(As part of my class on the relationships between people and objects, both real and virtual, we read a set of essays in a forthcoming book where academics and scholars describe, in detail, the characteristics of said relationships with an object of import. Paired with each essay is a particular “theorist”, ranging from psychoanalytic (Freud, Lacan, Winnicott) to critical (Foucault, Derrida, Latour). One of the basic assignments in the class is to write “reaction papers” to these readings. While I try to craft these as well as possible, sometimes they’re not very complete or contain ideas or thoughts that might change throughout the course. In any event, I’ve decided to start posting these reactions here, from the current week and all the weeks prior. (I’m going to back-post the earlier essays.) Since I can’t post the source essays here, I’ll try and give some background on the underlying works as an aside at the beginning of each response. Also, names of the authors of the source essays have been slightly changed because I am unsure whether I can attribute these quotes as of yet, since the book has not been published. I welcome any comments or suggestions.)
Aside: This week’s essays dealt with objects of mourning, those things that can lead to such intense feelings upon later reflection.
One of the challenges of cultural studies is to examine the rise and popularity of forms that, from a variety of perspectives (“high art”, criticism, and so on) appear on first glance to offer no “redeeming value” from usual methods of evaluation. Yet the simple fact of their [the forms] popularity cannot be denied as if it does not exist. What way, then, can we explain this without resorting to the non-explanation of irrationality? Eco, in his essay “The Myth of Superman”, suggests that the temporality of the comic book or the serial novel reflects a need of the person living in modern society: “Narrative of a redundant nature would appear in this panorama as an indulgent invitation to repose, the only occasion of true relaxation offered to the consumer.” [Myth, p. 21] With Aristotelian narratives, the actions of Oedipus or Odysseus were well-known to the audience; surprise was not a factor, but rather people willingly floated along with the flow of the text. Yet in post-Aristotelian narratives, it was the objects and actions of surprise that provided the strengths of poetic experience: the “unpredictable nature is part of the invention, and as such, takes on aesthetic value.” [Myth, p. 15] Comics and serials limit this surprise to the appearance of new objects in the story, limiting the surprise of temporal development that occurs in other forms of the literary arts.
This combination of stunted temporal experience and mechanism of surprise can explain some of the psychological strengths of objects in our lives. D—‘s suitcase is a container for snapshots of her grandmother’s life: a symbol of travel and movement, it is now stationary, containing quanta of experiences that reflect salient memories. Her selection of the quotes, the teacups, the scents of the jasmine lotion are past-moment objects that represent memories that unfold in time. She attempts to capture them within the confines of the suitcase, just as the writers of Superman comics attempt to capture his travails and (assured) successes within the limits of a weekly periodical. But D—‘s suitcase is simply a moment of moments: as she says, she worries that she “will lose her [her grandmother] if I open the suitcase too often”. [Suitcase, p. 3] The evanescent jasmine scent will be an element of surprise upon the unbuckling of the suitcase; but with this surprise comes the movement of the captured moment into the regular flow of time. No more held captive, the chrono-scent enters into her present experience, the saved point impinging on the now and expanding away from the impeded temporal flow.
Objects of memory thus possess these complementary but contradictory qualities of saving (archiving) and serendipity (surprise). They can jolt us from our present life and remind us of times in the past or lost possibilities of the future. Containers (of things and thoughts) like the suitcase freeze certain instants or durations with the hope that future interactions will reconnect the person with the detached past.
Objects tied to a particular memory of mourning can help to repair the damage of personal loss: photographs, clothing, toys and the like remain in the now as traces of a prior person’s life. Yet in cases of melancholia (in the full sense of Freud’s term), intense attachment to particular objects is a symptom of pathology: “In melancholia the relation to the object is no simple one; it is complicated by the conflict due to ambivalence.” [Mourning, p. 256] Freud describes melancholia as a “disturbance of self-regard”, this trait being absent in conventional mourning. [Mourning, p. 244] The loss of the object (even perceived loss) is “withdrawn from consciousness, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious.” [Mourning, p. 245] It seems reasonable to connect this loss to the stultified temporality described earlier by Eco. The object-loss enters into the “unconscious”, with the consequence of removing it from the passage of time. Instead of confronting the loss in the present, the person removes herself into the past, desiring instead life in a continual “present”, but a present that exists before now. That is, the loss is never dealt with by the person; the lack of action, and the resulting belief that the object still exists, necessitates removing oneself to a time when the object did exist. The person continues life following the same temporal direction as the rest of society, but with the “shadow of the object” on her, actually lives in the present-past of the object. [Mourning, p. 249]
1 What is ignored is how this assumed knowledge is transferred to the listener in the first place; what sorts of surprise reactions occurred the first time someone heard of Odysseus enduring the Sirens’ cries?