Elkins – The Object Stares Back (1996)

That The Object Stares Back is only part of the picture; in fact, it’s the same name as one of the six chapters in Elkins’s 1996 meditation on seeing. The objects that stare back include everything from stars, moth wings, radar imagery, and insects ill-fitted to our schema for recognizing them. These objects are, although named differently, more like quasi-objects because when they stare back, they implicate us in a “tangled web of seeing” that challenges whether the human observer is an “autonomous, independent, stable self” (74). Elkins goes on, “This is the kind of idea that is popular in academia because it is so exhilaratingly radical—but at the same time it is almost entirely unbelievable, which is to say we cannot believe it if we want to keep going” (74).

The object-stare-back is a peculiar notion: “In a grocery store, I do not think for a moment that rows of vegetables and the cans of soup might be looking at me as I speed down the aisle” (73). And yet there is an emerging stare-back that accompanies positionally sentience: locatable as something suspended between products and consumer positions, if we can link this phenomena with something like the Shell gas station icon rolling up on the GPS interface. This is not quite the same as the can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle peering at shoppers, but is does seem like a new variation on the stare-back.

In the chapter on “Blindness,” staring takes another turn: “Staring is an unusual kind of seeing, and there’s usually something odd going on when I find myself staring. Perhaps staring is a sign that an artwork has malfunctioned: it has arrested my thinking, slowed me down, paralyzed me so I can barely move” (209). Intriguing here that staring establishes an irregular relationship to time; in staring, so much comes to a standstill. Elkins also compares staring to gazing: “That’s how I would distinguish a stare or a glance from a gaze: stares and glances are focused on details” (210). Barthes’ Camera Lucida comes to mind here. That staring is an unusual kind of seeing, that it is “focused on details,” that it brings time to a standstill, could mean that it is located at the critical juncture between studium and punctum. It is, as I now think of it, at the point where the punctum‘s sting (not only photographically, but arguably extending into the world) is suspended, noticed in such a way that it heeds a kind of proprioceptive pull toward studium. In time, whatever holds the stare might end up there, something studied.

This holds up in Elkins’s discussion of German realist painter, Franz von Lenbach who appears almost straining in a series of photographs in the chapter, “Blindness”:

In picture after picture and even in his self-portrait paintings, [von Lenbach] has this same faintly ridiculous pompous stare. It may have been an accustomed squint or an affectation—as if to say, I am a great and penetrating artist—but I almost prefer to think it was the symptom of a concentrated effort to see. (He wasn’t a first-rate painter, and I also wonder if he might have been hampered by the very intensity of everything under his gaze, so that there wasn’t much left to see.)

Not much left to see: stare-punctum becomes crushing-gaze-studium. Why not? Could such effortful seeing generalize to over-exerted writing? I don’t know. But the build-up clicks for me. To re-enact the von Lenbach expression, I tried it out, let my MacBook Pro’s built-in camera capture me imitating the painter (Think, think: “I am a great and penetrating artist”). 3…2…1… Yet I cannot unpick the loopknot: Is this the computer staring back at me? Me staring back at me? Me staring back at you? You staring back at my Macbook?


By the way, to make this face I had only to think about the fact that I wrote a version of this entry yesterday late afternoon and then failed to save it: big frown and scrunched brow.

Ahead of much of what else is here, I appreciated Elkins’s attention in Chapter Two to the function of tropes in science. A researcher sees something unrecognizable, unclassifiable, and assigns to it a metaphor that links inexplicable thing (e.g., an amoeba) to an existing schema. “But [the amoeba’s] body is very strange, very distant from mine, and my mind is clotted with analogies: the amoeba reaches out ‘arms,’ it rolls over itself like a tractor head. I cannot experience the amoeba except through mechanical and biological metaphors” (158). Through substitution (i.e., tropes), recombination and, in effect, new knowledge become possible. Tropes contribute clarity and contour. Elkins identifies another example of this in a doctor’s puzzling over a previously unknown (undisclosed) condition in which the tongue’s surface changes while others aspects of its functioning are in tact. The doctor does not know what to call it, but based on pattern similarities, it becomes “Cerebriform Tongue or Cartographic Tongue” (147). Such naming is complicated, right?, because it is both consequential and underpinned with uncertainty—a provisional relationship to knowledge. In the turn to mapping, a more tightly fitted description would be Raised Relief Tongue, but “raised relief” risks a degree of domain specificity that could undermine the necessarily general level of association between topography and the tongue.

There’s more, but I have other stuff to tend to. The more: a noticably arhetorical discussion of empathy (137), a fascinating section on cyclophobic adaptations (75), a disputable point about visual desperation (156), literary flourishes citing Kafka and, at the end of the book, Wallace Stevens (the conclusion, by the way, is titled “Envoi,” which I read as “Ennui” the first time; need another chapter titled “Oops: When the Wrong Word Stares Back”).

The bit on cyclophobic adaptations is good enough (by which I mean worthy of a return) to blockquote here:

The world is full of eyes, and sight is everywhere. But there is a special category, another kind of eye that is neither real (like my eyes) nor metaphorical (like the “eyes ” of rainbows and halos). It sees, and yet it is blind. I mean the fake eyes some insects grow on their bodies in order to frighten away predators. Butterflies and moths tend to have these eyes on their lower wings, so that they can keep them hidden under the upper wings until they need to flash them in some animal’s face. The feect startles practically any animal that can see: it keeps away birds, lizards, frogs, and small mammals, and it also scares many people. So many animals are frightened of eyes that biologists have a word for it—cyclophobism. (75)

Title Case

Reviewing application guidelines the other day for this year’s Undergraduate Symposium, I noticed an explicit request for project titles to be submitted in title case. The deadline is this Friday, the 14th, and I have heard from a couple of students who are proposing projects, who are asking me to be their sponsor, etc. I sponsored one presenter last year. Might be two this time around.

I’m sure I’ve thought about title case before, but somehow it looked different this time. Why should the phrase pique new question(s), I can’t say, but it did?: Where does title case come from? Who set these rules? Why? Is its appeal purely aesthetic?

I could find quite a few pages listing out the basic rules, but nothing on why these rules make sense in the first place. I mean, why not capitalize every word in the title? Why should articles, coordinating conjunctions, and prepositions–is there no sense of fairness?–appear always in lower case? Okay, maybe I can understand the lowly status of articles. Articles get plenty of moments in the sunny A-slot where they stand prominently before nouns. If there are any dogs, any outcasts here, they are prepositions and coordinating conjunctions. After all, with the latest revaluing of prepositions (e.g., Lanham’s at/through; CGB’s addition, from), you’d think title case–and the keepers of title case standards–could allow for the immense, even expanding, conceptual weight born by (I almost wrote “of”!) these low-ranking parts of speech. On the other hand, it’d be a shame to have a proposal rejected for trying out a reformed version of title case.

Added: If you can resist clicking on the advertisements, Titlecase.com will convert titular straw into title case gold.

Same Room, Different Century

A week ago Sunday, I followed a link posted at The Blogora that pointed to a 2007 New Yorker article, “The Interpreter.” The article lays plain the research and travels of Dan Everett, a linguistics professor at Illinois State, who has dedicated most of his career to discerning patterns in a language spoken by an Amazonian tribe called the Pirahã. Honestly, as I followed the link, I didn’t expect to read the whole thing, but after a couple of paragraphs, I was in the article’s clutches. Rather than quit it, I pressed on, figuring it fit in nicely enough with the ideal-ambition of keeping alive eclectic reading habits as a beginning assistant professor.

The article does a nice job of introducing, albeit with great simplification, Everett’s research and setting it in relation to Chomsky’s propositions about universal grammar. Pirahã language practices are, according to the article, a “severe counterexample” to Chomsky’s famous theory. I won’t attempt a full summary of the article here. Instead, I want to pick up just one line from the essay–a line that has grown louder and louder in my head this week since I read it. It comes up late in the essay, in a scene where Tecumsah Fitch, another linguist, visits Everett in the Amazon to corroborate his claims about the absence of recursion in the Pirahã language. Fitch ends up fumbling with computer equipment. The equipment acts up due to high humidity; Fitch leaves the lab-tent to attempt repairs, while Everett remains with the reporter and a young Pirahã man.

At this moment, according to the article, Everett says, “‘But the problem here is not cognitive; it’s cultural.’ He gestured toward the Pirahã man at the table. ‘Just because we’re sitting in the same room doesn’t mean we’re sitting in the same century.'”

Same room, different century. For Everett, this identifies a methodological quandary: how to traverse discordant temporalities in a culture’s language development, especially in light of popular, contemporary language theories. But the room-century line is suggestive of much more, even if it only points out the possibility of two people occupying common time-space when they are not in the same century. I find it to be a rich paradox, perhaps more for how well it generalizes to everyday encounters concerning technology. I mean, have you ever had a technology-focused experience in which you thought, “which century are we”?

I suppose that sounds judgmental. I don’t mean it quite that way. Let me try again. Maybe it would help to revive, for these purposes, Alfred Korzybski’s peculiar system of time-stamping words (I’m remembering that something like this comes up in Nicotra’s RSQ article on Burke and the General Semantics movement, but my copy is at the office right now, so…remembering will have to do). Including the date in a superscript annotation offers us a different handle on a term’s temporal shifts, helping us locate its valences in time. I have no idea if this impression of time-stamping aligns with its function for General Semantics; no idea at all. But it does help me think through the same room, different century problem. By reviving time-stamp markups, that is, we could more readily differentiate computers1995 from computers2010, the Internet1998 from the internet2006, or composition1985 from composition2009, or rhetoric1965 from rhetoric2012. May be nothing more than a passing curiosity, a late winter thought experiment. And I doubt it would be much good in conversation: too fumbly, too parenthetical. But I can think of a handful of occasions, such as, say, in a course syllabus, when it would help position everyone in the same year to differentiate writingthesedays from writingassumedtobeeternal. Some day I2050 hope to look more deeply into time-annotation or time-binding (?) for the General Semanticists than I have here.

Melodic Recombination

Linguistically, Is. now comes up with delightfully unexpected sequences: phrases (borrowed from cartoon characters, muppets, us, or wherever), nursery rhyme snippets, lullaby lyrics, and personal observations. Conversation with her is increasingly adventurous, experimental, spontaneous, and thoughtful.

For instance, for the past couple of days, she has sung the alphabet song with an alternative ending. You know the one: “A B C D E F G, H I J K LMNOP, Q R S, T U V, W X, Y and Z.” Only, at this point, she switches to “Twinkle, Twinkle” with “How I wonder what you are, up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky.” The melody follows; it sounds like a continuation of the alphabet song. What I find so appealing about it (other than the fact that there is pure joy in listening to a two-year-old sing) is that it’s a hypertextual maneuver (a protologic of new media, no?) and an unexpected comment on the early development of alphabetic literacy . I’m not prepared to get into Chomsky and Pinker (as I think through this), but I like the way the lyrical crossover introduces a layer of accidental meaning, very much the sort of thing underscored in new media composing. The melody carries, but the alphabet is recontexualized in seemingly earnest curiosity, abstraction, and symbology–for me an illuminating glimpse of Is. enjoying anti-gravity in the “galaxy of signifiers.”

Back on the ground: Yesterday we were out on an errand, in a store, and, after a someone (dark hair, pointy hat) walked past us, Is. loudly asked, “Was that a witch?” D. and I had a similar response: carry on, then out of earshot explain that, no, in fact it was just some other patron, and that we’d have a longer discussion of Ahmed and interpellation when we got to the car. Of course, I also had to explain to her that if, by chance, it was a witch, shouting out the question in open public put all of us at risk of being turned into toads or worse. This is, after all, the more compelling reason for why not to call explicit attention to any of the specters out and about in late October, yeah?