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It’s August 2nd, 2018 and we’re preparing to depart from Tromsø for Honningsvåg to meet the fishing boat that will take us to the remote peninsula of Svaerholt.  We will first go to Finland to pick up supplies.  This part of our journey takes us two days, but the drive is breathtakingly beautiful.  I’ve lived in some truly gorgeous places in the United States, but I’ve never seen anything like I see here.  Along the way there are endless mountain peaks, rivers, and reindeer.  Indeed, crossing the border to Finland, the first thing we see ambling along the side of the road is a reindeer running along like a jogger in the States.  It takes an incredible amount of supplies to go on an expedition like this and we’ll have to carry them all to our camp from the beach when we reach Svaerholt.  That day will be one of the most physically demanding I’ve ever experienced.

Prior to departing, they have taken me to the Archaeology Department at University of Tromsø.  They show me where they store the finds from previous digs and expeditions.  There are handwheel doors similar to those that you would find on a ship and behind them are boxes and boxes of carefully catalogued and bagged materials.  Stein Farstadvoll pulls out a couple boxes at random and we go into another room to explore their contents.  There are bags upon bags of rusting nails, fish hooks, fish bones, shards of porcelain pottery, bits of the clogs that the prisoners wore, schnaps bottles from the prison camp (which are both surprising and suggestive), and other things besides.  As I look at the catalogue scheme, I can’t help but think of Latour’s article “Circulating Reference” in Pandora’s Hope.  There, right before me, is a stage in the referential process.  I won’t see other stages until three days later when I help to dig trenches in middens in the cold gray rain of Svaerholt.    I express a feeling of being overwhelmed to Chris Witmore, that I don’t know how to put all of this together.  I feel as if I’ve been confronted with the categorization system Foucault describes at the beginning of The Order of Things.  He smiles and makes the melancholy observation that occasionally an archeologist dies and we lose the thread that ties and links these things together.  I’m crushed by this thought and have been thinking about it ever since.

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Drift on the beach in Svaerholt, Norway

These are very preliminary thoughts, so perhaps I shouldn’t be writing them, yet I want to get them down nonetheless.  It seems to me that there’s a very real sense in which ruins present a sort of quasi-phenomenological way of thinking past correlationism or that philosophical framework in which we can only ever think the relation between between the subject and the object and never either term considered apart and in itself.  Within the correlationist framework the tendency is towards idealism, reducing the thing or object to human representations, meanings, uses, intentions, and significations.  In ruins we encounter the thingliness of things beyond the human.  In encountering ruins it is not unusual to have an experience of the uncanny or that things are haunted.  Where does this attunement of the haunted come from?  To be sure, part of the sense of haunting comes from the traces of humans that are now gone in this place.  However, what if the experience of the haunting comes phenomenologically from something very different.  What if what is haunting about ruins is not that these places contain traces of humans that are now gone, but rather that they present us with the presence of things beyond and apart from the human?  Ruins present us with a life of things after and beyond humans, unshackled from our use and meaning, taking on an agency of their own.  In a certain respect, they therefore also confront us with our own absence and death. We are not haunted by their absence, but by our absence. The presence of these things is the presence of our absence.

ref=”https://larvalsubjects.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/barbwire.jpg”> Abandoned barbwire laying in a field in Svaerholt, Norway[/ca

It is precisely such a scenario that Þóra Pétursdóttir describes upon entering the ruins of a stock-room in an abandoned fishing village in Eyri, Iceland.  In her 2012 article “Small Things Now Included, or What Else do Things Deserve?”, she describes entering this stock-room and being confronted with a bewildering array of debris, defying the historical aim of comprehending it and tracing a story.  She writes,

“Here I was confronted with a landscape of things—of something and nothing which I had no means of grasping. This entanglement of non-things and nothings evaded every category, every concept, every instrument I mastered. I could not name them, I could not count them. They did not obey as I kneeled down to tell them apart. Yet their presence was beyond doubt, and even grew stronger with my despair.” (597)

From a phenomenology perspective Pétursdóttir here describes a very strange sort of encounter.  She encounters this mass of things, this chaos of bits of paper and other things strewn about the floor (the photograph is amazing), yet they defy any meaning and categorization ordinarily present in our intentionality.  Yes, they are there and a subject is relating to these objects, but it’s as if the relation is a non-relation.  It is an encounter with the independence of things, with their existence apart from humans.  As she says later in the article, “the things were doing just fine without us.”

There is a sense in which ruins are a blow to our narcissism.  Let’s recall the original story of Narcissus.  He is captivated by his own image as if it were something other.  In a very real sense, this is what correlationism is.  The correlationist framework sees us in all things.  Things are merely the vehicle of our meanings, intentions, significations, and uses.  In ruins we have an experience of the dehiscence of the correlate and the existence of things beyond the correlate, or the manner in which “they do just fine” without us.  We encounter things that bear the traces of meaning, signification, and use, but in a beyond where they have been shorn of these things.  Ruins present us with the thingliness of things or the existence of things no longer subordinated to signification.  This experience is an allusion to that uncanny other world of a world without people and without our gaze that is a blow to our narcissism or belief that things are only things in correlation to us.

It is June 9th, 2017.  I have earlier given a well attended talk on object-oriented ontology and the ontology of folds at the Litteraturhuset in Oslo, Norway.  I’ve been brought here by the Oslo Center for Advanced Studies and the After Discourse:  Things, Archaeology, and Heritage in the 21st Century project.  It is late in the evening and I am sitting in a bar with Bjørnar Olsen and Þóra Pétursdóttir.  While I am delighted to be here, I’m not entirely sure why I have I have been invited.  I don’t yet understand archaeology and don’t see the connection with my work.  The year before—but it had been coming for a long time –I had made the decision that the purpose of my travel would be to learn from others and what they are doing in their disciplines and why.  I had decided that my philosophical work would be an encounter with philosophy’s others.  While I am here on this day in June, I am less interested in discussing my thought, than in hearing about theirs.  I ask lots of questions and I have difficulty understanding what they’re doing.  It doesn’t fit with my uneducated understanding of archaeology.  For me archaeology is about ancient cities and Stone Age monuments.  Þóra is talking about exploring drift on beaches and developing a concept of drift.  She shows me beautiful and disturbing pictures of Icelandic beaches and the things that wash up on them.  Bjørnar is telling me about exploring abandoned contemporary buildings in places throughout Norway, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.  How could these things possibly be archaeology, I wonder?  Aren’t these things too contemporary to be archaeology?  Are you doing archaeology when you look at the things of our time?  Isn’t archaeology about history and pre-history?  What is archaeology, I wonder?

Olsen tells me of a site they’ve been working on for 11 years in Svaerholt, Norway that was a part of the Atlantic Wall under the German occupation and that contains a former Russian POW camp.  Again, I’m baffled.  How can this be archaeology?  I’m fascinated and say I would love to go to such a site and observe this place and what they do.  Bjørnar smiles and says he will make it happen.  Often we don’t understand the magnitude and significance of our decisions when we make them.  We can only embrace them after the fact and submit to becoming the person we will be.

It is August 7th, 2018.  I am crammed in the small cabin of a fishing boat with Bjørnar Olsen, Christopher Witmore, Esther Breithoff, Ingar Figenshaue, Stein Farstadvoll, and our fearless and nimble 74 year old ship captain, Alfred.  Alfred once caught a halibut twice as large as him and he met the king and queen of Norway. He jumps about the boat and throws anchors and parcels around like a twenty year old. His face is deeply kind and amused. We are on a four hour fjord crossing to return home after four days in Svaerholt.  I am wearing six layers of clothing and have not bathed for the last two days; and the last time I bathed was in a cold stream, the same stream the POWs would bathed in.  I bathed in the stream in August in 10C weather.  They would have done this in the dark nights of the winter as well as the summer months.

I am more exhausted than I have ever been in my life and my body aches.  I look at these people around me and I marvel at their strength and endurance.  I marvel at their capacity for work and am proud of myself for how much I did, even though I did not begin to approach their level of endurance.  I express wonder, and Chris smiles with the infectious enthusiasm that always dances across his face. “It all follows from the core, my friend”, he says simply. His words mean more to me than a comment about the body and fitness, but I still note to myself that I will begin to join my wife in her yoga when I return home.

Our days started early and we didn’t eat dinner until 2300.  There was constant exertion.  Even walking across the land of Svaerholt was difficult.  Nothing is easy here…  Not going to the sites, not washing our dishes, not relieving ourselves, nor stumbling to our tents.  Everything takes work.

We are crammed like sardines in the cabin of the boat because it’s not safe to be on the deck.  The sea is violent, screaming an ode to nature’s fury with 4 – 5 meter waves.  The boat is seizing all over the place.  Up, down, left, right, forward, backward.  Sometimes it feels as if the earth disappears beneath us and that we will just fall through the infinite void like Lucretian atoms.  And then we are violently thrown from our seats and where we are standing as it hits the ocean.  Chris hits the ceiling of the cabin, grits his teeth, laughs, and braces himself again.  Another wave is coming.  There are moments where you look out the window and are staring straight into the ocean.  Everyone looks worried, and the captain is laughing and telling stories in Norwegian.  I am strangely calm.  Have I disassociated in terror?  I trust the captain.  He looks like he knows what he’s doing.  I drift in and out of sleep and think of my wife who I miss deeply.  Later I am told that it is the worst crossing they have ever had.

The city of Honnigsvag finally comes into view.  We’ve survived.  Now we must unload the boat and pack the vans.  One task always leads into another here; there is a constant attentiveness to things–  the things needed to live and survive, the things needed to care for the ruins and to let them speak.  There’s always more to be done.  A lot of mediators are required to connect us to the things of Svaerholt, helping them to speak some of their story.

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Why is social change so difficult?  In Entangled, Ian Hodder outlines four forms of entanglement where people, as it were, become enmeshed in the world in ways that render alternatives or change difficult.  These entanglements are forms of dependency forming series or chains.  There are, first, human – human entanglements (HH).  These are what the social sciences, political philosophy, and political critique largely focus on.  HH entanglements are the realm of representation, norms, laws, signs, and power.  In my last post, I spoke of an HH entanglement with respect to citizenship status.  Although citizenship or being categorized as undocumented is not a material determination but the result of a signifier or what Deleuze and Guattari call an “incorporeal transformation”, it nonetheless has profound material consequences for the person that falls within the web of these signifiers, determining what movements and forms of life are possible for that person.

The signifier “undocumented” is not a property of their being like their mass, but nonetheless this incorporeal signifier presides over the destiny of the immigrant’s being.  Signifiers exist in webs, chains, or series that link all manner of laws, rights, and possibilities of movement within the social sphere together.  Take the signifier “black” as it functioned prior to desegregation in the American South.  “Black” was not a descriptor of the material being of certain humans, but rather was a semiotic marker that defined what jobs you could have, what schools they could attend, but also what water fountains they could drink from, where they could sit on buses, and where they could sit in restaurants.  There was nothing about restaurants, water fountains, restrooms, buses, and school buildings that physically prevented blacks from interacting with these things.  Rather, it is a series of signifying relations that define these things.  In this regard, a signifier like “black” or “undocumented immigrant” is similar to a chess piece.  There’s nothing about the physical properties of a chess piece that makes it a rook.  It’s status as a rook is a semiotic determination, not the result of the wood that it’s made of, it’s shape, etc.  Proof of this is that if we lose a rook, we can always replace it with something else like a quarter.  All that’s required is that the pieces be sufficiently distinguishable for the players.

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In a recent post I discussed the Old English term þing, which originally meant “assembly” or “gathering”.  I mused that things are gatherings or assemblies, and emphasized that they aren’t just assemblages, but that they gather other things about them.  To illustrate this point, I referenced the relationship between my dog, the squirrel, and the tree.  The tree itself is an assemblage of soil, water, sunlight, and various gases.  It folds these things into itself to form itself as the being that it is; and, of course, the “isness” of the tree is never a final or complete thing but is an ongoing activity or process.  However, the tree is not merely an assemblage, it also gathers or assembles other entities about it.  Every morning, the trees in my back yard summon the squirrels from the neighborhood.  I’m awoken by my dog between five and six with her nose excitedly in my face, summoning me to go outside.  You see, as the sun rises she eagerly looks out the window, watching the squirrels do their morning dance as they forage for their food.  We go outside and she begins her dance with the squirrels, chasing them about the fence and inevitably up into the tree.  The tree summons, assembles, or gathers the squirrels, me, and my dog in a morning ritual that takes place every day.  And every day, that ritual ends with our dog striving to climb the tree as the squirrel playfully scolds our dog from the upper branches.  All of us, I think, take great delight in this ritual.  In pointing to how the tree, squirrel, dog, and me are folded together, the claim is not that me, our dog, and the squirrels are parts of the tree, but rather that the tree assembles us and gathers us, just as an assembly in its literal usage is a gathering of people brought together by some ritual, problem, issue, or festivity.

In Onto-Cartography I proposed that we call this phenomenon “gravity”, and replace the concept of power with the concept of gravity.  Power is a sort of gravity exercised by things and signifiers that captures other things in its orbit, just as the sun captures the earth and other planets in its orbit, defining the paths along which beings move.  Here gravity is not to be thought in terms of its Newtonian signification as a force of attraction and repulsion, but rather in its Einsteinian formulation as a sort of curvature of space-time.  In the Einsteinian framework, gravity isn’t a force that attracts other beings, but rather the mass of one body curves the fabric of space-time, creating a path that other entities move along as they fall.

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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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