A meditation on blind contour drawing and the wisdom we can draw from object oriented ontology.
I’ve never been good at drawing. I see, but I can’t translate. It’s not just that my drawings don’t look like anything that I want to look at or think about. It’s that they evoke neither the illustrative nor the affective capacity to engage me as a viewer. I see, but I can’t translate.
My only success—and this really was a psychological success, if any at all—was found in the blind contour exercises. In these exercises, you look at an object with your eyes while using your hand-holding-a-pencil, to make marks on a page that correlate with what you see. You keep your gaze fixed on the object. Your hand-pencil makes marks on the paper. But you don’t look at the paper. You just keep looking at the object.
I say it was a psychological success because these drawing exercises, these figurative gestures, are the only ones I can perform without feeling a pronounced sense of shame. In these exercises, I’m released–and somehow permit the drawing to be released–from the kind of elementary burdens of representation that my limited imagination has cooked up around the whole enterprise. The drawing just is: an artifact, a record of a performance, an attempt, an essai, an act. I don’t fault it for its shortcomings. I don’t fault myself for my shortcomings (even as I remain keenly aware of them). In fact, the most attractive aspect of my blind contour drawings are the gaps between what is (perceived to be) and how that perception has been (mis)translated, (mis)construed or otherwise transfigured.
I wonder if my experience with blind contour drawing can teach me about how to interact with the world. I wonder if it might provide a little gateway into how to understand what Object Oriented Ontology has to offer.
Object Oriented Ontology (OOO)
Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) is a recent philosophical project, investigated collectively, but broadly and diffusely among many individuals and across various disciplines. The work of Graham Harman has been very influential in the development of the OOO project and has has been further popularized by Timothy Morton and Jane Bennett, who investigate the poetics and applications of OOO across a range of practices and social, political and environmental problems. One of the main premises of OOO is that conventional, human-centered approaches to thought bear distinct limitations that can be especially destructive when it comes to addressing large-scale, collective crises: fires, global warming, pandemics…
When I read and listen to the thinkers who are working within this framework, I hear what a set of “beautiful questions.” When I say, beautiful, it is a reference to the open-endedness of the questions. OOO thinkers often speak in terms of “setting aside” particular assumptions about how systems operate or how values are established, asking “what if…?” Some of the fundamental premises of these inquiries include an embrace of the following understandings as points of departure and possibility:
- Human understanding and consciousness are finite.
- Objects exist independently of human perception and cannot be ontologically exhausted by their relations with us or other objects.
- Objects have their own agency and exist on equal footing with one and another. This includes relationships between objects and humans and non-human interactions.
- Humans can never exhaust the surplus reality of things. The same is true even of non-human objects in their relations with each other. There is always a surplus unmastered by all our efforts to grasp their properties. A thing is impenetrable to the human senses and intellect.
In a recent pre-COVID dialogue with a colleague in which I shared my enthusiasm for what OOO could offer us as artist-thinkers. I gushed over Graham Harman’s premise that “no one is actually in possession of knowledge or truth” (6), and how I presume the statement connects to Timothy Morton’s suggestion that the end of the world has already occurred. Morton believes that the end of the world involves the relinquishing of “core beliefs” that govern human thought and action. “This is an exciting position to take up,” I suggested via email. “It releases us of particular historical and cultural burdens around how thought is supposed to happen, or how much human reason, conventionally rendered, has the capacity to address or otherwise ‘solve’ any particular problem.”
I was taken aback by his response.
“Well,” he wrote, “if the end of the world has already occurred, why should we bother to do anything?”
My colleague’s thinking at that time operated from the premise that if the end of the world has already occurred, we are released from any obligation to act or, presumably, we would lack motivation to act. However, my interpretation of Morton is not that it’s the end of the world: full stop. Rather, it’s the end of the world as we know/knew it. An acknowledgement of the frailty of the authoritarian paradigm of human-centered behaviors, motivations and assumptions, exposing the limitations of human thought and experience. The End of the world as we know/knew it is a revelation of the edges of human perception: the edges beyond which there is an overwhelming void.
An ending that suggests a beginning.
All of this was pre-COVID, of course. At that time, I was excited to acknowledge the edges of human perception and the limitations of human thought and experience. Actually, I was relieved. “We don’t have it all figured out!” We can’t. So, what then?
For Morton and Bennett, the answer to what then? is to pay even more attention to the objects themselves. Bennett has a lyrical, haunting passage in which she describes paying close attention to the way a rat interacts with a glove and a water bottle cap to create what, she refers to, as an assemblage that is in excess of the rat, the glove, and the cap, as well as her perception of either/both/and:
Glove, pollen, rat, cap, stick. As I encountered these items, they shimmied back and forth between debris and thing—between, on the one hand, stuff to ignore, except insofar as it betokened human activity (the workman’s efforts, the litterer’s toss, the rat-poisoner’s success), and, on the other hand, stuff that commanded attention in its own right, as existents in excess of their association with human meanings, habits, or projects. In the second moment, stuff exhibited its thing-power: it issued a call, even if I did not quite understand what it was saying. At the very least, it provoked affects in me: I was repelled by the dead (or was it merely sleeping?) rat and dismayed by the litter, but I also felt something else: a nameless awareness of the impossible singularity of that rat, that configuration of pollen, that otherwise utterly banal, mass-produced plastic water-bottle cap. (4)
In a similar way, Morton is drawn into rapt attention of a painting as an “agential entity,” explaining how the painting acts upon him with its own agency: I am gripped immediately in the tractor beam of the painting, which seems to be gazing at me as much as or more than I am looking at it… [A]s I approach it, it seems to surge toward me, locking onto my optic nerve and holding me in its force field. (69)
As part of the larger project of Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), Morton’s description of his encounter with the painting articulates the way, even as art objects exert force and influence over human experience, that, nonetheless “the external world exists independently of human awareness” (Harman 10). If we begin an examination of art and/as technology from the assumption that no one—not the artists, not the audience, not the bystanders, not anyone—is, per Harman, actually in possession of knowledge or truth, what is our call to action? Jane Bennett suggests that we “devise new procedures, technologies, and regimes of perception that enable us to consult non-humans more closely, or to listen and respond more carefully to their outbreaks, objections, testimonies, and propositions.” To what extent do artifacts of our art-making experience, as agential entities, have the capacity to identify gaps “between knowledge and reality” (Harman 7)? What can we gain–conceptually, imaginatively or even pragmatically–from making slight adjustments to how we approach our encounters with objects? As artist/educators, what forms and relationships are we seeking that acknowledge the limitations of truth as outlined by Harman, yet are still compelled by the transformative, if enigmatic experiences described by Morton?
This brings me back to my blind contour drawing anecdote and the potential it may have for understanding the function of a OOO orientation to knowledge and experience in an art context.
One distinction that remains fascinating for me about Harman’s thinking, is how he differentiates reality from truth. Whereas there is a shared understanding, within OOO, that no one is actually in possession of knowledge or truth, Harman suggests that we can have some relationship to reality and that articulations of reality remain an important part of our ongoing human work. I am curious as to how this truth/reality distinction maps the domain of my blind contour drawing experience. Is my failure to produce a drawing that conventionally (or even impressionistically) registers as a drawing, a technical failure or a categorical failure? Due to my technical ignorance (or my resistance to becoming technically competent), I am unable to produce drawings that might be understood by other humans as representative of conventional knowledge, or truth as drawings. Every conventional attempt I make only confirms the absence of knowledge or truth in my final product, hence the shame. Even the blind contour drawing experience, which can, for some, lead to representations commonly understood as reflecting “knowledge” or “truth”–for me, continues to affirm these elements as absent. Yet, because the focus of the blind contour drawing experience relies principally on the object itself, I am somehow released from the burden of my self- or societally- or disciplinarily-imposed perception of failure. The absence of conventionally-rendered technical competence remains in my artifact. But that artifact is less an account, a confirmation of my incompetence. It is principally a record of the distance between the object I observed and the reality of my action.
So, how does paying closer attention to objects give us increased access to reality?
In a human-centered model of experience, we are accustomed to thinking about objects in terms of their form as it relates to function. In his essay, “The Thing,” Heidegger investigates the limitations of this human-function-centered model by exploring the example of a simple jug, which we might first approach or attempt to understand in terms of its capacity to hold water. We might focus on the sides and bottom of the jug as those formal elements that enable the jug to be a jug, and if a jug is an object that holds water.
But, Heidegger suggests, if we pursue this functional line of thinking more deeply, we discover that it is not the sides and bottom of the jug that do the holding. It is the emptiness of the jug that does its holding. The sides and bottom, as matter, still matter. But their importance now is the extent by which they create the possibility for the empty space, which holds the water.
This simple shift does not extricate us from a human-centered approach to objects. We are still somewhat bound by the presupposition that our primary narrative encounter with the jug relates to its purpose. However, we are now, endowing the manifestation of that purpose, to hold water, with the immateriality of empty space, as opposed to the material surfaces of the jug, the sides and bottom. We are still with the material: next to it, near it, in proximity to the material. But we are focusing on, attending to, the empty space created by the material. This is one potential pathway into agency. The material creates the empty space. The empty space does the holding.
As I work on my blind contour drawings, I watch. I listen to the object I observe. I mark as I watch the object I observe. The object reveals various dimensions of itself to me. I mark as I observe. But, whether virtuosic or incompetent, the marks record the empty space—the empty space, full of reality and void of knowledge and truth.
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
Blasdel, Alex. “‘A Reckoning for Our Species’: The Philosopher Prophet of the Anthropocene,” The Guardian 15 June 2017.
Harman, Graham. Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything. Pelican Books, 2018.
Heidegger, Martin. “The Thing,” in Poetry, Language, Thought.Trans. Albert Hofstader. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press. 2013.
Mary E. Anderson and Richard Haley
Mary Elizabeth Anderson is the Chair of the Maggie Allesee Department of Theatre & Dance at Wayne State University.
Richard Haley is an artist, curator and writer who teaches at Wayne State University.
Their co-authored works have appeared in Body, Space & Technology, About Performance and Performance Matters.