Objects response

I do a lot of work with augmented/virtual reality and it usually involves trying to make the computer understand a space or object in some way so that it can then superimpose/blend virtual objects with that space. Most of the tricks for this come from the world of robotics (because robotics has NASA/DARPA money behind it so there is funding to develop fundamental techniques, the rest of us just pick up the scraps they leave behind) and there was a big shift in robotics/Artificial Intelligence from earlier symbolic/language/discursive reasoning based techniques of the 1950s-80’s to systems like subsumption architectures (used in things like the roomba vacuum cleaners and the video game The Sims) that shifted away from models like “and then the robot will form a mental model of the world using a symbolic language we provide and perform feats of reasoning upon it to decide its course of action” to things like “the robot responds to sensor data from the world and acts upon it using reflex like actions and then reasons upon its actions’. The shift was from descriptions of objects being the primary way of knowing the world to direct interactions with objects being the main focus.  A good non technical introduction to these non language/symbol focused approaches is Rodney Brooks’ paper “Elephants don’t play chess” http://rair.cogsci.rpi.edu/pai/restricted/logic/elephants.pdf


The other approach near and dear to me would be Antonin Artaud’s writings on the “Theatre of Cruelty” and his reaction against the text/language focus of most theater. That instead of a stage being a place where lines are read to an audience, it is a place where things happen to an audience. Mise en scene becomes the primary focus of the Theatre of Cruelty. I’m especially fond of his writings because this is where the term “Virtual Reality” is first used, he describes the “la rĂŠalite virtuelle” of the world a theatre production creates and how the technologies of lighting, sound, and stagecraft bring that into being.


A final approach to ‘non linguistic models of knowing objects’ that I’ve been pondering is the “speculative realism” tendency (really hard to call them a group, or a school or even really a Them.) of people like Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Grant Harman, Quentin Melliassoux, etc in general and the “object oriented philosophy” tangent that has emerged from them (Ian Bogost writes relatively jargon free essays/books in this vein). The part that ties most closely with what we are talking about is their rejection of Kantian “correlationism” which claims all we can know of the world is the intersection of thinking and being, usually mediated through language. If any of that sounds at all interesting a good place to start would be the journal “Collapse” which was the source of a lot of early writing from these people and which sponsored some important early conferences. http://roundtable.kein.org/sites/newtable.kein.org/files/C3_Spec_Real.pdf

Night Photography/Objects

Some of the Robert Brook photographs of industrial ruins do seem to describe and convey a history and invite one to wonder  not only about what lies beyond, but what was. (i.e. in “Gateway to Ruins of Former Brewery”). What’s striking is that many of these photographs could have been taken almost anywhere, perhaps revealing a very similar history. Abandoned manufacturing sites and bleak industrial landscapes across rivers or from a highway could just as easily speak of a history of social and economic decay in the U.S. and in so many other parts of the ‘advanced’ industrialized (or deindustrialized) world. Perhaps most jarring  is that this vision of that world seems lifeless.

Also looked at the shared link to Detroit photographs. These colorful images reveal there is still some life amidst the ruins. Latour notes that objects have a role to play in the social – to tell a story, (i.e. ‘”express power relations…reinforce social inequalities…”‘)  Viewing these two collections of photographs reveals their ability to convey much about the present and the past.

Night Photography

It was interesting to look at the Robert Brook photos on the less-light site. I wouldn’t describe them as being made by taking away daylight so much as that they are made with artificial light-light from man-made sources. I also don’t think that these photos give life to inanimate objects. So many of them show empty roads, walls and fences. It is a bleak unpopulated post-industrial world, the sterile world that Edensor hates. No romance of the ruin here. Just asphalt.

There are a couple of night photographers whose work I really love. One is O. Winston Link. He was an early pioneer of night photography inventing some flash techniques. While I couldn’t find a great source for his work, there are some images here:


I don’t know if you could consider the train  in Link’s a “mediator” or just an obsession.

Completely different is Todd Hido. I recently took a class to see some shows in Chelsea and we saw his recent work and the students didn’t like it at all but every one of them could identify the mood of the pictures as sad and desolate.


Click on the link homes at night. Using the color of the light and the weather, he infuses ordinary residential buildings with a good deal of emotion.


And while I am at it, two of my favorite photographer’s of ruins are:

Andrew Moore-the detroit series in particular



Robert Polidori-Chernobyl, Katrina

Google robert polidori chernobyl and select images.


May 2 Response Question re: objects

1. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
2. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. (Pages 1-17 & 63-86.)
3. Tim Edensor, Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality. (Chapters 1-2 or pages 1-52.)
4. Bill Brown, “The Secret Life of Things (Virginia Woolf and the Matter of Modernism)” in Modernism/Modernity 6.2 (1999): 1-28.

In one way or another, Benjamin, Brown, Edensor, and Latour attempt to amplify the power of the object in the fields of sociology and philosophy. In our next seminar we will examine the distinctions between their propositions — between aura, life, agency, permanence, mediation, network, etc.  One area of difficulty I would like to examine during the next seminar is whether or not (or how) a researcher of objects (historical, social, theatrical, artistic, architectural) can use anything other than texts and languages in the production and dissemination of knowledge. In other words, if the physical world is at least on par with language in its ability to construct social networks, it would follow that non-verbal objects also have the ability to effectively describe, analyze, and deconstruct social phenomena and history. How could this be done? If you can think of a way to “do” history or social analysis without text, please jot down your ideas here. Perhaps you could even do it without text!  In addition to using the readings for this week, it might be helpful to recall the theme of our seminar and some interdiscipline that might reveal a “material” path to knowledge.

I’ve also provided a link to a gallery of photographs that seem to give life to inanimate objects through the manipulation of light and long exposure times. http://www.less-light.com/. I thought it was interesting that the vibrancy of the objects becomes apparent when a common element is subtracted: daylight. This reminds me of Latour’s argument that we can identify the mediators in social networks by their permanence, their ability to withstand changes around them.

“Scaffolding” as Skeuomorph

I was thinking about skeuomorphs in my disciplines, and was immediately drawn to one in particular. We often use the concept of “scaffolding” in composition & rhetoric (and some of you may be familiar with it from WAC–Writing across the Curriculum, and from pedagogy in your own disciplines). This idea of support for writing (and learning more generally) is taken from the physical scaffolding on a building. Here is a discussion of scaffolding in writing from Rob Oliver’s blog (I just came across it, but this discussion seems to be good).

As someone also deeply immersed/invested in utopian studies, I couldn’t help thinking, when reading the Gessler, of skeuomorphs in terms of the utopian impulse or thinking, in terms of possibilities, alternatives. There is often a discussion in utopian studies about whether there needs to be a radical (apocalyptic) break [which is clearly very difficult to achieve: as Gessler reminds us, “Consistency with one’s preconceptions and expectations are powerful forces acting to bolster one’s ideas” (230) … So where does the (truly) “new” emerge?], or whether small, incremental change is the way to go. Skeuomorphs, with their traces of the “other” (original objects, functions), are grounded in the past but point toward the future, towards new options, the “space of possibilities” and the “different constraints and possibilities” of different media/words (Gessler 232). As Gessler states: “They help us map the new onto an existing cognitive structure, and in doing so, give us a starting point from which we may evolve additional alternative solutions” (230). I’m not really sure what to make of all of this yet, but just wanted to throw it out there as something I’m working through in conjunction with this week’s readings/ideas …

On a side note: I’m reading Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things right now, and that text/those ideas really resonate with the idea of the skeuomorph.

Looking forward to seeing you all soon for our next seminar!

Skeuomorphs in Computing? EVERYWHERE!!!

As Gessler reminds us, in the beginning the computer was a human in charge of doing calculations. Later the computer became the machine. The human calculators lost their jobs to the COMPUTER machines, and became programmers who used a programming LANGUAGE to talk to computers. The human desktop skeuomorphed into a computer DESKTOP within a WINDOWS operating system. We stored our digital information in FILES which are organized within FOLDERS inside the computer MEMORY. Now, computer scientists want to make computers INTELLIGENT using machine LEARNING technologies like NEURAL NETWORKS and GENETIC algorithms.

I guess all this results from the tension in our neolitic brains between change and permanence. Skeuomorphs provide a sense of permanence in a perpetually changing and evolving environment. Again, quoting Gessler, skeuomorphs “help us map the new into an existing cognitive structure, and is so doing, give us a starting point from which we may evolve additional alternative solutions.” It sounds like the use of skeuomorphs is a good pedagogical strategy.

Before I forget, I will post this note in the OPENLAB, and you will be able to read it in the WEB.


Skeumorphs  in Economics (?)  and at home:

I really had to think about this concept as applied to Economics. Perhaps one can think of this in terms of representations commonly used in conveying traditional economic concepts such as tradeoffs and opportunity cost (the cost of making one choice over another necessitates sacrificing increasingly more of the other because different labor and capital resources are used). For instance, tradeoffs in terms of resource use is often expressed in terms of the choice between “guns” or “butter,” which are used to represent the choice between more or less defense spending vs. more or less spending on social or health or educational services. Neither of course is “guns” or “butter.”  Of course, some defense spending may technically in part mean ‘guns’, but obviously this choice is far more complex.

Economists have also often used the “widgets” and “gadgets” analogy to represent the concept of making choices about various combinations of products than can be produced with a given amount or type of resources. I suppose we all purchase new “gadgets” at times, but it can be argued that these are something entirely different.

Some possible examples from around the house: Some are old objects whose original purpose has been transformed and repurposed, but also serve that ‘decorative’ function (not so sure about this one); others – new objects that have been designed to appear as though they were “discovered” old objects; and then – those with features that are intentionally designed to replicate some earlier form of authenticity, but simply serve a decorative function.

Skeumorphs found at home:

Old oil lamp - now a lamp base

Old oil lamp – now a lamp base

Old hardware on new file cabinets

“Old” hardware on new file cabinets

new vase with intentional flaws

New vase with intentional flaws

new handmade vase crafted to look old

Handmade vase crafted to look old

skeuomorphs in architecture

Anne Marie is right! Architecture and construction is very skeuomorphic:

  • vinyl or aluminum siding that looks like wood clapboard (not to mention the imprinted wood-grain texture on same)
  • asphalt shingles colored or textured to appear like wood shakes or slate
  • tin ceilings imprinted to appear as plaster
  • wood ceiling beams that are applied for appearance and not structural
  • veneer brick wall panels, pre-fabricated and lifted into place on a tall building
  • linoleum imprinted to look like ceramic tile, or brick, or wood flooring
  • plastic laminate counter tops designed to look like granite
  • exterior window shutters applied fixed to the walls, too small to cover the window even if they could move

It is interesting (and I think true) that residential construction seems to be more skeuomorphic than large-scale commercial construction, i.e., skeuomorphs are used to maintain a traditional, conservative appearances.

Skeuomorph: thing or object?

I had difficulty finding examples around my home. I found items and technologies that cited the past but still had functional purposes — these don’t count I assume. A skeuomorph can be kitschy but not all kitsch is skeuomorphic. I eliminated brand names and logos out of hand. I had great hopes of finding some SKEUOs in my toolbox, but the items there were all insistently functional. Can an image be a skeuomorph, or only things, or technologies? I wonder if Heidegger can help us sort out the definition. For MH, a hammer is a “thing” because it is purely functional. Here is Graham Harman’s summary:

“As Heidegger puts it, ‘the less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is—as equipment’ (Heidegger, 1962, p. 98). As opposed to the Vorhandenheit (or ‘presence- at-hand’) of phenomena in consciousness, the being of equipment is called Zuhandenheit (or ‘readiness-to-hand’). The latter term, ready-to-hand, refers to equipment that remains concealed from view insofar as it functions effectively. Present-at-hand, the opposite term, refers to at least three different sorts of situations. In Heidegger’s writings objects present in consciousness are called present-at-hand, and so are ‘broken tools’ that become obtrusive once they no longer function effectively, and so is the physical concept of objective matter occupying a distinct point in space-time. At any rate, present-at-hand and ready-to-hand are not two different types of entities. Instead, all entities oscillate between these two separate modes: the cryptic withdrawal of readiness-to-hand and the explicit accessibility of presence-at-hand.”

Sorry for cut-and-paste… but I need to reiterate these differences because I keep forgetting them. In any case, it seems to me that a skeuomorph can only be a “present-at-hand” object. Always out of date and citational, a skeuo can never be functional. It never withdraws.

1. not a book.
2. not a pole grabbed by a medieval patient to encourage flow during bloodletting.
3. not sure about this one.
4. not gold, not silver.
5. not a baseball trading card.
6. not a basketball.
7. not stainless steel.

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