The Bear Necessities…

May 4, 2009 by

…or what makes a teddy bear teddy bear? 

…and what makes that bear bear when you make it at Build-A-Bear?

Bears bearing

Bears bearing

things in translation

May 4, 2009 by

If people are still reading amidst the press of finals, travel plans, etc–given that we’re a fairly multilingual group, I’d be curious to hear what others have to say about the question raised at the end of our session on Heidegger, on the etymologies or uses of words for “thing” in different languages.  It caught my attention because of my ongoing amusement/frustration with respect to the sheer range of uses for “şey”, the Turkish word for thing.  I don’t know much about the etymology of şey, aside from that it apparently comes from an Arabic root.  But in addition to meaning thing (and appearing in compound forms like something, nothing and so forth) şey functions as a filler word of sorts, dropped into the sentence by a speaker pausing to search for the right word, or displaying an expressive hesitancy.  It’s a bit comparable to well, hmm, like, I mean, you know, that is, etc–perhaps not unlike when English-speakers say, “the thing is that,” and go on to say something else entirely.   Şey can refer to a perfectly concrete material thing, but it can also mark the absence of anything sayable at all.  Anyway, this is all partly an excuse to publish the wonderful, whimsical entry for şey in my Redhouse Turkish-English dictionary:

şey 1. thing. 2. what-do-you-call-it; what-do-you-call-him; whatyoumayjigger, thingumbob, thingamabob, thingumajig, thingummy (used to designate something or someone whose name one has either forgotten but doesn’t know).

In other thing-tidbits, whenever you refer to a film or song as cheesy, you’re using a stepchild of the Hindi-Urdu (and originally Persian) word for thing, चीज़ (chiiz), imported into English via British imperial expansion into South Asia.  I’ve heard people say this is where the expression “the big cheese” comes from, but I’ve also seen its origins attributed to the giant wheels of cheese that Andrew Jackson would periodically set out in the 1830s White House for the public: an intriguing quasi-object, and probably a better story.


May 3, 2009 by

I apologize for posting my end of semester thoughts more than a few days late.

Henare et al.’s call for a methodology of wonderment came at just the right time for me to embrace it. I’m looking at my marginal notes to the piece and seeing a lot of exclamation marks. I hadn’t at all recognized the extent of the ontological assumptions I had been operating under, hadn’t recognized how immersed I’d been in strictly epistemological concerns–I thought I had simply been immersed in the world. Maybe I had been willing to take the idea of multiple ontologies from something unthinkable to something unpursuable, but that was as far as I had come. My (epistemological) interests were leading to a dead end, I couldn’t figure out why people were still obsessing over Writing Culture nor could I figure out how to get out of the obsession myself, I was wondering where there might be hope…

A couple points on which this course has prompted sustained thinking:

If anything, all the talk of agency has made me insistent upon thinking beyond the concept of agency. My issue with agency is that the model for it seems to me to be overwhelmingly human. While the writers working with the concept of agency have used it to help us rethink the kinds of things to which agency is applied, I don’t think it’s helped us rethink the concept of agency itself. Seeing the agency of objects feel too much like recognizing a bit of ourselves in objects, and I think this is partly where a postcolonial celebration of objects (“Look at you resisting!”) falls off track. I’m finding networks/assemblages/entanglements/collaborations to offer a more useful idiom. These concepts don’t suggest that we appreciate objects to the extent that we see something of ourselves in them, but rather that we aren’t who we thought we were in the first place. So if we see ourselves in objects, it’s not just the objects, but also we ourselves who are seen anew. This isn’t the same world now with more agents, but an entirely different world in which we’re much more hesitant to draw dividing lines.

Then how do we recognize difference in a way that explores how difference is produced rather than settling into difference as a given thing? That is, how do we not become ontological relativists? It’s not difference as a fact but difference as a production that’s interesting. So Gell’s distinction of primary and secondary agency goes too far towards accepting difference as a fact for me–we see how different kinds of being have different kinds of agency, but we aren’t pushed to consider initial assumptions of why. If we’re talking about networks, how do we talk about the enmeshing of actants in a network while speaking to the evident fact that trees, tree-huggers, and chainsaws aren’t the same kinds of things. What’s our vocabulary for difference?

still amidst Copernicans?

April 29, 2009 by

dear things,

first, thank you for a wonderful semester–while I am still very much working through my engagement with this course and its thinkers, there’s no doubt that it’s already shifted my thinking in productive and tangible ways, and will continue to exercise its agency in the future.  Also, before moving on to comments re: Latour and Harman–I still hope we can use the blog to multiply the etymological question raised by Gabriel in relation to Heidegger’s Thing, and will set up another post later today to house that discussion.  I’ve been thinking about the thing-words in the languages I’m studying this semester (on which I blame the decrease in my blog contributions!) and think it’s an inquiry worth pursuing.

I found Harman’s elegant exegesis of Latour helpful both as a review (one that didn’t provoke the somewhat allergic reaction I’ve occasionally had to the latter’s prose) and as an extension that partially resolves some of my points of discomfort with ANT.   One intervention I’d particularly like to flag for discussion is the way Harman deals with the problem of Latour’s notion of time, which, as he observes, “is entirely occasionalist in spirit” (187)–Harman’s intervention, with its insistence on substance, that “things must be partially separate from their mutual articulations. If this were not the case, they would never be able to enter new propositions” (168) which allows us to talk about continuity and change in a way that Latour’s ANT seems to resist, the strange forumulation of plasma of Reassembling the Social notwithstanding.  Harman’s move to locating that “plasma” inside things (191) is more appealing.

I am broadly sympathetic to the empiricist impulse that drives Latour’s work—glossed by Harman as a sense “that critique makes things less real, when the goal should be to make them more real” (154).  But I am also not so ready to dismiss the theory-things Harman groups under the heading “continental tyrannies”, as I continue to find value in both their epistemological inquiries and their concepts of power—and do not read all work in this tradition as necessarily being so fully dismissive of the hybrids and quasi-objects Latour and Serres bring knocking on the parliament’s doors.  (Also, as Sev observed last week, Latour still wants to still “do politics”, which requires a degree of stabilization that chafes uncomfortably against his metaphysical position.)  Finally, like Matt, I also continue to struggle with the radical levelings Latour’s democratic ontology requires–though I wonder if what I am balking at is less the universalization of agency than at the equivalencies Latour and Harman demand of us—to think of Thailand and actor-network theory as things of the same order as fish and steel (I did enjoy Harman’s incantation-lists.)  As an anthropologist, my research is still going to cohere around questions asked of those objects we call human, and I am still thinking about how to do that work in a way that takes on the ‘posthumanist’ and ‘hyperhumanist’ perspectives we’ve been absorbing.  Perhaps the useful takeaway is the reminder to think of a human, too, as “not a simple monadic soul, but a black box containing all manner of swarming actors” (168)— a formulation that reminds me of a wonderful passage from the last page of Edward Said’s memoir:

I occasionally experience myself as a cluster of flowing currents. I prefer this to the idea of a solid self, the identity to which we attach so much significance. These currents, like the themes of one’s life, flow along dring the waking hours, and at their best, they require no reconciling, no harmonizing. They are ‘off’ and may be out of place, but at least they are always in motion, in time, in place, in the form of all kinds of strange combinations moving about, not necessarily forward, sometimes against each other, contrapuntally yet without a central theme. A form of freedom, I’d like to think, even if I am far from being totally convinced that it is.
Edward Said, Out of Place: A Memoir (London: Granta, 1999, 295)

I am also grateful to Harman for putting Latour into dialogue not only with Heidegger, but with al-Ghazali, infosar as one of my frustrations with Latour’s works (and a many of the other theoretical readings we have encountered) has been the sense that they are rooted in primarily European debates and Euroamerican examples, and tend to seize on other philosophical and cosmological traditions merely for juicy source material that is brandished, but not rigorously explored (I’m echoing Easton a little here—but I also think the Pinney and Keane articles we read are excellent engagements of this sort on a more ethnographic level).  Like many of the rest of you, I am still wondering if we can make the leap from worldviews to worlds a methodological project.  But in the spirit of Henare et al, I’ll borrow from e.e. cummings, and suggest we keep trying:

—listen: there’s a hell

of a good universe next door; let’s go

April 29, 2009 by

I wish to disagree with Latour’s Ireductions and Harmon’s discussion of it. Things are never things-in-themselves, they can always be reduced to a collection of something else. The example of the zebra Harman gives can be deconstructed in an instant: The zebras are constructed of blood, organs, parasites, bacteria, and these are composed of cells, and these are composed of DNA and that is composed of 4 different acids, and those are composed of molecules and on and on. I understand that if one focuses on these aspects, the zebra ceases to exist, but the zebra is not a hard concrete thing, it is the manifestation of a particular network, a network that repeats itself (with slight variations of course) to create millions of similar networks we call zebras. I get it.
We were asked to pose questions, so I’m going to post the question that I have asked myself at the end of each reading and each class since Thing Theory started: What do I do?
Specifically: What do I do with this new information? How do I apply it in my work? Is it possible or do I simply stick it in my back pocket with my trowel and my notebook and use it when I think it’s needed?
I don’t want to offer these questions as a critique, I am simply puzzled, because I believe in the networks that Latour and others have described, but what do I do?

end of the semester

April 29, 2009 by

I have to agree with Matt that is seems the most important thing that this class has given me has been a shift in my overall ways of thinking about things.  I have to admit that I am a little worn out by the discussions of distinguishing what a thing really is (and how it maybe differs from an object).  I think that the Harmon text was a nice way to leave the readings, because it summarized Latour’s ways of thinking about actants (or things) in the world, which perhaps encompasses all of the readings in one broad manner of thought.  So, perhaps whether something is a subject or an object really doesn’t matter, because anything carries with it the possibility to play a role in something else, the potential to carry some type of agency, whether it is a person or a door hinge.  Although I personally sometimes have difficulty in isolating the human agency out of things doesn’t change the fact that it can be, which alters the thing completely.

Things thinging and Bruno-in-the-box

April 29, 2009 by



Personally, I liked Harman’s text, specially the way he linked Latour’s networks with Islamic ‘occasionalism’. I believe that many of its faults are produced by the eeriness of its aim. Harman’s Prince of Networks attempts to trace a coherent philosophy in several of Latour’s texts. It could be said that it translates ‘Latour’ into a metaphysical idiom –something that, as a first step, requires black boxing Latour– and, afterwards, tries to link the translated Latour with Heidegger’s philosophy. This operation, of course, could not be done without ‘paying the cost’… something quite brave, given that Latour is alive, healthy, and a relentless opposer to Heideggerian philosophy (e.g.  

The first Latour that Harman considers, that of Irreductions, provides the general features of the Prince of Networks. This is the Latour for whom “nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else”  (The Pasteurization of France, p. 158) and the foundation of the black box called Latour. Through it, Harman is able to condense several of Latour’s texts. However, I am not sure he manages to successfully establish a connection with Heidegger. In fact, within Harman’s text, Latour seems more akin to Husserl than to Heidegger –if, as Harman tells us, Husserl philosophy can be understood as an attempt to displace the science of his time to a theoretical realm, one that necessarily exceeds our experience of any phenomenon. Similarly, for Latour, the disputes around scientific facts could be understood as an exercise in rhetoric, one that attempts to recruit allies in order to produce a convincing proof, a matter of “assembling of as many black boxes as possible to force one’s opponents to give way” (Prince of Networks, p. 54). In this sense, Heidegger criticism to Husserl, as seen in his characterization of the ‘present-at-hand’ as a second order experience and in his distinction between things and objects in “The Thing”, could also be applicable to Latour. In other words, from a Heideggerian point of view, Latour would be an advocate for a more effective approach to things, but one that remains technical in its aims and ontotheological in its presuppositions; while, for Latour, “Heidegger treats the modern world as the visitors treat Heraclitus: with contempt” (We Have Never Been Modern, p. 66).      

I am not sure that Latour, or even Harman’s Latour, treats Heidegger fairly. Heidegger’s notion of “things thinging” might be troublesome, but not because of what it proposes. Its problem seems to be of scope: it appears to exclude most of the non-human that Latour’s ANT can include. This might be partially attributed to the form of “The Thing” as an essay, cryptic and aphoristic. It focuses too much on the jug. In a way, the Heidegger’s jug traps us within its void, making the gift, the outcome of a balance between holding and pouring, excessively difficult to grasp. As a result, other things remain concealed within the text.

However, we should not forget that the jug is just an approximation to things the problem of the loss of nearness. Heidegger’s description of things and objects can only be translated into metaphysical terms at a great cost. We should read “The Thing” as an attempt to provide an alternative path in the face of a loss. This seems to be the reason why he defines a set of ‘things’, of possible fruitful openings, within a larger set of ‘objects’. In other words, Heidegger suggests that a possibility for the restoration of distance after its ontotheological and technical effacement may be opened up if we focus in the difference between his ‘things’ and his ‘objects’, something that would require a peculiar stance. Heidegger’s insinuation of this stance could be understood as a form of criticism, just as Marx’s argument about the fetishism of the commodity or Latour’s argument about the separation of society and nature. For Heidegger, this stance could allow a relation to technology different to the one that made the hydrogen bomb possible, the hydrogen bomb amongst many other things (objects). I believe that his critique remains fruitful and should continue to be taken into consideration in spite of its annoyingly obscure formulation, as we keep seeking for more inclusive ways to approach the non-human, may these be paintings in a museum, pictures in a magazine, a humble rock, a coat, a land mine, laboratory registers, or an outdated handmade jug.

Black Box Tales

April 29, 2009 by

My eighth grade English teacher taught us how to get to know a character in a book by figuring out:
-what the character says
-what the character does
-what others say about the character

Substituting “thing” for character,” I might also add:
-what others do around the things
-what the thing is made of
(and perhaps other approaches as well)

Thinking about this also made me think more about Latour’s black-boxing and Graham’s related discussion. Particularly, with respect to categories and time.

First, is black-boxing just another way of categorizing things? I could see “an apple” (one) or “parts of an apple” (and array of core, seeds, peel, etc.) or “atoms of an apple” (all the way down to the electrons)–it just depends on what I’m interested in at the moment, whether molecular or biblical allegory.

Also, I was intrigued by Graham’s assertion that Latour’s black-boxing “freezes” networks and assemblies within, and how trying to examine or remove the black-boxes of an apple or other thing seems like an alienating process.

Just like the character in a novel, the thing seems deserving of a narrative arc, perhaps as a way of telling the story of black-box snapshots over time. The necessary shortening and interpreting of that narrative are prefaced in the Oxford English Dictionary’s notations on the definitions of “thing” as relating to judgement (in addition to meetings, events, causes, etc., as well as standing in for the abstract and the unknown). Additionally, however, narrating history is a thing unto itself.

We didn’t start the fire…

April 28, 2009 by


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…



Breaking the spell of things

April 28, 2009 by

After Walter Benjamin died, his friend Theodor Adorno wrote that we must keep alive Benjamin’s intellectual and spiritual pursuit to, “metamorphose into a thing in order to break the catastrophic spell of things.” This quote (and this challenge) has captured my imagination since the first time I encountered it. It was with me on my first day of this class and it found me again as we approach the last. I turn this line over and over in my head, as if I were trying to polish a rough stone…what does this mean and what does this imply…that we must become a thing in order to break the spell of things. That we are the ones who are encouraged to change and to engage in this act of becoming…that the spell of things is deemed catastrophic…that the spell itself is something that should be broken…these are all ideas that I can now challenge. But I also see the statement as a whole from a nuanced perspective: that by becoming a thing we break through the divide that separates us from things, and we are able to enter into the interstices of all the dialectics and binaries that have calcified over time. The spell is the illusion that stops us from fully engaging with the world, with each other, and with ourselves.

April 28, 2009 by

Throughout this semester, I was consistently struck by how combative the various authors that we read seemed to be with one another. They all seemed to write in a manner that only allowed for one true understanding of what an object is and how they fit into this crazy world that they share with humans. In a way, it seems slightly ironic that each of the authors attempts to analyze the “world” of objects, but none can do this while completely separating themselves from the human experience. I don’t think that this gap has to be reconciled, but it has been something that I’ve been thinking about since the beginning of the semester.
The role that objects play – whether an actant as Latour marks them, a secondary agent as Gell labels them, or any of the other titles/roles which are bestowed upon objects – determines our understanding of the human experience as well as we constantly redefine the subject-object divide. Thinking about the divide that we have socially constructed between subjects and objects, I have turned to the various readings through the lens of museum studies. For example, through Latour’s framework, humans and nonhumans exist as actants, equals in the world and have power only through their involvement in networks rather than something inherent inside of them. In this scenario, humans have attempted to be modern by purifying the nonhuman object and relegating it to a non-subject status. Museums, then, could be seen to function as a part of the project of purification, sanitizing the object by placing it behind glass and using the object as a “fact” of the human experience. In trying to look at museums through Latour’s perspective, I wonder if this is totally possible. By placing the object behind glass, often on a literal pedestal, the network in which the object is a part also seems to empower it in addition to its purification. The museum staff cleans objects, preserves them, and researches them – granting their life an importance that is often denied to the mere object. The visitors gaze upon the objects, spending more time in recognizing and really looking at the object. So, what does this actually do to the object?

Transparent things?

April 28, 2009 by

I just heard Adrienne Rich read the following poem and it provoked several reflections for me on how things have perplexed, challenged, and inspired us throughout the semester. Before reading the poem, she said it was inspired by the debate of if language is transparent. I am sure that she and Latour would have an interesting conversation about this, yet whether or not it is or isn’t, I suppose what strikes me is how language and things captivate and intrigue us to try and understand. Even if there is no distinction between the literal and metaphorical, the fact that words and things draw us in (returning here to our early conversations on wonder) I think is a demonstration of how perhaps their lack of transparency is in fact their greatest agency.

Transparencies (from “the school among ruins”, 2004)

That the meek word like the righteous word can bully

that an Israeli soldier interviewed years

after the first intifada could mourn on camera

what under orders he did, saw done, did not refuse

that another leaving Beit Jala could scrawl

on a wall:   We are truely sorry for the mess we made

is merely routine    word that would cancel deed

That human equals innocent and guilty

That we grasp for innocence whether or no

is elementary    That words can translate into broken bones

That the power to hurl words is a weapon

That the body can be a weapon

any child on playground knows    That asked your favorite word

                                                              in a game

you always named a thing, a quality, freedom or river

(never a pronoun, never God or War)

is taken for granted    That word and body

are all we have to lay on the line

That words are windowpanes in a ransacked hut, smeared

by time’s dirty rains, we might argue

likewise that words are clear as glass till the sun strikes it blinding


But that in a dark windowpane you have seen your face

That when you wipe your glasses the text grows clearer

That the sound of crunching glass comes at the height of the


That I can look through glass

into my neighbor’s house

but not my neighbor’s life

That glass is sometimes broken to save lives

That a word can be crushed like a goblet underfoot

is only what it seems, part question, part answer: how

                                                      you live it.


The last stanza reminded me immediately of our first essay from Bill Brown. The dirty window, which may make itself present through its grime, does not necessarily permit us to see the meaning of what is on the other side. As Brown himself states, “We look through objects, be we only catch a glimpse of things.” 

How does this end?

April 28, 2009 by

As we wrap up this semester I wonder what I have learned from this class. Has this class changed my thinking, and if so, is it a change in terms of knowledge– in terms of methods– or the radical shift in ontology that appears to be the goals of many of the authors that we have read? I think that there has been a shift in each of these “categories”.

In terms of knowledge – the subject/object argument has always been one that I found more tiring than anything. I had worried that this class would rehash many of the same old arguments – but instead I found myself enlightened, in terms of an increase in knowledge, in how we can reframe this discussion. In particular – I kept coming back to Miller’s article as a step in the right direction. While I don’t think that Miller, or any of the authors, actually “solved” the object/subject problem – he was able to reframe the discussion in a way that makes this divide a point of creation rather than a line of separation.

I certainly see a change in how I plan on going forward with my future analyses, writings, and otherwise interacting with anthropological/archaeological data. Latour’s works have been the most influential in terms of methods – the insistence on letting the objects speak and allowing the relational network appear in front of you, rather than imposed certainly sounds like a lofty goal that we should all be striving for. Whether one can reach it…. Latour has also both given and taken away the syntax and the vocabulary with which we can describe the world(s) around us. Delegation, actants, purification – these are words that have the potential to act as tools with which to build something that would otherwise be impossible. I, like many, am still more than a little hesitant to drink Latour’s ANT Kool-aid – it has a certain romance to it (saving/merging with objects and all that), but it may also be a methodological dead end. In particular, the point of which the unpacking ends is extremely troubling (as many have pointed out in class). Sev made this explicit when he argued that without the blackboxing performed by Latour – we would be forced into a Heideggerian world worlding – and I don’t think anyone wants that.

The one point where I have probably not progressed (or regressed (becoming premodern)?) is in my overall worldview – in my ontology. Ingold’s leaky worlds where a tree and a bird are so intermeshed that he can describe them as a single entity does not resonate with me. And while I found Henare et al cry for an opening to worldviews to be worthy of attempt – I found those authors who attempted it to fail miserably (must we bring up the powder article?). The granting of primary agency to non-animate objects was the implicit goal of several of the authors – and is the most obvious ontological shift that could have happened through the class. It was a shift that I could not make. While some of the authors, like Ingold and Bennett, attempt to muddy the waters about what agency is – and even if it is meaningful – I find myself unwilling to divorce from the idea of directed, purposeful action as being a useful concept that is only applicable to animate objects. The ontological shift that I did end up embracing was the one called for by Gell. Objects as secondary – yet absolutely integral – actors whose presence offers a purchase which allows action has struck me as a convincing shift in ontology.


April 28, 2009 by

Heidegger’s discussion of nearness was a little confusing last week, but I think that reading Harmon’s interpretation of Latour’s thought on the matter helped clear it up for me (or at least added further thinking on the topic). It seems as if both thinkers were conceptualizing nearness in a similar way. My reading of Heidegger, as he states that “near to us is what we usually call things,” is that objects that are near us are able to be verbing (2). The thinging of the thing occurs when we are able to interact with it (pouring the jug, flying the kite, seeing the grasshopper jumping). 

Harmon interprets Latour’s position on nearness by stating that “action also means nearness, since to act on something is to affect, touch, or interfere with it in some way” (41). This action is a point of translation, it is “how actants communicate,” actants “need interfaces in order to touch, and this requires labor” (42). I don’t think that actants need translation to exist in general, like the restaurant example– that “a restaurant becomes real when it stops being isolated and when the number of people engaged in eating there are many and explicitly engaged in eating there and passing the word along” (61). This does not mean that the restaurant did not exist before people were eating in it, but its strength as an actant is dependent upon its alliances, its connections and interactions with other actants. Am I correct in interpreting action and nearness as the same thing? Of course, I feel as though I’m setting myself up, as we come back to the question of “if a tree falls in the wood and no one hears it, did it really fall?” so perhaps I need to hear more discussion on nearness.

I really enjoyed reading the first section of Harmon’s book. It felt like a cliff’s notes to four of Latour’s major works and going over key terms (like black boxing and time) was helpful for me.

Connecting Latourian philosophy (I’m allowed to call him a philosopher now, right?) with the Museum Anthropology program… When we read We Have Never Been Modern in class, I mentioned that Latour’s idea of a spiral model of time and history would be a different way of presenting information in museums. To my delight, an article for our Museum Anthropology class this past week, “Thinking and Doing Otherwise: Anthropological Theory in Exhibitionary Practice” by M. Bouquet, explicitly discussed Latour’s theories in exhibitions. I don’t have the article in front of me at this time to state the museum, but the author described an exhibit that utilized a spiral staircase on which the visitor ascended and descended while viewing the exhibit, to show that history can overlap. I think that the spiral may have been a little too literal for the exhibit, since Western thinking equates going “up” as a form of evolution/something good, like going up to heaven vs. down to hell. It would be interesting to think of other ways Latour’s works may change the way we think of presenting culture/history/science.

Heidegger – The Lord of the Ring?

April 22, 2009 by

Despite a thing’s thinginess and the world’s worldiness and the thing is a thing because it manifests thingness, Heidegger makes a very interesting point in his article “The Thing,” when he speaks of gathering. That what defines a thing is it’s gathering. Now i’m starting to sound like him. We have talked about networks with Latour, and others, and I have always been slightly upset by the fact that “yes, I understand about Networks, but how do I see them?” Where Heidegger points out that we see them all the time, and we even have a name for them: things. To call something a thing is to call it the “gathering” of a network. It is the network, bundled, and twisted into a shape we can perceive. 

Heidegger speaks of nearness as not being related to the distance between oneself and an object, and he doesn’t provide, for me, then an adequate description of what he means by nearness. I think that nearness gathers, that is to say, when one experiences nearness, one is experiencing a gathering effect. To be near to something is to be part of it’s network, to be gathered into it. This is the process by which a hybrid is formed. Creating hybrids is then not the creation of some weird mutant form by forcing things together, but a process of gathering together to form a ‘thing.’ and it’s thinginess. (sorry, couldn’t help myself)

the thing

April 22, 2009 by

While reading the thing, I kept wondering (although it is possible that Heideggar addresses this issue and I just didn’t catch on), about what he thinks about human agency.  I feel like so many of the text we are reading are trying to move away from giving human actors too much agency in defining (or at least trying to define) what a thing is and how it is different from an object.  But if H. claims that things are that which stand before us, isn’t that again using humans to describe the difference between a thing and an object?  I am finding it harder and harder to think of a world of things without their human counterparts, especially when our cognition about these objects seems to be what some are arguing as the difference between thing and object.  Help :(

Out of the Woods

April 22, 2009 by

I wish I could write that I found something productive in the circuitous reasoning, dead-ends and restarts, rhetorical questions and etymological exercises of Heidegger’s “Thing” essay. But mostly I was just baffled by Heidegger’s completely un-nuanced or downright crude understanding of technology and the natural sciences. We might remind ourselves of Latour’s critical departure from Heidegger in the Pandora’s Hope essay: “[For Heidegger] technology is unique, insuperable, omnipresent, superior, a monster born in our midst which has already devoured its unwitting midwives.” And a bit earlier: “By rationalizing and stockpiling nature, science plays into the hands of technology, whose sole end is to rationalize and stockpile nature without end” (176). Having learned from Latour’s humans and non-human mediators, I have no problem agreeing with him that “Heidegger is mistaken.” The sort of omnipresent and uniform domination of nature that Heidegger attributes to science and technology enters into his “Thing” essay to demonstrate how this mastery leads only to illusions: the illusion of nearness with the annihilation of distance, the illusion of scientific representations of objects. Scientific knowledge and its technological culmination, the atomic bomb, have somehow annihilated the thing. But Heidegger gets me no nearer the thing than his caricature of scientific knowledge. I cannot read his discussion of the jug as anything other than an anti-modern, philosophical phantasm, set on resurrecting the spirit of antiquity in the forests outside of postwar Freiburg. Reading Heidegger with Latour, might we consider his jug a forced reconstruction of a long-gone hybrid? When talking about things, Heidegger seems to be looking in all the wrong places. Good that we can leave Heidegger’s hut for Latour’s lab.

questions for “the thing”

April 22, 2009 by

(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.

Teddy and Thinging

April 22, 2009 by

Several readings this semester have reminded me of Buddhist teachings about interdependence, awareness, etc. So, I’d like to borrow the voice of the main character from J.D. Salinger’s short story “Teddy” , a ten year old American boy who was an Indian holyman in his prior life. (Heidegger’s essay reminded me of this story especially.)

A new acquaintance familiar with Teddy and eager to ask him questions says, “I believe you said on that last tape that you were six when you first had a mystical experience. Is that right?”
“I was six when I saw everything was God, and my hair stood up, and all that,” Teddy said. “It was on a Sunday, I remember. My sister was only a very tiny child then, and she drank her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God. I mean all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean.” [They talk a little about getting out of the finite dimension.]
“How does one get out of the finite dimension?” he asked and gave a short laugh. “I mean, to begin very basically, a block of wood is a block of wood, for example. It has length, width–”
“It hasn’t. That’s where you’re wrong,” Teddy said. “Everybody just thinks things keep stopping off somewhere. They don’t… The reason things seem to stop off somewhere is because that’s the only way most people know how to look at things. But that doesn’t mean they do.” [He goes on to discuss shedding logic and assumptions.]

Also, Heidegger’s letters to a student reminded me of this passage from the same story:
He describes what he sees out if the window of the boat. “Someone has just dumped a whole garbage can of orange peels out the window.”

Teddytook in most of his head. “They float very nicely,” he said without turning around. “That’s quite interesting.”

“I don’t mean it’s interesting that they float,” Teddy said. “It’s interesting that I know about them being there. If I hadn’t seen them, then I wouldn’t know they were there, and if I didn’t know they were there, I wouldn’t be able to say that they even exist.”…

“Some of them are starting to sink now. In a few minutes, the only place they’ll still be floating will be inside my mind. That’s quite interesting, because if you look at it in a certain way, that’s where they started floating in the first place.”

“After I go out this door, I may only exist in the minds of all my acquaintances….I may be an orange peel.”

Wonderment and Fascism

April 22, 2009 by

Following up last week’s class, Latour seemed to be set on reinvigorating a sense of wonderment and awareness in our interactions with and studies of things.

I also wonder about fascism (which I believe came up in class before). Particularly, the strategy awakens scientists and observers to the complexity and connections within societies, but it also seems to spread out culpability (for instance with “man with gun”) in a way that could limit the ability to prosecute human intent alone. His discussion of politics, while appealingly empowering and democratic, in the closing pages didn’t address this for me (though he steered the conversation away from that anyway, I think). So, can things be fascist? If so, does that change the responsibility of humans?

April 21, 2009 by

(I thought about hiding my repost as a reply to someone else’s post so that it would not stand on its own–what could I possible say that would be interesting enough after Easton’s posting on jugs??)

Heidegger’s article seems as though it could fit in to many of the weekly topics we’ve discussed in class so far.  I kept thinking of Ingold’s stance on materiality in particular while reading “The Thing”.  After reading Ingold’s thoughts, especially in “Materials against Materiality” I thought “ohhh ok, I got it, don’t forget to examine the materiality of an object and that will help discover its thing-ness, help give the object the respect and attention it deserves.”  Ingold urges us to “take materials seriously, since it is from them that everything is made” (14).  Enter: Heidegger and his jug.  When investigating the thingness of the jug, or what makes the jug a jug, Heidegger points out that it is the void, not the impermeable surfaces (walls and bottom) that make it a jug, saying “The vessel’s thingness does not lie at all in the material of which is consists, but in the void that holds” (my copy does not have page numbers).  In describing the jug as a thing, it seems as though Heidegger is disregarding the materiality altogether, saying that is it not important.  Rather, what is important is the task that the jug does for us (like recognizing the door closer?) and the fact that it may stand forth, be near us/be a part of a gathering, and because it can take in and keep/hold and pour out.  I think that all of his points are relevant, but I think that he should give materiality its due.  I am interested in the discussion tomorrow to see if I am completely misinterpreting his stance on materiality. 

More Juggling

April 21, 2009 by

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 by


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.


Heidegger and the Poetic

April 21, 2009 by

A Sort of a Song




Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
— through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

William Carlos Williams




So I chose to post a poem by WCW for a couple reasons.  First, I have not totally been able to digest The Thing and so have had to resort to some other form of participation.  Second, while reading The Thing, I could not help but be reminded of poetry, and in particular WCW’s poetics.  Also, giving myself some time to peruse WCW’s vast repertoire I came upon a poem that I think it appropriate or at least poignant…one that indeed deals with ‘things.’  And finally after doing a bit of research was not surprised to find that Heidegger did seem to have a more than passing interest in poetry (although I am not sure that he ever published any).  Heidegger (like Emerson) regarded poetry as the truest form of language.  “The nature of poetry is the founding of truth.”  The poet, he wrote, “uses the word—not, however, like ordinary speakers and writers who have to use them up, but rather in such a way that the word only now becomes and remains truly a word.”


So as a final thought on this, perhaps we can entertain the idea of poetry as ‘gathering’, over mere representation.  It ‘holds’ and is what displaces the void like the water that fills the jug displaces the empty space contained therein and gives the thing (the jug) its function.  Poetry allows us to approach ‘nearness’ – both in the writing of it and the receiving of it.

April 21, 2009 by

Bill Brown writes that we tend to use objects as windows which we look through in order to glean information about history or culture, meaning that we only glimpse things instead of actually seeing things. Heidegger addresses our inability to see a thing for a thing, as more than a jug qua jug, when he writes, “We shall not reach the thing in itself until our thinking has first reached the thing as a thing.” A shift in thinking about objects as “what stands forth” instead of “that which stands before, over against, opposite us” is similar to the shift that Brown sees in the difference between seeing the window as an object and seeing the thingness of the window. For Heidegger, we must move away from the scientific stance in which “The thingness of the thing remains concealed, forgotten” because we have failed to give thought to what a thing can do, does, and how it does it. In asking these questions, I wonder if Heidegger almost arrives at a Latourian actor network theory “solution.” The thingness in the jug rests in its ability to “gift” its contents, implying that the jug can only be understood as an assemblage of the person pouring its contents out, its liquid contents, the jug’s container qualities, and the void pushing out the walls of the container. Is Heidegger’s “gathering” another way of looking at an assemblage? Is “presencing” a mere recognition of its place in a wider network of things/actants/people?