The Aliveness of Wood
Thinking about Things with help from Rick Yoshimoto, Karan Barad, Jane Bennett,
Robin Bernstein, Erin Manning, Patricia Adams Farmer, and Alfred North Whitehead.
Wooden Stools by Rick Yoshimoto
Reflections on Thing Power
Matter feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers.
-- Karan Barad, New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies
The entire universe consists of stories within stories within stories -- within stories...Instead of being made of "Turtles all the way down," we could say that it is made of stories all the way down.
-- Patricia Adams Farmer
Bark and burl and tree rings -- all stories told by arboreal storytellers.
-- Jay McDaniel
I want to highlight what is typically cast in the shadow: the material agency or effectivity of nonhuman or not-quite human things....An actant is a source of action that can be either human or nonhuman; it is that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events.
-- Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things
Thing-power gestures toward the strange ability of ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of independence or aliveness, constituting the outside of our own experience.
-- Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things
The term scriptive thing integrates performance studies and 'thing theory” by highlighting the ways in which things prompt, structure, or choreograph behavior. A knife, a camera, and a novel all invite—indeed, create occasions for—repetitions of acts, distinctive and meaningful motions of eyes, hands, shoulders, hips, feet. These things are citational in that they arrange and propel bodies in recognizable ways, through paths of evocative movement that have been traveled before. I use the term script as a theatrical professional might, to denote not a rigid dictation of performed action but, rather, a necessary openness to resistance, interpretation, and improvisation.
-- Robin Bernstein, Dances with Things: Material Culture and the Performance of Race
The Aliveness of Wood
A Thing is an Event.
As a Whiteheadian, I have never liked the word "thing." It suggests something passive and merely instrumental, something unworthy of respect. I don't think anything exists in this way. I think everything comes into existence through its relations with other things, but that the things that come into existence -- organic or inorganic by conventional standards -- have a kind of value in and for themselves. We Whiteheadians call it intrinsic value, and we sense that, when people speak of things, they are neglecting this kind of value. We wish, for the earth's sake, that the human world were more Whiteheadian in spirit. We yearn for a new kind of materialism: one that is sensitive to the intrinsic value of wood.
It might be nice to eliminate the word thing altogether and speak of concrescences or (and here's a mouthful) localized embodiments of an adventurous universe, but that is not going to happen. For good or ill, we are stuck with the word thing. Thus I recognize with Jane Bennett that, if there is hope for our world, we may need to rethink things in more dynamic ways, recognizing that even the things in our lives -- stools for example -- are vibrant and vital. We need to think of things as events: that is, as thing-events.
Rick Yoshimoto helps. He works with wood, ceramics, paint, and fabrications. When you look at his stools you can't help but think of something that is happening in the here-and-now. A Rick Yoshimoto stool is a stool-event; a Rick Yoshimoto table is a table-event. They are happenings that carry within themselves the histories of the trees from which they were made and the hands that sculpted them. They are concrescences: that is, activities in which the many become one and are increased by one. The stool is the increase, the new happening. It is the novelty of the universe in embodied form. It is a thing-event.
What follows are some further reflections in a Whiteheadian mode, all aimed to support a new materialism.
Some Things carry scripts for behavior.
A wooden stool made by Rick Yoshimoto is a scriptive thing-event. In the words of Robin Bernstein, it "prompts, structures, and choreographs behavior."
Of course his stools script many ideas, some of them mysterious, primal, and archetypal. But one of them is the simple idea of "sit here, I offer a vantage point from which you can view the world." The Chinese speak of four bodily dignities: sitting, lying down, standing, and walking. A stool scripts the sitting.
It does this by containing or evoking what Whitehead calls proposals for feeling and action: that is, propositions. Whitehead says that propositions are not restricted to their linguistic expression and that they can be communicated in various ways. The stool provides a context for the entertainment of the proposition "Sit here." In this sense it is like an actor on a stage reciting lines in a language of its own, the meanings for which reside in the stool and the sitter.
Put differently, a wooden stool is a performing art. Its performance is its shape, size and presence and also the ideas it evokes. As with any performing art, the stool requires audience participation in order to succeed in its performance. Its performance is relational through and through.
We must also note that scripted things can be destructive as well as constructive, harmful as well as helpful, violent as well as comforting. Robin Bernstein's work shows how some kinds of scripted things have functioned and still function to demean and subjugate people. We can force a person to sit on a stool because he seems "lower" than the rest of us.
A Thing has Agency.
A wooden stool is an agent in its own right. Or, perhaps better, an actant. Jane Bennett describes an actant as "that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events."
Whitehead also has a name for this production of effects. He calls it causal efficacy. He proposes that the actual entities of our universe are not only subjects for themselves, they are also objects for others; and he adds that in their objectivity for others they alter the course of events. He calls them superjects. The basic idea is that a stool influences others; it injects itself into their lives. It seems to me that what Whitehead means by superject, Jane Bennett means by actant. We might can call the stool an actant-superject or, more simply, an agent.
A Thing may have subjectivity, too.
Is there something like subjectivity behind the agency? Philosophers disagree.
Jane Bennett is reluctant to speculate that there is something like subjectivity (experience) which lies in wood itself. Whitehead is not so reluctant. He senses, with Karan Barad, that matter "feels, suffers, converses, remembers, and desires" and that the duality between living matter and dead matter is a false one. He believes that the energy-events within the depths of the wood are drops of experience, which means that they "feel" or "prehend" their surroundings, albeit in non-conscious ways. For Whitehead consciousness is but one form of subjectivity, of which there are many others. Wherever there is matter, thinks Whitehead, there is something like sentience, something like a capacity to receive and respond to influences from elsewhere. "Apart from the experience of subjects," he says, "there is nothing, nothing, bare nothingness."
Jane Bennett worries about the implications of thinking this way: "The philosophical project of naming where subjectivity begins and ends is too often bound up with fantasies of a human uniqueness in the eyes of God, of escape from materiality, or of mastery of nature; and even where it is not, it remains an aporetic or quixotic endeavor."
On this matter Whiteheadians will disagree. For them a recognition of subjectivity in matter is an antidote to fantasies about human uniqueness, an invitation to immerse ourselves in the materiality of a universe of inter-subjectivity, and an invitation to recognize life with respect and care for the entire community of existing things. Indeed they think that the Love from which the universe unfolds -- God -- embraces the whole of the material world and not just the human part of it.
There is no need to settle this matter. What is important to both of them is that matter, one way or another, is vibrant with a kind of aliveness that rightly elicits our respect and care. Enter the sculptor.
We can work with the aliveness of Things.
The sculptor works with this aliveness as a co-creator in a poly-creative universe, and this work takes a special way of knowing. In creating a stool the sculptor must listen with his or hands, embodying what philosopher-dancer Erin Manning calls choreographic thinking. This thinking is a mode of feeling and touching, and it begins with a pre-linguistic knowing of the world of movement and touch. The world has not yet been divided into chunks of separate entities, at least of humanly designed kind. True, the bark and burls are chunks, but they are not made by human hands. They present themselves for the co-creative process. The sculptor begins by listening to the bark and burls.
All of this has important implications for our time. Western modernity gave us the idea of matter as utterly passive, devoid of agency, acted upon but not acting in itself. Process philosophers disagree. For us as for others, there are no vacuous actualities. Agency goes all the down into the depths of matter and subjectivity does, too. Of course up and down are metaphors. There is no need to say that atoms are lower than humans, or the other way around. For practical purposes we can treat stools as things to sit on, as if they are not affected by our sitting. But we really don't know. In the presence of a more than human world, we can best remain humble, doing our best to listen and respond to the republic of stories, one person at a time, one tree at a time, one stool at a time, and one earth at a time.
-- Jay McDaniel