What Do Objects Want?
Last post I suggested that objects shaped and organized human lives, which leads to the idea that they have some kind of agency, or that they have power to influence our behavior and consciousness. This is an uncomfortable idea, as it undermines confidence in our mastery over the non-human world, and challenges our assumptions about free-will and self determination. But it is a very old notion that is gaining new ground. For example, Michael Pollan in his book The Botany of Desire, proposed that the relationship between plants and humans is reciprocal, and they influence us every bit as much as we “domesticate” them.
One could assert that nitrogen based life forms may be one thing, but man-made objects are another. However, the idea, or at least the conceit, that inanimate objects “want” things, that they have desires of their own, is cropping up in art historical and archeological scholarship, including James Elkin’s The Object Stares Back, and WJT Mitchell’s What do Pictures Want? Mitchell points out that while a vast majority would agree that they do not believe that pictures have “personhood,” people still “insist on talking and behaving as if they did believe it. “ Few of us are immune to this impulse to personify images. As Professor John Stilgoe of Harvard demonstrated in a famous psychology experiment, tell someone to take a picture of a loved one–a parent, spouse, child—and offer them ten dollars to gouge out the eyes of the picture. Hardly anyone will take you up on the offer.
An archeologist, Chris Gosden, has framed this development in a way more directly relevant to our work at the Phillips Museum of Art, and to our course “Museum Mysteries.” In his article “What do Objects Want,” he writes:
“A building, a pot or a metal ornament …channel human action, provide a range of sensory experiences (but exclude others) and place obligations on us in the ways we relate to objects and other people through these objects.”[i]
The students in “Museum Mysteries” can attest to the fact that objects, especially the unfamiliar and “mysterious,” channel their human action, if only by “refusing” to provide some types of information, and freely offering others. They also sense that this sense of “obligation” towards an object has some relationship to, and can teach us something about, our human relationships and obligations. As Rob Hassler, a student in the first iteration of “Museum Mysteries” (who is now a graduate student in museum studies), put it:
One of the things that can often be lost in today’s fast paced, technology-based society, is the inability to stop, look, and examine something. I find that the relationships between humans and objects are related to the relationships between human and human, and how we as a society can interact with one another.
[i] Gosden, Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, Vol. 12, No. 3, September 2005.