00040921-00004In In Defense of Things Bjørnar Olsen reminds us that the etymology of the term “thing” is  instructive.  As articulated by The Online Etymology Dictionary,

Old English þing “meeting, assembly, council, discussion,” later “entity, being, matter” (subject of deliberation in an assembly), also “act, deed, event, material object, body, being, creature,” from Proto-Germanic *thinga- “assembly” (source also of Old Frisian thing “assembly, council, suit, matter, thing,” Middle Dutch dinc “court-day, suit, plea, concern, affair, thing,” Dutch ding “thing,” Old High German ding “public assembly for judgment and business, lawsuit,” German Ding “affair, matter, thing,” Old Norse þing “public assembly”). The Germanic word is perhaps literally “appointed time,” from a PIE *tenk- (1), from root *ten- “stretch,” perhaps on notion of “stretch of time for a meeting or assembly.”

How do we get from þing as meeting, assembly, council, or discussion to the idea of a thing as an entity?  What is the chain of associations here?  As Harman will say in Guerrilla Metaphysics, “we have a universe made up of objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects”, as “every object is both a substance and a complex of relations” (83).  A thing is an assembly, a meeting of things, a complex of things.  When confronted with Kant’s second antinomy and the choice between the thesis:

Every composite substance in the world is made up of simple parts, and nothing anywhere exists save the simple or what is composed of the simple.

And the anti-thesis:

No composite thing in the world is made up of simple parts, and nowhere exists in the world anything simple.

Object-oriented ontology resolutely sides with the anti-thesis.  It begins with the speculative thesis that there are no simple or atomic units.  While I do not share Graham’s antipathy towards materialism insofar as I don’t think this must be the commitment of materialism, I think this commitment is at the heart of his hostility to materialisms.  If I’ve understand Harman correctly, he sees materialism as committed to the thesis of Kant’s second antinomy.  It is committed to the thesis that there are ultimate units, simple parts, that are the ultimate constituents of being.

read on!

powersetIn this regard, the thesis as formulated above gets it wrong.  It says that “nothing anywhere exists save the simple or what is composed of the simple”, yet from Harman’s point of view– and I think he’s right here –the first part of the thesis undermines the second part.  If the true realities are the simple parts or atomic units, then the composite of composed of these simple parts contributes nothing.  Harman’s thesis is that the thing is both a complex of infinitely decomposable relations– a network or assemblage, if you will, though I suspect he would object to that term —and that it is something of its own that is irreducible to those relations.  In one respect, we might say that Harman sides with Badiou’s thesis that being qua being is infinite multiplicity without one and contra Badiou that there is nonetheless something of the one.  The thing both is an assembly, a complex of relations among other things that it must internalize to exist, and something that is independent of these relations.  The assembly has a life of its own.  In The Democracy of Objects this is what I called “strange mereology”.  Mereology investigates the relationships between parts and wholes.  If the mereology of object-oriented ontology is a strange mereology, then this is because the whole, the object, cannot be reduced to its parts but is a being apart from its parts– (a)part? –but nonetheless cannot exist apart from its parts (here I’m unsure of myself, for given Graham’s commitment to substantial forms via Suarez, I might be wrong on this point).

Aside:  I think that if this thesis is true– and I do think that it’s true or, at the very least, it is a conceptual axiom worth adopting –then it follows that every thing, object, or entity is a trial.  In the etymology above, the term “thing” is in part derived from the Old High German sense referring to lawsuit.  Perhaps we can think a lawsuit as a trial to determine what will stand.  Will the assembly, gathering, or meeting take place, will it hang together, or won’t it?  Insofar as each thing must emerge out of an ensemble or gathering of things and insofar as each of those things has its own autonomy, each thing faces the challenge of gathering that out of which it emerges.  As Latour notes in Irreductions, the mystery is not chaos and change, but rather order and unity.  Will the thing, no matter how briefly, internalize the things of which it is composed to produce yet another thing, or will it remain at the level of a diversity or a multitude?  Will the thing (noun) successfully thing (verb)?  At the heart of every thing is the problem and trial of entropy.  Will the thing thing itself and successfully survive the trial of entropy.  For this reason…

We can turn to the etymology of the term “object”.  As Chris Whitmore somewhere notes, the object is that which objects.  Always attentive to language, he is not pulling this out of thin air:

late 14c., “tangible thing, something perceived with or presented to the senses,” from Old French object and directly from Medieval Latin obiectum “thing put before” (the mind or sight), noun use of neuter of Latin obiectus “lying before, opposite” (as a noun in classical Latin, “charges, accusations”), past participle of obicere “to present, oppose, cast in the way of,” from ob “in front of, towards, against” (see ob-) + iacere “to throw” (from PIE root *ye- “to throw, impel”)

what-is-mist-730x410The thing or object is that which objects, which opposes, or which is “in the way of it”.  As a network of relations, as an assemblage of other object(ions), the thing things when, arising out of the composite, there is something of that thing that is irreducible to the things that meet together or that it gathers together.  We are before a thing or object when that thing is irreducible to the parts of which it is composed.  There is something of the thing that emerges out of the things that objects and charges and accuses other things.  Suppose we take the example of a university.  In a pseudo-formulation of the thesis in Kant’s second antinomy, we could say that the university is nothing but the students that attend it, the administration, the staff, those who work there, and the building.  Here the university is a sort of “mist” that is completely reducible to all of these other things and the activities and interactions among these things.  It is even less than a mist.  It is an epiphenomenon.    It is literally no-thing.  According to the antithesis in Kant’s second antinomy, however, the university is a thing over and above all of these other things.  They are things and it is a thing and it is a thing that wraps these things within itself to become the thing that it is.  And if it is a thing, it is a thing because it objects, because it has a resistance internal to itself, that is irreducible to these other things.  Indeed, the university as a thing is something that all of these other beings must navigate and contend with.  It becomes an impediment to their aims and will that they must negotiate with, just as the artist must negotiate with her tools, paints, and canvas in bringing the painting to light.  It was Kafka who was the novelist of these sorts of things.  The court and the castle are nothing but the people, documents, and buildings in which these affairs transpire, but it is something above them as well that all of them and Joseph K. must navigate without being able to eradicate it.  So it is with all things.