Human - Object - Tool

Paper read at the Institute of Anthropology, Copenhagen, November 18, 2001

Finn Sivert Nielsen

About 90,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens Sapiens in Africa started to make tools like the ones above. They are finely cut from the original stone and bone. The craftmanship is unmistakable - this is the product of human beings.

These are not simply objects, things; for two reasons:

a) The care with which they have been shaped gives them a quality that transcends mere utility, not to speak of mere abstract materiality. This quality indicates a fascination on the part of the maker with the making itself. Craft shows through as beauty. This beauty is of an altogether different kind than the beauty of natural objects, such as leaves, crystals, teardrops, which are otherwise quite similar to them (and which are also, though for entirely different reasons, not "mere objects").

b) The tools are also not "mere objects", because they are tools. Tools stand in a strangely intimate, intermediate and indeterminate position between humans and things, subject and object. Formally, an object is defined as that onto which the action of a subject is projected. The tool is not a "mere object", because it is not a destination, but a medium, or perhaps better - a mediator, of action. The tool enables specific kinds of action, which would otherwise be impossible for human beings.

We shall posit that it is the art of tool-making and tool-use that defines homo sapiens sapiens as a species. Language, which is often regarded as the defining quality of our species, is from this perspective "merely" a particular kind of tool.

An essential question should be posed at this point, but will be bypassed here: If tools are mediators of action, what is then action? But without addressing this point, we cannot hope to appreciate the use to which tools are put, their practice, so we restrict ourselves here to what I shall call "the discourse of tools".

I shall briefly relate the idea of the tool to four theoretical constructs in the social sciences:

  1. Marcel Mauss's theory of the Gift, including some of its extensions in modern anthropology, such as Appadurai's conception of "the social life of things", Bloch and Parry's work on "the morality of money", and Thomas' discussion of "entangled objects".
  2. Marshall MacLuhan's dictum that "the medium is the message".
  3. Paul Ricoeur' notion of "meaningful action considered as text" (which I link to Bloch's concept of "frozen labor").
  4. D.W. Winnicott's theory of "transitional objects".

Now, briefly (very briefly...):


Mauss's basic thesis was that when objects circulated in systems of gift exchange, they constituted and absorbed the social relationships through which they passed, ultimately becoming "total social phenomena", entangled (Thomas) in all social relationships, and hence in the totality of society itself.

Bloch observes that in modern society money is such a "total social phenomenon", just as "entangled" in every relationship. Money, the presumably abstract, neutral, general "tool" of the market economy is charged with moral value. Lemon has later argued that physical money (cash) is a sensual, esthetic object.

Much along the same lines Appadurai (following Simmel) emphasizes the "life-like" character of commodities circulating on the world market. Like the objects of the Kula (Malinowski), commodities accumulate biographies - long, complex sequences of transformations of semiotics and value. The biography (or pedigree) of a commodity is an intrinsic part of its value (e.g. ecological vegetables, Persian rugs, Armani shoes).

Such transformations, or "translations", of the value and meaning of objects are an important concern of Latour's "actor network theory". Actor networks are formed when information circulates between actors ("actants"), which may either be persons or things - the distinction is irrelevant to the theory, as long as the actor projects meaningful action into the network of translations. Actors are here the equivalent of tools: the network of meaning is thus woven, not between people, but between specialized enablements of human action, mediated by specific "tools".


MacLuhan posits that the nature of the medium through which information passes has a fundamental effect on the understanding of that information by the recipient. In modern society, where media transmit ever more distant (and for the recipient more unknowable) events, and where the "bandwidth" of the transmission (music, speech, color, movement, sampling resolution, refresh speeds etc.) is steadily increasing, what is transmitted is increasingly not a message derived from outside the transmission, but the imprint of the medium itself - a kind of glorying in the excellence of the tool, rather similar to the esthetic impulse we noted in the Paleolithic tools above (cf. Gell).

The sphere of modern mass media is thus in effect a discourse among tools, an autonomous, tool-internal discourse (cf. Baudrillard and Gell). With the advent of computerization MacLuhan's thesis gains renewed relevance, since computers are tools that in themselves constitute autonomous actor-networks. The tendency towards tool-internalization of discourse is brought a significant step further.

This is perhaps disquieting, since these "internal network tools" are also increasingly used for practical purposes, i.e. for shaping the (tool-external) world. A discourse of tools is determining the fate of nature, upon which human beings, as parts of nature, are completely dependent.

Computers represent a new species of tool that is radically different from any other in human history. In order to understand the computer's role today, it is therefore essential to understand what a tool is, its potentials and limitations - as a tool.


A possible approach to this question may be found in Ricoeur's theory of text. Ricoeur posits that all action leaves marks in the world, which may subsequently be "read" as a text. The marks themselves are simply a dead notation - ink on paper, tracks in sand, lipstick on collar. They retain the abstract pattern that was imprinted on them by the sender's message, but this Lévi-Straussian structure remains dead in itself. To imbue it with life, it must be interpreted, with a hermeneutical and quite un-structuralist leap of imagination, a "guess", at what the text really means.

In Ricoeur, the text thus provides a distanced and structured standpoint, from which to assess the (extra-textual) world. Since the text itself is "mere structure", it allows the actor critical freedom. Bloch, arguing in a Marxian tradition, demonstrates that this is only one side of the coin. The text, the mark of action, is equally the product of labor, and when large amounts of labor are invested in an object, the object becomes inherently valuable as a depository of "frozen labor", and - since it would take just as much labor once again to recreate the object (irrigation systems in Madagascar, buildings in New York) - the object becomes a source of power.

Tools are explicitly and very carefully marked by action. They are texts and repositories of frozen labor, promising freedom and power simultaneously.


A second possible aproach is Winnicott's theory of "transitional objects". Transitional objects mediate between the Self and the world. A child's teddy-bear has this quality. It is an extension of the Self, which is still a not-Self. In early childhood, it mediates psychological growth by establishing a stable interface between the Self and the world. At a later age, it becomes a source of humor and existential paradox; if maturation has proceeded abnormally, it may become a source of confusion or breakdown of that interface.

If we view the Tool as a kind of universal transitional object, our relationship to it must have all the fertile intensity of loyalty, love and fantasy, that the child displays towards teddy. Likewise, we might expect a similar idiosyncratic focus of these attentions. After all, why teddy and not kitty? Why forks, not chopsticks? Why topless sunbathing rather than burkhas? Why particles rather than waves?

By examining the Tool we learn, first, a general lesson about universal qualities of human societies (themselves actor networks). Secondly, we approach some very fundamental questions about the underlying logic of our own troubled age.