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.