Beyond objectification

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Susanne Küchler. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.1.037


Beyond objectification

Susanne KÜCHLER, University College London

Comment on LEMONNIER, Pierre. 2012. Mundane objects: Materiality and non-verbal communication. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

One hundred years ago, in the age of Marcel Proust, what delighted, puzzled, and inspired most of those who, like the author, were able to partake in the delights of technological innovation was the ability to be in two places at the same time, sitting at home in the armchair while listening to a concert performed hundreds of miles away. Today we take for granted this copresence and extension of the mind, via gadgets that have become as manifold as they have become inseparable from our bodies. Controlled simultaneity, enabling one to be in several places at once, is now almost old fashioned, as we readily experience an extension of our mind to the lives of countless others who are touched, however fleetingly and sometimes involuntarily, by the spontaneous presenting of our entangled thoughts via mundane, and yet hardly trivial, objects.

Lemonnier’s tour de force across the terrain of mundane objects asks us to reappraise the difference the artifactual qualities of mundane objects make to the connectivity of thought. In the Maussian tradition of commitment to ethnographic detail and the grounding of anthropological concept and theory in ethnography, Lemonnier presents to us classical data buried deep in field-notes. We are introduced to neighboring peoples in Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands, the Baruya and the Ankave, who are passionate about formally so very different and yet intuitively compatible and comprehensible practices, ideas, and artifacts, namely fences and traps—one keeping out prized possessions (pigs), while the other serves to attract and contain (eels). The portrayal of local passion is reminiscent of the oppositional paradigm of the basket and the pot people, invoked by Arthur Danto (1988) in his ruminations on the distinction between art and artifact. Unlike Danto, however, who envisioned passion to be incidental to the expression of the social by the individual, Lemonnier suggests an inverse hierarchy whereby the passion for fences in one society and for traps in the other are the manifestation of a more encompassing (social) value dominating the individual. The social is modeled in the material scaffold of fences and traps through which anthropologist and locals alike navigate the social world (Kapferer 2010: 187).

The comparative perspective on the fabrications of the Baruya and Ankave allows Lemonnier to draw out the relational and ontological value of the material and technical qualities of artifacts that otherwise would merely appear to launder relations of labor and loyalty as metonymic parts of larger preexisting social entities. This point, that such mundane artifacts and their evocation of practices and imaginaries achieve something that social relationships cannot deliver, was made by Knut Rio (2009: 286) in relation to Ambrym material culture in island Melanesia. The concept of “thirdness” developed by Rio (2007) to underscore the vantage point afforded by the model of the social body would enable one to draw out further the ontological potential of a social imaginary that manifests itself in the fabrication of material worlds.

We are introduced into the many objects that have shaped Lemonnier’s imagination, from the toy racing cars of his childhood and youth to the fences, traps, and drums of the New Guinea peoples whose lives have informed his professional preoccupations, and are left with a powerful sense of objects as points of engagement with what is social about the material world (cf. Malafouris 2013). The objects he tells us about are not second-order products, or an add-on to culture, or a by-product of an anthropomorphized, relative, and subject-centered definition of communication. The feat of engineering is made palpable and recognizable in the very fabric of these objects. It is this engineered quality that is demonstrably the source of the enjoyment and thrill which these objects give to those who handle them. Their engineering is decidedly not apologetic, communicating “a sort of perissology,” one that brings together “different things, circumstances, social encounters, or sets of thoughts” through redundancy (Lemonnier 2012: 129, quoting Hutchins 2005). The artifact seen as a homunculus or relational manifold enables one to describe its capacity to bundle, interpolate, and project “potential” significance, one that is future directed and that offers up possibilities to think with (Keane 2003).

The question of the a priori status of the “relational nature of action,” imprinted in the material as the condition for an intersubjective empathy with the world (Gallese 2001), is addressed most eloquently in the description of the Ankave drum, an artifact that, as “found” object, epitomizes the relation between thought and thing. Composite, graspable, accessible, manipulable, the Ankave drum teaches us how to think of the inseparability of engineering and relational thought. In the detail of the engineering and the process of construction of the Baruya garden fence, the Anga eel trap, the Ankave drum, and the toy racing car, a world opens up, one that lies at the crossroads to the Enlightenment, communicated to us through the eighteenth-century writings of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Johann Gottfried Herder, who were at pains to understand the emotional and cognitive potency of objects in the face of its obliteration in the industrial age. Objects produced to create similitude to one another no longer capture the intricate play of constancy and variation that allows relations between persons and between persons and things to be understood via inter-artifactual relations. In the wake of understanding such simulacra via a theory of objectification that explained how objects could stand in for and indeed masquerade as subjects, social science research has forgotten that there is an alternative to the idea that society can be studied by observing the processes whereby persons make mere objects their own—processes we have come to call “consumption,” involving the selection, manipulation, and transformation of objects or of parts of objects. Lemonnier’s exposition of the gathering of ideas, actions, and emotions by objects as objects invites us to peel back the layers of interpretation of relations between persons and things at the core of the industrial age that have prevented social science from theorizing objects in terms of what they are and do when the connections they make palpable are not extended to subjects, but to other objects.

The theory of objectification we have inherited has thrown a veil over the very processes by means of which society replaces itself over time, by allowing the temporal nature of the tempering of sequence in processes of making and apprehending the made to fall out of the remit of analysis. The methodological tooling of the operational sequence to which Lemonnier’s life-work has contributed is a vital step to recover what allows objects to bind people to one another untrammeled by institutions and without laundering what is social about relations. The point that objects are not necessarily referential, but recall by manifesting what cannot be experienced, and yet makes sense of the world as thought construct and feat of engineering, has been advanced by Alfred Gell when describing the moment of grasping that Umeda masks were not an unrealistic representation of a cassowary “but a perfectly explicit (though somewhat formalized) representation of a tree, complete in every detail” (Gell 1975: 237). The metamorphosis of the cassowary staged in the Ida ceremony across three days and nights is an epic tale where all pasts are made equally present and evokes much like Lemonnier’s exposition of the hourglass drum of the Ankave or the eel trap of the Anga how objects engineer feats of understanding within the very tapestry of their structure. These objects make tangible in their complex construction and the sweat and effort that is exerted in their making that they are meant to work and that the work they are meant to do exceeds the process of their construction. We would be unwise to ignore this construction or reduce it to a mere consequence of the process of making, and by pointing this out so very fervently, Lemonnier arguably surpasses the methodological imperative of his own theoretical invention. Where we take this insight and how we modulate our approaches and theories to be fully cognizant of the engineered fabric of objects should be key to the debates that should follow this book.

My enthusiastic response to Mundane objects is tempered by the presence of the use of a problematic shorthand in the evocation “non-verbal communication” for what perhaps was meant to ignite a consideration of the relation between language and artifact. As terrific as the book is in pushing our noses into the engineered qualities of made objects, it is with reference to communication that it fails to ruthlessly push on the edges of our commonly held understanding. That this would be worth the effort and indeed is vitally important today of all times is made clear by the strenuous efforts of our own makers to overcome the barriers to the material embedding of immaterial streams, hindered by a misplaced adoption of a model of communication whose anthropomorphic, relative, and subject-centered definition has from the start inhibited relationally driven thinking in the engineering and design of connectivity in the world of computer interaction design. What is at stake in questioning our theory of communication, mindful of the challenge to the conception of a subject-centered objectification, is the real stuff for debate, and one wishes that Mundane objects would have gone the extra mile to unpack the assumptions and misconceptions that separate the material from language and cognition.

In their article on aesthetics, materials, and interaction design, Mikael Wiberg and Erica Robles (2010) offer a succinct critique of the prevailing ontological distinction between material and language in the form of atoms and bits (hardware and software), which they see as restricting radical innovations in the design of computational systems. They propose a solution of how to rethink computational form in terms of a logic of composition and an aesthetics of texture, implying partibility, proportionality, and scaling, which, as they point out, are common underlying properties of atoms and bits. This recognition of the relation between composition and computation, modulated through the relational, calculable, and translatable qualities of scale implied in the concept of “texture,” strikes me as capturing ideas scholars have been working on in the social sciences for some time, without necessarily recognizing their importance to the design of interactive information systems.

According to Wiberg and Robles, there are three dominant assumptions that have driven the design of human–computer interaction to date. The perhaps most fundamental assumption driving this design concerned the nature of the mediation between human action and machine architecture. Resting on the assumption that a close correspondence between human and machine systems would assure best results, designers targeted models of communication in the social world, which in the early 1990s were defined by a preoccupation with the abductive qualities of metaphors. Terminology and screen-based symbols came to be organized using artifacts from the material world such as files, folders, and waste baskets, fashioned as metaphorical tooling capable of translating a logic of enchainment and extension into expressions of human thought in the noncomputational world that bear witness to a similar logic of abduction. It is this idea, that the adequate model for computer interaction is found in communication, which has driven the most dominant feature of computing: the screen-based, graphic- and gesture-oriented interface that supports a process of navigation of surface representations.

The aesthetics of the screen increasingly allowed the architecture of the machine to vanish, suggesting at once the materiality of information processing and its destabilization by digital instantiations in the pixelation of the screen. The programmed pixelation display on show in the London 2012 Olympics opening and closing ceremonies abolished the need for screens, while maintaining the graphic and representational look of the display. The gesture-based tangible interaction we are becoming accustomed to in a variety of screen-based interfaces was designed to relieve ubiquitous computing of the rigidity of visual systems aiding navigation, and was driven by the assumption that mediation has to be functional, utilizing preconscious mental processes such as gesture for simplicity and speed.

In the same way that computers are treated in interaction design as just another material operating “on the same level as paper, cardboard, and other materials found in design shops” (Wiberg and Robles 2010: 66), materials science and design have developed numerous solutions to enhance the tangible interaction with immaterial streams of information, making “bits” literally “graspable,” accessible, manipulable, and programmable. Most of these synthetically designed materials have obviated the need to embed sensors inside the material as they work on the principle of a holistic environment modeled on the human body, rather than on the principle of linear connectivity. Critically the computational capacity of these so-called “informed” materials borrows its logic from noncomputational entities such as human bodies and the material world, structured by human interaction to elicit communicative capabilities—to fold on its own, to react to heat or light, to store, to retrieve and to transmit information. The problem involved in assuming the generic applicability of biological metaphors to drive the computing capacity of materials is created by the complexity involved when moving from a mechanical model to an organic one capable of assuming self-organization and noncausal manifold relationality. Moving to that level of complexity, which robotic design has begun to reach, reinforces rather than overcomes the gap between material and informational systems as it is unlikely to be manageable by human intentional action without further interfaces or platforms of mediation.

Notions of metaphor, of subject-centered communication, and of the body as the model of an environment in support of action are now at odds with a drive toward modeling the relational complexity of a material world in which conductivity and reactivity are immanent qualities. What is quite clear, and pointed up brilliantly by Wiberg and Robles (2010), is that the very concept of an interface between the digital and the material world designed with models of communication in mind will be insufficient, if it does not hinder innovation, for it inevitably reintroduces a first-person subjectivity into a medium that to the contrary projects a logic of a decentered, third-person, and intrinsically relational identity that answers to very different constraints and requires very different management. Ambient digital technology of the future, so much is clear, will have to work immanently within material media, including bodies, and will demand that we take connectivity as a given, rather than something requiring enablement.

The exciting aspect of Wiberg and Robles’ article is that they propose to ditch the conventional notions of computing and allied design strategies for interfaces and ask us to rethink how the material world could partake of computation in ways that bring to the fore the intrinsic relational, composite, and connective third-person logic of computing in a material frame that is equally relationally conceived. Capturing this relationality shared by bites and atoms in terms of shared formal qualities of composition will, they suggest, bring with it eventually a new vocabulary, new mediations, and new ways of being and thinking in the vicinity of the materiality of computing. Poignantly, they speak of “texture” (Wiberg and Robles 2010: 68) as a way of articulating formal properties of composition that can be shared across materials and computing, expressing their formal relation to themselves and to one another in terms of a logic of scale that does not just pervade the technical language of materials science, but can also be extended across domains of life, from cooking to music, literature, and art. Texture as the new prism through which to comprehend afresh the possible relation between the material and the computational, providing a rich new platform from which to envision human–computer interaction, is, at least from a social scientist’s point of view, very exciting and would seem to me to chime well with Lemonnier’s account of the ontological potential of mundane objects.


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———.2009. “Subject and object in a Vanuatu social ontology.” Journal of Material Culture 14 (3): 283–308.

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Susanne Küchler
Department of Anthropology
University College London
Gower Street
London WC1E 6BT, UK