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

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

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

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target by conflating OOO with a Latourian ANT (relations are on an equal footing, but do not constitute a substantial, withdrawn discrete entity), ridiculing it for being an ‘anything goes’ flat ontology (which is pertinently false, because whilst Ian Bogost and Levi subscribe to an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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, I need to get this thesis finished.