Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Not a Drama: Things Affect in Herbert Read's the Innocent Eye

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Not a Drama: Things Affect in Herbert Read's the Innocent Eye

Article excerpt


"Affect for me is inseparable from the concept of shock. It doesn't have to be a drama. It's really more about micro-shocks, the kind that populate every moment of our lives. For example, a change in focus, or a rustle at the periphery of vision that draws the gaze towards it."

Massumi in McKim (2009, page 4)

Things have become more prevalent in research across a range of disciplines in recent years. Connor (2009) has detected within philosophy and cultural studies a "thingly turn" (page 1) whilst in history Trentmann (2009) has proclaimed that "Things are back" (page 283). Within the social sciences things have also become a topic for discussion. Such an interest has emerged as part of ongoing and "enduring preoccupations with the processes and excesses of 'livingness' in a more-than-human world" (Whatmore, 2006, page 604). This paper seeks to build on this interest in things and how they might be registered, understood, and articulated. First, it discusses recent work across the social sciences on things, through a focus on the occurrence and emergence of things within everyday life. It argues that, for all the good work done here to place things on the map, these things are essentially human oriented, where things emerge to disrupt human life. Second, the paper discusses an existing literature that takes the spatialities of the affective play of things as their focus. I argue that these emphasise the force of things measured through their impact upon human emotional states, and that the human thus remains as a subjective measure of the work things do. I argue nevertheless that affect offers a useful conceptual resource for moving beyond such analysis, allowing things to be understood as a force, but as less force-full, as a continuous hum of "micro-shocks" (Massumi in McKim, 2009, page 4), generative of affective atmospheres. The third section introduces an autobiographical account of childhood years, Herbert Read's The Innocent Eye (1933), and considers its significance and usefulness for a discussion of the ongoing affectivities of things. It outlines 'childlike wonder' as a stance and category through which a form of attentiveness to this affective work of things occurs. The fourth part briefly discusses a pair of 'episodes' from Read's book where things stir up particular affective atmospheres and are registered and expressed prior to and without an economy of emotion. The conclusion briefly considers the implications of this account for three key issues. First, to what extent does affect, and understanding things as operating on an affective level, allow us to get at more of the work that things do? Second, how does this add to understandings of the thing-ness of things whereby things are so often understood primarily in and through their disruptive emergence, and in terms of how and where they are registered emotionally? Third, how might this thing-ness be better captured through more inventive and experimental forms of reception and presentation of things?

Everyday things

The concept of things has been developed in part as a corrective to a Kantian subject-object dichotomy, where 'things' are objectified as objects and operate at the behest of (human) subjects. This distinction is one emphasised by Ingold (2008), who argues that "the world is comprised not of objects but of things" (page 3, emphasis in original). The outcome of such a move has meant that "the materialities usually figured as inanimate objects, passive utilities, occasional interruptions or background context--figured, that is, in ways that give all the active, creative power to humans" (Bennett cited in Khan, 2009, page 92, emphasis in original) are now regarded as having "creative power" in the world.

Miller's (2010) evocation of 'theories of things' (pages 42-78) is suggestive of recent approaches to and conceptualisations of things. There is little disagreement as to what might usefully be categorised as a thing--any-thing and every-thing can be, and is, a thing, as the following list of things from Morton (2012) demonstrates: "symphonies, grass, poems, wind, nebulae, wind harps, plays, humans, spools of thread, porpoises" (pages 205-206). …

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