Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 13, 2008
Lorraine Daston, ed. Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science New York: Zone Books, 2004. 456 pp.; 8 color ills.; 73 b/w ills. Paper $21.95 (1890951439)

Things—from soap bubbles to works of art—have a voice of their own. This is the audacious claim of a collection of essays that brings together distinguished scholars in the history of science and art history. The contributors insist that “things,” the objects that surround us, are endowed with agency that goes unnoticed because of our compulsion to fill the world with meaning. In our concern to make sense of our surroundings we fail to notice that we are not the only ones responsible for shaping the order we impose on the world. Things cry out for our attention and decisively determine the significance we ascribe to them. The various scholars included in Things That Talk seek to articulate the ways in which things speak to us even if we are ultimately responsible for what they have to say. Daston writes: “Imagine a world without things. It would be not so much an empty world as a blurry, frictionless one: no sharp outlines would separate one part of the uniform plenum from another; there would be no resistance against which to stub a toe or test a theory or struggle stalwartly. Nor would there be anything to describe, or to explain, remark on, interpret, or complain about—just a kind of porridgy oneness” (9). By calling objects “things,” Daston invokes Martin Heidegger’s famous essay “The Thing” (1950), in which the philosopher argued that in the wake of Immanuel Kant our theories of knowledge, dominated by the “subject/object” distinction, reduce the world around us to inanimate objects and make us humans the only agents in ascribing meaning to what surrounds us. Things are not objects; they cannot be wholly distinguished from the humans who perceive them but instead belong to a continuum of perception in which it is impossible to say where agency lies. Far from lying about the world as so much dead weight, objectified by human desire to impose meaning on the world, “things” are active partners in our life experience.

Before going any further, it may be worth trying to detail the relevance of this book for art-historical practice. Art historians are all too familiar with peremptory calls for a “return to the object” when accepted norms of interpretation are threatened or broken. Imaginative interpretations (those based on psychoanalysis, identity politics, or postcolonialism, for example) are sometimes dismissed because they allegedly stray too far from the object itself—even if it is clear that those very objects called these interpretations into being. This book offers a new understanding of what a “return to the object” might amount to. Instead of closing off inventive approaches to interpretation, Daston and her colleagues open the doors to exciting new representations of what we encounter in experience.

One of the appeals of this call for a phenomenological appreciation of the objects around us and the ways in which they determine their own reception is that it asks us to rethink the category “art.” Whereas art history sometimes operates as if the status of works of art were self-evident—a given in the order of things—this approach suggests that objects are unique and that their value depends on their reception. In casting its net so as to encompass all the objects that constitute our environment, Daston’s thesis suggests that the “art” in “works of art” depends on our desire to insist that certain things are special, that they possess qualities that might otherwise pass unnoticed, and that they deserve to be distinguished and placed in a category of their own. Things That Talk offers a means by which to overturn art history’s traditional privileging of “history” over “art.” The desire to homogenize the objects of its attention in the interest of becoming more “scientific” may be overcome so as to allow the two concepts to enjoy a more dialogic relationship. Where a stable notion of the “work of art” once condemned art history to the study of a restricted canon of works guaranteed by the approval of generations past, an approach that tended to exclude contemporary art from serious consideration, an appreciation of the life and agency of “things” affords us a labile and dynamic notion of what “art” might be. This idea not only allows art history to expand the horizons of what comes within its purview—witness the expanded field offered by the burgeoning study of visual culture—but offers opportunities for rethinking the status of the objects that constitute the established canon.

If things speak, how are they to be heard? Not surprisingly, each of the authors in this volume approaches the task distinctively. The limits of this review do not permit me to do justice to all the contributions, but here are some that struck me as particularly successful. In “Bosch’s Equipment,” Joseph Koerner describes one of Hieronymus Bosch’s drawings as a pictorial construction in which discrepant forms combine to constitute vaguely plausible entities with life of their own, resulting in hybrid monsters and nightmarish fantasies. He argues that the work is a conversation piece—something “made for talk” (45). We recognize the bits and pieces of the natural world that the artist has selected and combined in the process of making new and therefore “unnatural” forms of life. Their interest lies in the way in which they appear probable and therefore paradoxically “natural.”

Daston’s own contribution, entitled “The Glass Flowers,” ponders the attractions of the famous Blaschka Glass Models of Plants in Harvard’s Natural History Museum. The value of these glass flowers to the field of botany was much debated during the period of their production from 1890–1936, when some considered the dedicated verisimilitude of particular plants inimical to the discipline’s more universalizing concern with types and species. They have, nevertheless, attracted enduring popular interest ever since their creation. If the botanical community has not been unanimous in their appreciation, they have found a warm place in the popular imagination. Daston likens the lure of these glass flowers to that of relics and works of art and speculates that their power lies in the fact that the subtlety of the craftsmanship with which they were created ensures that they are copies that cannot be copied and are therefore “more authentic than the original” (254).

Not surprisingly, photography, whose ontological status and semiotic potential has so often been debated, makes an appearance in these pages. In “Res Ipsa Loquitur,” Joel Snyder reviews the ways in which early photography was either accepted or rejected as a form of legal evidence. Those that favored its use insisted that it faithfully recorded the circumstances it portrayed and that it therefore be accorded the status of a first-hand report. Those who refused to accept its testimony argued that as a record of light, the evidence provided by the photograph should be considered hearsay since it merely relayed what the sun, the photograph’s agent, had to say. The essay affords us access to past controversies surrounding things and their speech in a medium renowned for its ambivalence.

In “Images of the Self,” Peter Galison examines the history and use of the Rorschach test. He shows how this diagnostic tool, often regarded as a means of obtaining “objective” information about a patient’s “inner life” in a form that enables quick and reliable evaluations, actually blurs the boundaries between subjectivity and objectivity by revealing the extent to which perception depends on individual interpretation. He writes: “the functions of subjectivation (how subjects are formed) and objectivation (how objects are formed) enter at precisely the same moment. To describe the cards (on the outside) is exactly to say who you are (on the inside)” (277). The cards, deliberately designed to be as “neutral” as possible, and meant to serve the scientific aspirations of clinical psychiatry, proved destined to create a concept of the “self” that cannot be distinguished from the world that surrounds it.

Caroline Jones’s text, “Talking Pictures,” addresses a traditional art-historical conundrum: what is the relation between an artist’s paintings and the cultural context in which they are produced? Where the social history of art often tends to see through works of art to the historical circumstances in which they are produced, reducing “art” to “history,” Jones reverses the relation by proposing that in the case of Jackson Pollock the artist’s work (“art’) decisively shaped the modernist ideas of his greatest champion, the critic Clement Greenberg (“history”). She argues that as Greenberg developed his ideas of artistic modernism Pollock’s paintings fit the patterns he thought should correspond with the most advanced art of his time. Greenberg understood the paintings as related to the modernization process affecting industrial labor in the period after World War II. Jones writes: “In this context, the painting would stand for the individual experiencing a radiant control homologous with urban industrial disciplines and behavioral regimes” (354). Pollock’s paintings “talk,” not only to Greenberg, but to Jones. Her loquacious pictures suggest the art-historical rewards of approaching things—in this case works of art—as if they had the power to speak.

The arguments fielded in Things That Talk contribute to a sweeping reassessment of long-held art-historical assumptions. If “things” talk, then so do works of art. If art history has traditionally functioned as their ventriloquist, this book emphasizes the role of philosophical speculation over empirical observation by indicating the extent to which perception cannot be distinguished from interpretation. In doing so it returns us to a more speculative moment in its history, one that recalls its birth in the nineteenth century.

Keith Moxey
Barbara Novak Professor Emeritus, Barnard College/Columbia University