Object-oriented Reading: The View from the Customs House

Presented by Isabel Hofmeyr

Monday, 7 May, 2018 - 15:00

[An extract in place of an abstract:] How then might one talk about the ‘reading’ that Customs official undertook from an OOO or speculative realist position?  Most obviously, officials were object-oriented. They spent their days amongst streams of objects, arguing about minute differences. Take, for example the category of “Cards” whose subsections included “Boy Scout enrolment; Carmolac colour; Christmas, birthday, pictorial and New Year and other cards; Pattern, for attaching patterns; Shade, composed of cut samples of sewing cotton; Show; Visiting; Wedding”. This list suggests the attention which officials had to lavish on commodities. They attuned their bodies, senses and intellects to these objects, becoming adjunct apparatuses to the stream of commodities with which they dealt. They were rather like objects among objects. Their modes of reading where object-oriented, a tendency perhaps clearest in how officials dealt with printed publications. When assaying printed objects, one might anticipate that examiners paid most attention to the words in the publication under scrutiny.  Yet in many instances, writing was not necessarily prioritized since it constituted only one dimension of the object as a whole. Instead the printed object was apprehended in its entirety or adjudged by a range of material features. French novels were hence often categorized as undesirable simply for being French or on the basis of their illustrations. Book covers provided another avenue for assaying a publication, with the offending jacket being enough to have the object banned or burned. In other instances, officials followed a sampling method in which random passages from suspect texts were selected, rather like an excise man testing a consignment of alcohol. As already indicated, officials apprehended objects in material ways, often imputing microbial properties to inorganic substances.

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