Author Archive

questions for “the thing”

April 22, 2009

(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.

anthropologically trained moles of a philosophical bent = rachel whiteread?

April 21, 2009

A passage from rereading Ingold’s “Materials against materiality” reminded me of the work of Rachel Whiteread (pictured below, her concrete cast of the inside of a Victorian house in East London):

House, Rachel Whiteread (1993)

House, Rachel Whiteread (1993)

“I wonder whether, if moles were endowed with imaginations as creative as those of humans, they could have a material culture. Anthropologically trained moles, of a philosophical bent, would doubtless insist that the materiality of the world is not culturally constructed but culturally excavated — not, of course, in the archaeological sense of recovering erstwhild detached, solid objects that have since become buried in the substance of the earth, but in the sense that the forms of things are hollowed out from within rather than impressed from without. In their eyes (if they could se), all that is material would reside beyond the things of culture, on the far side of their inward-facing surfaces. Thus these things could be phenomenally present in mole culture only as a material absence. — not as concrete objects but as externally bounded volumes of empty space. The very idea of material culture would then be a contradiction in terms.” (Ingold, Archaeological Dialogues 14 (1):6)

assemblage for two year olds

March 25, 2009

(consider this more of a prelude for than a summary of my presentation material…)

the other day, i was out with my son, who is now 26 months old. at some point in our path, the sidewalk we were walking along became uneven, and at a depression between two of the concrete slabs, debris had collected.

were i walking alone, i probably wouldn’t have given it more thought than a quick determination whether someone failed to curb their dog before deciding to step in or past the spot. with neko in tow, i had to respond differently. first, to his questions: “a-dat?” (what’s that? and if the word “detritus” held any meaning for him, i might have left it at that…); but also to our disrupted motion: we had stopped, no longer propelled by my need to get to the store. instead, neko was leaning forward, balancing on the front of his sneakers so he could crouch down for a better look, both pointing and resisting the desire to reach down and rifle through the collection. and for a change, i had to consider what was there and find some way to convey these to each of his “what’s that?”: dirt, layers of dried leaves now covered in a dusty veneer, flattened cigarette butts, pieces of plastic of unclear origins, jagged pebbles, chewed gum.

since the beginning of our class, i’ve been struck by the nostalgia that emanates from a number of our readings: “why did things become forgotten,” even as modernity provides the groundwork for making such an inquiry in the first place? but perhaps this nostalgia stems from something besides a diachronous view of critical theories. there could be some value to doing the work of bennett’s “naive realist”, by thinking through things as when we were two.

never forgetting about microscopes

March 3, 2009

i owe sev a blog comment on annemarie mol’s book, now much-read among medical anthropologists and science studies folks, The Body Multiple (duke university press, durham, NC, 2002; linked here to google books).   it’s a work that reverberates strongly with the readings we have been dealing with — particularly gell, and again as we confront ingold. mol’s book demonstrates how one might go about undertaking an ontological ethnographic work (in her words, a “praxiography”), and so is particularly helpful in addressing the question “how?” as we go about considering what it means to perform an object study.

in a previous class, i rather clumsily sought to make an argument for ontologies as not simply differential ways of experiencing the world, but distinct realities that nonetheless  reside uneasily, even contradictorily, alongside the other.  in anthropology, we speak a lot about the “every day” in practice theory.  mol takes this notion and makes a compelling case for seeing the world as one of “enactments”, where the question of “who” does the “doing” is far from clear:

“My ethnographic strategy hinges on the art of never forgetting about microscopes. Of persistently attending to their relevance and always including them in stories about physicalities. It is with this strategy that disease is turned into something ethnographers may talk about… The “disease” that ethnographers talk about is never alone. It does not stand by itself. It depends on everything and everyone that is active while it is being practiced. This disease is being done.” (31-32)

thrice removed

February 24, 2009


(i’m very sorry to have been out of town for the last discussion, which clearly has left quite a thought-provoking residue…)

perhaps it might seem odd, but among the most arresting images that first came to my mind were those of thomas demand (see above). of course there is always more to the story: the german artist’s career initially as a sculptor took on another iteration as he began to document his elaborately constructed scenes (all made from colored paper), which were themselves inspired by journalistic photographic work:

“As a rule, Demand begins with an image, usually, although not exclusively, from a photograph culled form the media, which he translates into a three-dimensional life-size paper model. Then he takes a picture of the model with a Swiss-made Sinar, a large-format camera with telescopic lens… Contributing to the overall illusion of reality, his large-scale photographs are laminated behind Plexiglas and displayed wihtout a frame… Thus, his photographs are triply removed from the scenes or objects they depict… Once they have been photographed, the models are destroyed. The resulting pictures are convincingly real and strangely artificial.” (Roxana Marcoci, “Paper Moon”, Thomas Demand. New York: MoMA, 2005)

that whale…

February 6, 2009

An excerpt from Bela Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies” (video quality is not so great here — do consider netflixing this one):

questions for class

February 4, 2009

From Laura, Elizabeth, and Gina:

1. All of the authors this week reference Marx’s theory of the fetishism of commodity in Capital (we pasted the except below for your reference). Marx’s key argument is that through the process of capitalist production, the worker is completely alienated from the product of their labor and the buyer from the social life of the commodity’s production. The “social character” of the labor that produces the commodities is therefore completely hidden in daily exchanges. Marx terms this entire masking process as “the fetishism of the commodity.” As we begin our class discussion tomorrow, we would like to first “unmask” what a fetish is, taking into account both Marx’s theory and the authors who reference him. How is a fetish different (or similar) from a thing or object?

2. Does the fetish require a fetishist? (And, for that matter, is a fetishist one who fetishizes?)

Several of these readings push us to think of the fetish not only as a material thing, but as a process or a relationship–not (primarily) a semiotic relationship in the sense of one thing representing another, but instead, a relationship of interaction or substitution–such as that between a a coat and its wearer, or a coat and the writing-paper for which it might be exchanged. Is the fetish, a la Pels, “an occult counterpoint that marks the limits of a dominant discourse of representation”? (112)

3. Key to these discussions of the fetish is the question of its agency: for Pels, “fetishism is animism with a vengeance. Its matter strikes back.” (91) Pels argues that Appadurai’s methodological fetishism is not really fetishism at all, because it limits itself to an essentially animist focus on what people invest in things (spirit in matter) rather than deal with the power of the fetish over people (spirit of matter). So what might a methodological fetishism in Pels’ sense look like? And how does it relate to the approaches proposed in last week’s readings (such as Henare et al’s call to “think through things”), and/or to those of the other authors we’ve read this week?

4. Last week we wrestled with how to define, describe, distinguish things and objects, and how these relate to subjects and language. Keane’s “Calvin in the Tropics” addresses, destabilizes, and enlightens many of these understandings. How does the piece work as an “object study”? More specifically, how might this help us consider our choice of methodology and analysis when locating the fetish, objects, and the material?

5. The fetish as a source of power is a theme throughout several of the readings, yet is perhaps most clearly exemplified by the Spyer’s discussion of clothing as a “civilizing skin” (170) in Aru. In her article, power is wielded both through clothing, and upon it. The role of clothing in signifying social status and nostalgic memories is clear, yet does this mean we can consider clothing as a fetish? If so, what or who is more powerful: the clothing or the person who wears it? Finally, what relationship (if any) can we make between Spyer’s observations and the sexualization of the term “fetish” as evidenced by the images of the Google search?

6. Keane and Pels mention instances of gendering in their depictions of subject/object relations (respectively, “to associate commodity exchange with being female” and the “too feminine” epistemology of “fancy”). we’ve discussed object studies as marginalized and other, but would it also be useful to incorporate a feminist reading of object studies? isn’t the material world, for many groups, already gendered?

Marx, Karl. 1990 [1865]. The fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof. In Capital, vol. 1 page 165:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.