The Career of an Object

TAoN No. 89: Close observation of things — and their unpredictable biographies. PLUS: A new missing word, and more.

I have an ongoing interest in paying attention — arguably too much attention — to objects. (More here and here, and that’s just for starters.) And once a year I teach a workshop on writing about objects as part of the SVA Design Research program’s summer intensive.

While this involves close observation of a physical object, it also entails paying attention to that object’s context. In particular, I like to talk about the “career” of an object. This is a notion I borrowed from an essay called “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,” by Igor Kopytoff, in a 1986 book called The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, edited by Arjun Appadurai.

Kopytoff writes:

“In doing the biography of a thing, one would ask questions similar to those one asks about people: What sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its ‘status’ and in the period and culture, and how are these possibilities realized? Where does the thing come from and who made it? What has been its career so far, and what do people consider to be an ideal career for such things?

Something about that use of “career” really struck home for me. When I do that workshop, I always joke that I wish I could assign everyone to devise the résumé of an object. And outside that workshop, I often think about the “careers” of workaday things — especially when they seem to have taken an unpredictable turn.

For example, consider the looper traffic cone. You’ve seen them, I am sure. The proper career of this object is “to channelize or delineate traffic, barricade construction work zones,” etc., or to enforce “vehicular or pedestrian traffic control.”

But now consider these specific looper cones encountered on a recent bike ride:

While perhaps carrying out those official duties, these cones have a new career — as goofy Halloween props.

On the other hand, consider these cones from my neighborhood, which were deployed some months ago to warn drivers about a pothole.

These careers have ended. And I’m sorry to say they seem to have ended in total failure: the cones did not dissuade cars, but in fact were flattened and ultimately rendered useless by cars. They are victims, in short, of the very entities they were designed and deployed to serve. The object-biography’s next chapter, which I’m going to guess will not come any time soon, will eventually result in their disposal, probably in a landfill.

As it happens, Kopytoff wrote about such endings, using a more venerated object as the example:

“To us, a biography of a painting by Renior that ends up in an incinerator is as tragic, in its way, as the biography of a person who ends up murdered.”

Is the death of a traffic cone just as tragic? I don’t see why not!

The prompt: Pay attention to the careers of random objects you encounter — especially those that have taken an unpredictable turn. Bonus: compile an object’s résumé.

To consider the career (or biography) of an object is to reframe the material things we encounter: We can imagine their histories, their relationship to other objects and to people, their potential futures. It’s a deeper way of engaging with the world. It’s also rather fun.

PS: If you are interested in a writing-about-objects workshop for your organization, and/or an Art of Noticing talk & workshop, get in touch. Some past talk etc. info here.


The Art of Noticing is Rob Walker’s reader-supported newsletter about creativity, curiosity, work, and staying human. You are reading the free Monday edition; paid subscribers get a Thursday issue, too. Subscribers make all this possible! Thank you!

Dictionary of Missing Words is an exercise in paying attention to phenomena you encounter — sensations, concepts, states between states, feelings, slippery things — that could be named, but don’t seem to be. More here and here.

This week’s missing word is from reader Adam Jeselnick:

When I take a picture and then, looking back at it later, see something (a starfish, a paw print) that appears obvious, but that I completely missed in actually seeing the view with my own eyes in real life.  

Adam adds: “This has been happening to me frequently lately, maybe because I am moving too fast when I take the photo (on a run, walk, or talking on the phone!), or perhaps because our field of view is so much wider than an iPhone camera.”

This is fascinating phenomenon. And may I just say I love those examples — a starfish, a paw print. Excellent. Thanks, Adam (for this and for your other helpful feedback)!  

What else should we add to The Dictionary of Missing Words? Leave your suggestion — or respond to this one — in the comments.

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Next Monday: a new icebreaker. (The Dictionary of Missing Words series now alternates with Icebreaker of the Week, and, more sporadically, the Something to Notice series.)

Programming Notes

  • This Thursday’s post for paid subscribers: some work-related prompts and insights from a newsletter I’ve been enjoying.

  • Plus a fresh installment of The Heard, sharing music that’s caught my attention (in a good way) lately.

  • As always, if being a paid subscriber is not in your budget but you’d really like access to those posts, drop me a line, I’m reasonable. consumed@robwalker.net.


Extra Programming Note —> News

  • This is new: If you would like to underwrite a subscription for someone who doesn’t have the budget right now, you can do so here.

  • (Shout out to this newsletter & to Dan Stone for making me aware that this was possible, and how to do it.)

  • More about this this next week.


In Other News

@austinkleon, @esf_istantanee, @cheyennepalma

  • For Fortune, I wrote about the return of waiting: “Reversing decades of business/tech efforts, we are being forced to learn to wait again.” If all goes well, more to come at Fortune; stay tuned!

  • My frequent object-oriented collaborator Joshua Glenn and I have a minor role in a brand new documentary from Vinent Liota, Objects. More here. The world premiere will be at the DOC NYC festival, on November 14 at the Cinépolis Chelsea in Manhattan.

  • SVA Products of Design graduate program open house. I recommend! (Bias: I’m part of the faculty.) Officieal language: “SVA's MFA Products of Design is holding 2 virtual Open House and Info Session events on Nov 11, and Dec 9. If you know someone who's thinking about grad school, changing their career, or looking for ways to reimagine their future in a more impactful way, please share this link!”

  • Austin Kleon newsletter news. Hereby endorsed!

  • 11 Artists Share the Bedtime Rituals That Keep Them Creative. Via Recommendo.

  • Apple’s $19 “polishing cloth.” LOL.

  • From Julia Christensen: “I am so excited to announce the launch of The Space Song Foundation, a non-profit organization made up of visionary artists and scientists promoting long-term thinking at the intersection of art, science, and design, and supporting the Tree of Life project. The Tree of Life is a 200-year global art/science project composed of earthly trees *singing* a duet with an orbiting spacecraft about their living/operating conditions.”

  • Martha Rosler and Paris Hilton. Interesting read. And if you’ve never seen Semiotics of the Kitchen, here is your chance.

  • Sounds on Mars.


Okay that’s it!

  • As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: consumed@robwalker.net. Or use the comments!

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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032 

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