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Hardcover | $36.95 Trade | £24.95 | ISBN: 9781890951436 | 447 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 9 color illus., 82 b&w illus.| June 2004
Paperback | $22.95 Trade | £15.95 | ISBN: 9781890951443 | 447 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 9 color illus., 82 b&w illus.| October 2007

Things that Talk

Object Lessons from Art and Science


Imagine a world without things. There would be nothing to describe, nothing to explain, remark, interpret, or complain about. Without things, we would stop speaking; we would become as mute as things are alleged to be. In nine original essays, internationally renowned historians of art and of science seek to understand how objects become charged with significance without losing their gritty materiality. True to the particularity of things, each of the essays singles out one object for close attention: a Bosch drawing, the freestanding column, a Prussian island, soap bubbles, early photographs, glass flowers, Rorschach blots, newspaper clippings, paintings by Jackson Pollock. Each is revealed to be a node around which meanings accrete thickly. But not just any meanings: what these things are made of and how they are made shape what they can mean. Neither the pure texts of semiotics nor the brute objects of positivism, these things are saturated with cultural significance. Things become talkative when they fuse matter and meaning; they lapse into speechlessness when their matter and meanings no longer mesh.

Each of the nine evocative objects examined in this book had its historical moment, when the match of this thing to that thought seemed irresistible. At these junctures, certain things become objects of fascination, association, and endless consideration; they begin to talk. Things that talk fleetingly realize the dream of a perfect language, in which words and world merge.

About the Editor

Lorraine Daston is Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany. She is the coauthor of Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 and the editor of Things That Talk: Object Lessons from Art and Science (both Zone Books).


"This collection is a feast for students of art, modern Western history, and philosophy. Recommended for academic and university libraries...", Francisca Goldsmith, Library Journal

"Dense with erudition and pleasingly light on its scholarly feet."—Kirkus Reviews


"What is fascinating in this collection is the diverse ways in which the authors, whose backgrounds and intellectual styles differ significantly, attempt to comprehend not just their fascination with certain objects but also to describe meaningfully the objects' widespread uses. Important, useful, beautiful things are in this sense things that matter. Things that matter have meaning. And meaningful things are things that talk."
Miguel Tamen, University of Lisbon