A MOUNTED UMBRELLA.
What was the use of not leaving it there where it would hang what was the use if there was no chance of ever seeing it come there and show that it was handsome and right in the way it showed it. The lesson is to learn that it does show it, that it shows it and that nothing, that there is nothing, that there is no more to do about it and just so much more is there plenty of reason for making an exchange. (Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, 1912)
At the moment I am writing a thesis chapter on ‘objects,’ looking specifically at Gertrude Stein’s prose-poem ‘Objects’ (from the chapbook, Tender Buttons) and mathematician-cum-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s lecture on sense-awareness and perception, also called ‘Objects.’ Stein wrote Tender Buttons in 1912, and Whitehead delivered ‘Objects’ during a lecture series at Cambridge University (aimed at physics students) in 1919. In the seven years between the two compositions, Stein would stay with Whitehead at his Lakeside property north of London for six weeks as World War One broke out in Europe. Every day, Stein and Whitehead would walk around the lake and talk about philosophy, while their wives stewed fruit and darned socks.
Decades later, Stein would list Whitehead as one of three geniuses known to her: alongside Picasso, and herself.
In the 30s, Whitehead would work at Harvard and meet a shy, tall PhD student called Charles Olson. Olson would read Whitehead and teach process theory in his poetics classes at Black Mountain College twenty years later. Olson and Stein would never meet but Olson would once (rather enigmatically) refer to Stein as a “chronological fox” in a letter to poet Phillip Walen.
Whitehead’s ‘object’ theory emerged from a desire for a philosophy of perception and cognition that engaged with materiality in a way that didn’t relegate sensual and psychological experience as mere “psychic additions” to an external, concrete reality. In other words, Whitehead was interested in a philosophy that took the realness of perceptive, cognitive, imaginative and creative experiences as stuff of the world, as objects of sensual engagement and conscious inquiry. This philosophy wholly rejects the bifurcation of nature and mind/body dualism. Whitehead’s focus wass process, convergence, encounter, flux, extension, simultaneity, regeneration and transformation.
For Whitehead, ‘objects’ are “ingredients of events,” and events are the processes of all experience, all nature, all perception, cognition and creation, all things thing-ing and happen-ing. Objects are any entity of experience: a sensation of colour (“gaze at a patch of red”); a toothache; an idea; a memory. The object is the data of scientific inquiry, the data of the experiencing subject. The object “fashion[s] creative actions.” The object is a subject too; it comes to an understanding of the world as it engages with the world.
In Stein’s Tender Buttons the sections, ‘Rooms’, ‘Objects’ and ‘Food’ each comprise short poem-portraits of domestic miscellany, such as ‘A TABLE,’ ‘A HANDKERCHIEF’ and ‘ROASTBEEF.’ The poems rarely set up any kind of explicitly referential relationship to their titles: ‘A HANDKERCHIEF,’ reads “A winning of all the blessings, a sample not a sample because there is no worry.” Of course, we could make meaningful connections between a handkerchief, an occasion of sneezing and “blessings,” or we could imagine that “the sample” is the left-behind snot of the nose-blower, a trace of encoded DNA, streaky evidence of a virus or allergy. But beyond these kinds of narrative-driven, forensic interpretations, the relationship between the title and the poem—the object as signifier and the object as signified—is problematic, unsettled, open, uncertain. We don’t get a representational ‘description’ of a handkerchief. The objecthood of the poem-portraits is not a product of a realistic, transmission-style rendering. It is something else, some kind of non-symbolic thing.
To read one of Stein’s poems is to read a duration of language, to get a sense of certain things, to feel the glyphs as they move in patterns on the page, to feel the sounds as they’re made imaginatively in the reading-mind, to be suggested, to be stimulated, to find interest and pleasure in vagueness. The handkerchief becomes an object of experience. The handkerchief is any number of cognitive and perceptive pulses.
The convergence of Whitehead and Stein’s companionable object-theories can be imagined variously. One way is with the help of Olson. For Olson, ‘objectism’ was a poetic ethos that concentrated on the thinking-while-writing processes of composition and the ‘actual entities’ of thinking-experience. Olson rejected the notion that poetry sets up a symbolic/aesthetic analogue between world-and-self or world-and-object (as tho, firstly, the self is ‘other to’ the world, and secondly, that the poem-object is ‘other to’ the world). Olson’s use of the word ‘objectism’ distinguished itself carefully from the other object-focused poetic preoccupation of the early twentieth-century, objectivism. For the objectivists, the finished poem-object would transcend the circumstances of its production, so that it would always be more meaningful than the processes of its coming-to-being. Olson argued that the poem-object is interesting and meaningful because it is a process, because it comes into being through the events of lived experience. The making is key, poetry is an act of engaged thinking and observing, a way of being attentive to the intimacies of being in itself – and the processes of composition are as vital to the poem-object as the thing produced in the end – which, of course, is never entirely stable and is always susceptible to damage, intervention, interference, re-enactment, re-working, erasure or amnesia.
Olson says that what is so amazing about poetry is not that it might set up affective symbolic analogues, but that it happens at all! Every object of our experience: each thought, desire, encounter, collision, glitch, all the material of our conscious and sensate lives… That all these things might occur in a duration of utterance, in the writing of a poem, is nothing short of amazing. That we might attune ourselves to this duration and let it overlap with our own durational experience of reading is even more amazing. That these duration co-exist across planes of unfathomable complexity and intimacy is shut-the-fuck-up-amazing.
It reminds me of the Kaprow quote that Lucas read in his presentation at the opening of Push and Pull:
Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things that will be discovered by the present generation of artists…
…they will disclose entirely unheard-of happenings and events, found in garbage cans, police files, hotel lobbies; seen in store windows and on the streets; and sensed in dreams and horrible accidents. An odor of crushed strawberries, a letter from a friend, or a billboard selling Drano; three taps on the front door, a scratch, a sigh, or a voice lecturing endlessly, a blinding staccato flash, a bowler hat—all will become materials for this new concrete art. (1959)
And this is the next convergence point: Kaprow’s ‘art in life’ and this project that we’re in the middle of, right now.
The objects in Push and Pull are mostly domestic miscellany, like in Tender Buttons. And, like Stein’s poetry, the exact histories and identities of the objects are largely unknown or forgotten or obfuscated. They behave as indexes: each object might refer to any other thing or event. The spatula has been taken up in countless occasions of play and re-arrangement – it has been used to push, pull, lever, scrape. It has been hung and draped and wedged and given centre-stage in temporary sculptural installations. It has suggested a kitchen scene, a flyswat, a sword or a building. It has been held in the hand of participants just for the pleasure of cold, flat metal slapping the heel of the palm. As an object it indexes the infinitude of its own potential usefulness. In this sense the objects of Push and Pull might be imagined as ‘quasi-objects’, a term from Michel Serres. The ‘quasi-object’ is an object that ‘attains’ objecthood through active engagement and movement, literally in the moments of being taken-up, as in play. For example, the ball in the game ‘kill the dill with the pill’ has little weight until quick, fierce play begins: when the ball moves from person to person, its objecthood becomes electric, frantic with meaning. Its movement and location are known so intensely. It is a quasi-object because it exists only in this relational intensity – between two terrified players.
It’s this non-representational (indexical?) play that is so key to Push and Pull, and that constantly reminds me of a Steinian poetic. The experience of reading Tender Buttons is similar to moving through the gallery space. Objects are recognisable but are unknowable or uncertain in terms of a meaningful or static configuration. At first their uncertainty is unsettling, perhaps even slightly unnerving. Until there is an engagement – poking through the wires of a TV’s intestines, sketching onto a wall with a blue pencil, stacking smutty manga into neat milk-crate shelves – the objects remain ‘dumb’, in the Serrian sense. They become charged with temporary meaning in the passing between players. They are pathogens, parasites, vectors, electrons. They move and are moved. Each iteration indexes a thousand more. And they’re not just the objects that have been brought into the space, that exist as concrete somethings. They’re also the objects of sense-awareness: the flickering of light from a backlit Botany Road traffic stream, the yellowness of the room half-filled with chairs, conversations, smells of the Locksmith crew cooking lunch, small desires and fantasies being birthed and expiring during people’s visits. These are Whitehead and Olson’s ‘actual entities,’ as real as the ladder or massage table, as real as the timelapse compositions, as real as Kaprow’s crushed strawberries.