EESE Review # 5

"Table Talk"


Sabine Schülting (Erfurt)


Gisela Ecker and Susanne Scholz (eds.). UmOrdnungen der Dinge. Königstein/Taunus: Ulrike Helmer Verlag, 2000. 404 pp. ISBN 3-89741-040-0. DM 58,-.

"Now, I've been used: abused, disabused, misused, mused on, underenthused, unamused, contused, bemused and even perused. Any compound of used, but chiefly used: shaving bowl, vinegar jar, cinerary urn, tomb good, pyxis, vase, rat-trap, krater, bitumen amphora, chamber pot, pitcher, executioner, doorstop, sunshade, spittoon, coal scuttle, parrot rest, museum exhibit, deity, ashtray."1 The first-person narrator of Tibor Fisher's The Collector Collector (1998) is a bowl, an ancient piece of pottery. In his long and multi-faceted 'life', it has not only been possessed by innumerable collectors, but has also undergone many transformations with regard to both shape and function. The bowl claims to know the secrets of human life and actively seeks to influence its surroundings. Annoyed, it considers "doing some shaping". It muses that "[t]here are very few things as scary as turning around and finding an eight-foot-high amphora behind you when there wasn't one before, especially when that amphora is making faces at you. Most people [...] find it very hard to trust reality and relax after that." (42) The Collector Collector is a bizarre novel, but it makes sense if it is read as an ironic intertext to recent work in cultural studies, where general assumptions about the world of things have come under scrutiny.

The present volume of essays, UmOrdnungen der Dinge,2 edited by Gisela Ecker and Susanne Scholz, is one of the few German contributions to this research area so far. In their introduction, the editors claim that even though material objects seem to belong to an unmediated reality and appear as "the most pure form of objectivity",3 their intelligibility depends on their specific cultural and historical context. These cultural "orders of things" are, in turn, constantly being negotiated and re-ordered, so the things acquire new meanings and occasionally even seem to be leading a life of their own. Literary or artistic re-presentations subject material objects to a further transformation, since they turn the 'real thing' into an 'imaginary' object of art. Both narrative and visual modes of representation are the prime means of bringing about this transformation process. The ways things are displayed, observed or narrated, bear witness to their cultural value, to relationships between subject and object, as well as to the fundamental codes and epistemological categories of a culture.

"Table Talk" would be an appropriate subtitle for this book, in which both the table and its metaphoric counterpart, the tableau (cf. Ecker/Scholz, p. 15), play a prominent role. This is not only true of the cover which shows an installation by Timm Ulrichs: thirteen tables turned upside down (see above). In addition to figuring as an object, which can be (re-)arranged as well as put into dis-order, the table also creates a tableau, where things or people are assembled. In her essay, Annegret Pelz analyses William Hazlitt's Round Table (1817) and Table Talk (1821/22), Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Table Talk (1835), and Oliver Wendell Holmes's The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858). For all three writers, 'table talk' is the figure for an anthology of heterogeneous texts and polyphonous voices. UmOrdnungen der Dinge is devised according to this same model. Ecker and Scholz describe their collection as a tableau of sorts, in which a whole range of different interdisciplinary perspectives on material objects have been compiled. Concurrently, the book starts with a section on tables, including three contributions by Pelz, Ecker and Scholz on dining tables, dressing tables and kitchen tables. The remaining nineteen essays are subdivided into further sections under the headings of "Schau-Orte" (places of gazing), "Tat-Orte" (places of doing/scenes of a crime), "Foto" (photography), "Objekte, Subjekte, Abjekte" (objects, subjects, abjects), and "Accessoires" (accessories). The essays focus specifically on cultural transformations, re-arrangements and re-valuations of things in general, and representations of things in literature and art, design and photography in particular. An enumeration of the items discussed almost resembles Jorge Luis Borges's Chinese encyclopaedia, which introduces Michel Foucault's The Order of Things. At first glance, UmOrdnungen der Dinge appears as a disorderly tableau, which brings together heterogeneous work on tables, beds, mirrors, boxes, glasses, plates, cutlery, computers, puppets, toys, props, jewellery, clothes, handbags, books, letters, photographs, and even refuse.

The deeper one ventures into this world of things, however, the more obvious do the various parallels and intersections among the essays become, thus enabling a new order of things to emerge. Three main themes run through the book: subject-object relations, the narrative potential of things, and the tensions between material things and their literary or artistic representations. With regard to the first theme, it is probably not surprising that fetishisations of material objects are a recurrent focus. Justified as all these contributions might be, after a number of essays, their repetitive diagnosis of fetishism tends to become rather monotonous. To some extent, this state of affairs is due to the limited range of appropriate theories available for the analysis of material culture. Scholz points to a further problem: in conclusion to her essay on eighteenth-century petticoats, she describes the 'fetish' as a meta-discourse, which constitutes the modern scholar's distance to the object of his or her analysis, i.e. an imaginary site of criticism beyond fetishism.

Personally I find those articles more inspiring which not only probe our accustomed notions of things, but which also question what has now become well-established scholarly work on material culture. The contributors of UmOrdnungen der Dinge, who are all affiliated to a North Rhine-Westphalian research project on "Cultural Transformations of Things", introduce a category of analysis which has so far been widely neglected in studies of material culture. They draw attention to the fact that negotiations of material culture are always gendered. This implies a re-vision or specification of widely accepted theories such as that of James Clifford. In his work on collecting, Clifford has argued that in the West personal identity is inextricably bound up with material possession, so that "identity is a kind of wealth."4 Objects thus function as attributes characterising their owners, and they also contribute to constituting subjectivity in the first place. A number of the essays here show, however, that a woman's position as to the world of things is different. In her reading of "Good Housekeeping", a short story by Rosellen Brown, Ecker maintains that for the housewife kitchen utensils are neither commodities, fetishes nor symbols. Instead of functioning as objects clearly separated from the subject, they can rather be described in terms of Julia Kristeva's notion of the abject. In contradistinction to the object, with which the subject can identify, the abject is not separated from the self and, thus, cannot stabilise identity. It is particularly the 'unclean' - "[e]xcrement and its equivalents" - which are regarded with particular anxiety because they endanger the self-construction of the ego as a "proper body."5 Whereas the establishment of a binary opposition between clean and unclean, inside and outside, the self and the other, is a precondition of subjectivity, the realm of the housewife in Brown's story is abject dirt - her baby's excrement, kitchen scraps, the dirty linen, etc. Yet, the unnamed protagonist takes photographs of these things, thus visualising the objects and, in turn, establishing her distance to them. Ecker shows how the story presents this aestheticisation and de-naturalisation as a violent transgression of cultural norms. The protagonist assumes a role, from which she has been traditionally barred.

In both of her essays, Scholz discusses how material objects contribute to constructing the woman as both subject and object at the same time. They function as mirror-images, which sustain her self-fashioning while simultaneously transforming her into a commodity herself. In Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, the exotic luxuries on Belinda's dressing table, which have been imported from the colonies into English commodity economy, augment the woman's value in the marriage market. These articles produce the beautiful surface of the female body, and they metonymically refer to her status in society. Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf also analyses the contradictory connection between femininity and the world of things. Departing from a reading of Adalbert Stifter's Nachsommer, she focuses specifically on jewellery. Wagner-Egelhaaf maintains that bourgeois economy invested heavily into jewellery in order to construct the gendered body. The ornamented body seems to be suggesting the existence of a 'natural body', prior to any signification. This corroborates Judith Butler's contention that 'sex', i.e. the biological body, is a "fiction, retroactively installed at a prelinguistic site to which there is no direct access."6 The adornments of the bride in Nachsommer can thus be read as patriarchal inscriptions on the female body, which sustain masculine authority and authorship. Whereas jewellery on the one hand functions as an allegorical subjugation of matter, on the other hand it instigates an endless interaction between body and spirit, matter and form, life and death, as well as between aesthetic and 'magic' functions of material objects. According to Ulrike Vedder, contemporary culture is particularly interested in exploring those points of intersection where the dividing lines between these binary oppositions become blurred, and this applies particularly to the differences between the living and the non-living, man and the machine. In a number of literary texts, computers are baptised Eliza, Ließa, or Alice. By recalling the myth of Pygmalion, these texts inquire into the nature of the human as well as into the relationship between animation and reification.

Several contributions regard material culture from a "narrative perspective", thus corroborating Mieke Bal's assumption that things can, indeed, "be, or tell, stories."7 The authors show that instead of providing unmediated visions of the past, things rather function as contradictory traces, which encourage the processes of reading, interpreting, and re-membering. Helga Kämpf-Jansen's contribution is a good case in point. It records a project which - inspired by the accidental find of a postcard - investigates into the life of one Ursula P. The research combines detailed detection with scientific documentation and artistic re-construction, thus always oscillating between authenticity and fiction. - Both Karin Windt's essay and the concluding article by Gisela Ecker concentrate on 'containers', i.e. on things such as handbags (Windt), boxes and chests (Ecker). The container, Ecker argues, neutralises the laws of its immediate surroundings and effects a shift into a different time and its respective semiotic code. Her reading of a sketch by Marguerite Duras demonstrates this interrelation between present and past, materiality and textuality, history and fantasy.

To some extent all of the essays which are brought together in UmOrdnungen der Dinge share one basic insight into material culture. While on the one hand material objects contribute to stabilising the Western binary oppositions between life and death, subject and object, form and matter, present and past, reality and fiction, they are, on the other hand, constantly subverting these dualisms. This deconstructive impulse, which is reflected upon in contemporary literature and art, can be seen as at least partially brought into effect by media such as photography, film, and computer technology, through which the difference between the material object, its representation, and the simulacrum has become dubious. UmOrdnungen der Dinge offers insights into the strange life of things, which can be as fascinating as they are disconcerting, since they compel the reader to look at her kitchen table, or her pottery, with new eyes. Some may even find it very hard to trust reality and relax after all that...

Sabine Schülting (Erfurt)


1 Tibor Fisher, The Collector Collector (London: Vintage, 1998), 5.

2 "UmOrdnungen der Dinge" can be translated as "re-orderings" or "re-arrangements of things". The title contains a pun on "Unordnung" (disorder) and also on Foucault's The Order of Things (German: Die Ordnung der Dinge).

3 Mieke Bal, "Telling Objects: A Narrative Perspective on Collecting", in The Cultures of Collecting, ed. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 97-115, 99.

4 James Clifford, "On Collecting Art and Culture", in J. C., The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, Mass./ London: Harvard University Press, 1988), 218.

5 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 71, 72.

6 Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York/London: Routledge, 1993), 5.

7 Bal, "Telling Objects ", 99.