(Click here for a larger image. Art by Gregory Bossert.)
For the “normal” exercises, click here.
by Matthew Cheney
The image of the room has provided academics of various sorts with considerable material over the years since it was discovered. It has also caused some tension, as various researchers and theorists have made conflicting claims and disparaged each others’ work. Below, you will find excerpts from various materials concerning the image. These excerpts may be used as writing prompts. You can answer the questions asked in the various items, or, if you wish, speculate on the connections between the people, institutions, and philosophies that produced these materials. (For instance, it is entirely possible that the person who inhabited the room was known to one or more of the academics whose work is excerpted below…)
1. From an exam given in the Introduction to Literary Theory course at the University of Upper Uppsala:
Materialist ideologues have claimed that the numbering of three items in the image with the same number (1) is an obvious mistake. However, we know that the Modernist tendency toward repetition can be considered a narrative representation of Freud’s concept of the repetition compulsion. In an essay of roughly 500 words, explain why the items numbered 1 would cause trauma and thus induce a repetition compulsion.
2. Call for papers for a Media Studies anthology titled The Glowing Television:
This collection will explore the implications of the glowing television in the well-known Secret Life of Objects image. Historical interpretation in general will be preferred: What, for instance, would be the most likely program to be playing on such a television? Historico-spatial theorists might want to consider the possible meanings of the style of television represented, or its placement in the room. Specialists in the history of technology are encouraged to explore the possible causes of the particular glow of the screen, or which broadcast transmission technologies would be more likely to cause such an effect. Theological interpretations are also welcome — is the television a representation of the power of a deity, a demon, an angel? We would prefer to stay away from psychological theorizing or an interpretation of the object as an expression of a mental state. Assume that the television is, within its context, real. Please submit an abstract of 250-500 words.
3. An audience member’s question at a session of the International Society of Library Cataloguers and Archivists:
“Let’s suppose that the bookcase and all of its contents were delivered to us, but everything in the case was removed and carefully put in boxes by type rather than by its original placement in the case. How would we be able to reconstruct the original placements — in other words, I suppose what I’m asking is: how can we understand the relationships between the items in the bookcase?”
The answer to the question considered specific possibilities for the items pictured in and around the bookcase, and, when transcribed, covered a full page.
4. An exercise from the textbook Archaeology for Adventurers:
Experienced safecrackers understand that whether a safe is worth cracking requires an assessment of its surroundings. From the context in the image, what is your assessment of whether the safe is worth cracking? What is it most and least likely to contain?
5. From a memo distributed to all faculty and students in the Department of Speculative Forensics, Meillassoux College of Art & Science:
It is recent department policy for all work to proceed from the premise that the same cause may bring about a hundred different events. We now welcome contributions to the department bulletin board that explain the items in the desk drawer as the cause for different events. All explanations should be 3-5 sentences long and preferably contain at least 3 abstract nouns of more than 3 syllables each, as well as either a graph or a stick-figure illustration, but all explanations will be welcomed and considered. We would like to have the board covered with 100 different events by this coming Tuesday.
6. From the guidelines for seminar papers in The Nature and Purpose of Flightless Aquatic Birds, a course offered by the Zoological Hauntings program in the Department of Biology at Arkham Asylum:
Consider the function of a flightless aquatic bird as an outside observer of human behavior. Our colleagues in the art department or the literature department might try to explain such animals as metaphorical representations of whatever hermetic ideology is currently prancing around and pretending to be scientific, but we, as actual scientists, should not indulge in such speculations. Instead, please consider the likely ecological elements that would affect the presence of a flightless aquatic bird outside of a human habitation such as this. Be sure to account for climate, weather events, geographical features, pollutants, flora, competing fauna, and particular species behaviors.
7. From an email by Maria Ledbetter, an ethnomusicologist at the Universidad Nacional de Tierra del Fuego, to Ulises Lima, Visiting Professor of Visceral Realism at the University of Northern Maine, Castle Rock:
…which of course Bobby, given his obsession with Freud, would see as traumatic, but with Bobby what isn’t traumatic? So yes, it’s a piano that a child could play. But why not assume it’s a positive object in the scene? Is it so wrong to suggest that some stories do, indeed, have happy endings? (I know — sacrilege, right?) I mean, I’m not about to go as far as Carlos and suggest that we should be uniting with the scientists and declaring the death of metaphor, but what would it mean to let the piano just be a piano, the music it produces simply music? Is there such a thing as “simply music”? I think so. I think that’s why even very culturally specific music can be universal. I suppose what I’m trying to say is: What would it mean to consider that piano as a positive object?
Ulises Lima’s response has been lost, but Dr. Ledbetter said in her memory it was an email of at least six paragraphs.
8. From a pop quiz given to students at the Liebnitz Center for Intercultural Exchange, Toronto, 24 November 1982, by Dr. Christina Huygens in a course titled Perspectives on Perspective:
Given that a microscope is a tool of perception, what does the image suggest by including a microscope that is of anomalous size? Is the microscope in proper perspective, or are other items? Write your answer from the perspective of the squid. You will have 10 minutes to do so.
9. From the transcript of a telephone call recorded by a state security agency in the midst of collecting intelligence on the traitorous activities of Vico Rautavaara, late of Berkeley, California, proponent of the “pink beam theory” of metaphysical politics:
RAUTAVAARA: I spent seven freakin’ years on that thing, lookin’ at that thing, you know—
UNKNOWN CONVERSANT: I know, I know—
R: And I dunno what the heck that is down there, you know, down by the—
UC: —right, by the, by the, yeah, that—
R: The space you know, that’s what there is, right, and that’s true, of course, it’s almost metaphorical—
UC: Space, yeah—
R: I mean come on, you’re the archivist here, you like specialize in this, don’t you?
UC: Sure, sure, but I can’t, honestly, I don’t hardly see anything quite what’s down there, you know, myself, so—
R: But what I wanna know then is who identified that. I mean, who, among our quote-unquote scholarly friends [mutual laughter] put the identifying number there and not, you know, up and maybe over to the side a bit? I mean, see, that’s the question, that’s what I’m asking: Why there?
UC: Damned if I know.
R: The key is to crack the code. That’s the one universal truth. Crack the code. So what’s the code here? Given the visual information, given the object that is either represented or not represented there, what can we then infer is the mental state of the person who placed the object or lack of object into the room? This is what we need to know. We can’t proceed without that information. So tell me. Look there. What do you see? And what does what you see say? What is the reality that it implies?
UC: Well, okay, sure, yes, you know I was just talking with Carlos about this, so what I think is—
The transcript cuts off here, but any skilled functionary of the state apparatus should be able to piece together something to please the superiors and allow everybody to go home happy.