Thing of the day

It started with a Kinder Egg. A present from my son for a hard-working proto-academic slaving over a keyboard. Inside, a pink poodle carrying what looks like a very frothy cappuccino and talking on her mobile phone (got to be a she, pink, bow in the hair… I’ve read semiotics). A thing. Even stripping aside the connotations of the gift, the family relationship and the memories within which it is inevitably enfolded, the thing resonated – a punctum. Its materiality, its presence on my desk and in my world raised questions and ideas.

Someone, somewhere had the idea. They pitched it within the company as their design or a commission for an outside freelance. Someone got the brief to design a pink poodle with a cappuccino and a phone. Some designer, who left art college dreaming of Apple and the Bauhaus got the job. And those surreal conversations are part of the global relations of capitalism, the creation, production, distribution and marketing of things within a Global Thing Industry that parallels Scott Lash and Celia Lury’s Global Culture Industry (2007). That industry of course takes in factories in China and Taiwan, collecting subcultures and pester-power relationships in big supermarket chains. My poodle is enfolded in those capitalist, colonialist and gender relations as well as legal processes in the US where the 1983 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits embedding “non-nutritive items” in confections. My disposable, plastic, transient thing is not just a symbol of structural relations, or even simply a material trace of those processes and struggles, although clearly both. I expect May Day protestors to wield their pink poodles with one hand and their ‘smart mobs’ (Rheingold 2003) mobiles in the other.

Jane Bennett had a similar punctum moment on 4 JUne in front of Sam’s Bagels on Cold Spring Lane in Baltimore, where she came across: “one large men’s black plastic work glove, one dense mat of oak pollen, one unblemished dead rat, one white plastic bottle cap, one smooth stick of wood” (2010: 4). Through this assemblage of ‘natural’ and ‘human-made’ “debris” (an interesting word in the light of Benjamin’s ‘rags ’n refuse’ (2002)), Bennett “caught a glimpse of an energetic vitality inside each of these things, things that I generally conceived as inert. In this assemblage, object appeared as things, that is as vivid entities not entirely reducible to the context in which (human) subjects set them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics” (p5). One may quibble with the idea of a vitality inside but the point is well taken that these object-things extend beyond their signification, a point echoed by Daniel Miller (2010: 12). Their bright pink, plastic signifying of global capitalism does not tell the whole story. Their object alliances with the designer-object, the factory in Taiwan-object, the shipping container-object, the supermarket-object, the eBay business strategy-object (and countless other material and immaterial objects) cannot be classified using a depth ontology that treats one as base and the other as superstructure. Rather ‘capitalism’, ‘globalisation’, ‘patriarchy’ must be seen as the field in which these object relations form, dissolve and reform.

I photographed my pink poodle and uploaded it to Flickr. It automatically appeared on my site, alerted my Twitter followers and when they visited Flickr my image-object was downloaded to their browser cache. The plastic thing enfolded in object relations became an image thing still enfolded in new scopic relations, set in motion by jpeg. The two objects are ontologically and materially different. What unites them, when addressed within a flat object-oriented ontology, is their position within alliances and that that those relations are never entirely exhausted by their semiotics.

See: Thing of the day.

  • Benjamin, W., 2002, The Arcades Project, Translated by Eiland & McLaughlin. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.; London.
  • Bennett, J., 2010, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology Of Things, Duke University Press, Durham.
  • Lash, S. & Lury, C., 2007, Global Culture Industry: The Mediation Of Things, Polity, Cambridge.
  • Miller, D., 2010, Stuff, Polity Press, Cambridge.
  • Rheingold, H., 2003, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, Basic Books, Cambridge, MA.