What are Objects?

If we are to really understand Design culture, should we not spend some time thinking about what objects mean to us in our everyday life? Seemingly a simple question with a simple answer: we use objects, they are helpful, perhaps we derive pleasure from them, they can be gifts, and so on. But this is not all that they do, objects tell us much more about ourselves as humans than perhaps we do with one another. Even the earliest philosophy has dealt with objects, giving it a proper place within society. Plato in The Republic viewed objects as representations of knowledge. An object was a representation of what it actually was but never was the thing itself. As early as 375 BC when Plato presumably began writing The Republic, there is a distinction made between the world known through sensuous experience versus the ultimate reality of the world that is only known through enlightenment (the cave simile). Since Plato, philosophy has bracketed objects as representations. Though they may speak to being, serve as modes in knowing the real, or in their making tell us about the world, they are always reduced to representations as felt by our senses.

I would venture to say that in the twenty-first century as many critics have claimed, modern man’s most profound interactions are not between men but with objects (just think of the social meaning of the IPhone or Blackberry). As Elaine Scarry describes in The Body in Pain, creating objects first arises from the imagination, the human interior works on the object, then follows a projection of the live body into the matter, thus the object must be self-aware. Take this passage that it in itself is enough inspiration to call for a reconsideration of objects:

A lightbulb transforms the human being from a creature who would spend approximately a third of each day groping in the dark, to one who sees simply by wanting to see: its impossibly fragile , upright-then-folding filament of wire is the materialization of neither retina, nor pupil, nor day-seeing, nor night-seeing; it is the materialization of a counterfactual perception about the dependence of human sight on the rhythm of the earth’s rotation; no wonder it is in its form so beautiful. (Scarry 1985).

Its design must anticipate how it will be used and be aware of what it is relieving. In this sense, objects are not just representations, but are much more exalted. They are in fact being. They are our own self-being mirrored back to us. So while the human creating includes the creating of the object, the object is also creating the human being. It may have been at one time that objects were easily understood as never crossing the line of representation, but when the individual begins to create narrative and define identity using the objects in the everyday environment, in some sense these objects are absorbed in the very meaning of what it is to be human. In a type of evolutionary unfolding, objects not only give us a human world but they indeed help shape us. They simultaneously recognize our sentient desires and intimate needs, while also projecting a concrete reality for our experience.

Still there is more clarification and criticism needed in how we live with objects. For considering all of the “junk” produced today, certainly not all objects are things as Martin Heidegger suggest in The Thing. There is as he suggests, a phenomenological aspect of perceiving objects from things, from the nearness which is a thing thinging. What does it mean for our being when indiscriminately objects are mass-produced and put out into the world? What happens when objects are disposable and no longer cherished? Of course to say that the human being equates his being from objects that are themselves not only projections of our interiority, but are things self-aware so therefore mirroring back to us being means that we must be more careful in what we produce and allow to dictate our everyday life. As a civilization that includes objects, if we don’t care about the objects essentially we are saying we don’t care about civilization. If we can ask an ethics for persons, Design can ask an ethics of its objects.


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Filed under Design Theory, Objects, Philosophy

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