After spending a few days at Elsewhere, a museum set in a former thrift store in Greensboro, North Carolina, I was asked to select a single object from the teeming mountains of stuff. The idea was to hone in on something that moved me and write about why. I imagined I’d choose something more sophisticated, more abstract. A scrap of fabric or an unnamed, enigmatic form. An object that would prompt reflections on color, line, and light. And instead it’s this. A fucking chicken McNugget. With a face. To be more precise, a “McNugget buddy,” a plastic toy that was included in McDonald’s Happy Meals in 1988. This one is naked, his (her?) scuba mask, firefighter’s mask or gunslinger’s belt and lasso long lost to the ravages of time. But even McNude, the nugget captivated me. I spotted it peeping out from among piles of objects, beckoning me, calling forth the perverse innocence of a childhood in the 1980s, a time before I knew how little chicken was in those nuggets, before I knew that whatever meat was in there was processed in horrific conditions, washed with ammonia and plied with chemicals to give it its chicken-like appearance and flavor.
Photo Imani Thomas
Isn’t it strange to process a live animal into a nugget, something utterly inorganic, only to reanimate it for children as a sympathetic friend or action hero? Why anthropomorphize the nugget? Why turn it into “a buddy?” I guess it makes some kind of marketing sense, lodging the chicken nugget deep into the child’s psyche so that she craves the food, the toy, the food-toy as companion. The smiling McNugget stands courageously against the army of undesirable adult food: the menacing broccoli, the duplicitous bran muffin, the odiferous fish. With no eyelids to close or limbs that might allow him to run away, this plastic warrior is on constant watch. And of course there is also the logic of the set or series, motivating the consumer-child to collect each variation on the nugget theme. But this particular traveler is alone, washed up on Elsewhere’s shores like a relic of a fast-food obsessed people who perished from their bad habits before their successors could discover kale and quinoa.
My childhood featured plenty of Happy Meals and an impressive number of chicken nuggets. My mother didn’t cook. More to the point, she couldn’t. What she did do was perceive agency in all kinds of objects—her schizophrenia made her think the television could see her and that pillows contained listening devices. Medication meant that she suffered fewer delusions and psychotic breaks, but the illness nonetheless kept her from doing many things— driving and cooking among them. And so, during the week, my hard-working father came home from the office and piled his kids into the car to head out for Chinese food or pizza or cheese burgers and chicken nuggets. I haven’t eaten at a McDonald’s in at least two decades, but I can still remember the smell of the windowless, uncanny playscape at our local franchise—the smooth metallic floor of the Hamburgler house and the thin, matted green carpet that I suppose was meant to look like grass.
It seems cruel to me now, that while I was being encouraged to “use my imagination” and bring life to the dolls and toys and rocks and leaves of my childhood, my mother was being pathologized for doing the same. I can enumerate all the reasons why my acts of animation were different than my mother’s, but I also feel the distinction start to slip away. When I talked to my Happy Meal toys or my dolls, did I fully understand that they were only inert plastic? If not, how and when did I outgrow my magical thinking? We’re inundated with animate objects—from the McNugget buddy to Siri to self-driving cars —but expected to effortlessly police the line between projected agency and real consciousness. If all objects hold something back from us, if they retreat from our perception and withdraw from description, as scholars of object-oriented ontology have argued, then who are we to say what secrets the television or the pillow may hold? Or if we disavow such thinking, we might instead argue that the brain is itself an object and a dip or a spike in a neurochemical makes the television’s sight wholly real to the person who believes the screen watches her.
But wait. Schizophrenia is a violent, devastating illness. It imprisoned my mother—a talented, funny, beautiful woman—in her own mind for most of her life. There is a meaningful difference between a child’s imagination of a doll that lives, an academic’s speculation on how matter acts independent of human will, and a diseased mind that believes objects are alive and conspiring. And so, when scholars talk about agentic objects, I can’t help but resist. I understand that objects work upon us and that even at the molecular level, they’re doing things on their own. But before I concede that an object has agency, that “things can thing” in some mystical way, I’m stopped by the painful memory of just how damaging, how paralyzing a real belief in this idea can be. So while I am sympathetic to any kind of thinking that urges humans to be more caring or more ethical stewards of the objects and environment around them, it’s the care that interests me most. After all, the McNugget buddy never cared for me, but it did congeal my parents’ care and my own attempts at ordering the strange world around me within its plastic contours.
And somewhere, someone else cared enough about a mass-manufactured Happy Meal toy to set it down an unknown path that lead to Elsewhere. When I saw it, peeking out of the material swells rising on the shelves of the museum, I recognized it, I found it familiar. But it didn’t find me. It’s tempting to say that something intrinsic to the object caused me to write these reflections, to disclose this personal backstory that I’ve never shared in writing before. But I’d insist otherwise. It’s just a piece of plastic, what Roland Barthes called a “disgraced material.” If there’s something about this object that moved me, it’s the place where I found it and the knowledge that the care of unknown people had brought it to this place. Somewhere, Elsewhere, away from scholarly expectations and my anxieties about whether or not I can meet them, I was able to choose an object—even a tacky, embarrassing one—that makes meaning for me. But even if the McNugget Buddies had personalities, jobs, talents, and a penchant for rolling around naked in barbeque sauce, their revival depends on a place like Elsewhere and their agency on a person like me.
 Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012), 194.