Saturday, January 25, 2014

Latour litanies

I'm reading Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology, or, What It's Like to Be a Thing and I'm captivated by the random lists of objects he uses to demonstrate the "flat ontology" of the "object oriented" worldview.
These lists are psychedelic. They transcend all categories and taxonomies. They overload the mind with the uncountable (?) numbers of existing and imaginable objects. Seeing them together in one sentence creates a pleasant vertigo.
Some examples:
  • computer chips + chicken wings + pandas + cigarettes (the cover)
  • the funeral pyre + the aardvark + the porceletta shell + the rugby ball (p11)
  • quarks + Harry Potter + keynote speeches + single malt scotch + Land Rovers + lychee fuit + love affairs + dereferenced pointers + Mike Sorrentino + horticulturalists + bosons + Mozambique + Super Mario Bros (p12)
  • cinder blocks + bendy straws + iron filings (p23)
The same pleasant feeling of vertigo is caused by the famous list devised by  Jorge Luis Borges in the fictional encyclopedia called Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. The list divides all animals into one of 14 categories:
  • Those that belong to the emperor
  • Embalmed ones
  • Those that are trained
  • Suckling pigs
  • Mermaids (or Sirens)
  • Fabulous ones
  • Stray dogs
  • Those that are included in this classification
  • Those that tremble as if they were mad
  • Innumerable ones
  • Those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush
  • Et cetera
  • Those that have just broken the flower vase
  • Those that, at a distance, resemble flies

I assume the vertigo is caused by the breaking of the vessel of daily categories and habits. The world suddenly shows its infinite complexity and its dark and mysterious face.
Searching for "objects" you get a similar unfathomable complexity. Just a sample from the pictures, translated into words. It reads like a modern poem:
  • oranges + galaxies + jeans + smileys
  • spherical projections + twisted Escher cubes
  • eagles made from plastic
  • surgical gauze + fashion models + jackets
  • mysterious flying cast-iron wheels
  • 3-D computer models + ray-tracing algorithms
  • iPod speakers in a nude torso + graveyard angels + colour samples
  • apples + fat sumo wrestlers
  • chairs + scissors + plastic soldiers
  • table lamps + teapots
  • database schema's + drawings of buckets
  • ceramic mushrooms + fluorescent lamps + candles
  • x-ray pictures of swallowed spoons
  • screen savers + drinks in glasses

This raises some interesting questions.

Can those lists be automatically generated?
Yes they can. Ian Bogost has made a Latour Litanizer. The results are very random and unexpected, but they are maybe too complicated for optimal vertigo.
  • Przymorze Małe + Subeda + Pashkaleh + Zecharia Glosca
  • Japanese submarine I-158 + Crunchy Frog Records + And Death Said Live
  • Fujifilm FinePix HS10 + Uncești + The Vagabond (novel)
  • Transfer orbit + Podocarpus laubenfelsii + Colton Ford + Nowa Wieś Wielka
Other approaches are also possible, for example using a Dutch random word generator and then running the results through Bing translate for extra randomness. But these are surprisingly boring:
  • date + postponement + Davis + key + chat + darkness + hardness
  • partition + formatting + princess + laziness + world + werewolf + uranium
  • resolution + Equator + counter + forgery + jet + remembrance + crust
How do you generate the most disparate lists? Lists that are maximally psychedelic?
This could be a hard problem. Even simple formulations of this problem (how to distribute points on a sphere while maximizing their distance) are only solvable by heuristics. And in the case of objects how do you define distance between objects (dissimilarity)? We could try to put each object in a set of categories and then try to find a set of objects with minimal overlap of categories. I bet the problem is NP-complete.

Are the best random lists generated by human effort?
The best lists are still made by humans. For example this Dutch forum where people were just spouting random words. These are much funnier and they feel more random:
  • rogue + brick + impressionism + river junction + nitpicking + pulley
  • collection place + cemetery + antioxidant + fried noodles + Dorothy
  • feel-good factor + Diana Ross + registration form + rye + lobster
  • washing machine emulator + ejaculation inhibitor + baklava + format
  • killer + photo frame + watch + inferiority complex + animal feed
  • bloom time + starch + counter strike + barbaric region + skydive
  • landslide + resolution + panda bear + possibility + "p" + month + system
  • Emily + ham-cheese sandwich + square + potato soup + psychosis
  • magma + vinyl + gang + power strip + rubber + labelling + grace
  • porn + clay soil + randomness + heat stroke

Sources: - picture search for "object"

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