persons and things continued


Persons and Things by Barbara Johnson[1] is an engaging exploration of person-thing relationships. Her research encompasses theory, literature, philosophy and social commentary, citing writers as varied as Marx and Plath.


The writer reveals two personal epiphanies which she believes may have been responsible for her writing the book. Firstly, she could not bring herself to eat anything that looked like it had a face and secondly, after attending a seminar taught by Derrida (best known for developing deconstructionism semiotic analysis), where she was told “human nature is an illusion produced by mechanical means,” it occurred to her that deconstruction “gravitated to the inanimate”.


Johnson notes that deconstruction heightens awareness of gaps and reveals their claims upon us as deceptive. She maintains that the inanimate thing exposed as a delusion is a key to fantasy life and fantasy life, however deluded, should not be dismissed. She observes that although a work of art is created around something missing, this void is its vanishing point not its essence. Johnson shows elegantly the void forms the centre around which we are inclined to construct our world.


Johnson explains psychological and social dynamics and looks at important tropes without losing focus of the ethical stance with which she begins: the need to treat persons as persons, which I think has important parallels with my own work. Turning her attention to advertising, Johnson's cites a controversy involving a talking Barbie Doll uttering the recorded sentence “math is so hard”. Writers such as Johnson teach us to pay attention to language use, to assumptions, to unstated, hidden and accidental meaning: buying a brand means not only purchasing a product but a lifestyle and a particular set of values.


Johnson considers the themes of anthropomorphism and reification (literally making into a thing), amongst others. Reification seems the mirror image of anthropomorphism – becoming-thing as opposed to becoming-man. According to Marx, reification is a particular type of alienation: capitalism tends to turn persons into things so that everything serves the needs and centrality of commodities. Johnson comments on our ambivalent relationship with technology; how we both celebrate technological achievement on one level but on another feel relieved when those achievements can be distinguished as missing some essential human essence.


She grapples throughout the book with the issue of separating in an essential way things from persons. As Johnson herself concludes, “this book offers no help in treating persons as persons, but it does explore the richness of a human being's relation to things.”(p.232) In Johnson's analysis the question of things turns out to be a question of things for people.







[1] Johnson, B. (2008) Persons and Things (Harvard University Press)