A Case for Enacted Objects, 2015

A Case for Enacted Objects

*unpublished draft

by Joel Hurlburt, October, 2015

In this text I will discuss two different processes of enactment, joined together (confusingly enough for this text) in one larger project, titled Enacting Objects.  I hope to sort out how two forms of enactment, a two-fold enactment – that of the human interacting with another human, and that of the reproducing agent, the apparatus, interacting with the humans– how these two modes differ and how they may be linked.  My process might be described as inventive, in so far as I have chosen to develop new techniques and strategies to gain access to what have been different forms of hidden knowledge, and engage with the inquiry that these techniques are a part of, in a situated fashion.[1]  I seek to take up what the philosopher Donna Haraway calls epistemologies of location, where position and situatedness emphasize partiality over universality in the claim of knowledge production. Haraway argues for, “the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity.”[2]  Mine is an investigation in the midst of life, not removed from it, situated, and it is far from simple.  It is also a celebration of the creative act of coming-to language, and self-expression in a most basic form.  It interests me that something so basic as the gesture of a hand amidst thought can be so complicated and consequential.

For some time now I have been looking for a way to describe what I see in certain gestures that I, and other people, make while speaking on different occasions.  There is a gesture that reaches out, a gesture that grasps, a gesture that gropes, and these gestures attempt to describe –with the hands– a shape.  The shape for that moment objectifies and idea or a concept that the mind is at the same moment attempting to articulate with language.  The word associated with the gesture has no actual shape, there is no real correlation, it is entirely a shape formed by the mind/body in that exact moment.  I have focused on this particular moment of gesture in an on-going project, in which I have been developing a method with which to observe, record, interpolate, visualize, and finally materialize the objects of these gestures.  This is to be done using computer vision, custom software, and a 3D printer.  In its working form a type of investigation of gesture can take place.  The apparatus will observe the participants of a conversation, all the time recording and looking for these abstract gesture objects.  When such a gesture is made, it will be possible to “connect the dots” of this relatively open form, making solid the brief form that was insinuated by the hands of the speaker.  The resultant form may give an impression of a definite form, but this necessarily beguiles the relative indefiniteness of the state of affairs in the situation of the gesture.  In this project there is a sense that the process is revealing something that has been hidden.  There is a sense that this process falls in the vague valley in-between art and science, a curious investigation, a type of visual alethic hermeneutics, where the coming-to understanding is undertaken through a disclosive act, which reveals something hidden.[3]  Rather than interpret the result of my methodical work, classify it and generalize it, this hermeneutics rejects any distinction between meaning and significance.[4]  This expansion is made possible by using the apparatus and is expressed in the aesthetic result, the sculptural object.  In a way these objects fill the space between the sensible and the knowable, this space is filled with a type of nonsense, a nonsense that lends itself to the process of understanding, however contradictory this may at first seem.

In this gesture I see what can only be described as a fractional object, “A fractional object would be an object that was more than one and less than many.”[5] This object is both here and not here in it’s moment, it can be seen for an instant or missed, and it has a vague beginning and ending.  These objects have what could be seen as a meaning, or not, or both.  These objects stand to be the compound result of haptic thought, an enactment of the coming-to language, and a situated knowledge in the midst of exchange.  This is the prime moment in which we enact objects, sprung from the mind and defined by the hand. What might happen when we can look closer at, visualize, and materialize with technological means, these shadows of movement; these fractional objects?  Does this process reflect the delimiting process of the scientific method, such a carving out of a phenomenon from thin air, or is something gained in the alethic and aesthetic experience of seeing the uncanny solid from a temporal and barely visual moment, that would settle such a project in the camp of art?  This last question is easy to, at least partially, answer; I make no claim to be involved in scientific research, and my aims are purely aesthetic and philosophical.  This may be because I have no interest in the generalization of my results.  For me something very important is lost when specifics are given over to universalities, there is a richness in the messiness of the actual, and rather than clean it up and make for a neat result, I find that there is more to be learned in leaving things as they are.  I am concerned with the situatedness of my process and the resulting objects, these I see as forms of situated knowledges, as Dona Haraway calls them, and any objectivity claim I may have, would be necessarily feminist in nature[6], because as she says, “feminist objectivity makes room for surprises and ironies at the heart of all knowledge production; we are not in charge of the world. We just live here and try to strike up noninnocent conversations by means of our prosthetic devices, including our visualization technologies.”[7]  The noninnocence of this process lies in the intrusion of the Other, coming in the guise of the apparatus, intruding into our conversation and potentially revealing truths that are caught unawares.

As for our self-knowledge, and more over, self-vision Haraway says, “we are not immediately present to ourselves,”[8] and Jacques Derrida echoes this in another way:

It is the eyes and the hands that are the sites of recognition, the signs through which one identifies the Other. To return to the question of narcissism, they are, paradoxically, the parts that we see the least easily. We can look in a mirror and see ourselves and have a reasonably accurate sense of what we look like. But it's very difficult to have an image of our own act of looking or to have a true image of our own hands as they are moving. It's the Other who knows what our hands and eyes are like. These - how do you say - these gestures of the hands, are seen better by the Other than myself.[9]

In what Derrida describes there exists a type of blindness; a blindness of the self, of the embodied self.  I would like to suggest that in the moment of enactment one is blind to ones movements, the movements of the hands, just as one can never see one’s own act of looking.  For me, this is the most stark and contrasting difference between enactment and performance, as it has come to be understood.  One can perform an action, but one can only enact.  If we are to ever have a chance to gain access to the (quite literally now) forms of our thought, we must rely on this prosthetic vision of the motion sensor.  The mechanical Other can see our hands, and their path, far better than we can; the prosthetic eye of the sensor is a far better witness to this particularly human type of blindness, namely the lack of a strong persistence of vision (this is the phenomena that allows us to “connect the dots” in, for example, sliding LED text ribbons such as the Wall St. stock ticker, but does not allow us to see the streak of matter as our hand moves through the air from position A to position B).  The other option to this limitation is unthinkable, this would be to externalize oneself, to attempt to reflect on the self from an outside point of view; this is not only impossible but also I feel utterly undesirable.  With enactment comes a partial or fractional perception of the self, and this is the type of blindness of which Derrida speaks.

But let us return to blindness for a moment. In blindness there comes an immediacy to one’s perception.  The horizon is drawn down close and intimate, into the immediate area surrounding one’s self.  One gropes his/her way through a landscape, but in this groping there is a type of poise, what David Appelbaum calls a poised perception,[10] this is a perception that exceeds the visual, paradoxically when the space to be envisioned resides so close:

…space is not visual, or rather the eye itself has a haptic, non optical function: no line separates earth from sky, which are of the same substance; there is neither horizon nor background nor perspective nor limit nor outline or form nor center; there is no intermediary distance, or all distance is intermediary.[11]

The haptic is a perception of traces, with sensitivities and sensibilities, which slow the process of understanding, and of making sense of the meanings and realities that we seek.[12]  We could now say that the blindness of which Derrida spoke of is not a faulty vision, but another kind of vision that we have a belated access to that comes often too late for ourselves, so that we don’t “see” in time with our thoughts.  The haptic has also been described as involving emotional connotations and affective responses, an emotional grasping,[13] which again emphasizes the hand and touch in the haptic.

In the scenario that I describe, interlocutors are engaged in conversation, and this event has a performative element, even if the performance is impromptu and unscripted the participants are in a sense performing for one another to the extent that they try their best to make themselves understood to one another.  Like in improvisation, each speaker uses what they have on hand, namely their language and their body.  In, The body Multiple, Annemarie Mol suggests that:

like (human) subjects, (natural) objects are framed as parts of events that occur and plays that are staged. If an object is real this is because it is part of a practice. It is a reality enacted.[14]  

Here it is suggested that objects are elements of a production, they are produced, and made real through one type of performative action or another.

Enactments, it is being argued, don’t just present something that has already been made, but also have powerful productive consequences. They (help to) make realities...[15]

Our actions not only make objects, but also as Mol and Law put forward, they make realities, and these realities find themselves situated in a context that makes these objects possible to be understood.  To go one step further one could say that, understanding is a creative act.[16]  In the situation I describe the object is momentary, amaterial, and difficult to define, an object in-between.  Law has chosen to describe such objects as fractional. I would even dare to say that a fractional object could be consider less than one, an existence that is blinking or fleeting in some way. This is because fractional objects land in the in-between.  The objects I discuss here are in their manifestation in-between, and neither are they concrete in their meaning.  This is what has kept them out of the running as subject matter for fields like gesture studies, as they will not land in any one place, in any one reality.  The link between gesture and language is at times very obvious; there is often a direct correlation between what is said and the gesture associated to it, and this forms the core of field of gesture studies.  In the gestures I am studying things begin to fray, they are blurred at their edge, and they lack the direct and obvious connection to the word they attempt to describe.  They are several objects at once, they are several ideas at once, and these things are indeterminate. This also means that we  are not neutral in the production of objects, in their observation, or in their reproduction.  The objects of which I speak are solely the result of an enactment, and crafted in the first-fold by the hand of the speaker, then in the second-fold enactment, they come into being through the perceptions and reactions of the apparatus.

But what of the performances, methods, and apparatuses that do the crafting and the enacting of these objects?  For now I will focus on the performance and method carried out by the apparatus, in this case a computer driven form of vision and interpolation.  First to define an apparatus generally for our usage:

Further expanding the already large class of Foucauldian apparatuses, I shall call an apparatus literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings.[17]

This definition fits well for the situation I describe here, as it puts the apparatus in a direct relationship with the human interlocutors, it is situated, and here, “situatedness is understood not as a position but as a relation. These are, potentially at least, the relations of multiplicity.”[18] The question is if it is possible to bring the apparatus into the conversation and not exclude it as solely the recorder of the performative act, but recognize instead its own creative capability in the second-fold enactment.  Here, like Guattari:

I am not advocating a return to the Pascalian distinction between the mathematical and the intuitive mind, for these two types of understanding, conceptual on the one hand and affective or perceptive on the other, are in fact entirely complementary.[19]

I believe there is the potential for a form of re-entrance in these interactions.  That while the apparatus is not yet capable of making affective judgments based on an intuitive perception, it is capable of bringing objects into being, of bringing things to light, which in turn have the capacity to change a conversation, and bring new forms of understanding and/or knowledge into existence.  It is, quite simply, able to enact multiple realities.  The apparatus is well suited to do what we cannot, to see what we cannot, or at least to see it in another way, then turn around and show us the uncanny in a way that we can see, this has always been the promise of technology.  As Irina Sandomirskaia put so simply in her essay, The How-To of Bare-Life, “Being human means being prostheticized by the inhuman.”[20]  But the machine prosthetic cannot tell us what is true or false in what we see, not in this case anyway.  It can only show us what we have asked it to look for.  The apparatus then does the work of the interpreter and translator, but as Haraway reminds us, “translation is always interpretive, critical, and partial.”[21]  It is only logical that if a perception is partial, the resulting conclusion will also be incomplete, by design. 

So this project of mine inevitably (and welcomingly) displays the chink in the armor of the grand apparatus of the empirical, we cannot step out of our limited field horizon[22], our partial horizon a priori.  Hans-Georg Gadamer made a link between the concept of situation and that of horizon, stating that like the standpoint of a situation, “the horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point. Applying this to the thinking mind, we speak of narrowness of horizon, of the possible expansion of horizon, of the opening up of new horizons, and so forth.”[23] The apparatus can look beyond our limits, beyond the field horizon that limits our perception and what keeps us locked out of what Haraway calls the “god trick,”[24] that false sense of omnivision, but the apparatus is no “god trick” on its own however the scientist may wish it would be. But in this landscape a change in elevation may change the shape and size of the horizon.  Horizons don’t end a scene, the landscape continues beyond, the horizon denotes what is within reach, within sight, within understanding, but this limit is plastic, a membrane that is always changing.   Demensionality, we may find is important to position, to location, to situation.  And shape –those depressions and elevations that deform the flat plane– is what grounds aspects of our attempt to understand one another. What position do these enacted fractional objects occupy in our attempts to understand one another?  How does their delimiting change their position in our way of thinking and the way we communicate?

But what are we to make of truth and meaning in a situation like I describe?  The assumption is often that one takes part in an investigation and research in order to find some irreducible truth.  Such irreducibility is considered to be nonpersonal, universal.  In addition truths have been considered something to be found, like some gem in the forest, whole and already intact. But like so many things, this is too good to be true, and the actual process of coming to truth, the process of constructing truths is a much more human process.  William James, in the book, Pragmatism said, “ideas become true just insofar as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience,”[25] here James puts truth after experience, and truth then is an outcome of experience.  In such a case, truths do not actually stand as independent entities, but rather must be made, enacted, again and again. If this is in fact the case, then truth is built on very unstable ground.  As we have seen, perceptions are always limited, our experience then more so, and now truth is to be based out of that.

Why is there such a pull toward finding truth, to explaining, clarification, and universalization? Why do we seek so much to unambiguate?  A sense of getting at the meaning of things has long been a measuring stick of what it means to be human, but maybe we have formalized the process beyond what is realistic, what is actually taking place. [26]  It could be that we are trying to deal, to cope with the world we find ourselves in, more than our explanations are the form for any actual foundation.  Rorty goes on to say, “as long as we think of knowledge as representing reality rather than coping with it, mind or language will continue to seem numinous…”[27]  This process of revealing these hidden objects can be seen as one step in removing this mystery and divinity from the mind and language, replacing it instead with the more terrestrial qualities of messiness and ambiguity.

It is at this point that I want to insert a radical hermeneutic, a radically interpretive gesture, which consists not in finding meaning but in dealing with the breakdown of meaning, the shattering and foundering of meaning. It is not a hermeneutic which finally fixes meaning and truth once and for all but a hermeneutic fired by the dissemination and trembling of meaning and truth. It is a hermeneutic of the ébranler [shake/convulse], possible only when the whole trembles. It is not a hermeneutic which gives comfort but a hermeneutic which is ready for the worst, which has been thrown out in the cold.[28]

If we can confront all the uncertainty, accept that it is present in our research, maybe then it is possible to get down to some of what is actually going on.  What Caputo puts forward in this statement is a suggestion that all the good stuff is in the in-between, in the trembling, wavering, and dispersed nature of the world we perceive and experience.  Creating explanations to solve the mysteries of the world is obfuscation rather than the enlightenment that we want to believe it to be.  If we can rather cope with the realities that we inhabit, instead of explaining them out of our situation, maybe then might come the change to inhabit a situated moment.  This moment is as we have seen is partial, limited, contradictory, complex and messy, but it is ours.

My work then is not to yet again explain and devise meaning and universal truth from the phenomena I have designed to encounter.  The result rather represents a ripple in the process of breakdown of which Caputo speaks, without a fixed meaning.  Like the web of enacted realities we create, “anything is, for purposes of being inquired into, constituted by a web of meanings.”[29]  I for one find comfort in knowing that things are not as ordered as I was once led to believe.  A world of truth and meaning, which is a mess of complexity and ambiguity, is far closer to my experience than any other explanation.  The fact that underlying the linguistic structure of our language there exists a messy layer of shapes in a constant flux, shape-shifting, only emphasizes the process of enactment taking place to craft our realities.  The objects, as the apparatus sees them, reflect our uncertainty back at us.  


[1] Lury & Wakeford pp 3

[2] Haraway pp 589

[3] Alvesson & Sköldberg pp. 98

[4] Alvesson & Sköldberg pp. 98

[5] Alvesson & Sköldberg pp. 62

[6] Haraway, pp. 581

[7] ibid. pp. 594

[8] ibid. pp. 585

[9] Dick and Ziering (qtd. Jaques Derrida)

[10] Law pp.10

[11] Deleuze & Guattari pp.494

[12] Law pp. 10

[13] Lury pp. 129

[14] Law pp 56 (qtd. Mol, A., ‘Pathology and the Clinic: An Ethnographic Presentation of Two Atherosclerose’, in Lock, M. Young, A., Cambrosio (eds) Living and Working with the New Medical Technologies, Cambridge, Cambridge Univversity Press, 2002:44)

[15] Law pp. 56

[16] Alvesson & Sköldberg pp. 106

[17] Lury pp. 8 (qtd. Agamben, What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays: Palo Alto, CA., Stanford University Press, 2009:14)

[18] Lury pp. 14

[19] Guattari pp. 37

[20] Sandomirskaia pp 3

[21] Haraway pp 589

[22] Gadamer pp. 313

[23] Gadamer pp. 313

[24] Haraway pp 584

[25] Rorty pp 583 (qtd. William James, Pragmatism, New York: Longmans Green 1947: 58)

[26] ibid. pp. 579, “The reason definitional irreducibility acquires this illusory importance, it seems to me, is that it is important to make a moral distinction between the brutes and ourselves.”

[27] Rorty pp. 580

[28] Alvesson & Sköldberg pp. 140 (qtd. Caputo

[29] Rorty pp. 557


·      Alvesson, M. and Sköldberg, K. (2009) Reflexive Methodology: New Vistas for Qualitative Research London, SAGE Publications Ltd

·      Caputo, J. (1987) Radical Hermaneneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction, and the Hermaneutics Project, Bloomington, IN., Indiana University Press

·      Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2005) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (trans. Massumi, B.) Minneapolis, MN, University of Minneapolis Press

·      Dick, K., and Ziering, A. (directors), (2002), Derrida http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtcpwJCC6Co

·      Gadamer, H.-G. (2013) Truth and Method, London, Bloomsbury Academic

·      Haraway, D. (1988) Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3. Pp 575-599

·      Jefferies, J. (2012) “Pattern, patterning” Lury, C. (ed.) and Wakeford, N. (ed.) Inventive Methods: The happening of the social, London, Routledge

·      Law, J. (2004) After Method: mess in social science research, New York, Routledge

·      Lury, C. (ed.) and Wakeford, N. (ed.) (2012) Inventive Methods: The happening of the social, London, Routledge

·      Rorty, R. (1981) Method, Social Science, and Social Hope, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 11, No. 4, Taylor & Francis, Ltd. pp. 569-588

·      Sandomirskaia, I. ( ) “The How-To of Bare-Life” Documenta Magazines Online Journal No.1-3 [course hand-out]