No, they obviously don’t. Their very not-doing-so is part of what makes them, well, things. But why, then, is parts of academia currently obsessed with a vocabulary that suggests they do all three things? Thomas suggested somewhat tongue-in-cheek on this blog that perhaps it has to do with a revival of fetishism. I’d like to venture another explanation.
Terry Eagleton noted some years ago with his usual acerbic wit that the theoretical interest in the body during 1980s and 1990s were a way of ‘having ones deconstructive cake and eating it too.’ They both let the student wriggle under the physical effects of reading about sex, death and medicine, while simultaneously explaining such effects away into the mists of discourse. Using the ’things that talk’-terminology has, I believe, to do with having ones consciousness and language-centred cake and eating too.
Letting the things become actors and intentionalities allow for the maintaining of a variety of scholarly tools and languages, while still appearing to do something new. Thus, rather than exploring the presence and effects of things as things, they are turned into something which we, as academics, can relate to immediately through our training, our languages and our perspectives on the world.
To me, it seems parallel to what happened with the body in a lot of recent body theory (which I have written about elsewhere) – the work of Judith Butler springs to mind as an example – in which the problem of the body and materiality is raised specifically, but then it is subsequently, through philosophical tinkering, made into a subset of problems about language and consciousness. Thus, materiality is seemingly both explained and explained away, and analytical business continues as usual.
I was struck by this parallel to the recent ‘things that talk’-terminology when I read Lorraine Daston otherwise elegant essay ‘The Glass Flowers’ in the anthology Things That Talk. She uses 29 pages of her 31 page essay to describe in wonderful detail the historical and scientific layers of meaning surrounding a collection of glass flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge. And then on the last two pages she wonders if not the appearance of the things themselves might also have something to do with people’s attraction and attachment to them – “They have in common with other hallowed things a kind of real presence,” as she writes.
This seems to me to be a most unevenly distribution of historical analysis and explanatory potential. Might it not in fact be the case that the objects themselves, because of their shape, size, colour, their materials, the craftsmanship and the effects they have on us as they appear, are equally, if not more, important in explaining their existence and importance in the history of science?
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. It is business as usual on a new subject matter, which still holds out the promise of being something different.
The question, really, boils down to what sort of history-writing we consider to be important. What kind of history would we get if we took the appearance and presence the glass flowers have as an analytical starting point, rather than an anecdotal endpoint? We’re pretty good with conscious actors, but rather less so with material presences, so where would such an emphasis lead us?
Personally, I think an emphasis on things (or bodies) should raise new questions, rather than asking old questions of new subject matters. It seems as if something is changing and we’re trying to appropriate it into something more familiar. But then again, that is part of the change itself, I suppose.