Evocative Objects: the case for object elicitation

Author: joe

Friday, 17 February, 2012 - 16:19

Some notes on objects.

Objects and insights

It is possible to think of objects as both catalysts and repositories of meaningful human experiences, and it is the entwinement of objects with our lives, identities, memories and desires that makes them attractive targets for qualitative research. Elicitation is a qualitative method based on the use of visual materials, photography, video, artefacts or other objects, in which participants gather materials which help them to make sense of, or express, experiences and emotions which may be difficult to articulate in purely linguistic or cognitive ways. A broad framework called 'symbolic interactionism' provides a means of understanding elicitations as evidence that provides insight into the meanings that are attached to people's interactions with other people and the object world around them.

Fetish and Phantasy

The significance of objects in the corpus theoretical is clear in the Marxist tradition, in which objects are commodified and then fetishised - that is, according to Marx, we understand the power of acting in the world to be carried within commodities rather than, say the people whose labour made them. Freud later develops the fetishisation of objects into the sexual realm in which objects are the agents of arousal and their absence renders the human subject impotent.

Post-Freudian psychoanalysts working in the tradition of Melanie Klein move the emphasis away from the Freudian school's concentration on ego psychology (or the ability of the conscious individual to manage undesirable unconscious drives) towards the Kleinian investigation of unconscious phantasy (the way that the environment stimulates conceptual capacities).

This shift in emphasis in object-relations from fetish to capacity can be seen in the work of Wilfred Bion, who develops the idea that thinking capacities are provoked by interactions with the object world. Following Bion and Christopher Bollas, we can say that thoughts require a thinker, and it is in our encounters with the environment of people and objects that pre-conceptual impressions and emotions call a thinking consciousness into being. Experiences and emotional responses generate mental phenomena that must be processed, and it is in the act of processing that a reflective self emerges.

As Grotstein puts it, Bion emphasises the primacy of "emotions and the faculties of the mental apparatus that apprehend them, among which are consciousness, attention and reverie, each devised to render us more aware of our emotional life in regard to our relationship with objects as well as ourselves… Emotions, unlike sensuous stimuli, are not visible or tangible and, consequently, must be apprehended by reverie, a waking dream state." (Grotstein, 2009) Note also that the progression from consciousness, through attentiveness, to reverie, here suggest the kinds of activities and states of mind that might be necessary for uncovering the kinds of meaningful understandings that are sought in the object elicitation process.

Play and reverie

Bion's work suggests that the identity of the thinker is bound up with the relationship between the experiential and sensory impressions of the object world and the emerging self's mapping of inner phantasies to the external world. Donald Winnicott's examination of infant play also directs our attention to both the meanings that we attribute to objects and the reverie or waking dream-like states. In imaginative play, the child recruits the environment and object-world into their diegetic world:

"(a) To get to the idea of playing it is helpful to think of the preoccupation that characterizes the playing of a young child. The content does not matter. What matters is the near-withdrawal state, akin to the concentration of older children and adults. The playing child inhabits an area that cannot be easily left, nor can it easily admit intrusions. (b) This area of playing is not inner psychic reality. It is outside the individual but it is not the external world. (c) Into this play area that child gathers objects or phenomena from external reality and uses these in the service of some sample derived from inner or personal reality. Without hallucinating the child puts out a sample of dream potential and lives with this sample in a chosen setting of fragments from external reality. (d) In playing, the child manipulates external phenomena in the service of the dream and invests chosen external phenomena with dream meaning and feeling. (e) There is a direct development from transitional phenomena to playing, and from playing to shared playing, and from this to cultural experiences." (Winnicott, 1971)

The ability of the child to invest dream meaning and feeling into objects is what makes those objects transitional, that is, essential elements in the child's development since they form part of the repertoire with which emotions and meanings can be expressed without resort to the as yet incomplete capacity for cognitive and linguistic articulation.

From cathexis to day-dreams

Such investments of emotional intensity, imaginative play and meaning onto external objects is termed cathexis. In Freudian psychoanalysis, cathexis is libidinal; however we need not limit our understanding of the delegation or transferral of emotional experiences onto objects to sexual or erotic meanings. Parkin (1999) and others show that transitional objects can come into play at any time of life in a variety of emotionally demanding circumstances. Parkin notes that under the severe conditions of sudden flight and displacement, refugees who must take what they can carry before departing don't limit themselves to utilitarian items but also take mementoes such a photographs, letter and other personal effects. Parkin argues that this reflects "a more general process of self-inscription in non-commodity, gift-like objects which, through their association with stories, dreams and the transmission of skills and status, temporarily encapsulate precluded social personhood". (Parkin, 1999)

Following Bion we may also see the work of objects in the life of the mind. Bollas draws on Bion's digestive metaphor to explore how external objects and their experiences exert an influence over our mental activities outside the infant play-world or sudden exile. The world of experience continually unfolds for us, yet only some of those experiences can be 'digested'; when such experiences do provide 'food-for-thought', they provide the very materials that our thinking consists of, and the sustenance that the exercise of thinking requires. Switching back to the metaphor of the dream or reverie, Bollas argues that we are "involved in ordinary dream-work, knitting together experiences in the real that form the tapestry of that day's unconscious meaning. Actual things play a huge role in that dreaming, and this may be due to what they contain (mnemically) or how they function (their structure), or what enduring them will put us through (their processual integrity)." (Bollas, 2009) Or in a more peripatetic mode: "When moving in the real, the manifest contents of my meanderings are constituted out of the actual things I encounter. Any latent content will emerge from the aleatory vector as this thinking involves me in encountering the unexpected, out of which a type of thinking arises." (Bollas, 2009)

Selves layered within objects

Building on the insight into how objects are interlaced with meanings and self-inscription, Anthony Elliott and John Urry provide an analysis of how people's lives are changing with the increasing prevalence of mobile digital technologies and their associated objects. We carry around with us objects into which we literally deposit meanings and experiences for storage and later retrieval. We store in them such crucial social tools as our contact lists, the musical and audible bubbles we can enclose ourselves within, and the messages we send to each other. These objects increasingly merge otherwise compartmentalised sections of our lives, such that we address work issues while with loved ones, and communicate with our loved ones while at the workplace. Their presence with us at all times means that those traditional moments of reverie - the delayed train, the unexpected pause between locations - have been invaded by the routines of the digital device, with its seductive invitation to check our emails, to stay on top of work and home life, to graze the latest information. Such a deep implication of the object into life implies a new intimacy between devices and what designers understatedly call their 'users':

"The individual self does not just 'use', or activate, digital technologies in day-to-day life. On the contrary, the self - in conditions of intensive mobilities - becomes deeply 'layered' within technological net works, as well as reshaped by their influence." (Elliott & Urry, 2010)

Objects as emotional companions

Sherry Turkle in her study of evocative objects considered how objects are the things we think with. Her anthology collects together autobiographical accounts of how specific objects have inspired or stimulated the people who have encountered them and provide a model for the sorts of qualitative insights the meditation on objects can invoke. Turkle draws on Levi-Strauss' account of bricolage to begin an exploration of objects as emotional companions.

"Material things, for Levi-Strauss, were goods-to-think-with and, following the pun in French, they were good-to-think-with as well… We find it familiar to consider objects as useful or aesthetic, as necessities or vain indulgences. We are on less familiar ground when we consider objects as companions to our emotional lives or as provocations to thought. The notion of evocative objects brings together these two less familiar ideas, underscoring the inseparability of thought and feeling in our relationship to things. We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with." (Turkle, 2007, pp4-5)

Object elicitation

Object elicitation can provide insights into the functional relationships between people, objects and attitudes, providing a window onto singular or shared understandings of particular issues and how people interpret and signify the realm of social action and meaning. It is based on the view that interactions with other people and the object world form meaningful experiences for, and emotional responses in, people's lives. Furthermore, our development as individual selves is bound up with our experiences with objects and the pattern of their correspondence with our phantasies. Objects can be thought of as storage mechanisms for emotional content, from their role in imaginative play, through their significance at times of distress, to their ever-increasing intertwining with our technologised selfhood. As well as providing proxies for our emotional lives, objects become necessary components of our meaningful experiences.

1694 words

Bibliography

Bion, W., 1962, Learning From Experience, London: Heinemann

Elliott, A. & Urry, J., 2010, Mobile Lives, London: Routledge

Bollas, C., 2009, The Evocative Object World, London: Routledge

Grotstein, J., in De Cortinas, L. P., 2009, Aesthetic Dimension of the Mind: Variations on a Theme of Bion, London: Karnac

Parkin, D. J., 'Mementoes as Transitional Objects in Human Displacement' in Journal of Material Culture,1999 4: 303 - 320

Turkle, S., 2007, Evocative Objects: Things we Think With, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Winnicott, D. W., 1971, Playing and Reality, London: Routledge

Categories: objects, elicitation, qualitative, research, cathexis, psychoanalysis, Bion, Bollas, Elliott, Klein, Parkin, Turkle, Urry, Winnicott,
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World / Text

Author: joe

Thursday, 16 February, 2012 - 22:18

One objection to world-as-narrative (even before we get to what we mean by narrative exactly) is that it leads us to the world-as-text, and that the world clearly cannot be a text, since a text is nothing and the world is not nothing. We dismiss the idea of world-as-text, or there being nothing outside the text, because textuality, like other appearances constructed from amorphous things such as sociality or the imagination, doesn't account for the irreducible heterogeneity and difference of real things in the world. The text is somehow unreal because manufactured, or too finite in its human contingency.

But look, there it is: the text is there, see it with all its words, its syntax and its endlessly concatenating generative grammar. The words are there in your mouth, and though the action of the muscles slip around it, and the phosphorescent images that glitter in its wake seem to disappear, nevertheless there is something under and behind it - in fact it is the very split nature of the word, with its surface shape and graspability, always divorced from its object which we nevertheless feel resisting us, hunted and vague, that allows us to see in its surface the evidence of what withdraws behind it. Moving behind a veil, yet giving the veil its very form and movement, like the wind through the opening pushing at the hangings which present a shimmering masque of surging and crashing forms.

Much as they may be arbitrary and conventional signs divorced from their referents, nevertheless there is something indexical in the relation of words the objects they symbolise. Bachelard talks about the beautiful and disturbing moments when a native of a gender-inflected language encounters, as it were, cross-gender transformations in other gendered tongues, as in the French speaker whose masculine sun (le soleil) becomes feminine in German (die Sonne), or the reverse gender-bending switch of the moon (la lune and der Mond). The shock or uncanniness, the delight and conquest, in such encounters points at the allusive and affective pairings - alluding to the same suns and moons with their many faces and adumbrations, affecting us as the world of things remind us of their irreducibility, repaying the transferred emotions we invest in them, turning us around. For all that language can be a buffer or a space between us and the world, nevertheless it is not supernatural, and cannot always keep reality from insisting on its way.

Categories: world, text, Lacan, Bachelard, narrative, story, reality,
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Clearing

Author: joe

Monday, 13 February, 2012 - 14:13

Every world is a sort of disclosing, a way of rendering itself intelligible. What is intelligibility but something that can be read into, read between, picked out and gathered together, what can be thought and made into word, spoken and accounted for. Any world, being finite and contingent, is the condition of our thinking and being thinkable, speaking and being spoken, gathering and being gathered.

The disclosure of this or that world is what emerges out of the background into the light, what things become intelligible in such light. The lightening itself, the clearing in which the world emerges from its ground, the earth, is the mystery. What storyteller is shedding this light on the world that has appeared? In what story have I become intelligible myself, such that I too am here, in this clearing of the world?

Categories: clearing, world, disclosure, being, story, Heidegger,
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World / Nowhere

Author: joe

Wednesday, 08 February, 2012 - 21:46

The world is a whole one, continuous if uneven. This wholeness can't very well be broken into parts without the kind of effort that pushes the parts out of joint, like cracking a rock to expose the fossil: what wonder to see the shell that has lurked for a million years bound up in the bonds of the rock! But also something is now over and done in that hammer blow, a deliberate stroke, over and above the everyday effort that allows us to pick our way through the rock-strewn shore. The petrified shape exposed in the rock is now left in the open, to be worn away by the familiarity created by its accessibility. No longer a constant furrow buried in a stone, silently ploughing its line in the thick of the world, it is now here, expressed from its bed, worn under light and water and foot, under a gaze, which is nowhere.

Categories: world, Heidegger, Vorhandenheit,
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World

Author: joe

Tuesday, 07 February, 2012 - 22:13

The world I mean is the one which allows me to say of myself or others, that we are worldly, or that we are men of the world, or that we know something of the way of the world. It is a world that has mood and colour, it has a certain underlying sort of flavour - a complexity below the many notes which is nevertheless its own. It is the sort of world that one could imagine being otherwise, if one wanted, in a daydream or moment of wishing.

I know too that the world has been otherwise, or at least that it evolves, and unevenly: I suspect it has always been a world in which dark air has brooded over rivers as the cities of civilisations have come and gone from their shores; but the world in which genetic structures are unlocked is a different one from the world in which humours are put into a different balance, or the world in which burnt entrails appease the angry gods. There are even worlds within worlds - the specific worlds of peoples, cultures, crafts, enterprises, knowledge, language, projects - each is an opening, intervening in the wider unfolding world.

We see the world and its long slow changeability when we put our minds to it. When we do not, though, it disappears - in fact it is always disappearing, or at least sublimating somehow so that it becomes transparent. Its invisibility and concealment is what allows me to rely on it silently. There is something imperturbable about the inaccessible depths that constantly burgeon in the world. The flavour and ethos recede into that background, but nevertheless continue to give their tones to my absorption in living a life.

The life I'm living is also a world - my world - but it comes after the outer world. That larger world is a shared one, and the commons of that wider world are the heritage that nurture my own. Far from being alone and locked in a single lonely realm, never to join or merge with the spaces of others, my own world is a borrowed one which pays its debt in kind. Only in the effort of putting the mind to the task, do I find myself in my own individual cosmos: soon enough, as I reabsorb myself into the business of being alive, the worlds of my self, and those around me, the worlds of commerce and pleasure, the world encompassing them all, merge back within one seamless horizon - changed somehow.

Categories: world, Heidegger,
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Eliminate!

Author: joe

Wednesday, 01 February, 2012 - 23:22

The fear lies in the elimination of meaning. There are eliminitavists out there. They stalk the land like stilt-walkers crossing fens, hunting, herding and eradicating fauna, extirpating significance, annihilating secrets, exterminating superstitions, banishing all magic, colour and purpose.

These terrorists are bent on banishing the inner world. So, the shaking hand is hormonal - an cortisone signal that mobilises a mammal response, while the living awareness of the hurt is nothing more than a ghost. The blush is merely information in a closed system - the system that catches pheromones and peacocks into a framework of fertility messages and reproductive imperatives, whose illusory reflections appear to take the form of ardour or devotion. The ongoing flourishing of life itself, with its the menagerie of species and phyla, is no more than the medium of information - a quaternary code whose successful transmission is sufficient cause. This emptied world is not just one that has been hollowed out - it has been flattened, expressed and desiccated.

The eliminativists have it the wrong way round, though. The cybernetic manoeuvre of putting humans and machines onto the same ontological plane works both ways: just as the human becomes a servo-mechanism, so the machine becomes an aesthetic organism. The same perceptive life that constitutes the world of human meaning is at work in the mechanical operations of detection and processing, judging and adjusting. The machine world is awash with sensation, interaction and appreciation. The adrenaline feeling in the stomach and the voltage generated in a photovoltaic cell; the tingle of excitement and the charge in an electrostatic field; the whole emotional-somatic range of how our senses are stimulated, how our heartbeat increases, our hackles raise, our toes curl or our eyes water - and the racing current, the humming circuit, the scattered electrons or the negative charge.

Categories: eliminativism, cybernetics, meaning, aesthetics,
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Inner and Outer

Author: joe

Wednesday, 01 February, 2012 - 15:04

The quantified self is a kind of nightmare. The self is not just what can be measured, transcribed and translated onto other substrates - tables, graphs, algorithms and numbers. Surely we are more than what can be summarised about us - our movements or our galvanic skin response; our imaged neuronal activity or our observable behaviour? Even were there a method for recording every outward event, each unit of information emitted from the system, it would surely be nothing more than the shell of a life, rather than the life itself? The sloughed skin rather than the being who cast it off? 'My inner world cannot be accounted for', objects the inner voice.

What is the character of the fear that haunts the rationalisation of human beings? What is the resistance to scientific accounts of human action - the behaviourist category itself, which casts the individual as a set of instinctual responses which can be conditioned; or the cybernetic vision of the human as servo-mechanism; the sociobiological thought which see cultures as mere derivatives of hunter-gatherer origins; the neurological system which turns our autonomy into something that emerges from statistical phenomena; the cosmological view which traces every event back to an origin which plays out deterministically according to unchanging laws; or the materialist explanation of the world as the extended evolution of the behaviour of atoms and particles?

In a conversation, two people speak past each other: the one is monosyllabic and reluctant, elsewhere; the other is insistent, 'listen to me, I'm trying to talk to you', unrelenting. The conversation is broken, it malfunctions, since communication is fraught and meanings are cut off. The reluctant, distracted absentee conversationalist is hurting, the injuries flood into her consciousness washing out all other intentions. The pain blushes in the solar plexus and shakes in the fingers. It stiffens in the neck. The voice of the other speaker is intermittent and confusing, it feels like an insect in the air that darts in and then away, and with each invasion it brings a sensation of being pushed and stirred, knocked back and forth.

The one talking barely notices the silent one's slight shiver, or the darkened brow. The lack of response is infuriating. With each occasion that the expected acknowledging nods and murmurs do not come, a creeping sense of futility is drowned by a exploding heat below and behind each ear. The voice starts to be uncontrollable, as the mid-point of every spoken breath becomes raised and petulant. 'I am uncared for, why do you not care?' The silent response is the click of a ratchet each time it intervenes where the contact should occur, and each winding moment is a slip further down the abyss, a further strain on the line attaching the voice to the world, until the snap happens, the teeth whirr back and the voice shouts incoherently 'LISTEN TO ME'.

Categories: cybernetics, feedback, information, measurement, inner experience,
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