Object-ness, enthusiasm and challenges

One of my colleagues, Caroline Hamilton, who along with Kirsten Seale, we’ll be putting together a special issue of the Cultural Studies Review for release in 2013, shared this story in the New York Times about a subculture organised around a renaissance for mechanical typewriter use. The author (and academic) Jessica Bruder reflects upon the simplicity and durability of the machines. She then isolates something else:

In more than a dozen interviews, young typewriter aficionados raised a common theme. Though they grew up on computers, they enjoy prying at the seams of digital culture. Like urban beekeepers, hip knitters and other icons of the D.I.Y. renaissance, they appreciate tangibility, the object-ness of things. They chafe against digital doctrines that identify human “progress” as a ceaseless march toward greater efficiency, the search for a frictionless machine.

This is very similar to the way outsiders describe the enthusiasm of participants in modified-car culture for whom there is apparently a general fetishisation of the object of the car as a result of the way a car is sumbliminated into the subjectivity of an enthusiast. All of which is a very apt description, but it doesn’t actually describe what the enthusiasts are doing or the mechanics of enthusiasm. A focus on the object of enthusiasm itself or the relative enjoyment (or perhaps more accurately the satisfaction) of enthusiasts is insufficient for accounting for the ways enthusiasts are mobilised into action.

I am not suggesting a more familiar ‘fan’ type account of the practices and enthusiasts of the D.I.Y. renaissance would be more appropriate. Popular academic accounts of fans miss out on the ‘hands on’ relation that Bruder is describing in her article. For example, Henry Jenkins’s thesis about fans in Textual Poachers is a critical explication of specific fan reading practices. I am suggesting that a critical account of the relation between enthusiasts (if that is the most appropriate term for those people Bruder is describing, which I think it is) and the objects of enthusiasm needs to be pushed further than a reification and fetishisation of the objects to examine the practices of the enthusiasts, to see how the relation between enthusiast and objects of enthusiasm is inacted in practice.

Firstly, to remain at the level of objecthood loses the dynamic dimension of enthusiasm and relies on an instantaneous image of the enthusiast and object. An enthusiasm is defined by the challenges that mobilise an enthusiast into action. ‘Challenge’ here is part of an event in the Deleuzian sense of belonging to an incorporeal materialism. Non-enthusiasts will see a typewriter (or any other object of any enthusiasm) as being pregnant with problems, hassles and unwanted drama. They are not worthy of one’s interest, beyond mere whimsy (or a short 30 second Youtube clip or similar). True objects of enthusiasm for true enthusiasts demand a sustained interest that, as Kant defined enthusiasm, is not exhausted by whimsy.

Secondly, enthusiasts encounter ‘problems’ all the time. One of the great questions I tackled with in my research was to find an answer to why modified-car enthusiasts will continue to persist with a car or some modification or another after it has caused huge amounts of grief. Here I am referring to vehicle damage from crashes or blown engines as a result of racing and ‘pushing the envelope’. Why bother with the object of one’s enthusiasm when there is very little enjoyment and, indeed, a surplus of negative experiences. Surely, if the object of one’s enthusiasm is meant to provide pleasure and the enthusiast relation with his or her objects is about enjoyment, then the enthusiast will discard such problem objects as quickly as possible? This certainly happens, evidenced by an economy in modified-car culture based around the commerce in failed projects. Many enthusiasts persist however, with the idiosyncracies of their objects (such as the time required to type or change ink ribbons and so on) as much as they persist with the downright catastrophes, such as an engine destroyed by an incorrect lean tune and too much turbocharger boost.

There is an incorporeal translation, effected by the mobilisation of the enthusiast, from an object and set of objects that appear to be a ‘problem’ into the object and set of objects that belong to the enthusiast proper as the objects become part of a ‘challenge’. The movement from ‘problem’ to ‘challenge’ is not necessarily a transformation of the object in any normative sense, it is part of the event of enthusiasm. The tangibility appreciated by the enthusiast is a direct result of the appreciation of objects according to the challenges they pose as invitations to mobilisation. Enthusiasts ‘read’ objects according to a semiotics of force and affect. A car enthusiast can ‘read’ how much ‘work’ has gone into a car, how many hours or effort have been required to properly massage a body panel or build and test an engine or even merely to clean a car properly.

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