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.

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