The language of objects

Orhan Pamuk’s novel Museum of Innocence is written from the perspective of Kemal, a man who is so obsessively in love with a woman called Füsun that he starts creating a museum for her belongings. The idea of an actual museum was in Pamuk’s mind right from the outset of writing his novel. In fact, he started collecting objects beforehand and let them inspire him throughout the writing process. He was planning to open the museum and publish the book at the same time. However, the curation of the museum took the author longer than originally anticipated.

Situated in an old three-storey building in Çukurcuma which was built in 1897, the museum exhibits a variety of artefacts including clothes, toys, utensils, bus and cinema tickets, bankbooks, paintings, photographs, and various other items from the time in which the novel is set. These objects are curated chronologically according to the chapters of the book and are displayed in 83 showcases. An installation of 4213 cigarettes that Füsun has smoked is the first thing that welcomes visitor.

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I’ve always felt that the human eye is partial to objects that reveal themselves not directly in front of it, but somewhat off-centre, waiting to be grasped from an oblique view. Truth and meaning seem to tease and tantalise in these moments when the object appears not precisely where it lies but at its point of absence, where it gives way to what is external to it.

Observing a star directly in its familiar bearing gives us an elusive image, for not only is our vision limited by that blind spot where the optic nerve punctures the pupil, but, observed alone, the star’s very bearings seem to come adrift. It is only when we grasp it as part of a constellation that it occupies its rightful place in the night sky, and both the stars and the spaces between them form a coherent image, our minds piecing together instances of light whose origins may be millions of years apart in celestial history.

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It’s not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. (1999, p. 462)

The relationship of the elements of the past to the present is one that is actualized dialectically. But this dialectic is not a gradual process of recurrent synthesis; it is much more discontinuous and brittle; it is a dialectic whose interrelations and tensions are realized all at once, in a single moment, as if through the cessation of historical time, rather than through its continued unfolding. The historian’s task …is the collection and juxtaposition of heterogeneous historical elements with one another and with the now of the author, the text and the reader.

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By the dialectic we mean the interaction between oppositions such as good and evil, light and dark, lightness and weight, warm and cold, love and hate. A world where all of these terms are diametrically aligned, corresponding according to their usual connotations, is not just boring. It is false. Only in turning these terms around, in discovering how the good cop becomes corrupted, how the poor ragpicker seeks salvation in high culture, how the rainy days become the most joyful, does the world obtain nuance, granularity, and movement.

Walter Benjamin’s key insight is that this dialectic need not occur as a continuous or linear becoming, but rather all at once. For Benjamin, this meant that history did not follow a deterministic march (as the vulgar interpretation of Hegel assumes), but rather contained moments of radical uncertainty and freedom. The dialectical image may appear all at once by virtue of the moment itself, a crisis point in which all the different strands are called to the same scene, but the historian, the artist, or the spectator can also assume the responsibility to bring immanent dialectical tensions to the surface. The constellation refers to the image constructed by this particular gaze.  What distinguishes the constellation is the attempt to this dialectic as an image whose depths are contained within its surface-level relations.

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We are addressing the awkward question of the emergence of truth from within the fragmented material arrangement of the universe we inhabit. When we perceive objects as elements of a constellation, we perceive their arrangement in the framework of an idea. These ideas are doorways to truth, through which it peers and tantalises.

Phenomena are redeemed through ideas. Ideas, for their part, need representing in the world of phenomena. The human mimetic faculty is the means to bring ideas into the world.  Concepts simply group individual phenomena while leaving them as individuals. Redemption transforms individual phenomena into totalities, through conceiving their relations. 

Phenomena are not incorporated in ideas. Rather, ideas are virtual. They are the objective, virtual arrangement of phenomena. At the same time, they belong to two different, incommensurable worlds. Ideas represent phenomena in terms of something radically other. ‘Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars’. Phenomena limit how they can be represented by ideas. But ideas are necessary to symbolically construct relations among phenomena. 

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Six propositions on the constellation.

  1. The constellation displays each element as being interdependent among the other elements around it through a complex web of surface-level associations. As a corollary, it displays each element as being unfinished, as suggesting a larger whole of which it can only play a part, or as being in a constant state of becoming.
  2. The constellation allows for a slippage of dialectical relationships. A slight shift in perspective can make what initially appeared jovial to become grave. This is achieved not just through offering a range of viewpoints, but also through a process whereby a process of one-way influence or illumination is then turned back on itself, like an artist or epoch creating its own precursors.Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence 3
  3. The constellation allows for reconfiguration of the dialectical structure itself. Take the classic Freudian dialectic. There is a child, and its father. The child rebels against the father’s excessive intrusion in his life, and develops its own personality against what the father represents. When the child is older, he or she realises that, without the father figure, there would have been no ground on which establish this rebellion, and thus the figure enabled its journey towards independence. This version of the dialectic privileges the figure of the father as the child’s anchor in both phases. Yet in bringing dialectics to a standstill, no one object occupies this role, thus allowing one to imagine reconfigurations where different elements occupy such positions in relaton to the rest, defining the field on their own terms.
  4. The constellation also allows for reconfiguration of objects’ relationship to time. The present is both what the past dreamed of and what the future will look back on, and add to. Thus, the constellation points both towards present and past, and finds meaning in objects by thrusting them out of their original contexts and into new ones. Here lies its allegorical dimension. 

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  5. Between the objects of a constellation we find a multitude of absences, grey areas, gaps and seams which, alongside the elements of the constellation, delimiting each object and creating room for their articulation. These gaps became charged with meaning, and rather than signifiers for lack, become signifiers for dialectical negation.
  6. The constellation leaves vacant places for new elements to insert themselves into and perhaps redefine the whole constellation, and it is into these places that the observer can insert their own context to absorb and influence the other elements. It is as if a constellation in the night sky were missing a star that will emerge from a celestial event of our own doing.

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I realized that when arranged with love and care, objects in the museum- an odd photograph, a bottle opener, a picture of a boat, a coffee cup, a postcard- could attain a much greater significance than they had before. I had to put these strange photographs and used objects on my desk and reimagine them as pieces belonging to the lives of real people. The more I looked at the objects on my desk next to my notebook- rusty keys, candy boxes, pliers, and lighters- the more I felt as if they were communicating with one another. Their ending up in this place after being uprooted form the places they used to belong to and separated from the people whose lives they were once a part of- their loneliness, in a word- aroused in me the shamanic belief that objects too have spirits.

Why has no one else ever thought of something like this, of bringing together a novel and a museum in a single story? The reasoning behind my museum could be applied to already published novels as well as to novels as yet unwritten. If someone made an Anna Karenina Museum, finding a way to display the material world of the novel, I’d come running.

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Today we know that the Milky Way is a conglomerate canvas formed of millions of stars. Even though the various stars in this mass are separated by long distances, the distance of the mass from us is so large that we observe them as being rather close to one another. The Milky Way encircles the entire solar system. Many astronomers deem the Milky Way to be the frontier of the known universe and believe that beyond it lies a vacuum that our minds cannot comprehend.”

When aligning our dressed-up selves in neat rows at a friend’s house, arranging our heads with meticulous care inside the phantom frame (in group poses, heads on the left-hand side will pleasantly angle toward the right and those on the right will lean to the left), we look at the camera lens as if we are observing the present through the opposite end of a telescope from an imaginary day in the future. We have yet to know of the museum visitors who will be observing us. But, it seems, the idea of the future we have constructed in our minds has immediately alerted us to the emptiness and futility of the small problems, pretensions, jokes, and obsessions of our present. And so we are able to smile with a heartfelt irony and feel the significance of this occasion.

While making the museum, we frequently came face-to-face with the serendipitous nature of beauty.

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Averroes, who read Aristotle’s Physics in an Arabic translation in the twelfth century, fourteen hundred years after it was written, emphasizes the parallels between indivisible matter (atoms) and indivisible units of time (moments). Just as in Aristotle’s physics, time emerges when individual moments shrink into themselves, so when objects do the same, they lose their stories. It is at this point that the innocent of objects becomes apparent. Our museum has been built on the contradictory desires to tell the stories of objects and to demonstrate their timeless innocence.

The constellation may be imaginary, imputed to things that have no need of it and remain blind to it, but this is not to say it is unreal. Yet the reality of the constellation does not take a literal form, as lines really traced in the void between stars. The reality of the constellation is manifest in their power of orientation, to give direction to travelers, especially at sea. The constellation exists not between stars, but between stars and sailors as the orienting force which is a condition of navigation. The lines of the constellation are traced in the movements of ships at sea, even if these lines bear no resemblance to those imagined in the heavens.

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One comment

  1. Sonia Mrva · · Reply

    Edwin, this is an exciting philosophical project and George and I enjoyed reading it. You have enthused me to read Walter Benjamin whose ideas you quote. We will be looking forwards to read more of your essays/writings. Great photos too!

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