In 2010, Thomas and I wrote a paper titled ’Do Things Talk?’, published in Susanne Lehmann-Brauns, Christian Sichau, Helmuth Trischler (eds.), The Exhibition as Product and Generator of Scholarship (the volume is available as a .pdf here). In the paper, we discussed the problems and pitfalls surrounding the still current ‘things that talk’ rhetoric. Our central observation in the paper was as follows:
What we suggest, then, is that the current ‘things that talk’-vocabulary may have something to do with wanting to pay attention to the thing-ness of things – their ‘bony materiality’ and yet keep one’s language- and culture-centered approach intact. To allow things become actors with an uncanny ability to speak to us, is (we suggest) a license to maintain the set of scholarly tools and languages associated with the linguistic and cultural turns in the humanities, while still appearing to do something new. By claiming that things talk, scholars today can maintain a certain set of institutionally and traditionally enshrined ideas, while seemingly engaging with a new agenda. Rather than exploring the presence and effects of things qua things, things are turned into something which we, as academics that are trained in a hermeneutical and interpretational tradition, can relate to immediately. It is business as usual on a new subject matter, which still holds out the promise of being something different.
We argued that this talk-rhetoric was a way of making things more like us, rather than making us more like things. Endowing things with anthropocentric qualities – even if done with cautious hesitation or as a metaphor for something else – ran the risk, we felt, of two problems: On the one hand, it might obstruct a possible re-examination and re-evaluation of theories and practices around objects in the humanities; and on the other, it runs the risk of diverting research on objects away from the agenda of re-examining the sort of creatures we are and how we are embedded in the world and the things around us.
Since writing the paper, a deluge of writing on objects, agency and materiality have poured forth, much which is stimulating, important and worthwhile. But it has also increasingly made us feel a need for writing a follow-up paper called ‘Do Things Act?’ building on the 2010 paper and commenting on the theoretical developments since it publication.
What we will do is to blog and tweet this new paper forth, in bits and pieces, over the coming months. Our motivations for this come from a variety of sources, from evolutionary biology to new materialist philosophy, and we will engage with these in various forms as the blogging progresses. Hopefully this will also allow us to engage, both on the blog and on twitter (@Museionist and @AdamBencard), with those of you who have an interest in matters of objects, agency and non-agency, human and non-human, and materialism as we write.
What do you make of the current talk of objects as actors and agents? Is it a theoretical dead end, a productive way forward, a useful rhetorical strategy or something that mirrors a deeper insight into our relationship with the stuff around us? Do things, in fact, act, or do we need other vocabularies to talk about things? And if, which?