The Object Reader
The Object Reader
by Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins, Editors
Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, 2009
576 pp. Paper, $42.95
Reviewed by Martha Blassnigg
University of Plymouth
The Object Reader provides an extensive compilation of mostly previously published key articles by renowned authors along with original contributions of new works in an accessible anthology. 'Objects' are introduced upfront from the original Latin obicere, referring to the 'act of blocking', 'to throw at' or 'throw against' in the sense of disapproval or an objection, alongside the philosophical use of the term as a 'thing which is perceived', external to the subject, as well as the common use of the word for 'material thing(s)'. It is highlighted that another etymological meaning refers to 'that to which action, or thought or feeling is directed, the thing (or person) to which something is done' (p. 2), which does not differentiate between inanimate or conscious 'things', the organic/inorganic or human as a matter of fact. According to this wide spectrum of definitions and interpretations, the volume treats objects not strictly in the sense of studies of material culture, but reflects on their practical uses, phenomenological perceptions, symbolic functions and social meanings. For this reason it draws from a range of fields comprising anthropology, art history, classical studies, critical theory, cultural studies, digital media, design history, disability studies, feminism, film and television studies, history, philosophy, psychoanalysis, social studies of science and technology, religious studies and visual culture.
Against this background perhaps not surprisingly, the Reader opens with Marcel Mauss' famous account on the reciprocity of gift culture, in the sense of the Latin do ut des and Sanskrit dadami se, dehi me, setting out objects' relations as reciprocal bondage, and it ends with Candlin's personalised reflections on post-generational haunting of ghostly presences as a continuous shifting and interactive negotiation between the material and immaterial. When taking the numerous layers into account that the volume's contributions (too many to treat individually in any adequate way in this framework) unfold, wrap and interconnect, it could be observed that the topic of the compilation is very much about the virtual (in a Deleuzian/Bergsonian sense) of the addressed objects' relations and those material interfaces and interactions where they temporarily manifest and actualise. This might also be another way to approaching the last section of the book - rather than 'object lessons', as they are indicated, as well as experimental treatments in the form of short essays - as creative unwinding, recollection, application and further extension of some of the dense entanglements of object encounters throughout this excellent compilation throughout of thoughtful, innovative and rigorous scholarship. A lesson that certainly can be learned from the editorial ambition and realisation of The Object Reader is that the fuller the recognition of inherent overlaps, tensions, contradictions and tendencies in the subject matter - in this case of discourses around the conception of objects, which seem to share a profound dissatisfaction with the extremes of materialism and idealism, conceived from the broadest spectrum of approaches - the richer the potentials for a critical engagement that might even tentatively broach the sublime as embedded in experience.
The Object Reader seems particularly timely with the recent revival of 'material culture' (continuing the established strand in, among other, cultural anthropology) and the continued interest in the social construction of technology, ANT, the discussions around the 'internet of things' etc., and especially the focused philosophical concerns with object ontology (such as the philosopher Graham Harman's 'object-oriented philosophy' and Ian Bogost's work in object-oriented-ontology ("ooo"); also topic of a recent symposium at the Georgia Institute of Technology in April 2010). In this context the Reader is exemplary for alluding to the significance of addressing the underlying philosophical frameworks on which the great variety of approaches to objects and objectifications are built, addressed and communicated. This exercise, however, is mainly left to the reader, and has not been taken up explicitly in the anthology, neither in the introduction nor the compilation of the various sections, which is driven by a distinction of terms such as object, thing, or what objects 'do' or we attribute to them such as agency, experience, images. However, as it is common practice in successful anthologies, the philosophically informed and interested reader will extrapolate and move through the Reader weaving a parallel track of intersections and tensions on a meta-level which provokes important questions that relate back to the very foundations of the implied methods and disciplinary practices. The editors have succeeded in the selection of excellent writing and thinking where this dimension is surfacing through, within, but also beyond the text and topic of some of the investigations. In this sense The Object Reader exceeds and offers much more than the title initially suggests. It also exceeds what is usually conceived as a Reader: it is far more than an assemblage of cognate ideas emerging from, in themselves unique, pearls originated in much larger research and thinking projects. The Reader as such is an example par excellence of its own topics (- there is no 'object' as such, hence the plural and the title possibly should be read "The Objects Reader" -), which it attempts to straddle, seemingly impossible to contain, in all its assemblages and boundless relations. It almost appears as a Utopia at the same time as it provides hands-on reading into a spectrum of ideas on concrete objects, the making and activities on, with and to objects to the tentative dissolution of the paradigmatic subject-object divide.
The authors' intention, as expressed in the introduction, not to distinguish between animate and inanimate matter is rather ambitious and difficult to trace in the individual articles, and can only be read as a programmatic framework and vision wherein the juxtaposition of sometimes contradictory approaches create new networks of interconnection in order to open new perspectives that move from an interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary adventure into the knowledge transfer of transdisciplinary practices. This would be welcome to be continued in future research and publications. The Object Reader sets a timely example into this direction.