Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Thinking Objects: Working with House, M.D.'s Balls

"It's his process. 
That ball saves lives"

House, M.D.

Due to pressing engagements in the month of August,
including comprehensive exam preparation, conferences, and articles
a lot of writing has been happening but activity on the blog slowed.
I will conclude the month with a look at the processes of writing itself.

Thinking About Objects

In 2011, I delivered a talk at a National Writing Conference entitled "Haunted Spaces: Occupying, Objects, and Orientation." During my brief remarks, I invited those present to consider one object in their writing and/or teaching space that significantly affects their process in that space. In the conversation afterwards, people came up to me with stories about clocks, computers, plants and pieces of art work that continually draw their attention without them actually attending to them. 

The various actors listed orient the space's occupants without themselves becoming present to the thought-processes of the writers, teachers and students. These spaces were effectively haunted by the invisible (unacknowledged) work of these things. Once everyone began to answer the challenge to "think about objects" they suddenly couldn't stop. Things came alive all around them. The objects turned from specters into co-occupants in the space. Objects are co-workers in the process of thinking, writing, and teaching.

All of this came to my mind, to little avail, as I stood in front of my partner's children asking if they were done playing with my special blue bouncy-ball, so I could have it back. I needed it to write. The rhythmic tossing kept my mind and body just interrupted enough to allow my thinking to jostle into other parts of my brain. It was the perfect size for throwing and catching, rolling in my hand, or balancing on my finger-tips. The girls thought so too earlier in the day when they asked to borrow it. Now they were collapsed on the couch watching Cartoon Network. Looking up from the TV, they responded with with distracted, half-conscious expressions, "What ball?" 

As I stood there looking into their enchanted four and eight year old eyes, the subtle dynamics of my object-oriented writing process was being flatlined by their frustratingly candid memory-lapse. After some jostling (helped by pausing the DVD they had been watching) they remembered the conversation with me about borrowing the ball but not what they did with it or where it might be currently. They remembered me, but not the ball. Subjects but not objects. Despite the toy's momentary allure for them hours earlier, they struggled to think about objects. 

Children are certainly not alone in misunderstanding or under-appreciating the process of writers. For some, they struggle to see intellectual labor as on par with physical or social labor. It certainly looks different. Things and people are moved or changed as a result. The heavy lifting or theatrical presentations provide visual evidence for those who judge labor based on performative signs of exhaustion. Writers and academics on the other hand can spend minutes upon hours staring at screens, books, note-pads, or off into space. Certainly the mechanical act of bouncing a ball against a wall only compounds the apparent likeness between intellectual labor and leisure.

Yet even for those who consider contemplation to be a valuable form of work, credit for the productivity will largely (if not exclusively) be given to the person over the environment. Great thinkers are held up in society like minds-in-vats without considering the critical role that the social influence of spaces and objects can have on the thought process. This is not only inattentive to the network of relations that produce intellectual laborers but potentially threatening to their quality of life. The inability to think about objects can lead to a lack of support for the material circumstances of thinkers: denying office space, cutting budgets, or taking away our balls.

Thinking With Objects

In the 2008 season five episode of House, M.D., "Let Them Eat Cake," Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) finds his balls taken away by his Chief-of-Medicine and love-interest, Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) after a destructive hostage crisis ruins her office leaving her to share space with the man responsible for antagonizing the perpetrator. Occupying the same space intensifies their lust-fueled conflict as they get into each other's faces and thinking processes. At the height of the battle over the office and its objects, House's over-sized tennis balls become the material metaphor for House himself.

"My balls. Have you seen my balls?" shouts House, interrupting Cuddy's phone call, "the giant one and the red one?" At this point, the balls are still on the table but House is attempting to embarrass Cuddy by playing on the pun for listeners who already may be suspecting an erotic affair going on between boss and employee. While temporarily being pressured out of the space, Cuddy exits with a remark over the phone that "I had to explain [to House] that I had his balls and he is not getting them back." 

Symbolically taking House's balls, Cuddy asserts control over the doctor's masculinity, sexuality and intellectual labor by literally claiming hold of his tennis balls. While the essence of House's identity and power is supposed to be centralized in his mind (see award winning series episode, "House's Brain"), evidently the doctor's agency is more decentralized across a network of actors, including his team, his office, and his balls. By occupying a space among all three of them, Cuddy effectively claims a corner of House's mind.

Appreciating both the material and symbolic stakes of the conflict, House's best friend Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) approaches Cuddy to negotiate the release of his balls by questioning her intentions in occupying House's things over other doctors. During their exchange, Cuddy's bias against House's intellectual labor is evident. "Other doctors actually use their offices for crazy things like seeing patients," she argues, "not throwing a ball against the wall and calling it work." As Chief-of-Medicine, Cuddy understands management and the needs of social labor, as well as the physical labor of doctors who need space and tools to help their process. House's work, however, runs closer to an academic type of labor that is nonetheless material despite often being invisible.

The intellectual labor of House's balls can be visually demonstrated for the performance-oriented Cuddy by their effects. "It's his process," Wilson defends, "that ball saves lives!" Despite rarely interacting with patients, House proves himself every week to Cuddy (and the audience) by solving the puzzle of his patient's mysterious symptoms. While remaining largely unseen, House saves lives. The visible proof of invisible workings. Viewers of the show however witness the social interactions that go on behind the scenes, including differential diagnosis that brings together office space, House's team of doctors, white-boards, pranks, drugs, metaphors and balls.

By calling attention to House's process and balls, the scene effectively argues the show's thesis: while he seems to be a lone mind, Dr. House is dependent on the material agency of a community of people, places, and things. The tension between the image of the stoic, masculine doctor's interiority and the reality of his distributed power produces instances to display the frustrated desire and vulnerability that makes the character of House compelling.

Furthermore, as a longtime co-worker of House, Wilson knows how dependent his friend is on their relationship to live and work and can help Cuddy develop the emergent romantic relationship that plays out throughout season five. By demystifying House's process by breaking up the myth of the Great Man into an array of actors (moving the focus from the Man to his balls), Wilson may make him less attractive in certain respects but does so to show Cuddy possibilities for her to integrate herself into his life. He may appear to not need anyone or anything, but his balls testify against him. The great intellectual labor on which he builds himself up is not the result of him alone but include often unseen, uncited contribution of his thinking objects. 

Thinking Objects

Like unappreciated workers on strike, the disappearance of critical thinking objects can halt intellectual labor. In the case of my blue ball, like House's in the hands of Cuddy, its absence interrupted my writing that day. While I would like to claim that the girls losing my toy did not affect my ability to think, it was a persistent distraction as I tried to compensate by throwing around other small objects from my work space (keys, etc). Thinking objects to such material actors but is dependent on them.

In my case, the protest of my missing ball caused me to break from my work and begin an extensive search. As I crawled around the house looking for my ball, my thinking was opened up for others to reveal the critical role of objects occupying a place within it, much like how at the crisis of his balls House was opened up to show all the things he contains. Coming to see the importance of material community for House, "Let Them Eat Cake" concludes with Cuddy surrendering his balls and thinking space when she leaves for her refurbished office in a moment of tenderness. Likewise, seeing my dedicated investigation for my missing object, the older of the two girls to disappeared briefly from the play room to suddenly reappear with my ball.

While the delay was frustrating, the ball's momentary invisibility served as an object lesson on the workings and workers of intellectual labor. The girls saw the material dependencies of thought, developing in them an appreciation for the writing process and got them to think about objects.

Raising awareness of the stakes of safe and helpful environments for intellectual labor one of the reasons that I am taking a break from other writing in order to compose this blog-post, sharing scenes of thought's objects, the role of thinking objects, and the objections of thought. While academics, writers, and teachers (to name a few) can be very end-product driven, often hiding the messy dependencies of our work in our offices like Dr House, by laying open our process to others we can better demonstrate that mental work has material needs of its own. This is a critical point to keep making as universities and public opinion turns against teachers, taking away the necessary tools, office-space, and financial support that allow us to do our work. 

It is not enough to let the collapse of education and departments speak for itself, because the blame will often fall on the "Great Minds" as management boards remain unaware of the critical role that of all the material components played in producing writing, thinking, and teaching. Once things are taken away, it may be too late.

To illuminate this point, I will share one more instance of my ball's absence. A couple weeks after the girls lost and found my thinking object, I was back in Chicago staying with my mother, looking around her house trying to solve its repeated disappearance. Again, my search produced no results until my mother came home and I explained to her what I was looking for and why. Suddenly her eyes dropped to the ground. "I think I might have thrown it away," she admitted. "Why?!" I exclaimed. "I was collecting random things to throw into the trash and I didn't think it was important."

In this case, as with the girls and Dr. Cuddy, my ball was again saved by people gaining appreciation for thinking objects. My mother disappeared and reappeared with the ball. Fortunately the trash had not yet been collected and it stood on top of a pile of refuse. Washing the ball off, I got back to work with it, tossing it against the wall along with my thoughts. This second instance of loss, however, was a near miss. While it is very possible to recover from a ball being thrown away, the event is emblematic of wider social needs and the attitudes that often work counter to intellectual labor. In all of these cases, it is not the under-appreciation of intellectuals or their work that poses the threat, but the danger posed to the environments that help create the critical conversations and culture that we all share.


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