"Visible and mobile, my body is a thing among things; it's caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing." Maurice Merleau-Ponty
We are, from one perspective, a culture of things. We have our gadgets and fancy bags and pads and pens and wallets and clothes and cars. Everywhere you look, there are more stores selling more things. We take this as a sign of prosperity. "Look! More stores! More things! Everything's great!" Shopping is a recreation, a family activity. We love things — or so it seems.
But I want to suggest that we don't, in fact, love things. We like to consume things. We want to buy them, own them, open them from their elaborate and often ill built containers — and then throw them away and buy some new things. Just look at the way people buy cars: a new one every few years. It's not things we like; it's the new (a most convenient truth for, and of, capitalism).
Some say we fetishize things. But I don't think we fetishize things enough.
We live in the material world. And I mean that in the most profound, far reaching sense. We are bodies. And we are of this world — of its stench and feel, its texture and play, its teeming complexity, its banality and beauty and grotesquerie. At times, we all imagine that maybe we are distinct from our bodies, that this flesh of the world betrays us or delights us but, in any case, is not us.
But shed this mortal coil and you shed life itself.
Now, it's not that we are only material bodies. We are immaterial bodies, too. We are feelings and thoughts and concepts and moods and notions and dreams. But these other things, these invisible things, are not primary or determinative. They don't drive the vehicle of our bodies. The visible and invisible worlds, the material and immaterial, are all mixed up together. At one and the same time, we are blood and love and bone and sweat and plastic and loneliness and wood and leaf and smile and gin and dope and engine and anxiety and steel and ink and glass and sea urchins. We are odor and idea, feeling and flesh, both. And neither came first.
To reduce material things either to commodity (capitalism) or irrelevance (religion) is to miss things all together. Things are complex and deserve our love, our respect, our time and reckoning — in both creation and consumption.The flippant ease with which we consume things testifies to our lack of love for them.
Things have a way of going, a speed and intensity, an entire calculus of possibility and wealth of delights that are at once utterly banal and utterly resonant. Such is this life. "Perforation! Shout it out!," writes Nicholson Baker in The Mezzanine. "The deliberate punctuated weakening of paper
and cardboard so that it will tear along an intended path, leaving a row
of fine-haired pills or tuftlets on each new edge! It is a staggering
conception, showing an age-transforming feel for the unique properties
of pulped wood fiber.” Such enthusiasm for things! It's like he's overcome with the spirit — of things!
Now this might not be the Sermon on the Mount. On the other hand, there is something much more powerful, more shocking, about it. To bestow such a seeming irrelevance with passion and poetry and without the intent of consuming and disposing of it — and with no profit motive; to relish the material world not over and against the immaterial but rather to relish all this life has to offer; indeed, to reckon this life, these things, here and now, while thoroughly participating in the invisible world of affect and idea; to live this life of things as if the things were always already imbued, always already run through, with the invisible world: this is nothing less than revolutionary.
Different things afford different ways of going, different ways of
thinking and feeling and being. Nicholson Baker is one of the great
proponents of things and is perhaps their most purple poet. He heeds things
in their particularity: "Has anyone yet said publicly how nice it is to
write on rubber with a ballpoint pen?" (From "Rarity," in The Size of Thoughts — that title alone says everything we need to know: the invisible world has size!) He does not pontificate, as I do, about the thingness of this world. No, he takes up those moments we pass over, these things we consider only for their use, and loves them with his time and words and energy. This is not trivial; on the contrary.
I want to say he elevates things but not to an altar. He does not put things in the place of gods as if seeking to reverse the order of things. He elevates the thingness of particular things to their rightful place amongst the living. To read The Mezzanine with its florid elaborations of shoelaces and such — it is one ride up an escalator in an office building, new shoelaces ensconced in a bag — is to have a new kind of (a)religious experience: it is the word — not the Word — made flesh. And vice versa.
(Language is simultaneously mark and meaning, a spectral creature that moves between and amongst bodies and their ideas, flesh and its feelings. Those, like Baker —and Nabokov and Junot Diaz ad Melville and and and — who relish language not as an expression of something but as expression itself, are revolutionaries who redistribute the relationship between things and ideas. A love of language is the phenomenologist's true fetish.)
To love things is to enjoy them, not consume them (although enjoyment may entail consumption). It is to consider the feel of things, to dwell within their multihued domain, to linger with their resonances, both visible and invisible.
After all, we are things, too — things among things, as Merleau-Ponty writes. To assume things are what we consume and dispose of means we are what we consume and dispose of. To love things is to love yourself, to love others, to love life. To love things is ethical.