I have argued that what we commonly take to be individual entities are not separate determinately bounded and propertied objects, but rather are (entangled “parts of”) phenomena (material- discursive intra-actions) that extend across (what we commonly take to be separate places and moments in) space and time (where the notions of “material” and “discursive” and the relationship between them are unmoored from their anti/humanist foundations and reworked). Phenomena are entanglements of spacetimemattering, not in the colloquial sense of a connection or intertwining of individual entities, but rather in the technical sense of “quantum entanglements”, which are the (ontological) inseparability of agentially intra-acting “components”.28 The notion of intra-action (in contrast to the usual “interaction”, which presumes the prior existence of independent entities/relata) marks an important shift, reopening and refiguring foundational notions of classical ontology such as causality, agency, space, time, matter, discourse, responsibility, and accountability. A specific intra-action enacts an agential cut (in contrast to the Cartesian cut – an inherent distinction – between subject and object) effecting a separation between “subject” and “object”. That is, the agential cut enacts a “local” resolution within the phenomenon of the inherent ontological indeterminacy. Crucially then, intra-actions enact agential separability – the local condition of exteriority- within-phenomena. Thus, differentiating is not a relation of radical exteriority, but of agential separability, of exteriority-within. Intra-actions cut things together-apart (as one movement). Identity is a phenomenal matter; it is not an individual affair. Identity is multiple within itself; or rather, identity is diffracted through itself – identity is diffraction/ / différance/differing/deferring/differentiating.
Let us now leave the seclusion of the study and take a walk outside, in the openair. Our path takes us through a woodland thicket. Surrounded on all sides bytrunks and branches, the environment certainly seems cluttered. But is it cluttered with objects? Suppose that we focus our attention on a particular tree. There it is, rooted in the earth, trunk rising up, branches splayed out, swaying in the wind, with or without buds or leaves, depending on the season. Is the tree, then, an object? If so, how should we define it? What is tree and what is not-tree? Where does the tree end and the rest of the world begin? These questions are not easily answered – not as easily, at least, as they apparently are for the items of furniture in my study. Is the bark, for example, part of the tree? If I break off a piece in my hand and observe it closely, I will doubtless find that it is inhabited by a great many tiny creatures that have burrowed beneath it and made their homes there. Are they part of the tree? And what of the algae that grow on the outer surfaces of the trunk or the lichens that hang from the branches? Moreover, if we have decided that bark-boring insects belong as much to the tree as does the bark itself, then there seems no particular reason
to exclude its other inhabitants, including the bird that builds its nest there or the squirrel for whom it offers a labyrinth of ladders and springboards. If we consider, too, that the character of this particular tree lies just as much in the way it responds to the currents of wind, in the swaying of its branches and the rustling of its leaves, then we might wonder whether the tree can be anything other than a tree-in-the-air.
These considerations lead me to conclude that the tree is not an object at all, but a certain gathering together of the threads of life. That is what I mean by a thing. In this I follow – albeit rather loosely – the argument classically advanced by the philosopher Martin Heidegger. In his celebrated essay on The Thing, Heidegger was at pains to figure out precisely what makes a thing different from an object. The object stands before us as a fait accompli, presenting its congealed, outer surfaces to our inspection. It is defined by its very ‘over-againstness’ in relation to the setting in which it is placed (Heidegger 1971: 167).
The thing, by contrast, is a ‘going on’, or better, a place where several goings on become entwined. To observe a thing is not to be locked out but to be invited in to the gathering. We participate, as Heidegger rather enigmatically put it, in the thing’ thinging in a worlding world. There is of course a precedent for this view of the thing as a gathering in the ancient meaning of the word as a place where people would gather to resolve their affairs. If we think of every participant as following a particular way of life, threading a line through the world, then perhaps we could define the thing, as I have suggested elsewhere, as a ‘parliament of lines’ (Ingold 2007a: 5). Thus conceived, the thing has the character not of an externally bounded entity, set over and against the world, but of a knot whose constituent threads, far from being contained within it, trail beyond, only to become caught with other threads in other knots. Or in a word, things leak, forever discharging through the surfaces that form temporarily around them. I shall return to this point in connection with the importance, which I discuss later, of following flows of materials. For now, let me continue with our walk outside. We have observed the tree; what else might catch our attention? I stub my foot on a stone lying on the path. Surely, you will say, the stone is an object. Yet it so only if we artificially excise it from the processes of erosion and deposition that brought it there and lent it the size and shape that it presently has. A rolling stone, the proverb says, gathers no moss, yet in the very process of gathering moss, the stone that is wedged in place become a thing, while on the other hand the stone that rolls – like a pebble washed by a running river – becomes a thing in its very rolling. Just as the tree, responding in its movements
to the currents of wind, is a tree-in-the-air, so the stone, rolling in the river current, is a stone-in-the-water. Suppose then that we cast our eyes upwards. It is a fine day, but there are a few clouds. Are clouds objects? Rather oddly, Gibson thinks they are: they seem to him to hang in the sky, while other entities like trees and stones lie on the earth. Thus the entire environment, in Gibson’s words, ‘consists of the earth and the sky with objects on the earth and in the sky’ (Gibson 1979: 66). The painter René Magritte cleverly parodied this view of the furnished sky by depicting the cloud as a flying object floating in through the open door of an otherwise empty room. Of course the cloud is not really an object but a vaporous tumescence that swells as it is carried along in currents of air. To observe the clouds, I would say, ‘is not to view the furniture of the sky but to catch a glimpse of the sky-in-formation, never the same from one moment to the next’ (Ingold 2007c: S28). Once again, clouds are not objects but things.
What goes for such things as trees, stones and clouds, which may have grown or formed with little or no human intervention, also applies to more ostensibly artificial structures. Consider a building: not the fixed and final structure of the architect’s design but the actual building, resting on its foundations in the earth,buffeted by the elements, and susceptible to the visitations of birds, rodents and fungi. The distinguished Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza has admitted that he has never been able to build a real house, by which he mean ‘a complicated machine in which every day something breaks down’ (Siza 1997: 47). The real house is never finished. Rather, for its inhabitants it calls for unremitting effort to shore it up in the face of the comings and goings of its human inhabitants and non-human inhabitants, not to mention the weather! Rainwater drips through the roof where the wind has blown off a tile, feeding a fungal growth that threatens to decompose the timbers, the gutters are full of rotten leaves, and if that were not enough, moans Siza, ‘legions of ants invade the thresholds of doors, there are always the dead bodies of birds and mice and cats’. Indeed not unlike the tree, the real house is a gathering of lives, and to inhabit it is to join in the gathering, or in Heidegger’s terms, to participate with the thing in its thinging. Our most fundamental architectural experiences, as Juhani Pallasmaa explains, are verbal rather than nominal in form. They consist not of encounters with objects – the façade, door-frame, window and fireplace – but of acts of approaching and entering, looking in or out, and soaking up the warmth of the hearth (Pallasmaa 1996: 45). As inhabitants, we experience the house not asan object but as a thing.