Water, Sugar, New Materialisms

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An interesting question or observation today, as we watched some raw sugar dissolve in a jar of water, was that the jar had meaning, or significance, because it was something we made and that it was made for a purpose, and that, well, more or less was its purpose.

This is a pretty good place to start from to begin sketching what we are going to be doing, and what the differences that a speculative, materialist philosophy, offers. The jars purpose, for us, in general, is to put stuff in. But of course we know it probably has other potential (not designed for or originally intended) purposes too. Perhaps it could be turned upside down to trap a spider. Or to become a pedestal. It might have something drawn on it to become a fairy house (just ask a child for help if you want to realise all ways in which things you thought were x can every easily be every other letter of the alphabet too). So it isn’t really, just a jar.

Now, we might think that’s all well and good, but in essence, it’s still a jar and this essence remains untouched. Except we’re not that big on ‘essence’. It’s a jar. In relation to people it is probably defined by its use value, what I can do with it – whether that be for jam and a fairy house. Yet if that is the case then it is pretty hard to work out what its essence ought to be – unless you want to exclude all non sanctioned jar like uses of jars. Which is a silly way to define an essence since you sort of first have to exclude all it could be to declare what it is, in an important way this defeats the point of claiming an essence simply because the essence of something is supposed to support, provide for, enable all it could be.

Alternatively it’s essence might thought to lie in terms of its ‘ideal’ use. It’s a jar. It’s for storing stuff. That is what it is. But that isn’t really what it is, is it? That is what it is for me, perhaps for most people, certainly people who are experienced with putting gasses, fluids, or solids into containers for storage. But why would we define what a thing is only by what it means to me, or you, or us? What sort of definition of a thing is that? How on earth does that work as a way to think what a thing is, in its own right? Isn’t that to colonise what the thing might be, could be, is, by only using as our measure its possible significance to us? It’s a use value theory of what makes a thing a thing, where use becomes ‘of use to us’. Egocentric, species-centric, anthropocentric it means we will only notice in the thing the things that matter to us, and then use this as the definition of what the thing is, conveniently forgetting that we’ve defined what matters in that equation. That isn’t a definition, its an act of power. It requires things to address us through the terms that we define in advance. Apply the same terms to gender and you have sexism, race and cultural difference and you see racism. What might it mean to recognise this same prejudgement in how we think of things as things?

One response is to realise that the thing has value outside of its strict use value (as a play object), perhaps as something chewed up by the dog who clearly found something interesting about it, perhaps it’s scent – something we would never ever be able to recognise, or choose to use as part of what defines it. In fact, let’s take that one for a walk, and treat it seriously. What would my dog use to define the jar? It would still be a thing for my dog, that is obvious, but it would surely be a very different sort of thing to what it is for me. It probably isn’t thought of as a place to keep things, but it could be thought of by Jersey (that’s my dog) as a place in which to find things. It would certainly be defined more by scent than appearance, and the terms of how it feels would also be different, as I will sniff it first, then possibly taste it, to work out more about what it is. People, unless we know it is food and we’re on a cooking show, we would look, then touch. For most stuff, most of the time, smell and taste simply doesn’t enter our particular equation about thingness of things. Species specificity.

Already we can see that this simple jar is still a thing for Jersey, but a very different thing to what we began with – an object defined by the intentionality of its particular making.
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We can easily elongate this complexity. For the water what is the jar? I doubt smell or taste matters. I wouldn’t think the water cares as much as we do that the jar is clear, or even that it is clean. For the water you could speculate that what matters is the jar’s solidity, since it constrains and restricts the motile mobility of the water. It can’t flow, run, leak, seep, but finds itself stilled. I imagine there is something, both in relation to the physics of surfaces and the chemistry of potable water meeting industrial, kitchen safe, domestic plastic, going on down there between the water and the plastic, just where both meet. Something molecular and tiny. But happening all the same. It would matter to the water as water, as liquid, as hydraulic potential and possibility. Temperature too matters to the water, too cold there’s a phase transition to ice, too hot, a similar phase transition to steam. How warm or cold the water is deeply affects the sugar, as that informs its change from crystal to liquid.

That’s enough for a Wednesday night after class. However, what we should take from this is not whole complicated a thing might be, but how simple they actually are. It isn’t really about what I think they mean for that is to return to the privileging of language and meaning that is both the value, but limitation, of the linguistic turn in theory 40 odd years ago. What happened then with the rise of structuralism, semiotics, and other vanguard theories, was the realisation that language determines what things mean, and that language is indeterminable, slippery, subject to différance, and so on. That we are subject to language, not the other way round, it speaks us, not we speak it. In that linguistic turn what got lost was something about the empirical isness of the world, of stuff, for we too easily and lazily subsumed everything under the mantle of meaning, and meaning was thought to only reside within the house of language (and the great unspoken here was too often language was equated with words). That is why we think the jar is what it is because we made it. If we made it, we designed it, therefore what it is is completely our prerogative (imagine treating children like that, after all it is pretty easy to intend to make a child, and to have designs for what it will do, become). Such arrogance (in relation to the child and the jar).

For when all is said and done there is still the jar. And plenty of it. It’s industrial history. It’s chemical history. It’s own chemistry. It’s future (as waste, as plant pot, as demonstration, as trap, as protective heat trap for a seedling, as home for a spider in a corner of a shed). So what a jar is is not what it means for us. And a more interesting question, one that lets us begin to think about things in more useful, even practical ways, then becomes not what a jar is, but what can it do?

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