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by Elisabeth Grosz

Philosophy should be an effort to go beyond the human state. —Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind

The thing goes by many names. Indeed the very label, ‘‘the thing,’’ is only a recent incarnation of a series of terms which have an illustrious philo- sophical lineage: the object, matter, substance, the world, noumena, reality, appearance, and so on. In the period of modern philosophy, from Descartes through Kant to Hegel, the thing became that against which we measured ourselves and our limits, the mirror of what we are not. But instead of outlining this history, paying homage to the great thinkers of the thing, and particularly to the scientists who devoted their intellectual labors to unraveling its properties and deciphering the laws regulating its relations, I am seeking an altogether different lineage, in which the thing, the object, or materiality is not conceived as the other, the binary double, of the subject, the self, embodiment, or consciousness, but is the resource for the subject’s being and enduring. Instead of turning to Descartes or his hero Newton to understand things and the laws governing them, we must instead begin with Darwin, and with his understanding of the thing—the dynamism of the active world of natural selection—as that which provides the obstacle, the question, the means by which life itself grows, develops, undergoes evolution and change, becomes other than what it once was. The thing is the provocation of the nonliving, the half-living, or that which has no life, to the living, to the potential of and for life.

The thing in itself is not, as Kant suggested, noumenal, that which lies be- hind appearances and which can never appear as such, that which we cannot know or perceive. Rather, if we follow Darwin, the thing is the real which we both find and make. The thing has a history: it is not simply a passive inertia against which we measure our own activity. It has a ‘‘life’’ of its own, characteristics of its own, which we must incorporate into our activities in order to be effective, rather than simply understanding, regulating, and neutralizing it from the outside. We need to accommodate things more than they accommodate us. Life is the growing accommodation of matter, the adaptation of the needs of life to the exigencies of matter. It is matter, the thing, that produces life; sustains and provides life with its biological organization and orientation; and requires life to overcome itself, to evolve, to become more. We find the thing in the world as our resource for making things, and in the process we leave our trace on things, we fabricate things out of what we find. The thing is the resource, in other words, for both subjects and technology.

As the pragmatists understood, the thing is a question, provocation, incitement, or enigma. The thing, matter already configured, generates invention, the assessment of means and ends, and thus enables practice. The thing poses questions to us, questions about our needs and desires, questions above all of action: the thing is our provocation to action, and is itself the result of our action. But more significantly, while the thing functions as fundamental provocation, as that which, in the virtuality of the past and the immediacy of the present cannot be ignored, it also functions as a promise, as that which, in the future, in retrospect, yields a destination or effect, another thing. The thing is the precondition of the living and the human, their means of survival, and the consequence or product of life and its practical needs. The thing is the point of intersection of space and time, the locus of the temporal narrowing and spatial localization that constitutes specificity or singularity. Things are the localization of materiality, the capacity of material organization to yield to parts, microsystems, units, or entities. They express the capacity of material organization to divide itself, to be divided from without, so that they may become of use for the living.

The thing emerges out of and as substance. It is the coming-into-existence of a prior substance or thing, in a new time, creating beneath its processes of production a new space and a coherent entity. The thing and the space it inscribes and produces are inaugurated at the same moment, the moment that movement is arrested, frozen, or dissected to reveal its momentary aspects, the moment that the thing and the space that surrounds it are differentiated conceptually or perceptually. The moment that movement must be reflected upon, analyzed, it yields objects and their states, distinct, localized, mappable, repeatable in principle, objects and states capable of measurement and containment. The depositing of a mappable trajectory by movement, its capacity to be divided and to be seen statically, are the mutual conditions of the thing and of space. The thing is positioned or located in space only because time is implicated, only because the thing is the dramatic slowing down of the movements, the atomic and molecular vibrations and forces, that frame, contextualize, and merge with and alongside of other things.

The thing is the transmutation, the conversion of two into one: the conversion of the previous thing, plus the energy invested in the process of its production as a different thing, a unity or a one. The making of the thing, the thing in the process of its production as a thing, is that immeasurable process that the thing must belie and disavow to be a thing. Both James and Bergson agree that, in a certain sense, although the world exists independent of us, although there is a real which remains even when the human disappears, things as such do not exist in the real. The thing is a certain carving out of the real, the (artificial or arbitrary) division of the real into entities, bounded and contained systems, nominal or usable units, that exist within the real only as open systems.

The thing is what we make of the world rather than simply what we find in the world, the way we are able to manage and regulate it according to our needs and purposes. It is an outlined imposition we make on specific regions of the world so that these regions become comprehensible and facilitate our purposes and projects, even while limiting and localizing them. Things are our way of dealing with a world in which we are enmeshed rather than over which we have dominion. The thing is the compromise between the world as it is in its teaming and interminable multiplicity—a flux as James calls it, an undivided continuum in Lacan’s conceptualization, or waves of interpenetrating vibrations, in Bergson’s understanding—and the world as we need it to be or would like it to be—open, amenable to intention and purpose, flexible, pliable, manipulable, passive, a compromise between mind and matter, the point of their crossing one into the other. It is our way of dealing with the plethora of sensations, vibrations, movements, and intensities that constitute both our world and ourselves, a practical exigency, indeed per- haps only one mode, not a necessary condition, of our acting in the world. Just as Kant imposed space and time as a priori intuitions, which we have no choice but to invoke and utilize, so too we must regard objects, distinguished from other objects and from a background, as necessary if limited conditions under which we act in the world. As Bergson makes clear in his conversions of Kantianism into an ontology of becoming, time is not in us, for we are in time, it is our limit and our condition for action. Space, time, and things are conceptually connected: space and time are understood to frame and contextualize the thing, they serve as its background, and they are, as it were, deposited by or inhere in things and processes: ‘‘Cosmic space and cosmic time, so far from being the intuitions that Kant said they were, are constructions as patently artificial as any that science can show. The great majority of the human race never use these notions, but live in the plural times and spaces’’ (James 1970, 118).

Bergson elaborates and develops James’s position: the world as it is in its swarming complexity cannot be an object of intelligence, for it is the function of intelligence to facilitate action, practice—distancing himself, along with James, from the Kantian concept of a temporality and spatiality internal to the order of reason. The possibility of action entails that objects and their relations must remain as simplified as possible, as coagulated, unified, and massive as they can be so their contours or outlines, their surfaces most readily promote indeterminate action. We cannot but reduce this multiplicity to the order of things and states if we are to act upon and with them in any way, and if we are to live among things and use them for our purposes. Our intellectual and perceptual faculties function most ably when dealing with solids, with states, with things, though we find ourselves at home most readily, unconsciously or intuitively, with processes and movements, modes of variation, or flux:

Reality is mobile. There do not exist things made, but only things in the making, not states that remain fixed, but only states in process of change. Rest is never anything but apparent, or rather, relative. . . . All reality is, therefore, tendency, if we agree to call tendency a nascent change of direction.
Our mind, which seeks solid bases of operation, has as its principal function, in the ordinary course of life, to imagine states and things. Now and then it takes quasi-instantaneous views of the undivided mobility of the real. It thus obtains sensations and ideas. By that means it substitutes fixed points which mark a direction of change and tendency. This substitution is necessary to common sense, to language, to practical life, and even . . . to positive science. Our intelligence, when it follows its natural inclination, proceeds by solid perceptions on the one hand, and by stable conceptions on the other.

(Bergson 1992, 223; emphasis in the original)

We stabilize masses, particles large and small, out of vibrations, waves, intensities, so we can act upon and within them, rendering the mobile and the multiple provisionally unified and singular, framing the real through things as objects for us. We actively produce, make, objects in the world and in doing so we make the world amenable to our actions, but also render ourselves vulnerable to their reactions. This active making is part of our engagement in the world, the directive force of our perceptual and motor relations within the world. Our perception carves up the world, and divides it into things. These things themselves are divisible, amenable to calculation and further subdivision. They are the result of a subtraction: perception, intellectual cognition, and action reduce and refine the object, highlighting and isolating that which in it is of interest or of potential relevance to our future action. The object is that cutting of the world that enables me to see how it meets my needs and interests: ‘‘The objects which surround my body reflect its possible action upon them’’ (Bergson 1988, 21).

The separation between a thing and its environment cannot be absolutely definite and clear-cut; there is a passage by insensible gradations from the one to the other: the close solidarity which binds all the objects of the ma- terial universe, the perpetuality of their reciprocal actions and reactions, is sufficient to prove that they have not the precise limits which we attribute to them. Our perception outlines, so to speak, the form of their nucleus; it terminates them at the point where our possible action upon them ceases, where, consequently, they cease to interest our needs. Such is the primary and the most apparent operation of the perceiving mind: it marks out divi- sions in the continuity of the extended, simply following the suggestions of our requirements and the needs of practical life. (1988, 209–210)

This cutting of the world, this whittling down of the plethora of the world’s interpenetrating qualities—those ‘‘pervading concrete extensity, modifications, perturbations, changes of tension or of energy and nothing else’’ (1988, 201)—into objects amenable to our action is fundamentally a constructive process: we make or fabricate the world of objects as an activity we undertake by living with and assimilating objects. We make objects in order to live in the world. Or, in another, Nietzschean sense, we must live in the world artistically, not as homo sapiens but as homo faber:

Let us start, then, from action, and lay down that the intellect aims, first of all, at constructing. This fabrication is exercised exclusively on inert mat- ter, in this sense, that even if it makes use of organized material, it treats it as inert, without troubling about the life which animated it. And of inert matter itself, fabrication deals only with the solid; the rest escapes by its very fluidity. If, therefore, the tendency of the intellect is to fabricate, we may expect to find that whatever is fluid in the real will escape it in part, and whatever is life in the living will escape it altogether. Our intelligence, as it leaves the hands of nature, has for its chief object the unorganized solid.
(Bergson 1944, 153)

We cannot help but view the world in terms of solids, as things. But we leave behind something untapped of the fluidity of the world, the movements, vibrations, transformations that occur below the threshold of perception and calculation and outside the relevance of our practical concerns. Bergson suggests that we have other access to this rich profusion of vibrations that underlie the solidity of things. He describes these nonintellectual, or extraintellectual impulses as instincts and intuitions, and while they are no more able to perceive the plethora of vibrations and processes that constitute the real, they are able to discern the interconnections rather than the separations between things, to develop another perspective or interest in the division and production of the real. Intuition is our nonpragmatic, non-effective, nonexpedient, noninstrumental relation to the world, the capacity we have to live in the world in excess of our needs, and in excess of the self-presentation or immanence of materiality, to collapse ourselves, as things, back into the world. Our ‘‘artisticness,’’ as Nietzsche puts it, our creativity, in Bergsonian terms, consists in nothing else than the continuous experimentation with the world of things to produce new things from the fluidity or flux which eludes everyday need, or use-value.

Technology, as material invention, is clearly one of the realm of ‘‘things’’ produced by and as the result of the provocation of things-as-the-world. While things produce and are what is produced by the activities of life, things themselves are the object and project not only of the living but also of the technological. Technology is metaproduction: the production of things to produce things, a second-order production. Technology is in a sense the inevitable result of the encounter between life and matter, life and things, the consequence of the living’s capacity to utilize the nonliving (and the living) prosthetically. There has been technology for as long as there has been the human: the primates’ capacity for the use of found objects prefigures both the human and the technological. From the moment in which the human appears as such, it appears alongside of both artifacts and technologies, poesis and techné, which are the human’s modes of evolutionary fitness, the compensations for its relative bodily vulnerability. According to Bergson, it is the propensity of instinct (in animals) and intelligence (in higher primates and man) to direct themselves to things, and thus to the making of things; and for Bergson, it is the status and nature of the instruments to which life is directed that distinguish the instincts from intelligence, yet connect them in a developmental continuum, with intelligence functioning as an elaboration and deviation of instinct.

Instinct perfected is a faculty of using and even of constructing organizing instruments; intelligence perfected the faculty of making and using unorganized instruments.
The advantages and drawbacks of these two modes of activity are obvious. Instinct finds the appropriate instrument at hand: this instrument, which makes and repairs itself, which presents, like all the works of nature, an infinite complexity of detail combined with a marvelous simplicity of function, does at once, when required, what it is called upon to do, without difficulty and with a perfection that is often wonderful. In return, it retains an almost invariable structure, since a modification of it involves a modification of the species. . . . The instrument constructed intelligently, on the contrary, is an imperfect instrument. It costs an effort. It is generally troublesome to handle. But, as it is made of unorganized matter, it can take any form whatsoever, serve any purpose, free the living being from every new difficulty that arises and bestow on it an unlimited number of powers. Whilst it is inferior to the natural instrument for the satisfaction of immediate wants, its advantage over it is greater, the less urgent the need. Above all, it reacts on the nature of the being that constructs it; for in calling on him to exercise a new function, it confers on him, so to speak, a richer organization, being an artificial organ by which the natural organism is extended. For every need that it satisfies, it creates a new need; and so, instead of closing, like instinct, the round of action within which the animal tends to move automatically, it lays open to activity an unlimited field into which it is driven further and further, and made more and more free.
(1944, 140–141)

Bergson suggests that instinct finds a kind of technology ready at hand in the body and its organs, in found objects whose use is instinctively dictated, and in the differential dispersal of instinctual capacities in highly stratified social animals, as many insects are. Intelligence, on the other hand, invents, makes technology, but also diverts natural objects into technological products through their unexpected and innovative use.

Animals invent. They have instruments, which include their own body parts, as well as external objects. Humans produce technologies, and especially instruments that are detached and different from their own bodies, instruments which the body must learn to accommodate, instruments which transform both the thingness of things, and the body itself:

Invention becomes complete when it is materialized in a manufactured instrument. Towards that achievement the intelligence of animals tends as towards an ideal. . . . As regards human intelligence, it has not been sufficiently noted that mechanical invention has been from the first its essential feature, that even today our social life gravitates around the manufacture and use of artificial instruments, that the inventions which strew the road of progress have also traced its direction. . . . In short, intelligence, considered in what seems to be its original feature, is the faculty of manufacturing artificial objects, especially tools to make tools, and of indefinitely varying the manufacture.
(Bergson 1944, 138–139)

Technologies involve the invention of things that make things, second- order things. It is not that technologies mediate between the human and the natural—for that is to construe technology as somehow outside either the natural or the human (which today is precisely its misrepresented place) instead of seeing it as the indefinite extension of both the human and the natural and their point of overlap, the point of the conversion of the one into the other, the tendency of nature to culture, and the cleaving of culture to the stuff of nature. Rather, the technological is the cultural construction of the thing that controls and regulates other things, the correlate of the natural thing.

As Bergson acknowledges, technological invention, while clumsy and cumbersome relative to the instrumentality our bodies provide us, does not succumb to a preexistent function. While technology is in a sense made by us and for our purposes, it also performs a transformation on us: it increasingly facilitates not so much better action, but wider possibilities of acting, more action. (It is certainly not clear that the human, with technology, is any better prepared for the task of survival than the insect with its instinctual attunements to its environment.) Technology is the great aid to action, for it facilitates, requires, and generates intelligence, which in turn radically multiplies our possibilities of action, our instrumental and practical rela- tion with the world: ‘‘The essential function of intelligence is . . . to see the way out of a difficulty in any circumstances whatever, to find what is most suitable, what answers best the question asked. Hence it bears essentially on the relations between a given situation and the means of utilizing it’’ (1944, 150–151).

In an extraordinary passage, Bergson claims that the intellect transforms matter into things, which render them as prostheses, artificial organs, and in a surprising reversal, at the same time, it humanizes or orders nature, appends itself as a kind of prosthesis to inorganic matter itself, to function as its rational supplement, its conscious rendering. Matter and life become reflections, through the ordering the intellect makes of the world. Things become the measure of life’s action upon them, things become ‘‘standing reserve,’’ life itself becomes extended through things:

All the elementary forces of the intellect tend to transform matter into an instrument of action, that is, in the etymological sense of the word, into an organ. Life, not content with producing organisms, would fain give them as an appendage inorganic matter itself, converted into an immense organ by the industry of the living being. Such is the initial task it assigns to intelligence. That is why the intellect always behaves as if it were fascinated by the contemplation of inert matter. It is life looking outward, adopting the ways of unorganized nature in principle, in order to direct them in fact. (1944, 161)

Inorganic matter, transformed into an immense organ, a prosthesis, is perhaps the primordial or elementary definition of architecture itself, which is, in a sense, both the first prosthesis—the first instrumental use of intelligence to meld the world into things, and through a certain primitive technicity, to produce those things that may alleviate even as they produce the needs of the living—and the first art form, the most primitive and elementary form of framing, which may, following Deleuze and Guattari (in What Is Philosophy?), be understood as a primary deterritorialization of the earth and its intensities, a primitive and provisional creation of a plane of consistency from the chaos of the natural forces of the earth. The inorganic becomes the mirror for the possible action of the living, the armature and architecture necessary for the survival and evolution of the living. Making, acting, functioning in the world, making oneself as one makes things— all these processes rely on and produce things as the correlate of intellect, and leave behind the multiple, ramifying interconnections of the real out of which they were drawn and of which they are simplifications and schematizations.

What is left out in this process of making/reflecting is all that is in matter, all that is outside the thing and outside technology: the flux of the real (Berg- son 1944, 250), duration, vibration, radiance, contractions and dilations, the multiplicity of the real, all that is not contained by the thing or by intellectual categories. What is left out of the world of things is the pure difference out of which they are cut. The uncontained, the outside of matter, of things, that which is not pragmatically available for use, is the object of different actions than that of intelligence and the technological. This outside, though, is not noumenal, outside all possible experience, but phenomenal, contained within it. It is simply that which is beyond the calculable, the framed, or contained. It is the outside that the arts, the sciences, and philosophy each require but cannot claim as their own, and which contaminates each with the concerns of the others. Bergson understands this outside in a number of ways: as the real in its totality, as mobility, as movement, flux, duration, the virtual, the continuity which places the human within and as the material. It is the making of things, and that from which things are made, rather than the things themselves that are now in question. It is this which the rigorous process of intuition draws us toward, not things themselves so much as the teaming, suffuse network within which things are formed and outlined.

This teaming flux of the real, ‘‘that continuity of becoming which is reality itself ’’ (1988, 139), the integration and unification of the most minute relations of matter so that they exist only by touching and interpenetrating, the flow and mutual investment of material relations into each other must be symbolized, reduced to states, things, and numeration in order to facilitate practical action. This is not an error that we commit, a fault to be unlearned, but a condition of our continuing survival in the world. We could not func- tion within this teaming multiplicity without some ability to skeletalize it, to diagram or simplify it. Yet this reduction and division occurs only at a cost, which is the failure or inability of our scientific, representational, and linguistic systems to acknowledge the in-between of things, the plural inter-connections that cannot be utilized or contained within and by things but which makes them possible. Things are solids, more and more minute in their constitution, as physics itself elaborates more and more minute fundamental particles. ‘‘Our intelligence is the prolongation of our senses. Before we speculate we must live, and life demands that we make use of matter, either with our organs, which are natural tools, or with tools, properly so-called, which are artificial organs. Long before there was a philosophy and a science, the role of intelligence was already that of manufacturing instruments and guiding the actions of our body on surrounding bodies. Science has pushed this labor of intelligence much further, but has not changed its direction. It aims above all at making us masters of matter’’ (Bergson 1944, 43).

While the intellect masters what we need from the world for our pur- poses, it is fundamentally incapable of understanding what in the world, in objects and in us, is fluid, innumerable, outside calculation. The limit of the intellect is the limit of the technical and the technological. The intellect functions to dissect, divide, atomize: contemporary binarization and digitalization are simply the current versions of this tendency to the clear-cut, the unambiguous, the oppositional or binary impulses of the intellect, which are bound by the impetus to (eventual or possible) actions. The technological, including and especially contemporary digital technologies, carries within it both the intellectual impulse to the division of relations into solids and entities, objects or things, ones and zeros, and the living impulse to render the world practically amenable. Digitization translates, retranscribes, and circumscribes the fluidity and flux by decomposing the analogue or the continuous into elements, packages, or units, represented by the binary code, and then recomposing them through addition: analysis then synthesis. But these activities of recomposition lose something in the process. The sweep and spontaneity of the curve, represented only through the aid of smaller and smaller grids, or the musical performance represented only through the discrete elements of the score, represent a diminution of the fullness of the real performance; the analogue continuum is broken down and simplified in digitization. What is lost in the process of digitization, in the scientific push to analysis or decomposition, is precisely the continuity, the force that binds together the real as complexity and entwinement:

Suppose our eyes [were] made [so] that they cannot help seeing in the work of the master [painter] a mosaic effect. Or suppose our intellect so made that it cannot explain the appearance of the figure on the canvas except as a work of mosaic. We should then be able to speak simply of a collection of little squares. . . . [I]n neither case should we have got at the real process, for there are no squares brought together. It is the picture, i.e. the simple act, projected on the canvas, which, by the mere fact of entering our perception, is decomposed before our eyes into thousands and thousands of little squares which present, as recomposed, a wonderful arrangement. (Bergson 1944, 90)

This is a prescient image of digitization: the recomposition of the whole through its decomposition into pixel-like units, the one serving as the representation of the other. The curve, the continuous stroke, the single movement of an arm is certainly able to be decomposed into as many stops, straight lines, or breaks as one chooses, but the reconstitution of these stops in a continuity always falls short of the cohesion and singularity of movement: ‘‘A very small element of a curve is very near being a straight line. And the smaller it is, the nearer. In the limit, it may be termed a part of the curve or a part of the straight line, as you please, for in each of its points a curve coincides with its tangent’’ (1944, 32).

Something of the curve or movement is lost when it is recomposed of its linear elements or grids, when the parts are added together—the simplicity and unity, the nondecomposable quality disappears to be replaced by immense complexity, that is, the duration of the movement disappears into its reconfiguration as measurable and mappable space, object, or movement. Yet that which disappears in the schematization and rendering of matter, as pragmatically available through scientific and technological elaboration, is precisely what can reemerge through the use of scientific information and technological invention for artistic creation, in its nonexpedient, nonpragmatic immersion in the qualities, processes, and intensities that the sciences and their technological achievements leave out.

The thing and the body are correlates: both are artificial or conventional, pragmatic conceptions, cuttings, disconnections, that create a unity, continuity, and cohesion out of the plethora of interconnections that constitute the world. They mirror each other: the stability of one, the thing, is the guarantee of the stability and ongoing existence or viability of the other, the body. The thing is ‘‘made’’ for the body, made as manipulable for the body’s needs. And the body is conceived on the model of the thing, equally knowable and manipulable by another body. This chain of connections is mutually confirming. The thing is the life of the body, and the body is that which unexpectedly occurs to things. Technology is that which ensures and continually refines the ongoing negotiations between bodies and things, the deepening investment of the one, the body, in the other, the thing.

Technology is not the supersession of the thing, but its ever more entrenched functioning. The thing pervades technology, which is its extension, as well as extends the human into the material. The task before us is not so much to make things, and resolve relations into things, more and more minutely framed and microscopically understood; rather, it may be to liberate matter from the constraint, the practicality, the utility of the thing, to orient technology not so much to knowing and mediating as to experience and the rich indeterminacy of duration, to a making without definitive end or goal. Instead of understanding the thing and the technologies it induces through intellect, perhaps we can also develop an acquaintance with things through intuition, that Bergsonian internal, intimate apprehension of the unique particularity of things, their constitutive interconnections, and the time within which things exist. Perhaps it is art itself, all of the arts, that provide the social and individual impetus for the production and absorp- tion of intensities, durations, flux, and vibration, the place where intuition, instead of constraining itself to language, can experiment in expression.

The issue is not, of course, to abandon or even necessarily to criticize the sciences, technologies, or our preoccupation with the pragmatics of the thing, but rather, with Bergson, to understand both their limits and their residues, with what they have been so far incapable of dealing. Perception, intellection, the thing, and the technologies they spawn proceed along the lines of practical action, and these require a certain primacy in day-to-day life. But they leave something out, the untapped, nonpractical, nonuseful, nonhuman, or extrahuman continuity that is the object of intuition, of empirical attunement without means or ends.

One of the questions ahead of us now is this: what are the conditions of digitization and binarization? Can we produce technologies of other kinds? Is technology inherently simplification and reduction of the real? What in us is being extended and prosthetically rendered in technological development? Can other vectors be extended instead? What might a technology of processes, of intuition, rather than things and practices, look like? What might technologies that revel in their artistic capabilities rather than in their harnessable consequences look like? And what might it be like to invent machines, things, objects, not for what we can do with them, but for the ways in which they transform us, beyond even our own control?