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Love Objects. Emotion, Design and Material Culture

Anna Moran and Sorcha O'Brien, Editors
Bloomsbury Publishing, New York and London, 2014
166 pp., illus. 52 b/w. Paper, $29.94
ISBN: 9781472517197.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Love Objects
is a fascinating collection of 12 essays on a traditional, if not classic object, made quite popular via books such as Sherry Turkle's Evocative Objects (2007): objects are not mere objects, they can only come into existence thanks to the meaning that they achieve through use (and which in its turn transforms our way of using them), last but not least these meanings are deeply rooted in emotional layers that make objects into parts of ourselves (and vice versa, needless to say). This well-established theme, however, is inspiringly refreshed by the interaction between emotion studies, anthropology, cultural history, gender studies, and the growing awareness of ecological and sustainability issues in design. The enumeration of all these disciplines may give the impression that Love Objects is the umpteenth fashionable gathering of disciplinary approaches of one specific topic aiming at become an illustration of the benefits of interdisciplinarity, but the reality of this book as a whole as well as the various essays that compose it is anything but that. Throughout the whole publication, the strong editorial hand of Moran and O'Brien has succeeded in producing chapters that seamlessly combine diverse perspectives on a wide range of subjects (pun intended, given the objects' agency), while presenting the same basic structure and contributing each in their way to the overall structure of the volume (this paradoxical homogeneity of the essays is one of the many good surprises of Love Objects). The way in which all essays end up with a "conclusion" that links the given case study with the general research question of the book is exemplary in all regards, and so is the exceptional "unity in diversity" of the book in terms of topics and methods. Love Objects studies well-known objects, but through the lens of surprising and always very interesting cases that cover less analyzed aspects of design and material culture in 19th and 20-Century UK and US culture. One will not find here readings of cars, road signs, furniture and the like, which are the usual suspects of this kind of collections, yet their absence is more than compensated by brilliant essays on, for instance, the playboy's pipe (why did Playboy magazine in the late fifties relied so much on the image of the briar pipe-smoking bachelor in its marketing strategy?), the spread of sex shops for women in posh London neighbourhoods (an essay that might remind readers of the ground-breaking essay by Andrew Ross on female pornography, cf. "The Popularity of Pornography", in  No Respect. Intellectuals and Popular Culture, 1989), or amateur female shoemaking around 1800 (a revealing piece on conflicting, class- and gender-related values that will eventually condemn a practice that seems at first sight totally neutral and inoffensive but that actually contested rigid social and ideological barriers).

The particular strength of this book resides in the perfect balance between the originality of the case studies (if the object they illustrate are very usual, the examples that illustrate them are often quite the contrary) and the capacity of the authors to enrich their own methodology, which is either theoretical (the common denominator being in many cases a certain emphasis on anthropology) or practice-based (the volume contains several contributions by artists with a strong theoretical interest), with a strong sensibility of  the political dimension of the personal. All chapters offer a robust theoretical underpinning of the point they make, but none of them does it the same way. Certain authors focus on the mythology analysis indebted to Roland Barthes or the memory studies paradigm in family photography initiated by Marianne Hirsch, others are more oriented toward psychoanalytical interpretations of the relationships between subjects and objects or the historical decoding of cultural conventions, constraints, taboos, and censorship as imposed by the disciplinary force of culture in the work by Foucault. But all of them take great care in shaping their argument with the help of both a very concrete corpus analysis and a well-chosen set of theoretical references.  The chapter on the pipe, for instance, makes very clear why it was important to foreground the pipe, instead of other tobacco-related items, what it had to do with issues of gender and life-style, and why it appeared with such insistence in exactly these years.

Ten out of 12 contributors of this book are female, but the great variety of voices guarantees a very welcome innovation of objects traditionally linked with the female, domestic sphere. Several objects may seem narrowly feminine in the most conventional possible sense of the word, such as knitting, giving presents, or home decoration, not to speak of the importance of "caring for objects" or "touching of objects", both also often linked with a female perspective, it is actually the contrary that occurs in this book. All essays offer very innovative interpretations of femininity and masculinity, defeminizing and sometimes even queering them not only through the analysis of the cultural and historical conventions that surround them but also through the lines of resistance and empowerment that love objects may disclose.

Last Updated 29th August 2014

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