What It Means for an Object to Be ‘Context Free’

In a recent piece for ViceJules Suzdaltsev discussed the ubiquity of white plastic chairs and what that ubiquity means for world culture amidst rapid globalization. Below is a brief excerpt about from the piece:

But unlike similar global objects like lighters, televisions, paper clips, cigarettes, transistor radios, and AK-47s, these chairs are “context free.” MIT’s Director of Civic Media Studies, Ethan Zuckerman, explained the significance of the monobloc on his blog a few years ago: “Virtually every object suggests a time and place… The shape of electrical outlets, labels on any consumer products, fabrics, clothing all [are] clues as to whether a photo was taken in the 1970s or last week, in Sweden or Schenectady. The Monobloc [formal name for this type of chair] is one of the few objects I can think of that is free of any specific context. Seeing a white plastic chair in a photograph offers you no clues about where or when you are.”

Humans are separated by our various contexts: wealth, age, race, gender, geography, religion, sexual orientation, height, weight, etc. Manmade objects almost always follow those divides—certain people own certain things, certain possessions signify wealth or poverty or some subcultural cache. Yet the monobloc stands alone, as a singular object, unrelated to its surroundings, and yet distinctly unavoidable and non-biodegradable; perhaps immortal.

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