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?).