questions for “the thing”


(From Matt, Gabriel, Soo-Young, and Gina)

Perhaps we should no longer be surprised, but it does seem worth mentioning that many of the hackles raised on the like of Ingold stems from the misfortune of the terms we rely upon for elaborating a world of things. Materiality, actor-network theory, objects, agency are just a few that have specifically earned the beef of Tim Ingold. Now having read Heidegger’s “The Thing”, it might be worthwhile spending a little time fleshing out these terms, so that we are on the “same page” (e.g., Heideigger’s particular juxtaposition of things to objects, his notion of thinging/gathering and worlding/nearing; Ingold’s use of the term materials in contrast to materiality and his position on the “problem of agency” as that which cuts off objects “from the very things that bring them life”).

Heidegger begins “The Thing” with the potential elision of distance as a product of technology (like TV) that renders reality representational and outside of our grasp (not near to us). To “encounter” distance (as nearness) we must attend to what is near: things (as opposed to objects that are far away). This reminds us of Benjamin’s Aura: the “unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be.” The destruction of aura through mechanical reproduction brings about the erasure of distance and thus the passage from artwork as emblem of cult (here goes religion, the fetish) to artwork as element of an exhibit (for example shown on TV): in the same moment in which we “touch” the object through its serialization, we lose its intrinsic essence. The essence of the thing, Heidegger seems to imply, is to be found — through etymology (the thing “gathers”) — in its function (a word Heidegger does not use) as opposed to its (scientific and technological) representation. Science and technology thus fail at doing justice to things by transforming things into objects, thus hiding the “fourfoldness” that is the essence of things as gifts that gather (“In the gift of the outpouring [i.e. the function of the thing qua jug] earth and sky, divinities and mortals dwell together all at once”).

1. Ingold readily adopts the language of Heidegger when in he posits in his lecture that “the thing exists in its thinging, so the kite exists in its flying” and “the bird in its flying, the fish in its swimming” and so forth. Do we agree that Heidegger’s notion of thinging (particularly the fourfold) is being suitably captured by Ingold here? Moreover, can we attribute Ingold’s claim that “the world is actually without any objects at all” (which he refers to as the e.w.o. — environment without objects — in the lecture, “Bringing Things Back to Life: Creative Entanglements in a World of Materials”) to Heidegger’s position that “things are also compliant and modest in number, compared with the countless objects everywhere of equal value…”?

2. Do we want to reconsider the idea (from the second week of class) that Bill Brown’s usage of the terms “thing” and “object” inverts Heidegger’s? What’s the common ground in that which Brown and Heidegger are trying to get at by distinguishing the thing from the object? Perhaps we can begin to address this question by considering how for both Brown and Heidegger, the thing, as distinguished from the object, seems to be the term by which they attempt to describe that which eludes or exceeds representation. In Brown, the object presents itself to us as a thing when it breaks down for us. What is the movement by which something switches from object to thing in Heidegger? Are there material objects that don’t allow for their reconceptualization as things, that is, are there material presences that don’t thing?

3. Getting to the idea of things having functions (and perhaps we might need to discuss whether this is the most appropriate term) — Heidegger seems to suggest that functions act to both define the thing (the jug is something that holds something) and as the point at which the gathering of things occurs (the jug releases the gift thereby bringing the fourfold into a shared point of dwelling).  Ingold appears to be hesitant to accept function as an important aspect of things as this would be closer to a materiality viewpoint rather than the material philosophy he is engaging in.  Perhaps we could think about this divergence between the two authors and how it affects their deployment of things as gathering points as well as the place of people in each of their writings.

4. Is Heidegger’s fourfoldedness echoed in Latour’s symmetry between humans and non-humans (after all 3 out of 4 elements are non-human, and by the way Heidegger seems to reinstate Latour’s crossed-out God)?

5. Heidegger and Benjamin seem to strive at preserving the thickness of the thing’s nearness, thus allowing it to preserve its wholeness (aura for Benjaimn, fourfoldedness for Heidegger), can we say that this attempt is echoed by Latour in going against modern purification towards mediation, (as well as towards a symmetry between humans and non-humans)?

6. Heidegger seems to privilege man (s Dasein, i.e. the only being that questions being) above animals and things; Latour obviously goes against this. Yet is there a resonance between Heidegger’s idea of thing as “gathering” different (human and non-human) elements and Latour’s notion of relationality at the basis of networks? Is Heidegger’s understanding of thing as bridging the gap between the 4 elements a sort of network in nuce in Latour’s terms?

7. Finally, can we draw parallelisms between Heidegger and Latour in the way they challenge the notion of object (vs. thing for Heideger, vs.quasi-object/quasi-subject for Latour)? Is this akin to Latour’s argument that science (as an outgrowth of modernity) purifies things into an object/subject (nature/culture) dichotomy?  Or is this process different in that science invariably moves from token to type in an effort to explain phenomena, and it is this combination of scalar movement and explaining (rather than responding) that Heidegger finds so unsavory about science?

From Gabriel: I found online the ANTHEM (Actor-Network-Theory Heidegger Meeting) blog: It has one or more recorded talks by Graham Harman, and could be a nice addendum for next week.


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