Monday, August 16, 2010

Found Objects

I am very pleased that Studiolum took the time to respond to my review of Poemas del río Wang, and that he considered some of my suggestions on how to read his blog fitting to its design. Learning that one of the conscious models behind Río Wang is Alberto Savinio’s Nuova enciclopedia was a source of particular delight: there is so much that one could write about the digital form based on that stated affinity – a Master’s thesis’ worth perhaps. But in good time. So long as I have started to explore blogs as native digital forms, and speculate on which particular exemplars may be better suited to improving our media ecology, I want to turn my attention this week to a blog that is in several respects the opposite of Río Wang, at least on the surface.

From the Phase IV (1974) series, posted by Dolly Dolly at Found Objects

The idea for Found Objects came earlier this year to Mark Fisher, the author of Capitalist Realism and the blog k-punk. In both the book and the blog – the latter, just the other day – Mark makes the point that ‘screen culture is connective, not reflective’, and that one of the consequences of our wired lifestyles is a ‘twitchy, agitated interpassivity, an inability to concentrate or focus’. Sadly this is a debate that is framed more often by the likes of Nicholas Carr, author of the infamous ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ and more recently of The Shallows, which – along with every other human in possession of a keyboard – I intend at some point to review. At any rate, without addressing either version of that viewpoint explicitly, I offered Río Wang to my readers last week as a model for a vision of cyberspace that is predicated precisely on creating the space and time for reflection, without repudiating any of the key aspects of digital textuality, but rather embracing them fully.

Río Wang stands out from the majority of blogs in a couple of respects that matter especially to what I want to discuss today: it rarely indulges in the quick, throwaway post, choosing a slow and very deliberate, considered approach, as if following a larger design (I don’t want to call it slow blogging without attempting to define what it means, which is not for today); and, in spite of its formidable armoury of images, it very rarely dumps them on the reader without exposition or analysis. You may wish to compare this with the very popular and in many respects admirable Bibliodyssey, of which I have, sadly, tired: there are only so many beautiful sets of pictures from rare and exquisitely illustrated sixteenth century tracts that I can gaze admiringly at before a jaded weariness sets in. Bibliodyssey strives generally to give basic information and context about all of these found treasures, but without an analytical and critical framework it’s just another one of those wonderful places on the Web – Strange Maps and How to Be a Retronaut seem to have become everyone’s favourites these days – that makes you go ‘Oh, cool!’ every single time. But more and more often these days I just click away. The twitch is setting in.

Having premised all this, you may think I would shudder at Found Objects’ tagline: 'hauntological dumping ground'. So I need to explain why it is that I don’t.

First things first: The term hauntology has its origins in Spectres of Marx, where Jacques Derrida used it to describe how Marxism survived as a ghostly, haunting presence after its death at the hand of history, but Fisher has given it a rather different remit, built over time in his writings at k-punk. Quite appropriately, you won't find a textbook definition there, but rather a series of analyses in which the fundamental traits of hauntology are gradually teased out (I'd commend to you in particular this masterful post on Kubrick's The Shining and this one on the Ghost Box label). As a result of this indeterminacy, you'll probably find that there are as many notions of hauntology as there are contributors to Found Objects (that is to say forty-five, and counting).

A fascio from the Identity Card of my great-grandmother, issued in 1938. Not posted at Found Objects.

While I realise that it is probably more literally-minded than most, my personal take on what an hauntological object is goes something like this.

There are no photographs of my maternal grandfather at a Fascist rally, nor did he preserve a copy of his Party membership card. However I know for a fact that both of them would have existed and it's quite easy to imagine what they looked like. Indeed looking at any one image of a public gathering in that area and from that period I could make a mental substitution, or even locate a stand-in that looks sufficiently like him, and put my grandfather in the scene without doing a major disservice to truth. Equally I could take his regular identity card from that era, scan somebody else’s Party card, transfer his photo from the former into the latter and create an artefact that, whilst forged, recreates a moment in the historical past whose documentary traces my family has erased. False memories of actual pasts, or real memories of pasts that failed to eventuate – like a letter that never reached its destination, or the promotional materials for a film that never got distributed – are hauntological, in that we can sense and sometimes even measure the gap between their truth and their untruth. They are not quite there, but they are not quite not-there either. Furthermore, and crucially for my understanding of all of this, the precisely shaped space left empty by my grandfather's Fascist Party membership card is also hauntological, a space defined by a concrete and meaningful absence. (To put it more simply: I know exactly where it is that we would keep it, but it’s not there, and its not being there is a presence of sorts.)

I'm sure you can see how this critical term would be essential to a proper understanding of mediated memory, and I will talk soon about the lamentable under-development of this dimension in memory studies. But hauntology does not refer simply to the past: we are also haunted by the futures that we no longer imagine. It is chiefly in this respect that Derrida's lesson in the otherwise largely dated Spectres of Marx remains most valuable, for Socialism is one such future. But so are the past futures of science fiction, of Futurism, of architecture and design, of science proper. John Ptak's brilliant blog Science Books is an acute and at times seemingly near-exhaustive catalogue of many of these branches of hauntology. At Found Objects thus far the main reservoir has been popular culture: music, film, television, comics, publishing, narrative fiction, advertising, a gallery of the self-explanatory mixed with the truly eclectic and surprising. And not all of the objects are found, either, some are original creations or remixes, such as this musical piece care of Unmann-Wittering or this short film by Dolly Dolly.

A frame from Dolly Dolly’s Ether. Reminiscent of Decasia but decidedly more haunting.

True to the dumping ground label, the posts on Found Objects to date are rarely accompanied by explanations. It is the objects, the ghosts themselves that enter into a conversation. For my only contribution thus far, for instance, I was rather uncannily led by a sign for Scarab Close to the place where I wrote last year about lost objects, and Found Magazine. All that remained to do was post (dump) the image and cover my tracks by not linking to where my scarab came from. I saw, for once, no place for reasoned argument, and besides that argument was, again, far too literally-minded to account for the spectral conversation, and too laden for the speed at which this conversation takes place.

That is something else: last Friday alone there were eighteen posts on Found Objects. There really is no time for saying ‘Oh, cool!’, or to get twitchy. It is a thing that moves, that buzzes. It reminds me a little of the road in Falling Out of Cars, except I am not sure if meaning is being lost or found. But it is the road itself, or if you prefer the track, that is becoming densely symbolic, a thing to think with: about cyberspace, about textuality and materiality, about history, culture, memory, time.

And then there are the contributors, for whom I might just have to dust off again the idea of authoriety. Whose blog is Found Objects? Is ours a research unit of sorts, or does it aspire to be? Could the project evolve along the lines of Hacking the Academy, with a book or in performance? Does Found Objects need a hashtag, and if it found one, could it cease to be a blog and just be out there, germinating in places that we cannot foresee, speaking other languages? If in fact the project has a limitation at this moment it is what I’d otherwise think of as a virtue: its being so predominantly (although not quite exclusively) of one place – for let’s face it, you’re not always going to feel terribly haunted unless you are British. But that too could change, and quickly.

There is a sense then in which Found Objects is a spectral double to Poemas del río Wang – as fast as the other is slow, proceeding by free association instead of studious reflection, speaking in a melange of voices instead of few carefully inflected and highly distinctive ones. But they both work, and do the work of mapping for us cyberspace not as it is, but as it could be. We need to value that.

Future Alarm. Posted by Mark.


Giovanni said...

I asked Mark to describe the inception of Found Objects, but I didn't find room for his response in the post itself - so here it is:

"For some time, I've wanted to start a collective blog for finds from secondhand shops, charity shop and carboot sales, but for whatever reason I never got round to it. Then I found the two Alan Garner books, The Owl Service and Red Shift, in secondhand shops in the town where I live (we're fortunate to have two excellent used book shops here). There was a pleasing symmetry in that both these "found objects" were themselves about found objects - the novels revolves around a dinner service discovered in an attic and a spearhead dug from ground in Cheshire. Garner's novels recall the move made by M R James and Lovecraft in so many of their tales, and by Nigel Kneale in Quatermass and the Pit, in that the central idea is of disinterring an anachronistic object which can't be assimilated into the present, and which draws those in its thrall into terrible repetitions. The phrase "not really now not any more" that's central to Red Shift seemed to capture so much of what is going with hauntology. So I set up the blog, and broadened the remit to cover found virtual objects too, and made a few posts, not linking to it or publicising it, and not sure what I would do with it. I can't remember what made me reactivate the site - it may have been something to do with the incredibly positive experience of doing Minus the Shooting. Then I gradually started to ask people if they would like to join the team, and thankfully many did. It's been great just sitting back and watching people take it in their own directions. One wonderful phenomenon is the ripple effect you sometimes get, where one post will trigger a series of related posts (cf the strange rash of biker-related posts recently!)"

rob said...

Spiffing post again, young fella. Just in case you thought noone was reading :)
Garner is an interesting writer: as a kid I found The Owl Service very spooky. Reading it as an adult, it seemed a little too fey for my present taste, but still a good read.
Found Objects is a great idea- maybe a little overwhelming at first. So many pages, so many odd corners to human culture, until one is drawn to the notion that most of human culture is made up of odd corners, weird practices, unfathomable objects- and even the most mainstream things outside their habitual context may appear bizarre and freakish.

Giovanni said...

Spiffing post again, young fella. Just in case you thought noone was reading

Let's face it, it's just you and me now. Anything you'd like me to talk about next week?

Philip said...

As an adult I found Red Shift even spookier, and a thoroughly irritating instance of someone being able to convey in an entire sentence what could take me a mere twenty pages, assuming I ever managed it at all. I've been an admirer of Garner since childhood and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, but somehow never got around to most of his work (Elidor, The Owl Service, Thursbitch) until comparatively recently.

Word Verification: doutt, a Beckettian dubiety concerning unspecified wherefores.

George D said...

I hope I understand your passage correctly.

False memories of actual pasts, or real memories of pasts that failed to eventuate – like a letter that never reached its destination, or the promotional materials for a film that never got distributed – are hauntological, in that we can sense and sometimes even measure the gap between their truth and their untruth.

I'm not sure I agree with this entirely. We know the difference between what is 'true' and what is 'entirely untrue'.

But there is are third and fourth spaces. That which is true, and unknown - doxa, to use Bourdieu's characterisation, and that which is untrue, and that which is untrue, and no knowledge of this untruth exists. I think that

Where does this leave "found objects"? It seems obvious to me that objects selected are picked because they evoke associations. To take an extreme example, not used in this site, but axiomatic of object placement elsewhere: a pile of worn leather shoes is surely one of the most compelling images from the Holocaust - evoking the horror of mass death in a severe absence of specific images. It is because there is knowledge about the Holocaust that is now unconscious that these images have more power - they don't need to appeal to real events (although the events which did occur are extremely real).

You may have the abilities to sketch out the difference between real and unreal in the case of your Grandfather's card, but in most cases we are entirely in that space between. I don't think that this is in any way a criticism of your post here, merely that I think that further emphasis should be given to making evident unknown truths, and unknown untruths.

Or I may just have tripped over myself and landed in a memory soup.

Word verification: uncest - the awful violation of what is known.

Giovanni said...

You may have the abilities to sketch out the difference between real and unreal in the case of your Grandfather's card, but in most cases we are entirely in that space between. I don't think that this is in any way a criticism of your post here, merely that I think that further emphasis should be given to making evident unknown truths, and unknown untruths.

Or indeed the incongruous, or the anachronistic, I should stress however that my appropriation of the term refers specifically to mediated memory, where I think it could be useful to render a little more problematic the distinction between true and false memories, or the transmission of bearing witness, in a manner that could be of great benefit to the theories of the likes of Alison Landsberg or Marianne Hirsch. Mark's own appropriation goes somewhere rather different, and other contributors to Found Objects are giving the term their own inflection.

Concerning your example, though: I'm not sure that I would regard the image of a pile of shoes from an extermination camp to be hauntological, but rather more straightforwardly indexical. If I were to collect shoes of contemporary style and pile them up in the manner of one of those images, that would be closer to hauntology, at least the way I understand it.

Giovanni said...

Another, possibly spurious way I think of hauntology: as Naomi Mandel has said, the Holocaust is probably the most thoroughly documented atrocity in human history. But there is a difference between knowing that it happened, knowing who did what to whom and why, and fathoming it, as it were, apprehending it as a human event with its psychological dimensions. Indeed much of Holocaust literature focuses on that, not what happened but how it felt, its effects on the psyche of the victims and the survivors. That's a horror that of course none of the rest of us could ever fully grasp. (And Levi talks about how we shouldn't try to comprehend it, either.) But the gap between our historical and forensic reconstructions and that full knowledge is also there to be exploited by deniers and revisionists, whose versions of history are perverse hauntologies germinating in that tiny interstice between the knowledge that we have and an absolute knowledge that cannot exist, between the real and the Real. And whilst they assert themselves by calling into question forensic data (by 'analysing' the gas chamber bricks at Auschwitz, for instance), what they really gain force from are the unconscious, the horror – the things that are truly unfathomable. It is their fuel. You could say the same of Richard Gage's version of 9/11.

George D said...

Thanks Giovanni, what you've said makes a lot of sense.

I had perhaps one of my own experiences here, a discomfort between what "what is not really here anymore" and a recording that brings traces of that to the foreground.

I was born in the early 1980s and lived in Otara and Mangere. That time and place saw a cultural intermarriage that was extremely specific - American popular cultures reinterpreted in ways that quickly became authentic*. Everything has since changed however, and these manifestations have been almost forgotten, perhaps in large part because they were merely seen as importations. Anyway, all of this is to say that this image took me back to being 5, 6, 7, and going down to Manukau City Centre with my mum - and things being entirely different in ways that are difficult to describe. There are too many contexts. If this video, of a hip hop competition in 1989 is hauntological, then it's had that effect on me.

*Hip-hop has internationalised to the point that you can find expressions of it in every city in the world - and critics would point to these as evidence of its inauthenticity as a cultural medium. But that is to miss the point - it was, and is, being mediated in quite specific ways. I think Taika Waititi's riposte to Variety magazine, which expects Maori dressed in feathers and flax, rather than consuming Michael Jackson, is a clear example of this.

George D said...

Sorry, wrong second link above. Correct one.

Giovanni said...

Anyway, all of this is to say that this image took me back to being 5, 6, 7, and going down to Manukau City Centre with my mum - and things being entirely different in ways that are difficult to describe. There are too many contexts.

I have been saddened in recent years by the transformation of Otorohanga in the Kiwiana capital of New Zealand. If that main street hasn't become Hauntology Central, I don't know what has.

I'll need to think about that phrase, 'there are too many contexts'. In the meantime I think you'd find a lot to like in Mark's blog. He explored hauntology primarily as an aural phenomenon, and the calling into question of what is authentic is a key theme.

George D said...

Thank you, more to think about.

Iguana Jo said...

Affascinante come pochi questo post.
Peccato non avere a disposizione tutto il tempo che sarebbe necessario per dipanare la matassa di link ai vari blog, per non parlare di leggere i vari post (per fortuna sono pieni di figure! :-))

Solo un dubbio. Come renderesti in italiano hauntology (che in effetti ho le idee un po' confuse…)?

Giovanni Tiso said...

Ho un vago ricordo - il libro l'ho letto 15 anni fa ormai - che il traduttore italiano l'avesse reso con "antologia dell'ansia", ma volevo appunto spulciare il libro quando vengo in Italia e controllare.

Giovanni Tiso said...

(oh, and George: I meant "explores", not "explored" in my penultimate comment - it's not as if Mark's done I dont' think.)

Giovanni Tiso said...

Yips - "ontologia" dell'ansia, ovviamente. Se magari rileggessi quello che scrivo sarebbe anche meglio.

Iguana Jo said...

Sono ormai un paio di giorni che ci penso e beh… non capisco proprio cosa c'entri l'"ansia" con l'Hauntology.

Dalla descrizione (e dagli esempi) che fai sembrerebbe più qualcosa come ontologia-degli-oggetti-a-metà-strada-tra-coscienza-e-realtà.

Intrigante, in ogni caso.