Friday, July 21, 2006

Object Lesson(s)

We love Bruno Latour. We love his books. In fact, his books are even better once we get to hear him speak. They read like the transcript of an intellectually-engaging conversation, yet his writing is never onerous, nor is it turgid. It is what it is. There is something rather public and almost ecumenical about his writings. Yes, he often writes about science and technology, but books like We Have Never Been Modern (1993) and Science in Action (1988) transcend their discipline. There is something -- as I already said -- democratic about his work. There's something for every one.

And this notion of democracy is, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, "the brooding omnipresence" that sifts through the pages of Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (2005). The book is literally hefty and figuratively weighty -- it is the monograph to an exhibition of the same name held at the ZKM (Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie) in Karlsruhe, Germany. It is a heroic compendium spanning a seemingly impossible breadth of thought: from political philosophy to history of science to digital art to speculative architecture.

But, as Latour states in the introduction to the work, the book/exhibit is about the creation of an object-oriented democracy. Latour realizes the incipient double-meaning of the word representation: it not only has a political aspect (elected officials represent the public) but an unmitigated sense of veracity or verisimilitude (this chart represents a summary of our findings). The former thus talks of a matter of fact, the latter talks of representation as a matter of concern.

And they key to Latour's object-oriented democracy rests in mending this schism between representation as matter of fact and representation as matter of concern. He thus advocates moving from a Realpolitik to a Dingpolitik -- literally, a politics of things, an investigation into the significance of the tangible thing. It is as if a thing -- a glass, a video game cartridge, a cookie, or radar screen -- becomes the prism through which the world refracts itself. Dingpolitik mandates a shifting of focus from objects to things. "Back to Things!" is Latour's clarion call:
...the objects of science and technology, the aisles of supermarkets, financial institutions, medical establishments, computer networks -- even the catwalks of fashion shows! --- offer poignant examples of hybrid forums and agoras, of the gatherings that have been eating away at the older realm of pure objects bathing in the clear light of the modernist gaze. Who could dream of a better example of hybrid forums than the scale models used by architects all over the world to assemble those able to build them at scale? Or the thin felt pen used by draughtsmen toimaginen new landscapes? When we say "Public matters!" or "Back to Things!" we are not trying to go back to the old materialism of Realpolitik, because matter itself is up for grabs as well. To be materialist now implies that one enters a labyrinth more intricate than that built by Daedalus (Latour, "From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik, or How to Make Things Public," in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (MIT/ZKM, 200): 23-24.
So here, a new, urgent klaxon demanding a reexamination of materialism and material culture. We only need to recall Wallace Stevens' elevation of the simple jar, the complex interweavings between subject, object, and context in "Anecdote of The Jar" (1923):

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

The thing is given urgency -- it is not only created, but it orders its surrounding space. In the words of critic Donald Guitierrez:

Being placed on top of a hill gives the jar an apex of human purpose through nature. But the jar asserts authority even more through the implied design of its own rotundity. It is the design of a created object embodying a human, cultural purpose. Further, the roundness is the symbolic design of purpose placed in nature, which in itself lacks purpose or order. The jar's roundness, exerting a centripetal force on the "slovenly wilderness," endows the wilderness (including the hill) with the order of a center. All the natural disorderliness of the wilderness acquires a purposive spatial character through "centering," and is given a figurative order in the way "rounded" and rounding human purpose shapes significance into the raw matter of earthly phenomena. Accordingly, human circularity, human centralization, civilizes "wilderness," not only the wild, that is, but chaos, nullity, meaninglessness, by providing it structure. This governing force is so powerful that even in its plainest, simplest representations ("grey and bare") the jar compels a "surrounding." "Circular Art: Round Poems of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams." Concerning Poetry 14:1 (Spring 1981).

Philip K. Dick's alternate history masterpiece, The Man in The High Castle (1962) operates in the same realm as as Bruno Latour or a Wallace Stevens. The plot of the novel is familiar, only in that it has spawned similar alternate histories or science fictions: the United States has lost the Second World War; the Eastern seaboard is occupied by Germany, the West Coast by Japan, etc. As it turns out, several of the main characters in the novel traffic pre-World War II Americana, everything including Colt revolvers, Mickey Mouse Watches, Civil War-era Banknotes. These items are counterfeited, a fact that seems inconsequential. Consumers trade these high-priced items, and as long as someone can say that they are authentic, the market remains stable.

The author then considers Frank Frink's jewelry. An expert in manufacturing counterfeit firearms, Frink labors in his basement studios producing handcrafted earrings, lapel pins, and brooches. When presented to local pawners, the jewelry is ignored, unworthy of any market value. But, in the political climate of Dick's novel, where Japanese citizens consult the I Ching on a daily basis to soothe existential concerns and where Nazi forces carry out genocidal experiments in Africa in furtherance of a political mandate, this jewelry offers a new hope -- a salvation borne out of a simple, handcrafted item. Describing an transaction involving a seemingly worthless earring crafted by Frink, Dick writes:
"To have no historicity, and also no artistic, esthetic worth, and yet to partake of some ethereal value -- that is a marvel. Just precisely because this is a miserable, small,worthlesss-looking blob; that, Robert, contributes to its possessing wu. For it is a fact that wu is customarily found in least imposing places, as in the Christian aphorism, 'stones rejected by the builder.' One experiences awareness of wu in such trash as an old stick, or a rusty beer can by the side of the road. However, in those cases, the wu is within the viewer. Here, an artificer has put wu into the object, rather than merely witnessed the wu inherent in it." He glanced up. "Am I making myself clear?"
"Yes," Childan said.
"In other words, an entire new world is pointed to, by this. The name for it is neither art, for it has no form, nor religion. What is it? I have pondered this pin unceasingly, yet cannotfathomm it. We evidently lack a word for an object like this. So you are right, Robert. It is authentically a new thing on the face of the world ... This subject carries authority which compels an abandonment of property, so great is the necessity of delivering theawarenesss itself." (1962: 176-77).
As with Stevens' seemingly worthless Tennessee jar, Dick's wu-laden earring pin may also mark a transition from Realpolitik to Dingpolitik. The earring represents a literal and figural matter of concern.

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