A Few Thoughts on Things, Equipment, Technologies (With Heidegger)

I know it’s quiet around here. I’ve been on the road and catching up. It might ramp back up as I am now getting back into writing (which in my case always begets more writing).

I’m currently wrapping up the draft of my “Is Music a Thing” chapter and dealing with smart questions posed to me when I took the chapter on the road this winter. In the chapter, I talk a bit about Heidegger’s idea of the “thing” which I get to through Zoe Sofia’s analysis of container technologies (which has been a key part of my argument about mp3s from the start). When I delivered it as a talk at NYU, Sofia’s framing dropped out a bit, and so then a very challenging Heidegger question emerged from Martin Scherzinger (or maybe it was the next day when we met in person at Columbia): why focus on a jug as my example of a “thing” (Heidegger’s example in “the Thing” essay) instead of a hammer (his example in Being and Time)? Wouldn’t the hammer example be more instructive since in that section, he argues that things reveal their usability only when they break down? The answer I gave at the time was I had made a choice of expediency, since I was after the container technology metaphor, and that was the line of inquiry I wished to pursue. But in going back through the passage in Being and Time — a book I have looked at a big but never really properly worked through — it is clear that he’s on to something in his section on things that drops out in the later “The Thing” essay. There is a strikingly Bourdieuan passage (yes, intellectual historians, I know that’s backwards, like calling Nietzsche a Foucauldian, but work with me here) where he argues that things don’t reveal their capacities to users in any kind of formal way. One comes to know a thing only through use. Now, for Heidegger, the essence still resides in the thing, which is then “revealed” to the user, but it is an easy leap to someone like Sarah Ahmed (in Queer Phenomenology), who read it back in a less essentialist fashion–that the qualities “inherent” in the thing are relative to the user. A hammer may be too heavy for me, but not for you.

(Of course, when my desktop computer broke earlier this week, I did not feel like it was “revealing itself” to me. I felt like it was screwing me. Instead of trying to fix it, I decided to kludge together a setup with my laptop so that I could keep writing rather than blow a day or more on troubleshooting.)

Also, in this reading I am really struck by the frequency with which Heidegger users scarequotes in Being and Time. The scarequote is a constitutive feature of so-called postmodern academic writing, so without knowing a proper genealogy, I can only ask: is the contemporary abuse of the scarequote–an abuse that surrounds us and seems to know no bounds–his fault?