Over at An Un-canny ontology, Nathan Gale has written a fascinating post comparing the rhetoric of Graham’s object-oriented philosophy with the rhetoric of my onticology with respect to the theme of the uncanny. In many respects, OOO is the perfect choice of philosophy to explore the rhetoric of the uncanny. If we go back to the German sense of the word, the unheimlich signifies that which is “un-homely”. As Freud writes:
The German word ‘unheimlich’ is obviously the opposite of ‘heimlich’ [‘homely’], … the opposite of what is familiar; and we are tempted to conclude that what is ‘uncanny’ is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar. Naturally not everything that is new and unfamiliar is frightening, however; the relation is not capable of inversion. … Something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar in order to make it uncanny.
This is precisely what OOO pursues or seeks under the name of “object” or “thing”. The heimlich or homely/familiar would be 1) in Heideggerian terms, the worldhood of the world or the system of significance/meaning described so magnificently in division I of Being and Time, or 2) the object reduced to the status of being a carrier for human meanings, representations, or ends as in the case of a dollar bill as the material vehicle (in Peirce’s language) of value such that value is not an intrinsic property of the dollar bill, but rather “projected” onto the paper and ink by the social. In both cases, the heimlich is characterized by relationality, and this in two ways: first, there is the obvious relationality of the heimlich involved in its relationship to the person as what is familiar. Second, the heimlich consists of relations between entities or relations between meanings. Heidegger taught us to see how the “as-structure” of a hammer is not an intrinsic feature of its present-at-hand being, but rather the result of the manner in which it belongs to a network of relations to other entities (nails, boards, etc.), and a system of ends and aims. By contrast, the structuralists and post-structuralists– not to mention late Wittgenstein –taught us to see how meaning is not an intrinsic feature of a signifier, a concept that lies behind the signifier, but is rather an effect of differential relations between signifiers. No signifier signifies alone, but rather signifiers only signify in relations between signifiers. It is these relational networks that constitute the heimlich or the network of “worldhood” or the familiar. To be at home is to be related.
What OOO, by contrast, pursues is the unheimlich. And if the heimlich is the relational, it follows that the unheimlich is, paradoxically, the object or thing encountered in its non-relationality. Objects are necessarily uncanny or unheimlich because they are that which exceeds any reduction to their relations. We encounter hints of the objectness of objects all the time. In “The Uncanny” Freud recounts such an experience that is curiously buried in a footnote (repressed?). Freud writes:
I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jolt of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a travelling cap came in. I assumed that in leaving the washing-cabinet, which lay between the two compartments, he had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass on the open door. I can still recollect that I thoroughly disliked his appearance. Instead, therefore, of being frightened by our ‘doubles’, both Mach and I simply failed to recognize them as such. Is it not possible, though, that our dislike of them was a vestigial trace of the archaic reaction which feels the ‘double’ to something uncanny?
In this moment Freud caught a glimpse of the withdrawn nature of his own body and his image. If this experience was, for him, uncanny, then this is because he encountered his own image unrelated to himself. As Lacan teaches us in his work on the mirror stage (and as Freud also taught us in the stellar trajectory of “On Narcissism”, “Mourning and Melancholia”, and The Ego and the Id, we identify with our image as if it were ourselves. This is something, according to Freud and Lacan, that we must accomplish such that the unified and centered sense of self is not something we’re born with, but is rather a developmental product and a continual life-long set of operations (part of our misery is that we never manage to coincide with our image or ego). The uncanny effect of Freud’s experience in the cabin arises from an encounter with his image desutured from his sense of self. The relation between self and image has here broken down.
Likewise, if we’re hiking in a remote forest and come across a half drank can of beer, beads of cold perspiration still dancing along its surface, sitting on a lichen covered rock, it is likely that we here have an experience of the uncanny. Here we encounter the can of beer severed from the system of worldhood, of relations, that give it sense and meaning. “Why is it here?” “Is someone else here in this remote forest?” In this brief moment, the thingness of this thing, the objectness of the beer can independent of its relations is alluded to in such a way that these relations of meaning and equipmental use are also suggested. The beer can, severed from familiar relations yet suggesting familiar relations now takes on a sinister and foreboding cast, simultaneously signaling both the threat of other possible humans and the alien being of the beer can qua object that cannot be reduced to human meanings and uses. At the formal ontological level, it is this alien being that OOO is after. This alien being has all sorts of important consequences for the domain of the heimlich, yet it must be explored for its own sake before these consequences can be drawn out.
I won’t ruin Nate’s post by recounting its contents here. Go read it! Nate argues that Harman’s ontology follows the logic of the Freudian uncanny, whereas mine follows the logic of the Lacanian uncanny (in particular Lacan-Miller’s logic of “extimacy”). This couldn’t come at a better time as I’m currently writing an article for Umbra(a)’s issue on technology (I’ll be published alongside Stiegler, yay!) and have been looking– in keeping with the dominant thematics of the journal –for a Lacanian way into the thematization of technology. Nate’s reading of my work provides me with the perfect route of passage into the article. Thanks Nate! In passing, I will say that Nate’s linkage between the rhetoric of OOO and the uncanny has countless implications for the relationism/non-relationism debate. And here– since it has to be repeated endlessly, it seems –the OOO side of the debate is not that entities cannot enter into relations and that these relations do not change things, but that there are no direct relations and that all relations are external. That aside, note a certain theme about “homeliness” that runs throughout the relationist eco-literature (Stuart Kaufmann is a nice example of this).
In a slightly unrelated note, I today wrote that paraphrasing Heidegger, for the poor person everything is a broken tool; while for the comfortable person everything is a representation. This is, of course, a jab at cultural Marxism and certain representationally driven models of critical theory. Those who know their Heidegger will get it. Following Nate’s post, we could also say that for the poor and oppressed person, everything is uncanny, and for the comfortable person everything is heimlich. Privilege makes objects very difficult to see.