Since I began to follow the Boing Boing blog three years ago, I have seen thousands of pictures of peculiar gadgets and things in their posts. But only last week did I realise that this immensely popular blog is in fact subtitled “A Directory of Wonderful Things”! If Wikipedia is to be trusted, this has been the case since January 2000! So why did it take me three years to find out?
I guess it may have something to do with my rather belated interest in “things”. As most historians of science I have been obsessed with letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters/articles and books. Like my peers I only paid scant attention to the material world when I had to struggle with the over-head projector or power point beamer. Those of my colleagues who have occasionally shown intellectual interest in the material world, have usually done so from a safe distance, preferrably through the two-phased mediation of textual descriptions of photos (or drawings) of material things. Only our professional cousins, the historians of technology, seem to have been interested in the material world per se.
I suspect that my recent awareness of the Boing Boing subtitle has everything to do with last week’s session in the reading group “Towards a New Materialism? Exploring Artifactuality and Material Culture in History of Science, Technology and Medicine” which is being organised by the History of Technology Division at Technical University of Denmark together with Medical Museion and the Research Policy Institute in Lund (and convened by Mats Fridlund; read more about the reading group here). At our first meeting last Thursday we discussed Raine Daston’s collection Things That Talk (Zone Books, MIT Press, 2004). Frankly, it (the book, not the discussion, which was excellent) was quite frustrating, because I realised that Daston & Co. are so enmeshed in the linguistic turn that they seem to believe that “things talk”, not only metaphorically, but in some other, rather obscure, sense.
Apparently it was my last week’s frustration with Daston & Co. that opened my eyes to the conceptual problems of the “material turn” (which, btw, seems to be all over science studies right now). Isn’t it amazing how one’s irritation with somebody else’s sloppy thinking can open one’s eyes to so far unnoticed subtitles?