In Plato's Laws, a conversation on how the coexistence of human beings could or rather should be structured, there appears a section concerning how to proceed with persons, animals or even things found guilty of taking a human life. For murder among human beings, it is suggested that the murderer be put to death, his body taken to the outskirts of town and stoned there, and then that the stoned corpse be removed to the frontier and cast out. This same course of action should likewise apply to any animals deemed responsible for the death of a human being. Eventually, the discussion turns to inanimate objects:
“Moreover, should an inanimate thing take the life of a human being (with the exception of cases in which, for example, lightning or some similar projectile from the heavens brings about this result), or should some object kill a human being in that it falls upon him, or he upon it, then the next of kin shall summon the nearest neighbor to act as judge, so that he himself and the entire family may be absolved of any liability, and the guilty object be cast out beyond the frontier, as is specified for beasts [as well as for human beings].”
The punishment as it is described here presupposes a capacity for guilt. Deeming something capable of being guilty—of taking a human life, for example—assumes, though, the preexistence of consciousness, or at least that of sentient awareness. In the case of the guilty beast, the animal is regarded as having defied its rearing and domestication. It has unilaterally broken an unspoken pact of mutual support and cooperation, and cannot but be held accountable. The animal guilty of killing, in comparison to all other animals not guilty of killing, is suspected of having willfully disregarded the sanctity of human life. It has proven itself to be insensitive with respect to its capacity for empathy, as well as categorically antisocial. Consequently it can, or must, according to Plato’s definition, in turn itself be killed and removed from the communal realm.
The object found responsible for taking a human life has proven similarly disappointing. Although it may seem absurd to charge an inanimate object with insensitivity, the object in question cannot simply be acquitted of all responsibility.
The fact that the inanimate object can have guilt ascribed to it at all, that it is capable of failure and disappointment (and it is for this reason that Plato makes a clear distinction between things on the earth and those falling from the sky), is predicated on the expectations human beings have of the things they have created.
The fury which arises, for example, when a person hurts themselves on an object (gets caught in a door, cuts themselves with a knife, etc.), is not only anger over their own clumsy handling of the object; it is also anger felt simultaneously towards the object itself, towards this thing which was originally created to make the lives of human beings easier, but which now turns against the individual human, and rather than relieving them of the burdens of their physicality, that is, the limitations of their physical body, instead confronts them with this body, its frailty and vulnerability.
Those things found guilty of such a crime against their makers should thus be likewise expelled from the community and disposed of, carried to the outskirts where, analogous to Plato’s laws, the landfills and incineration plants of our present time stand ready to receive all those objects unable or no longer able to fulfill the hopes and expectations that human beings placed upon them.
Out of those objects which have demonstrably served the humans well, however, there are routinely certain ones chosen for a future role as representative, to serve as examples of their kind as well as ambassadors of their time. On display in museums inside of vitrines and display cases made in turn by human beings expressly for this purpose, these representative objects are as such freed to some extent from their responsibility, or their intended function is at least redefined to the extent, that that which they now achieve for their creators is something else entirely from the desire originally projected into them when they were made (the transport of water from well to hut, insulation from the cold, the cutting or cleaving of materials).
With respect to its responsibility for meeting the human needs which gave rise to its creation, the vitrine in which such a representative object is displayed is a kind of object of the second order. Unlike a coat or a house, it does not shelter the sensitive and sentient tissues of its makers, but rather another inanimate object. The desires and needs projected into it cannot be traced back directly to any physical discomfort or deficiency. It constitutes a sort of exuberance in the process of creating cultural artifacts, a celebration of creativity or of creation itself. The display case’s assigned function is to keep safe the creative products of human beings, while at the same time visually showcasing those products to the humans, so that they might better recognize themselves in their own unique nature as inventive, creative beings, as well as to commemorate the creative work of their ancestors imbued in the objects displayed.
This work of the imagination and its realization remains stored in the object created, if nothing else, in the function it is meant to fulfill for human beings (that is, through the projection of human beings into the object). The individual viewing a human-made artifact recognizes, whether consciously or unconsciously, that their humanity, physicality and sentiency can be objectified, due to the fact that these can be transferred to the external world through creative work. The work of creating an object automatically confers onto the object the responsibility to be there for the individual and to support them, and it is this conferred responsibility which first makes possible the disappointment of human beings over the world they have created. In the case of the vitrine, this responsibility is to reflect upon the individual their successful self-expansion into the world of objects, and at the same time to help them to experience this process as something external to themselves.
The actual, physical deconstruction of the display case as a work of art vividly echoes this process in an almost magical way: the brass moldings, having once performed the task of framing and holding the panes of glass together, were removed from the case, as was the glass itself (whereby the shelter for the object disintegrated into individual planes and edges). Using a hacksaw, the moldings were sliced up into uniformly-sized pieces, and these pieces then newly arranged. The labyrinthine structures which emerged from this work recall the early iterations of fractals (dragon curves and other Lindenmayer systems)—that is, a mathematical discipline which produces complex geometric figures through the repetition of closed sequences of functions:
[Fig.: 3-4 Iterations of the Dragon Curve]
In its utmost complexity, the figure depicted could be likened to the object-world, which, in ever new advancements and offshoots, came into existence through the work of human beings, and, at its core, can be traced back to the need of the human body to relieve itself of its burdens. In the case of the fractal, this core is determined by its starting point—the right angle.
At the same time, the deconstruction of the display case as a work of art is a dismantling of the progression of iterations in human creativity. The complex structure of the object-world and its responsibility to human beings is stripped down to this right angle, which then in effect physically stands before us as representative of our expectations, and which, seen here in its new contexts, at once calls to mind again the work of self-expansion evident in the artifact—in sewing patterns, parquet flooring, tire treads, chains, belts—but also in works of exuberance: in labyrinths, made by the human being so that they might recognize their own faculties for orientation and problem solving.
The creative work which codifies the desire for self-objectification in the world of things and relief from physical burdens with every object created, remains stored in these objects forever. Tracing back along the progression of iterations, over the nuances of the complexity of human creative endeavor, reveals the responsibility which we confer onto the world of artifacts, and which, in the end, is nothing other than the responsibility of human beings for their successful expansion into the world.
Translation: Elke K. Wardlaw