How do we read objects? Does the reading of objects differ from the reading of texts? My contention here is that objects do not only tell stories but that they are always already part of a process of semiosis that undergoes changes depending on the object’s function and contextual environment. A totem pole is a good example of how living, dynamic culture undergoes such a process of semiosis when it is displayed within the Museum as institution. A totem pole in its native environment is not an everlasting monument but an enactment of the eternal return of the seasons. True, it is a phallic symbol but it is not a static object like a church tower or a minaret as it is erected in order to slowly sink into mother earth and thus to return to where it once came from. As such, it is part of a sexual economy based on the dialectics between the male and the female principle, between the phallus and the earth. The pole in its natural environment performs in other words creation as it metaphorically stages the sexual act of (be)coming.
In bringing the totem pole in to the Museum a metonymical displacement of its significance takes place as the pole is put to rest - arrested - in a context alien to its native soil. The ground upon which it stands is solid. Its natural movement is harnassed by the symbolic order of which the museum is part and the pole becomes a phallic symbol dissociated from the dialectics with the female principle, like a church tower or a minaret. Its significance is thus redefined within the symbolic order of the dominant discourse of Western culture. The Other - in this case mother earth, the female principle, sexuality/creativity as performance and Native American culture - is split off. What remains is yet another phallus. Static, monumental, monolithic. An object, in other words.
Since the totem pole has been incorporated by the symbolic as a museum object that has been split off from its ‘whole,’ it is an object of metonymical displacement, an objet petit a (the other with a low-case letter) in lacanian terms and hence a signifier. The totem pole in its new guise as an objet petit a is, in other words, a signifier denoting a Native American object - totem pole - and belongs as such to the order of language. This situates the spectator in language as well, which turns him/her into a reader.
Quite unexpectedly, the tables are turning. As reading is a performative act that goes on in language, the tangible turns intangible, the static turns dynamic by means of the reader/viewer’s interaction with language. It is no longer the totem pole that performs but the reader/viewer. It is the reader who sets the pole in motion by his/her desire (for knowledge, meaning etc) as the objet petit a, the other, is not a pure signifier but, in lacanian theory, a signifier that is an object of desire as well. Once the tangible turns intangible, the intangible as discussed here in terms of language is always already inextricably intervowen with desire.
Through reading the tangible object of desire is incorporated, introjected and recreated in the process of interpretation, set in motion by means of our intertextual memory. Is the intangible heritage - in short - memory?
© yvonne martinsson 2004 - 2005