Personality objects
Paolo Volonté

In search of the missing masses

For some decades the social sciences have raise...

advent of mass production, and therefore with the change in the functions performed
by things in people’s lives and t...

Objects, or inanimate things, have histories which can be gathered and recounted.
Moreover – and this is the explici...

   In what follows I shall address two tasks in particular: firstly, I shall seek to
describe (very briefly) how the ...

  There was then the entry route of semiology and its sociological reinterpretation.
This gave rise to the ambitious ...

    These various views on material things share underlying anthropocentric
assumption: things are raw materials to w...

Tables – horizontal and stable flat surfaces – enable human beings to place objects
on a support surface without havi...

analogy between the two concepts: see Latour 1992, It. transl., 121): a certain
trajectory in space, a certain speed ...

may have been created as a sacrificial altar to a god; but it may thereafter have been
used as a work block by a blac...

conception to their destruction. And in any case an object’s nature as a commodity is
not ascribed. On the contrary,...

  The interesting aspect is that this removal from the sphere of exchange frequently
concerns, Kopytoff stresses, th...

consequently – but only consequently – the possession of material goods) performs
the crucial functions of establish...

which a leading example is the attempt by Gianfranco Marrone to develop a theory
of interobjectivity (see especially...

social world if objects were solely the inert weapons with which social actors fight
their battles for better status...

personalities in the system of collective relationships [non capisco il testo in
  There are other works ...

features are understood to be in certain traditional sociological theories. They are
dynamic masses, nuclei of energ...

object “watch” in the history of humanity. Examining the biographies of objects
therefore requires one to recognize ...

autonomous role in the definition of social phenomena. A pair of jeans faded
because of the use made of them cannot ...

physical appearance. An object’s biography is inflected by changes in its material as
well as immaterial constitutio...

immaterial dimension (a semantic content) that is never fixed, defined, or stable, but
constantly fluctuating in rel...

advertising, the (alleged) homogenization of opinions by the media, the
globalization or McDonaldization of Western ...
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Personality Objects, by Paolo Volonté

  1. 1. 1 Personality objects Paolo Volonté In search of the missing masses For some decades the social sciences have raised, albeit obliquely, a new problem. They have begun to inquire as to the role that material objects should be attributed in a thoroughgoing explanation of social dynamics. The social sciences previously constructed their development in its entirety on the opposition between the world of humans and the world of nature. They cultivated the notion that the former was so distinct from the latter as to justify the founding of an autonomous disciplinary approach: indeed, for a certain period they even called themselves the ‘human sciences’. Although this assumption never dominated in the protracted disputes on method typical of the historical-social sciences, it was nevertheless taken for granted in their theoretical approaches and in their routine scientific practices – so much so that the social sciences appropriated the philosophical terms of ‘individual’ and ‘subject’ to denote the focus of their inquiry. A science of subjects, as sociology has conceived itself to be for more than a century, refuses to acknowledge that objects can perform an active role. The latter have been reduced to merely passive spectators of the events enacted on the stage of history, where subjects (whether individual or collective makes no difference) are always the protagonists. In the best of circumstances, objects have been reduced to facts, that is, to products of human activity or of nature. In other cases they have been conceived as instruments: for example, as means of production or as media, that is, docile servants to the subject their master (individual or institutional, again it makes no difference). In yet other cases they have been simply ignored, conceived as mere objects, the frame of a picture, the stage set for the human drama, or again as objects of value, and therefore respectfully left to economics to deal with. For reasons that I cannot elaborate upon here, but which certainly have to do with the transformations which have taken place in the everyday use of artifacts since the
  2. 2. 2 advent of mass production, and therefore with the change in the functions performed by things in people’s lives and their interactions, today the attitude of many sociologists towards the social role of objects has changed. In various quarters, it is now being asked how inanimate things, and more generally non-humans, may determine the social phenomena which we observe. Not only is it wondered where the “missing masses” of the social structure are, as Bruno Latour (1992) enquired in a well-known essay, but attempts are being made to understand how these non- human masses are able to exert influence on the lives of humans, through what mechanisms, and with what results. Analysis in this regard is highly diversified, both in the hypotheses that it seeks to corroborate, and in the rhetorical devices that it uses. Flanking the many followers of Latour and actor-network theory are anthropologists inspired by the work of Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood (1979), sociologists of consumption imbued with the theories of Jean Baudrillard (1968 and 1972), Colin Campbell (1987) or Daniel Miller (1987), and then historians, philosophers of science, and theorists of design, each with their own approach and point of view. The aim of this book is to make a new contribution to the debate. It is ‘new’ in its theoretical approach, because conceptualizing the biography of objects brings to light, it is argued, otherwise obscure aspects of social life. It is ‘new’ in its methodological choice of combining scientific reflections with the histories of things viewed from the standpoint of designers of objects. Here objects are not only thought but also presented [?]. However, it is not my intention to introduce this book of multiform content by various minds as if it were possible to confine within a single container a multiplicity of stimuli and reflections, which instead move in numerous unexpected directions. Rather, I shall put forward some general considerations of general character that show the usefulness for the understanding of society of an approach which conceives objects as the subjects of biographical trajectories. The ‘life’ of objects?
  3. 3. 3 Objects, or inanimate things, have histories which can be gathered and recounted. Moreover – and this is the explicit thesis of the book – they have biographies. This claim may be perplexing. How is it possible to narrate the lives of lifeless things? A biography is the narrative ((γραφια) of someone’s life (βιοσ). So how can an inanimate object have a life to narrate? To be sure, every object is born and every object dies: all of them exist for a limited (though sometimes long) period of time, during which they undergo transformations wrought by the surrounding world. Hence they have ‘histories’ This consideration is, at bottom, extremely banal. Yet the expression ‘biography’ should only be used in a metaphorical sense, by pure analogy with the existential trajectory of every living being. It is essentially expressionless/vacuous/?. It is not by chance, in fact (and this will be seen when reading the essays in this volume), that the life of objects used to be treated almost exclusively through the artistic forms of discourse: literature, drama, the figurative arts. It entered Western culture and our understanding of the world as a useful rhetorical device with which to create a connection between human existence and that of things, the purpose being usually to recount something new about human existence, rather than about the life of things. The analogy created by this device with objects expands perception of the lives of subjects. Things are treated as being mouthpieces for people. Analysing the biographies of objects within the social sciences means something different. It is an invitation to take seriously the idea that things have lives of their own. Not, of course, in the animistic sense of the expression, but rather in the sociological one. We must take seriously the idea that material objects have their own social lives. Hence they should be considered, in explanation of the workings of society and of individual social phenomena, as subjects able to contribute to collective processes of reality-production. And taking this idea seriously entails being prepared to use scientific methods to gather empirical evidence on this social life of things.
  4. 4. 4 In what follows I shall address two tasks in particular: firstly, I shall seek to describe (very briefly) how the notion of the biography of objects first arose and how it has been treated since then; secondly, I shall discuss what I consider to be the main features of the biographies of objects, and which I shall propose as possible topics for further analysis. Going beyond the anthropocentric view The interest of social scientists in objects understood as subjects with their own lives dates back to the 1970s. By this I mean an interest in objects not only as entities that pass through conception, birth, various life-phases, death and decomposition, but also as social subjects able to modify the system of human interactions with their presence. Previously – probably also because of the scant consideration made of the design disciplines – objects entered the domain of the human and social sciences along access routes of another kind. There was first the high road of Marxism, which regarded objects as essentially the fruits of human labour, and therefore as products ready for either use or exchange. The Marxian theory that distinguishes and opposes use value and exchange value – at least as it is set out in Capital (1867, It. transl. 67-115) – was based on the relationship between the object and the work necessary to produce it. An object is essentially a product, and what happens to it after its input into the world is important only insofar as whether it is used to satisfy the need for which it has been created, or whether its unexpected destiny is to become a commodity. The ‘original sin’ of the transformation of objects into commodities – that is, into goods available for exchange – was the fact that workers in early industrial society were unable to consume the goods that they had helped produce. The important issue, therefore, was not objects and their transformations but the presence or absence of a correlation between the producer and the consumer. It was the asymmetry between these two subjects that turned commodities into devices enabling some social classes to dominate others.
  5. 5. 5 There was then the entry route of semiology and its sociological reinterpretation. This gave rise to the ambitious project of describing the system of objects as a particular type of semiotic system – as a language parallel and analogous to the system of natural language. Roland Barthes (1964) first developed this idea, applying it in some of his essays to concrete cases (fashion, automobiles). His approach was that of a semiologist, so that he privileged meanings and their structural laws over human behaviour and the effects produced by the use of things on the collectivity using them. Jean Baudrillard (1972) then examined this latter aspect more thoroughly, showing that actors in the society contemporaneous to him – at the beginning of what thereafter came to be called late modernity (or postmodern society) – used objects as status symbols with which to achieve upward social mobility,. This conferred a particular value on objects which Baudrillard called “sign value” and therefore gave them a role in social interactions. Finally, a third route was followed by anthropology and archaeology. These for long considered the products of material culture to be testimonies to social structures and cultural processes no longer visible (archaeology) or not yet understandable (anthropology). As Bonnot points out in his contribution to this book, this approach mainly treated objects in positivist terms as affording reliable evidence or manifestations of a culture and its institutions – that is, of humans’ lives in societies not amenable to our cognition (see also Gabus 1965). The term most overtly evincing this conception of objects is ‘fetish’. For long after its introduction into proto-anthropological studies by de Brosses (1760), the notion of ‘fetish’ was used by Western science to explain the claim by certain objects that they possessed lives of their own. Such objects were artifices, fictitious gods, or enchanted objects because they had been made such by humans. They were therefore devices and inventions of the subjects whose imprint they bore (Apter and Pietz 1993; see also Latour 1996 and 2002, as well as Dant 1999, 40-59). To the eyes of civilized Westerners, fetishes were not the animate objects that they claimed to be, but clues to the mind, and therefore to the culture, of the subjects who had produced them.
  6. 6. 6 These various views on material things share underlying anthropocentric assumption: things are raw materials to which someone (a human subject) has given a specific form to satisfy some sort of need. In and of themselves they are uninteresting, because they exist in the world of humans only as furniture, as frames for social interactions. For instance, a dining table prevents me from getting closer to, or further away from [in che modo?], the person opposite me, but it neither creates nor determines my relationship with him, which is independent of it. The table merely influences that relationship, favouring or obstructing it. What makes things interesting, therefore, is human beings: the fact that they assume material things in their world and use them in some way. They use them, for example, as commodities of exchange to produce and exchange wealth, thereby preserving privileges and inequalities. Or they use them as status symbols to produce and communicate class membership, thus reproducing power relations constituted and massified by consumption goods (for example, by employing objects to signal differentiation by their marginal differences from the corresponding model: see Baudrillard 1968 and 1974, It. transl. 89-104). Or, finally, people use objects as artifacts of material culture in order to engage in quotidian activities and celebrate the rituals which structure everyday life by ordering social relationships, the use of space and time, food consumption, etc. All three of these approaches are interested in objects only as expressions of the thoughts, actions, and human relationships which have given life to them. On the one side stands the human world, namely the world of values, ethics, art, religion and, in general, the spirit able to produce goods with no practical purpose but inestimable spiritual value. This is the world of wilful action and meaning production. On the other side stands the world of things, of matter, and therefore of the signs left by the passage of humans; the world of the objects which people use to engage in communal life and employ in the difficult work of stabilizing social relations, collective beliefs, and common institutions. The former is the world of life; the latter is an inanimate and arid world. But the world of objects is not like this. A table does more than merely influence a human relationship from outside; it can also create that relationship and shape it.
  7. 7. 7 Tables – horizontal and stable flat surfaces – enable human beings to place objects on a support surface without having to bend to the ground. They perform the second and equally important function of making themselves immediately recognizable from a distance as support surfaces. There is no need to state this with a notice, nor to accompany it with an instructions booklet. Thanks to these characteristics, a table also functions as a pole of attraction, an object which captures, if not people’s attention, then certainly their bodies. A table placed in any setting soon becomes the prime focus for interaction among human beings in the vicinity. A table attracts bodies, it contains them within a circumscribed space defined not by an external border but by a central hub. It thus creates relations among the subjects who sit down at it or gather around it. A table in a factory canteen, in a hotel lobby, or in a woodland clearing creates acquaintance and even friendship among people who have not deliberately sought each other out, but have been attracted and set in relation solely by the table’s presence. The table acts socially, not in representation of the person who has put it in that place, but by virtue of its personality. Its presence in the world, the social role that it performs, do not have the sense of mere testimony to already-existing human actions or relationships. On the contrary, tables are part of the human drama as characters in a certain sense enfranchised. The same applies when objects incorporate an appreciable technological content, as Bruno Latour showed in masterly manner when describing the automatic door closer (Latour 1992). Objects of this kind do not merely incorporate a series of functions and behaviours that humans delegate to them because they cannot perform them by themselves, or cannot delegate them to other humans. Conversely, technological objects prescribe (Akrich 1992, It. trans., 58) particular patterns of behaviour for humans; and such behavioural prescriptions are not always those anticipated, desired, or inscribed in objects by their producers. Objects, in short, act as autonomous subjects. Of course, an automatic door closer incorporates part of the work of an usher. But, as already happens with an usher, the door-closer also imposes particular forms of behaviour on the person passing through the door; it expresses “role expectations” which must be fulfilled (Latour himself underlines the
  8. 8. 8 analogy between the two concepts: see Latour 1992, It. transl., 121): a certain trajectory in space, a certain speed of passage through the doorway, certain movements of the hands or other parts of the body. But the most important aspect is that the prescriptions which an object enjoins on its human interlocutors are not usually referable to the situation that its designer and producer originally envisaged and inscribed in the object. The object is not a mere extension of the body and the will of one or more humans; rather, like a puppet, it possesses its own personality liable to surprise the puppeteer and induce him or her to make unexpected and even unwanted choices. Social actors are taken over by the things which they themselves have fabricated (Latour 2002, 220). An object, therefore, and not only one with an appreciable technological content, is endowed with a personality – with a specific character – and this objectual personality interacts with those of humans to create a close-knit network of social relationships in which objects are protagonists. Thoroughly understanding any social phenomenon, whether microsocial (interaction at a post office counter) or macrosocial (the national liberation movements of the 1970s), requires examination of the role performed in it by material objects (the glass screen at the counter, the Kalashnikov in the hands of the revolutionary). But the position occupied by an object in a social situation, and therefore the role that it performs, is not defined a priori; nor does it depend solely on the contingent context. It also depends on the history of the events in which the object has participated, and which have left an indelible impression on it. At times, these are physical imprints on the material substratum (the right breast of the statue of Juliet facing the entrance to the Capulet house in Verona bears the imprint, as shown by Figure 1, of the odd customs of tourists). At other times they are accretions of sense on the object’s immaterial meaning (Yasser Arafat’s particular use of the kefiah has made it into something more that a simple kind of headgear, especially if worn in Europe). The personality of objects, therefore, does not depend on the choices and intentions of those who have produced them. It depends above all on the succession of ‘experiences’ (in the metaphorical sense) which objects have accumulated during their lifetimes: a table
  9. 9. 9 may have been created as a sacrificial altar to a god; but it may thereafter have been used as a work block by a blacksmith, or as a landmark by hunters: once considered a testimony by an archaeologist, it is now a curio for museum visitors. These ideas are not far-fetched. In around 580 BC, the giant Kouros of Samos (Figure 2) was originally created, it is presumed, as a votive image and therefore served the twofold purpose of representation (still highly schematic) and intercession. But we cannot know what the statue really signified for the artisans who sculpted it from stone. Certainly something different from the meaning attributed to it by the Romans, who used pieces from the statue (the head and a leg) to construct a villa and a cistern on the outskirts of the ancient sanctuary. And still very different from the meaning given it by the archaeologists who discovered and excavated the remains of that cistern, or by the tourists who today observe the statue, thoughtfully and from a respectful distance, when visiting the Archaeological Museum of Vathi. The social life of things From this perspective, the invitation to consider the biographies of objects as furnishing useful and original insights into the social world is backed by the promise that they yield new categories of analysis. This springs from the intuition that speaking of the “lives” of things is not simply a rhetorical device or a metaphor, but something serious and very real. It is a concept which better than others can describe what happens within human collectivities. Historically, the expression “cultural biography of things” became current following the publication of The Social Life of Things, in 1986. Edited by Arjun Appadurai, this book contained a short essay by Igor Kopytoff entitled “The Cultural Biography of Things”. Kopytoff drew attention to the fact that the attribution to objects of use value or exchange value (we may add, with reference to Baudrillard, symbolic value) is an altogether arbitrary operation. And anyway it explains little unless the dynamic and mutable character of the existence of things over time is not borne in mind. Few commodities remain the same from their
  10. 10. 10 conception to their destruction. And in any case an object’s nature as a commodity is not ascribed. On the contrary, Kopytoff observes, it can always be revoked, and during their lifetimes things usually go through moments when they are reduced to mere exchange value, and moments when, in relation to the world of humans, they perform other functions and acquire other values. This is particularly evident, by way of example, at the time of an object’s agony when it becomes rubbish to be thrown away or recycled. Being ‘rubbish’, in fact, is a wholly specific condition, as Michael Thompson pointed out in his Rubbish Theory (1979). It suspends and radically modifies the everyday existence of things, depriving them of their customary social role. In this sense, it involves a qualitative shift in their biography, and not just a quantitative one (as the various transitions in the history of an object’s commodification, i.e. its trade, might otherwise lead one to suppose). But, above all, the agony of an object does not equate with its destruction. From being rubbish it may gradually or suddenly be reborn as a durable object when it enters the sphere of vintage or antique collecting, art, historical testimony, or archaeology. The same object just previously discarded has now been singularized as a collectible, or in any case been protected against destruction (see also Engeström and Blackler 2005, 313-5). Kopytoff instead analyses the processes of economic exchange. He observes that our perception of things when we treat them as mere commodities of exchange standardizes and homogenizes them. When things are exchanged, a value is restored to them which is “objective” in the sense of being measurable, comparable with that of other commodities, and expressed, obviously, by money. This reduction to a common denominator – or better to a common metric – enables us to acquire or to get rid of objects with great facility, thanks to the expedient of money-mediated exchange. But this is not possible with people qua individuals or subjects. As such, people are irreplaceable, and therefore cannot be exchanged for other people. This makes their purchase and their sale impossible – with the obvious exception of human beings whose dignity as persons is not recognized, such as slaves and very often – as Francesca Rigotti points out in this book – women.
  11. 11. 11 The interesting aspect is that this removal from the sphere of exchange frequently concerns, Kopytoff stresses, things as well. Not for the world would I give away the old pocket watch that my grandfather bequeathed to me on his deathbed. Or the spectacles which I like because give me a touch of class. Whilst numerous “common” objects are exchangeable, equally many of them are non-commodifiable, “uncommon”, or singular. Kopytoff cites the examples of sacred objects, public monuments, and collectable objects (which are not at all unique, as demonstrated by multiples in art or stamp collecting, but also by the histories of industrially manufactured objects, or certain design products, whose owners are likely to place them where they can be displayed rather than used – on the mantelpiece in the living room instead of on a shelf in the kitchen). But any common and quotidian object may, at a given moment in its life, be singularized by someone and thus become uncommon: even, for example, the bolt which I carry in my pocket and use as a key ring. According to Kopytoff, the succession of singularizations undergone by an object constitute its biography. And it is a “cultural biography” in that its turning-points are determined, not so much by economic or technical factors (sale, a mechanism which breaks), as by changes in the meaning that the object embodies for the humans with which it interacts (the object that lay forgotten in my grandmother’s closet and is now my dearest memento of her but for my son will only be an interesting antique to sell at a flea market). Reconstructing the cultural biographies of objects means wondering where they originated and who produced them, but also how they have been used, what status has been attributed to them, what their careers have been, compared with the career deemed “ideal” for that kind of object, and what effect has been produced by their presence in interactions among humans (Kopytoff 1986, It. transl. 79-82). After its publication, Kopytoff’s essay was widely cited and much used in the sociology of culture to give efficacious interpretation to the central role increasingly assumed by material culture in what many have called the consumption society: a society in which the presence of goods in people’s everyday settings (and,
  12. 12. 12 consequently – but only consequently – the possession of material goods) performs the crucial functions of establishing social equilibria and constructing personal identities. The expression coined by Kopytoff was used to give more precise specification to what was a still hazy intuition, but when many attempts had been made to show that the notion of consumerism alone is not sufficient to interpret contemporary society, and that the meanings of people’s lives are determined increasingly less by what they “are” (social affiliation) and increasingly more by what they “do” (consumption): from Baudrillard’s (1968) system of objects to Douglas and Isherwood’s (1979) world of things, to Luisa Leonini’s (1988) lost identity. Consumption is studied today as a source of identity, of social inclusion, and of personal fulfilment. This shifts the focus in analysis of material things from their status as products (and therefore as usable materials) to that of tools for the social construction of reality, and therefore to meanings intrinsically provisional and negotiable. False friends This last aspect requires further exploration. As I explained at the outset, the notion of the biography of objects is useful for the study of society because it furnishes greater explanatory completeness: depth is given to the variables at work behind social phenomena. But this can only come about if the biographies of objects are taken seriously, and not in a metaphorical sense. It is not easy for this to happen because of the ingrained habit of treating things as the simple mouthpieces of humans. I am not referring here to the approaches still widespread in common sense – for example that of designers – which instead acknowledge that material things have a non-material, semantic content able to transmit meanings to the people that encounter them. These approaches believe that such meanings are imprinted within objects by their producers, by those who have created them and given them shape. They are consequently objectified, materialized, given once and for all in the experience of the recipient (or recipients). To my mind, conceptions of this type – of
  13. 13. 13 which a leading example is the attempt by Gianfranco Marrone to develop a theory of interobjectivity (see especially Marrone 2002, 17) – still regard objects as instruments in the hands of human beings, and do not grant them any social autonomy. The semantic content is exclusively the work of a human subject, and the physical object is nothing but its material vehicle, the messenger (the mouthpiece). I am referring instead of the recent sociological theories of cultural processes which, following Baudrillard, have revealed the importance of the consumption of things for definition of their social meaning. Baudrillard recommends “superseding a spontaneous vision of objects in terms of needs, the hypothesis of the priority of their use value” (Baudrillard 1972, It. transl., 7), because the primary status of an object is not given by its pragmatic use, nor by its material function, but by the social acts which allow it to acquire a sign function. Michel de Certeau proposes that consumption should be conceived as a second production – as an activity which, if neglected, prevents correct description of the constellation of meanings that material culture assumes in a given society. Of course, the producers of artifacts, particularly industrial ones, conceive them as bearers of distinct semantic content and usually surround them with discourses designed to support this representation (advertising, packaging, marketing strategies, etc.). But de Certeau’s thesis, with which I fully agree, is that this representation imposed “from above” tells us nothing about what it [che cosa?] signifies for its users. It is first necessary to analyse how it is manipulated by those who have not created it; only then can one gauge “the difference or similarity between the production of the image and the secondary production hidden in the process of its utilization” (de Certeau 1990, It. transl. 8; see also Miller 1987, 190). It is clear that this shift from an economic conception of consumption to one which highlights its cultural and communicative function is essential for granting social protagonism to things, in that it frees them from subservience to their creators. But this is not enough. Freeing things from enslavement to their creators does not restore dignity and autonomy to them if it means ‘democratically’ subjugating them to the consumer. The reference to objects would not add much to our understanding of the
  14. 14. 14 social world if objects were solely the inert weapons with which social actors fight their battles for better status. The anthropocentrism of the producer, or of the transmitter, is replaced by the anthropocentrism of the consumer, or the recipient. Once again, things are reduced to being the mouthpieces of people, to being communication media. This also emerges from de Certeau’s conception: just as words are appropriated by those who utter them, and make arbitrary use of them for their own purposes and interests, so too, according to de Certeau, are the products of the cultural economy appropriated by consumers to implement their social tactics. This demonstrates that there are “false friends” – to use an expression from linguistics – in the theory of the social life of things. These “false friends” are studies and publications which apparently try to innovate how we consider objects, but in fact adhere to the traditional conception, or say something else. Consider for example the admirable collection assembled by Vladimir Archipov, and illustrated in a recent compendium (Archipov 2006), of more than one thousand home-made objects crafted by simple Russian citizens in the difficult period of transition from the Soviet Union to a Western-style system of consumption. The objects consist largely of simple artifacts expressing the inventiveness of people suffering numerous hardships. They were not intended for sale, only for self-consumption, and yet they pertain iconographically to late-industrial consumerism. Archipov states (2006, It. transl.. 9) that “they all have three characteristics in common: functionality, uniqueness, and the testimony of the author, who is also the user”. Yet these characteristics express an approach that does not conceive objects as able to interact with personalities in the network of social relationships. What interests Archipov is solely the design and creation process, the generation of things as testimonies to the social environment whence they have sprung and of which, once again, they are mouthpieces. “I consider as true design”, Archipov said in an interview published by Abitare (no. 483, June 2008, p. 48), “the simple and spontaneous objects, almost archaic, self-produced by ordinary people”; objects which do not belong to the universal commerce of sense and are therefore do not have occasion to express their
  15. 15. 15 personalities in the system of collective relationships [non capisco il testo in italiano]. There are other works more or less at variance with the arguments put forward in this book. Sherry Turkle (2007) has collected 34 biographies of objects written by scientists, humanists, artists and designers. Her book considers objects in terms of their evocative capacity, their power to influence many aspects of everyday life (play, desire, meditation, etc.). But the stories reported are, in truth, autobiographies of the subjects who have written them; and objects appear mainly as witnesses to events which have taken place in the lives of people. Their evocative capacity is treated more as an ability to represent effects than to produce them in social contexts. More attentive to this latter theme is perhaps Lorraine Daston, not so much in her book Biographies of Scientific Objects (Daston 2000) – which only studies the processes by which particular entities, at a particular time, acquire the prerogative of being considered scientific facts, using an approach typical of recent studies on science and the technology – as in her collection Things That Talk (Daston 2004). Although the latter book does not take a biographical approach, it attributes to things – at least by hypothesis – the gift of eloquence, and thus a capacity to impose themselves on social subjects regardless of their will. This is the case of photographs, for example, which – whether veridical or deceptive – impose themselves on the person who looks at them (and who has taken them) as independent entities. A personality in transformation Pointing out that things possess biographies which can be more or less completely reconstructed and recounted serves not only to aid understanding of their role in determining social phenomena regardless of the projects that have brought them into being. It also serves to emphasise the mutable character of their social presence. The personality of objects is by principle a changing personality. The missing masses of society are not static, or substantially static, masses as geographical or climatic
  16. 16. 16 features are understood to be in certain traditional sociological theories. They are dynamic masses, nuclei of energy which evolve over time; and as they evolve, they contribute crucially to social change. Latour implicitly pointed this out when he dwelt on the example of the automatic door-closer which went “on strike” at La Villette (Latour 1992, It. transl., 94). It is clear that strike action, or interrupted operation, by a technological mechanism is a novelty compared with its previous social presence, a change in the role which it performs in the collectivity. The most evident dimension of the biographies of objects is therefore the succession of functions (or dysfunctions) that they incorporates in regard to the collectivity by which they are used. Latour calls this debrayage: particular collective actions or functions are delegated to a material object, and are therefore repositioned or translated in it. The object thus incorporates a social role which it then interprets and performs autonomously and “creatively” with respect to the original action programme. Moreover, during their lifetimes, objects receive multiple, sometimes simultaneous, delegations which transform their social role. The biographies of such objects are hence the histories of these various delegations, among which we may certainly include the particular action programmes of commodificiation and singularization to which Kopytoff drew attention. But the biographies of objects, like those of humans, are more complex than this, and they depend on a set of factors. They have other dimensions besides that of debrayage. Clarifying this aspect requires drawing another distinction, this time analytical, which can be expressed thus: objects have biographies, types of object have histories, in the same way as individuals have biographies whilst nations and institutions have histories. Many objects of contemporary industrial production belong to a family (the series), to a clan (the brand), to a category (the type), and this largely determines their destiny and social role. But the biography of a material thing cannot be reduced to the history of the type to which it belongs, because this would hide its individual life-events, which instead are impressed upon it and contribute to producing its meaning for us. It is one thing to describe the vicissitudes of the watch inherited from my grandfather, quite another the vicissitudes of the
  17. 17. 17 object “watch” in the history of humanity. Examining the biographies of objects therefore requires one to recognize that as individuals objects are important in determination of the social world. Of course, the social history of objects has a long and authoritative tradition, and it has been of great help in understanding historical epochs and civilizations. But as a rule it has not affected the conventional view of things as mere sedimentations of human activities; nor has it served understanding of the wholly special role assumed by things in determining social phenomena in the contemporary world. The reverse applies to the biographies of unusual objects. These deliver to us “living things”, social subjects – “actants” Latour would say (1987, tr. it. 109-120) – able to interact with other social subjects and determine their trajectories. Objects are endowed with personality to the extent that the status deriving to them from the type to which they belong (for example, watch) sums with a specificity due to their individual history (for example, my grandfather’s watch). This specificity often manifests itself, as said, through the physical imprints that biographical events have on a thing. The chipped cups with somewhat faded colours in which I serve coffee to my guests “speak” to them by virtue of that chipping and that fading. It is not necessary to point out that they are antiques. Likewise, many of the objects collected by Archipov testify through their dilapidation to the use that has been made of them. Conversely, a new coffeepot never used before testifies, through the absence of visible imprints of use, to its inability to produce good coffee. The performative force that these traces left by use confer on objects is such that at times the productive system anticipates in an object, in a family or in a category of objects the physical imprint of the use that will be made of them. Fontanille (1995), cited and commented on by Marrone (2002, 23-27), gives the example of ergonomic objects, like whisky flasks shaped to resemble the curve of a breast or a buttock. Such objects already incorporate the form that they would acquire after a long period of use. Perhaps more convincing is the example by the jeans faded, and perhaps even deliberately ripped, during their manufacture. This indirectly testifies to the importance that an object’s biography may have in determining its meaning for the collectivity and, therefore, its ability to perform an
  18. 18. 18 autonomous role in the definition of social phenomena. A pair of jeans faded because of the use made of them cannot produce, in the social world to which they belong, the same reactions as produced by jeans of the same kind fresh from the factory. The biographical signs that usage (“consumption” in the proper sense) imprints upon a material object alters its personality, usually enriching it as time passes. Hence, the custom of purchasing pre-faded jeans springs from the need, or the opportunity, to exploit to one’s advantage the particular personality which faded jeans project when they are worn in a social gathering. The events that punctuate the life of an object leave imprints on it, on its material substratum, and these imprints modify the perceptive characteristics of that object, and therefore its social presence. Immaterial biographies There is finally a third fundamental dimension of the biography of objects. This extends beyond those incorporated in the material thing and therefore warrants discussion (all too cursorily here, given the complex issues involved). Consider what happens to humans as well. Biographical events imprint themselves on our bodies, modifying them over time: we lose our hair, we get wrinkles, our facial expressions change. These transformations modify our social presence in collective situations, for example inducing others to offer us their seat on the bus. Nevertheless, on their own, these changes are not enough to explain the particular social status accorded a human body (prior to any communicative interaction). The transformations of the material appearance of the human body do not always produce the same social consequences: in some societies the elderly are more respected, sought-after, desired?, by the young, in other societies less so. The meaning of a certain state of affairs in a particular society always derives from the encounter between that state of affairs and the cultural tradition in which it is embedded. The biography of an object, like that of a human, is therefore inflected not only by the events that materially imprint themselves upon it, but also by the meanings which interlocutors attribute to it; meanings which do not depend solely on its
  19. 19. 19 physical appearance. An object’s biography is inflected by changes in its material as well as immaterial constitution. And this is what makes the biography of a social subject – whether human or non-human – extremely volatile. The immaterial content of objects in the human world depends structurally on the experiences of humans as beings capable of signification. Individuals never have experience of things, but always of “things composed of their qualities” – to adapt Husserl’s expression. A table is never just a table for us, it is always also something more, a table in its givenness: an executive table, a support surface, a barrier, a point of attraction, a routine desk, ugly clutter to be thrown away, firewood to be burned to keep warm. In short, we do not live in a world of things, we live in a world of meanings. Hence, possessing immaterial content is not a prerogative of some things rather than others. Not only works of art, design objects, fashion items, museum exhibits possess a symbolic dimension in addition to the material one. If human beings live in a world of meanings, all objects enter their experiential world solely in the form of meanings. To be added is that meaning is always, by definition, meaning-for-me – individual meaning. It springs from the interaction between the actual experience of a person and the stock of his or her previous experiences. It is therefore closely bound up with his or her individual biography. Meanings can be collective only in a general sense, by analogy, and only to the extent that a history of common (i.e. similar) experiences unifies a certain collectivity and makes the biographies of its members in certain respects kindred. But if meanings are by definition individual meanings, the immaterial content of any object of experience is relative to whoever experiences it; it is essentially subjective. This means that the immaterial content of objects is never given once and for all; it is always the volatile, momentary product of their encounter with a human, or of the encounter and negotiation among several human around them. The meaning of things varies as the people who experience them vary. The Gioconda that I contemplate in the room of an art gallery is not the same Gioconda that the person next to me is contemplating. Objects are “living things”, subjects of an individual biography, also to the extent that they possess an
  20. 20. 20 immaterial dimension (a semantic content) that is never fixed, defined, or stable, but constantly fluctuating in relation to the flow of everyday “encounters” between the object and humans. Of course, nor is the material content of an object ever really fixed: the cup may be chipped, fabric wears out, things lose colour. But these are changes immeasurably slower than the volatility of meaning, so much so that is often the resistance and durability of matter that enables us to protect constellations meaning (a poem, a piece of music) against their natural perishability (we preserve them on paper, on tape, in bytes). Conclusions Sociological theory on the biography of objects is still only embryonic. But it seems to open numerous directions for inquiry whose developments are at present unpredictable. Thorough theoretical treatment of the topic does not yet exist – except, perhaps for Latour’s, which, however, does not enjoy broad consensus among sociologists because of its bold and paradoxical character. Nor has empirical reseach been conducted to verify the real impact of objects, and of the biographical histories imprinted in them, on social dynamics in real situations. This area of analysis is therefore open to every attempt to verify its potential and limits – as well testified by the essays collected in this book, even to the extent of substantially denying that objects are dynamic, as argued by Francesca Rigotti. My observations in this article certainly require more detailed discussion which encompasses a series of lateral issues without which they risk appearing arbitrary. I propose them nevertheless as the basis for analysis to improve our understanding of a society in which the consumption of material things has reached levels unthinkable even a century ago, and which are entirely inexplicable by simply citing the human drive to satisfy material needs. Implicit in them [che cosa?] has been dissatisfaction with the various versions of a critical theory of society. Moreover, behind the critique against the dominant power system – the system of mass production that standardizes the world of objects, the consumerism apparently induced by
  21. 21. 21 advertising, the (alleged) homogenization of opinions by the media, the globalization or McDonaldization of Western consumption – lies a conservative nostalgia for a disappearing world and an evident difficulty to adapt to the new one. Such dissatisfaction must induce us to look anew at consumption practices. We must understand that these are social practices as forms of interaction, without too hastily assigning them to the category of degenerate social bonds. Recognizing the social role of objects and its biographical basis, I submit, offers ample possibilities in this regard.