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?


[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.

The Bulletin Debate

Where is the ‘real’ Australia? Can we find it only in the ‘Outback’, or the ‘bush’? Is it in the red desert at the centre of the continent? Is it Sydney Harbour, flanked by the Bridge and the Opera House? Is it among the surfers and sunbathers of Bondi Beach? The rich heaping mines of Western Australia? The gold towns of Victoria, bursting with colonial architecture?

The ‘real’ Australia is, of course, in all of these places. And yet, debates about the true Australia have been raging for a long time. In 1892, in the pages of the nationalist periodical the Bulletin, Henry Lawson published a poem titled ‘Borderland’, in which he obliquely criticised the romantic bush poetry of men such as A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson by comparing the images depicted in poems with the reality of life in the bush. The poem begins

I am back from up the country, very sorry that I went,
Seeking for the Southern poets’ land whereon to pitch my tent;
I have lost a lot of idols, which were broken on the track,
Burnt a lot of fancy verses, and I’m glad that I am back.
Further out may be the pleasant scenes of which our poets boast,
But I think the country’s rather more inviting round the coast

(You can read the poem in its entirety here)

Two weeks later, Paterson responded with ‘In Defence of the Bush’, whicch basically made the claim that, if life in the bush was tough, it was still better than life in the ‘squalid street and square’ of the cities. He concludes with the sentiment that Lawson had better stick to Sydney and make merry with the “push”,

For the bush will never suit you, and you’ll never suit the bush.

It’s worth reading the whole poem, here. In fact it’s worth reading all the poems in their entirety, as they’re quite witty, and occasionally scathing.

Paterson’s riposte attracted a lot of other poets to respond, mostly supporting Lawson’s original critique. Some challenged Paterson (who was a Sydney-based solicitor) to actually try life in the bush:

I’m wonderin’ why those fellers who go buildin’ chipper ditties,
‘Bout the rosy times out drovin’, an’ the dust an’ death of cities,
Don’t sling the bloomin’ office, strike some drover for a billet
And soak up all the glory that comes handy while they fill it.

began Edward Dyson in ‘The Fact of the Matter‘, while Lawson returned with ‘The City Bushman‘, in which he accuses Paterson of being exactly that. He also reminds him that:

True, the bush `hath moods and changes’ — and the bushman hath ’em, too,
For he’s not a poet’s dummy — he’s a man, the same as you

My very favourite, though, is Francis Kenna’s ‘Banjo of the Overflow‘, the last four stanzas of which read:

I am tired of reading prattle of the sweetly-lowing cattle
   Stringing out across the open with the bushmen riding free;
I am sick at heart of roving up and down the country droving,
   And of alternating damper with the salt-junk and the tea.

And from sleeping in the water on the droving trips I’ve caught a
   Lively dose of rheumatism in my back and in my knee,
And in spite of verse it’s certain that the sky’s a leaky curtain —
   It may suit the “Banjo” nicely, but it never suited me.

And the bush is very pretty when you view it from the city,
   But it loses all its beauty when you face it “on the pad;”
And the wildernesses haunt you, and the plains extended daunt you,
   Till at times you come to fancy life will drive you mad.

But I somehow often fancy that I’d rather not be Clancy,
   That I’d like to be the “Banjo” where the people come and go
When instead of framing curses I’d be writing charming verses —
   Tho’ I scarcely think he’d swap me, “Banjo, of the Overflow.”

Kenna’s claim that ‘the bush is very pretty when you view it from the city’ neatly encapsulates the essence of the debate. According to the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, this ballad-off was the literary version of the age-old argument between romance and realism.[1]

It seems, however, that the up-beat glorified bush of Paterson’s imagination has won out. Today, The Man from Snowy River is a national icon, while Waltzing Matilda (also penned by Paterson) is our unofficial national anthem. This eclipsing of one vision of Australia by another is well illustrated by the $10 note, which in the pre-polymer days featured the craggy-faced Henry Lawson, however his image has since been replaced; the post-1993 $10 banknote depicts not only ‘Banjo’ Paterson, but his fictional creation from Snowy River as well.

We have already spent some time on the blog looking at the figure of the stockman, and the way he is perceived by the Australian public. We also briefly examined the ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ poem, in light of whether or not it actually represented a real person. While debates about the ‘real’ Australia are clearly well-established, it seems that the more urban we become as Australians, the more we want to cling to the bushman-hero origin myth.

While in 1892 there was an actual debate about where the real Australia lay, from our representations – the Olympic opening ceremony, the Stockman’s Hall of Fame, etc – it seems that today we just accept the bush iconography, despite the fact that it represents only a small minority of Australians. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, less than 12% of our population lives in regional or remote locations,[2] while the 2011 census reports that only 2.5% of Australians are employed in agricultural industries.[3]

Through my readings, I am starting to arrive at something of an idea about why this might be. But that’s a blog post for another day!


[1] Wilde, William H., Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews, eds. The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (second edition). Oxon: Oxford University Press, 2005.

[2] “Australian Population Distribution,” Australian Bureau of Statistics, accessed June 27, 2014, http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Chapter3002008

[3] “Australia: Industry Sector of Employment,” Australia Community Profile, accessed July 1, 2014, http://profile.id.com.au/australia/industries