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Ordinary Thing?

Dernière mise à jour : 17 mars 2021

This week's lecture, and especially the text The Force of Things by Bennett made me think of two distinctive references.

Exhausting spaces

The first one that struck me when reading the chapter Things-Power I - Debris, is the use of an identical methodology and focus that the one of the french writer, and part of the Oulipo collective George Perec. A few of his books could relate directly, such as Espèce d’Espaces (Species of Spaces), or Les Choses (The things), but one short essay appears as very directly related.

Over the fall of 1974, Perec sat for three days in a square in Paris - Place Saint Sulpice. He recorded every detail that he would encounter, every object, every move, placing them all at the same level. He compiled these observations of what he calls The Infraordinary in the short essay “Tentative d'épuisement d’un lieu Parisien” - “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris”.

This kind of inventory process resembles the ones that Bennett uses as a starting point to a reflection on “Debris”, things that we are supposed to ignore, on the materiality of the objects encountered in a street of Baltimore : the glove, the rat, the pollen, the bottle cap, and the stick.

Abstract from An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, George Perec 1974


Date: October 18, 1974

Time: 10:30

Place: Tabac Saint-Sulpice

Weather: dry, cold. Grey sky. Minor flashes of sun.

Sketch of an inventory of some things strictly visible:

-Letters of the alphabet, words: “KLM” (on someone's carrying bag), a capital “P” designating “parking”, “Hotel Recamier”, “St Raphael”, “money adrift”, “taxis arriving at the station”, “Rue du Vieux-Colombier”, “La Fontaine Saint Sulpice brewery and bar”, “P ELF”, “Saint-Sulpice Park”.

-Conventional symbols: signs under the “P” of parking lots, one slightly angled toward the ground, the other, towards rue Bonaparte (on the Luxembourg side), at least four signboards seeming to speak, that is, interjecting (a fifth reflected in the café window).

-Numbers: 86 (at the crest of a bus of class 86, indicating its place of origin: Saint-Germain-des-Pres), 1 (name plate no. 1 of rue Vieux-Colombier), 6 (here to indicate that we are in the 6th Paris arrondissement).

-Fleeting slogans: “From the bus, I spy Paris”

-On the ground: a pile of gravel and sand

-Stone: sidewalk edging, a fountain, a church, houses...


-Trees: (leafy, yellowing)

-Quite a large piece of sky (perhaps 1/6th my visual field)

-A cloud of pigeons suddenly pounding the central platform between church and fountain

-Vehicles (their inventory remains to be taken)

-Human beings

-A type of basset hound

-Bread (A baguette)

-Lettuce (wilted?) protruding from the top edge of a shopping bag.

Dunne and Raby - from The Secret Life of Electronic Objects to Speculative Everything

Dunne and Raby from the essay The Secret Life of Electronic Objects

Another reference that resonates with the lecture is the speculative work on design of the duo Dunne and Raby.

Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects is one of their early work, published in 2001. They explore how the systems of objects transform people’s experience of their environment. This seemed like an interesting shift of focus, putting objects that are merging into our daily lives at the center of sociological research.

Without being directly connected to the readings, one aspect of their work is nevertheless interesting in terms of methodology, and related to the way we are invited to tackle research.

The theoretical work they pursue on design is experimental, and practice based. They build projects, and experiment with them, that are the basis of reflections. For them “Writing is to reflect on the practical side and share it”.

The design they did for what they called a “risk watch” is a good example of this method. The watch is meant to experiment with the user's perception of reality when wearing it and walking around. Does your reality change when you wear their Risk Watch? Do you feel differently about your environment, and how you view the world? It is an object that was unlikely to be mass produced, especially at the time of its conception, but it did exist, and it's from the elaboration of the object, until its full functionality that the reflection on it happened.

Dunne and Raby's Risk Watch

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