Steven Shaviro on tool-being and Gwyneth Jones’s “The Universe of Things
According to Harman, readiness-to-hand does not mean the practical handling of things, as opposed to their explicit theorization. Rather, the category of the ready-to-hand has a much broader reach. It does not consist “solely of human devices. . .We can speak of the readiness-to-hand even of dead moths and of tremors on a distant sun. As ‘useless’ as these things may be, they still exert their reality within the total system of entities”. Things are active and interactive far beyond any measure of their presence to us. Tool-being does not apply just to the human use of things; it is a far more fundamental ontological category. Gwyneth Jones’s story begins with the familiar sense of tools as objects of use, but it culminates in the mechanic’s discovery that the “universe of things” has a deeper reality.
The crucial point about tool-being, in Harman’s analysis, is that it involves a radical withdrawal from simple presence, and therefore from any possibility of theorization. Throughout Heidegger’s work, Harman says, “the single error to be guarded against lies in the ingrained habit of regarding beings as present-at-hand, as representable in terms of delineable properties rather than acknowledged in the actus of being what they are” (Harman 2002). Opposing this reduction, Heidegger always insists that “what exists outside of human contexts does not have the mode of being of presence-at-hand”. To reduce a thing to its presence at-hand – which is to say to the sum of its delineable properties – is precisely to regard that thing as only the correlate of a consciousness perceiving it (Meillassoux 2008). But a thing is always more than its qualities; it always exists and acts independently of, and in excess over, the particular ways that we grasp and comprehend it. This is why Harman credits Heidegger with providing us a way out from correlationism, and towards an object-oriented ontology.