The Objects of Our Desire

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 23, 2007

At the beginning of her story, Eden Medina is the classic young dancer: self-absorbed, self-centered, self-appraising -- all those words that start with self. She is obsessed with her looks and moves, compared with her imagined ideal.

In the middle of her story, she decides she is never going to be one of the world's greats, and hangs up her ballet slippers. So far, so standard.

It's the twist at the end of the narrative, however, that gets you. As an adult, she decides that she still loves dance, and is no longer consumed with her ego, so she straps on her ballet slippers again, for the sheer joy of movement and music and art.

Wow, you think. She has managed what you thought was impossible. She has separated the dancer from the dance. Cue the little frisson of reader pleasure.

Her ballet slippers are the physical things by which she comes to think more clearly about herself.

Her yarn is part of a new book with a seductive idea that's easier to cite examples of than to wrap your mind around. It's a chapter in "Evocative Objects: Things We Think With," edited by Sherry Turkle. The book is a collection of short essays, each centered on some artifact that has allowed the writer to think self-reflectively.

By examining what certain objects mean to them, the writers gain new insights into who they are. "We think with the objects we love," Turkle says. "We love the objects we think with."

These include such unlikely candidates as "The Axe Head," "The Vacuum Cleaner," "The Rolling Pin," "Slime Mold" and a "1964 Ford Falcon."

Everything about this book is improbable. The idea of examining the meaning of everyday objects to an individual's psyche, for example, comes from an MIT techie. In landmark works including "The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit" and "Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet," Turkle has long probed the intersection of our most advanced inventions and our lives.

The book's graceful writing sprang from years of bringing together what Turkle calls "beautiful minds" to discuss their personal evocative objects as part of her MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Many of these, she says, "were somebody smart who I knew had a relationship with an object. Sometimes I knew the person and had no idea of their objects, but just wanted to see a fascinating mind" addressing the subject.

"This is a very unconventional book for MIT Press," says Robert Prior, the executive editor there as well as Turkle's editor. "It's far more literate and literary. It's equation-free. But I think there are a lot of people for whom this book will have meaning."

The book is in part a personal journey for Turkle.


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