The Thing is This
Missiles Not Metaphors
Towards the end of a somewhat laboured presentation at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol (UK) on the shift from mythogeographical exploration to politico-architectural intervention, a member of the audience rose and advanced on the performance. He had a clear intent to disrupt. Skirting around and behind the presenters, he pinned to the back wall a piece of paper on which he had drawn a hand, palm facing, in red. Then he left.
Not one of the performers missed a beat. The red hand took its place among the orbits of the many other representations set, creakingly, in flight that evening: urban models, serious play, signposts, guerrilla gardening, marine biology.
What did it signify? “Stop”? The red hand of
A better question might be: why, when clearly so angry, did he not throw some thing?
Why a representation of a ‘spanner in the works’ rather than the spanner (or equivalent) itself?
The presentation was struggling to find exactly such an object; the last thing it needed was another metaphor.
All That Is Solid Melts Into Air
With the privileging of rhizomes over the single-tree root system, liminal over containment, Doreen Massey’s trajectories over boundaries in theories of space, the Society of the Spectacle and John Urry’s dominant metaphors – gaze and mobilities – haunting Tourism Studies and beyond, let alone the unravelling of site-specificity in performance and its criticism, it has been a difficult time for ‘things’.
Perhaps rightly so.
The capacity of human beings to represent one thing as another – other human beings as frothy scum, for example – and then industrialise that relation in Fordist factories at St Petersburg, Bhopal, Zaporozhe and Detroit or death plants at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek, made urgent (and always ‘overdue’ because too late) the addressing of representation in media of massive scope and reach.
In this process of re-humanising images and representations and calling them to account, ‘things’ have been elbowed out of the way, reduced to inert chunks of ‘nature’, doing service as examples of ‘materialities’; redundant, obstacle-like, too inflexible to romp in the self-reflexive surf of critical theory.
Before considering two particularly abject things – theatrical props and ufos – it is worth noting that there has recently been the beginnings of an advocacy for such things, including Daniel Miller’s ethnographic The Comfort of Things and Leanne Shapton’s ‘novel’ masquerading as an auction catalogue: Important Artefacts and Personal Property From The Collections of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry. But perhaps the most significant single development is a publication by a small group of anthropologists, riding to the cause of things.
In Thinking Through Things Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad and Sari Wastell protest against the privileging of theories of representation (epistemology) over those of being (ontology) that has left things “pacified, retreating to an exterior, silent and uniform world of ‘Nature’”, that has rendered things devoid of a meaning long fled to realms of theoretical abstraction (from which vantage point meaning looks down with the hungry gaze of a bird of prey).
The Same Thing But Different
Thinking Through Things is about a quite different description of ‘thing’, proposing “that things might be treated as sui generis meanings.” Rather than removing meaning from the thing by interpretation – to context or world view – it “treat(s) meaning and thing as an identity… meanings are not ‘carried’ by things but are identical to them”.
It is no accident that this return to things comes from the discipline of anthropology, where practitioners struggle more than most between relativist and supra-cultural interpretations, with little respite from a nagging sense of post-colonialist appropriation. It is a subject ill at ease with itself, looking beyond the satisfaction of its own discourse. The radicalism of Henare, Holbraad and Wastell is to place an obstacle across the tracks of this queasy discourse in order to halt the dynamic of its unease, to ‘hold interpretation at bay’. In a mythogeographical-like manoeuvre they suspend, delay and defer the synthesising work of criticism itself, advocating “the absolute productivity of non-definition”. And then they set things loose against theory, proposing “a methodology where the ‘things’ themselves may dictate a plurality of ontologies”.
Their signature example, taken from an essay by Holbraad, is aché, a powder used by Cuban diviners that, the diviners say, “constitutes their divinatory power”. The approach of Henare, Holbraad and Wastell, by putting aside the analytical division of power and powder, enables “theoretical possibilities afforded by powerful powder itself”.
Such ‘things’ as powerful powder are not pacified, but are uncontained things/meanings, offering their own illumination; an ambient orrery within the spread of which the uniformity and indifference of ‘Nature’ comes apart. (We are very close here to some deeply unrespectable pseudo-science and it is down to the courage of the authors that they persist with their endeavour.) Any over-arching critical narrative – even one of “difference” or “change” (cloud cover for the hawk of theory) – is defiantly held at bay, refusing cultural relativism its power to subject both localised and universalist ‘world views’ (things/meanings if ever there were any) to its own.
So what does such an apparently raw, innocent (though clearly perilous) and deferred approach tell us about props and ufos?
With the exception of Andrew Sofer’s The Stage Life of Props and a 2008 issue of the Performance Research journal “On Objects”, props have been largely ignored by theatre theorists and historians, apparently unworthy of review on their own terms.
Yet such a consideration might put a drag on the terms of much contemporary independent theatre: still oscillating opportunistically between psychological naturalism and spectacle.
Outside the mainstream, there are two dominant strains in Western independent theatre: the ascetic and the visual. Crudely, the first looks to Brecht (and Grotowski to a lesser extent) and the second looks to Kantor. However, when the uses of things by Brecht and Kantor are tested, the results cast an uncomfortable light on these two strands.
Bertolt Brecht’s close attention to props was driven by his desire to emphasise their produced and used qualities. Props were literally “worked”. Not for the sake of ornamental verisimilitude, but rather to make manifest (as much as any actor on the stage) the forces, conditions and social relations of these things’ productions and consumptions. As his beloved and hedonistic Marxism turned into a bureaucratic crusher of bodies and souls, Brecht sought to bring life (labour) from ‘dead’ things.
Kantor, on the other hand, a painter and sculptor as much as a theatre maker, developed his use of things for his first illegal performances in Nazi-occupied
. For props Kantor chose abandoned things, things that had already fallen out of the cycles of production and consumption, things that acted out their own entropic narrative; rather than displaying the marks of work, consumption or use, Kantor’s things actively decayed. But the way that Kantor privileged and gave aura to these things showed them – and here is the subtly resistant nature of his work - moving towards disappearance in their own time. Poland
There are examples of active things on stage – the machines of the Sharmanka Theatre and the speaking, dancing and arguing sculptures of Elmgreen & Dragset’s and Tim Etchells’s ‘Drama’ Queens (below) - but too often a lack of theoretical attention has seen the inspirations of Brecht and Kantor twisted in theatre’s own interests; the ascetic prop becomes “look how many representations from the same object!” while the visual theatre’s things loop back towards mainstream ornamentation and spectacle; the very choice of the word ‘visual’ in the 1990s suggesting that appearance and representation had finally won over Kantor’s ‘dead memory machine’. Thingness swallowed by the theatre’s own self-reflexive praxis.
So, if not theatre, where?
Little Green Things
One might be forgiven for wondering what exactly constitutes the object of ufology? What is the thing that is unidentified and flying?
The complaint of the sceptic – or indeed of just about anybody who can be bothered – is “where is the evidence”?
In fact, there have been lorry loads of films, videos, radar contacts, reports by commercial and military pilots, police reports, USAF investigations, books, photos, magazines, witness reports, MOD files, web postings…
“Yes, but where is the incontrovertible, reliable, confirmed and decisive evidence?”
In other words: where is that final and respectable ’thing’? Where is the spaceship on the lawn of the White House? Or the wondrous and strange organism of the body of the crashed alien on the dissecting table? (O, yes…anyway…)
Where are the empirical examples that could legitimise a ufo materiality?
Of course, this is all the wrong way round. True believer and sceptic alike have configured ufology as the search for a question that can deliver an (alien) answer: yes little green men or no little green men.
In this context the things themselves, the supposed residues of ‘human/alien contact’, that have been brought forward – the Starchild skull, ‘alien implants’, the Roswell debris of 1947 presented by Major Jesse Marcel, the lights and shapes in the sky, the feelings of contactees - all these things have always been ‘beside the point’, décor for the interpretations.
When actual, material ‘things’ are tested – there’s an excellent account by Susan Blackmore of an ‘alien implant’ that turns out to be a dental filling – the resulting disappointments and uncertainties do little or nothing to change the terms of the dominant narrative. (Similarly with the Turin Shroud – the narrative is Jesus/not Jesus. So, while physical testing of the Shroud in 1988 revealed a mediaeval origin, testing (or at least questioning) of that 1988 testing now ‘returns it’ to its biblical narrative.)
The problem is that there is already a narrative. Before anyone was a ufologist, ufology was already a closed field. (Thanks to the likes of Jenny Randles things are now changing.)
So what if we dispense with presumptuous ‘answers’ and let the things “dictate a plurality of ontologies”?
Now ufology becomes interesting. A first hint of unreleased affordances is in the shrinkage of the name. Just as “property” to “prop” speaks of a degradation from ownership and quality to a support for a collapsing structure, so the “youfoe” acronym squashes the real thing of ufology: unidentifiableness. This is a thing that cannot be fully found (and, even if it were, no satisfactory science could ever be found to ratify or legitimate it): such a thing can be made of light, of gas trails, it can be cylindrical, spherical or triangular, it can skip like a saucer across water, but such environmental contexts are never the extent of it. In “thinking through things” such contextualisations are beside the point. The thing is light/unidentifiableness, trail/unidentifiableness and triangle/unidentifiableness.
Unidentifiableness is a thing/meaning with profound effects on human imagination – both individual and communal – and on a politics of the unknown which can manifest itself as utopian dream or racist paranoia. It is a thing/meaning that operates on these discourses rather than as examples of their materiality. And, as such, it is a thing/meaning that can also ‘serve’ as a co-operative lever for the transformation of such discourses.
In the early to mid 1990s a paranoid politics began to gain considerable ground in the
. Fuelled by the clumsy (even murderous) handling of the Ruby Ridge and Branch Davidian sieges and George Bush Senior’s pronouncements on a “New World Order”, a sense of persecution and an appetite for resistance (mixing anti-establishment, racist, libertarian and totalitarian ideas) led to the establishment of armed illegal militias – with up to 60,000 active members in 1996 (and this was a year after the militia-related Oklahoma City Bombing). This constituted a considerable force. And there were cultural as well as political manifestations: in the late 1980s, headlined by Whitley Streiber’s ‘Communion’, a narrative of alien abduction and ‘harvesting’ of humans began to take hold of certain ufological and popular cultural discourses (with polls suggesting that those claiming abducteeship in the US numbered in their millions); further fuelling a sense of a population covertly exploited and secretly relieved of its rights. USA
The ideological trump card of this paranoid movement was those politicians like George “read my lips – no more taxes” Bush Senior who were no longer believed, let alone understood. Coming the other way, politics equally did not understand the nascent IT culture and its dispersal of marginal narratives like those of The Turner Diaries. In this context (and within such dispersing border narratives) the super-objective of the ‘political class’ and the ultimate authority it answered to (officially the American people, but nobody believed that) became, for many, an “Unidentifiable Thing”. Government was in danger of becoming what a Lacanian like Slavoj Žižek might call a monstrous ‘Big Other’; beginning to ‘organise’ the everyday life of tens of thousands of US citizens.
Within a couple of years, however, this burgeoning movement had not only lost its recruitment momentum, but had shed much of its membership. While its narratives continued to circulate they did so mainly as entertainment rather than as agitation. Part of this dismantling of paranoid politics – and probably by far the most effective part – came not from public and police authorities, legislators or leaders (though the Oklahoma City bomb did provoke a considerable Federal suppression), but from popular culture. Narratives like Roland Emmerich’s crass but massively-attended ‘Independence Day’ (1996) and Chris Carter’s TV series ‘The X Files’ (1993-2002) understood the ‘thing’, drew upon its “unidentifiable” power to intrigue and then brusquely emptied it of meaning, displacing its otherness on the one hand to a mundane political and unmagical corruption and on the other to a knowable (even nostalgic) racial other (an African-American and a Jew riding shotgun against little – well, tall and stringy - green men).
‘Independence Day’ continually winks knowingly at the conspiracy theorists in its audience:
“Erm… that’s not entirely true, Mister President…”
recruiting their theories for narrative effect, only to hand them back devoid of “unidentifiableness”.
The early episodes of ‘The X Files’ suggested a complex, but knowable “unidentifiableness” with an apparently documentary basis (the very first episode began with the strapline “the following story is inspired by actual documented accounts”). Indeed, the programme initially helped to disperse and grow paranoid politics. (I remember attending a rather tedious Timothy Good lecture at the Colston Hall, Bristol (UK) shortly after the series began. A thousand people had each paid £10 to watch a slide show of MOD documents!) But as the oscillation between ‘The X Files’ narratives of EBE/human alliance, Paperclip-style medical conspiracy and evolving viruses was cranked up in the second and third series the narrative was drained of its “unknown”. The umbilical cord between everyday life and a monstrous “unidentifiableness” was lovingly strangled by culturally savvy agnostics.
Those commentators and opinion-formers who railed against “conspiracy theory” were part of the same narrative as the paranoid theorists. It was those who knew how to deploy the paranoid “thing” itself (and how to enjoy its pleasures) who could place a barb in the rush to a politics of the dark unknown.
Things Have Talons Too
With its predisposition to multiplicity mythogeography might be expected to favour mobilities over things. And predominantly that is its tendency.
But just as it asks for rigour and integrity within the terms of its own parts, and as it places itself on foot and firmly in the anachronistic drag of a slowed down pedestrianism (braking its own theoretical tendency to promiscuous nomadism), so it has a special place in its heart for the barbed hooks of things.
Without the integrity of its parts mythogeography fragments. Without things to hold it back it accelerates with an elegant, but misleading ease. What the thing of “thinking through things” does is put a barbed hook into that ease. It is rather like the verfremdungseffekt of Bertolt Brecht’s theatre, in which distance and disturbance drop a piano into the path of smooth running naturalistic and psychological narratives in order to challenge their ease and incontestability. The unquestioned becomes questionable, belief doubtful, respectability criminal. As with theatrical narratives so with the super-objectives of the politically powerful and the culturally hegemonic.
And so the ‘thing/meaning’, thanks to its unfashionable cussedness, immobility and resistance, pulls the discourse of mobilities, networks and globalism ‘out of shape’ in order to reveal the shapes that we have taken too much for granted (before it is too late). By making them unfamiliar, the drag and torque of the thing reveal what overfamiliar processes really are.
A “thinking through things” is still very much a minority approach. And indeed it is specifically as that that it is useful to mythogeography.
Most critical theorists follow some variation of Merleau-Ponty’s “all things are concretions of a setting”. And where Merleau-Ponty is circumspect - “the-human element lies hidden in them… the thing holds itself aloof from us and remains self-sufficient” if anything those who follow his lead, like Peter Schwenger in The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects take his position further, writing of the thing as a “paradoxical nexus of being and doing, inertia and motion. But all of this reflects an interior that is ours, not that of an object.”
However, there is no need to argue the case for things. The things can do that for themselves.