Mel as Hyperobject

Mel Keiser

You are about to begin reading a palimpsest by Mel Keiser, Mel as Hyperobject. Its pages had been Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (2013). But first, a staging of its methodology, content, and philosophy:

Methodology /
Timothy Morton, Franco Moretti, and the Melibrary /

I first encountered Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (2013) in an object-oriented ontology reading group in Chicago.[1] In Morton’s book, he theorizes the existence of objects “of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.” He reframes systems as singular objects, or perhaps objects as systems. These hyperobjects spread over space and time, like global warming or the English language, so we can only interact with parts of them at a time; to experience a hyperobject is to be decentralized from the act of perception. Morton breaks the identity of hyperobjects into five characteristics using terms adapted from a number of disciplines: viscosity, nonlocality, temporal undulation, phasing, and interobjectivity.

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I first encountered Franco Moretti’s book Distant Reading (2015) by recommendation of a colleague interested in data poetry. In Moretti’s philosophy of distant reading, texts are used like raw data in an experiment, data which can be processed by a unit of analysis in order to understand a larger system or pattern. Moretti specifically uses distant reading as a way to understand literary history, “identifying a discrete formal trait, and then following its metamorphoses through a whole series of texts.” Using distant reading to analyze a collection of 19th century detective novels, Moretti positively correlates the use of clues as a functional plot device with an author’s longitudinal market success, writing of his research experience:

Was it still reading, what I was doing? I doubt it: I read ‘through’ those stories looking for clues, and (almost) nothing else; it felt very different from the reading I used to know. (65)

Moretti acknowledges that distant reading sacrifices specialized knowledge derived from the specific content of a text but argues that, instead, this distance enables abstract understanding of concept.

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I begin to superscribe my own unit of analysis into texts—me. As I read, I replace select words with variations of the word Mel or self. I do this with a wide range of texts—object-oriented ontology, family systems theory, thermodynamics, gravitational field theory, Grimm fairy tales—to find ways to reframe and expand my understanding of self-identity. I begin this exercise with Morton’s Hyperobjects in 2014.

When I change words in his text—words like hyperobjects, global warming, particles, space, universe, structure—to Mel, self-identity, she, her—Morton’s argument contorts. Instead of describing a category of system-object, the text describes the subjective experience of crafting and understanding identity from inside the self.

Content /
The Age of the Decentralized Self /

Benjamin Libet (1985) reveals that your brain starts the process of standing you up more than a second before you are consciously aware you have made a decision to rise.

John Cryan (Bravo et al. 2011) demonstrates a connection between the gut biome and happiness/anxiety—mice that are fed certain probiotics are found to have higher rates of self-preservation.

John Bargh (2008) proves that by holding a warm drink for a few seconds, the familiar temperature—a hot drink approaches the temperature of a warm human body—makes you more predisposed to people around you.

Julian Keenan (2001) discovers that turning the right hemisphere of your brain off makes you unable to recognize an image of yourself, showing that your self-image is housed in a particular, physical part of your brain.

In recent decades, our identities, behaviors, and experiences have been decentralized by neuroscience and cognitive science, revealing the self to be less an object and more a process—a process of which you are largely unaware and unable to control. Traits you think are determined by an innate self may not be such a binary derivation, but instead an average of effects from a complex biological system.

We think self-identity is human-scaled and so can be perceived completely at the human level. But reframed—through Timothy Morton’s words—as a vast system in time space, the strange incongruities that arise from an identity averaged over decades in a myriad of different situations become a laughable miscalculation. As Morton would say, you can’t understand who someone is after dozens of interactions any more than you can understand global warming by feeling raindrops on your head. Human-scaled attempts to draw hard edges around such a phasing, enmeshed object as self-identity are ultimately quixotic, and as an artist, researcher, and performance philosopher these undulating edges are where it really gets interesting.

Philosophy /
Non-philosophy /

Performance philosophy makes the argument for anti-hierarchical thinking, that philosophical value can be derived from non-standard philosophical thinking (read: not part of canonized academic thinking) such as artistic acts, so “as to re-conceptualize what thinking means, does, and is” (Daddario 2015, 169). Mel as Hyperobject functions inside this idea of re-conceptualized thinking, as both an artistic act and a “‘style of thinking’ which mutates with its object” (Laruelle 2012, 259). Specifically, it uses palimpsest-style text editing to research one specific idea by laying it over the structure of other seemingly unrelated content. As a method of thinking, this editing has expansive potential in that it enrichens the doer/thinker’s[2] understanding of both areas of specific content simultaneously.

While editing Morton’s textchanging his words about hyperobjects, environmental theory, and object-oriented ontology into words about self-creation, narrative identity, and me—my ideas about self-identity tessellated, growing more complex and nuanced. At the same time, I was also becoming a strange kind of expert in Morton’s Hyperobject. Beyond acquiring a better understanding of the content of his book, by working inside his words for such a prolonged period I internalized his vocabulary and writing style. So in addition to increasing my understanding of both areas of content, I was additionally enriching my understanding of Morton’s methodologies of thinking and writing.

Mel as Hyperobject is not just an argument for non-hierarchical thinking, for valuing the research possible with artmaking or performing methodologies, it is an “experience of thought,” a mutated methodology which changes both the original content and overlaid content at the same time (Laurelle 2013, 116). It tries to understand one idea through the structure of another, a non-linear thinking which simultaneously enrichens understanding of two disparate ideas and their inherent structure of knowledge.

Notes

[1] Led by Caroline Picard through Latitude Print Labs, later extended at Picard’s gallery and publishing house, Sector 2337.

[2] In Will Daddario’s (2015) article “Doing Life is That Which We Must Think,” he uses the term doing/thinking to define a type of action, where one is thinking through doing, or relatedly, where doing is a record of the thinking.

 

Works Cited

Bargh, John A. and Lawrence E. Williams. 2008. “Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth.” Science 322 (5901): 606–607. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1162548

Bravo, Javier A., Paul Forsythe, Marianne V. Chewb, Emily Escaravage, Hélène M. Savignac, Timothy F. Dinan, John Bienenstock, and John F. Cryan. 2014. “Ingestion of Lactobacillus Strain Regulates Emotional Behavior and Central GABA Receptor Expression in a Mouse via the Vagus Nerve.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (38): 16050–16055. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1102999108

Daddario, Will. 2015. “Doing Life Is That Which We Must Think.” Performance Philosophy 1: 168–174. https://doi.org/10.21476/PP.2015.1118

Keenan, Julian Paul, Aaron Nelson, Margaret O’Connor, and Alvaro Pascual-Leone. 2001. “Neurology: Self-recognition and the Right Hemisphere.” Nature 409 (6818): 305. https://doi.org/10.1038/35053167

Laruelle, François. 2012. “Non-Philosophy as Heresy.” In François Laruelle, From Decision to Heresy: Experiments in Non-Standard Thought, edited by Robin Mackay, 257–284. Falmouth: Urbanomic/Sequence Press.

———. 2013. Philosophy and Non-Philosophy. Translated by Taylor Adkins. Minneapolis: Univocal.

Libet, Benjamin. 1985. “Unconscious Cerebral Initiative and the Role of Conscious Will in Voluntary Action.” The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 8 (4): 529–566. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X00044903

Moretti, Franco. 2015. Distant Reading. London: Verso.

Morton, Timothy. 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Biography

Since 2015, Chicago-based artist Mel Keiser has been working on a multifaceted project titled, The Life and Deaths of The Mels. In evaluating who she’s been over the course of her life, Keiser identified six moments of liminality that resulted in significant self-change and have, arguably, created seven categorically different versions of herself over time: Melissa-Louise-Keiser, Mel(v.1), Mel(v.2), Mel(v.3), Mel(v.4/5), Mel(v.6) and Mel(v.7). In The Life and Deaths of The Mels, Keiser rewrites her personal history as the births and deaths of these different versions of herself—as The Mels. Using installation, performance, and writing, Keiser creates material evidence for these versions of herself, exploring the social and psychological impact of treating herself as a stratified series of distinct selves rather than a single person in fluid development. She uses scientific research methodologies alongside artistic praxes, hybridizing disciplines like personality psychology, evolutionary biology, and quantum physics to invent proof of the existence of these self-versions and to explain how and why these segmented versions of herself exist.



Copyright (c) 2018 Mel Keiser

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