Paraphernalia: The Curious Lives of Magical Things

August 11, 2011

As I sit at my computer about to start writing this review, I find myself gently tapping the keys on my keypad, gradually losing myself in the sounds and rhythms afforded by different pressures of my fingers on the keys. Steven Connor's book speaks to this art of fidgeting, enabled by seemingly mundane, everyday objects.

As a computer keypad becomes a musical keyboard, or a button speaks for missing garments and even bodies, these everyday objects can be understood, in Connor's analysis, as "magical". The notion of a magical object conjures up the idea of a fetish, in its most basic and widely used sense of being an object that is seen to have power over us.

Connor sidesteps such discussions, however, as his focus is far more upon the unintended uses and capacities of objects. Magical objects are never reduced to their use or intended function, as objects discussed in the book - a key, a handkerchief - have a multivalence of meanings.

Paraphernalia raises the complex question of the agency of objects, which is widely discussed in a range of interdisciplinary literature, from discussions of fetishes through to J.J. Gibson's notion of "affordances" - which Connor draws upon in discussing how different objects "afford" different practices and imaginings.

The items he considers, ranging from a handbag to sticky tape to plugs, may be used in ways other than the maker intends, yet still the implication here is that the materiality of these objects lends itself to particular uses and meanings.

Perhaps one of the most interesting issues Connor raises is that of temporality, where objects such as buttons come to be seen as "old-new". The antiquated metal buttons on denim jeans, for example, come to appear new, yet are also evocative of authenticity in the reinvention of the Levi's brand in the 1990s. Connor emphasises such paradoxes as he considers objects as diverse as the wireless, which is both a "dated" item and also the harbinger of a new internet era; and sweets, consumables that do not last as objects but whose meaning resides in metamorphosis.

Rather than offering broad theory, Connor explores an eclectic range of objects in terms of their multiple contemporary uses and traces their historical mutations. Through detailed consideration of specific examples, the book probes the relationship between the individual and particular and the generic, both in terms of what a consideration of a particular bag can tell us about bags in general and the relationship between an individual's personalised imaginings of an object and what that object itself "affords" in terms of its material propensities.

This book's beauty lies in this consideration of detail and specifics and the re-imagination of seemingly mundane objects. Although it is written in a literary and philosophical tradition, Paraphernalia has much of interest to those working in an anthropological or empirical qualitative social science tradition of material culture studies. The familiar becomes strange as un-thought-out everyday objects are examined in such a way that they come to seem magical. One is only left wondering whether almost anything could be considered a magical object, given the human capacity to use objects in manners that are both permitted by the object's materiality but far from determined by it. But in singling out "magical" objects, Connor's implication may be that there are some inert objects, rather than all objects having such capacities.

Paraphernalia: The Curious Lives of Magical Things

By Steven Connor. Profile Books, 256pp, £14.99. ISBN 97818466804. Published 16 June 2011

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