Monday, September 16, 2013

Anthropomorphism revisited: Ulmer, Bennett, and Bogost

What follows is once again an attempt to put New Materialism and OOO in conversation with Greg Ulmer's work. It may be of only slight interest to the class. For those of you interested in his work and our current project in his class, check out
Bennett writes toward the end of Vibrant Matter, "if a green materialism requires of us a more refined sensitivity to the outside-that-is-inside too, then maybe a bit of anthropomorphizing will prove valuable" (120). To anthropomorphize is to assign human characteristics to nonhuman entities (animals, objects, etc.). Bogost follows up on her claim by claiming that anthropomorphism allows us to see that any object encounter is a caricature of the object (whether animal, human, or object). Both Bogost and Bennett claim that anthropomorphism can also help us understand the agency of nonhumans -- their vital materiality, to use Benett's terms. Bennett figures her work in terms of a (meta)physics/ontology and Bogost as a "tiny ontology," which accompanies "alien phenomenology."
In class yesterday, Laurie asked us if Bennett's work and other New Materialisms resonates with Ulmer's work. On the one hand, yes, because we do need to pay attention to the forces of nonhuman entities (accidents). On the other hand, Ulmer believes that the metaphysical logic has already been created: what we need is a rhetoric. For ontology, he relies heavily on the work of Heidegger and Lacan as well as post-structuralist philosophers (who understood and further theorized the logic of electracy inherited from the Paris avant-garde) The rhetoric he seeks is an "image-rhetoric" performed in the age of "electracy" (which is analogous to the apparatus of "literacy" and "orality") through vernacular practices such as taking pictures with smart phones. The technological apparatus calls for the institutionalization of new practices that will help to cultivate an electrate identity formation, which is not the "self" formed under the literate paradigm.
Ulmer argues that the Greek grammatical "middle voice" is the mode in which we experience electracy. The middle voice refers to an action in which the subject is neither exclusively the actor or patient, but may include both. We could read this as another way to talk about "actants" in Latour's terms. But Ulmer understands the middle voice more as a reflexive function, in which the actor's actions affects the actor rather than something else (a direct object).
Objects, for Ulmer, are not totally other and do not have "perceptions" of their own in some sort of animistic sense. However, they do affect human beings; not only in the sense that they are forces in the world that make things happen in a physical world, but that the world and objects in it are given to us and already have meaning for us. They already have meaning for us because they are never simply "outside" of us, but, I think, that our agency has been distributed through the world, through what we have made and that this distribution all leads back to our embodied experience. That is, for Ulmer, we need to figure out what need/desire of our body is then externalized to the environment.
I do not think Ulmer would argue against Bennett and others that nonhuman objects have "agency" or potential in their own right. However, because Ulmer is interested in a rhetoric that could potentially burst out of a rareified academic setting, he believes that what is important for us to recognize in this world is not the agencies of objects, but our agency. For Ulmer, we have lost our sense of agency in the world. The "aesthetic attitude" advocated by Ulmer is not to get at the reality of other beings, but to recognize that our inventions all serve our embodiment. In the MIddle Ages, argues Ulmer, people knew where they fit in the macrocosm; our job is to try and reconnect our individual, affective experiences back to that macrocosm, so as to recognize our agency in the world, which would, ideally, get us to act (or at the very least, understand that our actions result in certain sacrifices on behalf of a value; Ulmer elaborates on this point extensively in Electronic Monuments).
Once again, though, we come to the question of anthropomorphism. Instead of anthropomorphism, Ulmer argues that we should recognize our own agency, desire, and limit of our embodiment in the world. We should tie ourselves to contingent being not in order to pretend to understand them outside of the human-world relation, but rather in order to understand how we connect (if only poetically, through the use of tropes) to what we see in the world.
Again, its not that humans are the sole actants in the world, but that Ulmer is less interested in developing a new metaphysics, because the metaphysics has already been invented and the practices associated with it have just begun (in comparison to orality and literacy). OOO and perhaps new materialism to a certain extent still rely on a "literate" concept of being -- trying to define being (definition is already a literate construction). Ulmer focuses on "affect" in the sense of mood, state of mind (befindlichkeit -- Heidegger). The external (or, to be more precise, the extimate, world) can help us understand our attitude toward the world and this is our "EPS" -- existential positioning system to correspond to our "GPS."
"Anthropomorphism," then, is not quite the term I'd use for Ulmer's method. Instead, the world is filled with "triggers" that set off affective states and memories in an analogous way to the various spots which we can access via smartphones. The key for Ulmer is to be able to think with the vernacular practice of image making with a smartphone; for this to happen, it must be institutionalized. His literate scholarship is not an end in itself, but always trying to point toward an electrate way of being.
WIthin his literate work (i.e. his books), Ulmer does draw on rich ancient traditions of the gods; most recently, the idea of the "avatar," not in the sense of a gaming avatar, but more as a guide that tells us our limit, such as Krishna's advice to Arjuna: "Dude, you are a warrior -- you can't not fight!" (to quickly paraphrase the advice of the Bhagavad Gita). In the Western Tradition, this function is the "guardian angel" in the Greek tradition, this is "daimon" which is our experience of limit. What we call an "accident" in the world (indeed, in my last seminar we spoke of a "metaphysics of the accident" rather than a metaphysics of substance, returning to Aristotle's famous distniction) corresponds to what the Greek's called Nemesis -- that which comes back to us when we go too far. Accidents result in death, that death becomes an indirect sacrifice for our actions.
On the one hand, we might think that Ulmer is reviving even more than the vibrant materialists or the vitalists outdated notions such as 'the gods' which are clearly not how the world really works. On the other, it is crucial to understand that Ulmer evokes these figures as analogies because he believes that, although we do not think of these gods as actual beings that advise us, their functions still persist. That is, for Ulmer, we look back to other wisdom traditions in order then to look at our world, our apparatus, our regime, in order to find how these ideas get translated into electracy.
Bogost too recommends "analogy," but, for him, analogy is used to perform alien phenomenology, so that we can recognize that any way we see/experience/describe an object is a "caricature" of it. But for Ulmer, the world (objects, scenes captured in images that may include humans, etc.) is extimate, intimately bound up with our embodiment because this is how we experience the world.

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