Tool-Being-toward-Death: OOO’s misreading of Heidegger

One way to understand the OOO project is to say that other entities are more Dasein-like than we might have expected. They too disclose each other’s possibilities, even when Dasein isn’t there to intermediate the encounter. The notion that objects “withdraw” would then be parallel to Dasein’s Being-toward-death, its ownmost, non-relational (individuating) possibility of Being.

Unfortunately, this is the point where a major confusion seems to enter the picture. Heidegger’s “individuation” of Dasein through its authentic comportment of anticipatory resoluteness isn’t a “withdrawal” of Dasein into some inner kernel of Being. Anxiety, for instance, does not reveal to us the unmediated self, but reveals precisely the structure of “Being-in-the-world,” shorn of all concrete content. Dasein’s authentic individuation is not a state in which Dasein can “dwell,” but simply takes Dasein back to its readiness for relation so that it can enter into the possibilities and relations of its world in a new way. Indeed, there is no possibility of separating the withdrawal from the reentry — Heidegger is at pains to emphasize that Dasein never gets to pause, that it “has to be its own being.”

The trick here is that Dasein’s “ownmost possibility” is precisely the possibility of its own impossibility. Once that possibility is actualized, once Dasein has really and truly “withdrawn” from its relations — then there is no more Dasein. This is the foundation of Dasein’s special relationship to possibility (as opposed to the greater emphasis on actuality in non-Dasein entities, at least non-living ones): it has a possibility that, as Dasein’s, can only ever be a possibility. In fact, I read Heidegger’s discussion of Being-toward-Death not as an ethical handbook, but as an attempt to get at the problem of possibility as such, totally apart from any possible actualization.

If we’re to maintain the parallel with Dasein, then we have to say that objects do “withdraw” — but this can only mean that objects can be destroyed. Once an object has been so thoroughly changed that it bears no intelligible relationship with the things that previously defined it as that object, it no longer is that object. Individuation, non-relationality, withdrawal — these are not words for persistence, but for vulnerability and finitude. Further continuing the parallel: finitude implies thrownness, implies that the object has at some point come into being, in a way that can’t be explained in terms of that object’s own being. But again, this cannot mean that objects are brute facts existing apart from any relationships. It means instead that objects are created by their relationships and are vulnerable to being destroyed by the withdrawal of those relationships.

The object’s Being would then have a broadly “Dasein-ly” shape, with the key difference being the relative priority of possibility and actuality — possibility is primary for Dasein (due to Dasein’s unique relationship to its death), whereas actuality is primary for non-living entities. Indeed, the language of “withdrawal” often seems to substitute for the language of possibility, as when we’re told that there’s no possibility of change if objects don’t “withdraw.” Yet we don’t need to posit some substantive kernel “behind” the object in order to have possibilities that are not currently actualized.

My stapler sits inert on my desk, for instance, but at a moment’s notice I could hurl it across the room. That “is” a possibility of the stapler’s existence (one that may well destroy it!), but it’s not as though it comes from some ontological reservoir of stapler-hood. It’s a possibility that emerges in relationship with my unique properties of having a bad temper and expressing it immaturely. If that’s too “correlationist,” we could also imagine a scenario where my stapler is left on the edge of a cliff, is blown by the wind, and winds up starting an avalanche. Again, it makes no sense to think of the stapler’s possibility of starting an avalanche as coming from “within” the stapler’s reservoir of withdrawn being.

Hence I propose that OOO makes a wrong turn in its initially interesting extension of Heidegger’s system to explore the being of non-living entities, and this causes it to adopt a fundamentally anti-Heidggerian position that is incurious about the origin (thrownness) or destruction (Being-toward-“death” of the object) of the objects of its investigation — that is, that fails to understand the being of objects within the horizon of time. Their anxiety to avoid Heidegger’s “correlationism” leads them to skip past the “things themselves” (actual objects in their relationships to each other and to Dasein’s world) to a timeless metaphysical entity to which we can never have access. And here there’s a grain of truth to their position: we really can’t have access to the substance “behind” the object because there is no such substance. There are only the relationships that bring the object into being, determine its possibilities, and eventually withdraw from the object. The withdrawn object doesn’t exist, because once the object has withdrawn from its relationships, it is no more.

13 thoughts on “Tool-Being-toward-Death: OOO’s misreading of Heidegger

  1. I suppose then it reads Heidegger through Aristotle rather than vice versa. Aristotle’s substance is ultimately the preferred side of the equation even if Heidegger gets talked about much more.

  2. It’s funny that the OOO refusal to talk about the origins of objects leads them to in effect make being the referent of a noun phrase into the defining criterion of objecthood. (Harman at one point says that Leibniz’s examples of two diamonds glued together or a circle of men holding hands are in fact objects.) OOO was supposed to lead us out of the obsession with language in post-everything Derrida-Wittgenstein conversational philosophy, but it ends up basically ignoring all the work that 20th-century philosophers put into showing us how misleading subject-predicate grammar is, and going back to (as Phillip notes above) a quasi-Aristotelean notion of substances that is clearly just copied from the grammatical subject.

  3. ” It means instead that objects are created by their relationships and are vulnerable to being destroyed by the withdrawal of those relationships.”

    To play devil’s advocate for a second, just for fun, it seems to me that part of the function of withdrawl is not only to acknowledge what you’ve suggested above (to concede to this Heideggerian point). More, it is indeed to move beyond Heidegger by suggesting that in addition to the possibility of being destroyable by the withdrawl of other relations, the object still has a certain kind of limited power to destroy those relationships itself. Those who do OOO place different kinds of stress on different kinds of relations. Relations certainly aren’t absent from this ontology. Who am I to say this (certainly not an Object Oriented Ontologist), but I don’t think OOO precludes an acknowledgement of the vulnerability and finitude of objects. It just resists conscripting objects to merely (nothing but) that vulnerability and finitude. The stapler is vulnerable to its relations, including its various relations with you. But the stapler’s relations (including its relations with you) are also vulnerable to its limited capacity to destroy those relations itself: to break, for instance. The object’s failure to be ready-to-hand is also a certain kind of capacity, on the part of the object, to destroy its relations (a capacity which is meaningful beyond its relations to you). Without having that limited capacity, where would the object get its potency and potentiality to maintain its possibility of Being?

    I have my own (mostly feminist) problems with withdrawl. I don’t, for instance, like the way that it sounds like a male-controlled contraceptive method. Given that resonance, I think the term itself is vulnerable to discursive over-deployment and an over-estimation of its limited powers and capacities. But one of the things I do appreciate about the concept is the way resists subjecting objects to a state or condition in which they are nothing but the vulnerable and finite side effects of all their relations.

  4. Beatrice, An object certainly isn’t just a passive victim of its relationships — those relationships do create “something.” But the object’s resistence isn’t so much withdrawal as self-assertion (as when the hammer forces itself upon Dasein’s attention in being broken). I think Heidegger’s analysis of the “obtrusive” or “obstinate” object is a great way to get at the quasi-agency of inanimate objects. But again, that’s not something “withdrawn,” it’s something that’s all too “front and center.”

  5. I think we’re in agreement that withdrawl is an unhelpful term or category. I think, certainly, the object’s capacity to self-assert (or, simply, the object’s capacity to assert, react, resist, destroy… if we want to avoid posing a self for the object) is a more helpful way of getting at what I’m trying to emphasize. But I think the endless contest between objects and relations – a battle of titans where one feels obligated to choose one side or the other – risks emphasizing the power and priority of relations to such an extent that the entities comprised through their relations do start to look like the passive victim of some kind of sum total of relations. I think Harman’s claim that it’s objects all the way down is problematic. But I also think the counter-point, that it’s relations all the way down is equally problematic. I resist that binary. Harman talks about the “wheel of objects and relations”, which I think is more interesting (I write about that more, here, where I’m trying to think about objects as relations and relations as objects: But Harman, lamentably, doesn’t seem nearly so interested in that concept as he is in withdrawl. Ultimately, as a feminist who works with a feminist who does relational theology, I’ve been attuned to critiques of relationality in the wake of these correlationist accusations. This isn’t so that I can advocate for the demise of relational thinking. On the contrary, I’m interested in how these critiques can help to make relational thinking, and relational ontologies more precise, or nuanced.

  6. I’ll admit that I’ve come down with a bad case of Heidegger Stockholm Syndrome as I near the completion of a semester of painstakingly working through Being and Time with my students and reading it in German — but… I think this is also a place where Heidegger can be helpful in his anti-reductionism. He does insist that the object that has “congealed” out of the relationships really does exist. The way I often put it in class is that the table isn’t “really” a collection of atoms, or “really” wood and nails, etc. — it really is a table. I’ll also admit, though, that my position isn’t nearly as “robust” as it could be.

  7. Very interesting comment, Adam. 1) I would also be interested in learning what OOO has to say about Heidegger’s Mitsein. True, it’s a very short segment of Being and Time (Division I, Part IV, §26), and my reading of it is very much influenced by my reading of Jean-Luc Nancy’s work. It is his interpretation that Mitsein comes first. Coexistence before existence (through decision). 2) I also wonder if “correlationism” is directed at relations in general, or if it is more specifically a way to oppose anthropocentric relations, where everyone and everything always has to relate to a human agent or perspective. Maybe it could explain why OOO is so interested in Latour and his post-human networks. 3) Regarding specifically your comment, how could one think of Entscheidung (decision) in regard to objects? Is it possible to talk about decision when it come to a staple, or is it exclusive to Dasein?

  8. 1. I am also influenced by Nancy’s reading. I doubt they have much to say about Mitsein given their non-anthropocentric approach.

    2. The focus seems to be on human relations, but the overall effect seems to be to downplay extra-human relationality as well.

    3. I think that’s probably just one area where Dasein is “special” compared to other entities.

Comments are closed.