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

 

 

Material Cultures: Mattering Now and New Materialism

For our final week of lectures, we covered the difficult topic of New Materialism. I had not come across New Materialism before, so seeing how it linked into the my object and could be understood was interesting to explore.

New Materialism has several links to other areas of research, including weightless capitalism and liquid modernity (Baumann 2000), Cartesian dualism, Foucauldian discourse, and Marxist thought, with influence from Deleuze and Guattari also. Safe to say, this is a school of thought that has been widely attributed to by multiple different thinkers. Examining the genealogy of New Materialism provided an excellent insight into the develop of new schools of thought and ideas across the centuries, moving between the Enlightenment period, to the Industrial Revolution, and through to the Crisis of Representation and the development of linguistics in the early 20th Century.

Nowadays, New Materialism can be seen in the contemporary form of fluidity in digital culture. New Materialism has long links into a series of flows, movement, and fluidity as a concept (for example, the evolving nature of language, changing power discourses, and renewed interest in holistic approaches to research). New Materialism now is itself looking at how a holistic research approach is better than a dualistic approach that is more traditionally seen in older research texts. Spinoza was one of the first to highlight the benefits of a holistic approach, and argued against dualism of the mind/body that Descarte promoted, pointing out that the mind and body exist together, and cannot exist apart.

Deleuze and Guattari, in more contemporary years, have advanced this notion of the holistic approach in research with their work on assemblages (1980). The theory of assemblages promotes the idea of horizontal connections, of understanding the world as being made up of networks and flows that are constantly shifting and changing. It incorporates notions of power into these networks also, and focuses on the idea of the constant state of becoming (Kirby 2006), with agency also moving and shifting within these networks and assemblages. The holistic approach to research is quite clear here, as Deleuze and Guattari seek to see how the world is connected through the network, rather than looking at divisions between them.

With agency, we can quickly turn to look at the idea of distributed agency. I have studied distributed agency before with regard to World of Warcraft, and so I am familiar with the ways in which agency can move, be possessed and lost in equal measure. In a network such as Deleuze and Guattari’s assemblage, agency immediately becomes distributed as the network is in a constant state of change, and therefore agency will always be in a state of becoming as well, as it is distributed, gained, lost, and dispersed over and over within the network. This is not to say that we can never have agency or autonomy; rather it is to acknowledge the evolving and slippery nature of agency within the network.

We also discussed ontology and subjectivity when it comes to new materialism, which proved challenging to say the least. Drawing on Barad (2012) and Braidotti (2012), we examined how New Materialism leads to this notion of fluid ontology and onto-epistemology. Although ontology is typically known as the study of nature/the world around us (including objects), fluid ontology highlights that there can be no pre-defined object to study – everything is connected and can only be known through the network. For example, you reading this post know you are not reading a book. You only know this because you know of a book from the network. You only know of a book from the network which could be home, school, education, religion, etc. It becomes clear that the very nature of ontology itself has changed to becomes more fluid and unfixed to accommodate changes.

I am reminded of work by Kristeva (1982) and Ahmed (2000) on the skin and borders of the self. We do not end at the skin. Kristeva noted this through her work on abjection, that going beyond the boundary of skin invokes horror in us because we realise we cannot be self-contained – we are open and endlessly open for as long as we exist. Ahmed discusses the skin as a border extensively in her work on racism, and noted that the skin is a border than feels, that it is permeable (not just in the literal sense) and susceptible to changes around us. If we incorporate our very bodies into the network, we can see how everything becomes connected, even through physicality.

Object and Network

We were asked to consider the network that surrounds us and our objects to demonstrate understanding of the network and holism. I have chose to illustrate this through the use of an assemblage around both myself and my object.

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This is a fairly complex assemblage as it covers memory, emotion/affect, and power and agency. For something so simple as a stuffed toy dinosaur, the network that surrounds it is surprisingly large!

Material Cultures: Forgetting to Remember

Our theme this week focused on memory. Understanding how memory is embedded within objects is particularly important to this module, as we are focusing on objects that have close personal meaning to us – which will primarily take the form of associated memories. We focused on the ideas of Post and Prosthetic memory, which I found very interesting, especially when we discussed it in relation to huge events, such as Remembrance Day here in the UK. National identity itself is a way of remembering collectively, using Post memory to pass on memory and let events not be forgotten. I feel this particularly strongly around Remembrance Day.

I have two links to the World Wars. My great-great uncle was killed and is buried at Flanders Fields having fallen in World War One. In World War Two, my great grandfather was one of the liberators of Belsen concentration camp. So when it comes to Remembrance Day, my feelings around Post and Prosthetic memory become much stronger. Post memory acts as an inherited memory that ends up forming part of our psyche and sometimes our identities. For Remembrance Day we say ‘Lest We Forget’, thus solidifying quite literally the fact that this is a memory of events that we must pass on through Post and Prosthetic forms of memory. We preserve the memory of the human tragedy that occurred and pay respect to those who gave their lives for us today.

However, not all memory is preserved or kept so closely. I have found in discussions with my classmates (almost all of whom are international students) that there is a lot that the British have tried to forget from our colonial days. During my time at school, we learnt next to nothing about the British Empire, and my classmates have expressed their shock at this fact. This is an act of forgetting on the behalf of the British. As Connerton (2008) puts it, this forgetting is a form of humiliated silence. We as a nation don’t want to think about all the terrible things we did in the name of bringing ‘civilisation’ to people, so we simply don’t. Unlike Remembrance Day, which is also a form of forgetting as humiliated silence, a day on which we mark the mistakes of war, the Empire is simply swept away.

In thinking both about how memory is kept or preserved, and how it is also forgotten, the image I have chosen is one people may find upsetting. The image below is of Carl Akeley and his wife, Delia Akeley, having shot and killed a bull African elephant, which would be shipped back to the USA, skinned, stuffed, and mounted into the incredibly famous Fighting African Elephants, on display in the The Field Museum, Chicago, to this day. The Akeleys provided a huge number of specimens for study and greatly developed the knowledge of the natural world. Unfortunately, in doing so, they killed a large number of animals (although they did often state that they were not hunting, they were preserving and despised sport hunting).

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My reason for linking this image to my object is because my own object, a childhood toy, has similar dark links like the animals now preserved and valued for study in The Field Museum. Steg has a label that reads ‘Hand Made in China’. I cannot help but think – what conditions were in the factory were he was made? How well was the person making these toys treated, paid, or living? If he was truly hand made, how tired were the hands that made him? The simple fact is I don’t know. And deep down, I’m not sure I want to know. I realise that is a terrible thing to admit, but I feel that this ‘turning away’ from certain facts is something everyone does to an extent. I am definitely performing a type of Forgetting as Humiliated Silence here with my object, because if I do think about the fact that he was likely made in a factory, where the workers are paid very little and worked very hard, it ruins my object for me. I don’t like to think of myself as being a selfish person, but I have to admit that this here highlights exactly how selfish I want to be when it comes to something as close and personal to me as my object. Unfortunately, I feel it is not just me who does this selfish turning away when it comes to knowing the truth behind certain things, and instead we all just keep ‘forgetting to remember’

Museum Field Trip: Reflections on Objects

This week we visited the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in order to further explore the connections and relations between our chosen object. As mine is a childhood toy, while looking around the museum I focused on paintings and objects that related to feelings of home, belonging, and memory for me.

I grew up in rural England with a very small family. Many of the objects I selected at the museum directly relate to things I can remember from my childhood. The images of horses are very much a part of my childhood, as I grew up riding horses and later went on to work with them and surround myself with them until I came to university. The painting of the dahlias invokes memories of my grandfather growing them in his garden, and also of seeing them exhibited at the village show each year. The cat painting and the stuffed lynx cub reminds me of the many, many toys that I collected and played with, and the collection of old fashioned sweets is again another memory.

It’s clear that I linked my object into notions of memory primarily, drawing upon my earlier experiences as a child to make a connection between the museum objects, and my stuffed dinosaur. The museum is an archive of collective, cultural memory and yet I was able to draw out individual links and memories from this huge archive. I was primarily drawing upon feelings of affect through memory when looking for linked artefacts, relying on feeling and instinct to develop a link between my own object and those of the museum.

Radstone and Hodgkin’s (2009 4th Ed) work on memory cultures is linked strongly into my experiences at the museum, particularly when it comes to my own memory subjectivity. I bought my subjectivity with me when examining the objects and artefacts for links to myself. I did find it difficult at first to link my memory and subjectivity to the objects within the museum, but as I started to explore wider notions like cultural heritage rather than literal direct links, it became easier to see a broader context surrounding the museum archive and my own archive.

We later moved on to the Bullring, Birmingham’s shopping mall. Here, we were asked to repeat the task of thinking about objects, archive, memory and how they are structured. I found this task much more difficult to achieve as my object draws so heavily upon cultural background and affect – whereas a mall is a relatively blank canvas. A museum looks to capture memory and history, whereas the Bullring is all about consumerism and a modern approach. I tried to explore a similar avenue to that which I used in the museum, looking back at childhood memory and affect, but I found it much more difficult as there was little I felt strongly resonated within the mall to connect to my object. I looked to toy shops primarily as markers of childhood, but I felt little to no connection to them. Venturing into the Build-a-Bear workshop was the most connective experience I was able to find, as I have memories of visiting one as a child, and I was able to reach out and touch the soft fluffy skins of the to-be-stuffed toys. Drawing this physical link into the experience made this instance stand out for me a link to my object.

Overall, I found the museum visit to be much more helpful in developing understanding of my object and how archives work, although using the Bullring as a counter exercise was interesting to see how we can develop links between things that we may not have previously considered.

Material Cultures – More than Matter

Our work this week focused heavily on an area of thought that I’ve covered extensively already. The key question posed was ‘How do objects make us feel?’. My work on the MA CCM exhibition #Rescheduled, which took us to Amsterdam for field research. The research we covered there looked at how objects contain promises of happiness that are a form of cruel optimism. We examined how objects hold emotion and how these promises are portrayed to people. We drew primarily on the work of Sara Ahmed and Eva Illouz.

This week’s topic felt very much like a revisit to previous research for me, only this time it was more personal and focused on the single object. We were asked to think about the relationships between the material and the immaterial, between emotion and object. To make the immaterial (the emotion) material, we were given modelling clay and asked to make a physical representation of our feelings towards our object.

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This is my physical representation. I am artistically deficient when it comes to this kind of task, so I tried to make mine as simplistic as possible while also showing my feelings for my chosen object. Seeing as my object, Steg, invokes a lot of happy and positive emotions for me, I opted for something with a happy expression, and with a chubby rounded body – reflecting Steg’s soft, rounded, fluffy form. Steg is also a childhood toy, so something simplistic and childish like this is a good way of projecting my emotional connection.

Trying to create a representation of my emotional/immaterial connection to my object through the physical form of creating is something I found difficult – not least because of my lack of crafting skills. But also because trying to make something so immaterial and universal as a concept like ‘happiness’ into a distinct form is almost impossible. Happiness is representable through almost an infinite number of forms, and I don’t think mine is the best way I could have done so.

Thinking about Ahmed’s work on happiness and affect, we can understand through sticky affect how emotions end up being attached to certain objects. ‘Affect is what sticks, or what sustains or preserves the connection between ideas, values, and object’ (Ahmed 2010: 29). With Steg, I have over a number of years attached affect to him in the form of happiness, love, affection, and nostalgia. These are emotions which have stuck to him, which have become sustained over a period of time by my own action, and thus they are preserved within him and in our connection. Understanding what it means to have these emotions attached, however, is another thing. ‘In such affective economies, emotion do things, and they align individuals with communities – or bodily space with social space – through the very intensity of their attachments’ (Ahmed 2004: 119). Emotions work in the same way as an economy – they have the ability to flow back and forth, and now in a Postmodern world, we start to see how emotions are becoming forms of cultural capital.

Eva Illouz discusses this form of emotion as capital at length. She highlights that our current immaterial-based culture and economy (one based on services and actions of emotion) is the result of Postmodernism. ‘The making of capitalism went hand in hand with the making of an intensely specialised emotional culture’ (Illouz 2007: 4). We understand that using emotions as capital, such as promising happiness through goods and services, is a strong part of current economic-social-cultural circumstances. ‘Emotional capitalism is a culture in which emotional and economical discourses and practices mutually shape each other…affect is made an essential aspect of economic behaviour’ (ibid: 5). Affect is deeply ingrained into the current culture. Ahmed discusses that we have the ‘Promise of Happiness’ – constantly we strive towards happiness, attempting to purchase it through goods and services, and yet we cannot attain it, or at least, very few can only attain happiness through this. But ‘commodities themselves are not so much material objects as they are cultural meanings that in turn provide access to emotional categories and experiences’ (Illouz 2003: 380).

It becomes clear through looking at emotions (the immaterial) as being treated as forms of capital and in a sense of economy, the nature of cruel optimism (Berlant 2006) becomes more apparent. We invest affect into objects, creating attachments, circulating emotion through new forms of immaterial capitalism, and yet ‘investments in them [objects] and projections onto them are less about them than about the cluster of desires and affects we manage to keep magnetised to them’ (Berlant 2006: 21). Cruel optimism is what surrounds our objects and emotions in a late capitalist society, and coming to realise this means I can start to be more aware and critical of my relationship to the objects around me that I have imbued with affect and connection.

 

References:

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

Ahmed, S (2010) The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press

Berlant, L (2006) ‘Cruel Optimism’ Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies Vol 17 (6) 20-36

Illouz, E (2003) ‘Emotions, Imagination, and Consumption: A new research agenda’ Journal of Consumer Culture Vol 9 (3) 377-413

Illouz, E (2007) Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. Cambridge: Polity Press

Material Cultures: Remixing the Real

Building on the ideas from the lecture around being between digital and material culture, as well as looking back at previous weeks on the ideas of matter and being, we explored the idea of how with new forms of digital culture, there is an increasingly fluidity between the online and offline, whether it is through the self, objects, culture, or matter. We examined how the digital world has become completely naturalised and integrated into everyday life through performativity, and embedding into social structures of the everyday.

Distributed agency also came into the discussion when we moved to look at how the digital world allows for almost infinite copying and distributions of artefacts in the online space. We linked this to discussions with Walter Benjamin and Jean Baudrillard with mechanical reproduction and simulacra respectively. Aura in particular was discussed, and how objects can have aura and how through cheap means of reproduction, aura becomes lost. It was from these discussions of aura and Baumann’s idea of liquid modernity and weightless capitalism that have led us to our weekly task.

Our task was to ‘Remix the Real’ – to take our object of choice, and remix it into something new and other than itself. Below are my three remixed images:

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My three images (aside from reflecting my complete lack of photo editing skills) are intended to demonstrate how my object, Steg, is able to be manipulated in ways through appearance and context.

Image 1 is my favourite. I have copied Rene Magritte’s famous painting  The Treachery of Images  – ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ –  and added a small twist with ‘ou un dinosaure’ (or a dinosaur). I like this image because not only does it show the effortlessness of liquid modernity, but it also shows how easily something so famous as Magritte’s painting can be accessed in the digital space, copied, and changed into a new form of art. This image remix feels like it contains the most aura to me, and that is gives the most accurate representation of the real while simultaneously representing the non real and the issue that Steg is not a dinosaur in either sense. He is not a dinosaur because he is a stuffed toy. He is also not a dinosaur because in the above image he is merely an image of a stuffed toy dinosaur. Therefore, I found using Magritte’s original work to remix my own very fitting, and even a touch amusing.

Images 2 and 3 are designed to be opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of representations. Image 2 shows Steg as being royalty, upheld above all others, a perfect idol. In my previous posts I realise that I have somewhat gone overboard at times in describing him and the relationship that I have towards him, so I intended this image to be something of a parody of my previous works. Image 3 also plays in this, presenting Steg as evil and angry – when I have always strongly associated him with being kind and peaceful. Again, this links back to how in my prior writings I have emphasised this aspect of his personality, and so I opted to reverse it.

Reflecting on this ‘remixing of the real’, as I have done so in these images, I found it an interesting experience, and quite a difficult one. This was partially down to my own lack of technical skill, but also deciding how best to remix the images with the limited tools I had to hand, and what I wanted to achieve in the remixing.

Considering how the ‘realness’ of the object is affected through both the transition to digital image and then the consequent digital remixing of the image, I draw upon Hogsden and Poulter (2012) and their discussion on how digital and material objects coincide and coexist. Their work also goes back to previous discussions on aura, value of the physical object, and increased awareness of the digital and physical interactions. Placing extra value on physical encounters with objects, especially in this instance when I have such a close connection to the object in question, is something that I am guilty of. ‘Face-to-face encounters with physical objects are positioned as the most valuable and authentic of object-engagement experiences, opportunities may be lost to understand what happens when objects take on different forms’ (ibid: 266). Value on the physical encounter is similar to what happens with the notion of aura. We believe that only the original can have aura, and that in reproducing the original we dissipate the aura and it eventually becomes lost. Benjamin discusses this at length through his idea of mechanical reproduction and how through creating copies we lost the sense of craftsmanship and the aura that comes from the handmade.

Personally, I don’t feel aura is lost through reproduction; instead it shifts and changes, especially when it comes to the remixing of the original. When something old is remixed and remade into something new, aura is regenerated. ‘Separate from the physical object, the digital object becomes an entity in its own right, yet each continually references the other’ (ibid: 278). This is where I believe that aura regenerates, when we see how the digital and physical are their own entities and referential to the other – aura moves in a more fluid way. The digital is equally tangible in terms of how it can affect and feel (connection to avatars, emotional responses to online messages etc), but still we start to see it as something not quite the same as the original, the real. ‘The digital object becomes an ‘Other’ to the physical object; it is ‘real’ in that it exists (as data) but it is separate since it embodies its own knowledge and enables different outcomes to emerge’ (ibid: 278).

Baudrillard’s work on simulacra address the issue of how objects, through reproduction into the simulacra and simulation, become recycled back into a form of the real itself. ‘It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself’ (Baudrillard 1988: 2). I don’t believe that something which is simulacra cannot have aura or agency. If we did not know it was a simulation, would we still perceive its aura?  Something which is a duplicate may still have aura, it just may differ from its original form. The agency of the object may also still be present, just distributed differently from the original. Remixing the real, creating simulacra, and mechanical reproduction, while they can be seen to be taking away from aura and agency, are in fact just different ways of reproducing it. Similarly, Baumann’s liquid modernity is not necessarily a bad thing – instead we can just see it as an evolving form of capitalism and labour in a Postmodern society.

 

References

Baudrillard, J (1988) Selected Writings. Ed. Foster, M. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Baumann, Z (2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press

Benjamin, W (1992) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Texts. Ed. Frascina, F and Harris, J. London: Harper Collins.

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

Material Cultures – The Same but Different

Our task this week, after a lecture unpacking the concept of ‘matter’ and how we understand things to be both physical matter and to have ‘matter’, we were asked to look at our chosen objects in a new light. Below are my five images of my object in a different format to it’s original.

Clockwise from the top left:

Image 1: Steg, my original chosen object.

Image 2: An artist’s rendering of a Stegosaurus

Image 3: A skeleton of a real Stegosaurus

Image 4: The Ty Company logo

Image 5: The stuffing found inside most soft toys.

It is immediately clear to see that when I consider my object through different formats, the connotations of it change completely. Steg is my beloved stuffed stegosaurus toy whom I have owned and loved for probably close to fifteen years. Yet this cute stuffed toy is based upon an ancient dinosaur, one who looks neither cute nor friendly. The reality of his origins becomes much more apparent, and almost makes me wonder who thought this large, ungainly, and frankly quite ugly, dinosaur would make a good children’s toy once it had been ‘cute-ified’. The skeleton and the drawing both show something primitive and very large, and the image of the skeleton is that of the most complete skeleton in the world. We only have a fragment of an idea of what the Stegosaurus would really look like, and yet we have cute cuddly representations of them gracing the shelves and bedrooms.

I’ve also looked to break down Steg into his component parts – both the company to which he came from, and his literal parts. The Ty company are responsible for the 1990s craze of Beanie Babies, to which Steg is a member of their family. Originally, he came with a Ty tag stapled into his shoulder, but I swiftly removed both the cardboard heart and plastic tag as it made him difficult to cuddle. He does, however, still bear the Ty logo on the label (which also contains information about his physical parts and how to wash him). The final picture is what he is filled with, what makes him by definition a ‘stuffed toy’. This is the soft fibre filling that most toys are stuffed with to make them squishy and lovely to cuddle. However, even though Steg is an inanimate object, I find it somewhat morbid placing this image alongside him – this raises issues of the abject (Kristeva 1982), perhaps particularly because I have an emotional connection to him and have personified him over many years. I realise it is no different to highlight that a human is organs and bones, but I feel reducing him to such meaningless parts takes away from what he really is, and what he means to me. Butler’s work on Bodies that Matter is important to the discussion here, as while I know and understand Steg to be an object, I still attach matter and meaning to his body. I understand that he is both the physical matter of the stuffing, as well as the emotional matter of being my childhood object.

I highlighted last week in my embodiment discussion that I understand how I and Steg have our own bodies, connected by the sense of touch, emotion, and by the feelings of skin (Ahmed 2000). Although Butler’s work looks to break down notions of performativity and the impact of dominant structures on the body, her attention turns to construction of subjects. ‘A construction is understood in this latter case to be a kind of manipulable artifice, a conception that not only presupposes a subject, but rehabilitates precisely the voluntarist subject’ (Butler 1993: 7). Looking at this idea of the ‘manipulable artifice’ I consider how my own positioning and identity, has shaped Steg’s identity and subjectivity. Interestingly, I didn’t name him; he came ready with the name and I stuck with it. Already he came to me with a basic identity and subjectivity. From this springboard, I have shaped over the years his identity and his matter, both physically and emotionally. I voluntarily took up the task of shaping his matter and identity, one which was within consideration or thought other than I wanted to explore this – almost a form of quiet role play on my behalf (MacCullum-Stewart 2014).

Marres and Lezaun (2015) discussed in their paper how people engage with objects through social, political, and economical discourses. They seek to highlight that physical matter does not have to be simplistic site of the struggle. ‘Objects, devices, settings and materials, not just subjects, acquire explicit political capacities, capacities that are themselves the object of public struggle and contestation, and serve to enact distinctive ideals of citizenship and participation’ (ibid: 491). They highlight that the very subjectivity and identity of an object, it’s matter, can be considered to be where discourses clash and are played out, rather than needing a literal physicality to react with. I do find it a little difficult to deposit such huge discourses onto my stuffed toy, but in reflection I can fully see how their point unfolds. Steg’s label reads ‘Made in China’ – already we see these huge discourses unfolding through his very matter. I was given him as a gift, purchased from a shop, and thus perpetuating the capitalism of the Ty company, but also of the political, social, and economical values of the supply chain and manufacture.

It becomes clearer when more closely examined that objects, as well as having subjectivity, can be the sites of conflict for these discourses, malleable as they are. Considering the social, economical, and political discourses around matter, both physical and emotional, allows me to gain a wider global perspective of objects and their connotations and place within structures and discourse.

 

References:

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

Butler, J (1993) Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. London: Routledge

Kristeva, J (1982) The Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press

MacCullum-Stewart, E (2014) Online Games, Social Narratives. London: Routledge

Marres, N and Lezaun, J (2015) ‘Material and Devices of the Public: An Introduction’ Economy and Society Vol 40 (4) 489-509