Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Significant Objects

I've been meaning to write a post about this website for some time now. I'm sure a few of you might be familiar with it, but recently I've had the chance to revisit some early Heidegger, and have begun to put ideas together. The following are a few of those rough ideas strung together.

For those of you not familiar with the site, the goal of the site was to see if given significance, random everyday objects could take on objective significance, as well. As the site explains:
A talented, creative writer invents a story about an object. Invested with new significance by this fiction, the object should — according to our hypothesis — acquire not merely subjective but objective value. How to test our theory? Via eBay!
As demonstrated from some of the entries, these objects are not “rare” or “important” objects by any means. In fact a lot of the times these objects are purchased from thrift stores or garage sales for just a couple of bucks (max). A “fictional” account of the object's significance is added and then sold and bought on eBay – usually purchased for way more than the item was originally worth. But what I find fascinating about this experiment is that it is purposefully doing something that we often do without thinking about it – that is, adding significance to objects. This led me to question, what is significance and how/why is it important for our understanding of object-oriented philosophy?

In Ontology – The Hermeneutics of Facticity, Heidegger claims:
“Significant” means: being, being-there, in the how of a definite signifying and pointing […] The definiteness of this signifying, which is what initially needs to be explicated, lies in the characteristic of the disclosedness of that which is for a while significant to us at the particular time in question. (71)
In other words, when an object becomes significant, it opens itself up, it allows itself to be-encountered through its “being-there” at a specific moment in time. He goes on to say:
This disclosedness shows itself in two basic characteristics: (1) the characteristic of availability in advance, (2) the characteristic of the advance appearance of a with-world (i.e., bringing-about-the-appearance of those with us in the world, holding them in this appearance). (71).
The first characteristic Heidegger describes is akin to his readiness-to-hand, where the object is there for such and such a manner and use, and expected to be there in the same manner at a later time. The second characteristic, as I read it, is slightly more complex. Here Heidegger is attempting to understand how it is objects seemingly “stand out.” However, the significant object does not simply stand out from other objects of the same sort, but in its “standing-out” it makes other objects known – including ourselves. As Heidegger remarks in What is a Thing?, “we human beings have the power of knowing what is, which we ourselves are not, even though we did not ourselves make this what is. To be what is in the midst of an open vis-รก-vis what is, that is constantly strange” (244). And this strangeness is what is overcome by giving the object significance, by letting it “stand out”. Significance points to the strangeness of our encounter with objects by letting the object “stand out” but it forces the object into the everyday by giving it a specific use and time. This strangeness or uncanniness, then as I understand it, is neither an attribute of the human, nor is it a part of the object. Instead, Being itself is uncanny.

By attributing significance to objects we bring them into the everyday, we give them “use”, “purpose”, and “value.” But more importantly we show the object's strangeness by disturbing this in-explicit familiarity – the object's contingency in its “thereness”. And what the website ( shows is that this is done by way of narrative. In other words, significance is not some mereological part of an object that we simply tack on to it, but instead what holds our attention in object is the narrative that goes along with it.

In summation, I'll leave you with these haunting words from Heidegger's discussion of his table:
That is the table – as such is it there in the temporality of everydayness, and as such will it perhaps happen to be encountered again after many years when, having been taken apart and now unusable, it is lying on the floor somewhere, just like other “things,” e.g., a plaything, worn out and almost unrecognizable – it is my youth. (Ontology 70).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

When Nature Attacks

I think over the past year or so what has fascinated me most about the object-oriented project is its reliance upon the uncanny. However, this reliance is also what is most unnerving for me at the same time, since the uncanny has become a tool seemingly not worth studying for the object-oriented philosopher. In other words, the uncanny is simply invoked, mentioned, or even alluded to with little to no discussion about it as an object – even if it is an object of study.

Yet, in a recent post by Levi over at Larval Subjects he uses alien invasion science fiction films to discuss the ontological de-centering that takes place in such films. At one point, though, he makes the following point:

Rather, what interests me is the effect of the uncanny that this quintessentially anti-humanist cinema seems to produce in the viewer (at least, to produce in this viewer). One reels before the jaw-dropping flatness of such a universe, where humans are treated as one other being among others, rather than a privileged center to which all other entities must necessarily address themselves. Who knows, perhaps there's even the possibility of renewing the genre of horror through the exploration of the flat and a-human, where humans are caught up in events beyond themselves but are not at the center.

So given this (rare) opportunity to discuss the uncanny in and of itself, I would like to expand Levi's argument that at the heart of horror films is the invocation of the uncanny.

A while back I argued that the object-oriented philosopher would have to take on the zombie as an ontological problem, for the zombie represents our fear of humans-as-objects, but also our desire to overcome nature, to live beyond death. And for this last reason (but not this reason alone) the zombie becomes the perfect manifestation of this aforementioned uncanniness. Unlike Levi, though, I find the most horribly uncanny movies to be ones where humans are de-centered not by some invading alien race, but the films where humans become de-centered by way of the everyday. In other words, the most unsettling films are those that place the human "in-the-world" and alongside other objects.

At one point in my academic career, I argued that the best example of these types of films were the "nature-run-amok" films. Not unique to a single time period, these types of films often use animals to turn the ontological tables on the humans in the films. So, for example, in Cujo (1983) a familiar domesticated family dog becomes a ruthless killer. The reason why Cujo is so horribly unsettling is that unlike the alien invaders, or even some extinct creature of the past (the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, for example), is that most if not all of us had a dog at one time in our lives. Therefore, the familiar non-human becomes a moment of the uncanny, of confronting the everyday presentation of humanity as over and above nature.

What I hope to do in some later posts is to discuss this uncanniness in terms of Heidegger's "everydayness". But, as for now, I wish only to point out that what is great about the uncanniness of horror films is that they are not dependent upon an Other world – for our world can be just as uncanny.