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Response to Evocative Objects: Things we Think With

In Evocative Objects, Sherry Turkle edits a delightful, moving anthology that puts objects and their human relations front and center. In this book, 34 authors (scientists, scholars, artists, architects) describe their relations to evocative objects–objects that are both companions to our emotional lives and provocations of thought (Turkle 5). As many of the author’s autiobiographical accounts testify, “objects have life roles that are multiple and fluid” (6). Objects also exert their holding power, as Turkle puts it (8), for different reasons. Some objects are evocative because they are uncanny, familiar yet somehow off and therefore creepy (8). Other objects evoke strong memories and/or represent part of our identities that some of us, like Henry Jenkins, can’t just seem to shake. No matter what meaning they come to take on in our lives, objects, Turkle argues, are our life companions. As such, they deserve more philosophical and theoretical attention.

I like this book because from a rhetorical perspective, the chapters resonate. The stories authors tell, the epigraphs Turkle chose to accompany each chapter, and the insights Turkle draws from these stories are provocative and filled with many one-liners worth thinking more about.

  • Evocative objects bring philosophy down to earth”– when we focus on objects, we are able to “find common ground in everyday experiences” (Turkle 8).
  • Objects are able to catalyze self-creation (Turkle 9).
  • Thought does not take place in a vacuum—it takes places in various media of expression (Garner 50).
  • The whole universe of concrete objects, as we know them, swims…for all of us, in a wider and higher universe of abstract ideas, that lend its significance….We can never look directly at them, for they are bodiless and featureless and footless, but we grasp all other things by their means, and in handling the real world we should be stricken with helplessness in just so far forth as we might lose these mental objects (James 127).
  • Taken individually, consumer objects have no meaning—that comes from their participation in a system of objects. In this framework we don’t consume individual objects; we consume the social order that they belong to. We by the vacuum; we consume assumptions about gender, households, families, and social status (Greenslit 139).
  • Objects speak in a way that destroys any simply stories we might tell about our relations to nature, history, and the inanimate; they destroy any simple sense we might have about progress and our passage through time (Turkle paraphrasing Latour 313)
  • Words become part of a thing (Vygotsky 47)

I also appreciate how Turkle and the authors give name to many different kinds of objects:

Reflective objects (Jenkins)

Deep objects—something that guides and disciplines curiosity and fascination into interaction and self-transformation (Crease 294)

Object-to-think-with (Keller)

Objects of design and play

Objects of Discipline and Desire

Objects of History and Exchange

Objects of Transition and Passage

Objects of Mourning and Memory

Objects of Mediation and New Vision

Yet, I can’t help but notice that in this renaming, in this making sense of what objects do for, Turkle is consumed with what objects do for our inner lives. Turkle, of course, is interested in psychoanalysis, identity formation, cognition, etc. It is thus only natural she would think and produce theories about objects with these functions in mind. As the reader, however, I can’t help but ask what else do objects do? How do objects make contributions to collective life besides bringing forth feelings and thoughts to mind?

In this book, meanings about objects are all made from a reflective standpoint. As such, the focus of the object is not so much on the object itself but on what humans get from their relations with objects or more specifically what humans learned from objects, how humans played with objects, how humans were transformed by objects. What might we learn about objects if we work harder to actually put objects at the center of our studies? While difficult, I think we can learn a lot more about objects and ourselves if we can work toward this goal.

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