Tim Morton has recently been suggesting that just as humans anthropomorph (that’s a verb), so pencils pencilmorph. I love this idea, though I’m not sure about its implications, which I want to think through here.
Anthropomorphism #1 (traditional, & its extensions)
The traditional definition of anthropomorphism is something like “the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things.” It’s treating, or perceiving, a nonhuman thing as if it were a human. And it’s a good thing, if you’re Walt Disney; or a bad thing, if you’re doing science and your peer reviewers don’t want to acknowledge that the animals you’re studying also think, communicate linguistically, pass things on culturally, and so on.
John Livingston (my Master’s advisor) used to argue that dogs canomorph, cats felinomorph, and so on; in other words, that every critter interprets the world in ways consistent with its perception of itself. A dog perceives its human “master” as a member, typically a leader, of its pack. A cat perceives a human as cat-like. It’s not that these animals don’t know the difference between humans and themselves; it’s just that they make assumptions about other subjects with their own subjectivity as a baseline starting point. Humans aren’t aliens from Mars; they are like us (cats) in such and such ways, and different (noisier, more fidgety, have longer arms and legs, etc.) in such and such ways. This notion of -morphism can be extended all the way down the line: to the earthworm, the amoeba, the neutrino.
Anthropomorphism #2 (process-relational)
I’ve assumed as much ever since I took my first class with John in 1987, but I’ve recently extended this idea (in Ecologies of the Moving Image), and modified it somewhat, into a more Whiteheadian/Deleuzian process-relational redefinition of each of these terms. (See here for another version of that redefinition.)
Anthropomorphism, according to this redefinition — or creative misinterpretation, if you like — is not just the perception or interpretation of nonhuman things as if they were human. It’s also the perception of human things in the same way — with the “as if” being an open process, one that refers not to the known (which is past) but to the potential (which is future). So anthropomorphism refers to the process by which humans become, no matter what it is they end up becoming. It is the forward pull of subjectivation. Canomorphism is the same for dogs; corvimorphism for crows; and so on. Since we can never be sure what a body is capable of doing (pace Deleuze & Spinoza), we are never sure where this subjectivation will lead.
Since I, and you, and every other subjectivating entity, is in the process of acting on capacities and potentials that open up for us every moment, our anthropomorphism, canomorphism, and presumably (Tim’s) pencilmorphism is subject to alter the end point at which I, you, my dog, or Tim’s pencil, arrive. As a result, the human, the dog, or the pencil of today may bear little resemblance to those of a thousand years from now. The only reason to retain the first part of these words at all — anthro-, cano-, pencilo- — is as an indicator of a starting point. We never know in advance what morphism, what morphology, “we” will take in the future. Evolution is an open process.
This is obviously a very different way of thinking about anthropomorphism than the traditional way. In a sense, it alters the very terms, the foundational or discursive structure (in a Foucauldian sense), by which these words signify. The traditional definition is representational: this bird sings, just as I sing; it is like a human, so maybe it also means the same things as I mean when I sing. The bird resembles the human, but the human itself is taken for granted. My redefinition is anti-representational: whatever the bird, or the human, becomes will be the form (the morphism, the morphology) it takes. Humans just may canomorph — and presumably have, to some degree, from millennia of co-evolving with dogs. Chimpanzees just may anthropomorph, as those brought up in captivity and learning American Sign Language probably do to some degree. We may have to change the names of those chimps that become more human than the rest, and that’s fine, since names are mere indicators, not the thing itself. (The others, those left in zoos or nature parks, have already changed as well, by the way.)
The point is that there is no “essence” to the future or the capacity of a thing, only to its past. Essentialism, in this sense, is a weddedness to the past, while (radical) constructivism is a disavowal of the past. A process-relational view recognizes the past as past, carried forward in novel and creative ways in the present. The degree of creativity an entity is capable of introducing into a given moment may vary, but it is always somewhere between none and all.
Anthropomorphism #3 (objectological?)
Now, with Tim’s notion of pencilmorphism we move from a subject-centered perspective to an object-centered one, i.e., to OOO. In a process-relational perspective, which is subject-centered, or at least subject-object-relational, only things that prehend — only unities that are centers of subjective arising, that relate to objects in their surrounding world, translating those objects (as data) into a new unity in the process of prehension — can be said to “morph” in this way. Most forms of panpsychism agree that there is mental activity, or mentation, in all things, but then they specify the criteria for what qualifies as such a “thing,” or as mentation. If a thing is biologically alive, then there’s no question that it qualifies. Whitehead’s innovation (one of them) was to suggest that the subatomic world consists of such mentating, psychically active things.
But Whitehead distinguished between aggregates, such as a rock, and genuine “societies” such as a human, a dog, a flower, etc. The process-relational question to Tim would be this: Is a pencil more than just an aggregate of actual occasions? Does it maintain itself over time through a reflexive process in which it, acting as a unity, is itself active and creative? Or is it merely the sum of the structural processes that make it up?
One reason why this question is important is because the world is full of objects that we, humans, have created. We can anthropomorphize them (in the traditional sense), animating them in our minds by imagining that they act, rather like us. This is what animists have always been accused of doing. (And animism is really just another, more loosely deployed, word for panpsychism.) There are animists for whom humans, and bees, and possibly rocks and clouds (though it may depend on the specific rocks and clouds) may be “persons,” but for whom pieces of paper, electric backscratchers, and numbers may not be. There are others who go further, acknowledging the personhood of their backpacks and laptops and business cards and fingernail clippings and thoughts and shadows. But do they all really act, or are they merely involved in processes of inter-action within which they play an active, but not agential, role?
For instance, does my shadow — the shadow I cast on the part of my office that’s blocked by my body from the sun’s rays — act of its own accord on the flower that’s sitting in shade behind me, which responds by twisting slowly over to the side to catch some rays of the fleeting afternoon sun? (The flower is obviously an actor here.) Or does the shadow merely “act” insofar as the relations between it and the flower happen, accidentally, to be what they are? In a world where so much of what we, humans, surround ourselves with is artificial, made by us for particular goals, this difference between what acts of its own accord (an actor) and what can be merely “be said to act” (an actant) makes a difference.
The pencil certainly has a structure of capacities that is its own. It has been shaped to do certain things (mainly, to be used for writing) and its form and structure give it additional capacities that weren’t intended by its makers (the capacity to roll off a desk, hit the floor, and cause a lead marking on that floor; to be picked up by an infant and be poked into its mouth; to collect dust on a shelf; etc.). But this does not make it its own center of experience. It makes it an actant, a thing that affects the processes within which it is involved, but not necessarily an actor. It does not interact creatively with the world around it, its Umwelt. It does not enworld, though it may be worlded by others who do enworld. It does not pencilmorph in the sense that pencilmorphing is either (definition #1) responding to others as if they were (like) pencils, or (definition #2) becoming (open-endedly) pencil, i.e. penciling.
Unless… (#3 continued)
Unless we define morphism more broadly. The pencil is part of a morphic, or morphogenetic, network within which its pencilness plays an active, co-constituting role. Pencils, pens, and similar writing implements have made it possible to keep track of large numbers of tradeable items, and to write poems and books; and to doodle in a way that made boring school lessons tolerable; and to add to one’s hair-do when placed behind the ear. They did change the world — so much so that we live today in a penciled, and pencilmorphed, world.
So in this sense Tim is absolutely right: pencils do pencilmorph. But this is a different definition of -morphism than the usual one; and different from my revised one as well. In fact, I would argue that it’s a very poststructural, and post-constructivist, definition, the kind that comes from the understanding that everything shapes other things by virtue of the way it itself is shaped. (A post-constructivist poststructuralism is one that assumes, like other poststructuralisms, that things are all enmeshed in relational networks, differing and deferring from one point to another as we try to grasp them, but that these networks are not merely linguistic or discursive ones; they are fully material as well, material and semiotic.)
If the shaping is understood to be a matter of active interaction with the world, then the way a pencil inserts itself into other processes has a shaping effect on those processes. Pencils pencilmorph. From a loosely Whiteheadian perspective, the subjective agency may reside in the molecules and other actual occasions making up that pencil, not in the pencil qua pencil, since it has no central, regnant unity directing the way in which it responds creatively to its environment. But that makes it no less significant a contributor to the world. The fact that it is humans who have done most of the writing with pencils (along with some chimps and a handful of other animals) doesn’t take the penciling away from the pencils; it is still their pencilness that enables penciling to occur.
The ‘soul’ of things
Here’s where I want to bring in another interlocutor to this discussion. Post-Jungians like James Hillman, Ed Casey, Thomas Moore, and others, have argued for a revival of the idea of “soul” and for an acknowledgment that things have soul. This can be thought of in a purely relational sense — that soul or soulfulness is a quality of relations, for instance, between me and my pencil, or the painting in front of me, or the garden I’ve been patiently cultivating for years. In this sense it indicates a certain capacity for objects to make us (humans, or perhaps other subjects) shimmer and vibrate alongside them, a capacity in those things to trigger our responsiveness in ways that we might not be able to fully rationally interpret. Or it can be thought of in an object-oriented sense, such that the soul of an object refers to its capacity to withdraw from relations. In this sense, “soul” is a way of indicating the fathomless depth of things (a pencil, a hammer, a pair of peasant’s shoes, a lotus flower, a sunset, the gaze that meets me when I look into the eyes of an orangutan).
The two may actually be somewhat reconcilable, so “soul” would be at least a temporary compromise between these two positions, in the same way that a Latourian actant-network ontology is a compromise between actor-centered and material-relational ontologies that leaves aside the question of who/what qualifies as an actor and who/what doesn’t. Or it may, in fact, be better than a compromise, since it’s indicative of a deepening of the middle-ground between the object and the relation. When soul is thought of not as something that I, or an object, can possess, but rather as a kind of depth of field that, at one and the same time, makes images possible and makes sure that they are never exhaustive, then soul becomes a way of deferring and dispersing the question of agency (or subjectivity) into the depths of matter, depths in which subjectivity might reside, but maybe not. Soul becomes spread through things, it shimmers and hums within and around them, setting off circulations of energy made possible by those things. This, at least, is one way we might posit a sort of “object-process ontology.”
Like a lot of what I post on this blog, I’m thinking out loud here. I’m trying to clarify the differences between a fully object-oriented ontology (such as Tim’s or Graham’s or Levi’s), a process-relational ontology (such as the Whiteheadian one I’ve been developing), and a material-semiotic constructivism that ignores or defers the question of subjectivity (such as Bruno Latour’s). I know what the latter two, the process-relational and the Latourian, share (most everything except for the former’s focus on subjectivation and the latter’s neglect of it). But I’m not yet entirely clear on what OOO shares and doesn’t share with Latour. (I should say, though, that Harman’s and Bryant’s writing keeps thickening the plot. I’ve just read Graham’s “Time, Space, Essence, and Eidos”, and I see some potential for his schema to help clarify what I’m trying to get at. More on that sooner or later.)
What I’m trying to propose here is that Carl Jung, particularly the postmodern Jung (via Hillman), may be a useful mediator in our thinking about objects and the capacity for things to take on form, i.e. to morphize. Soul, in a post-anthropocentric Hillmanian sense, refers to the depth — sometimes fathomless — of objects as perceived by subjects (i.e., of “images” or “intentional objects,” in Harman’s sense) and of subjectivity itself in its captivation by objects. It is a quality of relations (which suits process-relationists) that is indicative of the recessive character of objects (which should suit objectologists). It may tell us nothing about the real object itself (for an OOO-ist) except that it points toward that object’s withdrawal from relations. Insofar as it is produced relationally, through networks, it circulates.
Furthermore, soul, or soulfulness, can expand and contract, and there may be objects or relations or practices that lead to the expansion and deepening of soulfulness, and others that lead to its constriction. That would mean we could come up with ethical criteria or at least suggestive indicators for how to act and how to live, which is what philosophy should be helping us with. In this sense, the pencil may have soul, but a world full of pencils, rulers, papers, and abacuses may be less soulful than a world full of old-growth forests, streams full of salmon, Japanese gardens, and whalesong.