2010 SAM LEACH: PRESENT AT HAND
When we use an axe, we do not theorise about it. It is ready to hand, as Heidegger says,
ready to be used for chopping. But while we are actually using it, the axe itself cannot be at
the forefront of our minds. It becomes less visible. When we stop using the axe, when it
ceases to be functional, it becomes more visible - it is present at hand. If it is only non-
functioning tools that can be present at hand, then something is always missing in these
present at hand entities.
Graham Harman, one of the speculative realists (SR is also known as object oriented philosophy), points out that this is true of all entities, not just tools and that they withdraw not just from human attention, but from each other's attention as well. Even in the realm of the non-human: deep space, the deep sea, the sub-microscopic, places with no human observer, objects interact which interact without being fully revealed to each other. When a wave laps against a rock, both the rock and the wave see only part of each other - a caricature.
Bruno Latour offers a way of understanding the world through ‘actors’ and ‘networks’ or objects’ and ‘relations’ as Harman puts it. In Latour's Actor-Network Theory humans and non-humans (technology, animals, plants, social and corporate entities) have agency, or the to act within networks. But objects have a reality that is irreducible to their relations. A painting may derive its meaning through relations to a viewer, but it is still irreducibly an object - microscopic organisms may be trapped between layers of paint, for example. There are hidden parts of all objects that no external entity can fully access.
Here is how Mark Fisher summarises it: "Harman asks us to stop being anxious about what an object means for us, the way in which it is supposedly constructed and constituted by our minds, and consider the object itself, alluring in its partial opacity...Harman shows that any encounter with an object must caricature it – but it is only through such caricaturing that a glimpse of the object’s hidden richness can be gleaned."
Sam Leach 2010