2.7W / In Protest

Voice of an Object in and of Itself

By Anthony Marcellini December 14, 2010

Image: David Wojnarowicz. A Fire In My Belly Excerpt (1986-87); super 8mm film, black and white & color; silent; 7 minutes. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York and The Fales Library and Special Collections/ New York University.

A version of this text was originally delivered as an oral presentation during a two-day symposium at the International Artists Studio Program in Stockholm (IASPIS) organized by the research group Ontheconditionsofproduction. For this event, the organizers sent out a call for contributions addressing “cultural production relative to the conditions of production in contemporary capitalist society,” and invited participants to present their “thoughts and experiences of contemporary production situations and conditions.”1 This call for contributions contained within it a set of questions that Ontheconditionsofproduction stated was of primary importance to them and also provided a sense as to what frames their research. These questions included:

1. What are the conditions we live under?

2. What does production mean today?

3. How could we move towards real emancipatory conditions: What do we want? What would it require? What are we already doing? What is not enough? What should we stop doing?2

My decision to participate and the content of the text I presented initially arose from my interest in individuals and their production in contemporary capitalist society, but more importantly, it was driven by the way this subject matter is often presented. Despite rethinking terms and conditions, most depictions of individuals under capitalism—or more importantly for this discussion, post-Fordist capitalism, which describes an economy of information in which commodification has no limits—presents them as subjugated by some greater power, god, or thing that has complete dominion over all those under it. Though we yearn to move toward real emancipatory conditions, resistance always seems to be housed within a dialectic of us against some alien force. And like the machine network depicted in the cultish film Matrix and its sequels, we as individuals are merely slaves to this greater force, unless we are lucky enough to be the chosen one.3

Despite the radical claims to reconsider the contemporary conditions of production, these kinds of perspectives were constantly rearticulated during this conference. It seemed that many of the participants were wary of their own emancipation, and could not help but fall back into rhetoric of a united front to overthrow capitalism. There were general, subtle feelings of guilt—and in some cases even damnation—expressed by the assembled artists, curators, and writers, who profess to act against the system via their emphasis on creative engagement, but who are also aware of a dubiousness within their production, whether that practice is object driven or socially engaged. As object makers and experience generators, they simply introduce more commodified objects and experiences into this system.

Our relationships to objects are complicated. We are aware of the consumptive desire for an object’s utility and market value, but we also know that we can never fully know an object. Our relationships are typically not with the objects themselves, but with the various processes that these objects enable. For example, a person considers the opening of a door that a doorknob makes possible rather than the doorknob itself. And like the above description of individuals under capitalism, most philosophical descriptions of objects also only suggest some idea of them through their enslavement to processes. This idea rearticulates the notion of our own enslavement, because we can only understand the processes through which objects operate, but not the things in and of themselves. Our knowledge of things is limited and located somewhere external to them. We are estranged from an object’s capacity to speak for itself because we only see it through the utility and market value it represents.

Perhaps, in order to escape this bind perpetuated by ever-present guilt and superhuman projections, we have to start at the level of the object, and rethink emancipation from its position. In order to escape this trap, perhaps we should try to locate or just imagine an object’s voice independent from ours, rather than see it as only being subjected to our processes.4 In what follows, I endeavor to do just that.

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Every morning, I wake to the alarm of a Nokia 3100 mobile phone. Its blue plastic face is the first thing I see as I fumble with the buttons to turn off the alarm. And every evening, as I reprogram its alarm to wake me and place it on a shelf by the bed, it is the last thing I see before I close my eyes.

The Nokia 3100 was released in 2003 as an entry-level phone designed primarily for the younger market. An improvement on the previous model (the Nokia 3510i) this Nokia came equipped with a 128x128 pixel passive color display; Java MIDP 1.0, XHTML, and WAP browser; GPRS; Pop-Port connectivity; and a lithium-ion battery.

This particular 3100 phone was probably first sold at a primary Nokia phone distributor to a user opening their first phone plan. At the time, it was a perfect starter phone. The least expensive model, it was contemporary, stylish, customizable, and even glowed in the dark. But like many developing technological commodity items, this phone inevitably began to seem outmoded and was returned by its user who likely upgraded to a new phone with more features and a better display. This 3100 was then resold to a secondary distributor, who in turn sold the phone to another user, and perhaps even to another after that.



 

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This special edition of Issue 2.7 is in response to the forced removal of David Wojnarowicz's 1987 film A Fire in My Belly from the Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C. For more information about the circumstances surrounding the censorship of this work, and for screenings nationwide, please visit: http://www.hideseek.org.

One year ago, the 3100 emerged at a flea market on the outskirts of Gothenberg, Sweden. I went to this flea market looking for a cheap, used mobile phone. I did not want to invest in a brand new model, just something simple. I saw the 3100 in a stall and bought it from a man from Bosnia for three hundred Swedish crowns.

I take the phone with me wherever I go. Not because of any desire for what it represents, such as an object of status or a keepsake—but rather it is a tool that satisfies some inner need for connection to both time (I don’t carry a watch) and to others (my family, friends, jobs, etc). But despite the phone’s constant presence, I rarely pause to examine it and consider what it is.

However, there are two instances when the phone is hard to ignore. Whenever I turn it on, a message appears on its screen. Ja e Bäst, it says, meaning “I’m the best” in abbreviated Swedish. This note is presumably a message programmed by the phone’s previous owner(s), a message I have never changed because I don’t know how, and I think it is kind of funny for a phone to say this. The second instance happens less frequently; when the clock and date must be reset, the phone reminds me of the only appointment marked in its calendar, May 29, pappa’s birthday. These instances are strange. For a while I ignored them, but the longer I have owned the phone, the more important they have become. I wonder, “Who is the best? Why did somebody write that? Who is pappa? Was it the same person who programmed both?” Only the phone knows the answer. These messages prompt me to think of the phone in another way. They are traces that suggest experiences this object has previously had.

Maybe there is something in this mystery between the phone and me that suggests how we might find an object’s true nature and thus liberate ourselves from some sort of holographic relationship with things. When the phone ceases to operate for me but rather relates some other experience carried with it to me, should I start to think about the phone as a thing in itself? A thing with traces of life experiences that have changed what it is and what it says? A series of processes and moments of encounter between the thing and other things have changed the way this object acts.

However there is a difficulty in recognizing the object as speaking for itself, which does not lie with my ability to decipher the evidence of its former life. This difficulty is value. In order to see the phone, I must first see past its value.

A mobile phone’s composition is fairly complicated. We might know how they work: they convert our voice or acoustic vibrations into electrical signals over a radio network spanning long distances; these are then broadcast through similar devices to another user. But we probably could not build a mobile phone by ourselves, at least without some serious instruction. The closest most of us could come is to stretch a string between two empty metal cans, which is actually not far off from how a landline telephone works. On the other hand, a mobile phone’s value is pretty uncomplicated to understand; it is a tool that enables us to quickly connect our voices with those of other people around the world. They are ubiquitous items whose commonplace appearance is perhaps representative of our globalized world. Their ability to connect us with almost anyone anywhere makes them one of our most indispensible tools. It is hard to think of a world without mobile phones in 2010.

But do we really know what a phone is? If we seek an object for what it can do, rather than for the object in and of itself, then in our seeking a phone, do we seek only the potential to connect with others that the phone makes possible? If I want to use a tool to call someone, I seek out a phone. When I see a phone before me, I think, “This is a phone; a phone calls; it is the thing I need.” I spend very little time examining the tool and more time using it to call someone. The effectiveness of this act affirms the utility and the role of the phone to me. And this role is not understood until I have used it. Simply looking at a phone will never uncover its use.

What this understanding concerns, then, is not the tool, but the work that the tool is capable of and what it enables based on a history of my experience with it. It is the experience of the encounter that the phone makes possible. In a sense, when I look at the phone, I am not looking at the phone as a phone, but rather at the connective potential within the phone. It is not the phone I see hanging on the wall but rather the phoning. But what was the phone before I understood its use? Is its definition only based on this use value?

When we see a phone placed in a market or a store, we still do not see the phone. We see both its utility—the connective potential described above—and its market value, as a phone of a certain type, made by a certain company, with a certain arbitrary and fluctuating status that can be bought and sold; this is what we call the commodified phone. And because this commodified value is hard to determine, it is constantly in flux and does not follow an experience that we are a part of—unlike the way we are a part of establishing the phone’s use value—we experience the commodified phone through a kind of absence.

No matter what my experience is with phones in the market, I am aware of an alien force that animates the object. Market value makes the object appear a certain way to me, as if pulling on its marionette strings, causing the object to defy and challenge me, gesturing through the language of the market’s arbitrary value. It is this uncanny animation that unsettles and yet entices. This state is not permanent; it leaves the phone after I purchase and use it. So it should be clear that it is not the phone itself that I am confronted by. It is another projection of an idea of the phone, of a market value that I place on it, which, like phoning, is never an experience of the phone in and of itself.

If I only see these projections, the use and the experience of market value, what has happened to the phone itself? Where is the phone and what does it have to say for itself?

We only stop to consider an object when it breaks or perhaps exceeds its utility. If the doorknob breaks and prevents me from passing through, I must consider what has happened to the object to produce this effect; I must consider the object in and of itself. When my mobile phone speaks, “I am the best,” it is like a break. It produces a moment of contemplation that surpasses its use. The phone does not speak to fulfill some utilitarian function or to satisfy my desires; the utility of this gesture occurred long ago, to someone else who programmed the message, and for reasons I am unclear of. Therefore, I can only understand this statement as the phone speaking about itself. I do not presume from this statement that the phone has a consciousness or is alive in the sense that I am alive, but I do understand the phone as a thing that has undergone a series of experiences. I recognize the phone as an autonomous object liberated from the systems of value exchange. It is in this moment when it literally defines the Greek root of its name phone. When it speaks these words, it has a voice.

 

 

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NOTES:

1. This statement is quoted from the email sent out by the members of ontheconditionsofproduction and forwarded widely. This call for participation is also visible on the website of Iaspis, which announces this event and the call for participation, http://www.konstnarsnamnden.se/default.aspx?id=13914

2. Ibid.

3. Not surprisingly the directors of The Matrix, Larry and Andy Wachowski, were heavily influenced by Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation a work that proposes an enslaved relationship to the omnipotentce of the devine symbolic. This film is also of course one of Slavoj Zizek’s favorites as the simple metaphor that it is based on, allows for easy philosohical paralells between power and autonomy.

4. The idea for this text was heavily influenced by philosopher Graham Harmon’s essay "Asymmetrical Causation: Influence without Recompense," parallax, vol. 16, no. 1, (2010): 96–109. Though I am aware that I am not fully utilizing the severity of Harman’s notion that objects must be understood as independent things outiside of human interaction/projection, I do think this text is an attempt to treat the interaction of objects with other things with just as much dignity as is given to the human and the world. Also Harmon would probably never use the word voice when talking about objects, as that term suggests a specifically human projection. I used it here because it is a qualifier that imparts a sense of agency in another, whether object, animal or individual.

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