Sherry Turkle

This is an interesting idea, that everyday objects around us are freighted with meaning and emotion, but the godawful way the NYT does this I half expected that they had been taken over by Cosmo or something. It verges close to one of those dewy-eyed fake profiles where you learn more about the clothing tastes and the sumptuousness of the house (they did the same with a profile of Richard Sennet).

She was using the objects in her 19th-century town house, which was bought and renovated by Professor Turkle after her divorce from Becca’s father 10 years ago, to explain the premise of her new book. “Evocative Objects: Things We Think With” (M.I.T. Press) is a collection of essays, edited and introduced by Professor Turkle, about how everyday objects tell stories about their owners.

Objects and artifacts have long been Professor Turkle’s stock in trade. When she arrived at M.I.T. in the 1970s, fresh from Harvard, Paris and years of studying French philosophy and psychoanalytic thought, Professor Turkle brought a humanist’s eye to the device that her new colleagues had become enamored of: the computer.

To her, it was an “evocative object,” a “companion to emotion, and a provocation to thought.” She looked beyond what the computer could do for us to what it might do to us, as individuals and as a society. As a sociologist of science, she spent years studying hacker culture, child programmers and gamers, groundbreaking work collected in books like “The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit,” published in 1984, and “Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet,” from 1995.

Her new book uses a similar approach to illuminate more familiar objects. A vacuum cleaner, a closet, photographs, a linty pill in an old wallet — each is examined through varying lenses of anthropology, philosophy and psychoanalysis.

For instance, a datebook and that linty pill, an antidepressant no longer taken by its owner, together bring to life Michel Foucault’s and Roland Barthes’s ideas about a disciplinary society and how its members learn to discipline themselves. As indigestible as this premise sounds, the book is actually a very tasty read.


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