A Sock Is Never Just a Sock: Thoughts on Object Lessons’ ‘Sock’

Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg, the editors of Object Lessons, have built an incredibly robust template for 21st century pop cultural contemplation.

The Bloomsbury series of book-length essays on a single subject, Object Lessons, is a minor addiction of mine. I’ve read many of the books in this series because they’re fairly quick to get through in one weekend, their smallish size is very portable, and I’m interested in theories of objects in popular culture. This interest has its roots in Barthes and Benjamin. The things targeted for analysis by the Object Lessons series are incredibly diverse, from tree to dust, from burger to toilet, from tumor to password. Egg was one of my favorites. Traffic, on the other hand, I strongly disliked and yet might still reread.

Even when I disagree with or am slightly bored by some of the analysis in these books, my interest in this series as a genre remains quite strong. Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg, the editors of Object Lessons, have built an incredibly robust template for 21st century pop cultural contemplation. These are all hybrid nonfiction texts. Usually, they contain three big chapter headings, and each chapter is then divided into small chunks. The essays meander between memoir and research. They express opinions and facts alike, and some of the books also contain pictures or informational graphics. Each book provides a strong sense of its author, regardless of subject or even the quality of the writing, because an obvious part of the deal with evaluating how an object proliferates across global culture is that the focal points for that evaluation are anchored to an author’s individual perceptions of the object.

On their face, the titles announcing each object are very broad. I just finished reading Kim Adrian’s take on Sock, for example. Doesn’t it feel like there are so many ways to discuss a sock? Yes, there are. Oh, I would love to describe for you how I recoil in horror at the very thought of toe-socks, with their nefarious little separations between each digit. I would be glad to give you a strong, easy rant on the sociological implications of sock choice in the workplace, especially emphasizing the consequences of these choices through a queer feminist lens. I could paint a lovely portrait of how marriage and domesticity function in my household by telling the story of why I always poke my head into the hallway after folding the laundry to alert my wife in the living room that “no socks were lost!” I’d like to take on the burning psychological question of why so many cats and dogs with white feet are names Socks.

But more to the heart of it, how would Adrian like to discuss a sock? Her three chapters are on evolution, desire, and industry. The evolution chapter begins with archeology and ends with biological science. We learn about the earliest recorded socks and their general purpose, then get a more finely detailed account of how humans walk on two legs and why the sock helps and hinders this process simultaneously. This chapter also begins to reveal the main propulsive force behind Adrian’s interest in the humble sock, which is her passion for knitting. She traces the history of knitting back to weaving and speaks about knitting throughout the book with such a capable intensity that I found an appreciation for her voice on it and an interest in her as a human even though I don’t really care at all about knitting. I do think she missed an opportunity for some beautiful diagrams or photos of babies in tiny, adorably unraveling hats, though.

The chapter on desire was much more my speed. She runs through relevant bits of Barthes, Bataille, Freud, Jung, Baldwin, Nabokov, Tournier, all with clarity and brevity on the matters of fetishism, partialism, necessity, modesty, and decoration. It also had the least amount of information about knitting. The industry chapter zooms out on the fact that we produce 81 billion (!) individual socks per years for a global population of 7.8 billion people. The clothing and textile industry is the second dirtiest in the world, after oil. The production of so many socks contributes significantly to water pollution, carbon emissions, et cetera.

Adrian also discusses fast versus slow fashion, and as a knitter, she inches toward an embrace of slow fashion’s “craftivism” with a delightful, hipster sort of bent. Her ways of summarizing the point also produce some terrific should-be maxims, like “the sock is the shadow of the shoe” (11) or “you can’t knit a sweater by hand if you’re working two jobs” (95).

When you’ve finished reading one of these Object Lessons books, you’re left with a strong impression of knowing who the author is as a person, plus a handful of factoids that make great conversation at dinner parties, like “our feet possess even more nerve endings than our genitals” (45) and serial killer Ted Bundy’s fondest wish was to be able to put on a brand new pair of clean socks every day for the rest of his life.

Sometimes the books talk about a thing in the same way you might yourself talk about it, and other times they go in a totally different direction from the angle that is most readily of interest to your own mind when you see the title and begin to freely associate with it. I highly recommend the series to anyone because it really does have something for everyone. For you knitters out there, I recommend Kim Adrian’s Sock.

RATING 6 / 10