Antique Shop by Alper Orus on Flickr

Blog Post #4: Old Things

What is the difference between studying objects to learn human stories and studying them to learn their own stories? Is there one? To an extent, Prown, Czikszentmihalyi, and Belk, although they draw upon knowledge and methodologies from a wide variety of disciplines, nonetheless seem approach material culture studies as an avenue to learn about human culture and human histories through the study of objects. In another essay that we will read a bit later in the semester, "Parting Ways" by James Deetz, we will look at how histories that have been obscured by the written public record can be recovered through careful analyses of objects and archaelogical sites.

As it begins, however, the essay, "A Terminal Condition: The Cathode Ray Tube's Strange Afterlife," by Josh Lepawsky and Charles Mather, seems to offer a different sort of teleology, or aim, for its analysis:

“Rust in peace,” ministered the New York Times in its 2009 catalogue of obsolescence for the aughts. The obvious play on words conjoins an industrial mythos with a Christian burial rite in a requiem for an object that had, not long before, been the primary screen on which many of us experienced television, video, and computing. What does it mean that we think of the CRT as something with a life—something that was born, lived, died?

In its title and with its three opening paragraphs, the essay promises to give us a history of the object itself. It provokes us with a question, about what it means to think of inanimate things as having a birth, a life, and afterlife. Yet, from that question, the essay seems to turn in the fourth paragraph quickly back to a relatively conventional history, not of the object, but of the people who created and used it, beginning with two 17th century intellectuals, Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle. After that turn, it's not until the eleventh paragraph in the essay that we get a chunk of text organized almost entirely around exposition of non-human agency, alternating between copper and the CRT itself as the subject or actor of nearly every sentence.

Hubble Image: Star-Birth Clouds in M16: Stellar
This image, titled "Star-Birth Clouds in M16: Stellar 'Eggs' Emerge from Molecular Cloud", was captured by the Hubble Space telescope. The Hubble image gallery website offers this description of the stellar phenomenon depicted here: "This eerie, dark structure, resembling an imaginary sea serpent's head, is a column of cool molecular hydrogen gas (two atoms of hydrogen in each molecule) and dust that is an incubator for new stars. The stars are embedded inside finger-like protrusions extending from the top of the nebula. Each 'fingertip' is somewhat larger than our own solar system. The pillar is slowly eroding away by the ultraviolet light from nearby hot stars, a process called 'photoevaporation.' As it does, small globules of especially dense gas buried within the cloud is uncovered. These globules have been dubbed 'EGGs' — an acronym for 'Evaporating Gaseous Globules.' The shadows of the EGGs protect gas behind them, resulting in the finger-like structures at the top of the cloud."
One might easily argue that it's impossible to have history without human actors, that it's impossible to tell the story of an object without also telling the stories of the people who created and used it. In the grand scheme of history, though, humans have only been around for an eyeblink. Why should narrative histories privilege human agency and human actors over that of the objects that far outnumber us and may outlast us? Do our narrative histories privilege human subjects because objects already take center stage in other discourses such as physics, chemistry, geology, meteorology, etc.? What might we learn (if anything), about writing or about the world around us, if we took the approach modeled by Lepawsky and Mather, and asked ourselves what it means to think of inanimate things as having a birth, a life, and afterlife?

Carefully read the essay by Lepawsky and Mather, and use that piece and some of the resources linked in this prompt as a starting point for some quick research. Combine a web search with a search of the library's eJournals, looking for resources that might help us understand more about whether and why humans and human concerns should occupy our study not only of history, but also in other fields such as biology, philosophy, or medicine. Craft a post that summarizes the results of your research and provides links or citations to useful resources.

Posting: Group 2

Commenting: Group 1

Category: Old Things

In your Blog #4 post, you should do more than offer a list of source summaries. Rather, you should frame the summary of your research, as a cohesive response to a research question that is posed or suggested by this prompt. Please carefully read and follow the guidelines and posting information for this blog as they've been outlined in the Blog Project Description.

Feature Image: "antique shop" by Alper Orus on Flickr.