thing theory (2008)

anth g6085

the artifact:

the thing that stands before

glenda chao (columbia university)

For the most part, when we talk about things, we are talking about the things the surround us in our everyday lives. A key, a tent, a basket, a picture, all these objects are things that make up the material world in which we live and with whom we interact. However, they are also objects of a modern world and as such, are often taken for granted, overlooked, and ignored as things that interact with us every bit as much as we interact with them. There are objects in our modern world, however, that do not fit this protocol; that do not fade into the background and instead, stand out and demand attention. These objects are artifacts, objects from the past that people do not encounter or interact with on a daily basis; at least not anymore. But then, what are they, these things from the past? What are we, as modern humans, to make of them?

To begin, let us think of artifacts in the modern world as “things that stand before.” According to Martin Heidegger, “an[y] independent, self-supporting thing may become an object if we place it before us, whether in immediate perception or by bringing it to mind in a recollective re-presentation.”[1] That is to say, that an object stands before us because it has been made to do so. Thus, despite the fact that today, the term “artifact” can denote things ranging from movable objects like pottery and stone tools, to immovable features such as stone steles, buildings, walls, and quarries, if we understand that in the tradition of Heidegger, an artifact “is an object which a process of making has set up before and against us,”[2] than the delineation between movable artifacts and immovable archaeological features becomes unimportant. For our study then, an artifact is not an object of any specific size, shape, color, texture, or composition. Rather, it is an object that, by virtue of having been made by peoples and processes utterly unfamiliar to modern humans, seems to appear before us as an alien, and tempts us to ask ourselves the very question of “what is it?”

To be sure the artifact as a thing that stands before us has only come to be so because it has been unearthed from somewhere, brought from somewhere, discovered from somewhere, and thrust into our modern consciousness. As such, their appearance into the modern “collective,” as Bruno Latour would put it, creates unique situations in which people interact and enter into relationships with them in many different ways. What this means is that whether it be in the moment an archaeologist pulls the artifact from ground, or the moment when a museum-goer sees it in a display case at MET; in that instant, two things that have never encountered one another before (in this case modern humans and ancient artifact/objects) are suddenly put into a position where a relation can be formed between them. It is the formation of this relation, the instant where it might occur, that the object begins to tempt us with its mystery and its seemingly unknowable depth.

What happens then, in the moment when we perceive this mysterious and seemingly unknowable artifact? One of the most immediate and obvious relations that modern humans may have with artifacts is of fetishization, wherein the artifact, because of its strangeness, foreignness, or otherness, is regarded and worshipped in a quasi-sacred fashion. Fetishization, of artifacts in particular, was born from the tradition of imperialism and the Grand Tour era (ca. late 1600s – late 1800s), when wealthy Westerners (Western Europeans and Americans later on) could travel to countries like Africa, India, China, and even Italy and Greece, and bring back objects, knick-knacks, and general paraphernalia of exotic or ancient origin. These “curiosities” were, according to Patricia Spyer, “physical reminder[s] of a border crossing [that] increasingly came to stand in the eyes of the Europeans – as evidenced by mercantilist denunciations of the time – …for a denial of the proper boundaries between things and the distinctions these are held to delineate.”[3] For imperial era Europeans then, the “curiosity” was a thing from afar, an object that people had very little prior knowledge about that was brought back from distant shores, devoid of all cultural context, and placed before them as a thing to look at, admire, learn from, and to value. In this way, the displacement of objects during this era “demarcate[d] a ‘space of cultural revolution,’ or one that invite[d] comparison between distinct social orders, possibilities, and schemes and that, in so doing, also open[ed] up the possibility for cultural criticism.”[4] In this way, the insertion of “curiosities” into the private and public spaces of Western society awakened in Western people what Christopher Pinney calls “the human sensorium.”[5] The introduction of a new object into a new space changed the object’s meaning for those who perceived it, and made the object do “different work;” thus, fetishization was facilitated.   In addition, the displaced object, whose original meaning was lost during its relocation, was opened up for new interpretation.

The similarities between “objects from afar” in the 17th to 19th centuries and “objects from the past” today are more than coincidental. In both situations, an object of which very little is known suddenly becomes a part of our peripheral vision, enticing us with its foreignness to try and learn more about it. Thus, like the “curiosity,” the artifact stands before us as an object easily made into a fetish. What is being fetishized, in one sense, is the artifact itself; in another sense, however, it is the past itself that is the true fetish object. For just like with “curiosity” objects of the Age of Imperialism, the artifact gives us a glimpse of another culture, of a culture that is “other” than our own. The only difference here is that this “other” culture is separated from us in both space and time. Part of the artifact’s mystery, its secretiveness, is bound up in the fact that is not from our time; the temporal divide shrouds the artifact in a confusing jumble of possibilities and paths of interpretation, any of which, if investigated, may tell us more about it.

The past, however, is only accessible through the artifact; without the artifact standing before us, the “other” would be utterly invisible. This leads us into problematic territory; specifically that in the instant we try to probe the depths of the artifact, to learn more about it, whether by studying it as archaeologists do, or simply by reading its accompanying plaque like museum-goers do, we come across a barrier that does not allow us to know everything about the object. We might learn, for instance, that the rough texture upon the clay pot we are currently looking at was made by pressing woven hemp thread upon its wet surface. But what, ultimately, does this tell us? What kind of insight does the analysis of one artifact give us about the past as a whole? Or about the people who lived in it? We come to a realization in this moment, just how much we will never know about either the object standing before us, or about the past that seems hidden behind its façade. To be sure, in most cases, people will simply read the accompanying plaque or listen to the tour guide’s description, nod at the glimpse of the past provided in those few moments, and leave it at that. What is important to understand, however, is that in the moment of realization, in the instant that we recognize all that we will never be able to extract from the artifact before us, we are encountering a black box.

The artifact, like many of the objects in our readings: the Berlin Key, the woven basket, the painted image, is a bundle of processes and relations that all contribute to it being here, in front of us, either in the archaeologists hand, or upon its pedestal or in its glass display case. Unfortunately, these bundled processes and relations are not readily accessible just by looking at (or indeed touching, turning, dissecting, etc…) the artifact. There is always something that the materiality of the artifact can never fully reveal to us about the artifact in itself. Thus, we end up asking ourselves, after Bruno Latour, how far back in time and away in space should we retrace our steps to follow all those silent entities (processes and relations) that contribute to the artifact’s standing before us?[6] Methods that archaeologists have traditionally relied on to study artifacts, which go beyond simply looking at them, include: studying their archaeological context (if the object is found in the field, during excavation); studying how they were made, whether they were constructed through flintknapping, carving, molding, casting, weaving, etc…; we can find out how much labor was put into creating them, for instance, casting a 30 kg bronze vessel requires considerably more time and effort than knapping a stone hand axe; we can also submit these artifacts, or traces of them, to various laboratory analyses in order to determine their exact chemical compositions. All of these techniques indeed tell us something more about the artifact we are currently looking at, something about it secretive inner life about how it came about, came to be here, and, as all archaeologists hope, how the people who created it may have lived. In most cases, the information gleaned by conducting these examinations will appear on the accompanying plaque for museum-goers to peruse at their leisure. And yet, it never seems to be enough. We are never truly able to grasp all of the processes, techniques, and efforts bundled within this artifact or any of its brethren. As Latour puts it, “most of these entities now sit in silence, as if they did not exist, invisible, transparent, mute, bringing to the present scene their force and their action from who knows how many millions of years past.”[7]

It seems apparent, now, that what we have is a divide between the past and the present, and artifacts occupy the ambiguous territory between the two. According to Latour, artifacts are “always parts of institutions, trembling in their mixed status as mediators, mobilizing faraway lands and people, ready to become people or things, not knowing if they are composed of one or many, of a black box counting for one of a labyrinth concealing multitudes.”[8] The black boxed artifact, with all of its equally black boxed relations stands before us, enticing us to try and penetrate its mysteries, to discover what we can about the past that seems to be locked away behind its exterior and hidden amidst the layers of its materiality; and the more we try to learn about it, the more we try to glimpse the past by examining it, the more the past, the real past, seems to recede form us.  How are we to deal with this situation? What are left with?

The artifact as it stands before us does so as a gateway to knowledge about the past. It is a gateway, however, that is boarded up and there is no way to know whether what lies on the other side even exists. Regardless of how difficult it may be to interpret the past from artifacts, the task is made even more difficult by virtue of the interpretations we make being our interpretations. That is to say, there is no way to be certain whether the way we, as modern humans, interpret the past through artifacts is in any way accurate or sincere to what actually happened. This is because, as Maurice Bloch argues, there is no method that can accurately determine if human cognitive systems are universal or relative, or whether society is the source of cognition at all;[9] the way we think of things, the way we conceive of time and space, may be entirely different from those who produced the artifact that we are currently interacting with. Thus, it is all the more obvious (and frustrating) that despite all we might want to know about the past through the artifacts it leaves behind, doing so to a perfect and complete degree will always be hampered by this kind of uncertainty. It is clear, then, that we cannot encounter all, or every nuance of the past through our interactions with a single artifact, or indeed, even with a multiple number of artifacts (a whole assemblage, or even a whole site), what does that make our interaction with the artifact currently standing before us? What can we say about it other than it is, in many ways, a black boxed fetish?

I would like to propose that we think of the artifact as a sensual object. In my opinion, doing so allows us to think of the artifact as something different than either a black box or a fetish. Unfortunately, the artifact as a sensual object, or the sensual artifact as I will call it, will not bring us any closer to understanding the past as it actually happened; it might, however, provide us with another way to think not just about our relations with artifact, but the artifact’s relation with the past. Let me begin, first with Graham Harman’s idea of causation, or vicarious causation in his words. In terms of human relations with objects, Harman believes that “real objects have to become sensual objects inside of a higher object in order to make contact (with us) in the first place…the parts or components of a relation cluster around the rim of the object [relation] and face down into its depths, as if circling a whirlpool filled with colorful flame.”[10] When I interact with an artifact during the experience of viewing it (and it viewing me), the artifact and I descend into a relation “in which [the artifact] shows flickering of its true colors just as I display my own facets to [it].”[11] Thus, the sensual artifact is created once the artifact and I enter into a mutually shared experience of viewing one another; this is the relation that we enter into, one in which as I gaze upon it, I want to learn more about it. It is within the tether of this sensual space between me and the artifact that we become sensual objects to each other, but who affect and perceive each other differently. Nonetheless, when we encounter a sensual artifact, we encounter it in its entirety. Harman uses the example of a horse and a mountain to illustrate this point; he says,

“The features (of the objects) are mostly unspoken and unarticulated, but they are there anyway – the mountain-object may contain a foreboding sense of mystery and a suggested whiff of cold thin air, just as the horse-object may entail a facility for being ridden or brushed or treated to sugar cubes. All of these complicated features are combined into the horse (or mountain), instantaneously and in a single stroke, as soon as we sincerely recognize the horse (or mountain) as standing before us in some way. They are distinguished further into essential and accidental features, and we ourselves are the judges of this difference – essential features are simply those that cannot be removed without giving us the sense that we are in the presence of a different object that we had believed, whereas all shifting accidental features do not cause us to discard the belief that this horse (or mountain) is still before us. It is simply the sincerity of our judgment that decides whether we are really convinced that this is a horse or a cow. [Thus,] we encounter total sensual objects in a single stroke…”[12]

            This is not to say that what we are interacting with is a real object, is the artifact itself (or the horse itself, or the mountain itself). What is happening when the encounter the sensual artifact is that we are encountering all of the features and all of, what Harman calls, its “black noise” (essential notes like its parts, ambient objects like other artifacts in the room, and accidental features such as the display stand or tarp that it is sitting on) all at once. This is Harman’s idea of perception. We each perceive, or have a perception of, the artifact (and all of its “black noise”) in the moment that we enter into a relation with it. In this way, the artifact can mean different things to different people as we either learn more about them, or disregard them. A person’s perception of what an artifact is and what it means can be altered in the course of a day, and hour, or even in the time it takes for them to read its accompanying plaque and comes to understand where it was made, when it was made, and possibly, who might have made it. All the while, however, the reality of the past recedes from us.  Harman says that “when it comes to sensual objects, the ultimate arbiter of the difference between unfaltering substratum [the thing itself] and shifting surface qualities is simply the one who perceives and receives them.”[13] Thus, in regards to artifacts, our perceptions of the can change and our ideas of them change, and because of this, their sensual qualities can change. In our minds, an artifact can become an entirely different thing after we start to discover something about its past and the processes that brought it to stand before us. But, no matter how we think of it, its “substratum,” the underlying object itself, of which the artifact standing before us is only one manifestation, will never change and will never be fully revealed to us.

            What then, is this substratum? To answer this question, we must turn to the concept of allure. Harman describes two kinds of allure in his study. The first is fission, where an already existent object is split from its “notes,” or its qualities that we encounter. An example of this is when we discover some secret about a person who we thought we knew, and in the instant of discovering this secret, we realize that we did not know this person very well to begin with. In that moment, the person’s secret comes to the fore of our perception and everything else that we thought we knew of them, all of the person’s other qualities recede from us; the person himself (or herself) recedes and all we are left with is this one, possibly jarring, secret (note) about them that comes to redefine who this person is to us. The second type of allure that Harman discusses is that of fusion, wherein a previously nonexistent object is summoned into existence for the first time in the very moment when it is split from its notes. The best example of this second type is metaphor, which is aptly exemplified by Harman’s cypress-flame. What is important in these two types of allure is that when either of these two types of allure occur, it results in an the creation, or recognition, of,

“an underlying object that eludes us but whose parts are converted into the notes of the thing, notes which make no sense at all in isolation from that thing. In both cases, a bridge is extended toward another world that we cannot experience directly. What seemed to be merely independent sensual objects are now revealed as notes of a distant signaling pulsar – a real object that can never be perfectly translated into the terms of the world we currently inhabit.”[14]

The “otherworldly thing,” the “substratum” here is quite simply, the past. The past is the artifact itself. Or rather, the artifact itself is a note of the real past, which is essentially the same thing because according to Harman, notes and objects are inseparable. This substratum, the real past, however, is one that continually recedes from us, but which is nonetheless real; the note is the artifact, that is translated into a sensual artifact until, through the process of allure, we break it apart into a relation between a distant object (the past) and its free-floating notes (all artifacts, of which, the artifact standing before us is one).

Going back to our original premise: what is an artifact and what are we to make of it? We can now see, more clearly, the type of space that the artifact occupies along the divide between past and present. Moreover, we can discern two situations in which, barring the differences in perception between individual people, the meaning of the artifact is quite different, though no less sensual. It is clear that all artifacts are sensual objects. For the archaeologist, however, all relations with artifacts are relations of allure. Archaeologists enter into relationships with them by expending energy on them, through studying them, researching them, and trying to understand them.[15] In addition, we actively attempt to split the sensual artifact from its sensual notes, from its black noise (fission), until all that is left is the naked note of the real past; this happens as we analyze and research all the nuances of artifacts, from their chemical composition, to the way in which they were used in ancient times. After this is done, we try to draw connections between one naked note and all of its naked brethren (related within the context of the site we are working on) in an attempt to paint a picture of the object itself (the past) by fusing all of its notes together. In the end, however, if we know that the past itself recedes infinitely, and that all we have at our disposal are its sensual artifacts (notes clothed in black noise), isn’t the past that we fuse together a little bit too contingent upon the successful fission of these notes from their black noise, which we can never be sure is correct? Is not what we do then, fruitless? And where does that leave our museum-goer? In a way, museum-goers are receiving a glimpse of past fourth hand. At the very core, there is the real past, which is utterly unattainable since it constantly recedes from us and eludes complete understanding; the real past is surrounded and blocked from our view by it notes, or, the artifacts themselves, which are unattainable to a perfect or testable degree; layered upon that are the sensual artifacts, of whom nothing is really known until we try to split them from their black noise in order to get at the real artifacts lying underneath; and finally, there is the artifact standing before us, which is just a thing until we enter into a relationship with it.

It is this 4-tiered conclusion that Harman’s study has lead us to. True, an understanding of the artifact as a sensual object has not provided the world with the answer to the problem of how we can interpret the past in more accurate ways. It does, however, answer the question of what an artifact is, or, more precisely, what an artifact may be. Knowing this, we might be able to think of our interactions with artifacts as relations with sensual objects; the fact that the artifact itself, the past, is a continuously receding and eternally ungraspable “other,” should, in no way deter us from trying to understand as much as we can about it. In fact, knowing, in terms of Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy, what are artifact is for us today, a sensual object shrouding the real notes of the past, is actually furthering the agenda of archaeologists everywhere. That is, to do more archaeology; to find more sensual artifacts, to divorce them from their notes, and to fuse them together in more ways so as to construct a better, more accurate, and more “real” picture of the past, despite the fact that the real past might not be something we will every truly know.


Bloch, Maurice.  “The Past and the Present in the Present,” in Ritual, History and Power:  Selected Papers in Anthropology (London: The Athlone Press, Ltd., 1989), xii, 237.

Harman, Graham.  Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2005), vii, 283.

Heidegger, Martin.  “The Thing,” in Poetry, Language, and Thought (New York City: Harpar Colophon Books, 1975), 165-182.

Latour, Bruno.  “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans: Following Daedalus’ Labyrinth,” in Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 174-215.

Pinney, Christopher. “Piercing the Skin of the Idol,” in Beyond Aesthetics: Art and the Technologies of Enchantment, eds. Christopher Pinney and Nicholas Thomas (New York City: Berg, 2001), 157-179.

Spyer, Patricia.  “Introduction,” in Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces, ed. Patricia Spyer (New York City: Routledge, 1998), 1-11.



[1] Martin Heidegger, “The Thing,” Poetry, Language, and Thought (New York City: Harpar Colophon Books, 1975), pg. 167.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Patricia Spyer, “Introduction,” Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces, ed. Patricia Spyer (New York City: Routledge, 1998), 2.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Christopher Pinney, “Piercing the Skin of the Idol,” Beyond Aesthetics: Art and the Technologies of Enchantment, eds. Christopher Pinney and Nicholas Thomas (New York City: Berg, 2001), 161.

[6] Bruno Latour, “A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans: Following Daedalus’ Labyrinth,” Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 185.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 193.

[9] Maurice Bloch, “The Past and the Present in the Present,” Ritual, History and Power:  Selected Papers in Anthropology (London: The Athlone Press, Ltd., 1989), 12.

[10] Graham Harman, Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2005), 203.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 207.

[13] Ibid., 199.

[14] Ibid., 216.

[15] Harman says that “to expend energy on one thing instead of another is to enter into a relationship with it.” Ibid., 218.