Objects Indian and Otherwise

by Randall Honold

AS17-148-22727. Not a catchy name, admittedly. But who isn’t familiar with the photograph it refers to?:

In 1994, geographer Denis Cosgrove wrote about the meaning of this image in his seminal essay, “Contested Global Visions: One-World, Whole-Earth, and the Apollo Space Photographs.” Cosgrove’s analysis and “22727” (the nickname we friends share) came to mind last month when this extraordinary scene presented itself to me from 39,000 feet above the southeast tip of Greenland:

I was on the way back home to Chicago from India, having had just co-led a three-week study of environmentalism there with a group of 20 undergraduates. This arresting landscape of glaciers and ice-covered mountains I photographed through the window of a 747 was ostensibly at odds with where I’d just been: the Western Ghats, Mumbai, and Delhi. But as Cosgrove argued, 22727 shows us that the “whole-earth” environmentalism and the “one-world” imperialism of our era are two sides of the same modernist coin. A commitment to modernist universality means nothing is – or ought to be – external to global systems such as climate, the economy, and politics. The irony is, of course, that no one actually sees the earth as the Apollo astronauts did, just as no one can experience global climatic changes, capital flows, or geopolitical power – at least not in the same ways we experience today’s weather, the dispensing of cash from the ATM, or drone attacks. These planet-wide objects (literary critic / philosopher Timothy Morton calls them “hyperobjects”) defy our ability to understand them from out of modernist stances.

I’ll get back to hyperobjects in future posts. In fact, I want to make my way back into to them by continuing the journey I’ve started down the scale from the extraplanetary (22727) to the tropospheric (Greenland). No short jaunt, this, and likely to be circuitous. Really, all want to do here is fill out three recurring and unoriginal intuitions I had about objects while photographing them in India.

We’re always outside objects.

We’re always inside objects.

We’re always next to objects.

These images are not meant to depict a hierarchy of objects nor do they exemplify the basic types of objects that comprise a complete set. They are simply (ha!) glimpses into a few places where we always already are.

I almost wrote “in relation to objects” to finish the sentence just above, but I’ve been weaning myself of this language as part of my experiment of living with objects. Heidegger taught me long ago that putting two mysterious things in relationship doesn’t make the things or the relationship any less mysterious; it only obfuscates the things and confuses what we mean by relation. It’s a hard lesson to remember, however, living in the City that Oprah Built. As my co-bloggers Rick, Anthony, and Christine wrote recently, thinking about objects raises serious questions: how we know them, whether or not we can touch them, who “I” am as a perceiver of them, if representations of objects are just as object-like as when they represent, do they have a moral valence, etc. I’ll defer (again!) the heavy philosophical lifting these concerns entail. Instead I want to think about my photographed objects in terms of the two most common student responses to their experience of India.

I felt like time and space were distorted there; everything was unexpected and hard to get a hold of. It’s almost like the whole trip was a dream.” Don’t the best travel experiences do this to us? And don’t they – ideally – prompt us to pay closer attention to the people we’re with and the places we inhabit on a daily basis? Isn’t the quotidian right here just as mysterious, wobbly, and disorienting as anything halfway across the world? Do we really know our loved ones, friends, co-workers, and ourselves better over time? Or do all become more complex, nuanced, and multifaceted, therefore more obscure? Do we know what operations are going on behind the walls, just above the ceiling, or in the cracks of the floors of our homes? How much time would we need to know even the most miniscule place intimately?

Getting on a plane and going through modern airports and a new subway all the way there, made the shock of finally experiencing India so much stronger when we finally got out onto the street.” What is it about placing yourself among strange new objects that’s so discombobulating? We see strange and new every day, don’t we? Does being agog give us privileged access to things? Or does the shock of the new cover over what’s more important to attend to? We knew that one-third of Indians live in poverty, that Hinduism accords respect to animals, and that infrastructure in Delhi is constantly under repair. Why did it shock us to have frail children beg for money, to step over sleeping dogs on the sidewalk and dodge fresh cow manure on the street, or to detour on and off the sidewalk five times in order to avoid stepping in holes – all in the 10-minute walk from the metro stop to the YMCA?

I reckon that my photographs/objects don’t scream, “INDIA!” But they do speak it softly, if “it” refers in some way to the range, scale, and complexity of objects there – or anywhere. The global and the local, the novel and the routine, converge in objects like highway billboards, public buildings, and tangled detritus. But in that convergence the mystery of objects is in no way revealed. The earth, the mountains in Greenland, the highway to Mumbai, a school rec room, and a jumble of trash underfoot, take our best modernist blows and don’t relent. Maybe it takes a few runs up and down the scale of objects to be reminded how humbling things can be. A few weeks in India doesn’t hurt either.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Objects Indian and Otherwise

  1. Christine Skolnik

    Randy,

    I love the figure of being inside of objects. On Friday night my husband and I went for a snowy walk around our house and looked into our family room with the lights on. I asked, “What does this room look like?” conscious that I was asking a question about who we are. Books do furnish a room, someone once said. Do rooms furnish people?

    Somehow related . . . I’ve been thinking again how the environment evolves the brain through our interactions with other objects. Even with material/causal closure, it’s not just the individual or species brain that evolves itself, but (I think categorically) the brain in relationship to other objects that provokes thought, neural connections, neurogenesis, etc.

    (I’d like to think our room looks “cozy,” btw.)

  2. Danielle Miller

    I absolutely love your reflection of our experience in India and am intrigued by your discussion of objects and obscurity. For my senior capstone class we are supposed to choose a blog that we find interesting, so I am responding to yours since I was a part of the trip and can relate to what you wrote about. I really like the two student responses that you chose to talk about and find the second one especially relevant to my experience.
    In particular, the shock that we all felt initially and the continual sense of bewilderment reminds me of your mention of hyperobjects. In India we were constantly surrounded by objects that were unfamiliar, confusing and “new” to us. And even though there were familiar sights like cars, people and buildings, the massive scale of the unfamiliar tended to override and make everything appear obscure. Although none of these things are hyperobjects per se, the convergence of them all seemed to have the same effect: an inability to comprehend something so huge and unknown.
    Thanks for all the thought-provoking questions and insight!
    -Danielle Miller, Senior Environmental Studies Major

  3. Pingback: Some Foolish Thoughts Concerning Objects | environmental critique

  4. Christine Skolnik

    Just noticed the tags which are cool (even if random). . . but I don’t quite get the second photo . . .

  5. Pingback: Alien Phenomenology: add ecology and stir | environmental critique

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