Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On the Subjective Nature of Objects

The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.
-Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
I've been thinking about things a lot lately.

I don't mean that in the usual sense of the phrase, that I've been thinking about the various happenings and vectors and relationships and narratives in play at this stage of my life, although I've certainly been doing that, too. No, what I mean is that I've been thinking about things; about objects, devices, and artifacts; and most especially I've been thinking about their capacity to take on subjective meaning in the context of their relationship to myself and others as perceiving beings who appear to persist through time. I generally assume that the way it works for me is much the same as for others, but given the wall of unknowability that lies between each of us and the world I'm going to let that particular philosophical sleeping dog lie and presume a certain degree of, if not universality, then at least applicability, in what follows.

Take this, for example:

This is my Pentax K1000 35mm camera. Now, to someone else, this is just an old (some might say classic) 35mm camera, and one's reaction to seeing the picture of it is, if not determined, then at least colored by one's relationship to photography, its history, technology and the history of its technology; by fascination with or lack of interest in old things; by nostalgia for days gone by and a time when technologies were simpler and, paradoxically enough, more difficult to operate; or by any number of possible considerations, which are too numerous in their possibility to even begin to enumerate here. Suffice to say that the object, while remaining itself, provokes different reactions in different people, thanks to each's individual world-view, associational chains, and particularity in space, time, and history.

For me the picture and, more importantly, the object it depicts have a significance that can't be surmised by an other just by looking at them. See, I have history with that camera, and not only that specific one. Allow me to explain.

When I was thirteen, I started working as a soccer referee on weekends, for a number of reasons, not least of which was that they paid me. Now, at that age, having money of your own is (or at least seemed to me at the time) a strange and wondrous thing. Others, perhaps, have had a different experience of life, but for myself the notion of buying things for myself, with my own money, without having to ask my parents to buy them for me, was a new and mysterious thing that I didn't, honestly, quite know what to do with. Being that my needs were simple, I spent very little on myself, and would give anyone in the lunchroom who asked a couple of bucks to buy whatever from the cafeteria. What the hell else was I going to do with my money? For all I knew, money was just for buying things, and there weren't enough things I needed or even wanted to spend all of my newfound wealth on. After all, video games were still just a quarter back then.

But I did buy one thing, one big thing, that I remember and kept and had forever and ever, and that was a used Pentax K1000 camera very like the one in the picture above. I spent $100 on it, a huge sum to me at the time (never mind adjusting for inflation) at a used camera store my father took me to.

It was the first big purchase I ever made on my own behalf, and I used, abused and treasured that camera for many years. I loved it. Loved the weight of it; the old school credibility it exuded in the face of what were at the time incredible new innovations in 35mm photography, things like autofocus and autoadvance of the film in the camera. Loved taking pictures with it, loved the quality of the shots and even the difficulty of having to balance aperture and shutter speed and focus before taking each one. I took it on adventures, documenting strange peoples and the faraway lands where they lived. And though I never really delved into photography as a craft, I loved dabbling in it as an amateur, and I loved my camera, both for what it was, and for what it meant to me. It had, to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin, taken on an aura, a particularity and authenticity that was unique to its presence and history in space and time, even if that aura was perceptible in full only to me.

And then, shortly after college, or maybe in my later undergraduate years (memory fails me as to the details), I passed through South Florida to visit my mother, and discovered that the lens that I'd bought with the camera had become stuck.

I remember that I'd just returned from some grand adventure or other, maybe the road trip to Central America, or one of the many cross-country jaunts I was so fond of taking at the time. I had lots of film shot, and no money. Mom of course was more than happy to spring for developing the pictures, and I of course was happy to let her. We were getting along pretty well in those days, which we hadn't always. My mother and I did not see eye to eye on some things. It wasn't so much philosophical disagreement as it was a certain incompatibility of temperament, and it had dogged our relationship for most of my conscious life. We'd spent a couple of years not talking during my late teens, when my upswelling adolescent rebellion ran smack into her difficulties in accepting that I was no longer a child, and it was not until a couple of years after I had moved out that we were able to reconcile and grow to love one another again, or, rather, remember the love that was always there and that almost always exists between mother and child.

But the fact remained that there were things about each other we just didn't get, that didn't jibe on a fundamental level. Yes, we were able to work around them in our personal relationship. We were able to get along, and spend time together, and enjoy what we could of one another. But the things we valued and the ways we approached the world remained somewhat at odds, and my camera and its eventual fate became a perfect illustration of the phenomenon.

Like I said, the lens was broken. The metal around the rim had gotten bent somewhere along the way (an unsurprising development, given the cavalier attitude I tended to have in those days towards my things), and the focus was no long adjustable. Or maybe it was the aperture. I honestly don't remember. It's not important. What's important was that I didn't discover that it'd happened until the last day I was visiting. I went to take a picture and found I could not, and I was, as you might expect, not happy about it, as I was broke at the time and could not afford to have it fixed or buy a new lens.

So when Mom offered to get the camera fixed and send it to me after, I was, if not thrilled, then at least pleased. I say that not to belittle Mom's generosity so much as to indicate the degree of entitlement I felt at the time. Of course Mom would get my camera fixed. That was what moms were for, along with laundry, food, care packages, and unconditional love. That she would offer to do that fit perfectly with my understanding of the world and while I was grateful I was also able to sort of shrug it off without recognizing the generosity for what it was.

A week or two later, the package arrived in the mail, and almost as soon as I opened it I realized something wasn't quite right. That wasn't my camera. Sure, it looked like my camera. Was an identical make and model and functionally indistinguishable from my camera. But it wasn't mine. The scratches that made it particular were missing, or in different places. It felt different in my hand. It was, in a word, wrong. I called Mom to see what'd happened and found that she had, in fact, replaced my camera with a different one. I don't remember the details, but the guy at the repair shop had talked her into exchanging my camera, the one I'd bought with my own money in middle school and taken on countless adventures, whose sole flaw was a lens in need of repair, for another just like it. Perhaps it was in slightly better condition. I really don't remember, and I never understood quite what possessed Mom to do what she did. But she'd traded away one of my most valuable possessions for a simulacrum, a copy, however identical, that was most emphatically not the camera I had bought with my own money so many years before.

I know she meant well, and that there must have been reasons. And I decided, there on the phone, to leave it, and never told her how I really felt. But I was furious inside. How could she do that? How could she not understand what that camera, that particular camera and not just that kind of camera, meant to me? I knew she had things that she'd had forever and that she treasured. How could she not understand, intuitively, that I did, too, and that this was one of them? It was further evidence to me of the fundamental alienness of our different natures, and though I felt very mature just dropping it and not making her feel bad, I also mourned the camera's loss, and mourned a little that my own mother did not understand me.

I could, perhaps, begin my philosophical musings at this point. After all, the ultimate purpose of this piece of writing is to think about things in their thingness and how that thingness interacts with the perceiving subject's experience of the thing and its aura. There's certainly enough to work with already, drawing the distinction between the camera as you, the reader, may experience it and the camera as I experience it, with the weight of my personal history crouched upon my shoulders and warping the experience the way that a large gravitational mass warps the fabric of space-time around it. But there's more, a whole new order of meaning that has recently called itself into existence and settled itself athwart this collection of plastic and aluminum and technical know-how.

See, my mother just recently died, and so now everything I associate with her has taken on a new significance. Tempting though it is, I'm not going to poke around the edges of that particular wound right now, not here anyway. But it's added a new layer to the aura of the camera above.

I've had the new camera for years now. Taken it overseas, out in town, and out into the woods. Taken pictures with it that have great significance in my personal life story. It has its own history and chain of associations, which now have taken on an even greater depth than what they had before. Because now the camera is not only a symbol of the place where the Venn diagram of Mom and me failed to meet, it is also a thing that she gave to me, made more valuable now that she's gone, and an object of deeper contemplation for the richness of its meaning to me.

But to the imagined other that you, the reader are to me, the same object doesn't, even can't mean the same thing, even after I've told you the story and explained the history. And, in my long-winded and roundabout way, that's the thing I'm trying to get at.

You see, we rub off on the things around us. Leave a psychic patina of ourselves, the sebaceous oils of our being, if you will, on every thing we contemplate and touch, live with and use. It's not so much that objects are mirrors in which we see ourselves reflected, although it's tempting to go down that road (After all, brain scientists will tell you that your brain will pick out the patterns you are used to perceiving, no matter what the stimulus, and so the act of perception can be characterized as a reflection, since you can only see what it is in you to see, and thus an argument can be made that you only see yourself). But to me this permeability of objects to personal meaning speaks to a similar permeability of ourselves. There's a bond that grows there, not so much a bridge as an intermingling, invisible perhaps in space and time, but there nonetheless. The things around us shape us, just as we shape them, as if Einstein's theory of General Relativity (which is, at bottom, the notion that, through the mystery and magic of gravity, every discrete particle in the universe has a special and personal relationship to every other discrete particle in the universe and affects it, however minutely) also applies to this squishier psychic realm, in ways that haven't yet been explored.

There's no answers here. To those, if any, who've gotten this far in hopes of some amazing insight into life, the universe, and everything, I apologize. I've only really begun to think about these things recently, in response to the process of going through my mother's things. I was amazed at how many of them I recognized, how many were the little boring everyday things that make up any household, but that were the boring everyday things that made up the household I grew up in, that spoke to times long past, subjectivities I'd forgotten, thrown into new and starker contrast now that my world has a Mom-shaped hole in it. I'm still not sure, honestly, what I'm trying to do here, but the persistence in my mind of these things and what they mean to me, and how they come to mean them is something I can't seem to put aside. Perhaps it's only grief, a desire to bring Mom back, or at very least to grasp at the traces she left on the world and thus hold on to what little is left of her. I couldn't say. It isn't possible to untangle all the threads in the fabric of right now and see which is what and why. But we all pass through many selves in the stories of our lives, inhabit many subjectivities, each an outgrowth of all that came before, and just as a song or a smell can bring us back to a self we've left behind or grown out of or even just away from, so too can the things in the world around us take us back, preserve that connection to our histories and those we've shared them with, and there's something there worth exploring, I think. So here we are, and here we go.

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