I’ve been thinking a lot about objects lately. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post that touched on a few of these ideas. At the moment, a friend and I are working on a panel proposal for the CCCC conference next April, centering the proposal around our object-centered and thing-related interests.
More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between people and our tools and interfaces.
A lot of this comes back to Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), in which Heidegger sketches out an ontological landscape that maps all the “beings” that “are” and how “being” expresses itself more generally. Breaking down the abstractions, at one point, Heidegger uses the example of a hammer.
When we first encounter a hammer, it is “ready-to-hand” for the most part, meaning that we encounter it as a tool in use. We associate hammers with hammering. This defines the hammer, making it intelligible to people and to the world at large. This contrasts with “present-at-hand,” which places the being of the hammer in a more speculative, observed frame. With “present-at-hand,” I am studying the hammer, observing the smooth maple handle, running my hands along the metal hooks that pry. I may balance the weight. But I am detached in a sense.
In short, “ready-to-hand” defines the hammer as one uses it; “present-at-hand” defines the hammer more abstractly as a series of properties.
Tool-Being (2002) by Graham Harman takes up Heidegger’s broader outlook on these issues to explore the being of the tool more directly, becoming a flagship book in “object-oriented ontology.”
But I want to go back to the tools, back to the “things themselves” as Husserl would put it, being careful of the sort of interface or relationship that develops as people encounter the tools. This may sound a little out there, but digging into this gritty, abstract question may have pretty dynamic consequences.
More specifically, the “instrumentality,” or how we see and use these objects as tools, defines our relationship in many cases. In the terms of Heidegger, we often see objects as “ready-to-hand” and not “present-at-hand.” We may even orient the “present-at-hand” insights we hope to draw along instrumental lines. For example, the handle is designed to be “sturdy” and it is sturdy “in order to hammer.”
In some ways, this connects to Heidegger’s notion of “fore-conception,” which (crudely put) is a bit like the pre-associations we bring to the range of objects in front of us. In other words, if we see some wood, nails, saws, hammers, etc., our fore-conception defines the sort of projects we may envision, the sorts of relationships these objects share, or the sort of “possibilities” we may seize upon and explore as we do things. An architect or artist may have different insights that a carpentry novice like me lacks, for example.
This sort of speculation can go in a lot of directions, but I am interested in the sorts of limits these pre-associations or “fore-conceptions” create in our relationship with tools and interfaces.
Heidegger and scholars like Jody Shipka, Geoffry Sirc, and Byron Hawk offer some interesting insights (though from different angles) in this direction. I’m also struck by Jean-Paul Sartre’s character Roquetin and his uncanny and uncomfortable (but deeply visceral) dealings with objects in Nausea. Something about the way he picks up that weathered newspaper, the way it has lost its utility but asserts its “facticity”–its solidity and outward realness–as some flaky, soggy, weather-worn, dusty “other.” It has become unintelligible, fleeing the province of human meaning, but still asserting, still being, still “is-ing” in a sense.
In other words, a “newspaper” as an object is so much more than a newspaper as a concept. But its potential uses become concealed behind the language that webs and masks our world into clear, human meaning. Language, here, being broadly defined and expansive.
But what if language did not map the world as such? What if, like Duchamp’s “Fountain” (as dumb as it may sound to some), everyday objects assumed new, artistic meanings? More more dynamically, what if they didn’t just get this meaning from changing contexts–moving from a men’s bathroom to an art gallery in Duchamp’s case, for example–but through the relationships that people bring to the object. This originary ground, which defines how we encounter the other object or person, becomes definitive, even dictatorial.
To me, it’s interesting to speculate how we can challenge and break away from this instrumental mindset or re-think instrumentality in new ways. In light of Aristotle’s invention, one could even look at this “partnership” with objects as a rout to expression or as form of expression itself.
Each moment, like Roquetin, I’m surrounded by the silent, assertive being of the moment and the materials that infuse and comprise that moment.