Author Archive

Black Box Tales

April 29, 2009

My eighth grade English teacher taught us how to get to know a character in a book by figuring out:
-what the character says
-what the character does
-what others say about the character

Substituting “thing” for character,” I might also add:
-what others do around the things
-what the thing is made of
(and perhaps other approaches as well)

Thinking about this also made me think more about Latour’s black-boxing and Graham’s related discussion. Particularly, with respect to categories and time.

First, is black-boxing just another way of categorizing things? I could see “an apple” (one) or “parts of an apple” (and array of core, seeds, peel, etc.) or “atoms of an apple” (all the way down to the electrons)–it just depends on what I’m interested in at the moment, whether molecular or biblical allegory.

Also, I was intrigued by Graham’s assertion that Latour’s black-boxing “freezes” networks and assemblies within, and how trying to examine or remove the black-boxes of an apple or other thing seems like an alienating process.

Just like the character in a novel, the thing seems deserving of a narrative arc, perhaps as a way of telling the story of black-box snapshots over time. The necessary shortening and interpreting of that narrative are prefaced in the Oxford English Dictionary’s notations on the definitions of “thing” as relating to judgement (in addition to meetings, events, causes, etc., as well as standing in for the abstract and the unknown). Additionally, however, narrating history is a thing unto itself.

Teddy and Thinging

April 22, 2009

Several readings this semester have reminded me of Buddhist teachings about interdependence, awareness, etc. So, I’d like to borrow the voice of the main character from J.D. Salinger’s short story “Teddy” , a ten year old American boy who was an Indian holyman in his prior life. (Heidegger’s essay reminded me of this story especially.)

A new acquaintance familiar with Teddy and eager to ask him questions says, “I believe you said on that last tape that you were six when you first had a mystical experience. Is that right?”
“I was six when I saw everything was God, and my hair stood up, and all that,” Teddy said. “It was on a Sunday, I remember. My sister was only a very tiny child then, and she drank her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God. I mean all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean.” [They talk a little about getting out of the finite dimension.]
“How does one get out of the finite dimension?” he asked and gave a short laugh. “I mean, to begin very basically, a block of wood is a block of wood, for example. It has length, width–”
“It hasn’t. That’s where you’re wrong,” Teddy said. “Everybody just thinks things keep stopping off somewhere. They don’t… The reason things seem to stop off somewhere is because that’s the only way most people know how to look at things. But that doesn’t mean they do.” [He goes on to discuss shedding logic and assumptions.]

Also, Heidegger’s letters to a student reminded me of this passage from the same story:
He describes what he sees out if the window of the boat. “Someone has just dumped a whole garbage can of orange peels out the window.”

Teddytook in most of his head. “They float very nicely,” he said without turning around. “That’s quite interesting.”

“I don’t mean it’s interesting that they float,” Teddy said. “It’s interesting that I know about them being there. If I hadn’t seen them, then I wouldn’t know they were there, and if I didn’t know they were there, I wouldn’t be able to say that they even exist.”…

“Some of them are starting to sink now. In a few minutes, the only place they’ll still be floating will be inside my mind. That’s quite interesting, because if you look at it in a certain way, that’s where they started floating in the first place.”

“After I go out this door, I may only exist in the minds of all my acquaintances….I may be an orange peel.”

Wonderment and Fascism

April 22, 2009

Following up last week’s class, Latour seemed to be set on reinvigorating a sense of wonderment and awareness in our interactions with and studies of things.

I also wonder about fascism (which I believe came up in class before). Particularly, the strategy awakens scientists and observers to the complexity and connections within societies, but it also seems to spread out culpability (for instance with “man with gun”) in a way that could limit the ability to prosecute human intent alone. His discussion of politics, while appealingly empowering and democratic, in the closing pages didn’t address this for me (though he steered the conversation away from that anyway, I think). So, can things be fascist? If so, does that change the responsibility of humans?

Latour’s Oligopticon and Foucault’s Panopticon

April 15, 2009
A diagram of Foucault's panopticon

A diagram of Foucault's panopticon

Following up on the mention of Foucault in class today, Latour discusses Foucault’s prison idea in Reassembling the Social when he constructs the “oligopticon.” On p. 181 of the chapter about localizing the global, he writes, “As every reader of Michel Foucault knows, the ‘panopticon’, an ideal prison allowing for a total surveillance of inmates imagined at the beginning of the 19th century by Jeremy Bentham, has remained a utopia, that is, a world of nowhere to feed the double disease of total paranoia and total megalomania. We, however, are not looking for a utopia, but for places on earth that are fully assignable. Oligoptica are just those sites since they do exactly the opposite of panoptica: they see much too little to feed the megalomania of the inspector or the paranoia of the inspected, but what they see, they see it well… From the oligoptica, sturdy but extremely narrow views of the (connected) whole are made possible–as long as connections hold.” He also contrasts the absolutist gaze from the panoptica with the more democratic, mutable and vulnerable gaze within the oligoptica, and goes on to describe the importance of localizing and connecting things (rather than overly-elevating the importance of power centers in a network) to “flatten the landscape.” This seems to be part of his appeal for humility. Instead of omniscience, we have the ability to see a little bit of a lot of things.

Oligopticons come up in some discussions of architecture. Here’s a link to a discussion about one such example.

A Gentle April Fools Experiment

April 3, 2009

chair chair3chair chair3chair chair3

When you came into class on Wednesday, you may or may not have noticed a slight change. With assistance from an anonymous spontaneous co-conspirator, I turned all the chairs around.

One person remarked on it, while most stayed quiet as they turned their chairs around. Did you notice anything about this backwards thing?

Shapeshifting Shakespeare

March 24, 2009

Shakespeare fans were a tizzy last month with the unveiling of what is believed to be a newly confirmed portrait of the bard. Rosey-cheeked and dressed in couture, this image of him has people speculating about his mysterious biography.

"New" portrait

New portrait

Well known engraving by Martin Droeshout

Well known engraving by Martin Droeshout

As shifting as his personal legend is, so are his plays. Things that in high school English class I thought were unchanged since being captured from Shakespeare’s quill were actually cobbled together from different versions, and no ur-tome exists. To explore this, I’ll be examining the textual evolution of “Hamlet” on Wednesday.

Here’s one article on the battle between editions of the play.

A few words from Walter Benjamin

March 3, 2009

I read Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (second version) for another class this week and wanted to share part of his discussion of the authenticity of a thing :

“The authenticity of a thing is the quintessence of all that is transmissible in it from its origin on, ranging from its physical duration to the historical testimony relating to it.”

He also emphasized that the history of an object includes, “changes to the physical structure of the work over time, together with any changes in ownership.”

Reasserting objects; destabilizing time

February 25, 2009

After last week’s discussion and feeling like things had to be the victim, subaltern, or vanishing (Keane write “transparent expression’s of meaning” in this week’s article), I very much appreciated Pinney’s article which seemed to reclaim the autonomy/authority of objects and get past some dichotomies. The very term “purification” or separating subjects and objects implies that things on their own are profane. Also, some analyses seemed to put socially acted upon things on a continuum with humans on one end and subalterns on another, setting up things to be a class of oppressed pseudo-persons, soon to be assimilated. Shaking up that progression was much appreciated.

Also, the description of objects as “compressed performances” adds more depth and action than the purely semiotic interpretations, while also retaining some sense of symbolism and communication over things (p. 269).

Does Pinney’s discussion of Kracauer’s cataracts of time fit with Gell’s discussion of distributed personhood (or “thinghood”)? (e.g. p. 264).

Also, I was intrigued by the small point in Renfrew’s article about how the landscape, once demarcated by objects like stones, is now bounded by text and documents, in the form of maps, contracts, deeds, etc. (p. 28). This was a helpful example of a semiotic relationship with objects, particularly one in which the object can literally be replaced with a symbol (of course, you could argue that this replacement with documents isn’t a perfect substitution, especially with the old adage, “Possession is nine tenths of the law.”).

Commoditizing Happiness

February 4, 2009

In the article “Marx’s Coat,” Stallybrass writes, “Happiness was often measured in the buying of new clothes or the redemption of things from the pawnshop (195).” Clothing and other curios entered the pawnshop through various transactions that perhaps also implicated sentimental values, commoditzing them by proxy. This reminded me of the following ad:

De-fetishizing Lenin Kitsch

February 3, 2009

In the fall of 2008, artist Yevgeniy Fiks challenged the value of art commerce (and the festishization of Soviet kitsch), with the help of 91 little Vladimir Lenins at the New York City’s Winkleman Gallery.  

From Adopt Lenin

Instead of buying a piece of art from the exhibition “Adopt Lenin (” visitors had the opportunity to “adopt” an item.  With each exchange, Fiks evoked Lenin’s Socialist legacy while riffing on the capitalism of the art market. 
Participants signed an agreement with the gallery certifying that they would never sell or in any way profit from the object.  (Anyone who inherits the object must adhere to the same rules. )  Copies of the signed adoption papers covered a gallery wall. 

Fiks bought these images and figurines of the Soviet leader on eBay and from Moscow.  He estimated that the Communist kitsch cost him $5,000.  When the Winkleman Gallery offered to pay part of Fiks’ expenses, he refused–the money had to be his own so that he could personally liberate these icons of the Communist leader from the capitalist realm (and in a way that Marx’s coat, as discussed in our readings, never achieved).  

For four weeks in September, images and figurines of Lenin filled the space: he rested his chin on his palm; he walked with his hands in his pockets; he spoke before a microphone.  A total of 91 Lenins occupied the gallery, representing the 91 years since the Russian Revolution and Lenin’s ascent to power.   By playing with the commercial art paradigm and paying for the pieces himself, Fiks awakens art fans to a new way of thinking about art as “priceless.”

Adopt Lenin Exhibit

Adopt Lenin Exhibit