A Picture Postcard…plus Graham Harman and Bill Brown

A recent dissertation by Louise J. Boscacci caught my attention: an “object encounter” with an old postcard! It’s a cool idea. Boscacci smartly divides the encounter into three elements: the postcard, her experience, and the postcard’s changing environment over time. Her extensive research of the postcard’s history is just plain interesting. But some other stuff bothers me.

Part of it is the language, which gets repetitious and super jargony. Take, for instance, one of the numerous instances where Boscacci explains that she uses affect theory to understand her encounter with a family postcard:

As introduced via the Spinozan-Deleuzian philosophically-inflected concept of the body at rest and in affective intensities of movement and agency, it was to ‘affect’ and ‘the affective’ that I turned to begin to explore the multiple provocations of this postcard encounter.

It’s a conservative example taken from what I would expect to be the most straightforward rhetorical moment in the book. I genuinely believe much can be gained from a close study of an old heirloom, and a big part of doing so would mean reserving that heightened style for special occasions.

Things also get fuzzy when Boscacci steps outside the postcard and its “intensities and transient forces.” I’ve spent some time studying Graham Harman’s writings, and was disappointed to see Boscacci tease that his object-oriented ontology (OOO) might be relevant, only to wave it off:

Harman frames the object as an eternal form impervious to interpretations of meaning, the historical context of its emergence, or its effects on a participant-beholder in encounter…Whether an object is deemed to be affective/generative to me as an artist-researcher, or not, is of no consequence to the OOO account of the object.

Yuck. She might as well have written “Harman says it’s useless to talk about objects, so why bother?” Okay: Real things for Harman certainly resist reduction to historical context or effects. But that doesn’t mean he thinks they are eternal or impervious to their context. Much of what he has written tries to address that issue.

More importantly, Boscacci gets the word “object” mixed up with non-human physical thing. As far as OOO is concerned, it can make a huge difference when an object affects an artist-researcher. Yet if that’s the case, the thing under investigation cannot be the postcard all by its lonesome; it must be the compound entity formed by the postcard and artist-researcher. (In general, stark evaluations don’t play well with the strategy of avoidance. The better choice is to say that the philosophical tenets of OOO differ from your Deleuzian approach. Then you’d find some juicy sources to explain why, and conclude that it’s not your goal to come to terms with the two perspectives. It’s hard, though, I get it. I’m certainly one to talk about picking my battles…)

Finally, Boscacci’s interpretation of OOO looks like it comes directly from someone else’s misreading. Specifically, it resembles stuff from a chapter by Rebekah Sheldon in The Nonhuman Turn, a book of essays edited by Richard Gruisin. As Sheldon writes: OOO “sees the object as an eternal form, which can neither be sculpted by discourse nor obscured by representation…”

Harman for his part distinguishes his objects from eternal forms, and his theory holds that discourse can sculpt objects such as books, websites, communities, new productions of Romeo and Juliet, and so forth. Just as surely, though, representation “obscures” its object: any relation does. (It’s one of Harman’s happy links with Bruno Latour.) If you want philosophies that follow the path of eternal forms, then Harman is the wrong guy to pick on. Instead, spend some time with philosophers who champion the form/matter distinction, or who claim direct access to the difference between reality and its appearances. For Harman, though, reality always only shows itself indirectly, through surprises that erupt from a rich field of images.

SPEAKING OF WHICH

I’m reminded now of another very recent take on Harman. This one comes from Bill Brown in his book Other Things. Brown is well established in his field for his seminal “thing theory.” In a nutshell, Brown opines that OOO cannot illuminate “how a nonhuman object world forms and transforms the human” and cannot even recognize “the bounds of human knowing.” Instead, OOO replaces these boundaries with hubristic claims to knowledge of anything and everything. If you’re sympathetic to Brown’s complaint, then you now have good reason to dive into Harman’s most recent book as of late 2016, Dante’s Broken Hammer, which responds to it in its last chapter. Harman would surely claim that Brown argues from a formalist standpoint. He obviously means something specific with that term – more about that some other time.

Brown also plays fast and loose with the concept of “flat ontology,” associating it mainly with the “object studies” of Harman and Ian Bogost rather than Bruno Latour, who was already introduced a hundred plus pages earlier. But any proper response to Brown would want to consider this stuff in the context of his larger project, which aside from being fascinating in its own right has basically paralleled OOO in its chronology. A good place to start: Other Things makes much of the reversal between tool and broken tool in Heidegger (Brown refers to his “thing/object” dichotomy), which Harman has engaged with at length…

In any case, Brown appears to borrow elements of his interpretation of object-oriented thought from a 2013 article by Andrew Cole. (Cole wrote another perplexing attack on OOO more recently over at Art Forum.) Or maybe Brown just has an affinity with his colleague’s temperament. Is it a Marxian or Hegelian thing? I have no idea. Whatever the cause, it sometimes comes across to me like quasi-political campaigning rather than serious scholarly engagement, as if OOO might bite whoever gets too close.

More charitably, a pretty wide contingent wants to approach OOO in terms of political and ethical consequences. Yet this ultimately must involve a face-off between some version of the object and whatever the critic thinks is disastrously excluded from its purview, and this means taking it seriously. Jane Bennett, for instance, thinks the word “object” is not politically disruptive enough. But her semantic complaint can only be carried on the back of a deeper motivation to replace “mysterious individuals” with “complex systems.” Of course, I would still say this particular move is misguided: ever since at least Guerilla Metaphysics, Harman has maintained that the interior sensual field of any object must be a complex system rife with an interplay between continuity and discontinuity.

Not sure how I’ll do it, but writing about the Dante book would probably take several posts.

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