Object no. 94
Conceptual Cluster 11: Posthumanist Philosophies
Michel Serres uses the notion of quasi-objects to describe a process of socio-material entanglement. The example he uses is the ball. A ball is only relevant when played – it’s meaning emerges in action. The ball becomes a connector that allows cooperation between the social and the material, creating the collective through a traveling individual agency – whoever has the ball, is the active subject. The constantly shifting agency makes the ball hard to categorise, it is neither subject nor object, neither material nor social.
In Steps to an Ecology of Mind the British anthropologist Gregory Bateson questioned the boundaries between the social (human) and material (object) by describing a blind man with a stick. Bateson finishes his text by asking: “Where does the blind man’s self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point halfway up the stick?” (Bateson, 1972 p. 318 in Davis, 2002 p. 110). For Bateson, these questions make no sense since the mind is not determined by anatomical boundaries, but by context. Information is traveling between the ground, the stick and the man, making it impossible to draw a boundary line between them. It is a feedback loop that involves both social and material components and is both internal and external to the subject.
Bateson’s blind man is one early approach to re-thinking subjectivity and the entanglement of human and non-human actors. (Curiously enough a very similar example – a man and his stick – was used already in 1923 by Paul Schilder when discussing man’s relation to himself and the surrounding world.) Similar questions have since then been addressed through assemblage theories, actor network theory and theories of performativity. More recently the increase of networked- and virtual technologies have expanded the theoretical scope further. N. Kathering Hayles describes how new technology – e.g. the Internet and networked information devices such as cell phones, tags and GPS networks, have emerged from the same forces that gave birth to Donna Haraway’s notion of The cyborg. Hayels argues that contemporary formations have long exceeding the concept of cyborg in terms of merging humans and technology, a process that is now moving us (humans) out of the human sphere and into the post-human.
A major part of the communication around Superkilen is created through online narratives. On site there is no official sign introducing the concept of the project. The act of downloading an app to your smart phone, provided you have one, will however get you access to stories about the project and a map locating the 108 objects on site. Through the app I find out that object no.94, a sound system from Jamaica is one of five objects that are not replicas but ‘the real thing’ brought back to Copenhagen from afar. The loudspeaker is entitled ‘Body Rock’, and was found in a suburb of Kingston by Niklas and Benjamin, two young rappers. The video clips of object no.94 (viewed 6098 times between June 2012 and April 2013) tells the story of similar sound systems becoming the centres of spontaneous street parties in poor Kingston ghettos in the 1950s. A similar spontaneous use was encouraged when the speakers were installed at Superkilen in spring 2012. Here anyone with a ‘bluetoothed’ cell phone should be able to transmit music through the loudspeakers. The original idea did however turn out to be a source of conflict. The noise generated by the loudspeakers spread freely in the open space and to surrounding houses. The sound system was shut down the first summer it was running, and has been cut off power on and off since then. Lately the use has been mediated by restricted “play hours”.
One my last visit to Superkilen, I had the ambiguous experience of facing this heavy body stripped of its primary function. How can an object, intended as a vibrant sound transmitter, be conceptualised when numbed: as a lost opportunity of public interaction? An odd piece of furniture, descent for holding mugs and bottles? Or, as proposed by in the local newspaper, the result of a sloppy design process where little or no considerations was made to sound environments? (Politiken 2012-10-04) It all boils down to the production of relevance. Where, in the network of object no.94, is meaning produced? Any one answer – in the loudspeakers, in the phone, in the blutooth network, in the person choosing music (here the complexity may increase if person A is outplayed by person B resulting in a sudden change of music), will be insufficient. Alike the examples of the ball and the blind man, the material (non-human) and technical body of the loudspeakers are intimately related to human bodies. If the ball makes sense when played, so does the loudspeaker. Much like the ball, the loudspeaker can only be “played” by one person at a time, why it may be conceptualised as a quasi-object producing subjectivities through a traveling agency.
Object no. 94 is, more than anything, a highly designed socio-material experience. It entangles technologies, objects and humans in numerous interactions and dependencies, and is consequently escaping any attempt to separate the social from the material.
N. Katherine Hayles, ‘Unfinished Work: From Cyborg to Cognisphere’, in Theory Culture Society 23; 159, 2006.
Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, 1991.
Michel Serres, ‘Theory of the Quasi Object’ in Parasite, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
Joseph E. Davis ‘If the “human” is finished, what comes next? A review essay ‘ in The Hedgehog Review 4:3, fall 2002, pp. 110-125