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Paul Auster and the Broken Tool

by on January 24, 2013

Being both a novice to the blogosphere, as well as a great deal of the notions found within the Harman text, I am not entirely sure if this will take its intended form, regardless, here I go.  I was most struck by Harman’s explanation of the multiple meanings of “presence-at-hand”, particularly the section regarding the “broken tool.”  For those of you who might be familiar (and in an attempt to loop back to literary criticism), I was immediately reminded of a section of Paul Auster’s, City of Glass, in which the enigmatic Peter Stillman is confronted incognito by the focal character, Quinn.  The novel has a particular focus on the ambiguous application of semantics onto the physical world and how that comes to limit the terms and conditions of existence, both for the objects themselves as well as the individuals who perceive them and place them into context.  As Stillman explains his research to Quinn (a strange experiment in language that is never explicitly drawn out), it seems to me that he is demonstrating the first to interpretations of “presence-at-hand” as described by Harman:

Consider a word that refers to a thing-‘umbrella,’ for example.  When I say the word ‘umbrella,’ you see the object in your mind.  You see a kind of stick, with collapsible metal spokes on top that form an armature for a water proof material which, when opened, will protect you from the rain.  This last detail is important.  Not only is the umbrella a thing, it is a thing that performs a function-in other words, expresses the will of man.  When you think of it, every object is similar to the umbrella, in that it serves a function.  A pencil is for writing, a shoe is for wearing, a car is for driving.  Now, my question is this.  What happens when a thing no longer performs its function?  Is it still the thing, or has it become something else?  When you rip the cloth off the umbrella, is the umbrella still and umbrella?  You open the spokes, put them over your head, walk into the rain, and you get drenched.  Is it possible to go on calling this object an umbrella?  In general, people do.  At the very limit, they will say the umbrella is broken.  To me this is a serious error, the source of all our troubles.  Because it can no longer perform its function, the umbrella has ceased to be an umbrella, it might once have been an umbrella, but now it has changed into something else.  The word however has remained the same.  Therefore, it can no longer express the thing.  It is imprecise; it is false; it hides the thing it is supposed to reveal.  And if we cannot even name a common, everyday object that we hold in our hands, how can we expect to speak of things that truly concern us?  Unless we can begin to embody the notion of change in the words we use, we will continue to be lost.  (Auster 76-77)

Several points strike me between the relation of this excerpt and Harman’s text.  First, I interpret Stillman’s description as being on par with how Harman describes Husserl’s phenomenon in that Stillman is “reducing a thing to its accessibility to consciousness, the thing itself turned into a caricature” (52) by claiming the thing is somehow different because it can no longer function in the way it was intended, and thus stripping the object of its “autonomy from (its) relation to us” (53).  Thus, I see Stillman as reaffirming Husserl’s sense of presence-at-hand.  By extension, I see Stillman’s near maddening obsession with this topic as demonstrative of Heidegger’s second scenario of presence-at-hand. Stillman’s perception of the broken umbrella makes perception of the object dependent on an “intru(sion) on our awareness” (53) and thus Stillman’s new words would not be a more accurate description of the object, but rather a “phenomenon in consciousness” (53), specifically, his own, which would make his efforts less of a transcendence of the limits of language to physicality, and more of an exercise in anthropocentricism.

While I may have failed to clearly pose this question, is this an accurate interpretation?  Have I failed to recognize some particulars?  Since I am growing into my understanding of the topic, I am hoping any corrections will serve for schema, so please elaborate why this thinking is incorrect should that be the case.


From → Quadruple Object

  1. After thinking this through a bit more and reviewing my many margin notes, I suppose the interpretation Auster is taking would fall under the empiricist view that “objects of experience are nothing but a bundle of qualities” (11). If the umbrella can only be an umbrella by way of protecting us from rain, then it is being reduced to a single quality, its intended function, and as such Stillman is considering the umbrella in “isolated points of experience”, either protecting or not protecting him from rain, and imposing that quality or lack thereof as the definitive quality of the object, and thus drifts towards correlationism (as I understand it: just to reiterate, still trying to put this all into context).
    While Harman clearly disagrees with correlationism and relationism, my admittedly limited background in the science of consciousness takes immediate argument with these notions. I’m not entirely sure how relationism as a variant of correlationsim could be seen as anything other than a vain attempt to put all things in the human context, which is absurd to me since no living creature perceives reality in the same terms as humans, not even other humans. A bat is the first example that comes to mind here. Bats view reality using a fundamentally different set of perceptive tools than human beings; sonar, echo location, etcetera. In the most literal sense of the phrase, bats do not see the world as humans do, they do not put objects within that world in the same context as human beings, but they are most certainly conscious animals capable of perception. It is impossible for us to understand how the bat sees the world since we would always be equating that to human perception (this seems to be on par with correlationism as far as I understood it), which would be a fundamentally flawed assessment since it pretends to explain senses we do not share.
    The idea that a human experiences rain falling against a window the same way as the rain and the window experiences this exchange is quite frankly a ridiculous notion to me. It seems to be on par with saying that a suicidal man leaping from a building will experience that fall/impact in the same way a witness will. Again, if I am wrong, please correct me.

  2. traviswmatteson permalink

    Matthew, I appreciated your post as an early foray into something like a speculative literary criticism. I first read the New York Trilogy a few years ago during my MA studies, and I greatly enjoyed it. I think your use of Auster in relation to OOO is apt, and I’d like to consider this further. The frustration the speaker of the passage you quote seems to stem from what Harman calls the “withdrawal” of objects. It seems that we only perceive qualities of objects, rather than autonomous objects in themselves. Interestingly, the main hang-up of this passage seems to surround the inadequacy of language to describe objects accurately. But from a Saussurean point of view, isn’t all language metaphorical, such that “umbrella” has as much in common with a functional umbrella as it does with is broken umbrella?

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