Things That Talk – ‘some process of reciprocity’

In preparation for the literature review which I’ll be writing over the coming month, I have re-read the introduction to Things That Talk (2008), a volume edited by American historian Lorraine Daston. In the introduction, Daston explains that the approach of the essays included in the volume is to take for granted that things are simultaneously material and meaningful. She discusses an intersection between the objective and subjective, claiming that practitioners fail to articulate or explain friction or connection between physical characteristics and their symbolic representation. She explains that, ‘talkative things instantiate novel, previously unthinkable combinations. Their thingness lends vivacity and reality to new constellations of experience that break the old molds.’ (Daston, 2008: 24) A great example can be found in Chapter 4 of the book, A Science Whose Business Is Bursting: Soap Bubbles as Commodities in Classical Physics, by Simon Schaffer. Schaffer examines the rich history of soap bubbles, their association with imperialism, capitalism and industry, advertisements, domestic life in the Victorian era, cleanliness, innocence and microphysics. He wonderfully demonstrates how complex a seemingly mundane object can be, its potential for stories and how very different ideas can be connected and find a mutual home within it. This reminds me of Arjun Appadurai’s The Social Life of Things, which traces an objects use and relationship to human consumption and circulation over time. However, I am less interested in an objects potential to evoke different stories from across time and space, and more interested in it’s capacity to resonate with individuals in the moment.

Later in the introduction, Daston reviews some of the prominent theories and writers who have fallen into either side of the debate of the opposition between matter and meaning, including Roland Barthes and Martin Heidegger, whose work I will read next. She raises key concepts such as Interpretation: how an objects material properties are interpreted so that meaning is projected onto it, and it becomes a kind of puppet. The object doesn’t actually embody the meaning or have any tangible connection to it. In this way an object is impermeable and indifferent to anything other than its literal matter.


Daston touches on the ‘epiphany’ concept I described in my earlier post about Autoethnography, the life-changing moment that causes one to question other aspects of life. For me, this moment occurred when interacting with a physical material object and feeling an overwhelming connection to history, Daston describes a very similar phenomenon when introducing objects discussed in the book, ‘These are the things that made each of us want to talk about how these particular things talk to us. They are objects of fascination, association, and endless consideration. […] By some process of reciprocity, our things individualised us as we picked them out of all the possibilities.’ (Daston, 2008: 11) I would be interested to hear how Schaffer selected the soap bubble as his object of interest, whether the fascination was developed after learning about its complex history, or whether he was inspired to undertake this study after seeing or feeling a soap bubble.

Whether the thing at issue purportedly replaces people or nature, whether it is imagined as agent (the artwork) or patient (the photograph), there is something unheimlich, either demonic (the idol) or divine (the miracle), about its impostures.

Datson, 2008: 14

The word unheimlich means uncanny or weird. It is this kind of feeling I’d like to delve into more profoundly. I’d like to be able to comprehend and articulate the uncertainty, to analyse my own encounters with it and compare it to others. To me, this evidences that there is more work to be done, and much left unexplained. As Daston states, ‘It is neither entirely arbitrary nor entirely entailed which objects will become eloquent when, and in what cause’ (Daston, 2008: 15).

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