Form is a Verb (Sarah Robinson)

In response to Taney's earlier request to elaborate on the idea of form as a verb. 

1. Taney: How does this reconceptualizing change the way we experience art objects and, in your case, architecture? Because although we now know otherwise, our limited sensory apparatus tells us that objects are static -- paintings, chairs, mountains, or whatever: to our bodyminds these things seem utterly unchanging.

This argument is central to my forthcoming book, Architecture is a Verb (Routledge 2/21) which applies a variation of the 4E approach to understanding architectural experience. The work of the 19th century empathy theorists and in cognitive science has shown that all art is performance art. We experience not only the work of art, but the genesis of its making in our own bodies. Vittorio Gallese and David Freedberg showed how we simulate the slash marks on Lucio Fontana's canvases in our own motor repertoire. When we see etched stone, we simulate the movement that went into that act of making in our own bodies. The crucial shift in thinking moves from the all-too tired Cartesian "I think therefore I am," to Husserl's engaged "I can therefore I am." Our earliest knowledge of the world is through bodily movement, something that the biologist/dancer/philosopher Maxine Sheets Johnstone (The Primacy of Movement) has been arguing for decades. When we begin to imagine the world around us in terms of possibilities for action (an enactivist approach), new dimensions of dynamism suddenly open up. In Giorgio Morandi's shy vases, we feel ourselves being touched, we imagine sitting in the chair or the irritating discomfort of its shoddy design, instead of seeing a static mountain, we notice the veins of massive pressure that heaved it from the deep. We do not see the independent objects as much as we see the world according to the actions they might afford and possibilities and latent stories of their becoming. 

2. Taney: I adore this idea of changing nouns into verbs (David Bohm proposed something similar many years ago, using the term the rheomode for this new way of thinking), but I'm having trouble imagining what it would do to our actual experience of the world. 

I have also been inspired by Bohm's rheomode, in his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order he points out that an obstacle to dynamic thinking is the subject-verb-object structure of sentences which implies that action arises in a subject and is exerted on an object. Why do we say, for example, that it is raining, instead of that rain is happening? To whom, exactly, does ‘it’ refer? This is but one example of how our language is unable to speak of ongoing processes. Yet in other languages, movement is taken as a primary notion and apparently static things are treated as relatively invariant states of continuing movement. In ancient Hebrew, for example, the verb was primary. The root of all lost Hebrew words is a verb form, while adverbs, adjectives and nouns were obtained by modifying the verbal form with prefixes and suffixes. Even the English words dwell and dwelling, like the word building, are both nouns, verbs and gerunds—their versatility demonstrates that both terms are implicitly connected to ongoing living processes. Calling attention to the movement initiated by the verb serves to correct this centuries-old deficit. This act of reordering attention forces us to reconsider the realities which the verbs describe and opens new possibilities for thinking in terms of active embodied engagement. Thinking in terms of living processes does not need to split them into bits. Divisions wither in the face of action. This kind of animism speaks to a time when poetry was not a literary genre but a concrete way of experiencing LIFE.


Deborah Barlow said...

This was a feast. Thank you Taney and Sarah, both, for initiating this vital discussion.

Carrie Rohman said...

Wonderful, provocative, thrilling! So reminiscent of Deleuze and Guattari's insistence that becoming is a verb (perhaps this is your title's homage or partial homage, Sarah?). Some overlap here with my own emphasis on movement and dance: Deleuze and Guattari discuss movement as having an essential relation to the imperceptible, which they call the "immanent end of becoming, its cosmic formulation," as they think about how one can slip between and grow in the midst of things. My own claim: "Although the dancing body is not equivalent to pure affects, we can nonetheless extract valuable insights from the claim that movement has [this essential relation]... dancing ought to be understood as a privileged modality for becomings" (Choreographies, p 60)

Taney Roniger said...

Sarah, thanks so much for this fine elaboration. I'll have to go back and look at Wholeness and the Implicate Order, which I haven't read in some 25 years. Given all that you've said, I now want to imagine how we can begin to think about form in art as a distinct pattern or configuration of *forming*. Minding the error of the mysterious "it" that rains, it would seem a mistake to say that a form or material is "forming." If we change the syntax we could instead say that forming is happening, using of course more specific verbs to describe exactly what it is that's happening. Thus we might say of a Christine Corday sculpture: Melting, bending, pressing, oozing; radiating, metaling, iridescing, scorching; hardening, softening, expanding, contracting; curving, inviting, touching, relating; earthing, fleshing, dissolving, universe-ing -- leaving the "is happening" out altogether, as it seems superfluous. As you suggest, there are languages out there that are grounded in verbing. I'm thinking of the Potowatame language, which I understand is mostly verbs. I imagine it would be incredibly helpful to look closely at these languages of animacy and see how they're structured. But this is just the language side of things; the next question is how we can create forms that make us more aware of our bodies' innate mimetic tendencies, and of the dynamic nature of all matter and consciousness. I think there's a question in the next session on precisely this issue, but it wouldn't hurt to get started on it here!