PART TWO: WHEN A THING IS MORE THAN A THING
We fancy that we differ from “primitive” or “traditional” cultures by virtue of our rationalistic approach to life, but a close look at some of the central categories through which we relate to objects suggests that this may be a peculiarly modern conceit.
Collecting: The Urge to Acquire
The psychology of the collector offers an insight into extreme forms of object relations. Walter Benjamin, one of the century’s most powerful but idiosyncratic cultural theorists, and Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for the New York Times, offer memorable insights into this widespread and seemingly benign perversion.
Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library” Michael Kimmelman, “The Art of Collecting Lightbulbs”
Giving: The Urge to Connect
If there is any instance of an object whose meaning and significance exceeds that of its putative function it is the gift. Rituals of gift-giving have given rise to some of the most penetrating works of cultural theory beginning with Marcel Mauss’ classic Essai sur le don (1925). Igor Kopytoff pursues this anthropological inquiry with an arresting look at the political economy of desire.
Marcel Mauss, from The Gift (1923-24) Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things”
Owning: The Urge to Possess
An exemplary object, the Italian “red violin” manufactured in 17th century Cremona, passes from the hand of its maker to curse the lives of a succession of owners over three centuries and as many continents. The object is a marker of time and space.
screening: Le violon rouge (1998)
Shopping: The Urge to Consume
Amid the convulsions of 1968 the Parisian philosopher Jean Baudrillard advanced the daring hypothesis that the articles of domestic consumption form a coherent language that structures experience and perception. But the foundational text of consumerism is surely Diderot’s cautionary tale “to those who have more taste than money.”
Jean Baudrillard, from The System of Objects Denis Diderot, “”Regrets on Parting with my Old Dressing Gown”
Making: The Urge to Create
As you begin to think about your final project, this is a good time to return to your roots. Please bring to class an object of your own creation. We will discuss what you do and why you do what you do and why you do not do something other than what you do.
Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes; Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes; Silver-white winters that melt into springs...