During the course of our Material Cultures module we studied many different theories surrounding our objects. We looked at our objects through a combination of lenses that helped strengthen their meanings, and create new ones. The conclusion of the module included a pop-up museum and a final essay wherein we were asked to critically analyse our respective objects with one/ two/ how-many-ever theories made the most sense! Since I had been updating my blog weekly with regards to this module I thought it would be a good idea to conclude with my essay as well. And the pop-up museum which took place in our University building was a huge success (wootwoot!). So here it is, my final essay:
“In the state of an emergency leave all valuables behind” – a warning we have all heard at some point in our lives. But what really constitutes as valuable? The very definition of the word is adapted differently by different people. I believe that our identity and subjectivity create discourses for who we are and how we see the world. Our cultural, political and social perceptions create a boundary to what we may see as essential or valuable. To me, that valuable object is my diary where each page is filled by my friends and peers. The contents of the diary are playful, comical, empowering and of course, reminiscent for me. In the following essay I will be using a critical reflection of my object by drawing from theories on materialism.
What is it about certain objects that bring a smile to our face? Is it because we love to muse over the past, or is it a form of escapism from the real world? Brown (2001: 2) indicates that there is a certain pleasure attached to objects of the external world, “however problematic that external world may be, however phantasmatic the externality of that world may theorised to be”. I do agree that objects have the ability to transform and elevate into meaning. When I go through the contents of my diary I feel a gushing sense of emotions; an ardent indication of what I have achieved so far. But do my sentiments lie within the object? If that were so then would I be able to feel the same emotion towards another object?
Ahmed (2004: 119) argues that emotions do things to us, “they align individuals with communities – or bodily space with social space – through the very intensity of their attachments”. This notion focuses not only on the transmission of emotion between people, but also between people and objects. It refers to the emotion one feels and stimulates. Emotions also play an important role in the “surfacing of individual and collective bodies” paralleling to how emotions circulate between bodies and signs. We – as part of society – are conditioned to behave towards each other in certain ways. Through these certain ways and through emotions we are conditioned to feel about others in a way that societal norms of bodies take shape. So emotions don’t necessarily move from the inside out (psychological) or outside in (sociological) (Ahmed 2004). Instead they exist in and around us; and simply slide from one object to the other.
The theory that emotions develop, thrive and are tied to the body (Ahmed 2004) can be traced to a Derridean philosophy of language. Derrida (1972) indicates that words are simply repetitive and the resulting repetition disassociates the use of the word from the initial context from where it emerged. The materialistic condition wherein the words were first produced is lost; only the traces of contexts are carried through the word. As a result of this detachment, emotions appear personal, natural and possibly ahistorical. The disguised material and historical context of emotions along with the repetition of non-contextual words tend to accumulate cultural meaning and value – thus resulting in an arguably pejorative word. These words – like emotions – tend to stick to the body and shape them.
Drawing from the Derridean philosophy of language, emotions also have the power to develop significance through the histories and contexts that they conjure. Ahmed (2004: 195) explains how language may also work as a form of power, “in which emotions align some bodies with others, as well as stick different figures together, by the way they move us”.
Emotions also have the ability to be contagious (Ahmed 2004). Keeping this theory in mind I conducted a tiny experiment. I called a friend – one who had also contributed to the contents of the diary – and began to reminisce about our time together. I read aloud the page that he had written. What followed was a mutual nostalgia towards our time together. My small experiment showed me that emotions really are contagious. My friend did not visually see my object; nor did he remember the exact words he had written. Yet he was able to mirror my emotions towards my own diary – despite being in a completely different part of the world. Hence, emotions do not necessarily exist within the object; rather are constructed through our subjectivities. In situations like these emotions can be so intense that they materialise. They may also materialise in certain subject expressions. In order to execute this small experiment it was important for me to look at the immaterial through a material lens. I understand that it isn’t possible to look at one without the other.
The materiality and immateriality of my object can be linked to matter. Don’t emotions and sentiments also fall into the category of matter? Or does matter have to be tangible? There’s a general idea that matter is something we can touch and feel. When we see a play script we consider it to be matter because we can hold it in our hands – feel the roughness of the paper between our fingertips. But when we see performers acting that same play we stop considering it as matter. Scientists usually define matter as anything having mass and that all objects are matter. But I believe there’s more to the definition than just its quantifiable nature. Matter can be anything that can lead to a reaction – a performance, a tight hug, a dream, even an emotion. Matter need not be materialistic; its materiality and immateriality are equally significant. In fact, the mere idea of non-materiality is deeply rooted with the idea of materiality – they are intertwined with one another.
As an academic I am able to identify the relationship between the material and immaterial in the social world I live in. In the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory (Lorre and Prady 28 April 2016) Bernadette asks Sheldon why he is so fond of trains to which he replies, “When I was a child life was confusing and chaotic for me and trains represented order. I could line them up, categorise them, control them. I guess you could say that they gave me a sense of calm in a world that didn’t”. This dialogue immediately reached out to me as it’s a wonderful example of the coherence and co-existence of materiality and immateriality. Sheldon’s fondness for trains has only increased throughout his life because they evoke an emotion of harmony and conciliation. They give him hope and promise for a smooth future.
According to a lecture delivered as part of the module M93MC, “our attachment to these objects can be understood as an attachment to the promise rather than to object itself” (Broekhuizen 2016). As I’ve mentioned above through my small experiment, emotions don’t necessarily exist within an object. In the same paradigm, our attachments to our objects don’t limit themselves to the objects but rather to what they represent which may arguably be clusters of happiness, or certain promises
Berlant (2006: 24) states that despite unsettling social, economic and environmental conditions people .continue to remain attached to fantasies of “good life”. She indicates that maintaining attachments that sustain the good life fantasy allow people to make it through day-to-day life when the day-to-day has become inhabitable. Berlant (2006: 21) calls optimism a formal and structural feeling, such that “optimistic attachment is invested in one’s own or the world’s continuity, but might feel any number of ways”. She further compares cruel optimism to a relational progression where individuals remain attached to “compromised conditions of possibility” or “clusters of promises” lodged in desired object-ideas even when they constrain any promise of flourish or fulfilment (Berlant 2006: 23). I’m able to relate to this theory because I too have associated a ‘good-life’ memory with my own object and am able to internalise these feelings.
To the human mind happiness corresponds to power. The idea of control and power can be identified with the political subject “towards the micro-physical workings of modern governmentalities, the tiny, everyday, physical mechanisms of micro power that organise political subjectivity” (Foucault as cited in Manoff 2004). But does this mean our emotions are political? The constant circulation (or repetition in terms of words) and our affective encounters represent the intimate life of power. This shows that at the centre of governmentality lie sentiment and affective attachments.
Miller (2005: 5) indicates that “much of what we are exists not through our consciousness or body, but as an exterior environment that habituates and prompts us””. When I look at my diary I know that it has the capability of stirring emotions within me; but what I subconsciously ignore is the political subjectivity attached to my object. Marres and Lezaun (2011: 489) indicate that “understanding matter” – or possibly objects – is “ a tactic, constituting force in the organisation of political collectives and their often exclusive preoccupation with the fabrication of particular kinds of political subjects”. Studying my object as possibly a political subject I see it has much larger consequences than serving a “good life” (Berlant 2006: 24) aspect of my personal existence. In order to create this small book trees were cut down, sweatshops flourished, labourers employed. And yet here I sit staring at my object – feeling happy.
Isn’t all matter in a way political? Do we purposely ignore the idea of political subjectivity in order to continue living our lives happily? Foucault (1970) states that “Heralded in positivity, man’s finitude is outlined in the paradoxical form of the endless; rather than a rigour of a limitation, it indicates the monotony of a journey which, though it probably has no end, is nevertheless perhaps not without hope”. Drawing from this theory, one may argue that it is this probably this hope that we cling on to – hope that is attached to our objects – to prevent ourselves from drowning into the monotony of our lives.
Our cultural, political and social perceptions form who we are. They generate emotions which we – as functioning bodies – may connect to an object of our desire. When I hold my object in my hand I become conscious of my body in relation to the object. I understand that we’re both simply matter. But due to the emotions I’ve connected I feel a sense of awareness. I feel the materiality of my skin, the materiality of the diary and the possible immateriality of emotions sliding between us. I am aware that my object has a possible political discourse, but it still exists as a part of me. I embody the diary as a part of my body; I sense it in my core.
- Ahmed, S. (2004) The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge Publications
- Ahmed, S. (2004) ‘Affective Economies’. Social Text 79, 22(2), 117-139
- Berlant, L. (2006) ‘Cruel Optimism’. Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 17 (5), 20-36
- Broekhuizen, F. (2016) Material Cultures: More Than Matter [lecture] module M93MC, 25 February 2016. Coventry: Coventry University
- Brown, B. (2001) ‘Thing Theory’. Critical Inquiry 28 (1), 1-22
- Derrida, J. (1972) Signature, Event, Context: A Communication to the Congres International des Sociétés de Philosophie de Langue Française. Evanston: Northwestern University Press
- Foucault, M. (1970) The Order of Things. London: Tavistock Publications
- Foucualt, M. (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. trans. by Smith, A.M.S. New York: Pantheon Books. cited in Manoff, M. (2004) ‘Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines’. Libraries and the Academy 4 (1), 9-25
- Marres, N. And Lezaun, J. (2011) ‘Materials and Devices of the Public: An Introduction’. Economy and Society 40 (4), 489-509
- Miller, D. (2005) Materiality: Politics, History and Culture. Durham: Duke University Press
- The Big Bang Theory (2016) [online streaming] CBS