Definition-objects

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.

Comprehension-objects

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. 

Bibliography:

Garcia, Tristan. Form and Object: A Treatise on Things. Translated by Mark Allan Ohm and Jon Cogburn. Edinburgh UP, 2014.

Posted by:DPM

DPM is an idea-logue (sic) and object-oriented speculative realist, attempting to be response-able in an irresponse-able society.

7 thoughts on “Affecting a Speculative Definition of Humanity (part 1)

  1. I like the way Garcia thinks. However, did Heidegger really regard “Dasein” as something static (I recognise what Garcia is referring to in your first block quote)? Certainly there is the feeling that “Dasein” is that around which experiences flow, but it is also that to which experiences happen, and we get into the argument about whether the river or the bank moves.

    If I can get a moment to find what Merleau-Ponty says about objects in a room, I’ll share it with you. I think it’s in a journal at home…

    1. After finishing ‘Form and Object’ I think Harman’s conundrum of under and overmining is neatly put to sleep, as Garcia cleverly produces an ontological system, which indicates how form is the primary structure from which the secondary structure of objects emerges.
      My problem with Heidegger has never been that he thinks Dasein is static, but that Dasein is the ‘being of beings’ giving it, like Adam and Eve, hegemony over all other things. In addition, Heidegger’s metaphysics do not account for the affective status of the objects we consume. This becomes problematic when we consider plastics in a landfill. If we followed Heidegger to his logical conclusions, the matter stewing on a landfill can’t be linked back to us after we are dead because we can in no way live beyond our death: the stratification of our landfilled waste would indicate otherwise.
      I think my point on stasis is that people in general aren’t familiar with thinking processes, which makes it difficult to persuade people that less intense objects have a great deal of influence. I go into this is more detail in the second part. Should have probably put this in the first part.

  2. “Without motion and process we could never decide to change or be affected by an atmosphere. ”

    I was torn between replying with this post to your response just above, or to start a new thread. Basically, I’m stymied by this notion of “deciding” as a defining factor of humanity’s ‘being,’ at least in terms of an attempt to arrive at an absolute/fundamental definition of that being. I think attributing such an *active* process as “deciding” to humans, in general, gives the discrete members of the set denoting that collective-singular object to which we refer as ‘humanity’ a lot of undue credit. In this sense, where Heidegger falls short in accounting for the individual human’s conscious process of comprehending or inhabiting (via both directionality and motion) being, he does indeed account for the constituent majority of that which comprises human Dasein, which I also envision as a predominantly *passive*, unconscious stance of “being held” in relation to (which is, perhaps, a version of comprehension, but has nothing to do with “deciding”) nothingness.

    But I’m an extreme cynic on this subject. While I absolutely do agree with your reasoning toward a definition of being as far as it applies to consciously, philosophically interested and actively ecologically engaged humans, I think you’re awfully generous to attribute the observable differences in the *being* various humans exhibit over time largely to their inhabiting of separate generations — indicating humanity’s *being* to be more of an unconscious process of existing as a product of one’s *being comprehended by* a world or milieu, which seems antithetical to the principle of “deciding.” I tend to view the distinctions between discrete manifestations of Dasein more as a matter of speciation, which I fully realize to be elitist and not terribly productive…

    Is it even possible, though, to arrive at *the* definition of being that comprises both *being* consciously, actively oriented toward one’s comprehension by an entire ecological system and *being* (in the relatively static sense of the word) incapable of or resistant to such self-awareness, and if so, to what end do we strive to do so? I, for one, can’t see past my frustration with what seems like the majority of humanity at any given time to hope that somehow once and for all establishing *being’s* fundamentally, atomically extant (as opposed to purely metaphysical) status could practicably address the “deciding” (ecologically-aware, actively engaged) minority’s relative impotence in the face of what amounts to the majority’s free-fall into entropy.

    In any case, I commend you for and deeply appreciate your embracing of this cerebral and inspiringly empathetic exercise which most humans know no better than to dismiss out of hand.

  3. I see your conundrum with this act of ‘deciding’. I suppose my intention is to explain a metaphysics/ontology/epistemology, which is preparatory toward good decision making, and which is informed by ecologically oriented parameters. I am a subscriber to Tim Morton’s idea of ‘thinking ecologically’ and ‘being ecological’. This has catapulted me into thinking about how we can install this in replacement of our current myopic way of thinking (which I do think is being challenged in a very productive way).
    We must always remember that I am using theory and as such it is speculative and heavily prone to abstraction. Nevertheless, considering that I don’t take there to be the duality of real & unreal, but only the real, abstraction for me is something that can be involved in the process toward defining ways of thinking about ourselves. I think it problematic to make this dichotomy, as a conspiracy theorists view of the world is very “real” to them and for us to scream they believe in something “unreal” gets us no where. Moreover, their beliefs are now spilling out into the “real” world, making the unreality of their ideas a very real problem. This is just one example of the reality of the unreal.

    In response to your second paragraph, I think it important to note that Garcia makes *us* a milieu, which means that as the producer of the milieu *we are* we inevitably cannot help but make decisions about it, within it. Ecological thinking reasons that objects are symbiotic with environment. But I am not sure if deciding within a milieu is a paradox because the milieu’s act of comprehension isn’t intellectual, but merely a way of illustrating how other objects have capacities we do not. We still decide within it—we must do in order to be its symbiotic inhabitants, as we are its producer and because of our product and productivity we are affected to produce again. Birds cannot make cities of cement and glass which affect them through affecting the biome, but they do produce environment, because they exist. Admittedly, the decline in bird populations is indicative that they cannot produce environment in the way we can, which enables us to witness imbalance.

    “Is it even possible, though, to arrive at *the* definition of being that comprises both *being* consciously, actively oriented toward one’s comprehension by an entire ecological system and *being* (in the relatively static sense of the word) incapable of or resistant to such self-awareness, and if so, to what end do we strive to do so?”

    It seems to me that the being that is being comprehended by its milieu is just a fact. It doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t accept it as a definition, we can rigorously detail this to be the case. We are stuck to the milieus we produce, even if we aren’t paying attention. In fact, this is how things like COVID happen. This is why object-oriented ontologists are so keen to show us how objects can defy expectations, and thus instil in us a mode of awareness that is contingent and observant.
    I mean, it matters, because those who aren’t interested in this contribute to the destruction of it, and this is because they are part of what makes the milieu what it is. So, their passivity has enormous consequence. I hope I haven’t over-simplified the problems we are facing, as they are immense, owing to the individuality we have propagated.
    This is the reason I opt to continue to think and write about these things, if only to make sure they exist at various levels of intensity: from the university professor to the international pop scholar, to me, after a shift pulling pints, synthesising ways to articulate my humble discoveries about objects. I am trying to change the world at a local level. Me doing what I do is affect at work. I am a cynic too. I am terribly concerned about the trajectory humanity is on. I do this because I have to think of ways we can improve or I might just give up on everything. Friends sometimes ask me why I care about this so much. My reply is always that humanity is rare. Life is rare. Thinking is rare. Ideas are rare. Exit Earth and travel in any direction and you ain’t finding life for a long time. What we have here is so precious and it would be so stupid to lose it, but I think we are and that scares me. I am fucking terrified about the future, even in my lifetime.
    My “definition” is merely one way of producing an exit strategy through baby steps. The language I use may not be accessible to all, but those who take the time can then disseminate it as they wish and maybe make people think about objects differently. I am trying to affect, at a small scale. Moreover, I don’t feel the problem of being above others because I worked hard to think like this. It came to me late in life and I didn’t have mentors, or go to great schools or universities. I am so ordinary. Yet I figured some things out about what being human could be about. If I can do it, then others certainly can.

    “apropos of your exchange with “paperbackoriginals” just above, among said implications is my general pessimism around the “affective potential” of such philosophizing, however skillfully executed, being even less “intense” than that of poetry (on a global scale, anyway), whose respective (lack of) practical affect already demoralizes me beyond expression (and yet, it is what I do, as it is irrevocably who l am: the cumulative comprehension of my every becoming — oh, but how its processual being may too often just as well take place in a vacuum…) — that is, until the moment I encounter (I dare say, my privilege notwithstanding) the same process for which I move and which moves me manifest in the poetry of another”

    But we must never stop because without culture and ideas I don’t know what humanity becomes, and I don’t want to find out. I am encouraged by the resolve of people to, despite society finding little to no pecuniary or practical use for arts and humanities fields, continue to write and produce and disseminate through the internet, which as a milieu *we are* enables the continuation of these activities. Moreover, students continue to populate university humanities subjects, which means universities have to continue to teach them, which means they survive. We just need to maintain the existence of our communication of these subjects, no matter what.

    Thanks for your insights as ever Stephanie. I hope any of the above makes sense as a response.

    1. “Late in life…” Lol!

      I do know what you mean, though. I also think that your kind of scholarship is the only thing that has the chance of keeping the humanities alive. I’ve had the opportunity to experience right before my eyes the disintegration of the rigor, purpose, expectations, passion, etc., etc. around the humanities in the last 25 years or so (from when I was previously in grad school until now). Critical theory was paramount before. No, we weren’t necessarily expected to become Derrida disciples, but we were expected as academics to be aware of and care about what it was the theorists were trying to do. Nowadays, students are terrified and dismissive of theory (perhaps not for the worst reasons, because it’s not valued in any monetary sense by our imploding milieu, so why should they subject themselves to that form of rigor when they literally have to choose between doing so and paying rent?); moreover, professors are confronted with the challenge of having to teach beginning composition to college students who through no fault of their own never before received it, so the notion of introducing theory becomes so far-fetched as to be moot. So, yes, I’m frightened for the future of humanity. I do think we’re on the cusp of a speciation event — which may well be aptly accounted for by describing the differences in the quality/intensity of the “affect potential” we (humans) possess — in which the advent of the majority will “affect” the demise of the minority, and I’m not liking the numbers. But you’re absolutely right that “we just need to maintain the existence of our communication of these subjects, no matter what,” because the alternative is grim, indeed, and last I checked, we’re still here.

      1. It somewhat confounding that students fear it so much. I saw the struggle first hand during my MA last year. There seemed to be a struggle to think abstractly, to in some way visualise the theory in a spatiality of sorts. The went into theory classes looking for concrete. I kept reminding them that these ideas were theoretical for a reason: they are ideas. This bafflingly helped many to then observe the ideas abstractly rather than struggling to concretise.
        What I struggled to comprehend was why they could cope with novels and poems, but then froze at theory. It has so much to teach us about ourselves. I think though it is seeing a small renaissance with the likes of Tim Morton, whose ideas are finding expression in popular documentaries. Still a way to go but…it’s something.

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