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Inversion of Significance

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Twentieth-Century Fiction
Prof. Avishek Parui
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Madras

Lecture - 28
Solid Objects - Part 2
(Refer Slide Time: 00:12)

So, hello and welcome to this NPTEL course entitled Twentieth Century Fiction, where we were looking at Virginia Woolf’s short story Solid Objects. So, we have already had one lecture on this text and we just carry on from where we left last time.
So, as I mentioned in my previous lecture, that this particular short story can be very interestingly interpreted using thing theory or what we more commonly call as MET or Material Engagement Theory, in terms of how humans engage with materials and how the affective engagement with material in a way it creates new kind of relationships. Sometimes in the form of fetishes, sometimes in the form of obsessions, sometimes in the form of some psychotic situations.
But this particular story as I mentioned is slightly Kafkaesque in quality. It has an irrational narrative, and the irrationality of the principal character over here. For instance, John who is the collector over here the collector of broken objects, solid objects, the irrationality is obviously, undercutting the rational pragmatic masculinist narrative of political progress, social status, etcetera.
So, at the beginning we find as I mentioned in my previous lecture, in the beginning we find a very long cinematic shot of the two characters walking in together and they almost become like, they almost emerge, they almost appear as one dot one little speck in a vast wilderness of the sea and the sand. But increasingly as the camera moves closer or pans closer we find that the physiognomic features of the characters revealed in slow motion close ups. And then what it does essentially and visually is that it maps out the two characters.
So, one, in a way deviates from the mainstream masculinist, progressive narrative of political ambitions etcetera. And, then ends up being an irrational collector of solid objects, where the other remains in the mainstream narrative and the divergence is important for us to sort of map.
But interestingly, we also talked about and we will return to this topic later in the story this entire human obsession with objects or with materials, and like we mentioned this particular short story can be very interestingly mapped with material engagement theory or MET as we call it. And, there are lots of interesting books that you can read on this subject, and I am happy to recommend a few in the online portal that we have.
But you know if you look at the entire discourse of material engagement theory or Thing theory we find that, you know it so complicates relationship between humans and things, right because you know on one hand it looks at objects as something which can only be consumed by humans and how their significance, social significance, semantic significance, cultural significance is entirely reliant on human engagement.
But there is also the other spectrum thing theory which says that you know things can appear as non-objects, objects of non-use or sometimes post use, right. So, they have exhausted the usability, they have exhausted the entire you know currency of use and they are just there as abandoned things.
So, the whole idea of being abandoned or situated temporarily at least post utility or post value, a post purpose is what makes thing theory interesting because you know that is a gauge that is the interpretation that is taken and mapped onto things as something which is outside the human radar, the human ken of consumption.
Now, in this story obviously, we find that most of the objects that Charles is keen on picking up, are things in that sense I mean these are objects which have exhausted their value, exhausted their utility, exhausted their pragmatic purpose, sort of whole post purpose quality of these objects is what makes them interestingly very very bare, naked pure things.
So, in that sense the human engagement with things over here is very very pure because Charles is picking up things over here and not in terms of the utility they can give to him, but purely in terms of the fetish value. Purely in terms of the you know the entire obsession quotient that he has, has established with those things which is outside the consumption quotient, of mainstream masculinity.
Because we find that these objects which he picks up from various parts of London have zero use value, they have zero currency in terms of usability, functionality, you know even as a decorative symbol they are completely useless and that is the whole point. The uselessness of the objects is what makes them purely things.
So, if you read theorists such as Bill Brown for instance, where he talks about how an object only becomes a thing when it becomes post-function, or post purpose, or post value, right. So, in that sense this story is about post value and you know the story ends obviously with the narrative that Charles has given up on his political career. He has completely destroyed his political ambitions, he has destroyed his any political promise that he had. So, in a sense, he becomes a thing as well, right. He becomes a post value entity a post purpose entity.
So, the whole idea of purposelessness becomes a temporal category, something which had a purpose before is not exhausted of its purpose. And we see that even in a longer fiction of whole for reference, in Mrs. Dalloway when we see Septimus Smith as at once masculinist brave soldier who comes back from the war. But now he is completely exhausted his functionalities, completed exhausted his heroism and he is just there as some kind of a incongruous irritant, in the otherwise functional metropolis. So, his story’s side in the end in a way it is like a complete commentary on his non-thinking end of his incongruity in this entire functional metropolis.
So, among other things this particular short story, Solid Objects is about incongruity, is about irrationality, and is about fetish formation and how that fetish formation undercuts the consumption quotient which is otherwise operative in mainstream masculinist narratives, right.
(Refer Slide Time: 06:18)

So, and now we come back to the story and we find how this you know John over here becomes obsessed with objects, and how he becomes you know a detriment quote unquote detriment to his political promises to his political career. So, and this should be on your screen now.
Whether this thought or not was in John’s mind, the lump of glass had its place upon a mantelpiece, where it stood heavy upon a little pile of bills and letters and served not only as an excellent paper-weight, but also as a natural stopping place for the young man’s eyes when they wandered from his book.
So, notice how when the lump of glass is first taken inside the house it seems to have at least it appears to have superficially some use value, some kind of a paper-weight thing and there are lots of papers and letters because obviously he is someone in the political arena. So, he gets invitations, he gets all kinds of letter from different people. So, that lump of glass becomes initially a paper-weight. So, it has some kind of a, in a way it is a parody of usability, in a way it is a parody use value that is exhibited over here, ok.
Looked at again and again half consciously by a mind thinking of something else, any object mixes itself so profoundly with a stuff of thought that it loses actual form and recomposes itself a little differently in an ideal shape which haunts the brain when we least expect it, right.
So, again look at the engagement between the human brain and objects over here. And, you know the whole idea of engagement over here is complex because on the one hand the human engagement with objects is quote unquote abstract engagement, abstract affective engagement. You are looking at an object in a way that shapes your mind and also as a dialogic process in a way your way of thinking, your imagination shapes the object or reshapes the object, right.
So, the entire shaping reshaping it takes place through a very complex combination of abstraction and materiality. So, in one hand we have this abstract thought processes that is conferred on the object, but on the other hand we have this object as a material tangible presence. So, we have this constant complex combination of abstraction and materiality with which this you know this entire engagement works or proceeds, right.
So, John found himself attracted to the windows of curiosity shops when he was out walking, merely because he saw something which reminded him of a lump of glass. So, notice from this point in the story how John becomes almost very very voyeuristic. So, anywhere he sees an object, anywhere he goes out for shopping whenever he comes by a window he finds himself attracted to little objects which remind him of this original object which he picked up from the seashore, right.
So, in a way we can see the beginning of fetish formation over here how his engagement with materials how his engagement with solid objects, begins to reshape his mind, reshapes his imagination in a way it you know it diverts or deviates away from the mainstream narrative of consumption and progress which instead of himself initially as a political person. So, anything so long as it was an object of some kind, more or less round, perhaps with a dying flame and deep sunk in his mass, anything – china, glass, amber, rock, marble, even a smooth oval egg of a prehistoric bird would do.
(Refer Slide Time: 09:31)

So, again look at the way in which the entire fetish formation that he has is beginning to take place because anything he sees connects him to the lump of glass he had picked up, right. So, the lump of glass becomes something like an archetype in his mind, the archetype of the solid object and everything else around him serves as reminders to the archetype, in a way in terms of how it can connect to the original archetype which is what he picked up from that beach.
He took, also, and keeping with his, in keeping his eyes upon the ground, especially in the neighbourhood of waste land. This is where it begins to get really interesting because the whole idea of waste becomes you know discursive in quality look at in great details. In the neighbourhood of waste land where the household refuse is thrown away. Such objects often occurred there thrown away, of no use to anybody, shapeless discarded, right.
So, again this is exactly what I meant when I said this is the whole idea of abandoned object or abandoned projects. And we see among the many things abandoned in the story is his own political career which gets abandoned in the end, right. So, he just gives up his political career. And the whole idea of giving up an object is again this becomes in a way discursively speaking, post function, a post use, a post value, right. So, and Gregory Kennedy has got a very interesting a book called the ontology of trash.
Those of us who are interested in trash studies, or waste studies that is one of this go to books that you can look at. So, Kennedy’s book is interesting because it talks about how what we classify as trash, what we what we classify as waste is always almost always a state of post consumption, it is a temporal category about trash formation, something only becomes trash only after it is consumed and exhausted of its consumption quotient, right.
So, the whole idea of having consumed something, having exhaustedly the use value of something, having liquidated something in terms of its functionality is what makes an object into a trash or into a waste product, right. So, this space over here, the waste land over here becomes a very symbolic space because you know this is where he begins to haunt. This is where he begins to go over and over again in the hope of picking up something which will you know feed his fetish, for picking up solid objects. So, you know he goes to his neighbourhood of waste land where the household refuse is thrown away.
So, again if you take a look at his spatiality over here, it becomes a very symbolic space. So, he is someone initially in the story is someone who is promised, he is tipped to be big in politics, so he has got a lot of political promise and he is supposed to be someone who is inhabiting the mainstream space of political progress.
Now, he finds himself completely you know deviated from that and he finds himself in a waste land essentially, where he is out there to pick up trash because inside trash amidst all the trash, and garbage, and rubbish that is heaping pile over here he is looking for objects which will form his fetish, which will feed his fetish in that sense, right.
So, we can see how the fetish formation over here is often at odds, with the entire idea of usability, or the quotient or the consumption quotient. So, shapeless, discarded, refused, which are thrown away is where those sites which are he is exhibiting over and over again.
So, in a few months he had collected four or five specimens that took their place upon the mantelpiece. They were very useful, too, for a man who is standing for Parliament upon the brink of a brilliant career who has any number of papers to keep in order, addresses to constituents, declaration of policy, appeals of subscriptions, invitations to dinner, and so on.
So, we can see how there is a parody which has been formed over here because you know he is the narrator is saying these are very valuable objects. Why? Because you know these can be used as paper weights for all the other valuable objects which are there, which are invitations for dinners, declarations of policies, for any man who is really aiming to make it big in Parliament, collecting solid objects across the trash in wasteland is very very helpful because he can use those as paper weights.
Now, obviously, the tone is very very parodic over here. But it is also it is darker than parody, because what is being said over here, we are having two different kinds of narratives at work. So, one is the narrative of usability, functionality, prestige, etcetera and the other narrative is obviously, one of ways, one of trash, etcetera. But the point is the interesting bit is he the character over here, he finds himself more fascinated with trash, with solid objects which otherwise have no use value, which otherwise have no functionality, right. So, we have two different kinds of narratives of consumption at odds with each other and that is exactly the point.
So, we have this irrational fetish which is also a form of consumption that is beginning to undercut the more mainstream narrative of consumption which is about Parliament papers, declaration policies, you know appeals for subscriptions, invitations, etcetera. So, we have two different kinds of two different orders of objects at odds with each other very symbolically situated mapped on to each other.
And the fact that the trash objects are situated on top of the quote unquote “functional” objects is obviously, quite symbolic in quality because what that means, directly and immediately is that those are going to replace in terms of significance in John’s mind, the quote unquote “usable” or “useful” objects, right. So, what we see over here is entire ontology of usefulness or utility or value is beginning to get inverted and that is what I mean when I say this has a Kafkaesque carnivalesque quality this particular story, ok.
And now we come to more dramatic situations where he is actually absolutely obsessed in terms of possessing objects, in terms of you know just going for the object which is you know out of his kin, out of his reach. And obviously, it is quite symbolic in quality because when he is reaching out for these objects it is not just a physical movement, it is also a social movement because you know for a gentleman like him, on the brink of a brilliant political career to actually go to a trash land, to go to a rubbish heap is basically a step out a deviance, you know from his mainstream narrative, mainstream spaces which he is supposed to inhabit as a promising Parliamentarian. So, this is a situation where he finds himself.
One day, starting from his rooms in the Temple which is where the barristers go in London to catch a train in order to address his constituents, his eyes rested upon a remarkable object lying half-hidden in one of those little borders of grass which edge the bases of vast legal buildings. Now, this is interesting because we find that the main the most important thing about the sentence is the liminality, the in-betweenness, look at the way in which there are so many orders of in-betweenness over here.
So, A, we are told that he is starting to go to a place where to address his constituents. He is a promising parliamentarian and he is leaving from the temple to catch a train. The temple obviously, is the place where the English, the British barristers go, the barristers go there, right. So, and his eyes found themselves looking at a remarkable object lying half-hidden.
Again, the translucence is important over here half-hidden. It is somewhat between opaque and transparent, right. It is not entirely known, is not entirely you know revealing itself as what it is, right. So, the translucence is exactly what is you know at play over here which makes entire the cognition very complex in quality.
Now, whereas, half-hidden in one of those little borders of grass which edge the basis of vast legal buildings. So, this is fascinating because when you have the legal buildings which are the objective architecture of law order rationality etcetera, but where do you find these objects, you find this objects in the grass between the buildings. Now, again the whole idea of grass is important because, you know it seems to be it seems to suggest there is a bit of a wild growth around the otherwise legal manicured buildings.
So, the manicured legal architecture is the objective architecture of law, precision, order, rationality, etcetera, but when we find these objects are not exactly in those buildings, but on the area around it which are more liminal in quality, more anarchic in quality, more wild in quality, less manicured in quality and that is where he finds those objects while he is heading out to address his constituents.
He could only touch it with the point of his stick through the railings. And, again this is getting very very symbolic because his stick which is otherwise very gentlemanly extension of his personality is beginning to become something else now and we will see that in a moment. The stick through the railings, but he could see that it was a piece of china of the most remarkable shape. So, the China ware over here is exactly the object. So, it is a glass object, it is a half-broken object and he wants to pick it, but he is trying to use it, to prod it with a stick, ok.
As nearly resembling a starfish as anything shaped or broken accidentally, into five irregular, but unmistakable points, right. So, again look at the way the regular irregularity over here. So, this is what to say, this is you know to say this is there is a method in madness in John because he sees there are five irregular points in which the object has been broken, but then in a way the brokenness can be quantified. So, the quantifiable ability of brokenness is important over here and obviously, he is getting more and more fascinated in his fetishist way to look at the object and to grip it, to consume it.
The colouring was mainly blue, but green stripes or spots of some kind overlaid the blue. So again, look at the hodgepodge of colours, the confusion of colours, and lines of crimson gave it the richness and luster of the most attractive kind. John was determined to possess it, but the more he pushed the further it receded. So, you know he is trying to push for, it is trying to get the object, but it is moving further and further away.
At length, he was forced to go back to his rooms and improvise a wire ring attached to the end of the stick, with which, by dint of great care and skill, he finally drew the piece of China within the reach of his hand. So, the China ware which was broken has now reached his hands.
Now, let us take a little time and unpack the whole objects over here. The most important object at play over here is definitely a stick. Now, what is initially the walking stick which is a very gentlemanly flaneur instrument, has now increasingly become the rag picker’s instrument. He is attaching some wire to the end of the stick just, so he can pull an object and possess it.
Now, that transition the very symbolic sartorial transition from gentlemen flaneur to a rag picker, a waste collector, is exactly what we should be looking at in the story because that is what happens symbolically in the story because he was headed to be he was tipped to be the next big thing in the Parliament, the British Parliament and he was a gentleman at the beginning, he is obviously very wealthy privileged comes from a cultural background, groomed to be a politician in the British Parliament and now suddenly he finds himself as a rag picker.
So, this transition from the flaneur in the metropolis a leisurely, the leisured gentleman and who is obviously, very wealthy and privileged to being a rag picker in the metropolis is exactly what is happening over here. And that symbolic shift is something we should, is very visually and graphically described and hinted at by Woolf as is we can see throughout the story. It is very very visual, the visual grammar, the visual graphic details is very very important for us to understand.
So, he seized the object. So, as he seized hold of it he exclaimed in triumph. At that moment the clock struck. It was out of question that he should keep his appointment. The meeting was held without him. But how are the pieces of china been broken into this remarkable shape? A careful examination put it beyond doubt that about the star shape was accidental, which made it all the more strange, and seemed unlikely that there should be another such in existence, right.
(Refer Slide Time: 20:52)

So, again look at the very flippant way in which the missed appointment is described over here. So, the clock struck he looked at the clock and then realized he missed his appointment and the meeting was held without him, right. So obviously, this absence becomes important. On one hand, he is absent from the mainstream space of consumption and he is becoming a private consumer. From again this conversion from a flaneur to a rag picker becomes important, even at a level of social prestige quotient attached to the same respectively, right.
So, he finds himself as a rag picker now, with this string wire attached to the end of a stick and instead of remembering or reminiscing about his missed appointment he is actually reflecting on the shape of this particular object. And he was realizing how the shape came in to me, you know how this particular China ware got this very strange shape, and he realizes that the star shape, that he is holding at the movement is accidental because it must have fallen from somewhere and hence this particular object becomes unique.
Now, this is a key point over here. So, the uniqueness of the object is exactly in its brokenness. So, we have this interesting equation between uniqueness and brokenness in this particular story. So, broken objects or solid objects which are half-solid, semi-solid, half-broken, half-shaped, they are the unique objects over here.
So, again we go back to the original narrator that we have been pushing for a bit that the entire idea of consumption over here is undercutting the dominant hegemonic order of consumption, the hegemonic order of aesthetics. So, he is actually inventing a new aesthetic order John and he is a consumer of the aesthetic order in that sense, so the consumption over here, that particular unique perverse aesthetic order in a way is undercutting the mainstream predominant and hegemonic aesthetic order which he is deviating away from and which is also symbolically caricatured by his shift from being a gentleman flaneur to being a rag picker with a wire attached to a stick, ok.
So, it is unlikely that another such object should be in existence. Set at the opposite end of the mantelpiece and a lump of glass that have been dug from the sand, it looked like a creature from another world-freakish and fantastic as a harlequin. Now, this is exactly what we should be looking at some point because there is an element of uncanny about his possession, and by uncanny, I used the word uncanny in a very Freudian sense is unheimlich, something which is outside the home, unhomely, outside the home outside this domestic dimension.
And the fact that he is bringing in the uncanny objects inside his drawing room and he is museumizing them. So, his drawing becomes a museum of exotic broken objects and that actually undercuts the entire idea of order over here, the entire existence the entire narrative of order.
So, in one hand of the mantelpiece we have this first object which he picked up from the seashore and now on the other hand of the spectrum we have this object which he picked up from a railway station, or maybe from a rails, you know between some very very shrubs, wild shrubs across legal buildings, he has picked up another object using the walking stick tied to a wire ring, right.
So, it is freakish and fantastic, the two words are interesting freakish, bizarre, irrational, strange, uncanny and fantastic something which is out lies outside the ordinary. So, it is extraordinary in a fantastic sense or literally fantastic sense as a harlequin. So, the word harlequin is important, it is someone who is does a pantomime performance, sometimes comical, sometimes sinister, sometimes a combination of sinister and comical. But in a way that further accentuates the carnivalesque quality in the story, right.
So, it seemed to be pirouetting through space, winking light like a fitful star. The contrast between the China, so vivid and alert, and the glass so mute and contemplative, fascinated him, and wondering and amazed he asked himself how the two came to exist of the same world, let learn to stand upon the same narrow strip of marble in the same room. The question remained unanswered.
So, I stop at this point today because I just go back and unpack this a little bit because what he is exhibiting what he is consuming over here is uncanny. So, he becomes a consumer of uncanny, a consumer of strangeness and the entire strangeness as something as building, the entire architecture has been built by him which is obviously, undercutting the more mainstream architecture, the more household architecture, the mantelpiece.
So, the mantelpiece becomes just a platform, a very passive platform which becomes a reservoir of the uncanny, a container of the uncanny and you can see that how initially these objects were used to as paperweights for more quote unquote useful materials. But now the entire idea of usefulness and uselessness gets inverted which makes it very very carnivalesque in quality in the sense that, the most important, the most notionally important object becomes the least important object whereas, the least important object becomes the most important object in this inverted imagination that John is exhibiting.
And, so in a way as I mentioned this story may be read and should be read among other things among other interpretations, as a very complex commentary and in a way a critique of the consumption in modernity where you consume everything as a use value, you consume everything with use value, functional value, etcetera.
So, John over here becomes a different kind of consumer an alternative consumer, who consumes everything because of brokenness. And like I said a little while ago the brokenness and the uniqueness are equated with each other in this very very strange story. And we continue with this equation, and how it affects the human imagination in the next lectures to come. So, I stop at this point today. And, I will see you in the next lectures with the same text.
Thank you for your attention.