Object Abuse and the Proprietorial Fallacy (a short introduction), Dale Holmes

’They (the Moderns) do have a fetish, the strangest one of all: they deny to the objects they fabricate the autonomy they have given them. They pretend they are not surpassed, outstripped by events. They want to keep their mastery, and they find its source within the human subject, the origin of action’.

 (Bruno Latour, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods)

  1. 1.     Concrete? Or Abstract?

The distinction between abstract and concrete objects remains contentious and the question of whether objects can exist at all outside of the human mind has haunted western philosophical investigation since its earliest days. Plato argued that abstract objects – objects that are non spatio-temporal and therefore causally inert – exist. Empiricisms of all stripes continues to question the existence of such objects; none more radically than the nominalists asserting as they do that only concrete objects can exist. For the philosopher Martin Heidegger humans transcend the objects they encounter so completely they are rendered invisible and only become truly visible at the moment they are useless to us – in this sense the discrepant object is the real object. In his Zeit und Zein (1927) Heidegger illustrates this through the figure of the hammer and how at the moment it breaks we no longer have any purchase upon it; it is no longer useful to the human that transcends it and the broken hammer becomes an object in-itself – autonomous and ungraspable. The privileging of the human subject in the world and the autonomy of objects have become urgent questions in much contemporary philosophical investigation. These have been afforded particular emphasis in the work of the political scientist and philosopher Bruno Latour and the Speculative Realist philosopher Graham Harman.

  1. 2.     Object Abuse?

What do we mean by Object Abuse? And how do we identify the abusers?

I do not feel qualified to speak on behalf of objects and I harbour no hope that – however hard I listen – objects can speak for themselves. It is impossible for me to know whether the T.V. remote control laid next to me as I write this is abusing the upholstered two seater settee it – and I – sits upon or whether the blue shopping bag leaning perilously over it constitutes a kind of abuse; I just cannot know. I am sure though that I, as a human, have abused many objects over many years and that I am not alone in this transgression.

Let us begin by distinguishing some of the ways that objects are abused by humans at every opportunity. Objects are abused when they are…

i) transcended by idealists.

ii) reduced to knowledge by empiricists.

iii) exhausted by relationists.

iv) anthropomorphised and anthropologised by humanists.

All these abuses (and others like them) are carried out – whether you are aware of your transgressions or not – in the name of anti-realism. They are all intended to deny the object its reality as a thing-in-itself and to disavow the objects autonomy from the thinking – human – subject. Thus refusing any chance of an objective reality; that is to say a world independent of the human mind.

For Bruno Latour and Graham Harman this problem forms the basis of their work as philosophers; each in their own way developing an object oriented ontology.

i)      In the work of Bruno Latour there are no distinct categories of objects. No binary exists in the sense of abstract and concrete, indeed for Latour’s thought everything is an object – including ideas, concepts and fictions – and all objects are concrete surfaces that are acting in dense and varied networks at all times. One of Latour’s main and most controversial claims is that at the level of ontology all objects are equal. This in turn introduces the notion of an equality of being through the ‘flat’ plane of ontology. This forms the basis of a democracy of objects and therefore of everything. However this does not mean that all objects have the same force in the worlds they operate in; for Latour an objects existence – its power – is guaranteed through the strength of its alliances; through the force of its networks – Latour’s is a philosophy built on the notion of absolute relationalism. This could be easily  misunderstood as meaning the object’s relation to us – human subjects – but as Graham Harman points out; these networks of relations that Latourian objects are involved in take place whether humans are there to witness them or not, whether humans are involved or not.

ii)    Alternatively, Harman through his radical reading of Martin Heideggers tool-analysis  introduces to the discussion a non-relationalism in which – following Latour  – everything is an object but departing radically from Latour in his insistence that all objects are autonomous resistant to context and always receding from us. For him there is no democratising net of relations we can successfully throw over objects that connects all the things to all the other things in the world. In his own words;


‘Whatever sense of the word ‘object’ we might consider, it always refers to something with a certain unity and autonomy. An object must be one, and it must also have a sort of independence from whatever it is not. An object stands apart – not just from its manifestation to humans, but possibly even from its own accidents, relations, qualities, moments, or pieces. Furthermore, insofar as an object is more than its relations it must stand apart from any monism of the world-as-a-whole…’

(Graham Harman, Prince of Networks; Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, 2009)


What happens if we can begin to not abuse objects and instead accept as Latour and Harman claim – or for that matter any realism claims – that objects are autonomous from us? Are we able to refuse to narrativize objects into causal relations and avoid the representation of objects as merely for us?

Taking such questions seriously offers a challenge to the dominance of the human subject and its reductive transcendence of objects. Acting to reverse the philosophical flow between humans and the world at large, departing from the privileged human mind happily transcending the objective world into its domain alone in a one sided transaction that is precipitated on the understanding that we can possess completely the things that we encounter.

  1. 3.     The Proprietorial Fallacy

As the list of approaches to object abuse provided above illustrates, we human subjects are inclined to assume that we have a special and absolute access to the objective world, this manifests itself in the belief that the world is for ‘us’ alone. I will call this the proprietorial fallacy – I use it here to describe the mistaken belief that we humans can possess the things we encounter absolutely – materially, conceptually, etc.

Finding ways to avoid the proprietorial fallacy is important if we are to cease abusing objects. To achieve this we would need to unbind objects from their imposed contexts and humanist narratives; breaking them from their capture in the causal chains we construct for them and releasing them from the violations of human reasoning. Accepting that objects are and always have been distinct from us; abstract –whether concrete or not? Abstract in the sense that they are in excess of the human desire to transcend, represent and contextualize them, detached as Harman suggests at some fundamental level from any relational regime applied to them whatsoever.

We would also have to depart from Bruno Latours insistence that the existence of objects – their force – depends entirely on the networks they are active in. Requiring the disposal of the notion that relations represent the natural state of things in the world. Narratives of ownership and knowledge would have to fall away and all causal chains be smashed. Opening up a realist world; a mind independent world in which all objects are abstractions.

Sadly though, we humans buy the proprietorial fallacy hook, line and sinker; for this to change we would need to embrace an anti-representationalism that breaks completely with the 200 year old philosophical tradition of placing the human subject at the centre of all things; a derailing of our narratives and representations that would overturn our institutions so radically as to render us unrecognisable to ourselves (would capitalism end?); a new configuration of the human would be required (how would we speak?). The philosopher and writer on economics Nicholas Naseem Taleb; in his book The Black Swan (2008) highlights the problem. Dr. Taleb points out that;

We love the tangible, the confirmation, the palpable, the real, the visible, the concrete, the known, the seen, the vivid, the visual, the social, the embedded, the emotionally laden, the salient, the stereotypical, the moving, the theatrical, the romanced, the cosmetic, the official, the scholarly-sounding verbiage, the pompous, the mathematized crap, the pomp, the Academie Francais, Harvard Business School, the Nobel prize… the moving discourse and the lurid. Most of all we favour the narrated.

Alas, we are not manufactured, in our current edition of the human race to understand abstract matters – we need context.



Dale Holmes  2012

Sheffield Hallam University



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Object abuse asks the question:
who or what is being abused?

Object Abuse has been set up to provide a platform for people to discuss, provoke and question the very nature and orientation of objects. The aim is to readdress the unquestioned drives of our collective pursuits, to turn the tables on the object-subject dynamic.

This investigation’s relevance is reflected in recent developments in philosophy, shifts in our socio-cultural landscape and is finding expression in the visual arts. This questioning of our human-centric perspective is reflected through current ideas found in the works of Bruno Latour, Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux, Anselm Franke and others.

The question: what exactly is object abuse is by no means obvious, when you think about it, who is to say the object in question is passive and not active? Also it is worth asking where does the form of abuse originate from? What qualifies abuse, is it quantifiable, can we identify subtler variations? And for that matter; what is an object, or rather can we say what is not an object…with any real certainty?

OA‘s function is to invite a multidisciplinary engagement; to be a forum, a curatorial framework and an archival space.

We welcome expressions of interest and contributions to the ongoing debate.