Taking Things By Surprise

July 21, 2015   •   By Julian Yates

YOU MIGHT WANT TO LIE DOWN. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Allow the day to fall away. If you fall asleep, then good for you, you probably needed the rest. If not, then consider embarking on this little experiment. Keep your eyes closed and try to reconstruct the object world of your immediate environs. Where are you? How is the room arranged? What does the bed or couch or carpet look like? What is its shape? Does it have a particular texture, colors? What is on your nightstand or the coffee table? Enumerate and name the objects. Focus on one of them — the alarm clock, a coffee cup, the remains of a snack. Trace its contours in your mind. Your mind may wander. That’s just fine. Try to keep track of the timber trails your object takes you down. Then redouble your efforts. Really try to grasp it, to describe its nuance, to take its impression.

I tried this experiment and lit on a glass of water whose presence by my bed I count on. Sure, it is just a thing of habit — insurance against the horrid nighttime thirst that haunts my sleep, a thirst that I ignore, but which threatens to make itself the subject of my rest. Half the time, I forget to get the glass of water, and toss and turn all night. And then, if I do remember it, the next day, I forget to take it downstairs for reuse. Beyond or beside all the minute labor of description necessary to capture the nuance of the tallness to this glass, intended for beer, but filled only three quarters full (in case of spillage given the bungled mechanics of nighttime drinking), this glass of water offers itself as a mundane talisman to how well I am calibrating my routines, managing my sleep — how attentive I am being to the intimate objects that make up my immediate environs.

Published in Italian in 2009 and only just now translated into English, philosopher and phenomenologist Remo Bodei’s The Life of Things, the Love of Things arrives at an interesting moment in the burgeoning conversation about objects, things, and matter. Its value lies essentially in its insularity. Bodei’s bibliography does not include the usual textual landmarks of this turn to things or questions of matter: Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory” (2001); Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory (1986 to the present); Graham Harman and co-conspirators’ “object-oriented ontology” (2002); Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter (2010); Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology (2012). But this is all to the good. Bodei reads many of the key philosophical texts to which these writers attend, but in unexpected and frequently illuminating ways.

The book begins, for example, with a tour of some classical and literary precursors to the DIY phenomenological reduction that I invited you to stage at home, and which led me to my glass of water. In quick succession, we encounter scenes of waking or disorientation that distinguish Bodei immediately from the more familiar and canonical scenes of tools or objects failing or misfiring to which philosophers and phenomenologists gravitate. When a hammer breaks, when a tool fails, it asserts its presence, becomes knowable as something more than a congealed set of use values or techniques. But Bodei is different — he wants to take things by surprise, sidle up to them, transform the passive condition of wakefulness into a governing perspective on the world. “Is it illusory to imagine,” he asks, “that in the temporal interstices between sleeping and waking it is easier to catch things ‘from behind,’ as if by surprise, before they take on a precise mental and physical location?” This rhetorical question governs all that follows. And in Bodei’s company, it’s hard not to understand why. Dawn and dusk, the indeterminate borders between wakefulness and sleep constitute a zone in which objects (as anyone who has ever dreamed knows) become unmoored from their names and designated roles, freed up to lead dream existences or to lead lives of which we shall never know for we are fast asleep.

Virgil’s poem Moretum provides the introductory topos, marshaling the governing concerns and questions. The poem traces the experience of a poor peasant waking in the dark and slowly coming back to sense. He’s able to get up, make his breakfast — the mess of herbs, olive oil, and cheese he spreads on bread which gives the poem its title — by touch. And then the sun rises; the light returns, and all the things of the world — or garden — get named again. The light “‘lists’ … the various crops growing there”: cabbage, beets, asparagus. As the dawn forces eyes open, “the order of words and of things is reborn,” almost as if objects were summoned back to the roles they play for us. We meet Ovid; encounter a line or two from the Austrian writer Nikolaus Lenau filtered through a Lieder by Mendelssohn; turn the corner and inevitably bump into the protagonist of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past attempting to put himself back together by “remembering the positions of the furniture and walls of his room.” But Swann remains unconvinced; he wonders whether “the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves.” Maybe they have lives of their own; lives they lead in spite of the way we classify them; lives they lead in our absence. Jean-Paul Sartre provides absolution or at least consolation, offering that “the more we look at [a sheet of paper lying on the table]. The more it reveals to us of its characteristics.” The description could go on and on and still we would not do justice to it — no more than can I to my glass of water.

What Bodei’s after, as I hope you experienced when you made a go of that little experiment, is the “salutary distancing effect” that comes each and every day with waking. “We perceive the objects around us in an as yet unfocused way” during which “the things we see” are “deprived of their usual attributes” and so reveal themselves to be bearers of multiple, even incompatible layers of meaning that the harsh light of day and everyday routine shall strip away. It’s as though the ambient coming back to consciousness of waking describes a scene of slow loss and dis-animation, the moment at which the host of objects around us settle down, returning to their apparent roles in the scripts we pen for them. Oil, cheese, and herbs agree to combine to form a spread for bread. Water agrees to slake thirst. But this agreement is never exactly total. The strangeness of waking, the residues of habit memory, ensure also that we know that there is more to the objects that populate our worlds and mental habits than their apparent functionality, that they constitute gatherings of significance, of care, and concern. They are not really interchangeable, substitutable, or are so only by and through a peculiar series of philosophical costs that far outstrip the exchange value that the market might give them. For Bodei, this toing and froing of objects as we wake from sleep becomes the moment to which his little book of things returns, recouping the experience through a variety of discourses and different scenarios in philosophy (Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Freud, Heidegger, and crucially the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl) and art (Dutch still lives, Rembrandt in particular). The aim is to provide a phenomenological cure of sorts, a talking cure combined with a total sensory recalibration that turns the world of disposable objects back into things.

No Night at the Museum exactly, The Life of Things, the Love of Things does not offer revelations about the lives of particular objects. On the contrary, the course of study in philosophy and art the book prescribes amounts to a pedagogy that would minister against the sense that we live in an “epoch of the multiplication of ‘banal things’ and that our culture has become the epitome of Baudrillard’s precession of simulacra, in which ‘things are reduced either to pure materiality or just the opposite: simulacra and standard-bearers of signs, mere instruments of communication.’” To recognize the liveliness of things, to thingify or fetishize objects, begins the process of a recuperative loving — hence the book’s double title which charts a provisional passage or trajectory, a crash course in phenomenology that might be described as a falling in love, a becoming enamored by the density of sense data that we corral under the name “object.”

Comprised of three small but hefty chapters, the book begins by defining terms, thing and object, and through the process of definition — which, in effect, retells the story of the West — prescribes a possible re-enchantment of our relations with the humdrum objects of consumer capital through an aesthetic recalibration of the senses. Bodei’s command of the philosophical mainstays he visits is in no doubt — the redactions he offers are crystalline things of beauty in their own right. But what makes him an effective and engaging guide is the announced tentativeness to his project — “How does the transubstantiation of objects into things occur?” he asks. “How does one pass from indifference or ignorance of something, to thinking about it, perceiving it, or imagining it as endowed with a plurality of meanings, capable of emitting its own implications?” Just when the book seems like it may settle into a ready or routine prescription for how to live well now, Bodei unsettles things, keeps them turning. He writes like a man who wishes not quite to wake, to have his eyes opened by the light of names, the philosopher-become-sleepwalker in the hope of taking things by surprise.

But, first things first: the book begins by parsing the terms thing and object — sensitive to the difficulty in keeping the terms straight and delighting in how they slide into one another. The two words belong, he offers, to differing critical households and languages. His native Italian cosa derives from the Latin causa and designates less a physical entity than something so “important and engaging that it can mobilize us to defend it.” The word cohabits with the Latin res and so with notions of the res publica, the public thing or common cause, that Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour have both glossed as “matters of care and concern” in their writings. Bodei builds this lexicon across Romance and Germanic languages, finding over and over again a common sense of the thing as a cause — a configuration of matter, persons, social relations that demands speech, requires collective discussion. Bodei curates this linkage of philosophical systems to political forms of speech from Aristotle to Hegel, indicating the way philosophical maxims such as Aristotle’s auto to pragma (the things itself) or Hegel’s “Zu den Sachen selbst” (“to the things themselves”) refer not to unmediated access to the world but, on the contrary, to a mediation (form of speech) so compelling that things appear to speak for themselves, with a primary obviousness that may be agreed upon or contested in the name of a different order of truth. Things happen. They impress themselves on us; we receive their impress and are made to speak — such that they seem to speak for themselves.

Objects, in contrast, so the story goes, belong to a different register of more highly purified categories. “The idea of objectum (or in German Gegenstand — what is before or against me),” he writes, “implies a challenge […] and an overpowering.” The relation between subject and object becomes antagonistic, a power play. How awful then to be an object, an obstacle, something literally thrown (the Latin ob + iacere) in the way and batted aside by the subject (you and I). Except that the story is not so neat, nor the categories clearly marked. If a thing designates “a cluster of relationships in which I feel and know that I am implicated and of which I do not want to have exclusive control,” then full disclosure requires that we acknowledge that the word (human) “subject” (subjectum) originally referred to the “substrate that supports the qualities or the mutations of a material” — the impress of a situation or thing. Subject and object were kith and kin. For Descartes, credited with the birth of the individual via the self-grounding Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), subjectum remained something immanent to a philosophical machine or project and not something to be alienated as a form of personhood. The antagonism of subject and object becomes rigorous only with Kant’s purification of terms. Prior to that, both subject and objects were moving concepts within an attempt to inquire into matter and sense data. But even here there comes resistance. The object morphs back into a thing at each and every turn. The Enlightenment gives rise to the term “fetish” and to fetish relations, the fascination or captivation by one thing, irrationally, seemingly against all calculation, offers a savage pedagogy in materiality. Marx speaks to the irrationality of the commodity form, Freud of the libido of objects. Everywhere, a savage, materialist pedagogy threatens to erase the difference between subject and object, object and thing.

In an unexpected move that proves key to the orientation of the second chapter, Bodei rescues Husserl’s phenomenology from its critics (Theodor Adorno, Martin Heidegger, Gaston Bachelard, Maurice Merleau-Ponty), finding his program of phenomenological reduction “more ambitious than his critics think” because for him “for an object to be able to express itself, it must let itself become impregnated by the world.” Husserl becomes a sort of phenomenological therapist whose program suspends obviousness and cultivates the orientation necessary to recognize that objects are not cut off, disposable items but “nodes in the tightly woven network of coordinates with which we structure the world.” Attend to the object, then, take its impression, and it shall teach you how to speak. Melancholy and a panicked sense of the loss of aura to things beckon at this point. The infernal prospects of industrial capitalism loom large. But, rather than follow Heidegger down a melancholy trail in which the elimination of aesthetic distance leads to the “annihilation” (or masking of the “thingliness of the thing”) to produce the standing reserve (Gestell) of consumer objects (picture the seemingly infinite quantity of seasonal ornaments that appear and disappear at your local craft store), or turning packrat with Walter Benjamin and his Arcades Project, Bodei re-describes this loss of specialness or liveliness as a series of inexhaustible links to places, persons, and other things that the phenomenologist and artist may make sensible. And so, having given objects back their liveliness, if not quite their lives, Bodei moves to the question of love, of allowing oneself to be taken by things.

But love proves difficult, hard to pin down. The second and third chapters of the book seesaw between sometimes melancholy, sometimes nostalgic, sometimes brooding attempts to recover a certain authenticity whose scarcity value makes it one hot commodity. In the second chapter, “Opening up to the World,” Bodei offers a whirlwind tour of the emotional and affective predicament of the Western citizen-consumer who must shop until he drops (dies). But whatever this every-shopper does, he remains an accessory after the fact to the banality of the object. Still, hope remains. For “art and philosophy have carried out an act of opposition against the impoverishment of experience.” And by this alliance, it might remain possible to learn to love objects, to allow them to become things again. To get there, Bodei primes Kant’s concept of “reflexive judgment” with Hannah Arendt’s notions of political citizenship. The example he offers proves telling. “When we see a shantytown,” he writes, “we begin to concatenate and intertwine a series of reasonings, hypotheses, states of mind, and images. We reflect […] on the nature of poverty.” Why not extend this sense of judgment to objects, he proposes — attend to them in ways that unfold their reduced complexity?

This insight provides the point of entry to the final chapter of the book on “living nature,” which claims an epistemological privilege for art and, in particular, for still life painting, from Roman wall paintings to 17th-century Dutch masters to the present, which renders audible the “‘unheard voice of reality.’” Fascinatingly, Bodei reads 17th-century Dutch still lives as part of an affective project to “adapt men and women to the increased instability of social life and to the acceleration of historical time.” In other words, when he invokes art as a contact zone with thingliness, he makes no absolute claims. The succession of artistic examples we encounter, much like the topoi of waking with which he begins, offer only partial access and partial answers. Every night, you shall fall asleep. Every morning you shall wake and the routines we have for keeping objects moving shall reassert themselves. It would be nice to imagine that Bodei’s little book might solve things, but the trajectory toward which its title gestures remains exactly that: a course he plots and hopes that we may join him in attempting to follow.

Personally, I rather wish that Bodei had asked us all to move into that nameless shantytown that serves as the forgotten object of reflexive judgment and possible political citizenship on its way to the art museum. My reason is that the brilliance of his first chapter lies in the way his careful analysis arrives at what might seem an unconscionable suggestion: there is, in fact, no difference between a thing (rich, networked, complex) and an object (orphaned, forlorn, stripped of nuance). The difference between the two lies very precisely in the value relations derived from both. The shantytown is just as much a thing as anything else — and its complexity might reveal how beauty cohabits with atrocity in ways that complicate everything. 

Bodei is a masterful phenomenologist, an engaging writer, and the topos of wakefulness with which his book begins shall remain with me always whether or not I remember my glass of water at bedtime. But, now that I think of it, depending on where and when I am in the world, my interrogation of the glass beside my bed should extend far beyond the apparently simple object that it appears to be. What is there to say about the water it contains? What distance has it traveled so it can gush down my throat? Who does not have clean water to drink so that I do? All objects are things. Some provide good, which is to say sustaining and reciprocal relations; others prove abusive, contemptible, deadly. Attending to the objects in your world in all their perceptual (aesthetic) density will not constitute some order of artistic or phenomenological cure for the disgruntled citizen- consumers of the West. Rather, as Bodei’s dazzling first chapter implies, it should become a fundamental responsibility and duty of a grander sense of citizenship that consistently chooses the shantytown over the art museum or, better yet, attempts to think their relation. 

The Life of Things, the Love of Things is a beautiful book. Part of me wishes it had been uglier.


Julian Yates is Professor of English and Material Culture Studies at University of Delaware