Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Inertia of Objects

Growing up I was fond of Mad Magazine, especially when they would provide a humorous (but most of the time, spot on) look at how to identify a certain subject – e.g., a punk, a hipster, or a rent-a-cop. For those who either remember these caricatures or know of others like them, you might also remember that such pages involved multiple lines to objects on or near the subject along with witty comments that aided in such identification. So for example, in identifying a hipster, you might have a line pointing to an item of clothing that said “Satchel Bag: Contains “intellectual texts” that were purchased at nearby Barnes and Noble, and is usually garnished with pins or buttons that state the hipster’s disdain for society.”

The reason these types of humorous images came to mind was while I was recently packing away some of my daughter’s old toys, I came across a “Doctor’s Kit” one of her aunts had given her. Later it struck me that there was a striking similarity in the way such objects are markers for identification – much like the hipster would not be found without his “satchel bag,” a doctor may not be found without his necessary “doctor-objects” (I believe the kit consisted of a plastic syringe, a plastic stethoscope, a plastic tongue depressor, and a toy blood pressure cuff and pump). Both “subjects” became products of a series of objects.

Objects are said, metaphysically, to have properties. We know from OOO, however, that these properties are not actually owned or housed within the object, but in fact such properties are actions of the substances of these objects. For Levi Bryant, it is the object’s substance or virtual proper being that produces its properties or local manifestations. However, this isn’t the only definition of property. Etymologically, the word “property” becomes so entwined with this notion that a property is a belonging that in the 14th or 15th century it becomes synonymous with a material object that belongs to a human subject. We then discuss concepts like private property, consumerism, greed, and wealth. In other words, there is a point at which a property of an object coincides with an identification of a human subject. To be a subject is to be surrounded by certain objects.

This notion of property opens up a unique space for the object-oriented rhetorician. Turning to Kenneth Burke we find in A Rhetoric of Motives that:
Metaphysically, a thing is identified by its properties. In the realm of Rhetoric, such identification is frequently by property in the most materialistic sense of the term…In the surrounding of himself with properties that name his number or establish his identity, man is ethical. (“Avarice” is but the scenic word “property” translated into terms of an agent’s attitude, or incipient act.)…But however ethical such an array of identifications may be when considered in itself, its relation to other entities that are likewise forming their identity in terms of property can lead to turmoil and discord. Here is par excellence a topic to be considered in a rhetoric having “identification” as its key term (24).
We surround ourselves with all sorts of objects that both help us to identify with a subject-hood, but which also influence us. How? Well, here comes the speculative part of this post.

When Burke discusses property in terms of identification, he points to a collection of objects surrounding the subject. Like in the doctor kit or the Mad Magazine illustration, one way we create an identity is by collecting things – the doctor surrounds himself with “doctor-objects” and the hipster surrounds him/herself with “hipster-objects.” These aggregates carry with them a certain gravity or inertia around which these subjects continuously operate, coming into existence again and again. When the aggregate of objects breaks apart or loses its pull, the subject also ceases to exist. And, as Burke argues, rhetoric is uniquely able to deal with these relations of consubstantiation (a term I will explore soon) and division.


  1. there may be a role here for Wittgenstein's familial resemblances, especially as relating to one's character (or being a character) and what kinds of things/practices/relations/cares are in keeping with (and or which keep up) one's character. This gives also gives us the uncanny doubling of the self in a way that emphasizes embodied contextualized attentional expressionist emergence/effects(affects) that is keeping with neurophenomenology, enactivism, anthro of homo rhetoricus and buddhism. -dmf

  2. This is an interesting point, dmf. I'm not too familiar with Wittgenstein, but I like the idea that the subject is a lot of work to both develop but also to maintain. Hmmm....sounds like Badiou.

  3. not by accident: