Some thoughts about Objects and Expression

Source: Food for the Hungry
Source: Food for the Hungry

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.

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Identifying the Alien in our Humanity

Look around you. At any given moment, “beings” encircle us from all sides. I’m using a computer on a table, while sitting on chair. Nearby, some window blinds murmur a restless patter and s kettle hisses and whines. Outside, the stirring, purring, scratching, sniffing scuttle of nature persists indefinitely. Indeed, we are not alone.

On the one hand, this is pretty obvious. Humans have always had “tools” or “technology,” and we’ve always been in the environment. But at a deeper level, this intimacy with other beings implies a kinship. Particularly in contemporary culture, people constantly interact with and through technology, like cell phones, buses, radios, computers, or televisions. Doing so, we express our humanity in and through technology, and this technology has an important role in how that occurs.

In other words, humans do not express what we often call “humanity” in a vacuum. To compose the great texts of history, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Sappho, and Sun Tzu needed technology. They needed ink or stylus, paper or tablet. And these texts always grew out of a place. The tablets of Mesopotamia needed the clay of the Fertile Crescent. The cave sketches of Lascaux needed the water and pigment–along with the cave wall.

This is what the scholar Thomas Rickert is getting at, to some extent, with the notion of “ambiance”: we grow out of stuff, express with stuff, “are” through stuff and space. As Carl Sagan said, “We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Humans may like to center the world around our own being, but we are intimately part of the nonhuman, “spoken” in a sense by our environment and the objects and nonhuman beings that compose it.

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