Category Archives: Old Things

Blog Post #4: Old Things

I found this blog prompt to be interesting but a little bit confusing. I do not really understand what it is exactly that we are looking to discuss, but one thing I did take from this blog post was the idea that, although I do not think there is much of a difference between studying objects to learn human stories and studying them to learn their own stories, it is noteworthy to think of inanimate things as having a birth, a life, and afterlife. Even things that we consider lifeless can have a huge impact on our own lives, as well as those around us and around the world. This view is taken from an article written by Josh Lepawsky and Charles Mather entitled, “A Terminal Condition: The Cathode Ray Tube’s Strange Afterlife.”

In the article, the authors highlight the role of the CRT in our modern society. Although considered an inanimate object, the CRT has greatly influenced our society. The authors state that “the CRT is technologically fundamental to modern seeing”, and furthermore that it is “the primary screen on which many of us experienced television, video, and computing.” However, in our ever evolving society, the use of the CRT is becoming less and less necessary. An excess of CRT is apparent today and its many parts are being stripped down, repaired, and reused for different devices. Furthermore, the authors state that “only recently, a novel strain of bacterium was identified thriving on the highly toxic chemical constituents left in the soil of an electronic waste dump.” Discoveries like this demonstrate the effects of the so called “afterlife” described by the authors. It may not always be known what will emerge from dying entities, but something is bound to come of it.


Taking this approach, in my opinion, teaches us a lot about life. I’m not entirely clear on what this approach may teach us about writing, besides the fact that you can learn and describe an object in greater detail than what initially meets the eye. Regarding life, it shows us that all things are inevitably connected and contribute to moving forward and advancement. Learning to respect and appreciate everything for the specific purposes they serve is important because we are all interconnected. Stepping into an antique shop is a good example of old inanimate objects that have been well preserved and maintained over the years. I recently went into one off Ponce de Leon Road and did not realize the many items available. Although old, they demonstrate what was once new, hip, and effective in our society. However, their lives have slowed down now and they serve as reminders of old essentials. When looking at these objects, I wonder about its history and how it came to be there. It is not impossible for the story of an object to be told “without also telling the stories of the people who created and used it.” The object itself has its own storied past and with a brief understanding of the time period, there is much to be learned of its specific purpose.

Blog #4: Old Things, Old Concepts

Lepawsky’s and Mather’s article presents us with both an object (Cathode Ray Tubes) and its inventors. Without background knowledge of the object’s contributors, it is hard to fully grasp its concept. Therefore, I would say that it is fairly difficult to tell the stories of objects without also explaining the stories of the inventors and the consumers.

Lepawsky and Mather vs. Csikszentmihalyi
Lepawsky and Mather express the disapproval of “potentially toxic metals and flame retardants” that are in each CRT. This is similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s concept in “Why We Need Things,” in that all three authors explain the everlasting negative effects of objects—or the “afterlife” of these objects—such as “[accelerating] the processes of entropy that degrade the planet” by dissipating the energy contained in our environment from extracting its resources (Csikszentmihalyi).

Human Agencies vs. Objects
According to my own observations, the way we learn about human behavior is through observing interactions between humans and seeing the effects it has on their relationships. In history classes, we are told of stories about coups, rebellions and rebuilding societies. By observing how actions by humans in the past affected other humans, we can learn more about human behavior and how to nurture a better society. This contrasts with subjects like chemistry and other empirical subjects. In physics, people learn through trial and error of how one object affects another object. Just as in history or sociology, we are attempting to learn from the interactions and reactions of the objects.

In addition, narrative histories must give privilege to human subjects because we have to study events that occur at the time. For instance, the Great Depression offered many opportunities to study human emotional and social reactions through hardship. While this was a good opportunity to learn, no person could morally create such a situation that consists of humans’ lives in order to experiment and learn about human psychology. For the physical sciences, experiments can be created and performed with little to no moral repercussions.

Human concerns most definitely should have a place in fields like biology, philosophy, and medicine because each one of these subjects is studied with the intention of improving human life. Therefore, it only makes sense to concern ourselves in those subject matters.

Objects are always the product of human thought or action. For example, the Mona Lisa painting is famous because of her ambiguous smile; however, it is Leonardo DaVinci who had the thoughts to create the painting.

In other words, just because objects outnumber and may outlast us does not mean that they would exist without human interactions and inventions.

“Why We Need Things” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Blog # 4: Even a Lifeless Stone Speaks Volumes

Old Things


"It is only in the world of objects that we have time and space and selves."    - T.S. Eliot

As Eliot's quote implies, Objects certainly tell us much about the history of people. Is it unfair that we have an anthropocentric attitude toward our view of objects?  Absolutely not!  Objects do not have their own stories without human intervention.  Here is why:

1.  Most objects are man-made 

Yes, there are objects that existed before humans, but I will argue that most of the objects we come in contact with on a daily basis are man-made, and these are the ones that tell stories about humans. The "life and death" of objects are determined by humans.  Since humans decide how objects will progress, we are able to examine objects to read human intentions.

2. Objects exist only to fulfill human purposes

A reason for an object's existence depends only on if there is human utility for it.  Without human need for an object, it becomes irrelevant.  According to "The Cultural Biography of Objects," "as people and objects gather time, movement, and change, they are constantly transformed, and these transformations of person and object are tied up with each other."  In other words, changes in objects are a result of changes in humans.

3.  Objects are not altered on their own 

How can objects posses their own story when they cannot be altered without human interference? Objects do not make decisions - humans decide their fate.  For example, "A Terminal Condition: The Cathode Ray Tube's Strange Afterlife" depicts what happened after the "death" of the cathode ray tube. The article states that CRTs are no longer manufactured. But they continue to shape the world, even after they are discarded. They multiply as they are repaired and reused, as their parts are harvested for different devices. . . " Humans actually did not let the device die, but rather selected parts to utilize elsewhere. The identity of the object changed, but it was not only the story of the object.



With the above three explanations of object's dependency on humans in mind, let us discuss an example of an object that can tell us something about humans.  "The Story of Humanity Told Through '100 Objects' " discusses how the Rosetta Stone serves as an access point to significant historical information.  The interview describes how objects mean something different as time goes on.   At first, the stone merely symbolized a Greek tax agreement, later a French invasion, and finally a way to read ancient Egypt hieroglyphics.  More information is found in the interview's dialogue, but the main point is that the one object described several groups of people in several time periods. Neil MacGregor, British Museum Director summed it up nicely when he said:

". . . Nobody making the stone ever thought, to start with, that they were going to provide the code for hieroglyphics, never crossed their mind. And that is what is wonderful about objects. They mean different things as time goes on"

In other words, humans do not always know what the future of objects bring, but the future of objects depend on humans.

The Rosetta Stone is just one example of the progressing and changing nature of objects.  As humans change, objects change along with us.  Although objects have a story, the story exists only as long as humans are involved.  Objects simply cannot have stories on their own.  Knowing about objects provides us with a cultural insight that we may not have otherwise, and therefore we should greatly value the preservation of objects.

One final thought and question to ponder... If someone hundreds of years from now examines objects now in your possession, what will 0it say about you?  Do you think it will be an accurate representation? of you?

Photo Credit:

Featured Photo:

Rosetta Stone:

Not All Objects Are Equal

There are differences in how we treat, and narrate for, the objects around us. For instance, while the average person could think it was insane to think of a CRT as having a birth, death, and afterlife that same person would feel those things very much appropriate for describing the life cycle of, say, a flower they grew.

I believe that part of the reason for this comes from our inability to relate a life cycle to an object that does not behave in a cycle approximately like a human. I think the main indicator we measure this buy is not just death, but decomposition and procreation. Consider the flower...

Diagram of Life Cycle of a Plant

This is a life cycle that can be easily identified with. It has death and a very specific kind of death also. In this death the object will not linger long, its physical form will quickly decay and decompose until the thing that once was has left. I think this is a key feature attributed to how we view life cycles.

Or think of a star...

Note at the end how O'Brien refers to the star as something that "died and blasted it's guts out in to space." The star experiences death and decomposition, it ceases to be what it once was.

I believe there is a second element, also present in the "typical" life cycle, that is necessary for out ability to think of an object as having a life process: the object must be able to procreate independently.

For instance, we heard the term "newborn star" at the beginning of the video for the life cycle of stars. In the flower chart we have the term "seed germination."  Both of these terms indicate that these are objects that reproduce themselves.

In contrast, the object that are created and exist solely through human invention, such as CRTs, are not thought of as an object with a life cycle. These types of objects also do not decompose and cease to be like the flower or the star. They linger, and that is something that a human has a hard time comprehending given what we know about life and death.

An iPhone, for instance, can not exist without humans. Nor can books, cups, sofas, care, or any of the objects we immerse our lives in. Despite this differentiation, we do not just create these objects but we create ourselves through them. I think it is for this reason that we can not accept them as having a life cycle separate from us.

Humans create the iPhone, use the iPhone, portray status (social and economic) through the iPhone. It exists both because of us and for us. So, when we upgrade to the next thing how could it continue to exist? What narrative is there for the iPhone buried in the local landfill? What would a circular flow chart for The Life Cycle of the iPhone look like? Where would the chart end if the thing itself does not cease to be when the user has outgrown the use of it?

It is difficult to imagine how to map birth, life, and afterlife on to something that does not easily fit in to the associations we have for those terms. Does an object that owes its existence to humans warrant an agency and history free from humans? I would argue that only the objects that existed before humans are entitled to such a thing. After all, if "humans have only been around for an eye blink" then most of the objects we know have been around for a fraction of that.



Old Things: Fossils and Human History

The main question to think for this post is whether or not their is a history of an object without human intervention. I believe this isn't a yes or no question as Daniel Waugh says in his material culture essay. Waugh states,

They are primarily shaped or produced by human action, though objects created by nature can also play an important role in the history of human societies. For example, a coin is the product of human action. An animal horn is not, but it takes on meaning for humans if used as a drinking cup or a decorative or ritual object.

Humans have produced many objects we use today and have involved themselves with many natural objects as well. We have manipulated metals, bones, and even created our own materials to use for objects.

Danial Waugh


This coin, for example, was made from natural metal, but humans manipulated it and inserted themselves into its history. Because of our relationship with objects, it would be hard to find an old object that doesn't have a history with humans. Despite this, objects can still have a history separate from human beings.

A good example of old objects (arguably some of the oldest items we have discovered) that haven't been human influenced would be fossils. These items have their own history that precedes humans.  If you look at many resources on fossils, humans are not even mentioned as a part of their history and making. Even though humans were not involved in the creation of fossils, we have nonetheless inserted ourselves into their history by researching how they affect us and our mere time on Earth. BBC has many pieces on fossils in their "In Our Time" radio collection, a self explanatory title of how we look at everything from a human perspective.



Blog #4: Antiques and Sandwiches

Yesterday, when the sun was shining much like it is now, I made my way across town to meet my dad for a sandwich.  We like to go on 'dates' every few months or so.  It's one of the few traditions from childhood that we kept: "Daddy date night".  I always look forward to these times.  He has a certain simplicity about him that is so refreshing.  We don't have to talk about deep life topics if we don't want to.  Instead, we can mutter contentedly between massive chomps of greasy food, and sit in silence , patting our bellies at the end.

This time, we met in Marietta Square.  After the meal, in an effort to digest our food, we waddled over to a small antique shop.  I had been pulled inside by the typewriter in the window.  "Antique shops never have this many typewriters!"  My dad immediately took to the archaic cameras, pointing out which one he used to have and which one his father had.  Then we were off, reminiscing about playing marbles, admiring the weight and quality of toy guns, looking at record albums, and, of course, trying not to touch the typewriters.  This experience got me wondering,

How do our lives shape the lives of our things?

When I got back home, I found an article in The Atlantic that begins to answer this question.  It discusses the Strange Afterlife of the Cathode Ray Tube in anthropomorphic language.  After CRTs die, we often recycle them, but, because of their toxicity, that usually looks more like this.


So we have to shove our dead CRTs in buildings  in order to keep the environment safe.  We create them, use them, and then spend thousands of dollars trying to manage their dead bodies.  Will our computers and i phones die the same way?  Environmental Issues and Waste Strategies attempts to deal with how we treat our post mortem friends.  It was written for the Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association in 2011, and "discusses the role of regulation and policies developed by governments... and how these initiatives are shaping current and future management practices."  

But this is only one way that people interact with their objects.  Object stories are inseparable from human stories.  Take the typewriter, for instance.  The concept dates back to 1714, but the first one that worked was made to help a blind person (A Brief History of Typewriters).  Humans continued to work on them until they reached their most advanced stage in the 1980's.  Even then, my dad points out, people hated them.  They were difficult to deal with.  There was no spell check!  Computers came after, and typewriters were thrown away like yesterday's news.

Now, many years later, there is a surge of interest, and you see them sparkling in antique windows, drawing hopeless romantics (like myself) in.  Perhaps there will be an emergence of fan groups who organize typewriting meetings, as Abdul Ismail sees in New York City.  Maybe this over-technological age will make us resurrect our old friends.  Maybe we will use them differently than we ever did, knowing that we are making history together.


Whatever the case may be, it is clear that we make the stories of our objects and, they shape ours.

Featured Image: Chestnut Ridge Typewriter Museum, Bar Let Portable Typewriters

Image 2: A Terminal Condition: The Cathode Ray Tube's Strange Afterlife, Flikr/ Judit Klein

Image 3: Antique Typewriters Converted to Keyboards;

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. Continue reading Blog Post #4: Old Things