On of the (many) issues when trying to think about object agency (as I’m trying to do at the moment – read more here, here and also here and here) is that it necessitates thinking about what consciousness and intentionality are and that leads down a rabbit hole of philosophical debates spanning decades, multiple traditions and an endless number of publications. I get dizzy spells and vertigo just thinking about it.
Speaking of rabbits, this NY Times piece entitled ‘Dogs are People, Too’ popped up on my fb feed. Neuroscience determines that dogs have feelings of sorts, and the immediate move is to say ‘well, then they’re people too’. While I have no problems with this from a political or animal rights point of view, it reiterates a logic that is applicable to my current attempts at thinking about object agency: If we can endow a part of the world around us with qualities that seem inherent to humans, we can extend our human-centered ways of talking to them. Following this logic, giving objects agency is a trick to maintain a view of the world in which agency and its perceived effects is the fundamental unit of analysis. In other words, a trick to talk about materiality while maintaining a meaning-based mode of analysis.
But it seems to me that a more appropriate response is to go the other way around, and begin questioning our perceived notions of humanness. People are dogs too. And rabbits and bacteria and bees and pencils and iron and objects. Here is philosopher Timothy Morton saying something similar:
“Consciousness, I claim, is far lower down than we think it is. So much so that it’s really just a kind of default state […] In the exact same way that a pencil comprehends a table, I comprehend the pencil. No mystery. The mystery is added by anthropocentrism. The trouble is, we humanists have been brainwashed by teleology. We think consciousness is some bonus prize for being highly evolved. This is nowhere near Darwin. So when someone suggests that consciousness is very basic (an idea, by the way, shared by Buddhism), we have trouble with it.”
Morton’s paper “Some notes towards a philosophy of non-life” expands on this view. While I do not agree with everything Morton writes, his work is admirable in its sustained attempt to dislodge human consciousness and agency as the central point of intervention for philosophy and cultural theory. For me, the selling point about such a philosophical dislodging is that it opens for an attempt to develop a museology that takes materiality seriously as something unsettling to our ideas of ourselves. A museology in which objects aren’t just a canvas for human imagination, but one in which the our received notions about how we relate to objects are questioned.
But what, in the context of museums, would such a philosophical inversion imply for how we do exhibitions? The first response, I think, is to try to develop exhibitions that pull shades of this inversion to the surface, exploring how people are objects, too. Exhibitions that highlight the objectness of us, rather than the agency of objects. When I figure out how to do that or what it really means, I’ll let you know. Here is where I will be in the meantime: