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Evocative Objects

Evocative Objects: Things We Think With

edited by Sherry Turkle
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Evocative Objects
    Book Description:

    For Sherry Turkle, "We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with." In Evocative Objects, Turkle collects writings by scientists, humanists, artists, and designers that trace the power of everyday things. These essays reveal objects as emotional and intellectual companions that anchor memory, sustain relationships, and provoke new ideas.These days, scholars show new interest in the importance of the concrete. This volume's special contribution is its focus on everyday riches: the simplest of objects--an apple, a datebook, a laptop computer--are shown to bring philosophy down to earth. The poet contends, "No ideas but in things." The notion of evocative objects goes further: objects carry both ideas and passions. In our relations to things, thought and feeling are inseparable.Whether it's a student's beloved 1964 Ford Falcon (left behind for a station wagon and motherhood), or a cello that inspires a meditation on fatherhood, the intimate objects in this collection are used to reflect on larger themes--the role of objects in design and play, discipline and desire, history and exchange, mourning and memory, transition and passage, meditation and new vision.In the interest of enriching these connections, Turkle pairs each autobiographical essay with a text from philosophy, history, literature, or theory, creating juxtapositions at once playful and profound. So we have Howard Gardner's keyboards and Lev Vygotsky's hobbyhorses; William Mitchell's Melbourne train and Roland Barthes' pleasures of text; Joseph Cevetello's glucometer and Donna Haraway's cyborgs. Each essay is framed by images that are themselves evocative. Essays by Turkle begin and end the collection, inviting us to look more closely at the everyday objects of our lives, the familiar objects that drive our routines, hold our affections, and open out our world in unexpected ways.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-28522-3
    Subjects: Sociology, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-vii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. viii-2)
    Sherry Turkle
    (pp. 3-10)
    Sherry Turkle

    I grew up hoping that objects would connect me to the world. As a child, I spent many weekends at my grandparents’ apartment in Brooklyn. Space there was limited, and all of the family keepsakes—including my aunt’s and my mother’s books, trinkets, souvenirs, and photographs—were stored in a kitchen closet, set high, just below the ceiling. I could reach this cache only by standing on the kitchen table that I moved in front of the closet. This I had been given permission to do, and this is what I did, from age six to age thirteen or fourteen,...


    • MY CELLO
      (pp. 12-21)
      Tod Machover

      My mother tells me that I started music training when I was two. She was my teacher, helping me make music at the piano and find music all over the house. Each week, we set out on expeditions of her devising, discovering household objects that made interesting sounds, that could in turn be combined to create new textures, emotions, and narratives. Then followed the task of making a “picture” of our new composition so that we could recreate it the following week. I learned to invent music from these first principles: sound, structure, score.

      As I began to listen to...

    • KNOTS
      (pp. 22-29)
      Carol Strohecker

      I remember the day I taught my younger brother how to tie his shoes. I was nine years old and he was three, and since I often looked after him, I also frequently found myself tying his shoes. That day, we sat together on our staircase, our legs bent toward us. Looking down at our shoes, I remembered how a little mantra had helped me learn to write a figure 5: the pencil went “down, around, hat” and in three strokes reliably produced the numeral. So I made up a mantra about shoelaces having something to do with left, right,...

      (pp. 30-37)
      Susan Yee

      La Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris archives the work of the world-renowned architect, Le Corbusier. His work is studied by every student of architecture, and in the mid-1990s my task was to closely examine his sketches, drawings, notebooks, models, anything I could find that might help to construct a virtual model of one of his famed unbuilt projects, the Palace of the Soviets. The archives were located in Le Corbusier–designed buildings, Villa La Roche and Villa Jeanneret; the idea of sifting though the master architect’s original drawings in a space that was conceived by the master himself thrilled me....

    • STARS
      (pp. 38-45)
      Mitchel Resnick

      When I was growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia, there was a small field on the side of our house.¹ On summer evenings, I would go to the “side lot” (as we called it), lie on my back, and stare into the sky. My eyes would dance from star to star. But it wasn’t so much the stars that held my attention. Rather, it was the space between, around, and beyond them. At an early age (maybe seven or eight), I had started to wonder about all that space. Does it go on forever? If not, where does it...

      (pp. 46-52)
      Howard Gardner

      On July 11, 2003, I turned sixty. In front of the twenty or so friends and family that were gathered, my four children gave presentations—a poem, a newly composed piece performed on the piano, and a set of written reflections. I was touched, grateful, and struck by the fact that all four of my children spoke about keyboards. Two described the importance of music and the piano in their (and my) life; two evoked the experience of listening to me type manuscripts at night as they were nodding off to sleep.

      I am not sentimental about objects. I admire...


      (pp. 54-61)
      Eden Medina

      As a child, I lived to dance. My early ballet lessons still stay with me, a long series of carpools from one musty studio to another. I began my training at age four after my parents presented me with my first pair of ballet slippers and drove me to the local studio. Dressed in baggy leotards and pink cotton tights, my fellow four-year-olds and I learned to rotate our hips unnaturally outward into “first position,” stand rigidly with our shoulders back and our stomachs sucked in, and eventually associate meaning with French words such astenduandplié.

      There are...

      (pp. 62-69)
      Joseph Cevetello

      Every morning the first thing I do is search my apartment for my blue case. In it is my Elite Glucometer, lancet, syringes, and other blood glucose testing paraphernalia. Carefully I open a test strip packet, insert it into my glucometer, load my lancet device with a sharp, new needle, search the tips of my fingers for a choice spot, and prick myself. I squeeze my finger until a tiny droplet of blood forms and hold the glucometer close until the vacuum pulls in the correct amount of blood.

      The counter on my glucometer begins to count down time. It...

      (pp. 70-75)
      Matthew Belmonte

      Even in primary school I was preoccupied with the idea of protection from an unpredictable world. Protection often came in the form of a glaringly bright, yellow raincoat that kept me dry on rainy days on my way to school. A thoroughly synthetic creation made of rubberized polyester, it would have been difficult to imagine anything less natural. It would be difficult to imagine an artifact that more embodies the tension between myself and my environment. More than its function of keeping rain out, however, it represented my fear of letting anything in—people most of all.

      People were the...

      (pp. 76-85)
      Michelle Hlubinka

      Benjamin Franklin aspired to be a person of high moral virtue and used time management technology to try to become that person. He created a planner and explained his effort, writing, “I conceiv’d the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish’d to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into.”¹

      A page of his planner reads:

      In childhood, we experience the passage of time as undifferentiated flow, marked by naptimes, meals, sunsets, and the familiar jingle of a favorite daily cartoon....

      (pp. 86-91)
      Annalee Newitz

      My laptop computer is irreplaceable, and not just for all the usual reasons. It’s practically a brain prosthesis. Sometimes I find myself unable to complete a thought without cracking it open and accessing a file of old notes, or hopping online and Googling a fact or two.

      Besides, I love it. I would recognize the feel of its keyboard under my fingers in a darkened room. I have worn two shiny spots on it where the palms of my hands rest when I’m not typing. I carried it on my back all over England, Cuba, Canada, and the United States....

      (pp. 92-100)
      Gail Wight

      At the back of my top dresser drawer is a black calfskin wallet with a plaid interior, its fine stitching torn where the leather itself started to tear. Finally too worn to be used, the wallet holds something more important, my last tab of Ludiomil.

      A tab of Ludiomil is not something one saves for a rainy day. It wouldn’t do anything on its own, like a faded hit of acid might, or a bit of shriveled mushroom, or a nip bottle rescued from some uncertain vacation. It needs at least thirteen others of its kind to be effective—doled...


      (pp. 102-109)
      Julian Beinart

      The waterless coastline stretches thousands of miles, from just north of Cape Town all the way to Angola. I grew up in a small town at the southern tip of this desert and was a child when German submarines torpedoed Allied convoys and left survivors to waste away on this Skeleton Coast. My town was a hot and dull center for wheat farmers. The tallest building was the Dutch Reformed Church, an Afrikaner Gothic steeple, to which white dressed-up farmers’ kids would march on Sunday mornings. My family belonged to the synagogue across the mud of a river, in an...

      (pp. 110-117)
      Irene Castle McLaughlin

      Silver, gold, shell, stone: my jewelry basket is organized according to these objective, formal properties, these visual markers and guides for ready access. Like any collection, my jewelry could just as easily be sorted by age, value, place of origin, or even by color. There is another underlying narrative that is known only to me. In the context of that story—my life story—these objects are heirlooms, gifts, invocations.

      I reach for an old Navajo cuff bracelet when I want to invoke the spirits of my female ancestors and allies. The cuff is an object of power in its...

      (pp. 118-125)
      David Mitten

      I first saw it at my maternal grandfather’s house on his home farm, named Shannondale Farm, in Berlin Township, Holmes County, Ohio, more than sixty years ago. My personal talisman of the past, this stone axe head was made and used by native Americans around 5,000 years ago, in what was much later to become north-central Ohio. Its history stretches far back into remote time, thousands of years before European settlers came to this area of North America. Almost all my life, I have kept and treasured this axe head and the story it has to tell, one that can...

      (pp. 126-135)
      Susan Spilecki

      On my desk stand two small plastic bottles. On the label of the first are the wordsDit Da Jow,Wing Lam Secret Kung Fu Liniment. Wing Lam is a teacher of kung fu in Sunnyvale, California, by way of Canton and Hong Kong. The bottle label sports an antique photo of an older Chinese man, shirtless, beating his open palm against a stack of bricks. Behind this photo is the outlined picture of a tiger fighting a dragon. Twisting off the white cap, I can smell the liniment (dit da—bruise or strike;jow—wine or tincture). It smells...

      (pp. 136-142)
      Nathan Greenslit

      When she was about two years old, my daughter Emma was afraid of our rather loud vacuum cleaner. When children get scared, adults try to comfort them by representing their fears as irrational. Adults say: “It’s okay, but see, there’s nothing to be scared of.” In this negotiation, children don’t buy this adult story for a second; they come up with their own plans to manage their feelings.

      In Emma’s case, she talked to our vacuum, telling it that “it’s okay that you scare me.” Emma’s strategy was to help the vacuum deny its own identity as a frightening object....


      (pp. 144-151)
      William J. Mitchell

      I was born in a lonely flyspeck on the absurdly empty map of the Australian interior. When I eventually took an interest in such things, I discovered that Mark Twain had once passed through there, and had written inFollowing the Equator:“Horsham sits in a plain which is as level as the floor—one of those famous dead levels which Australian books describe so often; gray, bare, somber, melancholy, baked, cracked, in the tedious long droughts, but a horizonless ocean of vivid green grass the day after a rain. A country town, peaceful, reposeful, inviting, full of snug houses,...

    • 1964 FORD FALCON
      (pp. 152-161)
      Judith Donath

      In 1964, when I was two, my mother bought a baby blue Ford Falcon. She drove this car for several years while I sat in the back, asking if we were there yet. Then we moved to Long Island, home of the endless traffic jam. The Falcon’s response to the slow stop-and-go crawl was to overheat, its red emergency light insisting on a stop by the side of the road, hood open, radiator steaming. My mother bought a more reliable car and my father decided to store the Falcon in the garage, in anticipation of the day when he would...

      (pp. 162-169)
      Trevor Pinch

      It was the sound that first drew me in. What was a police siren doing in a university common room during the annual “Freshers Fair”? The various university clubs had set up their stalls and we, the “freshers” (the British name for freshmen or first-year students), were prowling around looking to join the clubs of our choice. It was 1970—the tail-end of student radicalism. I made a beeline for the “Soc Soc” (the Socialist Society) stall. But I followed my ears to the source of the siren.

      On a nearby table, surrounded by a small group of what we...

      (pp. 170-177)
      Tracy Gleason

      I had just begun my graduate research on imaginary companions, including children’s animated stuffed toys, when my little sister, Shayna, was born. Like many little girls, Shayna received a host of stuffed bunnies in her first two years and quickly became mistress of a bunny menagerie. A student of scientific categorization, my father named each bunny according to its distinguishing characteristics. The smallest was Mini Bunny, and the two bunnies with clothes were named Big Jacket Bunny and Little Jacket Bunny. A Mama Bunny came with Baby Bunnies #1 to 4. A bunny with a soft cotton collar less than...

      (pp. 178-183)
      David Mann

      How they decided, I do not know. Maybe in a moment of grace they sensed my need and chose to help me. Maybe they were just “keeping up with the Joneses,” as one did in those days. Did the neighbors have a Philco, a Eureka, and a box of books, necessitating ours? I do not know how it happened, but as improbable as it looks from the distance of these years, my parents bought for us the 1952 edition of theWorld Book Encyclopedia,and, in doing so, literally gave me a world.

      I came from a family of very...

      (pp. 184-192)
      Susan Rubin Suleiman

      For a long time, I thought of it as a precious thing: a flower pin, long and slender, the sculpted leaves spreading on both sides of the stylized petals, with two symmetrically placed pearls in the middle. My mother wore it on the collar of her black dress in the photos we posed for before we left Hungary. It was in the spring of 1949, a few months before we crossed the border into Czechoslovakia. I still recall the session with the fancy photographer, who came to our house and had me leaning against doorposts in casual, girlish poses (I...


      (pp. 194-207)
      Henry Jenkins

      I bought the comics on the way to the hospice. They were selected hastily and even then, I felt guilty about the time it took. I was looking for something banal, familiar, and comforting at a time when my world was turning upside down. I read them intermittently as my family sat on deathwatch, my experience of the stories becoming interwoven with our common memories and the process of letting go of my mother. Retreating from the emotional drama that surrounded me, I found myself staring into the panic-stricken eyes of a young Bruce Wayne, kneeling over the newly murdered...

      (pp. 208-215)
      Stefan Helmreich

      The Polaroid SX-70 camera, introduced during the 1970s, was a folding chrome-and-leather single-lens reflex camera that looked like a cross between a tiny, trapezoidal accordion and a collapsible robot toy. It delivered instant color photos, framed in white plastic borders, in just under 1.5 seconds. Once outside the camera, in the light, the pictures took about a minute to develop fully, ripening from an initial turquoise haze into a creamy colorful lucidity, a process one could watch through the transparent Mylar membrane covering the swirl of chemicals that would constitute the photograph. In the time it took for SX-70 pictures...

      (pp. 216-223)
      Glorianna Davenport

      I stare at the first photograph that I have pulled out of a small cardboard box labeled “Glorianna to make copies.” It is a picture of my father in his youth by a lake with a dog. I never knew my father had a dog. Three years ago, I promised my siblings that I would digitize a large collection of memorabilia—images and videos. For this, I recently added a scanner to my image-processing setup at our cranberry farm. My promise still unfulfilled, guilt is balanced with the anticipation of new discoveries. As I continue to muse, the image of...

      (pp. 224-231)
      Susan Pollak

      If I close my eyes, I can almost go back to my grandmother’s kitchen. The fragrance of pot roast permeates the air, redolent with caramelized onions, potatoes, and carrots. I can see the golden lemon sponge cake, made with nearly a dozen eggs, just emerging from its worn silver Bundt pan. And I can smell the cups of steaming black tea with sugar. This was Grandma Tilly’s healing elixir, which could soothe any pain and still the rivers of my childhood tears and adolescent rage.

      A shaft of sun on the kitchen table illuminates the sugar bowl and the flowered,...

      (pp. 232-243)
      Caroline A. Jones

      The object in question is stock-in-trade for an art historian; the illustration shows it: an oil painting in the standard illusionist mode. Of course, as a painting (even a bad one), it is meant to transcend thing-ness altogether. We are meant to assemble the photons reflecting from this colored mud-on-canvas to see a grouping of people, apparently children of various ages, standing together in an indeterminate space. What becomes evocative about this object for a given viewer is unpredictable, but probably the expressions on the children’s faces would provoke some thought: two girls smile, a boy conveys mock surprise, a...

      (pp. 244-250)
      Olivia Dasté

      It is here, still closed, in front of me. This is my grandmother’s suitcase, one she would have used when she came from France. It is small, just large enough for one person to pack for a one-or two-week trip. It is firehouse red. It has tan leather handles and an exterior made of a sturdy canvas material. It has two large golden buckles, several zippers, and interior compartments. It is the perfect balance between elegant and practical, just like her. The logo boasts “Globe Trotter,” echoing my grandmother’s love of travel. With her newfound liberty after her husband and...


      (pp. 252-259)
      Nancy Rosenblum

      How can a rock, the quintessential physical object, be metaphysical? How can a stone sing? Where does nature stop and culture begin?

      Tap a stone and it rings, as if it were a cast metal bell. It is resonant. A blackLingbirock has an astonishing, glossy skin. ATaihu tilts dizzilyto the side as if it were an overhanging peak, embodying what the Chinese call “awkwardness.” AYinghas veining and a wildly wrinkled surface, suggesting age. My rocks are un-rocklike. They are plain limestone contradicting itself. The most earthy and banal material transcends itself to become exotic....

    • APPLES
      (pp. 260-269)
      Susannah Mandel

      As far back as I can remember, I have had an unusual fondness for apples. When my roommates offer to pick up fruit at the grocery, they are often startled by my specificity: “Galas are festive, but only if they’re brightly streaked, red and yellow like a fall leaf. If the skin seems dull, buy Fujis—you’ll see them stacked in a chilled mountain—or some Pink Ladies. But make sure they’re ripe; the proper color of a Lady is like champagne, or the rose they used to tint women’s cheeks with in old photographs. If they’ve gone too soft...

      (pp. 270-277)
      Jeffrey Mifflin

      I have in my custody as the archivist and curator at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital a large and significant collection of historical objects, including paintings, chandeliers, medical and surgical instruments, antique baby bottles, and a horse-drawn ambulance. The most unusual object in the MGH’s historical collection, however, is undoubtedly its 2,650-year-old Egyptian mummy.

      On an August day in 1998, before my initial job interview, I explored the circuitous halls of the hospital, making a pilgrimage to the famous Ether Dome, the old operating amphitheater, where in 1846 the first public demonstration of surgical anesthesia had taken place. I was astonished...

      (pp. 278-285)
      Michael M. J. Fischer

      “It’smyarticle!” Irene complains about her 124th publication, the first of a nine-part abridgment of her scientific autobiography, appearing as she nears her 97th birthday: “Why can’t they use the title the way I wrote it?”¹ She is right, of course. She usually is, even if the words don’t always come out right. My mother is confined to chair and wheelchair. Her eyes tire too quickly to read very much.

      The title of her autobiography isGeodesy? What’s That? My Personal Involvement in the Age-Old Quest for the Size and Shape of the Earth, With a Running Commentary on...

      (pp. 286-295)
      Robert P. Crease

      My first encounter with Foucault’s pendulum left me unsettled.

      I was twelve years old and visiting the Franklin Institute, a science museum in the heart of Philadelphia, the city where I was born. This was before the heyday of interactive demonstrations, but the Institute had plenty of hands-on exhibits, mostly in electricity and mechanics, that I found fascinating and gratifying. The display in the main staircase to the right of the main entrance, however, was different. It was a simple device: a heavy polished silver bob, about two feet in diameter, suspended by a wire cable from the ceiling four...

      (pp. 296-306)
      Evelyn Fox Keller

      I take an organism as my object, the lowly amoeba-like protist,Dictyostelium.In times of plenty, it lives as an individual single-celled organism but, when food supplies are exhausted, it regroups. Then, this one-celled protist becomes part of a complex multicellular motile slug capable of producing fruiting bodies and spores, and of migrating in search of greener pastures where the new spores can germinate.¹ Over the years, it has attracted a great deal of scientific interest, partly because it so elegantly exemplifies a primitive form of biological development, and partly for the paradoxes it embodies. On the one hand, here...

    (pp. 307-327)
    Sherry Turkle

    What makes an object evocative?¹ As I write,Bodies,an exhibition of preserved humans from China, is on tour internationally. Its objects, poised between death and new animation, raise questions about the sanctity of what has lived, the nature of art, and the human beings who once were the objects on display. Thinking about the uncanny, about thresholds and boundaries helps us understand these objects with their universal powers of evocation.

    And yet, the meaning of even such objects shifts with time, place, and differences among individuals.² Some find the preserved bodies the fearsome creatures of night terrors. For others,...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 328-343)
  13. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 344-363)
  14. Epigraph Sources
    (pp. 364-369)
  15. Illustration Credits
    (pp. 370-373)
  16. Index
    (pp. 374-386)