A world apart: the difference between Things and Objects

My thesis has recently been re-invigorated after a ‘change in management’, and I find myself at last, after almost two years as a PhD student, approaching the beast that is the Literature Review. I don’t know why I find it so daunting – possibly it’s because all my peers got theirs done and dusted years ago, so it’s come to symbolise all that I haven’t done. But, for that same reason, I’m also quite excited by the challenge that it represents.

My reading in recent days has gone back to ‘first principles’, in considering the idea of objects. Objects are distinctly different to Things, not just in the museum context, but across academic disciplines. In his ground-breaking article ‘Thing Theory’, cultural theorist and academic Bill Brown writes that “we look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture – above all, what they disclose about us), but we only catch a glimpse of things.”[1] This certainly describes the way that museum objects are generally interpreted, particularly in the social history context.

Brown sees human subjects using material objects; a car, a stove, a hammer. But it is when these objects stop functioning that, according to Brown, an Object becomes a Thing. The transition, from Object to Thing, is demarcated by a shift in the subject-object relationship. [2]  In some ways this is actually the complete opposite of how we might think of the museum acquisition process; often a Thing does not become a (museum) Object until it has stopped being used; its ‘useful’ life ends, and its museum life begins.

So, for my purposes, it is not useful to place Things in opposition to Objects. The subject/object spectrum, on the other hand, is an interesting one – particularly in the context of my own area of research. This dichotomous positioning becomes blurred when you consider objects that are made from subjects, for example the candlesticks made from a racehorse’s cannon bones. In this case, the item is both object (candlesticks), and subject (the racehorse named Quiz).

Such notions both relate to, and are distinct from (how will be discussed in a moment), ideas in recent museology scholarship regarding the ‘agency’ of objects. Drawn from actor-network theory, such discussions in the museum context centre around how an object ‘speaks’ to audiences. While I have not read widely on this issue (yet), I am minded of Claire Pettitt’s caution that “[w]hen we make things speak we have to be aware of the vanity of our ventriloquism, and the desire that it betrays in us to hear them talk.” [3] Museologist and curator Samuel J.M.M. Alberti is also cautious about ascribing agency to objects, however he does acknowledge there are some insights to be had from such discussions. ‘We are looking from the standpoint of the object, but we are looking at people’ [4].

This has led me to conceive a second axis, which positions Things and Sentients at opposite ends of a spectrum. How often were you told when young, perhaps in admonishment for behaving cruelly to another, ‘You can’t treat people like they are things!’ (Or was that just me?!). I think bringing the two axes together, Subject/Object and Thing/Sentient, creates a useful framework for thinking through many of the fields I am interested in – animal studies, museology, public history, and taxidermy and the ‘afterlives’ of animals.

These ideas are very much in their nascent phase, but as always I enjoy mulling them over here on the blog. Speaking of which, today marks one year of posting! Happy birthday blog! Perhaps I could just submit the last 12 months’ worth of posts and call it a Lit Review?

REFERENCES

[1] Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28 (2001): 4.

[2] ibid

[3] Claire Pettitt, “Response” to Simon Schaffer, “Thinking (through) Things.” Paper presented at The Location of Knowledge conference, University of Cambridge, 8 March 2013. Youtube recording viewed 2 March 2015 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BAZO9AWCwk

[4] Samuel J. M. M. Alberti, “Objects and the Museum,” Isis vol. 96 no. 4 (2005):561.

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