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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


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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Objects, knowledge and ethics

Author: joe

Monday, 06 December, 2010 - 22:08

It's been a fascinating few days watching the SR / OOO and the Metaphysics and Things conferences unfold online in the last few days - Bogost, Bryant, Morton, Harman, Haraway, Stengers, Shaviro and others on objects and units, processes and procedures, rhetoric and semiotics. It's very stimulating to see ideas open up and develop nuance as they get pulled in different directions by new combinations of cast members. I'm looking forward to getting my teeth into the detail soon - particularly what strikes me as a very Latourian atmosphere clinging to some of the outcomes, (by which I mean, a healthy and indiscriminate abundance of agents together translating and transforming the world). In the meantime, I want to return to the stubborn subject of withdrawn objects.

A few days ago Graham Harman called out a certain approach to making philosophical arguments, naming it trumpery - "the triumphalistic one-upping of positions that are defined as naive/traditionalistic" - particularly with reference to arguments which want to "denounce hidden unities behind the plurality of surface-effects . . . It's time to recover these bemoaned hidden unities lying behind appearance, rather than trumping them with easy avant garde positions that are now much too banal to be avant garde."

I don't know whether this was specifically in reference to a post of mine Graham linked to earlier; in that post I said, "I just want to dispel hidden realities which betray their appearances, or illusory facades which belie some more authentic realm" - which is pretty close to the position Graham dislikes.

I should point out that I think my position is more a form of specious dilettantism than avant garde trumpery. I'm an autodidact when it comes to philosophy, and have no real interest in making deep ontological commitments one way or the other; I am deeply interested, though, in how philosophies make me feel - their affect and the aesthetic experiences they evoke. So far as I am a professional academic / researcher (which is not very far), I'd say I'm in the phenomenological camp which denies that we can speak of things lying outside our experience without chasing ghosts and hallucinations. One of the things I love most about engaging with philosophy is the sense that I'm entering a world of abysses, ghouls, hauntings and the supernatural...

This position is often written off as a sort of postmodern cop-out: it flies in the face of common sense (because spades are spades and arche-fossils are arche-fossils); it insults scientific progress whose methods, its proponents constantly remind us, are the only valid means of investigating the world; it always escapes affirmation and, cowardly, never risks itself in defence of a particular worldview or outlook; it disappears (often accompanied by obscurantism) into surfaces, play, simulacra, language, representation - or, inevitably, up its own arse.

However, there is something about this position (which I prefer to call anti-foundationalist than postmodern), which seems to me to be crucial. Rorty describes it in Consequences of Pragmatism:

Suppose that Socrates was wrong, that we have not once seen the Truth, and so will not, intuitively, recognise it when we see it again. This means that when the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form "There is something within you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you." This thought is hard to live with, as is Sartre's remark:
"Tomorrow, after my death, certain people may decide to establish fascism, and the others may be cowardly or miserable enough to let them get away with it. At that moment, fascism will be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be as much as man has decided they are."
This hard saying brings out what ties Dewey and Foucault, James and Nietzsche, together - the sense that there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves, no criterion that we have not created in the course of creating a practice, no standard of rationality that is not an appeal to such a criterion, no rigorous argumentation that is not obedience to our own conventions.
Consequences of Pragmatism by Richard Rorty

If there is no universal truth to which we can appeal when the secret police come to the door, then all we can do is decide what we want to defend, and defend it as best we can. If there is no fallback position, no 'criterion' outside of human dealings to appeal to, no God, or universal morality, or even genetic imperative, all that is open to us is to make our case - the last thing we can be is complacent. It is, no doubt, undergraduate philosophy 101, but I see no way to go about epistemology, ontology, metaphysics or practical philosophy of any sort, without first taking up an ethical position.

Attendant to this position, for me, there must also be two further consequences: a suspicion of anything that might claim to be a more "authentic" or "foundational" realm than the surfaces amongst which we live our effervescent, sensual lives; and also a recognition that a world without foundations is one where the irresistible force can be resisted, the unstoppable object can be stopped, the impassable obstacle can be passed, and the hard kernel of things can be cracked.

That was all a long, round-about way of saying that I'm not so much a trumper as a dilettante, and not so much a dilettante as a double agent. I also don't want to imply that objects that withdraw are the harbingers of enslavement. Just that I want to understand the meaning of hidden realities. What is it that is hiding? Does it hide from everything? And why is it hiding from me?

Categories: Graham Harman, objects, withdrawal, Richard Rorty, pragmatism, ethics,
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Author: joe

Thursday, 02 December, 2010 - 23:52

- on lines from Rilke

Gouge out my eyes:
I still see you.
Burst my eardrums:
I still hear your voice.
Hack off my hands:
I still feel you.
Pluck out my tongue:
It still probes your mouth.
Chop off my genitals:
I still have carnal knowledge of you.
Bleed me to death:
I am still hot for you.
Cut out my heart:
It still beats for you.
Dash out my brains:
You are in my bones.
Cremate me:
You are in my ashes.
Scatter them:
You are in every particle.
Variations On A Theme Of Rilke by Patrick O'Shaughnessy

Patrick O'Shaughnessy is my grandfather. This poem has always been one of my favourites. I was reminded of it last night, while watching Graham Harman's fantastic lecture on Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology at the "Hello Everything" conference. He uses an analogy about cotton and fire to illustrate the withdrawn dimensions of reality that can never be accessed by any kind of relation. Knowledge can never exhaust the objects it encounters: even fire does not exhaust the cotton it encounters.

I imagine a sudden spark catch hold of the cotton, triggering a whooomff of flames engulfing the soft cotton. The fibres glow and crackle, but quickly start to blacken into sooty embers, and disintegrate. As they sliver and spread, there are specks and motes of pitchy, carbonised cellulose dispersing in the air, jetting upwards on the crest of fiery waves or drifting sideways and earthward. Somewhere in that conflagration the cotton is destroyed - the object that was some cotton is now a crowd of particles dispersing in the air, a de-condensing collection of new, smaller objects. Exactly where it is, in the process of that disassembling, that the cotton's destruction occurs - at which point the cotton is translated into its disaggregate particulate components - is ambiguous: is it the instant the fire first catches the flammable edges of the white plant fluff, or when each last part of coherent fibre is finally desiccated and splintered? Is there a gradient of dispersal, or a quantum jump - is "being" on a spectrum or is it a lump?

Michael at Archive Fire uses the example of a horse eating an apple:

An apple is partially 'withdrawn' from a horse who holds it in its teeth because the teeth of the horse are only in contact with the skin of the apple, leaving the inner non-skin parts of the apple "hidden" and temporarily in excess of the horses bite. So the horse can be said to be in direct contact with the real apple, however not in its entirety. There are aspects of the apple that are partially withdrawn. But when the horse bites into the apple a 'deeper' kind of access is granted, the apple's individuality has been compromised, and when the horse subsequently begins to digest the apple the very distinction between the apple and the horse begins to break down. In this example the interaction between apple and horse goes from partial contact and withdrawnness to deeper disclosure and eventually to absorption in such a manner that completely obviates the need to posit any sort of unbridgeable 'gap' between either the two objects in themselves', or between the horse's encounter with the apple and its experience of it. In an intimately enmeshed and complicated cosmos these things often touch, mix and mingle in ways that are specific to what they in fact are.
The Depth of Things - Part 1: Conjuring the Gap by michael of Archive Fire

Here's what I feel, even if I don't really know it - my intuition: my identity is not hermetically sealed from the world - rather my consciousness is ecologically entwined with the environment in which it moves; my body is not a finitely bounded unity, but a breathing, drinking, leaking density plugged into the material world. Perhaps less intuitively - my mind is not an encapsulated mirage hovering around my brain, nor a mere emergent epiphenomenon which is the effect of a billion grey cells, but something more difficult to understand, such that it feels more like magic. In any case it's just as hard for me to think of my individuality as absolute, as it would be for a believer to let go of the essential existence of the soul. Merleau-Ponty says:

I discover within myself a kind of internal weakness, standing in the way of my being totally individualised: a weakness which exposes me to the gaze of others as a man among men, or at least a consciousness among consciousnesses . . .

My grandfather's poem pictures an indestructible essence, in the guise of the obsessive lover. The subject who loves can never be exterminated by any action of his object; but at the same time the loved one can never extract themselves from the grasp of the lover. I know you, even though you emasculate me. But the essence does in fact de-individualise, and the lover is no longer himself alone - his object is absorbed into his bones and his blood; into every particle. Each last speck still remains the "I" of the lover, and yet completely mingles with "you" of the loved. You and I, inextricably intermixed.

Categories: Patrick Shaughnessy, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Graham Harman, objects, withdrawal, love, poetry, essence, knowledge, relation,
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