The Power of Objects


Yesterday my partner and I were walking our dog around the block when we passed a house we’ve passed many times. This time there was something different about it. Knee-high chicken wire had been zip-tied to the iron rails of the fence surrounding the empty yard.

“I wonder if that means the inevitable happened,” my partner said.

“Probably,” I agreed. “People only ever learn things the hard way.”

We were referring to the fact that the family in the house had long kept a chihuahua in their yard that could easily slip through the fence rails, and usually did when we passed with our dog, often following us so far down the sidewalk we’d wonder if we needed to take the dog back and knock on their door. But we couldn’t, because of the fence. Eventually the dog would get bored and turn around and wander back, but we were basically waiting for the day it would get hit by a car. With so many squirrels around these parts, even well-trained dogs might dart unexpectedly. My partner had to drive our neighbor to the pet ER after her dog chased one out into rush-hour West Gray traffic. The dog died in the car on the way. Not two weeks later, she had another dog, identical to the first one. And she still lets it roam around without a leash, in the exact same area the other dog darted from.

I guess some people never learn.

The point is, everything I’ve just described flashed through my psyche in the space of a second, simply at the sight of zip-tied chicken wire. You’ve probably seen chicken wire in your life at some point, and odds are you didn’t think twice about it. It didn’t mean anything to you. But this chicken wire meant something very specific to me.

T.S. Eliot is the one credited with coining the term “objective correlative,” circa 1840, lecturing on, of all things, the subject of art:

No possible modification in the degrees or proportion of these elements can change the specific form of a plant, — for instance, a cabbage into a cauliflower; it must ever remain a cabbage, small or large, good or bad. So, too, is the external world to the mind; which needs, also, as the condition of its manifestation, its objective correlative. Hence the presence of some outward object, predetermined to correspond to the preexisting idea in its living power, is essential to the evolution of its proper end, — the pleasurable emotion.

And, clarifying a bit:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative“; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

In other words, a concrete object that evokes an emotion. An object that correlates to an emotion. Simply put, a symbol. Though, notably, Eliot doesn’t restrict it to objects. He includes “a chain of events”: plot itself. The conception of a story as the intersection of acute and chronic tension is itself a form of the objective correlative.

Nor is this far off from the Proust’s narrator eating a madeleine that sparks a memory chain that then unfurls over the course of seven novels. We have an emotional attachment to objects because they are attached to our memories.

Perhaps nobody understood that objects are a conduit for human emotion better than (or at least exploited it as much as) Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, who designed his products according to the principle of eliciting maximum emotional appeal. (Could anyone named “Steven Jobs” better reflect this country’s anxieties and values?) Biographer Walter Isaacson describes the process of Jobs, in the 80s, designing one of the first personal computers, which he named, not incidentally, after his daughter:

Jobs kept insisting that the machine should look friendly. As a result, it evolved to resemble a human face. With the disk drive built in below the screen, the unit was taller and narrower than most computers, suggesting a head. The recess near the base evoked a gentle chin, and Jobs narrowed the strip of plastic at the top so that it avoided the Neanderthal forehead that made the Lisa subtly unattractive. The patent for the design of the Apple case was issued in the name of Steve Jobs as well as Manock and Oyama. “Even though Steve didn’t draw any of the lines, his ideas and inspiration made the design what it is,” Oyama later said. “To be honest, we didn’t know what it meant for a computer to be ‘friendly’ until Steve told us.”

A couple of decades later, Jobs’ aesthetic flourished in a partnership with designer Jony Ives. Part of what helped him get the job?

One of [Jony Ive’s] creations was a pen with a little ball on top that was fun to fiddle with. It helped give the owner a playful emotional connection to the pen.

And, designing the iMac in the early 00s, we see how the team worked for a design that assuaged the anxieties users associated with technology:

Topping off the design was the handle nestled into the iMac. It was more playful and semiotic than it was functional. This was a desktop computer; not many people were really going to carry it around. But as Ive later explained:

Back then, people weren’t comfortable with technology. If you’re scared of something, then you won’t touch it. I could see my mum being scared to touch it. So I thought, if there’s this handle on it, it makes a relationship possible. It’s approachable. It’s intuitive. It gives you permission to touch. It gives a sense of its deference to you. Unfortunately, manufacturing a recessed handle costs a lot of money. At the old Apple, I would have lost the argument. What was really great about Steve is that he saw it and said, “That’s cool!” I didn’t explain all the thinking, but he intuitively got it. He just knew that it was part of the iMac’s friendliness and playfulness.

The company’s logo, that Edenic apple with a bite taken out of it, is itself another objective correlative. The emotions originally correlated with it surround the myth of original sin, with the whole implication that woman is the downfall of man, and the basic human inability to resist the temptation to become better than we are: we lust after the knowledge that will destroy us. Now that this object has been appropriated by capital-A apple, a whole new set of meanings is attached. There is the irony, for one thing, of a company trying to sell as many products as possible by pushing the idea that their products will make you unique, individualize you, emphasize the “I” while at the same time obfuscating that’s what they’re doing by making it lowercase: iMac, iPod, iPad, but iWatch got too creepy so they had to make that “Apple Watch.” (Who could resist the cleverness of the catch phrase “It’s time!”?) The fact is their products do exactly the opposite of what their creators claim they will. How is buying an iPod supposed to differentiate you from the hundreds of millions of others who have them? Via seven different colors and five sizes? But we buy, or bite, right into it. A more appropriate strategy might have been to highlight the sameness their products induced by spinning those products as common points of connection. But Steve Jobs knew better than anyone else that we are self-interested at heart. He knew that really, no one thinks different, and that’s exactly what his “Think Different” campaign played on.

My first fiction teacher Justin Cronin taught the concept of the objective correlative through the “bloody potato,” an object that figures significantly in the climax of Anton Chekhov’s story “The Murder.” Yakov gets in an altercation with his cousin Matvey while Matvey is eating some potatoes, and Yakov’s wife, intervening, smashes Matvey on the head with the bottle of oil Matvey was using on his potatoes, killing him. What disturbs Yakov the most is how Matvey’s blood pools around a potato on the ground. This shows both Yakov’s avoidance of looking directly at what he’s done, but the bloody potato isn’t just looking away from the gore of Matvey’s smashed skull, it’s representative of how trivial the cause of his death was. That potato is the reason he died. Extrapolating the larger reason he died, how the potato is the reason he died, we get that Yakov was upset Matvey was using oil on his potatoes during what was supposed to be a period of fasting. The two have had an ongoing clash of religious ideals, and Matvey’s oiling his potatoes was the straw that pushed Yakov over the edge. The bloody potato, then, represents the ridiculousness of murdering someone in cold blood for supposedly religious reasons.

Sandra Cisneros replaces the Edenic apple with a new objective correlative in her poem “Original Sin,” in which she describes shaving her armpits with a disposable razor as she’s flying home to visit relatives in Mexico. This, like Apple’s marketing strategy, begins with the implications of the original original sin. Instead of a bitten apple, hairy armpits now represent the modern woman’s shame.

Other bloody potatoes? The cathedral in Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral.” A glove on the snow in Marcie Hershmann’s “The Guillotine.” Once you start looking, you’ll find them everywhere…


6 thoughts on “The Power of Objects

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