Boring Stuff About Me

I look with longing from afar at the Bennett reading group that is now afoot, led by Peter Gratton. Check it out, and above all participate in comments! I get the sense that Bennett is vacillating a bit with respect to her own claims from certain aspects in the tone of her book. I, for one, ardently wish to see her continue in this path of thought and develop it further (which isn’t unlikely given what a creative and acrobatic thinker she is). In other news, Adrian already has an excellent post up to kick the discussion off. I am myself unable to respond at this time due to writing The Democracy of Objects, but Adrian’s thought and critiques are never far from my own thought. Enjoy!

In other news, The Democracy of Objects is coming along nicely with lots of new material. Today saw 18 pages of text developing chapter 3 on “split-objects”, dealing heavily with Aristotle’s concept of primary substances (who I believe has been mistreated by contemporary philosophy), Locke, Hume, and Kant. I’m surprised at how nicely everything is coming together and pleased by the arguments I’m developing. It’s painful not to post it all here as it comes out, but hey, I have to surprise y’all with something! Nonetheless, given how quickly things are coming together I expect that I’ll have a complete draft in the next month or so. Blogging is not wasted time.

I wanted to thank all of those who wrote me offering to edit The Democracy of Objects. I have selected three people from among the many of you. With any luck OHP will have a final draft in hand by the end of August or September.

My interview with Peter Gratton is now available over at Philosophy in a Time of Error. In response to Graham’s question, yes, the interview was conducted last Wednesday, prior to attending the Georgia Tech symposium.

For the last week or so I’ve been in the grip of a rather nasty Spring cold, so it was a nice respite and surprise to be approached by Cogburn to contribute to the collection he’s putting together on Dungeons & Dragons and philosophy. When I ran this by Mel it actually generated some sparks between us. “I made a solemn vow”, she said, “to never be involved with someone who can explain the intricacies of Hit Points.” Poor dear, she has no idea how bad it is. Not only can I explain the intricacies of Hit Points, but I know all about THAC0. I suppose our friendship will find some way to endure this great betrayal brought about by my hidden nerdiness. Of course, I’m probably not helping matters much by publicly announcing my inner nerdiness. However, in my view this should be something endearing, not off-putting. Then again, gamers have always been challenged where the ladies are concerned.

When Jon first approached me about contributing I got that “deer in the headlights” look. After all, it’s been about twenty years since I played. What would I possibly have to say about this game that was so formative for me?

However, the more I think about the game in the context of my current work, the more I see that Dungeons & Dragons is a marvelous example of a flat ontology where all objects are actants. Unlike vertical ontologies characterized by a sharp divide between agency on the one hand and lifeless matter on the other, the world of D&D is a pluralistic universe, a pluriverse, pervaded by actants of all sorts, both animate and inanimate. There is, of course, the obvious anti-anthropocentric bent of the game, characterized as it is by all sorts of humanoids ranging from humans to elves to dwarves to gnomes to orcs and so on. Yet the pluriverse of D&D is not simply a pluriverse characterized by a vertical gap between humanoids on the one hand and animals and inanimate objects on the other. Rather, the critters that populate the bestiary of D&D themselves have their own aims, intelligences, and powers. These critters are not simply less than the humanoid or fodder for humanoid sustenance. They are genuine agents or actors in their own right that human actants must think and respond to in much the same way that they must think and respond to other humans.

Yet the radicality of the D&D ontology, it’s profound anti-anthropocentrism, does not end there, for even the inanimate and the dead are actants in this pluriverse. Who could forget artifacts like Baba Yaga’s Hut that walk about on their own on two chicken legs? The inanimate nonhuman actants of this world are imbued with powers and activities of their own, thereby undermining any thesis that nonhuman inanimate actants are mere “matter” to passively take on human intentions. They act and often deeply at odds with the aims of those that wield them. Here we need only think of the enchanted sword with a curse upon it. What is the curse if not an inanimate object using its wielder as an artifact for its ends rather than being used for the ends of the humanoid wielding it?

And so too, in this strange universe, even the dead refuse to rest. There are, for example, those entities like the lich that refuse to rest, that refuse to die, and that continue to walk the earth as something other than the human. What we find in this strange universe is a truly flat world where all objects are genuine actants and where the human is not at the center of being, but is one being among other actants, vying with those actants.

Weighing in at a whopping 509 single spaced pages or 253,000 words, here are the initial notes and sketches for The Democracy of Objects that I’ve put together over the last year or so. Next comes the process of winnowing and organizing, getting this monster down to between two and three hundred pages or 80,000 – 100,000 words. It shouldn’t be long now. And if anyone was wondering, yes that’s the blue coffee mug I’m always waxing poetic about.

For some reason Bogost’s post today got me thinking about what perfect object-oriented and flat ontological horror would look like. This, in turn, got me thinking about two science fiction/horror films I found particularly unsettling or uncanny: The remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. In fact, to this day I still occasionally have nightmares about War of the Worlds, though oddly I can’t resist watching it whenever it’s on and actually own it (why I derive so much more pleasure from watching a film when it happens to be on rather than simply popping one in my DVD player is a mystery I won’t plumb this evening). Both films, I think, share a common characteristic, hinting at something like a new theme in the science fiction/horror genre. Of the two, War of the Worlds comes closer to embodying this theme, while there are certain respects in which it is more overt in the first half or two thirds of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In both cases there’s a way in which humans are ontologically de-centered or ousted from pride of place in these films. And it is this, perhaps, that accounts for the unsettling and uncanny feeling one has when watching these movies. There is a sort of unconscious correlationist assumption that pervades nearly all horror films and alien invasion science fiction films: That humans are the addressee. “Of course”, the narrative seems to say, “any aliens that invaded planet earth would focus on the humans.” The unsettling sense produced by The Day the Earth Stood Still, before it degenerates into the usual pap of how we’re intrinsically worth preserving, is that the aliens are not there for us, but rather to save all other creatures on the planet. The centrality of the human is here deeply devalued. If War of the Worlds is, of the two, the superior film (apart from the obvious reasons… The Day the Earth Stood Still is, overall, a poor showing), then this is because the invading aliens are more or less completely indifferent to us. We, like everything else on the planet, are more or less furniture that has to be cleared away for their occupation. They hold no hostility towards us, nor any particular esteem, and do not see us as arch-rivals to be defeated. Rather, we’re just like cows and trees: something that’s in the way. Indeed, unlike anthropocentric films like Independence Day where the issue is one of establishing the superiority of the human against any other intelligent lifeform, it is bacteria that ultimately defeat the aliens. Much of human import (the father renewing his relationship with his children) occurs in War of the Worlds, but it is certainly not a triumphalist yarn about “man as a prosthetic god”.

There are, of course, precursors to this ontological vision. Readers might recall Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where the aliens are destroying the planet in a desperate attempt to communicate with whales. Here we have a similar dethroning of the centrality of the human. I make none of these remarks to suggest that this de-emphasis of the human is a good thing or to imply that the human should be treated like something that’s merely in the way to be cast aside. No. Rather, what interests me is the effect of the uncanny that this quintessentially anti-humanist cinema seems to produce in the viewer (at least, to produce in this viewer). One reels before the jaw-dropping flatness of such a universe, where humans are treated as one other being among others, rather than a privileged center to which all other entities must necessarily address themselves. Who knows, perhaps there’s even the possibility of renewing the genre of horror through the exploration of the flat and a-human, where humans are caught up in events beyond themselves but are not at the center. Yet perhaps there is also an enlightening social and political message in this rejection of any narcissistic comfort and centralization of the human. Can readers cite other films that are structured in similar ways?

Yep, as of midnight last night, I’m now 36 years younger. Aging seems to be accelerating more quickly now. More gray hairs, oddly localized in one part of my beard, etc., and other things I don’t think I noticed last year. No doubt this is the result of having to perpetually deal with Paparazzi as a consequence of blog, OOO, and SR stardom. I can hardly get out the door anymore without someone trying to take a picture (those topless beach pictures that made their rounds in the tabloids last year were mortifying). The life of the proponent of OOO and SR isn’t as glamorous as outsiders might think, even with all the Parisian supermodels throwing themselves at you and the huge piles of wealth. Don’t even get me started about the tabloid rumors that constantly whirl about you. All this aside, I wonder when I’ll ever feel “grown-up”. Within the lived internal space of my body I still feel like some sexy twenty year old. And I’m sure some about these parts would say I act like a twelve year old. Yet my body as an image tells another story.

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