Thursday, February 24, 2011

Linda L. Layne

Linda L. Layne is Hale Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer. She is the author Motherhood Lost: A Feminist Account of Pregnancy Loss in America, and Home and Homeland: The Dialogics of Tribal and National Identities in Jordan and has edited two volumes on motherhood and consumption: Consuming Motherhood and Transformative Motherhood: On Giving and Getting in a Consumer Culture.

Her latest book is Feminist Technology (edited with Vostral and Boyer).

Several weeks ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Over the holidays I read two books on consumer culture. The first, Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, was a Christmas gift from my partner. It was unlike anything I had ever read. After inheriting a collection of tiny Japanese sculptures of animals and figures carved out of ivory or wood from a great uncle, de Waal spent several years meticulously tracing the social history of the collection, how the objects got “handled and handed on” through four generations of his “ridiculously wealthy,” cosmopolitan, Jewish ancestors who were based in Odessa, Paris, Vienna, and Japan. It is inconceivable that anyone else could have written such a book. Waal is an art ceramist and so has a particular relationship to material culture. In addition, he studied English at Cambridge. The result is a book one can luxuriate over. His netsuke collection was purchased by Charles Ephrussi, an up-and-coming art collector, critic, and historian in Paris in the 1870s, during the rage for japonisme when wealthy Europeans were buying art treasures for a pittance from impoverished daimoyos and samurai. Once in Europe, these fine objects were used as “props” for “the sensuous reimagining of the self” (p 56). De Waall quotes contemporary collectors on “the intoxication of hunting and buying, a process that could send you towards mania.”

The second book, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, is one I picked up thinking it might be a nice addition to my course on Consumer Culture. It was perfect for my return flight from visiting my parents in California. Written by a psychologist and a social worker who have worked together on this subject for many years, the book presents eleven case studies of “highly intelligent” people who represent different “types” of hoarders. The book raises fascinating questions about what distinguishes collectors like de Waal’s uncle from the six to fifteen million Americans thought to suffer from hoarding. The authors note that although hoarding in some ways resembles obsessive- compulsive disorder, it differs because hoarding is fueled by positive feelings, the pleasure that acquiring and having possessions gives. They also suggest that hoarding “may stem from an extraordinary ability” to appreciate objects; for hoarders “every object is rich with detail…The physical world of hoarders is different and much more expansive than that of the rest of us” (p 15). Is this so different from the extraordinary abilities of de Waal and his ancestors? How does this passion for ownership differ from the mania for hunting and buying bibelot (small, attractive trinkets) among the demi-mondaine in 18th century Paris? In both cases, things are used for creating an “expanded identity” (Frost and Stekettee P 45); for creative self-fashioning.

More recently I read three memoirs, Look Me in the Eyes: My Life With Asperger’s by John Robison, which I loved and on the basis of which bought his brother’s memoir, Running with Scissors, which I hated, and Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asberger’s, by the music critic Tim Page, which I found too boring to finish.
Learn more about Feminist Technology by following the blog at the University of Illinois website.

Visit Linda L. Layne's faculty webpage.

The Page 99 Test: Feminist Technology.

--Marshal Zeringue