Earlier this week we launched Object Lessons, an essay and book series on the hidden lives of ordinary objects, published by The Atlantic and Bloomsbury and edited by me and Chris Schaberg. We’ve been working on getting this going for months, and I’m excited to finally be able to unleash it on you.

Here’s how it works: Object Lessons invites contributions from scholars, writers, journalists. Lithe, writerly essays of roughly 2,000 words will be published online at The Atlantic‘s Technology Channel. Concise, affordable, beautifully designed books of roughly 25,000 words will be published in print and electronic formats by Bloomsbury. Object Lessons authors don’t have to write both an essay and a book, but composing an essay is a great way to try on a book idea, and book authors are encouraged to write an essay along the way. Book authors who do write an essay first will benefit by being able to stub that essay in to their book proposal.

As a part of the series launch, we’ve announced the first book, a surprising historical take on the remote control by Caetlin Benson-Allott. We’ve also published the first essay, a paean to the Domino’s Pizza by Leigh Alexander. We’ve got lots more essays and books in the pipeline already, so stay tuned for more.

We’re very actively soliciting additional authors, so please get in touch with us if you’d like to write an Object Lesson. Essay commissions are available for working writers, and advances are available for accomplished authors. Our budgets are modest, but we hope the series offers a venue for work that would otherwise have no other home. Oh, and if you need ideas, we’ve got a little Latour Litanizer running on the contribution page to get the things flowing.

There’s also a Twitter account for the project, which tweets publication announcements as well as text-generated ideas and commentary.

With the announcement out of the way, I thought I’d say a few more things about the series, how it works, and what it represents to me intellectually. Lest you think I’m making this up retroactively, some of the material that follows comes from the proposals Chris and I wrote for the series. Speaking of which, before I continue, I should issue special thanks to Haaris Naqvi at Bloomsbury and Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic for their support of the project.

Those of you who are aware of my involvement with object-oriented ontology will immediately see a connection between Object Lessons and that work, particularly my book Alien Phenomenology. And you’d be right! While I’d certainly be happy to publish OOO and alien phenomenological takes on things in the series, such approaches are hardly required. Rather, this series represents an extension of the turn toward “pragmatic speculative realism” I began in Alien Phenomenology: a call for more frequent and more sustained attention to specific things.

That in mind, each Object Lessons project will start from a specific prompt: an anthropological query, archeological discovery, historical event, literary passage, personal narrative, philosophical speculation, technological innovation, anything really—and from there develop original insights around and novel lessons about the object in question. In this way Object Lessons harnesses recent movements in material culture studies and critical theory (like OOO) while also forming a collection of volumes that will be of more general interest. It also allows us to embrace the philosophical mode at some times and the popular mode at others. Philosophical and theoretical references are certainly welcome in Object Lessons work, but literarily speaking the series emphasizes lucid writing, imagination, and brevity.

Another quirk clever readers may have noticed already is that Object Lessons is aligned with the Technology Channel at The Atlantic. Are all “things” technology? The answer to that question relates to the mission of my newly-founded Center for Media Studies at Georgia Tech, the entity out of which I’m supporting Object Lessons. There’s not much to show yet at the Center’s website, but it’s overall mission very much relates to the way “technology” is interpreted.

These days, we usually think of “technology” as a synonym for new innovations in industry—computers, mobile devices, and the Internet, of course, but also energy consumption and resource management, logistics and transport, and so forth.

But we could also understand technology as a much broader category, one that includes almost anything that is made by someone (or something), or that makes something else in turn. In addition to new marvels, technology also encompasses much more mundane things. Some of the most influential and widespread technologies go unnoticed and undiscussed.

For example, the rubber band, first invented in the mid-19th century, remains a ubiquitous, viable device for holding things together. Plastic garbage bags are lightweight and water-tight, thus making wet waste more easily managed. Corrugated papers fashioned into cardboard boxes fly around the globe carrying any number of consumable products, from the cheapest disposable toys to the latest iPhones. The intermodal freight container makes it possible to move goods by ship, rail, and truck, thus facilitating the global distribution of all sorts of other objects—like garbage bags and rubber bands. Meanwhile, crows gather bottle caps and sticks to construct and decorate nests in the tops of basswood trees, whose own seedpods are shaped like sailplanes to better disseminate across ice and snow in the winter.

In all of these cases, some material object transforms the world, sometimes in obvious, immediate ways, other times in a more subtle fashion.

When we talk about technology today, we ought to think across scales, eras, materials, even species. Marshall McLuhan gave the name “media” to anything that influences or alters our perception and experience in the world, and it’s that understanding of “media” that I’m adopting in the Center for Media Studies. Today, we might say that “technology” is an concept as broad as “media”: media and technologies are anything whatsoever that influences the nature or experience of anything else—not just people, but also animals, ecosystems, industries, and more.

One last thing. Those of you who have read Alien Phenomeology may be scratching your heads asking why Object Lessons is limited to writing. What about my call for carpentry, for the construction of objects that do philosophical work beyond articles and books? I have two comments in response. First, I never intended for carpentry to exclude writing from its purview. The deliberate craft of essays and books is its own type of carpentry. But second, we already have a few projects in the work that include carpentered, non-written components. Over time, I hope we’ll be able to expand Object Lessons to support the creation and publication of, well, other kinds of objects. And I’m certainly open to your suggestions and ideas.

All right, enough of all that. Go take a look at the website and send us your submissions!

published June 8, 2013


  1. I. Read

    Ok, that does it. Next Amazon order has Alien Phenomeology in it.

    I haven’t decided how I feel exactly about OOO but at the very least it seems positioned as a dramatic paradigm shift in philosophy, a refreshing and exciting turn. I’ll have to get over my childish fear of it painfully uncomfortably jutting up against my own solipistic leaning, “brain centric” musings.

    As musician who attempts to imbue my work with aesthetic characteristics perhaps comparable to a relative form of procedural rhetoric, the much lauded chapter on carpentry is especially of interest to me. At the very least, the book seems like an almost literal description of how to “get out your head” which is a meditation of great use in all disciplines. I get the feeling that is just the beginning, however.

    Regarding the essays, I’m just putting this out there: to read a seasoned motion graphics artist waxing philosophic about the Scanimate would be amazing to me. A lot of developments in my expertise (i.e. the advent of sampling being inexorably tied to the rise of hip-hop, for example) have already been done to death, but the legacy of the Scanimate is something quite singular in my mind from what I know of it.