Monday, May 7, 2018

What is an Object? 14 Object Lessons Authors on their Objects


We can point to an object only because we perceive it as separate from other things, apart not only from other things in the object-world but also living beings. Yet glass troubles these simplifying distinctions. As an object, glass showcases other objects and often allows us to see them with more perspicuity. So, the purpose of glass is not to be perceived. Think of the camera lens, the microscope, or eyeglasses. But, crucially, glass also turns people into objects. Whether capturing us in the reflection of a mirror or distilling our very selves into an image crystallized by a camera lens, glass gives us the startling glimpse of what it might mean for us to be inorganic, for us to not be unique, for us to, in fact, be objects ourselves. —John Garrison, Glass


I liked the difficulty of defining my object. The word luggage refers to so many different things (suitcases, trunks, backpacks, etc.), but it also refers to the contents of these things, and that could be anything. So as I wrote, I found that I was really interested in the idea of luggage because what my object is, materially speaking, became less and less clear. But that uncertainty—and the fact that the word brings with it so much (no pun intended)—became part of the book: how luggage is about language and how it is a figure for concepts like secrecy, ownership, and displacement. —Susan Harlan, Luggage


Whale song is about as far away from an object as you can get. Its transience as sound is matched only by the unreality of the sounds themselves—uncanny, haunting announcements that whatever cetaceans are saying to each other will probably always exceed our attempts at understanding, consumption, capture. Is it this lack of objectivity that placed whale recordings at the heart of two such important artifacts of human history, the 1972 LP Songs of the Humpback Whale, the largest pressing of any recorded album in history, and the Voyager Golden Record, currently traversing interstellar space in hopes of reaching an alien intelligence? —Margret Grebowicz, Whale Song


How much butter can an egg yolk hold? Separated from its white brethren, the yolk sits eyeballing in my hand. In between its proteins I promise to situate fat—whisk in whisk in whisk in the butter slowly. What does it mean to split an atom? The fusion of béarnaise.
     Outdoors, it’s early for blue bird eggs but still one sits, eyeballing, in the middle of a nest. In between the cracks of shell, an egg-tooth promises escape. I can’t promise much to this new situation except to keep my eye on the break, to blink into being this nuclear baby bird new. —Nicole Walker, Egg


Benjamin states that any object, artistic or natural, endowed with “aura,” looks back at you. The idea came alive with a vengeance as I was writing Rust. Teeming orangey-red blotches began staring at me, demanding, imploring, threatening. Rust dissolved the world into myriads of shells, hollowing or corroding the fullness of things. Increased paranoid-critical activity helped, like forcing Japanese friends on a Tokyo-Kyoto train to hallucinate rusty metal in the landscape. The solution to the dissolution was to combine Hegel’s dialectics of nature and Ruskin’s aesthetics. Rust once integrated to my regular blood-rhythms, the wonderful irritability of the object redeemed the restless world. —Jean-Michel Rabaté, Rust


In writing Silence, I did not anticipate that readers would object to my premise that silence is an object. Thingifying what might be viewed as an abstraction is obviously related to Hegelian and Marxist thinking on Verdinglichung, reification, especially since I begin with the commodification of silence, but I resist the notion that silence is, in fact, an abstraction. Simply because silence names something above and below the capacity of our senses to apprehend it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The last century or so has extended the universe of objects to the infinitesimal, even down to the level of sub-atomic particles. We clearly no longer demand confirmation by our senses of objecthood. My book catalogues some of the ways—in science, art, politics, religion, law—that we treat silence as an object of inexhaustible utility. So don’t object to silence as an object. —John Biguenet, Silence


What did I discover, approaching the tree as an object? That there are the several things we’ve given trees to do: to shelter, to feed, to fuel. That there are also the many things a tree will do as well as other objects: if you drop one from an airplane, for instance, it will fall to the earth (a tree falling to the earth would be a prodigy, a sign, a terror, but in certain respects also unremarkable). And that beyond these lie all the secret ways the tree has of being, of happening, of doing world, which are numberless. —Matthew Battles, Tree


Because a tumor is the object that is us, I was forced to ponder relationships between self and object. In the case of a tumor, an individual and an object are made of the same stuff. Even when that’s not the case, though, an object’s meaning is delineated by how we interact with it. The word object comes from the Latin meaning to oppose or to put in the way of. An object becomes consequential or evocative when it gets in our way, when my response and someone else’s response has something in common—when we create culture out of objects. —Anna Leahy, Tumor


The burger is a private experience that the hand delivers to the mouth. But the “Burger,” long the “All-American” meal, has always contained an element of instability to it—and not only because it can rot. Named for a city that did not originate it, a form and a method of presenting flesh that often relied on disguise, in the twenty-first century it achieved the apotheosis of not being what it is presented to be, the burger with everything but the meat. I see the hamburger as a modernist aberration, albeit a very successful one, in the long tradition of shaping protein food items into single-portion meals. It’s replacement? The everyday object of burgerness. —Carol J. Adams, Burger


In Doctor, I dissected common perceptions of doctors—from children’s games to mainstream movies, hospital slogans to corny jokes—to reveal a more accurate version. I aimed to demystify the profession, but I also worried that providing an unfiltered look at doctoring might not be such a positive exercise. Did readers really want to know what doctors thought and said and did behind closed doors? I asked a non-doctor friend, who read an early draft, if it was too dark. She replied, “Funny you should ask, because reading your book triggered a memory. My stepfather is a psychiatrist, and my aunt is an actress who never really ‘made it’ and has been in therapy for years. Once, at a family dinner, my stepfather made a half-joke that while his patients are talking about their problems, he’s thinking about what he’s going to eat for dinner. My aunt became enraged and stormed out of the room. I thought it was hilarious. So I think you’ll have two kinds of readers.” Opening up something secret to a general view is a gamble, and the doctor is an object that risks cutting both ways. —Andrew Bomback, Doctor


As I wrote, I thought about Jeanette Winterson’s formulation of culture writing as a way to object, as a verb. My book objects to white supremacy, racism, murder, torture, and imprisonment. It objects to the weaponization of garments against vulnerable people. After the book was published, I objected to the way some critics and interviewers tried to exploit it to confirm their own biases. “What you’re saying is that hoods are sinister and dangerous, right?” I’d say: This book is about knowing the difference between a Klan hood, an executioner’s hood, and a hoodie. They’re not at all the same thing. The conflation is, itself, white supremacy at work. —Alison Kinney, Hood


When it comes to the things our minds imagine and our hands fashion, "fake" is a matter of intention, effect, and perspective. Unfortunately, as culture verbally conflates the artificial, the faux, substitutes, imitations, and cheap plastic crap with fraud, it comes to the same intellectual confusion too. That which people dislike or distrust they feel free to call fake so as to discard from objective reality as easily as they do “fake” objects from their perceived reality. The problem is that objective reality doesn’t work like that. It cannot be altered to fit our world view, nor can it be escaped. —Kati Stevens, Fake


When the object blurs after you stare at it too long, go out into the world and beat around for stories. “I know it’s strange to ask a stranger this, but what is this object?” “How does it rub up against what you personally want?” “Has it heard you crack up? sob? swear?” “How do you hold it?” “What hole would it leave?”
     Ask homeless people. Pantomime across languages. Make people you know ask people they know. Learn how the object manufactures experiences. Learn how experiences manufacture the object. The object is not an inkblot; neither is it a blank slate. —Meredith Castille, Driver’s License


I don’t weave, sew, knit, or crochet. I don’t collect blankets or quilts. But of all objects in the world, I chose blanket. I don’t recall how that came to be, except I know there were no other object contenders. It was always blanket. There’s something to be said for a little indifference before the object, a kind of anamorphic gaze onto its plane and contours. To write about blankets was to encounter philosophy and physics, memories and grief. Language is overcome with blanket metaphors. Writing brought me to the material object. And now I see blankets everywhere—folded, stacked, draped. And the word itself stirs me. —Kara Thompson, Blanket

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