Thursday, September 15, 2011

Three Objects for OOOIII

OOOIII: The Third Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium is now slipping into the past and I’m still wondering about my interest in object-oriented ontology. There were moments during Wednesday’s ‘wrap-up’ panel when I thought to myself I need wonder no more. But, no, I’m still wondering. Note, however, that wondering is not doubting. I have no doubts. But I do wonder.

It’s clear that, like Jane Bennett (The Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter), McKenzie Wark (P(OO): Praxis (object-oriented)), and Shannon Mattern (Everything is Infrastructure), I’m more interested in working with, describing, and understanding specific objects and assemblages than I am in theorizing about objecthood. I AM glad that theorizing is taking place, but I’m not quite sure why.

In particular, what is the relationship between that theorizing and the practical business of describing and working with objects (praxis). What is the relationship between the theorizing and the praxis? What can we say about it?

Perhaps we can approach that issue by through the question:
How do I know whether or not I’ve got a proper object by the tail?
While this is a question about knowledge, it is not an epistemological question. It is, rather, one of methodology. Once we’ve got an object, then, and only then, can we worry about knowing that object—keeping in mind, of course, that it ever withdraws as we ever know.

To this end, I offer three objects that interest me a great deal: the world-wide graffiti wall, the music-making group, and the literary text.

The World-Wide Graffiti Wall (WWGW)

As always, by graffiti I mean the specific tradition that started in NewYorkandPhilly in the late 60s and early 70s. This graffiti goes on walls, mostly by not entirely out doors, often in acts of vandalism. By the world-wide graffiti wall I mean all the graffiti in this tradition considered as a single ever-changing object. Given its large spatial extent—six continents, and, who knows, maybe there’s some on Antarctica too—this WWGW is surely one of Tim Morton’s hyperobjects.

One of the things that interests me about the WWGW is its geometry, the spatial distribution of its discontinuous parts. Those aren’t connected together in one place, nor are they uniformly distributed. They aren’t, for example, evenly spaced on a rectangular grid.

For one thing, they are on land, not in the ocean, though surely graffiti exists on many islands, e.g. the Japanese islands. Graffiti tends to be in urban areas, which are not evenly distributed. Nor is it evenly distributed within urban areas. Given an area with a fair complement of graffiti, it will not be evenly distributed in that area. We must also consider the graffiti that’s placed on freight cars (known as ‘freights’ or ‘fr8s’) and on trucks. That graffiti moves from place to place.

Which means that the WWGW is fluid on at least two time scales. On a scale of weeks to years we can trace the creation, degradation and destruction of graffiti on the walls. On a scale of minutes to days we can trace the movement of graffiti on trucks and freights.

Consider the map below, which indicates the graffiti zones in the Jersey City neighborhood where I’ve taken most of my graffiti photos:


The red pushpin is the entrance for the Holland Tunnel to Manhattan; the green pushpin is the building where I lived for a decade; and the blue pushpin is Dickinson High School, which overlooks the Hudson River. The graffiti zones are outlined in yellow. While there are tags all through the area, those zones are where you find the elaborately worked ‘pieces.’ The pieces are not uniformly distributed within those zones. In particular, zone HC is thinly populated, but it didn’t make sense to be more exact in a map of this scale. Area JC is the Newport Wall that was mentioned Gastman and Neelon’s recent The History of Graffiti in America. Finally, I note that one wall in area BR has become obscured by a tree that fell on it when Tropical Storm Irene passed through.

Now, let us imagine that we’ve mapped all the graffiti in the world as of some arbitrary date, and that we’ve mapped it down to, say, the square meter. What’s the shape of this distributed object? In particular, is it a fractal?

Further, let’s play six-degrees-of-separation with graffiti writers. Two writers can be considered linked if they’ve painted the same wall. It doesn’t matter whether or not they did it at the same time, or whether or not they’ve ever had face-to-face contact. Let us, however, add the provision that their work must have been simultaneously visible for, say, at least a week. Now, how many links between any two writers?

As you think about that question, consider the fact that only a few miles from the above area in Jersey City is a building in Long Island City, 5 Points, that has attracted graffiti writers from all over the world. The building is managed by a man who writes as Meres. Meres has gotten up on one of the walls in zone N in that map. Because of his position at 5 Points, where he has, of course, gotten up, Meres is closely links to writers the world over.

Finally, politics. Almost all of the graffiti on those sites is vandalism, thus implicating the institutional structure of society. Further, sites BA-BC, BR, CT, and YD are all posted no-trespassing zones, which means that I was breaking the law when it walked those zones taking photographs.

I would hazard to guess the electoral politics of graffiti writers. I suspect it’s mostly unformed. But I also suspect that much of it would be in sympathy with this piece from zone YD:

Innocent Screams - Komar

To those at OOOIII who worry about alterting the world to global climate change, I say: get graffiti writers to put it up on the WWGW.


But, is the WWGW a proper object? If so, why? If not, why not?

The Music-Making Group

I’ve blogged about this object many times (see, for example, "People in Groups" in Reading Latour 11), so I’m not going to run through it in any detail.

I have come to regard people making music together as a single object, a physical system in which signals organize the group’s actions. Some of the signals are electrochemical signals in the nervous systems of the individuals in the group. Others take the form of mechanical waves in the atmosphere in the immediate vicinity of the group. The latter signals are, of course, available to non-layers in the area as well. Because of that, they too are part of this system, this object.

In particular, I argue that it is the physicality of all those signals, and the paths they travel, that constitutes this assemblage as an object proper. If you examine the various things I’ve written about this object, and beyond those, the work I reference, you’ll see that my argument takes the form of a construction. Or rather, it’s a neural-level description of how such a music-making group is constructed.

In the large, my argument, but not only MY argument, is that at some undetermined time in the past, groups of very clever apes began transforming themselves into human beings by assembling in such groups. Given that as a premise, the history of humanity is, among other things, a history of the coming, going, and transformation of such assemblages. When I take such assemblages, plug them into Latour’s Actor-Network Theory, and crank up the Generalizer, I get all of humanity (to date) considered as a single hyperobject.

Two questions: 1) Is that basic assemblage of people making music together, is that a properly constituted object? 2) What of the grand generalization, all of humanity, is that, or could it be construed as, a properly constituted object?

On this second question, and here’s where the philosophers may be particularly useful, it’s not meaningful simply to assert ‘all of humankind’ as a group. And that’s not what I’ve done. I’ve given the barest hint of how one might describe such a group at the physical level. First there’s the music-making group and then there’s the grand generalization. That generalization must, however, at least meet the rather stringent requirements of Latour’s ANT methodology. One must see how it would be possible, in principle at least, that such an hyper-assemblage, if I may, could be described.

For, language allows us to nominalize anything whatsoever, including arbitrary sets (e.g. every male child born on the third Thursday of even numbered months of the year). One would not thereby declare each such nominalization to be an object in the sense of OOO. Again, how does one recognize a proper (metaphysical) object?

The Literary Text

My third object: the literary text. By which it do not mean only the ink splotches on the paper. That’s a starting point, but not all there is. Again, I’ve discussed this extensively elsewhere (e.g. in Literary Morphology, and in Reading Latour 12: Actor-Network Theory and Literary Studies) so I’m not going to run down the whole drill here and now. Norman Holland has used the term “sharable promptuary” and that’s what I’m after.

It’s more than just the ink on the page, but even that ink is not so simple. That ink is arranged in patterns, some of which are traces of the text while others are simply arbitrary artifacts of inscription on paper. Which patterns are which? But that hardly exhausts this thing I’m calling the text, this thing I want to describe. The question of what’s there beyond the patterns of ink is a deep and thorny one. Etc., etc., etc.

Academic literary criticism has organized itself around the search for textual meaning. And has long ago discoverd that even the best critics do not agree on what a given text means. I take this as evidence that explication or reading is not the proper way to apprehend, constitute, describe the text as object. When I put it that way, in fact, I suspect that many critics will retort: Well of course not! The page and the ink, they’re objects. But the text, no, the text is . . . Well, just what IS the text if not an object? Surely it’s not a subject. If it’s not a subject, then what else can it be if not an object?

If it IS an object, then it seems to me that we should, in principle, be able to describe it as such. That’s a question I’d like our philosophers to address, the principle. But I’m not clear about just what that kind of question that is.

I certainly don’t want them to give me tips on HOW TO describe the text. I’m quite convinced that the only way to learn about describing literary texts is to wade in the waters and start describing. That’s not what most philosophers have done. Even those philosophers who’ve taken an interest in literature (e.g. Derrida) have not been interested in describing the texts. They’ve been interested in what the texts mean.

Well—and here I’d like the philosophers to step in—I take it that meaning arises in the interaction between a subject and an object (an object which, however, may ‘contain’ a subject; human beings are such objects). Meaning is thus a subjective phenomenon. Note, and note this very carefully, that when I say that meaning is subjective I mean ONLY that it arises in the interaction between a subject and an object. I do not mean to imply that, because meaning is subjective, it therefore varies idiosyncratically and capriciously between subjects. It may or it may not so vary. I certainly believe that it is possible for subjects to arrive at substantial intersubjective agreement and understanding on many matters, including the meaning of literary texts.

I would argue that, in fact, (fully) human communities are possible only through intersubjective agreements on all sorts of matters, the meanings of literary texts among them. And that intersubjective agreement is possible only because many are mediated by objects that are ‘rigid’ in a certain way. That certain way can also support the process of producing descriptions of those objects such that those descriptions compel intersubjective agreement. Note that intersubjective agreement about descriptions is different from intersubjective agreement about the meanings themselves.

And—perhaps this is where I really need help—it should be possible for critics who disagree about the meaning of a text to reach agreement about the proper description of that same text considered as an object. For the methods by which one constructs a meaning are different from those by which one constructs a description. The disciplines of literary criticism are rich with methods for the first, but poor in methods for the second.

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