Speaking With Inanimate Things

Friday August 15, 2008

Bullring

In my former home of Birmingham, if you want to meet up with anyone in the city centre, the usual meeting place is “by the bull”, which is to say, by the sculpture that stands outside of the Bullring shopping centre in the middle of town.

The sculpture – think of a cuddlier version of the more famous Wall Street Bull, and you can’t go far wrong – was unveiled in 2003 when the shopping centre opened, and was designed by sculptor Laurence Broderick (whose website you can see here). Since its unveiling, it has been adopted as an unofficial mascot by the people of Birmingham.

Back in 2005, two years after it was unveiled, the bull was vandalised. Somebody scratched their name in the side with a sharp object. What happened next was extraordinary. Mysteriously, almost overnight, offerings appeared at the foot of the sculpture – piles of flowers, cards, offerings of condolence. Now, whatever the folks who run the shopping centre might have made thought, these were not offerings made to the authorities responsible for the bull, but instead were made towards the bull itself. There, in the middle of Birmingham’s most modern monument to capitalism, a bizarre ancient ritual seemed to suddenly be played out, like a flickering memory of ancient bull cults. I remember looking at the flowers and the cards, the poems that ordinary people had written to the bronze animal, and coming across one that simply said, “If I had been here, I would not have let them hurt you.”

That phrase – I would not have let them hurt you – addressed to a piece of metal fashioned into the shape of a bull has stayed with me. The bull was restored to its former glory, and when I am back in Birmingham and want to meet up with friends, it will be by the bull that I will arrange to meet. And even if I do not make it offerings or write it poems, as I pass by, I will probably, without thinking, pat its flank in a friendly fashion. Other people do this as well. You can sit and watch them. Some even talk to it. Under their breath, of course, so people don’t think them strange, but they talk to it.

What is going on with all of this? The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that we spend a lot more time than we think speaking with inanimate things. I say “speaking with” and not “speaking to” deliberately, because there is a sense – an obscure sense, perhaps, but a sense nonetheless – in which when we speak with inanimate things, they speak back. Or, at the very least, they sort-of speak back.

I have been thinking about the bull again in part because of having just read Miguel Tamen’s strange and difficult book Friends of Interpretable Objects, which is about the way that we “gather around various bits and pieces of the same world [like metal bulls, for example], attributing them intentions, dispositions and even languages”. Tamen’s argument – winding its way along various circuitous paths through theology, jurisprudence, ethics, museum studies, and history – explores the way that we gather ourselves into communities and speak with and for various parts of the world. What he is exploring, that is to say, is interpretation, which he neatly defines as the “process of attributing language and intentionality to objects”. Much of what we do, in our relationship with the world, is this process of attributing language and intentionality to all kinds of things, from metal bulls (“poor bull… they must have hurt you”), to states (“it is in the interests of the United Kingdom”), to religions (“Buddhism says that…”), to parts of the ‘natural’ environment (“We must protect the interests of the rainforest…”).

Tamen’s argument is subtle, but is rooted in the claim that interpretation is not a matter of cracking some kind of pre-existing code that lies hidden in a set of objects that are especially “interpretable”, but that instead it is something that can be best understood as happening within a “society of friends” – friends, that is to say, of the thing to be interpreted. If this is an accurate picture of what goes on in interpretation, it also implies that between various societies of friends what may count as interpretable may differ. My Great Aunt Ida (and at least one of her societies of friends) used to believe that things like tea leaves counted as interpretable, whilst I am not so sure.

I am less interested, however, in what Tamen’s book has to say about philosophical questions of interpretation, and more in what it brings to light about what goes on in our relationship to the world (although, of course, these two are not unconnected). When the people of Birmingham, with no prompting, lay offerings of flowers and poems at the foot of a wounded (wounded and not just damaged? Why do I find myself writing this?) metal bull, Tamen’s approach gives us a way of thinking about what is going on without having to dismiss the people of Birmingham, in the fashion of certain less imaginative humanist-rationalists, as superstitious fools. Of course, if you asked the people offering flowers or poems whether the bull, as a piece of metal, could feel pain, they would say no. But that does not make the offerings nonsensical. After all, if it is superstitious to attribute intentionality and language to objects that do not, in fact, have such things, then the cases in which we attribute intentionality and language to states and governments (“this government believes…”), to courts (“this court decides…”), to religions (“Buddhism absolutely forbids…”), and to corporations of various kinds (“the University of Pudsey announces…”) are also, in a sense, superstitious.

After reading Friends of Interpretable Objects, I’ve found myself noticing the extent to which I and others around me speak with and on behalf of various parts of the world, as a matter of course, scarcely giving it another thought. When I take a particularly impressive cabbage out of the grocery bag and say “hello cabbage” (as I caught myself doing yesterday), I do not think that the cabbage can hear, nor do I expect it to say “hello” in return; but something is going on, something that is not a million miles from the offering of flowers to a metal bull, or from the offering of deference to the idea of the law, or from the tendency to speak in the name of a grand abstraction such as “Buddhism”, or from all the other curious things that we human beings get up to in our lives…

So finally, if you are reading this in Birmingham, next time you pass the bull, given him a pat on my behalf, and send him my best wishes.

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#1 · Jakob

16 August 2008

Will,

I’m just a random stranger passing by and enjoying the blog.

We are wired to negotiate with our fellow humans (to trade with them, get them into bed etc) and do that by essentially creating a version of them in our minds(the mad even hear other people’s voices in their head!).

That part of the brain is unable to restrict itself to fellow humans…Prophets hear the voice of God, brummies talk to scupltures. It is of course ever so slightly controversial to equate the two!

Jakob.

#2 · Alex Stewart

16 August 2008

I think this is a case of an artist’s work enriching people’s lives to the extent that the sculpture becomes almost an old beloved friend. He is very well done, for an inanimate fellow and has a great advantage over the usual ‘public figure’.
I am reminded of a quote from Andy Warhol: “An artist is someone who produces things that people don’t need to have but that he ‘for some reason’ thinks it would be a good idea to give them.” Obviously,the people are very happy this artist gave them this bull.

#3 · Will

16 August 2008

The business of attributing agency to things that don’t have it, or not in the way that we attribute it, is indeed interesting, Jakob. And your point about religion is well-made – similar to some of the arguments in Pascal Boyar’s book on the subject. What is interesting is that we go on acting “as if” things have agency, even when we know that they don’t.

There may be some prophetic Brummies who hear the voice of God spoken through the mouth of the bull. Now, there’s an idea for a story…

All the best,

Will

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