Posted by: Johan Normark | March 27, 2012

Retention and protention of sensual objects

This post is a result of the last one since I began to think of how I thought of objects in my early “polyagentive” period, i.e. when I followed an “instantaneous”/”actualized” view of time inspired by Bachelard and Husserl. Some of the latter philosopher’s ideas are very important to Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy. In my later doctoral thesis I was seduced by Bergsonian and Deleuzean duration and the whole actualization of the virtual stuff. In my licentiate thesis I adapted the anthropologist Alfred Gell’s use of Husserl’s retention and pretention model for how “man-made” artifacts (indexical polyagents as I called them back then) are being reproduced through time by ultimately attempting to bracket the human as a catalyst for object reproduction.

Let me first summarize Husserl’s time consciousness and we will later see how it may relate to Harman’s sensual objects. The references you will see can be found in my licentiate thesis since this text is partly modified from that text. Also note that most of my knowledge of Husserl derives from the Derridean philosopher Martin Hägglund’s book Kronofobi (Chronophobia).  

Husserl constructed his phenomenology from the instantaneous states of consciousness. He argues that the mind consists of a series of modifications of perceptual and memory images. He distinguishes between retentions of experience (primary memory that maintains what has just been experienced), the primary impression that register it, and protentions that are directed towards what will come. These three functions create a living presence, the basis for all experience (Hägglund 2002:160). Retentions and protentions are the horizons of the extended present and not memories or anticipations of other “nows” (Gell 1992a:223).

A retention is a temporally removed experience and acts as the background of old beliefs to which newer beliefs are projected (Gell 1992a:225). Perception becomes retention of a retention of a retention and so on, until it is distant in time. The past does not slowly disappear as the present emerges. It changes and creates different protentions depending on how the present is emerging (Husserl 1991). This trend is directed toward the future as a protention in which present perceptions are updated for the proximate future and so on.

The present in Husserl’s philosophy is therefore not a sharp “now” but it is rather an extended time field where we update perceptions of the proximate past, and then the past of the proximate past and so on. Like Husserl, James (1963) concluded that we do not experience a punctual instant. The temporal experience emerges as an unbreakable unit through memories and expectations in the present. The temporal spread, the specious present, means that past and future are part of our experience (Rubenstein 2001:159).

Let us take a look at what Alfred Gell tries to accomplish in his last book Art and Agency (1998). Although Gell is interested in how art objects affect people, it is still dominated by an anthropocentric perspective which easily can be overcome for an object-oriented perspective. What Gell says is that an artist’s career consists of distributed biographical events, memories of events, and works of art which are attributed to a physical person. This definition of the artist continues after the biological death. Upon death, the artist’s agency is dispersed. Indices of his or her agency are to be found in many places, they are not concentrated in one particular setting (Gell 1998:222-225).

An artist’s oeuvre consists of a series of works which may have been produced at different places. These works can also be dated and they can be arranged in a sequence. After the artist’s death, when the oeuvre is complete, it manifests a space-time unit which can be accessed via each individual piece of artwork. Each of them stands for all of them (Gell 1998:232).

Gell argues that the events in Husserl’s retention-protention model can be replaced by objects as part of an artist’s oeuvre. The artworks are indices of events when the artist’s agency brought the objects into existence. If we view each art work as a final product at an instant moment and locate these instant moments/actual objects in a chain where other objects in the same oeuvre are either past or future of one another we can label an artist’s oeuvre as a temporal distributed object (Gell 1998:241).

A major problem with Gell’s model for an object-oriented perspective is that it focuses on the artist, on the human agent. We often cannot identify the producers and users of objects individually in the archaeological record. However, each art object is not only the index of the artist’s agency, it is also indirectly the index of other past art objects where the artist have been a catalyst or a mediator between various actual objects in the oeuvre.

Translated into an archaeological context this means that an ancient ceramicist manufactured a vessel by copying the form and style of an earlier vessel made by him/her or someone else. The new vessel also became the prototype for a future vessel.

These are my old ideas. What I wonder now is if it is possible to apply the whole retention/protention model on Harman’s sensual objects? Time, in Harman’s view, is the tension between a sensual object and its sensual qualities. A ceramic vessel would be sensual object to its producer or the water it contains. Could changes in its qualities, such a crack resulting from someone dropping it on the floor, be seen a retention that is “memorized” by the vessel as long the crack remains open and water leaks? Could the clay and water during the manufacture process “prehend” (a Whiteheadean term) or rather “protend”(?) the lit fire which would transform these objects into the vessel? It is, after all, these instant “materialized” moments that are preserved in the object, not the processes behind them. The origins are lost in their present but by looking at these “material” and spatial traces in the object various surface qualities of the sensual object can be related to now no longer present objects and events.



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  3. In my opinion it is very well written, it is perfect.

  4. “Husserl constructed his phenomenology from the instantaneous states of consciousness.”

    FWIW, Berkeley neuroscientist Walter Freeman argues that consciousness consists of a series of discrete “frames” that happen at roughly 7 to 10 frames per second.

    “The present in Husserl’s philosophy is therefore not a sharp “now” but it is rather an extended time field where we update perceptions of the proximate past, and then the past of the proximate past and so on.”

    FWIW, experimental work by various psychologists puts the “lived present” at about 3 to 4 seconds long, long enough, it turns out, for a line of poetry. Cf. Pöppel, E. (1988). Mindworks: Time and Conscious Experience. Orlando, Florida, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers.

    “A major problem with Gell’s model for an object-oriented perspective is that it focuses on the artist, on the human agent.”

    That’s a problem from a lot of perspectives. Back in the mid-50s Monroe Beardsley proclaimed the intentional fallacy as a way of divorcing the work from authorial intention. Not so long after that Roland Barthes declared the death of the author. But, if we don’t located the agency of the art work in the author, then just where DO we locate it? Your problem of the copied ceramic vessel applies to the traditional story/myth as well. The teller isn’t making up his own story, he’s just passing on a traditional story as he learned from his teacher, who learned it from HIS teacher, and so on.

    • I once attempted to use “material agency” as an explanation but now I don’t. I would say that potter and pot make up one temporary object (during manufacture), than the pot becomes part of several other objects, like when it influences the production of a new one, etc. Maybe it is more like a series of “instaurations”?

  5. The thing about traditional stories is that you can’t really say that the story-teller has sole or originating agency in the tale. The tale has a certain role in the life of the group and the story-teller is acting on behalf of that role. The story is an object through the which group coordinates a collective mentality.

    It seems to me that, to the extent that a form of a cermanic object is conserved across many separate objects, you have a similar situation. There is a difference, however, in that the story exists only when someone is telling it or thinking about it. A ceramic vessel is not in that way dependent on humans.

    • My focus is how artefacts, buildings, etc. help to form “stability” over time (in relation to the plasticity of human cognition). This differs throughout the world. The “material culture” of the Maya area changes little between 500 BC and 1500 AD (compared to Europe and Asia during the same timeperiod). The far greater areas of interaction (and plausible extent of hyperobjects) in the Old World probably contributed to more changes in both material culture and thought compared to the New World.

      • Ralph Holloway, paleontologist at Columbia specialising in hominid brains, has argued that the very conservative form of hand axes in the lower paleolithic indicates the existence of social norms. Alas, I have no citation to offer.

      • I think I have seen something about it but I may be confusing him with another researcher.


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