Objects of desire – Call for papers

Objects of desire

Call for papers – Terrain 75

Issue coordinated by Agnès Giard

“Her”, a movie by Spike Jones, 2013. Credits: https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/movie-analysis-her-5651e6e0c0be

“In the future, will we still need human partners?”, “Will sexbots, virtual personal assistants and digital creatures replace human beings?” The Euro-American press gladly reflects and amplifies fears related to the development of digital presences designed to generate attachment. The dating site Ashley Madison, which happened to be “peopled” almost exclusively by chatbots, is often cited as an example of how realistic such programmes have become: what if we already reached a point where we can no longer distinguish them from “real” people? What would be the consequences for us, humans, and how does it impact on our definition of the humankind? From a more prosaic perspective, and perhaps more alarmingly still, lies the question of whether virtual dummies are sophisticated enough to put at risk so-called vulnerable groups. In February 2017, a commission on robot ethics submitted a charter for the European Parliament designed to “prevent people from becoming emotionally dependent on their robots”. That same year, in the Journal of Sexual and Relationship Therapy, two American academics announced the emergence, en masse, of a new category of digisexual patients looking for therapy. This led to a wave of media articles investigating “the influence of new technologies on our sexual identity”.

It is utterly telling that many of these articles are illustrated with images of silicon “love dolls” that are entirely unrelated to digital technologies. Indeed, the suspicion that surrounds these high-tech dummies seems not to be restricted to any particular class of objects, but instead attaches itself to a highly diverse range of products whose only common feature is the suspicion that it might induce a dangerous attachment. The special issue Objects of Desire parts from the existing work on these issues by investigating the presumed singularity of these objects: are they so different from other creatures and things that humans get attached to? Do the kind of wacky relationships and unions (with a dog, a pillow, a Ford Mustang, or the ghost of a Haitian pirate) that the media take pleasure in dwelling on, really rely on different scripts from those developed with “emo-robots”, holograms or chat softwares? Thus far, most research on emotional ties to objects has drawn on concepts related to religious fetishism – e.g. “power objects” (Manzon 2013) – or to emotional fetishism – e.g. objects of memory (Dassié 2010; Bonnot 2014). This special issue is an opportunity to explore a heretofore-neglected dimension of human relationships to objects (understood as objects of desire): our aim is to decipher the different scenarios allowing for love to blossom between humans and non-humans.

With a focus on the loving attachments to objects perceived as emotionally dangerous, this special issue seeks to shed light on current controversies and public debates surrounding electronic emotions by comparing them to similar processes involved in other kinds of illegitimate “partnerships”. We propose to examine the conceptions that underpin the production of partners and to analyse the kinds of entity that are supposed to draw humans into emotional entanglements or sexual confusion: robots, electronic gadgets, dolls, fictional characters, sculptures, shadows, human remains, plants, animals, etc.

An initial question will be: which techniques and scenarios are deployed to transform the object into a lover? Under which circumstances do people develop loving or sexual relations with things? Which procedures, scripts or rituals (Gagnon 1973; Bozon 2016) are individually or collectively developed to transform the object into a partner? Which strategies lie behind loving or pretending to love an object as one might love a person?

 A second question is that of the different contexts that make possible, or not, such attachments. Who draws the line between licit and illicit love of objects, and how? What underlying logics do these objects expose (Gell 1998; Latour 2009; Haraway 2016) when their affective power is perceived as threatening? What can we learn from the efforts to outlaw or regulate the capacity of certain objects to generate empathy?

This special issue welcomes classic academic articles (up to 8000 words), as well as portfolios, which are short essays built around a dozen or so HD images, and short texts (up to 4000 words) in the form of vignettes drawn from the archives or directly observed in the field.

Contributors should send a short abstract (300 words) of their proposed piece, specifying its format (article,  portfolio or short text) by December 15, 2019, to the journal Terrain: terrain.redaction@cnrs.fr

The deadline for final submissions will be April 15, 2020.


BONNOT Thierry, 2014. L’attachement aux choses, Paris, CNRS Éditions.

BOZON Michel, 2016. Pratique de l’amour. Le plaisir et l’inquiétude, Paris, Payot.

DASSIÉ Véronique, 2010. Objets d’affection. Une ethnologie de l’intime, Paris, Éditions du CTHS.

GAGNON John, 2008 [1973-2004]. Les scripts de la sexualité. Essais sur les origines culturelles du désir, trad. Marie-Hélène Bourcier, Paris, Payot.

GELL Alfred, 2009 [1998]. L’art et ses agents. Une théorie anthropologique, trad. Olivier & Sophie Renaut, Bruxelles, Les Presses du réel.

HARAWAY Donna, 2016. Staying with the trouble, Durham & Londres, Duke University Press.

LATOUR Bruno, 2009. Sur le culte moderne des dieux faitiches, Paris, La Découverte.

MANZON Agnes Kedzierska, 2013. « Humans and Things. Mande “Fetishes” as Subjects », Anthropological Quarterly no 4/86, p. 1119-1151.

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