Object Relations; Part 2

As we continue our discussion of the trans-worlding properties of objects we stroll through a woodland prairie with J. Von Uexkull and others…

Continued from Previous…

Uexkull famously uses the example of a woodland tick to illustrate this condition:

The tick hangs inert on the tip of a branch in a forest clearing. Its position allows it to fall onto a mammal running past. From its entire environment, no stimulus penetrates the tick. But here comes a mammal, which the tick needs for the production of offspring. And now something miraculous happens. Of all the effects emanating from the mammal’s body, only three become stimuli, and then only in certain sequence… the whole rich world surrounding the tick is constricted and transformed into an impoverished structure that, most importantly of all, consists only of three features and three effect marks – the tick’s environment.[1]

Within the umwelt of the tick, we find only those things sensible to that specific animal: a branch (or something to drop from), warmth and butyric acid (signs of a passing warm-blooded animal). The branch for the tick is a ledge from which it will drop onto a passing-by host. But to a milk-worm the same branch might be food, shelter or a structure. To a worm it might be completely non-existent. In Uexkull’s forest a tree becomes an ecosystem within itself, serving as food, shelter, respiration, shade, construction material, and consumer.[2] Likewise, with a rock or a branch, each object, living or nonliving, holds different meanings, values and uses depending on the umwelt of the user.

Uexkull was acutely aware that presence of objects within umwelten is highly subjective.

Figuratively speaking, every animal subject attacks its objects in a pincer movement – with one perceptive and one effective arm. With the first, it imparts each object a perception mark, and with the second an effect mark… All animal subjects, from the simplest to the most complex, are inserted into their environments to the same degree of perfection. The simple animal has a simple environment; the multiform animals has an environment just as richly articulated as it is.[3]

Martin Heidegger, a contemporary of Uexkull’s and a foundational source of OOO, theorised similar ideas about objects and how they are perceived.[4] To use a Heideggerian term, objects within umwelt are only “at hand”  through subjective perceptions. Heideggerian “at-hand” and “handiness” are central concepts in the writings on Graham Harman and other OOO’ers. And Like Uexkull, objects present themselves to the Heideggerian Da Sein within a world and through relationships.[5]

Things at hand are encountered within the world. The being of these beings, handiness, is thus ontologically related to the world and to worldliness. World is always already “there” in all things at hand….world is that in terms of which things at hand are at hand for us.[6]

But, Heidegger continues that their qualities, i.e the “hammering of the hammer” are not specific to the object itself (e.g. a termite would use a hammer as a house, or a child as a door-stop). The key to things is that they have meaning only when they are “relevant to something else.” To be relevant means to let “something be together with something else.” And finally “to let something be relevant means to.. let them be as they are and in order that they be such.”[7]

Though difficult to draw a direct line, we can certainly sense some of the same ideas at work in Uexkull’s umwelt. The grass is not a thing-at-hand to the tick as it is to the milk-worm. The rock is perhaps not handy to the tree at all, but it is perhaps very present to the ant. Additionally, both Heidegger and Uexkull start to suggest that objects may be present to two or more actors simultaneously and thereby “handy” in multiple worlds. This would be a different kind of interworlding of objects.

The most clear example of this interworld-object bridge is a spider web. Having left the grassy field, Uexkull spends a few pages later in the book ruminating on the trans-worlding qualities of the spider web. The spider web, as we will all likely agree, is a near-perfectly engineered device for capturing flies. The spider, in order to capture its meal creates an object that is so perfectly tailored to its prey, that it – in form and structure – manifests externally the inner-world of the fly.[8] The threads are invisible to the fly’s vision, the elasticity of some strands ensure the easy ensnarement of the prey and its construction in key locations increases the odds of collision. All of these elements combine to form a object that is simultaneously spider-like and fly-like. It is the web, a trans-umwelt object, that unites these two actors together in a semiotic dance, and it is the web that becomes fatally present to the ensnared fly.

For Heidegger and Uexkull it is an object’s totally subjectivity, its deep semiotic opaqueness – its refusal to be overly determined – that allows it to bridge-between umwelts. It is precisely because, as Heidegger, and then later Harman, Morton and others claim that objects always recede from reality that they can exist as it were between inner-worlds.

In light of these observations, the lion’s share of OOO’s value to those producing objects is not as a guide to the production of objects themselves but to the relationships of objects to those that perceiver them and their contexts. Uexkull’s writings and foragings into the world of other animals shows us that the benefits of OOO are not to debate stylistic motifs, material logics, formal moves or the ontogenesis of form, but as communicative devices across other human and non-human worlds. But in many ways, and from other disciplines, we already knew this.

to be continued…


Books Cited:

Von Uexkull, Jakob. Trans. Joseph D. O’Neil. A Foray into the world of Animals and Humans with a Theory of Meaning, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects; Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World.Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Pasztory,  Esther. Thinking with Things. Texas: University of Texas Press, 2005.

Benjamin, Walter.  “One-way street.” Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Selected Writings , Vol. 1, 487. Original in Benjamin, Walter “Einbahnstrasse”, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 4:1.

Heidegger, Martin. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. Being and Time. New York: State University of New York Press 1996. Originally published by Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tubingen, 1935.

[1] Uexkull 51.

[2] Uexkull 129.

[3] Uexkull 50.

[4] My intention here is not to critique central themes of OOO but to draw a link between the Heideggerian roots of OOO and Uexkull.

[5] Heidegger and Uexkull were certainly aware each other’s work and shared a common acquaintance in the poet Rilke. Heidegger was often known to cite the work of Uexkull’s and it is no coincidence that both thinker share some ideas [Winthrop-Young in Uexkull, 230].

[6] Heidegger, 69-79

[7] ibid.

[8] There is, therefore, a primal score for the fly just as there is one for the spider. And now I can assert that the primal score of the fly (which on can also designate its primal image) affects the primal score of the spider in such a way that the web spun by the latter can be called “fly-like.”

[9] Pasztory 10-11.

[10] Morton 19.

[11] Morton 21.

[12] Morton 125.

[13] Benjamin 68.

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