Unfolding A Semiosis Of Non-Presence: On Situational Ontology Of Viscous Cycle

inquiries semiosis, objects


How do we engage with the non-presence? To a certain extent, multiplying of “ghostly” objects and semi-disclosed entities, becomes a pronounced ontological conundrum in the era of Anthropocene, but nonetheless, during the current pandemic, requiring novel theoretical and artistic assessments. In this short statement, we explore how the mutating otherness of non-human entity within mundane and sensory sites during the first months of the 2020 pandemic, unfolded within what we term as a viscous cycle: an improvisational semiotic attempt to encounter the non-presence. Building upon Harman’s thesis on “surplus reality” and Kohn’s semiotic accounts, we tentatively explore a model of viscous cycle on interviews conducted with 20 respondents from Belgrade (Serbia) and accompanying materials.

A Surplus Reality and Beyond

For some time, the mediative and formative aspects of objects, things and non-human entities have been time underscored as an important component in societal formations (cf. Latour, 1993; 1996; 2005; Law, 2007; Law & Mol, 2008; Law & Lien, 2013). Whereas these accounts primarily have being accentuating their intermediary agential work, narrative inscription and variegated processes of enactment, it seems that ambiguity, absent features and nonetheless, the breakdowns of these entities, go understudied. Albeit gaining a notorious status for radical disavowal of human exceptionality in behoof of objects, contemporary speculative realist movement in philosophy and its outpost named object-oriented-ontology (hereafter O-O-O) took a counterintuitive direction. If this engaging with the questions of uncertainty that is more-than-human has been in recent times more throughly accessed, especially in regards to the Anthropocene (cf. Chandler, 2018; Chakrabarty, 2019; Haraway, 2016), O-O-O goes one step further. Against “stabilising” approaches, uncertainty presents a primary state for which the correspondence cannot ever be complete or totalized. Namely, in taking each entity as an object and thus encompassing equally humans, things, signs, coral reefs, spirits or novels, O-O-O sets a challenging explorative vector onto possibly indefinite and obfuscated aspects of objects in their mutual embeddedness and mysterious depth (cf. Bryant, 2014; Morton, 2013; 2016; Harman, 2016).

Intricate ontological formula of non-relationality here presents a particularly appalling motive. Concepts such as hyperobjects (Morton, 2013; 2016) or machines (Bryant, 2014) develop a basic assumption of O-O-O on capacity of objects to weave with each other, in effect creating gigantic formations that have distinct temporality and spatial plasticity. More profoundly, these also denote a non-presence. Namely, poor capacities of human faculties of cognition and perception to reach a dimensions that stand beyond the present and immediate, comprise an ultimate illustration of non-relationality. A vast residuum that is irreducible to an immediate presence, largely comes from a self-sustenance, that is, attributes that enable the endurance of the objects. Exactly this enormous depth of objects, containing an enigmatic mesh of properties, is what one of the O-O-O key advocates, Graham Harman, names as a surplus reality. No matter whether we speak about computers, crime novels, viruses or deities worshiped by tribes, each of these objects has dimensions that exceed the present forms and potentially become uncanny after being disclosed. “In order for something to break”, Harman (2018: 188) underscores, “it must contain a stubborn surplus beneath its current effects and impacts, a surplus that one day erupts like a symptom and demands that we take it seriously.”

Non-relationality therefore induces profound phenomenological puzzle: how to settle down the experiential tensions after the objects’ disclosure, their sudden breakdowns or diligent excavation of their hidden attributes, transforms this absence into presence. Giant share of discussions put forward by the O-O-O advocates reintroduces the problem of access to concealed, withheld and largely undisclosed aspects of objects, together with their shifting and phasing which eventually surfaces a surplus reality. Harman (2011; 2016; 2018) sees this cumbersome ontological situation as result of tensions emerging from altering combinations of the real and sensory objects and the real and sensory qualities. Dualism between the present and the withdrawn ultimately comes down to a problem, masterfully studied by pragmatic sociologists – particularly Luc Boltanski (2011; 2014), how to “tame” a menacing world, full of events that erupt and “insert” the beings for which the existing frames of reality, such as modes of justifications, standardising or engaging appear as inadequate or insufficient. It is for these reasons why the interruptions brought after withdrawn qualities enter the present state of affairs are interesting, particularly when there is a lack of other objects, such as narratives, signs or standards, in order to at least partially “stabilize” their interference and disclose the surplus reality.

A Viscous Cycle and Situational Ontology

Eduardo Kohn’s (2013) How the Forest Thinks: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human, presents a particularly instructive piece in relation to these interruptions and interferences. As its title partially discloses, Kohn investigates semiotic forms that are emerging through an ongoing entanglement with the non-humans. His, nonetheless, experimental endeavor, principally is situated not only against a threadbare Cartesian division that guarantees the exclusive status of meaning-makers solely to humans. Kohn also identifies an anti-dualist camp of material semiotics and its attempt of establishing an ontological continuum by stripping away symbolic omnipotence to humans and inflating objects with more agential properties as rather poorly designed solution for accessing precisely the ways of human being in the world, as indissolubly embedded into a fluctuating semiotic realm.

A hidden and somewhat enigmatic logic of signs emanating from a world that exceeds the humans alone, therefore indicates a life-flowing, heterarchical and lateral process of morphogenesis occurring as a tangible, but also uncertain transfer, commensuration and anticipation of actions performed by other entities. By identifying the sign as a principal relata, Kohn describes the very semiosis in terms of concatenated events that necessitate a diligent interpretative detection of properties assumedly contained in other entities. Some of these operations certainly instantiate previous references. Among the three types or classes of signs which Kohn distinguishes by recalling Charles Pierce’s work, icons for example involve similarity and thus do not impose any specific attributes to the entity outside the event in which it is represented. Symbols are somewhat more intricate, but reserved solely for humans: they imply conventions and systematically relate to another symbol. Yet, the most of Kohn’s attention is directed towards probably the most emblematic issue for our discussion.

Unlike with the icons or symbols, the third class of signs called indices requires an improvisation. Indices namely, lack a certain reference to which the current event might be associated to. Interpreters are thus enforced to relate the current events with the potentiality of events that have not yet occurred and enter into an interpretative labyrinth where the absent, and currently inaccessible segments of beings, opened through these events, instantiate a somewhat mysterious and speculative “what if” question. In Kohn’s words, “indexicality involves a prediction of what is not yet present (…). In the “world of mind,” constitutive absence is a particular mediated way in which an absent future comes to affect the present” (ibid: 37). Because the sign is not pre-given in terms of formatted cognitive directives, signs interpreting the ones initially accompanying the objects do not guarantee certain outputs: interpreters are here brought into a situation close to a liminal one, becoming impelled to engage into burdensome work of translating the absence into presence.

Outside this animist ambient, a situational ontology and a communitive contingency analyzed by Kohn, certainly might be applied elsewhere for describing this uncanny disclosure of withdrawn attributes of objects. What we term as a viscous cycle, intends to situate these encounters that imply the disruptive, inconsistent and hazy semiosis, as something that “glues” together all the parties involved. According to the model provided below (Figure 1.), we distinguish two key stages, with few intermediary steps. Namely, this cycle starts from assumed, poorly grasped presence of a ghostly object such as the virus within immediate, sensory sites. Initially characterized with an indexical absence of signs due to a lack of referential stability provided with previously formatted cognitive directives, the non-presence gradually evolves into blurry anticipation, improvisation and imaginative processes which become an epitome of this situational ontology. The second phase thus evolves into iconic ”unveiling”, that is, unfolding and involving other beings (such as DIY knowledge, disinfectants etc.) in order to reduce the uncertainty brought with non-present and ghostly aspects of being such as the virus. Eventually, while the non-presence is ontologically continuous, this cycle ends with a “truncated presence” where absent, mutating and inaccessible segments of beings are only partially disclosed.

Figure 1. A model of the viscous cycle. “Whatever you do, it’s not enough”

Once dragged into a viscous cycle, all the parties involved enter the horizontally set field and initiate a tricky semiotic interplay. Presence of a ghostly object, with an undefined and uncertain geography, therefore starts with an indexical operation lacking any stable referential background, except the quite basic signal that the virus is potentially present in an immediate environment. Yet, no matter how reduced these indices might be, they still create anticipated effects ascribed to the non-present aspects of the virus. The very fact that a potentially harmful element is, to play on words, absently existent in familiar environment with qualitatively inaccessible dimensions, has produced dramatic experiential shifts. „It was really hard for me, I felt claustrophobic, I had a panic attack, I didn’t have air “, a 29-year-old female said in flustered manner about the first indications that the virus might be around.

As the absent future looms over the present, intentions to turn the obfuscated indexicality at least into hazy icons with relatively clear boundaries and spots in immediate environment, means retrieving the delicate semiotic links and deploying referential frames that point at certain attributes of the virus. This step thus introduces a variety of DIY techniques and the “excavation“ of references that would produce an adequate reservoir of signs, necessary to interpret the behavior of the virus. Due to general distrust towards official announcements in studied cases, these improvisations involved drawing upon various Internet sources and quick-paced implementation of know-how in everyday environment. Ultimately, warning undertones of indices gradually got transformed into iconic operations that sought to reduce the tense communicative contingency with the virus and establish relatively consistent ordering that might potentially stall the menacing surplus reality.

First phase therefore rounds up as soon as the uncanny tension originating from withdrawn aspects of the virus and a general lack of clear sensory signals, become transformed into stabilized, though a truncated presence. Inserting the operations based on icons, introduced a routinized situating of the signs in transitory events which substantially corresponded to the demarcating of spaces and the introduction of stable hygienic scenario. In effect, translating the absence into absence’ induced a “cutting-off” of the surplus at the doorstep and leaving the uncertainty outside. Sometimes, these minuscule distinctions appeared as crucial markers for coping with an uncanny and potentially risky encounter with an invisible entity that lurks around: as it was explained by a 31 year old female, „(… )the very fact that I am outside creates guilt, as I will bring from the outside world what I should not.“

Second phase starts exactly when solving of tensions triggers “mapping” of a ghostly object through a plethora of demarcating practices. Even if these seem blurry and extorted, stabilized partition of demarcated areas where contamination stops simply prevents an abysmal ontological vortex generated with prolonged exposure to the non-present future. Against classical accounts on ritual reestablishment of an order in crisis or a breach in classificatory regime (cf. Duschinsky, 2013), hygiene in these cases goes along with disruptive nature of demarcating events which are accompanied with vigilant efforts in locating, defining and transforming the dirt spots and objects. Exactly this volatility and not the referential standard alone, is what helps specific semiotic regimes to emerge instantaneously through establishing indexical links between objects, humans and potential harms (cf. Pink, 2012; Wirtz, 2009). Icons in these situations present predominantly a speculative act, imbued with loose assumptions and imaginative efforts to objectify the lack of sensory signals. “God, it wouldn’t occur to me in my life to clean the handles“, one male respondent, aged 28, confesses. Additionally, these operations are performed through involving of other objects such as disinfectants, whose qualities assumedly reduce the non-present risks. Diligent separation of objects like clothes or food, that potentially were in contact with the virus, goes without much scrutiny and becomes an integral part of the everyday (Figure 2.). As vivid illustration of 32-year-old male tells, “basically, I wash everything with soap, spray a solution of Domestos bottle, wash fruit for 20 seconds, vegetables with baking soda, everything that can be handed over, hand over and throw away the packaging, transfer the frozen vegetables to another bag“.

Figure 2. An “iconic” objectivity (photo courtesy of a respondent). A communitive contingency that accompanies the attempts to disclose the withdrawn aspects of beings, in terms of unveiling the formal relational properties and anticipating their future effects, still, leads only to a truncated presence’. Results are, nonetheless, ambiguous. On the one hand, absent future accelerates the improvising skills, when flowing within the unclear, fuzzy and imprecise signals of the viscous cycle. Also, it feeds the speculation, precisely through indefinite shape and undisclosed semiotic depth of the virus, which apparently served as a hothouse for many conspiracies that accompanied the pandemic. An astonishing continuity of the non-presence, on the other hand, remains intact: each engagement, even when becoming iconic in character, does not diminish the menacing enigma of withdrawn dimensions. In words of our 32 years old male respondent, “whatever you do, it’s not enough!”

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