What’s playing who?

In this essay I’ll be covering something similar to what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari elaborate in ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’. The focus still very much on things, or rather, objects, as discussed by Michel Serres and Bruno Latour. Anyway, I’ll start by examining quasi-objects, as defined by Michel Serres in ‘The Parasite’.

In a chapter titled as ‘Theory of the Quasi-Object’, Serres (224) begins with a question:

“What living together is. What is the collective? This question fascinates us now.”

Indeed, that is an important question, yet he (224-225) laments that it’s beyond him, always a bit of a mystery that keeps eluding him despite the occasional moments of clarity. Anyway, moving on to the topic at hand, Serres (225) explains what is a quasi-object:

“This quasi-object is not an object, but it is one nevertheless, since it is not a subject, since it is in the world; it is also a quasi-subject, since it marks or designates a subject who, without it, would not be a subject. He who is not discovered with the [slipper] in his hand is anonymous, part of a monotonous chain where he remains undistinguished. He is not an individual; he is not recognized, discovered, cut; he is of the chain and in the chain. He runs, like the [slipper], in the collective. The thread in his hands is our simple relation, the absence of the [slipper]; its path makes our indivision. Who are we? Those who pass the [slipper]; those who don’t have it. This quasi-object, when being passed, makes the collective, if it stops, it makes the individual. If he is discovered, he is ‘it’ [mort]. Who is the subject, who is an ‘I,’ or who am I? The moving [slipper] weaves the ‘we,’ the collective; if it stops, it marks the ‘I’.”

Here Serres (225) is actually elaborating the game of hunt the slipper (which I didn’t even know existed before this). In summary, it’s a game in which a slipper is passed from participant to participant with one player trying to touch the player who is in possession of the slipper. In the quote the [mort] is in the original, the rest are my edits done for the sake of clarity. Serres (225) offers another example, the ball:

“A ball is not an ordinary object, for it is what it is only if a subject holds it. Over there, on the ground, it is nothing; it is stupid; it has no meaning, no function, and no value. Ball isn’t played alone.”

Yes, a ball is an ordinary object, one among others if it merely exists. We could say it’s something spherical. That said, ball is much more than an ordinary object when it is in the possession of someone. Now, of course, here is the distinction between a ball as just a ball and a ball as in a ball in game, you know, like in football, basketball, baseball and the like. Anyway, I’ll let Serres (226) continue:

“Let us consider the one who holds it. … The ball isn’t there for the body; the exact contrary is true: the body is the object of the ball; the subject moves around this sun. Skill with the ball is recognized in the player who follows the ball and serves it instead of making it follow him and using it. It is the subject of the body, subject of bodies, and like a subject of subjects. Playing is nothing else but making oneself the attribute of the ball as a substance.”

In other words, Serres is making the point that in a game the ball is not the object, but rather the subject. It may seem preposterous but, then again, players do orient around the ball and move in relation to it, following it and anticipating its movements. If you think of it, it’s actually rather obvious, the ball does not follow the player, the player follows the ball. Serres (226) is very clear on this:

“The ball is the subject of circulation; the players are only the stations and relays. … In most games, the man with the ball is on offense; the whole defense is organized relative to him and his position. The ball is the center of the referential, for the moving game. With few exceptions like American football, for example-the only one who can be tackled is the one who has the ball. This quasi-object, designates him. He is marked with the sign of the ball. Let him beware.”

Simply put, in the game you are ‘it’ when you are in the possession of the ball. You are ‘it’ to the extent that it’s at your peril. You are the witness, which, according to Serres (226), stands for martyr in Greek. Beware indeed. Serres (226) further clarifies this:

“The member of the offense, the one carrying the ball, is marked as the victim. He holds the witness, and he is the martyr. Here and now, precisely on him, everything occurs. The sky falls on his head. The set of speeds, forces, angles, shocks, and strategic thoughts is woven here and now. But, suddenly, it is no longer true; what was supposed to be decided isn’t; the knot comes undone.”

Yeah, like I pointed out, you’re now ‘it’. Conversely, while you’re ‘it’, with the ball, it being only a matter of time until you’re not ‘it’, which may or may not involve violence, the others on your team and on the opposing team are not ‘it’, which, in many ball games means that they cannot be interfered with. He (227) continues:

“Thus, with the ball, we are all possible victims; we all expose ourselves to this danger and we escape it; the more the ball is passed, the more the vicariance changes, the more the crowd waits breathlessly. The ball shuttles back and forth like the [slipper], weaving the collective, virtually putting to death each individual. The reason that the victim appeases the crisis is that uncapturable knowledge that we all bear, under the voice that says ‘I’; we know that this victim can be ‘I’ as well. The ball is the quasi-object and quasi-subject by which I am a subject, that is to say, sub-mitted.”

So, in other words, what Serres is on about here is that the subject is not what is commonly understood as the grammatical subject, the ‘I’, the one that does something. Instead, while the ‘I’ is the subject, it is subject to, subjected, in relation to others. When a player is in possession of the ball, the player is not the subject and the ball is not the object. So, for example, in ‘the player kicked the ball’ it is assumed that it is as simple as that, subject, verb, object. We can, of course, look it that way, but it’s ignoring what the ball does to the player, subjecting the player to all kinds of potential calamity, or as Serres (227) puts it:

“Fallen, put beneath, trampled, tackled, thrown about, subjugated, exposed, then substituted, suddenly, by that vicariance. The list is that of the meanings of subjicere, subjectus.”

What Serres is arguing here, and in this chapter in general, is that the subject/object division is overly simplistic, one that emphasizes the capability of the assumed rational subject, the ‘I’. He (227) is quite clear on this:

“Philosophy is not always where it is usually foreseen. I learn more on the subject of the subject by playing ball than in Descartes’ little room.”

In summary, it would be silly to assert that the slipper or the ball do something, as if acting on their own. They don’t. That said, whatever the player (typically assumed to be the subject) does with the ball (typically assumed to be the object) is affected by the ball. The possession of the ball grants the player certain options, say kicking the ball in order to pass it to someone else or moving about with it. At the same time, however, being in possession of the ball makes the player open to various actions by other players, which may have an effect on what the player does. So, upon receiving the ball, the player may have to avoid a tackle from an opposing player or to dribble past a member of the opposition before being able to make the pass. In other words, as the game unfolds, what is done is not as simple as passing the ball in a linear sequence as each action is affected by other actions unfolding simultaneously. Now, one should also note that so far I’ve only pointed out what one player does in relation to the ball and those coming for the ball once the player is about to receive the ball. At the same time all the other players move about and orient themselves in relation to what unfolds in the proximity of the ball and others who do the same. It’s hard to even elaborate how it all unfolds, because you can only write in linear succession, one thing at a time, which, fails to capture the complexity of the game as it unfolds. Anyway, I think the point is, as I hinted in the previous essay title, that things matter, not necessarily by themselves, but in relation to other things and people. I can’t help but to think of assemblages here, how the heterogeneous elements affect one another, in as much as they do, if they do.

Following Serres, Bruno Latour addresses quasi-objects (and quasi-subjects) in his 1993 publication titled ‘We Have Never Been Modern’. In chapter three, in a segment titled ‘What Is a Quasi-Object’ he discusses “these strange new hybrids[.]”

Hybridity is a the core of the issue for Latour who (51-52) objects to the division of nature and society, arguing against understanding them as separate. Unsurprisingly sociology, namely in explicit reference to Pierre Bourdieu and Émile Durkheim, is criticized by Latour (51-52) for ignoring the properties items (objects) in favor of their symbolic properties. The crux of the issue for Latour (51-52) is that social scientists “denounce the belief system of ordinary people”, that something is considered naturalized, that things have intrinsic symbolic properties, say “the power of gods, the objectivity of money, the attraction of fashion” or “the beauty of art.” Anyway, I guess one could also phrase this as criticism of representation in general, as if that’s all there is. He (52-53) adds that, in reverse, social scientists also denounce the sense of freedom and rationality of ordinary people as naive beliefs. This time, however, Latour (53) states that these beliefs are debunked on the basis of “nature of things”, how things are, determining the thinking and actions of people. In summary, he (51-53) argues that in sociology people are seen as mere puppets, (mis)understanding the natural as social and the social as natural. His (53) statement “'[n]aturalization’ is no longer a bad word but the shibboleth that allows the social scientists to ally themselves with the natural sciences” is rather telling of how he views this.

Latour (53) continues his argument and indicates that in this duality the nature pole and the society pole are both spit to harder and softer sides. Latour (53) first characterizes the split in the nature pole:

“[T]he first list will include its ‘softer’ parts – screens for projecting social categories – while the second list will include all its ‘harder’ parts – causes for determining the fate of human categories: that is, the sciences and the technologies.”

He (53) then does the same for the society pole:

“[T]here will be its ‘harder’ components – the sui generis social factors – and its ‘softer’ components – determined by the forces discovered by sciences and technologies.”

Then to exemplify this, he (53) argues that:

“Social scientists will happily alternate from one to the other showing without any trouble that for instance gods are mere idols shaped by the requirements of social order, while the rules of society are determined by biology.”

So, in other words, he finds this, well, rather convenient, yet not very convincing. He (53) further exemplifies the dualism and the partitions by arguing that social scientists place the things they oppose into the soft side of the nature pole, including “religion, consumption, popular culture and politics” while taking the ones placed on the hard side for granted, namely “economics, genetics, biology, linguistics, or brain sciences.” To dial it down a notch, I mean Latour can be a bit hyperbolic here and there, he (53-54) is puzzled by the insistence to treat objects as mere reflections of the society, as if that’s all they are, yet, at least as he sees it, they are, in fact, its co-producers. In his (54) words, the issue is that:

“Maybe social scientists have simply forgotten that before projecting itself on to things society has to be made, built, constructed? And out of what material could it be built if not out of nonsocial, non-human resources? But social theory is forbidden to draw this conclusion because it has no conception of objects except the one handed down to it by the alternative ‘hard’ sciences which are so strong that they simply determine social order which in turn becomes flimsy and immaterial.”

He (54-55) then moves on to summarize how science studies awkwardly went on to disturb this symmetry, upsetting both sides of the argument, the ones on the nature side and the ones on the social side, albeit I see this more of a clear criticism of the social side. He (55) then adds that solving what then resulted, the bankruptcy of “the whole enterprise” (54), is not as simple as going for dialectics, as it “literally beats around the bush.” So, for him (55) this leads to the topic at hand, quasi-objects:

“Quasi-objects are much more social, much more fabricated, much more collective than the ‘hard’ parts of nature, but they are in no way the arbitrary receptacles of a full-fledged society. On the other hand they are much more real, nonhuman and objective than those shapeless screens on which society – for unknown reasons – needed to be ‘projected’.”

In other words, what we have is quasi-objects, things that are not only this or that, but of this and that, not here or there, but somewhere in between. In philosophy, he (56) finds that in Kantianism quasi-objects, or hybrids, are allowed and present, but as merely mediated, as intermediaries, “solely as mixtures of pure forms in equal proportion.” Similarly, he (57) states that Hegelian dialectics does little to alleviate the separation, rather making it worse, further separating the subject and the object. Phenomenology is not the answer either for Latour, as for him (57-58), phenomenologists only offer a retreat which ignores the issue rather than solving it. Up to this point, he (59) humorously summarizes the attempts to address the issue as looking “like a tightrope walker doing the splits.” Moving on to the modern, or rather what he calls the pre-postmodern, he (59-60) argues that, for example, Jürgen Habermas only further widens the gap between the poles. He (59) summarizes this grouping of philosophy as “truly belie[ving] that speaking subjects are incommensurable with natural objects[.]” Following this, he (61) refers to what follows, the postmodern, namely in reference to Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard, as hyper-incommensurability. So, in summary, Latour is arguing that attempts to bridge gap have only made it wider, quite paradoxically.

Now, what about the some other philosophies that so far haven’t been mentioned. Well, taking a detour, Latour (62-65) addresses what he refers to the semiotic or linguistic turn, namely the work of Roland Barthes, but also a host of others. Here the emphasis is on language as a mediator, having (63) “become a law unto itself, a law governing itself and its own world.” He (63) finds greatness in these textual or discursive philosophies as they avoid the pitfalls of the modernist philosophies, being situated in language and not grappling to the poles. That said, he (63-64) finds that by abandoning the adherence to a referent they become distant. The way I understand this is that once the text becomes essentially all there is, then that’s all there is. Even the author of text becomes the product of text, as he (63) points out. Here (64), the only one I can decipher as implicitly referred to and criticized is Jacques Derrida:

“Others retained the original impetus of the Empire and set about deconstructing themselves, autonomous glosses on autonomous glosses, to the point of autodissolution.”

Of course, I may be wrong about that, but I assume people are supposed to make the connection between Derrida and deconstruction. The other characterizations remain too vague for me to make the connections. Taking up Michel Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari would have been welcome here. Anyway, back to the topic, Latour (64) nevertheless nods approvingly at this line of thought for showing that it is possible “escape from the parallel traps of naturalization and sociologization” by “granting language its autonomy.” That said, he (64) argues that it’s only a valuable starting point if everything is merely discursive, if text is all there is. Having covered Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari quite a bit in some of my previous essays, I think that at least for them there is not only the discursive or the enunciative, but also the non-discursive or the machinic. Of course it might just be my generous reading into this, but I’d say they are not merely stuck in language, although it may seem that Foucault tends to emphasize the discursive over the non-discursive.

Moving on to something different (and among all things unrelated, making me think of biopower once more), Latour (65-66) briefly takes up the issue of Being and beings, as exemplified by Martin Heidegger. Here the emphasis is on that (65) “Being cannot reside in ordinary beings.” He (65-66) elaborates that it cannot reside in, for example, technology, science, politics, sociology, psychology, anthropology, history or economics. That said, he (66) does not agree with this, arguing that this is what the moderns want people think, thinking only in purities. In line with the title of the publication, he (66-67) is arguing that modernity has never existed, considering that Being never ceased to exist nor was it forgotten. Now I think I know why I thought of biopower. It has to do with how life is understood and this sort of relates to that, but I’ll reserve that for a later discussion (if I venture there more). This also makes me think of Deleuze and Guattari in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ elaborating how steel swords may have emergent, life like properties.

To broaden the horizons, I opted to write on something different, yet sort of related to my previous essays. I like the way Serres takes up the question of who plays who in something as simple as a game of football, turning the subject and the object on their heads. There are also certain similarities between Serres, Latour, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, which put further emphasis on objects, or things as I like to call them. I glossed over a lot in this essay and never got far enough to address Latour’s fascination with items, but I guess I’ll address that at another time. I quite enjoy his style of writing, even if I disagree here and there. He doesn’t mind ruffling feathers, that’s fore sure.


  • Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ([1980] 1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Latour, B. ([1991] 1993). We Have Never Been Modern (C. Porter, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Serres, M. ([1980] 1982). The Parasite (L. R. Schehr, Trans.). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.