Blue objects

by craigepplin

I’m recovering from a hectic May by reading lots. One book I recently downloaded is Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (2009), published by the excellent press Wave Books (profiled here by the LARB). One of the many passages that stuck with me was this one:

40. When I talk about color and hope, or color and despair, I am not talking about the red of a stoplight, a periwinkle line on the white felt oval of a pregnancy test, or a black sail strung from a ship’s mast. I am trying to talk about what blue means, or what it means to me, apart from meaning.

She’s not talking about signs, in other words. She wants to get at the color itself. That’s supposed to be impossible, in as much as one is talking about anything, and the way the fragment ends (“what blue means… apart from meaning”) highlights the paradox inherent in this desire.

I’m not entirely convinced that this desire is so impossible to realize. Or rather, I’ve lately been thinking that the impossibility of thinking and speaking beyond signs is not really the axis on which the question should turn. It seems to hinge on the inaccessibility of things in themselves, which can’t be fully encapsulated by language. In this case, the color blue itself lies beyond the realm of our shared semiotic system, and so the signifier blue can do nothing but intervene in a world of other signifiers. Language refers ultimately to more language. This is the Kantian way of understanding the problem. However, there is a different way of approaching the problem that does not imply returning to a pre-Kantian illusion of immediate access. It’s an approach that I’ve been uncovering lately and that is a promising one for the project of Nonhuman Collectives.

I’ve discovered (or I am discovering) this approach in the writings of Graham Harman (previously, briefly mentioned on this blog, here). I’m alternating right now between his book on Latour (Prince of Networks, 2009) and the series of essays gathered under the title Towards Speculative Realism (2010). The latter read like an extended, increasingly complex meditation on Heidegger’s tool analysis in Being and Time (1927), which was also the topic of Harman’s first book. His reading of this famous passage is heterodox. In introducing it, he generally reviews Heidegger’s notion that we are surrounded by all sorts of things that are acting in various ways–the chair holding me up, the floor sustaining the chair, the building keeping the floor in place, etc.–but that remain veiled from consciousness. They only appear to us when something goes wrong, when the chair breaks for example. That’s when I recognize the chair as chair. Before, it simply blended in with the general environment in which I was immersed; now, broken, it presents itself as a problem.

Everything, Harman insists, can be understood in terms of the tool/broken tool dichotomy. And thus everything exhibits the same pattern of receding into the background and suddenly thrusting itself before us. However, that appearance before us does not generate a capacious understanding of the thing itself, only a partial intellection. For example, the broken chair is a problem to be considered, but I only consider certain aspects of its being. All objects have certain characteristics that remain veiled to my consciousness. None of this is too controversial.

The rub is that the specific case of human consciousness considering and reifying an object is not an exemplary case. It does not, in other words, name a relationship that should be considered separately from all other relationships. This is because objects themselves do the exact same thing. When a lit match encounters cotton, to use one of Harman’s own examples, they interact but without either of them exhausting the other. The match causes the cotton to catch fire, but it cannot appreciate its texture or smell in the same way that a human might. The relationship between the two objects is distinct from the sort of relationship I establish with cotton when, say, a shirt shrinks in the dryer, but it is not essentially different. Human consciousness is not an exceptional case, but rather one sort of relationship among many.

All this is to say that the interactions among objects are just as philosophically significant, for Harman, as the subject-object divide that lies implicit in the Maggie Nelson quote. She wants to get beyond her own subjectivity, closer to the blueness in its objectivity. But when we understand the world not in terms of (human) subjects and (nonhuman) objects, but rather in terms of objects and their relations, that problem is reframed. Her own relationships with the blue objects that populate her book can be understood outside of meaning: rather in terms of action or influence–in terms, that is, of the creation of new objects and collections of objects.