Monday, April 8, 2013

Of Toasters, Perhaps Flying

Yes, here they are
I once took an Anthropology of Metaphor class in which the professor spoke repeatedly of the connection between "emergence" and "emergency" in relation to metaphor. This little word dance of human need has ever since made (the emergence of) metaphors urgent, responsive, and present. The light of knowledge. The dawn of civilization. The shipwreck of human existence. At times it's made metaphor so present as to almost (so close) be literal - not far to reach to see the two disparate things that make up the metaphor together. The tree of life. Most car names (but especially the Lamborghini named after a fighting bull that Ian Bogost put on the table - metaphorically). The flow of thought. The Ecologies of the Inhuman symposium at GW-MEMSI this past Friday jumped into the fray of things and the sense they make or unmake, the lives they lead or hide.  Steve Mentz's excellent summary highlights that Ian Bogost had us thinking about the "reality of (all?) metaphors." The metaphor as an idea is real, is a thing. The metaphor as emerging in the face of an emergency is a thing that comes into being in times of crisis.  This symposium had both: the aesthetics of well-crafted ideas in language and the ethics of being in the presence of multiple crises in the world. I've never been to a gathering where the language was so beautiful and the struggling was so immediate.  Where there was this much honesty and "shared vulnerability" (to quote from Carolyn Dinshaw's paper) about the repercussions and applications of ideas and words and things. Jeffrey Cohen's brilliant means of introducing the speakers by reading two or three sentences from our writings set the stage for just this combination of beauty and struggle. He read us in our fervor and desire to convince and connect. And his own care in choosing those sentences established a trust and a vulnerability: our words are out there, to be taken and shared.

And so. With James Smith we considered Fluid and the flow of medieval moral anguish, maybe even the setting for its ebb and flow. With Alf Siewers, the reach of Trees, their housings for ideas, their shade. With Alan Montroso, the viral quality of Music's use of the human body, the tool being of said body. With Valerie Allen the stakes of the "proper measure," the will to measure Matter, the possibilities of a "ninhuman system." With Eileen Joy, the poignancy of articulating moments soon to be lost to Post/Apocalyptic disasters, the expressivity of aesthetics. With Steve Mentz, the possibilities of "living inside the Shipwreck," of coming to know the sea's the thing. With me, the life of Hewn things in the Arma Christi, the voice of the hewn Cross.  With Lowell Duckert, the creatures of Recreation, the life in and of parks and other spaces of recreation. With Carolyn Dinshaw, the co-existence of lush Green and drab grey, of art up high and reality right here. And with Ian Bogost, encounters between the Inhuman as objects (in and out of metaphors), and the violence that's there, and where our attention is drawn.

These are all my takes. Every person there would have a different take, a different list of things to keep thinking about. But we all joined in to the struggle in the absorbing discussion after talks: the cut that we feel prompted by ethics to make in considering (noticing, describing, championing) the inhuman. How do you make the cut? How do you decide? These two quotes from Alien Phenomenology resonate with the discussion.

Thanks to feminist studies, postcolonial studies, animal studies, environmental studies and other accounts of human relationships with nonhuman entities, we tend to doubt that some things ought to thrive at others' expense.  Today, most would accept that British men are no more intrinsically worthy of preservation and prosperity than women, Congalese, horses, and redwoods. But few would accept that fried chicken buckets, Pontiac Firebirds, and plastic picnicware deserve similar consideration (unless their existence or use might disturb people, animals or nature). When we form these theories, we mount accounts of why and how humans ought to behave in and toward the universe, but not about how other objects ought to behave in relation to it. --- 74

And, to me, a vital question:

When we speak of things, are we prepared to equate their forces with their ethics? Is what a thing tends to do the same as what it considers noble or right? --- 76-77

We will share bits and pieces of our human exceptionalism (especially as they pertain to us and our continued welfare) with certain elements deemed non-human (animals, the environment). But not with things. Why not? Why not, Ian Bogost pushed us when considering violence, consider the caramelization of bread inside the toaster? Why not consider the toaster? What would be the repercussions? (And no one is saying that struggling for the ethical consideration of things means abandoning the struggle for the ethical considerations of humans. Far from it - the two are more and more inter-related.) A quick response, an honest one, worries about the cut (a word of hewn terminology I found myself paying close attention to) that "sooner or later" / "push comes to shove" / "something's got to give" we have to make between ourselves and things. I cannot weep for the toast. What would it mean for me to weep for the toast? Ok, fine, ethics driven by compassion seem surreal. Ethics of affinity? Can we consider the toast and the toaster as they frame our human quotidian? As they set the pace of the human day? Maybe maybe. Where we started to land in the discussion thrills me no end: and what of the ethics of aesthetics? What of the aesthetics of description? Of the crackle of electricity and the sugars hissing their release? (See page 61 of Alien Phenomenology for gripping descriptions). What of the act of describing as an ethical act? What of the act of describing (noticing, noting, paying extremely close attention to, observing, sharing, proclaiming) things as an ethical act? What of (and this should be another post soon), what of the ethical exercise of ekphrasis in the Middle Ages? The ultimate aesthetic description! Always showing up at the ultimate ethical moment! (Alexander's shield, Darius's tomb, the Rose's garden).

What might happen when we notice some thing enough to de-scribe it from the invisibility of our use and make it present through language? Still a human act towards the ever-receding thing. But what if you really did consider the toaster?  Someone has done this very thing, you know. Right now, if you can, right this minute, instantly, if you haven't already, soon then, really really soon, please read The Toaster Project by Thomas Thwaites. While you're waiting impatiently, you can go to its website.  Can you get over the image? Thwaites deconstructs a toaster and makes it present through his act of trying to build one on his own. From scratch. In his process of describing and making a toaster, Thwaites engages in (endures!) multiple ethical acts and realizations: about the environment, industrial production, mining, labor. It's aesthetics as activism is what it is. The book is incredible (he mines mica for goodness's sake!) - it's the Thing equivalent of Jan Zalasiewicz's Planet in a Pebble which also begins with an object, recedes into its origins and re-emerges with knowledge and awe.  That's where I am in my thinking, I think - between a pebble and a toaster; grateful - deeply grateful - for the human actors and thinkers and writers in between. And for how objects defy us, for how toasters fly.