Sunday, July 21, 2013

Hide and Seek, Part 1: All Those Years They Were Here First

Hide and seek.
Trains and sewing machines.
All those years they were here first.

Oily marks appear on walls
Where pleasure moments hung before.
The takeover, the sweeping insensitivity of this still life.

- Imogen Heap, "Hide and Seek"

As the editors of the collection for which I'm writing prepare their final comments and suggestions for my essay, I've been thinking about some of the possible trajectories of the "posthuman determinism" I propose; specifically, the ethical ones.  Since I used hoarding as an ongoing example in the piece, one of my editors sent along a talk by Jane Bennett.  The subject of her talk was hoarding, and its relationship to the "vibrant materialism" about which Bennett writes.  I was taken by her statement that hoarders are "preternaturally attuned to the call of things," as well as her theory that hoarders are under a kind of "animistic taboo" in their attachment to things.  Very loosely, Bennett's idea is that despite a prevalent consumerism in our culture, too much or too strong of an attachment becomes a taboo of sorts.

This made me realize that her overall approach generally skews toward artifacts rather than objects. That is to say, manufactured or made objects, rather than more natural objects.  Interestingly, however, although there is the occasional hoarder who hoards rocks or leaves, for the most part people are aghast at the hoard as a series of artifacts:  of what use is the stuff? Why are you holding onto this (useless) piece of junk?

But if we stand back and put all phenomenal objects (i.e. objects that have extension, and can be physically apprehended), on a level playing field, we find that we have a very culturally constructed -- even politicized -- hierarchy of objects.  The environmentalist values the object of the tree, the river, the field as higher than the artifact of the iPhone, the refrigerator, or the shards of lead paint.  And that, in specific circles, is desirable, right, and just.  Whereas the person who finds comfort surrounding him or herself with artifacts is "shallow," "superficial," or, in the least philosophical sense of the term, "materialistic."  Obviously, an obsession with artifacts can have detrimental effects, not the least of which are the very philosophical ones which Heidegger outlines in The Question Concerning Technology. Indeed, falling prey to a predatory consumerism can have terrible effects on us psychologically and culturally.

Now, putting all phenomenal objects on an equal conceptual footing as objects -- making no distinction between "object" and "artifact" or "natural" and "artificial" -- we can, perhaps, alter our approach.  Why is feeling a sense of well-being from one group of objects better, or even more "normal" than feeling a sense of well-being from another group of objects?  Is there something inherently better in one group than another?  Why, exactly, is it better to feel comfort from trees, rocks, and grass than it is from a big-screen TV, a warm blanket, and soft, fuzzy socks?  Is it because we have deemed one "natural" and the other "artificial"?  Because one is made of certain materials which are safer than another?  Or because one group has come into existence apparently without the aid of human intervention, whereas the other has come into existence at the cost of human health and dignity?  Fair assessments, absolutely.  However, even a cursory investigation of the "natural" scenario can transform those objects into instruments of death and destruction:  natural bacteria in the water can make a person gravely ill.  The tree can fall over and crush whoever's under it, etc.

These are reductionist, broad-stroke examples, of course.  I use them as points of departure.  Because if we simply view objects as "other," then we will always fall into a myriad of binary systems by which such objects are classified, or worse, an endless Marxist exercise in subjugation and valuation.  As a posthumanist, I see the subject-object/self-other dichotomy as the product of an obsolete worldview.  Denigrating the value of ANY objects to our well-being as humans can have negative consequences as well.

There are times when an object, for whatever reason, can, psychologically make us feel good, or give us a sense of place and well-being.  A comfortable room, a soft blanket, a childhood teddy-bear, or even a cell phone or tablet that does all we need it to do, can -- albeit momentarily -- "complete" us.  I've written repeatedly that, from a posthuman standpoint, an artifact "works" for us when we feel no boundary between it and us.  We are in union with it.  Immediately disqualifying a physical artifact as a source of an existential moment simply because it is physical,  is to cut off an entire field of study.

Furthermore, ignoring the very real materialism around us through haphazardly elevating any object -- including a natural one -- can have serious consequences.  Heidegger maintains that applying a "setting-in-order" to nature sets us on a path to the "standing reserve," or a blind objectification of the world around us.  I agree.  However, I also believe that the variables in this equation can be flipped: bracketing "nature" as something that is other than a materialism is to actually miss out on the authentic vitality of those objects.  To plant, to harvest, to conserve are all manipulations of the physical materiality of the objects of nature.  Weeds don't commit suicide because they are choking our our tomatoes.  Rainwater does not gather magically in the right place and irrigate our terraced garden.  Non-native vegetables, fruits, and legumes do not plant themselves.  Furthermore, the "natural" enzymes in the manure we spread over the soil will just as easily make us ill if we don't wash our hands (with soap) after handling it.  Walking barefoot, not bathing, eschewing vaccines, only myopically represent humanity's "natural" state.

Objects are objects.  They always already precede us in the world (or even the lifeworld).  This is where Bennett's work comes in really handy. In her characterization of objects as having a "vital materiality," she's not referring to a kind anthropomorphic animus; instead, she's pointing to the unique materialisms of each, and how the material character of objects affect us.  She does so without using an existential, subjective conceit: those objects are already in the world we occupy.  We do not "bring them forth." They are already there.

As for me, I take this a step further.  The "I" is manifested in a world of objects -- not the least of which is the physical body.  But that self-aware I, that Dasein, is composed by and through the physical objects around us at any given moment.  And as I write through this idea, I'm starting to understand more clearly Bennett's contention that a heightened awareness of the objects around us could be linked in some way to Freud's death-drive, or even Sartre's "being-in-itself" vs. "being-for-itself."  Perhaps we don't want the objects to be part of us as much as we want to fall back into the world of objects.

More of that in Part 2 ...