In this two part essay I want to interrogate how objects contribute to defining humanity? According to Tristan Garcia in his comprehensive and unique Form and Object (2014), ‘Present day humanity’s relations to animals and to artefacts makes us hopelessly attempt to prove what humanity is as an object’ (238). The ‘hopeless’ is indicative of a struggle to reorient the definition away from a status quo. Garcia aligns human-beings with objects currently in abundance, and which systemically construct us and affect how we inter-act. Garcia indicates how definition is a matter of distinguishing what is from what isn’t. Man is not exclusively an artefact or an animal, but related to both. As Garcia explains, ‘Humanity identifies with machines to self-differentiate from other animals. Humanity identifies with other animals to self-differentiate from machines’ (238). We do this, inevitably, because neither position satisfactorily defines what we are.
What potential solution exists in order to better render a line of flight out of this conundrum of definition? For me, definition seems to create discrepancy, which is problematic to co-operation. It may surprise us to realise that what makes us human is indelibly etched into things remote from our conception of being human. Nevertheless, doing so closes the gap between ourselves and the things we use to compose the atmosphere we live in. Does it matter that we cannot conclusively identify ourselves outside the contexture of equip-mentality? Are we doomed to rejig our definitions within the delimits of a contexture that is given to those born within a specific timespan? For me, a solution is not constructed or enforced by our identification within the confines of one polarity or another—animal or machine—but in the positioning of our identity between them: ‘We can cure ourselves of animality only through artificiality, and of artificiality only through animality’ (239). This is not to suggest that curing is eradication. Instead, recognition of the composite elements of our identity are reliant on characteristics borrowed from both what is artificial about us, and what is animalistic about us.
In order to define who or what we are we must position ourselves in-between the polarity on which we formulate definitions. We are animals that manufacture artificial potentials, which makes us more intense than both, because both animality and artificiality contribute in asymmetric measures, at different times, to the definition of what we are. To reduce us to one or the other is to fall short of a comprehensive definition of our involvement in different manifested materialities, sometimes visible and sometime not, but always potentially visible or capable of affecting us epistemically. I am thinking of the scale of forces that enable material emergence; how the microscopic, intrinsic and extrinsic to us, moves up into the macrocosmic supporting us; how atomic forces enable the emergence of the material object. It is our capacity to be within—or a thing’s capacity to be in us—which is a defining characteristic of how we are entangled with object-materialities.
Garcia tells us:
To say that being means being in, or rather entering, is not a spatial metaphor. The ‘in’ merely has a local meaning in ordinary language: a moment of time is in another, a predicate is in a subject, a smaller number is in a larger number, and so on. What is necessary to the definition of ‘in’, which is an intersection between inclusion, membership, measurement, counting and localisation? Being is not only being in, but entering, which means, if not a movement, at least a direction; being is an oriented relation, one of two possible directions of the relation between things, or between a thing and something-other-than-a-thing. Being is entering into the membership of something which comprehends us. In other words, being implies being in a relation with something. This something is in a relation with a thing that one is not oneself in a relation with. Being in something is entering into the membership of a thing that comprehends, that is, includes us among other things. (2014,111)
Beings, in order to fulfil the criteria of being-ness, necessarily embed themselves within something that contains other things. Being-in-the-world, or put another way, being an individual object within a milieu of objects, is not merely a matter of being fixed in, but in addition, being capable of ‘entering’ into different assembled milieus. An object, like a space-suit, enables us to enter the milieu of space, which we cannot fix ourselves into because space is empty of life support measures. This object assembled amongst objects such as those which compose the ISS, enables the habitation and study of space, in some capacity. From this position we can conceive the additional potentials of venturing beyond Earth. It is because we inhabit the Earth that we can produce a supportive milieu which contrasts to the unsupportive characteristics of space. Our habitation of space is a good example of how objects enable us to enter milieus at odds with what our bodies require for life-support. What galvanises part of our interest in exploring space is the discrepancy between the life-support network which the world is and which space may, in its tanatalising vastness, comprehend elsewhere.
In part III of Form and Object, titled ‘Being and Comprehending’ Garcia explains that ‘Being is being comprehended’ (105). This act of comprehension is possible only because being is secondary to the primacy of that on which being is formed, namely the fundamental, principle matter studied by quantum physics. That there is this immovable fundamentality means that we can be comprehended and comprehend. The world itself has the same characteristics as fundamental matter: it cannot be anything other than the objects filling it. The world is an empty nothingness into which observable motioning objects can interface. We cannot readily comprehend what is foundational to the spatiality we move in, which emerges because of this fundamental substrate and is primary because nothing can come before it. Something always comes before a cultural or technological object, but nothing comes before the atom. A history may be written about the time before the abstracting of the atomic unit (by Democritus). However, it seems unlikely a discovery of something before the atom in the vast span of cosmic time will ever be discovered. We may go further into the atom, but as a building block, it is fundamental, which means that nothing comes before it, in order to place it into the role of structuring reality.
This is not cause for belittling the secondary position of being and comprehending. It is merely to establish that being and comprehending are established on a formal principle, which is empty of any capacity to comprehend or be and is simply there to compose objects. An atom cannot be readily changed or influenced. It can be utilised for the production of atomic energy or nuclear weapons, but it doesn’t stop having the characteristics of an atom.
We cannot say the same thing for the objects that construct the world: we can grow bored of them, forget them; kill or maim them; revolutionise them; squabble over their viability; form cults and religions out of their affective potentials; make with them something no one before us thought to make with them. This is because objects come after and before other objects, so that they have no fundamentality, but rather potentiality.
As beings then, we are reliant on our relation to what we are within. As Garcia explains, ‘Comprehending something is ‘being been’ by this thing. If I comprehend this, it is because this is in me. If that comprehends me, it is because I am in that (106).’ Garcia attributes to comprehension not merely an anthropocentric, epistemological meaning, but a flattened meaning which accounts for how some objects can do things, which we, even as thinking objects, cannot do.
By widening the definition of comprehension, Garcia provides strong theoretical grounding for thinking less about objects as static, and more about the processes that objects are and set into motion. Moreover, it accounts for the ambience created by objects in their relational mode of environmental composition: we can walk into an affected atmosphere because an environment is capable of affecting us. A polluted environment affects us in one way, while an unpolluted environment affects us another way.
Beings (objects) are not stationary but in movement. We comprehend movements as we ourselves move in directions, which are in environments and which become the places for producing atmosphere. Without motion and process we could never decide to change or be affected by an atmosphere.
Garcia uses the example of a room to illustrate how objects comprehend each other. The room is in a relation with us because it comprehends us by being big enough for us to inhabit. But it is also in a relation with other objects in the room: a chair, bookshelf, picture frame, desk, piano, window, moisture, insects, dust. Because the room can do something we cannot—contain other objects inside it—it comprehends us by holding us inside it. The room is a milieu within another milieu, which is within another milieu…: a room is comprehended by a house, which is comprehended by a street, comprehended by a town, a country, a continent, the world, milky way, galactic cluster, universe, multiverse. This is not a hierarchical structure simply because one is greater than the other spatially. The biggest matryoshka doll is not different from the smallest matryoshka doll because it is greater in size. Both are painted the same, nothing aesthetically distinguishes them, they merely comprehend each other. In fact, without the smaller to comprehend, the intensity of the matryoshka is jeopardised because there is no containment, which is the novelty of the matryoshka. The spatial comprehension of objects is similar; so too should the human comprehension of animals and artefacts. We should not hierarchise ourselves above artefacts and animals because they perform processes outside of our capacity and vice versa.
Milieus are incapable of being static because things are always in the process of changing, even if this change is the transition of light to dark; the temperature climbing or falling; the density of objects filling it at any one time, which create novel combinations of encounter objects interface with.
Garcia, utilising ideas borrowed from Developmental Systems Theory, defines humanity not as a static teleological result of evolution, but as an ongoing process in evolution. Humanity, for Garcia, becomes a series of ongoing events. Our ever increasingly sophisticated use of technologies is indicative of this definition as an object-process, as technologies alter humanity’s trajectory when they are brought into common usage. Any technological improvement is indicative of an evolutionary trajectory as technology makes the impossible (or merely difficult) possible. The Internet comes to mind. The Internet has enabled rapid communication, which has radically reoriented how societies function. It has led to the development of broadband as a human right, as connectivity is proving to be a necessity for both work and leisure. We use technology to manufacture the social world. This produces novel effects—some positive and some negative. Objects are embroiled in this manufacturing as we can only use a technological object; they aren’t imbricated within us…yet. This is not to give us the opportunity to omit them from a definition of how we are. It is ridiculous to say that because we didn’t have a certain technology we now take for granted a 1000 years ago that this current technology somehow fails to define us. A 1000 years ago there was a technology that defined that era, in part. Humanity cannot be defined acutely over the span of its entire civilising process, but only by being partitioned into generations, each with their own unique relations to objects. I recognise a 90 year old, and I can associate on many levels, but we are ultimately defined by our attachment to a world that demands/demanded something different from us. How then can I accurately align myself definitionally with an ancient Greek? This is difficult, as we are obviously connected in substantial ways. But ultimately, to define myself is to recognise what differentiates us, and those difference dwarf what is similar between us.
We are therefore objects beholden to other objects, which intensifies the formulation of ourselves as an object. This is because, despite the fact we generally position ourselves extrinsically from other objects, our relationships with them once understood as a radical entanglement, is suggestive of their role in the definition of ourselves as nodes in the assemblage of the object-process humanity. We can only define ourselves as human-beings because we can determine what it is that makes us intensely different from other objects, whether animal or artificial, within a timespan relevant to us. Relations to other objects defines us as this human-object with these intensities.
We learn from Garcia that:
Comprehending is having something inside itself. Comprehending is also comprehending an element by being a set; comprehending one quality by being a substrata of qualities; comprehending someone by appreciating or paying attention to this someone; assimilating a way of thinking or an idea; having a part when one is a composite; or comprehending a temporal, historical, or evolutionary moment in a longer timespan. (107)
Comprehension happens because objects enable each other to be in a reality composed by infinitesimally small things which end where the macro begins.
Garcia, Tristan. Form and Object: A Treatise on Things. Translated by Mark Allan Ohm and Jon Cogburn. Edinburgh UP, 2014.