A Lost Doll

In her essay, "Melanie Klein and the Difference Affect Makes," Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick gives an account of a childhood memory that she likes to think of as "very Kleinian." In this memory, she is about three years old in Dayton, Ohio at a local department store, where her grandmother, visiting from New York, is helping Sedgwick's six-year-old sister pick out a new doll. Sedgwick writes, "I, in turn, am the recipient of her current doll, an eight-inch or so plastic doll representing a girl of about her age."1 She continues,

Except that I absolutely don't want my sister's doll. Characteristically, I have a well-reasoned account of what's wrong with it: it's not big enough for me. I need and somehow feel emboldened to demand a doll that is bigger, baby- or toddler-shaped, and new. A doll on the smaller and grown-up scale of the one I've been given, I'd simply lose. (And it's true, small-muscle coordination is about the least precocious thing about me, if you don't count emotional maturity.) I can remember offering this explanation to my parents with the calm confidence of someone quoting a well-known adult dictum: younger children need larger-scale toys. An argument that apparently didn't persuade, since the next thing to happen seems to be my descent into the awful whirlpool of tantrum mode. What I remember better, though, is the aftermath: me later abject, flattened by the ordeal of my rage, trailing through the innards of the department store in a state of apparent social death. Also the numb shock of finding, before the end of our afternoon there, that the smaller, inappropriate doll I was carrying has indeed disappeared."2

It makes sense that Sedgwick found this memory so Kleinian. After all, it is about an object and her relation to it, and for Klein, "human mental life becomes populated, not with ideas, representations, knowledges, urges, and repressions, but with things, things with physical properties, including people and hacked-off bits of people."3 I cite Sedgwick at length not just because of her gift for delivering the right amount of self-deprecating humor, but because of how she narrates, in a Kleinian way, "cycles of greed, envy, rage, and, in particular, overwhelming anxiety" as nonexceptional, as small as an eight-inch doll, as "the almost grotesquely unintelligent design of every human psyche."4

Klein's understanding of the psyche is humbling, at times brutally so. Yet it is a psyche that is durable by way of its creativity and inventiveness: here, its exasperated rejection of an object and the "shock" of that object's loss and abandonment amounts to the object's subsequent psychic retrieval and acceptance with all its contradictory parts both good and bad, big and small in the form of a story shared. For Klein, the psyche can and ultimately must loosen its hold on the phantasy of omnipotence acted out on objects and their various parts, whether that be a doll, a sister, or parents. As subjects, the things that populate our psychic and material lives are not to be owned, and such a realization does not bring upon the subject complete powerlessness, but rather the capacity to have a livable life in relation to others, moving along what Sedgwick calls "the middle ranges of agency."5

This cluster is about these misplaced, yet desirable objects and our relation to them as scholars and writers who move through minoritarian knowledge formations constituted by objects not our own by objects that are smuggled, stolen, or on loan for a time. Each essay in this cluster considers an object broadly and promiscuously construed that contributors have felt was not theirs to write about, at the same time that they have deeply felt there to be, in that once removed relation, something to write. This object could be something contributors have perhaps been too obsessed over to tackle in writing; something that has made them feel hesitant, suspicious, or wary of their personal history, training, field, method, and writing style; something they have always wanted to write about but kept on the backburner due to other projects and obligations tethered to their anxiety and legibility as a minoritarian scholar in the academy. The cluster specifically approaches this prompt by way of minoritarian critique, wherein one is constantly made to justify and provide the grounds for the objects one has chosen, particularly if, as Robyn Wiegman has addressed, its relation to our "political desires" outside of the academy remain untenable and unclear.6

Writing on "someone else's object" is not a call to designate who that object belongs to to make an object relevant and legible through the terms of ownership and possession. The contributors of this cluster write with, from, and out of the sense that these objects are someone else's, that they cannot make any claims to the objects they have chosen, nor do they want to. The cluster proposes that writing on someone else's object divest one's writing and reading practice from the valuation and fantasy of mastery to which minoritarian scholars are not privy, as subjects whose very presence in the academy is often times violently misread and dismissed as being on the account of someone else's initiatives to diversify faculty and expand coverage.

Often, anxiety over one's legibility as a minoritarian scholar feels no different from one's legibility as a minoritarian subject, and both are mediated through one's object choices. There is the expectation and assumption that there be a symmetry, an equivalence, some kind of kernel of identificatory sameness in order for a relation between a subject and object to make sense, to have any kind of usable, productive political and critical value. The relation between subject and object is expected to be one of exposure each must render the other wholly knowable and communicable. Minoritarian bodies in the classroom stand in for bodies of knowledge; they become objects made to bear their own difference, impressed upon by others. Such objects are expected to supplement and intervene within syllabi, course offerings, and curricula. For Kandice Chuh, these are the imperatives of "aboutness" that regulate and normalize what objects can mean and do in the world in relation to other objects by way of "an assessment of relevance, and within the racialized economy of academic knowledge." 7

Aboutness produces and distributes ignorance. It is as powerful to wield as knowledge, in that it determines who must be catered to, who must be met in their ignorance.8 For Barbara Johnson, however, it is possible for ignorance to have a critical function, but only if it becomes "an imperative that changes the very nature of what I think I know."9 Johnson writes that to become attuned to one's own ignorance, one must come across the "the surprise of otherness," which is to say, one must have an ethical encounter with difference.10 She writes, "How, then, can one set oneself up to be surprised by otherness? Obviously, in a sense, one cannot. Yet one can begin by transgressing one's own usual practices, by indulging in some judicious time-wasting with what one does not know how to use, or what has fallen into disrepute. What the surprise encounter with otherness should do is lay bare some hint of an ignorance one never knew one had."11 It is my hope that this cluster affords such crucial indulgences.

Writing Through the Personal

Throughout these essays, contributors deftly encounter the surprise of otherness as the necessary means for writing on the self. They move through the genre of the personal essay with what Merve Emre describes as the "the graceful acceptance of psychic irretrievability" the realization that one cannot and should not claim definitive knowledge of the self and its objects.12 Akin to Sedgwick's telling of her Kleinian story, these essays' own graceful acceptance is felt in their gentle insistence that it is still worth trying to write around what cannot be retrieved. The approximations, guesses, and queries are humble, vital attempts at understanding how and why objects linger on their own terms in our writing and in our lives.

For a while, writing through the personal made me too uncomfortable. It felt much more difficult than academic writing, and so I avoided it, always pivoting. A friend once told me it was as if I were always in the other room, removed from the scene of my own writing. While I still think that writing through the personal is difficult, it is not so estranged from academic writing as I had initially believed, nor should it be. There are other ways to write, read, and desire after the objects we encounter in our lives. The contributors of this cluster illuminate those other ways for me. They show me how the psychic blockages built around writing on the self, as minoritarian scholars, are often because of the ways we are already expected to do so in our fields, precisely through the objects we can and cannot choose.

Tiana Reid writes on reading Sylvia Plath's journals, which for Reid, makes palpable how there is no world without a self, even in the solitude of reading at night. Yet something of her solitude mirrors the "existential separateness" felt when she comes across Plath's world, where the unwritten whiteness of her characters disappears with the appearance of blackness, whether of a passing character or a looming object. Rather than think about when she might appear in Plath's world as such, Reid instead wonders when Plath appears in her own in her own reading and writing practice. Moving from the genre of the journal to graphic memoir, Ianna Hawkins Owen turns to a different writerly worlding of the self. For Owen, graphical representations of illness, mourning, and grief visualize the incoherence of one's good and bad affects as unrestrained annotation: as entangled forms, unsaid thoughts, and drawn lines. Owen writes, "If we choose wisely, the right object performs a kind of sleight of hand: it conceals who you are while it lets you sign your name to it." In Reid and Owen's essays, such objects are the stories of others of Plath, of these graphic novelists and in their relation of remove, they are able to find refuge somewhere between recognition and concealment.

Mila Zuo considers what happens when she watches white actors like Leonardo DiCaprio cry on screen, whose tears, she admits with embarrassment, induce her own. This embarrassment is not a sign of moral transgression so much as an aesthetic one, wherein the "radical porosity" of bodies cannot be easily mapped onto empathy of merely feeling white upon whiteness' visual consumption. Rather than think of embarrassment as what whiteness feels like, Zuo considers how embarrassment might be what it tastes like. For Zuo, the tastes of consumption create a different ethical relation between minoritarian spectatorship and white cinema and its stars. While Zuo addresses the leaky transgressions and unpalatability of whiteness, Jules Gill-Peterson considers the shock of exposure and misrecognition she encounters that renders the self "a bad trans object" of a phobic white cis culture. She considers "what kinds of shifts a different set of bad objects archival objects can induce in ourselves and our writing when our subjectivity and subjection are entangled with our work." In her research on DIY trans aesthetics, Gill-Peterson describes her desire for a good archival object that might tell a "good trans of color story." Instead she comes across "bad objects," which offer not a story so much as the potentiality of a "suggestion" and a "trans of color vernacular."

Lastly, Christina León brings us back to Kleinian object relations through an alignment of the spectral figures of Ana Mendieta and her grandfather. She writes so that she may "hold both Mendieta and my grandfather, both my feminism and my family, in the same psyche," and does so by tracing the underthought, entangled, material relations between them that constitute her relation to Cuba as a site of impossible return. In Zuo, Gill-Peterson, and León's essays, the self is composed by way of objects' myriad impingements, intrusions, and alignments, which at times feel like recognition like being seen how one wants to be seen and at other times like violence, erosion, and compromise.

The cluster inhabits forms of critique as ethical engagements that might look a lot like dabbling, dilettantism, defamiliarization, imposition, or transgression. To write on someone else's object, then, is not wholly an innocent, idealistic endeavor, but one that is ambivalent, fraught, and perverse. Here I am not proposing that everyone can or should write on what they do not know, for that is already how the coloniality of knowledge production works; it is a viewpoint we should all be suspicious of for the ways it affords certain scholars movement across fields and disciplines, while others, mainly scholars of color, remain siloed and relegated to where their body, their self, as object, is read as most legible. Therefore, I am firmly interested in the stakes of this approach for minoritarian critical and intellectual projects, where the restrictive categories of difference that have long determined what we as scholars can write and study can no longer contain the ways we want to study with one another.13

With that said, what is at times present throughout these essays is whiteness. It is important to say this, and yet I do so exhaustedly and with some reserve because I also do not think there is much more I need to say. Whiteness already lays claim to so much; it already takes so much of a minoritarian scholar's attention, time, and energy. For that reason, I am all the more grateful for how the essays in this cluster insist on an implicit understanding that "whiteness as property"14 belongs to none of us as minoritarian scholars, it is always someone else's and, as Fred Moten puts it, "we didn't want that anyway."15In these essays, to write around certain objects' unmarked whiteness is to skirt any easy identification with it, to experiment with how close one can get to it without bringing too much harm upon oneself and others, harm too crushing and painful to bear.

How does writing on someone else's object, as a mode of minoritarian critique, alter how we write through difference in the contemporary moment, in ways that are not and cannot be sanctioned by the expertise of the academy and its disciplines, and in ways that can't yet take the shape of solidarity and sociality? In writing on someone else's object, contributors take seriously what is risked ethically, politically, and stylistically in that space between oneself and someone else, by way of an object that cannot be claimed, possessed, or owned. How might writing on someone else's object require us to articulate a desire to undo what Chuh calls "the logics of externality" that keep knowledge formations and their subjects separate from one another?16 Following Kadji Amin, Amber Jamilla Musser, and Roy Pérez, how might a queer analytical turn to one's unlikely, unanticipated relation to an object as form transform the very terrain on which our object relations play out?17 How do Lisa Lowe and Kris Manjapra take up similar questions in their turn to "relational comparative study" and an "analytic of relation" that traces an unruly archive irreducible to the scale of the human subject and the given objects of humanities studies?18

In line with these various projects, it is incumbent upon us, as minoritarian scholars, to pause before making claims to an object, before we ask what our objects are about. What emerges in the meantime are meditations on how the objects we hold also have a hold on us, at the same time that we take relief in knowing, as Klein and Sedgwick point out, that we are neither wholly in power nor powerless in relation to them.

The Durable, or Fiona's Plastic Bag

After telling her Kleinian story, Sedgwick meditates further on its significance. She explains,

I think I meant it as a fairly simple story about scale. Just to say how the right scale of doll for my older sister was the wrong scale for me, how I needed something chunkier. I needed, or thought I did, something with decent-scale, plastic resiliently articulated parts that I could manipulated freely and safely (safety for it as well as me): this seemed to be the condition for my loving or identifying with the creature, even just not abandoning it . . . And I was going to say, as an adult that's the way I now am about ideas. I like them pretty chunky. Not dramatic or caricatural, certainly not dualistic (never dualistic), but big, big and palpable; big enough so there's no swallowing risk, and also so I won't forget them, which hasn't become any less of a danger as I've gotten older. I'm happy with ideas where you can do a lot of different things with them and be in many relations to them, but they'll push back against you and where the individual moving parts aren't too complex or delicate for active daily use.19

I read Sedgwick's thoughts on scale to also be about texture ("chunky"; "palpable"), something she felt was intimately bound up with those middle ranges of agency. Throughout Sedgwick's writing I also find a desire for durability. To my mind, durability is different from containment, enclosure, and discretion. Durability has to do with how one negotiates one's obsessions, attachments, disappointments, and mistakes comprised of "articulated" and "moving parts" that shape and "push back against" our ways of feeling, thinking, reading, and writing. Durability is about what the psyche can withstand somewhere between the depressive and paranoid positions, between omnipotence and powerlessness: that's what makes ideas like Klein's and Sedgwick's on object relations feel so capacious, immense, and ready for "active daily use."

Sedgwick did not lose that doll after all she wrote about it in its absence as a memory, as something small kept in a child's pocket or in the back of an adult's mind. Given both Klein's and Sedgwick's emphasis on objects multifaceted, textured, and varied in their parts, why not consider smaller ideas and things that, too, might have some kind of staying power even when lost? Might a small idea or thing for instance, something like a plastic bag supposed to get lost so that it can return, later, in one's psyche in all its complex yet compact completeness?

Halfway through Fiona Apple's iTunes exclusive album from 2006, there is an interview track titled, "It Was Just a Plastic Bag." In it, she explains that while she was recording her first album, Tidal (1996), she was in her father's car, frustrated with the recording process, when she looked up into the sky and saw a white dove. At first, she saw it as "dove of hope," but as it came down, she realized that it was "just a plastic bag." "There it is, the rule of my life, you know?" she says dryly, "it always looks like it's gonna be something great, but then it's just a damn plastic bag."20 This is how she came to write her single, "Paper Bag," from her second album, When the Pawn... (1999),21 except as she explains, "I made it a paper bag because a paper bag sounds better."

Does a paper bag sound better? I have been fixated on this switch from plastic to paper for a while now. I try to imagine what the song would have sounded like if she sang "plastic" instead of "paper." I can almost hear how Apple's voice would cut through that long "a" of "plastic" to the short one in "bag" to the story she is telling with her precise, propulsive lyrics. As a singer, she does not stray from the cutting words she delivers. It's a voice that tells you, infamously, "this world is bullshit": it's just a paper bag.22

Apple's songs are full of objects: a tulip in a cup, a hot knife, the fondled trigger of a gun, a double-king-sized bed. These objects are an accumulation of weapons, evidence, and keepsakes. Yet at the same time, her descriptions of objects as metaphor and simile convey both her and their distance and remove. They are not to be handled or touched; they are not meant to be available or useful in that way. In "Valentine," she is "amorous but out of reach" like a "still life drawing of a peach"23; in "Love Ridden," she looks at her lover "with the focus I gave to my birthday candles."24 These objects carry a certain stubborn, sheltered grace and, with it, her admission and acceptance that some things a relationship, a person, a phase in one's life come and go, in and out of one's life, and beyond one's control.

Apple's objects let me indulge in my anger and sadness, but they also, with even a single song on loop, let me let go, let me loosen and relinquish whatever hold I thought I had, and wanted to have, on the objects and people that populate my life. Her objects become the stuff of the everyday that allow her, and me, to withstand our necessary, ongoing negotiations with our objects that satisfy and fail us at the same time. Like Sedgwick through Klein points out, such a realization might grant one the relief that comes with saying, as Apple does in amused resignation, "Oh Well."25 Apple holds the capacity to say with a humorous shrug, "it was just a plastic bag," which, in her resolve to make it sound better, to keep her story intact, turns into the lyrics, "it was just a paper bag." To rewrite the anecdotal scene, to replace the object, is to offer up what she might call a "parting gift."

When I find myself playing "Parting Gift," I know my circumstances must truly be dire. It is a break-up song that calls itself what it is. Apple sings, "it is by the grace of me / you never learned what I could see." Although she addresses an unknowing lover as a "silly stupid past time of mine" I feel like I, too, am being addressed. This is how I know the lyrics are a condescension at the same time that they are offered up for the other's continued protection and forgiveness. Like the lover she is leaving, like the lover who in some ways already left her, I will never learn what Apple could see, but here, instead, is something else: a song as that parting gift I listen to in the lowest of moments that keeps me going. It is a small, simple, short object all three and a half minutes of it with only her voice and a piano but nevertheless it is just the right size, which is to say it is big enough for me. With this gift in hand, the parting it gestures toward might offer consolation, but that is because it can always be listened to again, too many times to count.

Like Sedgwick's sister's doll, Apple's plastic bag did not feel or fit right. It sounded off, so it got passed over, abandoned, and lost. But like that doll, it did not wholly disappear from Apple's psychic life. It has been recounted in an interview, with a small laugh, as the briefest aside. This plastic bag that never made it into Apple's lyrics has a life that I have constructed for it. It is an object that holds her and my "hunger," hope, and desire, and the inevitable "downward slope" of heartbreak and disappointment along those middle ranges of agency, which so maddeningly keep us accountable to others to their good and bad parts. Apple's plastic bag has often been the object I picture in my head whenever things do not work out the way I want them to. It hovers over my head even though it is not mine, but that is what makes it so durable, so big and yet small, like a doll to be lost and found again, but never claimed. And she's right, it really does sound better that way.

Summer Kim Lee is a Mellon Faculty Fellow in English at Dartmouth College. She has published and forthcoming work in ASAP/Journal, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas, Social Text, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Public Books.


  1. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Melanie Klein and the Difference Affect Makes," in The Weather in Proust (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 124.[]
  2. Ibid, 125.[]
  3. Ibid, 126.[]
  4. Ibid, 125.[]
  5. Ibid, 131.[]
  6. Robyn Wiegman, Object Lessons (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 20.[]
  7. Kandice Chuh, "It's Not about Anything," Social Text 121, no. 4 (Winter 2014): 127.[]
  8. Ibid, 130.[]
  9. Barbara Johnson, "Nothing Fails Like Success," in A World of Difference (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 16.[]
  10. Ibid, 15.[]
  11. Ibid, 15-16.[]
  12. Merve Emre, "Two Paths for the Personal Essay," Boston Review, August 22, 2017.[]
  13. I am thinking of how Stefano Harney and Fred Moten understand study to be "what you do with other people." Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 110.[]
  14. Cheryl I. Harris, "Whiteness as Property," Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (June 1993): 1707-1791.[]
  15. Fred Moten, "The Blur and Breathe Books," filmed February 24, 2016 at José Esteban Muñoz Memorial Lecture, video, 1:31:58., February 24, 2016.[]
  16. Chuh, "It's Not About Anything," 128.[]
  17. Kadji Amin, Amber Jamilla Musser, and Roy Pérez, "Queer Form: Aesthetics, Race, and the Violences of the Social," ASAP/Journal 2, no. 2 (May 2017): 228-229.[]
  18. Lisa Lowe and Kris Manjapra, "Comparative Global Humanities After Man: Alternatives to the Coloniality of Knowledge," Theory, Culture & Society 36, no. 5 (July 2019): 24.[]
  19. Sedgwick, "Melanie Klein," 125-126.[]
  20. Fiona Apple, "It Was Just a Plastic Bag," track 13 on iTunes Originals - Fiona Apple, Epic Records, 2006.[]
  21. Fiona Apple, "Paper Bag," track 5 on When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might so When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won't Matter, Cuz You'll Know That You're Right, Epic Records, 1999.[]
  22. MTV, "Fiona Apple's Acceptance Speech at the 1997 Video Music Awards," Youtube video, 1:26, August 12, 2018.[]
  23. Fiona Apple, "Valentine," track 3 on The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, Epic Records, 2012.[]
  24. Fiona Apple, "Love Ridden," track 4 on When the Pawn..., Epic Records, 1999.[]
  25. Fiona Apple, "Oh Well," track 1 on Extraordinary Machine, Epic Records, 2005.[]