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Anne Dalke's picture

The Emergence of Form, Meaning, and Aesthetics

February, 2010 Core Group Meeting

Background, Summary,
and Continuing Discussion

of ... OOO
(Object-Oriented Ontology)
Anne Dalke & Liz McCormack

I. group upkeep

For Wai Chee Dimock's visit on Tuesday, March 16,
read intro & chapter 6 from her book on
American Literature across Deep Time
("Planet as Duration and Extension" and "Nonstandard Time")

Also: dinner (?), then public talk Tuesday @ 7:30 on
"Literature as Public Humanities"
(re: Facebook page re: Re-thinking World Literature,
and PBS/community college Series on "Reading the World")
she's looking forward to conversation with scientists, among others

any interest in proposing a Kaleidoscope?


Today we'd like to try and "hook up" our various trajectories.
After being lead by Paul into considerations of subjectivity/objectivity,
by Ben into the practices of the I-Ching,
by Alice and Bharath into a consideration
of the usefulness of the idea of "heaven,"
(a fall-long focus, in other words, on human actors)

--we were invited, by Arlo, last month, to consider a
deep "dislocation"
in the realm of scale:
he called out the "human-centric-ness" of our conversations.

We want to continue experimenting with this dislocation,
but take it in another direction entirely,
to take you now on a "deep" journey
into "the thing-y ness of things."

Here's one:

The microscopic mite or demodex that dwells in our eyelashes

is a thing. Makes a difference. Is different. Is.

That it is : what difference might it make
to the world? And/or our explorations here?

In November 2009, we attended for the first time
the annual conference for the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts.
The topic this year was "decodings," and with our friend and visual artist Ava Blitz,
we presented a roundtable, "From Encoding, Through Decoding to Transformation,"
in which we disrupted the expectation (in making art,
doing science, and performing literary criticism) that
decoding will lead to clarity, and highlighted instead the
production of mystery that inevitably occurs in that process.

For a sense of the "mood": Ava's In the Garden of Good and Evil

Rather than sharing that presentation, we decided that
it might be more pleasurable/interesting/instructive
if we explored with you all some of what we got
a scent of there: the new work (is it really new?)--
now being done in the interdisciplinary arena where
science and the arts (particularly biology and literature)
converge--called OOO (Object-Oriented Ontology).

We are going to start with some shared experiences.....


Take a moment to take the point of view of
some ONE THING in this room, something material but not alive.
What does the the world look like from the perspective of that object?
For example: how is the world organized?
What is foregrounded, what backgrounded
-- in both space and time -- from this point of view?
Record your thoughts on a piece of paper.

2. Do this again with some part of your body.

Recognizing that your body is a system, break it down:
How does the world look like from the perspective of some part of "you":
your fingernails, or your hair?
What does the system called "you" look like,
from the perspective of this part?
Record this also.

3. Turn to your neighbor and exchange with one another
the two most interesting things you wrote down.

4. Report out,
with this dislocation:
what did your neighbor say?

5. Large group discussion:

--In taking the point of view of a thing other than ourselves,
were we simply engaging in anthropomorphic projection,
or some more meaningful type of dislocation?
(What might that be?)

--CAN we think otherwise than
from the self
(or as a part of ourselves)?

--What might be gained/what value is added
if we try to think "as" something
that is not our (conscious) selves?
What does it mean -- and how useful might it be --
to think not from the self, but otherwise?

--Does it invite us into new questions that we
might otherwise not have been able to access?

--How might it help us understand systems?


Further Resources and Questions...

Meeting summary (Bharath)

Anne and Liz started our conversation with an exercise of “dislocation”. The task was first to focus on an object in the room and describe the world from its perspective, in terms of what is in the foreground and background for it. The next task was to focus on a part of one’s body and describe the world from its perspective.

The exercises gave rise to a wonderful discussion, which involved many different questions. Here are some of those questions, though perhaps not in the order in which they arose in the discussion.

Could we see the world from the perspective of an inanimate object? Some people seemed to have no trouble doing this, or at least going along with it to some extent. Others felt this was not possible and resisted the activity, or found doing it an exercise in make believe, since “really” the inanimate objects (including parts of one’s body) don’t have perspectives.

If things or inanimate objects don’t have perspectives, does that somehow diminish them with respect to beings such as ourselves which have perspectives? The answer of yes seemed to be suggested by the very fact of calling things "things", since that has the connotation of things being mere things. The alternate thought was also voiced that it might be exciting or liberating for humans to try to take on the perspectivalness of things, and so calling something a thing is not to devalue it.

Is there a difference between things and humans? It was for the most part assumed that there is a difference since humans have perspectives and things don’t. But even this assumption was questioned by some who suggested that in the grand scheme of things, humans are miniscule and so they don’t really have a perspective “on the world”. It might be like saying that a single cell in my body has a perspective on my life, which might not be possible if it knows next to nothing about my life. Are humans in such a situation with respect to the world?

Other issues which surfaced were: Are objects separate from the environment? Is objecthood itself a construct of a being with perspectives? Is it beneficial for us to think of the world in terms of a flat ontology without any flutuations of what is more or less important? Could talk of such an ontology be possible, if language and thought are themselves perspectival?

Continuing conversation in on-line forum below


Paul Grobstein's picture

From existence to ontologies/perspectives to ....

I've been thinking a lot about this particular session, hence (at least in part) my tardy posting about it.  I'm among those who "resisted the activity" of seeing the world "from the perspective of an inanimate object."  And found myself wondering what was wrong with me (perhaps another reason why it has take me some time to comment).  I thought I was all in favor of "dislocation" but somehow this particular version of it didn't ... grab me?  What was going on?  Am I less in favor of dislocation than I think I am?  Only in favor of dislocation when I get to define the terms of the dislocation?   Just a wet blanket?  Or .... ?

Having had a little time to think, I'd prefer at least for the present to think the answer is ... Or.  And that the session, and my struggles with it, may some useful light on our collective enterprise of making sense of evolving systems.

I realized I'm skeptical of "object oriented ontology" not because I resist dislocation but because I value it, not because I want to glorify human perspectives but because I want to challenge them.  And for me both are better done from a different starting point:  the idea that ontologies and perspectives exist only in a subset of  "objects," those whose internal organization gives them the capacity to have ontologies and perspectives.  Bats (in addition to humans and ...) may well have ontologies and perspectives, and so the disloaction of trying to think like a bat (cf Thomas Nagel, What is it like to be a bat?) seems promising to me.  But clocks (my own choice of "object") and many other things probably don't.  For me, there is plenty of  generative "dislocation" simply in recognizing that many things lack ontologies/perspectives, that much of the universe gets along perfectly well without things that seem so central to our own lives

I enjoyed hearing what others thought the world might look like to a clock or belly button or sun.   But I also couldn't help but think the exercise involved imposing a  human perspective on non-human things rather than challenging a human perspective.  I'm glad that people enjoyed it, and pleased that some people saw it as a way to move beyond their own particular perspectives, but .... for me the more intriguing dislocation is to decline to impute familiar human characteristics, including ontologies and perspectives, to things that may well not have them. 

Could I be wrong?  Could it actually be the case that clocks and belly buttons (another of my object choices given the assignment) and suns (see The physical and the spiritual: how to get through the veil) actually have ontologies/perspectives?  Of course.  Is there a "spirit" in all things, animate and inanimate?  Certainly, if one defines "spirit" appropriately.  And perhaps pantheism is for some people a good way to achieve dislocation, to challenge presumptions about how things are.  What interests me though is not what is similar about all things but rather what distinctive differences there are among things.  What seriously challenges human perspectives in general isn't endowing everything with the same properties humans have but rather noticing the restricted distribution and role of familiar human properties in a larger universe of which humans are a small part.

And this, in turn, not only challenges any presumption of human superiority but raises (for me at least) some intriguing new questions.  Yes, the human perspective is arbitrary rather than "transcendent".  Yes, there are  alternate perspectives/ontologies (probably including those of bats), as well as ways of being that don't have perspective/ontologies at all.  Maybe the point isn't just that the human ontology/perpective is limited but rather that there is something limited/challengeable  about perspectives/ontologies in general?  And maybe while limited in many ways, having perspectives/ontologies is also useful in some ways?  Both would be consistent with thinking of perspectives/ontologies as ontologies/perspectives as recent emergent capabilities, present in of some but not all entities.

In short, I'm happy to have "dislocations" call attention to the limitations of particular ontologies/perspectives.   What I find problematic is the notion that there is, in "object orienting ontology," a  way out of the trap of possessing ontologies/perspectives.  To go one step further, I don't think it is in fact a trap that can or should be escaped. Creating and recognizing "ontologies and perspectives" is a tool that gives us the wherewithal to conceive new "ontologies/perspectives."  Rather than trying to get beyond "ontologies and perspectives," or trying to extend them to all entities, I'm inclined to celebrate them as an evolved characteristic that gives those in possession of it a distinctive role in the evolutionary process, an ability to speed up the exploration of possible forms of existence by switching from one set of ontologies/perspectives to another.

Was I a "set blanket" in this conversation?  Yes, I was, and I apologize for that. People should use whatever exercises help them find new ontologies/perspectives.  I hope its clear though that I wasn't a wet blanket either out of spite or a resistance to dislocation.   What was on my mind, and remains on my mind, is the role that having ontologies/perspectives plays in an evolutionary process for which having them is an exception rather than the rule.  And the notion that ontologies/perspectives, used to create dislocations and hence new ontologies/perspectives, are a late-comer but one that can play an increasing and useful role in that process.

Anne Dalke's picture


Thanks to you all for participating in the thought experiment Liz and I posed to you in this last session; I was especially heartened by all the back-and-forthing it provoked, both among our various projects and our various selves.

I wanted to record here some of the surprising things that emerged for me out of this exchange; these included the challenges

  • to our initial characterization of our fall conversations as being "human-centric," on the grounds that they highlighted both what is random (that is, what is not controlled by intentionality), and what is "now" (i.e., with "no perspective");
  • to our instructions to you to name what is "most interesting," as running curiously and strikingly counter to the "punch line" of OOO: to re-figure the world as without hills and valleys, without foregrounds and backgrounds;
  • to our characterization of the instruction to describe what other people said as a "dislocation," on the grounds that speaking for another person is less "dislocating" than an "enlargement of our location";
  • to take this project in a radical direction, in which nothing is privileged:
    is then ontology even possible?
    is what we understand even communicable?
    why do we (for example) privilege objects,
    over "what does not cohere"?
    over "what is not local"?
    why do we have such a "fetish for things we can name"?
    why distinguish between objects and their environments?
  • to a long history of such practices in (for example) Japanese Buddhism; consider (for example) the "enlightenment of insentients": might it be more useful to ask--not whether things have a perspective, but--whether they "have Buddha nature"?
  • to acknowledging that no physical system exists without highs and lows
    (due to historical "expansion and contraction"):
    do such natural systems prevent or invite us to imagine mental systems with different morphologies?
    how useful is it to engage in the mental discipline of imagining "what is not possible"?

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