The Life of Objects

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

In Avram Davidson's short story, "Or All the Seas with Oysters", Ferd, a young bicycle shop owner with a penchant for nature books, becomes obsessed with a curious idea. Noticing that you can never find any safety pins when you need them, and that coat hangers always seem to be filling the closet, while bicycles keep showing up with no owners, he develops a theory that they are all actually different developmental stages of an insect organism, following natural cycles of ubiquity and rarity as they mature. Just as bugs mimic leaves and twigs to escape being eaten, so does this urban creature imitate its habitat, growing from safety pin larva to coat hanger pupa and finally, the full blown bicycle, which spontaneously regenerates overnight, like the French Racer in the back of the shop, mysteriously fixing itself as he works on it. His partner Oscar is naturally sceptical of this hypothesis, and the possibility that these are the ravings of an overworked shopkeeper is never fully discounted by the story. When in the end Ferd is found dead in a closet with a coat hanger twisted around his neck, we are never told whether he killed himself or was stopped by this malevolent life form from divulging its secret.

The idea that for the sake of mental health the city dweller has to block out the multitude of impressions, images and objects that populate metropolitan life, is as old as modernity itself. Its inverse, defamiliarization, or the utilizing of an artistic gaze to 'liberate' ordinary objects and everyday actions from the hibernating tedium of their existence, is just as old. Already in 1917, Victor Shklovsky wrote in "Art as Device":

And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war... art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar,' to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important.

In Schklovsky's formulation, the demands of everyday life, the repetitive, automatic and uncritical use of objects, words and images, falsifies their true nature. To touch the essence of things which lies dormant under its ordinary social use or to return the object to a state of truthfulness, the stone to a state of stoniness, art, paradoxically, utilises technique on the conventional known object. To make something real it first has to make it unrecognisable and alien by the employment of artful or fanciful devices.

Going back to Davidson's story, this defamiliarization, rather than simply a poetic device, becomes the theme of the story itself, and its protagonist, Ferd, in effect rebels against his ordinary technical job by becoming, in a sense, a poet. But Davidson goes one step further than Schklovsky. First, in order to decipher the mystery of ordinary object like safety pins and bicycles left in the park, Ferd employs a scientific mode of observation rather than an artistic one: he grafts one system of signification onto another but remains loyal to the principles of reason, not so much defamiliarizing but coming up with a competing scientific theory. His hypothesis is perhaps even more convincing than any more obvious explanation of forgotten bikes and lost safety pins because the automatism of the ordinary gaze doesn't take into consideration the delicate balance of the economy of objects in the household that Ferd managed to introduce into his explanation. Similarly, Ferd manages to unlock the mystery of ordinary objects not by looking differently at one such object, but by connecting several seemingly unrelated ones. It is not merely the phenomenological nature of things, partly known and partly concealed by language, that concerns him, unlike Schklovsky's poet, but also the behaviour of things, the way they are used. This is the source of horror in Davidson's story, injecting a touch of Freudian uncanny into the equation:   we, humans, trade places with ordinary household objects and become surrogate hosts to them. They become living things, while we become objects, used by what we think are our own creations, our mastery over nature flipping into the irony of the final conquest of man by nature. Finally, whereas Schklovsky's artistic gaze serves to reconnect us with a true essence, the stone's qualities obscured by our superficial encounter with it, Davidson's shopkeeper only provides us with an unverifiable if enticing fiction. It is from the interrelation of fictions and facts, the stories he reads about the insects, his application of these ideas to everyday objects and his own grim fate, which itself becomes a kind of urban legend within the story, that the meaning of the story arises.

Unlike Gregor Samsa, Ferd doesn't give us the safety of knowing we've arrived at some terrible realisation that throws our assumptions about our existence into question, but the possibility he opens up for this second narrative to co-exist alongside the more mundane story of a depressed, slightly too intellectual for his own good, petit bourgeois young man seeds enough doubt in the reader's mind to make household products feel quite creepy for a while. This alternate way of reading an obsession with a shiny French Racer as a real threat interrogates the grip that such objects actually do have on our lives in a kind of biologically determined reversal of consumerist desire.