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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

Even as the present might be considered "the digital age" or "the virtual age," we are still negotiating relationships between the virtual and the material. The fluidity with which we move between lived reality and virtual experience indicates that we can no longer carve out a separation: the virtual is integrated into our material lives. As director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, Sherry Turkle espouses the idea that technology changes not only what we do but also how we think. The Initiative organized a series of seminars that, according to its website, focused not on technology but on material objects that, like technology, inspire us "to think differently about such categories as self, other, intention, desire, emotion, the body." Evocative Objects: Things We Think With is the first of three collections of essays drawn from these discussions (Falling for Science: Objects in Mind and The Inner History of Devices were both published in 2008). The two later collections are centered on science and technology; Evocative Objects is not. The reader expecting a rendezvous with the digerati may be disappointed, as the essays are not written exclusively by those engaged with technology and often contemplate seemingly mundane objects. Yet the extraordinary relationships individuals have with ordinary objects are worthy of consideration.

The essays in the collection read like a series of journeys, often traveling to a personal past. Through their reflections on a vast array of objects -- a yellow raincoat, an instant camera, a suitcase, and a datebook, to name a few -- the contributors reveal a private glimpse of themselves and their lives. The relationships to material objects described in the book are intimate and personal because the objects are invested with private meanings. This intimacy plays out as essayists tell stories of family, childhood, love, pain, and discovery, using objects as meaningful referents to evoke telling. Thus the title of the collection refers not only to what objects evoke but also to the evocative nature of the stories.

Readers with an interest in cyberculture and technology will find relevant essays among those in Evocative Objects. For example, Judith Donath writes about the 1964 Ford Falcon she drove while in college and graduate school. The car created an identity for her, "the Driver of that Cool Car" (155). Donath, in turn, created an identity for the car that enabled her to extend her research into virtual communities. The Falcon got its own website in 1994, narrating its everyday life of sitting by the curb and reporting on its health as Donath maintained the thirty-year-old car. She writes that "creating a home page for the Falcon allowed me to participate in the personal and informal side of the web, while remaining at least partially hidden behind the persona of my car" (157-8). As the Web is now rich with thousands of pseudonymous blogs, Donath recalls how a treasured object introduced her to a then-new medium.

Readers can also accompany Trevor Pinch on his journey into the technological past. Pinch was drawn to a synthesizer owned by his college housemate Lindsay, and describes her relationship to this evocative object: "It was personal exploration for her -- person and machine somehow evolving together into a new identity. When we borrowed her synth she felt Vickers was being abused. We were spoiling that delicate relationship she strove for" (165). Pinch hints at the cyborg, with Lindsay's relationship to her synthesizer being so intimate that through it, a new identity takes shape. Yet Lindsay has named her synth, giving it a personality and identity of its own. Likely there are many relationships with technological objects that mirror this; in particular, objects like smartphones that are both portable and provide a significant level of information and access. The phone is evocative of self and identity because of the information it stores, yet even more evocative because it is a conduit between self and others, a means of connecting one to the world near and distant. Pinch's essay is one of many that may lead readers to think of their own evocative objects, and how we make meaning of ourselves and the world through the things we hold dear.

As the authors who participated in Turkle's seminar series rethink their discussions in essay form, many insights into evocative objects mirror the larger project of the book itself. Michael M. J. Fischer notes "we read a book not by reading from beginning to end, but by zeroing in on projects and places, looking for the point of attachment, for the personal and social in the science" (283). Fischer's musing is an accurate depiction of Evocative Objects as well: readers likely gravitate toward and are held by the narratives that ring most true for them, those that demonstrate relationships to objects that are similar to one's own. As such, the book might best be read in small bits rather than in whole. Setting aside the book in between essays allows the reader to inhabit the intimate worlds revealed in the essays and to consider how they inform one's own world and the uniquely evocative objects one chooses to have nearby. Not only does this allow for the contemplation each essay deserves, it also relieves the desire to find continuity among the essays that is not necessarily present, despite Turkle's efforts to group the essays under a series of titles intended to promote a sense of similarity or unity.

Turkle frames the collection with introductory and closing essays, and finally addresses the gap between materiality and the virtual in the last few pages of the book, asking "what becomes of this intimacy [engendered by physical objects] when people work with digital objects?" (323). She refers to Susan Yee's essay "The Architect" as the piece in the collection which best addresses what is both lost and gained when material objects become virtual ones. Yee travels to Le Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris to examine the architect's archives. Holding a newspaper clipping that critiqued Le Corbusier's work, Yee notes, "right on the clipping he had written 'Idiote' in a vigorous and powerful hand. I could trace the precision and force of the incision into the newsprint. I felt his frustration, his spirit" (32). Learning that the architect's drawings are being digitized, Yee feels conflicted: while grateful that access to Le Corbusier's work will be made available, she has "no connection to the digital drawings on the screen, no sense of the architect who drew it" (35), the opposite of her evocative experience at the archive.

Like Yee, Susan Pollak describes her grandmother's rolling pin and David Mitten describes his ancient axe head by virtue of their tactility: holding and using something held, used, and touched by someone else. The object connects the person to the past, and that materiality is a link to another person, often a loved one. Can virtual objects provide this sense of connection? The emotional weight attached to some virtual objects, such as digitized photographs, can render them as evocative. Yet these essays make clear that there is something to be cherished about material objects that can connect us to memory, to ideas, and to ourselves.

Linda Levitt:
Linda Levitt is assistant professor in communication studies at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her research interests include cultural memory, television studies, and material culture.  <levitt.linda@gmail.com>

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