‘Of cabbages and kings’ – on summoning things with lists
January 20, 2013 7 Comments
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“to talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships –and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages and kings
And why the sea is boiling hot
And whether pigs have wings”
Lewis Carroll (1872) Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There
New Year seems like a good time to take stock, and in the process to think about lists and their interaction with things.
Lists sorted Santa’s recent mission, and three dimensional things arrived, wrapped and wanted in the correct hands. Each object became the centre of attention at its presenting and unveiling. Lists accomplished this bringing of objects to an audience. Lists also worked to assemble ingredients and create meals, also to plan and execute feasible journeys.
Then there were the New Year’s lists; written in the mind or on paper. The quiet reckoning of the events of the preceding year, and groping towards ideas for action (and forebearance) in the forthcoming one. Lists are powerful tools. They create order, they name, frame and coordinate objects and ideas. They are herders, thing-shepherds.
But lists can also be deployed to invoke strange disordering effects – something that has recently come to the fore in the ‘neo-materialism’ of Object Oriented Ontology and in Actor Network Theory. Lists can connect us to the untameable plenitude of things; of their complexity, their messiness and their beyond-human scale and purpose. For the material turn:
“…allows for the return of concrete objects to philosophy, after their long exile decreed by those who were too clever to talk about paper, donkeys and marbles, and thereafter allowed themselves to speak only of the aloof and alienated cognito-linguistic structures that make all such objects possible.” (Harman, 2009a: 91)
Graham Harman and his fellow travellers seek to assert the reality of objects, unshackling their existence from the conditionality of human perception. But, Harman’s is a wierd realism, a speculative one that sees human perception of any objects qualities as partial. A speculation is entailed, essences are unattainable. Objects are encountered incompletely and pragmatically. But they exist without our regard. If a tree falls in an empty forest it probably makes a sound, but no-one can know what the sound of a lonely tree’s fall is.
For Aristotle, human interrogation of objects was a search for essences, definitive primary qualities by which each object could be known and classified. Linnaeus followed in this vein with his systematic taxonomy of flora and fauna – genus and species. This was the Enlightenment and its encyclopaedic project. Everything under the sun (and the sun and stars too) must have their labels, and places, within a system of cosmic order. For Kant this drive was reductive, an attempt to ‘cleave the air’. But it remains a powerful force. Order, categorisation, control as the raison d’être of the modern list.
Michel Foucault examined this drive to order in his The Order of Things (2002) presenting in it his analysis of the evolution of the human sciences and its conceptual framing and discursive control of objects. Foucault’s study begins with an examination of Borges’ oft-quoted fictional “certain Chinese encyclopaedia” in which animals are divided into a wholly alien taxonomy: including “those belonging to the emperor”; those that “have just broken a pitcher” and “those that look like flies from a long way off”. Foucault marvels at the strangeness of this categorisation, notes the arbitrariness of any cleaving of reality, but also the object framing power of such taxonomic activities.
Foucault uses Borges’ imaginary list as a springboard to considering the genesis of the Enlightenment’s urge to classify. He views Borges’ alien taxonomy as an exercise in fantastical thinking, something wholly other to the prevailing logics of Enlightenment science. But in passing acknowledges the revelatory power of juxtaposition in Borges’ list:
“We are all familiar with the disconcerting effect of the proximity of extremes, or , quite simply, with the sudden vicinity of things that have no relation to each other; the mere act of enumeration that heaps them all together has a power of enchantment all of its own.” (2002: 18)
Foucault illustrates his point with the Comte de Lautréamont’s proto-surrealist similie describing a young man “as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” Foucault takes the similie as absurdist, and thereby an example of how impossible juxtapositions open up imaginary combinations that can only exist in imaginary – linguistic – space, for they are not real, they are non-physical creations of language and abstract thought.
In contrast Harman, Bruno Latour and Ian Bogost have all extolled the enchanting power of lists to summon the alien strangeness of reality itself to fleeting human view. Such juxtapositions are ritually invoked not to create heterotopias, but rather to shine attentive light onto aspects of the vastness of reality that usually get little if any attention. They do so as part of a critique of human-centred conventional approaches to investigation of the physical world.
For Latour, for example, the social sciences have evolved a very narrowly drawn notion of the world, a narrowness which must be challenged:
“there is a very small list of inhabitants. I mean for them there are no objects, no animals (or very little), so it’s only the humans. But they are naked humans, often even just heads, sometimes with a body but not with clothes on or without internal organs.” (Halsall, 2012: 966)
Reading some Harman recently, and Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology: or what it’s like to be a thing (2012) over Christmas, I’ve been struck by how often these theorists toss heterogeneous lists of stuff to their audience. Bogost is aware of this trope, and that some may dismiss the practice as a ‘poetics’ of objects but invokes Harman in defence of this practice as:
“the best stylistic antidote to [the] grim deadlock [of mainstream philosophy] is a repeated sorcerer’s chant of the multitude of things that resist any unified empire.” (Harman 2009b: 102)
Such litanies are intended to set up aberrant conjunctions precisely for the purpose of emphasising the alien-ness of objects to us, and also to each other – that most of the things in the universe have no obvious relationship to most other things.
I get the point here – but find that whenever confronted with one of these lists I’m titillated but almost immediately find myself trying to stitch the objects together (sheltering from the rain in the operating theatre with my recently purchased sewing machine as I do so). These lists operate – despite their authors’ intentions – as some form of random plot generator. The randomness soon fades from view as the meaning-making drive kicks in. This process makes me think of the human perceptual tendency to perceive face-shapes in dim light, or to find patterns in fields of dots. We are wired to make sense of what we are confronted with. The surrealists, fuelled by Freud’s ‘discovery’ of the unconscious, understood this. Their juxtapositions were intended to act upon human sense-making in this way (as does the ‘subliminal’ end of the advertising spectrum which owes much to the symbolic preoccupation of the early 20th century avant garde).
Yet conveniently, Harman and co leave me space for this. They accept that humans cannot escape from their anthropomorphic and/or pragmatic orientation towards things in the world. For these theorists, reality exists independent of perception, but can only be glimpsed in fragments through perception. Thus what excites me by their thinking is their call to turn attention to the full range of ‘things’ in the world, and also the space left open for consideration of the perceptive and representational practices by which human actors seek to speculate about the objects with which they are interacting, and to select and glimpse aspects that appear relevant to their needs.
Bogost, despite his book’s subtitle, doesn’t actually tell us what it’s like to be a thing. That can’t be done. What his book (and those of Harman and Latour etc) does is inspire us to be aware of things (both physical and ideational) and how we humans try to shepherd them, but never quite fully manage to fully know, or fully dominate them.
And so, refreshed, I head back into exploring the world of bricks, bunkers, quarries, church roofs, café toilets, flammable sofas, road signs and wandering.
Ah, a list. All makes sense to me…
Here’s a list of some references
Bogost, I. (2011) Alien Phenomenology , or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis.
Foucault, M. (2002) The Order of Things, Routledge: London
Halsall, F. (2012) ‘An aesthetics of proof: a conversation between Bruno Latour and Francis Halsall on art and inquiry’ Environment & Planning D: Society and Space, 30(6) 963 – 970
Harman, G. (2009a) Towards Speculative Realism, Zero Books: Winchester
Harman, G. (2009b) Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, re.press: Melbourne
Picture credit: Salvador Dali (1941) Sewing Machine With Umbrella via https://wiki.brown.edu/confluence/download/attachments/81860488/b2b21_Dali_Sewing_Machine_With_Umbrella.jpg