On Heroes and Objects

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

If you could have any superpower, which one would you choose?

I’ve given this question (probably too) much thought since I started watching Heroes (new window) three years ago, but until last week, had no definite answer. In last week’s episode, Nathan (having all of the abilities Sylar had) touched objects to receive flashes of their histories: their previous owners, their former uses, and the events that happened around them. This superpower has a name – clairsentience (new window)*– and this is definitely the one I would choose. Why, do you ask, would I choose this when I could have such powers as omnilingualism (the ability to automatically understand all verbal and non-verbal communication), mental manipulation (ability to manipulate others’ minds) or weather control (self-explanatory) which would have come in very handy last weekend?** After all, they are just things.

Perhaps Sherry Turkle (new window), a media theorist and author of the “object trilogy”, says it best when she complicates our relationship with objects:

We find it familiar to consider objects as useful or aesthetic, as necessities or vain indulgences. We are on less familiar ground when we consider objects as companions to our emotional lives or as provocations to thought. The notion of evocative objects brings together these two less familiar ideas, underscoring the inseparability of thought and feeling in our relationship to things. We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with.

I disagree with the last statement in so much as sometimes we have to think with objects we don’t love and may never grow to love, no matter how much time we spend thinking with them. But strong dislike is an emotion, too. And what I would add is that thinking with objects structures our external interactions as well as our internal states. Consider Latour’s (1992) speed bump (new window).

I love objects (and my fascination with them is relatively recent) for their potential to act as interpreters between the mundane activities that most directly affect our life and the loftier concepts which are so difficult to pin down and study on their own. As an example, I offer my graduate thesis work which concerned itself with the grand concepts of globalization and inequality and ultimately with a rather psychological question of why people were carrying out a particular action, in this case, selling their land. Unconvinced that the answer lay entirely in their minds (hard to access, in any case) or that they were somehow culturally conditioned to do so, I turned to objects: indices, signs, fences. And they made all the difference, not only explaining the specific activity of selling land, but allowing me to link this activity to the aforementioned overwhelmingly abstract issues.

Archeologists, anthropologists, and more recently, sociologists have occupied themselves with objects – reconstructing their histories, contextualizing their roles, and imagining their societies. How much easier would be their (and hopefully, eventually, my own) work had we clairsentience?!

I’d like to conclude with the following poem by William Carlos Williams (1923), courtesy of Trish:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Indeed, so much depends on giving a second (and third and fourth) glance to the objects in our (and others’) lives.


* This ability was first featured in episode 303, but I wasn’t thinking about objects then.

** The full list of Heroes abilities can be found here (new window).