Perhaps we would do best to call it the material unconscious. Freud famously said that there had been three blows to human narcissism: Copernicus and his decentering of the Earth, Darwin and his theory of evolution, and psychoanalysis and its discovery of the unconscious. With the first humanity learns that it is not at the center of the universe. With the second, humanity learns it is not markedly different from animals. With the third, humanity learns that it’s interiority is not in charge. With thingly thought, the thought of the object, we perhaps encounter a fourth blow to our narcissism: the way in which we are mediated by things. We dwell within a milieu of things, objects, or what I have elsewhere called machines. What we take to be our own agency, our own free choice, instead turns out in so many instances to be the agency of these things or machines acting upon us. To be sure, I choose which hallway to walk through, but what I don’t choose– to paraphrase Zizek –is the form of choice dictated by hallways, or roads, or paths, themselves. These things lie before me as so many choices already chosen within which I might make my choices. I live in a world where my being is mediated– where it is afforded and constrained –in an endless variety of ways.
Like the fish that doesn’t recognize that it’s in water because water is all it knows, these things, objects, or machines are invisible to us because they so thoroughly make up the fabric of our existence. Instead we focus on the discursive and normative because the machines quietly hum in the background like the water as it always does, allowing us to safely ignore them. They withdraw, to use Harman’s expression. For this reason, the empire of things deserves to be called a material unconscious. Like the Lacanian unconscious that exercises its bad jokes and puns behind our back, structuring without us being aware our desires and decisions, the material unconscious plunges us into an eccentric orbit where our action, agency, cognition, ways of relating to one another, and desires are organized from without; all the while creating the misrecognition of these things as our own. Like the psychoanalytic unconscious, the material unconscious is not a sack within us, another person inside us like homunculus calling the shots without us realizing it. No. Everything transpires on the surface, on a plane of immanence, in a field of exteriority that is an intimacy more intimate than any intimacy… So much so that it is extimate. To know the material unconscious one must think not like a Brandomian or a phenomenologist, but rather like a ecologist, designer, or architect. Indeed, another name for architecture and design is ecology. The designers and architects are the great cartographers of the material unconscious; they even produce much of it.
If thingly thought is timely, then it is because we are awash in objects, in things of all kinds. We are awash in those seductive things that so fascinated the semioticians: commodities. The commodity, of course, captures us in the entire system of exploitation so brilliantly analyzed by Marx. Yet, as Baudrillard taught us, it is also a lure for desire that manages our desire, taming those desires that would be anarchic lines of flight, while also functioning as semiotic markers of identity, status, class, and so on, thereby functioning as sites in a politics of self and social relations. As Zizek suggests, the urban executive that drives the Land Rover does not simply display a practical, utilitarian mind set, but rather a certain unconscious fantasy that perhaps allows him to tolerate the world of capital. The commodity displays itself as a sort of shine to the Other, signaling certain social relations; even those commodities that claim to be transgressive and counter-cultural. Here, also, we might think of the pathologies that arise around the commodity such as hoarding, so well analyzed by Jane Bennett.
There are, of course, the endless parade of technologies that transform our social relations, cognition, and affectivity, and that create new desires and needs (increasingly the internet is becoming a right, not a luxury, because one cannot navigate the job market in the First World without it). There are all the foods and supplements that transform the very fabric of our bodies, affecting even our moods; but that also transform the ecology of our planet. There are also the terrifying hybrid objects created by the sciences, so beautifully explored by theorists such as Stacy Alaimo. Where science once explored the domain of phusis, of that which arises out of itself and through itself (as opposed to techne that bestows form from without), we now have a blurring of phusis and techne in the form of things like GMOs, atomic elements never before encountered in nature, pesticides, carbon emissions, and many ore besides.
Everywhere things crowd in on us, exercising a strange sort of power that structures our lives, the lives of other organic beings, and that affects the totality of the planet. It is that field of invisible things that are everywhere visible that is the material unconscious and that today calls for thought. Recognizing that the material unconscious mediates our agency is not a defeatist thought, but is the first step towards developing real agency; an agency that is not merely the order of thought. We must develop a politics of things; a politics that involves building, designing, and constructing and not merely legislating and persuading.