Tuesday, June 22, 2004

The lives of objects (material culture)

The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real by Margery Williams

"A fetish is an object masquerading as a story." - Robert Stoller

Thinking about ubiquitous computing and commodity fetishism.


One of my favourite parts of Le Fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulain (2001) is the voyages of the garden gnome. Inspiring her father to stop mourning the death of his wife and re-engage the world, Amelie kidnaps his garden gnome and sends photos of the gnome in cities around the world. (Everyone needs adventure in life.)

This is not a new idea. The Front de Libération des Nains de Jardins (Garden Gnome Liberation Front) pranked the lawn-obsessed for years. Going underground in 1997 when their leader was arrested, the FLNJ reappeared in 2000 to protest France's first garden gnome exhibition. They are also suspected in the 1998 mass suicide of gnomes, "when 11 of them were found dangling by their necks under a bridge. A letter found nearby said: 'When you read these few words we will no longer be part of your selfish world, where we serve merely as pretty decoration'." Hahahahahaha.

In America, freethegnomes.com continues the battle to stop oppressive gardening, and in late 2003, popular travel website Travelocity spent $80 million on the Roaming Gnome ad campaign.

There are many types of gnomes in European folklore, and the garden gnome's nature is "on the somber side, and he rather enjoys telling melancholy tales. If he begins to feel too closed in, he simply goes to the woods. But, as he is quite learned, he sometimes feels out of place there." Nonetheless, a garden gnome is "a good luck charm, a symbol that the forces of nature are on your side. According to legend, garden gnomes [also] help with chores around the home."

And so, I assume, this is why people want garden gnomes. And why the gnomes yearn to be free.


Theories of Modernism: The Fetish in Modernity, 1890-1930
Theresa M. Senft

The conventional European view at the time was that fetish makers worshipped their own constructions not simply as conventional human-produced symbols of supernatural power, but as the literal embodiment of that power. "Europeans believed," writes Linda Williams, "that Africans were so blinded by the sensuous materiality of their fetishes, they forgot that it was they themselves who had invested these objects with value."

Commodity fetishism, argued Williams after Marx, is a social delusion with profound political effects. Blinded by products of his own making, bewitched by advertising's "sensuous materiality", modern man stares, savage-like, at objects which are now "stamped" with more social power than his own labor. Consumers, failing to see their connection to other human producers, lose their own humanity; in turn, they endow commodities--inanimate objects--with human attributes.

The question of fetishism is really one of agency. How do objects act? And can we answer this without falling back on use-value (in culture) or affective behaviours (in design)? On a related note, the concept and practice of anthropomorphism is not adequate to the task.


Anything by Chris Tilley on material culture

Material Agency: Towards A Non-Anthropocentric Approach

Material Culture of Technology

Colloquium in Modern European and American History: "The Secret Life of Objects"


Blogger cwang said...

a mini garden gnome for potted plants


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