July 2018


It is common to rebuke the new materialisms and object-oriented ontologies as falling prey to a primitive animism that attributes agency, desires, and intentionality to matter and things.  Following a heated discussion about how things act upon us, influencing what we do and how we relate to one another, an archaeologist friend of mine disdainfully quipped that the fallacy of my position is that our cars cannot love us back.  He continued, claiming that things don’t do anything to us, but rather that it is always we who put things to use according to our aims and intentions.  When I evoked examples such as bars across public benches and spikes under overpasses to prevent homeless people from sleeping in these places, he would have none of it, and continued to insist that I was claiming that things have emotions and desires.  Not only did he refuse the idea that our agency is distributed, that it doesn’t arise simply from us alone, but arises from how we related to the things of the world around us, but he did so with an outraged vehemence that I have great trouble understanding.  Why is it that the idea that we don’t walk on the earth, but with the earth– that the gravity of the earth is part of what allows us to walk as can be clearly seen from the fact that it is impossible to walk on the moon –such a disturbing and threatening idea?  Why is it so difficult to see that the blind man’s cane is a part of his sensory apparatus?

My friend’s response– one that is common and ubiquitous in my experience –reflects a deep and ancient conceptual grammar that underlies our thought in all disciplines and practices; one that I believe we desperately need to abandon.  The distinction between subject and object reflects a further distinction between the active and the passive, the animate and the inert.  Within this conceptual framework, matter and things are a priori passive and inert, and therefore can only be recipients of action, objects of action, and never actors themselves.  In this regard, things are targets of our action and are for the sake of our use and mastery.  Here we are all Aristotlians, seeing matter as a passive, formless medium that requires form in order to become a substance or thing.  That form can never originate from the matter itself, but requires the outside agency of a subject– the craftsman that forms the clay into a brick by placing it in a mold –or God.  If some sort of subject is always necessary for formation, then this is because matter is conceived as necessarily inanimate and inert.  Matter cannot itself do anything, but rather can only have things done to it.  It will be observed that this way of thinking embodies a will towards calculation, domination, and mastery at its core…  A will that is at the heart of the ecological crisis we now find ourselves in.

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A few months ago I was at a dinner hosted by a long-time anthropologist friend of mine who is an extraordinary cook.  Yet another mass shooting had recently occurred, and discussion shifted to guns.  I articulated my thesis that the gun debate is about affect, rather than all of the reasons people give such as self-defense.  People have what I described as a libidinal relationship to guns.  There is an entire erotics of guns, just as there is an erotics of cars, kitchen tools, and electronic gadgets.  Attachment to these things can’t simply be explained in terms of their use and functionality.  No.  In addition to this, there is an entire aesthetic of these tools, gadgets, and technologies.  Trying to put myself in the shoes of the person obsessed with guns, I think of my relationship to my stainless steel frying pan.  To be sure, I take delight in the functionality of this pan and what it allows me to do.  For example, you just can’t make true hash browns or cacio e pepe, much less pan-fry a steak, without such a pan.  However, in addition to the utility of my beloved pan, there is a libidinal and aesthetic dimension to it.  I cannot fully explain why I love it so, but I am smitten by how it feels in my hand, by the gleam of the stainless steal, by its weight and presence.  Even if the pan did not serve its function well, I would nonetheless be passionate about this pan and deeply attached to it.

I think about this when I try to understand the gun owner, not because I wish to excuse the gun owner– I’m horrified by guns –but because I think this is something that needs to be understood if we’re to change attitudes towards guns.  As strange as it sounds, my heart beats a little faster when I see my pan, and I take great pleasure in the weight I feel in my hand as I brown butter to prepare cacio.  If I cock my head sideways and squint, I can see a similar aesthetics at work with guns.  There is a certain ugly beauty to guns.  I imagine that the gun owner takes a delight in the heft of their gun in their hand, the smell of oil, the way it is beautifully put together, and, above all, the sense of power they feel as they hold it, feel its recoil, and here the loud sound that it makes.  Perhaps many gun owners experience a sort of mad, giddy, intoxication with these things, not unlike the swoons others experience with gadgets like a well designed smart-phone or a beefy muscle car.  Over and above the utility and function of the thing, there is an aesthetic experience in the beauty of the thing similar to the madness of love.

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In In Defense of Things, Bjørnar Olsen notes that the word “thing” comes from the Old English term þing, meaning assembly or gathering.  Things are that which gather or assemble.  They are both assembled and assemble.  But what is it that things assemble?  We are accustomed to thinking of things as assemblages; especially technical things.  The tree assembles sunshine, water, and nutrients from the earth in forming itself to sing its hymn to the sky and the land.  Yet it also gathers all sorts of insects, birds, squirrels and other creatures aside that make their life in and around the earth.  Indeed, in dropping its leaves, the tree contributes to the creation of the soil upon which it depends to persist.  But it is not just that the tree gathers and contributes to the creation of the materials it requires to form itself and endure, it is also that the tree is a gathering, an assembly for forms of life beyond itself such as the birds that nest in its branches, the insects that hunt among its leaves, and the squirrels that take refuge high in its canopy to escape our dog.  Our dog’s activities of bounding and jumping are also gathered or assembled by the tree and the squirrel.  There is a folding of materiality and activity here that draws a variety of beings together.

In Entangled, Ian Hodder gives the example of the car to illustrate the idea of things as assemblies.  The parts of a car, he notes, are built in a variety of places from all over the world.  The car therefore gathers nations and people together in ways that we can scarcely register when we encounter it as a black boxed or completed thing.  Just as Deleuze and Guattari quote Marx, noting that we cannot tell from the taste of wheat how it was grown and who grew it, we scarcely know how we’re entangled or folded into other people and nations when we drive a car.  Yet it is not just that the car gathers and assembles all of these other things, nations, and peoples; the car also gathers highways, the oil and battery industries, gas stations, distribution chains for both cars, parts, and fuel, taxes, licenses, roads, and forms of life.  The flight to the suburbs wouldn’t have been possible without the car or some other form of transportation that allowed people to travel to urban centers.  It is said that the designers of the first Ford Mustang were insistent on two things:  that it be cheap and affordable for younger people and that it have a bench back seat. Why the flat back seat?  The designers of the classic American muscle car were dimly aware that the car was an integral part of the growing sexual revolution, providing a place of privacy for young people away from the prying eyes of parents.  The Mustang was to provide a place where furtive kisses would be possible.  Again, another form of gathering, not just of couples locked in embrace with one another, but of forms of amorous activity.

Things gather together other things, norms, meanings, laws, nations, people, and forms of life or activity.  They are not just gatherings and assemblies, but gather and assemble human and nonhuman collectives and ways of doing.  The tree is not just an assembly of soil, sunshine, and rain, but gathers the morning ritual between our dog and the squirrel, leading me to be awoken every morning between five and six; yet another ritual as she climbs upon my back as I slumber and sticks her nose against my ear to tell me that it’s time to see if this time, at long last, she’ll capture the squirrel (this ritual ends every morning with the squirrel laughing at her and taunting her from high in the branches of the tree).  Our tendency is to think of politics as merely an affair of parties, the State apparatus, meanings, identities, and representation.  Yet if we take the etymology of the term “politics” from the Greek polis seriously and ask ourselves, “what is a city?”, and note that there is no city that is not an assemblage of humans and nonhumans, we find that even in our humblest dealings with things we are gathered together not only with other humans, but with all sorts of things that embroil us in matters of concern.  Perhaps there’s a vantage from which every thing is one of Morton’s hyperobjects, sticking to us in all sorts of uncomfortable ways we’d like to forget, assembling and gathering us together with all sorts of humans and nonhumans to which we only seem unrelated because they have been black boxed in the execution of the thing.  We are immediately enmeshed in a politics of the world with the smallest of things in ways we can scarcely trace, and in recognizing this we also recognizing all sorts of other avenues of political engagement that don’t merely take place at the level of recognition and meaning.

In early August I will be going on an archeological dig at a WWII Russian POW camp with the Unruly Heritage project in Svaerholt, in the northern most region of Norway.  You can read more about the early stages of the Svaerholt dig here.  I have never done anything like this and am both deeply excited and trepidatious.  Reaching the location requires a two hour boat road.  Once there, I’m told we get to shore by a smaller boat.  This requires specialized waterproof gear in the event that something falls in the water while transferring from boat to boat.  There are no people there, nor any infrastructure to speak of (though I’m told that strangely cell phone service is good).  I’ll be sleeping in a tent and bathing in a stream like the Russian POW’s and German soldiers that occupied the camp decades ago.  I’ve camped a great deal throughout my life– especially during my teen years –but I’ve never gone on a trip of this magnitude and for this length of time (nearly two weeks).  I marvel and am honored that I somehow got involved with the archeologists of the Norwegian school and am gratified to see the ideas of the object-oriented ontologies, the new materialisms, and actor-network theory put to work in fields far afield from philosophy.  I hope this is a prelude to further expeditions of this sort during my involvement with the project over the next four years.  Not only am I fascinated by the various digs they’re engaged in, but I’m especially interested in witnessing their practices of knowledge production and theory formation.  As a philosopher, I feel that I’ve been given the rare opportunity to open the black box of knowledge production, so as to witness first-hand the process of “circulating reference” that Latour describes so beautifully in his essay by the same name in Pandora’s Hope.

In the last few months I’ve been hungrily reading everything I can by the archeologists of the symmetrical school.  This has included Bjornar Olsen’s marvelous book, In Defense of Things:  Archaeology and the Ontology of Objects, Archaeology:  The Discipline of Things, by Olsen, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor, and Christopher Whitmore, as well as numerous articles by Olsen, Þóra Pétursdóttir (who is developing the fascinating concept of “drift”), and Whitmore (trained as both a philosopher and archaeologist).  I have found everything I’ve read deeply rewarding and challenging.

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Earlier this week I had the great honor of participating in Ryan Sporer’s (now Dr. Ryan Sporer!) defense on his beautiful dissertation The Politics of Circumvention, which discussed the Earthship movement as a form of politics at the level of material construction.  Drawing on new materialisms, object-oriented ontology, actor-network theory, and so much more, Sporer shows how certain material practices form a politics that strive to circumvent what he calls “the grid” or cages.  I’m gratified that some of the concepts I’ve developed played some small role in Sporer’s research (particularly the concept of terraformation in Onto-Cartography), and ardently hopes he publishes his dissertation in book form.

While reading his dissertation these last few weeks, I was intrigued by his references to an article from the 80s by Langon Winner entitled “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”  Given the controversies that have swirled around new materialism, object-oriented ontologies, and the new materialisms based on the charge that somehow a renewal of thinking about things and materiality erases politics, I had to track this article down!  Little did I expect a micrological experience akin to Proust’s protagonist eating the madeleine cake. I had been searching for this article for nearly a decade and had been referencing it for nearly two decades!  In my final year as an undergrad at The Ohio State University, I took a course entitled Science, Technologyand Culture to fulfill a Capstone requirement.

I recall being shaken to the core by one of the examples Winner uses to illustrate his point.  In Long Island, New York it is notable that many of the overpasses are notably low by ordinary standards, sometimes being no higher than nine feet.  Apparently this was not an accident, but a feature of design on the part of Robert Moses, the master designer.  Why would Moses want such low overpasses?  Low overpasses, he reasoned, would prevent public buses from traveling underneath them.  As a consequence, people of color and other minorities, as well as the working class would be unable to use public transit to get to places like the beach.  The built and designed environment itself served a segregative function.  Winner does not hesitate to go on and discuss the early disability movement and how it revealed the manner in which features of our built environment systematically exclude disabled people.

I’ve been haunted by these examples ever since.  I think there are many lessons to be drawn from posthumanist orientations of thought such as the new materialisms, object-oriented ontologies, and actor-network, but if, for me, there has been two lessons that rise above the rest, it is agency is distributed (the nonhumans we interface with contribute to our agency), and that we cannot adequately conceive society as relations between persons and the meanings and communication they engage in, but rather that society can only be thought as assemblages of humans and nonhumans.  The example of the bridges of Long Island beautifully illustrates this.  The bridges don’t exercise their power– or, as I  prefer, their “gravity” –through intentions, meanings, or ideologies (though clearly these things were at work in the design of the bridges; hence my “borromean knot” of the symbolic, the material, and the experienced).  No, the bridges exercise their power by virtue of what they are in relation to other things that are such as the height of buses.  A simple material features like this plays a significant role in socio-genesis, segregating people through the material agencies available to them (cars versus buses) and then leading to group formation within those sorted groups as they congregate with each other separately and form distinct identities.  The low hanging bridge functions as a machine or catalytic operator that forms negentropic relations between persons by functioning as a sorting machine.  It’s a simple point, yet it seems so easily overlooked.  There is a politics that is embodied in the things of the world themselves.  This entails both additional means of political engagement– as Sporer so beautifully demonstrates –and that we must be attentive to additional ways in which power exerts itself outside the domain of meanings, power, and ideology.  Read this article!

At the outset of Form and Object, Tristan Garcia writes that “[a] thing is nothing more than the difference between being-inside and being-outside” (location 656).  I am unclear as to how to parse this statement.  Is the thing the difference itself?  Yet what sort of being does a difference have in and of itself?  In the next paragraph he continues, he speaks of that which is in a thing and that which a thing is.  As you proceed deeper into the text, it becomes clear that the thing can be reduced to neither that which is in the thing (its component parts), nor can it be reduced to the which the thing is in.  The thing is in excess of its parts or components.  From the parts, we can never infer all of the adventures the thing can undergo:  the way the slate can be used as a surface upon which to write, something that tumbles down a roadway mountainside, hitting a car, a tile on a floor, a covering of a roof, and other things besides.  There is something incalculable about the piece of slate that can’t be deduced from its parts.  Yet the slate also can’t be reduced to its belonging in an assemblage like a floor or a roof or a piece of turn of the century classroom equipment for students.

A thing is neither its inside (components), nor its outside (adventures in the world among other things).  Perhaps we could say that it is what remains of this difference between the two.  Things are a sort of surplus, excess, or remainder.  We circle about them, striving to articulate them, to think them, only to find that they perpetually slip away.  We strive to comprehend them in terms of their parts after the fashion of the Greek atomists, only to find that while they could not exist without there is something about the thing—as Harman would say, a surplus –that is in excess of the parts.  The same holds true with the properties, relations, and actions of things.  Always there is this difference that eludes reduction.  Something about things always  eludes our ability to think and grasp them.

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Can someone be morally responsible for how they perceive? I’ve been thinking a lot about a genre of racist memes that occasionally come across my feed. There will be a picture of a white woman next to a Latino man with a caption about how he murdered this woman and this is why we need to stop undocumented migration. If it were a picture of a white man, people would say that person needs to be prosecuted for murder. The white man would be perceived as an individual that committed the crime. But in these memes, the Latino man is not perceived as a person that committed the crime. He is a synechdoche. He is taken as a part representing the whole, like Homer’s forty sails that set forth for Troy, where sails stand in for ships. Returning to my post on appearing, there is a sort of transcendental aesthetic, a logical of visibility, governing how the Latino is seen. And as a result, it is not that man that needs to be prosecuted for his crime for such people, but the entire group of which he is a member. The racism is not at the discursive level of propositional thought, but at the very level of their perception and how others appear to them. Their very way of seeing things is ethically wrong. If this is true, then the question arises of how we can work at the level of this transcendental aesthetic, this regime of visibility, to transform the very sense of the visible and how things appear.

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