Many of us have had the uncanny experience of feeling observed by inanimate objects. When walking in a park or strolling through the streets of a big city, we often feel that things – a particularly striking boulder from the Grand Canyon, the walls of a semi-ruined building in Venice – are staring back at us, espying our every move.
Usually, we dismiss this impression as an anthropomorphic projection of our human reality onto the surrounding world. But is that really the case? Or, do things communicate something simply by virtue of being there, in the context where they are embedded?
Much depends on our definition of what constitutes language and communication. It is well known that animals communicate with one another (and sometimes with humans) in species-specific ways: dogs bark to warn of potential danger, while bees returning to the hive perform their waggle dance to indicate the proximity of food, and so on.
But what about things and objects we encounter in the world? Do they too have a language? Do they speak to one another and do they communicate to us?
“The doctrine of signatura rerum meant that each thing had a soul, insofar as it carried a divine trace, serving as a vehicle for the self-expression of God, a way for the Creator to speak through His creation.“
In the theological paradigm, God’s creation of the world entailed the notion of signatura rerum, a divine “signature” stamped upon each creature and thing. Something of the Creator remained in the creation as a mark of His deed, just as the artist’s style – indeed, a part of the artist themselves – persisted in the artwork and made it identifiable as “a Michelangelo” or “a Picasso”.
The doctrine of signatura rerum meant that each thing had a soul, insofar as it carried a divine trace, serving as a vehicle for the self-expression of God, a way for the Creator to speak through His creation. In this version of the language of things there was nothing of the instrumentality of communication, conceived as a mere transmission of information. Rather, language was an immediate effect of the existence of things that stood for the affirmation of divine nature by way of materiality.
The secular language of things
The task we are faced with today is to consider whether the idea of a language of things still makes sense in an often secularised world and, if so, what metamorphoses it has undergone. In the wake of theology, it is the role of philosophy and of art to set the conceptual and aesthetic parameters for this discussion.
Since Greek antiquity, language has been viewed as a marker of human exceptionality. According to Aristotle’s famous definition, a human is a zoon logon echon, ie: an animal who has language, which is one of the senses of the polysemic Greek word logos.
The traditional reading of this expression asserted that humans were the only beings endowed with language. But what if the emphasis were shifted from the word “logos” to the word “having” (echon)? In this case, Aristotle’s phrase would simply mean that humans are the only animals to take possession of their language but are by no means the only beings to express themselves through language.
We take charge of, control and appropriate our language, even if to a significant extent we are determined by our linguistic reality. The language of things, on the other hand, belongs to the things themselves without being appropriated by them.
“Language, just like volume or density, is a physical property of things. It expresses the myriad ways in which things are articulated amongst themselves, their concrete relations to each other and to us.“
That is to say, language, just like volume or density, is a physical property of things. It expresses the myriad ways in which things are articulated amongst themselves, their concrete relations to each other and to us.
The language of things hinges upon this materiality. Things form a proto-community and communicate through their relative positions in space and endurance in finite time. The gravitational field of things is a dialect of their language, the translation of their material relations into the discourse of physics.
This idea is not new in the history of recent philosophy. In the 20th century alone, thinkers such as Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger drew our attention to the language of things, understood not as a metaphor but as a literal description of “thingly relationality”. Benjamin’s “language as such” is an umbrella term that encompasses both the language of humankind and that of all other entities, while Heidegger’s totality-of-significations refers to the meaning resulting from the articulation of all beings that comprise the world in its most basic sense.
It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that we cannot gain direct access to the things themselves, least of all by way of recovering either a theological or a blatantly “realist” point of view. In light of this impossibility, the main problem is that of a forever-incomplete mediation, a tentative translation of the language of things into human languages. Modern art has attempted to lend its voice – and its silences – to things, inviting materiality itself to speak through it. What strategies has it developed in its quest to ventriloquise the elusive language of things?
Joana Vasconcelos’ ‘thingly art’
Two of modern art’s most salient features are its self-reflexivity and its attention to context, and both bear upon the language of things. First, many modern artworks include an extended meditation on materiality. They realise, in the course of their open-ended aesthetic self-critique, that their inspiration lies somewhere other than the “genius” of the artist, namely in the things themselves. Second, modern art often plays with contextuality, placing familiar objects in unexpected environments, and so changing the relations among things. Art pieces extend beyond themselves and cannot be interpreted without referring to their literal and figurative frames.
The work of Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos currently on exhibit at the Palace of Versailles in France embodies these two characteristics. Her pieces draw their vitality from the contrast between the materials used and the form they assume in the artwork. For instance, in Valium Bed, she lines a bed-like structure with thousands of Valium pills that replace a regular mattress. Similarly, in Dorothy, a giant high-heel shoe is created by putting together aluminium pots and lids of various sizes. The previous meanings of pills and pots persist in an irresolvable tension with the overall significations of the art-thing, be it the bed or the shoe.
“The artist and her work become channels for the communication among disparate things that did not previously belong to the same spatial and temporal constellation.“
Dorothy juxtaposes the most recognisable markers of the stereotypical private and public female roles: the pots symbolise housekeeping duties and the high-heel shoe stands for the glamorous image of a seductress. The artist and her work become channels for the communication among disparate things that did not previously belong to the same spatial and temporal constellation. The pots and the shoe speak to one another, and what they relate to us in their thingly language is the material underside of women’s oppression.
In Dorothy, Vasconcelos stages an encounter not only between things drawn from two different spheres of everyday life but also between a given thing and a seemingly incongruous milieu. This is accomplished both by changing the dimensions of a normal shoe and by placing the giant shoe in an unexpected setting: a garden or a hall of Versailles.
Re-contextualisation has been a hallmark of the artistic avant-garde since the beginning of the 20th century – for instance, in Duchamp’s ready-mades, transported into the space of a museum. Vasconcelos takes the extra step of reworking found objects, which she turns into materials for her art. The novel context facilitates a dialogue between found objects, the finished artwork as a whole, and other things (both natural and human-made) populating the setting in which her art is embedded.
The things the artist brings together get a chance for a second life in the material communities created by her aesthetic interventions. Once it begins, there is no inherent closure to the conversation among things, as more can be added to the ones already in existence: one shoe can be always paired with another, as in Marilyn, or another segment of tissue, crochet, and so forth, may be sewn onto to the overflowing body of the piece Mary Poppins.
The work of Vasconcelos reveals that the materiality of things is not the limit of signification. It demonstrates that things communicate with one another in their materiality, without resorting to words. The language of things is a language without names, and art, such as that of Joana Vasconcelos, offers us a glimpse into their interminable conversation by allowing the unnameable to speak to us.
Patricia I. Vieira is assistant professor at the department of Spanish and Portuguese and of the comparative literature programme of Georgetown University. She is the author of Seeing Politics Otherwise: Vision in Latin American and Iberian Fiction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), Cinema in the Portuguese New State: The Staging of the Regime (Lisbon: Colibri, 2011) and co-editor of Existential Utopia: New Directions in Utopian Thought (New York: Continuum, 2011).
Michael Marder is Ikerbasque research professor of philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. He is the author of The Event of the Thing: Derrida’s Post-Deconstructive Realism (2009), Groundless Existence: The Political Ontology of Carl Schmitt (2010) and numerous articles in phenomenology, political philosophy, and environmental thought. With Patricia Vieira, he co-edited Existential Utopia: New Directions in Utopian Thought (New York: Continuum, 2011). His most recent book, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, will be published later this year.