In his essay “Resonance and Wonder,” Stephen Greenblatt writes about two powers permeating the works of art in museums:
By resonance I mean the power of the displayed object to reach out beyond it formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged and for which it make be taken by a viewer to stand. By wonder I mean the power of the displayed object to stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.
Read his essay (a .pdf is here), and your experience of artifacts in museums may be forever enriched as mine have. In this post, I translate his ideas and use them to consider toys, Jane Eyre, The Matrix, and other things that stand in for objects.
When you first encounter an object — especially one you instantly are wowed by — you stand in wonder. There’s something really personal about that experience. You feel delight, surprise, enchantment. It’s an oh my god! moment. Greenblatt says that museums like MoMA amplify wonder with tactics they use to display objects, with boutique lighting, for example, which throws a pool of light around objects in a dimmed room, in the same way that jewelry stores and designer clothing shops do. Lighting isolates an object and hold it up for display. That isolation is important: it intensifies your wonder. It’s immediate, with no past or future; it’s love at first sight.
An object with resonance, though, is not isolated. In fact, an object with resonance is loaded with associations, not just in our minds, but by its very existence. A resonant object reaches back in time and forward. Furthermore, it is not only resonant with associations (historical moments, other artifacts), it can vibrate with its own experience as an object. In a museum, wear and tear signal that other viewers have experienced an object. Greenblatt is fascinated by the signs of “alteration, tampering, and even deliberate damage” that museums attempt to efface from its exhibits, and he finds “wounded artifacts” even more resonant. (I love that term: wounded artifacts.) They have been used, and they continue to be in use. This makes me think of science and children’s museums and shabby little local museums, too, where the objects — placed there deliberately — can be touched.
Resonance and wonder do not only characterize viewers’ experience of or reaction to objects; those terms characterize intent. Objects (which includes texts, movies, buildings, TED talks) are curated and even made for their resonance and for their wonder. The Matrix (1999), the first time I saw it, stunned and amazed me. Those bullets, slowed down! Keanu, in jazz black, pivoting in air with balletic, even geometric, control. If fighting in movies is stylized, why not stylize it all the way? That’s what the Wachowskis, the directors, did. I’m certain that sustained wonder was their aim.
Each time I return to Jane Eyre (1847) or Moby Dick (1851) or even Mrs. Caliban (1982), the text reveals its layers — associations with works by other authors, with other works by the same author, with the historical moment, within the text itself, with evidence of my hand or someone else’s hand on the page — and resonance.
You can take Greenblatt’s ideas and adapt them for other experiences. (He’s not just concerned with high art or culture. A long passage on a Coca-Cola stand figures in his argument.) On Wednesday afternoon I went to the Idea Presentations for a toy design class at MIT, and I thought of those qualities, resonance and wonder, as they might apply to toys.
It’s early in the semester, so the presentations were on design ideas, which are more developed than impulses and brainstorms. Student design teams have played with, researched, and developed their ideas enough to have defined the concept, designed a poster and illustration, and prepared a one-minute, enthusiastic presentation for the toy idea. That’s what I went on Wednesday to see: the one-minute idea presentations. The theme is “outdoors,” and there were more than 30 new toy ideas: sleds, water blocks, shark robots, magnetic putty, bike accessories, swords, souped-up balls and frisbees, and saucers. Almost every one of those toy ideas prompted an internal “wow” as I listened to a student designer make the pitch for it.
Around the 15th presentation, however, I became aware that I was starting to mentally divide the ideas into two categories: toy and novelty. Some of the ideas, when I imagined encountering them as made objects, seemed as though they would be arresting and unique, but which I doubted could get their hold on me. I couldn’t picture myself, as the adult me or child (in) me, playing with them repeatedly. Furthermore, ideas in this category did not create any associations or mental movies for me. Wonder, yes, resonance, no.
Ah, but there were a few toy ideas that rang the wonder bell and then stayed with me, even after the presentation stream flowed on. These few ideas, also, opened up my imagination: in mental movies, I saw my 12-year-old self, outdoors with the neighborhood gang — Michael, Sally, Doreen, Linda, Chuckie, Kevin, Bobby, Heidi, and all the rest — darting through the woods and clutching the lights to a new night-time tag game or barreling down a snowy hill in saucers that click together, separate, and come together again. With these toy ideas, scenes of play kept unfolding in my imagination, and I felt my interest in them deepen from wonder into resonance, which feels akin to a commitment.
From love at first sight to commitment. From the wow of novelty to the repeated play of toy. From wonder to resonance.
Are these qualities accidents? Can you design/direct/write wonder and resonance? How does a maker make something that does more than delight a viewer?
Here are the last few lines of Greenblatt’s essay:
I think that the impact of most exhibitions [designs/objects/texts] is likely to be enhanced if there is a strong initial appeal to wonder, a wonder that then leads to the desire for resonance, for it is generally easier in our culture to pass from wonder to resonance than from resonance to wonder. In either case, the goal — difficult but not utopian — should be to press beyond the limits of the models, cross boundaries, create strong hybrids. For both the poetics and the politics of representation are most completely fulfilled in the experience of wonderful resonance and resonant wonder.
That may not be a specific enough answer, a how-to. However, I think the clue is here: in designing, in writing, in making, one must delight and do more than delight. In making, one must press beyond the limits, cross boundaries, create hybrids. If you want to make a toy or text or song or movie that gets a child or reader or viewer to return, the thing must be more than what it is, open to new ways of playing and experience, not bound by rules, instructions, genre.
A tall order, I realize.