Muted objects.

I’ve long been enamored of objects. Growing up Catholic, I memorized the names of sacred objects—alb, patten, censor, scapular, monstrance, chalice—and encountered material things that were supposedly more spiritually hardwired than others. (One indelible memory from St. Francis Cabrini Elementary School: in homage to Christ’s real-life suffering, I filed down the center aisle of church to kiss the bloody, scuffed knees of a ceramic replica of Jesus on the cross.) As an advertising copywriter, I worked to convince people that of two functionally identical products one possessed mythic powers to make its owner happier, thinner, wealthier; later, as a writer for Adbusters, I helped debunk some of those myths. Now I work at a contemporary art center, a temple of objects testifying to processes that already occurred, energy already spent: Lucio Fontana’s art was the slashing of a canvas long ago, moreso than the defiled picture plane on display; Kazuo Shiraga’s Pollock-esque painting is energized by the knowledge that he created it not with brushes but with his feet while hanging from a rope.

Objects have stories, and that's what I love about them. An increasing problem with modern industrial culture, though, is that it mutes objects. As we maximize the distance between a product's creator and its user, we detach the thing from its stories. It wasn’t so long ago, writes Rebecca Solnit in an excellent essay for Orion, that
everything was recognizable not just as a cup or a coat, but as a cup made by so-and-so out of clay from this bank on the local river or woven by the guy in that house out of wool from the sheep visible on the hills. Then, objects were not purely material, mere commodities, but signs of processes, human and natural, pieces of a story, and the story as well as the stuff sustained life. It's as though every object spoke--some of them must have sung out--in a language everyone could hear, a language that surrounded every object in an aura of its history.
Today, objects are silenced: a sweatshirt from the Gap won’t tell of the abuses of the worker who made it, a gold ring is separated from the spent ore and the toxic processes used to extract it from the ground. And many people like it this way. Why should the suffering of a worker 3,000 miles away affect my enjoyment of a steaming cup from Starbucks? But while Marx wrote that "All commodities are only definite masses of congealed labor-time," Solnit concludes otherwise, ending on a hopeful note: "what cheers me are the ways people are learning to read the silent histories of objects and choosing the objects that still sing."

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