Perhaps we would do best to call it the material unconscious. Freud famously said that there had been three blows to human narcissism: Copernicus and his decentering of the Earth, Darwin and his theory of evolution, and psychoanalysis and its discovery of the unconscious. With the first humanity learns that it is not at the center of the universe. With the second, humanity learns it is not markedly different from animals. With the third, humanity learns that it’s interiority is not in charge. With thingly thought, the thought of the object, we perhaps encounter a fourth blow to our narcissism: the way in which we are mediated by things. We dwell within a milieu of things, objects, or what I have elsewhere called machines. What we take to be our own agency, our own free choice, instead turns out in so many instances to be the agency of these things or machines acting upon us. To be sure, I choose which hallway to walk through, but what I don’t choose– to paraphrase Zizek –is the form of choice dictated by hallways, or roads, or paths, themselves. These things lie before me as so many choices already chosen within which I might make my choices. I live in a world where my being is mediated– where it is afforded and constrained –in an endless variety of ways.
Like the fish that doesn’t recognize that it’s in water because water is all it knows, these things, objects, or machines are invisible to us because they so thoroughly make up the fabric of our existence. Instead we focus on the discursive and normative because the machines quietly hum in the background like the water as it always does, allowing us to safely ignore them. They withdraw, to use Harman’s expression. For this reason, the empire of things deserves to be called a material unconscious. Like the Lacanian unconscious that exercises its bad jokes and puns behind our back, structuring without us being aware our desires and decisions, the material unconscious plunges us into an eccentric orbit where our action, agency, cognition, ways of relating to one another, and desires are organized from without; all the while creating the misrecognition of these things as our own. Like the psychoanalytic unconscious, the material unconscious is not a sack within us, another person inside us like homunculus calling the shots without us realizing it. No. Everything transpires on the surface, on a plane of immanence, in a field of exteriority that is an intimacy more intimate than any intimacy… So much so that it is extimate. To know the material unconscious one must think not like a Brandomian or a phenomenologist, but rather like a ecologist, designer, or architect. Indeed, another name for architecture and design is ecology. The designers and architects are the great cartographers of the material unconscious; they even produce much of it.