thing theory (2008)

anth g6085


eric palgon (columbia university)

Dear things,

During my presentation I stood up in front of the class, said nothing, looked out at people, looked at the room, stood awkwardly, and made movements that were both casual and self-conscious.  This went on for five minutes, at which point, a classmate ‘interrupted’ my performance and asked a question to the class.  The question she asked was directed at trying to figure out what was going on/what the aims of my presentation were.  The class seemed slightly uncertain that they could interrupt, one of them asking if I could talk.  I said, “I can talk.”  The presentation went on like this, with me talking to the class, and the class asking questions and talking amongst themselves about the performance.

With my presentation, I was concerned with the idea of the impossibility of representation.  I sought to talk about this by means of questioning and deflating people’s expectations.  I was interested in the conditions of that moment, (expectations), but I was not so interested with the idea that now that I am silent, you hear the wind blowing and the hum of the heater in the room or the person next to you (physical conditions of space), but I think that is still part of it.

During my performance I tried to play a game of negation with myself, slipping between each crack, not allowing for a fixed destination of meaning or clarity to the performance.  So, I tried, best I could, to sort of draw a line through the air that, for the viewer, went something like this:

1.  This guy is standing/ ‘are you ready to start your presentation’ / ‘yes’

2.  Start of presentation/ beer-in-hand/ he is saying nothing/he is standing there. 

3.  This is about silence/ this is about nothingness/ this is about absence/ this is about the conditions of the room/

4.  No, it is not/ he is not performing that/ he is extremely self-aware/ he is not a good actor/ he is looking like he wishes to be talking to us/ is he mute?/ he is drinking his beer and he is gesturing self-consciously, humorously/ this is performance art/ he puts the beer down/ he is embarrassed/ he is not that good at looking at us/ I am a player in this performance/  there is interaction/ but he is the performer, I am the audience, the roles are not being switched/ is this about the power to judge?/ this is pretentious(?)/ this is not new

5.  Someone asked a question to the class – she must have been told to do so/ people are confused/ people ask dude what presentation is about/ dude starts to talk/ won’t answer explicitly/ is this still the performance?/ is this about impossibility??/ is this about transcendence?/ ../…/

6.  Performance over, said by dude, time for Q and A.



So, with each sort of conceptual and physical ‘move’, I was trying to create a slippage in meaning.  I tried to accomplish an elusive read through deflation of expectations.  These moves sought to bring about ideas of the impossibility of representation and fixed meaning.  It was clear to me that all understandings of objects are contextual and I wanted to push that further by presenting myself as a contextual ‘object’.  I knew that no one knew much about me, so I felt like I could instrumentalize myself and the class as a way of discussing these themes.  I hoped people would ask me questions, like what my favorite ice cream is, or where did I grow up.  But I did not want to do a simple “Get To Know Your Fellow Classmate” presentation because I thought that would only bring up this basic idea of meaning being contextual.  I really wanted to push myself to do something with those ideas, see what might happen.  I wanted to play with the expectations of the class.  I did not want things to tie up neatly and I was willing to allow for murkiness, or failure.  (i.e. someone reacting, ‘this is pretentious/ this is about nothing/ he is relying on basic contradiction to create meaning/ this is not new/ he is trying too hard to be interesting’).  It’s true the performance was very heavy handed and not subtle to begin with.  It has a ton of baggage about having to be ‘about something’.  I didn’t know how to avoid that. 

What does the impossibility of representation mean to me?  I mean that everything that comes out of you becomes a distributed part of you, a stand-in.  Those stand-ins work as signs and they obtain meanings.  Ultimately, these signs fail because one, meaning is not fixed, it is always in flux, and two, they cannot account for original intention.  So the signs can never fully account for you / represent you wholly.  But, in our culture, signs do a lot of legwork for us – they do in fact represent us.  Perhaps to combat this loss, we should account for everything at every moment – but this is impossible. 

The reason I took this on is because I am searching for something real, something with a voice, something with legs, something that sings -- however you want to say it – I am trying to work through ideas of authenticity and representation.  Through this extremely mediated world where, for me, cynicism and irony are no good and faith still ain’t either -- how do we navigate the middle grounds between doubt and belief, real and artificial?  In truth, I don’t oppose my idea of ‘real’ with ‘unreal’ or ‘artificial’.  I guess I oppose ‘real’ with ‘not-quite-real’.  Perhaps, the solution seems to me to stop thinking about these subjects as oppositions with middle grounds, and instead recognize that everything is everything, wrapped up in a complicated mess that can never be wholly understood or negotiated.  But with that in mind, still attempt to come to terms with how things, humans and nonhumans (or objects), function in the world.

I know this last part is a jump from the presentation, but they were the ideas I had been thinking about that I thought I could work through some of them with the class with the presentation.