Over the years I’ve struggled to articulate why nonhuman objects are relevant to our understanding of the form societies take and questions of politics, only to encounter great difficulty. The problem, I think, is that objects and features of materiality are largely invisible. Oh sure, we see them about us all the time and interact with them in a trillion ways every day. Nonetheless, it’s very difficult to discern how they contribute to our action and are a condition for our action. Our action, I want to say, is never entirely our own, it never arises fully from us, but rather is a sort of collaboration or interaction with the features of the world about us. Action is interaction and those material features both afford our possibilities of action and constrain our possibilities of action.
When I say that we need to attend to what objects do rather than their properties, what I’m after is the way in which they afford and constrain action. I’m not suggesting something silly and absurd like the idea that objects have motives, that there’s some sort of psychology of objects that leads them to act on us in various ways; but am instead saying we need to look at how objects create paths and vectors of movement and behavior that mark the trajectory of our journeys throughout the world, which others we relate to, which others we don’t relate to, and so on.
I think it’s extremely difficult to think in these terms– at least I struggle with it –because its so damned obvious. There’s no need for a depth hermeneutics here. There’s no need for a hermeneutics of suspicion. No, the gravity of the world, the gravity of things, is all there on the surface. For example, I encounter the people I encounter daily on campus because of the layout of the hallways in the building where I teach as well as the time schedule of the classes. For the same reason, I don’t encounter others because of this same material configuration. Sure, I could tear my way through walls like the Incredible Hulk or go through windows, but as I put it in my California talk last week, much of our movement arises not from any intentions we might have, but is instead like the trajectory of a raindrop along a leaf, following the path of least possible resistance. Because this is so obvious we overlook it, we overlook materiality, and thus come to explain the action of people and their relations with one another by reference to their intentions, beliefs, propositional attitudes, etc. We look almost entirely to the domain of the psychological to explain why people behave and relate to one another as they do. The point, of course, is not that the psychological, textual, semiotic, ideological, etc., don’t play a key role in social formations. Of course they do. How could it be otherwise? The point is that they are only one part of the puzzle, that they are only one element of a vast domain of power.
But how to draw attention to the domain of that which is so obvious, so ubiquitous, that it generates naturalistic transcendental illusions leading us to think that we are the sole origins of our actions, rather than our action arising collaboratively with the many entities of the world? Frustrated with this question, I was delighted last week when artist Noam Toran showed Jan Svankmajer’s 1968 film The Flat. This is perhaps one of the most stressful films I’ve ever seen, but it is also, in my view, a profoundly ecological film.
The brilliance of Svankmajer’s short film is that it alludes to what is absent in our day to day awareness through a fundamental distortion of the regularities governing the world in which we live. Trapped in a room where his ability to anticipate how things will behave collapses, the poor protagonist encounters a world in which nothing acts as it should. Hands pass through tables and walls, beds undergo immediate entropy becoming dust when you try to sleep in them, eggs are as dense as led and break silverware, faucets produce stones rather than water, walls and tables “bit” you with little spikes that suddenly appear out of nowhere, and reflections show the back of your appearance rather than the first. The universe of The Flat is radically dystopian because nothing collaborates with the protagonist and therefore no action is possible.
Through its contrast to the world in which we do actually live, Svankmajer reveals the manner in which our action is, in fact, collaborative rather than simply arising from ourselves. Action is always with. Compare Svankmajer’s film with the movement of astronauts on the Moon:
What we see in the movement of these first post-planetary humans is the manner in which something as simple as an action like walking is deeply dependent on the gravity of the body upon which one walks. On the moon you’re unable to stroll along as you would here on Earth, but rather must do something that is a sort of combination of hopping and galloping. It’s likely that the astronauts took great delight in this style of locomotion, but they didn’t do it just for the novelty of it all. Rather, this way of getting about was dictated by the different gravitational conditions of the Moon. Where they tried to walk as they would on Earth they quickly fell over and had to struggle to get up again. Even walking is a collaboration between the body and the body upon which one walks.
Hallways, gravity, planetary bodies and so on are rather trivial examples of how the world about us affords certain forms and paths of movement. Things become far more complicated when we talk about atmospheric conditions (getting about in the Andes, for example), technologies such as smart phones and GPS, the impact of writing on thought and social relations, microorganisms in our body that are required for digestion and the functioning of our nervous system, geographical features such as mountain ranges, etc., etc., etc. What we find here is a vast and barely noticed domain of power– a power I refer to as “gravity” because of how it affects our movement –that plays a role both in constraining action and reinforcing certain hierarchical social structures, while also affording all sorts of possibilities of action. Following Sloterdjik, Zizek, in The Sublime Object of Ideology, asks why, if we know something is an ideological sham, we continue to do it. His answer is that ideology isn’t at the level of thought or belief, but at the level of bodily actions. It’s written in the fiber of our bodies. In part he’s right, but he’s still thinking in terms of the discursive/symbolic and imaginary body (in Lacanian terms). What he misses is that perhaps it is also built environments themselves that make us behave like raindrops on the surface of verdant leaves. If this is the case, then consciousness raising and ideology critique will only take us so far. Environments themselves, ecologies themselves, would require transformation to allow for new ways of relating.