Exploded Views: On Ivan Vladislavic and the Value of Literature
It seems fitting that a periodical like Popular Mechanics would introduce the exploded-view diagram to the popular imagination. Surely by now most of us are familiar with exploded views: that is, technical-schematic drawings that depict how the various parts of an object or machine fit together. These diagrams typically feature any number of components hovering in three-dimensional suspended animation, with all parts equidistant from each other as if frozen in mid-explosion. Throughout the twentieth century, Popular Mechanics used such diagrams to help lay readers understand what made automobiles whirr and the latest techno-gadgets clink. Feature articles also presented exploded views to guide its readers through the intricacies of, say, adding a limit switch to a lathe carriage. Such diagrams have thus been central in the DIY movement since its early heyday in the 1950s.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that IKEA — a company that has harnessed the DIY ethos to drive a massively successful global brand — has transformed the exploded-view diagram into an essential tool for twenty-first-century living. Anyone who’s assembled a Billy bookcase, put together a Poäng chair, or manufactured a Malm bed frame will intuitively grasp the value of the exploded-view diagram, and maybe even develop an aesthetic appreciation for it. Indeed, the exploded-view aesthetic has emerged as a significant undercurrent in modern art and design, with Damian Ortega’s exploded-view car installation providing a bridge to the increasingly harrowing abstractions of the street artist Nychos and the sculptor Cornelia Parker.
But the exploded view hasn’t just captured the popular and artistic imaginations; it’s also become something of a fetish object for some contemporary philosophers, and particularly those working within what is known as object-oriented ontology (OOO). This certainly isn’t the place to blab on about the nuances or the critiques of OOO, which like any newfangled academic subject is both lauded as revolutionary and dismissed as a fad. However, a brief explanation seems both interesting and useful.
In the past decade or so, OOO has emerged under the umbrella of speculative realism, a broad philosophical project that critiques what Quentin Meillassoux has called “correlationism.” Correlationism names a characteristic shared by virtually all modern philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Jacques Derrida, all of whom appear to understand being in terms of a correlative relationship between mind and world. Basically, this means that existence itself becomes an issue of human access. In the extreme case of subjective idealism, for instance, (human) perception is said to be the thing that makes all existence — and not just human existence — possible. Object-oriented ontologists like Ian Bogost find this claim absurd and claim, as Bogost himself does in Alien Phenomenology, that we “must abandon the belief that human access sits at the center of being, organizing and regulating it like an ontological watchmaker.” Instead, Bogost argues for a “flat ontology” that would understand all objects as existing primarily on their own terms and not “for” any other object or entity, humans included.
What makes OOO unique in contemporary philosophy, then, is its commitment to the idea that real objects exist independently of the human mind. As Rick Elmore has pointed out in his excellent blog essay, this seemingly straightforward position has not found much purchase in the history of philosophy because it appears to be a pseudo-problem, a “dogmatic assertion that objects are simply out there in the world.” But this grossly misstates the case. For one thing, in OOO objects are not limited to entities with a physical presence. Object refers to corporeal as well as incorporeal entities, and they can be either organic or inorganic. Human beings and the global climate — and for that matter global climate change — are as much objects as a hammer. The vast range of possible objectivities renders the spatial and temporal character of objects far stranger and more complex than could be captured by the reductionist view that “things exist.” And indeed, OOO explores the strangeness of this reality in great detail.
Which brings me back to exploded views. Bogost finds in the exploded-view diagram a unique approach to understanding objects, both their “repleteness” as individual units and their “interobjective” relations with other objects. This approach embraces the strangeness of how objects and object assemblages work. He writes:
The exploded-view drawing is meant to clarify some complex physical system for the benefit of a human constructor, operator, or designer. But in common practice, an exploded-view drawing offers just as much intrigue as it does use value: for example, when viewing a car parts manual, someone with no knowledge of automotive repair can still bask in the unfamiliar repleteness present in a modern automobile. Likewise, a child pores over the cutaway view of the submarine not to learn how to operate it but to fathom a small aspect of its murky otherworldliness.
For Bogost, exploded-view diagrams do more than just show us how complex assemblages fit together; they “explode” our very notions of what object assemblages are, such that we find in a V6 engine or a submersible a mine of curiosity. And in this curiosity in objects’ strangeness lies no less than the re-enchantment of the world. The exploded-view diagram thus offers a mode of object-oriented enchantment.
Enchantment is precisely what the protagonist of “Crocodile Lodge,” the final story in Ivan Vladislavić’s The Exploded View, finds in exploded-view diagrams. As a child, he perused issues from the South African edition of Popular Mechanics, ogling the technical drawings and imagining a universe of parts fitting into wholes. The enchantment the protagonist derives from the exploded views isn’t exactly philosophical, at least not in the OOO sense. Instead, he transforms the diagrams into a personalized mental strategy, one that he uses to imagine a perfectly organized world where everything lies in its proper place and he stands in control: “Each part hovered just out of range of the others it was meant to meet, with precise narrow spaces in between. All it needed was a touch, a prod with the tip of a finger” — his finger, the reader presumes — “to shift everything closer together, and a perfect world would be realized.” The exploded view thus becomes a mindfulness technique that the protagonist hones over forty years and applies as much to mechanical repairs as to imagining whole houses, even landscapes.
But the anxiety Vladislavić’s protagonist feels is not limited to technology. His concern about the outmoded nature of exploded views masks his failure to understand and operate within the complexities of modern South African society — “his world,” as the narrator insists. What, then, would enable him to do so? If the rigor of technical illustration cannot capture the world’s inner workings, then what can?
Vladislavić seems to answer his own protagonist’s implied question by creating a literary species of an exploded-view diagram. The Exploded View is a collection of four subtly interconnected short stories that, taken together, offer something of a cross-section of modern life in Johannesburg. The interconnections between the stories are, first of all, geographical. Highways as well as landmarks like Villa Toscana and Bra Zama’s African Eatery serve as mutual reference points that triangulate spatial connections between the characters. Furthermore, all four of the protagonists occupy some kind of outsider status. The white census worker in the first story, “Villa Toscana,” incessantly jots around Joburg, never settling in his office. The white protagonist in the second story, “Afritude Sauce,” gets blamed for the shortcomings of development housing, though he’s only responsible for designing the sewage system. Simeon, the protagonist of “Curiouser,” is a black artist who complains of being stranded in a “cultural backwater.” Finally, the white protagonist of the final story works in a field adjacent to the construction industry, installing billboards and construction signage.
But the stories are also connected in less obvious ways. Take, for instance, the statistical refrain that runs through the volume. The protagonist of the first story works for the census bureau and is preoccupied with percentages and demographic data. The statistical frame of mind appears in other stories as well, like when the sewage engineer of the second story considers an educational game involving statistics about poverty, HIV, and access to utilities in South Africa. He and the protagonist of the final story each have a habit of mentally “tak[ing] a quick census” in social situations. Finally, Simeon in the third story shares with the protagonist of the first a desire to “learn the signs” that distinguish one “type” of black African from another and allow for mental categorization of the new South African populace: “Was he a Nigerian?” “What did a Malawian look like?”
More than anything, though, what unites the four characters in The Exploded View is a certain psychological cadence. Each protagonist exhibits a drive to disassemble his world into its constituent pieces. Simeon enacts this drive literally in his sculpture project titled Curiouser, for which he slices wooden animal carvings into thin cross-sections and reassembles them in unsettling new configurations — both hybrid zoological monstrosities and abstract, splayed-out “maps.” Likewise, the census taker reduces society to numbers; the sewage engineer carves up social responsibility into individualized segments; and the billboard constructor, as I’ve already mentioned, has a predilection for old-fashioned exploded-view diagrams.
Although with its all-male, majority-white cast, The Exploded View cannot be said to provide a truly representative cross-section of Johannesburg, the collection is, in all its schematic incompleteness, very suggestive of the social intricacies involved in the so-called New South Africa. In fact, the very holeyness of Vladislavić’s book is what makes it akin to traditional exploded-view diagrams, which are as much defined by objects as the gaps between them — (in)complete in and of themselves, and for this reason full of subtlety and intrigue. In this sense, The Exploded View uses disparate parts to allude to an elusive (indeed illusory) whole.
The schematic nature of this collection is perhaps what distinguishes Vladislavić from other writers who have used the short-story genre to portray a snapshot of a particular society at a particular place and time. James Joyce accomplished this brilliantly in Dubliners at the beginning of the twentieth century, as did Edward P. Jones in Lost in the City at the twentieth century’s end. However, unlike Dubliners and Lost in the City, which feature fifteen and fourteen stories respectively, The Exploded View contains only four, suggesting that Vladislavić is less interested than either Joyce or Jones in providing a complete cross-section of Johannesburg.
Another feature that distinguishes Vladislavić in this context is that he doesn’t seem invested in using literature as a diagnostic tool. Joyce famously proclaimed that Dubliners represented “a chapter of the moral history” of his people, one that was scrupulously realistic enough for his fellow Dubliners to see themselves and come to understand the profound paralysis that they all suffered from. The stories in Jones’s Lost in the City are less diagnostic than Joyce’s, but they nevertheless emphasize the social and spiritual challenges that afflict the African American community in Washington, D.C. By no means is this a problem. In fact, both collections derive much of their power from their close examinations of particular social ills. Vladislavić’s work, however, does not strike me as similarly diagnostic; its power must therefore be located elsewhere.
For me, the power of The Exploded View emerges in part from the cumulative effect of Vladislavić’s past writing, much of which demonstrates a thoroughgoing and diverse intellectual investment in the urban landscape of Johannesburg as an object in itself. To be sure, Joyce and Jones display strong ties with their respective hometowns. After Dubliners, Joyce continued to obsess over his representation of Dublin in Ulysses, just as Jones returned to Washington, D.C. with a second short-story collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children.
But Vladislavić’s engagement with Johannesburg goes beyond fiction. In 1998, for instance, he and architect Hilton Judin edited a groundbreaking collection of essays titled Blank_____: Architecture, Apartheid and After, which examined the history of South African architecture and urban planning during and after Apartheid. In 2006, Vladislavić published a work titled Portrait with Keys, a beguiling and poetic volume featuring a compilation of documentary texts and nonfictional reflections that, taken together, offer a view of a schizophrenic city in all its improvisational glory. Yet another experimental work appeared in 2010, six years after the original publication of The Exploded View. This interdisciplinary project involved Vladislavić writing a novel, Double Negative, in response to iconic images by the South African photographer David Goldblatt, who is well known for his stark depictions of Johannesburg both during and after Apartheid. Like Golblatt’s photos, Vladislavić’s novel reflects on a changing city and the lives within it.
Though a seemingly straightforward work of fiction, The Exploded View fits into this genealogy of writing in a singular way: not by stuffing Johannesburg full of objects and people, as Joyce ends up doing in Ulysses, but by stripping away virtually everything and merely gesturing at the kinds of interconnections that actually constitute such a complex, sometimes problematic metropolis. Indeed, these interconnections are the very things that the protagonist of “Crocodile Lodge” cannot see, much less fathom. No diagram can serviceably outline these interconnections. But in The Exploded View, Vladislavić harnesses narrative to do just that. And if the resulting schema is, well, very schematic, then that’s only because the object itself — the city — cannot be known: it is a vast assemblage of parts that do not and will not fit together into a single whole.
All this stuff about parts, wholes, and elusive totalities is admittedly abstract, particularly with regard to a slim volume like The Exploded View. Nevertheless, I find it useful because it reminds me of both the power of literature and its limits. Literature creates worlds, which is, I suspect, why we are drawn to it. But the worlds literature creates are always incomplete. No matter how much we try to patch over the gaps between things, either through acts of interpretation or even by supplementing with our own stories, literary worlds remain riddled with holes. Which is, I hasten to add, just like exploded views.
In this way, then, The Exploded View answers its fourth and final protagonist by demonstrating literature’s value as an inherently schematic thing, an object that teases out the interconnections between things but always leaves room for enchantment.
Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
Elmore, Rick. “Explaining Object Oriented Ontology to Your Non-OOO Friends.” Environmental Critique, 29 Dec. 2011.
Goldblatt, David, and Ivan Vladislavić. TJ—Johannesburg Photographs 1948–2010 / Double Negative: A Novel. Contrasto, 2010.
Jones, Edward P. All Aunt Hagar’s Children. Amistad Press, 2006.
———. Lost in the City. Amistad Press, 1992.
Joyce, James. Dubliners. Penguin, 1993.
———. Ulysses. Vintage, 1986.
Judin, Hilton, and Ivan Vladislavić, editors. Blank ____: Architecture, Apartheid and After. Netherlands Architecture Institute, 1998.
Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Translated by Ray Brassier, Continuum, 2009.
Vladislavić, Ivan. The Exploded View. Archipelago, 2017.
———. Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked. W. W. Norton & Co., 2009.