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).


  1. Strangely I was just reading HOF last week. That line is indeed haunting and it intimates at Heidegger the master phenomenologist just starting to flower. I also love how he populates the description of the table with family events... his wife reading, the boys playing, an important decision being made with a friend.

    On an unrelated note he also has a rather startling reference to Spengler in HOF too.

  2. You're quite right, Paul. In fact I was originally going to write an entire post on his table, but decided otherwise. However, I still want to share a couple of paragraphs for those who may not be familiar with this work:

    "What is there in the room there at home is *the* table (not 'a' table among many other tables in other rooms and houses) at which one sits in order to write, have a meal, sew, play. Everyone sees this right away, e.g., during a visit: it is a writing table, a dining table, a sewing table - such is the primary way in which it is being encountered in itself. This characteristic of 'in order to do something' is not merely imposed on the table by relating and assimilating it to something else which it is not.

    "Its standing-there in the room means: Playing this role in such and such characteristic use. This and that about it is 'impractical,' unsuitable. That part is damaged. It now stands in a better spot in the room than before - there's better lighting, for example. Where it stood before was not at all good (for...). Here and there it shows lines - the boys like to busy themselves at the table. These lines are not just interruptions in the paint, but rather: it was the boys and it still is. This side is not the east side, and this narrow side so many cm. shorter than the other, but rather the one at which my wife sits in the evening when she wants to stay up and read, there at the table we had such and such a discussion that time, there that decision was made with a *friend* that time, there that *work* written that time, there that *holiday* celebrated that time."

  3. Hey Nathan,

    I dig your post but I was under the impression that "mit" is usually referring to being-with which is our social being. I think though that your interpretation works as well and moreover, I think that a hybrid version of the mitsein and "standing out" interpretation would work if we understand the way in which fellow persons "stand out" as moral agents responsible for their actions who have selfhood, mineness, ownedness, etc.

  4. Hey Gary, thanks for the comment. And you're right, mit does mean "with" when he is discussing with-world. However, the way I read this second characteristic was that when we gave an object significance the object showed its uniqueness in its being-there, by a standing out. And this standing out, from the other objects around it, is where we begin to understand the "with -world" of all objects. So, in a way, this standing out in uniqueness (when discussing significance) discloses the with-world that becomes so important to later Heidegger.

  5. Thanks for posting about our Significant Objects project, and I'm delighted to find a blog concerned with "object-oriented" philosophy. I did some research into this sort of thing when I was editing a book (Taking Things Seriously) about significant objects, but I must say I didn't delve too deeply into Heidegger. Your lucid exposition is very welcome.

  6. Thank you Josh for the comments, and I must say the ideas behind "Significant Objects" are brilliant. In fact your website spawned a somewhat heated argument between a colleague and myself over significance and actually making a purchase. And I'll have to grab a copy of your book, as it looks incredibly interesting.

  7. Significant Objects is an interesting experiment, although I would argue that a lot of the significance created around these objects comes from the fact that they are featured on the website as part of the project, and not necessarily from the made-up stories.

  8. Hey Jonathan, thanks for commenting. As for where the significance comes from, I think it might be difficult to separate these objects from their stories and say that it is purely a result of the website and their experiment. For it seems to me that even if we could discuss these objects without their fictional narratives, they are not divorced from narrative completely, as being part of the experiment is a narrative in itself. I guess what I'm trying to say is that (I agree) the experiment isn't 100% foolproof; however, it does point to the following: significance=added narrative.