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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It is remarkable that this way of thinking is still credible and automatic after the last one hundred years of science.  If chemistry and quantum physics have taught us anything, it’s that– as Bennett puts it –matter is lively and vibrant.  To be sure, things appear to be inert and it is this perception of inertness that leads us to think that things can simply be thrown out or dumped without repercussions.  We reason to ourselves that they will merely lay there, doing nothing.  Yet while the activity of things might be slow and imperceptible, there are always activities going on within things.  The radioactive decay of plutonium and the chemical reactions in a landfill aren’t some sort of naive animism or primitive fetish.  They are what is actually going on in things.  The truth of the matter is that we simply don’t have a good language for expressing these things.  Action language is all on the side of the subject and passive language is all on the side of the object.  As a consequence, we can only conceive doings in subjects and are unable to think doings on the side of objects.  We can’t see how a symbolic system like Arabic numerals, a pencil, and a piece of paper contribute to our ability to do mathematics, for example.  Yet try adding 12,433 and 7658 using Roman numerals and without the aid of pencil and paper to simplify the process and remember the steps along the way and see how far most of you get.  As extended mind theorists like Andy Clark argue, those symbols written on the paper are an externalized memory.  Your memory is right there on the paper, not in your mind.  And that externalized memory frees up your mind to engage on the simplified steps in reaching the conclusion.  The symbols, the paper, and the pencil are a part of our agency and our agency can’t be reduced to our minds alone.

How many things are like this in our action and social relations?  Just as evolutionary biologists talk about features of organisms in terms of purposes despite the fact that that is not how evolution works, new materialists and object-oriented ontologists resort to agent based language to describe how it is with matter and things because we simply don’t have any other language to express these things.  This language of agency is not deployed to suggest that things and matter have emotions, desires, or wishes, but to capture the sense in which they act.  I don’t think my cell phone wants or desires anything– though Kevin Kelly makes a plausible case for how technology can want things in What Technology Wants –but I do think it significantly modifies how we relate to each other, communicate, and navigate the world despite what our intentions and aims might have been upon first getting that smart phone.  In the early days of the pocket and wrist watch, the person just wanted to tell time.  However, as this technology saturated the world, precise time-telling became an obligatory norm defining labor, meetings, and get-togethers of all kind.  One could, of course, opt to not where a watch are use clocks, but only at a great social cost.  Inevitably you would end up getting fired for failing to show up for work on time.  Where before you would show up to work or for a meeting a 8ish where 8ish could be seven or nine, now there came to exist a strong obligation to be at certain places at a precise time.  The watch and clock did something to us that wasn’t our original intention.  Every artist and novelist will tell you something similar, pointing out how they set out to paint or carve one thing, but that the paint and marble had its own “ideas” of what it wanted to be.  The intention becomes modified by the medium.