Monday, January 7, 2013

Evocative Objects

When Turkle writes of "evocative objects," I find myself trying to figure out whether or not anything can be an evocative object? Who or what decides on its evocation? Are there objects that we all experience that are more likely to be evocative? Are objects evocative at some times and not others?

The key word to answering this question, I think, is companion: "In every case, the author's focus is not on the object's instrumental power--how fast the train travels or how fast the computer calculates--but on the object as a companion in life experience" (5). Even if these objects are not ever-present or these objects (physical objects) are lost, they still play a key role in the person's emotional-mental worlds for longer than one particular moment. Thus, evocative objects are not merely objects that excite the senses; in fact, the sensual aspects of the objects in the text, so far as I can remember, are downplayed in favor of thinking  how these objects contribute to a person's life narrative. Even though the senses are not excluded, as one can consider even the cookie Proust's narrator eats that sets off a chain of memory to be an evocative object, the narrative is foregrounded, which we can see in Turkle's last exhortation: "we will need to tell ourselves different stories" (326). 

Pointing out the necessity of narrative is not to criticize, but to show that evocative objects are not necessarily specific, individuated objects; that is, objects that cannot be duplicated because of their histories. The glucometer, the cello, 'keyboards', 'stars', knots, apples, Foucault's pendulum, slime mold, all may have been encountered in a specific place and time such that the experience is not repeatable (within the person's life narrative), but its any Foucault's pendulum, slime mold, or knots, that are evocative. In contrast, the rolling pin, the painting in the attic, the silver pin, Murray: the stuffed bunny, the synthesizer, are all specific. 

Except the more I think of it, this is still an artificial division. Pinch speaks not of just one synthesizer-- his own-- but also Vickers(made by another person), which also contributed to his professional, emotional, and intellectual life. Strohecker herself is obsessed with knots, but the story crystallizes around another person's specific knot. 

I dwell on this to show that there is a slippage between the specific object that forms a narrative and the object tin general that contains the same kind of potential (does it?). Pinch's specific synthesizerdoesn't evoke anything in me and, frankly, the synthesizer in general doesn't evoke anything in me. The narrative Pinch tells, however, does evoke something in me: it makes me think about how objects have helped me compose and experience different sounds. Through these stories, these objects take on more significance and meaning in my own life, as I start to recognize how  objects have contributed to larger projects in others' lives and begin to think about my own evocative objects. 

There are very few objects that I consider indispensable to my life. Surely as a scholar one of the most evocative objects for me are texts. Certain texts have changed my professional and emotional life: I think of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, James Joyce's Ulysses, Martin Heidegger's Being and Time, Jacques Derrida's Margins of Philosophy. These texts fundamentally altered my emotional and intellectual worlds. Part of the reason I began to study literature is because of my love, my passion for these objects. These texts I have undergone, I have suffered through. These texts that overflow with associations not just in my own life but to other texts in the world. These objects still are evocative for me; I still tear up at the final affirmation, the final "Yes" in Ulysses as Molly Bloom climaxes; the phrase "fear no more the heat o' the sun" immediately brings to mind Septimus Smith. BullockBefriendingBard is still one of my favorite alliterations (Ulysses). And Dasein has taken on a significance I cannot begin to explain. 

Sid Dobrin said in a recent seminar that academics have to be fans at the very least in order to succeed. We actually have to be more than fans. We have to allow our objects of study to evoke another text, another project, another meaning, another transformation. As a scholar, I still have not found that evocative object of study that requires years of dedication and research. As scholars, we need these evocative objects, these companions, to accompany us throughout our lives. 

Two examples from philosophy: I think for both Graham Harman and Jacques Derrida, in  different modes and for different reasons, the texts of Martin Heidegger can be considered "evocative objects." Similarly,  Heidegger has played a large role in my own development as a scholar, as has Derrida. These texts haunt me-- in a positive way. I have a connection to these texts that fuses my intellectual and affective worlds. 

But I need to find an evocative object of study in my own "field." Which is what? Theory, Rhetoric, Composition, Media? The theoretical apparatuses prominent in these fields right now consider all objects and relations mediators. If everything is an object and a relation (or rather, as Harman puts it, every relation creates another object), how can I decide which relations, which objects, I should study. Harman may be right that a banana peel and a foot is ontologically just valid as a human relationship -- that it is a difference in degree. However, this gives us little direction into what relations one should value as a scholar (who is not involved in the project of reviving a radical metaphysics). Harman writes in Quadruple Object: "Inanimate collisions must be treated in exactly the same way as human perceptions, even if the latter are obviously more complicated forms of relation" (46). For all of his careful definitions and terminology, what does it mean that human perception is more complicated (which is not the same thing as complex)? Furthermore, what can Object Oriented Philosophy add to thinking human relations, such as language?

I know I've drifted away from my initial question of evocative objects, but I think that Turkle's book is a good reminder (as is N. Katherine Hayles) that we still do need to think about what makes an object evocative to us? What object is worth devoting so much time and energy? Its true that not everything is "for us" or givenness for us; however, in some sense, is it not the case that anything we encounter (or choose to address in a philosophical, theoretical, or poetic work) as human beings is addressed to not-us and us (as human beings, as specific readers or thinkers, etc.). Shouldn't we think through the multiple addressees? 

My Evocative Object

Although I have yet to find the evocative object that sets off my scholarly career, I do possess at least one personal evocative object: my acoustic guitar. To this day, I have never met anyone who has the same model or even the same brand of guitar I have: a Parkwood. Everywhere I go people ask me what kind of guitar I have: "a Parkwood," I say, and no one knows what I am talking about.  I bought this guitar a long time ago, when all I wanted to do was to play pop songs like Dave Matthews. Had I knew where my musical tastes would take me (far away from Dave), I would have probably chosen a Martin or a Taylor. But the Parkwood's price was right and, to my young ear, it sounded sweet to my ear, felt right on my lap, and, most importantly, was the right price. Furthermore, it had a built in microphone so I could plug it into a PA system. The Parkwood, I was told at the time, is the Cort company's attempt at a higher end instrument. Basic Cort acoustic guitars can be purchased for about 200 dollars (sometimes less), but, if memory serves me, the Parkwood was 800. I am still not sure if this story about Cort is true, but its how I connect my guitar to a better known brand.

One of the most significant events with this Parkwood is not a particular song written, but the day I fucked it up. Late one evening, my friends and I decided to have a bonfire out on a hill somewhere--I think it was public property. We got high and played music and everyone had a grand old time. Afterwards, I slung my guitar over my shoulder, like a backpack, and started down the hill. As I was walking down, I slipped on the wet grass and fell on my back--and on my guitar. I thought I heard a snapping sound, but didn't check at the time, waiting till I got home. When I got home, I found that I had made two significant cracks on the front of the guitar and on top of the body! I was devastated and cried, but luckily it still sounds fine--although I always wonder what was lost and whether anything was gained.

A year ago, I began to play at an open mic. Toward the end of its existence, I began to do strange things on stage such as thrown down my guitar on the floor before screaming into the mic. I was afflicted with a kind of Pete Townsend-fever and had the urge to harm my guitar. One night I faked like I was going to slam it into the ground. Another night, I threw it so hard against the floor that the electronics got punched in and the battery fell out into the body of the guitar. The electronics and the guitar still works and it has the battle scars to prove its authentic history.

I once told my dad there were two different kinds of abuses of guitars, one being a far greater abuse; the first is to use it up, hit it, crack it, etc. One can consider this kind of abuse almost lovingly in the same way that we consider wrinkles and scars to be signs of wisdom as well as age. The second, however, is not playing it at all and thereby letting it gather dust in some corner. The object becomse unevocative or evocative only in the mode of a nostalgia for the days past-- no longer transformative and active, it becomes part of the furniture or the decor--memories of a time past that cannot be bothered to be relived.

In the section "Doing and Having" in Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre describes beautifully how using an object, wearing it down, makes it ever more particular and important to the point that it becomes me. Destruction can function also as an act of creation:
To utilize is to use. In making use of my bicycle, I use it up--wear it out; that is, continuous approprative creation is marked by a partial destruction. This wear can cause distress for strictly practical reasons, but in the majority of cases it brings a secret joy, almost like the joy of possession: this is because it is coming from us--we are consuming [. . .] it is to destroy by incorporating into oneself [. . .] The bicycle gliding along, carrying me, by its very movement is created and made mine; but this creation is deeply imprinted on the object by the light, continued wear which is impressed on it and which is like the brand on the slave. The object is mine because it is I who have used it; the using up of what is mine is the reverse side of my life. (757)
We could sit and critique Sartre for his denegration of the object in service of human sovereignty (the object as slave), but I think his basic point holds true. We make our mark on an object and we take it away from its status as an identical consumer product that anyone with money can buy. Sure someone can buy a Parkwood guitar just like mine, but will it bear the traces of my songs, my stories, my strums, my skin the strings rip off and embed into the fretboard? No.

However, its not just my acoustic guitar as evocative object, but any acoustic guitar. At first I had written that any guitar is an evocative object, but the designation of an acoustic guitar is important. Although I can and do play electric guitar (and electric bass), these guitars still feel a little awkward and distant from me. The electric guitar lacks the sensual response I get from the acoustic guitar. When I strum chords on the electric guitar (even with distortion) they still feel flat; the strings do not respond because they cannot create the bounce and rhythm, which makes it the perfect companion to the voice. Electric strings feel comparatively dead (even new strings) and neither the body of the guitar nor my body resonate;. An electric guitar feels other than me, like a new prosthetic arm that I have not fully incorporated into myself; my acoustic guitar is more like a metal plate in my head, attuning me to radio signals, however faint and however chaotic.

 I rarely, if ever, compose songs on electric guitar. If a song works on an acoustic guitar, effects can be added on in the arranging phase. Composing on acoustic guitar forces one to create a solid song with structure both lyrically and musically before considering how it could sound on a record. Playing with an acoustic guitar limits the kinds of sounds one can make, but as in a poetic composition, these limitations can turn to an advantage.

The guitar is necessary for me to write a song. I may have a few lines and maybe a melody in my head, but until I pick up my acoustic guitar the song remains incomplete, un-actualized, in potentia. I use the word "compose" but my songs are hardly complex compositions from a musical perspective. Surely Juliard composition majors would see my songs as amatuerish, perhaps even primitive. Tod Machover explains that "no one at Juliard  would be caught dead in practice room, or plinking out his or her music on a piano, lest he or she be accused of inadequate ear training, of a sterile musical imagination" (18). My imagination, and apparently Machover's as well, is not "sterile," its just that it is insufficient-- a prosthesis is called for to get my creative juices flowing. And really, how different is the guitar as prosthesis from the paper on which the composer's imagination is inscribed? Like Machover, my feeling for composition calls upon my intimate relationship with my guitar (18).

But as I said, not just my guitar, but any guitar (although mostly acoustic) suffices as an evocative object. The first thing I look at in someone's house or apartment is the bookshelf. The second? If they have a guitar.
because if a guitar is lying around, I am usually fiddling with it, even if I am involved in a conversation or no one pays attention. I might even sing a few lines or ask if anyone would like to hear a song. I have played guitar since I was 9 years old, so guitars in general are intimately familiar to me. Rarely do I have to consciously tell my fingers how to arrange themselves to form chords or which strings to pluck unless I am practicing a new song or technique. I can play basic chords along to most songs so much so that I can earn them on the fly (even in performances).

But I am not really a "guitarist." In fact, this admission might be one of the reasons why electric guitars feel lackluster.  Because its not the vibrations of the guitar strings and the sound they make that really get me, but rather the vibration of my entire body. Machover writes that he wanted his instrument "to be able to sing, that the bow "is where expression comes from like breathing for a singer," and that "the physical intensity of cello playing [is] a whole body experience" (14, 17, 17 ). I do not so much mold myself to the guitar (like, say, Hendrix or Clapton) to make it sing; rather, the guitar facilitates the transformation of my body, breath, and mind into both a composing and performing instrument.  For my part, I do not need my guitar to sing; I use my guitar as an accompaniment for my voice.

"Accompaniment," however, may not quite fit my meaning. My voice and my guitar are two aspects of my prosthetic body. The pressure of my pick on the strings serves as a counterpoint to my vocals and lyrics. The real star is the song. Everything serves the performance of the song. Every performance varies as I may decide that I want to hit a high note or scream and may have to adjust the volume, timbre, or pitch of my guitar-body-voice. My guitar-body-voice feeds off the room and the audience and I am barely conscious of all of the adjustments I make to strumming or singing. These moments a different kind of thinking from my academic work takes place: a thinking of affect, a thinking of the body, a sensual thinking. Its thought without words (even if I'm singing words); its thought without consciousness in its strict sense. Participating in the guitar-voice-body-song-audience-room network -- this is when I feel most alive. The acoustic guitar is my pivot point that sets in motion the network of sound, silence, and sense.

And it would all be impossible without my composition-performance prosthesis: the acoustic guitar.