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  • “Acting It Out Like a Play”:Flipping the Script of Kitchen Spaces in Faulkner’s Light in August
  • Carrie Helms Tippen (bio)

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Home of Alabama sharecropper, showing washstand in the dog run and view into the kitchen. Photo by Walker Evans, c. 1935.

Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC (LC-USZC4-8198).

[End Page 57]

I’ve lived in enough temporary dwellings to know that kitchens are more or less the same. One apartment’s galley kitchen may have more cabinets or fewer drawers than the last one, but I’ll unpack my pots and pans into the same spot where every other tenant has put his or her pots and pans. I’ll keep my cereal boxes on the shelf that is exactly one cereal-box-height away from the shelf above it. And if I decide to scramble an egg in the cabin I’ve rented for a long holiday weekend, I never need to try more than two drawers (one left of the stove, one right of the stove) to find a spatula. I may need a twelve-page manual to run the coffee maker, but even when I walk into a new, unfamiliar kitchen, I know where they keep the spoons.

I used to think that there was just a logic to kitchen spaces. The cooking utensils should be kept near the cooking surface. The eating utensils should be kept near the eating spaces. Or maybe there was a kitchen language that a person could learn through immersion. People learned kitchen spaces while they learned the grammar and syntax of making a meal. The objects were placed in an order that any fluent speaker could understand. But a kitchen space is a physical space, an embodied space. Learning to read a kitchen is learning to dance with things.

Setting the Stage: Material Culture and Performance in the Kitchen Space

In the essay “Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race,” Robin Bernstein looks at photographs of people posing with inanimate objects (statues and circus-style cutouts) and concludes that the thing “scripted” how an individual would interact with it (69). Bernstein [End Page 58] uses the example of a photograph from the 1930s of a young woman posing with a racist caricature of a black male eating watermelon. Though the woman could have posed with the representation in any number of ways, Bernstein argues that the statue gives “cues” as to how an individual would use it. These she calls “determined scripts” (71). But more importantly, the statue tells a story which the woman becomes physically involved in telling. In this case, the story is about race, and it gets told through the interaction of the live woman and the inanimate thing. These Bernstein calls “implied scripts” (74).

Bernstein calls matter and physical spaces that elicit a performance “scriptive things” (69), explaining that, “An object becomes a thing when it invites a person to dance” (70). In other words, a scriptive thing is matter (or space) that “literally shape[s] human behaviors” (70) as the human and the thing perform together to make meaning. Bernstein is careful to explain that a script is not “a rigid dictation of performed action” that strips an individual of her agency (68). Rather, Bernstein explains, “I use the term script as a theatrical practitioner might: to denote an evocative primary substance from which actors, directors, and designers build complex, variable performances that occupy real time and space” (69). Humans have choices in how they interact with and make meaning with the things they encounter in everyday life, but they do not start those interactions and meaning-making sessions from scratch. As Bernstein’s essay suggests, scriptive things have meanings implied that a human can reify, resist, subvert, and pervert.

Theories of material culture, especially Bernstein’s theory of scriptive things, can be a useful lens for understanding how kitchens can be so similar—almost modular and uniform—and yet so meaningful. As I approach the kitchen in my new apartment and begin to unpack my things into the space, I encounter determined scripts. The shelf that...


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