Deciding what to call non-humans says quite a good deal about our conceptions of them and how far we perceive them to fall from our control. The distinction, in a number of cases, comes down to the difference between objects and things for a number of writers. Objects tend to be characterized as knowable, marked by human action, and understood by science; things are foreign, their effects are unknown, and they are as yet not apprehended.
In “The Thing” by Martin Heidegger, things are mystifying. They have a “uniform distancelessness” (113). They stand alone and apart, while, objects stand before us. How we view objects is through the representations of them we hold in our minds (114). From a scientific viewpoint, we can only ever see objects, not things, for “science always encounters only what its kind of representation has admitted beforehand as an object possible for science” (116). We view objects as phenomenological occurrences. By contrast, we have never seen things (116). Their essential nature “has never yet been able to appear” (116). Yes, within the object that Heidegger analyzes in this essay, a jug, he sees both object and thing: the object is the clay, and the thing the void and none of the matter than makes the jug up (115). “Thinging” for Heidgeer is an action word, meaning shadows forth the void. While Heidegger’s distinction between objects and things is relatively clear – it’s the difference between the phenomenological the unknownable and not yet named – his reverence for things veers towards the mystic. He imagines the thing bringing together four forces (Earth, Sky, Immortals, and Mortals) into a cathartic unity. This concept is nonsensical to all but the most devout of Heidegger scholars and, unfortunately, he ends his essay with this unknowable metaphor.
In “Thing Theory” by Bill Brown, Brown also describes things as remote. They are a comfort from the world of thought, “something concrete that relives us from abstraction” (139). Like Heidegger, Brown’s things are somewhat mystical. Unlike Heidegger’s void in the vase, Brown’s things can be anything as long as they are vague and indefinite: “that green thing in the hall” (140). We long for things as an alternative to the dry, dusty austerity of theory. Things seem belated (and thus unreachable) (147). And, things are impossible to get to because of phenomenology (we see what we would like) and because of physics (and the unreachable space between atoms) (141). Brown clearly differentiates things from objects. Things appear out of the ether. They carry a thingness about them that “seems to name the object just as it is even as it names something else” (141). Objects, on the other hand, are more clearly human: “We look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture-above all, what they disclose about us), but we only catch a glimpse of things” (140). A functional window is an object that we barely see while we gaze out at the outside world, it’s so human it’s invisible; a dirty window is not useful, it’s a thing in and of itself and for its own purposes, useful only to those who gaze at its thingness. He quotes Derrida to explain how one is irreducible to the other: “the thing is not an object [and] cannot become one” (140). For Brown, things and objects have a fundamentally different quality; they’re still alike enough, however, that he needs to address both with regards to thing theory.
For a great number of theorists, however, things can and do become objects – they are just radically changed in doing so. Julian Bleecker, in “Why Things Matter” writes about blogjects, or, objects that blog. When nonhumans exercise agency and start to matter to humans: “they slowly [creep] out of the primordial soup of passive, low-impact thing-ness.” (169). Things inspire one with awe of the unknowable; apart from that they don’t do much. In contrast, objects they do things, they matter. Bleecker’s blogjects are just like human bloggers: they “participate in a network of exchange, disseminating thoughts, opinions, ideas – making culture – through this particular instrument called the Internet” (166).
Bleecker nicely captures that the fluidity between object and thing has to do with whether non-humans are active or not. To relate this back to libraries, it’s the practical use of materials and our thoughts about them that determine objecthood. Libraries that contain millions of unread books – which are unknowable, ineffable things wrapped up in the package of a known object. However, it is the ethical obligation of libraries to foster objecthood. To give a voice to those as yet untouched resources and turn them into useful resources that matter and make an impact. To connect patrons with objects, imbue culture in nonhumans, and in culture, imbue nonhumans.
Bleecker, Julian. “Why Things Matter.” The Object Reader. Candlin and Guins, eds. New York: Routledge, 2009. 165-174. Print.
Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” The Object Reader. Candlin and Guins, eds. New York: Routledge, 2009. 139-152. Print.
Heidegger, Martin. “The Thing.” The Object Reader. Candlin and Guins, eds. New York: Routledge, 2009. 113-123. Print.