Joni Murphy Discusses Books About Things

A VICTORIAN FETISH
JONI MURPHY DISCUSSES BOOKS ABOUT THINGS

Things edited by Bill Brown (University of Chicago Press).
The Artificial Kingdom by Celeste Olalquiaga (University of Minnesota Press).
The Complete Fiction of Bruno Schulz. Translated from the Polish by Celina Wieniewska
(Walker and Co.).

Perhaps winter has made Vancouver feel somewhat Victorian lately. There’s an insistent dampness even on rainless days. The cloudscapes are so wispy and sublime they seem almost painted as if for a stage set backdrop. In the dark green recesses of Stanley Park a veritable fern and fungi armies gather serenely, waiting only for the right moment to sweep through the city, breaking through the sidewalks and upsetting brick walls. Populating this soft-focus environment, masses obscured in velvet and corduroy wander like sleepwalkers along corridors and down the escalators nervously fingering their adorned cell phones and leather incased ipods like personal fetishes to ward off the unwelcome stares of street people. In Victorian London, city dwellers were regularly confronted with the new and shiny products of mass production, and while many embraced the modern world, it was done so hesitantly, any enthusiasm complicated by a longing for a natural, disappearing world. With each new invention, each new factory, nature seemed to drift further and further away. Perhaps it’s just the melancholic selection of books I have been reading lately, but I seem to see hints of this same tension wherever I look. Vancouver exists these days in a heady state of becoming, its citizens weaving between the extremes of condo developments and heritage houses, back to the land locals and international jet sets. Today, as in the 19th century, these social, imaginative contradictions find a home in objects.

The contemporary middle class seems deeply indebted to the 19th century bourgeoisie for their love of decoration, careful attention to detail, and reverence for the natural world. Fragments of that century materialize today in Merchant Ivory films, reproduction fainting couches, frilly wedding night lingerie, and proper girls doll houses. Traces of the past appear in the home and garden sections of popular newspapers, and a Martha Stuart approach to nature appreciation. Like the 19th century, this love of the natural exists in tension with an enthusiasm for new technological innovations. Picture a Yaletown condo with state of the art alarm system and energy efficient stainless steel appliances, decorated with velvet divans and temperamental exotic plants all put on display by the floor to ceiling glass walls of the modern high-rise.

In 1851, London hosted the first ever World’s Fair inside a radically new kind of structure. The Crystal Palace, made entirely out of glass and steel, was a popular success and its subsequent influence can be felt to this day. The structure pointed the way to the future of Le Corbusier’s ‘machines for living’ and corporate towers. The Crystal Palace’s dizzying array of consumer objects displayed side by side anticipated the collected contrasts of modern shopping malls. It anticipated a future which has become our past and present.

The Crystal Palace is just one of the objects of attention in The Artificial Kingdom, Celeste Olalquiaga study of the 19th century. This book moves from the glass of the Crystal Palace walls to decorative paperweights to the first public and private aquariums. According to Olaquiaga’s, all these objects have some relationship to nostalgia and kitsch.

According to her author bio, Olalquiaga is an “independent scholar,” and judging from her expansive style she relishes in her independence from the academy. This extensively researched book delves into everything from simulated mermaid remains to the fantasy grottos of various European royals with intuitive leaps in logic and purple tinged language. Rather than approaching the subject from a dispassionate or distanced point of view, Olalquiaga speaks from both the passionate perspective of an antique kitsch connoisseur and from that of a scholar. She tries to understand the delicate, grotesque beauty of nostalgia and desire for objects from within and without their realm of enchantment. Overall her florid method seems appropriate for a study of the historic lineage of kitsch objects. While not for everyone, her book will appeal to those drawn to narrow junk shops awash in the somber notes of religious organ music and the pungent aroma of alpine meadow air freshener. It is a theoretical treasure for anyone vulnerable to the mystical charms of novelty paperweights or eel-skin handbags.

Bill Brown has devoted much of his recent career to articulating a methodology he calls ‘thing theory.’ He introduces this concept in his collection Things. He rather coyly asks if things really need theory, if we can’t just leave them alone and simply continue to bother slippery subjects like gender, race, politics and literature with the unforgiving attention of theory. It is difficult for anyone who has thought about art, factories, trash heaps or the contents of their own rooms to not give a polite cough of disagreement. Things have never been outside of the theoretic gaze whether it comes from poets, glass blowers, anthropologists, or psychoanalysts.

It is hard not to see Brown’s assertion that we need a new way to talk about things as a sneaky way of glossing over political realities, and the myriad of theories that attempt to address the sensuous thing-world. While clearly a sophisticated academic well versed in modern thought, by arguing that we need a new theory Brown seems to give short shrift to such heavy hitters as Heidegger, Marx, and Lacan, among others. To argue that there is something essential that the vast range of thinkers who’ve written about things have missed is surely an intellectual risk. It is one I am not sure Brown is able to successfully pull off.

Brown, and the authors in this collection, are by-in-large interested in the moments when an object becomes a thing, times of slippage and failure, when you fail to catch the falling mug and it flies apart on the floor. “We begin to confront the thingness of objects when theystop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily” (4). An object becomes a thing when some link in our chain of understanding breaks, or when we suddenly realize the link we imagined doesn’t actually exist.

Despite the methodological shortcomings of ‘thing theory’, this is an excellent group of essays. The essays in Things speak best when they speak of failures, stutters and momentary breakdowns in the interactions between people and stuff. Michael Taussig’s fine essay asks, “Why is death the harbinger and index of the thing-world, and how can it be, then, that death awakens life in things” (381). Peter Stallybrass and Ann Rosalind Jones ask what it means to be actively engaged with naming an-others fetishes while blind to your own. The book as a whole speaks of failures to fully comprehend with reason materiality. The failure to name or recall the name is the mental place where objects become things, and it’s the place, according to Brown, where a new way of thinking may be possible.

While the books of Olalquiaga and Brown attempt to pin down or at least articulate some reasons why people are so perversely captivated and repelled by things, Bruno Schulz’s novella The Street of Crocodiles dives right into experience without trying too hard to create explanations. Schulz’s objects are so uncanny and erotic they practically snuggle up and whisper their secrets to both characters and readers. Wall paper, bolts of fabric and—most frightening of all—headless mannequins come close enough to huff their stale breath right in to your ear. According to one of the central characters, “There is no dead matter . . . lifelessness is only a disguise behind which hide unknown forms of life. The range of these forms is infinite and their shades and nuances limitless” (30).

Schulz’s work creates a mythological place where the fantasies of childhood play out as reality. The narrators’ father grows into a figure of biblical proportions as a landscape of fabric undulates around him. Part of his city is constructed only of papier-mâché, libel to crumble with the slightest push. Shultz, born in 1892 and killed by the Gestapo in 1942, is able to speak—perhaps more than any of these writers—to the subtle complexities of modern materiality.

In fiction Schultz seems to have the freedom to imagine the secret lives of things while conversely recognizing that no such life might exist. He lived at a time when the old reality of hand embroidered clothes and gas lighting was being supplanted by a new one of radars and electric coffee pots. In the face of the mystifying world, Schulz’s fantastical retelling of his Victorian childhood almost seems comforting.

All three of these books offer theories on why we long for and grasp so desperately to things: tales of operas sung on the shores of underground lakes and whispering wallpaper.

Joni Murphy is a masters candidate at Simon Fraser University. Her writing and radio works have appeared in the Ribsauce Anthology, Ascent Magazine, Terminal City, and on Chicago Public Radio’s Re:Sound.