“What does it mean to occupy an object? Through embodying, imagining, or trying on an agency that is outside of one’s own subjectivity, one may begin to see something that does not stand in clear relief at the outset. This method of search belies an anthropocentric position and looks for fissures, openings, and dissonances. An embrace of the indeterminate, however, is not simply a form of romanticized vagueness. Rather, it is a tacit acknowledgment that, as Antonio Negri suggests, ‘Nothing is ever completely occupied, full, without holes, without cracks.'”
*Photo: Design Futures Lab exhibition, “Projects: 12/13,” Leonard Pearlstein Galley, URBN Annex. July 2013. Katie McHUGH, “[SIT] Sculpted Interactive Terrain” (foreground).
images, clockwise from top left: Megan MITCHELL, “Technology at the Threshold”; Laura NEJMAN, “Ambient Scent Communication”; Katie McHUGH, “[SIT] Sculpted Interactive Terrain” (foreground) and Megan MITCHELL (background); Tashia TUCKER, “Synthetic Biology: The Future of Adaptive Living Spaces”. All work Design Futures Lab, “Projects: 12/13,” Leonard Pearlstein Galley, URBN Annex. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 2013. Nicole KOLTICK, director. Colin TWOMEY, PJ SANTORO, & Mike AVERY, collaborators.
Like the fur of a chinchilla, like the cleanest tooth . . . like powder touching ash . . . at night, when it’s very very cold, the water is like cracked glass. Or honey. Or forgiveness, they say, ha, ha . . . “What does the air feel like to you? . . .” and we think and we guess that it feels like hair, thousands of hairs, swaying ever so slightly in breezes microscopic. The fishes laugh again, do better, think harder, they say. It feels like language, we say, and they are impressed. Keep going they say. It feels like blood, we say and they say No, no, that’s not it. The air is like being wanted, we say and they nod approvingly. The air is like getting older, they say and touch our arms gently.
— Dave Eggers, “What The Water Feels Like To The Fishes.”
What does it mean to occupy an object? Through embodying, imagining, or trying on an agency that is outside of one’s own subjectivity, one may begin to see something that does not stand in clear relief at the outset. This method of search belies an anthropocentric position and looks for fissures, openings, and dissonances. An embrace of the indeterminate, however, is not simply a form of romanticized vagueness. Rather, it is a tacit acknowledgment that, as Antonio Negri suggests, “Nothing is ever completely occupied, full, without holes, without cracks.”1 In fact, uncertainty and fuzziness reside closer to the nature of things as we are coming to understand them. In a tricky dance, we begin to acknowledge how much we do not know, how inadequate our patterns and schemas have been to confront the nature of objects and occurrences. Concepts such as fixed entities and boundaries begin to dissolve. As philosopher Timothy Morton writes,
At a microlevel, it becomes impossible to tell whether the mishmash of replicating entities are rebels or parasites: inside-outside distinctions break down. The more we know, the less self-contained living beings become. Chemistry and physics discover how malleable and fungible things are, down to the tiniest nanoscale objects. We dream about total manipulation.2
Such were our past dreams of complete agency or authorship. In relinquishing the subjective position and the comfort of anthropocentric supremacy, we must come to terms with the realm of objects and devise a new operational approach.
The relatively nascent philosophical movement of Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) provides a toolkit for engaging fully with the world of objects. By recognizing how little we truly know, and by giving equal focus and philosophical merit to the whole entirety of stuff and situations that exist, we can come to terms with the fact that the fuzzy and the indeterminate are fundamental properties of reality. As Morton writes,
Reality as such has been upgraded so that phenomena you can see and hear and palpate have become less real than ones you can’t. Reality seems to have a hole in it, like realizing that you’re floating in outer space (which, of course, technically, we are). This affects our sense of orientation, which traditionally depended on a background of some kind . . . outside of our responsibility, or outside of the social. When there is no background, there is no foreground.3
This disorientation offers a compelling starting point in approaching any project or design methodology today. It is not about the whole, the totality, or some completeness that will be achieved. That goal is no longer desirable, believable, or compelling in any way. We have to accept this loss, and in this acceptance recognize that opportunities remain, but they are present in much smaller ways, in ways more nuanced and fuzzier than we might have liked. The incremental shift, the small glitch or replication error, present an opportunity. In fact, the collapse of the distinction between background and foreground opens up vast new ground for discovery. Much like the openings or fissures referenced above, by dissolving traditional ontologies and throwing aside old forms of categorization we may approach a more productive relationship with indeterminacy. Perhaps a confident stance is not desired here. Students should be encouraged to embrace this uncertainty, looking not for clarity or coalescence, but instead searching for the holes, the ruptures, the small glimpses into objects that can be expanded and speculated on.
Such an approach is informative for any of the current strains of contemporary architectural production. When sifting and compiling code one should look not just to the resultant output, but instead attempt to occupy and embody each constituent object and definition. In his book Alien Phenomenology, media philosopher Ian Bogost advocates for an embrace and acknowledgment of everything. He writes,
The philosophical subject must cease to be limited to humans and things that influence humans. Instead it must become everything, full stop. Silicon microprocessors and data transmission ribbons are not like wild boars and black truffles. They are weird yet ordinary, unfamiliar yet human-crafted, animate but not living, just as much like limestone deposits as like kittens.4
We are not outside of it. As we gain more insight into the workings of complex and self-organizing systems, we must confront these developments in our thinking and making. The production of a cohesive and legible artifact that can be manifest materially should no longer be our end goal. This legibility is a comforting lie. How can these processes and approaches be seeded in a specific yet indeterminate way? Can glitches, anomalies, and translation errors, as well as openings, holes, and opportunities be pushed? Can a starting point of insignificance, imprecise and vague, coalesce into a semblance of form or clarity? Without seeking an overarching view of the entirety, we can discover small openings, instances, and objects. We can work incrementally by nudging and tweaking, bending and shifting. Noise and translation errors comprise this terrain of potential.
To my students, I suggest occupying objects. Pursue extreme and banal points of view. Attempt embodiment of everything while acknowledging how little we know. Embrace the specific and the exquisite, and abandon the subjective. Abandon the totality, abandon the boundary, and abandon the finish. This exercise is at once futile in its scope and yet illuminating at any juncture. Attempt embodiment of all other objects, systems, and relations. Where are the openings? One cannot reconcile or even imagine competing desires when they are not made explicit. Understand and embrace that, as Morton writes, “There is no beyond, no depth, and no comforting background. No Being, only beings.”5 Prepare a thorough taxonomy of agents, objects, relationships, contexts. You will see new potentials, narratives, outcomes, and relationships arise. Temperature, viscosity, adhesion, gradients of effect, slight odors, shifting winds, chemistry, geology, time, scale, unsaid beliefs, unquestioned assumptions, and subtle biases. This and this, and that, and this, and there, and them, and those. What was it; what will it be? What does it want? Where is it; what was that? Survey the terrain. Mine it heavily, where all assumptions, all objects, are exposed to interrogation, meditation, and speculation. Different objects matter at different times; different objects feel different at different times. Some objects can’t be seen, some objects can’t be heard, and some objects are hiding right in front of you. Look at the smallest, the quickest, the longest, the ugliest, the wildest, the dirtiest, the cleanest, the medium, the average, the exception, the boring, the slow, the stupid, the wicked, the feral, the dismal, and the swollen. The specifics matter. The indeterminate does not mean that nothing matters, but rather that everything matters in different, if less heroic ways. Look out—far out, as far as anyone could look—and then look in deeper and closer, and look some more. Keep going. Pursue a disembodied search. What do you know about each thing? Do things interact with other things, creating more things? What don’t you know? What is assumed but found to be false? What are you assuming that is false? What myths do you not want to relinquish? Your looking, seeing, and feeling creates opportunities and openings for revision, consideration, and intervention. There is no approach, solution, or desired outcome. You will open up a landscape of subtle and yet vast possibilities, a space of potential where disruption is located at every point. Extreme points of view, attempted embodiment: this is the space of what is possible.
Photo: Design Futures Lab exhibition, “Projects: 12/13.”
1. Antonio Negri and François Roche, “A Dialogue: Negri and Roche,” Log 25 (Summer 2012): 116. ↩
2. Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 36. ↩
3. Ibid., 117. ↩
4. Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology: or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minneapolis: University Press of Minnesota, 2012), Kindle edition, Chapter 1, section 3, paragraph 6. ↩
5. Morton, The Ecological Thought, 119. ↩