European Philosophy on Objects

Peter Benson on our relationship to objects
Jeff Goldblum stars in David Cronenberg's 'The Fly' (1986)

In the latest issue of Philosophy Now, Peter Benson discusses our relationship to objects through the lens of European philosophy. Beginning with examples from Martin Heidegger, he takes further cues from the literature of Sartre and the writing of Barthes and Derrida. The article neatly traces the historical development of existentialism, poststructuralism and Derridean deconstruction, addressing how each new perspective interpreted the objects around us. In short, Benson examines 'how a shift in attitudes towards objects reflects larger developments in twentieth century French philosophy', and makes some interesting points.

The article begins with a gruesome scene from Cronenberg's remake of The Fly (link via Enowning):
In David Cronenberg’s film The Fly (1986) the unfortunate hero, an ambitious scientist, accidentally fuses his own DNA with that of a housefly. As a result he gradually changes into a giant version of the insect. At an advanced stage of this metamorphosis he finds that he can only eat in the manner of a fly, by vomiting digestive juices over each particle of food then sucking the dissolved liquid back into his mouth.

This nauseating image might be taken as an allegory of our general relationship to the objects around us: first we smother them with our own meanings and purposes, then we suck them back into our psyche and make use of them to further our personal projects. In Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927) this is the status of objects, as ‘ready-to-hand’. The world of the ready-to-hand object revolves around human beings, and is permeated with human intentions, drenched with our meanings, imbued with our emotions. Literature is also filled with objects mirroring the feelings and thoughts of the protagonists: sadly drooping willows, or sharply shining jewels. This is a view of an anthropomorphic cosmos, which seems badly in need of a Copernican shift in perspective. Just as Copernicus displaced the earth from the centre of the universe, so some important writers in the twentieth century felt the need to set the egoistic heroes of their novels into orbit, kicking them out of their self-assured centrality. [Read the article]