A Symptomatic Reading of Furniture

Sketchfab link: https://skfb.ly/DZYt

I chose to do my project as a symptomatic reading of interlocking systems of oppression and social conditioning through the desks in Bartlett (and Tobin) here at UMass. What is really interesting about something as innocuous as a desk is that it lingers in our everyday lives, influencing our behaviors, and we don’t even realize its effects. I created a 3D model of the desk and added annotations on Sketchfab. Unfortunately, I could only put five annotations on the model. Since that is the case I wanted to outline a few more things about the desk that I found interesting.


It is often mentioned in by people in my classes that the desks are made by incarcerated people in California. I did some research and I believe that the corporation that runs this process is CALPIA. I couldn’t find the exact model of desks on their website but there are many similar furniture items as well as other objects that are found in other places on campus. This shows the university’s ties to the prison-industrial complex and how the university as an institution is invested in the continuation of prisons and the exploitation of incarcerated people’s labor.



The particular size and shape of the desk is also fascinating. It creates a specific idea of what is “right.” In this case, thin and able bodies are the only ones that fit in the desk. (I use fit loosely and definitely not to mean comfortably.) People with physical disabilities can have a difficult time learning or even just physically showing up to classes because the desks make inhabiting space in the classroom impossible or difficult. People who are fat are also not “allowed” to take up space by the constraints of the desks. Specific commentary on the positioning and angles of the desk can be found in the annotations on Sketchfab.

If we apply Louis Althusser’s theory on education as an Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) to these desks then the ways in which educational systems teach us “rules of good behavior”” become apparent. We are conditioned in multiple ways on the “correct” and “proper” ways to navigate the world. There are certain types of bodies that are not allowed to exist as they are in our society. Through having to sit in these desks (and having to attend school – K12 by law, university to get a “good” job) people are socialized in how to sit, how to right, how to pay attention (SLANT, anyone?), how to inhabit space, how to exist.

A 3D model is a way to think through these ideas. It’s helpful to be able to see the desk on a screen and rotate it because it takes the desk out of the context we usually know it in. Sometimes moving things out of their original position offers a new way to see and interact with that object. Digital humanities offers that.