Author Archive

Magical Things

May 17, 2009

Thing Magic or Magic Things


Easton J. Anspach 

Magic is a faculty of wonderful virtue, full of most high mysteries, containing the most profound contemplation of most secret things, together with the nature, power, quality, substance and virtues thereof, as also the knowledge of whole Nature, and it doth instruct us concerning the differing and agreement of things amongst themselves, whence it produceth its wonderful effects, by uniting the virtues of things through the application of them one to the other.



Three Books of Occult Philosophy or Magic


The Extra in Things

            Agrippa was a magician, theologian, astrologer, alchemist, occult researcher, and writer in the early sixteenth century.  The opening quote is taken from his magnum opus on the occult and magical thought, Three Books of Occult Philosophy or Magic.  Agrippa argued that magic was the point where the natural world came into contact with the greater celestial universe.  Magic, he says, “doth instruct us concerning the differing and agreement of things amongst themselves…by uniting the virtues of things through the application of them one to the other.”  Magic, it would seem, is actually just knowledge of how things work together, but this knowledge is at the same time mysterious and secret.

            The mysterious nature of things is by no means a new topic among thing theorists.  In fact, it is one of the few elements of things that seems to be ubiquitous.  Brown speaks of things having excess and ambiguity, Gell (1998) discusses their captivation, Heidegger (2001) points to their thingness, Miller (2005) calls upon their materiality.  But it is Bennett’s (2005) assemblage and Latour’s (1993) network which come closest to Agrippa’s understanding of magic: a world in which the virtues of things unite and intertwine in a complex and mysterious manner that escapes simple understanding and instead requires profound contemplation.


Things and Magic

            As a result of this shared understanding, things are often deployed as items that transcend earthly and cosmological realms.  Consider, for example: communion bread, which is able to bring together bread, the physical body of Christ, the heavenly body of god, the practical sins of earthly existence, and the purification of heavenly redemption; Voodoo dolls which are able to permeate time and space to assemble pain within the bounded human body; or sage incense which wipes the supplicant clean so that the Great Spirit may reside within the mind, collapsing heaven and earth.  The magic of things is their ability to bring people into contact with a larger universe from which they are normally isolated.


            Magic is subsequently apart from humans and objects at the same time it is part of them.  This is evident in the language used to speak of magic.  Witches and warlocks are believed to tap into the larger pool of energy which they call magic.  Plains shamans do not create magic, they are possessed by spirits who are able to put them in touch with the abilities they seek.  Voodoo practitioners are chosen by the magic itself: it is not they who decide who will be granted the gift.  Magic is often portrayed as an extremely powerful entity that has the potential to dwarf its practitioners, escaping their limited control.


Advent of Rationalism

            And yet, in the West magic has all but disappeared as a practical influence on humanity.  The Protestant Reformation brought about a particular insistence on self-help and individual stoicism that undermined traditional reliance n necromantic forms of assistance.  The scientific and philosophical revolutions reconstituted the universe as something subject to immutable natural laws.  New technical aids such as fire-fighting and property insurance, which guard against life’s unexpected misfortunes, removed the need for supplication to cosmological protectors.  Urbanization undercut the intimate personal relationships on which accusations of sorcery depended.  Theoretical innovations in mathematics, psychology, and sociology provided victims with novel intellectual tools for explaining the causes of the disasters in their lives (Cook 2001:164).

            These developments were paralleled by the Cartesian divide between mind and body, subject and object, which marked Western societies’ movement into the “modern age” (Latour 1993).  As a result, things and magic were separated from the constitution of the human mind which became paramount in the makeup of the human experience.  Magic, in turn, became separated from things so that the only mystical objects belonged to the delusions of the fetish held by marginalized “others” (Frazer 1998).  In the Western humanist hierarchy, science reigned supreme while magic became the result of unsophisticated and faulty understandings of the working of the universe.

            Magical things were subsequently rendered as belonging to the Other, the foreign, the exotic.  While in colonial areas this increased the mystery and power of magic (Taussig 1987), in the western world magic was taken out of the hands of respected medicine men, healers, and leaders and placed in the realm of mediums, swindlers, and conmen (Edinburgh Review 1895:82).  Instead of acts of reverence, supplication, and respect these new magicians took on roles as fortune tellers, good luck charms, and communicators with the deceased through the use of raps, cards, levitations, and trickery.  Magic and magical things seemed destined for extinction


Out of the Ashes

            We have already noted, however, the ambiguous thingness of magic which is not so easy to destroy.  At the same time that magic was slipping into debauchery it was being reconstituted and reinvented within the new framework of science.  A single individual will serve to illuminate this development: Harry Kellar.


            Kellar was known variously as the “Dean of American Magic,” the “Greatest American Magician,” the father of modern magic, and the founder of American magic.  He served as mentor and teacher to Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston, the greatest magicians of the twentieth century (Milbourne 1973:198-199).  His success reveals the reinvention of magic that took place in the face of the advent of modernism.

           Kellar practiced what he termed as “true magic” (1903:1256), a high-brow phenomenon based on large stage illusions and reenactments of feats of natural wonder which he witnessed during his world travels.  Distancing his profession from the lowbrow hokum which had come to be known as “magic,” Kellar actually made a name and career for himself by exposing fraudulent mediums and spiritualists.  The goal in doing so was to carve out a niche in the burgeoning science obsession for magic by couching his work in scientific, Victorian terms.

            Kellar even added the title professor in a series of articles he published about the magic abilities of Indian fakirs and Native American shamans:

Fifteen years spent in India and the far East have convinced me that the high caste fakirs, or magicians, of Northern India have probably discovered natural laws of which we in the West are ignorant.  That they succeed in overcoming forces of nature which to us seem insurmountable, my observation satisfies me beyond doubt (Kellar 1893).

We see here a complete new package for magic, one associated with upscale travel, the rank of high caste fakirs, and which calls upon unknown, mysterious natural laws. 


Magic of Things

            The separation, then, between the lowbrow magic of mediums, which would come to be known as spiritualism, and the highbrow magic of Kellar, was things.  Legitimate magic included trunks, handcuffs, levitating bodies, saws, playing cards, rabbits, top hats, etc. Spiritualism, on the other hand, took place in a more ephemeral realm including ESP, communing with the dead, psychical phenomena.  It would seem as if Agrippa’s definition of magic hinged on things.  The removal of things leaves only people, and the connection between virtues of people lies in psychology, philosophy, and religion.

            As a result, the move to demystify magic has taken place in the push to strip magicians of their things.  The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have witnessed an increasing exposure of the “gimmicks” and “tricks” behind magic.  Consider the popularity of the recent show on Fox, The Masked Magician, where a professional magician actually reveals the “secrets” behind magic “things,” or the popular saying, “magic is nothing but smoke and mirrors.”  We are left echoing John Frow’s query, “Is it really true that the world is becoming emptied of things?” (Frow 2004:357).


            Perhaps the world is being emptied of magic things, but not of magic.  In truth, the highest grossing live performers in the United States are magicians.[1]  Magicians are still household names: Chris Angel, David Copperfield, David Blaine, Penn & Teller, Siegfried and Roy.  In popular culture, magic still makes up one of the most pervasive and highest grossing genres: Harry Potter, Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Wicca, a religion based on magic, is one of the fastest growing religious groups in England and the United States.[2]  Magic is increasingly attributed to concepts and institutions such as capitalism and the stock market (Taussig 1987). If the world is stripped of magic objects and magic people are dismissed, why does magic persist?


Performing Thing Magic

            The answer lies in the performance of magic things.  If we accept Ingold’s statement that “Movement [is] truly generative of the object rather than merely revelatory of an object that is already present” (2000:346), then it is magical movement that truly generates a magical object.  But what is magical movement?  Magical movement interweaves the subject and object, it defies the immutable natural laws which govern the Western philosophical world.  Magical movement reminds us that we have never been modern (Latour 1993).

            Magic performance shows us what Agrippa observed four hundred years ago, things have virtues which interact and intermingle, many times in mysterious ways.  Science has revealed a great deal of this mystery, but its sterilization of objects has obscured what inspired the research in the first place.  Magic performance continues to create magic objects because science still cannot answer the totality of how the virtues of things interact with one another.



Perhaps the answer lies in shifting the perspective from magic things as intermediary between magician and audience to mediator of the perception of the world.  As things construct social relations, so do magical things construct a society in which our relationship with things is not one of dominance over sterile objects, but one of interrelation with things with virtues: virtuous things. The continued fascination with magic shows a desire to escape the limitations of the “modern” world, a need to believe in a larger, powerful force (assemblage, shi, network, magic) that exists beyond the edge of pure modern scientific comprehension (captivation).

Take, if you will the following quote: “Magic is not a practice. It is a living, breathing web of energy that, with our permission, can encase our every action (Morrison 1998).  Magic, then, shows us that everything is connected.  It reveals a world in which we, as humans, are no longer the sole owners of virtue.  Objects are virtuous too.  It is precisely this observation which leads Bennett to link her idea of assemblages to Shi, “the dynamic force emanating from a spatiotemporal configuration rather than from any particular element within it” (Bennett 2005:461)”.  The force which says that everything in the world is connected and we must be accountable for our actions within this field of connections.  Magic, in other words, requires us to perform in a way that once again recognizes the things of the world as virtuous.



Agrippa, Heinrich Cornelius.  1993.  Three Books Of Occult Philosophy. Trans. J. F. Edited by Donald Tyson. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn.

Bennett, Jane.  2005.  The agency of assemblages and the North American blackout.  Public Culture 17(3):445-465.

Brown, Bill.  2001.  Thing Theory. Critical Inquiry, v.28 (1):1-22.

Cook, James. 2001. The Arts of Deception. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari.  1988. Introduction: Rhizome.  In A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 3-28. Athlone Press.

Frazer, James George.  1998 [1922].  The golden bough: a study in magic and religion.  Oxford University Press.

Frow, John. 2004. A pebble, a camera, a man who turns into a telegraph pole. In Things, edited by Bill Brown, pp. 346-361. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Gell, Alfred.  1998.  Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory.  Clarendon Press, New York.

Heidegger, Martin. 2001. The thing. In Poetry, Language, and Thought, pp. 165-182. New York: Harper Collins.

Henare, Amiria, Martin Holbraad and Sari Wastell.  2007.  Introduction: thinking through things.  Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically, eds. Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad, Sari Wastell.  Routledge.

Ingold, Tim. 2000.  On weaving a basket.  In The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill, pp 339-348.  Routledge: London.

-2007. Materials Against Materiality. Archaeological Dialogues 14:1-16.

Kellar, Harry.  1893.  High Caste Indian Magic. The North American Review 156: 75.

-1903.  The Wizard at His Tricks. The Independent 55: 1254-1259.

Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Milbourne, Christopher.  1973.  The Illustrated History of Magic. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell.

Miller, Daniel. 2005. Materiality: an introduction. In Materiality (Politics, History, and Culture), edited by Daniel Miller, pp. 1-50. Duke University Press.

Edinburgh Review.  1895.  Modern Magic. The Edinburgh Review.

Morrison, Dorothy.  1998.  Everyday Magic: Spells & Rituals for Modern Living.  Lewellyn Worldwide.

Taussig, Michael.  1987.  Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man : A Study in Terror and Healing.


[1] According to the Society for America Magicians accessible at


A Digital Anomaly

May 16, 2009



Proof We Are All Thumbs


Easton J. Anspach



             For the most part, object studies take as their subjects (the irony is appreciated) items that stand apart from the material human being: Heidegger’s jug, Brown’s window, Ingold’s stone.  These things, while exhibiting various degrees of agency, actancy, and embeddedness, exist as bounded entities distinct from the material human thing.  Their recognition and portrayal as such reifies a Cartesian bifurcation of the world even as modern theorists work to transcend, destroy, or evade the divide between subject and object.  Even in the protean matter-energy flows of Bennett’s assemblages (2005) and the abstract hybrid networks of Latour (1993), the separation between humans and nonhumans is quite evident. 

            Where then, if not in the trash, power grids, door-closers and speed bumps of modern thing studies, are the true hybrids to be found?  Not humans acting as or with objects or non-humans acting as or with subjects, but humanobjects and/or nonhumansubjects?  A network of people and things still allows for human actors to position themselves in a privileged hierarchy over objects. In a true, post-colonial, postmodern, posthumanist discourse on things, this cannot be acceptable (if indeed it can be avoided).  So how do we attempt an escape?  Let us examine something simultaneously subject and object, human and non-human: the thumb.

Thumb is Human

            Perhaps when you think about what it means to be human, the thumb is not the first ‘thing’ that comes to mind.  Perhaps it should be.  The fully opposable thumb is actually a uniquely human adaptation first associated with Homo habilis, the forerunner of Homo sapiens (Wills 2000).  Starting about one million years ago with the evolution of Homo erectus, the truly prehensile thumb developed via a series of intermediate anthropoid stages culminating in the indispensible digit Homo sapiens sapiens currently depend upon.  Although many animals sport an opposable thumb or toe including koalas, opossums, Pandas, and a great number of monkeys and primates, the human thumb is the only one which can rotate 180 degrees to face the fingers.

            But the adaptation of a unique appendage is only the tip of the thumbnail, pollically[1] speaking.  Biological anthropologists argue that the evolution of the opposable thumb is also intimately tied to the development of the human qua human.  The prehensile thumb, due to its position, severely hinders the use of the hands for walking.  Therefore, its development paralleled the gradual pithecanthropoid and anthropoid adoption of the erect bipedal walking gait (Harcourt-Smith and Aiello 2004).  Although there is some debate as to the driving factor (did busy hands lead to upright walking or upright walking allow for busy hands), the opposable thumb effectively separated humans from apes who still utilize their hands as feet.ape-hand-reaching-out

Subsequently, neuroscientists have shown that the adoption of an erect stature by hominids led to a corresponding restructuring of the vascular system which allowed for greater brain size and mental efficiency (Falk 1998, 2009).  This augmented intellectual faculty, along with the freedom of the hands and increased manual dexterity, provided hominids the necessary means for superior development, refinement, and use of tools (Owen 1981).  Tools, in turn, played a primary part in the adaptation to and manipulation of environment, a process which resulted in explosive human population growth and expansion across the globe (van Schaik et. al. 1999).  They also had a pivotal role in the formation of human social processes and researchers have shown that gendered tool use was a significant component of human sexual division and dimorphism (Balme and Bowdler 2006; Marlowe 2007). 

Thumbs, it seems, are a crucial aspect of the embodied human experience.  From physiological makeup to evolutionary success to social structures, the thumb is an indispensable part of what it means to be physically, mentally, and socially human.  Even in the modern age, handwriting, typing, and texting reveal a continued salience for the thumb in the composition and deployment of the human identity.  Given this, perhaps it is faulty to discuss the thumb as human.  Instead, it seems more accurate to state the thumb is human.

Thumb is Thing

             And yet the thumb is not entirely human, nor human in its entirety.  The thumb, like all things, retains an essence not captured in full by designation as simply “human.”  Close examination brings to the surface a little of Brown’s ambiguous excess, Ingold’s materiality, Gell’s captivation.  The thumb is a thing, and it things its Heideggerian thingness in ways that transcend its definition as (part of) the human object.

            The thumb is precisely that: a thumb.  As such, it is a finger and, at the same time, not a finger.  As a finger, the thumb has a skeleton of phalanges joined by hinge-like joints that flex toward the palm.  It is part of the hand.  It looks, moves, and behaves in a similar fashion to the rest of the fingers.  It has a “back” that features hair and nail.  It has a hairless palm side with a fingerprint. 

            But somehow the thumb is not a finger, it is a thumb.  It is opposable and stands in contrast to the fingers.  It has only two phalanges as opposed to the fingers’ three.  It is close to the wrist, not the top of the palm. It is shorter and fatter than the fingers.  It is attached to a mobile metacarpus.  It has a distinct name, not as a token (ring finger) but as a type, (thumb).

            The thumb, as thing, affords and constrains.  As noted previously, its full opposability allows the hand to grip in ways no other animal can.  The thumb allows for incredible manual dexterity which results in precise and skilled tool creation and use.  It provides impetus for bipedalism, brain development, and social stratification. It serves as a security blanket in the mouth of a child.  The thumb allows as write, to draw, to type, to trace out Thanksgiving turkeys in elementary school.


            But the thumb, as thing, also constrains.  Its opposability eliminates the ability to walk as the apes.  In fact, its placement in opposition to the palm makes it one of most injured joints of the body (Neff 2006).  Its (over)use as security blanket manifests in oral fixations and orthodontic visits.  Its dexterity and grip have made humans highly dependent on its use.  Try and zip up a pair of jeans without the use of a thumb.  Pick up a heavy glass or can using only the fingers.  The loss of the thumb is in many ways the loss of humanness.

            What is more, the thumb has come into an existence of its own.  Its participation in networks outside that of human anatomy is almost too prolific to follow:  As the iconic insult which would eventually lead to Romeo and Juliet’s untimely demise, “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?”;  the saving grace or everlasting damnation of gladiators in the mighty Coliseum; the spirit of Gaia which manifests in a gardener’s green thumb; the guide to moviegoers worldwide thanks to Siskel and Ebert (and whoever they Roeper-ed into it after that); the force of the tyrant who strives to keep you “under their thumb.”; fairytale princesses named Thumbelina and folk heroes named Tom Thumb, the latter of which would gain a military commission in Barnum’s militia;  the rules of thumb by which humans guide their lives.

            So the thumb is a thing, but what kind of thing is it?  It would seem, given the discussion above, to be a human thing.  After all, the thumb is part of the human body: it is made of flesh, blood, and bone.  It affords and constrains as far as it allows a human hand to grip or to write.  Its use as insult, critique, and symbol are all as extensions of the human body in response to human society.  The thumb is encompassed by the boundary layer of the human skin.  So it is a human thing, a Latourian quasi-object.  But as such the thumb is still solidly human and, therefore, does not seem to help bridge our Cartesian divide.  Right?  Maybe.  Let us complicate the issue.ThumbWar

 Losing a Thumb War


In January of 2002 a friendly-fire incident during MOS training with the 75th Ranger Regiment left three United States soldiers dead and a fourth unconscious and without a thumb.  Well, not quite without a thumb.  A bullet struck the soldier’s second pollical phalange causing a series of cascade fractures which left the skin of the thumb mostly intact but destroyed almost the entirety of the underlying bone structure.  The soldier was flown to Texas where he was fitted with a cadaver thumb, still unconscious.

Already, the thumb begins to lose some its unique humanness.  Western humanist philosophy has created a world in which individual humans are viewed as matchless.  A world in which the words of Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson are seen as a universal proclamation of truth: “A human being is so irreplaceable. So valuable and so unique.”  And yet, we can replace a thumb, a part of the unique human being.  We can take pieces of one human and place them in another.  Does this mean that Persson would have been more accurate in stating: “A human being is only partially replaceable?”  In that case, which parts are the inimitable ones?  Where exactly, in the human body, does humanness reside?

The answer, in part, is nowhere, at least nowhere in the body.  This question of the particular residence of humanness returns once again to Descartes and the divide between mind and body.  The trend in the West has been to place the essence of humanity in the mind and, therefore, to construct the body as a kind of Heideggerian (2001) vessel whose void is to contain the human spirit.  The body, vacant of mind, is an empty shell, a cadaver ready for deployment in Foucault’s (2003) clinic.  The thumb, it would seem, is not human at all.  The human body, in fact, seems to slip away from humanity.

But Heidegger would not allow this to happen to a human vessel any more than he would allow it to happen to a clay one (2001:170-171).  As the container of the void of humanity, the body still holds certain humanness, empty or full.  It has the potential to ‘give forth’ human, and as such contains a certain ability to human that maintains its unique character as humaning.  The replacement of the thumb, then, is a translation of types.  Humans are held together by their shared ability to human, and the replacement of the thumb is just one (empty or dead) human humaning another (full or alive) human.

Dead Thumb

Perhaps, but the vessel is broken.  Our soldier is no longer entirely intact.  The structure of his body has been compromised and another compromised body has been used to affect repairs.  What do we now make of our repaired human?  Heidegger said nothing of a broken vessel.  We must turn to medicine and philosophy; they have knowledge of repairing humans.

 How does one reckon the technologies of the human? But there is no such thing as the human. Instead, there is only the dizzying multiplicity of the cut human, the human body as interminably cut, fractured. In the clefts of history and at the limits of representation, the cut body of humanity tells the story of the indeterminability that haunts the dreams and nightmares of the “fully there” (Athanasiou 2003).

  It is the thingness of humanity, the “indeterminability”, that is at stake in our soldier’s thumb, then.  It is the replacement of the thumb that reveals the fractured ambiguity of humanness.  We are all cut humans but in the imaginary we exist as whole.

 Separate Worlds 

            Not to make the question too easy, our soldier is also a Lakota and follows the spiritual beliefs of the Ogallala Nation.  The thumb as thing and the thumb as human are now joined by the questions of the thumb as Lakota thing and the thumb as Lakota human.  Our ‘simple’ thumb is now enmeshed in questions of competing worldviews, or perhaps more accurately, questions of competing worlds (Henare et al. 2007).

            The Lakota believe that humanity is only one of the life forces imparted to the residents of Earth and resides in the physical human body, full or empty, cut or not.  Life and death are mere stages in a greater cycle of spirit creation, movement, and regeneration.  The “dead” body, in this case, is just as much human as the “live” one.  The replacement of the thumb is not a translation of types but a transplantation of the individual human tokens.  You can imagine, therefore, our soldier’s consternation in awakening to discover he was no longer one, but two.  The thumb is once again human, or at least part of one (or two).

            The United States military under Constitutional law is required to respect all religious beliefs and, being thoroughly embarrassed by the decision to insert the thumb without first consulting with the soldier, agrees to remove that part of the (empty) human from the other (full) human.  No other option for repair presents itself to the military doctors so the remaining pieces of the thumb are to be amputated.  The thumb, it seems, has finally come to rest.  It is human, that is, it is a human thing, and it is to be no more for this one soldier.

We Have the Technology

             But a story this complex cannot come to a simple conclusion.  One of the soldier’s doctors makes a last minute phone call to a nearby medical research institution and explains the dilemma.  It just so happens the institute has a department specializing in prosthetics and robotics, and that they have recently worked on constructing an automaton arm to play piano for a robotics exposition.  The researchers, slightly giddy from their success, agree to look at the case of our fallen soldier.

            They come to a series of conclusions.  First, no fully functional thumb prosthetic has ever been created to repair this amount of damage.  Second, the technology exists but would require an original construction on a tight medical deadline.  Third, the thumb would cost approximately $340,000 before hospital bills, materials, and physical therapy was factored in.  Things were looking up for the thumb, but down for the soldier.  Our soldier is a young man hard up for cash and the surgery is just too expensive.  Alas, where there is a will, there is a research institute eager for publication and copyrights.  It is agreed that the institute will cover the cost of the surgery in turn for publication rights and ownership of the prosthetic.

            The thumb is now thing again, but this time as a commercial product.  And, given the human essence of the thumb, it is a fetishized commodity beyond the extent imagined by Frazier or even Marx.  Ownership of the thumb is ownership of the body: slavery.  Our soldier’s humanity (or at least the cut, thingness part of it) is to be the property of a commercial corporation.  But this cannot be legal.  The United States has legislation in place to outlaw the valuation and trade of humans as well as human organs.[2]

The truth is the property rights and ownership of the human body is a contentious issue still unresolved by the U.S. courts.  Technology has continuously reduced the amount of material scientifically and commercially viable as part of the human body.  This fact, along with the aforementioned separation of mind and body, has lead to an increased commerce in human body parts, especially in intrastate cases or when a “greater good” is in question.  In fact, the California Supreme Court in the case of Moore v. Regents of the University of California denied a “patient ownership rights in his own cells for fear that the establishment of such rights would inhibit the advancement of the nascent biotechnology industry, which the court saw as crucial to the future of health-care” (Gold 1996).

            So where does that leave our soldier and his thumb?  The National Organ Transplant Act defines the term ‘‘human organ’’ as

 …the human (including fetal) kidney, liver, heart, lung, pancreas, bone marrow, cornea, eye, bone, and skin or any subpart thereof and any other human organ (or any subpart thereof, including that derived from a fetus) specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services by regulation” (NOTA 1998). 

It is these parts which cannot be traded or valuated.  The question is, will the prosthetic thumb qualify?

 Thumb Print

             The removal of the skeletal structure and the needs of the underlying tissue, tendons, and skin of the soldier’s thumb called for a certain amount of alacrity in the scheduling of the soldier’s medical procedures.  As a result, the fabrication of the prosthetic included a number of repurposed materials that wouldn’t normally be considered for an operation of this sort.  Specifically, the researchers utilized the ceramic swivel joints from two high–efficiency 3-D model printer/copiers.  These are highly-precise joints to which printer nozzles are attached in order to render complex graphics on 3-dimensional scale models.  The rest of the prosthetic included titanium guide rods (also from the printers), sheathed tinsel wire to work the joint, and screws. 

The new thumb, therefore, is not an organ by NOTA’s definition.  Ownership and copyrights were secured, the surgery went forward, and the soldier received his thumb.  But if this thumb wasn’t an organ, what was it?  It was an object: it contained metal, ceramic, and it was foreign to the uncut human body.  It was also subject: under the human surface of the skin, under control of the soldier, part of the cut human body.  It was part man, part machine, “…a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” (Haraway 1991:149).  Our thumb, as well as our soldier, is both human and nonhuman, machine and organism.  They are cyborgs.


Haraway has studied this subject intimately and she informs us that to be a cyborg is to be many.  Or to be more precise, it is to be many-in-one; “The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self” (1991:163).  It is a thing which, like our thumb, knows of borders and at the same time bridges them. 

 There is no drive in cyborgs to produce total theory, but there is an intimate experience of boundaries, their construction and deconstruction. There is a myth system waiting to become a political language to ground one way of looking at science and technology and challenging the informatics of domination– in order to act potently (1991:181).

 The cyborg, then moves freely between the subject and object, between man and machine, between thing and object.  It reflects the nearly infinite, polymorphous ways in which the “home, workplace, market, public arena, the body itself- all can be dispersed and interfaced in nearly infinite, polymorphous ways” (1991:163).

            Lest we think this to be a purely cerebral endeavor, consider the recent work of Kevin Warwick, a British scientist who successfully implanted one hundred electrodes into his nervous system and connected them to the internet:

With this in place he successfully carried out a series of experiments including extending his nervous system over the internet to control a robotic hand, a form of extended sensory input and the first direct electronic communication between the nervous systems of two humans (Warwick et al. 2002).

 Here we can see, quite literally, the cyborg as a distribution of self.  Beyond Gell’s (1998) dividuation, the cyborg is able to physically circulate itself across boundaries: not through the molting of ephemeral skins but by establishing tangible connections to the dispersed world.


             Where does this leave us?  I would argue it leaves us not at all but carries us forward.  In the question of subject or object, there no longer seems to be a question.  Warwick, the first human cyborg, puts it this way: “In the game of life and evolution, there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines”‎ (2004:60).  I agree, except I would substitute cyborg for machine.  As Haraway points out, the world is an intricate mess of differentially distributed arenas in which the body is only a small part.  You may chose to follow Deleuze and Guattari (1988) and call it a rhizome, Bennett (2205) and call it an assemblage, or Latour (1993) and call it a network, but the interrelatedness of the world, or worlds, is no longer a question.  What these models lack is a practical understanding of humanity’s part, precisely because they still see humans and nonhumans.  Cyborgs allow for both the recognition and transcendence of this barrier by carrying us into a dynamic universe with weak boundaries, strong cybernetic humanobjects, and endless possibilities.  I give that perspective a mechanical, commoditized, cut-bodied, reconstituted thumb’s up.


Athanasiou, Athena.  2003.  Technologies of humanness, aporias of biopolitics, and the cut body of humanity in Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies.

Balme, J. and S. Bowdler.  2006.  Spear and digging stick: The origin of gender and its implications for the colonization of new continents.  Journal of Social Archaeology v.6:379-401.

Bennett, Jane.  2005.  The agency of assemblages and the North American blackout.  Public Culture 17(3):445-465.

Brown, Bill.  2001.  Thing Theory. Critical Inquiry, v.28 (1):1-22.

Chaisson, Eric J.  2007.  Paths Towards Humanity.  Cosmic Evolution – Epoch 6 – Biological Evolution. Tufts University.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari.  1988. Introduction: Rhizome.  In A Thousand Plateaus, pp. 3-28. Athlone Press.

Falk, Dean.  2009.  Updating the Radiator Hypothesis. Florida State University.  Accessed May, 2009 at

Falk, D. & T. B. Gage 1998. Radiators are cool: A response to Braga & Boesch’s published paper and reply. Journal of Human Evolution v.35:307-312.

Foucault, Michel. 2003 [1963].  The Birth of the Clinic.  Routledge.

Gell, Alfred.  1998.  Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory.  Clarendon Press, New York.

Gold, E. Richard.  1996.  Body Parts: Property Rights and the Ownership of Biological Materials.  Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton.

Haraway, Donna.  1991.  A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge. pp.149-181.

Harcourt-Smith, W. E. H. and L. C. Aiello.  2004.  Feet and the Evolution of Human Bipedal Locomotion. Journal of Anatomy; v.204 (5).

Heidegger, Martin. 2001. The thing. In Poetry, Language, and Thought, pp. 165-182. New York: Harper Collins.

Henare, Amiria, Martin Holbraad and Sari Wastell.  2007.  Introduction: thinking through things.  Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically, eds. Amiria Henare, Martin Holbraad, Sari Wastell.  Routledge.

Ingold, Tim. 2007. Materials Against Materiality. Archaeological Dialogues 14:1-16.

Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lovejoy, C. Owen.  1981.  The Origin of Man.  Science 23 v.211 (4480):341–350.

Marlowe, F.W.  2007.  Hunting and Gathering: The Human Sexual Division of Foraging Labor.  Cross-Cultural Research v.41:170-195.

Meyers, Ron Lee.  1997.  A review of Body Parts: Property Rights and the Ownership of Biological Materials in Harvard Journal of Law & Technology v.10:2.

Neff, Tony.  2003.  Personal communication.  Dr. Neff is an orthopedic surgeon at Des Moines Mercy Hospital specializing in the hands.

United States Congress.  National Organ Transplantation Act  (As amended by the Charlie W. Norwood Living Organ Donation Act – January 2008).

van Schaik, Carel, Robert Deaner and Michelle Merrill.  1999.  The conditions for tool use in primates: implications for the evolution of material culture.  Journal of Human Evolution, v.36:6:719-741.

Warwick, Kevin.  2004.  I, Cyborg, University of Illinois Press.

Warwick, K, Gasson, M, Hutt, B, Goodhew, I, Kyberd, P, Schulzrinne, H and Wu, X.  2004.  “Thought Communication and Control: A First Step using Radiotelegraphy”, IEE Proceedings on Communications, 151(3):185-189.

Wills, Christopher.  2000.  The Evolution of the Human Species in Evolutionary Theory:
An Esalen Invitational Conference.


[1] Pollical is the adjective for thumb.

[2] In 1984 Congress passed the National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA), which prohibits the sale of human organs.

We didn’t start the fire…

April 28, 2009


I am left feeling…well, to be perfectly frank, I am left feeling.  Perhaps that is the point.  There is no doubt in my mind that this class has made manifest the objects and things in my life in a way entirely novel.  I walk away, if indeed it is possible to locate oneself in any place “away” from objects (I believe Harmon and Latour would question this ability), with an understanding that the world is indeed full of objects who hold sway in the daily exercise of human life.  I do not necessarily see an agreement among our authors in the way this influence is expressed, but this debate only makes things more powerful, stronger.


The thread, then, that holds them together for me is the ephemeral power of things.  Be it Brown’s ambiguity, Heidegger’s thingness, Gell’s captivation, Miller and Ingold’s materiality (not the same, note), Bennett’s assemblage, or Latour’s network, there is no denying that objects have a hold over (or around, or under, or in) humanity.  We are not separable from our things, and maybe never have been (man make tool, man make fire).  Given this incredible history, I do not find it surprising that theories of our engagement with things should proliferate, nor that they should be engaged in controversy.


To convolute the matter, I feel that we missed a tremendous piece of the puzzle.  Despite Henare and companies call for a study of the myriad worlds humans find themselves in (create), we looked at only one.  The tremendous amount of material and argument we grappled with is only one viewpoint of things.  Missing is the native voice of the Inca, the Hutu, the Cherokee, etc.  Their lives are also amassed with things, but these are not Heidegger’s jug, Ingold’s rock, or Brown’s dirty window.  What, I ask, would be thing theory to the Khamag or the Yamamano?


So what, in the end, is a thing?  It is anything and yet everything.  It is animate and inanimate, isolated and connected, black boxed and assembled, transparent and frustratingly opaque.  It enables and resists, it acts and yet refrains from action, it is material and immaterial.  It is subject and object.  In short, it is all and none.  At first, this appears to be a dismal end to our thing theory, but hark!  Culture, too, has been called anything and everything.  Philosophy has been called the study of all and the study of nothing.  This is not a dead end, it is a beginning.  No one can say that this study of things has not illuminated them, that things have not taught them.  They have given us some thing to think about…



More Juggling

April 21, 2009

I found two interesting videos in relation to my jug research.  The first applies to Heideggers observation that jugs are things in that they hold something and then gift it back.


The second video also applies to jugs holding and giving, but it also calls into question the nature of a jug as a void bounded by material.

Juggling with Heidegger

April 21, 2009


I thought it would be amusing to take Heidegger’s jug on a stroll around the Intraweb (that’s what my mom calls it) and see what interesting developments came of it.

So to begin with, Heidegger notes that “Near to us are what we usually call things.” From this, I believe we are to understand that a jug is near at hand because we are told “The jug is a thing.” So let us find a jug near at hand.


But a jug is not merely a thing near at hand, it also, as we are told, able to hold something else in it and is, therefore, a vessel.


Not only is it a vessel, Heidegger points out, it is a vessel capable of standing on its own.


But a jug is also made.  Part of its jugness is its manufacture.  I would place another image, but I think the previous one will suffice (unless you are under the delusion the previous jugs aren’t made….come on).

To continue, Heidegger realizes that the emptiness is what does the jugs holding.  In this case, cleavage fits the bill I think.


There is also a giving component to jugs.  That is, they take as well as keep and as such part of their jugness is their ability to gift.


Finally, Heidegger comes to the conclusion that jugs have their own thingness outside of man.  Jugs jug. Jugs jug jugs.


A Latourian Exercise

April 14, 2009

I found myself fascinated by Latour’s hypothetical conversation with his graduate student. “Describe, write, describe, write.” This, he argues, is what is not being taught to social scientists today. Instead there is an obsession with frameworks and explanations. This inspired me to attempt to write, sans frames. The following is an experiment, bear with me.

I chase a ball on a field of grass.

The grass grows. It feeds. It holds the ball. It marks my socks.

The wind blows gently and pushes against me, ball, and grass.

The ball crosses a painted line and I am penalized. I must remain in the boundaries. A box formed by grass and paint. A border enforced by whistle and threads of black and white.

Our uniforms are the same or different. They create war. On field and in audience. The goalie stands alone.

The ball strikes post. For a second they waver. The ball kisses net.

The scoreboard sounds. Lights speak out. One color of jersey is held hostage by the unwavering light. The clock counts down. The ball moves faster. Almost desperate.

Buzzer sounds and the paint releases. The jerseys go to sleep. The whistle no longer commands.

I have to admit that the process feels strange. I kept making errors while typing as I wanted to write that the Jersey colors “reflected” the competitive antagonism or that the lines on the field were evidence of the “Structure” of the game. What this especially drove home for me was how much we do use “Social” as a magic binding and not as a component of assemblages. Try it, it’s not easy. I begin to feel for that unfortunate graduate student (and not because of a shared fear of looming deadlines.)

A Not So Merry-Go-Round

April 7, 2009

So as it turns out, according to our dear Mr. Latour, modernity is not exactly…well…it’s just not exactly…or is it…or was it…or will it be?  Come with me on a little merry-go-round ride and see if you don’t end up in a circular dialectic with yourself as well.  In essence, Latour argues that the Western idea of modernity is dependent on a tradition of separation in which we continue to purify nature and culture from the pollution of the other, with Boyle serving as the original champion of nature and Hobbes that of society. 

As a result “we are always attempting to retie the Gordian knot by crisscrossing, as often as we have to, the divide that separates exact knowledge and the exercise of power – let us say nature and culture’ (Latour 1993: 3).  The truth, however, is that nature and culture are codeterminant so by emphasizing their separation as the definition of modernity we effectively eliminate our ability to be modern.

Or do we?  Here I find a fault in Latour’s analysis, but it may be a result of my own cultural understandings.  It seems to me that although the West may not be modern in the essence of this culture/nature bifurcation, the modern tendency to strive for purification has given the West a particular potential for achievement that is out of reach to those cultures that still recognize the “pre-modern” linkage between subject and object.  In essence, it’s as if the knowledge of the interrelatedness between nature and culture fetters these cultures within a bounded understanding of the social and a set understanding of the natural, with the only escape being through the lens of modernity.  Coming from one of these cultures who still recognize the intimate relationship between material and cultural, I find this to be a highly problematic, and somewhat hegemonic, argument.  Oglala’s and Dakota’s are particularly apt at adopting and incorporating new technologies in a philosophically rational manner while maintaining their understanding of the human/nonhuman codetermination.  Are they modern?

A further question would be, if Latour really believes that pre-modern societies were static, what is to be gained by a return?  In fact, what would a return entail?  At the end he writes, “We simply have to ratify what we have always done, provided that we reconsider our past, provided that we understand retrospectively to what extent we have never been modern, and provided we rejoin the two halves of the symbol broken by Hobbes and Boyle (144).”  So in other words we just keep going about our business, but with the understanding that the separation of nature and culture is in error, and yet essential to our current technological and industrial progress?  So we aren’t modern and yet we are dependent on modernity for our status?  And around and around we go.

Alien Hands, Need I Say More

March 10, 2009

Boy do I have an interesting post this week. I came across this issue a few years ago in researching neurological disorders. There is a medical condition known as Alien Hand Syndrome in which patients become disassociated from their hands which move independently, even performing complex or violent acts in some cases.

I found this to be particularly applicable to this weeks reading, especially in consideration of Bennet’s push to move beyond “human exceptionalism” (2005:452). The human hand is traditionally considered well within the sphere of human control and influence and the actants involved in the assemblage of locomotion are generally taken for granted. Alien Hand Syndrome, however, becomes a blatant reminder of the assemblage around something as simple and “human” as moving our own hand and involves neurons, diet and nutrition, myelin fiber sheaths, stroke, age, and the list goes on. It reveals that Bennett’s conceptions of efficacy, directionality, and causality can still have significant, experientially powerful outcomes at all levels.

Finally, it brings into question her discussion of responsibility. People with Alien Hand Syndrome have been known to commit violence, against themselves and against others. How do we trace the “culprits” in an assemblage such as Bennet’s? In the rhizomatic universe of Deleuze and Guattari in which there is no central pivot point to trace back to and in which each puppet string leads to yet another puppet string (8-9), how do we effect change? In their quest to cure AHS, doctors rely on the medical belief that symptoms denote sickness in a cause and effect relationship. If this isn’t the truth and we live in a complex, “sticky web of things” (Bennet 2004:365) is there hope to cure these patients, to have influence at all? How are we to account for or even begin to imagine the multitude of interrelation involved in this rhizomatic world? And how are we to hold anyone accountable when we can’t trace the myriad of actants involved? Is this new world to based entirely on intentions because the road to hell…

Ingold, I beweave you have a few problems

March 4, 2009


My head is still swimming a little so forgive me if I begin to drown during this. As we have already discussed in this class, our current academic situation in the West is heavily dependent on a Cartesian divide between mind and body which Ingold shows us has far reaching implications in dichotomies of mind vs nature, substance vs form, interior vs exterior, ration vs emotion, etc. The problem, Ingold argues, is that these are false dichotomies which are obscuring our true involvement as dwellers in the world. We live in a world where thought is active and action is passive (2000:416). Instead we need to view the world as a place of active engagement and relational performance.

Although I am fascinated by Ingold’s argument, I cannot resist playing devil’s advocate. My first point of contention comes from his use of the parallel between novice and “as if” actor (2000:416). At first, I thought this a brilliant argument for the importance of performance and practice but as I thought of my own experience, I found myself doubting. In college, I was a diver and placed 3rd in the Division III national finals twice. During my diving, there were many times when I found a particular dive difficult and no matter how many times I “performed” it, it never seemed to come together correctly. When this happened, my instructor would take me away from the boards to a classroom where I would sit in the dark and visualize the dive, sometimes for hours. When I returned to the boards, most of the time I corrected my errors and threw a much better dive. This seems to run counterintuitive to Ingold’s emphasis on practice.

As a second challenge to this, what about the savant? What I mean to say is that there seems to be an inherent talent and/or skill level in some people (or the opposite in many cases). On my team in college, there was a young man who arrived early to every practice and stayed late. He visualized, watched video, and did dry-land throws. Despite all of his effort, he couldn’t through a decent dive the entire 3 years I was on the team. Why, if practice is the crucial aspect of skillful performance, did this young man have so much difficulty? Doesn’t this indicate that there is an extremely salient “intellectual” component that affects technical skill?

Thirdly, Ingold makes an argument that writing removes the performance, dwelt-in aspect of language (2000:412). At the same time, writing is itself a performance, a “playing of the cello” if you will. I am not sure then that writing is a removal of practice, but a re-practice that incorporates all of Ingold’s emphasis on imagination, skill, and performance. Does this, in turn, strengthen his argument or weaken it? What of aesthetic writing, calligraphy, or Braille?

Fourthly, in a world in which programming is reaching incredibly complex levels and artificial intelligence is becoming less and less artificial and more intelligent, where does the future of Ingold’s arguments lie? Does his argument against the efficaciousness of programmed actions (2000:414) hold in a world in which robotics can be programmed to do actions faster, stronger, and more efficient?

Fifth, Ingold states that we should view making as weaving and thereby privilege the process (2000:346). Does this apply to societies in which the process is removed from the consumer? We may think of this as a relatively modern phenomenon but consider the specialty craftsmen in ancient cultures. In addition, what of objects whose sole purpose was symbolic? Or who were produced by God’s? In these cases isn’t the process unimportant?

I suppose that’s a good start and his rock article was already well-critiqued. I hope I kept my nose above the waves.

Gell’in with Easton

February 10, 2009

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Easton Anspach

If you are pressed for time skip to my questions at the bottom.

Personal Reflection

To begin with, I want to state that the title “Art and Agency,” feels misleading to me, which I guess is on some level Gell’s point. He calls for an anthropology in which we move away from aesthetics towards recognition of art objects as actors, “The simplest way to imagine this is to suppose that there could be a species of anthropological theory in which persons or ‘social agents’ are, in certain contexts, substituted for by art objects.” (5) In the process, he moves away from the standard Western practice of evaluating art as symbolically meaningful. In fact, Gell states “I entirely reject the idea that anything, except language itself, has ‘meaning’ in the intended sense.” (6) Instead, “In place of symbolic communication, I place all the emphasis on agency, intention, causation, result, and transformation.” As a result, Gell effectively collapses the traditional definitions of art so that anything can become an art object and his anthropological theory of art as a study of social relations in the vicinity of objects mediating social agency becomes effectively a holistic study of culture. In fact, this can become a theory of everything, which puts it in a danger of becoming a theory of nothing as well.

But putting that aside, Gell’s approach is to study the relations between actors (including objects) in order to “explain why people behave as they do” (11). These relations he defines as art-like situations which “can be discriminated as those in which the material ‘index’ (the visible, physical, ‘thing’) permits a particular cognitive operation which I identify as the abduction of agency.” (13) This idea of index is borrowed from C.S. Peirce and is used by Gell to argue that art objects are those things from which we determine an action or intention is in place, i.e. where there is smoke there is fire. This agency, therefore, makes agents of all those who are the source of these causal events (16). He draws a distinction, however, between self-sufficient agents and secondary agents who only have minds and intentions attributed to them (17). Therefore, objects are actors and agents but only through their association with humans. However, Gell makes a point of saying that agents are and do not merely use artefacts, a point essential to his discussion of the distributed person.

As a relational theory, then, Gell utilizes four terms Index, Artist, Recipient, and Prototype (27) which act on each other in basic binary relations of agent/patient which can be become incredibly complex (28-50). He goes on to say that “it may be supposed that whatever type of action a person may perform vis-à-vis another person, may be performed also by a work of art.” (66) This performance is in fact an essential part of agency which is expressed in the captivation of the spectator. Here Gell makes a case study of decorative art which shows the complexity and unfinished business of decorative design which makes these objects powerful. They are “cognitively sticky.” (86) Gell goes on then to draw an analogy between the performance of music, dance, and art and their cognitive indecipherability. (95) He ends with the idea that we can distribute ourselves through objects and, therefore, cast a much wider net of relations and expand our social spheres.

Questions and Critique

I am not sure I agree with Gell’s definition of art, art objects, or art situations. I was really enthralled by his study but found myself resisting his downplaying of aesthetics in other cultures merely because they are important in ours. This may be a personal bias, but I am eager to hear others thoughts.

Do we truly believe that language is the only thing with intended meaning? Does Gell simplify the differences in cultural art and appreciation? Aren’t icons themselves dependent on symbolic conventions?

I also found myself troubled by Gell’s use of index. I studied Pierce intensely last semester and find that Gell seems to collapse Peirce’s concept of icon and index in his use of the terminology (97). What’s more, Peirce sees icon, index, and symbol as intricately related and dependent on each other and Gell’s dismissal of the symbolic aspect is a little disturbing in this light.

How does this inform last week’s discussion of the fetish. On page 62 Gell states that “These relations are not referred to symbolically, as if they could exist independently of their manifestation in this particular form; for these relations have produced this particular thing in its concrete, factual, presence; and it is because these relations exist(ed) that the fetish can exercise its judicial role.” How does this definition of the fetish factor into Keane’s discussion of the mediatory role of fetish or Pel’s association of the fetish with rarity and fantasy?

Do we really believe that all of our actions may also be performed by an object? (66)

Could we argue that Gell’s unfinished business (80) could be related to Brown’s definition of things as objects which can’t quite be defined? Is that why they hold such an important place in our society?

Is it true that we never admire a decorated object solely for its aesthetics (81)?

How efficacious is his concept of a distributed person? Do we truly see people in our objects of daily life? How often do you recognize the president on the coin you are spending or the person depicted on the stamp on the letter you receive? In a culture becoming more material, as we have seen argued, is distributing our person making us thinner or more omnipresent?

Can Gell’s work be seen as structuralist? Especially in light of his arguments about the internal working of decorative indexes?