Orientations Towards Objects

Sara Ahmed, ‘Orientations Towards Objects’, pp.25-64, in:

Ahmed, S., 2006. Queer phenomenology: orientations, objects, others. Duke University Press, Durham.


[…] by showing how phenomenology faces a certain directions, which depends on the relegation of other “things” to the background, I consider how phenomenology may be gendered as a form of occupation.

We are turned toward things . Such things make an impression upon us. We perceive them as things insofar as they are near to us, insofar as we share a residence with them. Perception hence involves orientation; what is perceived depends on where we are located, which gives us a certain take on things.


Orientations involve directions toward objects that affect what we do, and how we inhabit space. We move toward and away from objects depending on how we are moved by them.


The family home provides, as it were, the background against which an object (the writing table) appears in the present, in front of Husserl. The family home is thus only ever co-perceived, and allows the philosopher to do his work.

Being orientated toward the writing table not only relegates other rooms in the house to the background, but also might depend on the work done to keep the desk dear. The desk that is clear is one that is ready for writing. One might even consider the domestic work that must have taken place for Husserl to turn to the writing table, and to be writing on the table, and to keep that table as the object of his attention.


We can draw here on the long history of feminist scholarship about the politics of housework: about the ways in which women, as wives and servants, do the work required to keep such spaces available for men and the work they do (Gilman 2002).


To sustain an orientation toward the writing table might depend on such work, while it erases the signs of that work, as signs of dependence.

What is behind Husserl’s back, what he does not face, might be the back of the house – the feminine space dedicated to the work of care, cleaning, and reproduction.

We can think, in other words, of the background not simply in terms of what is around what we face, as the “dimly perceived,” but as produced by acts of relegation: some things are relegated to the background in order to sustain a certain direction; in other words, in order to keep attention on what is faced.


[Ref Adrienne Rich]

We can see from the point of view of this mother, who is also a writer, a poet, and a philosopher, that giving attention to the objects of writing, facing those objects, becomes impossible: the children, even if they are behind you, literally pull you away. This loss of time for writing feels like a loss of your own time, as you are returned to the work of giving your attention to the children.

Attention involves a political economy, or an uneven distribution of attention time between those who arrive at the writing table, which affects what they can do once they arrive (and of course, many do not even make it). For some, having time for writing, which means time to face the objects upon which writing happens, becomes an orientation that is not available given the ongo­ing labor of other attachments, which literally pull you away.

So whether we can sustain our orientation toward the writing table depends on other orientations, which affect what we can face at any given moment in time.


So this turn toward objects within phenomenology (which as we see is about some objects and not others) is not about the characteristics of such objects, which we can define in terms of type, the kind of objects they are, or their function, which names not only the “tendency” of the objects, what they do, but also what they allow us to do: the paper (what I write on), the pencil (what I write with), and so on.

Perhaps to bracket does not mean to transcend, even if we put something aside. We remain reliant on what we put in brackets; in­ deed, the activity of bracketing may sustain the fantasy that “what we put aside” can be transcended in the first place.The act of “putting aside” might also confirm the fantasy of a subject who is transcendent, who places himself above the contingent world of social matter, a world that differentiates objects and subjects according to how they already appear.


The fantasy of a paperless philosophy can be understood as crucial not only to the gendered nature of the occupation of philosophy but also to the disappearance of political economy, of the “materials” of philosophy as well as its dependence on forms of labor, both domestic and otherwise. In other words, the labor of writing might disappear along with the paper.

The paper here matters, both as the object upon which writing is written, but also as the condition of possibility for that work. If the suspension of the natural attitude, which sees it self as seeing beyond the familiar, or even seeing through it, involves putting the

paper aside, then it might involve the concealment of the labor of philosophy, as well as the labor that allows philosophy to take up the time that it does.


Husserl’s approach to the background as what is “unseen” in its “thereness” or “familiarity” is extremely useful, even if he puts the familiar to one side. It allows us to consider how the familiar takes shape by being unnoticed.

I want to consider how the table itself may have a background.


A background can refer to the “ground or parts situated in the rear” (such as the rooms in the back of the house), or to the portions of the picture represented at a distance, which in turn allows what is “in” the foreground to acquire the shape that it does, as a figure or object. Both of these meanings point to the “spatiality” of the background. We can also think of background as having a temporal dimension.

When we tell a story about someone, for instance, we might give information about their background: this meaning of “background” would be about “what is behind,” where “what is behind” refers to what is in the past or what happened “before.”

So, if phenomenology is to attend to the background, it might do so by giving an account of the conditions of emergence for something, which would not necessarily be available in how that thing presents itself to consciousness.


If phenomenology turns us toward things, in terms of how they reveal themselves in the present, then we may also need to “follow” such things around. We may need to supplement phenomenology with an “eth­nography of things.” The question of where an object “goes” would not then vacate the position of subjects, those to whom they present themselves as a figure, or background within familiar forms of the social.


[Ref Marx and Engels’ criticism of Feuerbach]

If phenomenologists were simply to “look at” the object that they face, then they would be erasing the “signs” of history. They would apprehend the object as simply there, as given in its sensuous certainty rather than as “having got here,” an arrival that is at once the way in which objects are binding and how they assume a social form.

For Marx and Engels, actions are generational and intergenerational (the point is not about individual action). What passes through history is not only the work done by generations, but the “sedimentation” of that work is the condition of arrival for future generations. Objects take the shape of this history; objects “have value” and they take shape through labor. They are formed out of labor, but they also “take the form” of that labor. What Marxism lets us do is to rearticulate the historicity of furniture, among other things.


If phenomenologists were simply to “look at” the object that they face, then they would be erasing the “signs” of history. They would apprehend the object as simply there, as given in its sensuous certainty rather than as “having got here,” an arrival that is at once the way in which objects are binding and how they assume a social form.

Idealism is the philosophical counterpart to what Marx would later describe as commodity fetishism. I want to suggest that it is not just commodities that are fetishized: objects that I perceive as objects, as having properties of their own, as it were, are produced through the process of fetishism. The object is “brought forth” as a thing that is “itself” only insofar as it is cut off from its own arrival.


Objects appear by being cut off from such histories of arrival, as histories that involve multiple generations, and the “work” of bodies, which is of course the work of some bodies more than others.


The Marxian critique of commodity fetishism notably relies here on a distinction between matter and form, between the wood and the table. The “becoming table” of the wood is not the same as its commodification. The table has use value, even after it has transformed the “form” of the wood. The table can be used, and in being used the value of the table is not exchanged and made abstract. The table has use value until it is exchanged. One problem with this model is that the dynamism of “making form” is located in the trans­ formation of nature into use value: we could also suggest that the “wood” (nature/matter) has acquired its form over time. Nature then would not be simply “there,” waiting to be formed or to take form.


What a Marxist approach could allow us to do, if we extend Marx’s critique of the commodity to the very matter of wood as well as the form of the table, is to consider the history of “what appears” and how it is shaped by histories of work.


What we need to recall is how the “thisness” of this table does not, as it were, belong to it: what is particular about this table, what we can tell through its biography, is also what allows us to tell a larger story: a story not only of “things” changing hands, but of how things come to matter by taking shape through and in the labor of others.

Such histories are not simply available on the surface of the object, apart from the scratches that might be left behind. Histories shape “what” surfaces: they are behind the arrival of “the what” that surfaces.

The object has arrived. And, having arrived, what then does it do? I want to suggest that objects not only are shaped by work, but that they also take the shape of the work they do.

We say that we occupy space; that we have an occupation. We are occupied with objects, which present themselves as tools to extend “the reach” of our actions.


We could perhaps then redescribe the table as a tool, as something we do something with. In Being and Time Heidegger offers us a powerful reading of tools as he does in his later work on technology. In the former, Heidegger considers the “pragmatic” character of things, which is obscured by the presentation of things as “mere things,” and he considers such things as forms of equipment.


Equipmentality is about what “things” or “objects” allow bodies to do: they have an “in-order-to” structure, which assigns or refers to something. So what makes the object “itself” is what it allows us to do, and that “doing” takes the object out of itself and makes it “point” toward something, whether that something is an action or other ob­jects.

The writing table might also point toward the writing body, as that which becomes “itself” once it “takes up” the equipment and “takes up” time and space, in doing the work that the equipment allows the body to do.

It is not just that the object tends toward something, where the ten­dency supports an action, but that the shape of the object is itself shaped by the work for which it is intended. For Heidegger, the thing “is not merely an aggregate of traits, nor an accumulation of properties by which the aggregate arises,” rather it “is that around which the properties have been assembled”. We can see in this model of property as assemblage, how the thing becomes something that “has” properties.

Technology does not simply refer to objects that we use to extend capacities for action. Technology (or techne) becomes instead the process of”bringing forth” or, as Heidegger states,”to make something appear, within what is present, as this or as that, in this way or that way” (159).


So it is when the hammer is broken, or when I cannot use it, that I become aware of the hammer as an object-in-itself, rather than as object, which refers beyond itself to an action that I intend to perform.

What is being revealed when technologies are no longer ready for action? For Heidegger, it is properties that are revealed.


Failure, which is about the loss of the capacity to perform an action for which the object was intended is not a property of an object (though it tends to be attributed in this way and there is no doubt that things can go wrong), but rather of the failure of an object to extend a body, which we can define in terms of the extension of bodily capacities to perform actions.


A coffee table at the height of my waist would amount to a failed orientation, as I could not extend myself through it, by using it as something on which to place my coffee cup while I am sitting down on the sofa. The table is both an effect of work and also what allows us to work: whether the table “works” depends upon whether we can do, when we make use of the table, the work we intend to do.

The failure of objects to work could be described as a question of fit: it would be the failure of subjects and objects to work together.

I am not suggesting here that the objects do not have properties that may be revealed when they are put into action (a “putting into” that can also involve the failure to act). Objects do have qualities that make them tangible in the present. But these characteristics are not simply “in” the objects but instead are about how the objects work and are worked on by others.


To orientate oneself can mean to adjust one’s position, or another’s position, such that we are “facing” the right direc­tion: we know where we are through how we position ourselves in relation to others. Work also involves adjustments: we might move this way or that, so we

can work with this or that object: work involves a direction toward the object, which then works for us. The failure of work is not, then, “in” the thing or “in” the person but rather is about whether the person and the thing face each other in the right way.

Occupation is hence not just about “any body,” for an object tends toward some bodies more than others, depending on “the tendencies” of bodies. Objects may even take the shape of the bodies for whom they are “intended,” in what it is that they allow a body to do.

An action is possible when the body and the object “fit.” So it is not simply that some bodies and tools happen to generate specific actions. Objects, as well as spaces, are made for some kinds of bodies more than others. Objects are made to size as well as made to order: while they come in a range of sizes, the sizes also presume certain kinds of bodies as having”sizes” that will “match.” In this way, bodies and their objects tend toward each other; they are orientated toward each other, and are shaped by this orientation. When orientation “works,” we are occupied. The failure of something to work is a matter of a failed orientation: a tool is used by a body for which it was not intended, or a body uses a tool that does not extend its capacity for action.

How do bodies “matter” in what objects do?


The relation between action and space is hence crucial. It is not simply that we act in space; spatial relations between subjects and others are produced through actions, which make some things available to be reached.

So the space of the study is shaped by a decision (that this room is for this kind of work), which itself then “shapes” what actions “happen” in that space. The question of action is a question then of how we inhabit space. Given this, action involves the intimate co-dwelling of bodies and objects. This is not to say that bodies are simply objects alongside other objects.


As Merleau-Ponty shows us, bodies are “not the same” as other kinds of objects precisely given their different relation to space.


Returning to Husserl’s table, we can consider how the body moves around the object; and that very motility is remarkable in its difference

from that which it moves around.

[Ref Merleau-Ponty]

What makes bodies different is how they inhabit space: space is not a container for the body; it does not contain the body as if the body were “in it.” Rather bodies are submerged, such that they become the space they inhabit; in taking up space, bodies move through space and are affected by the “where” of that movement.

Of course, bodies are not the only kinds of objects that move. But when they move, we move. The table would become available to me, within my reach, only insofar as my bodily posture orientates me toward it and even spreads over it. The profile of the table is shaped by the profile of the body, even if that profile “disappears” from view.


Orientations are tactile and they involve more than one skin surface: we, in approaching this or that table, are also approached by the table, which touches us when we touch it.

Bodies as well as objects take shape through being orientated toward each other, as an orientation that may be experienced as the co-habitation or sharing of space.

Bodies are hence shaped by contact with objects and with others, with “what” is near enough to be reached. Bodies may even take shape through such contact, or take the shape of that contact.


What is reachable is determined precisely by orientations that we have already taken. Some objects don’t even become objects of perception, as the body does not move toward them: they are”beyond the horizon” of the body, and thus out of reach. The surfaces of bodies are shaped by what is reachable. Indeed, the history of bodies can be rewritten as the history of the reachable.


Phenomenology helps us to explore how bodies are shaped by histories, which they perform in their comportment, their posture, and their gestures.

What bodies “tend to do” are effects of histories rather than being originary.

We could say that history “happens” in the very repetition of gestures, which is what gives bodies their tendencies. We might note here that the labor of such repetition disappears through labor: if we work hard at something, then it seems “effortless.” This paradox – with effort it becomes effortless – is precisely what makes history disappear in the moment of its enactment. The repetition of the work is what makes the work disappear.

It is important that we think not only about what is repeated, but also about how the repetition of actions takes us in certain directions: we are also orientating ourselves toward some objects more than others, including not only physical objects (the different kinds of tables) but also objects of thought, feeling, and judgment, as well as objects in the sense of aims, aspirations, and objectives.


In repeating the work of typing, my body also feels a certain way. My neck gets sore, and I stretch to ease the discomfort. I pull my shoulders back every now and then as the posture I assume (a bad posture I am sure) is a huddle: I huddle over the table as I repeat the action (the banging of keys with the tips of my fingers); the action shapes me and leaves its impression, through bodily sensations, prickly feelings on the skin surface, and the more intense experience of discomfort. I write, and in performing this work I might yet become my object – become a writer, with a writer’s body, and a writer’s tendencies (the sore neck, the sore shoulders, are sure signs of having done this kind of work).

Repetitive strain injury (RSI) can be understood as the effect of such repetition: we repeat some actions, sometimes over and over again, and this is partly about the nature of the work we might do. Our body takes the shape of this repetition; we get stuck in certain alignments as an effect of this work.

The work of repetition is not neutral work; it orients the body in some ways rather than others.


The lump on my finger is a sure sign of an orientation I have taken, not just toward the pen-object, or the keyboard, but also toward the world, as someone who does a certain kind of work for a living.


The field of positive action, of what this or that body does do, also defines a field of action, of actions that are possible but that are not taken up, or even actions that are not possible because of what has been taken up.

If spaces extend bodies, then we could say that spaces also extend the shape of the bodies that “tend” to inhabit them. So, for instance, if the action of writing is associated with the masculine body, then it is this body that tends to inhabit the space for writing. The space for writing-say, the study-then tends to extend such bodies and may even take their shape. Gender becomes naturalized as a property of bodies, objects, and spaces partly through the “loop” of this repetition, which leads bodies in some directions more than others and explains which way it turns.


In a way, the writing table waits for the body of the writer. In waiting for the writer the table waits for some bodies more than others.

Gender is an effect of how bodies take up objects, which involves how they occupy space by being oc­cupied in one way or another.

[Ref Charlotte Perkins Gilman]

Such forms of occupation or of being occupied shape the furniture: the chairs become soft to provide seating for the body that sits. In turn, the body becomes soft as it occupies the soft seat, taking up the space made available by the seat. Such positions become habitual: they are repeated, and in being repeated they shape the body and what it can do. The more the body sits, the more it tends to be seated.

We acquire our tendencies as an effect of the direction of energy to this or that side. The more we work certain parts of the body, such as this or that muscle, the more work they can do. At the same time, the less we work other muscles, then the less they can do. So if gender shapes what we “do do,” then it shapes what we can do. Gender could thus be described as a bodily orientation, a way in which bodies get directed by their actions over time.

Gender is an effect of the kinds of work that bodies do, which in turn “directs” those bodies, affecting what they “can do.” At the same time, it is not always decided which bodies inhabit which spaces, even when spaces extend the form of some bodies and not others.


[Ref Virginia Woolf]


When bodies take up spaces that they were not intended to inhabit, something other than the reproduction of the facts of the matter happens . The hope that reproduction fails is the hope for new impressions, for new lines to emerge, new objects, or even new bodies, which gather, in gathering around this table. The “new” would not involve the loss of the background. Indeed, for bodies to arrive in spaces where they are not already at home, where they are not”in place,”involves hard work; indeed, it involves painstaking labor for bodies to inhabit spaces that do not extend their shape. Having arrived, such bodies in turn might acquire new shapes.


The background to the object, which allows it to be put to work, depends upon work that is repeated over time that is often “hidden from view.” Perhaps where Husserl’s gaze fails to wander is into other spaces, such as the space of the kitchen – that is, as spaces that are often associated with the “world” that tends toward the body in terms of caring for it and sustaining it. Does Hus­serl’s gaze avoid wandering there insofar as those spaces are shaped by concealed labor; as the labor that gives him the capacity to “think” about the writing table?

In a way, a queer phenomenology is involved in the project of “turning the tables” on phenomenology by turning toward other kinds of tables.