Things, art, and PSAs

I’m teaching Liz Grosz’ essay “The Thing” today. Jane Bennett on things next. I am reminded of one of my favorite PSAs ever, “Art. Ask for More.” Here it is:



And below the fold, my thoughts on the video from the introduction to my dissertation. I can’t say that I still LOVE this part of the diss (or any of it), but I still basically agree with it.


Things and the New

A National Arts Education Public Awareness Campaign television advertisement1 shows a little boy who does not understand art, or, more precisely, does not understand the objects produced by or as art. He looks at a balloon animal, made for him by a clown at his birthday party, and, with a bored expression firmly planted on his face, exclaims, “I don’t see it.” What he does not see, or understand, is not that the clown has produced something, but that the production itself, the object, is an abstraction from the “normal” material conditions of the balloon. In other words, the child only understands a balloon to be a “balloon” in the most common (or least abstracted) understanding of the term. If he were a scientist he would understand it as a latex-rubber bag capable of inflation, or some equally matter-of-fact definition of a balloon. But he is a child, who, because he has had no exposure to art, is incapable of finding any use for or condition of the balloon but the most literal. Another example, more important and interesting than the first but seemingly misplaced in a plea for art education, shows the same boy throwing away a stick his golden retriever has placed at his feet. The dog sees in the stick a certain type of object, what Brian Massumi calls a part-subject, a locus of forces that polarizes across a field the actions of fetching: throwing of the stick by the boy, running to and picking up of the stick by the dog, returning to the boy with the stick.2 Repeat. The boy does not see the potential for these actions, and instead only sees the stick as a thing for discard, a thing with no utility except to be a thing to be rid of. Although this “failure” on the part of the child to understand the potential for play in an ordinary thing perceived—his failure to find the appropriate part-subject in the thing, and the concomitant failure to perceive himself as a part-object—may seem incongruous in this context, it is the lack of a certain type of perception, which we might call artistic (for lack of a better term), that is the cause of the failure to begin with.3

And yet this problem has little to do with vision or observation, the actions/concepts with which perception is frequently associated. Rather, perception here is involved with the ability to interpret the world, the material world outside of practices of textual signification, and the consequent understanding of objects within it as having specific, immediate uses or, stretching the term a bit, meanings. To understand a stick as merely garbage is to fail to perceive in the stick one of these several (or infinite) use-meanings (which themselves are aspects of what Henri Bergson calls the “real whole”) or to make of it what Elizabeth Grosz calls a “thing.” Grosz writes, “The thing is our way of dealing with the world in which we are enmeshed rather than over which we have dominion” (171). Otherwise put, we utilize the thing—as category, cut-out, object—as a means for negotiating our environment. If we did not distort the noumenal as a matter of course we would be helpless in our efforts to make sense of the manifold natures of each and every portion of reality with which we come into contact. More precisely, all we would be left with is pure relation, the lines of force that connect thing to thing. Paradoxically, despite the fact that things are a reduction of a pure reality, they are very much a means to return to reality as it is commonly understood. To exist in the reality of pure relation, to exist in what Gilles Deleuze would call “the virtual” and Jacques Lacan “the Real” (understanding the important distinctions between these two ideas) is impossible for any conceivable length of time. The thing is therefore a necessary reduction, a heuristic for materiality that allows for interpretation on a level other than the textual.

It is important to note then, that things are not (always al)ready-made. They are determined in acts of intelligence, defined by Massumi as the “overall process of the actual extending into the possible and then looping through sensation into a mutual intensification of potential, perception, and thought” (94). Things are objectifications (or, more precisely, “part-subjectifications”) from perception, cut-outs from context, the space and duration of relations. Each relation is one of the thing’s other possible objectifications. Intelligence is the means by which we see a thing (the actual, the thing momentarily divorced from its virtual context, the real whole) and are able to extend the current perception of it into a future, and thereby address its latent potential (in the relations it has that are not currently perceived). By necessity, one sees what one wants or needs in the world, never the entirety of it. As a result, what one finds there is neither simply a natural object nor a mere cognitive projection. Rather it is what Bergson would call an image, an aspect of objective reality that shares a fundamental relationship with the body through the modalities of perception.4

As stated, the extent to which one deals with reality in this manner is the extent to which one effectively deals with reality. However, the exclusive reliance on past part-subjectifications of reality is the cause of what Massumi calls instrumental reason, or the part of the process of intelligence “consisting in the systematization of intelligence in the general mode of possibility” (94). The distinction between intelligence in the sense that it is understood above and instrumental reason is important, as Massumi points out: “Intelligence is an outgrowth of need. Instrumental reason is the extension of need into utility: a greater co-presence of possibilities that enables a systematic construction of a combinatoric and, by virtue of that, a calculated choice between possible next connections” (94-95). A strict reliance on instrumental reason creates an image of thought that can only recognize a single object (or objective) in any given perceived-thing. (E.g. unchecked capitalism is instrumental reason applied to nature in the name of the proliferation of a privileged class’s version of culture: nature is a resource to be used for fuel/construction/profit/etc.) Grosz argues along similar lines: “We could not function within this teeming multiplicity without some ability to skeletalize it, to diagram or simplify it. Yet this reduction and division occur only at a cost, which is the failure or inability of our scientific, representational, and linguistic systems to acknowledge the in-between of things, the plural interconnections that cannot be utilized or contained within and by things but that makes them possible” (180). That which makes life livable—in pragmatic, day-to-day existence—is the means by which is lost the potential of the world to be other than our expectations of it. If we are taught that a stick is an object that is to be disposed of, and never made aware of the possibilities for play within the stick, we will only ever throw it—and all of the other part-subjects it is—away. In so doing we also discard a bit of ourselves: all of the part-objects that the stick would allow us to become: thrower of stick, fetcher of stick, playmate of dog, etc. According to the logic of the aforementioned PSA, art is the mode of perceiving cum method of interacting with the world that allows us to extend the actual into the future for something other than utility, something creative and new. While we need not solely ascribe to art the means by which new futures are actively constructed, we must nonetheless ensure that the future is not merely futuristic, a hypostatization of the past/present as ideal. What Massumi calls “more of the same” is the grounds for the impossibility of true progress, the means by which what is all too recognizable is understood as being the new.

2 See Massumi’s discussion of the soccer ball as part-subject and his overall discussion of sport, pp. 71-82.

3 Barbara Maria Stafford’s Visual Analogy: Consciousness as the Art of Connecting is instructive here. Stafford’s project is to recuperate the notion of analogy, the act of perceiving sameness that she argues has been lost with our increased abilities to detect and think otherness. She claims that analogy is fundamentally a visual method and writes, “It requires perspicacity to see what kinds of adjustments need to be made between uneven cases to achieve a tentative harmony. It also presupposes discernment to discover the relevant likeness in unlike things” (3). In the case at hand, the boy lacks this perspicacity and discernment and therefore the ability to see in a balloon an animal. However, as the first epigraph to this introduction should make clear, I am not interested in developing a concept through which recognition is achieved. I find this notion of analogy useful only insofar as it theorizes an ability to see in an object something other than its most obvious immediate use (which is to say its future). My preference is for a theory that does so in order to see a potentiality that is not recognizable as something else already extant in the world—in the manner that the futuristic is represented as merely a modality of the present in the science fiction texts discussed below—and hence truly new.

4 See Bergson’s Matter and Memory for his discussion of the image.


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