Some Foolish Thoughts Concerning Objects

by Rick Elmore

For the last couple of weeks, I have been working on a paper exploring the question of “world” in Jacques Derrida’s reading of Martin Heidegger.  Given this, I had been toying with the idea of doing a post on the concept of “world,” but I was undecided.  Part of my indecision came from a kind of feeling of foolishness that, for me, always accompanies writing about concepts like “world.”  Everything in my philosophical training has led me to distrust absolutes, unities, and totalities, since they always seem to leave something out in a way that often goes violently awry.  Hence, I was sitting in my office one morning last week, feeling a little foolish, when out of the blue I opened my email to find this excellent post by Randy Honold that takes up several of the themes I had been thinking about.

Now, let me say right off that you should, at this very moment, stop reading this post and go read Randy’s.  No seriously.  It’s a beautiful piece, and you can always make your way back here when you are done.

While reading Randy’s post, I was struck by the fortuitousness of events.  What are the odds that I in my office and Randy on a plane back from India would each in our own way be struck by the strangeness of the notion of world?  Surely this is just a lucky accident, two events causally unconnected.  Yet this accident got me thinking about the way in which the real and perceived interconnectedness of objects and events is one of the most enticing aspects of a traditional notion of world.  Doesn’t this notion always play to our sense that lucky accidents might be less accidental than they first appear?

Despite the many problems that come along with the “one-world” or “whole-world” account of things, these notions do allow us to talk about the interrelatedness of objects.  The problem is that this kind of worldview tends, as Randy points out, to homogenize and reduce the relations between objects by privileging and universalizing one creature’s or people’s experience of the world as the experience of the “whole world.”  This is precisely the link in David Cosgrove’s work, for example, between the concept of the whole-earth and colonization.  Now surely we want to challenge this logic of homogenization and colonization.  However, one of the interesting questions posed by challenging the concept of world is how one accounts for the large-scale interconnectedness of objects without simply articulating them as existing in a unified, reductive, fishbowl-like container labeled “World?”  Lots of people have taken up this question, however, Randy makes reference in his post to the work of Tim Morton and particularly to his notion of hyperobjects.  I have quite a soft spot for Tim’s work, and I think his notion of hyperobjects helps us think about the experience of interconnectedness without unity.

Hyperobjects are, most basically, objects that are massively distributed in time and space.  They are things that exist or occur over such large areas or periods of time that one cannot experience them on a model of local occurrence.  For example, global climate change is a hyperobject, insofar as it defies any simple reduction to a localized event.  Snow in WashingtonD.C., 60 degree January days in Chicago, hurricanes, and violent weather patterns are all part of the object “global climate change,” even though any one of them in isolation might not appear as the expression of a general increase in global temperatures.  Thus, on a basic level, the notion of hyperobjects attempts to show that an object’s appearance to us is not the whole story or the whole object.  This notion extends the concept of experience to suggest that what I’m sensing “here and now” is not simply “here and now.”  Now this might seem rather obvious, but it is easy to overlook in Tim’s account the idea that this extension in time and space seen in hyperobjects is, in fact, a defining characteristic of all objects.

The coffee cup in front of me, certainly it is an object here on my desk, but it’s also a concrete manifestation of the collection of activities and forces that led to its being here.  The minerals from which it is made, the labor that extracted those minerals from the ground, the relations of trade which brought it to me, these are all contained in this object as it sits here innocently holding my coffee.  Just because I don’t see or hear the turning of a pottery-wheel or the flows of global capital every time I look at this cup, does not change the fact that this cup is fundamentally connected in its very appearance to these processes.  Hence, the notion of hyperobjects challenges us with the recognition that all objects are actually much less localized than our experience of them admits.  One way that Randy’s post got me thinking about this recognition is in terms of traveling, the fact that often the objects around us are much better traveled than we are.

It might seem like a rather foolish point to say that I’ve never been to China, India, or San Francisco while several objects on my desk have.  However, rethinking “the world” on some level must be an appeal to foolish points and happy accidents.  It is an attempt after all to rethink the everyday nature of the everyday and to see that it is less everyday than we thought. Challenging the notion of “the world” with a concept of hyperobjects certainly allows us to argue that cold temperatures and snow in D.C. are not “proof” that global climate change does not exist.  However, it points equally to the surprising fact my stapler is better traveled than I am.  This is perhaps what is glimpsed when we travel.  The inability to unconsciously fill in the back story of the objects around us exposes that we don’t actually know where they’ve been, a fact that makes their appearance to us strange.  It is perhaps the traveling nature of objects and their appearance that calls to be thought through?  Although whatever the case, I tend to agree with Randy that three weeks in India wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Some Foolish Thoughts Concerning Objects

  1. Christine Skolnik

    Yes Randy’s objects deserve a lot more attention–they are so much more than illustrations, though reflecting on the process of “reading” his posts reminds me of our addiction to words. We don’t give images nearly enough time . . .

  2. Randall Honold

    Rick, I’m flattered that you chose my post to use as a jumping off point for yours. I really enjoyed how you pushed my thoughts in another direction. I’ve actually been re-reading Tim Morton’s “The Ecological Thought” this week. This time around I’m struck with his idea of the “humiliation” of the ego that comes with realizations like being less traveled than one’s stapler – a great example! (Thank you – something, anything other than a chair – the philosopher’s traditional go-to!) But I would say: Are you sure? Who knows where the parts of YOU have been? In some sense “I is a hyperobject” (sorry, Rimbaud) if I = the time and space encompassed by the anaerobic cells and DNA strands and the oxygen molecules that make me up right now are taken into account. If only I could get frequent flyer miles attached to everything that’s me…

  3. Christine Skolnik

    LOL! Well, it brings to mind the Buddhist idea of “emptiness/fullness” which I don’t really understand . . . (but that’s never stopped me before, has it?). Let’s say . . . our perception of the physical boundaries of any object is deceptive–if not a deception. This ain’t mystical mumbo jumbo, right? How did that stapler get there? How many hands and feathers (APS) and fins were touched by the process and how many more when we imagine we’ve disposed of it? What if every object were a reminder of the moral gravity of material/ecological interconnectedness . . . could we bear the weight? (Brings to mind any number of good folk songs . . . ) Maybe our romance with interconnectedness is at root a defense against the horror of it. Not the horror of imagined freedom but of creeping responsibility.

  4. Pingback: What specter haunts the sentence we’ve created? | HTMLGIANT

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