How 'bout Them Apples? – A 19th Century Object Lesson for 21st Century Technology

Curator's Note

Today's technological object orientation concerns apples, but not the kind you might think. Instead I want us to revisit the "apple scene" from Werner Herzog's 1974 cinematic retelling of the Kaspar Hauser story, Every Man for Himself and God Against All.  What this particular scene illustrates is the conflict between two different understandings of the object.  On the one hand, you have Professor Daumer and Herr Fuhrmann, both well educated modern men who know, as Heidegger reminds us, that objects are just things.  They are not "intentional systems," as Daniel Dennett would put it; they do not have a will of their own; and they can, on this account, be manipulated by us in whatever way we see fit.  As Professor Daumer explains, "apples do not have lives of their own—they follow our will."  Unfortunately, for this man of science and reason, the apples do not necessarily behave accordingly during the demonstration of this fact.  As a result, Kaspar provides an entirely different explanation.  For him, the apples fall to the ground, because they are tired and want to sleep; they do not do what we dictate but deliberately misbehave and hide in the grass; and they demonstrate their own intelligence by jumping over obstacles and running away.

This is precisely the issue that confronts us in the face of the technological object at the beginning of the 21st century.  Our machines—whether smart phones, automated web services, software bots, learning systems, etc.—are no longer able to be defined as mere objects or instruments of human action.  Instead we now find ourselves entertaining the possibility that Kaspar Hauser might be right.  What used to be described as tools are increasingly becoming (inter)active agents—another kind of subject instead of a mere object.  And these other things are, for better or worse, beginning to show signs of "a life of their own."  As long as we persist in forcefully applying the modernist perspective voiced by Professor Daumer, we will be endlessly frustrated by the outcome.  These "objects" will continue to break with expectations and fail to adhere to our rules and requirements.  If, however, we allow ourselves, following Kaspar's paradigm changing example, to challenge the very assumptions of these object orientations, we may begin to perceive other possibilities—possibilities that will undoubtedly have fundamental consequences for us, our technology, and who is and counts as Other.



This is such a prescient topic for me, especially in relation to the current work and writing on object oriented ontology.  But while I am interested in the activity and lives of objects outside of anthropocentric use-values, I wonder if you might shed some light on a semantic issue: the word "object".  

While I am familiar with many of the ways that people try to discuss this issue–ranging from Latour on the "quasi-object" to Bill Brown on "things"–I wonder how we truly move beyond modernist and humanist paradigms while still using the word object.  Yes, we could use neologism or paleonomy as you point out in your book on this topic, but will that allow the object to mobilize to some-thing subjective, active?  Not to put all of my apples in one basket (before they run away, right?) but I'm currently toying with the idea of the "E-ject," at least as this discussion applies to electronic technologies.  In 2009, at the Digital Arts and Culture Conference, there was a panel on this topic, and they offer various takes on this word as a way to designate and complicate the abjectness of the e-object.  This word bypasses the overt use of the word object, and I wonder if this is a good start toward a path where we truly try to consider this form of the Other.

It's always a matter of words...isn't it?  Although some might write off this kind of inquiry as "mere semantics," I think words, in this case in particular, are absolutely crucial.  So please indulge me as I channel a little Heidegger.

The word "object" designates that which stands or is thrown up against.  It is used to specify something that is thrown up against us or that is encountered in opposition to us.  "Subject" denotes that which is thrown under.  It therefore designates that which is, often times after the fact, thrown under some phenomena as its cause or point of origin.  Following suite, the neologism "E-ject" would refer to that which is thrown out while also gesturing in the direction of the "e" of e-mail and e-commerce.

In my opinion, none of these work.  The dialectical couple subject/object is modernist to its core and the neologism is, as a kind of "third term," some kind of synthetic solution that remains under the control of the dominant system to which it is opposed as an alternative.  For my money, "thing" is better suited to the task at hand.  This is because "thing," as Heidegger reminds us in "What is a Thing?" is to be taken, as Kant had demonstrated, in a twofold sense--the thing for us and the thing in itself ("Ding an sich").  This means that things have, since Kant at least, had an "inner-life" that is and remains forever out of our control.

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