A response to Jussi Parikka: or why materialism ‘encounter’ has lost its efficacy

Most of you have probably read Jussi Parikka’s latest piece on some Object Oriented Questions about OOO HERE; the comments are well worth a read if not for the usual can of worms OOO usually opens in the blogosphere. Paul Caplan replied HERE and Levi HERE, Graham’s also just replied with THESE TWO posts. But rather than repeat other responses, I thought I should offer my own specific thoughts on why I find OOO to be particularly vital (not in that way) at this moment in time and more specifically within my own research. That way, the efficacy of OOO can be explained, rather than pandering to commentary that haven’t read the material or purposely intend to just debunk for debunk’s sake.

That said, objections to and questions about OOO need to happen; you can’t just write blog-posts and sit at conferences acting as if you’ve ‘seen the light’, whilst waiting for everyone to get it. There have been some solid criticisms at OOO (depending on which variant you  wish to have a pop at), Shaviro on Harman have usually been the more consistent and I think we can add Jussi’s questions here as well.

Other criticisms though either miss the target by conflating OOO with a Latourian ANT (relations are on an equal footing, but do not constitute a substantial, withdrawn discrete entity), ridiculing it for being an ‘anything goes’ flat ontology (which is pertinently false, because whilst Ian Bogost and Levi subscribe to an indiscriminate flat ontology, Tim Morton and Graham subscribe to a two-fold  layer ontology of real and sensual entities) and lastly I’ve heard the same criticism over and over again from a multitude of sources that OOO is politically moribund and a relational ‘evental’ ontology is far superior, which I think are lazy swipes (on that note, here again is another  ‘axis split’ between the fourfold of OOO; Graham and Ian aren’t particularly bothered about an emancipatory use for OOO, whilst Tim and Levi clearly see some potential).

The two other criticisms I’ve heard don’t point to much. A lot of people have told me that they don’t like it because it’s ‘trendy’ – don’t really get that if I’m honest – thats NME music journalism: overly self-aware, debunking mentality, the statement of which amounts to no more of a “sell out!” mentality. The other issue is that some academics, (particular those in media theory if I’m honest) just plain don’t like the word ‘object’ for largely superficial semantic reasons. Personally speaking I’ve found Bogost’s use of the words ‘discrete’ and ‘unit’ to be better in explaining whats going on.

So what does OOO offer for my field (the computational arts) which I find helpful and genuinely new? Well it returns to that question which has been removed from the arts which deals with the autonomy of the artwork itself. This is the most important question I feel, the only question worth mulling over, not just aesthetically, but also politically. For the most part, the idea of an artwork having any form of autonomy has been flatly rejected for the last 50 years or so. The philosophical tradition which accompanies this question is never about the work itself, but about the human social encounter of the work, and where (if at all) the autonomy is located in such an encounter. If you want to move this encounter to the level of non-human, then you basically have relationalism.

So this is about materialism, but to critique materialism you have to pick which one; there are many to choose from of course; (dialectical materialism and the ‘blind spot’, the virtual pre-individual ‘process’ materialism, Marxist materialism of social ties, etc)

One of the things that I point out in my thesis is that most these ‘materialisms’ can be compressed into a form of artistic production which relies on a relational contingent encounter (which in the contemporary European tradition of art theory can actually be traced back to Althusser in fact). This mode of production has completely taken over any dialogue concerning the arts; People construct artworks = artworks are for cultural participation, the outcomes of which fail at autonomy again and again, because materialists aren’t interested in the thing, but are absorbed with the critical recalcitrant encounter.

Clearly we are now seeing a resurgence in media theorist thinkers talking about the materiality of what they’re looking at (Sean Cubitt and Jussi particularly), but my feeling is that the efficacy of understanding non-human materiality immediately dispenses with the autonomy of the work itself. It’s the trans-individual primacy of encounter which is to blame. Any ‘thingly’ power of an individual unit cannot be sustained, because materialist theory is consistently engaged with the contingency of that thing and the fact that it can always be other according to who or what encounters it in some sort of contextual, discursive network (here I realise I might conflict with Levi). The import of preliminary computation in European (particularly Zagreb) 60’s/70’s art practice had a more than decisive hand in this matters.

OOO has been instrumental in rethinking the ontological autonomy of discrete units.My own particular way of thinking computational autonomy is through recursion and algorithmic behaviour. Usually this is also looked at as a contingent ‘process’, from some pre-individual potential, but Bogost’s work has given more than enough ground to discredit this, and rightfully posit these procedures as actual operational procedures rather deny any autonomy away as a vaguely virtual process of event or flux.  The test then is to argue that non-computational processes are different types of formalistic procedures themselves, different only by degree.

A recursive thing does not emerge from it’s environment, because the environment itself is jam-packed full of recursive things. Contingency is never exterior to the thing, the thing produces the contingent relation.

God, I need to get this thesis finished.

6 thoughts on “A response to Jussi Parikka: or why materialism ‘encounter’ has lost its efficacy”

  1. Hi Robert,

    I fear I might be one of those people you’re mentioning as having lazy criticisms of OOO having briefly discussed the topic at Media Art History this year! It’s actually a shame that we could not continue the conversation in more detail, so I thought I’d post something here (also the autonomy of the artwork is a notion that I’m also interested in, as you know).

    If I understand what you’ve posted above, the drive of your work mainly concerns computational arts (rather than an engagement with philosophical ontology), in which case I wonder whether this involves a particular style or genre of practice that makes a case for authenticity based on the medium-specificity of code. If so, I wonder how you might respond to the recent critiques of software studies offered by Wendy Chun (I’m thinking specifically of code as fetish)? This could be completely off-base, but her arguments changed my thinking on a lot of issues and might be one alternative line of thought into the OOO thicket.

    – M.

  2. Hi Michael, great to see you on here.

    Yes it was a shame we couldn’t carry on the conversation at ReWire. Your questions were needed; and they were not lazy criticisms, they needed to be said. And yes the autonomy of the artwork is something I know you are interested in for I would assume political epistemological reasons rather than my own ontological formalist reasons (although politics is clearly linked, but in a way where asking ‘what is’ doesn’t become a politically contentious question). It’s a question which remains important for Geoff Cox as well, whom we also discussed briefly.

    My case for the autonomy of computational art (and hence computation) is not derived from software studies or a medium-based specificity of code, but from formalised axiomatic systems, symbolic logic and metamathematics (the failure of which is mostly responsible for software programming). So I do engage with philosophical and ontological questions, but as a mode of implementing first principles I’m interested in the ontological autonomy of code from what it is when it is in execution not written as source which can be related to (so Chun is relevant here) as a potentially authentic or efficiently-compressable mode of expression.

    I think Chun’s critiques on the idealised performative notions of code and programmer are well founded, especially when she attributes fetishism from Pietz as ‘false causal reasoning about physical nature’ and I like the non-telelogical foundations that she argues. Although I’m being generally unfair here, I know, there are moments in her critique where I feel she unfairly slips ideological semantics into computational formalised syntax just to criticise the autonomy of the axiomatic method. Of course, one cannot treat axioms as true but only given, as Chun implies, but even a set of axioms, and the procedures derived from them cannot be reducible to ideological critique. There is an entire history of using axiomatic systems which need not be conflated to epistemological concern (one thinks of Chaitin’s work) I think her ‘code as fetish’ proposition is ultimately very helpful to OOO because it rejects a lot of what OOO also rejects (such as transparency of code as source), but it still has an explicit twinge of materialistic social relations; that code’s independence must be re-worked or ‘re-sourced’ to become structurally unpredictable for human experience. The surprises of code are a mixture of undecidable theorems and years of encapsulating proprietary methods in Object oriented methods of programming, not necessarily human imports of fetish, although anthropomorphising is inevitable.

    For art to be autonomous, it cannot just remain resistant or surprising to human thought, or exist as a materialistic, unpredictable set of relations. For me, autonomous implies something existing separately from all inputs and outputs, whether human, compiler, USB stick or address bus.

  3. Thanks for the response.

    Am a bit confused about arguing for the autonomy of art through this framework. Are computational arts uniquely autonomous in your opinion?

    Also, I have to admit that it’s strange for me to be characterized as having strictly epistemological concerns as opposed to ontological investments. But perhaps here the issue is more about formalism, or axiomatics, in the sense of an either/or logic. To be honest, I’m generally suspicious of operations that cordon off particular ways of knowing or practices, which is why I’m probably drawn to the work of Stengers or Haraway when it comes to acknowledging how politics and ontology mix.

    In your reflection on Chun’s critique (thanks for this by the way), I think you’re right to suggest that her work can be read in either direction when placed next to OOO, at once deeply invested in human relations with the world, and also highly critical of the existing qualities of those relations. This approach is interesting for me, since it exists precisely at the point that in my opinion you gesture to as informing the surprises of code as undecidable theorems and years of encapsulating proprietary methods. It simply speaks to a need for historical materialisms in terms of the development of software.

  4. oh no – that’s the biggest problem! – and one that I’m really struggling with. Whats the difference between the autonomy of a computational artwork and (if one takes OOO seriously) the autonomy of any discrete procedure? But at least the question of the autonomy of the work is resuscitated rather than it be a question of culture, a human subject correlation or exterior process.

    I’m not so much interested in the axiomatics of formal systems, as I am the procedures which spring forth from those systems. This where Godel (and particularly Turing) played a big hand in showing how you can encode unthinkable statements from simple logic. All computing (save quantum computing) is built from Boolean arithmetic and symbolic logic, so I’d argue that it needs to be taken seriously.

    It’s this question of whether you take the rules seriously or whether you take some sort of anti-determinate view of the whole thing. One of the things I like about Badiou, is that you can adhere to formal rules and get away with political unthinkable novelty – but my take on this is explicitly computational and constructive, the type of math Badiou despises – and he is too ready to subject ontology outside the count, to inconsistent multiplicity.

    Chun’s approach is interesting, since you pointed it out, and I’ve been reading a few more essays or hers. It’s a question of how you account for the surprises in code, and she made it very clear that software studies, cannot just be satisfied with having access to the ‘source’ as if everything is reducible to that source – programming has never worked that way. But I don’t think this necessarily entails a quick shift into historical materialism, because that in itself is another kind of reduction, albeit one which can be picked from emerging dialectics, dynamic pre-individual flux or fields of intensity. I think procedures are irreducible in themselves.

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