Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Uncanniest of the Uncanny

Over at Larval Subjects, Levi has created a well-developed and nuanced ontology of objects he has affectionately called, Onticology. In short, his idea of an object-oriented-ontology is one of differences, but more importantly, it is about objects. His thoughts go something like, anything that makes a difference is – that is objects are a difference that make a difference. Without going into detail about how objects actually do this (in all honesty I don't think I understand all of it myself), suffice it to say, Onticology along with other forms of object-oriented thinking wish ultimately to dethrone humanity from its pedestal of Being to show that humans are themselves objects in a complex network of object-object relationships.

Have we become so narcissistic and self-righteous that we see ourselves as lords over Being? It would appear so. How did we get this way? And by asking these questions am I simply feeding the beast that is the human project, or do I need to ignore or bracket the human before I get a better understanding of object-ness and how objects work?

In my study of the un-canny, I've been especially drawn to Heidegger. Not because he specifically discusses the uncanny as a state of mind in Being and Time (a state of mind that along with anxiety leaves us open to the call to conscience), but more importantly because in Introduction to Metaphysics he recognizes the un-canniness of humanity and its relationship to the world. After giving us a selection from Antigone, Heidegger reads humanity as deinon – un-canny. He writes, "The human being is to deinotaton, the uncanniest of the uncanny" (159). However, we should realize that what Heidegger has in mind when he talks about deinon as uncanny is different than the common definition of the uncanny as unhomely, strange, or out of place, but it is also slightly different than his previous definition of the uncanny as a feeling we have "in" anxiety and "in-the-world" (Being and Time 233).

In Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger splits deinon (the uncanny) into two parts: 1) the overwhelming and 2) violence-doing. He states:

On the one hand, deinon names the terrible, but it does not apply to petty terrors and does not have the degenerate, childish, and useless meaning that we give the word today when we call something "terribly cute." The deinon is the terrible in the sense of the overwhelming sway, which induces panicked fear, true anxiety, as well as collected, inwardly reverberating, reticent awe. The violent, the overwhelming is the essential character of the sway itself. When the sway breaks in, it can keep its overwhelming power to itself. But this does not make it more harmless but only more terrible and distant.

But on the other hand, deinon means the violent in the sense of one who needs to use violence – and does not just have violence at his disposal but is violence-doing, insofar as using violence is the basic trait not just of his doing but of his Dasein. […]

Being as a whole, as the sway, is the overwhelming, deinon in the first sense. But humanity is deinon, first, inasmuch as it remains exposed to this overwhelming sway, because it essentially belongs to Being. However, humanity is also deinon because it is violence-doing in the sense we have indicated [It gathers what holds sway and lets it enter into an openness.] Humanity is violence doing not in addition to and aside from other qualities but solely in the sense that from the ground up and in its doing violence, it uses violence against the over-whelming. Because it is doubly deinon in an originally united sense, it is to deinontaton, the most violent: violence-doing in the midst of the overwhelming. (160).

In other words, Heidegger finds the uncanny as consisting of two sides, both making up humanity and its approach to the world. First we have Being as a whole, as an overwhelming sway which collects everything. Being, a flat (not flattening) Being, is the set of every object including humans. For Heidegger, "the deinon as the overwhelming is manifested in the fundamental Greek word dike. We translate this word as fittingness <Fug>" (171). Dike, as the Being of beings, is fittingness or enjoining in that it requires objects to fit-in, in compliance. All objects are. Every object (including humans), then, belongs to this overwhelming sway of dike.

Yet, since Heidegger continuously finds humanity to be to deinontaton, or uncanniest of the uncanny, there is also a doubling of this Being, manifested in our need to do violence against dike, or Being itself. For this violence-doing, Heidegger substitutes the Greek word techne, stating that, "techne means neither art nor skill, and it means nothing like technology in the modern sense. We translate techne as "knowing" (169). And this type of knowing found in techne as violence-doing is "the ability to set Being [dike] into work as something that in each case is in such and such a way" (170). To clarify, techne as "putting-to-work" is more than a creation, a making, or an artwork; but is a presentation of Being (dike) so that everything in a work of art can be seen, studied, and understood "as a being, or else as an unbeing" (170). If we paint a bowl of fruit, for example, we have put Being, as dike or the overwhelming sway, to work in the bowl of fruit. We have used the object to open up what it means to "be" an object. We attempt to know, to understand through our constant attempts at techne, at putting Being to work in beings. And it is this knowing that Heidegger finds humanity at its most violent. For, "in the reciprocal relation between them [between dike and techne] is the happening of uncanniness" (176).

It would seem then, that if it were our goal to stop the violence against Being, a violence that repeatedly puts Being to work in objects and consequently puts humanity on the ontological throne, then more than a mere theory of objects would be needed. We would, instead, somehow need to undo the violence we've already done, or at least attempt to do no further violence. But how do we do this, if (especially in Heidegger's point of view) this violence is part of our double-uncannines, of who we are as a group of beings? Do we stop working in the sense of techne? Should we all become lazy, and through our laziness let the object be? Or should we attempt to find our place (our home, if you will) in this overwhelming sway of Being, of dike? But in doing so, can we quell the need to put Being to work for us? Isn't any ontology, in the end, for us?

I am reminded here by something Derrida said in his reading of Potacka in The Gift of Death, where he states "Force has become the modern figure of being. Being has allowed itself to be determined as a calculable force, and man, instead of relating to the being that is hidden under this figure of force, represents himself as quantifiable power" (37). We have stopped trying to relate to Being and stopped trying to find our home in the world, and instead have decided Being is for-us. Don't get me wrong, object-oriented thought seems to be moving us in the right direction, but on some level I can't help but feel unsatisfied. What is needed, still, I feel, is a relational ontology that doesn't place humanity at the center of it (where everything else revolves around human), but that attempts to find a place for humanity within the overwhelming sway of objects – a sort of real estate ontology. But such an ontology also requires a techne that is self-aware, and in its self-awareness takes responsibility for uncovering Being, including human un-canniness. For an ontology of the Being of beings is at the same time a call for ethical treatment of objects, so that we never again do violence toward them.


  1. I enjoyed your image at the top but there is no such thing or rather no such being as: 'object-oriented-ontology'as objects are not beings and as Harman has not understanding of Heidegger or of what being means: objects exist in the world but are not being in the world for they have no being and are just things; Levi banned mean from Lavel Subjects because I had the affront and temerity to criticize him and Harman and their object-oriented occultism which is a fascism turning objects into beings and beings into objects which is exactly what capitalism and Nazism do in objectifying-being. objects do not have an ontology but an obology. Levi banned me and Eilif Verney-Elliott from his blog for criticizing O.O.O. and Speculative Realism.

  2. "Graham Harman writes about objects. When considering two 'objects' he notes their interaction. For instance, he writes about cotton burning, 'the cotton burns stupidly.' If all objects are ontologically, or in their Being (Sein) 'democratised' or equal, then a certain philosophical ground arises from this proposition. Since these objects are equal, that is to say, the same ontologically, then it follows that they can be interchangeable - ontologically - with any other objects. Objects are objects. Moving from the 'objects' of cotton and fire, interacting as they are through what Harman calls a 'sensual vicar' - another object that is created from the interaction of the two objects, let us apply this proposition to another case. When a Monk in Tibet sets himself aflame, when he self-immolates in protest against China's occupation of Tibet, does the Monk too 'burn stupidly?' Since the Monk and the cotton are in-their-being totally equal, an Object is an Object, the Monk, just another 'object' can be said to 'burn stupidly.' Political ideologies to light to Monks and cotton are all 'objects' for Harman. The object withdraws, as 'we' or 'I' or another object can never fully know its being. This is a proposition he picks up from Martin Heidegger the Nazi philosopher. Harman associates himself so much with Heidegger that he says he is more of a Heideggerian than Heidegger himself. Given Heidegger's support for the discrimination and even extermination of Jews and other (objects), we can deduce via Harman's object-oriented ontology that he would, at an ontological level (that is at the level of Sein) find no problem with Nazi ideology, for it is simply another object that withdraws and relates with other objects. We must then ask, given Harman's fetishising of Heidegger and his objectification of everything, does 'the Jew burn stupidly?' That is to say, does the life of the Jewish person under the object of Nazism represent a mere interaction of equal objects via a 'sensual vicar?' ... Does the Jew get gassed stupidly under the object of Nazi philosophy which is entirely equal to the Jew and interacts with the Jew through the sensual vicar of another object that being the gas - the gas supposedly I would imagine an object that interacts with the Jew that's being killed and the gas chamber through a sensual vicar creating another object - everything is ontologically equal - what are the political consequences of that?"

    Eilif Verney-Elliott, Graham Harman's Object-oriented ontology, 2013.

  3. "To draw back to the original question: what are the uses of object-oriented ontology? It seems to me that object-oriented ontology and speculative realism together reflect a worrying spirit of conservatism within philosophy. They discount the work of human activity and place it alongside a soporific litany of naturalised objects – a method that points less at the interconnected nature of things, and gestures more towards the infinity of sameness, the gigantic of objects, the relentless distanceless of a total confusion of beings (see Harman 2009a for a discussion of things and objects). In short, experience as passive, disoriented and overwhelming, what Heidegger described as the 'terror' of pure unmitigated flatness. And with that, philosophy becomes ‘cold’ philosophy, instead of understanding, we have lists and litanies of objects. Not so much philosophy as philosography, where rather than understanding the world, there is an attempt to describe it, and a worrying tendency towards the administration of things through a cataloguing operation. For some reason, object-oriented ontology is attracted to the ephemerality of certain objects, as if by listing them they doubly affirm their commitment to realism, or that the longer the list the more ‘real’ it is. There is also the tendency to attempt to shock the reader by the juxtaposition of objects that would normally be thought to be categorically different. These rhetorical strategies are interesting in themselves, but I do not see them as replacements for philosophy. This demonstrates that the speculative realists have not escaped the so-called ‘correlationist circle’ (Harman 2009b), nor provided a model for thinking about the anti-correlationist paradox which remains present in their own work. We should therefore ask object-oriented ontologist to move beyond merely staring at the objects they see around them and catch sight of what is being listed in their descriptive litanies. That is, examining the lists they produce, we can see what kind of objects they see as near, and which they see as far, and therefore question their claims to see objects all the way down (see Bogost 2012: 83-84). Yet as we examine these lists there appears to be a profound forgetting of Being, as it were, as they write both for and as subjects of Late Capitalism – a fact which remains hidden from them – and a seemingly major aporia in their work."

    David M. Berry, The Uses of Object-Oriented Ontology, 25th May, 2012.