OAC Online Seminar 17-29 January Martin Holbraad "Can the thing speak?"

I would like to thank all of our members who helped to make the clutch of online seminars we put on in late 2010 so enjoyable and successful. I would encourage the rest of you to join us now and in future. It is still early days in the formation of a model that will guarantee our invited speakers a measure of security while opening up discussion to the widest possible participation. With this in mind, I would like to introduce an experiment now by suggesting that contributors limit themselves to one comment and a direct follow up every two days. I will not impose a limit on length, but ask you to be as concise as you can. The speaker is not so restricted and as chair I will limit my substantive interventions to half a dozen in all. If we compare this seminar with one in a physical location, you would expect to take turns in addressing the speaker. Let's see if something similar works here.

 

The OAC has had quite a heavy dose of theory on our home page lately. A sequence from Kant's anthropology through placing boundaries around the human to what is post-modernism? and beyond that might persuade casual readers that we have forsaken our populist mission for scholasticism. In which case, the present seminar will do nothing to dissuade them of that. Think of it as a phase. Martin Holbraad, co-editor of  Thinking Through Things (2006), presents here a further reflection on this topic, Can the thing speak?, available online or downloadable as a pdf file. This is partly a systematic review of a range of positions on the relations between people and things, partly a personal manifesto which takes the distinction between humanist and post-humanist approaches to a post-post-humanist extreme. Confused? Fear not. There are some very important issues at stake here and Martin is nothing if not lucid in guiding us through them.

 

To ground what might be otherwise an abstract philosophical argument, Martin draws on his own ethnography of divination in Cuba. His informants say that a powder used in the process is power. Not represents power, but is power. What would it take for us as anthropologists to accept this identity and perhaps to go further, seeing the powder not merely as a sort of magical object, but as something with a voice capable of speaking to us in its own right? Why does this matter (so to speak)? Stay tuned and find out. Tell us what you think about it all or what you would like clarified.

 

Since this is an extension of the 2006 volume, we are lucky to have on hand a review of Thinking Through Things posted by the OAC's very own Phil Swift, Where the wild things are. This review is both a straightforward introduction to the topic and a source of critical questions, no less significant for being gently posed. I strongly recommend that you read both Martin and Phil. The latter also absolves me as first discussant below from having to do too much work of introduction.

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Just a few reflections to kick off with, Martin. I do not want to circumvent what your paper is specifically about by leaping straight to alternative general points of view. Please don't read what follows as a trap. I just want to make sure that I understand you in my own terms.

 

The ethnographic revolution of a century ago sought to reinstate the "native's point of view" against the objectifying and frankly racist stereotypes promoted by western imperialism. The revolution was only partly successful, since late colonial society still shaped ethnographic accounts of "the other" and, even after independence, unreconstructed western universals (like free market economics) had to be corrected by varieties of post-colonial theory. The new concern with granting things an equal ontological status to that of human beings is thus a renewal of the ethnographic revolution for the 21st century, confronting the tendency of western thought to objectify others with the challenge of having to abandon any such distinction. You rightly point to some of the gradations along this continuum and take up an extreme postion as a thought experiment. My first question: who or what is to be emancipated by this move? Is it really the things themselves or 'us', whoever we are?

 

I know that you embrace a notion of anthropology as an engagement with the Other, alterity. I have been struck by a contrast between French ethnographers and their Anglophone counterparts in this respect. I'm thinking of Griaule's idea of fieldwork as an intellectual contest between the two sides. Although I was never explicitly taught to do so, I think I took to fieldwork an assumption that the best results were to be had from reducing the gap between oneself and the others as far as possible, by going native, as it were. I wonder how an ethnography of things that speak plays dialectically in the field across a spectrum defined by distance and intimacy. Or is it rather a product of the writing process?

 

Naturally I am keen to explore whether the emancipation of things is a way of retarding the emancipation of human beings. I don't suppose human rights would survive your ethnographic critique. I nurture a suspicion that the gamut from Miller through Gell and Ingold to Latour and Viveiros de Castro are unified by an anti-liberalism decked out as a critique of western domination. But first of all, I would like to thank you for providing us with something so good to think with. What it is for and where it all ends up we might find out later.

What an excellent way to start, Keith. And this partly because it gives me an opportunity to clarify this notion of 'emancipation' which, in a self-critical mood, I'll admit is perhaps rather overloaded rhetorically in the paper, and a little slippery as a result.  In any case, since both your first and third comments/questions relate to this notion, I start with that. 

 

My explicit 'move' in the paper is to distinguish two agendas of emancipation, each of which can be played out in relation either to humans (viz 'natives') or to things (emphasising that the distinction is heuristic and not analytic, and much less ontological, for the reasons I try to make clear in the paper, but which I expect to have to address at a later stage of our discussion). 

 

The first agenda of emancipation is the one I brand as the move to 'widen the circle of the human': natives, and now things, are shown to have more value than they may have previously been accorded, by being somehow shown to be more intimately associated with what we already take to be of value, namely the (fully) human (which is almost a tautology in liberal/humanist thinking, I take it). What you called the 'ethnographic revolution' did this for erstwhile 'natives' (combating racism etc.) and what people call the 'rise of the thing' in social theory does something similar for 'things'. As I explain in the 'literature review' part of the paper, so-called 'humanist' approaches exemplify this most clearly, but I suggest that post-humanist ones (such as Latour's) ultimately can be seen in a similar light. 

 

The second agenda of emancipation, then, (which corresponds to that horrible term 'post-post-humanist and, in relation to the emancipation of the native, is exemplified by Viveiros de Castro most programmatically and explicitly, but also Marilyn Strathern and Roy Wagner in some senses and ways and in my own reckoning) is one that refuses to take the value of humans for granted as the necessary starting point for emancipation. Its prime commitment is not to the already known but to the unknown – or, to put it in my terms, not the self but the other.  Elaborating, already, much further than I do in the paper itself, I’d express the underlying rationale as follows. 

 

If we are in the business of ‘emancipation’ of x (be it the native or the thing), is it not odd to proceed by assuming that what must be at stake must be an extension to x of those things *we* already take for granted are of value (e.g. those qualities we associate with human beings)?  If it is *x* that is to be emancipated, then wouldn’t the first move be to allow *x* to set the terms of our engagement with it?  And wouldn’t that very act – i.e. the move to create the conditions of possibility for x to set the terms of our engagement with it – itself be the first and possibly most determining step of its emancipation?

 

It is in this sense that my attempt to formulate a way of ‘allowing the thing to speak’ is meant to be emancipatory.  Now, in your comments I sense two related sources of discomfort for you. One is that my argument ultimately seems more concerned with ‘us’ (whoever we are, you say, and I answer that for the purposes of my argument we are anthropological/pragmatological analysts) than with the things I claim to be trying to emancipate. The other (as per your last question) is that my argument cuts against (and maybe is even antithetical) to existing agendas for political emancipation, including liberalism and human rights etc. 

 

You are very right on both scores.  My argument is indeed more concerned with ‘us’.  But this is because my whole approach to the problem stems from the major premise that it is, precisely, *we* who are the *problem*.  ‘Emancipation’ in the sense that I wish to pursue it is a relational concept, pertaining as it does to the relationship between emancipator and emancipated.  The obstacle to things (for me) and natives (for Viveiros, TTT, etc) being ‘emancipated’ is, precisely, that those who claim to emancipate them as per my first sense above presume to know what could count as their emancipation in the first place.  So it is to this presumption, and the whole political and intellectual orientation that generates it, that our critical attention should be given. 

Which leads me to a point relating to your second worry. And this is that, insofar as existing political agendas all take the form of first deciding what is good (e.g. humanity, rights, freedom etc) and then seeking to extend these goods to those who are deprived of them (natives, things), then the emancipation I am trying to articulate is non- or even anti-political.  In fact, I’d be happier to call it ‘proto-political’, in the sense that it locates the problem of emancipation at a more basic and logically prior level than humanist and (perhaps) post-humanist approaches do. In doing so, of course, it also takes great risks with the very notion of politics – some, particularly those who have already decided what politics is and may be, may even see this as reckless. 

 

I think this way of setting out the main thrust of the ‘emancipation’ agenda also leads to a reply to your second point – about proximity and distance between the anthro/pragmatologist and his object of engagement (native, thing).  For of course what I’m saying is that what I’m most against is the *presumption* of proximity, or its possibility.  To open up the space for our objects of engagement to dictate the terms of our engagement with them is to err on the side of distance, precisely because to err on the side of proximity is to presume that what matters to us must, at some level, be revealed to be also what matters to them.  Which, I would claim, is the first and most determining step of domination - *even* (dare I say it, particularly) when what we presume unites us with our objects of engagement are things we take to be good, such as humanity, rights or freedom. 

 

Ok, this may all be rather too forcefully put, and I may wake up tomorrow feeling I overstated the case.  But it may serve as a point of departure!      

Martin, thank you so much, both for a very provocative paper and for your reply to Keith, which to me at least goes a long way toward clarifying your intentions. I remain, I must confess, a bit dubious about your project, and your clarification has focused my attention on why that is. You speak of emancipation but go on to say,

If it is *x* that is to be emancipated, then wouldn’t the first move be to allow *x* to set the terms of our engagement with it?  And wouldn’t that very act – i.e. the move to create the conditions of possibility for x to set the terms of our engagement with it – itself be the first and possibly most determining step of its emancipation?

I am with you to the point where remaining open-minded, being mindful that x may have very different thoughts and feelings than we do, and thus listening very carefully, indeed, to  how x would like to set the terms of our engagement is essential. But allowing x to set those terms? For me that is a step too far.

Empathy does not require submission. One gets no closer to treating each other as adults, each with our own agenda, by (to use the language of Eric Berne's once famous Games People Play) substituting child-to-grownup "poor little me" for adult-to-child "I am the boss." One only inverts an unsatisfactory condition, replacing it with another that is equally unsatisfactory. 

For me that old bit of scripture, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" remains compelling. A critical anthropology for the twenty-first century must get beyond the "we give up, now it's your turn" style of so much of current theory and learn how to take the other seriously, as someone with whom we may disagree, sometimes profoundly, to the point that only fight or flight is possible. 

This, it seems to me, is the only sensible stance whether the other in question is a human or some other sort of thing. We must, of course, be open to difference; our search must be for common ground.

Thanks for the clarification, Martin. We do understand each other, to the extent that this is possible in either of our philosophies. As my brief follow-up, I would like to endorse your gloss on 'emancipation' which, at least originally, meant the master granting the slave's freedom. A similar move occurs when the anti-colonial revolution is described as 'decolonization', the idea that 'we' gave 'them' their freedom. There remains in my mind a tension between your professed desire to let things speak for themselves and use of the transitive term 'emancipation' for that process. Similarly -- and I am sure this one runs and runs -- your anthro/pragmatologist's premise of alterity institutes a dualism (self/other, us/them, Euro-American/Melanesian or Amazonian) which seems to me to have more in common with the Cartesian subject than with any post-ism claiming to transcend it. If we believe that people all over the world are pursuing rights, freedom, humanity in their own way, the issue is not how to grant it them, but on what terms we might make something we can all live in together, a world society based on shared common ground that is discovered rather than presumed, sameness in difference or vice versa.

 

Echoing John's comment, I recall the time in 1968 when we the students occupied the Cambridge anthropology department coffee room for a sit-in. Meyer Fortes, the head of department, asked us what we wanted. We were led by a graduate student from Berkeley (of course) who replied that we wanted to set our own examinations, write our own letters of recommendation etc. Fortes burst out in exasperation, "Alright! I'll sit at your feet then!"

The politics of emancipation is one path our discussion might take. But what about the question raised in the title of the paper, "Can the thing speak?" I would say, "Yes, through memory." I sit at a desk that belonged to my maternal grandfather, who left it to me, his eldest grandson. It evokes memories of his drugstore in Savannah, GA, where my mother grew up. On the wall to my left is a print made by a cousin, an artist who was, for a while, the official artist of US Antarctic exhibitions. It shows the creek flowing through marshes in front of my paternal grandfather's house in a place called Sandfly, just outside Savannah. Other objects recall the time that my wife Ruth and I spent in Taiwan doing the fieldwork for my dissertation. 

 

What, then, of newer things? Sitting on the desk at which I write is a recently purchased nihonga (literally "Japanese painting"). The artist is a rising star in this somewhat esoteric genre, which combines Western perspective and motifs with indigenous pigments. I met him because he is a baritone and sings in the chorus I joined a year ago. But here, too, is a stream flowing off into the distance, where a white bird sits on a rock beside the water. Like the image in my cousin's print, it resonates with memories of growing up at the head of a tidal creek that flows into Chesapeake bay, where we frequently saw herons. Shortly before my father died, he was sitting on our pier fishing and one of these great birds landed and sat beside him for several minutes, as if waiting to see what he would catch. 

 

But what of even newer things? My MacBook Pro is no longer my newest gadget. Its place has been taken by the iPad Ruth bought me for my birthday and the ZAGG/mate case for the iPad that my daughter bought me for Christmas. They are new, they are shiny; but they, too, evoke many memories of previous computers and other gadgets and the fun I had learning to use them. 

 

I wonder, though, does all this reminiscing mean that I am like Han Su-yin's brother, who in, which one of her novels was it, is looking with her at a famous mountain in China, worried because, he says, he can no longer see the mountain itself through the fog of poetic allusions in which it is enveloped. Can I still hear something speak to me in a voice that is truly new? Is there a way to free the mind to make this possible, if it ever was? 

 

John, I asked for one substantive comment and possible a direct follow up every two days. This seems to me two very different substantive comments within half a day. Maybe the rule is half-assed and won't work. But did you set out deliberately to challenge it?
no

Keith Hart said:
John, I asked for one substantive comment and possible a direct follow up every two days. This seems to me two very different substantive comments within half a day. Maybe the rule is half-assed and won't work. But did you set out deliberately to challenge it?

Dear John and Keith,

 

Thank you both for your comments.  Keith, as you say, this can run and run, and, as you also say, whether and how it does so has a lot to do with how one feels about negotiating a possibly rather wide chasm between the premises from which each of us starts.  In fact, one of my favourite strategies for thinking about this is to 'jump to meta' (the so-called 'recursive' move, about which I've written elsewhere).  This inasmuch the problem of a possible 'chasm' between, say, your or John's understanding of 'emancipation' and mine is equivalent to the chasm (viz. ontological distance) my position seeks to theorise. I.e. the form of our divergence reproduces the content of my position, since the premise of ontlological alterity that I start with (and which is at the heart of my notion of emancipation) is instantiated in the ontological alterity between, say, your or John's notion of emancipation, and mine.  What *counts* as emancipation in either case is different, in a manner analogous to, say, what counts as powder is different for Cubans who say it's power versus analysts who assume it cannot be. It follows that the manner in which we may deal with our divergences in our debate here may tell us something about the topic about which we diverge, if you see what I mean.  E.g. would our engagement with each other be served by seeking to stake out a putative 'common ground'?  Is there really such common ground to be found? And wouldn't a determination to find it rather tend to muddy the waters of our respective positions, possibly distorting them out of recognition?  These, I take it, are core problems for anthropological thinking, and we negotiate them daily in our interactions with each other, just as, I would argue, we do in our engagements with informants and even, now, 'things'.

 

This way of approaching the question - bringing it home, as it were - may also give an idea why I don't think that my take on emanciaption (as per my previous response) entails a form of submission, as John suggests.  Part of what I meant when I called the issue proto-political was that I locate the question of emancipation *before* politics, including the question of who (eventually and where relevant) may cede power to whom, which is the issue you raise John.  The question of emancipation as I raise it in the paper pertains, if you like, to the conditions of possibility of an emancipatory politics.  I cannot even contemplate on deciding whether to 'submit' to x (let alone what that might even mean) before first getting a grasp of what x *is*.  My concern with emancipation speaks to that prior question and the only submission it implies is, if you like, that of learning how to listen - to compound the metaphor of my title.

 

Regarding how things speak in memory, John, I'm very happy to contemplate the prospect you raise, and it reminds me, for example, of Susanne Kuechler's work on malangan.  Indeed, these concerns are central to what in the paper I call 'humanist' approaches to things - both Miller and Gell have a lot to say about the modalities in which artefacts elicit meanings and memories for people (indeed, how they constitute them, and through them, the people themselves).  But as I explain in the paper, that is not my specific concern in the argument I seek to develop.

 

More soon!

Martin, can you say a bit more about what it means to you to be "prior to politics"? When I try to get my head around this, two instances pop into mind.

 

In one, familiar from Japanese film, two samurai face each other with drawn swords. One moves. The other, our hero, responds in a moment of Zen in which self disappears. The opponent falls dead at his feet. Here the understanding is instantaneous, the response selfless, the result is an other of whom our understanding is complete. The villain is dead. 

 

The other is from Mao Tse-tung's Little Red Book, in a chapter in which he berates a young cadre who, during a land reform campaign, entered a village and began throwing his weight around before taking his time to understand the local reality. Here, too, understanding is, in a sense, prior to politics. But the process of achieving understanding requires careful study before political action is taken. 

 

Or, another scene familiar to anyone involved in international trade, in my case making advertising for clients who have things to sell in Japan. Two businessmen from different countries, with quite different understandings of what needs to be done, confront each other across a table. On the table are a set of ad proposals, storyboards for three or four possible TV commercials. The client, puffed up and determined to get just what his headquarters wants chooses the proposal that most clearly fits the brief he thought he provided (whether he was heard or heard correctly is another matter). The agency people are sure that they know better than he what is needed in the local market and are disappointed because, to their minds, he has chosen the weakest of the proposals. They could, in fact, both be wrong. The customers targeted by the campaign may see them in a different light and detest both proposals. Yes, it would be a good idea if all of the parties involved here listened more carefully to each other before decisions were made. But is this prior to politics? Surely the answer is no and, unless some common ground is found — it may be straightforward acknowledgement that the client who pays the bills calls the tune, what my Japanese colleagues would call shiouganai "it can't be helped"—no business gets done, no action gets taken, a lot of time and energy is wasted.

 

I assume from the start that you, Martin, must have something else in mind. If I am right, you envision a situation in which there is no ulterior motive in play, no sword fight to win, no village to reform, no ad campaign to produce. I am sorry, moreover, that your Cuban powder/power play does not convince me. It seems no more mysterious to me than a branding consultant trying to persuade a client that the new logo is more powerful than the old and absolutely essential to her company's success. 

 

Could we have a few more examples of what you are talking about?

First a thank you. I would never want to privilege any level of anthropological work, perhaps unlike Martin I favour applied anthropology just as much as intellectual anthropology. But I certainly DO savour the intellectual, that which refuses the comfort of presumption and insists on the work of logical consistency. At the very least, whatever objects do by way of thinking, a paper such as this, is incredibly effective at getting us thinking, which is always a pleasure - so thanks for that.

Smaller and larger point. Smaller is the way other people such as myself are placed in this paper. The schema around humanism is neat but perhaps too neat. In some respects I am very happy to be labelled a humanist, but I realise reading Holbraad that this depends on who gets to define humanism, because one gets the sense that he is using it to cast out certain approaches in order to clear the way for his own. The trouble is you could do this many ways. For example, critical to his definition is the idea that ways in which we envisage our humanity are the models for how we envisage things. But if we just take that definition then since Latour is best known for extending the concept of agency from persons to things, then he would be defined as a consummate humanist. Since Martin is best know for extending the idea of a concept to things he would also be just that. By contrast my original theoretical work followed from writings of Marx and Bourdieu. The idea was not to emancipate things by this humanist analogy, but to acknowledge that people were created through the orders of the material world, i.e. that the social had been over emancipated by ignoring the structuring properties of things. In my work there are no such things as persons in and of themselves. By the same token I obviously saw objectification as going further in the dissolution of subjects and object dichotomies, while Martin sees it as less extreme in that respect that say Latour. So obviously I find that having had a discussion of the theory of objectification which entirely removed any distinction between things and persons followed later by the sentence `humanist approaches, which leave the ontological distinction between things and people unmodified’ utterly bizarre.

I think part of the problem is that Martin is quite right about the commitment to ethnography, but being a social anthropologist assumes that implies the subsuming of things back to persons, while a material culture ethnography makes no such assumption. This would apply equally to materials ( a la Ingold), which ethnographically are also what I see as human creating artefacts.

OK that’s me over with, what about Martin. Perhaps not surprisingly I feel by far the strongest section in this paper is Martin’s critique of Martin, which is actually a very valuable contribution given the originality and influence of Martin’s early contribution. In fact by the end I think readers will be left wanting to ease this swing of the pendulum and retain something more of the idea of thing as concept, or at least as instrument of conceptualisation.

 

More problematic is what comes before and after. I see no milage in the final praxanomics, if you want totally dehumanised objects talking to each other then you have natural science. The way in which I am happy to be seen as humanist is in my understanding that we do not work with things in the natural science sense of universal properties of matter, but rather we deal with artifacts, ie the products of history, even nature is landscape and garden. But in that Bourdieu derived trajectory of a dialectic where things from history come in turn to make history, the traditional of material culture has held resolutely against the study of the single thing. The concern is always with things as structural order, the array of objects in a house, the decoration of canoes, the interplay of digital forms on the internet. At least since Levi-Strauss this was always things talking to other things and thingese is almost axiomatic to material culture work. Which is not surprising since so many people in material culture, including myself, come originally from archaeology. We were already working with basic thingese concepts such as `style’ for all the reasons Martin provides.

But does Martin hear thingese? Possibly because of the influence of Ingold it seems to me he is tempted into the conceptual affordance of a given substance, that of powder and its material qualities. But the conceptual affordance is not reducible to that kind of simple materiality. As Martin knows women applying foundation in the ladies loo are powdering themselves to very different effect. I am entirely with Martin in the first paragraph of his conclusion. What makes powder and power in the first place is the complex of shrines, and images, and trained diviners and all the rest of it. Martin would not have known powder was power without his diviner. For all he would know from just looking at powder it could have been foundation being used as make up in the ladies loo. On the other hand I entirely agree that you are now taking your original analysis further by colluding with your informants in seeing powder as part of motion, or what I would call process, which is a dialectical trope.

So given that we converge in the first paragraph of the conclusion, where Martin acknowledges this wider constellation, we diverge radically in the second. To me the problems of enlightenment that Martin starts with are not going to be solved by some pure autonomy of things as in his Pragmatology. Heaven help anthropology if it ever reduces itself to the egoistic conceits and self-indulgence of conceptual art. A direct link from theoretical physics to conceptual art, missing out material culture altogether sounds to me like a worst case scenario. Instead the emancipation of the thing comes through the critique of humanism itself as outside of materialism. My path would be to say that while we need the diviner to understand powder as power we also have to recognise that it was powder that actually made the diviner into the diviner as part of a dialectical process which reduces no more to people or to things than it reduces to chickens and to eggs. I am really not sure whether this kind of dialectical thinking amounts to what Keith regards as anti-liberalism, certainly I am happy to stand as anti-extreme-liberalism which ignores structure and history in its fetish of the free individual, but I can’t imagine that that is where Keith now stands.

Good to see you here Martin; and a very enjoyable introduction to things. I like the concept of abstension a sort of Derridean crossing of abstention and abduction (a la deduction) I take it.

 

The pragmatological project you outline here is an epistemological one in so far as you are saying that that is what anthropology should be about. I trace this to Latour; but he is not the only ancestor and of course pragmatism is a particular philosophical tradition. And I like Latour's explanations of things as having behaviours and voices : I enjoyed his Aramis study where he gives the train-prototype a voice of 'her' own and demonstrates quite convincingly that the human agents involved in the project behave a lot of the time as if 'she' were indeed a she then hide their tracks when things start to go wrong. One of his illustrations makes some of his aims very clear - to me at least. An army is a 'thing' (of sorts) made up of human bodies, armour plating, siting systems, shells and many other bits and bobs. The humanist wants to split the human body-minds from the rest of the gear and see a purely 'human' problem in the army, but an army is not a heap of hardware on one side plus a lot of naked human beings on the other: an army is a thing that speaks in its own right. By this account 'the army is a thing that speaks' is in a way more real(istic) than 'the army is a cluster of human beings'. And so with other things that can speak in various ways.

 

So, there is an epistemological project here which involves making that kind of thing visible ontologically, I suppose. I had a stab at exploring some of the ideas involved in an earlier OAC piece - I think both sides of the debate have common denominators in the 19th Century. I don't think that anthropology is going to become pragmatology (unlike Philip, I don't think Talal Asad completely effaced Ernest Gellner's rationalism - Asad's view is as epistemologically circular as Gellner's).

 

Here's a question; why should things 'talk' - why the linguistic emphasis?

 

Talking drums talk because, in a tonal language, elements of speech can be replicated in musical notes. Powder may 'talk' but then again similar things may simply 'play their part' mutely. Here are some bits and bobs doing their thing at the grave of a 'voodoo princess' in New Orleans. --- acting without talking or owning behavioural properties that are paralinguistic.

 

 

 

Martin,

 

Many thanks for excellent paper, an analytical tour de force, though not - perhaps thankfully - a Latour de force!

 

Musing on your assessment on the state of play in thing theory, for some reason called to mind an old story about Sartre and the first time he was supposed to have been told about phenomenology. Sitting in a Parisian cafe - so the story goes - Raymond Aron happened to mention this novel method to Sartre, and, gesturing at a glass on the table, Aron said something like, 'phenomenology allows us to analyse even things like that'. For Sartre, this was apparently a moment of revelation. But more recent thing theories now argue that the revelation had a blind spot, which is that phenomenology can only tell us what a thing (like a glass on a cafe table) is in terms of how it appears to us. And so reality, according to Graham Harman, is reduced to 'the terms of human access to it'.

 

This is the point at which your proposal for 'pragmatology' comes in. I understand that the proposal is so far speculative, but even so, I've been trying hard - and so far failing! - to figure out how pragmatology would play out in practice. Mulling over your final remark according to which pragmatology might operate as a form of conceptual art in reverse, I tried to devise a thought experiment, though, admittedly, a fairly shaky one.      

 

I thought of taking your remark about pragmatology as 'art backwards' quite literally, and tried to imagine what would happen if your inversion was inverted, so to speak; what would happen, in other words, if a putative pragmatologist got her hands on a piece of conceptual art. Take Michael Craig-Martin's artwork, An Oak Tree (1973). In terms of its material composition, the work consists of a glass of water on a glass shelf and an accompanying text. In the text itself, Craig-Martin explains that the glass of water isn't intended to symbolize an oak tree, but is, in fact, an oak tree ('I've changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree'). What's interesting about this statement, it seems to me, is that, in so far as Craig-Martin understands that his glass of water doesn't 'represent' an oak tree, but ontologically defines one, he seems to be a subscriber to the argument of Thinking Through Things!

 

But anyway, in its capacity as a 'readymade' - that recurring element in conceptual art, of otherwise everyday objects being rendered exceptional through their transformation into artworks - the various material components of An Oak Tree are, I suggest, ontologically different from other assemblages of apparently identical objects (other glasses of water on glass shelves). But to the pragmatologist, who wants to understand objects in the absence of all human interests and interventions, this collection of objects presumably just 'is' a glass of water on a glass shelf, etc. That is, I find it difficult to see how, in terms of their materials, pragmatology could make these particular things yield anything other than very general concepts about apparently universal properties, of, say, the glassy essence of glass and the wetness of water. In other words, the conceptual forensics of pragmatology would appear to take no account of possible ontological differences.

 

If such is the case, then I wonder if that's why, in the discussion above, you said that the analytical move you make in your paper is 'less ontological'?      

 

Sorry for pressing you on what pragmatology might consist of, since it is, as you remark, still a speculative venture.

 

 

 

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