Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Conversations with a Stone: An OO Reading

Levi has a post up about the possibility of an OOLC (that’s Object-Oriented Literary Criticism for those who get lost in all of the acronyms). In his post Levi argues that:
Minimally an object-oriented art would have to practice flat ontology and strange mereolology. Unlike the old realism where human subjects were the real genuine actors, objects at all levels of scale and of all types would have to be treated as genuine actors. Perhaps an object-oriented art would explore the struggles and conflicts that emerge between these differently scaled objects, even when embedded within one another.
Initially I couldn’t think of anything that might fulfill such requirements; however, I just started reading Barbara Johnson’s book Persons and Things and through it, was pointed to this wonderful poem by Wislawa Szymborska entitled, “Conversation with a Stone” (from Nothing Twice: Selected Poems/Nic dwa razy: Wybór wierszy, translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh 1997).

Szymborska’s poem starts off without us knowing how the conversation got started between the speaker and the stone, but we automatically understand one point of conflict – that of personification mixed with a nice helping of anthropomorphism. The first couple of stanzas are as follows:
I knock at the stone's front door.
"It's only me, let me come in.
I want to enter your insides,
have a look round,
breathe my fill of you."

"Go away," says the stone.
"I'm shut tight.
Even if you break me to pieces,
we'll all still be closed.
You can grind us to sand,
we still won't let you in."
Now a couple of things should jump out to the object-oriented literary critic. First, as per Levi’s suggestion, there seems to exist a flat ontology in which the stone and speaker are both equally real. The stone speaks as does the speaker of the poem. Each equally exists, yet (as we discover in the last stanza of the poem) they do not exist equally.

However, unbeknownst to Szymborska, her poem also points out Levi’s second requirement – that of a strange mereology of objects. For object-oriented philosophers, all objects are receding in some way, shape, or form. What this means is that no other object, including humans, can ever completely exhaust an object in any of its encounters, whether its through description or sheer brute force – there will always be something held in reserve. So the stone’s response, “I’m shut tight / Even if you break me to pieces, / we'll all still be closed.”, is spot on with the tenants of OOO. Each object consists of other objects, each with its own mereological structure or split in which (at least according to Levi) we have both a virtual proper being and local manifestations. And the stone is no exception, since ultimately, every object’s virtual proper being “will still be closed” even if we found a way to break up the stone into millions of pieces. Something would still remain hidden.

Szymborska’s poem continues as the speaker asks to enter the stone in varying ways and with varying reasons as to why the stone should let him/her. So in the seventh stanza he/she pleads, “It's only me, let me come in. / I don't seek refuge for eternity. / I'm not unhappy. / I'm not homeless. / My world is worth returning to.” But ultimately, all of this pleading is to no avail, as the stone denies entry because the speaker “lack[s] the sense of taking part.” – a sense, the stone tells us, that has its seed in imagination. But what might the stone mean by this?

Personally, I read the stone’s call to a “sense of taking part” similar to the call in Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus to make yourself a body without organs (BwO). D&G command their readers to “Find your body without organs. Find out how to make it. It’s a question of life and death, youth and old age, sadness and joy. It is where everything is played out” (151). And then moments later clarify that “The BwO is what remains when you take everything away. What you take away is precisely the phantasy, and significances and subjectifications as a whole” (151). So in order for the speaker to succeed in Szymborska’s poem, is to stop interpreting the stone as stone, but think of the stone as a BwO, as not a place that is chaotic and empty (filled with “great empty halls”) but quite the opposite – an object filled with matter, forces, and other energies capable of all sorts of local manifestations.

However, this is something the speaker of the poem ultimately doesn’t understand, as seen in the last couple of stanzas:
I knock at the stone's front door.
"It's only me, let me come in."

"I don't have a door," says the stone.
As a conclusion, these last few lines of “Conversations with a Stone” allow the reader to realize the potential pitfalls in addressing objects from a traditional perspective. We often personify, anthropomorphize, and more than often misinterpret the objects that surround us. If anything, Szymborska’s poem calls attention to these human traits, but at the same time arguing for an ontological understanding of objects as existing in a flat ontological realm and with a strange mereological structure.

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