Controversial things, or the dual sense of ‘saklighet’

A quick comment on the translation of the term ‘nysaklig’ into ‘new-thingly’

It seems to me that ‘thingly’ loses one aspect of the dual nature in ‘saklig’. A ‘sak’ can actually refer to two things: First, a thing or an object in the most concrete way; crystals, ants, computers, gay bath houses or supernovas; the second aspect of the word ‘sak’ is more relational and refers to an affair or a controversy, the fact that something matters and have become important or crucial in some sense to certain actors; a quarrel between friends, a scholarly disagreement or the scandals of classical politics. ‘Sak’ can even refer to a cause, as in fighting for a cause etc.

I’m not sure that Rasmus Fleischer intended this, but then again that’s not the point.

What I like about the second aspect, which seems to me to have been lost in the translation, is that it places relationality by way of controversy, confrontation and affairs at the center of how to study objects. This does not mean that objects are merely reduced to their relations, that relationality “undermines” the independent being of things, as Graham Harman likes to say it. Rather, it brings forth the idea that to know, study or encounter a thing (a parrot, boulder or para-military group) is always in some way dramatic, or at least political (in the cosmopolitical sense of Isabelle Stengers, whom I haven’t read, but at least in the way Latour has made sense of it [pdf]).

In danish, this aspect becomes even more clear, as the corresponding word ‘sag’ specifically is used to refer to law suits or other legal disputes between parties. Also, the news media are especially obsessed about ‘sager’, ie. affairs, that are scandalous or revealing.

Curiously, ‘saklig’ (or in danish, ‘saglig’) also refers to a manner of discussing focused on facts – for some people this even implies so called “neutrality”, but I guess that sense comes from the party of dusty scientism. In a broader sense ‘saklig’ refers to an attitude of being to-the-point. But most interestingly, ‘saklig’ is usually used synonymously with being objective, which should be understood very literally in the OOOsense: oriented towards the objective, ie. the involved objects and what concerns them. Similarly, ‘saklig’ is also usually used synonymously with the expression ‘matter-of-fact’ (which is similar with to-the-point, but at least makes a for me still unclear reference to Latour in the article ‘Why has critique run out of steam? From matter-of-fact to matter-of-concern’)

This should be enough to give an idea of some of the richness that the term ‘saklig’ could reveal. To sum up the dual sense of the term that I have outlined above: ‘saklig’ implies both an object-orientation, but also an orientation towards confrontation, dispute and drama. If anyone was ever uncertain of the political implications of OOO and might have thought that it implied static or reactionary conservatism, where the subterranean qualities of object are always preserved and all the shallow entanglements and collisions between them are merely fleeting changes in a hard-as-diamond state-of-things, then the scandinavian expression might evoke a quite different idea of the object-orientation, of sakligheten.

To make a closing association (and I’m aware that this post has been almost entirely associating), we might consult Karen Barad and her agential realism in Meeting the Universe Halfway. Barad is certainly a philosopher of the speculative sort – in one occurence calling for a “weird materialism” – by audaciously launching her grand metaphysics by merging the micro-physics of Michel Foucault with the quantum physics of Niels Bohr. There are important differences between her and OOO though, and I feel that the concepts of apparatus, entanglements, intra-action and especially the Bohrian term phenomena bring up crucial problems (Instead of objects, at least in the non-entangled sense, Barad argues that ‘phenomena’ should be the real objective referents; a term that could also fruitfully be named situation). Nonetheless – or maybe exactly for that reason – Barad can help us grasp the dual sense of ‘saklighet’ in her discussion of “onto-epistemology”. The argument is fairly simple, because of an elegant wordplay, that she borrows from Judith Butler. Barad’s metaphysics can be summed up in a sentence: the universe comes to matter. Every thing comes to matter in two ways: comes to matter as in materialize; comes to matter as in having meaning, or making sense. It is in this way that epistemology always has ontological consequences (and vice versa). Every process of mattering (e.g. an experiment on the behavior of light) involves what Barad calls an ‘agential cut’ in the object (e.g. light), that makes certain aspects of the object come to matter (e.g. its particle-quality) and certain others not come to matter (e.g. its wave-quality). Agential cuts make certain things appear and other certain things disappear. It’s in this way that the ontoepistemological process in a profound way always implies ethics: in an almost literal sense to ‘take sides’ when making agential cuts, in a particular controversy between objects (where the ethical actor in question naturally becomes one of these objects).


Noter om ontologi. Fragmenterne kommer fra en længere tekst under udarbejdelse, der bl.a. omhandler møder mellem fremmede, kommunisme som verbum, ‘grundkommunisme’ (Graeber) og venskab.

Det er velkendt at gaderne flyder med modstridende situationer: uhøfligheder, flirt, ligegyldighed. At blive objekt for en andens gestus – at blive anråbt, kærtegnet eller ignoreret – konstituerer mig altid som noget særligt, noget andet end “mig selv”. Jeg bliver hele tiden til som disse andre ting gennem andres gestusser. De er apparater.

Et apparat i denne forstand kan ikke reduceres til maskiner. Et apparat kan tage mange former: partikler, svaner, overvågningskameraer, hipstere, døde rotter, transnationale motorvejsnet og parmiddage. Fælles for dem alle er, at de i deres møde med verden, får visse ting til at blive til og andre til ikke at blive til. De opstiller snit, gør noget muligt og andet umuligt. Hipsteren opsnuser en undergrundsbar, får den til at blive trendy og siden til at dø. Det giver baren berømmelse, men også kort levetid. Døde rotter kan på godt og ondt bremse en sådan udvikling. Parmiddage gør visse overfladiske samtaler mulige, mens stilhed virker umuligt. Overvågningskameraet er ligeglad med samtaler: det registrerer kun fysiologiske overflader, skaber på en og samme tid forestillet tryghed og diffus mistænksomhed. Jeg skal ikke gå ind i en diskussion for at afgrænse hvad der er og hvad der ikke er et apparat, men bare konstatere at subjektivitet kan spores til mange oprindelsessteder.

Når et apparat måler og mærker et objekt opstår et samlet fænomen: apparat-objektet, der får objektet til at blive til på en særlig måde. Karen Barad ville kalde denne totalitet for et fænomen, men jeg vil almengøre det begreb en smule ved at sige, at vi alle steder, til alle tidspunkter, befinder os i en situation. Det værende er situationen, og således ankommer vil til denne obskure neologisme: situationtologi (situation + ontologi). Subjektivitet virker i den udstrækning, at vi ikke bliver tilstede i situationen, at apparaterne bare fortsætter med at virke i baggrunden. Vi flyder med og gør, som man gør.

Metropolen er denne ophobning af apparater, der hele tiden får os til at blive til på bestemte måder: de lange fortove uden anden plads til at gå, der får os til at fortsætte med at gå; overvågningskameraerne i supermarkedet der får den sultne til at betale. Apparaterne er ikke utvetydigt bundne til bestemte subjektpositioner, det er måder vi konstituerer hinanden på, som kan gøre sig gældende i forskellige situationer. Det kræver ikke en politibetjent for at få mig til at føle mig kriminel, så længe der bliver råbt “stop lige dér!” med en vis autoritet, volume og dialekt.