JANUARY 11, 2016
IN 1932, when it became clear he would have to leave Berlin, the city of his birth, perhaps for good, Walter Benjamin decided to embark on a project of inoculation against the pangs of future longing or distress he thought his exodus might provoke. He resolved to call “to mind those images which, in exile, are most apt to waken homesickness: images of childhood.” His assumption was that, by dwelling on those images, by deliberately focusing on their “irretrievability,” he might somehow mitigate the sense of loss that would, so he expected, catch him out and up in his future migrations. The result was a manuscript that remained unpublished during Benjamin’s lifetime, titled Berlin Childhood around 1900, to which he returned from time to time, augmenting and revising as he did so.
What remains striking about this memoir is less the way it captures a series of deeply personal memories of home life or family, than the way Benjamin offers his childhood as a medium for taking the impression of objects, different times of day, and places. Read Berlin Childhood around 1900 today, and you encounter a series of seemingly unlikely or even mundane artifacts or occasions: loggias, imperial panoramas, the telephone, butterfly hunts, boys’ books, winter mornings, tardy arrivals, fevers, a crooked street, an otter. There seems little rhyme or reason to this list. Ultimately, what holds these topoi together is the sense of movement or stillness each creates, the sense of animation registered by the child who remains out of view, the vanishing or focal point, from which the pull of things, of places, and different times of day, is registered.
What endures, then, is the fleeting sense of an infrastructure, of a world as lived from the point of view of this child who, as an adult, Benjamin visits, rolling time back as memory allows, and then rolling the image he captures forward so as to animate times past. He hopes that these “images of [his] metropolitan childhood” will be “capable, at their core, of performing later historical experience.” They might “suggest [also],” he thinks, “how thoroughly the person spoken of [in the memoir] … would later dispense with the security allotted his childhood.” Perhaps the most vivid of these “images” concerns the telephone, whose ring never failed to electrify the Benjamin family home. “Each day and every hour,” he writes, “the telephone was my twin brother. I was an intimate observer,” he continues,
of the way it rose above the humiliations of its early years. For once the chandelier, fire screen, potted palm, console table, gueridon, and alcove balustrade — all formerly on display in the front rooms — had finally faded and died a natural death, the apparatus, like a legendary hero once exposed to die in a mountain gorge, left the dark hallway in the back of the house to make its regal entry into the cleaner and brighter rooms inhabited by a younger generation.
Benjamin’s childhood becomes the lens that makes visible, via prose that mimics time-lapse photography, the telephone’s migration through the bourgeois house. We watch and listen as the calls of the telephone, muffled and nocturnal, grow to a more insistent, heroic, front room ring of the fully owned-up-to thing. Myth, we discover, cohabits with the story of technology. Objects rise and fall. The telephone’s triumph plays also as a de casibus tragedy for the ephemera of bourgeois life it shoves aside, become strangely temporal fossils of living rooms past.
Berlin Childhood around 1900 constitutes a forlorn inventory of all that Benjamin left behind and lived without during his paperless itinerary across Western Europe to that fateful border crossing at Portbou, where he died. It stands as a partial and personal supplement to his attempt to archive the discarded fossils of consumer capitalism that he named the Passagenwerk, or Arcades Project (1927-40). Objects predominate. But Benjamin remains present to their stories. We might glean his childhood or one sliver of it from each of the object lessons he draws. He subsists in the infrastructure of the house and the worlds connected with it by the telephone that his memoir sorts away, packs up into memory’s boxes, perhaps never again to be opened, or whose opening might now hurt a little less by virtue of the labor of having sorted them away.
At their best, the titles in the object lessons series edited by Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg, and published by Bloomsbury, manage something close to the order of effects Benjamin generates in his “Berlin Childhood,” even though their authors don’t face the distress he anticipated would be part of his future. The joy of the series, of reading Remote Control, Golf Ball, Driver’s License, Drone, Silence, Glass, Phone Booth, Refrigerator, Hotel, and Waste (10 more titles are listed as forthcoming) in quick succession, lies in encountering the various turns through which each of their authors has been put by his or her object. As for Benjamin, so for the authors of the series, the object predominates, sits squarely center stage, directs the action. The object decides the genre, the chronology, and the limits of the study. Accordingly, the author has to take her cue from the thing she chose or that chose her. The result is a wonderfully uneven series of books, each one a thing unto itself. Sure, as the series stares at you from the shelf or you scroll through its webpage, and each book announces itself by way of its spine or cover, they all look the same. All the books share in the allure of a matte, black surface accented by a two-color image that captures or animates its eponymous object. The phone booth illuminates its cover; the refrigerator door is left ajar, promising disclosure; waste’s heap almost flows by. But this appearance of sameness only proves skin-deep — an effect of the glamor, or, in Benjamin’s words, the schein, of the commodity form of the book as a delivery system. Open each book, crack its spine, and this sameness dissolves into the idiosyncrasy of each title’s mode of organization.
Now, to certain ears, the phrase “object lesson” carries with it the burden of comprehensiveness. Such lessons, so one tradition goes, offer the essence of an object, a glimpse into the heart of things, of our world. These lessons ought also to prove salutary. Rousseau’s Emile (1762) sets the scene. The susceptible student given to pleasure receives lessons in the origins of the objects that delight him, revealing the human labor and all the materials in their production. These lessons have an educative, which is to say, moral function — something Karl Marx inherits from Rousseau even as his analysis plays out very differently. But beyond such outcome-driven orientations, the notion of “object teaching,” as developed by the 18th-century Swiss philosopher and educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, aimed to introduce children to concepts by way of direct engagement with the world. The genre of the “object lesson” hovers then between a phenomenological attentiveness to things and the tasking of that awareness with the political, economic, and social consequences of what that knowledge brings. And this orientation survives (in reduced shape or form) in all manner of popular guises, from the perennial fascination with still life painting to children’s books such as Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? The object fascinates. Stare at it long enough and it devolves into a chain of persons, places, materials, and uses. Add or subtract time and it disappears, relocates, becomes a person. (As children, my sister and I used to be the remote control for our family TV. Now that function is distributed among three or more objects. Our role, on occasion, is to find them).
I think it is fair to say that, thus far, the Object Lessons series has not meditated exactly on the origins of its titular rubric or the burdens it might entail. Instead, each title generates its own method, re-splices or replays tropes past, depending on the object that organizes it. The titles tend to wear their philosophical or theoretical grounding very lightly. They privilege, perhaps, one moment in the life of an object: its erring or misuse; its defunct afterlives; or, they offer fleeting references to object-oriented ontology or related approaches — enough to orient and to tip their hand. Frequently, the results are deeply researched and rewarding. Jonathan Rees’s Refrigerator offers a meticulously observed history of the “cold chain” of industrialized food webs, explains how refrigeration works; and goes so far as to imagine life with and without it. Beyond this mini-historical account, the real heft to this title lies in the implied ecological impact of what doing without refrigeration might mean for those in the West for whom it has become taken for granted. In Driver’s License, Meredith Castile keeps the focus smaller, trained on the transformation of what, before the Ronald Reagan years, was “little more than an automotive-related document” into a “policing document.” She draws six lessons: on national identity, on the culture of faked documents, on design, teen culture, identity, and civics. Adam Rothstein’s Drone aspires to ask how the advent of the drone might refigure the stories we tell about how technologies become — suggest their uses (or do not), but the exigencies of a small book do not quite allow him enough room to bring it off. Along the way, he manages to do something perhaps even more important, however: test the water on what this technology might yet prove to be as it is successively explored and its limits and possibilities (military and civilian) discovered. What shall drones be?
Drone demands to be read alongside Remote Control, in which Caetlin Benson-Allott offers an analysis of “remote control” as a “technology and a cultural fantasy.” Tracking the concept and the phrase back to its 18th-century origins in a treason trial sparked by the French Revolution and fears of “control exercised on people or institutions at a distance,” the book offers a genealogy (in little) of how this idea of remote action migrates into our living rooms in the discrete form of the domestic object we name a remote control. Remote Control also suggests a trajectory to many of the plots the titles in the series thus far trace. What was once a fantasy, a thing of the imagination, becomes instead an instrument, but by that instantiation it scrambles and reduces the myriad imaginative uses it once anchored — realizes some, sends others packing, or separates them out. The word “drone” names one instance of remote control, your TV clicker another. The object multiplies. The concept migrates. Everything and nothing changes. When I was a remote control, for example, watching TV with my family played as a social event. “Julian, would you change the channel to BBC 2, please? … A little louder. […]” With the advent of the remote control, however, what played out as a scene of politeness and filial duty, of TV as a scene of cooperation and conversation (or child as servant), finds itself mediated by an object that stitches power to the fingers of one person. Whoever has the remote becomes the subject — perhaps the parent. The scene was set for remote control realpolitik. Do you guard your remote control? Have you ever hidden one? Are you inclined to scoff at the ineptitude of others, become frantic when the batteries run out?
Glass, by John Garrison, has a potential similar to Remote Control for meta-commentary within the series. The book distills the essence of a substance that offers itself as something to be looked through, giving a shine to its contents, and as something that occupies our view, as something we have to take note of and interact with. This duality — glass as something that asserts its role as a mediator but also disappears — put me in mind of Roland Barthes’s explanation of his mode of reading in Mythologies as the difference between looking through a window and looking at the window as it mediates our view and access. Garrison offers something similar keyed to the half-life of glass as a matter-metaphor. He meditates on the “ubiquity of glass in our lives,” a ubiquity that causes the structure of his small but deeply satisfying book to buckle as he shuttles us back and forth between the way glass marked the imaginative world of Renaissance plays and poems to the imagined worlds of today’s interactive glass surfaces in the guise of iPhones, smart appliances, and smart rooms. Sure, you may wish that he dwelt more with the texts he reads, but the real point lies in the oscillations he sets in motion. The “interactive qualities” that glass anchored for lyric poetry manifest now in the still speculative project of a world in which your fingers rather than your mind shall summon images into being for you. Glass scrambles time and space, he offers, but, as with Remote Control, the story seems a little different, a little closer to the plot of instrumentalized fantasy that we read in Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood, also known as the “rise of the telephone.”
Phone Booth changes things, inclines us towards nostalgia, toward urgent questions of what remains when objects disappear, of re-use, and shelter. If phone booths today have receded into the interstices of our built worlds, and are no longer the object of queues, impatient watch-checking, exaggerated shrugs, and exasperated sighs (is he really making another call?), then that freeing of the object from its use enables Arianna Kelly to tell a different story, a story about what these telephonic leftovers might become, what they now are and what they anchor. Like Benjamin, I am a sucker for the telephone (and its booths) and so was on the line for the switchboard she creates, linking the “nonworking telephone booth that has nevertheless been used by more than ten thousand people” in Ōtsuchi, a small town on the east coast of Japan to the “God Booth,” a lone telephone “located near the California-Nevada border at the intersection of two dirt roads, seventy-five miles southwest of Vegas.” In the first instance, the booth serves as place where friends and family can communicate with loved ones killed or missing” as a result of the “9.0 earthquake and tsunami [that] killed fifteen thousand people and dislocated hundreds of thousands more.” In the second, this impossible desert booth serves as an object of fascination. Kelly tells the story of those who trek out there to take calls. She inventories all the uses to which these and other booths are put — booths that enclose the telephone, that box up the spirit world or stitch its presence into the worlds we live. The book offers a supplement to Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book (1989), one that registers the advent of the cell phone. It adds a chapter to Benjamin’s story of the telephone.
Waste and Silence alter the trajectory of the series. Waste pluralizes, names a condition into which objects fall, takes us beachcombing, dumpster diving. “Waste is every object, plus time” — except, perhaps, for nuclear waste, which seems to be waste time itself, or the planned wastage of supermarkets which need to have fruit you won’t buy so that you can have the experience of making a choice, of choosing this and not that orange as you hunt and gather. The true aim of Brian Thill’s book, however, is the concept of waste itself. He takes aim at the concept — an agenda in sympathy with Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects which empties out the idea of there existing any such place as “‘Away’” — that non-place to which waste is sent. We cannot afford, Morton and Thill argue, to believe in such a zone any longer. Of course, we never really could or did — out of sight was simply out of mind. Waste always kept coming back.
Like Waste, Silence names a condition or a concept. But what makes this book stand out is the way this silence retreats, fails to materialize as such. The book unfolds as a failed or botched detective story: the search for silence, for a state that defies the human. “We may conjecture that somewhere in the cosmos,” John Biguenet begins, “beyond the borders of all human trace, a zone of silence awaits (always receding, of course, before the advance of future explorers.” Later, he explains that even when you are placed in that most silent of places an anechoic chamber, all that happens is that your hearing adjusts. You end up drowning in the sound of your own autonomic systems — your heartbeat drives you mad. The longest anyone has been able to bear the experience is about 45 minutes. Biguenet traces how silence finds itself deployed (for good and ill), and the word turns adjectival (as in “silent reading”), finds itself declined according to our concerns — with death, with solitude, with genocide, with gender inequality and discrimination. Written in the form of a memoir or notes to and from one self to others, we learn that, as a 14-year-old, Biguenet studied “for the priesthood in a Benedictine monastery.” It was the three days of silent retreat that did his vocation in, that prepared him or even declared him to be the person who would one day write this book. It ends as he leafs through a National Geographic, reads an article on noise pollution at sea and its catastrophic effects on the social life of whales. “What is the future of silence,” he asks? “More lonely whales,” he fears. It’s enough to make you never want to speak again.
What happens to the people who write these object lessons? What do the objects do to their writers? As you can tell, we learn quite a bit about the authors. That is part of the fun, finding out who or what the writer becomes by the lessons his or her object directs. Benson-Allott remains, well, a bit remote, which seems about right, an occasion for the phenomenon of “remote control” that has become a remote control to presence. Then again, having played the remote control myself, I was all set to provide the personal details as her book sent me on a trip down one of memory’s lanes. Garrison, likewise, becomes a thing of glass, a conduit for early modern poetry and drama and email messages from nameless friends that make glass shine. Configured by their objects, each writer ends up a little exposed — the biological occasion for this or that bibliography, this or that approach, those and not these moves.
If my question, “what happens to the people who write these lessons?” sounds a little peculiarly to your ears, a little invasive or overly familiar, that’s because we are still not really used to thinking of writers as occasions (merely) for things to presence. Writers usually take up a little more room. Although, in her essay “Who Is the Author?” philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers makes a compelling case for technical objects as co-authors with their human companions. “Poets,” she reminds us, are “etymologically … fabricator[s],” they make things up, but the things they make are equally authored by the events, experiences, or objects they seek to capture. And it’s to this scene of encounter between writer and object that the series gravitates — almost as if it were a necessary step or its primal scene. Golf Ball, for example, begins with Harry Brown explaining how his object chose him. As an eight-year-old homegrown Heideggerian of a boy, he claims, he sliced a golf ball in two to inquire into its hardness. The book derives from this severing. It inhabits the “glimpse of internal structure” that it offered, unfolding in two parts: “Out: Thing,” and “In: Phenomenon.” The effect may be disarming, as in Brown’s reminiscing, or more elliptical and writerly, as in Joanna Walsh’s Hotel, which opens with the appearance of confession and possible revelation. “There was a time in my life when I lived in hotels,” she confides. “Around this time, the time I did not spend in hotels was time I did not live.” Walsh, so her persona or hotel-mask avers, was “haunt[ing] a marriage I was soon to leave.” She learned the hard way that “there’s no place like home,” and so, no longer having one, moved into hotels full time. She gets herself a “job as a hotel reviewer for a startup website,” begins to “look for something elsewhere.” But for all the apparent personal revelations, the bond we form with her persona remains profoundly casual, bound only by the time and space delimited by the number of hours, days, and nights we spend with her Hotel. The book takes the form of a series of snatched conversations in and around hotels with characters fictionalized from Freud, the Marx Brothers, and the cast of Grand Hotel (1932). Walsh disappears or retreats into this series of disconnected texts, postcards, and overheard conversations. Ultimately the lesson resides in this combination of intimacy and distance, of narrative lack and narrative fantasy, as constituted by the hotel, an object, symbolized best by the revolving door of Grand Hotel. “Grand Hotel … always the same,” opines Dr. Otternschlag. “People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”
I plan to spend more time with the Object Lessons series from Bloomsbury. I shall keep my eye out for the next 10 titles. They are not quite what they seem. Their objects matter but not quite in the same way that they did for Walter Benjamin. Their value lies less in the lessons than in watching their writers learn what it means to do people with things.