Below is a response to Anton’s comment on my earlier post On Thyme.

Yes, I would rather no human shaping at all.

And yes, where language tries to describe things as themselves, it fails. The description interrupts its object, causes it to recede from description, and in its place describes something altogether different. The thing described is not the same as the coexistent thing that evaded description. The particular quality of a thing – a thing as it is, on its own, “resting in its thing-being” – is precisely that it is undescribed*. Described, the thing is no longer the thing it was, and the thing it was recedes, evading description. Heidegger writes:

“The unpretentious thing evades thought most stubbornly. Or can it be that this self-refusal of the mere thing, this self-contained, irreducible spontaneity, belongs precisely to the essence of the thing? Must not this strange and uncommunicative feature of the essence of the thing become intimately familiar to thought that tries to think the thing? If so, then we should not force our way into its thingly character.” [1]

To describe a thing – even to consider a thing – is to change the object. Even to intentionally let a thing rest unexamined demands specific indifference to the thing, and specific indifference entails specific attention to the ostensibly unexamined thing. Any attention at all has the effect of description: it causes the thing-in-itself to recede.

I wrote that the thing-in-itself is “best as it is” in the sense that it recedes least when left to itself, unobserved, “with no human shaping at all”. And assuming thyme is unselfconscious**, it is equally well growing, dying, flowering, drying: these are aspects of its being “as it is”.

In fact I wrote that the thyme is “best as it is, just looked at”. Let me temper this reference to looking. We’ve seen that just looking at an object is enough to cause it to recede from sight. Indeed, just imagining an object has its risks: attempting to conceive some equipment – a pair of peasant shoes – Heidegger finds they are “what they are” not when imagined in abstract, but when imagined as a peasant woman wears them in the field. Moreover:

“They are all the more genuinely [what they are], the less the peasant woman thinks about the shoes while she is at work, or looks at them at all, or is even aware of them. She stands and walks in them. That is how shoes actually serve. It is in this process of the use of equipment that we must actually encounter the character of equipment.” [2]

In not thinking about, looking at, or even being aware of the shoes as she uses them, the peasant woman is absorbed into their function. Her interaction with the shoes lacks the delay of description, and she becomes a function of their equipmental quality. Following Heidegger, the thyme-as-tool can be picked, cooked, eaten without compromising the undescribed essence of the thyme as itself, with the proviso that these things happen without awareness of the actions as the actions in themselves. So yes, walks without transmission happen whenever they take place without this awareness: whenever the walker succeeds in not transmitting the walk “even to himself”. Likewise, I would argue, the thyme-as-mere-thing can be looked at without any such compromise provided it happens unselfconsciously, that is, lacking the delay of description or examination. Perhaps in this sense, “seeing” is a more helpful term than “looking at”.

So describing the thyme (or self-conscious, attentive thinking about it, or self-conscious, attentive looking at it) pushes the thyme-as-thyme further away and results in a representation of something quite different: thyme-as-described. The representation does not approach its original object at all: instead it approaches (creates) a represented version of that object which itself exists only because the representation writes it into existence. It’s circular: the representation brings into existence the thing that brings the representation into existence. Rather like a sign whose sole purpose is to announce “do not look at this sign”, the whole matter would be solved if neither were there in the first place.

In a separate post I want to write about my conclusion: “Things describe themselves best on their own. Language has other work to do”.

* We might argue in our age of irony and spectacle that nothing at all exists that is not already recuperated into language: a proposition that muddies the distinction between a thing-in-itself and a thing-as-described. I think it’s because of this contemporary muddying that the “proper place” of language has been so frequently tested through C20-21 art and literature.

** Harman and friends do not assume this.

[1] Heidegger, M., “The Origin of the Work of Art” in Basic Writings. 2nd edn., ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper Collins, 1993: 157

[2] Heidegger, M. 1993: 159