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Art : Portfolio

A bygone literary genre tells a story of the present age, tracing the transformation of a sand grain from CRT monitor to stone artwork.

Adventures of a Genre

In the heyday of print publishing, I played ventriloquist for the marketplace, endowing goose-quills, coins, waistcoats and snuffboxes with the ability to narrate their lives. My commodities were the protagonists of an emerging global economy and breathlessly traveled from exotic origins to shopfront windows, from far colonial reaches to domestic quarters. They rode the wake of British conquest with marvelous aplomb, more than justifying the means of their arriving. For how else could the earth's riches be made available to its greatest public?

My object narrators were beloved by readers and owners alike, whose affections they solicited on the page and the shelf. Emblems of a nascent consumer class, they transformed public sentiment so profoundly that one generation's vices were another's keepsakes. Luxury became the wellspring of the finer feelings.

Where the consumer ends and her alienable property begins, as a commodity grows possessively individual: on such topics my protagonists meditated, elaborating codes of conduct and terms of use. Theirs were morals that found highest form in consumption, whereby citizens could learn the freedoms to be gained through choice—of the responsibility they have to their possessions. If a guinea wants to walk, let it walk. And if a shilling is made to ramble, do not deny its fate. Our coins circulate to sustain the world to which we have grown accustomed, even if they may be rubbed clean of their very identity in the process.

During these prolific years, I created a Parliament of Objects, where the Bank of England and the stomach could speak, to varying elicitations of disgust, about the nature of their holdings. I have given an atom sentient life and seen my pen fall under its influence, plotting a journey from imperial Japan in a grain of rice until, some thousand twists later, it found refuge in a duck, then a gentleman. Mixing with that gentleman’s circulating juices, my protagonist finally fixed in the principal part of that animalcule, which, in process of time, expanded into a new host. From a crevice in the pericranium, my atom tenders this story.

Yet for all my craft and imagination, I am less remembered than reviled: as a booster for consumerism, an apologist for Empire. Critics named me the hack of the walk, exploiting market logics in place of rigorous writing, preferring voguish narrative idioms to most anything else. Like the automatons of the age, my speaking objects were derided as passing fads and false conceits: momentarily amusing and momentarily uncanny.

Objects possessing intentions were once sued, tried, convicted, exiled and executed. A sculpture could be liable for laceration. I suffered none of these punishments; I was just forgotten.

In the centuries since my passing, I became a most compelling name for that enigma that can only be encircled. As a shilling sheared, cut and clipped ceases to be an object proper, so too have I gained the specific unspecificity of the thing. No longer a name, an identity, a gestalt, I am matter out of place, the sardine can that looks back, the blackening ink blot, the mute idol who speaks. This is not to say that my vagueness, my excess foreclose future specification; I may be a narrative premise consigned to the scrap yard, but I can also be recycled and reclaimed.

In the centuries since my passing, goose-quills and snuffboxes have also lost the gloss of the new, and the coinage that once steadied the materialist’s course now ceases to ground the flows of capital. Who, then, would be the protagonist of the present age? What does she teach? How does she pass? The life of a commodity is ever foreshortening, and yet the onus to consume conjoins the injunction to conserve: we must waste, and waste not we must.

A latter-day protagonist should register the pains of planned obsolescence, birthed neither for breathless travel nor responsible care, but to expend a tidy, stunted life. Wan, impressive and useful, she will be sufficiently memorable to uphold the rightness of possessing, sufficiently forgettable to allow for the continued exercise of that right.

Let’s say she begins as a grain of sand, scooped up and melted out of her mind, then cooled down into glass. You can look through her and into her, or your look may look back. She can cloud or clarify these experiences, without being much of an experience herself.

Her grandfather was a window, and she could have become a window. Her mother was a windshield, and she could have become a windshield. Instead, she became a screen—or screens, for as her material recycles well, she has been turned, time and again, from CRT monitor into CRT monitor: newer and newer, with ceaseless regularity, until a better technology finally came along.

The sand grain now finds herself at an impasse. Nobody wants to melt her back into herself, nor put her parts to other use. In certain countries, the laws are so strict, and the demand so low, that far from getting money for recycling a screen like hers, the owner must pay to have her carted off.

My protagonist can expect a few outcomes. She may languish with her colleagues in a local warehouse, each screen a grain of a technological beachscape now passed. Or her handlers may smuggle her to the dumping grounds of the world, where she can fool an unsuspecting shopper or suffer a protracted end, stripped bare of her metals and other valuable bits.

She may also have the luck of the exception. A company in Taiwan has grown wealthy extracting precious metals from electronic waste; it recently invested some of the profits in methods to process casings and CRT glass. So my protagonist could be ground down to nearly her original scale, though even when cleaned, will remain too toxic to become a plate, a bowl or most any other object.

When no useful options exist, the scraps of outmoded devices can be poured into the molds of art. At the Taiwanese company, abandoned futures take on numerous forms, from bulls and pumpkin patches to flautists and inkstones. The creatures of Chinese mythology even lend credence by proxy. The Jade Emperor once punished Pixiu by sealing its anus; thereafter, its diet was restricted to monies. A hoarder like none other, the creature is the most popular sculpture on offer.

In a fitting conclusion, this company could mold the sand grain into a scholar’s stone. Such rocks are prized for having an inherent awkwardness, an inconclusive glimmer of figuration. They are nature’s artworks: her self-portraits in miniature. Human hands have long helped improve these perfections, imperceptibly assisting the stones’ merits. In my protagonist’s stone, they continue to help by sparing nature from the burdens of facture.

The sand grain here reaches her most artificial state: all human hand feigning natural innovation. Her stone, I am told, resembles a figure practicing tai chi, and so she will move slower than ever before.

My protagonist will come to feel like she has lost her anus. A new price has been put on her, and for the first time in her life, it actually stands to appreciate. True, she is merely an offset for environmental guilt, but her owner has saved her from lesser fates, and she must respect him for that. Occasionally, he will glance beyond his new screen and pause to consider her. She will receive his look, play to his interests, arouse pleasure, reflection, or perhaps disgust. Briefly, she will become a subject once more; and before the eyes of my readers, so will I.


“Adventures of a Shilling,” by Joseph Addison (1710)

Friends of Interpretable Objects, by Miguel Tamen (2004)

Memoirs of a Stomach. Written by Himself, that all who eat may read. With notes critical and explanatory, by a Minister of the Interior., by S. Whiting (1853)

Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, by Mary Douglas (1966)

“Speaking Objects: The Circulation of Stories in Eighteenth-Century Prose Fiction,” by Christopher Flint (1998)

The History and Adventures of an Atom, by T. Smollett (1769)

The life and adventures of the old lady of Threadneedle street…written by herself, by William Reid (1832)

The Secret Life of Things: Animals, Objects, and It-Narratives in Eighteenth-Century England, edited by Mark Blackwell (2007)

“Thing Theory,” by Bill Brown (2001)

What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, by W.J.T. Mitchell (2006)

Tyler Coburn is an artist and writer based in New York.