Listening to Inanimate Objects

I am an avid podcast listener, and I am enraptured by a new production: Everything is Alive. In each episode, host Ian Chillag interviews an inanimate object about its hopes and experiences, and in the process he reveals its personhood.

Okay, he doesn’t really talk to inanimate objects; his listeners must suspend some of their disbelief. In preparation for each episode, Chillag engages an actor whom he supplies with some background research on the subject. That actor then creates their particular object’s character, and the episode proceeds unscripted from there. The result is something that really does seem like a typical radio interview.

drinks supermarket cans beverage
Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com.

In the first episode, Chillag speaks with a can of store-brand cola named Louis, who, in the course of his shelf life, repeatedly came close to fulfilling his destiny: being enjoyed by a thirsty human. Now, Louis is reaching his printed expiration date, and while he wonders if he will ever get to experience what it’s like to be drunk, he also wonders if he will cease to exist, should the drinking occur. Is Louis merely a metal body that happens to contain soda, or is that which fills him with effervescence integral to his nature?

The second episode (the only other one at the time of this writing) is about a Brooklyn lamppost called Maeve. She spends her on-off cycles (i.e. days) observing the curious actions of the humans around her, and she yearns to be noticed and appreciated—as opposed to noticed and cursed when someone walks into her and knocks their head. Maeve wants to be the star of a movie, just like Gene Kelly’s lamppost in Singin’ in the Rain. She also wants to see the other side of Park Slope, because she is intrigued by what happens to the humans when they turn the corner and disappear from her sight.

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Left: Maeve’s idol. Right: some human.

I love so many things about Everything is Alive. The episodes are funny and heartfelt, and they tell stories in unique ways. They teach me about some strange historical trivia, like the radium-laced soda once marketed to American consumers and the mysterious disappearance of the original Singin’ in the Rain lamppost. What impresses me most, though, is how each interview invites me to relate to inanimate items not as objects, but as subjects.

This is the same invitation I find in the poetry of Mary Oliver. Consider the following poem, in which she imagines the subjects that make up the natural world:

Some Things, Say the Wise Ones (Why I Wake Early, p. 57)

Some things, say the wise ones who know everything,
are not living. I say,
you live your life your way and leave me alone.

I have talked with the faint clouds in the sky when they
are afraid of being left behind; I have said, Hurry, Hurry!
and they have said: Thank you, we are hurrying.

About cows, and starfish, and roses, there is no
argument. They die, after all.

But water is a question, so many living things in it,
but what is it, itself, living or not? Oh, gleaming

generosity, how can they write you out?

As I think this I am sitting on the sand beside
the harbor. I am holding in my hand
small pieces of granite, pyrite, schist.
Each one, just now, so thoroughly asleep.

The sand is the part of going to the beach I like the least, because of how it gets in my pockets and sticks to my wet feet. But my heart softens towards it when I think of its grains as being asleep. They are, of course, capable of so much; our built environment is quite literally made of those tiny rocks. When they sleep, do they dream of what they might become, perhaps fused into exquisite stained glass? Or are they content where they are, in the diverse community of minerals bordering the great living sea?

These are the questions that arise when we see the world as full of subjects.

As Martin Buber taught in I and Thou, we are accustomed to relating to other entities in what he calls “I-It” relationships. In an I-It relationship, I, the subject, either treat the other entity as an object usable for my own purposes or simply experience it, through my senses, as something distinct from myself. This holds for items as well as for other people. It’s not exactly a “bad” thing, but a natural way of relating to other entities. In fact, constructing I-It relationships with the world is how we differentiate a sense of self, Buber says. We know who we are in response to all the “not-us” things we experience.

But the higher connection is the “I-You” relationship, in which we relate to the other as an equal subject. The I-You relationship is not about considering ways to benefit from one other; rather, it is a contentless experience. One subject blurs into the other, boundaries disappear, and the other ceases to be “other.” It is a feeling, often momentary, of pure connection.

What is the famous example Martin Buber uses to illustrate the various kinds of I-It relations and the singular I-You connection? A tree. I think Mary Oliver would have been his friend.

IMG_0705
Connecting with the Grandfather Tree, a 250-year old live oak on Jekyll Island, Georgia.

Maybe Ian Chillag would have too. What he is now doing in Everything is Alive for inanimate, manufactured objects, Mary Oliver does in her poetry for the natural world: inviting us to see the world as full of subjects, to imagine all those inner lives. It’s good practice for imagining the inner lives of other sentient beings, too, which cultivates our capacity for treating all creatures with dignity.

And now there’s a new episode of Everything is Alive in my podcast feed. Time to hear the thoughts of a pillow named Dennis.

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