I remember, with great intensity, when I got my first pair of glasses. It must have been right around the second or third grade. I had been doing poorly in school, especially math, so my teacher suggested that perhaps I had vision problems and was unable to see the board. After a trip to the optometrist and a week long wait I finally went to pick up my plastic rimmed, tortoise shell specs. That drive home was unforgettable.
Suffering from a slight bit of nausea and a raging headache, coupled with deep shock and amazement, an entire world had appeared that I hadn’t imagined existed. Lines were crisp, colors were vivid. I could see blades of grass as we raced down the highway. It was a disturbing and exhilarating experience. I hadn’t the faintest clue that this way of experiencing the world was possible. I had no idea that such a world was available. Such is the nature of von Uexküll’s concept of umwelts and Harman’s concept of objects withdrawn from one another. In the image to the left, von Uexküll depicts the difference between the umwelt of humans perceiving a field of flowers (top) and the umwelt of the bee perceiving one and the same field (bottom). When I got my first pair of glasses, I had made a similar transition from one umwelt to another. Without my glasses, my umwelt consisted of wavy, vibrating, fuzzy lines, indistinct shapes, and blocks of flat color. With my glasses, distinct lines, lively colors, and delineated shapes burst into existence. The world came to be organized in a very different way.
The big mistake here would be to suppose that the human world depicted in von Uexküll’s drawing above or my new world with glasses constitute the world as it is. The world with and without my glasses, the world of the human and the bee, are all instances of what Harman calls a “sensual object”. A sensual object is an object that only exists on the interior of another real object. Sensual objects don’t exist at all, they do not have independent existence, but only exist for the real object that encounters them. Put differently, sensual objects are the way in which one real object encounters another real object. That real object encountered, however, is withdrawn from the real object that encounters it. Consequently, it is not that the world that appeared when I got my glasses was closer to reality, but rather this new world is different. Whatever the case may be, it is not the world as such. Moreover, no object, no matter how refined, can encounter the world or other objects as such.
Luhmann teaches that systems or objects (for me they’re one and the same) are founded, at their most basic level, on a distinction between system and environment. There is no one-to-one mapping between system and environment, but rather every environment is 1) always more complex than the system relating to that environment, and 2) systems only relate selectively to their environment. Insofar as objects are operationally closed, what the system experiences in relating to its environment is not the objects that populate the environment. Rather, what every object encounters or experiences is its own operations or, in Harman’s language, “sensual objects”. Every object or system experiences itself, not the world.
Arising from this we get a very specific species of transcendental illusion suffered by all objects: real objects encounter their umwelt as reality. The umwelt is treated as what is real, rather than as how one object apprehends the real. Prior to getting my glasses, I believed that the world was composed of indistinct shapes, flat colors, fuzzy and vibrating lines. For me these were properties of the world, not of how I apprehend the world. When I got my glasses, I was now capable of distinguishing between umwelt and world. I came to understand that my umwelt, with the prosthesis of glasses or without, was an umwelt and not the world itself. I came to understand the manner in which the objects populating the world are withdrawn.
Here we get an elementary ontological framework for thinking about the critique of ideology. Ideology is not a distortion of true reality as classical theory would have it, but an erasure of of withdrawn objects and world such that real objects and world are reduced to umwelt or sensual objects. Because umwelt and sensual objects are identified with world as such, umwelt is experienced as just the way the world is such that no alternative is possible. The elementary gesture of critique is to introduce a gap between umwelt and world, such that umwelt is no longer identified with world. Critique hystericizes the object. Through the production of this gap, through the discovery of this metaphysical distance at the heart of things, freedom erupts for now we take on the possibility of engaging in second-order observation, observing how we observe and how other objects observe, and thereby open a space in which it becomes possible to draw new distinctions where new sensual objects and ways of relating to the world become available.