If Materialism Is Not The Solution Then What Was The Problem?

That’s the title of my response to Harman’s article Materialism is Not the Solution: On Matter, Form and Mimesis – which was just recently published in the Nordic Journal of Aesthetics No. 47. This was a re-written version of a response I gave for the Aarhus Institute of Advanced studies last October.

With the very kind permission of Jacob Lund (the editor) he has allowed both essays to be hosted by AUC Egypt as one PDF, which can be accessed HERE. If, for some reason, your network can’t access the AUC page (which has happened for some people), I’ve uploaded it on my academia.edu page HERE.

I should also say, having read the entire issue in print, that the whole issue is something rather special. See below for the contents: including essays by Stiegler, Hanson and Goriunova.



Speculations V: Aesthetics in the 21st Century

The new issue Speculations journal is available HERE. It’s a specially edited issue by Ridvan, Paul, Andreas and Philipp which covers the outcomes of the Basel conference on SR aesthetics back in September 2012 at Basel.

Shaviro, Harman and Hayles are in there, along with a wonderful collection of essays (including my ‘sequel’ to The Anxiousness of Objects and Artworks” detailing further links between Harman / Fried).

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?).


Graham’s thoughts on art and SR

Graham’s weighed in with a few thoughts on some of the SR/art conferences / speculative themes going on at the moment (of which one, D.U.S.T’s Weaponizing Speculation, is still going as I speak).

I think he’s spot on of course, but what some readers may not know is that I have a 10,000 word essay on Fried and Harman (yes, another one) yet to be published. So I’ll be brief. This is something I’ll probably speak about tomorrow for the NCAD talk with Francis. The talk yesterday, was linked but not explicitly.

Basically, my opinion is that, like Fried and Greenberg, the artwork is altogether human limits. There isn’t anything innately wrong with Anthropomorphism, in fact we need more of it. What is innately correlationist is anthropocentrism. That the beholder and the artist are only the central limits of ontology and aesthetics. So yes, it isn’t against speculative realism to throw away beholding entirely (in fact I consider this to be impossible), rather beholding may not be a unique human trait or ability.

There is one added ‘Fried’ element that I would argue should be included: the beholder’s experience is not the artwork, as the post-formalist would have it. This sounds contradictory to the above, but it isn’t. Rather for me, I think that the artwork is some sort of determinate mechanism which imposes or infiltrates the beholder, and operationalizes their involvement. And of course in Harman’s system, this creates a brand new object, one that absorbs the two or more objects into a new unified unit.

But the basic point is this, the most illuminating artworks are the anti-literal instances. You can’t escape the correlationist circle by appealing to literal things in a situation, you have to render the implicit morphized traits of a finite entity (human or otherwise) into another. Conviction is asymmetrical.

Bad at Sports: “What is there”, An Introduction to OOO and art

Starting from today, I’ll be writing a regular blogpost/article/piece on OOO for the Chicago-based arts blog ‘Bad at Sports”

The first text is already online. It is the first part of an Introduction to OOO and its possible relation to art and aesthetics – called ‘What is there?”

Nice comment from Paletten

The author Fredrik Österblom got in contact and kindly sent me the article in question. It’s in Paletten issue 3: 2012 #289; p.29 (Graham also emailed me about this).

UPDATED: (My translation was awful, so addressing the comments below and from Fredrick’s email, I’ve put their translations in) ;

“In recent years, an object-oriented movement extends far beyond the philosophical discipline. Graham Harman’s philosophy has “gjort sig märklig” (“made itself visible”) in areas such as Art (Robert Jackson), ecology (Timothy Morton), literature (Eileen Joy) and political theory (Levi Bryant). In comparison to the speculative realism “spretighet” (diverseness) the OOO movement uniform is tied around a common issue. Most of the key members are active bloggers and theories have in a significant part emerged and spread online.”

Thats very kind of Fredrik to mention me in the same analogical vein as Tim, Levi and Eileen (Bogost should definitely be added, perhaps under media/videogames) – I don’t, however, consider myself to be anywhere near the prestigious level of anyone else in this OOO crowd; as a PhD student I have not earned my academic chops to get to their level, but maybe some day. That and the fact that all of us have talked about art and OOO in some way or another.

He’s right in one way thought. We all are tied by common issues specific to the challenge that Graham has opened up – issues which last a lifetime to think over.

Syntax trumps Semantics. Badiou and recursiveness

Here’s a good post from Graham on Badiou.

This is the weird thing about Badiou that I can’t get my head around. Knowing what I’m going to say next will probably provoke a ‘misreading’ of some sort. I’ll have to be brief and hence, woefully disingenuous (despite what I say, I have deep respect for Badiou’s work).

This is only something that has really made sense since I began to re-read the Badiouian corpus. For Badiou, there is nothing behind number, quite literally. This is the anti-Heideggerian move that Badiou puts forward in the beginning of B&E (although Graham’s right, he’s doesn’t have a dialogue with Heidegger as much as one would suppose); number and thus sets of number are thoroughly immanent, and thus cannot be founded on anything deeper than a formal structure of the void in a real presentation or representation.

Before ones delves into the math, Being is presentation, and thus consistent and inconsistent multiplicity of sets are derived from the same Being-ness in presentation. The outcomes of this has only made sense to me recently; for most people who have an interest in this, but don’t consider philosophy to be their primary field, one would have thought that for Badiou, Being is mathematical. In fact it isn’t, it’s more discursive than that. Set theory establishes what is expressible in presentation, and Badiou makes the case that immanent presentation is ‘all’ there is (much more so in N&N incidentally). Real sets are all there must be in their unbridled immanence. One could, if they were a betting man, wager that this is where Meillassoux gets his ‘creation from ex-nihilio’ trope from – another mathematical thinker of immanence. There is nothing deeper than what must be given – a Hegelian move if ever there was one.

This is one of the bigger gripes that I have with semantic-lead ontologies – especially Badiou who promotes an specific anti-constructivist ontology of number, with nothing behind it. It’s focused on a thought centred structure of meaning onto a flat immanent system of formal semantics, with the ‘real’ posited somewhere that doesn’t really fit or can’t be presented immanently, but not from something concealed from presentation itself – otherwise Heidegger would creep in through the back door.

Now I know Badiouian’s are fond of countering this with “No – the agent is not human, nor biological, nor founded on anything”. This is why Badiou favours the semantic led approach to a set theoretical ontology. Everything is founded on ‘nothing’. Praxis is delivered through an unfolding, unbounded contingent order, occasionally punctured by some real alibi, just to check it isn’t idealism every now and then.

Here’s the problem, (which at some point I will hopefully be able to explain in better detail than this); anti-constructivism distorts Badiou’s appropriation of set theory and Being. Apart from Badiou’s two early essays in Cashiers pour l’analyse (and these essays are vastly different from the Badiou most know; they are almost militantly anti-subject-Brassieresque), he never sufficiently deals with computer science’s own take on number and computational sets. The question we must ask is why?

My own take on this is that Badiou is not willing to surrender recursive procedures away from human concepts. When you are discussing any aspect of axiomatic set theory, you have to rely on recursion. In discussing the infinite set of natural numbers, or primes for instance, one must use a finite procedure recursively to derive what elements are in that set. Set theory is fundamentally built on recursion, which is why systems like Godel numbering achieved so much progress in the 40s.

What Badiou ignores in the history of number is the very fact that before the 40s, both Turing and Church independently discovered automated mechanisms which could automate identical recursive equivalences of mathematical reasoning. The very sort of recursion that humans thought they were particularly good at.

Bizarrely enough in Turing’s 1936 paper you even have a computational version of the Cantorian diagonal proof, which showed that in a list of computable algorithmic sets, there must always be an uncomputable ‘real’ number.

Even though Badiou never talks about this, one would have to assume given Badiou’s deep political system he’d have to account for it. If Badiou does, he faces two consequences, both of which aren’t particularly fun to accept.

1.) The first is that the ‘rare’ subject or the agent that performs the operation of the ‘count-for/as-one’ must be something other than human thought, i.e, a computer function or system. Although Badiouians are always careful not to conflate political activity and subjectification with ‘human’, tendencies, in my opinion, Badiou doesn’t give any explicit ground to suggest this magical ability is available to anything other than human thought. But one could envisage this criteria applying to an automated computational procedure just as much as a human one. No one has yet disproved it anyway.

2.) Computational procedures and their formal languages can only be interpreted as real sets just like any other set-like situation. Only subjects have a pivoted ‘true’ access to the real of a non-represented presentation.

Most Badiouians will probably plump for choice number two; and this second choice explains a lot, because during the 70s, early 80s Badiou’s ‘evental’ turn turned from eliminating the subject in favour of a mechanic a-subjective science, to favouring an objectless – subject born out of a truth procedure. No need to go into details here for now, suffice to say the relationship between Althusserian science and the Lacanian ‘Real’ changed Badiou’s thought dramatically.

Given that both positions still try to rescue a semantic viewpoint, they are rendered problematic by the fact that these equivalent procedures are constructed by syntactical recursive rules and strings. Here’s where Badiouians tend to come unstuck. By immediately subscribing to the Badiou school of anti-constructivist number, and rejecting subjective intuition (usually associated with mathematical constructivism) Badiouian scholars unnecessarily remove any question concerning independent procedures that are constructed by automated syntactical recursion. That formal systems, derived from sets, grammar and inference rules have the capacity to generate (or enumerate) phenomena one might never expect. And the crucial point is that these surprises emerge from the procedures themselves, not from ‘nothing’. If one accepts this (very hurried) notion, Badiou’s immanence goes out the window, precisely because formal rules of syntax actually ‘do things’ beyond the presentation of immanent sets.

Of course as Graham states, most Badiouian’s are so quick to bank on the politics that they accept certain problems concerning the ontological foundations. True, this mini post deals with more of the wider historical relevance in computer science than one usually associates, but nonetheless – specific troubling consequences emerge.