December 24, 2012 Leave a comment
My blog musings are mostly about meaning-making practices in the material world, about how significance is projected onto physical stuff. This short essay is about my recent re-discovery of a 25 year old print of M.C. Escher’s The First Day of Creation (1925 – above) which someone gave me many Christmases ago, and which – clad in a dusty clip frame – has lain unregarded in a box for most of its life.
Upon its original unwrapping I’d been seized with a wave of disappointment. I’d asked for an Escher print and I’d expected one of his mesmerising geometric conundrums. Instead I got a ‘straight’ picture of a fat bird flying over a brain-like planet. I’m sure I smiled politely, but inside I was already planning which storage box it could be consigned to.
But, this week this picture has finally (and rather suddenly) made sense. This short essay explains how, and in doing so skims across the suface of the deep worlds of alien phenomenology and object oriented ontology. But, like the fat bird’s flight, this is a skim. Those phrases won’t reappear.
Travels earlier this week gave me chance to read Graham Harman’s Towards Speculative Realism (2009) and Franz Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog (1922). Each have helped me to find new meaning in this picture. Whether Escher intended the interpretation that follows doesn’t matter, this is about meaning-making as inference not as authorial implication.
Staring at the picture this week I saw a planetscape of worms and a bird, happy and satiated in its world. These worms were what the world below meant to it: what it saw, because that was what it was eternally searching out. I saw bird, worms and world in a network. And in the bird’s eye I sensed a sincerity of its project, it’s imperative:
“To recognize the other as other is to sense the imperative weighing on his or her thought…the imperative that calls me obliges me to understand the causes and grounds that unleash their energies within the world…we see the other ordered not by biochemical laws and cultural codings, but by a task.” (Harman, 2010: 15)
This led me to Kafka’s portrayal of the sensory life-world of a questioning dog. Kafka’s short story Investigations of a Dog, presents the pondering of a dog as he questions the unquestioning nature of dog culture and his attempts through absurdist (to us humans) experiments to determine where food comes from. Kafka gives us a glimpse of what it must be like to be a dog and to live under the influence of canine imperatives:
“Trembling with desire, whipping yourself with your own tail, you steal cautiously upon your fellow dog, you ask, you howl, you bite and achieve…contiguity, honest acceptance, ardent embraces, barks that mingle as one: everything is directed toward achieving an ecstacy, a forgetting and finding again…” (Kafka 1922, 321-322)
Kafka interprets the imperatives of dog-life as primarily a quest for food and inclusion, membership of a pack and validation through it. Enquiry other than pragmatic investigation related to those goals is literally pointless.
Harman (in his reading of Alphonso Lingis) takes imperatives beyond the sentient realm of living creatures, and into the inanimate (or at least the non-sentient) world. Just as we should appreciate the sincerity of the imperatives of other other creatures, so also should we take note of the imperatives of the other stuff of the world:
“Making room for one another …objects contest each other, seduce each other, empower or annihilate each other. Commanding one another by way of the reality of their forces, the objects exist as imperatives. Like fish hunting food or dogs playing with balls, it is possible that gravel and tar, cloth and magnesium wage war against one another, compress one another into submission, demand respect from one another.” (21)
Harman’s upscaling of these notions of imperatives, sincerity and respect is refreshing. It can also seem rather other-worldly. But Harman takes care to drag his point back down to earth, to the substances of the real, everday world wherever he can. He is not suggesting that we worship tarmac, and is not saying that gravel has a soul or a self awareness of its own imperatives. Rather, he is simply reminding us that the world is not just made up of ideas, of representations of stuff. It is also made up of stuff, and that stuff has weight upon the world. It affects, directs, shapes through inevitable interaction.
Harman’s work on speculative materialism does (at least) two important things. First it brings the material back into play (and links well with the attentiveness to hybrid assemblages of things of Bruno Latour and other proponents of Actor Network Theory) and secondly, it leaves open a role for culture and perception in human (and other) interaction with objects. Harman shows how the identity of an object is multi-faceted, and can never be fully known by any one viewer or perspective. He cites cubism as an attempt to show the ‘all angles at once’ depiction of faces, cars and other supposedly simple and singluar things. In reasserting the material, Harman does not got kill off the role of the perceptual. As the ‘full’ character can never be viewed or known, fractions of the object are all that can be known, and the fraction is that perceived from the standpoint of the imperative guiding the speculator. The task at hand shapes what will be seen.
So, as I tentatively burrow into Harman’s work, I try to work through the implications for my own projects, experiences and preconceptions. As I stumble across an old picture, I view it through the frame of the throughts in my head, and for the first time I see a scene rich with meaning. The bird is in its world. It sees its world in terms of it’s imperatives – food and movement. We see its universe, and its place in that universe. We see imperative, sincerity, and it is good.
Picture source: M.C. Escher (1925) The First Day of Creation http://uploads8.wikipaintings.org/images/m-c-escher/the-1st-day-of-the-creation.jpg