Friday, January 2, 2009

taking the lids off things (and off people)

Nothing is, I feel, more vital than this. And, at the same time, nothing is more difficult to incorporate into our habits of thought, attitudes, actions, rhetoric, routines, relationships. Yet, despite ourselves, we do it all the time: while differentiating certain things and people, we do not - we cannot - really separate them; we mix up everything, because every thing is a 'going on', as Tim Ingold puts it. I cannot separate what I am from what I am thinking and saying and doing, because:

"The wind is its blowing. Similarly, the stream is the running of water. And so too, I am what I am doing. "

If things occur, as entanglements within a texture, rather than existing as discrete, self-contained entities, then as we follow the materials from one thing to another we cross no boundary. Some critics may find this hard to understand. I myself have been accused of 'conflationism', of muddling everything into everything else. Surely, it is argued, a first prerequisite for any kind of action in the world is that the actor is able to tell one thing from another, or to distinguish a phenomenon, P, from what is not P. How could anyone who did not recognise such distinctions get on with their lives? They would be forever adrift in blundering confusion. The mistake, here, is to assume that differentiation implies separation, that to recognise the difference between A and B is to place them on opposite sides of a categorical boundary. Let us suppose that A and B are places, and that we take a trip from one to the other. We know that we are at A when we start out, and at B when we arrive. But if, somewhere en route, I were to stop and ask 'are we still in A or have we crossed over to B?', you could reasonably reply that there is no cross-over point, no boundary, but that we will be in B once we get there. For each place is identified not by its contents, enclosed within a perimeter, but by its positioning within a field of relations that continually unfolds in the course of people's inter-place movements.
I think it may be more helpful to imagine the world not as a giant museum or department store but as a huge kitchen, well stocked with ingredients of all sorts, and where things are continually on the boil. In the kitchen, stuff is mixed together in all sorts of combinations, generating new materials in the process which will in turn become mixed with other things in an endless process of transformation. To cook, containers have to be opened, and their contents poured out. We have to take the lids off things. Indeed, faced with the anarchic proclivities of his materials, the cook has to struggle to retain some semblance of control over what is going on. So does the gardener have to struggle to prevent the garden from turning into a jungle. However much we try, through feats of engineering, to construct a world that conforms to our expectations - that is, a world of discrete, well-ordered objects - our intentions are confounded by the life's refusal to be contained. We think that objects have outer surfaces, but wherever there are surfaces life depends on the continual exchange of materials across them. If, by 'surfacing' the earth - as in the construction of a paved road - we block that exchange, then nothing can live. In practice, however, such blockages can never be more than provisional. Attacked by roots from below, and the action of wind, rain and frost from above, the surface eventually cracks, allowing plant growth to mingle and bind once again with the light, air and moisture of the atmosphere.

Tim Ingold, in Overcoming the Modern Invention of Material Culture, eds. VĂ­tor O. Jorge and Julian Thomas (Porto: ADECAP, 2006/2007), pp. 315-17. Emphases added in the second excerpt.

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