Notes on being a sofa: Reflections from the extraneous life

In working against or around predominant logics of how we, both academically and in our everyday life contexts, approach the things of the world (Gumbrecht 2003), we can make use of ‘riskful’ thinking (Gumbrecht 2002). The desired outcome of this piece therefore is to create semantical complexity through going one step too far. More precisely, I attempt to understand what it means and feels like to be a thing – in this case a sofa (couch or any other etymologically similar denotation).

It is in this step that we may be able to move, for the moment, beyond approaches that already work against these predominant logics in understanding things as actors (Latour 2005, 2013) or constitutive parts (Serres 2007) in the construction of our relational cultures and societies (e.g. Simmel 1992 or Tarde 2009). Hence, instead of asking in what way do things and their materialities induce meaning and sociality, we have to seek out to understand what the mere ontic implications are, or would be, if one was a thing of the world – if one was a sofa.

Relying on the encyclopaedia ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, in form of the corresponding books, novels, films, and tv shows, as field of inquiry, we are, however, confronted with the dilemma of every cultural studies oriented analysis. Culture is at work implicitly. We don’t need to understand something as explicitly cultural for it to be at work in a cultural way. Trying to understand what something means or how it feels like has thus to be approached from within (Baecker 2016).

One might illustrate this with the following conversation between Ford and Arthur as they find themselves in form of sofas after an infinite improbability drive: “‘Ford?’, ‘Yes?’, ‘I think I’m a sofa’, ‘I know how you feel'”. Trying to understand the mere conditions and operations behind this “I know how you feel” is what cultural studies are ultimately concerned with. And just as you only can understand how it feels like to be a sofa if you’ve once been one, a cultural studies oriented inquiry, working from within, from the experience and context of being a sofa, can only be one among other cultural techniques of seeking to understand and mediate the very context situated in.

Understanding a sofa as both a physical object and at the same time as historically constituted artefact, we might understand how it feels like to be a sofa following its ‘unconcealment of being’ (Heidegger 1927, 1935). It is in this process that we are confronted with a double movement towards and away from the threshold dividing being as substantiality of the world and the well-ordered grid of things and meanings that is culture. Reflecting on the ontic experience of being a sofa, we might understand it as the oscillating experience of being-in-the-world, substantially, while at the same time being-ready-to-hand, already culturally interpreted (Gumbrecht 2003). Located on the threshold, as sofa one can thus neither bring truth into culture nor culture into truth. While this might seem like a quite extraneous life, the mere implication of this ontic experience has to be seen around composure (Gelassenheit) – meaning the capacity of letting things be.

Translating this implication into the fields of cultural techniques, going one step back into the domain of human life and attempts of finding immediacy, of finding closeness to the things of the world, we could for instance associate ‘Gelassenheit’ with the sofa as quasi-object. But, we could also associate it to broader tempo-spatial keys like vacation, forgetting, or being a child. What these have in common is that they transform our present contexts of human life to a stance where letting the things be is maybe not only a thoroughly accepted way of being, but maybe also more constitutive than reflecting on it.

“To children returning from vacation, the home is new, fresh, festive. But nothing has changed in it, since they left. Only because the duties were forgotten, of which every piece of furniture, every window, every lamp is otherwise a reminder, does the Sabbath peace once more repose, and for minutes one is at home in the multiplication table of rooms, chambers and corridors, as it will appear for the rest of one’s life only in lies. Not otherwise will the world appear, nearly unchanged, in the steady light of its day of celebration, when it no longer stands under the law of labor, and the duties of those returning home are as light as vacation play.” (Adorno 1978)

Adorno, T. (1978). Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life. London: Verso.
Baecker, D. (2016). Wozu Kulturwissenschaft?. In: Studium fundamentale. Die Semester Zeitung im Wintersemester 2016. Witten: Uni Witten-Herdecke.
Gumbrecht, H.U. (2002). Riskantes Denken. Intellektuelle als Katlysatoren von Komplexität. In U.J. Wenzel (ed.). Der kritische Blick. Über intellektuelle Tätigkeiten und Tugenden. Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 148-147.
Gumbrecht, H.U. (2003). Production of Presence. What Meaning Cannot Convey. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Heidegger, M. (1927). Sein und Zeit. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
Heidegger, M. (1935). Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks. Stuttgart: Reclam.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: an introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press
Latour, B. (2013). An inquiry into modes of existence: an anthropology of the moderns. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Serres, M. (2007). The Parasite. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Simmel, G. (1992). Soziologie. Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.
Tarde, G. (2009). Die Gesetze der Nachahmung. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.


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