Things

MODULE TWO 22-23 March 2017

KTH School of Architecture

An awful lot of noise has been made recently about things, or objects, depending on your preferred terminology. It is as though we had not been discussing them already, handling them, measuring them, inventing, discovering and managing them, and being deeply affected by them, as well as affecting them. For some it would appear that we have finally apprehended the object, only for it to withdraw from us, as it becomes inaccessible, as we share no relation with it except by way of our limited human senses. The sensory object has been held up to us, or at least its shadow has been cast yet again on a screen or a cave wall, and we are told that all we can do is describe it through a phenomenological poetics, applying a delimited aesthetics, grasping at it blindly as it continues to elude us.

All these things being said about things, and objects too, arrive from a diversity of situations and disciplinary points of view. Distinctions between things and objects are ventured or overlooked. A life of things is called upon, or else an orientation toward objects is recommended (Graham Harman). A thing becomes an arche-fossil, existing before as well as after the passing of human creatures, even situated as a cure to human finitude (Quentin Meillasoux). The thing in itself remains inaccessible, and things continue to bother us. There are things-in-themselves (noumena) and things for us (phenomena) (Immanuel Kant). More recently, with the theoretical stirrings of new materialism, things turn out to have a power all of their own, a thing-power (Jane Bennett). Things rendered as hyperobjects have been inflated into objects of such massive environmental scale, with murky outlines, that they are located beyond our (human) ken, except for the symptoms and signs we meagrely glean (Timothy Morton). A social life of things is commented upon and questioned, which situates the thing inextricably amidst social relations (Arjun Appadurai). Things are slippery and become something rather like quasi-objects, changing guard with quasi-subjects, because subject and object are flung together and intermixed into temporal flows and upheavals and complex relations (Michel Serres). There is something that can be called a thing-feeling of outgoing, generous and jovial things, where things are decidedly not withdrawn (Lars Spuybroek). We momentarily gather around a thing to argue about our matters of concerns, whether they are political, scientific, or aesthetic (Bruno Latour). Young girls are offered as examples of sweet young things (Martin Heidegger). Live human subjects are, with historical regularity, reduced to bare life and rendered as exceptional things removed from the human rights of citizenry (Giorgio Agamben). Things, it probably goes without saying, have a long conceptual history (Elizabeth Grosz); a long and illustrious genealogy that divides and endlessly subdivides down so many tributaries of thought, not to mention material instantiations. Given all these variations on the theme of things, it should be no surprise that such a thing as thing theory has emerged (Bill Brown).

In this second module we will address the thing, or the object, which means that we may be addressing something corporeal or incorporeal, something material or immaterial, or something that contravenes such categories altogether. This is an opportunity to address those things that are relevant to your own research questions and circumscribed problems and problematic fields. We will collectively venture a critique of the things that concern us.

TASK: Lists, Things and Objects

Whether reading Jane Bennett on thing-power, or Graham Harman on the troubling formulation of Object Oriented Ontology, or Timothy Morton on hyperobjects, a recurring technique is the construction of lists, or the stringing together of a series of things (it should be noted that not all of these thinkers agree with each other, but they do all express a peculiar fascination in objects and things). Simple association procures all manner of effects, which this task will test and critique. We will “lavish attention on specific things” (2010: ix) as Jane Bennett describes her process, in order to understand their location, their encounters, their relations and their capacities, however restricted or free. Bennett, for instance, experiences an encounter on a sunny morning in Baltimore with a gutter in which she observes: “Glove, pollen, rat, cap, stick” (4). From this accumulation of gutter debris she begins to construe connections, which assist her to tell her ‘onto-story’ of complex assemblages and thing-power. A consideration of things bound together as complex assemblages soon enough leads us to systems, such as the (wo)man-axe-tree system discussed in Gregory Batseon’s work, which, as Timothy Ingold explains, describes “the total field of relations constituted by the presence of the organism-person, indissolubly body and mind, in a richly structured environment.” 
 (2000: 352-353).

  1. Considering the above, as well as other references offered here and from your own research, create a list from which you can extrapolate a more general situation, system or ‘environment-world’, or else from which you can make an observation that is pertinent to your work. Again, you are free to use a combination of media: image, text, essay, moving image, diagram, and so forth. The format should be one that can be presented as a pdf, or similar electronic document that can be projected during our second meeting.
  2. You are also invited to bring a ‘thing’ (material, or immaterial, of any media…) along to the seminar. Whether this thing is specifically related to your research or not is up to you. We will use your ‘things’ for the purposes of discussion.

Guest Lecturer: Etienne Turpin

Lectures are held on Thursday evenings in KTH School of Architecture at 18.00.

Readings

Bennett, Jane. “The Force of Things”. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010, 1-19.

Ingold, Tim. “Of String Bags and Birds’ nests: Skill and the construction of artefacts”. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” in Critical Inquiry. Winter 2004, 225-248.

Puig de la Bellacasa, Maria. ‘Nothing comes without its world: thinking with care.’ The Sociological Review 60, (2012): 197-216.

Serres, Michel. “Theory of the Quasi-Object”. The Parasite. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007, 224-234.

Background Readings

Appadurai, Arjun. ‘The Thing Itself.’ Public Culture 18:1, Duke University Press (2006): 15-21.

Brown, Bill. ‘Thing Theory.’ Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no. 1 (2001): 1-22.

Dolphijn, Rick and van der Tuin, Iris eds. New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. University of Michigan Library, Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2012. http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/books/titles/new-materialism/

Grosz, Elizabeth. ‘The Thing.’ In Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 2001.

Harman, Graham. ‘Heidegger on Objects and Things.’ In Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005.

Heidegger, Martin. ‘The Thing.’ In Poetry, Language, Thought. New York and London: Harper Colophon Books, 2001a, 161-184.

Hudek, Antony ed. The Object, Whitechapel Documents of Contemporary Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, MA: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Puig de la Bellacasa, Maria. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Shaviro, Steven. The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Sofia (Sofoulis), Zoë. ‘Container Technologies.’ Hypatia 15, no. 2, (Spring, 2000): 181-200.

Spuybroek, Lars. The Sympathy of Things: Ruskin and the Ecology of Design. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Stengers, Isabelle. ‘Speculative Philosophy and the Art of Dramatization.’ In The Allure of Things: Process and Object in Contemporary Philosophy, edited by Roland Faber and Andrew Goffrey, London: Bloomsbury, 2014, 188-217.

Steyerl, Hito. ‘A Thing Like You and Me.’ e flux journal #15, 2010. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/15/61298/a-thing-like-you-and-me/