Talk to me.

by craigepplin

That’s not a call for comments; it’s the title of an exhibit I recently saw  at MoMA (though I do want feedback–Talk to me!). The show’s premise is simple. I’ll quote from the catalogue:

Whether openly and actively or in subtle, subliminal ways, things talk to us. They do not all speak aloud: some communicate in text, diagrams, and other graphic interfaces; others empathetically and almost telepathically, just keeping us company and storing our memories; still others in sensual ways, with warmth, scent, texture. Objects populate our homes and our lives; buildings and places have identities and characters; cars and airplanes speak and listen; virtual worlds beckon us; London’s Tower Bridge and artist Marina Abramovic’s chair even send tweets.

This, most of it anyway, is not news, and the presentational text by Paola Antonelli admits as much: “The bond between people and things has always been filled with powerful and unspoken sentiments going well beyond functional expectations and including attachment, love, possessiveness, jealousy, pride, curiosity, anger, even friendship and partnership–think of the bond between a chef and his [sic] knives.” It’s not news, in the sense that it’s something we readily understand, though it makes news when researchers find out exactly how deep it all runs. Thus just in the last week friends have forwarded to me articles from the Times about how iPhones trigger feelings of love and about new devices for seamless, voiceless communication between the brain and smart machines. We are just now beginning to understand, from a neurological point of view, how much our senses and feelings are imbricated in the intelligent things around us.

What’s new, according to Antonelli, is the embrace of this human-nonhuman relationship by designers. The larger part of the twentieth century produced soulless, functional objects, “often achieved by suffocating objects’ excessive expressiveness and irrational side.” Talk to Me, the exhibit, seeks to highlight the turn against these suppositions.

It does so by grouping together a motley crew of designers and designs. Motley enough that I found myself wanting more coherence from the show. Animations of teacups in motion commingle with anthropomorphic sculptures of kitchen objects. There’s a video of a robot set loose at one corner of Washington Square with instructions to help it get to the other side; bemused passersby do just that, dislodging it from its frequent roadblocks. Graphic interfaces organize information through charts and maps. Devices monitor human biological signals. My favorite piece is a lamp that’s turned on by humans who channel their rage by strangling it.

The emphasis on design makes for a great show, and it also, as Antonelli points out, marks a shift in how design is conceived vis-à-vis human beings. But as a model for understanding the relations between humans and nonhumans it falls short.

This is because design is only one conduit for these relations. And it is one that plays an outsized role in popular discourse on nonhumanity. The proliferation of smart gadgets and ergonomic products of all sorts is interesting and noteworthy, but the human-nonhuman relationship is as old as humans are.

Take the land, one of the oldest interfaces that exists. The land, its extension and its contours, mediates nomadic existence; particular stretches of it allow for agricultural and resource-intensive economies; its scarcity spawns rivalrous competition. In all these cases, we are talking about a nonhuman entity that inheres in human existence–not only because of the human manipulation of it, but because of its own specific properties.

We could say similar things for the sea or rivers, mountains or valleys. I put forth such elementary examples because they lie at such a remove from nonhuman entities like the ones on display at MoMA. The point is that when we talk about posthumanism or, as I prefer it, nonhumanity, we can’t limit ourselves to the science-fiction motivated cyborg discourse. We have always been nonhuman, which means that we have always been adrift on sands and waters, reliant on them for our own material becoming.

(Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo understood this very well. His novel Pedro Páramo and book of short stories El llano en llamas are full of humans becoming earth and the earth becoming human. “The body of that woman made of earth, coated in earth, dissolved as if melting into a puddle of mud. I felt myself swimming in the sweat that ran off her body, and I lacked the air that I needed to breathe. Then I got up. The woman slept. From her mouth bubbled a gurgling sound very similar to a death rattle.”)

In other words, nonhumanity isn’t all about design, isn’t all about graphic interfaces and neurotransmitters. It’s about the oldest becomings that the earth has known.