Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Object Oriented Environs

by J J Cohen

Two years ago Steve Mentz was kind enough to invite me to serve as a respondent in his SAA (Shakespeare Association of America) seminar on "Oceanic Shakespeares." I enjoyed the experience so much that this year Julian Yates and I proposed an SAA seminar on "Object Oriented Environs." Here is our regulation 85 word description:
This seminar stages a confluence of two important trends in critical theory: the environmental turn and object-oriented ontology (vibrant materialism, new materialism, speculative realism). These modes of inquiry move beyond anthropocentrism to examine nonhumans at every scale, their relations to each other, and the ethics of human enmeshment with a material world that possesses its own agency. How does our apprehension of the inhuman change when texts become laboratories for probing the liveliness, mystery, and autonomy of objects, in their alliances and in performance?
I'd convinced myself that we'd be canceling the thing due to lack of interest, but much to our surprise we had a huge response ... and were asked to run two seminars on the topic. The downside of this split is that two of our respondents will be part of one seminar, two part of the other, but we are also hoping that through vast libationary bribes we will be able to convince all four to attend both. And those respondents would be:
Drew Daniel
Eileen Joy
Julia Lupton
Vin Nardizzi
This foursome are an objects dream team, the Archangels of the Objects. We cannot imagine better respondents. We decided to share PDFs containing short pieces of their work as a way of catalyzing the seminars into action, and we supplemented these materials with the "Metaphorism" chapter from Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology. Those PDFS just went out to all the seminar participants. Here are the instructions we sent along to our group of 31, hoping to challenge and catalyze:
Dear Object-Oriented Environers, 
Welcome to our seminar and collective adventure. We are delighted to have you all involved and hope that you are as excited as we are by the prospect of our collaboration! In order to accommodate everyone who signed up, we have been asked to run two parallel, independent seminars of roughly 15 people each. Obviously, you are all invited to attend both sessions as you are able – we should be delighted in fact if you did.

In terms of format, we would like to imagine each two-hour seminar as an opportunity to stage an object-oriented event-space focused on the things/ issues you are embarked on studying and writing about. Each seminar will take on its “feel” from the inventory of things you provide. To that end, in place of the usual 12 page (3000-4500 word) papers, we should like each participant to write a 6-page (1500 word max) position paper on his or her object and the environs it orients that names or curates the importance of the thing in question, outlines what it enables you or prompts you to think / say, and so do. We will pre-circulate these papers as per SAA deadlines and then Jeffrey and Julian will work out a way of ebbing and flowing through them that opens things up to discussion for each seminar. We will provide a current that we can allow to take us, that you can buck, or dam, as the mood / orientation takes. To help anchor us in the “thingliness” that our papers will convoke, we ask also that on the day of each seminar, you bring some version / iteration of your object or a totem with you to the seminar.

We realize that the words “object” and “thing” carry with them a range of philosophical and theoretical moorings anchored to a succession of names and movements (Martin Heidegger, Michel Serres, Bruno Latour, Object-Oriented Ontology, Affordance Theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis, the object relations theory of Winnicott, as well a the rich and varied bibliography of material culture studies and preservation studies). We welcome all these orientations to the table as, in our view, each tends to emphasize some differing aspect or property of an object—its physicality, psychic life, finitude, function.

We are fortunate, in the context of this impossible wealth of a bibliography, to have invited respondents who have worked extensively with objects in different registers: Drew Daniel, Eileen Joy, Julia Reinhard Lupton and Vin Nardizzi —and we have asked them to share with us a short excerpt from their work to serve as an example of some of the work that medievalists and early modernists have embarked upon. In addition, because the movement gives it name to our seminar, we recommend reading the following excerpt from Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology as an emblem for the broader development of an object oriented ontology / speculative realism as developed by philosophers such as Quentin Meillasoux and Graham Harman. (These readings are attached at the end of this message in pdf). 
In terms of imagining our flow of work, we provide a timetable below:
December 1, 2013: Please circulate a brief introduction and “hello” to the group from you and your object (4 -5 sentences). Please also let us know at this point if it would be useful for us to have any particular kind of a/v help on site if that is necessary to staging your object.
March 1, 2014 SAA is the SAA deadline for all participants to pre-circulate their papers to have their name included in the conference program. We ask that you do your very best to honor this date—especially given the number of participants involved--and we would be especially grateful if papers arrived even earlier--February 15 would be terrific! 
Looking beyond SAA, we invite all who would like to do so, to turn their 1500 word position paper into a short essay of 3000-4000 words that we hope to include in a book (likely with Punctum Books http://punctumbooks.com) that aims to archive the work of our two seminars along with responses from our respondents.
Please feel free to write us both with any questions you may have.

Best, Excited wishes to All!

Jeffrey and Julian
It's quite an experiment, and I feel honored to be part of its unfolding. The question of whether or not it will work remains open (we are asking our participants to frame their work and approach the seminar differently from what has become the SAA norm). I'm hoping to post updates here at ITM as the process unfolds. In the meantime, though: what do you think? And if you are an SAA veteran, what advice do you have?

1 comment:

Kevin Curran said...

I've participated in a bunch of SAA seminars and I'm directing my second in April. I think this sounds fantastic. What a wonderful group of respondents. By asking everyone to bring in a totem of their object, you'll essentially be assembling your own thing-ecology within the seminar room: scholarship meets collaborative installation art! Classroom meets object-environment! I hope my schedule allows me to audit.