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[ Naming ]

1. Thing as John Doe

‘Suppose we try to recall a forgotten name. The state of our consciousness is peculiar. There is a gap therein; but no mere gap. It is a gap that is intensely active.’[1]

* Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965.

I have always puzzled over the seemingly secure or stable meaning that human subjects attribute to our relationship with things, through the designation of words and their assumed connections with an object’s purpose. This relation provokes the following question; is the assumed stable meaning between thing and name the outcome of the repeated gestures of naming or are there some immanent connections between materiality and language? As William James highlights, in the above quote, there might be gaps in the operation of these repeated gestures and, therefore, naming is not such a stable enterprise.

In his book, Things (2004), Bill Brown states that; ‘The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation.’[2] Brown is asserting that human subjects provide a ‘thing’ with a name and function to allow the thing to become an object in relation to the human. Following Brown’s statement, an object is the summation of a thing produced through assigning it a name plus a function. Brown describes how the word thing designates, ‘[…] functions to overcome the loss of other words or as a place holder for some future specifying operation’.[3] The name ‘thing’ is unstable and, therefore, does not designate a strict framework for its nature. Thus, the name attributed to it gives the entity under discussion more ability to present itself. I describe a ‘thing’ as similar to a ‘John Doe’ (unknown person in a police inquiry); the thing belongs to itself, but no-one has ownership over it or its potentiality. The thing is an oasis, and no-one has a claim to its territory. The multi-dimensional potential or complexity of a thing is lost when the subject’s definition of the object takes over because when the object is framed by the subject it represents the human perception of the world, as opposed to the thing itself. The thing represents the unknown side of the human-object relation.

The human subject produces an external layer to the thing by encapsulating it in a name, which also becomes its function. For example, imagine a gift that is wrapped in paper – this is similar to what a human subject does when we name a thing and designate its purposed within the anthropocentric order. A human covers the unknown with a layer that is known to them. Graham Harman states the following, ‘…the fact that objects withdraw from each other makes us ask how they interact at all. If fire only encounters a caricature of cotton, how does it burn that cotton?’[4] He is highlighting that object must have their own internal reality and a set of real effects with other objects, a set of relations that exist outside of the human-object relation. Therefore, in my scenario, the entire gift represents an object, which means that underneath the gift (object) each of the thing’s elements (which are captured and reduced to the gift) are active and open to infinite refraction within the universal abstract object. A thing will not individually appear to itself or other things, as it appears to humans. As a result, human subjects produce objects that hold within themselves the thing (an inter-relation of complex parts) but it is shrouded in a layer that simplifies what they are for human subjects. However, measuring the distance between the thing and its name is difficult and the gap between its outside (which has been co-opted by the subject-object relation) and its internal reality (its inside or thing relation) is not easy to unpick.

In Seventy-Six Thesis on Object Oriented Philosophy (2011), Harman highlights that a thing’s, ‘Essence is the strife between the concealed real objects and the concealed real qualities that make them what they are. This tension lacks any foothold in experience, and happiness elsewhere.’[5]In this statement, Harman is claiming that each thing has an essence and he elaborates on this reading, ‘Each thing has an essence. A chair is what it is, deeper than all the events and surface effects through which it is manifest. To say otherwise makes change impossible.’[6] However, it is easy to ignore the object’s essence or qualities because humans assume that they dominate things through our naming and utilising of them as objects, as well as our ability to manufacture objects. Objects, as a result, appear to exist or be created for humans and all manmade objects are a copy of the original object; the original object having the most intimate relationship with the human who identified it. This process reduces our access to the object’s essence and leads humans to forget that each object has its own essence (or thing-potential). For example, a chair could be reduced in science to its chemical composition or to its user as merely a seat. However, in Harman’s manifesto above, the ingredients of a chair (e.g. 50% carbon, 42% oxygen, 6% hydrogen, 1% nitrogen, and 1% other elements) and its use cannot fully represent what a chair is. Harman reminds humans that each object has an essence, although its essence is never directly knowable through human experience. 

Our human relation to the essence or thing is also, simultaneously, loose. In the everyday human treatment of objects, it is difficult to see this looseness in our relation to an object but, as Harman highlights, their essences are active, or else change would be impossible. For example, Joseph Kosuth points to the looseness of an object’s relationship to the human subject in his work, One and Three Chairs (1965)*. In this work, Kosuth separated one object into three layers; a real chair, a photograph of a chair, and a name/definition of a chair. Kosuth juxtaposed these three different approaches to the object (chair) to show the differences within the object that the subject assumes is merely one entity (chair). Through this he also questions the consistency of the term/field of art, which also produces a human relationship to objects.

[1] James, William, The principles of psychology, New York: Holt, 1910. Quoted in
McGilvary, Evander Bradley. “The Fringe of William James's Psychology the Basis of Logic”, The Philosophical Review, 1911, Vol. 20, No. 2 (1911), 139 < > (accessed 01. October. 2019).

[2] Bill Brown, Things (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 4.

[3] Bill Brown, Things (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 4.

[4] Graham Harman, Bells and Whistles-More Speculative Realism (Winchester: Zero Books, 2013), 62.

[5] Essence - An essence characterizes a thing or a form, in the sense of the forms and ideas in Platonic idealism. It is innate, permanent, unalterable, and eternal, and is present in every possible world.

[6] Graham Harman, Bells and Whistles-More Speculative Realism (Winchester: Zero Books, 2013), 63.


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