Monday, September 16, 2013

The Limits of Ontography: Ian Bogost, OOO, and Greg Ulmer

In Professor Ulmer’s class, we have been thinking about the ‘nonhuman’ world in a different way than object-oriented ontology. For Ulmer, the objects outside of us are actually not completely outside of us – instead they are “extimate,” the outside that reflects the inside. Ulmer fully endorses several different Modernist conceits of the outside as a figure for the inside (Eliot’s objective correlative, for instance). In this sense, Ulmer is certainly a ‘correlationist’ in the sense that the world primarily addresses us as human beings and that the world can never be ‘the great outdoors’ separate from us, a “nonsemiotic” world as Bogost puts it. As Caroline points out, the consideration of the world as “alien” can reinforce the distinction between us and them (or “that” in this case) that ideally the notion of humans as objects among others would tend to break down. Although seeing the world as speaking to human beings seems to embody correlationism, to argue that we somehow need to get back to the world (as if we ever left it) still seems to posit an absolute split between human experience and what things experience “for themselves.”
One might argue that thinking of things “speaking to us” is kind of like Bogost’s suggestion, following Bennett, that anthropomorphism is a way ultimately out of anthropocentrism, but I’m not sure I would agree (65). One might also think that Ulmer’s method parallels Harman’s argument that things only “allude” to the depths of things, but I think both of these tend to see “depth” in objects rather than a surface of signifiers. For Ulmer, the question is “What CAN an object say” and that possibility is always related to the particular person experiencing it. Ulmer claims that nowadays it is this particular experience that, rather than the universal abstractions of philosophy past, paradoxically, can become understood globally. Poetry’s strength is not in its concepts and abstractions, but rather the way it names something in its particularity that can express an affective experience.
Perhaps one of the best ways to get at this is the primacy in Bogost given to “lists,” following Latourist litanies, in Bogost and Harman’s thought. In a recent talk on Laruelle and Speculative Realism, Anthony Paul Smith argues that Latourist litanies are kind of like Insane Clown Posse’s song, “Miracles,” which can be seen below. Indeed, words elevated into concepts like “wonder” and “allure,” as well as Harman’s claim that if you populate your texts with concrete objects rather than abstractions than you are truly doing more for a ‘nonhuman’ turn make it seem like these thinkers want us to just go: “Hey look! Objects! Aren’t they mysterious and wonderful!”
Bogost argues that lists are the perfect “antidote” to “the obsession with Deleuzean becoming,” taking it so far as to suggest that lists “rebuff the connecting powers of being itself.” Bogost writes, “Lists are perfect tools to free us from the prison of representation precisely because they are so inexpressive. They decline traditional artifice, instead using mundaneness to offer ‘a brief intimation of everything’” (40). I do not see how lists free us from representation, for, if anything, it seems that it sticks us right back in the middle of representation but without its expressive power explored in great literature. It makes literature serve as a mode of description of worldly detail rather than, in the case of someone like Joyce, a transubstantiation of everyday life. Latour and Harman’s lists attempt to put everything on the same plane, but without any context of why we should care about these things (except as they are ‘in themselves’ as autonomous objects), they mean very little. The example Bogost gives from Moby Dick, for instance, is not the same kind of “list” as deployed by Harman and Latour. Bogost then makes the banal point that Moby Dick can be called “a natural history” as much as a novel; indeed, some of my favorite literature is literature that mixes genres and could be called “Encyclopedic,” but I’m not sure these examples support an object-oriented ontology or an alien phenomenology. These are ways to aesthetically receive and conceive the world, but it is not meant to be a representation of reality as it “really” is outside of human perception.
As Michelle pointed out, the “all things equally exist but not everything exists equally” is a way to, in some sense, smuggle hierarchy back into the ontology while one ostensibly maintains the egalitarian rhetoric of a “flat ontology.” I do not think many of us would disagree now that hierarchy is not bad ‘in itself’ because there ARE some things in certain contexts that we should pay attention to more or that are more at stake for how we exist in the world. For instance, Bogost makes a distinction between photographs and the “actual objects,” which gets at Andrew’s point about whether the “picture” is an object with its own perception/reception of world (as I briefly argued one can claim in the case of two different cameras the record the world):
“Photographic ontography is effective as art and as metaphysics. But photographs are static; they imply but they do not depict unit operations. For the latter, we must look to the artifacts that they themselves operate” (52).
I’m really not sure how to read this statement. It seems like Bogost’s privileging of games as “not static” comes out in this chapter, as he moves on to describe “the artifacts that they themselves operate” in the examples of two games. I’m also not quite sure how he reads Shore’s photographs as “an automatically encyclopedic rendition of a scene, thanks to the photographic apparatus’s ability to record actuality” (52). Bogost argues that his photographs are ontographs because “he refuses to treat any object as primary, as subject” (52). I certainly don’t look at Shore’s “Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue” and think that everything is treated absolutely equally because, first, there is always foreground and background and, second, there is always something outside the frame. The photographer chose to take this photograph of this particular scene.
I think the point stands that the “picture” is somehow inferior to the game, which may both be superior to writing ‘proper’ since literary writing, especially when in the form lists, really only serves to point toward “rebuffing the connecting powers of being itself” (40). Indeed, we often think of literature as the exact opposite: a gathering together of things to show the multitudes of connections possible and yet the inability to decide meaning. Making connections is what makes meaning and context (im)possible. Not the plenitude of meaning or polysemy (“the condensation of multitudes into dense singularities” (58)) but its dissemination, our inability to decide on a final meaning. As Derrida writes,
The generalization of the grammatical or the textual hinges on the disappearance, or rather the reinscription, of the semantic horizon, even when-- and especially when-- it comprehends difference or plurality. In diverging from polysemy, comprising both more and less than the latter,dissemination interrupts the circulation that transforms into an origin what is actually an after-effect of meaning.
This is still talking about language, but when can we ever talk about anything else? Just because you name something that we can recognize as a real object in the world does not mean that it only signifies this referent. As Andrew pointed out today, all these theorists seem to deny that they are operating in the same language (and the same ‘writing’) as others.
I began this reflection with thinking about how this method differs from Ulmer’s understanding of the function of objects in poetry and thus the way we should experience objects affectively as an embodied human being. I think the best way I can make this distinction is that for Bogost, it seems like the word is tied to its “outside” referent as an object whereas for Ulmer, the object can mean many things aside from itself as a material referent. Bogost argues that the “lists of objects” work their magic through their inexpressiveness, their lack of explication, description, or clarification. Concerning the Trader Joe’s video, Bogost writes, “List of objects without explication can do philosophical work of drawing our attention toward them with greater attentiveness” (45). But as we’ve pointed out, these objects do not exist in isolation; they already come with a certain degree of context and understanding. The explication and explanation are actually the elements that would do the philosophical work. If we list the objects, devoid of any context, we miss specific things like—what is it about the customers? What does the managerial policy say about the way it runs its business? These are not neutral, as we all seem to have agreed in class. Bogost’s description suggests that these lists provide THE experience of shopping at Trader Joe’s, but we’d clearly all experience it differently.
Here I am trying to get back to the attempted distinction between Ulmer’s project and Bogost’s. The key for Ulmer is not to flatten objects onto the same plane, but to notice how one’s reception of objects shows us something about our own state-of-mind or attitude toward the world. Every object does not have the same seductiveness and allure for us; instead, certain objects are important to us or could say something to us that would, perhaps, move us to act or at least to recognize our state of being in the world. Our embodiment and the interfaces we use in addition (body as interface just as much as camera, Iphone, Smartphone). We need to find a way to connect our embodiment with larger problems. Perhaps the goal for Ulmer is unashamedly concerned about human beings, but when did we begin to have this idea that human beings have been spoken of enough? Or that we know what a human being “is” and so we can move on to those “not-human” beings? Ulmer argues that we need to find a way to re-connect to the Macrocosm; in a different parlance, Stiegler argues that we are “dis-oriented” due to the acceleration of technological development (hyper-industrialisation). Understanding objects “in themselves” seems like a less urgent project than figuring out how we can re-orient ourselves in the midst of the rest of the matter and matters in the world.

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