By Josh Wagner
I hate flowers. I’ve spent the vast majority of my life trying to avoid them. Their touch, look, and smell haunt my dreams. And, for the most part, I’ve been successful. Yet, one of the first memories I have of Stanford is of flowers. While walking around campus for the first time as an undergraduate, I looked upwards in the Old Union courtyard and saw five flowers etched in high relief on the underside of its arch.
The flowers mark the physical barrier between the openness of White Plaza and the enclosed Old Union courtyard. Yet, they are hardly noticeable, largely ignored and out-of-sight. But I saw them.
And so, ever since that day, I’ve done my very best to avoid walking through that archway — the flowers are exerting influence on the way I live. If I had never bothered to look up, I would have been totally fine walking into Old Union. But, I looked up, saw the hidden flowers, and now, they control a very small part of my life.
We are constantly surrounded by these easily ignorable objects that, were we to notice them, would change the way we move around the world. For the most part, we successfully ignore the doorknobs, seashells and Hebrew writing that surround us on this campus. But, in the moments when we become aware of these objects, we see them as if for the very first time — they are estranged. And, for the most part, it is common, everyday objects which provoke this reaction. But, removed from their ordinary, useful contexts, these things take on new significance, and become objects that alienate us.
In this vein, there was recently an art exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London called “Disobedient Objects,” which tracked the use of household objects in social protest — in other words, ordinary, pedestrian objects which have been removed from their usual contexts. From suffragette teapots to defaced currency, the exhibition traced several radical social protests through the mementos they left behind. Witness to countless political murders and brutalities, these pedestrian objects are all that physically remain of the powerful movements of their time. Things persist longer than people.
And, what makes such protest innovations disobedient is that they refuse to fulfill the purpose for which they were made. These personal objects, used to eat breakfast or on the way to work, take on new significances and intentions in new contexts. Having and using these items is not only about fulfilling basic daily tasks, rather, it is about a greater ideological mission. A “Deny Everything” hat isn’t just another hat that protects you from the sun.
This idea of disobedience — the changing meaning and use of an object — is not only relevant to protest objects, but to all objects. Whatever an object was created for, there is no guarantee that it will only fulfill that function, or not be better suited for another purpose. My shoe is a decent barrier against the Earth, but it’s also a pretty fantastic doorstop, pencil case, battering ram, necklace and so on. While it is necessary to have some kind of idea of what you want to make before you create something, there is no telling what that thing will be used for.
Artistic creation works in much the same way. A creator — poet, painter, sculptor — has some kind of vision for a work and then brings it into physical, haptic existence. The audience cannot see the initial inspiration for George Bellows’ Shore House, what inspired him to portray a lone, unconnected telephone pole next to a nearly abandoned beachfront home. Nor would it even be possible to do so. All we have is the physical manifestation of that idea. We can try to work backwards, trying to locate the start of a hurricane based on where it hits the coast, but there is no guarantee that you will ever fully arrive.
This act of creation — written, psychic, physical — is wholly unnatural. Atoms do no just come together to form useful, larger products on their own without an outside influence. Things fall apart, entropy is increasing in the world, which is why, when we see any object “standing still” in existence — a palm tree on Palm Drive or that rack of newspapers in the History Corner — it is being disobedient. Things are not meant to exist.
The world, especially the world in 2018, is always in rapid movement in all directions, forwards, backwards, northeast, southwest, sideways. And, as a manifestation of this chaotic movement, objects also move in weird, non-linear directions — think xenofeminism. It is not out in the world where the craziest things happen to us, but it is in the comfort of our furnished dorm rooms where a squirrel gnaws through the mesh on your window or you are emotionally destroyed by a text message. In fact, in the world where we expect things to be abnormal, this kind of movement is expected. But, when we anticipate certain, normal behaviors in the places where we spend the most time, they are nowhere to be found. As Heraclitus spoke of his cooking fire, “here, too, are gods” — nothing is obedient.
And, among the things that refuse to obey are humans. Object theorists like Graham Harman discuss the ways in which we exist in a world of things where there is no more value to any one thing over another. By existing, standing out, coming together, everything exists equally — combs, neutrinos, Purell, ceiling fans, pallid bats, Brazil, Neville Longbottom. Humans may give objects our own meanings, but we have no control over the actions and interactions between objects.
The smallest objects, the flowers in Old Union, the shell in the Main Quad, the eraser on your desk, do have an important and crucial function: to disobey. In the same way that human life disobeys the laws of thermodynamics by refusing to fall apart, so too do these minute marginalia. Regardless of whether anyone looks at them, these objects stand as the smallest evidence of possible meaning and show that everything is real. Architecture resides within us. The color, form, pattern and image of the flowers may comfort us not because of any trivial design choice, but because they resonate with something inside of the viewer. The architecture is not the physical form of a building, but the space in between that physicality and the viewer’s interaction with it.
We are the key ingredient of this interaction, but not its totality. Things are not reducible to their interactions with humans and among other objects — I am not a flower, but sometimes, I think I am. The essences of objects withdraw; they have an irreducible shadowy, magical, ephemeral, illusory, “strangely strange” quality when you notice them as if for the first time.
Against common sense, objects exist, morph and change, receding into the crystalline vacuum of my mind, not adhering to conventional laws of time and space. They reveal our alienation from ourselves and from the reality of our lives on campus. What I consider logical and sensical now, will likely be absurd in a few years and the estrangement of flowers will lose their arresting power.
Contact Josh Wagner at jwagner4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.