Objects invite us to do things with them. A work of art or a precious stone may generate admiration; a piece of rubbish in the sea, repulsion; something novel, curiosity; a lover’s possession, love; an image of a saint, devotion; an electronic device that doesn’t work, impotence; a car that won’t start, anger; an alarm clock that will guarantee catching a plane, security, and so on and so forth. We even talk about the “the object as passion”, a term Jean Baudrillard used to describe what motivates collectors. All this is the result of objects’ capacity for agency, their capacity to affect us. In this sense, they are what Bruno Latour called “actants”, anything that changes a state of affairs through acting on it; anything that acts or prompts action, whether human or non-human.
In myths, fairy stories, and systems of belief, power, “charismatic authority” in Max Weber’s words, is traditionally granted to certain objects: Lohengrin’s sword, the fairies’ magic wand, talismans, etc. The agency granted to certain objects in the world of these beliefs is nothing more than an amplification of the everyday experience which comes from conscious or unconscious affective flows between the body and objects. The king’s sceptre is not only a symbol, but also helps the person who holds it to feel like a king. We are particularly conscious of this when it comes to clothing. A uniform helps to generate the feelings associated with what it represents; it helps a person to feel like a doctor, a policeman, a prisoner, a caretaker, and so on.
When an object is endowed with a particular characteristic, it is believed to alter its nature. In the realm of the sacred, for example, an altar is not the same as a table. But in fact, from a posthumanist perspective, it is not the nature of objects as such that is modified, but the kind of relations we establish with them. “Things” become “objects” when they are defined, named, and incorporated into the individual’s sphere of experience (Leeuw, 2008: 222). This implies relationality and means that objects are defined by subjects, and subjects are defined by objects.
We are literally surrounded by objects. We make them, we use them, we exchange them, and, when we no longer consider them necessary, we get rid of them. Some, like works of art, we admire. To others, we attach great personal or collective symbolic value. There are also objects that we don’t care about or those that disgust us. But apart from the greater or lesser importance we attribute to them, objects, in countless numbers, are with us at all times of the day. We are born with the help of objects and when we die we entrust our remains to them.
Objects, like living beings, also have their own biographies, their own lives. A sheet of white paper is first created from scratch and then printed as a newspaper. After reading what’s on the sheet, I can make a paper bird that I will give to a child to play with. When she has had enough of playing with it, the sheet of paper will cease to be a bird and will end up as a scrunched ball of paper in the recycling bin; and that’s not the end of the story for that sheet of paper, which has a new life as waste paper.
There is cultural variation in the way that people view objects: they are seen in different ways by different societies (Hoskins, 2006: 74); there are even differences between children and adults within the same society. Objects may be viewed as if they were alive, with feelings and consciousness. This is known as animatism, and is not the same as animism, which is the belief that objects possess a soul. In certain contexts, objects seem to take on the characteristics of persons and vice versa. In slavery, for example, humans are seen to be possessions and are bought and sold.
Society would not exist as we know it without objects. With objects we express love, obligation, beliefs, exchange, commerce, wealth and poverty, work and leisure, rules, war, and so on. And beyond mere expression, objects enable us to bring into being everything that enables individuals to exist as social beings.
Objects help us to produce social life. What would most modern humans be without the object we call a clock? Quite apart from the different technologies, from the first water clock or sundial to the most sophisticated atomic clocks, there can be no doubt that there is no another object that has had such an impact on social relations. For better or for worse, we are prisoners of timetables, and when we organise our lives, we give the mechanical time of the clock precedence over subjective time. Objects are the cement of society.
If one thinks of a talisman, a title deed, or money, one realises that human beings ascribe power to objects. But apart from objects that have power for symbolic reasons, i.e. not for what they are materially but for what they represent (a spiritual power, legal recognition of a property, the equivalent in gold), all objects, like living beings, have the capacity to convey agency, i.e. to affect.
When we speak of agency we refer to the effect that any one body has on another. So, for example, if I am walking along a forest path and I move a branch out of the way, I affect it. I affect it by virtue of my agency. I am the actor and the branch is acted upon. But it is also possible see it as the branch acting upon me. By getting in my way it generated a reaction by making me act. The branch was the actor and I was acted upon. Our lives are made up by events like this, in which we affect or are affected by objects.
Unlike traditional humanist beliefs, which only recognised the power of agency in human beings, posthumanist theory recognises the capacity of every living or inert being to convey agency. It is significant that we say that a work of art or any other object captivates us. The verb captivate is an indication that we are talking about agency, that is, the effect or power that something exerts on us; the work of art attracts us just as the force of gravity attracts a physical body.
With regard to agency, no absolute distinctions can be made between humans and non-humans, which is why we now speak of distributive agency. This implies that the capacity for exercising agency should not be limited to its traditional bearers—human persons—but should be understood as a property of all things. There is no single subject in the cause of an effect; there are always many vitalities at play (Bennett, 2010).
Objects help us, frustrate us, make us angry, give us pleasure, and arouse our passions; they affect us in every way. But if for a moment we can shake off this dualistic ontology, we can go a little further. It is not only that without them we could not survive; without them we would not exist at all. That is to say, from an ontological point of view, the human self could not exist without many of the things that surround us. Current studies in cognitive science point to the blurring of the boundaries between the human body, the brain, and inorganic objects such as smartphones or watches. It seems that these devices end up being embedded in the mind. This blurs standard distinctions between mind and body, inside and outside, and human and machine (Springwood, 2014: 463). Could an illustrator be an illustrator without his or her pencil?
And although human pride means that we feel infinitely superior to objects, let us bear in mind that they don’t only belong to us; we also belong to them, because they affect and influence us. Hence Nietzsche’s maxim: “He who possesses little is that much less possessed” (2016: 40).
- Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter. A political ecology of things, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010
- Hoskins, J., “Agency, Biography and Objects”, en C. Tilley, W. Keane, S. Küchler, M. Rowlands and P. Spyer (eds.), Handbook of Material Culture, London: Sage, pp. 74–84, 2006
- Leeuw, S. E. van der, “Agency, Networks, Past and Future”, C. Knappett and L. Malafouris, eds. Material Agency: Towards a Non-Anthropocentric Approach. New York: Springer, 2008 pp. 217-247
- Nietzsche, Friedrich, Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen, Berlin: Hofenberg, 2016 
- Springwood, C. F., “Gun concealment, display, and other magical habits of the body”, Critique of Anthropology 34/4, 2014, pp. 450-471