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Texxtured Thing-power: How do I make sense of theory, how does theory make sense of me?

“I am drawn to the ethnographic experience of the mundane, to the constant encounter with juxtapositions in people’s lives which, for cultural theorists, ought to be incommensurable and contradictory, yet appear to be lived with and accompanied by little more than a shrug of the shoulders. Perhaps things “shouldn’t be this smooth.” Daniel Miller, Materiality; Why Some Things Matter.1

While living in France in 2008, I found myself ambling slowly through the streets of Paris on a warm fall night. Strolling along a cobble-stoned alley, I came upon the opened back of a box truck, inside of which a particularly a neatly folded stack of blue-black blankets with white stitching flanked the left side. I stood, eyes fixed on that which I hadn’t really noticed before. The blankets before me were not unusual, they are the very ones that tend to cloak artwork and other precious goods in transit from warehouse to gallery, or house to new house. But my attention was locked; a momentary realization; these blankets are quilts! This recognition, although personally striking to me, is not unique, but rather a common experience; admiring something simple in a new light, partaking in the pleasure of reflection of that which I had not considered before. It allowed me to contend with the ways in which I frame my world daily; what do I notice, what fails to catch my eye, what do I care for, and why? The study of materiality is at once a compounding of these moments; and a delving into the deep work of unearthing how material “works as a mechanism for social reproduction and ideological dominance” as Daniel Miller writes in Materiality; Why Some Things Matter.2

As humans, we live within the affective power of textiles, through our individual developments of personal relationships with material goods, through our favorite shirts, our inherited family heirlooms, and through standing too long ogling at blankets. This power, or thing-power, as Jane Bennett names it in her book Vibrant Matter, functions beyond our purview, escaping our frenzied attempts of understanding the busy work of meaning making. When considering the experiential phenomenon such as my moving blanket moment, I keep circling back to a few core elements; the ungraspable nature of non-specificity evident in ubiquitous items such as moving blankets, and the questions of capacity and agency that present themselves in this ubiquity. Questions emerge at every turn; what is the productive capacity of ubiquity, as self evidenced in a moving blanket? Is this cloak of “general use”, and our conceptions of utilitarian objects a form of waste, and can the unpacking of these utilities be considered a type of waste management? How does human understanding of individual objects relate to the ability of the object to be used, and by whom? To attend to these questions, I will be closely considering the moving blanket through Jane Bennett’s frame of ‘thing power’ as noted, and Renu Bora’s delineation of TEXTURE and TEXXTURE, expanded upon in his essay “Outing Texture” within Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Novel Gazing: Queer readings in Fiction. These sensual theories that give objects agency help to make sense of the containers that things exist within, and how objects can subvert their own histories.

Moving blankets, also known as elevator wall pads or furniture pads, are most commonly found in an ultramarine blue, top-stitched with a requisite white zig zag and a ¼” polyester binding. Unlike other quilts, and yet very still much a quilt, a moving blanket is an object of utility, anonymously protecting objects, people and spaces as they pummel through time and transverse distances. Moving blankets are noticeably absent from the holdings of the very museums and galleries they are tasked with polishing, protecting, and reinforcing, although they have become the subject of several artistic endeavors in recent years.Moving blankets have a multifaceted pluralistic utility; they are used domestically and in the workplace by those who ensure safe passage of objects deemed art, and in doing so, recede to the background. Musicians may use them to soundproof garages, filmmakers might wrap their camera equipment while en-route to the next set, and art handlers interact with them daily as they cover frames of paintings or carefully wrap sculptures to move and through a gallery or museum. These cloth coverings typically exist outside of the purview for “care” of objects, which is constituted in this context by the relative importance that an object has for individuals in a personal capacity, as well as how its lifecycle is attended to. The moving blanket in the gallery is used until it can no longer provide adequate utility, once it is threadbare, or full of paint or glue it is no longer “useful,” at which point another, fresher, cleaner one is acquired.

While touching the moving blanket, does the art-handler feel the work of many hands that recycled and processed the fibers that constitute the moving blanket, or smell the oil in the factory machine rooms that the blanket moved through during its production? Does empathy present itself while using this ubiquitous item? These emotions and sites exist as a part of the nexus of production; small points on a map isolated that make up a larger picture of what the product really is. Akin to common objects one might find in a dollar store, moving blankets are deemed unremarkable; similar to the white crew T-Shirt, the assorted white athletic sock, the cut-end cotton wet mop-head, size 24. The aforementioned goods are defined by their basic product type; they do not beckon further questioning, and are often seen as just what they seem to be. I believe these objects belong to sub-set of consumer textiles, which I will refer to as nonspecific textiles. These textile items exist in stark contrast to carefully tended-to family heirloom quilts or one’s favorite T-Shirt; thus transgressing common categories and definitions.

The term nonspecific was first used in the Journal of Sociology in 1968.4 Specific, on the other hand, was first recorded in use over 300 years before, in 1651, and stems from the Latin. Nonspecific seems to have more recently entered the English semantic imaginary, as something of a modern phenomenon. Delineations of specificity are elucidated through use, coupled with cultural connotations of appropriateness; one would be hard pressed to find a moving blanket adorning a bed in the way an heirloom quilt might, or in an upscale boutique, featured amongst items that are considered decor for the home. With a lack of defining characteristics that establish one from another, the nonspecific object transverses class distinctions. Nonspecific items are classified by their relative ubiquity, for instance; one could argue that everyone has a white T-Shirt. Semantically, these objects can be referred to using the same terminology for both grouping and individual items. Calling something nonspecific affects the way an object is seen, often rendering it invisible in relation to other, more precious objects. The precious object calls for a tracing of its own history, one might ask, where did you get that beautiful family-heirloom quilt? Who made it, when and with what materials? Nonspecific objects may populate the backdrop of commonplace life, but are not held closely as artifacts we craft deeper relationships with, nor are they theorized about.

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Jane Bennett issues a resounding call in Vibrant Matter, imploring humans to rethink the tropes that allow us to compartmentalize objects of import and ubiquity, to sculpt matter and material as ‘inert’. Bennett questions delineations of matter as “raw, brute”, incessantly turning, tumbling, and examining concepts of ‘life’ and ‘matter’, “so that a vital materiality can start to take shape,” in what she describes as the philosophical branch of her two pronged effort. The next fork in the branch is that of the political, and involves questioning of how our world would change if we “took seriously the vitality of nonhuman bodies?”5 Bennet calls on Bruno Latour’s concept of the actant, “a source of action that can be either human or non-human”, and strides away from the historical questioning of subjectivity, which can be seen as “an ego-centric quixotic endeavor” by her estimation, to instead focus on the “active power issuing from non-subjects.”6  Bennett’s advocating for vibrant matter comes from a dismantling of the framework that conditions humans to participate in such anthropocentric practices such as incessant environmental degradation. This ever-present “vibrancy” has the power to ennoble, degrade, aid or destroy, and even demand human attentiveness or respect.7 Bennett chronicles her goals;

  1. To paint a positive ontology of vibrant matter” in turn taking to task notions of “agency, action and freedom
  1. Crafting openness to aesthetic-affectiveness to materiality through binary busting (life/matter, will/determination etc.)
  1. Drafting of inclusive political analysis for the contributions of nonhuman actants.8

This expansive definition of vibrant materiality also encompasses impersonal affect, that which is not specific to human bodies. Arguing that this definition (borrowed from Deleuze & Guattari as well as David Cole,) is equitable to materiality itself, and not a substitute for it, materiality in this context is detached from “passive, mechanistic or divinely infused substance.”9  In carving out how this careful work will be undertaken, Bennett invokes a certain weirdness, and Adorno’s ‘clownish traits’, coupled with a willingness to tread lightly when it comes to ‘demystifying’, for that inquiry is built upon the notion that at the end lies “human agency…illicitly…projected onto things.”10 At the crux of this idea of ‘thing power’ is a duality; the capacity for both a “recalcitrance of things” and “a positive, productive power.”11 Through this lens, thing-power is the ability of objects, outside of human purview, to transcend simple labels as objects, and morph into a state of real “independence or aliveness.”12 Thing power, not tethered to one item or group of items, is the ability of things to engage fully as actants or non-human players. A moving blanket is a ripe example of vibrant matter. Recently, I was fixated on the guts of a torn moving blanket on my street in South Brooklyn, I think in that moment, I started to realize the object was constituted most especially of complex and interlocking actants, or the convoluted innards that make up its “fill.”

This center, or what we might call “the meat” of the moving blanket is borne of scraps and recycled bits from the textile and fashion industries. The procuring, processing and production of the fill is the most elusive element in the construction of this hyper-object. This fill is a product of an industry run by intermediaries known as “rag and bone men”, who convert clothing and textiles deemed undesirable by one group of people into new end use products.13

Often times the path to this end material can be one where objects are reconstituted several times before becoming shreds:

“A woolen jumper which lasts seven years can be recycled into a wool coating fabric, which can be made into an overcoat that is good for perhaps ten more years. The discarded overcoat can then go on to become a blanket, which can again yield service for ten years. The blanket can then be recycled as filling for furniture or bedding or perhaps as the insulation or soundproofing in a motor car. So a wool fiber, starting life on the back of a sheep, can have a useful life of 50 years before nothing more can be done with it.” 14

Only after “nothing more can be done with it” is a textile item deemed useable by the ‘shoddy’ (rag) industry, an industry invented by Benjamin Law in England in 1813.15In shredding factories, these forgotten items become rags for machines, and dismantled into fill for any number of car doors, furniture upholstery and other luxury goods. As mentioned, the raw material that comprises the fill will often circumnavigate the globe several times before it’s shredded into the fluff that stuffs a moving blanket. This material and the labor that surrounds this processing occupies a liminal space between industries, as Lucy Norris notes in Cloth That Lies: The Secrets of Recycling in India, “the export of used Western clothing for the shoddy industry is arguably an international trade in waste products, but those involved deny this definition and conceive of it differently.”16

The production of this fiber filling is a site of transfer, mystique and labor. The end result is concurrently subverted through its inclusion as the stuffing of ubiquitous items such as the moving blanket; “ever ready to respond to challenges in the market to create new hybrid products whose origins remain deeply obscured.”17 Daniel Miller unpacks how this fracturing “creates the basis for new materials, but also releases their symbolic and social significance, so that fragility and reconstitution are made available again as warp and weft;” or in the case of the moving blanket, its padding; the very stuff which delineates it as both a quilt and a utilitarian item.18

My concern here lies in the translations from object hood to non-object hood that are presided over in these processes of transformation. As Lucy Norris notes, “it is not that people do not recognize that clothing is often transformed back to fibre and rags, but it is assumed that that constitutes the end of our concern for the social life of clothing.”19 In this translation, items which once held such specific power, (clothing) can be eviscerated from their previous contexts, and morphed into a new product with different powers. What happens to our relationship this vibrant matter in this space of translation?

Renu Bora’s essay “Outing Texture” in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book Novel Gazing, explores the charges that objects hold by unpacking notions of texture:

“How a static object or material could store this life, in a sense is puzzling, for in its remembrance, its variability of compression or stretch, it seems to have a mind of its own…The material world is saturated with labors, and there are many ways in which one can unspring or perceive this labor.”20 As the textures shift, our relationship to the labor it signifies, and the labor of care, changes.

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Additionally, Bennett’s concept of thing power is expanded upon here, to include capacity to store ‘life’, as evidenced through the inherent physical properties of use and wear, making a thing both capable of affecting, but also of remembering. Bora argues that the reflexive nature of TEXTURE, and also between object types inherently possess “narratives of transformation.”21 This textural exploration comes from a close read of the sensuous affective powers of touch and desire as surmised in an exploration of Henry James’s The Ambassadors. The question central to Bora’s inquiry into the powers of Chad (the erotic tease in James’ novel) also help guide his look at TEXTURE; “(1) How did he [it] get that way? (2) What do I want to do with him [it]?”22Bora’s stare bores holes in surface, “what surfaces had done to them that made them that way,” and why this might help to indicate how we might want to interact with these surfaces. Surface inhabits an ability to conceal and reveal, Bora details, “in my describing perception I discover something like the flesh of objects.”23This flesh, gives way to bifurcation of texture, which Bora aptly describes as TEXXTURE. Bora outlines the language of texxture as we know it, describing how “temporality (also human consciousness, embodiment, movement, and therein style) is intrinsic to the meaning of materiality.”24 Through this unpacking of texture in relation to sexual fetish and as it exists within the liminal space on the borders of touch and vision, Bora calls on TEXXTURE as the ability of surface to not elucidate any clear meanings or history, a purposeful obfuscation of its lineage. Bora describes it as; “I name it TEXXTURE to signal the way it complicates the internal.”25

TEXXTURE, in Renu Bora’s eyes perfectly describes the innards of a moving blanket in relation to its utility as an object. Its history can be linked to a very logical path of production; however, somewhere along the line this pathway of production has become obscured. The story of how it was is visually absent in the final product, thus elucidating a moving blanket’s fill as a TEXXTURE. What happens when multiple TEXXTURES collide, do they collude, absolve into one another and bursting into new forms of vibrant matter?

The moment something becomes visible or identified is the moment it loses that stickiness, that space that has been “consistently ignored by Western Philosophy, the gap between concept and reality.”26 To watch this space might look like treading lightly on the work of ‘de-mystification’, which tends to get to project humanistic properties supplanted for an object-oriented-ontology. If we assume thing-power to be innate; then what of nonspecific textiles? If things want, does passing as a quilt; a utilitarian object; allow something like a moving blanket to take on a deeper capacity?

If I follow Bennett correctly, than the production of nonspecific goods is inherently an artifact of “material recalcitrance”.27 It would also appear to be the unfortunate natural progression bemoaned by Marx, for goods to be continually removed from the process of production, resulting in their being increasingly ‘fetishized’. The endless cycle of production of nonspecific textiles such as moving blankets appears to reinforce the notion that “cultural forms are themselves powerful, material assemblages with resistant force.”28  These waste products (ie:old clothing), belong in the vibrant matter in this matrix, just as I find evidence of Renu Bora’s texxture while unpacking of Jane Bennet’s thing power. Materiality is not a cog in a wheel, but is building worlds as much as any of us humans might, the effects of which ripple outward, vibrant as the matter from which they transpire.

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Outside of our field of vision and our purview for care, moving blankets don the cloak of ubiquity as a form of invisibility. Perhaps they desire to be read or pass as something ‘unremarkable’ as to halt further questioning or fetishization. Desire such as this presents invisibility as form of waste, for being read as visible is a form of productivity, where things can be mapped onto the matrix of utility within a hegemonic and heteronormative capitalist structure. This shimmering vivacious vibrant matter; the moving blanket and its elemental parts; the fill, the stitching, the ultramarine top-layer, are themselves actants. Every element bears evidence of care, from the top stitching of its outer layer to the perfectly padded fill, similar to a mended shirt, a homemade meal, a well-written book. These signs of labor are indistinguishable from typical care, aside from the affect they produce in us. Renu Bora’s comparison of TEXTURE AND TEXXTURE comes to mind; “…these categories are intertwined, often in supplemental relation.”29 Moving blankets want to be nonspecific, as human actants might. Walking down my street in South Brooklyn, I watch the hands of careful mover, slipping a blue blanket over possessions, and I think of the power of this nonspecific object, its fluidity as flexible as its object hood, its agility for multifaceted existence non existence as ever present as its many utilitarian applications. As a queer person, I desire this invisibility as much as I understand the power of visibility in a oppressively straight culture. Where passability as ‘normal’ can be an issue of life and death for some, others argue that visibility will help thrust gay agendas to the center stage. Ideological and tactical spectrums aside, I ache for the capacity to silently signal jam, constantly tiptoeing on the fine line between passability and blatancy, rendering illegible the traces of particular gender ideologies and norms. I walk by quietly, the moving blanket stares back.

Notes
  1. Daniel Miller, Material cultures: why some things matter (London: Routledge, 2003), 14.
  2. Ibid 12.
  3. Clynton Lowry, “Custom Moving-Blanket Jacket” Art Workers of New York Unite! In Hyperallergic, December 11, 2015, https://hyperallergic.com/259838/art-workers-of-new-york-unite/.
  4. “Discover the story of English, More than 600,000 words, over a thousand years,” Home: Oxford English Dictionary, accessed January 27, 2017, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/128115?redirectedFrom=non%2Bspecific#eid.
  5. Jane Bennett, Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), ix.
  6. Ibid, ix.
  7. Ibid,ix.
  8. Ibid x.
  9. Ibid,xiii.
  10. Ibid,xiv.
  11. Ibid, 2.
  12. Jane Bennett, Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), xvi.
  13. Norris, Lucy, Cloth That Lies: The Secrets of Recycling in India, Clothing as Material Culture, ed Susanne Kuchler and Daniel Miller (New York: Berg, 2005), 88.
  14. Ibid, 92.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid, 93.
  17. Ibid, 102..
  18. Daniel Miller, introduction to Clothing and Material Culture, ed Susanne Kuchler and Daniel Miller (New York: Berg, 2005), 9.
  19. Norris, Lucy, “Cloth That Lies: The Secrets of Recycling in India”, in Clothing as Material Culture, ed Susanne Kuchler and Daniel Miller (New York: Berg, 2005), 83.
  20. Bora, Renu, ” Outing Texture,” in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction by Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997, 100.
  21. Ibid, 102.
  22. Ibid, 94.
  23. Ibid, 100.
  24. Ibid, 96.
  25. Ibid, 99.
  26. Jane Bennett, Vibrant matter: a political ecology of things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), xvi.
  27. Ibid, 1.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Bora, Renu, ” Outing Texture,” in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction by Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997, 107.
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CZ explores intricacies of material culture, as textile researcher, educator and maker. Currently a professor at the City College in Brooklyn New York, CZ also partners with the Textile Arts Center and BRIC to explore radical pedagogy and textile history. Callen co-runs the collaborative roving design collective non/studio and is always carrying too many books on the train.