The more Jean-Paul Sartre I read, the more I appreciate his prescience. As I read more of his exploration of scarcity and its material articulations, I find ideas that would become momentous in major philosophies in subsequent decades casually thrown around as Sartre makes his points and moves on. This time, it’s a curious idea about the actions of inanimate objects and systems of bodies.
He discusses what he considers a curious way of speaking that he says only became prevalent after Karl Marx, but which has become ubiquitous and ordinary by now. In his first illustrative example of this, Sartre describes how the workday in industrializing Europe expanded beyond daylight to reach fifteen to sixteen hours. This is because gas-powered lighting was invented, and these lights enabled workers to stay in the factories past sundown.
Sartre’s critique is in the active word given to a lamp. Lamps don’t enable anything because they don’t think or move. At the moment, Sartre critiques this way of thinking for attributing intentionality and the ability to act to a set of inanimate bodies. The lamps had no malice toward the workers who were cajoled into brutally longer workdays after their advent. They weren’t capable of thought and planning, therefore incapable of action as traditionally conceived.
I’ve read this idea in analytic moral philosophy as well, in regard to problems that come up in environmentalist philosophy. In describing ecosystems, it’s often required to discuss how a river or some other feature of a landscape affects surrounding bodies. And sometimes, a philosopher who will appear saying that inanimate objects can’t act. They’re entirely passive because they define action using a common sense definition: if a body can’t think or plan what it does, then it can’t be said to truly act. This is the reasoning behind the classifications of killing in our judicial system. The degree of severity of the punishment you face for killing someone varies according to your planning and foresight.
Of course, just because one conception of action works in one venue (such as judicial morality) doesn’t mean that same conception will work in another venue (such as understanding ecological relationships). And ecological relationships don’t only occur in natural systems like river valleys and deserts, but in factories, towns, and farms. Economic systems are ecosystems too.
As far as I’m concerned, this is the greatest conceptual transformation that the twenty-first century and ecological philosophy has brought us: the ability to understand nonhumans and even the nonliving as actors in the world. That way, we can better conceive of how the messes we’ve gotten ourselves into through the unintentional activity of humanity and other bodies operate. People who still think according to this radical separation of humanity and nonhumans are hobbled in their ability to understand the material relationships and dynamics that actually constitute our world.
People are also machines, and machines can be understood as different kinds of people. What Sartre discussed, Gilles Deleuze and I embraced.
And Kraftwerk seem to have lived it.