The Anonymous Referential Contexture

A brief while ago, we recalled both the invisibility and the totality of the tool,

traits that emerged from Heidegger’s own account of equipment. These features

described the character of entities in themselves, their primary mode of being, and not just the primary way in which people encounter them. Obviously, if entities were

invisible and total in the strict sense, we would not encounter individual beings at all.

All objects would fade away into an instantaneous, global action— a system without

organs. But experience shows that we do encounter singular entities; life is absorbed in nothing but such specific beings: sun, melons, puppets. How does Heidegger account for this duality? The most famous place is in the discusion of the ‘broken tool’. The working piece of equipment is unobtrusive; in contrast, the malfunctioning instrument thrusts itself rudely into view. In this new, “broken” situation, we gain a view of what was previously taken for granted. Equipment is no longer a silent laborer; it has surfaced as a visible power. It is a tool which has suddenly reversed into tool ‘as’ tool. The visible world is the world of the ‘as’, a tangible and volatile surface that has been derived from a more primary dimension of being.

The realm of the broken tool is the realm of the ‘as’. But just as the term “equipment” could not be limited to tools in the narrow sense, so the broken tool quickly reaches beyond the strict boundaries suggested by its name. Even a rough examination will show that Heidegger begins to define virtually everything in the same way as his concept of the broken tool. Space, for example, comes to be defined as nothing other than the freeing of entities from the anonymous referential contexture, in such a way that they take on a specific unique location of their own;”

Phenomenology and the Theory of


By Graham Harman

© 1997

If it is merely the “malfunctioning” piece of equipment that primordially reveals the as-structure that we call “ world”, the sum total of meanings both shared and private that we hold, and that this type of revelation also applies to things such as location in space, concept in theory, and a host of other things, then in some way the undifferentiated primordial “da” must also be shared in order for a being-there-with to be at all possible. How do we at all share an “anonymous referential contexture” except by virtue that thrownness into the world is an equiprimordial structure of Dasein’s being, along with Being-in-the-world, Being-the-there, Being-there-with and the other existentials analysed in Being and Time (Heidegger, 1929).

In this sense the Master and slave are equivalent, both finding themselves thrown into a world in which they can only make sense, meaning, by isolating specific things as those specific things from out of the anonymous referential contexture. What is different in the dominant vs submissive mindset is the ownership of those islands of sense.

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