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things 5
winter 1996-97

A kiss in the dark

Moral and academic concern with objects, with things, tends to be coloured by cultural pessimism, an anxiety about our use of objects that can be traced from current ecological preoccupations back to William Morris and John Ruskin in the 19th century, and further back to the anxious debate about the new luxury goods of the 18th century - a debate that itself made reference to the decline and fall of the Roman empire. It is one of the concerns of things to add back into the conversation about objects the positive term: an understanding of the subtle, expert and various ways in which we all make use of objects.

We do not wish to ignore the negative connotations of objects: the ways in which they can be used to ensnare, to exploit, to harm, and to obscure uncomfortable truths about life. But we acknowledge that we live in a period in which the construction of the self - all our selves - is an increasingly challenging task, and that we all use the world of goods to orchestrate our senses of ourselves. We do it well, and we do it badly, sometimes both at the same time; we do it all the time, and whether we have plenty of money to spend, or almost none. It is that process - for better and for worse - which we want to try to grasp in things.

So, in this issue, we begin with an exploration of a subject not often accorded serious consideration: interior decorating. Louise Ward's article examines how the English country-house style look so popular in the 1980s sprang from American, not English, roots, and how and why it was distilled to make its elements - chintz, faux paint effects, tablescapes, pictures hung on ribbons, carefully ordered disorder - available to everyone. Sarah Kane tells the life-story of one of the best-loved objects at the Bowes Museum, County Durham, an 18th-century silver swan, and considers the light its popularity casts on the nature of museum objects. Hannah Andrassy charts the introduction of elastic into swimwear in the 1930s. The apparently simple story of modern technology interacting with design to produce progress turns out to be only one of the narratives that can be traced; and even in this case, where we are dealing with a period rich in documentary sources that lies within living memory, what we know is outweighed by what we cannot know. It is only by acknowledging our ignorance that we can escape a formulaic approach to the past and unshackle our imaginations to ask meaningful questions.

What is a thing? In things, our definition is deliberately loose - a walk in the park, a kiss in the dark - and, in this issue, we take a step back for the first time from a close focus on smallish objects to things in the large, to architecture, with a report from Philip Nobel on the new Disney Corporation settlement in Celebration, Florida. Celebration's inhabitants - no less than those who deployed the English country-house style in the 1980s - are using their lives to reinvent something they thought was lost: here, the wholesome small-town life that exists vigorously, outside Celebration, only in the movies.

And, in this issue of things,  we have another first: a piece of specially commissioned fiction. 

Our use of objects is something that is too elusive, too subtle, too shifting, to be easily described or classified in the language of the academy. But we have another language at our disposal, all of us, which is another aspect of our skill with objects  and that is the way that we constantly use objects in language. Objects of the mind, you might call them - metaphor, simile, and the rest: all the figures of speech by which we liken ideas to things. This is why, in things, we run poetry and fiction alongside analysis and historical narrative, for we feel that the language of literature, of creative writing, can often reach further toward an understanding of the ways we use objects. So, in Jyrki Kiiskinen's short story, Marking time, we explore the use of creative writing in telling the life-story of an object, its owners, its makers, and the thoughts, feelings, and the larger history that has surrounded it.

things 5, winter 1996-97

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