The Agency of Objects
The prospect of memories, equivalent to the known world, lures me into dark territory I might otherwise ignore. Yet, once I’ve sifted all I can retrieve there remains an absent other, silent and persistent beyond my power of recollection, something to which I am constantly relating that gives my being continuity and stability.
If I am in perpetual relationship to something surely it ought to exist here with me. Yet there seemed nothing, past or present, but what I had encountered all of my life, other people, animals, plants and things. There was no mystery about my interaction with other people. It happened all of the time. It occurred face-to-face and at a distance by merit of my inextricable and unavoidable situation in the human community. Whenever I thought about anything I used language and engaged images which were the common property of humanity. Nothing I thought or did could ever be mine alone. Yet that did not seem enough. There was something thicker going on, something not so clear cut. Animals and plants, particularly trees, had always been a powerful influence on me. Since early childhood, from my farming days I’d been in relationship with them. The Boy Scouts extended the engagement into the wilderness. However, there were no plants or trees inside my house, nor except for the occasional dog were there animals. Something was missing, something that could account for my occurrence even when I was alone, away from nature within the depths of my study.
I was musing on these thoughts one day as I absentmindedly sauntered about my house, when I carelessly stubbed my toes against the leg of my oak desk. There was the annoying feeling of having done something stupid followed immediately by the sense of delayed pain on its way, as the impulse travelled from my toe to my brain. I was about to curse at the desk when I caught myself and laughed. Something my son said at three and a half nearly forty years before had suddenly come to mind. He had run across the living room without looking, collided with a chair and fell hard to the floor. Getting up, he pointed to the chair and said angrily “Look what the chair made me do!” I laughed then as I laughed now and thought how childishly I was about to behave, when the thought came to me as an enlightenment: He was right! At the time, I had explained to him how his carelessness and not the chair had caused his fall. I was helping him develop mental attitudes, templates for explaining causation in a way calculated to give him maximum control over himself and his environment. But now, as I thought about his comment, I realized he was right. Despite his carelessness the chair had caused him to fall by being in his way. My son had seen clearly, while I had persuaded him to shift his perception in a way that reinforced his agency and took it away from the chair. Immediately it came to me. There was something I was always in relationship with no matter where I was, whether sleeping or awake, conscious or unconscious, young or old, and that something was neither hidden nor concealed. The perpetual presence defining me as present was the object. I was unaware of this fact because in growing into a mature and responsible human being, a modern self, I had denied agency to objects and centered all agency in humans. I had pushed them into the background as things to use and define as I saw fit, as tools, equipment, furniture, raw materials of every sort, or simply what was in the way. This was an extraordinary revelation, changing the way the entire world appeared to me. The most obtrusive, and the most easily missed, nearly invisible characteristic of our world is the presence of objects and their perpetual, inescapable influence on us. Once I realized how profoundly they shape my life I was astonished I had never noticed before.
The first and fundamental recognition was the fact we do not simply use objects because objects are not here for our use. Before we can use it the tool must be made. I am not positing here primarily a conceptual construction, which is certainly influenced by the object and what it allows us to do with it, but an actual physical fabrication from materials that have been prepared, changed from preexisting states as trees or rocks for example. They are here for themselves as we are here for ourselves and in both cases being here means being for others whether those others are humans or physical objects, not from volition but unavoidably. We can only ‘use’ objects by entering into relationships with them and cooperating with them to obtain the ends we seek. But since we are always already in relationships with objects entering into a relationship with an object actually means changing an already existing relationship. When we enter into such relationships, often motivated by the need to change objects to facilitate attaining our ends, we too are changed by the objects we engage with. When we seek to learn how to work with an object which we require to attain some end we are seeking to be changed by interaction with it. Moreover, since we are always already in relationships with objects of one kind or another, and since there is never a time when any human being is free of such relationships, human being entails, in fact, means to be in relationships with objects. It could not exist apart from such relationships. This is true of so-called natural objects such as trees, rocks, mountains, lakes, oceans and so-called ‘man-made’ objects such as furniture, houses, clothing, tools automobiles, and planes. Human being means being in relationship with objects.
In all of our so called ‘uses’ of objects we must interact with them largely on their terms. We cannot simply ‘use’ them just like that, but can only make use of them according to their nature, or we can also say according to their way of being. They compel us to interact with them in specific ways, not simply as we wish, even when we succeed in employing them for our own ends. This includes even our volition in deciding to ‘use’ a certain object. For example, when early humans decided to make hand axes their mental action of deciding expressed a prior interaction with stone which informed them about its potential for chopping, hammering or scrapping. The idea was not simply the automatic, spontaneous, autonomous result of a human mind’s capacity to think symbolically. Indeed, that very capacity existed, and was only capable of existing, within an already established relationship with the material world that called it forth. Not only did that world, including the body, impose needs upon the human being but it also suggested how those needs might be met, could be met and could not be met. Of course, what we call human beings were always already actively engaged in multiple relationships with the material world and we are not to conceive of early humans as initiating such relationships as humans but of inheriting them from their non-human ancestors. That inheritance would have included cultural understandings of things and their possible uses.
Thus, a hand ax could not be made from just any rock but needed a rock that could be worked efficiently. This knowledge, ultimately derived from experience with rocks, which would have been passed down through generations and could eventually come to be thought of as expressing human wisdom independent of the objects themselves, would always be based on interaction with objects, as any craftsman would have soon discovered, since the material could only be worked in ways that were suitable to its physical nature. If struck the wrong way, the rock would not chip effectively but splinter and fragment. Knowing which rocks to use for which purposes, how to work the rock properly — craftsmanship — thus expressed a relationship between rock and human with the human adapting its movements to the nature of the rock, and this kinesthetic engagement developed human understanding of the body as an immediately available and potentially available object, the one closest at hand. However, we cannot move or act in any way we want in regard to objects. When we seek to pick up a rock, it resists, a resistance we interpret as weight, which induces a compensatory adjustment in our muscular skeletal response. We may even have to train or develop our muscles in order to be able to pick up rocks of a certain weight, while remaining unable to move others without engaging social networks and the technology associated with them. Our motility is modified by the objects we encounter and must unavoidably encounter in the world.
A lore might develop around stone working craft that perhaps even endowed certain rocks or all rocks with particular characters or spiritual significance. The example of arrowhead production among Native Americans makes the same point on a larger and more sophisticated scale. In that case trade routes developed to obtain raw materials for arrowhead production, and subsidiary supporting industries, such as hunting for trade pelts or making wampum belts could be seen as extended relationships with the natural objects needed to produce arrowheads, relationships that extended to modifying human behavior on the individual and group level. Science and technology are vastly more complicated relationships with objects requiring advanced educational training. In this way, one may view all of human society as conditioned and refined by human interaction with objects, by which we are forced by their nature to adapt to them in order to make use of them, and to train our minds in quite sophisticated methods of discovering their ways, how they might be used and how best to use them to our own ends. Of course, we do not think of ourselves as doing any such thing. Rather we pride ourselves on “taming” the natural world by the strength of human intellect. This is a mere human conceit, perhaps engaged to make it easier for us to mobilize our own powers by narrowing our awareness of influences acting on us, and to preserve a certain homocentric view of existence. It may be for this reason we tend to restrict the notion of agency to living creatures, and especially, to human beings and deny it to objects.
Although agency simply means the power to cause an effect, and as such includes forces of nature as well as objects, we usually understand it to apply to the willful decisions of conscious actors. At the same time our use of objects is explained entirely by the human attempt to achieve human ends, and not by the unavoidable need to adapt ourselves to the objects around us, whose very existence, as such, requires we enter into relationships with them largely on their terms and not ours. Thus, no matter what the Paleolithic hand ax maker may have wished they would never succeed in turning a rock into a hand ax, or later into an arrow head simply by looking at it, or stroking it in a kindly manner, or talking to it gently or soaking it in water overnight. They could only achieve their ends by working the rock in the specific ways the constitution of the rock permitted, a technique that would have been demonstrated by a mentor or that they would have discovered on their own through trial and error, knowledge which in either case would be based on experience with rocks, that is on interaction with them.
These observations are made more interesting when we consider we really do not know what objects are independently of our interaction with them. There is something there transcending our interaction with the object that makes our interaction possible by the bare fact of its existence. However, what we know of things is not the result of our mind’s construction of sensory intuitions presented by them, as Kant had it, but the product of our interaction with them, which also produces ourselves. The relationship between ax maker and rock produces both rock and human being. Objects have assertorial agency as opposed to willful agency. Their agency is apodictically demonstrated by the sheer fact of their existence.
This statement seems to make no sense if we consider that objects are unable to avoid being used by us while we are free to use them or not to use them, even if not doing so would greatly inconvenience us or even end our existence. This seems undeniably true. Though the ax maker is forced to use the stone in a manner consistent with its properties the stone can never avoid being used. Where then is its agency? All this means, however, is that objects do not have human agency. They are not human beings. They cannot escape being used by us but neither can we escape dependence on them, and it is that dependence, rather than the object’s ability to move under its own power that is its agency.
In other words the agency of objects is a function of our dependence on them, which is, in turn, a fundamental structure of human being. Another way of formulating this statement is to say that human being is structured by its fundamental engagement with the objects amidst which it always and already finds itself. In fact, human being consists in relationships with objects, other life forms and itself in that human being occurs, and only occurs in relationship to them. Human consciousness emerges in, is directed towards, shaped by and understands itself in terms of those relationships. Human being is what occurs when a human becomes aware of those relationships objectively, which, normally, in everyday life, takes the form of recognizing something as external to the self without cognizing a relationship in a formal sense at all. Thus, to be aware of the furniture in one’s home and the need to walk around sofas, chairs and tables is an expression of relationships whether or not they are recognized and conceptualized as such.
When my son reacted to his fall by blaming the chair he was responding to objects the way we all do until we are taught otherwise. As we all do, my son soon learned to regard objects as nothing more than things for our use or obstacles in our way. Under the guidance of adults and the prodding of other children we come to assimilate to ourselves all responsibility for our encounters with objects. Those who do not are regarded as immature, odd, even mentally and emotionally disturbed. No doubt our world loses something of the enchantment of childhood once we mature in this way. In return we augment enormously the autonomy, and thus, the aggressive power of the self by making it solely responsible for all of its interaction with objects, except for those accidental encounters that no one could avoid, such as a brick falling from the tenth story of a building and striking the unsuspecting pedestrian on the head. Even in such circumstances we look for a human agent to hold responsible, the carelessness of a building inspector, perhaps. In our normal interaction with things, sole responsibility is attributed to people, a way of being that strengthens the notion the self is free to determine its actions with the physical world. This emancipation places the physical world at the disposal of the self as a factor that need not be considered in any determination of the causes of one’s actions. Nor need we trouble ourselves with an object’s wishes, in considering using it for a particular purpose. We can simply regard it as a natural or human made resource. Once again, we find the tactic of narrowing at work. Put metaphorically, by narrowing responsibility for almost any outcome involving our interaction with objects we drain spiritual power from objects and absorb it into ourselves. The result is a far more powerful self and a far less powerful, interesting and consequential object. Narrowing agency to volitional acts obscures the impact of objects on us in shaping our existence.
These ruminations led to another surprising consideration. One consequence of our unavoidable interaction with objects, including our own bodies, is being compelled to act as their nature dictates. Neither objects nor our own bodies allow us to do two things at the same time, or to achieve our ends all at once. To make a hand ax we must chip a core. To gain muscle mass we must lift weights. Both activities can only be done incrementally, never all at once. In other words, our relationships with objects entail duration. Objects, including the body, do not allow simultaneity. If I stub my toe the impulse must travel along my nerve pathways before it reaches the brain, so there is always a moment’s interval between the impact and the occurrence of pain. Duration is not a human creation. It is imposed on human beings by the nature of the object world. In this sense, we can say metaphorically, that temporality is produced as a byproduct of our interaction with objects. Put another way, time and space are functions of our interaction with objects. Metaphorically, we could say that the resistance of objects to our attempted use of them creates temporality, that temporality occurs when human beings interact with objects. But since human beings are always already in relationship to objects temporality always already exists. It is a priori as Kant posited but not because it is a structure of the human mind, but because it is an expression of the unavoidable, inextricable relationship of humans and objects, from conception. But while humans cannot exist apart from that relationship, objects did and can and will probably continue to do so without us. If, when I withdraw into deep meditation, time and space appear to disappear, that is because I have reduced my consciousness of interacting with the material world, my body, the floor I sit on, the roof over my head, the sound of the clock, the heating system. However, I am still actually interacting with that world. I continue to sit on the floor and to inhabit my body. The roof remains over my head. The clock ticks in the background. I cannot separate myself entirely from objects. Which suggests why even in the deepest meditation there remains some sense of time and space, though remote and ‘distorted’.
There is an obvious objection to this proposition. Granting our interaction with objects involves doing one thing after another and forbids us doing everything simultaneously, why do we experience this as duration? It would seem duration requires a prior sense of temporality. However, the problem is resolved when we consider we are always and already in relationship with objects from conception, that there is no a priori state, because there is no state when we are not interacting with objects. This perpetual relation is what creates temporality, not the interaction with specific objects. We come into the world as temporal beings. Kant was right in positing time and space as a priori categories through which the mind apprehends the world. However, he was wrong in assuming because they were a priori they were not based on experience. He neglected the always already existing relationship between humans and objects that begins with conception and never ends. Even in our prenatal state we are interacting with our body and our mother’s body. As a result we are temporal before birth. Everything we experience from that moment on reinforces our temporality. One might object that this only pushes the problem back before birth, rather than explains the where the notion of temporality comes from. My response is that the sense of duration, the feeling that “time” is passing, and the sense of space, which is the recognition that I am not something, is produced by our interaction with objects, and both exist in some manner prior to birth, because, “we” are in relationship with objects from conception, even in our most biologically simple state, prior to self-consciousness as we know it. Temporality is what it feels like to interact with objects.
I began to think I had found the missing being I was relating to. It was none other than the object, the entire material world, including our bodies in which we are always-already-and-unavoidably-embedded. There has never been a moment in my life, from conception, in which they are or could be absent. They are with me intimately, incessantly, a relationship even death cannot destroy, at least in regard to my body. It can be said in very truth that objects give meaning to us.