Last week at the Society for Literature Science and the Arts conference, Katherine Behar organized two back-to-back panels on Object-Oriented Feminism (OOF). There were six papers total, and a response to each panel by Katherine Hayles and myself, respectively.
To participants, Behar posed the question, “What would a program for Object-Oriented Feminism (OOF) entail?” The first panel attempted general responses, and the second dealt specifically with the theme of the body.
The participants’ responses to that charge were very good, and the talks were all uniquely unsummarizable in their own ways. Given that sense, I’ve been trying to determine the best way to report back on my experience of the panels, and I’ve finally decided on this: below I’ve included the abstracts for each, which you can show or hide individually. The abstracts don’t adequately capture the talks, several of which were really more like performances than papers (Patricia Clough’s in particular). But they’ll give you a sense of what each speaker covered.
After that, I’ve transcribed as best I can from my session notes the response I offered at the end of the second session, to which I’ve added a bit of coherence as well. As you’ll see, I tried to respond to both sessions, so hopefully it also serves as reasonable (if incomplete) coverage of the talks for those who couldn’t attend.
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun
“Programmed Visions: Software and Memory”
Recent legal and theoretical debates over the status of software focus on whether or not software really exists. This paper argues that these debates miss what is most interesting and important about software: its status as a “thing,” as something both concrete and ambiguous that refigures relations between subjects and objects. It traces software’s historical emergence as an invisibly visible (or visibly invisible) object, linking it to gendered (among other) hierarchies embedded in its vapory structure. Lastly, it situates the recent rise of “thing theory” and “object oriented philosophy” as themselves responses to–not simply theoretical tools necessary to examine–new media.
Patricia Ticineto Clough
“Let us Stipulate that What is Left in a Point of View is a Subject: Language and Object-Oriented Ontology”
Taking up the move from the linguistic turn to the speculative turn of an object-oriented ontology, I want to revisit those psychoanalytically informed descriptions of infant-child and mother that have been a starting point in discourses about the constitution of the human as a (speaking) subject. In the move to an object-oriented ontology, how is a subject to be understood? What is the relationship of language to a subject where a subject is not only human but rather a point of view left as a virtual residue in what Graham Harman calls “the interior of some intentional whole?” As point of view is placed outside the ocular-centric tradition and intentionality is no longer restricted to the human, rethinking the relationship of language and a subject also raises questions about bodies, desires, phantasms. Drawing on Deleuzian philosophy both to elaborate the use to which I am putting “virtual residue” and to take up the idea of series, I will suggest a different way to think of language and a subject that insists on the poetic and the vast role that Harman imagines aesthetics deserves to play in ontology.
“Facing Necrophilia, or “Botox Ethics”
Just as Object-Oriented Feminism incorporates human and nonhuman objects, it must extend between living objects and dead ones. This paper explores how self-objectifying practitioners of body art and plastic surgery incorporate inertness and deadness within the living self. First we discuss body art and plastic surgery through Catherine Malabou’s concept of brain plasticity, the constitution of oneself through passive reception and active annihilation of form. Malabou associates plasticity’s destructive aspect with plastic explosives and its malleable aspect with sculpture and plastic surgery. Yet seen from under the knife, plastic surgery and body art seem to make plastic objects in Malabou’s full sense of the term. The plastic art object of surgery kills off its old self to sculpt a new one. This brings us to Botox, the snicker-worthy subject at the heart of this paper. In Botox use, optional injections of Botulinum toxin temporarily deaden the face, Emmanuel Levinas’ primary site of living encounter. With Botox, living objects elect to become a little less lively. Botox represents an important ethical gesture: a face-first plunge for living objects to meet dead objects halfway, to locate and enhance what is inert in the living, and extend toward inaccessible deadness with necrophiliac love and compassion. “Botox ethics” hints at how Object-Oriented Feminism might subtly shift object-oriented terms. Resistance to being known twists into resistance to alienation. Concern with qualities of things reconstitutes as concern for qualities of relations. And, speculation on the real becomes performance of the real. Botox ethics experientially transforms empathy for dead counterparts into comingled sympathy. Setting aside aesthetic allure, Botox ethics shoots up.
When feminists theorizations of the body have foregrounded particular body parts, whether breasts or uteruses (too many to cite) or more recently brains (Wilson) and bones (Fausto-Sterling), they have rendered feminism and the body in distinct ways. What might starting analysis from the heart offer for feminism? The heart’s mechanical and hydraulic aspects have been important in articulating implicitly male bodies since early modern medicine, and the organ’s electrical aspect is also evocative. Spurred by the etymology of “articulation” – from ancient Greek, both dividing the body into parts and segmenting speech into intelligible language (Kuriyama) – this paper grapples with a heart-centered feminist articulation of the body.
“Object-Oriented Bioethics: gene application technology, trans-normative bioethics and posthuman(e) sacrifice of Transgenic Devices”
We look at hereditary alterity as a technologically gendered art of forming bodies and as a way towards actuating beings born under the aegis of authored morphological predeterminism. Transgene infection is achieved by engineering gene cassettes/constructs considered inert until they are reincorporated into a nuclear genome beginning a hereditary cascade. Actual transgene infection involves human application of gene insertion machines targeted towards the nuclei of germ cells (vertebrate, fly, worm, plant, etc.) The apparatii include standard viral vector design as well as the microinjectors, biolistic devices, electroporators and coprecipitation transformations. Once parented by these symbolically gendered tools, the pressed gonads belong to the living world, the machinic predecessors and to the artists who drive/test/keep/display them. Unfortunately, most modified beings must be contained and some must be humanely sacrificed to protect the environment from foreign species invasion, to defend programs of society from their-selves and to reduce the suffering of living sculpture. Aesthetic cathexis towards other-body expressions point to the applicator’s desire and intention: objectified dominance (scope and poke), lust for reproductive signature (living fame) as well as the standard libidinal taboos—incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, coprophilia, zoophilia and ritual murder. In Object-Oriented Bioethics the questions pertain to the living or quashed remainders of anti-anthropocentric contact relations. Object Oriented Ontological Feminism critiques through a mix of object oriented code aesthetics, psychoanalytic object relations and contemporary feminist readings of the potential for use value in working resistance from the POV of objectification.
“OOF! The Corset: An Anamorphosis of Ambiguous Objects”
Represented on ancient wall paintings, historical advertisements, political cartoons, famous paintings and histories of fashion, fads and femininity, the corset stands as a particular object in a closely circulating assemblage of objects that condense around the feminine and the fetish. I submit that the corset reflects and represents the same distortions, slant progressions and “miss-shaping” as does the object in the same anamorphic entangled fields of the feminine and the fetish. This paper will attempt to describe the assemblage or field of these objects and trace their circulations, progressions, and constructions through their histories, linkages, conflicts and alliances to discover or uncover the potential of a Feminist reading of object-oriented philosophy.
I was talking to my OOO brethren before these sessions, and several among us expressed curiosity and intrigue regarding what “Object-Oriented Feminism” might mean. “I don’t know,” I said. “I guess we’ll find out.”
Today I realize that this response itself may have been a masculinist conceit. I had the expectation that today’s speakers would define “Object-Oriented Feminism. That they would pin it down, that they would domesticate it, if you want.
But instead, we saw a fascinating exploration around a theme. A tour of sorts, a kind of Heideggerian pastoral stroll on which aspects of object-oriented ontology were introduced to aspects of feminist theory.
So in response. I’m going to try to lasso all six talks together by noting what I took away from this tour… what objects I collected along the way.
From Wendy Chun, I took away the idea of habituation. Speculation, she suggested, is a daily practice. She reminded us that the very idea of objects rich beyond our comprehension is not a special condition, but a constant one. Her metaphor of “softwarification” offers one model of how everything we do is implicated with objects already.
From Patricia Clough, I took away the idea of indifference. Despite the couplings of sensual objects, real objects are disinterested in one another (this is what Harman calls withdrawal). We learned this lesson in her powerful and startling illustration of abuse. When we think of abuse, we tend not to think of the hand or the bruise or the memory as separate from human experience. Yet they exist too, and equally.
From Katherine Behar, I took away the idea of participation. She made the observation that while OOO theorists, myself included, spend a lot of time insisting that the human object is indeed on equal ontological footing with everything else, but we don’t practice that principle ourselves. She made the provocation that OOO thinkers ought to be their own first objects of study.
From Anne Pollock, I took away the idea of non-orientability. She showed us that the heart is not only an actor in the network of the human body, or the pharmaceutical industry, or health policy, but it is also a thing in its own right, literally subject to pressures, and literally seeking relief. In this respect, going into the body also means going outside of it, like a mÃ¶bius strip or a klein bottle.
From Adam Zaretsky, I took away the idea of appropriation. We can abscond with biological materials for our own purposes. We can consider objects through the practice of working with them as a medium. We can make “plant/animal devices,” to use his words, out of fish and chloroplasts. This idea is related to what I call carpentry, doing philosophy by making things.
And from Frenchy Lunning, I took away the idea of anamorphosis. Through the example of the corset, she retrieves anamorphosis as a way of performing analysis on an object. By using the sharpened distortion of a new perspective, she “picked open the scab” of another object. Indeed, Harman argues that all relation is caricature, and I’ve suggested that the practice of meetaphor is the only way we can deal in object experience. In Frenchy’s example, the corset also metaphorizes future versions of itself, in relation to earlier ones.
All this still does not help us answer the question, “what is object-oriented feminism?” I’ll admit that despite myself, I still seek such an answer.
From the perspective of flat ontology, the more we isolate ourselves in theoretical modes, the less of the world we attend to (whether those modes are feminism, or Marxism, or deconstruction, or whatever). It’s possible to say, at least, that OOO and feminism share an interest in affirming the inherent equality of being. But there must be more to OOF than just a feminist-friendly ontology.
In his indictment of idealism since Kant, the speculative realist Quentin Meillassoux rejoins us to re-join “the great outdoors.” Normally when I invoke Meillassoux’s metaphor, I use it as a lever to show how big and great the world is outside our tiny, forlorn minds. But today I think we’ve also been shown the value of looking for the outdoors inside. Indeed, one of the goals and victories of feminism involves making insides and outsides accessible and welcoming, whether they involve rights, ideals, identities, or everyday practices. And when we go outside, we track that world’s dirt back in, and vice versa. Perhaps then we can undersand OOF as a perturbation of human and world, as a freedom to move through that door between inside and outside at will, noting the differences but not being limited by them.