The Object Lessons series of monographs has been compared to Roland Barthes’ Mythologies but equally, it carries on the tradition of British Museum director Neil MacGregor’s BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects. Each book in the series picks up an object from contemporary material culture to explore its history and its place in the world. To that extent, it’s not exactly miles ahead of Wikipedia, except that the account is usually more engaging. But in the manner of Barthes, the books also look at what objects mean to us, and the hopes and anxieties that they raise. Decades in the future, they will be read as semiological accounts of the political and philosophical concerns of our times.
Author: Adam Rothstein
Publications: Bloomsbury Academic India
Author: Jonathan Rees
Publication: Bloomsbury Academic India
Pages: 136 Price 250
The series is wide-ranging, featuring artefacts whose pedigree stretches to remote prehistory (the blanket) and elements of culture which became mainstream yesterday (the fake). But since humanity has outstripped biology and has been evolving technologically for thousands of years, most objects of interest are machines. We have two titles in hand — Adam Rothstein’s Drone and Jonathan Rees’ Refrigerator. In a matter of years, the drone has graduated from a novelty toy that transit passengers used to pick up in Dubai, to a dreadnought which realises the oldest military dream — to project lethal force over vast distances at zero physical risk. In the future, historians may classify the drone not merely as a weapons delivery system, but also with the German blitzkrieg, the Mongol horde and the chariots of the Iceni and the Parisi, as a device focused on the rapid projection of power. The only possible emotional response to it is anxiety.
The refrigerator, on the other hand, has been around from colonial times, when Bengali babus made fortunes importing ice cut from New England ponds in midwinter for Calcutta’s burra sahibs to cool their brandy-pawnee with. The birth of the compressor and expansion valve put an end to that business and in the next wave of military projection, GIs posted in Calcutta during World War II imported machinery to keep their vanilla ice cream cool. A decade later, Kwality was born.
From the time when a fridge mean an icebox to the contemporary frost-free models, the refrigerator has come to signify many things. In the postwar years, what the automobile meant to the American man, the fridge meant to the woman appointed to look after his material needs. Perhaps the most powerful intervention in the kitchen since the gas oven, it represented freedom and choice, and the ability to confer these goods upon the family. In the political turmoil of the Sixties, women sought more meaningful freedoms and choices, and refrigerator advertising reflected their aspirations. Ads for a “space age” Frigidaire were illustrated by women clad like Starship Enterprise troopers, complete with bubble helmets. But paradoxically, the Whirlpool Mum, the classical nurturer who conjures up ice in minutes, is still with us.
Refrigerator imagery has been a political barometer because the device is so central to our lives. Cold chains and supermarkets have changed what foods we buy, and when, and the machine at home, quietly humming away in a corner of the kitchen, has altered our menus and made seasons irrelevant. The drone, designed to be remote, has not moved the human race half as deeply. The imagery surrounding it has mainly preoccupied America and the hapless regions targeted by its weapons. But if the drone rediscovers its original promise, which was to deliver pizza faster, we may still find a place for it in our hearts.