The questionnaire beckons as a mundane object rife with complexity. Evan Kindley’s book considers the questionnaire as both a scientific instrument and as a game, intriguingly and recursively pressing a question on his readers: Why do we fill out questionnaires? The questionnaire is one of those things that seems to exist equally as a virtual reality and as a simple routine—but which, the more one considers it, the more its objectness gets tacky and textured. Kindley draws from sources as diverse as canonical literature, occult paraphernalia, and online minutiae. Questionnaire will appeal the skeptic, the cynic, and the devotee alike, teaching all in turn lessons about the forms we fill out in anger, desire, or despair.
Shopping malls may be one of the more ubiquitous places of contemporary life in consumer culture—yet do we know what they really are? Matthew Newton takes his readers on a journey at once personal and cultural, architectural and fictive, exploring the quotidian marvels as well as the seedy underbelly of this paradigmatic site, the mall. Balancing memoir with cultural analysis, Newton considers shopping malls as vast spaces, existing in various forms, in so many different places. Arguably too big to count as a single object, the shopping mall nevertheless manages to stick together as a real thing that we encounter in everyday life as well as in cultural representations. The mall is a thing full of other things, a capacious object brimming with lessons.
Unraveling the sock’s history, construction, and necessity, Kim Adrian’s Sock reintroduces us to our own bodies—vulnerable, bipedal, and flawed—by examining this most common of objects, something we daily tug on and take off with hardly a thought. Sock reminds us that extraordinary secrets live in mundane material realities, and reveals how this floppy, often smelly, sometimes holey piece of clothing—whether machine made and ordered online or hand knit and given as a gift—can also serve as an anatomy lesson, a physics primer, a love letter, a weapon, a fetish, or a fashion statement. Consider the sock.
William Germano‘s Eye Chart is a meditation on the sharp, the fuzzy, and the invisible. It’s about that familiar thing we read with difficulty, and only partially. Reading the eye chart is an exercise in failure, since it only gets interesting when you can’t read any further. It’s the opposite of interpretative reading—to read the eye chart is to read it up the way we might use something up or eat it up. You can try to read the eye chart, but you know you can’t finish it. The eye chart—essential diagnostic tool, template, sign, toy—is a monument to un-reading and a guide to the absurdities of modern life.
In this book, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Lindy Elkins-Tanton explore what happens when we think of the Earth as an object viewable from space. As a “blue marble,” “a blue pale dot,” a spaceship, an organism, or (as Chaucer described it) “this litel spot of erthe,” the solitary orb is a challenge to scale and to human self-importance. Beautiful and self-contained, the Earth suspended in cold blackness turns out to be far less knowable than it at first appears: its vast interior is after all an inferno of incandescent and yet solid rock and a reservoir of water vaster than the ocean, a world within the world. Viewing the Earth from space also invites both comparisons to its sister planets, and the subsequent dive into the abyss of scale: how can humans apprehend the distances, the temperatures, and the time scale on which planets are born, evolve, and die?
Starting from her own marriage ceremony at when she first wore a full veil, Rafia Zakaria explores how the physical reality of the veil as an object is catalyzed by the context of the wearer to produce new and unexpected meanings. Part memoir and part philosophical investigation, Veil unravels modernist assumptions that the seen is automatically the good and the free, while the veiled represents servility and subterfuge. Taking readers through personal encounters with the veil, from France where it is banned to Iran where it is forced, Zakaria reveals how the veil’s reputation as a pre-modern relic is being reconfigured to contest accepted ideas of meaning and morality. The veil emerges as an object transformed by post-modernity, whose myriad meanings pose a collective challenge to the absolute truths of patriarchy.
In this book, Anna Leahy takes readers on an intellectual adventure around cultural concepts and attitudes that shape ways humans research scientifically, treat medically, and talk socially about these things, tumors. With the likelihood that one in two men and one in three women will develop invasive cancer, tumors have the power to redefine our identities and change how we live and interact with each other and the world around us. With poetic verve and acuity, Leahy explores why and how tumors happen, how we think and talk about them, and how we try to rid ourselves of them. Tumor is about the object that is you.
In Personal Stereo, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow takes us back to a time when a handheld device was both a marvel and a danger. This book illuminates how personal stereos like Sony’s Walkman changed forever public space and boring tasks, and shows how the initial reception of portable cassette players can help us put our hopes and fears about today’s devices into perspective. Brimming with stories of audio technology, public space, personal affect, and global economy, Tuhus-Dubrow’s study ranges over an intricate landscape of semiotic and cultural touch points that together make the personal stereo an iconic piece of postmodern equipment.
What exactly is jet lag? And, more importantly, how do we live with jet lag? Christopher J. Lee’s book introduces jet lag as an object of study, tracing medical, temporal, and technological approaches for understanding this strange, hidden cost of our populist cosmopolitanism today. Drawing upon personal experience and an array of cultural registers, Jet Lag considers this present-day Icarian experience to be an allegory of our intrinsic human limits in the face of modern technological change. Jet lag is revealed to be an unavoidable discomfort, an existential condition that is the result of the human body and its inner clock being pitched against the time-leaping effects of modern aviation technologies.
At turns lightly philosophical and stylistically playful, this book is about a strange object—strange in part because it is something that we all have been, and that many of us eat. Nicole Walker‘s Egg relishes in sharp juxtapositions of seemingly disjunctive or repellent topics, so that reproductive science and gustatory habits are considered alongside one another, and personal narrative and broad swaths of natural history jostle, like yolk and albumen. Egg, with its multiple narratives, styles, and contexts, draws together a quirky series of perspectives on this common object, setting it within a new frame—or plural frames, mapping curious eggs across times, scales, and spaces.
Fetishized, demonized, celebrated and outlawed, the high heel is central to the iconography of modern womanhood. But are high heels good? Are they feminist? What does it mean for a woman (or, for that matter, a man) to choose to wear them? Meditating on the labyrinthine nature of sexual identity and the performance of gender, Summer Brennan‘s High Heel moves from film to fairytale, from foot binding to feminism, and from the golden ratio to glam rock. It considers this most provocative of fashion accessories as a nexus of desire and struggle, sex and society, setting out to understand what it means to be a woman by walking a few hundred years in her shoes.
Speed. Bump. Speed. Traffic considers the history and philosophy of roundabouts, speed bumps, the pedestrian mall, and other efforts to manage traffic. Exploring ways to reign in the power of the internal combustion engine, ramp back century-long efforts to increase the flows of traffic, and establish greater balance between humans and machines, Paul Josephson considers the history of traffic, and the political, political, and other controversies that frame the belated technological efforts to calm it.
The sapiens of the sea, whales are the other most intelligent, social, and loquacious animals on Earth. So why do they seem to swim away, the more we chase after them in our efforts to communicate and connect? How does the meaning of their mesmerizing songs continue to elude us? Focused on the history of cetacean communication experiments, Margret Grebowicz’s Whale Song is a speculative, playful meditation on serious environmental and social loss. Pondering the problems facing ocean ecosystems as well as the challenges to social life, intimacy, and connection in the digital age, Whale Song explores the collectivities of whales, humans, and whales and humans together.
The burger is fast food, it is haute cuisine. It is a seemingly sturdy symbol, and a cipher layered with slippery meanings and various sauces. It is nourishment and noxious amalgam. In Burger, Carol J. Adams explores this meal’s history, cultural representations, and changing nature. Drawing on popular culture to illuminate the burger’s history and meaning, and alert to gender, class, and colonial issues, Burger is about both the embrace and the transformation of this icon.
Rust: it’s happening all the time, all around us. We cover it up. We ignore it. Jean-Michel Rabaté’s Rust takes on the multitudinous meanings that this oxidized substance can hold, and shows how technology can bleed into biology and ecology. Rust blends eco-criticism with a post-Benjaminian allegorization of technology, ranging across art, autobiography, and science studies to explore the author’s own fascination for peeling paints and rusty metal sheets as the interpenetration between the organic and the inorganic.
For as long as people have traveled to distant lands, they have brought home objects to certify the journey. More than mere merchandise, travel souvenirs take on a personal and cultural meaning that goes beyond the object itself. Drawing on several millennia of examples—from the relic-driven quests of early Christians, to the mass-produced tchotchkes that line the shelves of a Disney gift shop—travel writer Rolf Potts delves into a complicated history that explores issues of authenticity, cultural obligation, empire, market forces, and self-presentation. More than just objects, Souvenir shows how these things are a personalized form of folk storytelling that enables us to make sense of the world and our place in it.
You can’t think about travel without thinking about luggage. And baggage has baggage. Susan Harlan’s Luggage takes readers on a journey with the suitcases that support, accessorize, and tour with our globalized lives. The materials of travel—the suitcases, carry-on bags, totes, trunks, and train cases of the past and present—tell stories about displacement, home, gender, class, consumption, and labor. Luggage shapes travel, and the way it has shaped travel has changed over time. This book is an inquiry into bags as carefully curated microcosms of our domestic and professional lives. A suitcase contains more than you might think.
Triggering severe nostalgia and denoting adventure, mystery, and glamour, the passenger train is still portrayed as the most romantic mode of transportation in history. But what does long-distance travel by train really add up to today? In 2005, after quitting not only a successful museum job, but a profession, writer A. N. Devers bought a 30-day rail pass and circumnavigated the United States (and a bit of Canada), disembarking and visiting over a dozen towns and cities, finding that the passenger car was at once adventure and a nightmare – the promise of self-discovery and renewal via train trip was only a daydream. Instead she emerged from her 8,111-mile journey with a close view of the America’s crumbling infrastructure and a decaying communities alongside the tracks. The train, it turns out, is a portal, to what might have existed if the America’s rails hadn’t been sold off and bought out.
The logic of the pixel existed millenia before the technology to light it up. That logic is simple: dots arranged carefully can produce a picture. Need a clearer picture? Add more dots. Need color? Add more dots! Need the picture to move? Well, that’s where things get interesting…. From ancient mosaics to smartphone screens, Ian Epstein’s book traces the long history behind the little lights we increasingly use to look at and interact with the world.
Fog, a cloud that touches the ground, marks the fuzzy and shifting boundary of just how much (or little) we are willing to tolerate the natural world. Viewed from beyond the fog line, it is picturesque, the stuff of postcards and viral videos; yet from within it is a menace, responsible for travel delays, accidents—including the deadliest airline disaster in history—and is a vessel of terror and contagion. Stephen Sparks traces the brief history of fog from the mid-19th century, when Oscar Wilde claimed that fog was invented, to the 21st century Pacific coast, where scientists believe fog may be going extinct, to reveal a history of our conflicting desires to eliminate and appreciate fog.