Culture Magazine

OOO! – So That’s What You Mean [Morton and Graffiti]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I'm bumping this post from April 2011 to the top of the queue in joint recognition (conjunction) of the recent New Yorker article about Tim Morton and Jersey City's mural festival. * * * * *

Objects withhold themselves
This is about connections. It started – well, who knows just when it really started, but, in the immediate past, it started yesterday when I listened to a talk Tim Morton just gave at Temple. In the subsequent Q & A Tim made a remark about how he loves to return to London, his hometown, because he’s always discovering “strange pathways” affording him uncanny glimpses into his home turf. That reminded me of my early experiences photographing graffiti, and that, in turn, reminded me of a passage from J. J. Gibson, the ecological psychologist.
So I made a comment to that effect at Tim’s blog, and that was that. Except that it wasn’t. It never is, is it? I realized that Tim’s comments & the Gibson connection have given me a clue about what OOOists (object oriented ontologists) mean when they say that objects are ‘withdrawn,’ or they ‘withhold themselves.”
I slept on it, and more connections formed themselves in the meshwork that is my mind. And From Gibson I connected with one of my current hobbyhorses, and then to another, and ended up at graffiti, via ecology.
So that’s what this post is about. First I recap the comment I made at Ecology without Nature. And I jump to graffiti.
Strange Ways
On Thursday 7 April Tim Morton keynoted a symposium held at Temple University: GRID + Flow: Philadelphia and Beyond, Mapping and Reimagining Urban Ecologies through the Arts and Humanities. His topic: Ecology and Philosophy in the Time of Hyperobjects. In the subsequent question and answer session someone posed a question about non-locality. After acknowledging that Philadelphia was real, yes, really real, Tim’s answer moved to the Airporter, an airport shuttle service. What he said was that the trip from his (familiar) home to the (by now familiar) airport inevitably went by way of unfamiliar routes, giving him a strange and uncanny view of his home turf. The capacity for reliable navigation is deeply embedded within animal nervous systems and that, in particular, this entails the capacity to move to and from one’s home base (nest, den, hive, as the species may be). The shuttle picked up Tim from his home base and then immediately set out on a strange route, thus causing some discomfort to millions of years of evolutionary work enmeshed deep in his brain.
From there Tim talked about coming back to London (1:03:40) and finding all sorts of strange little places that he hadn't seen before, “strange ways of going from A to B.” That’s when it hit me: Wham!
For I’d felt that very strongly when I first began photographing graffiti in my neighborhood. The graffiti itself aside – marks of paths taken by others through my 'hood – I walk obscure and hidden pathways through my familiar neighborhood. I'd walk for, say, a mile or so behind abandoned buildings and along a railroad track and take and turn and then another and suddenly, Bingo! There I am in this place I've been through time and again. But never by the route I just took. That place had become, all of a sudden, strange and a bit uncanny. 
Here's a passage from the ecological psychologist J. J. Gibson that's relevant (The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979, pp. 256-257). He was addressing the question of how you tell a veridical perception from an illusion (say, projected into your mind by a malignant being;):
A surface is seen with more or less definition as the accommodation of the lens changes; an image is not. A surface becomes clearer when fixated; an image does not. A surface can be scanned; an image cannot. When the eyes converge on an object in the world, the sensation of crossed diplopia disappears, and when the eyes diverge, the “double image” reappears; this does not happen for an image in the space of the mind. . . . No image can be scrutinized -- not an afterimage, not a so-called eidetic image, not the image in a dream, and not even a hallucination. An imaginary object can undergo an imaginary scrutiny, no doubt, but you are not going to discover a new and surprising feature of the object this way.
David Hays and I have glossed Gibson's passage:
Gibson presupposes an organism which is actively examining its environment for useful information. It can lift, touch, turn, taste, tear and otherwise manipulate the object so that its parts and qualities are exposed to many sensory channels. Under such treatment reality continually shows new faces. Dream, on the other hand, simply collapses. Dream objects are not indefinitely rich. They may change bafflingly into other objects, but in themselves they are finite.
The real, then, is that which holds open the potential for the new. We can never fully know what’s real. The more we look, the more we see. Endlessly. It’s turtles all the way down, but not quite the same turtles. They keep morphing. And become doves.
All the way down.
And, that, I believe, is what object oriented ontologists are driving at when they make these strange assertions about how objects are withdrawn, how they withhold themselves – not merely from us (for it’s not about us at all, this is not us-oriented ontology, after all) – but from one another. There’s always more object there. Our nervous system can never fully assimilate an object, a real object, to its familiar patterns – which is, incidentally, what nervous systems are ‘designed’ to do, more or less, but not always, not in emergencies.
Objects are withdrawn. They withhold themselves. There’s always something more.
And so the uncanny, the disequilibrium of the new and strange, that becomes the mark of the real. There is this modernist notion – still in this post-modern age, post-post-modern? – that the purpose of art is to ‘make it new,’ to ‘defamiliarize’ the world – though do give a thought to traditional societies where they sing the same songs and weave the same patterns and paint the same pots generation after generation.
Graffiti as Environmental Art
I don’t mean graffiti in the general sense of the term, as writing and markings on walls. I mean it in the specific sense that it acquired in the early 1970s, where it came to designate the markings – initially ‘tags,’ then ‘throw-ups‘ or ‘throwies,’ then ‘pieces,’ ‘burners,’ and ‘productions’ – that appeared in urban environments starting in Philadelphia and New York City and, in relatively short order (a decade or two) around the world. The term “graffiti” was not used by the artists themselves. Their markings were names, based on letter-forms and elaborations on them, and they called themselves writers. What they did was write on walls.
I don’t know just when or how the term ‘graffiti’ was first applied to these markings. But a book by Norman Mailer and Jon Naar, The Faith of Graffiti, fixed the term in people’s minds. It stuck. That’s what it’s now called, graffiti.
To the non-graffiti world it said, unmistakably, that other people exist and live in the same space they lived in, people who didn’t figure in their life ways in any significant way. To the non-graffiti world, graffiti was vandalism. And that’s still very much, though not exclusively so, the case. The non-graffiti world found it distancing, uncanny, estranging. But, one might argue that even as graffiti took their world away, it also returned that world to them by forcing them to think about that world they otherwise took for granted.
What I really want to get to is the way in this graffiti stuff now exists. It’s ephemeral; it’s transitory. And the writers know that and even cherish it. They will spend hours upon hours putting pieces on walls knowing that they will be written over by others. Knowing that the only people who see their work are other graffiti writers. They are more outside the art world than the most avant of the avant-garde.
What I want to suggest is that graffiti’s basic mode of existence makes it, in this the start of a new millennium, a new kind of artistic expression. We could talk about the marks themselves, the tags and throwies and pieces, but that’s not what I have in mind. For this work is being done in the wake of and under the nose of an aesthetic culture that thinks of art as something that’s ‘over there’ and that’s ‘eternal.’ Graffiti is not over there, it’s right here and in your face (except when it’s hidden around a corner where you may never go). And it’s not created for eternity. It’s created with the certain knowledge that it will perish.
It is of and in the environment where it is created. It is environmental art in the deepest and most profound sense. At one and the same time it pervades the web. Writers post photos of their graffiti on the web, as do followers (of which I am one). The electronic web is simply part of the environment that connects the world-wide meshwork of graffiti, that slowly changing and reforming connection of consciousness around the world. Graffiti is the markings on the stone cave walls of 21st century cyberspace.
It is us.
Note: If you google ‘graffiti’ you’ll get tons of stuff. I’ve written a great deal about it. Here’s an annotated list of posts I made at The Valve and here’s a link to my graffiti posts and photos at New Savanna.

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