Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 1, 2011
Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins, eds. The Object Reader New York: Routledge, 2010. 576 pp. Paper $39.95 (9780415452304)

In The Object Reader, Fiona Candlin, a lecturer in museum studies at Birkbeck College in London, and Raiford Guins, a specialist in cultural and visual studies based at Stony Brook University in New York, combine to bring together an innovative collection of essays concerning objects and how we understand them. Organized into six thematic sections, twenty-eight key readings (all previously published) are complemented by an additional selection of twenty-five commissioned shorter object lessons and a bibliography.

Acknowledging that “object” is a “sprawling category,” the authors make a concerted and successful attempt to account for the way that interest in the object traverses so many academic fields. Essays by Marcel Mauss, D. W. Winnicott, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, as well as Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard reproduce well-known texts, with the addition of work by more recent scholars from a large range of disciplines—anthropology, art history, critical and cultural studies, design history, disability studies, feminism, film and televisions studies, philosophy, psychoanalysis, social studies of science and technology, religious studies, and visual culture. But this is not just a cross-disciplinary shopping list. For the editors this range is a necessity in order to create what they refer to as a guide to “thinking about thinking through objects.”

As the authors observe, disciplines have different interests in objects, study them differently, and do not necessarily share the same conclusions, or even the same sets of objectives. Acknowledging this, the value of a reader such as this one is that it is able to present the divergences and range of “object study” and “the study of objects”—as opposed to trying to delineate a single coherent field of “object studies” or “object culture.” One might wonder though if the latter is soon to come. As I reviewed this book, a series of exchanges on the Phd-design listserv questioned the object, and whether indeed it should have its own pedagogy.1 Proof, if it is needed, that the object is capturing the attention of academics from multiple fields and disciplines

Of course, interest in objects was developing at the end of the last century, certainly in anthropology and material culture studies, where the semantics was that of the “thing.” Igor Kopytoff’s much-referenced essay argues that the usage of the thing dictates the multiple meanings in its social biography (Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,” in Arjun Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986). The work of Daniel Miller in material culture studies emphasized how things matter, and proved influential and significant to other scholars, such as Judy Attfield, the late British design historian whose Wild Things: The Material Culture of Everyday Life added to the understanding of human-object relations (Daniel Miller, Material Culture and Mass Consumption, Oxford: Blackwell, 1987; and Judy Attfield, Wild Things: The Material Culture of Everyday Life, Oxford: Berg, 2000). While none of these pieces are included in the reader, they provide some of the foundations on which it is built, not least the fluid boundaries between an object and a thing. The more specific origins of this particular project are numerous, but include one event that I attended, the Pennsylvania State University conference on “Objects in/of Visual Culture” in 2004, where discussions arose between scholars, artists, and educators, and drew on a range of examples including cadavers, souvenirs, and flat-screen televisions.

The Object Reader has a loose chronological structure, with the first section focusing, unsurprising perhaps, on “Object.” It contains classic essays including Mauss on the gift economy and Winnicott’s psychoanalytic exploration of transitional objects. Marx casts a shadowy influence on this section, with his notions of reification and self-objectification underpinning Georg Lukacs’s “The Phenomenon of Reification.” The second section moves on to the “Thing” and philosophical discussions of the distinctions between “thing” and “object,” assisted by Heidegger’s etymological investigation of the word “object” in his essay, “The Thing.” Also included is Bill Brown’s indispensible “Thing Theory,” which expounds the work that the thing does in rearticulating the subject-object relationship. Essays by Elizabeth Grosz, Bruno Latour, and Julian Bleecker together provide a genealogy for the thing, offering a range of accounts of the work that things perform.

What then follows are three sections that return firmly to the object: its agency and power for human beings, the experience of the object, and the objecthood of images. The agency and magical effect of the object is uncovered by juxtaposing Peter Brown’s essay, “Praesentia,” on Christian relics, in a section with Alfred Gell’s well-known analysis of the designs of Trobriand Island canoe prows. Walter Benjamin’s wonderfully evocative essay on “unpacking his library” begins the next section on the experience of objects, discussed both individually and more collectively in, for example, the extract from Wiebe E. Bijker’s longer essay, “King of the Road: The Social Construction of the Safety Bicycle.” Images, of course, must not be forgotten, for their content or their materiality. Kracauer’s analysis of “Calico World: The UFA City in Neubabelsberg,” and Maurice M. Manring’s essay on Aunt Jemima, the fictional “absent mistress” and “slave in a box” of pancake mix, contrast with Elizabeth Edwards’s insights into photographs as material objects of memory, and not simply images of record. Edwards essay begins by referencing Roland Barthes Camera Lucida, with Barthes having already appeared in his own right, in the first section, with his short essay on “Toys” from his classic Mythologies (Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1980; and Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, New York: Hill and Wang, 1972).

The final section of existing texts deals with “Leftovers,” or the physical and emotional detritus, which might just be “Trash” as presented by Julian Stallabrass by way of Walter Benjamin. Victorian women’s public conveniences, collecting religious junk on the street in Latin America, and DIY, or more specifically the TRS-80 personal computer available at Radio Shack, add substance to part 6 and also foreshadow the last substantial section of the reader. Part 7, “Object Lessons,” differs from the rest in being commissioned essays, which provide a vast and highly engaging series of examples and methodologies. Each is fascinating, and too numerous in total to discuss here other than to call out two personal favorites.

Words and memories underlie Susan Pearce’s “A Flake of Paint” by way of Patricia Cornwell’s detective novel Trace, that is, of tiny flakes of paint, which loop back to Benjamin’s reference to the traces of the occupant that are left on any interior. Sometimes objects are mere traces—even invisible flakes of human skin—and other times they are conscious and staged, but can still bring us up short. Laurie Beth Clark’s essay, “Shin’s Tricycle,” analyzes an object subjected to the atomic blast on August 6, 1945, and shown at the Hiroshima Peace Museum. Clark’s piece resonated for me as I recalled a simple red plastic bucket I had seen displayed with other objects in a glass case in the Hanoi History Museum. Plastic, a sign of progress, yet as a bucket, an everyday object presented without clear interpretation, was, for the foreign visitor at least, both poignant and powerful. The experience stays with me years later, as an encounter, a memory, a trace, and recognition of how objects matter so much, which is also the key lesson of The Object Reader.

Hazel Clark
Professor of Design Studies and Fashion Studies, Parsons School of Design, The New School, New York

1 Phd-design listserv on design research has a following of around 1,800 people in different countries and regions, PHD-DESIGN@JISCMAIL.AC.UK, November 24, 2010.

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