Sunday, October 17, 2010

Everything I Needed to Know about OOR I Learned from Watching 'The Gods Must Be Crazy'

No matter how much we insist on the strangeness of our everyday objects, it is rather difficult for anybody (yours truly included) to see their world as uncanny. If it were easy, this would go against the OOO claim that objects are inherently weird or strange. So, perhaps the easiest way to discuss examples is to actually have an ordinary object (for us) be introduced into a culture in which it is truly a strange-stranger.

In the 1980 film, The Gods Must Be Crazy, a normal, familiar Coke bottle is introduced into a secluded tribe in the Kalahari Desert. Now the traditional way of reading this film would be through metaphor – that is, the Coke bottle represents Western Culture, and everything that happens to the once peaceful and graceful tribe (i.e., the ensuing moments of jealousy, violence, and social upheaval) are simply shining examples of the West’s influence on other cultures. In other words, the traditional way of reading such a narrative would be through reducing it to a moment of language, a single metaphor of East meets West. Most of us would understand that even though there might be other ways to read this film (from a sociological perspective, or even a psychological perspective) this reading is the most explicit, especially given the other two vignettes in the film (centered on revolution and Western emigration).

Yet, no matter how clear such a reading might seem to us, we must not forget that this tribe has no idea what this object really is. They’ve never seen a bottle, and have no notion of what Coca-Cola is or its ties to Western capitalism. Therefore, such a reading dismisses not only the bottle itself, but also the tribe’s unique position and characteristics. We are left wondering then, what else is there? If the bottle is more than simply a metaphor for some thing, and the tribe more than a generic representation of something else, how might we read the events that take place in the film?

Taking a cue from object-oriented philosophy, we must first recognize that no object can be reduced to one aspect, actual (material) or virtual (symbolic), of said object. Therefore, a blue mug cannot be reduced to its blueness or to its mug-ness. Instead, like every object, the mug is a myriad of qualities, none of which are “owned” or inherent in the object itself, but which are manifested in certain situations. So the mug is blue with the lights on, black with the lights off, and in the right light can also appear purple. In this way, object-oriented rhetoric is never satisfied with readings that reduce things to metaphors, metonymies, or other linguistic tropes. For the object-oriented rhetorician the Coke bottle as a real, independent object has an influence all of its own, divorced from any third-party reading. It has its own agency.

To clarify this last point, we should turn back to the example in the film. If we take away the reading that the Coke bottle is representative of some other ideology, point of view, or social organization, we are left with examining the bottle itself, its local manifestations or effects. I will call these effects−following Timothy Morton and Levi Bryant−the object’s resonances. Resonance maintains the requirement that we must not confuse the object for its qualities, nor reduce the object to these effects. Instead, an object resonates with multiple effects or local manifestations on other objects, and the bottle is no exception. The bottle resonates with its environment from the time it first appears on screen. It is a beverage bottle, it is trash, it is a gift from the gods, it is used to crush grain, it is perfect for rolling snake skins, it makes music, etc. In each instance, the bottle resonates in quite different ways without ontologically becoming a different object. However, as we see in the film, the bottle resonates in other, less obvious ways than these initial findings.

The bottle also directly effects or resonates with the tribe itself. The peaceful and content tribe becomes violent and envious of each other as a result of the singularity of the bottle. The tribe itself, then, must be read as an object – an object that like others is open to resonances from other objects, whether internal or external. The bottle becomes the focal point of such an object-oriented examination, not because it represents this ideology or that theoretical trope, but that it (in itself, as an ontologically independent object) influences or resonates with the objects around it, even to the point of social unrest.

The example of the Coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy is, I argue, a perfect example of an object-oriented rhetorical reading. Does it encompass the entirety of the composition of dirt, tribe, bottle, sky, air, etc., etc.,? No, but I would argue that it doesn’t have to. OOR, in my opinion, is never going to be one hundred percent exhaustive. Nor should it try and be. The goal of OOR, instead, should be to point us away from reductions, but especially linguistic reductions, and in turn open up the canvas to be painted with all types of readings, from anthropologists, designers, musicians, biologists, etc. Object-oriented rhetoric offers a unique angle from which to approach rhetorical situations in that it brings objects to the forefront, in themselves and their immediate resonances, rather than shrouding them in metaphors or other linguistic terminology. By performing such a task, object-oriented rhetoric can observe the object as an independent means of persuasion outside of human discourse.