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.
It seems like an age ago since I posted any thoughts on here. Actually, it seems like an age ago since I posted anything on here.
A few reasons for this; as usual, work commitments abound – both academic and professional (a.k.a. my normal day job) – together with looking after my baby daughter and educating myself on how to be a parent, all of which have terminated any free time. Any spare hours or days that were needed to visit conferences, seminars, etc, have been put on the back burner now, whilst I finally, finally finish my thesis and move forward with life. Yet holding a baby in one arm in a fit state of shrieking inconsolability at three in the morning hasn’t precluded me from keeping up with stuff on the blogosphere (for my sins).
Now, there is increasingly aggressive talk on blogs and in forthcoming publications about the “already dead” status of Speculative Realism. Pete Wolfendale’s debut OBJECT-ORIENTED PHILOSOPHY: THE NOUMENON’S NEW CLOTHES comes out next month (including a post-script by Brassier) which is being touted by some, particularly Leon Niemoczynski, as being the final “Truth” nail in the coffin: that SR/OOO has been dead for ages, perhaps from the start, but no-one really knew or believed it. And everyone’s meant to believe that once the final argument has been put in place, once the final reveal of the truth has made its literal presence known, all of its practitioners should acknowledge the change that has taken place, and reject its current popular manifestation (comically dubbed Speculative ®ealism) as a legitimate movement.
Even stronger than this, comes from Leon’s reflections on Brassier’s postscript (and I’m only quoting from Leon’s post because he’s read it – I haven’t) that the sheer existence of an SR legacy has now been put to bed not just as an exhausted and rejected relic of yesteryear: a general acceptance that SR was – as Wolfendale states – “dead on arrival”, but that only one, out of the initial four proponents have ever permanently self-identfied with it.
Less extreme was Ben Woodard’s suggestion that SR’s legacy (in context of conversations held at the Emancipation as Navigation Summer school in Berlin this year) was the “dead elephant in the room”, insofar as those who partook in its burgeoning interest retrospectively lamented the direction it took, together with the community that fostered that direction (I’m thinking here of the rapid change in production that blogging and social media has afforded).
As an associate editor of Speculations, it might be reasonable to assume that I have a biased interest in saying the opposite, or at least diagnosing something along the lines of a Joker-Batman-esque “I don’t wanna kill you – what would I do without you” kind of relationship. After all, Pete wouldn’t have written a 400 page book on OOO if he didn’t think it was worth doing, or that the philosophy wasn’t worth engaging with. Unless the sole existence of the book is there to exploit attention or some agenda, which I don’t believe is the case. In proclaiming the death of SR, it’s difficult to see how the practice of doing so matches the declaration. In any case, despite the fact that Pete’s taken to publishing the entire debate in book form, he knows that the inevitable fallout of the book will take place, almost exclusively, on blogging sites and escalating Facebook threads: threads which if social media history is concerned, serve no purpose than to mediate ones need to always have the last word on matters (in fact what else is the intellectual use of social media other than a perpetual device to leave public opinion, helpful or not, permanently unsettled? Almost no-one pays attention to how such systems construct the conflicts of public opinion).
**It also seems slightly bizarre on Brassier’s side, since by all accounts, he originally coined the term in the first place in order to set the 2007 symposium up. That’s not to say that a philosopher has no right to refuse, reject or disown their own project for various reasons, (Putnam always seemed to do it) than it is to question why they haven’t taken responsibility for the fact that they jointly set up the original symposium in the first place, together with speaking at the second one in Bristol in 2009. But as I said, I haven’t read the post-script so I’ve leave this hanging.
Sadly my response is a bit more banal than this. If SR’s existence is dead, it makes sense to ask what it is and how it has died, alongside the more pertinent question of dead for whom? To declare the death of a philosophical legacy, or that it was dead anyway, is ultimately tied to where you think it went wrong, or what path it missed. It doesn’t take on the demand of declaring collective agreements amongst like-minded in-groups which everyone else has to accept in advance. I’d like to think there’s a lot more going on to this air of conflict than the ebbs and flows of social discord within various arenas of online miscommunication.
I’d like to suggest that as a movement SR was probably too divergent to continue as a movement. But dead altogether? Not in the slightest, and here’s why. That divergence has slowly emerged as a deep hostility between two very deep and important philosophical-historical positions. This is why the calls to question how one might self-identify oneself as a proponent of SR or not, holds little sway to the notion that SR is dead: largely as I think SR is constitutive of a split so encompassing, and only brought to light because of SR, that no-one can ignore it. As Heidegger is fond of reminding everyone – and especially himself – sometimes the deepest changes are the ones that fail to make themselves present.
For me, SR’s very existence cultivates, and continues to cultivate, an incompatible hostility which feeds the claims and positions being made – even if they happen to be predominantly coming from a neo-rationalist wing which finds the whole affair moribund. Clearly, this includes but does not encompass Accelerationism, which I just take to be a development constructed almost entirely from the rational-scientistic community of SR, and not a movement which either indulges itself in proclaiming the latter’s death (if it does), or thinks it provides an ulterior movement separate to it. As I said in my Dublin talk late last year, SR just simply is the incompatible shredding between two modes of criticism (which I termed Demonstration and Description) both of which radicalise the limits of rational thought very differently, perhaps antithetically.
And what has become increasingly obvious is how this divide has strengthened rather than relaxing into any form of intersection: in part, because if one takes SR to be the rejection of correlationism at its most basic, then rather being known as the name of two symposiums, or a well-known (albeit fringe) brand of new continental thought, or a defining moment where philosophical discussion and promotion exploded on the internet, or a new book series, or the latest thing to read in the art world, or a rallying call to young philosophers and artists hoping to launch a career, or even all of these – then its legacy comes from an unsettled philosophical conflict which arises once correlationism is rejected or adopted differently. A conflict which is strong enough to permeate and resonate through other disciplines of science, art history, aesthetics, law and education. To be clear on the matter, what is fundamental to me, and from what I consider to be important here, is the philosophical source of this conflict: and of what needs to be understood and addressed before one has any right to dictate what the future of the conflict entails.
What I might be saying here then, is that SR wasn’t so much a movement of disparate voices returning to metaphysics, realism and materialism, than the beginning of a renewed split in those domains: Here, one side takes realism/materialism to be reducible to authentic epistemological vehicles of science and mathematics whilst the other side does not: refuting in turn, that the real/material can be known by reason, and that reality is composed of other skeptical-based entities that possess, and are defined by the same limitations. That’s a huge incompatible split: precisely as Kantian correlationism was a foundation which partly reconciled those differences, dispossessing reason from ever knowing reality whilst also dispossessing other entities and life-forms from having a transcendental turn themselves.
Yet, what could not be dispossessed was the general sound for how one approached doing philosophy: should one be enlightened or romanticised? Phrased differently, we might say; what are the limits of reason vs. where are the limits of reason. More and more, this has all the hallmarks of being a 21st Century return to the hostility that surrounds the split between Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment (and of its various guises) that have sustained nearly three centuries of intellectual debate. From the primacy of aesthetic experience vs. anti-aesthetic concepts: from the enlightenment deductive science of logic vs. the romantic science of naturphilosophie: from American pragmatism (and neo-pragmatism) to American transcendentalism, from eliminative materialism to outright vitalism, the fruits of this hostility seem obvious to the future of SR, and yet not to anyone else. I’ve resisted writing about the split in this manner for some time now, perhaps because it seemed too simple to me, or too naive, too distant from the problems SR originally raised, or perhaps too obvious to make it stick. Yet, this split plays its hand not just in the ambitious claims one might make of reality as a human response to enlightenment or romantic ideals (and how they might operate differently from their previous iterations in response to breakthroughs in science or art): it also constitutes the opposing claims for what philosophy ought to do as practiced, and how those practices utterly conflict with one another.
If you really think as, (apologies for names omitted) Meillassoux, Brassier and Wolfendale do, that the Age of Reason never finished, that literary words serve little to no aesthetic purpose than to make transparent rational proofs, then anything which characterises counter-enlightenment thinking must be subject to de-romanticisation. If you think, as Harman, Shaviro, Morton myself and possibly Grant do, that the real can never be formalised and put into literal formulae, that literary words serve the ultimate purpose in taste, alluding one’s grasp of the strange mystic qualities of the real without actually doing so, then fragments of the romantic, counter-enlightement tradition must be used to question why enlightened reason alone thinks it has special access to reality: and that perhaps there are other fruitful methods of relating thought to nature, or thought to entity. In the end, the rejection of correlationism was perhaps a catalyst for rejuvenating an unsettled debate, in which a final resolving word was not said, and perhaps will be never said.
A final note: this is why my Demonstration/Enlightenment and Description/Romanticism split does not perfectly coincide with an analytic vs. continental one: a split whose calls for reconciliation are found wanting in my honest opinion. The split doesn’t accurately characterise, but generalise the intentions of all who consider themselves a member of either tradition, and those who do not (think of Wittgenstein’s legacy for instance). And yet clearly, they are deeply related no doubt. Those who preach that the divide has been overcome (in the most recent cases, the Accelerationists) don’t exactly overcome it, than they operate with all the same bad habits that analytic philosophers have done for years in response to continental texts: by thinking that the way to overcome the divide is to de-romanticise all the continental texts and show their argumentative flaws (only with the good grace to take continental texts completely seriously before the de-romantic slaughter can begin). But what if one tries it from the other way as Cavell attempted (and failed) to do in the 60s – 80s: what if the way to overcome, or at least question the analytic/continental divide was to romanticise all the analytic texts?
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.
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 ofsubstantial 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?).
Just a quick announcement. My first published book chapter in English is out – called “Objects of Surprise: Violence, Security and Metaphysics” and it’s for an edited collection called Violence and the Limits of Representation – (small preview HERE) published by Palgrave this week. List of essays below:
1. The Violence of Representation and the Representation of Violence; Benjamin Noys
2. Violence and Love (in which Yoko Ono encourages Slavoj Žižek to give peace a chance); Scott Wilson
3. (Im)material Violence: Discipline and the Gaze in James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late; Graham Matthews
4. Sadeian Women: Erotic Violence in the Surrealist Spectacle; Catriona McAra
5. Demarcating Violence in the Dramaturgy of Lisa McGee’s Girls and Dolls; Rosalind Haslett
6. Skeletons of Solid Objects: Imperial Violence in J.G. Farrell’s Empire Trilogy; Sam Goodman
7. Contingent Violence: Bergson and the Comedy of Horrors in Schindler’s List; John Mullarkey
8. Violence and Mediation: The Ethics of Spectatorship in the Twenty-First Century Horror Film; Xavier Aldana Reyes
9. Objects of Surprise: Violence, Security and Metaphysics; Robert Jackson
My essay is an extended treatment of a paper delivered in Exeter a few years ago (September 2010 I think). It’s basically using Harman’s critique of Heidegger against a particular Heideggerian view of security and violence, to align the realism of both into a political debate – which is to say, that security can’t be critiqued via a bad way of thinking, but should be understood as a real collection of violent systems that have damaging controlling effects.
If you want to spend $80 / £50 on it, be my guest…. but clearly there are other ways around it. Just to be in the same collection with the likes of Mullarkey, Wilson and Noys is enough. Graham and Sam did a fantastic job too.
Ok here is the talk I gave at Exeter this week. It’s the same deal – the PDF is HERE , but I’ve pasted the text underneath for those who prefer to read on phones, etc. The talk won’t make too much sense without the slides, so here is the movable mov. file too. (give it a minute to load)
Do Objects Have a Politics? Broomberg & Chanarin’s ID-2.
Lets begin with a horrible, troublesome question. Do inanimate objects have a politics? Unpacking this question risk unpacking everything else.
In Autumn last year, the London-based artist duo Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin exhibited their controversial show ‘To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light’, first at Paradise Row, London, and more recently at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg in January of this year. Both exhibitions center around the artist’s historical enquiries into technological photographic developments with Kodak film stock and their entanglements within the South Africa apartheid regime in the 1970s and early 1980s.
The title of the show refers to the coded phrase specifically used by Kodak, which alluded to the creation of a new film stock designed to address the earlier film’s inability to render dark skin. This limitation of the medium produced a narrow light range, which when exposed to white skin – would render black skin completely invisible, save their eyes and teeth. When the confectionary and furniture industry kicked up a fuss on the inability to photograph dark chocolate and black furniture, Kodak were forced to come up with a solution, which indadvertedly manifested itself in the Polaroid ID-2 camera, first marketed in 1965, and ending production in 1973, designed as one mechanism to photograph and construct ID cards. As well as containing a camera head, timer, security laminator, die cutter and a pouch sealer, it also had an additional flash-boost feature. Broomberg explains that the pigment in South-African black skin absorbs roughly 42% more light than typical white skin. The ID-2’s boost feature produces exactly 42% more light, evoking the necessary response that its purpose was to take reliable photographs of black faces – this artifact’s sleek functioning, the artist’s believed, was the predominant mechanism South African authorities used to produce pass-book portraits (or “dompas”) which aided the apartheid regime of racial segregation.
Polaroid withdrew its operation from South Africa in 1977, largely because of the efforts of Caroline Hunter, a young black chemist working for Polaroid who discovered their implicit support for the apartheid and campaigned for a boycott. Broomberg & Chanarin’s show itself focuses on using the ID-2 (both in its “black-flash-boost” and “white settings) to photograph images of South African flora and foliage, rather than South African portraiture. None of this removes the inherent, charged political foundation of the ID-2, as it continued to be used after ’77: As Broomberg explains and claims, quoting him in a corresponding Guardian article: “Anything that comes out of that camera is a political document. If I take a shot of the carpet, that’s a political document.”1
But looking at the artist’s intentions with a dose of criticality, we have to be wary of what aesthetics consequences are claimed here. To say that the operation of the ID-2 is intrinsically political, no matter what it captures, generalises particular nuances about what such an apparatus is, and what our relationship to such an apparatus becomes as a result of what it does. The powerful nature of the subject matter does not license such grand claims that inanimate objects are inherently political or social, yet of course one cannot shirk away from the powerful potency of the artist’s images to foreground ID-2’s operation.
What would the role of aesthetics be in this difficult encounter? For example if we were to read the artist’s images through the lens of W. J. T. Mitchell’s 2005 publication What Do Pictures Want? – it won’t get us very far, not just because Mitchell’s text discusses the animated lives of images only insofar as how they literally, depict and subvert racial stereotypes (as in the chapter Living Color), but because the limitations of picture theory, would only pass through the operation of the ID-2 mechanism as a secondary process onto the reality of the living images themselves. Picture theory becomes limited, when the focus is on the material mechanism which gave birth to it. Broomberg and Chanarin’s exhibited images may be analyzed as uncontrollable living things, that “want” to discriminate, metaphor or not (should one would want to even suggest this), but the more pressing subject matter under consideration is the uncontrollable mechanism of the ID-2 itself, which uncomfortably constructs the show discussed, as well as the political issue at hand. Furthermore, what about all the other uncontrollable mechanisms that take place in the show and in photography in general which are glossed over?: the grained presence of silver-halide crystals in film emulsion, which, when struck by light, release an extra electron from bromide ions, attracting silver ions in turn to create fragile photos? Or how the artists photographed rare Bwtit initiation rituals using Kodak film stock past its expiration date, using archaic chemical processes to salvage one picture.
So, my question is this: what is the clearest method available to us, upon which one can approach the ID-2’s non-humanness without compromising on the difficult subject matter? Moreover in general terms, what would the role of aesthetics be in this method? My haggard suggestion is that rather than understanding the aesthetics of inanimate things through the lens of the social, political or economic system of which it is embedded, the social, political or economic system should be analyzed through the aesthetics of embedded animate and inanimate things. How does one use things in order to do things, not just aesthetically but also ethically? This view is, of course, not new, not least in science and technology studies, and as we will see, there are different, competing methods of how one takes things seriously. But depending on which nuance one sides, such differences potentially affect not only the practices of artists working today, but also such concurrent enquiries into the role of things and the autonomy of material in criticism, art history and contemporary practice.
In the classic 1980 article “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” written by Langdon Winner, for the journal Daedalus, one can find a similar set of struggles within a similar set of questions. Of course, Winner muses, “We all know that people have politics, not things,”2 but, nonetheless, he suggests that the standard models of social power unwittingly remove specific fine-grained distinctions within technological things themselves, locating their agency entirely within the realms of human production and the social. The social determination of technology is, in this view, essentially no different from the social determination of welfare, economics, finance or taxation. Winner’s approach “… takes technical artifacts seriously. Rather than insist that we immediately reduce everything to the interplay of social forces, it suggests that we pay attention to the characteristics of technical objects and the meaning of those characteristics.”3
Winner notes two methods for how this may be done. First he cites particular instances where a specific technical device or system becomes a way of settling an issue in a particular community. The second method is perhaps more suitable whereby inherently political technologies, and man-made systems appear to require, or are strongly compatible with political relationships. Such assemblages, he states are “forms of order:” For instance, Winner cites his famous example of two hundred, extraordinary low-hanging overpasses on Long Island, New York, built by Robert Moses, who on evidence of his biographer, deliberately designed them to discourage the presence of buses, the most widely used method of transport for the black community. According to Winner, the overpasses themselves contained an implicit discrimination built directly into the actual thing, designed to socially engineer a decision which favours one privileged class and race, by brute force. It can perhaps be argued that Broomberg and Chanarin’s show is strongly aligned with this second option – how photography as a non-human operational thing itself implicitly discriminates between certain races, in favour of others, and, moreover, how such limiting effects manifest in specific social engineering practices.
But there was a problem in Winner’s analysis, as routinely pointed out in the article’s fallout in science and technology studies. Winner seemed to believe that there was an intrinsic, designed political order to these artifacts, as if the thing’s intention was definitively political through and through. Likewise Broomberg and Chanarin’s aesthetic analysis of the ID-2 holds a similar sway, by suggesting that anything the insipid device spews out must be politically ordered to discriminate. The issue here is mistaking the intentional aspect of the thing as an ontological imperative – Winner justifiably focuses on the things themselves, but their agency is ultimately based on human associations. Evidence for this can be seen in Winner’s association that “certain technologies [are] political phenomena in their own right.”4
And thats just the problem, things as political phenomena – not the thing in its own right, but the thing of human perception and automation. No wonder Winner borrows from Edmund Husserl’s philosophical injunction ‘to the things themselves’ – we are dealing with things on the surface of phenomena: not real independent things, but things bracketed for human understanding and purpose. There are other extensions that argue for the presence of things in critical theory, most notably Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory.” which wants to supplement and invigorate narrative theory and cultural theory. Wherever we turn, we face things: whether they are supporting us, ruining daily tasks for us, getting us to buy more stuff. As Brown suggests, we routinely inject our odd ticks and fascinations into material things, which inject them back into us.
We cannot move on without discussing the main figurehead for the sociological and political study of non-humans, Bruno Latour. Under the pseudonym of Jim Johnson, Latour cites Winner in passing in the 1988 article, Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer.5 The article is a good introduction to the entire motif of Actor Network Theory in its Latourian deployment: he concentrates on one very humble non- human or actor: an automated door-closer located in the Sociology department at Walla Walla University, Washington. Latour suggests that by way of its associations within a network, such a thing can be followed as a highly moral, highly social actor. The door- closer itself is designed to delegate such human functions, often resists that function, and is need of constant discipline. It slams into peoples faces, discriminates very little and very old visitors from passing through, and by its nature, can’t decide if its a door or a gate. Latour’s break with Winner is the fact that he treats things, or actors as being highly contingent without much order at all – or rather order lies not with things, but their strength exists in networks, alliances, transformations and extensions. The political power of things, does not lie in the things themselves, but in their associations: in principle the ID-2 discriminates against black skin just as well as black furniture and black cats. The automatic door closer discriminates furniture removers, and millionaires with packages in principle. There is no form of order as such: what matters is the networked distribution of the actant, in the specific local arena of other actants, in a specific period of clustering relationships. In Latour’s eyes, Broomberg and Chanarin would be launching an inquiry and tracing a network, yet what does this do to aesthetic practice? Does it make it indistinguishable from science studies? Yes and perhaps no.
Latour’s famous intervention in science studies follows this logic to the end6: scientific truth and fact aren’t deduced by experiment, in order to discover their hidden nature: rather the practices and associations of laboratory workers and their non-human cliental align various actants together into contingent networks of strength, which are never absolute. For instance, its perfectly plausible to overturn Einstein’s theory of General Relativity (say if someone wanted to replace it with Machian Relativity), but the sheer weight of all the actors which have aligned themselves to this one actor, this black box, would discourage most from trying, or inevitably face ridicule: a host of actors stand in their way including historical papers, demonstrative equations, conferences, ingrained institutions and funding bodies, all are stacked up to defend such supposedly matters of fact. In order for an actor to be taken seriously as a fact, it must paradoxically follow a collective, constructive process.
Latour’s criticism of such techniques follow from his refusal to follow Modernities lead in purifying actants into two incompatible realms, as made famous in his 1991 publication We Have Never Been Modern. For Latour, Modernity is defined by a pointless division whereby entities are put into two boxes or two kinds; either they must be actants of nature, an external world made up of facts and reality, or they must be actants of culture, an internal realm composed of arbitrary, human perspectives and metaphors which socially construct. What Latour proposes is a shattering of the anthropocentric view that transcendent human thought is the center of historical, philosophical, aesthetic, social and moral issues, whilst reducing the rest of reality to unknowable ‘material’ worthy of scientific discovery. Reality isn’t simply defined by the work of nature, and neither is conceptual distortion simply defined by the work of thought: there are only actants, and their trials of strength in a relationship: nothing more, nothing less.
It would be an understatement to suggest that Latour’s inseparability of culture and nature has significant implications for contemporary art practice, not least because Latour himself recently set up a new experimental research program in art and politics (the Sciences Po Ecole des Arts Politiques [SPEAP]) and curated two major and experimental, international art exhibitions: Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art in 2002 and Making Things Public: The Atmospheres of Democracy in 2005 with Peter Weibel, both at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany.
In the co-joining publication, From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik (following Heidegger’s Ding as ‘Thing’), Latour outlines what such an implication could mean for arts practice. Political artworks cannot take place without the public life of things and their uncomfortable histories, that silently take place without us beholding them. Politics is no longer limited to human agency alone. No assembling can be done without non-human assemblers. No associations can be made without non-human relational networks explicitly blurring disciplines after the fact of the thing. The anthropocene may be one dominated by humans, but for Latour, indicative of his recent on Lovelock’s Gaia theory, and the revenge of nature, there is no ‘oneness’ of a romanticized primordial realm unknowable from thought alone. Thought and knowledge must be decentered, from their anthropocentric standpoint – and humans must orient themselves to reality of things: if a pluralistic multiculturalism is no longer anchored as the modern mover of things, then neither should a homogenous mononaturalism do so either. Latour jokingly coins this an object oriented democracy. Releasing objects from the ghosts of human experience Quoting Latour:
“Just go in your head over any set of contemporary issues: the entry of Turkey into the European Union, the Islamic veil in France, the spread of genetically modified organisms in Brazil, the pollution of the river near your home, the breaking down of Greenland’s glaciers, the diminishing return of your pension funds, the closing of your daughter’s factory, the repairs to be made in your apartment, the rise and fall of stock options, the latest beheading by fanatics in Falluja, the last American election. For every one of these objects, you see spewing out of them a different set of passions, indignations, opinions, as well as a different set of interested parties and different ways of carrying out their partial resolution. It’s clear that each object – each issue – generates a different pattern of emotions and disruptions, of disagreements and agreements. There might be no continuity, no coherence in our opinions, but there is a hidden continuity and a hidden coherence in what we are attached to. Each object gathers around itself a different assembly of relevant parties. Each object triggers new occasions to passionately differ and dispute. Each object may also offer new ways of achieving closure without having to agree on much else. In other words, objects – taken as so many issues – bind all of us in ways that map out a public space profoundly different from what is usually recognized under the label of “the political.”7
As they do, artists have answered the call with assertive aplomb – much of it designed to separate their own practice from dominant discussions in the artworld surrounding socially engaged practices focusing on participation and dialogue. In her 2008 essay Things vs Objects in Art Monthly, Rikke Hansen, cites Brown and Latour’s emphasis on non-human things, so as to outline how such a return moves such questions about social engagement on from the power of subjects and of thought more generally. In her view the criticism of Grant Kester, Miwon Kwon, Claire Bishop and especially Nicolas Bourriaud, sideline “the material things that are part of the stage set to begin with or produced from the encounter itself.”8 Artworks grounding in ethical participation never consider how other assembled entities ‘act‘ with as much agency as spectators, communities and viewers. Other critics, such as Ina Blom9, are more interested in how artists uncover the life of things in the public social realm.
Arguably things have always been a part of art, but in this new sense, ‘making things public’ is not just a theory, but a social practice of making things stand out, making the invisible things socially visible and oddly weird. This renewed democracy of things, the sociality of objects, follows a number of similarly predicated shows which attempt to understand how the agency of units and material ‘things’ shape viewer interactions; from the famous ‘THING: New Sculpture from Los Angeles’, Hammer Museum in 2005; Steven Claydon’s exhibition ‘Strange Things Permit Themselves the Luxury of Occurring’ at the Camden Arts Centre in 2008; and the show ‘Material Intelligence’ at Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard in 2009.
In Things vs Objects, Hansen, cites the 2007 work Copy Right by Copenhagen artist group Superflex, comprised of 80 mass-produced chairs, crudely cut with cloth ripping edges, and remnant off-cuts strewn across the floor. The design of the chairs closely (but not exactly) follows the patent of the Arne Jakobsen chair, escaping their function and acting on the social network of the space. The actual confrontation with such a political work, lies in how the artist uncovers the inherent power within a non-human network, which is to say that, quoting Hansen, “Power is not inherent in either subjects or objects; instead power is and must always be seen as a relational matter”10. For Hansen especially, the contemporary role of the artist might be located in exposing how the agency of things, like patented chairs, force us into addressing how their associations control, discriminate, and socially discipline, in conjunction with making said things act, as well as understanding how their relational power emanates within and around us. In other words, a political theory presupposes an ontology, one that must first make assumptions about what entities are, what their properties may be and how they compose society. One can find an identical position in Jane Bennett’s 2010 publication Vibrant Matter, which attempts to concretize a political ecology. By vitality Bennett means, “ the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans, but also to act as quasi-agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.”11 A similar position can also be found in Isabelle Stenger’s Cosmopolitics, which operates under similar Latourian lines. This position is sometimes referred to as new materialism: understanding the vital, agency qualities of matter outside of thought.
More recently, Daniel Birnbaum’s review of Documenta 13, in ArtForum, 12 argues that there was a productive conflict between the trauma led artworks focusing on human conflict and reconciliation, together with artworks which explicitly focused on the thinglyness of actants and objects (or as Documenta’s catalogue attests, an expressive call for the “inanimate makers of the world.”) Steven Henry Madoff’s review13 went as far as suggesting that Christov-Bakargiev’s curatorial emphasis on the story of the social through things, lent itself to being the most important exhibition in the 21st Century (it was certainly the most expensive).
The Politics of Concealment
Yet such an aesthetic theory concerning things, need not have its lot with a public Latourian model. The problem with artists making things public, is that at some point they sink back into invisible concealment. In his fourth book Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, the american philosopher Graham Harman, jointly endorses the importance of Latour’s theory of networked actants, for its trailblazing anti-Kantian metaphysical claims, whilst also criticizing its inherent philosophical limits. If Winner’s approach to the politics of things was broadly Husserlian, and Latour’s largely Whiteheadian, Harman’s approach to endorsing a reality of things follows a bizarre Heideggerian turn. What is needed, he thinks, is to preserve Latour’s democracy of things, but install a Heideggerian flavoured critique into it.
The problem as Harman sees it, is that Latour is too much of a relationalist – the reality of actants are so utterly defined by their associations, translations and perturbations, they have nothing left in reserve, and situations, political or otherwise, can only be changed by adding more networks, more associations. Should an artist wish to research a topic, they must negotiate a particular, existing network and align such things into a diminishing structure. An actant is only real for Latour if it plays it’s associations right. Harman argues that this is nothing short of a paradox for a realist position: if an actant’s reality is only defined by its relations in any given instant, how does such a system account for change? If a thing’s context is all it is, how can one permit an agency to it? Change being perhaps the central political and aesthetic aim in any given situation.
Harman’s response, built from his early work on Heidegger’s tool analysis, argues that discrete non-human objects are non-relational from the start. Objects are autonomous from their relations.14 If things are completely defined by their relations, to us and the world, Harman’s objects have autonomy insofar as they withdraw from the world including the social. Just as Heidegger mused that the phenomenological qualities of one’s hammer withdraw from use in the effort of building a hut in the Black Forest, Harman claims that the qualities of all objects withdraw from each other in equal measure. The qualities of a cotton ball’s smell, colour and taste, are not made public for the fire when burned, because fire can only affect its flammable properties. The reality of non-human objects always hide from their networks for Harman: there is always something left in reserve, never fully exhausted, never completely interconnected, never holistic, never fully made public, always concealed from view. All entities are finite, including the entity of thought.
Returning to the Broomberg & Chanarin’s show on the ID-2, we can build a preliminary case for whats going on. The artists are wrong to impose ethical claims on the medium of photography itself, rather the primacy of the medium exist outside of human political engagement. In fact I would argue that the only reason the artists can use the ID-2 to take such stunning imagery consists in the finite, limiting condition of the artifact in itself. Such a limitation of medium, allowed such atrocities to occur, and yet the same essential limits capture such beauty, precisely insofar the object has a deeper agency in-itself than its historically political use. Broomberg & Chanarin’s aesthetic imperative not only exposes the object’s political abuse, but simultaneously uses the same object – in itself to re-write and break those political relations around a new context. The political context does not exhaust the agency of the thing, rather the agency of the thing exceeds its context and thus is always capable of forcing something new into the context of things. Artists are complicit in this activity and rightly so. Thought cannot center its ethics without things.
More recently the videogame and digital media scholar Ian Bogost has used Harman’s work to reinterpret various strands in the history of photography. In his book Alien Phenomenology, Bogost mentions two photographers in particular Garry Winogrand and Stephen Shore – the work of both, he argues, cannot be understood without understanding how the camera itself limits a certain frame of looking. Winogrand use of the tiny Leica rangefinder,15 allowed him to photograph things indiscriminately without stopping for pause or framing, which allows Bogost to make good on16 Winogrand’s famous statement “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” Similarly with Shore, his use of film plates with the lumbering view camera forced him to understand how the camera sees, the mundanity of American life rather than himself. This Bogost argues, allows Shore to be ‘unironic’ to the material, simply cataloging the things in front of him, without pandering to a human perspective.17
1 David Smith, “Racism of early colour photography explored in art exhibition”, Guardian Culture Online, Friday 25 January 2013. Last Accessed 10th February 2013 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2013/jan/25/racism-colour- photography-exhibition>
2 Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics”, in Daedalus, Vol. 109, No.1 (1980): 122 cf: 121 – 136.
3 ibid, 123.
4 ibid, 123.
5 Jim Johnson (a.k.a. Bruno Latour), “Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer”, in Social Problems, Vol. 35, No. 3, Special Issue: The Sociology of Science and Technology (Jun., 1988), 298 – 310.
6 Bruno Latour, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge: 1987).
7 Bruno Latour, ”From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public”, in Making Things Public, Edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, (MIT Press, Cambridge, 2005), 15.
8 Rikke Hansen, “Things vs. Objects: Rikke Hansen on the public life of things”, In Art Monthly, London, Issue No. 318, July – August 2008. Accessed Online 10th February 2013, <http://www.artmonthly.co.uk/magazine/site/article/things-v- objects-by-rikke-hansen-jul-aug-2008>
9 Ian Blom, On the Style Site – Art, Sociality, and Media Culture, (Sternberg Press, Berlin: 2007)
10 Hansen, “Things vs Objects.”
11 Jane Bennett. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, (Duke: Duke University Press, 2010), viii
12 Daniel Birnbaum, ‘Documenta 13’, ArtForum, October 2012. Accessed Online 10th February 2013, <http:// blog.urbanomic.com/sphaleotas/archives/id_34514/id_34514.htm>
13 Steven Henry Madoff, “Why Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s Documenta May Be the Most Important Exhibition of the 21st Century.” Accessed Online 10th February 2013, <http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/811949/why-curator- carolyn-christov-bakargievs-documenta-is-the-most-important-exhibition-of-the-21st-century>
14 Graham Harman, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (Repress, Melbourne: 2009) 159. 15 Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology. (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis: 2012) 47
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.
There is a new exhibition on Georgio Morandi at the Estorick Collection, London, called Lines of Poetry. I’ve heard that they’ve brought together quite a few drawings and watercolours not previously seen in the UK – and more excitingly it collects all of the most important graphic work he did, including drawings there weren’t characteristically still-life.
I was never really interested in Morandi’s work, until I saw a conference lecture given by one of my tutors – John Chilver – on Morandi and Heidegger’s ‘The Thing”. I was about 22 I think, and I certainly wasn’t in the capacity to absorb anything about Heidegger at that point (it was published somewhere I believe), but I remember the oddness and intensity of the works. Now of course, I see clear and obvious links between Morandi’s strange, haunting grasp of still-life objects forever ungraspable and Heidegger’s own musings about the withdrawn, self-supporting jug.
Laura Cumming’s review in the Guardian/Observer actually has some nice OOO-ish tangs of description here, noticing an odd, secretive turn Morandi made in his 30s.
“Why is the lid of this tin very slightly open, in a group where all the objects are facing in the same direction, as if it were confiding something about the others in a whisper?
Why are five of the vessels on a table top complete white-outs: incandescent silhouettes plucked from the dark forms behind them as if they were the chosen ones, beamed up by some special magic?”
And this too, when she describes Morandi’s ‘A bottle that is not part of the secret society cranes its neck to hear’: Still Life with Five Objects, 1956 (image above) I’m not sure I could describe it better myself.
“A fantastic convocation of pitchers meets in cabal. Two with their backs against us are hugger-mugger with a third, like tall prelates. A lowly dish, half their height, waits upon their bidding and a bottle that is not part of the secret society cranes its neck to hear. Brilliant white streaks of light shoot down the back-turned pitchers, representing glaze but positively aggressive in their glint. One fears for the bottle.”
This is why I think the modernist commitment to Anthropmorphism succeeds in capturing something special about the very nature of ungraspable entities. Morandi literally forces a description upon us, to forage and traverse this relationship, this ‘secret society’ between bottles, tins and pitchers, beckons a view of equality and adjustment. As Cumming correctly noticed, Morandi learnt the craft of Chardin and Cézanne before him, and worked it into a hazy, dreamy, soft edged style, which captured objects in a dusky mood of hesitancy.
If you can pick it up in the library – I would recommend getting Karen Wilkin’s Morandi: Works, Writings, Interviews, which amongst the reprinted illustrations, has a startlingly direct auto-biographical statement written in 1928, which really gives force to Morandi’s artistic thinking, however correlationist it may appear.
“I believe that nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see. We know that all that we can see of the objective world, as human beings, never really exists as we see and understand it. Matter exists, of course, but has no intrinsic meaning of its own, such as the meanings that we attach to it. Only we can know that a cup is a cup, that a tree is a tree.”
But of course we aren’t correlationists here – anthropomorphism does not stop with the ‘anthro’. I think more can be said about the reality of Morandi’s secret, withdrawn societies. What we actually see is both unreal and real.