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Claire Rosslyn Wilson on decluttering and detangling the relationship between emotion and objects.
I sat with my things and heard them breathe in a Melbourne house. I had choices to make. It wasn’t that my things were stuck in the dark, a dusty encumbrance that hung on my mind, but I felt the collection lurk in my background as I travelled light. I had a twisting root that pushed the foundations out of shape where I left my stuff.
I unpacked again. It seemed like a routine, after spending two years shuttling between Melbourne and Barcelona. I had enough clothes in both places that I’d never be caught short, a winter jacket in each house. I’d finally given in and bought a Kindle so I could carry as many books to and fro as possible. I’d detached myself from specific things, changing furniture with houses. But it wasn’t as simple as that. As I unpacked I realised I’d left things behind – a book I wanted to reference, a couple of stones I’d picked up, a pen.
Over two years I’d thrown out and reduced my piles of things, fitting what was left behind in fewer and fewer boxes. I had become expert at not getting attached, and yet the stories in certain objects had prevented me from throwing them all out.
In order to understand more about my simultaneous attraction towards and discomfort with objects I turned to political scientist Jane Bennett and her argument for the “thing-power” of objects. Bennett hypothesises that all things have the power to call out to us. She describes this thing-power as ‘a force exercised by that which is not specifically human (or even organic) upon humans’ (Bennett 2004, p. 351). But this power does not act in a vacuum, rather it is a result of the interaction of things between each other and between humans. Through writing about things, Bennett enhances her awareness of thing-power with the aim of recognising the ‘agential powers of natural and artifactual things’ (Bennett 2004, p. 349). Bennett explores this further in her book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010) analysing the active role nonhuman materials play in public life, focusing not so much on the economic aspects of the movement of objects which rely on human intervention, but rather on objects as vital actants with capacities of their own.
Bennett highlights that objects can have the power to call out to us – imagine those collections of objects that stop you in your tracks, such as a shop window display or a pile of hard rubbish on the pavement. I had felt a similar unexplainable pull towards some of my objects, a pull that had encouraged me to purchase them in the first place. Was it this thing power that kept me from throwing out the last of my useless souvenirs?
My hand's print
‘Social trails may lead up to and follow the use of physical objects which, insofar as they are sometimes associated with particular persons, extend that personhood beyond the individual’s biological body.’ (Gell as quoted in Parkin 1999)
The plastic box was labelled and broken, the edges clipped in retreats and rubbed all over with “I’ll deal with that later”. I tried to keep it tightly stacked but the things took over rooms – shoes in the dark sides of cupboards, long dresses feeding silverfish fat, books hiding on shelves. Spare space filled with these kept things until the gaps closed around the contents left behind.
I pulled out a clay owl that fitted in my palm and I tracked back through the memories that kept it in the box – a holiday pegged to a cheap souvenir with its overlarge blue eyes. It jigged my memory into a dance on quicksand sinking the more I grabbed at it. Honesty was the first to drop below the surface. I’d stuck my memories on a cartoon-like owl that brought a smile, perhaps because of its foolish eyes. In fifty years, if I were to keep this thing, it might still pull memory strings, muscles remembering the order to smile though the mind would be blank to all the details.
I started to write about these objects that I had an ambivalent relationship with: letters I wanted to throw out but hadn’t, souvenirs that I’d collected and left in a box, so-called rubbish that stopped me in my tracks on the street. I honed in on the details and described them in every way possible. I followed their life and imagined the people who had touched them. I used them to think through my process of travelling from one place to another.
The deeper I dug the more the objects gave back. Writing about the objects I encountered was more than an itinerary of what they looked like and how they impacted me, it was a reflection on how they moved, the transactions they took before I obtained them, the way simple objects can influence human behaviour. I no longer thought of things only in the context of how I used them, but I considered where they were before me, where they went afterwards, and why I bought them in the first place. The more I explored the possible stories the less attached I became. It was like a farewell to these things that I had collected but largely ignored. As researcher of collecting and craft movements Leah Dilworth observes, an object’s ‘power lies in the tension between its inert thingness and the memory of the process it carries within it’ (Dilworth 2003: 233). I had recognised the appealing of the ‘thingness’ but not the memories it carried, and when I explored these it was easier to let go.
Through writing about my objects I became intrigued with their possible stories, giving them space to breathe. I didn’t feel such a need to throw my things out, but I also felt less need to own or possess them as I wasn’t so afraid of losing their importance to my past. The object was really just an encounter in the trajectory of my experiences and I didn’t need to hold onto it in order to remember.
BENNETT, J. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham, Duke University Press.
DILWORTH, L. (ed.) 2003. Acts of Possession Collecting in America, New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press.
PARKIN, D. 1999. Mementoes as Transitional Objects in Human Displacement. Journal of Material Culture, 4.
Claire Rosslyn Wilson
Claire Rosslyn Wilson is a poet and nonfiction writer. She is a regular writer for Art Radar and Culture360 and has co-written a book on Freelancing in the Creative Industries (Oxford University Press). She’s had her poems published in various Australian journals and she writes short poems about the everyday objects around us at http://clairerosslynwilson.com/ You can also follow her thoughts @clairerosslyn
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