An Emotional Response to the Physical


Not at all sure what the questionable-quality food items are all about...

This video got me thinking about how I enjoy things like the comedy of Buster Keaton, and Rube Goldberg machines, and then not but two weeks later, OK Go! released an Internet 'asploding music video featuring an incredibly elaborate machine (and well-directed video, I may add) comprised of everyday items:

If you haven't seen the above yet, you're welcome, and you are a jerk. Yes: a jerk, for your ignorance. Mental Floss also put together a bunch o' Rube for your viewing pleasure ovah heeyah.

So what is this attraction to inanimate objects? Particularly those engaged in some unintended use? I'll break down some ideas I have as to the appeal, both personal and (perhaps [in some cases]) universal. Breaking it down 'til the break of dawn:
  1. It makes us feel optimistic to think of objects as fulfilling purposes, instead of being merely lifeless tools. Purpose connotes design connotes meaning.
  2. It makes us feel optimistic to see supposed purposes up-ended, and still demonstrate some sort of function. Creativity connotes a larger purpose.
  3. When objects interact with forces, we ascribe behavior to them, which makes the world a bright-n-shiny adventure, filled with personality.
  4. There is a sense of wonder created by acts of metamorphosis.
  5. By manipulating objects, we gain a broader sense of control over ourselves and the world. Comfort in safety?
  6. Objects are SO NOT controllable, in that they're animated by the same myriad physical forces that manipulate us; of which there are so many, we can never guarantee that the dang ball will go through the dang hoop (much less that we won't, say, trip on a staircase today). Objects are, therefore, spontaneous. Excitement in danger?
  7. Wish-fulfillment and family-building. Our pattern-recognition is based in distinctly human forms and features. In other words, we are continually, subconsciously, "recognizing" the things around us -- we want our cars to have faces, and we need to think of that table bit as a leg, that lamp bit as an arm. Objects are, by extension (pun acknowledged and admired, I'm not ashamed to admit), our children. We made them.
Okay, whether that's all rubbish to you or gospel for some new, quasi-dystopian religious beliefs (Tom Robbins, I'm looking in your direction...) I'm sure you can name a thing or two that you feel an abnormal level of affection for. Objects, physical and inanimate, populate our world and play out scenes with us daily. It is natural to incorporate objects -- or "tools" if you prefer -- into ourselves and our passage in/through time. It's a blurrier line than we may imagine, too, the distinction between animate and inanimate. Certainly physics could make an argument that nothing in existence is or could be truly in-animate, but even on a simpler, perceptive level we have to distinguish between the life of a plant and the life of an animal, or even the life of a planet and the life of an atom. Are we objects? Sure we are, divine ones or no.

Emotions may be even more difficult to define than objects. My opinion is that emotions are by-and-large sublimated survival instincts. They evolved in response both to changing survival priorities and the development of our particular self-awareness and abstract thinking. If you accept that theory as I do, it makes emotions at once very pragmatic and rather mysterious. They can be played upon, manipulated, but they also play upon and manipulate us. They are internal, with tremendous external effects and implications. And of course, our emotions allow us to connect with one another beyond a purely mechanical way. This possibility alone may be the best distinction between ourselves and other "objects."

In other words, it seems completely natural to me that when a hat flips up to land perfectly on someone's head, I am applauding for the hat itself. Or, when I stumble over an errant bit of sidewalk, to curse the day it was born. But here I'm hitting on another reason we respond so emotionally to the physical world: Because all the world's a stage, and all of us players, and players in our own unique play, at that.

6/15/10 Update: Over at tor.com, Jason Henninger discusses similar questions as applied to robotics.
 
Best viewed on Chrome, Firefox, Opera & Safari browsers with resolutions 1360 x 768.

Copyright © 2014 Tokleistro™. Powered by Blogger™