Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Agency, Action, Language, and OOO Rhetoric

I was walking in downtown Jersey City yesterday. Just as I stepped off the curb to cross Washington Boulevard in the Newport area I noticed a woman stepping from the street onto the sidewalk. She was talking on her cell phone and she dropped her purse, but didn’t notice the drop.

As soon as I’d registered those two things, and without thought, I shouted (more forceful than loud) “Excuse me” even as I bent down to retrieve her phone. The shout and the retrieval were part of the same unified action though, obviously, they required different body systems.
[She heard my shout and I handed the purse to her. We went on our respective ways without saying a word. We were both busy.]
What struck me in the seconds immediately after that encounter is the swiftness, directness, and simplicity with which I acted. It wasn’t particularly unusual, not at all. Nor was it exactly ‘usual’ either. Such actions are quite common, not to mention necessary, in various situations. In sports or in music, for example, one routinely strings a bunch of such actions together without a thought.

But I’ve been thinking about object-oriented ontology recently, and about the rhetorical ploys it uses to acknowledge objects. Like that purse and its fall. Of that purse at that moment, I could say it called to me and that I responded to the call. In that usage the purse, the mere object, is the actor and I, the human, am the recipient of the action.

Object-oriented ontologists use such and similar rhetoric, for THAT purpose, asserting and acknowledging the agency of objects. And yet they know perfectly well that objects cannot and do not call out, nor do they use telepathy. The rhetorical tactic functions as a contrast to linguistic business as usual. The problem is that, in some situations (when used to excess?), the contrastive function tends to habituate out, to recede into the background, and what’s left is an apparently nonsensical assertion that the purse talked, or whatever the proposition may be.


I’m told that some languages have a richer set of voices than English, which is limited to active and passive voice. And that some other voice, in one of those languages, is better suited to expressing how I acted in that situation. It’s not that the purse acted on me rather than me acting on the purse but rather that I acted in a distinctly different mode, a mode in which my agency didn’t seem so, you know, active.

If object-oriented ontology were written in a language with a richer set of voicing alternatives, what would it be like?

* * * * *

A NOTE and a BLEG: Classical Greek may be one of those languages—we know how much superb philosophy got written in that language. It’s called the middle voice and here’s a gloss on it from an Amazon review of All Things Shining, by Herbert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly. The review is by one James Sexton.
In a wonderful endnote the authors mention the existence of the "middle voice" in Attic Greek which is something in between the passive and active voice. In our modern grammar we have the active--"John threw the ball"--and we have the passive--"John was thrown by the bull"--but we don't have that middle voice whereby your action is called out of you by the situation and the surroundings--by an attunement, or by something that attunes you to important realities inherent in your surroundings. Homer uses the middle voice, we are told, when Athena prompted Odysseus's hands to reach out and grab a passing rock and thus save himself from being smashed into the rocky shore. Odysseus was neither totally active, nor totally passive.
So far so good. The phrase “whereby your action is called out of you by the situation and the surroundings” is exactly right. I’m not sure whether or not that event rises to the standard of, to paraphrase, an important reality inherent in my surroundings, but the event was urgent in it’s way.

The problem comes with the example, in which Odysseus saves himself. I was not acting on my behalf, but on behalf of another. Why’s this an issue? When I consulted various sites on the middle voice in Greek, this one is typical, they all mention acting on one’s own behalf as one of the uses of the middle voice. None of them said anything about an action being “called out” of the actor by and “situation and the surroundings”.

Does anyone know whether the middle voice, in Greek or in any other language, was used in cases where an action was called out of the actor, but was not on the actor’s behalf?

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