Objects are not just tools or things of beauty, writes Sherry Turkle in her introduction toEvocative Objects: Things We Think With. In addition, they are “companionsto our emotional lives or as provocations to thought. Thenotion of evocative objects brings together these two lessfamiliar ideas, underscoring the inseparability of thoughtand feeling in our relationship to things. We think withthe objects we love; we love the objects we think with” (5).

Less familiar in a sense, but an everyday experience: “We live our lives in the middle of things. Materialculture carries emotions and ideas of startling intensity.Yet only recently have objects begun to receive the attentionthey deserve” (6).

Theorizing about the evocative power of objects is difficult, Turkle things, because it smacks of materialism:

“Behind the reticence to examine objects ascenterpieces of emotional life was perhaps the sense thatone was studying materialism, disparaged as excess, orcollecting, disparaged as hobbyism, or fetishism, disparagedas perversion. Behind the reticence to examine objectsas centerpieces of thought was the value placed,at least within the Western tradition, on formal, propositionalways of knowing. In thinking about science, certainly,abstract reasoning was traditionally recognized asa standard, canonical style; many have taken it to be synonymouswith knowledge altogether” (6).

Other thinkers have placed interest in objects in an evolutionary scheme: “Piaget recognized thatyoung children use a style of concrete reasoning thatwas too efficacious to be simply classified as ‘wrong.’His response was to cast childrens ‘close-to-the-object’approach as a stage in a progression to a formal thinking style.” It was a childish stage that we would outgrow, a point that Levi-Strauss repeated at a cultural level: Primitive bricolage shared some features with the work of engineers, yet it was not the equal of the more abstract and formal modern though, where objects are purged (6-7).

Turkle offers a series of examples: “A jeweled pin, simple, European, clearly of the oldcountry, ties a daughter to her mother and her mixedfeelings about their immigrant status. An immersion inthe comic books of youth teaches a man how to read thelessons of superheroes in midlife. A lonely graduate studentis comforted by her Ford Falcon. The car feels likeher ‘clothing’ in the world of the street, a signal of hertaste and style. When she becomes a mother, its timefor a trade-in and a BMW station wagon.” Some objects take on a special emotional charge because of associations with childhood: “a young child believesher stuffed bunny rabbit can read her mind; a diabeticis at one with his glucometer” (7-8).

Other objects connect us with people who are no longer with us: “An artist dies, his collection ofChinese scholars rocks is left behind. A rock of meditation, ‘The Honorable Old Man’ becomes a presence inthe life of his widow, who describes it as she would herartist-husbandobsession, looking, openness to beingsurprised and moved, dignity’” (8).

Highlighting the role of objects provides a unique inter-disciplinary standpoint because “Evocative objects bring philosophy down to earth.When we focus on objects, physicians and philosophers,psychologists and designers, artists and engineers areable to find common ground in everyday experience” (8).

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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