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Lieta Marziali: The hidden burden of a “personal object”: A linguistic digression

“PERSONAL OBJECTS”

 

In my own practice, I questioned from very early on what it meant to have available, to access, to appropriate and to intervene on materials, which are, of course, also considered within the realm of objects. At the beginning, my concerns were mostly of an environmental nature:
– What resources am I using? And what resources SHOULD I be using?
– Where do these resources come from, and what is the impact of the process of them becoming available to me AS resources?

But there were also other concerns, which extended the environmental ones to more self-reflective, ontological ones:

– Who am I that I am able to use these resources, and what grants me the ability, as well as the right, to use them?
Mostly, however, I was concerned with how to be a jeweller, and for many years I did not fully appreciate that that very goal – and all the questions I just mentioned! – were in fact deeply deeply rooted in the very concept or definition of object and the dichotomy (but also the hierarchy!) between subject and object. This, naturally, put into question the very definition of subject, of what it is to be a subject, what it is to be a “maker”, especially in a field where the so-called objects themselves, jewellery, are described as having such strong agency.

And so, to the theme of this conference: The Social Value of Personal Objects. There is so much to unpack here. My first reaction was that, if I needed to start somewhere, it would need to be from unpacking the term “personal object’ itself. So that’s where we will start.

 

 

Is there such a thing as a personal object? What do these words even mean?

Even if we stick to jewellery:
When we research, talk, write about jewellery, we are always confronted with a shared (whether by us or by other groups) history:

  • shared social, economic, religious, ideological, material, cultural (you name it!) NORMS
  • shared social, economic, religious, ideological, material, cultural (you name it!) PURPOSES

When we learn to make jewellery, we rely on shared knowledge, some of which extremely ancient and some of which much more contemporary. A knowledge that is both material and technical, but also intrinsically linked to the shared histories I have just mentioned. Reading the summary of the previous conference, and reading the research project outline for this one, I was glad that my first questions had already been addressed by the presenters two years ago.

Jewellery is never personal as such as it is always liminally positioned for the maker, the wearer and the viewer. And it is positioned there also on the most liminal of our organs as so-called subjects, our skin – our border between the inside and the outside. Jewellery is therefore capable of a particular agency, intrinsic and / or activated by a shared history, norms, purposes etc., and mostly, but not always, by the body.

And the body is always a body politic – which is also what I would like to concentrate more on. And so I am not going to spend more time going over those already well-exposed arguments of the previous presenters, or talking much more about jewellery itself. What I would like to do instead is to try and continue to unpack as much as possible the powerful binomial that is “personal object”: two apparently SIMPLE EVERYDAY words that sustain a whole worldview
behind them.
When we talk about personal objects, jewellery, amulets, keepsakes, but also books, clothes,
what are we actually saying?
For a start, objects are never completely “personal” because of their provenance: somebody
extracted the materials from somewhere or something, somebody manufactured them,

somebody marketed them, somebody sold them, somebody processed the payment for them,
somebody delivered them to the shop or to the house. The list is quite vast. On top of that, most
of the times there is a further TRANS-ACTION that surrounds so-called personal objects: at
some point, they have been bought, exchanged, gifted, stolen. Even when they are found,
somebody could have lost them or deposited them. Or, in case of objects we class as “natural”,
we are normally totally ignoring, in our own very special anthropocentric way, what Bruno Latour
calls the “ACTANT” aspect of the world around us: these natural objects have not magicked
themselves there for our own use, but they are in fact the product of earth processes which, in
the case of a simple pebble one might find on the beach, have taken millions of years of hidden
labour to exist.

 

“PERSONAL”

 

So what does this word “personal” actually mean?

What is the “personal”? Does it really exist?