RESPONSE #5 Kate Smith
To begin, a question: when ‘things’ cease to be useful, what happens to them? In mulling over this question during the weeks following our stimulating discussions with Simon Werrett (Science and Technology Studies, UCL), I have frequently got stuck on the first rather than the second transition it highlights. When do ‘things’ cease to be useful? How do we know? Who is to say? What does that tell us about authority and value? The decision as to when ‘things’ cease to be useful is social in nature. It is decided between and with people. Yet recent shifts in the history of science prompt us to consider ‘the social’ in much broader terms, as something negotiated between various agents, including objects and materials themselves. What rankles here then is the human-centric approach suggested by the value-laden decision of usefulness. Clearly humans frequently decide when ‘things’ cease to be useful to them – but does it follow that the ‘thing’ is useless? Or has it simply transitioned to another form? What role do objects play in negotiating and effecting decisions of usefulness?
I want to consider what happens if we ask the question ‘When do ‘things’ cease to be useful?’ from the object’s perspective. Ian Bogost’s work on alien phenomenology and more particularly his work on metaphorism is useful here. In exploring the ways in which we can begin to understand how objects relate to one another Bogost argues that ‘Objects try to make sense of each other through the qualities and logics they possess.’ Building on Graham Harman’s assertion that objects interact through a process that might be understood as metaphor, Bogost argues that ‘When one object caricatures another, the first grasps the second in abstract, enough for the one to make some sense of the other given its own internal properties.’ One part of the ‘Galton whistle’ has been constructed by wrapping a putty type material around a narrow metal tube. String has then been tied around the putty to secure it further. The string was clearly tied around while the putty retained its elasticity as the string cuts into the putty, creating lines and in some places deeper grooves. Here putty and string have made sense of each other through the material properties. Moulded together, they have in this instance sought to define and extend their own use value. In the simplest of terms, they are of use to each other here. These workings suggest that in considering questions such as use and function, in considering questions such as ‘When do ‘things’ cease to be useful?’ we need to interact with objects in broad social terms. Objects negotiate use with each other, as well as with humans.
Finally, we might ask how and why might such object-oriented approaches be of use in historical studies? How and why might it be useful to engage with the post-human agenda in revealing the workings of the material world? What happens if we de-centre and disrupt human agency and take object agency seriously? What it allows for, I suggest, is a richer and more complex way of understanding our material world, which is tuned to the nuances of negotiations and being. It also prompts us to ask new research questions about the historical past. We cannot simply consider objects as processes that only become present-at-hand in their failure. We cannot simply consider objects in relation to humans. Rather we need to consider how objects and materials fail each other, leading to new formations and material outcomes. It prompts us to take seriously all the understandings that are formed and actions that are completed when we step outside the kitchen, field, workshop or factory and to consider how these moments have shaped historical change.