Monday, 3 November 2014

Evocative objects: things we think with – Sherry Turkle

This is a fascinating collection of essays edited by Turkle, in which a variety of people talk about objects which have had – or still have – an influence on their lives and their world view. The book is based around the premise, stated in the introduction, that “We live our lives in the middle of things. Material culture carries emotions and ideas of startling intensity. Yet only recently have objects begun to receive the the attention they deserve.”

Turkle argues that the Western tradition places such an emphasis on abstract formal thought that the value of objects as an aid to understanding has been, almost deliberately, set aside – marked down as materialism, or fetishism. More recent philosophical study has argued that, despite this outward appearance, objects have always played an unacknowledged part in reasoning and investigation.

With some exceptions however, objects have their power because of the circumstance and timing of their arrival in the life of the individual. I guess a wedding ring may be a classic example of this. My watch is another example – I bought it with a small legacy from my father. I would certainly never have been able to afford this particular timepiece without the legacy, and equally I know that my father would have disapproved heartily of the purchase. I have left my moment of genuine rebellion until it is too late for him to know about it.

In her closing essay Turkle asks – What makes an object evocative?. It is no surprise that there is no concise answer but there is certainly a suggestion that objects become evocative when we have had intimate engagement with them.

This poses me something of a problem – it basically means that the objects being discussed are evocative specifically to the individuals writing the essay – that to fully understand the narrative behind the object it has to be spelled out an explained, or some other supporting information has to be provided. And so the question becomes – do objects actually have narrative power? I think the answer is that they do, provided that you have sufficient cultural baggage to enter into some kind of relationship with the object.

In Radio 4’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects” David Attenborough talks of really understanding what it was like to walk the plains of Africa 6 million years ago as he holds a prehistoric stone axe. The narrative provided by the object feeds on his knowledge of the history of mankind. The key point here is that if I plan to use “evocative objects” in my final portfolio, I had better be sure that I provide sufficient context.

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