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Evocative Objects: Things We Think With

Editor: Sherry Turkle
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007
Review Published: July 2009

 REVIEW 1: Chris Foster
 REVIEW 2: Gloria Gannaway
 REVIEW 3: Linda Levitt
 REVIEW 4: Albin Wallace

Evocative Objects: The Things We Think With, edited by Sherry Turkle, is a collection of essays by very accomplished people (some of whom I am familiar with and admire) from a wide range of disciplines and interests. They write about the power of some object in their lives -- the role it has played, the meaning it has had for them emotionally and experientially. Turkle said she asked people to "choose an object and follow its associations" (7).

I found some of the essays interesting, but some I didn't, as I wasn't able to care why someone had a meaningful relationship with, for example, a stuffed animal or a pair of childhood toe shoes. In my opinion, this endeavor doesn't quite work, doesn't quite come together in a coherent way to form a whole, though the book is very attractive with nice photos and interesting quotes from important thinkers (many of my favorites, actually -- Vygotsky, Derrida, Baudrillard, to name only a few) at the beginning of each chapter.

What I liked best about the book was Turkle's own essay at the end of the book. This essay, which contains excerpts from and comments on a number of the essays (really enough for me to get the point without reading all the essays in their entirety), could, if expanded a little, stand on its own.

A big problem for me is the disconnect between the title and the subtitle. I find the concept of "evocative objects" straightforward and clear -- of course, we all are aware that objects evoke responses in us and special objects can evoke very powerful responses. I'm not sure why this needs to be demonstrated. But the subtitle, "things we think with" is slippery, and to my mind, not at all the same as "evocative objects." Since a subtitle should be understood as a restatement, a clarification, of the title, I felt confused from the outset. I think an investigation of "things we think with," asking what it means to think "with" an object, is much more interesting and unfamiliar, but this theme is not adequately looked at here.

After reading the essays, I could see that the authors had different understandings of their assigned task, and had different ways of choosing objects and attributing power to the objects they chose. In fact, in some cases, the authors did not deal with any particular object at all, but rather a class of objects; for example, one essay is about slime mold and another is about computers. Moreover, sometimes it's the "idea" of the object, such as slime mold, rather than any real slime mold, and sometimes it's a member of the class, such as a computer, any computer.

The essays on these two objects make my point very well: Evelyn Fox Keller, in her very interesting essay (I am a fan of hers), uses the idea of the unusual characteristics of slime mold to help her think about things -- slime mold has become an example of something important for her. Howard Gartner, on the other hand, uses the computer concretely and directly as a tool to help him think about things. In neither case is there a specific object in the person's personal life, as there is in many of the essays, such as one special stuffed bunny, which evokes feelings or memories. Therefore, it is impossible to fit the pieces of the book neatly together, and for me this is a serious flaw.

I was disappointed that the book didn't deal much with the theme of the effects of technology on how we relate to the world and its effects on our relationships with evocative objects. One author and Turkle herself touched on this theme. As a response to replacing real world objects with their digitalized versions, Susan Yee very interestingly talks about the wonderful experience of learning something -- in her case, the work process of the architect Le Corbusier -- through the archives that contain a person's actual work that one can pick up and examine as the creator him or herself did. She was very happy that she was able to experience the actual things that Le Corbusier made and used in his creative process, and felt sad for the people who wouldn't be able to do this, who would have to use, instead, a digital archive. She claims they will be missing a level of contact with the artist that she feels is essential for understanding. Frankly, in my opinion, the book would have been much better if it had explored just this -- what we lose and what we gain with electronic versions of reality.

I believe that thinking with pen or pencil and paper is different from thinking with the computer, and seeing and touching the actual drawings made by someone in each stage of the design process is different from seeing computer images. I think this is an important issue to study. But I don't see that it has anything to do with how someone feels or what she thinks about when looking at her grandmother's rolling pen, except perhaps to say that, in a world dominated by technology, we need these highly charged evocative objects more than ever to preserve our humanity!

Susan Pollak doesn't think "with" the rolling pen, and Susan Rubin Suleiman doesn't think "with" her mother's silver pin. These important objects may contribute to one's identity, but they aren't tools for thinking as I see it. Judith Donath becomes identified with her Ford Falcon -- it's a part of who she is, an extension of herself, but she doesn't think with it. But Marcel Proust, who Turkle invokes, indeed, does think with his Madeleine -- it "opens him to the 'vast structure of recollection'" (318). It seems that Proust himself suggests that feelings (grief in particular) and memories can engender ideas. So maybe objects that evoke memory and objects that become things we think with are sometimes the same objects, thus overlapping the categories. But it is important to make a distinction between them, and Turkle doesn't do this.

By interesting coincidence, just before I read Turkle's Evocative Objects, I read Orhan Pamuk's The Black Book. It's a novel about identity and how it is constructed -- a brilliant and provocative reflection on this topic. In it is the story of a prince who was obsessed with the desire to be his own authentic and true self to the point of ridding his environment of all evocative objects, everything that meant anything to him. He couldn't do it. He finally realized that there were too many things that influenced him. The folly of his efforts was the point. The main character of the novel, on the other hand, "became" his uncle, as he increasingly thought and wrote surrounded by his uncle's things and writings in his office, immersed in life-long memories of him, longing to be him. Finally, he was thinking "with" his uncle as he absorbed every detail of his life that he could, consciously but uncontrollably replacing his own life with them. Pamuk is exploring the vast complexity of the "self" and the creation of one's identity, in which evocative objects play a large and mysterious role.

So it comes down to this for me: the essays were written upon request and the book feels forced and not well thought out. But it does contain some gems -- pieces that are very interesting and worth reading and thinking "about," if not "with."

Gloria Gannaway:
Gloria Gannaway holds a doctorate in Rhetoric and Literature (University of Texas, Austin). She has more than thirty years of experience teaching, researching, and writing in the fields of academic, professional, technical, and creative writing; culture and cyberculture studies; and American literature at several universities in the US, including the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Texas, Austin, and in Turkey and Spain. Currently, she collaborates with Professor Mario Barajas on European education research projects at the University of Barcelona and works as a freelance consultant on professional English language projects.  <globogal@aol.com>

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