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The Secret Lives of Objects

Jane’s book, The Secret Lives of Objects, was launched on 22nd May, 2008 at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.


It is available from Trafford.com at a price of $50

Please find a synopsis of the book below:


This book looks at objects from a perspective derived from psychoanalytical practice as well as the practice of art/design. I have brought together a number of papers. About a third have already been published (although I have sometimes used a later version.) Others have been presented at conferences or as lectures. Most, I have originally written for my own personal pleasure – even when they have ended in a published version. All these texts make use of the methodology of free association (as used in the consulting room). I have avoided references. For texts, such as these, which hover somewhere between the academic, the essay and fiction, references seem a regrettable distraction. And in line with this kind of thinking, ignoring their dates of origin, I am transferring them from a diachronic system into a synchronic practice, which oversees the whole. One could see this as a panopticon tower regularly installed in prisons in the nineteenth century which allowed for surveillance and separation. (Prisoners were not allowed to meet.) But I would be much happier to think of my texts as a rotating mirror ball reflecting the pulsing disco light system, which represent the shifting perceptions of my own experience of objects. The objects I have chosen to write about have no particular status as aesthetic objects. Nor am I myself a maker of objects. But the dialectic between making and psychoanalytical practice gives us a new perspective on the object. The objects I describe are in the mind, be they jugs, beast costumes, desiring machines, photo albums or whatever. To support this I have largely made use of the method of free association which I outline at several points. The papers are discrete. They stand alone. This inevitably leads to a certain amount of unavoidable repetition. These repetitions serve as leit-motifs which haunt the text. Sometimes they are noisy; sometimes a mere ripple of sound. Their underground rumble resembles the way that prisoners in total isolation still find the means to communicate. But sometimes silence is best. In my final paper ‘The death of the photo album’ I end up with an empty page 


What is the Object’s Secret?

I approach the ‘secret’ of an object from a double perspective. My twin practices as a cultural studies lecturer and a psychoanalytical psychotherapist stimulated my search for the object’s ‘secret’. I see my patients alone in my consulting room, and this isolation is essential for patients to tolerate the process of change and discovery – which tells them they were not quite as they thought. I isolate the object in a similar way, and stripping it of familiar associations, it becomes strange to me, just as my patients become strange to themselves. But the art/design college focussed me primarily on the making process rather than the responsive process.  All artists/designers must acquire skills; but at the root of all creative practice, there is an intuition. This intuition can then be sustained by a systematic exploration of the possibilities implicit in the original concept.  To guide me through this creative maze I have turned to Freud’s dream theory. He identifies three strategies, condensation, displacement and symbolisation which convert the disturbing wishes of the unconscious into a form acceptable to the dream censor – and  pleasurable to the dreamer. To me these three strategies are essential to understand the indirect nature of the creative process – as long as they are  unconscious. They are also the defence strategy which allows the artist to get lost in her/his own mind - to engage with the rhythm of the body, heart, blood, breath, which utilises the orifices of the body, in particular the mouth, the anus and the phallus. These primal erotic zones link us to the pulsating erotic desires, which can never be fully satisfied. We must renounce the fantasy of total fulfilment to fully engage with the creative process. Mourning is the basis of creativity – as it is of the creatively lived life. Approaching the individual object this way allows us a temporary escape from the plethora of objects, which make up our daily world. Trapping an object in a peepshow box is an opportunity to illuminate its singularity. 


Clutter – Flotsam and Jetsam

Clutter, although insistently present, eludes definitions and resists categories. Most people have objects for daily use which are remarkably similar, from beds to televisions. But clutter is irredeemably personal. Often saturated with memories, one can conceal the meaning from others or reveal it – as one chooses. It is a personal theatre which prefers an audience of one. But for some this theatre is a nightmare from which they cannot escape. In these cases clutter has become mess, but the mess is internal rather than external. The rich have property and their clutter is ‘significant ‘ so it is called ‘collections.’ But for the poor, clutter can be the panache which cocks a snook at the universe. In certain circumstance, a hat correctly tilted may be as important, or even more important than acquiring the basic necessities of life.  But there is also the great clutter machine in the sky… 

[This is a substantial rewrite of a paper which I gave at the ‘Clutter’ conference in 1996. I had the idea. Steve Baker and Stuart Evans developed it. Adam Phillips gave the lead paper. The original version of my paper was subsequently published in Issues University of East London Vol.5 No.2 1998]


Inside the Inside… A Psychoanalytical History of a Jug… When Things Go Wrong

In the first section of this paper I provide a detailed analysis of  Winnicott’s paper on ‘Transitional objects and transitional phenomenon’. Winnicott’s transitional object is the first ‘not me’ object. As such it is a bridge between the child and the external world, and therefore very important for art/design practice. I had used the jug itself for many years for teaching. But it was only when a sculptor made a chance remark which put me in touch with the emotions which the jug evoked, that I was able to engage with my own powerful and painful emotions. These I had always known at an intellectual level; but this new understanding allowed me to re-live my pain at the death of a young man, and through the mourning process lament the death of all young men who die in war.   

[This paper was published in the Journal of Design History Vol. 12 No.4 1999 ]


The Automobile as Desiring Machine

The car is the prime icon of the twentieth century. It celebrates the success of the productive process.  If industrialisation requires a badge of authenticity it can hold the car up high. But there is an underside to this success.  The machinery used to make a car can easily be changed to making weapons; and many of the roads that cars use are suitable for heavy goods such as armoured vehicles. To the car enthusiast the car is the ideal rational object, whereas to the psychotherapist the love affair with the car risks exposure to regressive and retarded pre-Oedipal desires. The heavy petting involved in cleaning and tinkering can easily be seen as an arrogant and naïve assertion of masculine superiority- the car as penis. This is, of course, visible in the advertisements, in which bimbos lounge seductively across the car. The car historian has the bi-focal vision which enables him to grasp these two perspectives.  Whilst enjoying The driving member the car historian knows the car is both male and female, and this self-sufficient anthropomorphism of the car becomes an impossible longing for identity. The excitement of movement is reduced to the refusal to accept the consequences of loss and mourning.  The car remains ‘the obscure object of desire ‘ the lure of the lack. It is still a desiring machine.

Stuart Evans and Jane Graves 2003. 

[This paper was given at the conference Sex objects the annual conference of the Design History Society held at Norwich School of Art 2003 ]


The Washing Machine – ‘Mother’s Not Herself Today.’

I began with a pre-1914 washing machine, graduated to the laundrette, and then finally acquired a washing machine – which seemed like the perfect answer for a woman who had four children in five years. But it was the contemporary washing machine that finally confirmed my identity as a housewife. Whereas a man who becomes a house husband is primarily a father, I was no longer a mother. I was a housewife – a patriarchal wet dream. At one time it was the oven that defined mother; it was now the washing machine that trapped me. The washing machine is the smile of the mother’s face.  Men may do the washing – but they are not housewives. Yet more and more demands are being made on mothers. They must bring up children, look after the elderly, and earn money. The washing machine loves control, steals the heart of the house and ruthlessly celebrates cleanliness as the supreme good. But it has its limits: the washing machine can’t control blood, be it menstrual, the blood of birth, or the blood of war. 

[This in an update of a paper first published in The Gendered Object, Manchester University Press 1996]


Are Two Pricks Better Than One – or Whatever Happened to Mother?

Movies are very like dreams. We commit ourselves to a belief in the impossible. And we laugh at innuendo of which we are mostly unconscious.  Cross dressing allows us to look at the role of the penis which is symbolised in manifold ways throughout. The Oedipus complex lies at the heart of the movie. Has Daddy castrated the boys for desiring Mother? Or is that Mummy and Daddy have locked the bedroom door and the boys, peering through the keyhole without any success, are reduced to fantasising what they saw – hence the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. ‘I’m going to be sick says Jerry – and now they really are on the run from the consequences of sexuality. ‘Nobody’s asking you to have a baby’ – or are they? Throughout the movie there is a struggle to engage both positively and negatively with the issue of sexual difference. ‘Now you see it – now you don’t’. And this allows me to introduce the symbolic order in the Lacanian gaze – sex and death mediated through voyeurism. Watch those hoods – and just remember ‘Some enchanted evening I will see a stranger across a crowded room’ – God help us. 

[This was a lecture delivered at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts 2000-2004] 


‘Emerods,’ Anality and Design

In my reading of the Old Testament I was forcibly struck by a biblical image in 1 Samuel Ch.6.v.4 in which the plague of ‘emerods’ (haemerroids) visited upon the Philistines by Jehovah are converted into an appeasing gift of gold. This struck me as a perfect metaphor for design. The ideal object is the perfect turd. The raw, sticky, smelly tangible presence of the unacceptable is made acceptable in the design process. The excited corporeality of the arse survives in the spirit of carnival, the ‘up yours’ element of design, which has sometimes attempted to circumscribe design within such classic dictates as ‘form follows function’. But it is the designer who has the responsibility of  challenging the ferocious anality of Western society. Norman O. Brown identified the anal elements of our society, play, gift, money and weapon. The designer can only make creative use of the first two. Not an easy task. 

[This paper was given at the DHS Annual conference 2000 on Making and Unmaking at the University of Southampton was subsequently published in the conference papers.]


The Kitchen as the Upside Down Lavatory

There has been a startling increase in the complexity of the kitchen and of food preparation – at least for a certain section of the population. Others rely on the supermarket for food  – but still like the kitchen.   To some at least this is evidence of civilisation. For Claude Levi-Strauss, cooked food is the bearer of culture. Raw food is dangerously natural, evoking parallels with the unbridled possibilities of female sexuality – the woman who cannot, or will not identify a father for her child. By contrast, Mary Douglas sees food as a code. The message encoded will be found in the pattern of social relations. For me there is a fascinating relationship between the orifices of the body, the mouth, the anus, and the genital as laid down by Freud, an architecture of the body which is echoed in the layout of the house.  Ideally the anus is kept rigidly separate inthe lavatory, the genital in the bedroom, the oral in the kitchen. But the kitchen is always hovering on the edge of disastrous confusion. In Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm the kitchen has tipped over into total disorder, and sex in the person of Seth has arrived in the kitchen. The sixties may have thrown upon the kitchen to the public in the sense that the guests were allowed access – just as it challenged monogamous sexuality.  But now an increase in voyeurism – the flood of cook books and food programmes which disguises the cruel and crude origins of meat and fish products whilst celebrating them deny their physical origins – just as we try to escape the smells of the lavatory or of death.

[This paper was given at the Kitchen Culture Conference, design history society symposium, held at the Design Museum 1991]


Pattern, a Psychoanalytical Approach – Pleasure or Oppression

Pattern shifts between the joy and despair of repetition. Pattern is the universe writ small. A motif can be drawn from anywhere and anything. It can be changed in a pattern through repetition – a repetition which usually involves a dislocation of scale. The kaleidoscope is the perfect metaphor for this experience  - rendering it glamorous and fascinating. Truly star dust in the eyes. The dislocation of scale is particularly appealing to the young child who is fascinated by the distinction between ‘big’ and ‘little’. At first this distinction may be variable. The mother’s face, which is the child’s first pattern, can vary between big and small. The oscillation between figure and ground can be relieved through the pleasure of play – the missing link between fantasy and reality – the ambiguities of making and unmaking. Unfortunately, pattern makes sense – but not meaning. The nineteenth century damaged pattern through its modes of production, and its ferocious emphasis of Comte’s concrete thinking dismissed  ‘metaphor’, the basis of creative thinking. Morris, Ruskin and their followers rediscovered metaphor in the reverberations of the mediaeval world; the kingdoms of animals, kings and gods echo each other. By this means they aimed to evade the scientific brutalism of the nineteenth century. As we battle through the mirage of modernism and post-modernism it seems we are still looking for new possibilities through ecology and our engagement with other cultures. Pattern may yet do a lot for us.

[This paper was originally given at the conference on New Perspectives in Design and Visual Arts, Conference at Manchester University in 1993. It was subsequently published in the Bulletin of John Rylands University Library University of Manchester Vol.77 No. 1 1995. ]


Beast Dreaming; Myth, Materials, Fantasy and Psychoanalysis in Making a Beast Costume

I did indeed make a beast costume, but as I am not a professional dress- maker, my otiose mode of production (I only sew by hand) gave me the space to think about my thoughts as I sewed. Freud was very dismissive of the daydreaming of the woman who sews – but I was much engaged with my fantasies about beasts and my intense love of material.  Materials engage us with the primary love of mother’s body, her smell and touch, which we re-experience in materials. The ‘beast’ is not a just a staple of day dreaming, but also a creature of myth – witness Cocteau’s ‘La belle et la bete’. Underlying these fantasies are the demanding, underpaid jobs of the seamstresses, both hand-sewers and machinists – which still carry on world-wide.   

[This paper was published in Textiles: the journal of cloth and culture Vol. 1. Issue 3 2003 ] 



Symbol, Pattern and the Unconscious

According to Freud weaving has a claim to be the main contribution  that women have made to society. It seems the plaiting their pubic hair gave them the idea of weaving. More probably, weaving emerges from a passionate desire to decorate the body. We certainly do not wear clothes for sensible reasons like staying warm. Pattern is close to dreams and nightmare – also of course fantasy.  Pattern has a ferocious visual excitement which one can encounter in dreams. As children say  ‘Do it again, and pattern does’. But pattern can be dangerous because it does not know where to stop. It goes on and on.  Weaving and printing, subjected to technical change, have had to change course.  ‘Taste’ whatever that may be has had to respond. Class, although not ‘Status’ are out of the window. (Maybe). And even more painfully, the meaningful symbolism of the mediaeval world lost meaning in the nineteenth century. But now we have other ways of reading a symbol. The ambiguities of pattern, such as the position of women and Modernism increase the complexities of this issue.  The symbols of the unconscious mind seem to be more important now. Are we talking of Freud or Jung?  We end as we must with a butterfly.   

[This paper was published in Disentangling Textiles Middlesex University Press 2002 4,148 words]


Nature – a New Look at an Old Problem

Our starting point was the amazing persistence of natural imagery in textile design, despite the enthusiastic commitment to progress and technology that Modernism celebrated. Up until the nineteenth century nature remained an entire world, which gave human beings an indirect access to the beauty of heaven and justified the delightful and delighted motifs which could be used in the expansive and formal clothes that were worn. Textiles are synaesthesic, evoking the sensuality of smell and touch, as well as the joys of imagination. Modernism preferred the formal geometric pattern making which represented an orderly universe. The radical implications of ecology are often in conflict with the sterile representations of nature which seem to continue to haunt the textile industry. We are in need of new myths which will celebrate our dependence on nature in a positive rather than a restrictive way.  The new interest in ecology can perhaps be best supported by the relationship which exists between the harmonies of the unconscious mind (as described by Freud) and the remarkable oscillations and reverberations which Einstein discovered. Is it possible that in these we may discover the patterns that can suit the ecological revolution? 

Jane Graves and Ian Padgett 

[This paper was given at the Annual International Textiles Conference at the University of Leeds1995]   


Dance, Desire and Dyslexia

‘You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives nothing back, no manuscripts, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be written and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive. It is not for unsteady souls.’ These are the words which I find on the triangular Jack-in-the Box which I am about to dare to open – having no idea where it will lead me on my journey through dance desire and dyslexia. The first words I find inside the box are a statement from Freud ‘It is the transience of life that gives it beauty.’ It is only through acknowledging our mortality that we can grasp the creative life which is always the risked life. 

As a psychotherapist I think that creativity comes into being when the unconscious comes into conflict with the conscious mind. To turn this conflict into a positive experience we have to rediscover the child’s capacity to play. – or else find it in our dreams – where the visual dominates. And it was this capacity that I found in my dyslexic students – who often seemed like wakeful dreamers. Whilst I listened to their dreams, I followed my own train of thought by reflecting on the illusion of intelligence and visual- spatial ability but ended up with the joyous exuberance of carnival. Not for unsteady souls.

[This is an edited version of a paper which I gave at the Cascade Conference at the in 2001.]

Now is Drowning

This is a metaphorical ekphrasis of a painting I have never seen. There are four voices. The voice of the artist who painted the picture writes not about the painting, nor the process of painting, but the suffering caused by his own dyslexia. He writes about the trials of his school days, ‘over-getting the red pen’, being refused a part in a play even though he knew it by heart, and being cut off from the science he loved. There is still anger and embarrassment when he is asked to write a document, or drop a note in somebody’s pigeon hole. The second voice, the rational analysis of the brain is presented through the extracts from The stranger within. This text explores the differences between the sequential linguistic side of the left hemisphere, and the right hemisphere intuitive, pictorial and non-linguistic.  The corpus collosum between the two hemispheres does not develop till the age of ten. It takes us a long time to listen to ourselves, And even longer to hear the limbic system fully active from birth, which give us the full flood of our rich emotional lives. The third voice includes extracts from my dyslexia pack Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment which identifies the complex, creative and confusing aspects of dyslexia. Dyslexics are often late developers, understand sophisticated ideas better than simple ones. What is

now? What is language? What is dyslexia? Listen to your body, and the heavy words of poetry, the joy of doing, the delights of repetition. This is the fourth voice, the poetic voice.


Dancing with Skeletons – The Art of Forgetting.

I once said to a patient that she should let her skeletons out of the cupboard and dance with them. This highly visual patient could work with this but it triggered off a journey for me through the Sir John Soane Museum which I have always seen as a perfect metaphor for the mind. I treated this journey as a session in the consulting room. The patient arrives with a private theatre, a Grand Guignol perspective on a private scenario which disintegrates under the analytical gaze and finally has to be abandoned. Having faced the horrors of the id in the basement, Frankenstein in his great tomb, the patient can rush to the sitting room at the space where the ego lives. Even the memory of terrible traumas fade. The patient leaves. The patient will forget the therapist – but the therapist will never forget the patient.

[This lecture was given at London Metropolitan University 2003 and subsequently Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts] 


Something Resting Through Being Used

Olive Schreiner used this phrase in an unfinished novel ‘Man to man’. I use this as a fulcrum to explore the virtues of passivity. A friend has given me a beautifully crafted box. Inside this lives a cast of the Willensdorf Venus – the ultimate imago of female passivity – swollen with a perpetual and remorseless fecundity.  Chasing this image through its multifarious possibilities I find the Virgin Mary ‘alone of all her sex’.  Her passivity is a silence which gives me a creative thread, rather like the thread that Ariadne gives to Theseus.  But that thread leads not to a creative silence but through a maze at the end of which is the Minotaur. To my patients the Minotaur is the botched relationship between their parents – the ultimate Oedipal scenario onto which s/he can project jealousy and resentment of the parents’ sexual relationship.  And even worse the patient has to discover her/his own particular irrelevance. Parents have a relationship which excludes the child. It is this exclusion which allows the child access to a creative silence. 

[This paper was given as a lecture at London Metropolitan University and subsequently at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts.]


Death of the Photo Album

As the proud possessor of forty photo-albums it is not surprising that I feel exasperated by the digital camera which leaves me bereft. I feel the lack of

the tangible smelly object, sometimes out of focus, sometimes ancient and curling at the edges which is what I desire from the photo – as from all other objects. Walter Benjamin saw the photo as debasing the iconographical status of the art object but now it seems to me that the digital camera has debased the iconographical status of the photo. Roland Barthes in his Camera lucida pursues an image of his much loved mother which he finally discovers in a photo of her as a small child – but not in a photo album. Whereas the individual photo may still retain status, the photo album is relegated to the past but becomes an exercise in nostalgia rather than a serious encounter with the past. For example, the photo album often records and idealises the family. I am fortunate in that many of my albums include people who I do not know. The family is allowed to melt into society, and as such has acquired a valid role. Many of my earlier albums belong to the time of formal photography when smiles weren’t allowed because of the time the photo took. I never use captions, and I play with time so a person from one generation may be juxtaposed with somebody from another. The memories will die, as they should, and eventually so will the photos. It is rare for images of the dead on their deathbeds to be included – nor funerals. Sociologically, funerals turn into weddings – which are recorded. Individuals die but society continues. My photo albums are reduced to the clutter, which haunts our lives; so it’s not surprising that my favourite album is the one which is totally empty.


Through a Glass Darkly – Illusion and Disillusion

I begin with an illusion. A giant hanging on the top of a crane hovering at the factory opposite my flat. The window confuses and conflates.

A dirty window is turned into a screen, a mushrabiyah which leaves us wondering who is looking at whom. Are we thinking of those on the outside who look in or those on the inside who look out – such as Genet in the prison van or in the reformatory at Mettray where the only chance to see the sky, was in the ‘hole’.  There was no mirror in which he could see his face. This confounds the despair of never seeing your own face in the loving look of your mother. He longed for a glimpse of the moon – an ambiguous confusion of presence and absence. Not only is there the haunting moon but there are strange shadows in windows and mirrors.  Mirrors show us when we are old, as we may experience in an occasional and in an unexpected glance in a shop window. This glance is so much more terrible for those who have to cope with facial deformity from birth or facial disfigurement as a result of accident of illness. The brutal truth is that they learn to accept the truth or refuse to look in mirrors. Cocteau’s  ‘Orphee’ must break through the mirror in order to become a poet. But as always in the case of mirrors, there is doubt. Is Death or Orpheus the poet?  Mirrors are close to Death, as Odysseus discovers when he summons up the souls of the dead. 


The Logic of the Shadow

The dark side of the unconscious erupts into being, trailing a history associated with the death instinct. I wish to listen to this unconscious history and locate it within the context of the conscious and unconscious communication of two sculptors, working alongside and sometimes together. The language of the body teaches us time, the ambiguous relationship between birth and death; but if we refuse to learn this language we shall settle for madness. We are then incapable of any creative activity. To avoid this we must attend to our shadows, look at the light falling across the pavement or across our work. Time changes light, brings us back to reality.  Shadows seize hold of us – but we cannot seize hold of them. The absence they reveal is the creative space in which we must abandon ourselves to a terrifying freedom – and a liberating conversation between object and mind.



This book would be but half a book without the collage illustrations. The MA Industrial Design students (past and present) have created complex, ironical and sometimes bizarre responses which have both a direct and an oblique response to the text. It is this constant oscillation between text and image which gives the book its unique flavour. It is Ben Hughes, the course leader, who has stimulated and orchestrated this wonderful response. 



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