The drowning life preserver (hostile object theory)

In Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr., after prodigal son Bill Jr. is de-dandified (i.e. mustache removed, beret taken off, and "work clothes" put on), he comes onto his father's ship for gainful employ. And to get the designation: not Bill Jr., but Steamboat Bill Jr. Already with the title of the film, he's a thing man, and a second-order one at that, the labored attempt to measure up to the man defined by his laboring object. The arc of the film, in one way, simply traces this: coming to deserve the Jr. by coming to be a steamboat Bill, the master of steamboating in this town.

But the objects aren't having it.  Moments after stepping onto the ship, Bill's turned around and backs into the railing, knocking the life preserver ring off into the river below, where it's expect to bob and drift, cheerily buoyant.  But at which point the life preserver sinks immediately.  Like a stone.  Dragging itself, and the phantom body it's supposed to hold aloft, to the muddy cold of the riverbed.

There have been hints before of an object-world at odds with those who, as a species, make those objects and, as individuals, try to make them work for them.  (The ceaseless series of possible hats incapable of pleasing both father and son.  And when compromise is found/forced onto the younger, the wind snatches it away.  Wasted time and judgment, spent money, and lost thing.)  But there persisted the sense of minor, vitalizing inconveniences: how else do you develop a bit of gumption and character, or that shy smile, without tussling with a resistant order of things?  You gotta learn that the wind is a bastard, just like our competitors, and they will steal that hat right away from you.  Self-reliance on a gusty day.

This is something different.  A fundamental wrongness of objects.  After the ring plummets through the water, Bill steps back in shock, bumps his head.  A stunned, sudden unmaking of the ground: things are not as they seem.  He staggers tentatively, reaching out to touch the ship, now utterly uncertain what it is, the correlation between the purpose of a thing and its murderous purposiveness shattered in the fall of a single object.  What is a steamboat when a life preserver isn't just sub-par at preserving life but reveals itself as the promise of the termination of life?  A stone life terminator ring.  A ghost ship of sharp edges and weight, inertia and speed and obstinacy.  And beyond that, borne out in what follows, a world barely held together.  We touch it gingerly, never knowing what will break and what will break us, thoughtlessly.

This is an instance of what I'll call, and build out from here, hostile object theory: a conviction that objects aren't just indifferent to us, aren't just coherent beyond our intentions, aren't just darkly resistant to correlating with the world as it is for us.  Far worse for us, when we can glimpse even a shadow of how they are not for us, they reveal themselves, with a faceless sneer, as fundamentally hostile, uncertain, dangerous, and incommensurable with the purpose for which they were designed.  This isn't to speak of nature per se, not an Algernon Blackwood-esque thought of a savage animism (or rather, an agential, often anthropomorphic- even as it tries to disavows the humanness of what it depicts - monstrous nature).  This, rather, is the bastard child of a unified theory of what the world is without us, a thought instead of how the world we build to help us navigate the dark woods is already without us while we're still here, when we're clinging to it desperately.  A sword with no handle, we grip it all the same.  It's an unnaturphilosophie, concerned not with humanless ecologies but the self-sabotaging, crumbling, poison-flooded inhumanity of the very possibility of the economic.  (That is, the management, ordering, shaping, and instrumental use of resources, in the house of the human.)

There is the cold neutrality of that which needs us not a whit.  And then there's that which would not exist without us, and hates us for this fact, hates its dependence, loathes the fact of its existence.  This isn't to ascribe a magical subjectivity to things, not to imagine them as independent in themselves in a way that simply mirrors our gaze upon them, as if we're willing to trade a look of scorn and rage back in order to have any look back, to not have to stare at the dusky nothing of what is.

Rather, a basic fact, or at least insofar as we believe that capitalism is predicated on antagonism.  Not produced necessarily as an after-effect of disequilibrium and exploutation, not bottled up, tenuously, lest the proles learn to negate all at once.  Antagonism - to be plainer: hatred, loathing, rage, desolation, shame, abjection, envy - is what drives capital, drags it forward, to profit and to collapse.  It's the seething, constant fire that burns all it's fed and courses the steam through the channels of the engine.  The basic hatred of self, for being complicit, and others, for letting us be complicit, that makes us need commodities and money, makes us hunger for whatever isn't human (why would we want to be reminded of that?), those inhuman things that, through our consumptive destruction and possessive withdrawal from circulation of them,  alone remains capable of grounding each of us as better than the rest.

(The fundamental misanthropy of the individual's reproduction of capital: its triumph is the temporary secession from a mass of actors all trying to do the same damn thing, everyone fleeing the same shameful us they wanted no part in, the same us produced in the very act of trying to gain the means to leave it behind.)  En masse the species withdraws from itself, only to find the exits suffocatingly packed with others who had the same idea.

How, then, can this not be embedded in these things, these boats, cars, knives, life preservers, gears, houses, screens, loaves, bowls, drills?  If, following Marx, the machine (or rather, the assemblage consisting of literal machines, the workers using them/being used by them, and the relations of production crystallized by the whole thing) is an instantiation of the general intellect, we say: all commodities are instantiations of the general hostility.  They are built records of a labor that wishes it did not exist.  That abhors the conditions that demand it and which, conversely, it demands as the guarantee of a continued recognition that this labor meant something.  That all wasn't for naught, for the nothing it seeks perversely against its own preservation.

If salvagepunk presents a possible version of anti-capitalist reification (via the analogical translation of the object relations underpinning salvage onto a communist practice of building from scrap and disaster), this is a related call, but toward a bleaker, snarling inhuman anti-reification that swallows not only its inherent value but also its basic utility.  An urging that we don't go far enough.  Commonly, we assume that the "solution" is to stop treating objects as subjects, to stop endowing them with the character of social relations.  Things are just things, they won't make you a better person, they have no inherent value, destruction of property isn't really violence...  But to do this is simply to parse them off as not us, without recognizing that they are the material organization of the hatred that went into them, all that thwarted agency, that clenched fist that keeps pulling its punches and punching its clocks.  As such, anti-reification for a different reason, not because we should just see things as they really are, but because "reification" implies that there's a category error, socially necessary but a fallacy all the same, something's gone wrong in cognition.  But it hasn't.  Something has gone wrong in the organization, production, and maintenance of things.  This is no pathetic fallacy.  It's a volition without a subject, a darkness without transparency, an agency without agent, a loathing without a name, a hatred without an end, a general hostility without reason.

And it's everywhere.

The sinking of that life preserver is just the beginning, a minor presaging of the storm to come.  The actual unbinding of the built world, a nightmare of decoherence.  It is wind, sure, it's the "force of nature," but that doesn't explain anything of how it feels, how it looks.  It's the town - and with the local instance, the very presupposition of a grounded life settled and the alignment of things with with how we want them to be - coming apart, peeling back, falling down.  Total warfare via the only means the objects have: the sabotage of utility in the name of threatening its inhabitants, its makers, its dwellers.  Bill flees the roofless hospital toward the shelter of the library.  Slowly, obscenely, sleepily, its columns tilt all at once, tortuously close to him. (Again and again, he's saved through a combination of his quickness and his already belonging to that world, his being a thing man, permanently befuddled and quietly pissed off, gloomy behind the dry non-smile, about having to participate in the charade of social existence.  If anything, his continued existence as a living human is due to the fact that he never was particularly good at being one.) Collapsing in on itself, without body, without reason, without care.  

And with that, the end of interiority, of protected, delimited zones, of safe spaces away from the fury of what we made finally learning to unmake itself.  An exterior wall rips away, and the outside pours in.  Or worse, the inside falls out and nearly takes us with it.

The window, that brief cut between the inside and the outside, between the security of the enclosed and the threat without, the window itself a threat (what could come in, what could join me in my secession and withdrawal, beyond the pleasantness of sunlight, there are bad people out there...).  The cut alone saves, the opposite of the life preserver ring: unlike the window, the point of which is not the hole, but what surrounds it, that material that should be buoyant, that switched teams without telling anyone, never tested until it's too late.  And this we can't leave, behind or for elsewhere.

A life preserver that will distinctly not preserve your life.  A falling-apart world that will drag you down with it.  Until then, nothing to do but to break more windows where none existed, to drag our feet.  To build a fire or raise a riot, to stand steady in that torn-open inside.  To detect where our laughter ends and where that hostile wind blows from, up from the drowned and undrownable, on and on and on.


Giovanni said...

Brilliant! I hope for a sequel that looks at Tati's Mon Oncle.

Joshua said...

Fantastic stuff.

A burglar broke into my apartment a week ago now, crawling through a third-floor window overlooking my fire escape which I had closed but left unlatched. They pushed up the screen and window, breaking neither.

When I learned that the screen hadn't torn and the glass hadn't shattered I felt betrayed by the window I had trusted to sacrifice itself before surrendering my stuff. I am quite familiar with this window, sitting in it in the morning drinking coffee. I thought we shared something real!

The police never found any fingerprints. Now you have made me wonder, were my things not stolen but rather turned fugitive, not a partial victim in a human plot but an object conspirator? What insurgencies might my belongings be whispering about while I am away?

jannon said...


the self-ruled self-ruler who knows that all the objects that surround him are already not for him, already not capable of sating his desires, and that their transformation into the fundamentally non-functional occurs not merely through the illusory touching upon this or that thing but through the bad wish gone wrong that they could all be measured through some universal utility of being for him.