Objects to Stuff and Back: Materiality, Value, and the Politics of the Ordinary
by Maurizia Boscagli

Materiality and the Logistics of Value

     At this time of deep cultural and political crisis of the subject, what of the object? The status of the object as commodity, inextricably enmeshed with the human, seems to have taken the backseat in recent discussions of materiality. The current analysis of materiality speaks the language of the sciences, and has taken up as its chief terrain nature and the environment, often with a vitalist, and even post-Romantic tone1, as in the work of Lawrence Buell, or Jane Bennett, or, at times, with a more socially conscious one2, as in Rob Nixon’s. Yet, both sides agree that we need to think of nature and man-made materiality together. We also need to remember that both nature and the object do not exist outside history, and that both can always be produced for profit and consumed as commodities. What most of the different tendencies of New Materialist thinking3 share, particularly the analyses that follow the theories of Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway4, is an attempt to rethink materiality beyond human exceptionalism. This critique of human exceptionalism is important for the materialist cultural critic, concerned as she should be with the cultural effects of the current formations of capital on the embodied subject, and with the vectors of biopower and the penetration of market logic into all areas of human life. The study of materiality today, both in cultural materialist critique and in New Materialist discourse, at the time of neoliberalism and of the post-dialectic, of continued technologically-driven acceleration and of the full abstraction of the commodity, must attend to the fragile connection between human and non-human, animate and inanimate, and to the different modalities of the production of value. The valorization of materiality by capital works to make monological the multivocal semiotic and affective economies of the object, and to refuse its openness to the subject, its hybridity. The task of a committed materialist criticism must be to make visible again the affective economies enmeshing subject and object.
…. This essay relocates hybrid materiality from the terrain of scientific discourse, where Latour and Haraway have helped carry it, to the space of the everyday. Ordinary materiality has the potential to make market valorization unstable and to exceed the grid of Western scientific-philosophical knowledge once we begin to recognize it as stuff, the amorphous accumulation and aggregation of objects that signals the object’s loss of market value. Stuff is what the object becomes at the moment when it loses its contours, the armor that had defined it in a relation of subjection to the human, and as a commodity for sale5. This materiality has in fact never existed by itself, outside the sphere of the human or the economic alike. Always part of a circuit of production and consumption, the embodied materiality on which my discussion concentrates, establishes a relation to the human that is articulated neither in terms of passivity and domination, nor in terms of full autonomy, but rather as a sharing of life in common.
…. The contemporary image of this hybrid traffic between subject and object is anticipated by the work of Walter Benjamin in the early twentieth century. Benjamin, whose work should be regarded as a precursor to Latour’s and Haraway’s thought, more than any other theorist has been able to productively complicate the discourse of vitalism at the core of much contemporary discourses of materiality. His intellectual project involves bending a prevailing vitalism in the direction of cultural materialism. My discussion of objects, aesthetic and market value, and of the everyday, is sustained by Benjamin’s theorization of materiality, particularly by his interest in stuff, in waste, and the forgotten, outdated objects of the Arcades, the waxworks, the lost libraries. This was an interest he shared with the Surrealists. For both Benjamin and the Surrealists, when an object ceases to be a commodity, as in the case of a dusty object admired in the Parisian arcades, it establishes a new connection with the human: the ex-commodity becomes a potentially liberatory space, the receptacle of a future that has not yet taken place, containing the desires of previous generations against the logic of capital. Benjamin’s “Medusean gaze”, to use Adorno’s phrase, ex-rays the commodity into stuff, materiality on the verge of becoming undifferentiated waste. As unwanted stuff, the objects that interested Benjamin are able to carry the tactility and the affectivity that is circulate in everyday exchanges with the subject. Benjamin sees the materiality of these objects and ideally of all materiality, as alive, charged with an agentic power capable of producing flashes, illuminations. It’s these moments of illumination in the secret, subversive interaction of subject and object as “stuff” that call the subject into being, thus making her aware that she is becoming-with-things, things that are not, therefore, inanimate.
…. With Benjamin the Spinozian immanentism of New Materialist ontology becomes shot through with Messianic Marxism, so that when we look at the commodity we see the fetish (in anthropological, rather than economic terms) and its radiance as a photographic negative, as an inversion of the monological narrative of the commodity as glamorous objet of the consumer’s gaze. This is a materiality that deeply affects the subject: when the object sheds its commodity skin it can vibrate, radiate with the very memories, affects, meanings that capital tries to channel and make stable and univocal, for its own ends.
…. In the contemporary moment, when the subject is asked to continually produce and reproduce herself entrepreneurially; when, with the collapse of the difference between work and leisure, there is no more time for life, and the everyday gets more and more eroded; when both the subject and the object have become faceless and perfunctory prostheses of capitalist logistics6 and its demands for a smooth and rapid circulation of flows; then the possibility to recognize the radiance, if not radioactivity, of the object, is becoming more and more contingent and therefore urgent. Thus the urgent need to focus on the unstable status of everyday materiality and on its potential to make noise, to shake up and contradict the monumental stillness that characterizes the commodity as well as the object valorized, in our case, by the conventional protocols of art institutions. I want to consider here how the reified object is radically recast in four contemporary cultural texts: Olivier Assayas’ 2008 film Summer Hours, (L’heure d’ete’), Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel 10:04, the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, created and curated by the novelist Orhan Pamuk, and the title of his eponymous novel (2008), and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, founded by David Wilson in 1988. Each of these texts are centered on a conflict between, on the one hand, the value imparted on the object by the expert and the institution, and on the other, by the alter-value that tactility and ordinary human experience produce. Such everydayness can become a source of a new marvelous, a new version of what the Surrealists envisioned: this is a marvelous not simply connected to the unconscious, but capable of awakening a new awareness of memory, the past, and personal and familial mythologies.
…. Instead of taking the “frozen” status of the object as a fait accompli, the cultural critic needs to search for anomalies in the system, for “bad objects” that might contradict and complicate official forms of valorization. Two are the conditions by which the commodity and the art object as commodity can rename themselves and become independent agents of alternative value: first, the momentous liminality of the object on the verge of becoming valueless waste, that is, stuff; and second, the out-of-placedness of the object when it is removed from its original milieu into a different one. This displacement, in particular, produces a defamiliarization of the object’s meaning and value, so that, aptly disrobed, it can tell another story. This movement from the space of the museum to the everyday, and viceversa, can cause a temporary arrest, a blockage of the logistics of value–a rapid circulation of materiality within what appears as a seamless circuit of valorization and profit.
…. Before turning to the texts, one more consideration of the everyday, a key concept for my discussion. This is the everyday theorized by Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau7 as a space and time traversed by and at odds with the clocked temporality of production and consumption. This is the territory of residual and alternative practices, of the potential for a different valorization of life, experience, and materiality. Everyday materiality refuses at times to carry its price tag, and rather strives to engage the subject in a haptic exchange. In discussing objects as quotidian materiality, I walk the thin and at times uneasy line between a Lefevbrian joyous utopianism, and the disconsolate pessimist realism of Guy Debord when he theorizes spectacle. The potential for the everyday to change what counts as value, like the everyday itself is becoming eroded and more and more intermittent, (Jonathan Crary says as much for example, of a key everyday experience, sleep8). The everyday remains, however, the space of Benjamin’s stuff, the useless assemblage of disactivated commodities that can now radiate all their critical and affective (and affecting) power. The texts I discuss, and to which I now turn, are all centered on a return to, and a traffic with the everyday. In each case this return/traffic is presented as a matter of visibility: the question is how to make the embodied aura of the object recognizable in the overlit panorama of hypermodernity.


Radiant Objects In and Out of the Museum

     Olivier Assayas’ film Summer Hours (France, 2008) and Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 (US, 2014) present inverted mirror images of each other. In the film several art works travel from the family home to the museum; in a salient scene in the novel the artifact moves from the museum (or a post-museum limbo, as I will soon explain), to a private home. In fact in Assayas’ film the trajectory of the valuable objet is even more convoluted: a number of artworks and objects used in the film actually came from the Musee’ d’Orsay in Paris. Summer Hours started as an assignement from the museum, whose curator asked Assayas to make a film that would incorporate some of its holdings: a couple of paintings by Corot, another by Odilon Redon, a desk, an armoire, and various vases.   The project was eventually dropped by the Ministry of Culture, but the museum kept its word and even let Assays shoot a key scene on its premises9.

1. Summer Hours (2008), the family lunch

Summer Hours (2008), the family lunch

2. Summer Hours, Helene’s desk

Summer Hours, Helene’s desk


…. The film opens with one of the most iconic scenes of French cinema: an intergenerational family reunited around the table, sharing a meal en plein air. Soon after this gathering of the elderly mother and of the three adult children and their families, the matriarch Helene dies, and the children must decide what to do with the country house and its contents. This is the family house where they all grew up, and where Helene, till her death, dedicated herself to preserving both furniture, objects, and paintings and family memories, including a family secret: her relationship with her uncle, a painter. It is with this past and its legacy that the three siblings must reckon. What is passed between one generation and another are not simply objects, but their affective value and the memories attached to them. The house and its contents, they all decide, will be sold: only a valuable antique desk will be kept, to be donated to the Musee’ d’Orsay. Frederic, a lawyer and a Paris resident, is the only son who would like to keep the house for his family and for future generations. To the other siblings, Adrienne, an industrial designer based in New York, and Jeremie, who manages sneaker factories in China, to where he has moved his own family, the house is only a burden.
…. The film is centered on loss, and its tone is quite melancholic. When the mother dies all the objects she had loved and preserved become commodities for sale: none of the siblings, whether they live close by or far away, can or wants to take anything with them. The static, almost atemporal quality of family life in the country contrasts with the dynamic, transnational and entrepreneurial lives that the grown children now live: two of them are part of the flows and the logistics of the upper level of global emigration. Like the objects for sale from their mother’s house, Adrienne and Jeremie are homeless, but their homelessness speaks the language of economic success, productivity, and capitalist innovation. In this context it seems fitting that the objects that would burden them, as much as the idea of being “back home”, are either discarded, again made static inside the museum, or sold, re-absorbed into a circle of money exchange. Nothing else can be done with them.

…. Another French film from a few decades ago comes to mind, Bertrand Tavernier’s Sunday in the Country (Un dimanche a la champagne, France, 1984). The film proposes almost exactly the same situation we see in Assayas’ work. This time it’s a father, a painter himself, who, aging solitarily in his beautiful country house, is faithfully visited every Sunday by his son and his family.   Exceptionally, in the afternoon shown in the film, the daughter Irene comes to visit too. She is an entrepreneur in Paris, and a figure of modernity (in 1912 she drives a car, smokes, and owns a boutique). In a trunk in the attic Irene finds a shawls that had belonged to her now dead mother and decides to sell it in her shop. Thus a material trace of affect and of the maternal is confidently and enthusiastically turned into money. In Sunday in The Country affect can be recirculated as exchange value without regret, as long as it creates value for France. In 1912, when the film is set, family history can unsentimentally be converted into wealth for the country, (nobody protests against Irene’s initiative), and for its economic growth. The exchangeable family values are recycled directly into the nation’s wealth.

3. Sunday in the Country (1984), Irene arrives with her car

Sunday in the Country (1984), Irene arrives with her car

…. By 2008, the object taken from the French ancestral home tells another story: the contents of the house can be recirculated and turned into exchange value, but this recirculation within France by now has become limited and local. In the present geopolitical scenario what would make Helene’s things valuable would be their entering the global and transnational economy of our time. Hence this family stuff cannot have value for the trasnational entrepreneurs Adrienne and Jeremie. The economies to which both siblings contribute are no longer centered in France, but rather in China and the US, the two key centers of contemporary productivity and capitalist accumulation. France, together with the localism and present marginality of its economy, financial and affective, is now obsolete and has value only as memory. But even memory, as the memory of the quintessential unit of French society, the bourgeois family, is lost with Helene’s dispersed objects. What the objects gesture towards is a story that doesn’t matter even to the people who are closest to it, and as such it will be erased and made invisible once the desk enters the museum. Here the proximity of the users and the tactility that the piece of furniture provided at home is gone, and so is family memory. These qualities are lost when the desk is relocated in the museum, made anonymous, and asked to simply contribute to a generic history of the nation and to France’s past grandeur. But this grandeur can be only admired at a distance. At the end the conviviality with which the film opened, the affective experience of togetherness of the family, is no longer possible, and is rather superseded by an act of lonely aesthetic contemplation, as we can see when Frederic and his wife wistfully look at the desk exhibited on a dais at the Musee’ d’Orsay.
…. At this point the house has been emptied and is about to be sold. In a very poignant scene the old and faithful domestic goes around the locked house, looking inside through the glass into a place where she no longer belongs, repeating the very drama of separation and voyeurism of the scene when Frederic looks at the desk from a distance in the museum. At the end, while the house becomes the stage for a teen party, Helene’s granddaughter leaves her friends behind to show her boyfriend the estate. She stops and burst into tears under a tree where her grandmother had once told her about how she will inherit the place and how she will be always able to come back.   Notwithstanding its banality and sentimentality, this is the only meaningful memory moment of the film. Memory can no longer be entrusted to objects, whose affective value can be easily obscured and lost, but it can remain in the person herself, even though it’s nothing more than a melancholic acknowledgment of a loss. Affectively charged materiality in the film becomes a taxidermed object of contemplation, cleansed of any connection to the past or the future. Sanitized of the intimate touch of family history, the desk enters a teleologically readable order of time, in stark contrast to the intractable affective meaning it had in the home.

…. The choice of the Musee’ d’Orsay to have a number of its artworks “come alive”, albeit indirectly and in a mediated way, by making them participate in a film, can be read as a desire for re-emboding the object. More cynically, it may be read as a form of self-advertising. But such a gesture can also be read as a protest against the progressive marginality and irrelevance of the nation, and even as a compensatory move for the loss and dispersal of nationhood and Frenchness. As Adrienne says at a certain point, she can take (and sell) her art and expertise anywhere in the world: “I can take my work wherever I want”.  With its narrative the film tries to mediate this global placelessness and the transnational facelessness of the unattached postnational entrepreneur.


While in Summer Hours the everyday is evacuated from the art object to become an object of contemplation that stands for a narrative of national past, in one of the most salient scenes of Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel10:0410 the artwork leaves the museum to be relocated in the privacy of home, only because it is damaged. 10:04 is a complex and ambitious narrative that refocuses a number of the issues at play in Assayas’ film. The first of these is the issue of the power of materiality to provide the subject with unique experiences of reality, moments of radiance that illuminate the everyday. The name of the protagonist of this New York story is never mentioned, and he simultaneously is and is not, Ben Lerner, the author. The narrator is a successful writer, and moves around Manhattan to have lunch with his agent, meet a friend who would like to conceive a baby with him, go to museums, films, and gallery openings, volunteer at the Brooklyn food co-op, and , during his perambulations, launch a number of vitriolically funny critiques of the New York zealots-glitterati, including himself in the number. Throughout he reckons with his own mortality, particularly after he is diagnosed with a heart problem. His search for auratic moments of amplified experience is mostly solitary and individual, and his desire to connect with others is often undercut by his dandyish decision to distance himself from people and events.
…. The narrative is bookended by two (historical) moments of emergency brought by natural disaster: “Hurricane Irene”, and “Hurricane Sandy” that actually hit New York respectively in 2011 and 2012, so that the at times apocalyptic tone of the novel is always more than the result of a sense of self-indulgence. Faced with health problems and the perspective of natural disaster, the protagonist toys with the desire and the refusal of fatherhood, and therefore becomes obsessed with time, above all the possibility or impossibility of the future. In the pervasive sense that time might not continue (the image of New York underwater because of climate changes reoccurs), the desire for meaningful, auratic and exceptional experiences become more and more urgent. In 10:04 these experiences are connected to materiality.
…. The treatment of objectual materiality in Lerner’s novel points to the possibility of moments of rupture, and the option for such rapture, in the mundane landscape of the protagonist’s everyday. These are moments of awareness and self-awareness, but simultaneously they imply the suspension of the self in some panic turn that, through a fully sensuous and sensory experience, shake and dissolve the subject himself.   In the book the everyday has a duplicitous and contradictory character: on the one hand it contains the potential for the wondrous, and on the other it is the time of routine, repetition, boredom. Again, it’s the out-of-placedness of the art object, out of the museum into the home, or into nature, or the serendipitous radiance of an everyday commodity during an exceptional weather event, that makes materiality the perfect conduit for the rapturous.
…. In a half-empty supermarket, where everybody is trying to stock up before the hurricane, the narrator picks from the shelf a can of coffee. The banal gesture turns into an unusual moment when “the approaching storm was estranging the routine of shopping just enough to make me viscerally aware of both the miracle and insanity of the mundane economy.” (19). Holding the coffee can “like the marvel that it was”, the narrator’s visionary capability veers towards a classical Marxist reading of the commodity: “It was as if the relations that had produced the object, in my hand began to glow within it as if they were threatened, stirred inside their packaging, lending it a certain aura—the majesty and murderous stupidity of that organization of time and space and fuel and labor becoming visible in the commodity itself now that planes were grounded and the highways were starting to close.” (19) Even more, the newly auratic can of coffee allows the narrator to experience a sensation that in another context could be called psychedelic: the multiplication and simultaneity of possible worlds contained in that very instant: “what normally felt like the only possible world became one among many, its meaning everywhere up for grabs, however briefly—in the passing commons of a train, in a container of tasteless coffee.”(19) This is something that he will be able to experience later in the novel as moments of syncronicity, moments when all the most disparate aspects of his experience cohere into unity, in a sort of Baudelairean correspondance. Yet the potential of this post-Symbolist world moving at the unison in all its parts, is constantly affirmed and at the same time debunked by a narrator who perfectly understands that the actual unifying element of all processes and activities is actually money. His same cynico-realistic tone, with its doubt and disbelief, reoccurs at another auratic moment in the book, when the narrator sees Donald Judd’s art in Marfa, Texas. Judd traveled to Texas in the 1960s and gave a home to his minimalist works in the spaces of the Chinati foundation. Judd’s boxes, which the narrator had already seen in a New York gallery, are looked at with a distant eye: “His [Judd’s] interest in modularity and industrial fabrication, and his desire to overcome the distinction between art and life, an insistence on literal objects in real space—I felt I could get all those things walking through a Costco or a Home Depot, or IKEA.’ (178) It’s when the boxes are shown outdoors, that they speak to him: “The work was set in time, changing quickly because the light was changing, the dry grasses going gold in it, and soon the sky was beginning to turn orange, tingeing the aluminum.” (179) Compared by the narrator to Stonehenge, Judd’s aluminum boxes become a clock, a tool for marking the passing of time. They also create for the narrator an experience of plenitude, in which, in full synchronicity, different temporal dimensions come to cojncide: “The work was located in the immediate, physical present, registering fluctuations of presence and light, and located in the surpassing disasters of modern times… but it was also tuned to an inhuman, geological duration… As the boxes crimsoned and darkened with the sunset, I felt all those orders of temporality—the biological, the historical, the geological—combine and interfere, and then dissolve.” (180) This illumination is portentous and momentary, a flash that, a la Benjamin, only punctuates human time.
…. In 10:04 the art work serves the purpose of reverberating reality, of making it more vivid and vital for the character: the aesthetic-economic value that the art gallery attaches to it melts away when Judd’s boxes come to function as a clock. The clock keeps the time (human, historical, geological), only so that it can be collapsed into the synchronicity of the auratic moment. Otherwise, when art becomes a slave to the gallery and museum system, it should only be debunked, if not destroyed.
…. This is what happens in the “gallery” of “Totaled Art” that Alena, the narrator’s friend, sets up in her apartment. Alena, who is an artist herself, manages to convince “the largest insurer in all the country” to donate to her some of the “totaled art” that is kept in a deposit in Long Island. These are artworks damaged in transit, or by fire, vandalism, or water. Once the appraiser decides that the work cannot be restored “or that the cost of restoration would exceed the value of the claim, then the insurance company pays the total value of the damaged work, which is then legally declared to have “zero value”.” (129) The works are not destroyed, but housed in the limbo of the deposit, removed from the market and from circulation.
…. The works donated by the insurer, who believes they will be exhibited in an “institute”, actually grace the walls of Alena’s apartment, where the protagonist sees them during a visit. These “indeterminate objects” (130), suspended between “art and mere objecthood” (130), completely trouble any institutional understanding of artistic and economic value. The narrator is invited to touch the works; then he is given a broken piece of porcelain that belongs to a shattered Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture and is asked to smash it against the wall. He holds the fragment and thinks: “It was wonderful to see an icon of art world commercialism and valorized stupidity shattered; it was wonderful to touch the pieces with their metallic finish, to see the hollow interior of a work of willful superficiality.” (131) When he cannot throw the piece against the wall, Alena hurls it against the floor until the ceramic is almost pulverized: “It’s worth nothing”, she basically hissed.
She looked like a chtonic deity of vengeance.” (132) This moment of almost Bataillean potlatch and joyous destruction, is a liberatory act, an intentional erasure and refusal of the wrong type of aura, we could say, the aura created by the hype and the demands of the art market. This is not even the aura imparted to the object by the uniqueness of the “touch” of the artist, (which for Benjamin in the “Art Work” essay stands as the last vestige of the sacred in modernity, and as such needs to be overcome), but rather a highly reified and economically mediated glamour. The smashing of the Koons fragment repeats this iconoclastic moment of overcoming that glamour, but it only turns the discarded fragment into dust, as if no object world is possible outside the order of objecthood sanctioned by the museum.
…. In the anti-museum of Long Island, totaled art is made invisible; in the apartment it becomes defetishized non-auratic art existing only as a testimony to the instability and failure of the value sanctioned by the institution. Its zero value turns the famous artist’s work into a type of indeterminate objectuality, suspended between mere materiality and the ruin of the auratic piece. The destruction of the “middle object”, the fragment of Koons’ sculpture, which so fascinates and paralyzes the narrator, gives him nonetheless a frisson of transgression. Alena’s act, the smashing of the porcelain, reestablishes everyday tactility as rage, and as such affirms the crisis of the aura and at the same time its return through this very negation.


Coda: Stuff and the Critique of Aesthetic Value

…. As the two texts I analyzed show, both the everyday object and the artwork enjoy an unstable status, that produces in turn a fluidity of their value—from aesthetic, to economic, to affective and back. Each time this shift is provoked by the displacement of the object into an “inappropriate” space: for instance, as we have seen, the radiant, talismanic fetish in the aisle of the supermarket; the minimalist art object in nature and “in time”; the precious eighteenth century desk from the museum to the familial everyday, to the museum again.
…. I would now like to turn to two museal (or anti-museal) spaces that incite us to reflect on this traffic between the everyday and the institution: the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. In both, the everyday object is relocated into the art institution, and presented as a valuable, auratic and therefore untouchable specimen, whose very distance, paradoxically, manages to reinstate the hapticality of the ordinary, and through it, allows the viewer to perform a critical reading of the idea of knowledge and value that the museum imparts to its artifacts.
…. After the publication of his novel The Museum of Innocence (2008), Orhan Pamuk used the money he received for the Nobel Prize to open an actual Museum of Innocence in his city, Istanbul, in 2012. The novel tells of an impossible love story between Kemal and his distant cousin Fusun. She marries another man, but Kemal becomes obsessed with her and starts collecting any object that is related to her, generally stealing it. Thus he becomes “the anthropologist of my own experience”, as he says. Preserved in eighty-three cases, one for each chapter of the book, under plexiglass, are disparate sets of objects—a testimony to Kemal’s love, but also to the history of modernity of the 1970s Istanbul bourgeoisie (to which Pamuk himself belongs), caught between tradition and the desire to become Westernized.

4. The Museum of Innocence Istanbul Fusun’s cigarette butts

The Museum of Innocence, Istanbul: Fusun’s cigarette butts

5. The Museum of Innocence Istanbul memory objects

The Museum of Innocence, Istanbul: memory objects

…. The installations, organized in cases that at times remind one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, are encyclopedical in their range: different vitrines contain kitsch ceramic dogs, lottery and cinema tickets, soda bottles, old clocks, keys, postcards, old clothes. One room on the top floor contains the bed where Kemal spent the last year of his life. More: sepia photographs of families leaning against cars, ferries on the Bosporous, one earring, a hair clip that had belonged to the beloved, and 4,213 cigarette butts, all the cigarettes smoked by Fusun that Kemal was able to collect.   All the cigarettes are stained with red lipstick, the butts pinned to the wall like butterflies, each twisted in a shape that recalls and makes palpable Fusun’s emotional state at the moment she smoked it, crushed if she was angry, for example11.
…. Kemal starts collecting all these objects in he course of the novel, with the plan to turn them into a museum; Pamuk, we could say, collected with Kemal. The novelist acquired most of the objects that are on view at the museum while writing the book. For a while he became Kemal, trying to find pieces that appeared in each chapter in the junk shops of Istanbul or of any other city he found himself visiting. This was his way of recapturing the whole epoch in which the novel is set. The museum shows “for real” what the fictive character Kemal created in Pamuk’s fiction: a collection of Fushun’s objects arranged according to his memories, so that The Museum of Innocence is the first museum based on a novel, where art imitates art in a fluid exchange between fiction and (ordinary) reality. The traffic between the museum and the everyday is therefore deeply mediated, but the objects on view are not simply delusional ephemera: while they evoke and recreate the presence of a lost person for Kemal, they also situate in the museum a
whole array of ordinary minutiae to preserve the memory of a precise moment of Turkish history.   In this sense the museum is a form of alternative historiography: the evocative, affective power of the object is meant to produce flashes of memory more than a coherent and official historical narrative, the narrative that one finds in history books.
…. The Museum of Innocence for Pamuk is a way of affirming the exceptionality of the ordinary, even the beauty of ordinary life. This is a deeply affective and affecting revitalization of the everyday object within and through the museum, which, instead of forcing the preserved artifact into the pre-captioned text of scientific objectivity or of national greatness, works to preserve the intimacy, the tactility of the stories the objects evoke. The fact that the objects are immediately “real” and fictional at the same time doesn’t detract from the experiential proximity that they allow to the viewer. In the Museum of Innocence the logic of affect, memory, and the body attached to the objects reverses the monologism of the “monument” in the traditional museum: in the context of my discussion, Pamuk pits the garrulous, and fetishistic particularity of his invented mementoes against the static universality of the antique desk that is put on display in the Musee’ d’Orsay in Assayas’ Summer Hours. Both the desk and the cigarette butts are liminal objects, suspended between reality and their fictional use, but their significance is entirely different.


…. As an example of critical alter-museum, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, (MJT), like the Museum of Innocence, is small and intimate, but the quasi fictional quasi real earnestness of Pamuk’s collection receives here an almost Dadaistic turn in the way the MJT approaches scientific knowledge and aesthetic value, and in the way it questions the voice of expertise and authority.

6. The Museum of Jurassic Technology Los Angeles Kerosene Lamp and Lantern Knowledge Magnetic Hydromancy”

The Museum of Jurassic Technology, Los Angeles: “Kerosene Lamp and Lantern Knowledge: Magnetic Hydromancy”


…. Founded by David Wilson in 1987, the MJTpresents itself primarily as a natural history museum. The collections also include art objects, obscure texts of unusual knowledge, letters and testimonies from a lay public, as well as stink ants and mice on toast. The museum occupies an inconspicuous private house along an anonymous and busy boulevard in Culver City. Once you step beyond the door you enter, somehow, another space, perfectly sealed away from the city: the silence and respectful shuffle of the visitors confirm that you have found yourself in the space of art and knowledge. The collections are spread through a number of small rooms, some of them a bit dusty, others perfectly and professionally lit.   All the permanent exhibits are described in a book-catalog12, but visiting the museum in person always elicits stronger reactions, ranging from elation at the ludic aspect of the collection, to disbelief, to angry frustration.
…. The organization of the space is labyrinthine: we move through narrow corridors to rooms and nooks, to mini-galleries, where we can see, and read about unusual and unheard of scientific tools and discoveries next to a Flemish landscape carved in a fruit pit. Letters written between 1925 and 1935 to the scientists at Mount Wilson Observatory in LA are individually framed, all thirty of them, and hung on a wall. Another room is dedicated to shoe-box size phantasmagorias, miniaturized magic lantern shows; another to the life and work of Geoffrey Sonnabend, an early twentieth century physiologist who studied obliscence, the theory of forgetting, a thought not aligned with dominant official scientific theories of memory. “The Garden on Eden on Wheels”, another exhibit and a personal favorite, displays stuff (cutlery, plates, bottles, dolls, letters) collected from Los Angeles trailer parks and mobile homes, testifying to a vibrant culture of the many people marginal to the life of affluence that supposedly characterizes Los Angeles.

7. The Museum of Jurassic Technology The Garden of Eden exhibit

The Museum of Jurassic Technology: “The Garden of Eden” exhibit


After a room dedicated to oil paintings of “Dogs Of the Soviet Space Program”, on the top floor, the visit ends in a beautiful and orientalist tea room, where one can have cookies and tea, served from an imposing samovar.

8. The Museum of Jurassic Technology, Dogs of the Soviet Space Program

The Museum of Jurassic Technology, “Dogs of the Soviet Space Program”

…. In an audiovisual presentation that the visitor can watch in a small darkened room at the entrance, the museum mission statement announces: “On the one hand the museum provides the academic community with a specialized repository of relics and artifacts from the lower Jurassic, with an emphasis on those that demonstrate unusual or curious technological qualities. On the other the museum serves the general public by providing the visitor with a hands-on experience of life in the Jurassic.” The intended double audience and the idea of a “hands-on” museum are noteworthy, but even more so is the temporality that this mission statement suggests: the paradox of a Jurassic technology implies the notion of a pre-history and of a post-history, the premodern and the postmodern. What is left out, what has no place in the MJT is modernity itself, the time that, in the West, from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, worked to create the individual subject, its knowledges and its scientific-philosophical truth, not to mention the modern polis and its economy. It’s exactly this knowledge that the MJT contests, as well as modernity’s production of the concept of expertise and authority. In this perspective the whole museum is a postmodernist art installation that continually leaves the visitor in a limbo of uncertainty regarding the “truth” of all the objects exhibited. Instead Wilson, over and
over again, asks you to give up the totalistic desire for “the truth”, and rather fix your gaze on what official knowledge has made marginal, and at the same time entertain the possibility of an alternative science. That is, the MJT questions the very assumptions upon which the traditional Western museum is founded: the authenticity of the artifact, the truth of the statements that accompany it, and the claim to a public authority.
I want to point out that the logic of the exhibits is not ironic: the dramatic lightning used to present an artifact affirms its relevance and its veracity. At the same time, reading Geoffrey Sonnabend’s material, for example, we are caught in a moment of undecidability: is this true? We can only conclude that what we see is probably true, but we are never certain. Thus the MJT invites us to use our own judgment, to be critical, and to get lost in, and accept, the instability of knowledge and of the value that gets attributed to it: the exhibit will never tell which is which, but rather you find yourself questioning what is true.

The temporality of the MJT—both premodern and postmodern at once—indicates, as the title of the monograph by Lawrence Weschler makes clear, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders, (1995), that the MJT is not, in fact a museum, but a Wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities before the 18th century reorganization of scientific knowledge produced a strict classification of nature13. From the Renaissance to the 18th century the Wunderkammer included a mix of exotic objects, stones, plants and animals that all belonged together, and had not yet been made specimens subject to the classificatory logic. Like the still-life painting of the 17th century they were to show off the education and the affluence of the collector, as well as his delight in the rare and uncommon. When the modern museum is born, the cabinet of curiosities is degraded to the status of objects without value, something that “minors” like women and children, who have neither the economic, nor the cultural capital to collect properly, might gather.
…. With its choice to put at its center the unusual, the minor, and the marginal, the MJT affirms its refusal of the authority of the institution, and of its grand narratives of Truth, Nation, and Progress. Instead, with the scientifically marginal and perhaps dubious or the intimate object, the stuff of the everyday enters the museum. When this happens, as in the MJT and in the Museum of Innocence, the moment of radiance that Benjamin is after, and that all the texts I discussed here recognize and negotiate, ignites, through artifacts that do not demand contemplation, but rather ask that the visitor to let herself be provoked and unsettled into a critical and, at the same time, affective response. It’s through this double demand for a rational critique that does not exclude feelings, as well as in the merging of the rational and the emotional, of the official and the ordinary, that the museum could begin to reconstruct a new embodied subject out of its ruins, and from the bottom up.



1 See for example Lawrence Buell, The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination, London, Wyley-Blackwell, 2005; Tim Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2013, and The Ecological Thought, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2012; and Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter, Durham, Duke University Press, 2010.
2 Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2013. See also Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, New York, Simon and Schuster, 2014.
3 New Materialism consists of an interdisciplinary constellation of interventions, that include the posthumanities, biopolitics, environmental studies, speculative realism, animal studies and affect studies. What most of these discourses share is a refusal of the dialectic and its subject-object split in favor of ontology, and of Spinozian, Bergsonian, and later Deleuzian immanence. This is not the place to provide a full bibliography, but I would like to mention some of the relevant texts in the field: Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, Diana Coole and Samantha Frost eds., New Materialism: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Durham, Duke University Press, 2010; Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman, London, Polity, 2013; Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham, Duke University Press, 2007; Brian Massumi, What Animals Teach Us About Politics, Durham, Duke University Press, 2014.
4 Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1993; Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, with Catherine Porter, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2004. Donna Haraway, When Species Meet, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2007; and The Reinvention of Nature, New York, Routledge, 1990.
5 For the concept of “stuff” see Maurizia Boscagli, Stuff Theory: Everyday Objects, Radical Materialism, New York, Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2014.
6 See Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, New York, Autonomia, 2013, in particular Ch. 3.
7 Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, London, Wyley-Blackwell 1992; Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2011.
8 Jonathan Crary, 24/7,London, Verso, 2013.
9 Dennis Lim, “In Familial Bric-a-Brac, Finding Himself”, New York, May 1, 2009. (
10 Ben Lerner, 10:04, New York Faber and Faber Inc, 2014. Hereafter all the references will be given in the text.
11 See Orhan Pamuk, The Innocence of Objects, New York, Harry N. Abrams, 2012, the catalog of and companion to the Museum of Innocence. See also J Michael Kennedy, “Turkish Writer Opens Museum Based on Novel”, The New York Times, April 29, 2012. (
12 Lawrence Weschler, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology, New York, Random House, 1996.
13 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences, New York, Vintage, 1973; Peter Pels, “The Spirit of the Matter: On Fetish, Rarity, Fact, and Fancy”, in Patricia Speyer ed., Border Fetishisms, New York , Routledge, 1998. See also Oliver Impey and Arthur MacGregor The Origin of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Europe, Oxford, Calrendon Press, 1985.



Maurizia Boscagli is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she teaches 20th and 21st century literary and visual culture, critical theory and gender studies. Her research interests include historical and new materialism, corporeality, postfordist work, space, mobility and nomadism, and aesthetics of resistance. She is the author of Eye on the Flesh: Fashions of Masculinity in the Early Twentieth Century, (Westview- HarperCollins 1996), Joyce, Benjamin, and Magical Urbanism, co-edited with Enda Duffy, (Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2011), and Stuff Theory: Everyday Objects, Radical Materialism, (Continuum-Bloomsbury, 2014). She is the translator of Antonio Negri’s Insurgencies: Constituent Power and The Modern State, (University of Minnesota, 2009). She is currently working on a manuscript on slowness, work, and the politics of not doing.