Working back to the Meaning of
Things in Robert Lazzarini's guns

by Alva Noe


The world shows up for us. This is the basic fact about human and animal consciousness. We encounter each other; we encounter things, places and situations. Obstructions, goals, paths, shelters, friends, lovers—the world is there for us.

The problem of consciousness is that of understanding how we achieve this encounter with a meaningful world. It isn’t enough that the world is. Just as you can’t get the meaning of a joke told in a strange language, so you can’t see what there is unless you have the skills to reach out and pick it up. What there is can be there for us only when we have the practical ability to achieve contact with it.

We easily overlook how much stage-setting is required—how much we need to be able to do—to bring the world into focus for consciousness. And so we are misled into thinking that we can do this work on our own, as if the brain is the creator, all on its own, of human experience.

What we need, in Wittgenstein’s words, is a perspicuous overview of the background that enables us to achieve access to the world. This is the job of philosophy. Philosophy is in the business of bringing all that we take for granted to the fore. In this sense, philosophy is subversive of, and opposed to, normal life.


Games are instructive. I begin with a game, the sort of game kids might play at a party. An assortment of everyday odds and ends are placed in a large paper bag — a comb, say, and a cork, maybe a harmonica and a police whistle, also a spool of thread. The point of the game is to figure out what is in the bag by touch alone; you reach in, take hold of something, and try to identify it. The fun of the game consists in the surprising revelation that this is actually rather difficult to do. Even the most familiar of everyday objects can present itself as strange and alien if we meet it outside of its familiar setting, which is what we do when we run into it in the darkness of a bag. Even one’s own face — in a mirror, or a photograph — can seem opaque and unfamiliar if we stumble upon it unexpectedly.

Cognitive scientists, and philosophers, tend to think of the process of object recognition in rather overly intellectual terms. They forget that we are at home in the world of meaningful things, and they describe our relation to the world around us as if we were anthropologists or detectives, or as if were like Oliver Sacks’s patient with visual agnosia who was able by sight to describe an object as “infolded fabric with five outpouchings, suitable for sorting change of different denominations,” but was unable to identify it as a glove.

But we are not aliens in a strange land, as this conception would have it. It falsifies our experience to suggest that in normal experience the world shows up strange and remote and that we are charged, each of us, with the job of figuring out what things are. This is what the party game teaches us. The very fact that it is so hard to make sense of what we encounter in the darkness of the party bag brings home forcibly that we do not in normal life stand in this detached attitude to things; things do not show up for us as strange and unlabeled. And so we do not face the challenge, like the players in the party game, of needing to label and categorize, of needing to figure out what there is before us.

The party-game conception of ourselves over-intellectualizes and so distorts our relation to the world around us. We are not detached; there is seldom need for deliberative judgment. But the party-game conception does get something right. We do need knowledge and concepts to make sense of the world around us. The mistake we tend to make is to over-intellectualize the intellect by supposing that knowledge and conceptual understanding only get put to work in detached acts of intellectual judgment. A fair bit of conceptual knowledge is itself practical. To have a concept—say the concept of a comb, or a tomato—is precisely to have a practical skill or technique for picking up, discerning, using, responding to, describing, playing with combs, tomatoes, or whatever. We are skillfully embedded in the world around us. We are not alien; we are at home.

Our reflection on the party game also brings to light that our access to the world around us, our consciousness, is fragile. Our skillful fluency depends on stage-setting and background. Change the context and you abrogate the fluency; then the world is shrouded in darkness and we are no longer at home; then we are no better than children groping in a bag.

To discover this vulnerability of consciousness to breakdown is to better understand ourselves. It is one of the aims of philosophy to bring into view the place of context in our lives, to bring into view the panoply of subtle expectations and adjustments that enable us to bring and keep the world in focus.


The first thing I discover when I look at one of Robert Lazzarini’s guns is that I can’t bring them into focus, no matter how I move or adjust or squint; the guns resist the normal adjustments whereby we achieve access to the world around us. Lazzarini’s sculpture-gun is somehow beyond my sensory-motor machinations. Skill and knowledge fail me; I have no access.

The experience is an odd one. I find myself wondering whether there is something wrong with my eyes. Or perhaps this is a kind of temporary neurological breakdown, a sort of optic ataxia, an inability to reach out and take hold of what you see—the world of solid realities is transformed into absences! In normal life, there are two different ways of going blind. One way is for the sensory mechanism (e.g. the retina, or visual structures in the brain) to get damaged. The other way is to retain sensitivity but to find oneself unable to make any sense of what stimulates the eyes, either because of some additional neurological breakdown, or because one lacks the skills or knowledge needed to make sense of it. This is what happens, for example, if you put on left-right, or up-down, inverting goggles. You can’t negotiate your ocular relation to the things around you. Although they are there, and although they stimulate your eyes, they are lost to perceptual consciousness; things lose their presence when we lose our grip on their sensory-motor significance.

And so here. Lazzarini’s work induces something like this sort of blindness; he creates artifacts that simply defy us, that deny us the possibility of getting a grip on them. Lazzarini undermines our fluent access to the world around us. His achievement consists in the fact that in doing this—in undermining our fluent access to the world around us—he brings into view the unnoticed ways our access to things depends on background skill and context. Lazzarini introduces a brown paper bag into our lives.


Reflecting on games may be instructive, as I said; but art—this kind of art, at least—is more than instructive; it constitutes a research practice. Lazzarini gives us an artifact we cannot resolve or bring into focus, and so he delineates for us, as it were, the limits of what we can do, or of what we need to do in order to bring the world into focus. Lazzarini enables us to catch ourselves in the act of trying to achieve access to the world.

We have already considered that this is the work of philosophy. I propose that we think of Lazzarini’s artifacts as philosophical objects, and of his art as a philosophical practice.


Let us return to the encounter with Lazzarini’s guns. I have remarked on the fact that the thing itself is beyond my reach; it occupies no place in my sensorimotor space. I have no access to it. But this does not actually do justice to the felt character of the guns’ presence to me. For what is remarkable about Lazzarini’s objects is that they show up as present and, at the very same time, as beyond reach. They are present and absent. Or rather, they are present as absent, that is, as inaccessible. Bob and weave all you like, you cannot perceptually take hold of what you see; it is there, but not really.

Now, this quality of presence-in-absence is in fact the distinctive hallmark of presence in pictures. When you look at a picture of the President in the morning paper, or of your grandmother in the family photo album, you see him or her; they show up for you, right there, in the picture; each shows up for you, in the picture, as present. But crucially, it is not as if you mistakenly believe the President, or your grandma, is really there on the page. No: the distinctive modality of pictorial presence is that it is presence-in-absence. Barack Obama is there, in the picture, but present in a manner that is compatible with his obviously not being there really.

Lazzarini’s work now takes shape as an investigation into the limits of pictoriality. It is an astonishing fact about the study of vision, at least since Leonardo, that seeing has tended to be thought of as a kind of mental picture-making. The mind (or brain) builds up a picture of the world. One of the (numerous) reasons this idea is so untenable is that the tradition in question has no independent conception of what a picture is: to see something in a picture is just to be made to have a visual experience of it even though it is absent!

But seeing is not pictorial, and pictures are not window-like transparencies through which we see. To see something is to stand in a physical relationship with it; it is itself a kind of physical contact; it is to share a situation. Lazzarini’s guns show up as picture-like precisely because we fail to see them. Our failure isn’t optical. We fail to see them because we can’t understand our relation to them. We can’t reach them.

What is a picture, if it is not a window-like transparency on the depicted something? Once we’ve jettisoned the optical, projective conception of seeing, we need a new way of thinking about what it could mean to see pictures. Even pictures, we need to say, don’t correspond to the snapshot conception of seeing that has held the science and philosophy of vision captive. What we need, finally, is a non-psychological conception of pictures. A picture is itself a bit of technology, a tool we learn to use, to achieve a certain kind of access to what is shown in the picture. The picture doesn’t act on us (Horst Bredekamp’s idea of the Bild-Akt notwithstanding). Rather, we act on the world with the picture. In the end a picture is a prop or gesture whose meaning is given only in its natural communicative or rhetorical setting. Its significance depends not on how it affects us, but on how we use it.

We arrive at a problem space that is at once at a remove from Lazzarini’s main focus, but not so far off that its relevance can be discounted. For Lazzarini’s investigation of pictoriality takes place at the place where tools (guns) cease to be tools and can be, at best, quasi-pictures, that is to say, strange pictorial presences. But of course, they are not pictures either, any more than they are guns. For even pictures are tools whose deployment requires stage-setting—a background of skills and practices, to be sure, but also a specific motivation and context.

By forcing things out of focus, Lazzarini’s work provides a setting in which vision and the picture can be brought into focus for us.


We can look at objects, contemplate them, describe them, think about them; but for the most part objects have, as we have already noticed, a much more intimate place in our lives. We eat them, or with them; we wear them, we write with them. Tools and instruments in a way are never merely objects for us; they are our equipment (as Heidegger put it). We use them, we rely on them, they make up the basic furniture of our activities, like the ground underneath our feet and the clothing on our back. To look at them in contemplation, to describe them or to think about them is, really, to alter our normal relation to them, and so it is to alter the place they have in our lives. And so it is to alter the things themselves. For nothing can show up for us as relied-upon equipment when we view it as an object of detached contemplation. One thing art and philosophy try to do is reveal or disclose the place in our lives of that which is ready to hand, in Heidegger’s phrase: the equipmental nature of equipment. Which is really just to say that art and philosophy provide us a way to understand the character of our lives even as we are, as it were, caught up in the flow of life[JN1] .

Art does this by depriving tools (such as pictures, utterances, toilets, guns, knives) or things (skulls) of the normal context in which they alone have their sense. The mere picture becomes a work of art when it is estranged from the background setting and context that alone supplies its significance or function. Works of art are objects of contemplation because they are, like the things in the darkness of the bag at the party, or like Lazzarini’s guns, strange tools, tools that have lost their function because they are presented out of context, or because they are deprived of their natural context. Works of art are instances of contrived breakdown.


I have observed that Robert Lazzarini makes philosophical objects. His focus, among other things, is on the limits of pictoriality and on the machinations and adjustments that make life in a world of meaningful objects—that is, consciousness—possible. It will help us to understand Lazzarini’s object-making practice if we notice the possibility of comparison with art practices that are not object-oriented, such as the work of performance/dance artists (William Forsythe, Lisa Nelson, and Jerome Bel, for example). Dancers don’t make objects; they act; they produce happenings or events. The paradox of dance art, or of performing art in general, is that there is no analogue to the encounter with the picture or sculpture on the wall. And so there is nothing that may be contemplated coolly and with distance. Performing art flows and it flees. It needs to be perceived and enjoyed on the fly, in real time. Bringing the art into focus, or bringing oneself into focus in the setting of the art, must come to mean something very different in the case of performing arts. This surely is what makes dance among the most difficult of the arts to make sense of. It is no accident that dance seems marginal even in the art world. 

But this opposition between the art of events and the art of objects is in fact a false dichotomy. What we have said already is enough to bring this out. We have appreciated already that Lazzarini’s philosophical achievement consists in the fact that, in a way, his objects don’t sit still and allow you to study them; they jump around and avoid stability; the encounter with one of them is an encounter precisely with something that refuses to be seen. And so, in the end, all one has is the experience of looking, striving, trying to see. And this experience, like all experience, and like all works of performance, is an event.

We can make the point the other way around too. Lazzarini’s object-making practice yields an event-based art. But by the same token, a dance artist, working as he or she does with events, with the play of attention and change and action, manufactures something like strange tools. Dance takes its start from that first and most basic of all tools, that with which we act on the world, namely, the body itself. Consider that choreography dislocates us from the ordinary conditions of comprehension of action, or movement, or gesture, or story-telling. In the work of Forsythe, to give an exemplary case, movements are deprived of their natural significance; they are broken down, transformed, shifted, inverted, translated until they are both familiar and strange at once, like one of Lazzarini’s guns. A structure is in this way revealed and laid bare for contemplation. And so it turns out that we can contemplate performing art too.


These philosophical objects—Forsythe’s dances; Lazzarini’s sculptures—are also objects of feeling. I do not think of philosophy as opposed to feeling or emotion. Indeed, philosophical puzzlement is above all an emotional state. One is lost, or disoriented; one doesn’t know one’s way around. The work of philosophy is the work of finding one’s way, of acquiring a sense of where one is, of the lay of the land. Wittgenstein spoke of putting together a perspicuous overview. The art work, like philosophy itself, is an occasion or opportunity for this kind of putting together.

So when I say that Lazzarini’s objects are philosophical, I do not mean that they are cold or intellectual. In many ways, they are hot, in the way Forsythe’s performances are hot. Lazzarini disrupts your ability to meet what is there; his work dislocates you and disrupts your ability to function, to bring the world into focus perceptually. The phenomenon of the encounter is replete with opportunity for insight into all that is presupposed by normal perceptual consciousness. But there is no sense in which the encounter with one of the works is merely intellectual.

If the inability to bring the guns into focus reflects a spatial dimension of dislocation, the inability to bring these historical remnants of our shared past into focus reflects a temporal, and so a nostalgic dimension of dislocation. Or rather, of loss. It’s one thing to be unable to bring into focus what is there now, to be pushed back to a kind of pictorial alienation; it is another to be dispossessed of one’s own past.

I remember once lying in bed at night—perhaps I was eight—unable to fathom the thought that my parents would die one day. I lay in bed and felt cold terror. Lazzarini’s works invoke these emotions in me even now. But against this terror, they also suggest something else. Robert Lazzarini’s work is an achievement of determination and stubbornness. Like someone committed to a thirty-year long psychoanalysis, Lazzarini is simply unwilling to let things go. He rebuilds the things of our collective shared past, but in a way that reflects our personal, or individual loss of them. His sculptures are also, then, cathartic objects. They are objectified emotions. Emotions we can look at, think about, and touch.

By insisting on manufacturing his art works out of the same materials from which the actual objects are manufactured, and using methods of production that at least refer to original modes of mass production, Lazzarini defiantly insists on owning this fact about ourselves, this basic predicament in which we find ourselves: we, all of us, are aging; we are dying. Lazzarini thus exhibits an adult’s mastery of the young boy’s terror. The materiality of things shows up as something for the young man, or the man in full, to control, to dominate.


In closing, I want to remark further on the melding of the personal, the individual and also the collective in Lazzarini’s work. We have appreciated already the distinctive personal feeling of loss that attaches to the passing out of style, the fading into disuetude, of the technologies of our youth. This loss is personal, but it is also shared, and so collective. I, you, us, the country—we grow old and die. Every object is a repository of information not only about its individual past—the uses to which it has been put, for example—but also about the cultural past that has enabled its design and manufacture. The automobile, the telephone booth, the .38 Smith and Wesson—these are coordinate with entire forms of life.

But the relevant collective is not only cultural; it is also, in a sense, biological. The gun not only carries the traces of its use, and of the cultural practices that make the handgun necessary or useful or desirable, but also, at the simplest, most mundane level, the handgun is the correlate of the hand. It is shaped to be grasped by the hand of a member of our species. A gun, a knife, a phone—these things afford holding, grasping, and also, of course, shooting, cutting, talking.

But not Lazzarini’s objects; these works of art are merely pictorial presences, as we have seen, and depicted handles do not afford grasping. Lazzarini’s sculptures are philosophical objects and their affordance consists in something else: they afford us self-understanding.