Questioning Nature and Technology Part 2 – Hauntings

In Part 1 I described an art installation by Lisa Braun that she is exhibiting in a field in western Canada. In this post I want to explore the speculative, eerie and uncanny feelings these running horses incite.

A Haunting Experience

Writing about Freud’s understanding of the uncanny, sociologist Avery F. Gordon relates that “We learn that all manner of phantom doubles conjure up ‘archaic’ desires for dead things to come alive, a haunting experience, if nonetheless increasingly common in the modern world” (1997:50-1). Gordon is drawing attention to the tension expressed by the juxtaposing metal amusement horses with a “natural” habitat, like a grass field. The mechanical “thing” has come to life, with every activation of a motion sensor.

mechanical horses
Mechanical horses. Image source: Danielle Nerman/CBC

Interestingly, the horses still require a force external to them to become active. Where it was once a coin, it is now a passing viewer, animal or potentially the wind through the grass that brings the horses to life. Gordon, still following Freud, suggests that “We are haunted by somethings we have been involved in, even if they appear foreign, alien, far away, double other” (1997:51). For me, what Gordon (and Freud) are attending to is the sense of nostalgia that is evoked by the re-enactment and reactivation of the horses. Like some far away childhood memory, the horses incite me to reminisce, to recall the ‘somethings we have been involved in’ on those trips to the mall. It evokes the early childhood feeling of wonder, the sense that there is something more to the world than I can fully understand. Gordon surmises that, “Being haunted draws us affectively, sometimes against our will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling of a reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as transformative recognition” (1997:8).

Still Life

I’m drawn backwards and forwards in time by the juxtaposition of the in/animate horses. I recall anthropologist Kathleen Stewart. Encountering her writing during my undergrad and PhD has made me feel ill at ease, pushing me to the margins of my comfort with the world-as-I-know-it. In one particularly haunting rendition, Stewart enacts still life.

“A still life is a state of calm, a lull in the action. But it is also a machine hidden in the woods that distils spirits into potency through a process of slow condensation. In painting, a still life is a genre that captures the liveness of inanimate objects (fruit, flowers, bowls) by suspending their sensory beauty in an inanimate scene charged with the textures of paint and desire” (Stewart 2007:18).

The grassland horses are still life until “activated”; alone in the grassy field their solar power builds potency, slowly. Even when the horses are still, they are “filled with vibratory motion, or resonance” (Stewart 2007:19). They have potential for something more.

I flash forward again to my introduction to speculative realism. Speculative realism challenges the dichotomy between natural and unnatural; animate and inanimate by calling attention to the vibrancy of matter. Steven Shaviro, a speculative realism theorist,  suggests that “We are desperate to reassure ourselves that, in spite of everything, objects are, after all, passive and inert. … But a thing is always more than its qualities; it always exists and acts independently of, and in excess of, the particular ways that we grasp and comprehend it” (2014:48-9). I think Shaviro helps us return to the haunting feeling of the uncanny spurred by the sense that these horses are not-quite-inert and evoke potent temporal shifts in that they draw on the nostalgia of very particular experiences of childhood.

My last thought (for now) is that these silver-clad amusements have been transformed into a metaphor for post-capitalist systems; they run via solar power rather than the continual deposit of coins. They have been freed from the economic shackles of a haunted modernity and set free to the sun, wind, and grass.

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