An Emerging Theory: Things Rule

The international conference on Digital Arts and Culture is often a place for previewing coming theoretical trends in digital scholarship.  Long before the formation of separate conferences for the Electronic Literature Organization and the Digital Games Research Association, DAC was at the forefront of interactive literature and game studies.  This year’s DAC conference, “After Media: Embodiment and Context,” included a prominent “Interdisciplinary Pedagogy” theme led by digital artist Cynthia Beth Rubin that tried to make connections between the cutting-edge, sophisticated theory that the conference represented and the more mundane practical challenges posed by instructional technology and augmented classroom learning. One of the plenary speakers, Ian Bogost, summed up the mood at DAC succinctly on his Twitter feed: “Things rule!”  Bogost has become known internationally as a proponent of a radical contemporary philosophical school known as “speculative realism” or “speculative materialism,” and several talks at the conference reflected aspects of this revolutionary thing-centric attitude. Following the reading of Bruno Latour by Graham Harman, many speculative realists affirm what they call an “object-oriented ontology,” which Bogost has defined as follows on his blog:

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally—plumbers, DVD players, cotton, bonobos, sandstone, and Harry Potter, for example. In particular, OOO rejects the claims that human experience rests at the center of philosophy, and that things can be understood by how they appear to us. In place of science alone, OOO uses speculation to characterize how objects exist and interact.

The conference opened with a plenary talk by Katherine Hayles about this “new focus on objects” in the humanities, but she acknowledged that the paradox of a non-humanistic humanities would pose many questions for teaching and research.  As she asked, “Can we know how the world looks to a non-conscious thing?”  Other speakers at the conference who expressed an alliance with OOO included media artists like Garnet Hertz and Marc Tuters of the Networked Publics project.  

But how would object-oriented teaching work at a practical level?  How could students possibly be able to rethink their attitudes about objects and even see objects as social actors?  The New Ecology of Things project offers some guidelines about how to approach this new pedagogy, but many wonder how it would work in actual courses with actual teachers and actual students.

Object-Oriented Teaching

The Interdisciplinary Pedagogy track at the DAC conference offered two model examples of teaching in a way that lets “things rule”: one that was tested at the California College of the Arts and another that was launched at Cornell University.

Using the pedagogical directive “empathy + design for complex processes,” Katherine Lambert of the California College of the Arts initiated a course titled “Lifecycle.” The primary goal of the class was to familiarize students with a collaborative, cross-disciplinary design process.  The pedagogical vehicle was research into the urban waste disposal process and sustainability practices with an emphasis on the end points of the Lifecycle.  The class focused on the development of a product (or system of products; physical, software, or both), a service or an environment – which is often a container for products and services.

Lambert’s description: Working in collaborative groups of five, students from distinct disciplines – architecture, digital media, environment design and industrial design – selected iconic representations of waste production ranging from mobile phones, PDAs, Compact Discs/DVDs, to hipster Converse Hi-tops, and the inevitable, disposable diaper. Initially, they conducted extensive cultural research and formed an analysis of public(s) perception and user behavior(s) around their chosen product.  They then took on the challenge of reinventing each product within the context of its discreet LIFECYCLE, making it “smart,” user centered, culturally specific, and ecologically responsive.

This was a studio course that also enjoyed the sponsored and collaborative efforts of the global design firm IDEO.  Addressing a range of disciplinary perspectives within this transdisciplinary Linkage studio, the prioritization of the entire lifecycle – the “loop” of consumer goods from creation research, design, production, use, and ultimate disposal served as the conceptual underpinnings and point of departure for this collaborative research and study.  As a CCA story on the Lifecycle course indicates, the students approached products, normally thought of as inert and inconsequential, in a fundamentally different manner.  They were now viewed as distinct agents comprising landfills teeming over with waste, clogging waterways, and proving detrimental to life.  The project development and critique process was orchestrated and documented on the Lifecycle Blog.  The prototypes of all the student projects created in the class were honored by an invitation from the Thoreau Center for Sustainability for public exhibition in its San Francisco Presidio Gallery.

Having a public presence is also important to Renate Ferro, whose Tinker Factory, a “lab for research design, creativity and interdisciplinary technology” at Cornell, draws inspiration from Andy Warhol’s famous New York art space, The Factory.  The Tinker Factory’s mission is to encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration, sharing of resources, equipment, technical expertise, and knowledge so that new directions in forging the arts with technology can be realized. Through the practice of “tinkering,” inquiry and play will be conjoined.  By nurturing imagination and curiosity, groups of collaborators will both speculate and experiment with the possibilities that technology affords to find ways in which life and art can be aligned.  The Tinker Factory is a space that exists “outside” of regular university programs and curriculum to nurture interactive, technological, and artistic research.  Ferro argues that the Tinker Factory’s focus on material objects associated with computational media platforms such as circuit boards, switches, wires, and sensor technologies creates more lively interchanges: “It’s a physical place to springboard critical concepts for discussion instead of the other way around.”

Ferro describes the mission of the lab as “definitely object-oriented” and explains that by starting “with the physical art-making,” moments of innovation and creation can take place.  “Art theory and philosophy” may take place after to understand how the object affects the viewer.  Ferro stresses that the object shouldn’t be the ultimate end of intellectual inquiry, since there is a lot of interpretive and historical work for students “to conceptualize new or different work.” In explaining her teaching style, she poses this question: “When we get something to work, what are the implications for use in real life, as an impetus for art, or as an impetus for critical writing about art or art and technology?”  

Strict believers in object-oriented ontology might criticize certain aspects of Lambert and Ferro’s work with students for emphasizing human creation and invention in their pedagogical experiments, but the collaborative and interdisciplinary spirit of this new way of teaching, along with its understanding that digital media practices involve the material as well as the virtual, certainly received positive reviews at DAC.