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Of the ‘Thing’

By Vishnupad

As I got off the airplane in Bhubaneshwar airport, I was received by a cousin. After the exchange of pleasantries, he unsurely shoved this heavy handheld device – a version of Motorola cell phone – in my hand (I discovered subsequently it was called the ‘brick’ perhaps not only owing morphological similarities, but also its weight and how it felt as you held one of these in your hand). I figured later that he had bought this expensive device without the approval of his parents, and the purpose of displaying it for me was to gain my affirmation, his US-based cousin, who surely partook of these objects and understood their proper salience. This was 1999. Needless to say, this unsure relationship with newer commodities wasn’t an isolated one.

Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (2006), reflecting on Indian social condition in an essay written in 2006, presciently remarks on the ways in which sheer profusion of things in their multiplicity and promiscuity, seamless contiguity with other things and humans, frames and stabilizes thought, social exchange and value in the Indian context. In other words, the inexorable continuity of this immense mass of things affectively and symptomatically informs thinking and social practices that abhor sharp demarcating lines and ethical judgments, and sustain a form of social life that is messy, contradictory and yet not necessarily conflictual.[1] As brilliant as these observations were on the social ontologies of Indian condition, for an essay written in over a decade and a half following economic liberalization, it curiously seemed to remain oblivious of the emergent aesthetics of commodities and economy of surfaces that had settled and had radically recalibrated social fantasies. This short essay addresses that emergent aesthetics of things and their consequences.

Invasion of commodities – following insertion of India within global circuitries of things, finance, mediatic artefacts – and its inundation of the social space in the second half of 1990s, it has to be recalled, did not institute with any immediacy a regime of desire, acquisition or consumption; in fact, much of that was delayed. This inundation occurred in a context where legitimating narratives and ideologies of desiring and consumption had not yet secured a place for them in the social fantasy. Arguably then, in the absence of hegemony of a legitimating discourse, these objects were left floating and forlorn; their presence was intriguing and magical as it was daunting and alluring at the same time; these resembled what Eric Santner (1990) has called albeit in a different context, “stranded objects”, i.e., objects unanchored (or only unsteadily anchored) to social discourses and fantasies. Periods of serious transitions are generally cataclysmic, and economic liberalization had instituted one such period of incertitude in India especially by the late 1990s. A social formation that defined itself – virtually on all registers of nationalist collective existence and fantasy – through the categories of lack and lag, for once felt it has arrived and experienced the ‘lack of lack’, and this lack of lack jostled for a place with conflicting and longstanding discourses of austerity and discipline, of respect, humility and socialism. In this agonistic context, objects unmoored in words, discourses and social fantasies frenziedly as much as spectrally animated and circulated the social space. Consider this ethnographic vignette by anthropologist Purnima Mankekkar from her visit to Connaught Place in Delhi in 1993: “I am hit simultaneously by claustrophobia and a dizzying sense of vertigo-the visual stimuli almost seems unbearable. As I snake through the cars parked on the streets and negotiate my way through the vendors selling their wares on sidewalks, I am stuck by the density of the visual field that I encounter…One of the visible markers of the “new economy” is the profusion of billboards and neon signs, which advertise an overwhelming array of commodities … Imported and indigenously manufactured cosmetics, clothes, and home appliances fill store windows and noisily jostle with one another to claim my attention…I get a sense of how these newly available commodities have not only saturated the visual landscape but also have boggled the imagination of so many residents of the city…(Moreover) the commodities I now see were unavailable before the liberalization of the economy-except as contraband…” (Mankekar 2004: 413-4). ‘Claustrophobia’ and ‘dizziness’ are the sensibilities Mankekar evokes to register the protean character of these unmoored objects; in the fullness and on-the-face nature of their presence, and in excising lack that hitherto determined the Indian condition, it generated psychotic conditions that were singularly marked by the failure of symbolic investiture. And these generated a condition of collective joy, desire, aspiration, alongside that of anxiety, incomprehension and subjective precariousness.

Appadurai ignores the historicity of this process, and the shifting shape of thingliness as the 1990s unravelled. While things-in-excess eliding semeiotic sublation as a founding condition of sociality in India persist, he overlooks the emerging aesthetics of things and their bloated presence following economic liberalization. The gloss and shimmer of the new – and unsure – objects escapes his otherwise surgical attention. These objects when they arrived in the late 1990s were out of place. The economies in transition – material-cultural, affective-ideological – had not found suitable place for them in the scheme of things. Their frenzied and unstable circulation through the social energized it without finding a resting place till the ideological-interpretive framework of consumption dug its heels, and firmly ensconced itself not only as plausible, but more so as desirable.

One such object – ‘the thing’ par excellence in Lacanese – was the cell phone. In its avatar before the smartphones it had already made a place for itself in public’s imaginary and practices after an initial phase of uncertainty. Lacanian psychoanalytic ontology rests on the founding premise of a lack or a hole that forever subsists in a subject, and interminably animates its desire. Objects, amongst other things, promising to fill in this wounding lack periodically (yet ultimately unsuccessfully) occupy this place of ontological lack. Smartphones without a shadow of doubt promise a suturing of that wounding lack. Its ubiquity as an indispensable item of personal belonging is not least owing to its functionality, that it is a computer redrawn to the scale of one’s palm. Significantly also in its form, it participates in the economy and aesthetics of newer commodities, and replicates their glitz and glamour; brand, surface-appearance, feel-in-the-palm matter as much as, if not more, its functional usages.

The emerging coupling of the analogue and the digital has had profound implications for communication amongst several other things; transcending the space-time constraints it has facilitated what Jean Baudrillard would have called the fantasy of ‘total communication’. The smartphones are a crucial mediator and relay point in the vast global network of connections and mediations, and sites where the contents are received, created and conveyed. By the middle of the first decade of this century, the initial hesitation in India gave way to a complete immersion as the affordances it permitted were enhanced by leaps and bounds. The mini-computer in palm mobilised in the least, the ocular, aural and haptic sensibilities deepening the immersive experience; the expansion of digital infrastructures and the steep drop in access prices, accelerated the voluminous exchanges already circuited through the smartphones, radically morphing our relationship to these objects. Consider for instance, and by way of contrast, our long relationship to films. Film scholars for a long while now have commented on the screen as the site of fantasy and projection, of recognition and identification. Through the projection of audio-visual artefacts on the screen, the filmic forms lured the audiences in. As addressees, audiences received and consumed (albeit with a rather versatile hermeneutic) more than they gave back. Screens on the smartphones however are dialogic, and alter this one-way traffic of reception; for once the addressee can now be, and is, also the addressor. The soft membrane skin of the phone-screen, displaying icons and apps, is tactile and responds to human touch; the smart phone subject is not merely spoken to, he can and does speak back, and rather verbosely.[2] In introducing the haptic into the mix, smartphones have given as it were, a hands-on control over the fantasies one had been accessing, crafting and relaying.

Be as it may however, and notwithstanding these epochal mutations, this exuberance and fantasy of ‘total communication’ cannot be overstated and for a variety of reasons. For one, the concern circulates around that of surveillance, control and manipulation. The big Other – the state and the market – is implicated in these matters. Statist surveillance and a very palpable threat forecloses, the premonition is, not only autonomous speech, but also the autonomy of disposition and affect, and the instances of these can be readily offered across diverse global contexts. Markets, on the other hand, the presumptive bearer of neoliberal freedoms proceeds in a contrary mode. Its dynamic panoptic gaze doesn’t aim at disciplining the subject to the statist-nationalist ego-ideals; rather its objective is to let Id go public. It watches over anticipating and foreseeing desire in the locquacity of solicited speech, algorithmically tracing its contours and modulating its future movements, and ultimately submitting it to the logic of expanding capital. Brian Massumi (2015) felicitously calls it ‘ontopower’, a form of power more insidious and catholic than ‘biopower’, that anticipates, captures and re-crafts the emergent forms of becoming. If the state works through silencing and ideological submission, the market does so through incitement of desire and speech; both however partake of overt and covert practices of surveillance, and not only of the public persona of the individual citizen-consumer, but also his private zones of intimacy.

Across the material and cultural divisions, hierarchies, and variations, the private, the personal and the intimate were differently articulated, and notwithstanding these and their nebulous formations, myriad zones of the intimate were a fact of social life. The digital in its recent constellations has infiltrated this very domain of the intimate. The digital intrudes, interrupts and interpellates the everyday. In the process, not only does it pry open that space, but dialectically – or rather rhizomatically – draws out and conveys the ordinary quotidian onto the digital space of representation. The intimate that formerly closed into itself thereby retaining its status as the intimate, now opens itself up to social other as performance, exhibition, modes of authenticity and self-assurance, not to mention, means of self-curation. Curiously, active self-exposure to the multiple other becomes one of the more significant articulations of a frazzled intimacy.

The expansive digitality affects not only the personal and the intimate, manipulation and control, but has reanimated a vortex of themes across various registers of social life: questions of egalitarianism in the access and flow of information, and their epistemic plausibility and veracity, capacious and intrusive logics of digital governance practices, human-machine interface and yet another mutation of what it means to be human, reconstitution of the political and its reach, to name a few. “Digital materiality”, to use a term from Sarah Pink (2016) has come to undergird, or rather become the conditions of possibility of a constellation of distinct yet intertwined contemporary processes that anchor, modulate and shape sociality and social fantasies; the participation of objects such as smartphones in the carving of these fantasies is unmistakable.

Over two and a half decades ago, Slavoj Zizek, following Lacan, inverted the relationship between the state of dream and wakefulness. He argued that in the dreams in our sleep, when our defences are down, we encounter the non-subjective truth of our real. The state of wakefulness however is different; it reconsolidates our frail subjectivity and secures our sanity by enabling escape into our fantasies. In other words, it is in dreams in sleep, we are faced with the real, and when awake that we are in the realm of fantasy. In recent years, the smartphones, the iconic instance of the Lacanian Thing, have become the very ground that has anchored daydreaming and propelled collective social fantasies.

Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun. 2006. The Thing Itself, Public Culture 18:1: 15-21.

Mankekar, Purnima. 2004.Dangerous Desires: Television and Erotics in Late Twentieth Century India. The Journal of Asian Studies, 63, no 2, May: 403-431

Massumi, Brian. 2015. Ontopower: War, Powers and the State of Perception. Durham: Duke University Press.

Pink, Sarah, Elisenda Ardevol, Debora Lanzeni (eds). 2016. Digital Materialities: Design and Anthropology. New York: Bloomsbury.

Ramanujan, A. K. 1989. Is there an Indian Way of Thinking? An Informal Essay. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 23, 1: 41-58.

Santner, Eric. 1990.Stranded Objects: Mourning, Memory and Film in Postwar Germany. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

[1] A version of this argument has been famously made by A K Ramanujan (1989).

[2] Smartphones, we can diagnose, have hystericised us as speaking subjects; this argument however has to be a subject-matter of another paper.


Vishnupad is an anthropologist based in Bangalore. He teaches at Azim Premji University.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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