Material Cultures Coursework: Exploring the relationship between self and object

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Steg, my chosen object of study for this module

Throughout this module, I have been challenged in new ways to consider my relationship to objects and the world around me. In selecting my chosen object as depicted above, exploring these concepts became deeply personal, and only encouraged me further to delve into the topic. While I found myself able to connect with many of the topics discussed throughout the module, I was most drawn to work around objects and bodies. How do we come to know objects through our bodies; how do we know ourselves through our objects and the world around us? How can something as simple and inanimate as a soft toy invoke such a strong range of affective emotion, and develop a long-standing intimate connection rich in detail and history? These are all questions I will be aiming to explore in this essay.

When considering the relationship between object and subject, we first need to ask ourselves ‘why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin’ (Haraway 1991: 178). Haraway perfectly sums up the problematic nature of considering the relationship between objects and bodies. It is a very Cartesian divide at current, and despite multiple philosophers attempting to dispute and disprove this, such as Spinoza (Grosz 1994), the divide is still entrenched into modern societal thought. Within this divide we see that I am myself, in my body, safe in my skin. The object is the other, outside, abject, not of myself. Breaking down these boundaries of self and other is not easily done, but we must consider that we can only know one from the other. Our experiences in our skins can only be known through the objects and the world around us, and objects can only be known from these interactions, whatever form that it may take. I can reach out and touch Steg – he is soft, fluffy, and rounded. I can only know this through the act of touching, of reaching out and melding the barriers of self and other to create this new experience of touch. Barad discusses at length the notion of touch and how touch is linked intimately to matter on such a deep physical level (atoms and electrons) that to escape touch is impossible. For ‘touching the other is touching all others, including the “self”, and touching the “self” entails touching the strangers within’ (2012: 159), and thus in touching the strangers alongside the self, we need to consider how to bring these two dichotomous subjects into alignment. Barad’s discussion here on touch as being interlinked to all others through atoms is an interesting approach to how we come to know the world around us. It creates a deeply holistic approach that I found resonated with my own experiences and connections to my object. However, I want to turn towards how touch creates relationships, memory, and affective feeling, through an intensely complex network of assemblages, agency, and fluid ontology.

Drawing on fluid ontology here allows the network that ultimately surrounds all objects to be illuminated. The unfixed nature of the world we inhabit lends itself well to this fluid ontological approach, as does drawing upon a holistic approach to research and data. Using the holistic approach here is particularly fitting, because as I have already discussed, the self and the other/object cannot be known as separate entities, they can only exist because of the other. When looking at how I personally interact with my object, the holistic approach as I consider both my both and his, is central to highlighting how the object can come to be known through the body and the bodily experiences that result from this. ‘Bodies are not objects with inherent boundaries and properties; they are material-discursive phenomena. “Human” bodies are not inherently different from “nonhuman” ones.’ (Barad 2003: 823), and in seeing how bodies do not differ that much, the initial scientific-imposed considerations of object/subject relations can start to break down. In acknowledging how the body of my object and the body of myself can come to be connected, not only through the physical space, but also in the metaphysical sense, understanding the development and reaction of emotions and sensory responses in the body becomes easier to explore and understand (Braidotti 2013). It is here that we can see the fluid ontology at work in the world around us, and lead us to create and shape new boundaries and bodies in different and new ways.

If we are to think holistically in this research approach, then considering and drawing upon the sensory and physical, as well as the emotional and affective, are central to understanding my self and my object. We can see how ‘affect theory draws attention to the ways in which bodies very broadly defined (human animal, biological, technological, cultural) combine, assemble, articulate and shift into new formations’ (Wetherell 2013: 350). Taking a holistic approach to Wetherell’s quote, and the relationship between myself and Steg, we can start to see how bodies start to break down through sensory reactions and by seeing beyond the stark scientific definitions of a body. My relationship to my object is strongly based on the tactile sense of touch and feeling, rooted within the body. It is the primary method of interaction with him (cuddling, stroking, etc) and, if we are to speak technically, what his primary function is. But what needs to be considered is that is it not simply I interacting with him via my body. He is also interacting with me through the very matter of his body. Through this interaction we can see how ‘it is through the body that the subject can express his or her interiority, and it is through the body that he or she can receive, code, and translate the inputs of the “external” world’ (Grosz 1994: 9). Here, both my body and Steg’s body express their interiority and individuality as we communicate though the sense of touch, transmitting and receiving the physical actions. One could argue that our entire relationship is predicated on this ability to touch and be touched, for without it I doubt I would have as close a relationship to my object as I do, albeit a relationship that has evolved vastly since my childhood. In considering haptics and tactility, and their role in shaping emotional relationships to the body and the self, ‘we must think of it as essentially embodied, sensory and tactile, rather than as the disembodied, symbolically structured representation of experience’ (Boothroyd 2009: 332) in order to fully understand how the relationship between touch, history, emotion and affect comes to bear upon the subject (myself in this instance). Again, we see how the self and the object are continuously working in tandem, reshaping and redefining the relationship and the nature of interaction through the physical body. Given the intensity of the role tactility and haptics play in my relationship to my object, understanding the role of touch in shaping it has been crucial to my exploration of our bond.

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Haptics at work: I instinctively hold Steg to my body like this after years of cuddling him

Affect and emotion have come to play huge roles in shaping my relationship to my object, particularly during the course of this module as I have explored deeper feelings and memories connected to him. Through the understanding of haptics, and Steg himself as a haptic object, the ways in which touch shapes our relationship on a physical and emotional level can start to be unlocked. Both of us have our subjectivity shaped by the fact that we known ourselves to be separate, yet combine through the sense of touch. The use of touch not only highlights our togetherness, but also our separateness, as when the touch is broken, we sit as individual subjects once more. It is ‘through such strange encounters, bodies are both de-formed and re-formed, they take form through and against other bodily forms’ (Ahmed 2000: 39) that we come to understand the notion of separate-ness and together-ness in terms of the object/body relation. Ahmed highlights that bodies often exist in strange coalitions that can be broken and fixed dependent on context. For myself, the sense of touch de-forms and re-forms my body and subjectivity in relation to my object. We can see how bodies themselves must be considered as ongoing holistic practices, constantly being remade in subject and context.

Emotion and affect also comes to light here, as the sense of touch itself invokes a highly affective response in myself. The touch itself is pleasant, but the emotional response in my body is far greater: memories of childhood, of feeling safe and warm, of wanting to curl up and become small. All these affective responses come from the simple act of touching my object. While I realize that the affective response comes from within myself, physically, it also stems from the power of Steg’s agency – he after all holds the key to these responses. The affective emotional response can only come from incorporating both mine and his subjectivity and an understanding of us both as agents who mesh together. We need to understand how ‘emotions are not simply “within” or “without” but that they create the very effect of the surfaces or boundaries of bodies and worlds’ (Ahmed 2004: 117). Again we return to a holistic approach, to see how emotions are not simply in one or the other, but in both bodies through the use of agency, subjectivity, and context, making sense out of matter. “[Matter is] not a thing, but a doing, a congealing of agency’ (Barad 2003: 822), and this leads to our agency congealing through the notions of affect, emotion, and the haptic, coming together to create the relationship that forms between us, through our ‘matter’.

The ways in which touch shapes the relationship here between myself and my object is intense, almost to the point of fetishization; a strange coincidence given the everyday nature of the relationship I have to Steg. When younger, I would huge him every day, sleep with him at night. While these are intimate encounters, they were ordinary occurences (Stewart 2007). Although it is the body of both myself and Steg that shapes these haptic encounters, truly it is the skin of us both that is the crux. Touch, especially of the skin, evokes how ‘in a breathtakingly intimate sense, touching, sensing, is what matter does, or rather, what matter is’ (Barad 2012: 159, italics removed). Understanding the matter of the body as an intimate thing is key here, however, it still needs to be considered in the holistic approach – we need to see the skin as connected to the body, to emotion, and to the haptic/tactile relationship formed between Steg and myself. Fox argues for ‘an approach that locates emotions as a sub-component of a broader affective interactivity between bodies, other entities and the social that produces unfolding lives, societies and history’ (2015: 302). Combining this broader approach of Fox with the closer approach of Barad, we can find a middle ground that incorporates the two to explore how a relationship predicated on touch, personal memory and history, and the breaking down of these borders, comes to life. ‘Through touch, bodies slide into each other, in such a way that aligns some bodies with other bodies’ (Ahmed 2000: 49), but it is not just bodies that become aligned; histories themselves can be, given the circumstances of the touch and the bodies in question. This relates back to how affect shapes bodies, and why we need to see affect as central to the relationships between subject and object.

Combining an approach of fluid ontology, holism, affect and the body, I have been able to explore a unique relationship to an already dear object in ways I had never considered. In growing my understanding of how touch, matter, skin, and the connecting network of the world around us, the ways in which I have come to know my object have opened up vastly. Steg is no longer a mere toy from my childhood now. He is a vessel of matter that carries the potential for emotional affect, for physical boundaries and bodies to be crossed, and for understanding how memory can reside affectively, physically, and psychically within an object. ‘When people and objects collide, new spaces are opened up’ (Hogsden and Poulter 2012: 266). I cannot agree with this statement more. In bringing together my object, and myself, new spaces for matter, for emotion, for agency and for subjectivity have been opened up and become available. Understanding matter as being ‘more than matter’ has also become central to my understanding of the material world around us, especially with a holistic approach. Knowing the relationship between Steg and myself has been enriched and explored in detail here, and I believe that knowing all the aspects of our interaction has changed the relationship for the better.

 

 

Bibliography  

Ahmed, S (2000) ‘Embodying Strangers’ Strange Encounters: Embodies Others in Post-Coloniality. London: Routledge.

Ahmed, S (2004) ‘Affective Economies’ Social Text Vol 22 (2) 117-139

Barad, K (2003) ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society Vol 28 (3) 801-831

Barad, K (2012) ‘On Touching – The Inhuman therefore I am’ in Power of Material/Politics of Materiality, Ed. Witzgall, S and Stakemeier, K. Munich:  Diaphanes.

Boothroyd, D (2009) ‘Touch, Time, and Technics: Levinas and the ethics of haptic communications’ Theory, Culture and Society Vol 26 (2-3) 330-345

Braidotti, R (2013) The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press

Fox, N.J. (2015) ‘Emotions, Affects, and the production of Social life’ The British Journal of Sociology Vol 66 (2) 301-318

Grosz, E (1994) Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Haraway, D (1991) Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books

Hogsden, C and Poulter, E (2012) ‘The Real Other? Museum objects in digital contact networks’ The Journal of Material Culture Vol 17 (3) p265-286

Stewart, K (2007) Ordinary Affects. Durham: Duke University Press

Wetherell, M (2013) ‘Affect and Discourse – what’s the problem? From affect as excess to affective/discursive practice’ Subjectivity Vol 6(4) 349-368

 

 

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