Process, embodiment and object agency

Dr. Nina J. Morris – University of Edinburgh

A confession: I’ve never seen the Pallasboy vessel except in photographs. I haven’t touched its surface. I’ve only heard the sound of it being struck through the speakers on my laptop. I don’t know what it smells like. I can only imagine the exertion required to move it.

A digression: In mid-September, following an unexpected Twitter DM and a flurry of subsequent messages, I found myself sitting opposite Ben Gearey in a small Edinburgh restaurant. We talked about life, love and lost contacts (in fairness, mainly mine), the usual things that two old friends who haven’t seen each other for six years might discuss. Somewhat inevitably (given we are both academics) the conversation eventually turned to work, our respective frustrations and successes, the passions driving us forward and the serendipitous crossing over of our research interests. I was already aware of the Pallasboy vessel from Ben’s Twitter feed but as he talked it was clear that he was a man enchanted; at once transfixed and disrupted by the vessel’s delightful but uncanny and puzzling existence (Woodyer and Geoghegan 2013).

GENERAL VESSEL

A brief reflection: Invited by Ben to reflect on the project’s activities to date I found myself intrigued by what seemed to be an emphasis on the finished object and its intended use(s). As a mother of two my initial thought was that the vessel was originally designed as a child’s crib … but what about the process of making? What if it was the process of carving that was more important to the people(s) who made the Pallasboy vessel than the object itself? In his guest blog post Aidan O’Sullivan wrote that “we should remember that some societies don’t make the distinction between human subject and passive object like we do”. Whilst I would question the dichotomy he implies between ‘thing’ and ‘person’ (and I understand that this isn’t necessarily the approach taken by the team – see Ben’s blog post on Lefebvre’s notion of ‘meshwork’), I think that an exploration of the relationship between subject and object – particularly the conjoining of body (carver) and technology (tools) to create a reconstructed vessel – might help the team think in different ways not just about the original vessel but also the person (or people) who did the carving.

Given the dominance of the visual sense in Western culture we have a tendency to deem the process of creation as largely irrelevant to our appreciation and understanding of artworks and other crafted objects; it is the end product that matters (Howes and Classen 2014). Art museums keep their precious finds in a state of suspended animation, allowed neither to die nor decay, creating a sense of atemporality and disconnectedness which denies the processual and relational nature of their being (ibid.). I was heartened to see that the Pallasboy Project team are taking time to carefully audio-visually document the making of the reconstructed vessel (and other ‘making’ in later phases) because I feel it shows an openness to acknowledging the process of creation as a vital part of the original vessel’s beauty and power (ibid.). Likewise, the team’s joint participation in the carving seems to have facilitated a more nuanced understanding of the vessel than might have been derived from a more traditional disembodied and contemplative approach (i.e. simply measuring and cataloguing the features of the original vessel). Following Spinney (2006), one could say that the team have experienced the vessel in its ‘moment of creation’ allowing them to access (at least to some extent) the ‘nonreflexive and prerepresentational sensations and experiences’ involved in carving such an object.

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When we met, Ben spoke ruefully of the cuts and grazes he’d acquired while taking his turn at carving, the way his muscles had ached and become fatigued in ways that he was unaccustomed to. Watching him carve Ben the novice seems to rely on brute force and energetic enthusiasm than any form of skill, bending his joints in unsustainable ways; in comparison, Mark’s expert movements are more fluid, perceptive, visceral and precise. This would suggest that the carving anatomy doesn’t come ready made; rather the ‘object and subject [develop] in conjunction with one another through practical use’ (Spinney 2006: 717). The ability to carve is the result of a long process of negotiation (Winance 2006) between a person and their bodily capabilities, the tools they use, and the type wood they are carving. It involves somatic (e.g. the use of hand-eye coordination and proprioception to direct one’s tool to the right spot with the required amount of force) and analytic (e.g. the use of intuition derived from past experience to decide which tree to fell, what the wood’s moisture content might be, which part of the wood to strike and how hard) attunement (Ash and Gallagher 2014; Ash 2013). Effortless carving like effortless cycling requires endless practice, but when it is achieved the carver appears to inhabit what Spinney (2006) calls ‘a rhythm’; there is, as Le Breton (2000 cited in Spinney 2006: 718) perceptively states, ‘a melting of self into action’.

Recent post-humanist work has suggested that rather than being a determined biological entity the body is more of an ‘open and plastic boundary’ the basic condition of which is ‘change, porosity and augmentation’ (Ash and Gallagher 2014). Employing a ‘relational’ understanding of the body (Winance 2006), for example, Papadimitriou (2008) has demonstrated how a disabled person’s wheelchair is gradually incorporated into their corporeal schema through routine activity and training and observation of other novice and expert users.* Rather than the wheelchair simply being an inert object in this process, as the person’s bodily awareness extends to include it, it becomes an extension of the ‘lived body’, the surface through which the person physically perceives, senses their way through, and experiences the world (ibid.). As such, both parties must labour, their relationship must be made and unmade numerous times until both are ultimately transformed (Winance 2006); in the case of the Pallasboy vessel, tools had to be tested and trialled in different ways (and occasionally broken!), a body used to working with electric carvers had to develop a new type of muscle memory, a ‘master’ craftsman had to once again deal with the mixed emotions of learning an essentially familiar skill almost from scratch – nervousness, elation, melancholy. The dynamism of this relationship means that skill acquisition (e.g. the ability to use a wheelchair or, if I can extrapolate, to use an Iron Age tool) is not merely mechanical, technical or practical (which seems to be the focus of much experimental archaeology) but also ‘existential and embodied’ (Papadimitriou 2008).

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If we understand the body as emergent through its ‘interweavings’ in the world (Macpherson 2010) we can perhaps begin to think about the meaningfulness of carving the Pallasboy vessel as a ‘transformational’ act. Whether this had more relevance for the individual(s) doing the carving than the collective is up for debate – it was interesting to note Brian’s comment regarding the embodied impact of simply being present during process of creation. As the workshops have shown, individuals will have undoubtedly experienced the carving in different ways because ‘we are all composed of organs which have different material thresholds’ that in turn shape how affects such as the vibration of tool hitting wood are experienced (Ash 2015). Likewise, because the affordances offered by the tools (wear and tear) and the wood (e.g. moisture) would never have been fixed, and because bodily capacities wax and wane according to time and circumstance (e.g. strength, visual acuity, dexterity) (Ash and Gallagher 2014) it is likely that the relationality between subject-object(s) would have changed even during the process of crafting.

*I am grateful to my student, Phoebe Fielding, for bringing the work of Winance and Papadimitriou to my attention.

Bibliography

Ash, J. (2013) Technologies of captivation: videogames and the attunement of affect, Body and Society 19(1): 27–51.

Ash. J. (2015) Technology and affect: Towards a theory of inorganically organised objects, Emotion, Space and Society 14: 84-90.

Ash, J. and Gallagher, L.A. (2014) Becoming attuned: objects, affects and embodied methodology, in Perry, M. and Medina, C. (eds.) (2014) Methodologies of Embodiment: Inscribing Bodies in Qualitative Research. London: Routledge, pp., 69-85.

Howes, D. and C. Classen. 2014. Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society. London: Routledge.

Macpherson, H. (2010) Non-representational approaches to body-landscape relations, Geography Compass 4(1): 1-13.

Papadimitriou, C. (2008) Becoming en‐wheeled: the situated accomplishment of re‐embodiment as a wheelchair user after spinal cord injury, Disability and Society 23(7): 691-704.

Spinney, J. (2006) A place of sense: a kinaesthetic ethnography of cyclists on Mont Ventoux, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 24: 709-732.

Winance, M. (2006) Trying out the wheelchair: the mutual shaping of people and devices through adjustment, Science, Technology, and Human Values 31(1): 52-72.

Woodyer, T. and Geoghegan, H. (2012) (Re)enchanting geography? The nature of being critical and the character of critique in human geography, Progress in Human Geography 37(2) 195–214.

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