“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Monday, April 25, 2011

Shoplifting Advice

Light Switch, Taichung City, Taiwan

Well I've given job advice. And I've given Ph.D. advice. If you didn't manage to get a job or you're still wondering how to get through your Ph.D., here is some handy shoplifting advice.

Always do it in front of the camera. Don't try to hide what you're doing. The only time I got caught (yes I am one who knows of what they speak) is when I tried to hide it.

Why? If you do it in front of the camera, no one watching will be able to believe what they are seeing. Do it slowly, deliberately, right in front of security. But don't sue me if it doesn't work okay!?

We think that causes and effects happen behind objects. Maybe that's just a cultural construct, maybe we only started thinking it recently. Or maybe a cultural idea fuses with some older Neolithic hardwiring that makes us alert to activity happening in our peripheral vision. What do you think?

For OOO there is a deeper ontological reason why the shoplifting in the open schtick works. Because that's how causality operates in general. It happens in front of objects that appear to be ontically given.

Let me give you a brief example. I've recently had a number of experiences of uncanniness, because I've been traveling. Perhaps the most vivid was my visit to Taiwan, but even traveling in the airporter on the way to Sacramento Airport was quite uncanny, as a previous post made clear.

When I arrive at a strange new place, the sensual vividness of objects seems to jump out at me in front of those objects. Smells are sharper and more penetrating (the different bacteria coating other objects interacts with my smelling system, I guess). Light switches and plug sockets seem to emanate clownlike parodies of themselves that leer out at me, mocking my incompetence. Washing or shaving becomes a weird, slightly seductive, slightly unpleasant experience. Reality seems closer to me than “normal.” Then everything clicks into place, often after a couple of nights of sleep. (I'm sure insomnia also does this, as Levinas and I can both attest.)

Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. This is the real trouble. The real trouble is that my familiar light switches and plug sockets—or rather my familiar relations to these objects—is only an ontic prejudice, an illusion. The REALITY is what I see as the illusion-like, hallucinatory clowns that lurch towards me, gesturing and beckoning (but what are they saying?).

The sense that causality must be happening “behind” objects is an ontological illusion. When one object (for instance me) transitions from a certain set of objects to another set, it briefly undergoes the uncanny realization that not-at-homeness is always the case, that sensual relations are never the real thing. What we call causality, say when a finger depresses a light switch, is an uncanny moment that happens in front of the withdrawn objects, when a strange object perturbs a domain that has achieved a necessarily, structurally false ontic familiarity.

Causality is already happening: the light switch rests on the wall, wall supports switch, electrons are flowing in the wire, the wall is part of a house. All these are causal statements from this point of view. What we call causality is just an uncanny disruption of a metastable interobjective system that only appears to be real because it lasts longer than the moment of the “cause.” Or something like that.

Mechanistic and other forms of “behind the scenes” theories of causality must therefore be seen as a desperate attempt to normalize this uncanny state of affairs.


Bill Benzon said...

FWIW, I boosted a fair number of books in my graduate school days, some fairly large (e.g. a neuroanatomy text). Never did so in front of a camera (that I know of), never got caught. But I did routinely boost and purchase books on the same trip. Which meant the I went through the check-out counter with stolen property on my person. That may exhibit the same principle as steal in front of the camera.

And also, FWIW, the causility that governs, e.g., the movement of the planets and moons (and asteroids and assorted other things and, of course, the sun) of our solar system with respect to one another is thoroughly Newtonian, but not quite that of billiard balls on a billiards table. Rather, it is that of a balance of forces within a field (gravity), which is a bit different.

skholiast said...

When I was a child, I remember that even the next-door-neighbor's house was like a weird foreign country. The smell and texture of the carpet, the weird knickknacks on their coffee-table, the way the light fell on the curtains. My best friend's family had these weird customs like using cloth napkins, and their macaroni and cheese was -- strange. But in fact, even my own house was a network of such foreign terrains. The space under my mother's desk; the gap between the wall and the banister; the wallpaper in the bathroom and the wood grain of my closet door. Everything was luminously itself. As Chesterton says someplace, everything was a surprise; but it was a pleasant surprise. There is a reason why it is canonically held that philosophy begins in wonder.