A Sociology of Things

Igor Kopytoff suggests a biography of things:

“In doing the biography of a thing, one would ask questions similar to those one asks about people: What, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its ‘status’ and in the period and culture, and how are these possibilities realized? Where does the thing come from and who made it? What has been its career so far, and what do people consider to be an ideal career for such things? What are the recognized ‘ages’ or periods in the thing’s ‘life,’ and what are the cultural markers for them? How does the thing’s use change with its age, and what happens to it when it reaches the end of its usefulness?” (XA 67)

By doing such a biography, Kopytoff argues, we might illuminate the ways in which things are not only materially constructed, but socially and culturally constructed as well. We could examine the life of a car, as it goes from gleaming newness to well-used shabbiness, to dilapidation, and (if it is lucky) to a second life as a restored classic. Notice that, by calling the well-loved classic lucky, I am already talking about the thing as if it were in some ways human. Indeed, with the example of a classic car, the real felt and often admitted emotional and psychological attachment is quite common. We might be less inclined to consider the biography of a paper clip, or of a dollar bill, or of a blender.

Last night I happened to watch the documentary Tapped (2009, Dir. Stephanie Soechtig, Jason Lindsey) on Netflix. It is essentially a (quite lucid) examination and condemnation of the bottled water industry. I admit that the most compelling sequences were those which exposed the unjust and heavy-handed tactics of the large water-bottling corporations (Nestle, Coke, and Pepsi, in case you don’t know). However, the film also contained the obligatory discussion of the way that plastic water bottles originate in oil and become waste. The life story of a bottle. These sorts of ecological project, those that take on litter or resource depletion, are always faced, it seems to me, with the task of waking up their audiences to the thingness of their things. And how often biography seems an appropriate rhetorical mode.  Tapped, however, seems to fail in their bottle biography at at least one (crucial) moment in the bottle’s life: the time it spends actually interacting with humans.  The analysis of the bottle-making process is well-developed, and accompanied by footage of the bottle factory.  Likewise, the end result of bottle profusion is demonstrated through an interview with an ecologist, a walk along a well-littered beach, and a trip out into the North Pacific gyre.  The moments in between however, what might be called the bottle’s “best years,” are captured only in a hazy segment shot from a low angle in which anonymous masses walk down the street carrying their water bottles absentmindedly in hand.  This seems to fall short of the purpose, if only because it is just this absentmindedness with regards to the thing of the bottle that the documentarians have an interest in shaking up.

In a similar sense, Bruno Latour introduces a sociology of things. He speaks of things as “nonhumans” in order to emphasize their ongoing relationship with what is designated (often without examination of the term) as “human” (XC 298). The things he is most interested in examining are those things to which we have “delegated” some otherwise more difficult human actions or responsibilities (XC 299). I might call his things technology, but technology broadly construed. Latour’s illustrates his concepts (often quite humorously) through the example of a hydraulic groom or automatic door closer. Through the introduction of a door (which replaces the human necessity of smashing down a wall and then rebuilding it each time we wish to enter or leave a building), a spring (which eliminates the need of a human groom or door-man, as well as the hassle of constantly training the general public to close the door behind them), and a hydraulic pump (which, by storing up real human energy, eliminates the possibility of being injured or distressed by a too-quickly swinging door), the door-closer integrates itself very particularly into a real human social context. It does human work, and it even has certain limitations which impose actions back onto human actors (the need to keep the door open, for example) which Latour calls “prescription” (XC 301).

Latour suggests that if we want to know just how much work we have delegated to a particular thing, we must only imagine the world without it. He insists that a study of society which does not include the things to which we have delegated human responsibilities would ever be incomplete and ultimately misleading.  A study of the ‘flash mob’ phenomenon or the student protests of Iran’s Green Revolution, for example, would seem ridiculous if it neglected to include the complex role that social media played in their organization and outcomes.  Likewise, a study of family eating habits must incorporate an interest in the cookery, the ingredients, and the table.

A genealogy of things might prove equally fruitful. We might examine the heritage of a thing, those things which came before it and might be said to have ‘led to’ the particular thing we are interested in investigating. The ancestors of a thing might find their kinship in a physical relationship, a relationship of specific purpose, or an aesthetic heritage. In any case, tracing such relationships between things might illuminate the various paths by which our ideas about things, their specific cultural meanings, transform over time.

As a quick example, a short history of the phone:

The early telephone had a separate apparatus for speaking and for listening.  It was an expensive technology; people usually had only one phone in their house, and this often in the main hall.  In order to call someone, you had to ring through the operator.  Thus, it is safe to say that the early telephone was not an exceedingly personal device.  One might not count on a telephone conversation being private, when anyone in the house might hear, to say nothing of a potentially nosy operator. But we can see that a great deal of labor has already been designated to the telephone.  It is no longer necessary to walk across town to speak to a friend, or to post a telegram or a letter (which themselves require labor in their delivery).

As telephone technology advanced, the direct-dial was added and the ear and mouth pieces were incorporated into a single handset.  This is an improvement in efficiency, for sure. We can now leave the heavy part of the phone on the table, and lift only the lightweight handset.  We have also designated to the telephone system the responsibilities once held by the operator.  It is important to note, after Latour, that the operator’s role has not disappeared; it is simply that it is now performed by a thing.  But the direct-dial also offers the possibility that the telephone might become more discreet.  We can make a call, say, to an accomplice or a lover, and we might expect a certain degree of privacy on the line as we cradle the handset on our shoulder and speak softly into the mouthpiece.

Note that word: cradle.  This is what we do with that handset, isn’t it?  And even when we set it again on the base, it is still cradled.  The aesthetic transformation of the phone, therefore, seems to mirror (to imply, to demand) a changing emotional relationship to it.  The earliest phone, likely in the parlor, looks quite a bit like a mash-up between a coat rack and a loud-speaker, a public depository with a public voice.  The later phone is more intimate.  We cradle it, we finger the dial, we twirl the coiled rubber cord.  When the phone goes cordless, it seems to imply a certain new freedom.  We are no longer tied to the wall or desk on which it sits, we are free to roam the room.  But the cordless phone seems to prescribe some new action on our part as well.  For if the phone can be where ever we are, then there is no excuse for missing a call.  We are always connected.  Though we can take the phone into the closet to speak in private, we have given over to the technology the possibility that we are ever, in fact, alone.  This last piece is carried through to the cell phone as well.

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About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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One Response to A Sociology of Things

  1. Pingback: Critical reading : Mixing humans and non-humans together : The sociology of a door-closer. Bruno Latour | Blog 4 the TELIC course

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