“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Darkening Edges of Objects

Doomed Star Eta Carinae

Tom Jacobs's post sounds very much like he's having an experience that many philosophers, artists and others are now sharing—I'm hearing from a lot of them as I go and do talks and as people pay visits. The poet Christian Hawkey was saying something to me very similar the other day. His poems seem to talk about objects as if they're acting as carrier waves for strange nonhuman radio signals.

So I'm not surprised to read Jacobs on how “material objects turned unsettlingly fluid, potent, and peculiar” when he visited that museum. All of a sudden objects seem to lose their significance only for us and begin to beckon us down peculiar corridors.

Jacobs hears the Marxist voice in his head going, “You know what these objects mean, mate, you know the big picture they add up to: and woe betide you if you start making them mean anything more—are you or have you ever been a fetishist?” Amazingly he ignores it and keeps going. Impressive.

Why this compulsion to keep going? I think it's coming from the objects, not from us. I really do. Nothing in our make-up seems to code for this, especially not the last two hundred years of modernity. No matter how much we try to gollollop them into a human reference frame, there they are, pulling us into their gravitational field.

There's the sweat on Washington's bed. Yeah it's technically George Washington's sweat. But it's this two-centuries-old stain that connects with Jacobs's retina. It's not really a fact “about” Washington. A pre-Kantian stain in many ways. To see this stain is to see the past, somehow floating in the supposed present. A stain that's been having its own secret conversation with microbes, with the bed, with the ambient air. Objects are heavy with history, but this history is not only of our making. Their distribution in time is out of phase with human rhythms and only intersects them occasionally.

Why are we seeing this now? Why are we letting objects distract us now? Because the ecological era is upon us, an era in which there is no away, no world, no Nature. Objects leak information towards us like radiation and it passes into our human conceptual realm to unfold all kinds of cancerous notions that make a mockery of the previous way of doing things.


Unknown said...

A fantastic essay...I hadn't really considered the ecological dimensions of these types of experiences. I have always been taken by Heidegger's notion of the "world" vs. the "earth"--the world is the good one, the one where objects reveal themselves to us in all their mystery and strangeness. The earth is everyday life.

You've got me thinking. And I can't see the end of it, which is a lovely thing.

All best,


Unknown said...

this week I'm gonna go see that sweat stain from the past... i've been allured!

Unknown said...

Professor Morton,

I didn't realize who you were when I read your post on "The Darkening Edges of Objects," but I have since rectified this situation. I'm vaguely ashamed to admit that I hadn't read any of your work prior to that, but I have now, and it seems to me extraordinarily urgent and relevant and insightful. I verge on the ecstatic when I read an academic wright about things and material culture in ways that reverberate in unexpected directions...

Anyway, just wanted to say that I really like your work, and that I'm thinking about throwing out my plan for at least one of my classes next week and instead reading "Materialism Expanded and Remixed" (If that's okay with you...i.e., that I use that paper in my class...).

All my best, and keep up the most excellent work--the world is a little bit better a place with this sort of thing in it.


Unknown said...

and my apologies for "explaining" in an incredibly simplified form Heidegger to you. Silly. I didn't realize.