the uncanny life of objects

“The petit bourgeois views [Rücksichten] disappear, Life charms us with all its temptations to enjoyment, and so everyone, the high and the low, the rich and the poor, the pious and the worldly, steps quietly out of their relationships. The certainty with which this can happen on all sides has something uncanny [unheimlich], something horrible. It quietly and noiselessly dissolves the bonds without this being perceived from the outside. There is a dualism in this life, that naturally pulls after it the most universal demoralization.” [Berlin, Ernst Dronke]

The eye drifts to that moment of the unheimlich, here – although Dronke is writing a good sixty years before Freud. Freud, of course, also located his uncanny in two urban stories – one concerning the Sandman, in which, crucially, one of the characters looks out of his window and sees into another person’s window, and the second of which involves Freud wandering in the streets of Rome.

And yet one would think that the gothic tale is rooted in the countryside, or the forest.

Dronke, in Berlin, emphasizes an aspect of city privacy – the disconnect between oneself and one’s neighbors. There’s a matrix of themes here: privacy, solitude, the city, and the uncanny. And what is the uncanny? In one sense, it begins with a category mistake – mistaking the machine for the organic, the dead for the living. This category mistake is obviously historically conditioned and befalls those who live in a society in which the ‘projection’of life, consciousness, or power upon the inhuman is sanctioned.

When, then, this projection occurs – is it within the regime of something like the return of the repressed? I want to follow the Otherness of certain small things, commodities, like gin – or opium. Commodities which are caught up in a field of policing – or become targets of policing. For the economist, the commodity nexus is all about the disappearance of the particular characteristics of the thing in the face of the medium of exchange. For the police, however, commodity characteristics reappear. Or rather, for certain commodities they reappear. In an influential paper in the 80s, Igor Kopytoff, proposed that we can make cultural “biographies” of things.

“As Margaret Mead remarked, one way to understand a culture is to see what sort of biography it regards as embodying a successful social career. Clearly, what is seen as a well-lived live in an African society is different in outline form what would be pronounced as a well-lived life along the Ganges, or in Brittany, or among the Eskimos.

It seems to me that we can profitably ask the same range and kinds of cultural question to arrive at biographies of things. Early in this century, in an article entitled “The genealogical method of anthropological inquiry” (1910), W.H.R. Rivers offered what has since become a standard tool in ethnographic fieldwork. The thrust of the article – the aspect for which it is now mainly remembered – is to show how kinship terminology and relationships may be superimposed on a genealogical diagram and traced through the social-structure-in-time that the diagram mirrors. But Rivers also suggested something else: that, for example, when the anthropologist is in search of inheritance rules, he may compare the ideal statement of the rules with the actual movement of a particular object, such as a plot of land, through the genealogical diagram, noting concretely how it passes from hand to hand. What Rivers proposed was a kind of biography of things in terms of ownership.” [66, from the book, The Social life of things]

I’m going to move from gin to opium for a bit.