What’s in a Word?


This short essay addresses a problem encountered not in objects per se, but in discussions about objects. In a sense then, it will be a discourse about discourse about objects, with all the trouble that this doubling implies. The assumption throughout will be that Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology has something to say.

In Harman’s view, objects have two sides, present and withdrawn, and never the twain shall meet. One never gets any closer to the essence of an object. Yet if the gap is inviolable, the verb “withdraw” nevertheless seems to bring them into relation again. An object withdraws not in some general way but from one’s gaze. The ready-to-hand withdraws from Dasein or another object, or perhaps is transformed into the present-at-hand. Whatever the process, the change brought about by the broken tool implicates presence and essence as mutually dependent domains. It is not supposed that the present-at-hand emerges from nothing, only that its origin is obscure. Nor is it supposed that the ready-to-hand is contained entirely within some distant solar system, but that some instance of it stands behind every presence-at-hand.

A more direct analysis of signs as objects only underscores this persistent “grabbiness” of language. Insofar as the term “ready to hand” is an object, it is inherently one that is not to be noticed, which accords it the status of a taboo object unless it is related to other objects at the level of syntax. At this point the object is split, ostensibly leaving the actual essence and its sign unrelated. But how, then, do we talk about the actual essence distinct from its sign (which is also an object) except by describing its withdrawal and so commandeering relation once again?

Translation does not solve the problem as stated, otherwise one object would translate indiscriminately rather than translating this one particular other thing. Translation without relation to a specific source material will be random.

We might tentatively suppose that presence and essence are related in language without being related beyond language. So much would suggest a surface connection or dependence between terms that nevertheless allows their referents to be separate or independent “underneath.” As far as experience goes, the proposition is sound. We know presence and essence are related in language whenever the word “withdraw” is employed, because the term covers the otherwise unstated passage between one side and the other. Yet we also know that the two domains are unrelated, because of the well-known inaccessibility of the thing in itself.

The question may therefore be posed: Can dis-relation be introduced into language, such that the term “to withdraw” or any of its substitutes is somehow deactivated? Barring any ill-advised revival of censorship, we would be concerned here not with language in general, but with a method. To articulate such a method might not only do a service to logic, but break the presumption we have toward interactions outside ourselves, between objects — because we would cease to be doing their translating for them.

Suppose, then, instead of endlessly seeking the nature of essence, we could locate a sign that did not withdraw, that was only present-at-hand. Most likely, such an oddity is impossible. Nevertheless, I propose we suspend such a judgment, if only to see what can be learned from our mistake (which will amount to our broken tool).

It will be clear from the outset of the attempt exactly how strong correlationism is in practice. Some relation will immediately be sought for any object that appears to have no relation. Even if we take a dispassionate interest in the purely present-at-hand, our reasons for isolating it — relinquishing our unilateral claim on the relations between objects — will give it a special value that is tantamount to reclamation.

To resolve this difficulty on a theoretical level, we might ask, still without resorting to correlationism, whether objects might withdraw from their importance. It makes sense to understand importance as the universal effect of attention. The mere act of noticing something grants it a value. (Whether objects can be important to each other is pointedly not our business at this point. On the contrary, we are trying to break the correlationist habit of explaining relations between other objects on our own terms.)

Of course, we seem merely to have substituted the term “importance” for our previous contender “withdrawal” and in the process thrown the whole solution into the correlationist’s court. The interesting thing is that, by identifying the present side of objects with their value, we begin to lay bare an activity founded on an absence, rather than an unseen presence deduced from resistance.

With this in mind, we might ask if relation is precisely what withdraws from importance. The question is not as impetuous as might be assumed. As soon as a relation appears, a new object comprising the related objects becomes distinct, and in some sense the relation is lost. The relation becomes a part of the object. Break the new object apart (in the intentional sense) and relating the two objects becomes possible again, but the relations for each of them singly considered have somehow become imperceptible. One object is, after all, precisely that which appears as independent of other objects, and attention can only count to one.

Such an analysis implies that importance arises with the receding of relation into inaccessibility. This too makes sense. We assign the greatest importance to that which is non-negotiable, to that which yields the least to our attempt to vary its relations. Conversely, the less important an object, the more shot through with relations it will be, until one reaches dissolution into pure relation.

In this regard, Husserl’s discovery of the ability to vary phenomena through the eidetic reduction (as distinct from the phenomenological reduction) may be ranked alongside his articulation of the intentional object for its usefulness to object-oriented ontology. By our account, the eidetic reduction brings objects out of their relations, which themselves remain inaccessible except to the extent that they have become encrustations on the new object, to use Harman’s striking image.

A present-at-hand sign, a sign that does not withdraw, might be recognized accordingly as recursive: each variation on it will result in the same expression of presence-at-hand and nothing more. This recursive “relation” gives us a glimpse of a constant that would endure on a wholly contingent basis. Such a sign would still suppose depth — which is important! — yet it would reveal nothing to which it could be related, save its own uncertain continued existence. The successful candidate would thus be an object that never collides with anything.

If importance is a foregone ontological effect, can there be a sign the importanceof which is delayed, no matter what other objects are brought into conjunction with it? Contrary to the rhetorical flourish customarily laid on at the end of a philosophical essay, the answer will not logically proceed from any urgent need (which would only put an end to the recursion), but rather from the weakest and most scientific position: an attempt to frame the experiment so that the results may speak for themselves.

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