Living with Objects

by Randall Honold

My first blog post, my first public confession: For some time now I’ve been living with objects. They kind of snuck up on me, insinuated themselves into my life, and now they won’t go away. Not that I’m complaining. Not that I feel guilty about taking a break from my former relationships. For the longest time, you see, I thought I was in relationships – living with objects, sure, but getting to know them meant understanding all we did for each other. These relationships seduced me into thinking they were pretty much all that, that I’d never get anything more out of the arrangement, that there’s no sense in wanting something more from objects because I can’t have it anyway. Now that I see I’ve been with objects all the while and relationships have been coming between us, I’m starting to see why all the fuss about objects.

My semi-regular blog posts to Environmental Critique will be about my ongoing life with objects. Today is a bit of history; going forward I’ll dig into what’s happening with us then.

A few years back when teaching a course on technology I had my students read some Bruno Latour. He pointed out that today the question, Do you believe in reality?, is actually taken seriously. That we can ask this question is proof we’ve divided up the world into “out there” and “in here” and all the ways we’ve devised to get from one to the other and back again are unreliable. As an alternative, he proposed we started seeing objects out there and in here as part of the same “collective” of “hybrids” that/who need to be continuously sorted by us (in a process he shorthands as “politics”). I took Latour up on his proposal. What did I start seeing? Hybrid objects everywhere. Now I can’t not see hybrids. It’s hybrids all the way down, up, and across. They make up reality. This is, of course, deeply unsettling, as it always is to glimpse what you’ve known to be true but didn’t have the gumption to admit.

More recently I’ve been teaching courses on nature and the environment. The environmentalist trope my students are most committed to is, we’ve lost touch with the natural world. Tied to this are their assumptions that there is a natural world we used to be part of and that forgetting this is the root cause of environmental ruin. Basically, they think we have a huge relationship problem with nature, which can be seen in the climate we alter, the garbage we produce, and the anxiety about the future we stoke within ourselves, just to name a few common undergraduate symptoms.

Oy.

Breaking up this cluster of ideas is hard to do, but I dare say it goes quicker when we change our focus from relationships to objects. And it helps, frankly, to be part of an urban ecology where the arrays and scales of objects are in your face: hardy trees, delivery vans, squirrels, Styrofoam pellets, kids on bikes, cable TV wiring, house spiders, bus systems. What concept encompasses all these objects: Natural? Artificial? Not so adequate, either of them. Hybrid? Better! How might we start thinking and acting differently if we commit to dealing directly with hybrid objects instead of trying to first separate the natural objects from the artificial ones?

Throughout this post are three photographs I took recently that help me keep a hybrid frame of mind. They were captured with digital camera equipment made of petroleum, rare earths, silicon, steel…which was powered by nuclear fission-generated electricity, oat cereal from the northern U.S., bananas from Ecuador, orange juice from Brazil…distributed through digital networks…repeat the above. I figure, why not make it explicit that the proliferation of digital objects is a doubling down on our tacit commitment to a hybrid cosmos? If nothing else, the practice of creating and viewing photographs makes me, at least, more and more object-oriented and reality more and more overwhelming, imposing, and strange. I’ve been too committed to relationships (here: representation of the natural via ironic and self-conscious human agency) to see why I couldn’t make better sense of this. What objects have been wanting is too much and always more – way more than I can relate to.

 

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Living with Objects

  1. Randall, I am really looking forward to this series. I have learned a lot from you in recent years about Latour – I find him difficult to read, but I suspect that there will be several thinkers whose work we will be emboldened to read as your posts progress. Thanks for getting us off to a great start.

  2. Christine Skolnik

    Please, sir, can I have some more Latour.

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