Into the Lives of Objects: New book explores the lure and actions of ‘things’

English professor Jeffrey Cohen sits behind the long-dead cephalopod that maintains an uncanny lure. “[T]here’s something about it that makes us want to hold it and touch it and think with it,” he said. (Photo by William Atkins)

Not far from the fake palm tree on Jeffrey Cohen’s desk sits a fist-sized fossil that visitors can’t seem to keep their hands off of.

The intricately coiled, shelled creature made the journey from flesh-and-blood to cold stone tens of millions of years ago, if not hundreds of millions. Life is long gone. And yet still the fossil calls out to people.

“This seems to be an irresistible thing on my desk,” said Dr. Cohen, an English professor, as he handled the ancient cephalopod.

“As dead as it is, as inert as it is—it’s just a piece of rock; it was once alive but now it’s just stone—there’s something about it that makes us want to hold it and touch it and think with it,” he said.

That curious lure of an object, and the roles objects play in our lives as foils or companions or containers of sentiment is the subject of a new collection of essays curated and edited by Dr. Cohen, called Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects.

“Though their power sometimes becomes most evident just at the moment of a human touch, [objects] possess an uncanny agency all their own,” Dr. Cohen writes in the book’s introduction. Citing examples from a 14th century Icelandic saga, he writes: “Fire, ice, and water are actors in the text: they consume, convey, renew, destroy.”

The overarching idea, he writes, is that “things matter.” And not necessarily just when humans insist that they do.

That’s not to say Dr. Cohen views the world through cartoon lenses that give all things a distinct human-ness. Instead, the argument is that a stone or a chair or the hand-knitted miniature knight on his window sill each has stories to tell.

When a person recognizes that, he said, “well, the world becomes a slightly different place.”

The fossil on his desk has the capacity to bring people “outside of everything that we know and that we are,” he said. “We touch this thing that is so rich in story and, all of the sudden, all these other possible worlds open up to us.”

Sometimes those worlds mesh with our own. “We would still be single-celled organisms or slime creatures if we hadn’t internalized calcium, which is stone,” he said. “We’re not different from it—we’re partly composed of it.”

And it’s that ecological awareness that Dr. Cohen said he hopes readers take away from the book, and extrapolate from that a concern for modern environmental issues.

“We’re so on the edge of crisis right now that I think anything that we can do to think about the ways we dwell in this world is good,” he said. “We need to hesitate more and we need to think a lot more about our relationships to objects and things that aren’t human, and how we treat them.”

“We would still be single-celled organisms or slime creatures if we hadn’t internalized calcium, which is stone,” he said. “We’re not different from it—we’re partly composed of it.”

The book, published in May, is the first volume from Oliphaunt Books, an imprint of open-access publisher Punctum Books. The new imprint is sponsored by GW’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, which is led by Dr. Cohen. Launching the imprint, he said, was an effort to make the book as accessible and affordable as possible—to avoid the constraints of length, small print runs and hefty price tags that can come with conventional academic publishing.

Hard copies of the print-on-demand book are $17 and the downloadable version is free. As a result, the book has notched some 1,500 downloads, around 100 hard-copy purchases and “it’s been cited like crazy,” said Dr. Cohen.

“It has a life to it that usually takes at least two or three years for a book to get, if it ever gets it.” Clearly, this is a man who has been ruminating on the lives of objects—a lot.

Not just for this latest book but also a forthcoming one, Stories of Stone—and because it’s the beginning of the semester, when he conducts, ahem, population control on some of the objects that have come to occupy his office.

Just as hours go into exploring the power and role of an object, he spends a lot of time trying to decipher when and why that power becomes sapped, “the lifespan of an object’s ability to have power over you.”

Even sentimental objects can come and go. As he talked, Dr. Cohen reached into the recycling bin and extracted a few small pieces of paper that were stapled together. It’s a little notebook his 8-year-old daughter sold him for a buck—through a store she thought up—two years ago. There’s no shortage of these little notebooks in his life.

He read aloud some of the writing inside then set down the notebook on his desk, a safe distance from the recycling bin. Now that he was telling the story about it, he said, “I can’t throw it away.”

—By Danny Freedman

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