Response to Shaviro: Rethinking Intentionality

I’ve finally managed to wrestle an hour away from thesis writing, in order to respond to Shaviro’s wonderful comments on my latest article “The Anxiousness of Objects and Artworks 2”, recently published in Speculations V.

It’s a great, accurate summary, first and foremost: and there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing someone else, (above all someone extraordinarily distinguished as Shaviro) who “gets” those weird intuitions one harbours when writing a long article. What’s fun about this, is that neither of us have any answers to such questions and nor should we. So that’s the first thing.

Secondly – since that article was edited, I’ve broadened the artistic strategy of Demonstration, as I call it, towards a number of different movements that took place alongside Minimalism. Indeed, Joseph Kosuth’s writings on the formal, tautological capabilities for defining ‘art’ are perhaps even more exemplary here: insofar as Kosuth suggests (more strongly than Minimalism) that art’s form guarantees its very truth – and moreover, it demonstrates and establishes the very nature of art as a conceptual system. Art is no longer self-evident in the aesthetic experience of an object, but of its own conceptual logic. Kosuth’s strategy is, self-evidently, anti-aesthetic. Even though some of these ideas might intuitively be associated with Description, i.e. Kosuth’s connection to Systems art, they actually have inherent tendencies evident in Demonstration (especially in the writings of Roy Ascott who effectively merged conceptual systems and methodological cybernetic systems as one and the same). For me, Fried articulates the clearest anti-anthropocentric division between the two, yet it never remains as simple when applied elsewhere.

Thirdly, there’s an unaddressed question: what theoretical aesthetic principles might be revived from the modernist account, if any? What might be left after such a revision? And if these are worthwhile questions, how might speculative realism add, or further, establish affinities to such principles? For me, it is self-evident that Harman’s philosophy has picked out an underdeveloped Greenberg-ian strategy which, if gently coerced, might retrieve dormant ontological insights into how conventions change in art – that is, how novelty emerges in media-specific forms or in works that recede from our efforts to comprehend them. Depth in form, rather than depth in material.

However, one of the problems in discussing high modernist theories such as Greenberg’s or Fried’s is their consequential acceptance of intentionality: the point (altogether separate from its typical philosophical usage) that artists intend to determine meaning in the work, or that the work itself is saturated with a rightness that establishes its autonomy.

Everything that is central to Fried and Greenberg’s arguments on aesthetics and art praxis tends to be justified in intentionality: that the critic or historian can establish arguments for how the artist has made the right decisions, to make that work in that way at that time. Moreover, there is the paradoxical assertion that everything put into the work, every interpretation and reading was intended from the start within that work (this for Fried is what makes the work discrete and subject to presentness, which, as Shaviro alludes, is why such works are partly condemned to be viewed in galleries, or why one work and medium is privileged over another).

It’s immediately clear that if the modernist trajectory continues to be predominantly understood through varying conceptual methods of grasping intentionality, then speculative realist affinities can never work, neither in Description or Demonstration as I’ve defined it. How can speculation be fruitful if every fragment of the work is wholly determined by human deliberation? What might be left of such practices once intentionality is ‘rethought out’, in this way?

This is why I have tended to focus on the ontological consequences of high modernist works vs. minimalist works, which Fried described better than anyone else. Yet intentionality plays a missing part here – because the very reason as to why Greenberg endorses flatness and purity, and Fried with absorption, is that they believe they know what these aesthetic values are, and how they were right at a particular historical moment.

With the later Greenberg lectures (particularly “Taste” from 1983), intentionality starts to become less clear: particularly as he admits a number of times that he regrets writing Modernist Painting as if it was some sort of manifesto for purity, which it was never meant to be. Having understood that the modern aesthetic becomes evident in video, Fried tries to uphold intentionality in new, albeit diluted ways – and part of my pleasure in seeing Fried work through these difficulties, is that even he has to belatedly revise these ontological foundations, crafting modernism into something else, something new.

And fourthly, this is where my interests in modernism come full circle with respect to work which is not typically “high art”. Here’s Shaviro;

“What I would like to think about is, how the tradition of aesthetics traced by Jackson through the theorizations of modernist (and even postmodernist) art historians relates to other forms of visual (and audiovisual) production? I am thinking here of cinema and post-cinema, but also of things like comic books[…]

[…]This is part of a larger question — can we give an account of mid-20th century visual production that takes, say, Jackson Pollack and Jack Kirby equally seriously? What would it look like to theorize art in a way that had as much room for comic-book pictorialism as it had for abstract expressionism? What would happen if we then extended this history, and this theorization, to the present day?”

And inadvertedly, Shaviro puts his finger on the very essence of my dissertation and how these traditions dip in and out of computational art: a form of visual production which has never been associated with high modernism. Here’s what I think: modernist principles missed out on an alternate ontological history that could and should have democratised different modes of visual production (comics, photography, video games), without altogether sacrificing autonomy, radical novelty, discreteness and, ultimately, the art object itself. Whether it remains ‘as’ modernism or formalism is of no concern to me, less it remain an alternative account that isn’t theatrical, in Fried’s pejorative use of the term.

This is not a question which can be answered here: this is, as Shaviro notes, incomplete and it shall remain so, until we experiment with history.

My Holy Nacho?

Just wanting to direct some attention to this. A fabulous project by my good friends Jamie Allen and Bernhard Garnicnig, called My Holy Nacho. Updating László Moholy-Nagy’s Telephone Pictures series (1923) into the realm of networked media. The title is taken from a Chinese whispers confusion over Moholy-Nagy’s name as a productive misunderstanding of communication which constitutes the ecology of online services.

Beginning with one single object, Allen and Garnicnig transform certain fabrication processes via online services and indirect communication through different ecologies of infrastructure. The final sculptural object is then contingently produced after ten processed steps, and forms part of a gallery exhibition alongside the documentation and dialogues with the manufacturers and shipment companies.

To find out more, hit Regine’s interview with Allen and Garnicnig over at We Make Money Not Art:  The way they understand ecology is very close to my own: the unavoidable creative (I dare say, Romantic!) mystifications of unpredictability that take place in-between various modes of control:

“There are inherent contradiction in trying to control any process. The more noise there is, in a sense, the more predictable something is: It will always be noise. And processes you think you have complete control over are always the ones that bite back hardest, generating more “WTF” moments and leaving people wondering how someone could not have understood something the way they do. So the process — this kind of ping-pong of process selection that we have embarked on — is in one sense highly specific, and in another sense entirely outside of our control.

Actual collaboration is in many ways impossible. Collaboration is more about the love of misunderstanding and the impossibility of knowing than most people think. It’s not about feedback, but pushing each others ideas and intuitions forward, developing unique things together. Imagine two people cooking together, for example, discussing each condiment and about whether now is a good moment to stir — that’s not really how it works. Someone nudges ideas and materials this way or that, and then someone else comes along and nudges it some other way. That’s just how bodies, brains and time work.”

It reminds of Cavell’s most cited passage from Emerson: that is “the evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets then slip through out fingers then when we clutch hardest,” – of what is the most unhandsome part of the human condition. It’s true for Emerson as it is today.

Recorded talk at Dublin: SR and Art

Fintan and Paul have kindly posted it HERE – if you want to hear me go on, and say ‘in that sense’ an awful lot.

Whilst I essentially dodged the question of ‘what happens next’ – (although if you’re an art writer, you don’t really ask such things, other than looking backwards) it was a great crowd, Rebecca and Teresa asked some great questions: plus things seeming to flow quite nicely. Especially since I had about a day to expand a 25 minute talk into a 50-55 minute one. The learning curves will never stop.

UPDATE: After a few requests, I’ve uploaded sides and videos from the talk below or HERE in a new tab. Click on the videos to play, I’ve uploaded them as online video.




Heidegger and the Work of Art History Cover + Contents

It exists! I’ve been looking forward to this for about three years now. Should be out in March 2014 on Ashgate Press: list of authors and chapters below. Amanda and Aron have done a wonderful job with this.


Heidegger and the Work of Art History explores the impact and future possibilities of Heidegger’s philosophy for art history and visual culture in the twenty-first century. Scholars from the fields of art history, visual and material studies, design, philosophy, aesthetics and new media pursue diverse lines of thinking that have departed from Heidegger’s work in order to foster compelling new accounts of works of art and their historicity. This collected book of essays also shows how studies in the history and theory of the visual enrich our understanding of Heidegger’s philosophy.

In addition to examining the philosopher’s lively collaborations with art historians, and how his longstanding engagement with the visual arts influenced his conceptualization of history, the essays in this volume consider the ontological and ethical implications of our encounters with works of art, the visual techniques that form worlds, how to think about ‘things’ beyond human-centred relationships, the moods, dispositions, and politics of art’s history, and the terms by which we might rethink aesthetic judgment and the interpretation of the visible world, from the early modern period to the present day

Contents: Introduction, Amanda Boetzkes and Aron Vinegar;

Part I Between Ontology and Ethics:

1. The return of discrete, autonomous artworks: Heidegger, Harman and algorithmic allure, Robert Jackson.

2. The interior void of things: Heidegger and art of the 1980s and 90s, Ileana Parvu.

3. Giovanni Battista Moroni, portraiture, and the ethics of early modern conversation, Bronwen Wilson

Part II Techniques of World-Making:

4. Heidegger’s ‘from the dark opening…’, Michael Golec

5. Art, materiality and the meaning of being: Heidegger on the work of art and the significance of things, Philip Tonner.

6. ‘Leaning into the wind’: poiesis and Richard Long, Diarmud Costello

Part III Heidegger’s Unthought History of Art.

7. Shapes of time: melancholia, anachronism, and de-distancing, Matthew Bowman.

8. The gaze of ‘historicity’ in Schongauer and Dürer, Michael Gnehm.

9. ‘A dwelling place’: sensing the poetics of the everyday in the work of Pierre Bonnard, Lori Johnson.

Part IV Making Claims and Aesthetic Judgment.

10. Reluzenz: on Richard Estes, Aron Vinegar.

11. Interpretation and the affordance of things, Amanda Boetzkes.

12. Sein und Zeit in Raum: perspective as symbolic form, Whitney Davis.

The Facticity of Things: Meillassoux, Harman and Slotawa.

Four years after giving my very first paper for the AAH in Glasgow, I’ll be giving another paper for them in April, at the Royal College. Hopefully in that time, a good deal of the audience will be familiar (if not by name) of Harman and Meillassoux’s work. Here’s the blurb;

The Facticity of Things: Meillassoux, Harman and Slotawa.

“Despite the recent ecological return to materiality, objects and things in Continental Philosophy and the contemporary visual arts, the supporting literature is often misunderstood.

Nowhere is this misunderstanding more evident than the associated work of Quentin Meillassoux and Graham Harman, one half of the (now) disbanded speculative realism movement. Whilst these two contemporary philosophers jointly reject the Kantian dependency of human access and endorse a reality altogether separate from it, the structure of reality that remains differs immeasurably.

The paper will argue that their differences might be pivoted on how both thinkers approach and distance themselves from Heideggerian facticity: the contingency of Being. For Meillassoux, facticity is the only deductive path towards the rational knowledge of material reality, transforming it from a principle of finitude into an absolute principle of knowing everything is contingent. However, Harman’s Object Oriented Philosophy preserves Heidegger’s facticity as a finite phenomenon of Being, but is, instead, extended to all non-human entities (or objects) in the cosmos; such as beds, bells, bosons and black holes.

The purpose of the paper is twofold: first, to provide helpful elucidation for how Meillassoux and Harman transform facticity into new modes of thinking and being, which threaten to divide two opposing factions of Kantian aesthetics apart. Second, the paper will contextualise the emergent work of German artist Florian Slotawa, whose emerging practice might be understood as a demonstration of both transformations. Slotawa’s work will also be framed as a”post-Duchampian” break away from the primacy of spectator finitude.”

Non-Modernist Formalism: Form instead of Material

So as far as conferences go, this year has been quite weird.

Last year I attended roughly nine or ten events, in about eight or nine places – this year it has been about eight events in three places, cramming four in March and four again in October. Although it is certainly efficient (it left me with an entire summer to write and write), I wouldn’t recommend the workload involved.

One of the side effects is that you forget stuff in-between the events, and that’s a problem: the whole point of this blog is to publish stuff, conversations, etc., in the aid of reminding myself – in writing up the thesis and subsequent papers – to capture how and what I was thinking. So with that in mind, this post is simply a update on a talk Graham gave to AIAS, Aarhus, a couple of weeks ago (of which I was the respondent) solidified by talking to Tim, who keynoted at performing objects Falmouth, last week. I can’t cover everything that went on in Aarhus, suffice to say that both Graham’s paper and my response will be published in the Nordic Journal of Aesthetics next year.

One of my worries with is that, quite often, ANT and New Materialism, are bundled into various streams of OOO literature, and usually employed to denote some sort of change in affairs. And that’s fine in one sense: not every paper needs to provide a prior disclaimer for distinguishing these positions for the sake of signalling a change in their disparate discipline: such ecology, architecture or the arts. But often enough, there are deep differences in how OOO or a new materialist framework might apply those ideas into practice, and moreover, how their close proximity might blur different practices irrevocably. This is not simply a framing issue with regards to terminology.

Nowhere is this change of practice felt in the difference between form and material in the visual arts. And this is important, because in my eyes, OOO is not a materialism, or a return to the material, but about the pluralistic endorsement of substantial and/or actual form. There are clear similarities between OOO realism and the materialist approach, not least their rejection of the transcendent privilege of the ‘human’, and the surprising, incomplete production of non-human things – but there are important differences too. This is especially pertinent in light of Levi’s repeated distancing of OOO towards an orientation of emergent physical objects/units of matter, rather than primordial discrete form.

Nowhere was this more clear than in Graham’s paper, ‘Materialism is not the Solution‘, in which he distances OOO from materialism (specifically, Bennett’s, Levi’s and Garcia’s) in a number of arguments. ‘Matter’ is rejected for something like ‘formalism’, but clearly this ‘return to form’ (excuse the pun) is entirely different from the crusty methods of formal analysis, historically replaced by a mechanistic understanding of organisation. Even deploying terms like ‘mechanism’ can be largely insufficient for describing the types of materialism espoused in new materialism, so one needs to approach this tentatively.

As many others have noticed, materialism is now an utterly confused term, entirely beholden to any trendy concept going. Matter can be applied to almost anything, if you work hard at it enough; cognition, strings, history, the Real, capitalism, process, dust, the social, time (even ‘deep’ time), field-systems, relations, praxis, context, networks, movement, duration, embodiment and (the most frustrating one, used indiscriminately in the arts) encounter.

But it doesn’t matter what sort of ‘matter’ is deployed in materialism, its deployment is always against form. For Graham, philosophy has historically managed ‘matter’ into two areas; it is either some ultimate ‘stuff’ or physical ‘structure’ upon which all derivative forms can be broken down, or else, matter lies in the absolute formlessness of primordial emergence, which spits out derivative forms within its endless differentiating movement. Graham calls this second one, the “amorphous reservoir”, of matter, focusing on Bennett’s indeterminate wholeness or a throbbing, pulsating movement of matter-energy. I prefer to call it an invisible framework.

The invisible framework of relations is many, and yet, form is not. Why aren’t invisible frameworks plural? Because they are shapeless. Anything which pertains to hold durability and autonomy, fails to approach ‘matter’ and only leans more towards form.  Why should an invisibly grounded framework approach a material excess of movement; because it is invisible? Or because it purports to be the impersonal holistic framework which explains movement and change?

Maybe then it might be useful to actually think of all these materialisms as productive outcomes: that there are so many types, buttresses Harman’s realist position: if we are faced with a choice of multiple materials to choose from, then OOO starts to get its teeth in rejecting the primacy of one type of material. And that’s not to reject these terms outright, but to account for why they become an issue. Why are these abstractions used to account for the changes of things, rather than abstractions resulting from things causing change?

And these are the Leibnizian problems which OOO challenges; how does materialism account for entities which aren’t grounded into the formless apeiron, from the very start? Why are discrete regions of ontology, not left as discrete regions? Why is the invisible structure of materialism simply asserted rather than accounted for? Why should the indeterminate wholeness be formless anyway?

How does a materialism account for a form’s durable independent basis, yet not reducible to a physical, natural structure. Why is it incapable of offering a better account for the status of immaterial things, rather than to eliminate them outright in favour of the material? In other words, how do we approach excess? In materialism, there is always an undermined (substance), or overmined (correlated) abstract formless excess which gives rise to forms, but in OOO, the abstract excess itself is always formed by the substantial discrete thing.


Moving quickly, how might one begin to approach form, or formal analysis in artistic practice, without being quagmired into the historical rejection of the morphological (I’m thinking here Joseph Kosuth’s Art After Philosophy)? How might contemporary art be understood, not by understanding its production through an impersonal, invisible framework, but through its own form, and experimentations with that form?

One way of approaching this is to ask what a non-modernist formalism might look like. It might not look like anything. It might be utterly impossible even. And if it was conceivable, how might it adopt certain OOO-ish features? How might it fail in doing so? What would formalism look like in art praxis, if the separation of culture/nature were applied: that is to say, the removal of modernist teleological commitments?

I’ll finish by sketching out some, very heuristic points (I’m writing this largely ad-hoc, as I’m heading out the door)

  • Non-modernist formalism may not, in any method, claim that forms can be known or self-mastered.
  • Formalism is about the tension and incompleteness between autonomous forms, as well as the forms themselves.
  • It might not privilege a purity of form, nor an allocation of the artist (or critic) as a sole bearer or attainer of that form. Thus form is different to ‘structure’, and should not be tainted or overwritten with structuralism, as it was in the 40s.
  • Formalism shall no longer be mired with the ‘explore the nature of the universe’ twinge. Instead non-modernist formalism might approach the exploration of things, not nature.
  • If there is no pure form, then form exists as a tension within the existent of the determinate thing. There is no ‘form’, only ‘the forms’.
  • There is no difference between a thing’s inner, essential, ‘actual’ form and its ‘significant form’ (contra Fry)
  • Forms are not platonic, but their constructed effect appears deceptive and will remain so. The work may not depend on the output, or the result, but neither is materialism smuggled in through the back door with unhelpful pangs of ‘process’ – instead forms are just banal configurations unified into a durable unit of cause.
  • Forms are timeless, not in old-fashioned sense of ‘grace’, or whatever: instead they are timeless, because the abstraction that is arrived by encountering them produces time, as opposed to time producing forms.
  • Non-modernist formalism might not dispense with artist intentionality, or the social production pertaining to it, but then again, it does not privilege it either: not in the form of speech or performance, nor of politics. All forms are relevant, and are built from many different types, and require different approaches in different configurations. If praxis is only reducible to an invisible framework of material, then it remains unclear how change and rupture is attained in the first place.
  • Forms are discrete and non-relational, but aesthetic value is not.
  • There is no predetermined path using forms, only ruptures in various disciplines, and those ruptures are products of the forms themselves.
  • The appearance of forms is never literal, only metaphorical.
  • Following Greenberg, the role of artists is to ‘test’ certain forms and find out what is essential/non-essential, but in the absence of privileging human intentionality, this is a decentralised understanding of ‘testing’ – form-to-form, object-to-object. Like some scientists, artists test things in order to be surprised by forms, not to ‘know’ them.
  • The relationship between beholder and object is a temporary absorption between two or more forms, forming a new actual object or performance.
  • The role of ideas within forms, are perhaps marks of translations and transcriptions between different forms and the decisions and judgements that take place. An artist can trans’form’ something according to a principled ideal, but therein, so too can an inanimate form trans’form’ the artist and beholder in turn. Ideals, concepts and decisions must be accounted for in this realism/formalism, and not drained to the dregs with matter (perhaps being speculative, how does a realism account for ideas, without becoming idealism?).


Transtechnology Research Public Dialogues 2013: At the Interlude Between Body, Artifact and Discourse

The Transtechnology Research Group have a CFP out. All the blurb is HERE. I’ve pasted the short version below.

Transtechnology Research Public Dialogues 2013:

At the Interlude between Body, Artifact and Discourse

12-14 July 2013, Transtechnology Research, Plymouth University 

Transtechnology Research is pleased to invite paper submissions and panel participation for dialogues at the Interlude between Body/Artifact/Discourse, developed by Transtechnology Research hosted in association with the Cognition Institute Plymouth University, the Plymouth Arts Centre and Peninsula Arts Gallery Plymouth University, UK from the 12th to the 14th July 2013.

This years Transtechnology Research Dialogue builds upon a contemporary challenge to conventional and disciplinary notions of what can be understood as an ‘historical document’ through questioning the necessity of material evidence to understand the world around us, as well as human activity itself within the world. The questioning of the limits of materiality has further implications for how we conceptualise notions of the ‘artifact’, the ‘body’ and ‘discourse’, across the arts, sciences and humanities as we come to terms with a material world that can be seen to coalesce in many ways with the immaterial dimensions of the imagination.

Transtechnology Research is a transdisciplinary research group situated in the Faculty of Arts at Plymouth University. Its constituency is drawn from historians, philosophers, anthropologists, artists and designers and is led from a historical and theoretical perspective with the objective of understanding science and technology as a manifestation of a range of human desires and cultural imperatives. Its aim is to provide a doctoral and post-doctoral environment for researchers who need to undertake academic research informed by their own and others creative practice. Its overarching research project concerns the philosophical aspects of science and technology and the history of popular arts.