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13 Things 2009

13 Things 2008

Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology

Search Brown



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
[email protected]

Touch: A Phenomenology of The Knocker

The Door Knocker is not an image, and in many ways, the engagement of the knocker as a “visual object” sets up what Michael Shanks has called the “fallacy of representation” (Shanks 17). This is because in analyzing the door knocker as a symbol, or a semiotic signifier, one ignores its capacity to also be a signified value, a meaning as well as a sign. A door knocker, as Shanks would argue, “is both signifier and signified. An artifact operates in both ways” (Shanks 18). Along these rhetorical lines, we might ask, ‘what is a door knocker other than a door knocker?’ inviting the conclusion that to describe a door knocker would be to reduce it to elements the comprise it, but are not it. Only as an indivisible signifier/signified can door knocker-ness really be expressed.

I am arguing for us to stop staring at the door knocker from the street. It is time for me to put down my camera and walk up to the door. It is time to touch the knocker. To lift it, consider its physicality. Already, the commitment to engaging the knocker as a physical, tactile, nonsymbolic but material object causes the consideration that in approaching a knocker, one progresses further into what feels like private space. It is no longer from the distance of observation that we can engage the object. Instead, the somatic experience of approaching the knocker forces the displacement of the viewer. In fact, the movement fundamentally changes the status of the viewer, as the displacement causes a rupture in the subject. As we reach out to touch the knocker, we become hybridized tactile viewers, complicating our relationship to the knocker, by engaging it along a new sensory dimension.

One might begin the phenomenology of a door knocker, by considering this exact approach. Before we may touch the knocker, before we may lift it to knock, we must approach the door along a certain pathway. While one might take a photograph of a knocker, from a distance, there can be no avoiding the need to confront a certain intimacy to touch a knocker. This closeness, governed by the placement of the knocker, and personal physiology, create a fascinating relationship between the subject and the object. If the knocker is placed high on a door for instance, and one was short, then it might prove impossible to reach up and grab the knocker. This would mean that a child’s engagement with a door might be fundamentally different than an adult’s experience. Unable to reach the knocker, a visiting child might knock with his fist on the door. And perhaps this would be considered by the home owner or resident, who might differentiate between these types of knocks, which were pre-differentiated by the physicality of the knocker-visitor relationship.

Again, we might come back to the example of the well-worn door knocker, placed alongside a much less used alternative. Here, there is a trace of physical interaction, denoting a certain pattern of use. This example is a rich phenomenological opportunity. Why would the door knocker to the right of a door be more worn than a knocker on the left? Perhaps it is because more visitors were right handed. And if this is true, than the tactile trace of physical experiences allows for an archaeology of a community, and analysis of the individuals using this pair of door knockers.

The question of choice in these sorts of phenomenological experiences can also be considered within the ‘door knocker – door bell’ binary. In my interviews with residents on Benefit Street, I found a wide range of experiences with how visitors dealt with the option (or lack of an option) between the knocker and the bell. A few residents told me that people often used the door knockers to announce their arrival, but generally this was these homes did not have door bells. In homes with door bells, people generally tried the door bell first, then resorted to the knocker if they had no response for the knocker. Two separate home owners explained that they had disconnected their door bells out of preference for the knockers, but that visitors still went for the bell first, before using the knocker.

These findings, when viewed alongside the research already presented on the knocker as visual object, confirm to some degree the contemporary experience of the door knocker as a more ornamental object that practical. At least, it seems that the door bell is preferred to the door knocker among visitors, for whatever reason. Some residents with working door bells in addition to door knockers, also told me that they were often surprised when visitors tried the door knocker first. It seems that these individuals were prepared for the use of the door bell, but unprepared for the use of the knocker. Often there was a practical reason for this predisposition: many of these residents lived in houses with multiple apartments, and the door bells specified which apartment a visitor was interested in, while the knocker left residents wondering not only who was at the door, but who they were there for.

Touching the door knockers could also reveal the importance that the knockers had for the owners, residents, or caretakers. Several knockers were in had been poorly maintained, and not surprisingly, no one answered those doors. Other knockers were well maintained, and their owners were both quick and excited to talk about them. So it became possible, simply by touching a knocker, to estimate the kind of response one could get about the knockers, their use, and their values to home owners, simply by touching them. Additionally, some knockers were well lubricated or used, and liftly freely. Others were hard to lift, and seemed somewhat jammed in certain positions. Again, these physical traits, experienced through touch, revealed how often the knockers were used. Not surprisingly, knockers that were somewhat rusted over, and hard to loosen in order to lift, were not used often according to their owners.

So we find a new dimension to the understanding of the door knocker. As an tactile object, we add depth to the visual qualities of the knocker, and imagine it as not only a image or symbol, but an experienced reality. The question of the subject (specifically the visitor) is interestingly represented by the consideration of the tactile experience of a door knocker. This is because the materiality of a knocker, revealed by the touch a subject, is deeply embedded in somatic experience, the embodied process of sensing occurring in the visitor/subject who reaches out to touch, lift, and ultimately knock with this object. It is this quality of the door knocker, this capacity for the knocker to serve as a physical mediation of visitation, that is represented in the feel of the knocker, and translated into the further complicated (and understanding) of the thing.