When Ideas Sing

"Tuning in" by mypixelreality. Creative Commons licence CC BY
“Tuning in” by mypixelreality. Creative Commons licence CC BY

But the good ways of reading today succeed in treating a book as you would treat a record you listen to, a film or TV programme you watch … There is no question of difficulty or understanding: concepts are exactly like sounds, colours or images, they are intensities which suit you or not, which are acceptable or aren’t acceptable. Pop philosophy. There’s nothing to understand, nothing to interpret (Deleuze & Parnet, 1987:3-4).

The above quote comes from a conversation between Gilles Deleuze (the philosopher) and Claire Parnet (the journalist). It is only until recently that these words had actual meaning for me. I had actually experienced the meaning behind those spoken words. Whilst I have been waiting upon my Ethics application to be given the all clear by my supervisors. I have been using the time to read a number of books (suggested by my supervisors) that are loosely related to the notion of making meaning or sense of objects, or materiality. These being Stuff (Miller, 2010), The Quadruple Object (Harmon, 2010), and Mythologies (Barthes, 2009, [1957]).

Miller’s (2010) work comes from the viewpoint of an archaeologist and anthropologist and describes the relationship between those artefacts and objects and human beings as being part of a contemporary material culture. Harmon (2010) is much more radical in that he espouses an object-oriented ontology (OOO) or object-oriented philosophy (OOP) (this term varies depending on who you read). He argues that we must no longer make the correlationist error of privileging the being of humans within ontology, instead moving to a “democracy of objects” (Bryant, 2011), or what he describes as “looking for the soul of the thing” (Kimball, 2013:112). Barthes (2009, [1967]) looks at the signs, symbols and their relationships within modern media, mass communications and culture, on what has subsequently been termed as social semiotics.

These are three very different books by three very different authors who come from very different backgrounds, yet their works are connected by the function and power of objects and how these have enhanced or encumbered society and culture. It is fair to say that Miller (2010) and Harman (2010) work “sang” to me more loudly and clearly than that of Barthes (2009, [1957]), not because Mythologies was a difficult read – it wasn’t; Barthes ideas just didn’t “sing” as well to me. At the end of the day, I will need to argue and defend my position in my viva. I need to passionately believe what I am saying.

When you buy a record there are always cuts that leave you cold. You skip them. You don’t approach a record as a closed book that you have to take or leave. Other cuts you may listen to over and over again. They follow you. You find yourself humming them under your breath as you go about your daily business (Massumi, 1987:ix-x)

Many, many moons ago, I use to work in IT sales and I found that where I actually believed in a product I was able to sell it quite easily; where I didn’t believe in a product, then it was a hard sell to make and I wasn’t too keen on deceiving the customer in the process. So it is clear to me that there are certain philosophical ideas that I can embrace wholeheartedly as they resonate with me in some way and there are others that are not tuned into my particular wavelength.

On the subject of semiotics, Miller (2010) notes that “material culture studies [were] significantly enhanced by the arrival of this semiotic perspective; but ultimately it became as much as a limitation as an asset” (p.12) and Harmon notes that semiotics doesn’t tell us everything (Kimball, 2013:109), so I don’t feel too bad about it. Miller (2010) makes a salacious revelation regarding objects that he describes as being “blindingly obvious” (p.51) when you thing about it. He argues that:

It is not that things are tangible stuff that we can stub our toe against. It is not that they are firm, clear foundations that are opposed to the fluffiness of the images of the mind or abstract ideas. They work by being invisible and unremarked upon, a state they usually achieve by being familiar and taken for granted … The somewhat unexpected capacity of objects to fade out of focus and remain peripheral to our vision. and yet determinant of our behaviour and identity … The objects had managed to obscure their role and appear inconsequential (Miller, 2010:50-51)

He goes on to explain:

…to what I called the humility of things. Objects don’t shout at you like teachers, or throw chalk at you as mine did, but they help you gently to learn how to act appropriately (Miller, 2010:53)

Miller’s work is very accessible and I guess it resonates so much is that I once took a BA in Archaeology degree with the Classical & Archaeological Studies department at the University of Kent. This was a part-time evening course spread over six years. For one reason and another, I only did the first two years that got me a certificate in the subject. As I have already mentioned, material culture sits very firmly within that discipline. It is interesting to me that I have come back to it after all these years.

Harmon is both an admirer and critic of Martin Heidegger’s work. He uses Heidegger’s early work on “the fourfold” (poetic idea of the world comprising of four parts: earth, sky, gods, and mortals) in developing his own theory of objects.

Instead of beginning with radical doubt, we start from naiveté. What philosophy shares with the lives of scientists, bankers, and animals is that all are concerned with objects. The exact meaning of “object” will be developed in what follows, and must include those entities that are neither physical nor even real. Along with diamonds, rope, and neutrons, objects may include armies, monsters, square circles, and leagues of real and fictitious nations. All such objects must be accounted for by ontology, not merely denounced or reduced to despicable nullities. Yet despite repeated claims by both friends and critics of my work, I have never held that all objects are “equally real.” For it is false that dragons have autonomous reality in the same manner as a telephone pole. My point is not that all objects are equally real, but that they are equally objects… (Harman, 2010:5)

Harmon advances Heidegger’s concept of the fourfold and combines it with ideas taken from Husserl’s construction and perception of objects to develop his own revised fourfold theory: real objects, real qualities, sensual objects, and sensual qualities (the “quadruple object”). Furthermore, Harman outlines the objects’ interactions in a system that consists of two kinds of objects, two kinds of qualities, and ten tensional relationships that exist between them. Harmon’s ideas are bold, contentious and controversial, but well-argued and defended.

Over the coming months, I will be reading more on OOO / OOP, Daniel Miller’s The Comfort of Things and Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life are all vying for my attention. I am also finding myself returning to another concept that caught my imagination many years ago, that of symbolic interactionism. I also need to be careful and not to drown in all of these theories and philosophies. Like the siren’s call, the songs that these ideas are singing to me are strangely beguiling and seductive. I need to be careful that my pilgrimage does not get caught up in rocks as I do not wish to drown among these ideas or have my EdD capsize in the process. I will need to chart a steady, considered course of action.


Barthes, R. (2009, [1957]). Mythologies. Translated by A. Lavers. London, England: Vintage.

Bryant, L. (2011). The Democracy of Objects. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press. Available at: http://openhumanitiespress.org/democracy-of-objects.html [Accessed 22.6.2015].

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by B. Massumi. London, England: The Athlone Press.

Deleuze, G. & Parnet, C. (1987). Dialogues II. Translated by H. Tomlinson & B. Habberjam. London, England: The Athlone Press.

Harmon, G. (2010). The Quadruple Object. Winchester, England: Zero Books.

Kimbell, L. (2013). “The Object Strikes Back: An Interview with Graham Harman”. Design and Culture: The Journal of the Design Studies Forum, 5(1), pp. 103-117. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/175470813X13491105785703 [Accessed 25.8.2015].

Massumi, B. (1987). “Translator’s Foreword: Pleasures of Philosophy”. In: Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by B. Massumi. London, England: Continuum, pp. ix-xv.

Miller, D. (2010). Stuff. Cambridge, England: Polity Books.