is all of it. If we don't really remember (or learn) anything are we really human?

Even people who are anti materialism. The act of being materialistic may have effected them or their loved one negatively in the past (or they see it in the movie). Without that memory, they may feel indifferent.

Why am I stating the obvious? Because I think materialism and memory is very much connected. We can't assign meaning to anything if we don't know anything beyond its actual visual representation. An obsessed Star Wars collector wouldn't value his Darth Vader action figure much if he doesn't remember who the character is.

And because of memory, I will admit that sometime I am too materialistic, and that I may value a "thing" more than human lives. May be.

The War in Iraq.
Iraq is a place with many history, long before the current people who is living there lived there. And as an artists, I feel that a lot of the important relics and "old things" found there should be preserved.

Now with the war going on and soldiers and civilians dying, do I care more about some "things" more than people's lives? What if preserving those things mean more risks for the troops?

Look, I am a Buddhist, I know that nothing is forever, and everything is essentially nothing and that in 200 years may be none of this will matter. And even if it does, may be 3,000 years from now none of this will matter. What do we REALLY know about our planet 6,000+ years ago anyway?

As a person, I am weird in that I don't want to leave any mark in the world, or any legacy. I do not care what people do with my body after I die, and I only care about the things worth caring, which is not much.

However, the reason those arts in Iraq are important to me, is because history is important to me. More important than leaving behind trees and clean air, I believe (and this is just my opinion, different people prioritize things in different order) what we should give them is as much history as possible.

Anybody who read more than a page of world history should figure out that mankind love to repeat their mistakes. History is there so that any decision we make in the present wouldn't be so much of a blind guess, because we see results in the past. And all of the old civilizations, their entire history lies in what was left of them, and usually it is their arts.

Now you may not think that if there used to be a civilization somewhere...and then it got wiped out with nothing left but design of their vases and utensils... a memory of that place do not matter. After all, we have wikipedia.

But to a person whose memory is made up of being an artist all his life, it matters to me. That's how things effect me.

Oh, and I also collect Urban Vinyl.
Panasit Ch


Thank you, Design Observer! You nailed the difference between "Taking Things Seriously" and "Evocative Objects," and you have deepened my own thinking about significant objects, in the bargain.
Joshua Glenn

Part of meaning comes from our emotional connection to things.
Check out the I/O Brush at the MIT Media Lab.

Thank you for your notes about Things Jessica.
Carl W. Smith

You smacked it out of the park on this one, Jessica.

I wonder, though - maybe the objects that evoke memory, and which we cherish for that reason, are the opposite of materialism. We conserve those things, respect them, and do not treat them as interchangeable or replaceable.

The materialist, however, is consumed by the desire for the new thing, the plural things.

Thank you for the insightful essay.

The subject is certainly appropriate for this time, when people are obsessing over what things they want and things they want to give. The holidays center on things—on objects, that unfortunately serve as indicators of our value for each other.
Things are not inherently bad. Wonderfully crafted objects, tools, art, and many more things are important to our survival and wellness. Things also represent memories, carry on tradition, and become our history over time.
The tragedy with 'things' is the rate of consumption has overtaken value. People are quick to buy cheap and often. Bargain has trumped quality. Discarded cell phones and millions of water bottle are the symbols of our age.
It is interesting that we focus on bourgeois culture when over-consumption is discussed. In America we are all zealous consumers—the rich buy what they want, the poor buy what they can, and the middle class buys compulsively.
I am curious to know more about how experiences fit into this discussion. Are experiences things?
Aaron Stienstra

Ha! Made me think of George Carlin's bit ...

Good stuff!!!

Joe Moran

For another 'thingness' related literary reference I'd suggest The Things They Carried By Tim O'Brien.

And there's Daniel Spoerri's Anecdoted Topography of Chance, in which he mapped every object located on his desk at a particular moment in time, describing each with his personal recollections evoked by the object.

oh, and there is a great blog http://www.thingsmagazine.net

This whole thing about things and memory has been particularly on my mind since my mother died last year. I lugged home a number of inconsequential items—including a cheese grater, for god's sake—because of the feeling they give me when I use them.

I am also the keeper of the family photo albums. Now that my mother is dead, there are photos of people and places that are meaningless to the rest of the family. One of my tasks was to re-build some of the tattered albums, but when I come to these photos I don't know what to do. Once they were memory, now they are meaningless objects. If I throw them out, what am I dismantling? If I keep them, what are they?

Similarly, the aforementioned tattered albums are covered in my mother's handwriting, and the thought of removing the pictures from that context seems wrong. But the albums are in really bad shape: the loose pages bend, and pictures get damaged and misplaced. If I create something new with my own handwriting in place of my mother's, while I destroy one piece of personal history I create another.

I've always found the transference of emotion to object and back again as deeply fascinating. Thanks so much for the post.
marian bantjes

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