“There are more than 8 million ordinary objects in this city that carry within them a sense of its inimitable expression. They express its thundering diversity or a thorough particularity; they connect us to other places, past and present or moor us to the here and now; they enliven or aggravate daily life; they epitomize the city at large or hold true to one of its neighborhoods. They may be small, held, and mobile, or large, unwieldy, and stationary. Well-designed or just well-used, they live and survive, creating a ripple of small meanings.”
With this declaration my colleague, Radhika Subramaniam, the chief curator of Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, invited New School faculty, including me, to contribute to her unusual show at the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery planned for this summer, “Masterpieces of Everyday New York: Objects as Story.”
Radhika hopes a diverse group — designers, artists, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, writers and musicians — will identify meaningful material objects in everyday life and use them to tell the story of our city. I am intrigued. She has provoked me to think about my material environment and how it speaks to me, and the broader theoretical and political implications of this.
As the author of The Politics of Small Things, I also have special interest. My “small things” was inspired by Arundhati Roy’s in the novel The God of Small Things: gestures and interactions among people as they define and create their social world, constituting their freedom and dignity, and power. In contrast, Radhika is pushing us to think about things material, not human, given in nature and shaped by men and women.
And indeed I have been thinking about such matters recently, taking part in The Politics of Materiality Conference at The New School, listening to an intriguing lecture by Nicolas Langlitz, “Homo Academicus Among Other Cooperative Primates,” attempting to make sense of the research and writing of Bruno Latour, pushed by a number of my challenging students, aided by attending Iddo Tavory’s class lecture last week on “Actor Network Theory,” featuring Latour. All this is about what is sometimes called post-humanism, not exactly my accustomed cup of tea, but worth a tasting. I glean insights, but as with all “isms,” I am skeptical.
With this in mind, I chose and am considering my “masterpiece,” what I think of as “Mike’s Memorial.” In fact, it is a miniature sign, an industrial sticky label: “Michael Asher, Monroe, N.Y., September 11, 2001” placed on a tile in a subway corridor, under the west side of Union Square Park, between 14 th Street and 16th Street. The typed letters on the label are wearing out. A few years ago, I used my pen to restore my friend’s name. Mike’s label is part of a modest 9/11 memorial, on the tiles in the corridor, a label for each of those killed on that fateful day.
The memorial was created by John Lin. I have had trouble finding out much about it, I would really appreciate if someone who reads this tells us more. What I know is what I have been seeing for years and how I have responded.
I walk along the corridor, and not outside in the park, only when the weather is harsh, when I decide I want to remember or want to show a friend or colleague, not often. Few take note of the piece, probably no one but me inspects carefully Mike’s name.
The memorial remembers quietly. I know Mike’s family’s loss is first personal, as is my loss of a dear friend. This memorial understands that. I know that the American response to the 9/11 attack led to extraordinary suffering. Wisely, the memorial abstains from grandiose patriotism. I know that some, the critically inclined, many of my friends, students and colleagues strongly criticize American excesses, but sometimes they forget the suffering and trauma we have experienced. This memorial remembers. I sometimes over the last twelve years have felt lonely thinking about this the way that I do, but then this memorial reminds me that I am not alone, that the person who made it and those few who seek it out, chance upon and appreciate it are with me.
Latour, if I understand him correctly, would have the subway memorial be an actor in a network that includes me, Lin and other “actors” who appreciate his work, including a moving video by Sandi Bachom I found depicting the memorial, that includes my handiwork. I rather think, student of Hannah Arendt that I am, about the video and the memorial as material artifacts, of human making, creating the setting within which humans act and interact. Latour’s approach reveals connections and developments which are otherwise invisible, clearly an advance. But the approach also minimizes the distinctiveness and special responsibility of human action.
The artists who have made these works are speaking to each other, their works speak to each other, and we respond. The works challenge us to make sense of our world. They constitute the setting for our action, for which we are responsible. “Mike’s Memorial” did not repair itself, the repair required my pen, and, crucially, it also required my decision to use it. The politics of small things includes small material things, and the capacity to speak and act in response to them, always with the potential that we may act together and change the world. Understanding that potential, being responsible for it, is what I get from Arendt and not the post–humanists.
I plan to report on the June opening of “Masterpieces of Everyday New York: Objects as Story,” perhaps joined by colleagues. I will then explore how I believe my book The Politics of Small Things and the memorial in the Union Square subway corridor are in dialogue, recognizing mourning, challenging and humbling those who pay attention, constituting the potential power of their concerted action.