Monday, November 22, 2010

Sherry Turkle: The Things That Matter

"The Things That Matter"
by Sherry Turkle
Introduction to Evocative Objects: Things We Think With


Ideas about bricolage were presented to me in the cool, cognitive light of French intellectual life. But the objects I tried to combine and recombine as a child had been
clues for tracing my lost father, an experience of bricolage with a high emotional intensity. So, from my first introduction to the idea in the late 1960s, I began to consider
bricolage as a passionate practice.

We find it familiar to consider objects as useful or aesthetic, as necessities or vain indulgences. We are on less familiar ground when we consider objects as companions
to our emotional lives or as provocations to thought. The notion of evocative objects brings together these two less familiar ideas, underscoring the inseparability of thought
and feeling in our relationship to things. We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with.

In this collection of autobiographical essays, scientists, humanists, artists, and designers trace the power of objects in their lives, objects that connect them to ideas and to people. Some of the objects described in this book are natural: an apple. Some are artifacts: a train. Some were made by the author: a knot. Others were presented ready-made: The World Book Encyclopedia.

Certain authors reflect on an object’s role in a significant life transition—an object serves as a marker of relationship and emotional connection. In other essays, the balance shifts to how an object tied the author to intellectual life—to building theory, discovering science or art, choosing a vocation. In every case, the object brings together intellect and emotion. In every case, the author’s focus is not on the object’s instrumental power—how fast the train travels or how fast the computer
calculates—but on the object as a companion in life experience: how the train connects emotional worlds, how the mental space between computer keyboard and
screen creates a sense of erotic possibility.

This collection begins with essays on the theme of discovery and learning, and then, following the arc of the life cycle, the essays discuss the opportunities and challenges of adulthood—the navigation of love and loss—and finally, the confrontation with transcendent
issues such as spirituality and the sublime. Life, of course, is not lived in discrete stages, nor are the relationships with objects that accompany its journey. Objects
have life roles that are multiple and fluid.

We live our lives in the middle of things. Material culture carries emotions and ideas of startling intensity. Yet only recently have objects begun to receive the attention
they deserve. The acknowledgment of the power of objects has not come easy. Behind the reticence to examine objects as centerpieces of emotional life was perhaps the sense that
one was studying materialism, disparaged as excess, or collecting, disparaged as hobbyism, or fetishism, disparaged as perversion. Behind the reticence to examine objects as centerpieces of thought was the value placed, at least within the Western tradition, on formal, propositional ways of knowing. In thinking about science, certainly, abstract reasoning was traditionally recognized as a standard, canonical style; many have taken it to be synonymous with knowledge altogether.

Indeed, so highly valued was canonical abstract thinking, that even when concrete approaches were recognized, they were often relegated to the status of inferior ways of knowing, or as steps on the road to abstract thinking. It is poignant that Claude Lévi-Strauss and the psychologist Jean Piaget, who each in their way contributed to a fundamental revaluation of the concrete in the mid-twentieth century, also undermined the concrete thinking they promoted.

Piaget recognized that young children use a style of concrete reasoning that was too efficacious to be simply classified as “wrong.” His response was to cast children’s “close-to-the-object” approach as a stage in a progression to a formal thinking style. Lévi-Strauss recognized the primitive’s bricolage as a science of the concrete that had much in common with the practice of modern-day engineers. He said he preferred to call it “prior” rather than “premature”; yet it was not fully equal.

Beginning in the 1980s, concrete ways of thinking were increasingly recognized in contexts that were not easily dismissed as inferior, even and perhaps especially in the world of science, the very place where the abstract style had been canonized. Scientific laboratories were shown to be places where discoveries are made in a concrete, ad hoc fashion, and only later recast into canonically accepted formalisms; Nobel laureates testified that they related to their scientific materials in a tactile and playful manner. To this testimony from science studies was added the work of feminist scholars who documented the power of concrete, contextual reasoning in a wide range of domains. Indeed, there has been an increasing commitment to the study of the concrete in a range of scholarly communities. To this conversation, Evocative Objects contributes a detailed examination of particular objects with rich connections to daily life as well as intellectual practice. Each author has been asked to choose an object and follow its associations: where does it take you; what do you feel; what are you able to understand?

To Read the Entire Introduction

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