by Clifford Chase; Grove Press, 2006
Winkie, a novel narrated primarily from the point of view of a sensitive and oft-reticent teddy bear, is the kind of book one feels slightly sheepish about reading in public. The cover features both the name and likeness of the stuffed protagonist, and I often found myself trying to hide it under other reading on the subway. Wrapped up in photocopies of Arjun Appadurai’s introduction to The Social Life of Things, or maybe Bill Brown’s Thing Theory, I could pass off my interest as a more serious engagement with material culture. On days when I was feeling very anxious, I would even go so far as to tuck it behind Lucy Lippard’s bright pink volume The Dematerialization of the Art Object.
To what might I attribute my Winkie complex? First of all, I suppose there is the shame over engagement with childish make-believe taken so seriously. The bear’s early life, as we come to understand it via Chase’s elaborate literary animation, was largely occupied with not wanting to be forgotten—left to obsolescence and disuse on a dusty bedroom shelf. These are just the kind of Toy Story worries you’d anticipate based on a cursory glance at the cover.
Where the author’s engagement with the complexities of the object-subject relationship goes well beyond childish attachment, though, so does the complex allegory he manages to pull off with this book. In fact, the reader experiences the bear’s reminiscences on domestic life as memories recounted from a cold prison cell, because the narration picks up at a much later point in the story. We begin after Winkie’s gender changes (Winkie was originally “Marie”) and after he propelled himself off that shelf and learned to eat and shit. We begin after he begets Baby Winkie, who only speaks in quotations after her kidnapping at the hands of a disgruntled academic, and after Winkie’s subsequent arrest and trial for acts of terrorism he never committed.
And here we come to a second source of embarrassment: as someone who is more generally wrapped up in contemporary art than teddy bears, I’m conflicted about being so captivated by a story about a stuffed animal with a soul. I’ve come to take the vilification of the object for granted. At the very least, it seems inappropriate to invest this kind of agency in commodity. Doesn’t that smack of some sort of fetishism? It’s the subject we’re meant to focus on. But I keep coming back to Winkie, and the questions it raises continue to resonate with my thinking about art objects I spend my time contemplating. Among those questions: Why do we remain so dedicated to investing affect and agency in those inanimate actors with which we share space, especially the ones that we produce ourselves? And what magic can we create—what role do we play in production—when we really apply our attention to one single thing?
Christina Linden is Curatorial Fellow at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College.