The Chair Did It

I presented this paper at the recent Telling Tales Crime Fiction and National Allegory conference here at Wollongong. Mostly I decided to use the conference as a forum for testing the idea of the agency of the nonhuman object in a context where objects are often active players in narrative constructions.

Below is a draft of the paper (as it was presented) and next I’m going to work to combine it with my earlier attempts to think through agency via Jane Bennett, Levi Bryant and Graham Harman. I’m well aware of the tension between the OOO (Object Orientated Ontology) approach to things and the more Deleuzian approaches to process philosophy that are more confortably framed within new materiality. It is this tension I’m trying to inhabit and where I think this paper falls down.

The question time following the paper was open and challenging, (perhaps because the context was so unusual) and I still have a lot of work to do to explain the relationship between affect and agency and the location of each. For example the issue of whether a sculpture can be dead or not emerged as a productive way of thinking through affect. One person commented – ‘how can it be a dead sculpture, it makes me feel awful.’ – with the implication that perhaps not all sculptures are dead! When thinking about Goya’s works and those of Jake and Dinos Chapman, it is usual to think about how they make us feel as viewers. The paper unfortunately leaves this problem deeply problematised …

Ruth Buchanan “Circular Facts” 2010


‘The Chair Did It’: The Agency of Nonhuman Objects.
Dr. Su Ballard
Faculty of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong

At the opening of the temporary Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 2010 there was a room curtained off from all the others. Looking behind the curtain I found two chairs, a silently meditative voice, a blue board resting against the wall, and a slide projection of an old ballroom. Of all the various objects somehow existing together for this moment, it was the chairs that held my attention. They were just chairs but they seemed important. The work is “Circular Facts” (2009) by New Zealand artist Ruth Buchanan, and is an installation based on the script of a performance Buchanan staged as she researched the strange and highly publicised disappearance of mystery writer Agatha Christie.

In 1926 Christie vanished for eleven days until she “was found staying in a hotel under a pseudonym after having suffered what she claimed to be a case of amnesia.” (Buchanan). Buchanan’s fascination with the story lead her to spend a summer living in a hotel; the two chairs in the installation are from this hotel. The slide is an image taken in the ballroom of the hotel where Christie stayed and is projected onto the tilted blue panel, becoming simultaneously a reflection and a kind of rabbit hole. In this context the curtain also changes its nature, becoming a different kind of curtain; perhaps now a bedside privacy screen found in a hospital ward. Individually these things are not monumental, nor do they narrate a fiction about Christie. They are however meaningful objects. Together their variations mark out an installation in an art gallery that makes us stop, wonder and begin to connect – things with other things, bodies with objects. Buchanan like many contemporary artists has an uncanny ability to imbue objects with energy. These choreographed objects seem to vibrate.

Can a chair have energy? Can it actively contribute to unravelling a mystery? Could it have actually participated in the perpetration of the mystery? Can it retain a vital force as it shifts form between countries, between bodies, and across time? In the same way that Buchanan’s chairs are not Christie’s chairs but somehow contain the story of Christie’s disappearance, this paper in a conference thinking about what crime fiction does is not about what crime fiction does. Instead this paper is a meditation on the kinds of nonhuman objects that populate the pages of crime fiction. In order to think about the capacities of nonhuman objects it attempts to tap a current of thought appearing in philosophy and art criticism. The paper will begin by looking historically at some of the ways that the nonhuman object has been defined and defended. Drawing on the work of Jane Bennett in particular and scooting lightly past Bruno Latour and Gilles Deleuze the paper asks what kinds of actions do nonhuman objects perform. Or more specifically: what do objects do? The paper extends this into thinking about artworks and moments when concerns for the nonhuman and the human blur. I’m interested in artworks that challenge our assumptions about what objects can do and how they behave. Throughout I will focus not necessarily on how these objects make us feel, but on the kinds of sensibilities that these objects contain in themselves. In doing this I take on board Jane Bennett’s challenge to work through a process of ‘strategic anthropomorphizing’; what she recently described as “allowing yourself to relax into resemblances between your-body-and-its-operations and the bodies-of-things-outside.” ( In attempting to talk from and through the nonhuman object my paper may unfortunately appear either obscure or outright flaky. Levi Bryant recently described the critical problem with the approach I adopt here saying that it “goes one step further [than recent work in the new materialities by] arguing that animals, microorganisms, institutions, corporations, rocks, stars, computer programs, cameras, etc., also have their phenomenologies or ways of apprehending the world.” ( With a focus on objects and their place at the scene of the crime I will address the agency and vitality of the nonhuman object. Buchanan’s chairs are the first nonhuman objects to enter our collection, the second is a group of guilty objects labelled deodand.

In a discussion of what it might be to be a Latourian “actant”, Jane Bennett raises the historical figure of the deodand. Enshrined in English Law for nearly six hundred years the deodand was an inanimate thing that had caused the death of a human, and as a result must be legally forfeited to the Crown. Bennett highlights the active role of the deodand, for example, a carving knife or a tram or a wheel were not necessarily an innocent party to the accident and thus could be confiscated. In “The Deodand and Responsibility for Death” Teresa Sutton lists a number of cases from the late eighteenth century where objects had caused the death of an individual and were thus declared deodand. For example, a clapper from a bell fell on a man’s head, and as it was ringing at the time, the whole bell was forfeit to the crown. Another case involved drowning caused by a flock of 58 sheep that had all moved to one end of a boat. The law declared the objects (in this case – sheep) deodand because they were moving and had caused death. Significantly, the law of the deodand distinguished between a thing in motion and a thing standing still. A cart in motion required the whole cart to be forfeited, whereas a fall from a stationary cart would require the forfeit of just the wheel. These guilty objects in motion were afforded agency.

a cat hung like a priest

The practice of deodand was abolished in 1846; not coincidentally at the same time as the exponential rise of the railways. Too many accidents meant that the ongoing surrender of guilty things would remove most trains from the newly built tracks. William Pietz notes that the abolition of the law of deodand was part of a change to a raft of social institutions in the 1840s that “established legal structures better suited to capitalist enterprise and liberal society.” Fault had to lie elsewhere. Increasingly complex laws of compensation, cause and effect replaced the deodand, but the nonhuman objects and their crimes did not go away.

Today the concept of deodand holds a place in legal history alongside sows charged with criminal offences, and cats hung to death in public spaces. It offers a useful way to think of the way that nonhuman things remain speculative and potent objects, not for just what they mean to us, but for what they mean in relation to other objects.

Francisco Goya "The Disasters of War" plate 39 (1812)
Francisco Goya “The Disasters of War” plate 39 (1812)

The agency of nonhuman objects does not always have to extend to criminal activity. From 1814 to 1820 the aging Spanish artist Francisco Goya began the process of engraving eighty three copper plates with a series of images reflecting on the worst possible effects of human activity. The “Disasters of War” contain an “unstinting portrayal of rape, genocide, torture and ritual mutilation.” Together the plates make up what Philip Shaw has called: “the abject at its most insistent.” [My argument here follows Shaw’s closely]. Viewing the plates consecutively the horrors become overwhelming. Goya was responding to the Napoleonic occupation of Spain, its aftermath, and the atrocities committed during this time. Not published until 1863, 35 years after Goya’s death, the “Disasters of War” are critical of both the French and the restored Bourbons. Art history has tended to approach the series by focusing on the way the prints represent a humanist retelling of the Romantic imagination via what might be called negative humanism, a view that Shaw says “looks the negative in the face and endeavours transcendence.” And as Shaw says, there is something troubling to this reading, because despite their traumatic and disturbing horror the plates remain ambiguous. They are certainly negative, but are they transcendent? The unrelenting violence makes it hard to imagine any form of humanist moral transcendence driving the works. The images are neither rational nor ethical. In some situations we use artworks as a means for narrative; a way to get a message across. In this context, we might choose to read Goya’s images as allegory, a means towards the truth. But I want to suggest something different. The “Disasters of War” are not just objects made by one human for other humans to look at, but objects that contain affective resonances of their own. They actively generate behaviours. The objects do not reflect on or represent, but contain the very taboos the artist sought to highlight. If we stop thinking of the plates as representations of humanist desire, and instead start to think about them as active nonhuman objects, the “Disasters of War” become active participants in the telling of tales of brutality.

Is it really plausible to say these images do something, that they have agency? Artworks occupy a strange place in the world. They inhabit the walls of our homes, hide out in dark corners of our fictions, and watch as we inflict pain on each other. As particular nonhuman objects they are never docile and always relational. Bruno Latour defined the actant as an event, human or not, and (often in Latour’s world) formed from a combination of both. Actants are anything that “modifies other actors through a series of” actions (Latour in Politics of Nature). Levi Bryant gives the example of baking soda and vinegar that when combined become actants causing each to behave differently. ( Manuel Delanda talks of hurricanes, events formed from the air that take on personalities and unique forms, so much so that we name them. The hurricane and its cousins are momentary relational nonhuman objects (think of Sandy, Katrina, Yasi). They modify everything around them. Artworks and hurricanes are not the same kind of entities; yet, we cannot reduce either to a kind of vehicle for human use. Goya’s prints are not mere tools for the telling of stories of war. They have contributed to and changed behaviours – in this they are actants. They have agency.

Lets for a minute return to the definition of the object offered in the 1846 “Act to Abolish Deodands.” The deodand was a nonhuman material object, an “accursed thing” that when in motion had killed a person. For example, to remove the requirement for deodand when a person had been dragged to his death by the workings of a mill, the law had to prove that “the accident which happened was a mere accident, and had not happened through any fault of the machinery.” (Pietz) By the time that the concept of deodand was overthrown objects were becoming stabilised by capital. For example, the deodand required for the Sonning Cutting railway disaster in 1841 of two trucks and the engine, was considered impossible to pay, even if financially it would mean compensation for the families of those killed. Instead new laws regarding fatal accidents shifted blame away from the moving object and towards adjudication of the impact and severity of the injury. The nonhuman object in motion lost its place to a humanist rationale that turned its focus towards mitigating the impacts of increasing industrial and railroad accidents. Simultaneously the nineteenth century was beginning to see the massification of death due to war. (Although crimes of war have always been sanctioned off from the courts, the connection between Goya’s prints being published and the overthrow of the concept of deodand is relevant).

The rise of industrial capitalism meant that the agency of objects became reduced to one of exchange. As Pietz explains the “death of the deodand” created money. [And here I follow his fabulous essay closely] Instead of the object becoming forfeit compensation could be financial; another form of debt exchange. Slipping away were the objects themselves. Taking up the place of the deodand were objects of industrialisation that could be bought and sold within a monetary economy. This transformation also included art objects, which due to the professionalisation of the art dealer were also becoming publicly exchangeable commodities.

In 2002 British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman purchased a historically significant edition of Goya’s prints. Published in the 1937 as a reminder once again of the atrocities of war (this time Fascism in Spain) the edition includes a frontispiece showing a photograph of bomb damage to the Goya Foundation.

Dinos Chapman says that “We had it sitting around for a couple of years, every so often taking it out and having a look at it,” until they were quite sure what they wanted to do. Jake picks up the story. “We always had the intention of rectifying it, to take that nice word from The Shining, when the butler’s trying to encourage Jack Nicholson to kill his family – to rectify the situation.” (

74_chapmans-sad-presentiments-from-insult-to-injury-2003 copy
Jake and Dinos Chapman “Sad Presentiments” from Insult to Injury (2003)

Working meticulously over all 83 plates the Chapman brothers have replaced the heads of all the victims in the images with grotesque and distorted nonhuman forms including clown heads and puppy faces. The Chapmans sought to draw a direct parallel “between the ‘enlightened’ annexation of Spain and the recent ‘humanitarian’ interventions in Iraq.” As Jonathan Jones says

“The Chapmans have remade Goya’s masterpiece for a century which has rediscovered evil.”

The series was retitled “Insult to Injury.” In this process of defamiliarisation the artworks become strange. Their tattooed and scarified surfaces result in a new vitalism and energy. Animals take the place of human figures, as they once did in court.

In thinking through the agency of the deodand and these newly reworked art objects we discover different ways of thinking agency. Objects do things. These nonhuman objects don’t just contain affective powers, but as actants (things in motion that relate to other things) they make things happen that are not just about and directed towards the human. Occasionally things go wrong, and this was the logic of the deodand. Take the knife and the knife will not kill. Take the wheel from the cart and it cannot hurt again. Place the knife in the hand of a dog and it becomes a different knife.

The ‘rectifying’ of the Goya prints was not the first time the Chapmans had reworked Goya. Another of their pieces forms the centre of a room at MONA in Hobart. “Great Deeds against the Dead 2” is a simultaneously graphic and sanitised reworking of another of Goya’s plates from the “Disasters of War.” But this is not a reanimation. This object is dead. The Chapman’s describe it as such: “[we] were interested in making a dead sculpture. Dead in content and dead – or inert- in materiality.” (Shaw) This is a nonhuman object with no agency. The violence committed is standardised as are the figures, the “plasticised wounds… nullify the gaze.” (Shaw) Goya’s tree that once had life, branches and leaves has been stripped and rendered in the same material as the human bodies impaled upon it. A central part of Jane Bennett’s discussion of vital materiality is about the liveness or vitality of nonhuman objects. In keeping these objects discrete and separate to ourselves, Bennett says:

“the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalised matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies.”

Bennett’s point is that we need to be able to recognise vitality in nonhuman objects as well as in human ones. A focus on vitality, motion, movement or circulation emphasises just how dead this particular object is. In revisiting Goya the Chapmans have contributed two different artworks, each with very different agency. The first adds insult to injury as historically significant prints exit one form of economic circulation only to enter another where they begin to vibrate with diabolic energy. The second is enlarged to tragi-comic levels yet remains forever a simulation.

Goya was working in Spain at the same time as moves were beginning to overturn the law of deodand in England. With the loss of the law of the deodand we no longer have a law protecting the agency of nonhuman objects. Where once they were able to take responsibility for the harm they have caused, objects have become just another group of silenced witnesses.

Our usual notion of an artwork is that it is a thing that is seen and not heard, a nonhuman thing that stays reasonably obediently within its designated area. Buchanan’s installations place objects together into arrangements that demand performance of them. The chair didn’t really do anything. Agatha Christie demanded eleven days of non-performance. Eleven days were she could absent herself from the world of familiar objects, where her agency was marked by her disappearance. She forfeited her name, her usual behaviours and surrounded herself with objects becoming strange. This is the best description I have of what an artwork (a nonhuman actant) is: an object becoming strange. The “Disasters of War” are violent objects. Over time they become strange, not just as markers of war and violence but of a time where nonhuman things did have agency, and their impacts could be taken seriously (even in a court of law). Jake and Dinos Chapman’s intervention makes the etchings themselves forfeit. They also enact a kind of affective disappearance. The prints become deodand, nonhuman objects that remain active players in a society that once again needs to be reminded of the crime and horror of war.

Jane Bennett. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.
Stedelijk Museum, Monumentalism – History, National Identity and Contemporary Art, NAi Publishers, Amsterdam, 2010.
Philip Shaw, “Abjection Sustained: Goya, The Chapman Brothers and The Disasters of War” Art History Vol 26, No. 4. September 2003 pp. 479-504.
Teresa Sutton “The Deodand and Responsibility for Death” The Journal of Legal History Vol 18, no 3 pp.44-55.
William Pietz “Death of the Deodand: Accursed Objects and the Money Value of Human Life” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics Vol 31, Spring 1997 pp.97-108