Human geographer Diana Beljaars sees her own discipline with new eyes after an interdisciplinary workshop at Wellcome Collection.
This article is part of a two-week takeover (1-14 June) of The Polyphony by Thinking Through Things, an ECR-led collaborative project designed to stimulate interdisciplinary dialogue around the holdings of Wellcome Collection. Thinking Through Things is supported by the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research and is funded by a Wellcome Trust Discretionary Award. Following a training day co-hosted by Thinking Through Things and Wellcome Collection in February 2020, delegates were invited to submit a short text or creative response exploring one or more objects held by Wellcome Collection.
I applied to participate in the Thinking Through Things workshop with a fond interest in objects and the powerful disruptions they can instate in peoples’ lives. I wanted to find better ways to examine objects along those lines through various sensory encounters, in particular to ask better questions of the objects that play a central role in my work on compulsion driven by urges (rather than obsession or fear) as performed by people with Tourette syndrome. I found not only new angles for formulating these questions to approach experiential worldings of objects, but also new understandings of the ways in which objects construct knowledge worlds; how they expand, intersect, and collide.
These multidisciplinary meetings in and with the medical humanities are always exciting for me. As a human geographer with an interest in medicalised aspects of human life, they never fail to further unfold the medical(ised) world, its entanglements with the everyday, institutions, and culture. It feels like I can see my own discipline, topic, and work with new eyes, but perhaps more important is the way in which such meetings make me see how lines of logic and ontological priorities govern the knowledge creation in other disciplines, and how and where these lines and ontologies deviate and coincide. They are very refreshing. In their capacity of bringing together multiple disciplines with a common interest in the medicalisation of human life, these meetings thus offer an interactive space that teaches me to listen better to the voices from other disciplines. This workshop organised by the TTT project group proved to be particularly helpful.
I had never worked with archives before, nor with objects that have such culturally significant meanings that they had ended up in museums. I had marvelled at them from behind the glass, gauging what sensibilities they evoked in me, and imagining what they would feel like when held. With great meaning, they must yield great power: their aesthetic qualities somehow heightened with the historical significance of the sensations they would have incited in many bodies before mine. There is a significance that comes with meeting an object that has played, and still plays, an important role in people’s lives; either through the medically acclaimed revelations they do, or their legacies that live forth in the relief they brought and pain they caused. It is a wonderous thing to meet such object.
Yet, for me, the curious exaltation that these medical objects incite, ebbs away as quickly as it surges. They don’t have a lasting aura and their heaviness of history seeps away when I understand what they are, and their sometimes intricately crafted existence fails to make a lasting impression; not because the design work and craft that went into creating it is unimposing. Rather, they tend to be made of familiar material, texture, temperature, and they will often have been used in ways easily imaginable. In short, they are in excess of themselves in terms of meaning, but less so in terms of sensory capacities. This – perhaps impolite – anti-climax is somehow key. That is why I have been, and continue to be, interested in the appearance of objects and how they can be engaged with in ways that surprise us, even when we do it ourselves. What I’m asking of objects is how they can carry significance that resonates with compulsion beyond any reasoned and emotional significance that becomes attributed to them. I guess this is as much an ontological question as an epistemological one.
Indeed, compulsive engagement with objects blows all familiarity and significance right out of the water. Acts such as pressing one’s thumb into the sharp edge of an object, (re)positioning it amongst other things, and deforming it without purpose beyond getting rid of the nagging urge felt in one’s finger, the pit of one’s stomach, or as pressure behind one’s eyes are void of emotion, and cannot be explained by the logical inference we use to go about our lives.
The medical and clinical sciences in all their disciplinary plurality provide few viable options. However, the medical humanities do offer some substantial insights in the involvement of objects in compulsive acts. The ‘Thinking Through Things’ workshop did not only further consolidate this hunch, but also helped me understand why, by centralising objects (rather than people or performances) in their knowledge constructions. Inherent to geographical thinking, this translated into the creation and spatial reconstruction of objects through their capacity to order knowledge into an object world.
During the workshop, many object worlds were created, compared, and reshaped. And with these worldings, objects took on different forms and excited different registers of affects. One object world emerged with the different people whose lives coincided with the object; as subjecting others to it or as being subjected to it. What bodies did they interfere with, damage, inflict pain on – or relief if we follow Rachel Maines’ (2001) historical narrative of the vibrator, which had been consigned the treatment object for women with ‘hysteria’. Or formulated in a better way, which people were those bodies; what demographic, for what reasons had they ended up in confrontation with the device, and how were their lives altered as a result.
The temporal worlding of objects was another one. It had popped up as central focus by a number of participants from several different disciplines. The historical embedding produces a particular world created by the associations with particular people, societal regulations, socio-normative understandings of people of differing backgrounds as related to relative levels of wealth, as well as the medical profession’s narratives and organisation.
With my acquaintance with more cohering worlds that were as evocative as they were inspiring, I realised geographical worldings of objects could not only add to the research methodologies employed in the medical humanities, but could also map other object worlds. The former does not necessarily only mean mapping the (medical, clinical, domestic) spaces in which an object would be utilised, but also the spatialities of the object itself. Such an object worlding traces and configures the object and its socio-material, and organisational ‘life’ through its multiple vicinities, usages, and performances.
Seeing these worlds grow, evolve, and bloom during the workshop, and in consideration at various moments afterward, two things dawned on me. Firstly, the existence of the objects in the spaces of the museum, either on display in a vitrine, or laid bare on a generic light-grey table took away any spatial embedding. Whilst I had attributed the anti-climax I felt when coming across an object to a lack of surprise, perhaps the complete decontextualization of the object is necessary to allow all worldings to take place at once. Secondly, and relatedly, imagining object worlds as knowledge creation helps creating bridges and build a network of connections that lays foundations for challenging, but exciting, interdisciplinary scholarship that could hold up new, more durable and larger spatial structures of knowledge.
Diana Beljaars is an ESRC-funded postdoctoral research fellow at the Swansea University Geography Department. She develops a compulsive theory that seeks to establish how particular body, object and space configurations incite situated and ongoing wellbeing.
Maines, R. (2001) The Technology of Orgasm: ‘Hysteria’, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, The John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London.