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Realism Materialism Art introduces a wide range

of new realist and materialist philosophies and

examines their influence within the arts. This
dynamic collection of texts and images breaks
realism and materialism out of their philosophical
frames and opens them to broader cultural and
social concerns.

Eds. C. Cox J. Jaskey S. Malik

ISBN 978-3-95679-126-0
Realism Materialism Art
Eds. C. Cox J. Jaskey S. Malik

Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College

Sternberg Press
Coole: From Within the Midst of Things

Ladyman: Things Aren't What They Used to Be

Diederichsen: Is Marxism a Correlationism?

Grosz: Feminism, Materialism, and Freedom

Groys: Entering the Flow

Laruelle/ Maoilearca: Artistic Experiments with Philosophy DeLanda/Cox: Possibility Spaces

Poole: The Idiot Paradigm

Malik: Reason to Destroy Contemporary Art

Shaviro: Non-Correlational Thought Speculation


Lee: Unnatural Participations

Brassier/Malik: Reason Is Inconsolable & Non-Conciliatory Thacker: Pessimism and Realism

Harman/Cox/Jaskey: Art & OOObjecthood

Cox: Sonic Thought

Grant: Suprematist Ontology & the Ultra Deep Field Problem

Scale Schuppli: Law and Disorder

Horgan/Potrc: Blobjectivism & Art

Wark: Absolute Spectacle

Paglen: Geographies of Time

Canini: Real Noise Acts


Srnicek: Computational Infrastructures and Aesthetics

Weir: Thick Dia-chronic Crash

Garcia: In Defense of Representation

Kolozova: Concepts that Surrender to Materiality

Negarestani: Synechistic Critique of Aesthetic Judgement

Ritchie: The Temptation of the Diagram

Szepanski: -non-music-non-stop-

Ribas: What Is it that Makes Todays Realism so Different, so Appealing?

Beech: Concept Without Difference

Avanessian: Speculative Poetics

Parisi: Automated Architecture Meillassoux: Metaphysics & Extro-Science Fiction

Ayache: Technology of the Future


11 Preface
Tom Eccles
15 Introduction
Christoph Cox, Jenny Jaskey, and Suhail Malik

35 Things Arent What They Used to Be:
On the Immateriality of Matter and the Reality of Relations
James Ladyman
41 From Within the Midst of Things: New Sensibility, New Alchemy, and
the Renewal of Critical Theory
Diana Coole
47 Feminism, Materialism, and Freedom
Elizabeth Grosz
61 Is Marxism a Correlationism?
Diedrich Diederichsen
71 Entering the Flow
Boris Groys
87 Possibility Spaces
Manuel DeLanda in Conversation with Christoph Cox

97 Art and OOObjecthood
Graham Harman in Conversation with Christoph Cox and Jenny Jaskey
123 Sonic Thought
Christoph Cox
131 Unnatural Participations
Nathan Lee
137 Law and Disorder
Susan Schuppli
145 Blobjectivism and Art
Terry Horgan and Matja Potrc
151 Absolute Spectacle
McKenzie Wark
Concept Speculation
163 Pessimism and Realism 345 What Is It That Makes Todays Realism So Different, So Appealing?
Eugene Thacker Joo Ribas
173 Making Non-Standard Thoughts: An Introduction to Franois Laruelle 351 Speculative PoeticsPreliminary Reflections
John Maoilearca Armen Avanessian
177 Artistic Experiments with Philosophy 363 Automated Architecture: Speculative Reason in the Age of the Algorithm
Franois Laruelle in Conversation with John Maoilearca Luciana Parisi
185 Reason to Destroy Contemporary Art 371 Metaphysics and Extro-Science Fiction
Suhail Malik Quentin Meillassoux
193 Non-Correlational Thought 387 Technology of the Future
Steven Shaviro Elie Ayache
205 The Idiot Paradigm
Matthew Poole 395 List of Figures
213 Reason Is Inconsolable and Non-Conciliatory Jenny Jaskey and Alicia Ritson
Ray Brassier in conversation with Suhail Malik
231 Suprematist Ontology and the Ultra Deep Field Problem: 400 Image Credits
Operations of the Concept 401 Contributor Biographies
Iain Hamilton Grant 405 Colophon

245 In Defense of Representation
Tristan Garcia
253 Concepts That Surrender to Materiality and to the Real
Katerina Kolozova
263 The Temptation of the Diagram
Matthew Ritchie
283 -non-music-non-stop-
Achim Szepanski
289 Concept without Difference: The Promise of the Generic
Amanda Beech

301 Geographies of Time (The Last Pictures)
Trevor Paglen
307 Computational Infrastructures and Aesthetics
Nick Srnicek
319 Real Noise Acts
Mikko Canini
325 Thick Dia-Chronic Crash. Incision into Delay
Andy Weir
333 Synechistic Critique of Aesthetic Judgment
Reza Negarestani
Tom Eccles

Edited by Christoph Cox, Jenny Jaskey, and Suhail Malik, Realism Materialism
Art (RMA) grew out of discussions within the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard
College. With a broad focus on exhibition and artistic practices since the 1960s
to the present day, CCS Bard has, since its inception in 1990, sought to locate the
visual arts in the broader context of contemporary culture and, as such, the
masters course offered at Bard has always engendered a distinct interest in theoret-
ical concerns that many may feel unusual, if not downright inappropriate. As the
editors note in their introduction, realism and materialism challenge many of
these now prevalent assumptions of cultural practice and theoretical inquiry and
it was out of the need to question the dominance of post-structuralist, psychoana-
lytic, and Marxist theories that constitute these assumptions, and which continue
to form the basis of much of the theoretical and critical elements of advanced art
education, from which this current project was born. This current publication
demonstrates the pertinence and vitality of this inquiry and its applications, and
we hope that RMA will serve a broad set of academic and non-academic interests.
The volume provides a key source in, and guide to, the most innovative and
exciting realist and materialist projects taking place today. To that end, RMA
features new material from leading figures in Speculative Realism and mate-
rialism, and puts these in dialogue with the inventive work of emerging, unfa-
miliar, and unexpected practitioners and researchers from many areas of intel-
lectual, artistic, and scientific enquiry and practice. Particularly important to
the ambitions of this volume are the prospective intersections of these research
areas: as the editors of this volume note in their introduction, For all the
gathering interest in the possibilities opened up by the relationships between
realism, materialism, and art, there is to date a dearth of reflection and argu-
ment on their reciprocal salience. RMA looks to rectify this situation, acting as
a sourcebook of recent critical developments across disciplines, taking up the
renewed interest in realism and materialism from art, philosophy, culture, and
theory, while also providing both an introduction to this demanding and fast-
moving set of debates and practices, as well as a unique convergence between
its diverse approaches and disciplines. The collection of new essays, interviews,
and discussions extends the current debate on materialism and realism beyond
the prevalent strands of Speculative Realism and object-oriented philos-
ophy by linking these innovative philosophical approaches to recent work in
feminist-materialist theorizations of gender and affect, political theory, network
art, science, finance, and literature. This uniquely diverse combination looks


to break realism and materialism out of its narrow theoretical frame, opening it has proved an invaluable resource to CCS Bard over the years. And finally, my
out into broader cultural and social terms, drawing contributions from across thanks to designer Zak Kyes and the Zak Group in London who never fail to
diverse fields of inquiry that demonstrate the breadth and challenge of new provide an inspired response to the raw material presented.
materialist and realist approaches to received disciplinary categories and forms
of practice.
The editors have organized the contributions to the book in a quasi-
encyclopedic format, allotting the contributions to five primary categories with
historical and practical significance in art, art history, philosophy, and theory.
These categories are: matter, object, concept, representation, scale, speculation.
These categories were selected because they are primary to current materialist
and realist thinking. They also serve to relay the philosophical arguments that
have for the most part inspired the renewed interest in these traditions, with
canonical terms familiar to audiences and readers in art and art theory. As well
as acting as common identification markers for the reader, categorizing the oth-
erwise diverse contributions with the familiar and well-worn markers chosen by
the editors has a two-fold purpose: on the one hand, the diverse contributions
in any one category push current philosophical, scientific, artistic, and theoret-
ical research into dialogue with one another in unexpected and inventive ways;
on the other hand, these familiar if not canonical categories are themselves
challenged and reworked by the diverse entries thus reshaping the conventional
sense of the categories themselves. In this way the book has the ambitious aim
to make a contribution to the development of art, theory, art history, and philo-
sophy itself.
I would like to thank the editors first and foremost for their inspired list of
invited contributors and their dedicated efforts to bring this challenging project
to fruition. Both Christoph Cox and Suhail Malik have reshaped the theoret-
ical and philosophical courses at the Center for Curatorial Studies, some of
the material from this book having already contributing to a CCS course ded-
icated to Speculative Realism in 2013, while Jenny Jaskey, who graduated from
CCS Bard in 2012, has developed her research outside academia through exhibi-
tions and public programs in New York City. RMA provides a clear example of
how an institute, its faculty, students, and alumni with a shared research focus
can extend their research and discussions far beyond the particularities of any
given course.
I am also grateful to my former colleague Johanna Burton who initiated
a series of readers at the CCS Bard in 2011 and to the current director of the
graduate program, Paul ONeill, who has reinvigorated the conditions for curato-
rial research at Bard. Our publications for the past several years have been made
possible by the extraordinary efforts of Jaime Baird, who singlehandedly oversaw
these complex projects with dedicated enthusiasm. For RMA, Molly Whalen has
provided a truly impressive service in carefully editing and proofing a series of
challenging texts. Orit Gat steered the early evolution of this publication and

12 13
Christoph Cox, Jenny Jaskey, and Suhail Malik

Realism and materialism have become important watchwords in intellectual and

cultural discourse today. Despite their differences, these philosophical stances
propose that thought can think outside itself, that reality can be known without its
being shaped by and for human comprehension. This position sharply contrasts
with the philosophical and cultural view dominant over the last half century,
a view that affirms the indispensability of interpretation, discourse, textuality,
signification, ideology, and power. Diverse as they are, the theoretical pro-
grams that constitute this latter orthodoxy (notably phenomenology, hermeneu-
tics, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and psychoanalysis) maintain that our
apprehension of the natural and social worlds is either constituted or mediated
by a discursive field or a cognitive subject, and that nothingor nothing mean-
ingfulexists outside of discourse or its socially-organized construction. In short,
this orthodoxy has been staunchly anti-realist. Todays realism and materialism
explicitly challenge many of these now prevalent assumptions of cultural practice
and theoretical inquiry.
Realism Materialism Art (RMA) presents a snapshot of the emerging and rapidly
changing set of ideas, practices, and challenges proposed by contemporary realisms
and materialisms, reflecting their nascent reworking of art, philosophy, culture,
theory, and science, among other fields. Further, RMA strives to expand the hori-
zons and terms of engagement with realism and materialism beyond the primarily
philosophical context in which their recent developments have taken place, often
under the title Speculative Realism (SR). While it is SR that has most stridently
challenged critical orthodoxies (even if, as discussed later in this introduction, the
positions convened under the SR banner are often discordant and form no unified
movement), RMA purposefully looks to extend the purview of realist and materialist
thought by presenting recent developments in a number of distinct and heteroge-
neous practices and disciplines.
Cutting across diverse thematic interests and modes of investigation, the con-
tributions to RMA demonstrate the breadth and challenge of realist and materialist
approaches to received disciplinary categories and forms of practice. This pluridis-
ciplinarity is typical of the third term in our title: art. RMA affirms, as art now does,
that there is no privileged area, thematic, or discipline in the investigation or reach
of realism and materialism: not philosophy, not science, not even art itself. Art is
then not just a field transfigured by realism and materialism; it is also a method for
convening and extending what they are taken to be and do when extended beyond
philosophical argument.


A short history of some of arts intersections with recent realisms and mate- we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the
rialists is presented below. However, for all the gathering interest in the possibilities correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term consid-
opened up by the relationships between realism, materialism, and art, there is to ered apart from the other. [] Correlationism consists in disqualifying the
date a dearth of reflection and argument on their reciprocal salience. RMA looks to claim that it is possible to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity
provide a corrective to this situation. Featuring new contributions from a number independently of one another. Not only does it become necessary to insist
of established figures in contemporary variants of realist and materialist theory, that we never grasp an object in itself, in isolation from its relation to the
these ideas are situated in relation to the inventive work of established and emerging subject, but it also becomes necessary to maintain that we can never grasp
practitioners and researchers in art as well as from other areas of active inquiry on a subject that would not always already be related to an object.2
the consequences and effects of realism and materialism. Because many of these
contributions assume familiarity with the key claims of the resurgent realisms and For the correlationist the world is only ever the world for thought or the experience
materialisms, rehearsing their core arguments and motivations here may help pro- of a subject. The existence of things in themselves, independent of their relation-
vide orientation through them. ship to the thinking or experiencing subject, is either bracketed as inaccessible or
dismissed as a fiction.
I With the term correlationism Meillassoux not only reveals an important
In various ways, the currently dominant modes of contemporary critical theory commonality among the otherwise disparate theoretical and philosophical programs
perhaps most strikingly post-structuralism, deconstruction, and psychoanalysis of the twentieth century already mentioned (as well as hermeneutics, Wittgensteinian
insist on the absence, infinite deferral, or fiction of what Jacques Derrida called the philosophy, pragmatism, analytic anti-realism, existentialism, etc.); he also reveals
transcendental signified, that is, a fundamental reality that could arrest or ground this ideas deep roots in the history of philosophy. According to Meillassoux,
the proliferation of discourse, signification, and interpretation. Jacques Lacan, correlationism is the central notion of modern philosophy since Kant.3 Indeed,
for example, maintained that there is no such thing as a prediscursive reality Immanuel Kants Copernican Revolution consisted in arguing that, contrary to the
because every reality is founded by a discourseor, even more strongly, that it ordinary view that thought conforms to the objects it apprehends, objects conform
is the world of words that creates the world of things. In a similar vein, Michel to our thought.4 For Kant, the apprehension of reality is always mediated by a set of
Foucault argued that there is nothing absolutely primary to interpret, for after all cognitive structures shared by all human beings. Hence, what we call the world
everything is already interpretation. [] There is never, if you like, an interpretandum is always the world for-us. The object of thought is only ever the object for-thought
which is not already interpretans. Derridas notorious claim there is nothing out- and not the object as it exists in-itself. Kant insists that things-in-themselves must
side of the text offers another expression of this idea, as does Roland Barthess exist in order to provide the content for thought. Yet he also insists that such things-
remark that, apropos the domain of discourse, there is nothing beneath. As in-themselves can only be posits of thought or faith, not items of knowledge.5
Slavoj iek, the most prominent current heir to this tradition, concludes: Kants successors insisted that the notion of an unknowable thing-in-itself
The pre-synthetic Real is, stricto sensu, impossible: a level that must be retroac- is contradictory and superfluous. On the one hand, Kant claimed that the thing-
tively presupposed, but can never actually be encountered.1 in-itself is unknowable, beyond the limit of human knowledge; yet, on the other
These positions are all variants of what, in his influential book After Finitude, hand, he nonetheless seemed to know enough about it to posit its existence and
Quentin Meillassoux calls correlationism. By correlation, Meillassoux writes, thus to transcend the limit he had declared impassable. Responding to this con-
tradiction, G. W. F. Hegel, Kants most prominent successor, sought to show
that there is no genuine division between the world-as-it-appears-to-us and the
1 See Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I: Freuds Papers on Technique, 19531954, ed.
Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. John Forrester (New York: W. W. Norton, 1988), 66; Lacan, The
Seminar of Jacques Lacan: On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge (Book XX), ed. 2 Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier
Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998), 32; Lacan, The (London: Continuum, 2009), 5.
Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis, in crits, trans. Bruce Fink (New 3 Ibid. In A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism (Evanston: Northwestern
York: W. W. Norton, 2006), 229; Michel Foucault, Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, in Aesthetics, Method, University Press, 2007), Lee Braver gives a detailed account of this prevalence of correlationism
and Epistemology: Essential Works of Foucault, 19541984, vol. 2, ed. James Faubion (New York: New (which Braver calls by the more standard philosophical term anti-realism) from Kant, Hegel,
Press, 1998), 275; Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Nietzsche through Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida.
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 158; Roland Barthes, The Death of the 4 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, ed. and trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood
Author, in Image, Music, Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), 147; and (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), BxviBxviii, 11011.
Slavoj iek, The Ticklish Subject (London: Verso, 1999), 33. 5 Ibid., Bxxvi and Bxxx, 115, 117.

16 17

world-as-it-is-in-itself, no division between subject and object, mind and world. that exists; there is only one plane of existence, a plane that nothing transcends.
Instead, the world or reality is mind-like, imbued with mind or spirit.6 Thus Hegel It is what we are and that in which we are always already immersed. The attempts
absolutized the correlation, as Meillassoux puts it, asserting that the absolute (what by philosophy and conceptual thought to get to the real, to capture and represent
truly and fundamentally is) does not reside in some thing-in-itself existing beyond the it, always necessarily fail because they are always already a part of the Real and thus
bounds of our thought but is the very correlation between thinking and being.7 cannot project themselves outside of the Real in order to capture its totality. As
These two philosophical movesthe skeptical Kantian move according to Laruelle puts it in an exchange with Derrida that clearly confounds and exasperates
which the real is fundamentally inaccessible, and the idealist Hegelian move according the latter: We start from the One, we dont arrive at it. [] You have to start from the
to which the real is fundamentally mental or spiritualare maintained in more recent real, otherwise youll never get to it. Who wants the real? Philosophy. And because
European philosophy and critical theory that otherwise seeks to move beyond the it wants the real, it never gets it.9 Philosophy merely produces a transcendental
Kantian configuration. Where Kant took the categories of thought to be universal and hallucination of the Real construed in its own image.10 By contrast, Laruelles own
necessary, a fundamental feature of all human cognition, postwar European thought practice of non-philosophy or non-standard philosophy does not attempt to
often relativized and historicized this position, maintaining that there exist multiple represent the real but to think alongside or according to the Real, the latter being
and irreducible ways of apprehending the world that are relative to historical periods, the cause of thought and that to which thought belongs as a material part.
cultures, or subject positions. And where Kant cast his theory in terms of structures One of the very few prominent philosophers to endorse Laruelles project was
of cognition, postwar thought externalized this view, casting it in terms of discourse, Gilles Deleuze, an important predecessor for several strands of recent realism and
discursive regimes, or ideology, taken to be linguistic and extra-linguistic structures materialism. From the 1960s into the 1990s, Deleuze was strongly associated with
and practices that determine the limits of understanding and behavior. Despite these post-structuralism; yet, unlike many of his contemporaries, Deleuze always con-
significant and telling departures from Kant, postwar thought nonetheless reproduced sidered himself a pure metaphysician, drawing from contemporary science and
the structure of his position, maintaining that the real is accessible only as mediated mathematics to inform his philosophy and disparaging the linguistic turn charac-
by discourse orthe more Hegelian positionconstituted by it. teristic of post-structuralism. For Deleuze, language is but one example of a broader
notion of expression, itself a feature of all natural entities.11
* Deleuzes collaborative writings with Flix Guattari were a primary source for
Within this intellectual context, realismthe view that the world is fundamentally Nick Lands realist characterization of capitalism as constitutively lying beyond human
independent of the human mind and discourse and that it can be known in its inde- interests.12 Lands writings from the 1990s propose that humansas organisms, minds,
pendencewas dismissed as naive or futile.8 However, the past decade has witnessed bodies, and societies (especially the state form)constrain the expansive and prolif-
the resurgence of realism and materialism among philosophers trained in European erating energies of matter, machine systems, and codes. Land affirms that these limits
and Anglo-American correlationist or anti-realist thought. on material expression, as well as those of historical forms of natural and social
The recent affirmation of realism was enabled by a new interest in two vet- organizationincluding capitalism itselfare to be abolished by technological and
eran French philosophers who at the turn of the millennium were scarcely known capitalist advances into non-human conditions, a machinic deterritorialization
in the Anglophone world: Alain Badiou and Franois Laruelle, both born in 1937.
Though Badiou maintains a Lacanian conception of the Real as the unthought or 9 Jacques Derrida and Franois Laruelle, Controversy over the Possibility of a Science of
Philosophy, trans. Ray Brassier and Robin Mackay, in The Non-Philosophy Project: Essays by Franois
impossible of any given situation, what sets him apart from other philosophers of Laruelle, ed. Gabriel Alkon and Boris Gujevic (New York: Telos Press, 2012), 9091. See also
his generation is that he dismisses the politics of difference, asserts the primacy of Franois Laruelle, Philosophies of Difference: A Critical Introduction to Non-Philosophy, trans. Rocco
mathematics, and offers a theory of universal truth. This opened the door for other Gangle (London: Continuum, 2010), 152ff.
10 Franois Laruelle, A Summary of Non-Philosophy, trans. Ray Brassier, in The Non-Philosophy Project, 26.
internal challenges to post-structuralist orthodoxy. Laruelles philosophy of rad- 11 For Deleuzes remarks on Laruelle, see Gilles Deleuze and Flix Guattari, What is Philosophy?,
ical immanence is more directly a realism. For him, the Real (or the One) is all trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 220n5. Deleuzes self-
description as a metaphysician can be found in Gilles Deleuze, Responses to a Series of
6 G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977). Questions, Collapse 3 (2007): 42; and in Negotiations: 19721990, trans. Martin Joughin (New York:
7 Meillassoux, After Finitude, 37, 51ff. Columbia University Press, 1995), 8889.
8 A caution: Kant is, in some sense, a realist insofar as he holds that things-in-themselves or noumena exist 12 Gilles Deleuze and Flix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley,
independently of the human mind. However, he brackets the thing-in-itself as unknowable, maintaining Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983); A Thousand
that knowledge and experience deal exclusively with phenomena, that is, things as they appear to us. In Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia 2, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of
the sense presented in the main text here, realism is the view that mind-independence of the world is not Minnesota Press, 1987). Lands writings are gathered in Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings
just a mental posit but also something describable by philosophy, science, and other disciplines. 19872007, ed. Ray Brassier and Robin Mackay (Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic, 2011).

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accelerated by the increasing ubiquity of cybernetic systems, and in particular the then- Extending the phenomenological insights of Edmund Husserl and Martin
nascent emergence of the web as cyberspace. With Sadie Plant, Land set up in 1995 Heidegger, Harman argues that the world is fundamentally composed of objects:
the short-lived but influential Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), associated substantial, unified, and autonomous entities that are not simply collections of
with the Department of Philosophy at the University of Warwick, where Land was features, attributes, traits, pieces, or relations. Objects need not be physical (Harry
based. CCRU quickly became a hub for cultural practitioners and cyber-theorists in Potter is as much an object as Hugo Chavez), natural (a plastic cup is as much
the UK speculating on the transformations (about to be) wrought by the web, as well an object as a maple tree), simple (armies and corporations are as much objects
as a generation of philosophers interested in anti- or post-humanist materialism and as individual human bodies), or indestructible. But every object has two faces:
capitalism, several of whom have contributed to the resurgence of realism and mate- a sensual face that can be encountered by other objects and a real face that
rialism in other terms in the latter half of the 2000s.13 withdraws from all relations.
Meillassoux and Brassier oppose Harmans skeptical realism, arguing that the
* real is indeed accessible but through reason, science, and mathematics. Empirical
For all of these precedents, the realist turn was however most fully catalyzed by the science produces statements about the nature of the world as it was prior to the exis-
publication in 2006 (and translation in 2009) of Meillassouxs After Finitude. In April tence of human thought, human being, and even life itselffor example, that the Earth
2007, Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Ray Brassier, and Iain Hamilton Grant con- formed 4.56 billion years ago. Such ancestral statements, Meillassoux argues, pose
vened at Goldsmiths, London, for a conference titled Speculative Realism, a term a dilemma for the correlationist, who must either accept that they describe the world
that has stuck as the name of a new philosophical movement.14 The four philosophers prior to and independent of the human-world correlation, and must then give up cor-
were united by their critique of correlationism and its attendant anthropocentrism, relationism, or make the scientifically dubious and, Meillassoux shows, philosophi-
their disinterest in the linguistic turn characteristic of so much twentieth-century cally inconsistent claim that such statements are merely retroactive fictions generated
philosophy and cultural theory, and their commitment to a robust realism. Yet by present consciousness about a past that is itself a construct of the correlation.16
these commonalities obscure significant differences that have only become more Meillassoux argues that while the correlationist solution is wrong, correla-
pronounced since the Goldsmiths conference. tionism cannot be simply dismissed since it is nonetheless rationally consistent.
Harman accepts Kants claim that we have no access to things-in-themselves Through a subtle and complex immanent critique, he shows that the most consistent
but extends this beyond the human-world relationship to all entities and all relation- form of correlationism (the version held, for example, by structuralist and post-
ships. For Harman, all things distort, caricature, or inadequately translate the other structuralist philosophers) is necessarily committed to the idea that any correlation
things they encounter, leaving the things-in-themselves (what Harman calls the real is contingent and thus that this contingency is not internal to the correlation but
objects) to withdraw from any access. When fire burns cotton, for example, external to it, absolute, a feature of the world itself.17 Pushing this idea to its logical
conclusion, Meillassoux argues that the world in itself is radically contingent, marked
it makes contact only with the flammability of this material. Presumably fire by arbitrary and unpredictable change, a hyper-Chaos wherein there is no reason
does not interact at all with the cottons odor or color, which are relevant for anything to be or to remain the way it is; everything must, without reason, be able
only to creatures equipped with organs of sense. [] The being of fire with- not to be and/or be able to be other than it is.18
draws from the flames, even if it is consumed and destroyed. Cotton-being Brassier in turn draws on philosophical and scientific thought in a more
is concealed not only from phenomenologists and textile workers but from naturalistic vein to exacerbate the disenchantment of the world characteristic
all entities that come into contact with it. In other words, the withdrawal of Enlightenment rationality. Brassier sees contemporary neuroscience, for example,
of objects is not some cognitive trauma that afflicts only humans and a few as continuing the trajectory of Copernicus, Darwin, and Hutton, whose scientific dis-
smart animals, but expresses the permanent inadequacy of any relation at all.15 coveries undermined human narcissism, revealing the Earth to be one planet among
many orbiting around an insignificant star, showing Homo sapiens to be kin to all
13 Simon Reynolds gives a detailed account of CCRU at energyflashbysimonreynolds.blogspot.
com/2009/11/renegade-academia-cybernetic-culture.html. CCRUs own idiomatic account can 16 Meillassoux, Ancestrality, in After Finitude, 127. As the arch-correlationist philosopher Nelson
be found at Goodman put it in an earlier debate, we make something older than we are, the stars, for
14 The proceedings of the event were later published as Speculative Realism in Collapse 3 example, by making a space and time that contains those stars. (On Starmaking, originally
(November 2007): 307449. A detailed account of the genesis of the Goldsmiths workshop and published in Synthese 45 no. 2 (October 1980): 213; reprinted in Starmaking: Realism, Anti-Realism,
Speculative Realism more generally can be found in Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux: and Irrealism, ed. Peter J. McCormick [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996], 145).
Philosophy in the Making (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 7780. 17 Meillassoux, After Finitude, 5060.
15 Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object (Alresford: Zero Books, 2011), 44. 18 Ibid., 60.

20 21

other living beings in a biological world devoid of hierarchy, and demonstrating that idealism has been opposed to realism and materialism, both Grant and Brassier aim
human beings occupy a mere millisecond of deep time.19 Yet, perhaps paradoxically, to show that these positions can be drawn together to forge a materialist idealism
these blows to human narcissism are, for Brassier, testaments to the power of reason: or idealist materialism. Grant points out that idealism is not anti-realist but, pre-
cisely, a realism with regard to the existence of ideas.24 Exploring philosophies of
The disenchantment of the world understood as a consequence of the process nature from Schelling through Deleuze, Grant aims to show not only that idealism
whereby the Enlightenment shattered the great chain of being and defaced is compatible with naturalism but also that the former has to be pursued through
the book of the world is a necessary consequence of the coruscating the latter. Schelling, for example, offers a natural history of mind that in Grants
potency of reason and hence an invigorating vector of intellectual discovery, reading reveals how mind is a product of nature.25
rather than a calamitous diminishment. [] [It] deserves to be celebrated
as an achievement of intellectual maturity, not bewailed as a diminishing *
impoverishment.20 Despite the attention given to the philosophers and ideas identified with SR,
other variants of realist and materialist inquiry have also developed in recent
Modern scientific thought sweeps away our folk-psychological and correlationist years. Feminism, notably, has traditionally allied itself with materialism insofar as
philosophical notions, revealing to us the world as it exists in itself beyond the it has attended to the concrete material circumstances of womens bodies, lives,
human. Nihilism, Brassier writes, is andsometimes in conjunction with Marxismconditions of labor. Yet, feminists
have also tended to be suspicious of claims to scientific and metaphysical truth,
the unavoidable corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind- out of concern that such supposedly neutral claims are in actuality informed by
independent reality, which, despite the presumptions of human narcissism, an unexamined masculinist bias. The feminist theorists that have played the most
is indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the values and meanings prominent role in art discourseLuce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Judith Butler, and
which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable.21 Donna Haraway, for exampleinsist on the social and symbolic construction not
only of gender but of knowledge and truth, maintaining that epistemological and
Echoing Meillassoux but distinct from him in the appeal to naturalism, Brassier ontological claims are always embodied and gendered, never neutral. Moreover,
contends that science, thought, and reason have the power to transport us beyond the lack of concern with gender and feminism on the part of many new materialist
the correlation, to a world devoid of human being and life itself. As he elegantly and realist philosophers has made feminists wary of their claims and positions.
puts it: Thinking has interests that do not coincide with those of living; indeed, A number of feminists have however taken up materialist and realist arguments
they can and have been pitted against the latter.22 and strategies. Elizabeth Grosz and Rosi Braidotti draw on Deleuze to link feminism
In an effort to elaborate how thought can think outside itself, how reason can with a materialist philosophy of nature that provokes a rethinking of political agency
think nature as a whole, Brassier has more recently turned toward idealist philosophers and liberation.26 Likewise, many feminist theorists have turned from questions of
such as Plato, Kant, and Hegel, whose thought he sees as affirming the autonomy of language and representation toward the capacity of material bodies to affect and be
the conceptual, the irreducibility of reason to the natural and material processes that affected by one another.27 This concern unsettles the divide between human beings
incarnate it.23 A kindred position is articulated by Iain Hamilton Grant, whose work and nonhuman animals, interest in which has become prevalent in feminist theory and
develops themes in F. W. J. Schellings philosophy of nature. Whereas, traditionally, artistic practice alike. Materialist and realist feminists have also taken up Haraways

19 Brassier approvingly draws on the materialist accounts of consciousness given by Thomas 24 See Jeremy Dunham, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Sean Watson, Idealism: The History of a Philosophy
Metzinger as well as Paul and Patricia Churchland. See Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2011), 19.
and Extinction (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). Darwins rejection of hierarchy and 25 Dunham et al., Idealism, 132. See also Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling
progress in the history of life is documented by Stephen Jay Gould in Full House: The Spread of (London: Continuum, 2006).
Excellence from Plato to Darwin (New York: Harmony Books, 1996), which also discusses various 26 See Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University
scientific blows to human narcissism. Press, 1994), and Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art (Durham , NC:
20 Brassier, Nihil Unbound, xi. Duke University Press, 2011). See also Rosi Braidotti, Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of
21 Ibid. Becoming (Oxford: Polity Press, 2002) and The Posthuman (Oxford: Polity Press, 2013).
22 Ibid. 27 Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, eds., The Affect Theory Reader (Durham , NC: Duke University
23 Ray Brassier, The View From Nowhere, in Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender, and Culture, 8, no. 2 Press, 2010); Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press,
(Summer 2011). See also Brassier, Prometheanism and Its Critics, in #Accelerate#: The Accelerationist 2004). Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds., New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham ,
Reader, ed. Armen Avanessian and Robin Mackay (Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic, 2014), 467487. NC: Duke University Press, 2010) focuses on feminist-inflected materialist accounts of political theory.

22 23

initiative to establish a countermodel to both norms of scientific investigation and group theory, and evolutionary biology, DeLanda vindicates Deleuzes rejection of
feminist suspicions about technology and science, drawing on the realism of science the hylomorphic model, in which entities arise through the imposition of form
to extend post-structuralist feminism beyond the constraints imposed by its emphasis on inert matter, in favor of a conception of nature as intrinsically self-organizing.
on discursive and social construction and, as with Grosz and Braidotti, to rethink Eschewing any notion of fixed essences (natural kinds, species, archetypes), entities
embodiment on a realist and/or materialist footing.28 One striking strand in this emerge at all scales and levels of complexity as historical contingencies manifesting
research is the revisioning of psychoanalysiswhich played a key role in the femi- various capacities and tendencies (which Deleuze calls affects and singularities)
nism of the 1970s through the 1990sby developments in neuroscience. Elizabeth inherent in matter itself.32
A. Wilson recasts feminist concerns about the psychobiological reductionism of
gender and sexualitycaptured by the slogan Biology Is Not Destinyin light *
of discoveries in connectionist neurobiology concerning the transformative effects The clarification of important and serious divergences in the respective terminologies
of lived experiences on the material organization of the human cortical-nerve sys- and ambitions of the core arguments of current realisms and materialisms throws
tem.29 Catherine Malabou also allies the experiential transformation of neural struc- light on the broader issues at stake in them. In general terms, and by way of sum-
tures and their chemistry with a commitment to feminism through the concept of marizing the above positions, materialists (who hold that all that exists is matter,
plasticity drawn from Hegels dialectical philosophy of mind (via Derrida). Like material forces, and physical processes) tend to be realists (who hold that reality
Grant, Malabou attempts to ground thought in a natural history of the mind that is fully mind-independent), but the reverse need not hold (since what is real need
would explain the transition from a purely biological entity to a mental entity.30 not be materially manifest, symbolic meaning being a leading example).
On this basis Malabou presents a critique of the symbolic and narrative concerns of Harman rejects materialism, seeing it as the chief enemy of his object-oriented
psychoanalysis, which, she notes, cannot adequately respond to neurodegenerative realism insofar as materialism views objects as either reducible to smaller components
disorders such as Parkinsons and Alzheimers. Today, she concludes, we must and forces or mere bundles of qualities.33 Laruelles realism rejects materialism in the
acknowledge that the power of the linguistic-graphic scheme is diminishing and that name of matter, arguing that materialism remains a philosophical theory of matter
it has entered a twilight for some time already. It now seems that plasticity is slowly that conceives matter in its own philosophical self-image rather than encountering
but surely establishing itself as the paradigmatic figure of organization in general.31 it in its own right.34 On the other, more materialist, hand, Meillassoux eschews
Though he does not endorse the term plasticity in particular, Manuel the term Speculative Realism in favor of speculative materialism in order
DeLanda no less advocates for science and artificial cognitive systems as advancing a to distance himself from naive realism and ordinary conceptions of reality.35
contemporary philosophy of nature of the sort developed by Deleuze, whom he reads Brassier is also committed to the materialist naturalism of the sciences rather than
as a staunch realist. Informed by dynamical systems theory, differential geometry, a broadly conceived realism, just as materialist feminism is committed to reviewing
embodiment on the basis of its scientific accounts. Furthermore, while the term
28 See Stacy Alaimo, Michael Hames-Garcia, and Susan Hekman, eds., Material Feminisms idealism (the view that reality is fundamentally mental or mind-like) generally
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008); Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment,
and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); Karen Barad, Meeting the remains a slur within realist and materialist contexts, describing a position kindred
Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke to the correlationism they oppose, Grant and Brassier each affirm a kind of idealism
University Press, 2007) and Posthuman Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter as integral to their respective realist undertakings; DeLanda, in contrast, is a mate-
Comes to Matter, in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28, no. 3 (Spring 2003); and
Myra Hird, The Origins of Sociable Life: Evolution After Science Studies (Basingstoke: Palgrave rialist who rejects all idealism, instead endorsing a scientific realism that affirms the
Macmillan, 2009). In The Material of Knowledge: Feminist Disclosures (Bloomington: Indiana ability of science to describe a mind-independent world.
University Press, 2010), Susan Hekman presents a feminist realism which, while not directly
focusing on science as the point of convergence, also proposes that the mutually constituting
effects of matter and discourse breach the constraints of orthodox post-structuralism. 32 Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2005) and Deleuze:
29 Elizabeth A. Wilson, Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body (Durham: Duke University Press, History and Science (New York: Atropos Press, 2010).
2004) and Neural Geographies: Feminism and the Microstructure of Cognition (London: Routledge, 1998). 33 Graham Harman, Realism without Materialism, SubStance 40, no. 2 (2011): 60; I Am Also
30 Catherine Malabou, What Should We Do with Our Brain?, trans. Sebastian Rand (New York: of the Opinion that Materialism Must Be Destroyed, Society and Space 28, no. 5 (2010): 77290;
Fordham University Press, 2008), 8182. and The Quadruple Object, 1316.
31 Catherine Malabou, Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction, trans. 34 Franois Laruelle, The Decline of Materialism in the Name of Matter, trans. Ray Brassier,
Carolyn Shread (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 59. For Malabous neuroscientific The Non-Philosophy Project, 15969; and Ray Brassier, Alien Theory: The Decline of Materialism
critique of psychoanalysis, see The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, trans. Steven Miller in the Name of Matter (Ph.D. diss., University of Warwick, 2001), available at
(New York: Fordham University Press, 2012) and, with Adrian Johnston, Self and Emotional trans-mat/brassier/alientheory.pdf.
Intelligence: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013). 35 Quentin Meillassoux, Time without Becoming, trans. Robin Mackay, Spike 35 (Spring 2013).

24 25

II Their ideas have, however, attracted a great deal of attention from artists and
For the last generation and a half, critical art practices and theories have taken curators. One of the first presentations by a public institution of SR in relation to
up post-structuralist, psychoanalytic, and Marxist challenges to conventions contemporary art was The Real Thing at Tate Britain in 2010, an exhibition and
of originality, authorship, and identity. In this paradigm, art is construed as always panel discussion curated by philosopher and publisher Robin Mackay. Its premise
caught up in webs of discourse and interpretation without origin, end, or ground. was to explore a human-indifferent universe, including works that dealt with themes
Epistemologically, in both its theoretical and practical dimensions, contemporary art of death, depopulation, and linguistic disorientation.37 The project was part of
has tended to reject naive conceptions of representation and signification that con- Mackays independent venture Urbanomic, a publishing house and arts organization
strue images and signs as picturing or designating a pre-given world. Ontologically, it that has played a decisive role in advancing realist and materialist contentions within
rejects essentialism, that is, the construal of the world as manifesting fixed conceptual and outside of philosophy, particularly through the journal Collapse: Philosophical
or material essences to which images and signs would refer. In contrast to the fixity Research and Development, which published the proceedings of the Goldsmiths con-
and inflexibility of essentialism, contemporary art aims to account for and foster ference.38 In collaboration with Sequence Press, a publisher housed in Miguel Abreu
the contingency of meaning, the multiplicity of interpretation, and the possibility Gallery in New York, Mackay has also played a leading role in presenting these ideas
of change: signs are tracked, interpretation encouraged, representations mobilized and practices to the Anglophone world through his translation and publication of
through associative networks that give them meaningnetworks that are always in key texts by Laruelle and Meillassoux, as well as Reza Negarastanis writing on art.
flux, thus ensuring that meaning is never fixed or stable. In sum, contemporary art Though Mackay and others have championed the more staunchly ratio-
practice, criticism, and theory maintain that experience is always necessarily medi- nalist versions of speculative thought associated with Brassier and Meillassoux, the
ated by the symbolic field. emphasis in contemporary art has in general been on object-oriented philosophy
These approaches have been culturally effective; but the freedom they offer comes as initiated by Harman and developed by writers such as Levi Bryant and Timothy
at the cost of an epistemological and ontological insularity. Nature and/or matter are Morton, whose frequent talks in art institutions have popularized their ideas among
taken to be merely a social construction; science is but a historical and cultural dis- nonspecialist audiences.39 A chief attraction of object-oriented philosophy for the
course having no priority over other discourses; and truth is always only a problematic art field is that it reconsiders the art-friendly term object. Moreover, many of
concept, at best the measure of a claims coherence relative to other accepted claims the curatorial and artistic responses to Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) have
or simply a term applied to claims that are currently uncontested. It is precisely these focused on its ontological flattening of the traditional hierarchy of humans over
assumptions and conventions that are directly and explicitly challenged by the resurgent nonhumans and decentering of the human subject, proposing that all entities distort
interest in realism and materialism. What is not at all apparent at this point is what relata in equal measure. Such claims accord well with modern and contemporary
traction that challenge will have on contemporary art, nor what of its current artistic, arts long-standing interest in the limitations of human perceptual and linguistic
institutional, and critical orthodoxies will be effectively transformed. While Meillassoux
and Brassier have collaborated with sound and noise artists, and Harman has asserted 37 The Real Thing was part of Tate Britains monthly Late at Tate series, so the exhibition was a
temporary intervention into the museums collection. No catalogue was published, but an
the centrality of aesthetics to philosophy, these philosophies have in general had very overview of the program is available at Brian
little to say about art and cultural practices.36 Dillons review of the evening appears in The Real Thing, The Wire 321 (November 2010): 74.
Other projects that have taken the extinction of humanity or the deep time of cosmic archeology
36 Meillassouxs conception of hyper-chaos inspired Florian Heckers CD Speculative Solution (Editions as their organizing claims are Cosmophobia (2012), curated by Tom Trevatt, Berlin, and
Mego, 2011), to which Meillassoux contributed an essay (reprinted in this volume). This collaboration Suicide Narcissus (2013), curated by Hamza Walker, Chicago.
was further developed in Urbanomic Document #1, a discussion between Meillassoux, Hecker, 38 For an early review of the journal, see Jon Roffe, Review Article: Robin Mackay (Ed.), Collapse:
and Robin Mackay, available at Ray Brassier Philosophical Research and Development, in Parrhesia 4 (2008), 7980. Available at
has recorded with noise musicians and improvisers such as Mattin, Jean-Luc Guionnet, and Seijiro
Murayama. He also wrote the essay Genre Is Obsolete, in Noise and Capitalism, ed. Mattin and 39 Early conferences dedicated to the topic of Speculative Realism within the art field, which have almost
Anthony Iles (Donostia-S. Sebasti, Spain: Arteleku Audiolab, 2009), 6171. Available at blogs. exclusively focused on object-oriented philosophy, include: Object-Oriented Thinking at the Royal; and contributed to two other essays on noise: Metal Academy in London, July 2011; OOO III: The Third Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium, Vera
Machine Theory (with Mattin), Revue & Corrige 86 (December 2010), available at List Center for Art and Politics, New York, September 2011; Ungrounding the Object at Treignac
METAL_MACHINE_THEORY.html; and Idioms and Idiots (with Mattin, Guionnet, and Projet, Le Centre international dart et du paysage de lle de Vassivire, in Limousin, September 2012.
Seijiro), Revue & Corrige 93 (September 2012), available at War Against the Sun, the second conference organized by the Treignac Projet, which took place
AND_IDIOTS.html). Harmans remarks on aesthetics appear in Vicarious Causation, Collapse 2 in London in March 2013, hewed closer to a materialist set of concerns. Robert Jacksons article The
(March 2007): 205; and Aesthetics as First Philosophy: Levinas and the Non-Human, Naked Punch Anxiousness of Objects and Artworks: Michael Fried, Object Oriented Ontology and Aesthetic
09 (SummerFall 2007): 2130, available at Harman and Absorption, in Speculations 2 (May 2011) investigates the congruence of OOO with a modernist
Brassier each elaborate on their respective earlier remarks in the interviews included in this volume. program in visual art. Available at

26 27

conditions of understanding, as they have also (sometimes contradictorily) advo- translating and networked exhibition environment. Before the introduction of SR,
cated for a relative independence and internal logic for the artwork in its material Latours actor-network theory, along with related thing theorists such as anthro-
and formal dimensions. pologist Arjun Appadurai and visual studies proponent Bill Brown, found an early
To date the most prominent project inspired by object-oriented thinking is audience in art circles, insofar as each spoke of objects in quasi-anthropological
the latest iteration of the leading exhibition platform in transnational contemporary terms, giving them social lives, desires, and agency.43 In this vein, and even though
art, Documenta 13 in Kassel in 2012. Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev likened they draw on the precepts of postmodernist cultural theory, a number of recent
the show to an organism whose program offered a holistic and non-logocentric projects paralleling the emergence of SR have focused on the agency of objects.
vision, whose associative structure insisted upon a more balanced relationship Drawing heavily on Latours book We Have Never Been Modern, Anselm Frankes
with all the non-human makers with whom we share the planet and our bodies.40 Animism (20102012) drew parallels between an animistic worldview comprised
Many projects drew on ecological themes and the political agency of objects, with of enchanted objects and Latours notion of objects as actants, difference-making
texts by Harman, Haraway, Braidotti, and Karen Barad included in the exhibition agents with significant effects on human sociality.44 In a similar vein, Ghosts in
catalogue. Although many of its installations addressed scientific knowledge claims, the Machine (2012), curated by Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari
the education arm of Documenta 13, called Maybe, hoped to [indicate] the at the New Museum in New York, explored technologys anthropomorphic dimen-
impossibility of reducing artand any other complex form of knowledgeto a single sion; and Mark Leckeys UK touring exhibition The Universal Addressability of
explanation, question, subject matter, or paradigm, showing how art and artistic Dumb Things (2013) examined how digital interfaces are changing the way that
research often avoid any form of stable meaning.41 humans perceive objects, enlivening them and making them seem progressively
These familiar post-structuralist truisms about the indeterminacy and con- more human.45 These projects have been associated with OOO, each attributing a
tingency of meaning have little to do with the way empirical science is taken up by kind of agency to objects, even reinscribing quasi-human characteristics onto non-
naturalists such as Brassier or materialists like DeLanda. For them, scientific knowl- human things, and also in some cases delimiting the expanded notion of object
edge eliminates unknowns and offers a corrective to philosophical relativisms. In proposed by OOO to material things.46 As such, however, they have unwittingly
this latter vein, In the Holocene, an exhibition organized by curator Joo Ribas at and ironically reversed OOO, extending correlationism to specifically material and
MIT List Visual Art Center in 2012, presented art as a form of experimental inquiry otherwise inert objects.
working in parallel to natural science.42 The show included artworks dealing with More generally, realist and materialist ideas have generated new emphases,
questions of entropy, consciousness, perception, and deep time, proposing that, while thematics, and claims for both artworks and exhibitions. Some terms associated with
different from the work of scientists, these artistic outcomes engaged similar ques- these new subjects include (but are not limited to): ancestrality, techno-animism,
tions and could thus expand upon sciences speculative potential rather than merely dark ecology, cosmology, de-anthropocentrism, animality, hyperstition, and affect.
respond to its insights. Whether the normative and natural constraints that accom- And while curators and artists seem to be asking new and important questions
pany scientific hypothesis and reasoning have a corollary in the art fieldand if so, about the relationship between subjects and objects (in their limited or expanded
what these constraints might beis a question that the exhibition left unaddressed. sense), or focusing their attention on the aesthetics of non-humans, there has been
Another palpable influence on contemporary art at large and the
Documenta 13 project in particular is the sociologist Bruno Latour, and espe- 43 Both Brown and Appadurai edited acclaimed publications on things as objects of critical
inquiry. See Bill Brown, Thing Theory, Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (Autumn 2001): 122;
cially his cross-disciplinary curatorial projects, among them Iconoclash (2002) Arjun Appadurai, Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value, in The Social Life of
and Making Things Public (2005), both organized with Peter Weibel at ZKM, Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
Karlsruhe. In keeping with Latours deconstruction of the modern boundaries 44 Animism had several distinct iterations: at Extra City and MuHKA, Antwerp (2010); Kunsthalle
Bern and Generali Foundation, Vienna (2011); Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (2012); and
between culture and nature, these exhibitions subverted the primacy of art objects, e-flux, New York (2012).
generating an assemblage of scientific and cultural artifacts that create a mutually 45 Materials related to Mark Leckeys exhibition appear in The Universal Addressabilty of Dumb Things
(London: Hayward Publishing, 2013) and on the website
40 Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, The Dance Was Very Frenetic, Lively, Rattling, Clanging, Rolling, /hayward-gallery-and-visual-arts/hayward-touring/future/the-universal-addressability-of-dumb-
Contorted, and Lasted for a Long Time, dOCUMENTA (13) The Book of Books, Catalog 1/3 things. The New Museum exhibition Ghost in the Machine was accompanied by the catalogue
(Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2012), 34. Ghost in the Machine, ed. Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari (New York: Skira Rizzoli,
41 The Maybe Education and Public Programs of dOCUMENTA (13), available at 2012) and the website 46 See also Speculations on Anonymous Materials (2013), curated by Susanne Pfeffer in Kassel,
42 In the Holocene, MIT List Visual Arts Center, 2014. Published in conjunction with the 2012 which considered a number of post-Internet practices in light of the processual nature of image
exhibition of the same name; see also creation and visual reflexivity across networks.

28 29

far less attention given to the dilemma implicit in the term art itself, whose post- This ambition is not only a thematic concern for RMA but also one of struc-
Duchampian legacy has focused on the way that signification shifts within linguistic tural organization: the essays and images in the book are proximate to one another
and cultural framing. as in a snapshot or collage, in order to generate new intersections, convergences,
That is, if realism and materialism are to follow through on their claims to divergences, and switching points among them. With this snapshot method, RMA
radically reorganize modern epistemological and ontological categories (including does not look to provide a coherent panoramic vision that would underwrite a new
epistemology and ontology themselves), whether it be toward the emphatic ratio- philosophy of art, nor to propose an art that confirms an established philosophical
nalism of naturalist idealists or toward a materialist position seeking an origin for stance, nor even to suggest that art escapes philosophical determination. Instead, its
aesthetics in inhuman forces, we should anticipate not only new themes for art prac- contribution is a common and mutual one for both art and the salient philosophies
tices, exhibitions, and cultural production, but also starkly different ways of making, of realism and materialism, emphasizing the incongruent if not conflicting status
perceiving, thinking, and distributing them. What is left relatively unexaminedand of their currently emerging practices and ideas. To that endand in addition to the
presents a much greater problem for current orthodoxies of cultural and artistic various connections that may be drawn between any subset of the essays, images,
productionis the systemic and methodological challenge that a thoroughgoing or themes in RMAthe essays and images have been distributed into six significant
realism and/or materialism presents to the way that exhibitions or artworks claim categories relating to the history and practice of art, art history, and art theory:
to produce meaning in their prevailing paradigms. At this point in time it remains matter, object, concept, representation, scale, and speculation. These familiar
to be seen how artists, curators, and other cultural producers will take up realist or categories act as identification markers for the reader across the otherwise diverse
materialist demands in distinction to the concerns and claims mentioned above. contributions, and they have a further twofold aim: on the one hand, in their stipu-
Questions here include: Will developments in science lead to new norms or stan- lated proximity to one another in any one category, the contributions put pressure
dards for artistic judgment? Can art be anything more than a mere metaphor or on current philosophical, scientific, artistic, and theoretical research mobilizing
analogue for science? Can art redress issues of spectatorship in a world indifferent these major terms;47 on the other hand, these familiar if not canonical categories
to the human? And how are authorship and representation to change when one are themselves challenged and reworked by the diverse contributions gathered under
acknowledges the material origins of human thought and the material forces at them, thus reshaping the conventional sense of the categories themselves. The major
work within an artists process? categories also serve a useful didactic purpose: each is sequenced so as to initiate
the reader into key issues in current debates by offering entry points. These are fol-
lowed by contributions that require greater background knowledge of the issues at
III stake or terms of debate. While the order of the categories charts a broadly idealist
There is then no uniform or particularly consistent account for the current con- or pseudo-evolutionary trajectory, proceeding from a material base to the expansion
ditions, ambitions, and frameworks of realism, materialism, and art: the fracture of thought beyond itself, this is only a dramatic conceit, set up precisely in order
lines between Object-Oriented Ontology, rationalistic naturalism, and materi- to formulate and stage their contestation by the individual contributions as by the
alism lead to distinct questions with disjunctive implications. RMA reflects this global ambitions of realism and materialism in their current iterations.
incongruity as well as the still unresolved set of relations these methods have to
one another, looking not to settle these arguments but, on the contrary, to advance
the contesting and unsettling of these proto-doctrines in both their theoretical and
cultural-practical development.
RMA aims, first, to catch key moments in the current discussion of realism
and materialism, predominantly in relation to art but also in relation to other fields;
second, to expand the terms of engagement of realism, materialism, and art; and,
third, to affirm the contention that no thematic or discipline has a privilege in realist
or materialist investigations. On this basis RMA seeks to contribute to the recon-
struction of the disciplines in which it would be conventionally located: philosophy
and art. Rather than the frequent direct (mis)identification of art with theoretically
47 Matthew Ritchies diagrams on the inside covers of this volume present counter-orderings for the
led realist-materialist contentions on the basis of their mutual incomprehension, essays in RMA, both within the primary categories we propose and within an entirely different set
RMA elaborates and extends both sides by substantializing their intersection. of categories. Each organization puts a different pressure on the thematic terms.

30 31
Things Arent What They Used to Be:
On the Immateriality of Matter
and the Reality of Relations
James Ladyman

There are many varieties of realism in philosophy, but they have in common the
idea that the world is fundamentally independent of our beliefs and desires about
it. Realists oppose idealist philosophies that give the mind a role in making reality.
Of course, there are mental and/or social constructs, for example, the meanings
of these words, but realists maintain that in large part the way things are is not
determined by what we think or say about them. For example, even if everyone
believed to the contrary, it would still be true that the earth is roughly spherical,
that it rotates causing the passage of day and night, and that the changing seasons
are due to its being tilted on its axis at 23.5 degrees as it orbits the sun.
Materialism is the positive account of what the world is like that usually
substantiates the abstract idea of objectivity with which realism is defined above.
According to materialism, material objects like the earth and the sun exist and
have their motions in space and properties like their masses and shapes; the same
chemical elements are found everywhere; and these features of the world are the
basis for the existence of everything else. However, materialism has evolved to the
extent that many sympathetic to it now call themselves physicalists, and many
also accept the existence of much that is immaterial, though they take it that it is
somehow emergent from and dependent on the physical. Physics is the ultimate
science of matter, and its development has transformed our concept of matter, and
has also given us accounts of it that are both incomplete and far removed from our
concept of everyday material objects. Space and even time have acquired a quasi-
physical status. There are many open questions about the extent and nature of the
cosmos. The materialism of the ancients and early modern philosophers is no
longer plausible.
Materialism began as an imaginative vision about the nature of reality and
the true natures and properties of the things we see around us. Where others spec-
ulated that the world was ultimately composed of water or fire or some combina-
tion of elements, the ancient Greek atomists proposed that everything we observe,
including life itself, is nothing more than matter in motion, composed of indivisible
material atoms. According to the atomists, the latter do not have many of the qual-
ities that everyday objects seem to have in our experience; the sweetness of honey,
for example, does not really inhere in its atoms, but rather is the sensation they

Matter 35

produce in us. This particular way of distinguishing appearance from reality was Ironically, it was the success of the science it did so much to inspire that under-
taken up by the corpuscularian philosophers of the seventeenth century (Boyle, mined materialism. Materialism was made obsolete by developments in the area that
Locke, Gassendi, and so on), who also thought that familiar features of the world materialists most admired (and for which they believed they were providing philo-
we experience, notably colors, do not belong to things themselves but only to our sophical foundations), physics. First of all we must note that materialism and mech-
perception of them. They were not only materialists, but also mechanists who sug- anism were never universally accepted by natural philosophers. Indeed, notoriously,
gested that the universe is like a clockwork machine; while the appearances may be Newtons founding theory of modern mathematical physics from 1687 posited the
of a hand moving around a face and perhaps bells ringing and figures moving as a universal gravitational force acting between all bodies instantaneously at a distance
consequence, in fact all the moving parts are responding only to the movement of though diminishing in its power with distance. In the eighteenth century Charles-
their neighbors, and the only real causation is action by contact. They developed a Augustin de Coulomb added the electrostatic forces between charged particles to the
picture of things according to which their real properties were limited to those of gravitational force. By the nineteenth century it was known that there must be exotic
the extension in space, configuration, shape, and movement of the particles that forms of substance such as the ether to account for the phenomena of light, elec-
composed them. tricity, and magnetism. Nonetheless, the hope remained that all of physics, and ulti-
That these are properties amenable to geometrical description facilitated the mately all of science, could be reduced to the properties of material particles moving
application of mathematics to science as never before. The theories of physics and around, perhaps with the addition of some kind of material field-like entity, being
the mathematical techniques that were developed along with them have given us continuous and everywhere. The success of the kinetic theory of gases, according to
extensive predictive and explanatory success. The same basic theories of mechanics which pressure, heat, and temperature were the manifestations of atomic motions
described terrestrial and extraterrestrial motions, and the same theories of chemical and collisions, gave hope to materialists; but the discovery of radioactivity and the
structure described rocks, cells, and comets. However, science seems to disenchant rise of quantum theory soon led to the radical transformation of our understanding
nature to a degree that moves many to reject the scientific image of the world. How of the nature of the atoms themselves. Far from being the indivisible building blocks
could thinking, feeling, and acting beings consist in nothing more than the move- of antiquity, they turned out to be compound entities whose behavior and properties
ment of small material parts due to action by contact? What room is there in the were beyond visualization. Matter, in the sense of extended stuff that takes up space
clockwork universe for the things that matter to us? like the familiar solid objects we see around us, is according to physics not ultimately
However, what some regard as disenchantment is to others a morally and solid at all but mostly empty space. Matter is composed of atoms that are in turn
politically important repudiation of belief systems that allegedly bind, enthrall, composed of a nucleus and orbiting electrons. If an atom were the size of a football
and intoxicate people, distracting them from addressing the true causes of their pitch, the nucleus would be the size of the center spot and the orbiting electrons on
woes. Materialists have often been concerned with exorcising the supernatural and the touchline much smaller than that. Those electrons and other subatomic particles
defending a positive picture. Since its origins in pre-Socratic philosophy, mate- are regarded as point particles, further undermining the relevance and legitimacy of
rialism has had a negative and critical component involving the repudiation of the notion of material things extended in space.
supernatural and immaterial entities, a consequent disdain for superstition, and a Meanwhile, relativity physics takes as its objects space and time, which can
mission to liberate people from its control over their lives: Lucretius in his poetic hardly be considered as material things in the sense of classical materialism. From the
elaboration of the philosophy of Epicurus (the Greek atomist who held that the perspective of the early twenty-first century, it seems quite possible that, as entities
mechanics obeyed by atoms involves a fundamental element of chance) says so existing independent of the existence of anything else, space and time will not hold
powerful is religion at persuading to evil. The purpose of his account of the Nature a place in fundamental physics. Since material substances are supposed to be those
of Things was therefore practical. Likewise, Thomas Hobbes was condemned as substances that exist in space, the usual definitions of materialism and material
an atheist on account of his view that matter is the only substance. The claim thing have become irrelevant for the task of describing fundamental reality. The
that the only substance that exists is material substance is the usual definition of right theory of quantum gravity remains out of our grasp but the most popular
materialism. Substance is that which is not dependent on anything else for its research program is the theory of eleven dimensional superstrings, the vibrations
existence. Material was explicitly defined by Descartes to mean extended in of which give rise to particle-like behavior. We have come a very long way from the
space. Although we clearly have experience of apparently nonmaterial things, physics of res extensae (extended things).
most obviously the phenomena of consciousness, the materialist claims that a full It seems that the kind of materialism defended by the ancient Greek atom-
description of all the material things that exist, and their properties, relations, and ists and their successors in early modern natural philosophy is not viable. However,
dynamics will be sufficient to account for everything else. much of the spirit of materialism lives on in physicalism. Materialism offers a

36 Matter Matter 37

positive metaphysical picture, but it has negative content too, namely, the denial Science has developed to the extent that it now gives us ontology at many
of the existence of mental or spiritual substance. Furthermore, something of its pos- levels. Within the physical sciences we have a rough hierarchy from the solids and
itive content, namely, the idea that the chemical and biological ultimately depend fluids of geology, through the molecular structure of chemical kinds, the atoms and
on the properties of matter, is also retained in physicalism. There are two obvious their orbiting electrons, the subatomic realm of particles and fundamental forces,
approaches to the articulation and defense of the latter. The first responds to the to quantum fields, superstrings, and beyond. The biological and behavioral sci-
obsolescence of the previous definition of material things by defining a physical ences are much more complex but similarly offer layers of entities from proteins to
thing as a thing that is posited by physics. Thus physicalism is taken to assert that social groups. What makes all these entities count as physical? We certainly cannot
what exists is precisely what physics says exists (plus those things that are regarded straightforwardly identify them with the collections of entities described by physics.
as aggregates of things posited by physics such as everyday objects and other com- Their place in the unified scientific account of reality is based on the shared system
pound entities posited by the different sciences). Unfortunately, this approach faces of units, the conservation of energy, the gravitational, electromagnetic, and nuclear
the apparent problem of being either trivial or false. It is (almost certainly) false if forces, and the basic classification of the elements expressed in the periodic table.
it refers to existing physics for its ontology, since it can safely be assumed that pres- In science we have integration and not always reduction. However, there remains an
ent-day physics will be superseded by a more advanced physics. On the other hand, asymmetric relationship between physics and the special sciences: all special science
it is trivial if it defines the physical as that which will be posited by a future, com- objects are such that their behavior is consistent with physics and can be understood
pleted fundamental physics, since by definition physics is the science that must be without violations of basic physical laws. The objects of the special sciences and
capable in principle of accounting for all natural phenomena. If it were necessary all the objects in current physics exist only at particular restricted scales of space
to posit souls or ectoplasm to account for some phenomenon, then their behavior and time. For example, there are no tables at the atomic scale of distance or at the
would be in the scope of physics, making it empty to say that all that exists is the geological scale of time; and there are no atoms at the scale of quarks or at the cos-
physical. The second approach seeks to define the physical with reference to actual mological scale of time.
physicsbut that means using the resources of common sense or some other form The atomists of old could respond to this situation by regarding emergent
of intuition, neither of which seems likely to give us the last word on the nature of entities as possessed of a less than full-blooded reality. They might be necessary for
physical reality. Since physics is currently unfinished, and since, in the past, quite the purposes of our cognition and representation of the world, but the true reality
radical innovations in ontology have been necessary for the progress of physics, the is the atoms and their motions and collisions in the void. However, we now know
prospects are not good for this second approach either. that atoms are not fundamental. The kinds of entities that are posited at the sub-
Instead, physicalism is best characterized as a hypothesis about what it will atomic scale are exotic in the extreme; but more importantly we have no reason to
take for physics to progress, according to which it will never be necessary to intro- believe that there is a fundamental level consisting of the one true set of ultimate
duce new entities, laws, or processes into physics solely to account for biological individual objects. If we remain agnostic about whether the latter exists, we have
or mental phenomena. At one time, it was thought it might be necessary to posit no reason to regard scale-relative emergent domains as less real because everything
special chemical forces to account for chemical bonds, and vital forces to account we know is like that. What then does it mean to say that all these things exist? In
for life. However, it was shown that chemical bonds could be understood in terms of Every Thing Must Go, Don Ross and I developed Daniel Dennetts idea that to be
electrostatic forces between charged particles, and that the processes that underlie is to be a real pattern.1 When we are doing microphysics we do not have to keep
life, such as cellular metabolism, can be related to chemical and physical processes. track of everyday physical objects because doing so would be of no predictive or
Physicalists need not commit to strong forms of reductionism about these matters. explanatory value. The scales of distance, time, and energy make tables irrele-
It may be the case that chemical bonds cannot be derived from fundamental physics vant. However, anybody faced with the task of keeping track of material objects in
without further assumptions, but there are many cases where quantum mechanics everyday circumstances would be very foolish to insist on thinking in terms of table
makes well-confirmed predictions about atoms and their chemical behavior. The parts other than drawers, legs, and tabletops. To describe a room only speaking
same is true of genetics in relation to molecular biology and many other examples. of atoms, without mentioning the furniture, would be to miss out on the fact that
We have no reason to believe that emergent phenomena, from biochemical reactions there are correlations in the positions of some of the atoms that result from their
to social behavior, require special kinds of physical processes. Complexity science being part of, say, a table. In that sense the table is a pattern in the information
shows us how self-organizing and hierarchical order can arise spontaneously in
1 See James Ladyman and Don Ross, Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized (Oxford: Oxford
large networks of components even though the nature of the components and their University Press, 2007); and Daniel Dennett, Real Patterns, Journal of Philosophy 88 (January
interactions gives no hint of it. 1991): 2751.

38 Matter Matter 39

about its parts more than it is a particular set of material particles (for any partic- From Within the Midst of Things:
ular particle can be left out and the table is left unchanged), and it is certainly not
a single extended piece of matter. New Sensibility, New Alchemy,
What all genuine entities have in common is that they are real patterns in
the phenomena that emerge at their characteristic length and time scales, in the and the Renewal of Critical Theory
sense that any attempt to describe the world at that scale that did not refer to them
would contain redundant information and miss out on simple causal relationships, Diana Coole
statements, and laws that predict and explain phenomena. The distinctive ontolo-
gies of the sciences arise because we live in a universe that is rich enough to have
various emergent regimes of (partial) order. A key feature of the new materialism is its insistence on the recalcitrance and
What was once a revolutionary thought may, centuries later, become vitality of matter and thus on its role in constraining and engendering the ways it is
a commonplace fact barely deserving of mention to an educated person. We can understood and handled. Matter is recognized as having its own forces of resilience,
now see the rotation of the Earth from space; we have similarly confirmed that the resistance, and productivity.1 New materialists are accordingly critical of tenden-
world is millions of years old, that people have common ancestors with apes, and cies to abstraction or formalism in mainstream scholarship. In political theory or
that much of what we see around us has a true nature that is very different from sociology, for example, this is played out respectively in shifts away from analytical
the way we might perceive it on the basis of culture, intuition, and our conscious and normative approaches or from reifications promulgated by structural analysis,
experience. Children grow up taking the existence of the virtual world for granted. formal modeling, and classificatory schemes. If greater attention is being paid to
However, it is important to remember that, for that virtual world to exist, somewhere the empirical details of emergent processes, this is not in the name of positivism
there is a physical machine subject to the laws of thermodynamics. Our brains can but rather a way of discerning myriad unpredictable ways in which matter forges
only function at a very specific range of temperatures, and computers have to be provisional molar assemblages. The role played here by thinkers such as Michel
powered somehow. Yet it may be less misleading to say that the world is made of Foucault, Bruno Latour, and Pierre Bourdieu shows how more realist approaches
mathematics or information than that it is made of matter, because fundamental undertaken in genealogy, actor-network theory, or phenomenology are being seized
physics describes particles and fields that are nothing like the way matter appears upon to breathe life into the study of social phenomena.
and is conceived by us. The scientific image of the world is one from which math- In the visual arts, this may correspond with moves against Conceptualism
ematical representation is ineliminable. This applies no less to the special sciences inasmuch as its language- and text-based approach is renounced. Many artists and
than to physics. The different sciences are highly integrated and unified. Materialism designers are returning to matter to explore immanent, elusive, and reclusive, prop-
and realism apt for the twenty-first century should be expressed in terms of the erties of materials, working with chemical or biophysical qualities in response to
objectivity of real patterns. degrading or emergent forms and their provocative invitations. Deleuze and Guattari
write that, for example, what metal and metallurgy bring to light is a life proper
to matter, a vital state of matter as such, a material vitalism that doubtless exists
everywhere but is ordinarily hidden. Thus, in their account the relation between
metallurgy and alchemy reposes [] on the immanent power of corporeality in all
matter, and on the esprit de corps accompanying it.2 For new alchemists, such
as those at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, new materialism means giving matter

This essay was written during a research fellowship funded by the Leverhulme Trust, to which
Id like to express sincere gratitude.

1 See for example Bruce Braun and Sarah Whatmore, eds., Political Matter. Technoscience, Democracy,
and Public Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Diana Coole and Samantha
Frost, eds., New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
2 Gilles Deleuze and Flix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 411.

40 Matter Matter 41

its due.3 It engenders fascination with strange, brute, magnificent materials whose is associated with marginalized positions within the canon that are now being exca-
properties guide work that relies on scant formal or intellectual preconceptions vated and combined in novel ways. Equally significant are new scientific conceptions
but remains open to the provocations of emergent materialities and their innate of matter, ranging from complexity and chaos theory, on the one hand, to unprec-
qualities in a journey of shared participation that is active/passive: a reciprocal, edented ways of understanding and manipulating matter in theoretical physics or
irreducible process of becoming, where bodies and other materials are conjoined molecular biology on the other.
in a shared artistry. The ontology espoused by new materialism, which might be regarded as its
While matter is constantly being reconstructed, it is also recognized as making signature contribution, attracts labels such as materialist vitalism or generative
its own suggestions in the way it frustrates or inspires. However, even this formulation immanence. Such terms are indicative of an insistence that matter enjoys its own
may suggest too dialectical a schema. When it invites greater attention to the ways capacities for self-transformation, rather than awaiting the imposition of form or
matter matters, new materialism is acknowledging that matter materializes itself meaning by an external, transcendent agent (such as God or Man). In this sense
through and with embodied humans because they are irremediably part of, not apart it is secular and post-humanist. Yet by stressing the embodied, affective nature of
from, this material world. It accordingly summons us to plunge into the material realm, humans, their affinities with animals, their imbrication with ecological systems,
to appreciate that we live in the midst of things, in order to engage with immanent their enduring reliance on technological prostheses, their creative abilities to appre-
structures of materialization that are simultaneously familiar and alien, necessary for ciate and improvise on natural forms, it does not eliminate human agency entirely.
our survival yet threatened by the strength of our desire. Whether the field is ethical Rather, new materialism relocates humans by emphasizing their own materiality and
conduct, aesthetic practice, or critical theory, what is implied here is nothing less through exploring their dependence on fragile or robust material systems and entities
than a reorientation toward the material or natural domain in a way that is distinctive on which they leave more or less indelible traces. New materialist ways of thinking
from modernitys prevailing will to dominate nature through knowledge and action. accordingly challenge traditional distinctions between the human and nonhuman,
Disavowing the domination of nature represents an additional polemical as well as classical hierarchies that describe a descending scale from God, through
score. Here, new materialists oppose the following: A utilitarian tendency, lucidly human, animal, and vegetable, to minerals and the inorganic. Instead, a singular
expounded by Heidegger, to regard the material realm as meaningless stuff that lies yet variegated upsurge of materialization is countenanced. In summary, this is
ready-to-hand for manipulation and imposition according to human purposes; a a philosophy of becoming rather than being: one that emphasizes materialization
Cartesian philosophy that presents subjects and objects, or consciousness and bodies, as a dynamic process (wherein matter matters itself ) rather than a state.
as ontologically heterogeneous, as well as its scientific development in mechanical It is worth saying a little more about this choreography because it ascribes
physics for which matter is dead, inert material available for technological modifica- some distinctive rhythms and qualities to materialization. Matter is regarded here as
tion. Equally, it opposes philosophies that reduce material alterity to an unknowable lively and constitutive. In emerging, it produces more or less enduring constellations;
thing-in-itself or strive to appropriate matter through conceptualizing, quantifying, but since its course is neither linear nor predictable, it is inimical to conceptions
and classifying it. So, too, theories that define matter as determinist or determined of progress. Instability and volatility, flows and mobility, contingency and chance,
are rejected, especially inasmuch as matter is claimed to follow strict laws of cau- are more typically invoked. Swerves and swarms, cracks and folds, virtuality and
sality or linear development. In this mixture of idealist and traditionally materialist events, displace an older materialist discourse of cause and effect, determinism, or
philosophies, scientific theories, and cultural orientations, new materialist critics see teleology. The internal, or immanent, generativity associated with materialization
a common thread in which the complexity, contingency, and generativity of matter thus arises from matters being understood not as solid, self-identical objectivity
is denied in order to regulate it, as well as an unwarranted separation and privileging but as inherently relational in the sense that it is the shifting relations between or
of human reason as a controlling agency. within entities that endow matter with innate capacities for self-transformation.
This challenge accordingly summons a countervailing ontology. Important This allows materialitywhether in macro-level assemblages such as the biosphere
philosophical influences here include ancient atomism, the ontological monism or micro-level entities in which genes and cells co-existto be ascribed agential
of Spinoza, the vitalist philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, and phenomenological capacity in the sense that materialization generates structure or patterns; it parti-
approaches to corporeality by thinkers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Their work tions the sensible and engenders provisional forms in ways that precede and exceed
linguistic or cognitive capacities.
3 I am grateful to the directors and students at the new cx center for interdisciplinary studies at the Such ideas are captured by references to a flat ontology and distributed agency.
Munich Academy of Fine Arts for discussions about their work as new alchemists with an affinity
with the new materialism. See There is nonetheless some disagreement here as to just how widely distributed
/archiv-jahresthemen.html. agentic capacities are. Do they, as thinkers such as Bruno Latour and Jane Bennett

42 Matter Matter 43

argue, include even inorganic entities, as actants or thing-power whose efficacy and behavior to congeal and ossify material systems. Such is the weary insight of the
affects human/nonhuman systems? Or, alternatively, should the extension of agency second dimension of renewed materialism, whose exponents maintain that a robust
merely refer to corporeal or organic capacities that extend beyond human bodies understanding and critique of existing systems is required as a complementary task
but which remain limited to beings capable of reacting reflexively and creatively to to ethical reinvention. In this guise, the new materialism assumes an altogether more
their material milieu? In either case, the definition and privileging of the human, mundane form inasmuch as it focuses on unprecedented ways in which matter is
especially regarding the uniqueness of humans rational and linguistic skills, are actually being transformed to alter everyday experiences and life chances in fun-
being questioned in some fundamental ways. damental ways. This, then, is the sense in which new materialists are renewing the
It is important to stress that new materialist thinking is not merely a philo- project of a critical theory, through an approach that might be defined as a critical
sophical adventure. Many of its exponents recognize its ontological claims as or capacious materialism.5
a prelude to radical change in ethical-political life. In discussing this aspect, it Its proponents are attentive, inter alia, to pervasive forms of biopower that
is helpful to see new materialism tracking a distinction that marks contempo- modify behavior at the level of everyday bodily habits and routines; to developments
rary political philosophy in its continental guises. This takes one direction when within political economy (such as intensified commodification of the commons
themes such as generativity and vitality are regarded as invitations to practice an or the invention of new consumer durables and production technologies); to the
affirmative ethos in which creativity, innovation, and the event inspire a more open effects of population growth and other unprecedented demographic changes; to
and respectful attitude toward nature/things alongside queer, self-transformative innovations in biomedicine that break bodies down into treatable, tradable parts;
practices that defy rigid classification or inertia. The other direction is more neg- to digital technologies in which the distinction between human and artificial intel-
ative, critical, in taking up the wager to plunge into the midst of things in order ligence becomes difficult to ascertain; to changes to the geological fabric of the
to analyze sub-optimal, perhaps catastrophic, ways of treating matter and thus planet associated with the Anthropocene. While some of these developments are
to identify leverage points for political action that are deemed essential for flour- regarded positively as new opportunities for preserving and enhancing life, more
ishing, if not for survival itself. typically it is the threats they pose to material (co-)existence that are being explored.
From the former, ethical perspective, new materialist ontology suggests a cel- In this critical aspect a renewed materialism is thus returning to an analysis of
ebration of matters generative capacities, thus offering new sources of inspiration material systemssuch as political economy, demography, biopower, and the envi-
through engaging with nonhuman forms. A combination of joyful restraint coupled ronmentin order to explore the material milieu bodies inhabit and to appreciate
with Nietzschean exuberance suggests a new sensibility or ethos: a transformed its contribution to limiting or inspiring discursive constructs. Linguistic tropes,
mode of being-in-the-world, one that escapes the limitations of conventional poli- like scripts or texts, accordingly yield to a language of complexity and ecologies,
tics, power struggles, and runaway material consumption in pursuit of novel ways of systems, structures, and assemblages. While critical investigations of political
being, subjectivity, affect, performance, embodiment, and artistry that are also more economy and the protean effects of global capitalism inevitably provoke memories
ecologically sensitive. In particular, such an ethos suggests perceiving and performing of Marxism, a capacious historical materialism is a considerably more complex,
nature, bodies, and things differently. It is reminiscent of counter-cultural ideals that wide-ranging undertaking congruent with twenty-first-century conditions. In par-
surfaced during the late 1960s, in which, for example, Herbert Marcuse invoked a new ticular, political economy is situated relative to larger and smaller systems with
sensibility aligned with the pacification of nature and a more sensuous, erotic, aes- which it interacts. On the one hand, this means taking heed of manifold concrete
thetic mode of being that was complemented by limits-to-growth environmentalism. details in everyday (co-)existence as a way to understand how power structures
Among current new materialists, it is exemplified by the re-enchanted attitude toward establish and maintain themselves at the micro, especially embodied, level where
vibrant matter that Bennett exhorts when she summons the cultivation of patient, needs, capacities, and desires are negotiated and instantiated. On the other, the
sensory attentiveness to nonhuman forces operating outside and inside the human broader eco- and biosystems with which intimate and social life connect through
body, which she associates with a countercultural kind of perceiving that engen- dense networks are accorded greater attention as planetary systems manifest
ders a more ecological sensibility.4 increasing symptoms of degradation.
This new sensibility might be understood as bringing affective ballast to social
change. Yet its practitioners inevitably find themselves confronting relatively intrac- 5 Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, Introducing the New Materialisms, in New Materialisms:
table structures of power and everyday practices that reproduce prevailing values Ontology, Agency, and Politics, eds. Coole and Frost (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010),
143, esp. 2634; Diana Coole, Agentic Capacities and Capacious Historical Materialism:
Thinking with New Materialisms in the Political Sciences, Millennium: Journal of International
4 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), xiv, 10. Studies, vol. 41, no. 3 (March 2013): 45169.

44 Matter Matter 45

This analysis proceeds in a holistic manner that is faithful to the dense rela- Feminism, Materialism, and Freedom
tionality and complex becomings described by new materialist ontology. It recognizes
that because materialization occurs simultaneously on multiple levels and between Elizabeth Grosz
numerous interconnected systems, critical analysis must also be multi-modal in its
approach. In recognizing the complexity, contingency, and mobility of material-
ization, it is, therefore, obliged similarly to trace the complicated flows and intri-
cate reversals of matter as it passes through and transfigures different biophysical Concepts of autonomy, agency, and freedomthe central terms by which subjectivity has
levels. From this perspective global capitalism may be the most significant conduit been understood in the twentieth century and beyondhave been central to feminist pol-
or switching point. Still, the challenge is to identify the ways matter shuttles back itics since its theoretical re-eruption in the writings of Simone de Beauvoir. While these
and forth between distant ecosystems and the embodied routines of the quotidian concepts are continually evoked in feminist theory, however, they have been rarely
where biopower operates through increasingly pervasive and sophisticated forms defined, explained, or analyzed. Instead they have functioned as a kind of mantra
of governmentality. In other words, while none of these levels is privileged as ulti- of liberation, a given ideal, not only for a politics directed purely to feminist questions
mately determining, tracking the relays, delays, and circuits through which matter but to any politics directed to class, race, or national and ethnic struggles. I propose
passes as it is transformed, degraded, or constructed is crucial for understanding in this essay to provide an opening up of these terms that are so commonly used to
the material situation at any point in time. Here the social and natural sciences define subjectivity or identity, a problematization of their common usage in feminist
are enmeshed in ways redolent of the entwining of social and ecological systems, and other political discourses, and their recasting in the terms of a philosophical
or of the human and nonhuman. tradition, which is rarely used by feminists but which may dynamize and make such
In conclusion, new materialism is a response to a resumed, pluralistic interest concepts ontological conditions rather than moral ideals.
in matter that is receptive to criticisms of older materialisms developed by post- Instead of turning to those philosophical traditions in which the questions
structuralists in particular, but also alert both to the efficacy of matter in shaping of freedom and autonomy are irremediably tied to the functioning and deprivatory
or constraining systems of meaning and discourse and to novel ways in which mate- power of the (oppressive or dominant) otherthat is, the tradition of dialectical
riality is being negotiated and changed by the unparalleled scale of human inter- phenomenology that dates from Hegel, through Marxism, and influences and inflects
vention and innovation. It embraces more realist methodologies than those of the existentialism, structuralism, and post-structuralism, which in turn have so heavily
linguistic or conceptual turn; it adumbrates an ontology of contingent, even aleatory, influenced most contemporary forms of feminist thought regarding the subjectI want
becoming; it invites ethical and artistic reorientation toward nature and materials, to turn to a more archaic tradition but also a more modernist one that feminists have
and it renews the project of a critical theory, albeit in ways that take into account tended to avoid: the philosophy of life, the philosophy of biology, the philosophy of
the unprecedented ways that matter is being transformed, its dynamic flows, and its nature, initiated to some extent by the pre-Socratics, but fully elaborated primarily
imbrication with structures of power that normalize certain material practices. By in the nineteenth century through the texts of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Bergson, and
locating embodied humans in the midst of things, new materialists are provoking flourishing well into the earliest decades of the twentieth century.
novel ways to understand and engage with the dense material world of which our In elaborating the centrality of matter to any understanding of subjectivity
species is an irreducible part. or consciousness as free or autonomous, we need to look outside the traditions of
thought that have considered subjectivity as the realm of agency and freedom only
through the attainment of reason, rights, and recognition: that is, only through the
operation of forcessocial, cultural, or identificatoryoutside the subject. Thus,
instead of linking the question of freedom to the concept of emancipation or to some
understanding of liberation from, or removal of, an oppressive or unfair form of con-
straint or limitation, as is most common in feminist and other anti-oppressive strug-
gles and discourses, I develop a concept of life, bare life, where freedom is conceived
not only or primarily as the elimination of constraint or coercion but more positively

This essay appears in longer form in my book, Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life,
Politics, and Art (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 5973.

46 Matter Matter 47

as the condition of, or capacity for, action in life. In doing so, I hope to elaborate and explicit proponents of a positive conception of freedom, freedom as the ability
and explain my understanding of freedom, agency, and autonomy not in terms of a to act and in acting to make oneself even as one is made by external forces
concept of freedom from, where freedom is conceived negatively, as the elimination I will look at the work of someone more or less entirely neglected in feminist and
of constraint, but in terms of a freedom to, a positive understanding of freedom as much of postmodern literature, Henri Bergson, whose understanding of freedom is
the capacity for action. I do not believe that this is a depoliticization of the concept remarkably subtle and complex and may provide new ways of understanding both the
but rather its reframing in a different context that may provide it with other, different openness of subjectivity and politics as well as their integration and cohesion with
political affiliations and associations and a different understanding of subjectivity. their respective pasts or history.3 I believe that Bergson may help us to articulate an
Is feminist theory best served through its traditional focus on womens attain- understanding of subjectivity, agency, and freedom that is more consonant with a
ment of a freedom from patriarchal, racist, colonialist, and heteronormative con- feminism of difference than with an egalitarian feminism, which more clearly finds
straint? Or by exploring what the femaleor feministsubject is and is capable of its support in various projects centered around the struggles for rights and recog-
making and doing? It is this broad and overarching questionone of the impon- nition. Bergson might help to rethink how subjectivity and freedom are always and
derable dilemmas facing contemporary politics well beyond feminismthat is at only enacted within and through the materiality that life and the nonliving share,
stake here in exploring the subjects freedom through its immersion in materiality. a materiality not adequately addressed in alternative traditions that have until now
I have no intention of presenting a critique of the notion of freedom from, remained so influential in feminist thought.
for it clearly has a certain political relevance;1 but its relevance should not be over-
stated, and if freedom remains tied to only this negative concept of liberty, it remains
tied to the options or alternatives provided by the present and its prevailing (and Bergson and Freedom
admittedly limiting) forces, instead of accessing and opening up the present to the
invention of the new. In other words, a freedom from, while arguably necessary Bergsons understanding of freedom and its links to subjectivity is initially artic-
for understanding concepts like subjectivity, agency, and autonomy, is not sufficient: ulated in his first major publication, Time and Free Will (1889), which not only
at best it addresses and attempts to redress wrongs of the past without providing any outlines his conceptions of duration and space (which will become the center-
positive direction for action in the future. It entails that once the subject has had piece of his analyses in Matter and Memory (1896) and Creative Evolution (1907))
restraints and inhibitions, the negative limitations, to freedom removed, a natural or but also embeds his work in the traditional metaphysical opposition between
given autonomy is somehow preserved. If external interference can be minimized, free will and determinism, an ancient debate still articulating itself with great
the subject can be (or rather become) itself, can be left to itself and as itself, can insistence, ironically, even within contemporary feminism. His understanding
enact its given freedom. Freedom is attained through rights, laws, and rules that of freedom, as with his notions of perception, life, and intuition, lies outside
minimize negative interference rather than affirm positive actions. and beyond the traditional binary distinctions that characterize so much of
I want to focus on the tradition of freedom to, which has tended to be Western thought.
neglected in feminist and other radical political struggles, though it may make Bergson argues that in traditional debates regarding free will and deter-
more explicit and clear what is at stake in feminist notions of subjectivity, agency, minism, both sides share a number of problematic commitments: both presume
and autonomy. But rather than turning to Nietzsche and Foucault to articulate this the separation or discontinuity of the subject from the range of available options
network of connections (as I have done elsewhere)2for they are the most obvious or alternatives and from the subjects own ongoing self-identity; a fundamental
continuity between present causes and future effects (whether causes are regarded
1 It is perfectly obvious that a freedom to create, to make, or to produce is a luxury that can be as internal to the subject or as external tends to define the positions of the deter-
attained only with a certain level of the absence of constraint. However, even in the most extreme
cases of slavery and in situations of political or natural catastrophe of the kinds globally experienced minist and the libertarian respectively); and an atomistic separation or logical
in recent years, there is always a small space for innovation and not simply reaction. What remains division between cause and effect. In other words, as in all oppositional or
remarkable about genocidal struggles, the horrors of long-term incarceration, concentration camps, dichotomized divisions, both sides of the free will/determinism debate are prob-
prisoner of war camps, and the prospects of long-term social coexistence in situations of natural and
social catastrophe is the inventiveness of the activities of the constrainedthe flourishing of minor lematic and share founding assumptions that enable them to regard themselves
and hidden arts and literature, technologies and instruments, networks of communication, and the
transmission of information. What is most striking about the extreme situations of constraint, those
which require a freedom from, is that they do not eliminate a freedom to but only complicate it. 3 There have been some, a few, feminist texts on Bergson. See, in particular, Dorothea Olkowski,
2 In The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004) The End of Phenomenology: Bergsons Interval in Irigaray, Hypatia 15, no. 3 (Summer 2000):
and Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994). 7391; and Rebecca Hill, Interval, Sexual Difference? Hypatia 23, no. 1 (Winter 2008): 11931.

48 Matter Matter 49

as opposites.4 As with all oppositional structures, we need to find something that is free to the extent that the self alone will have been the author of it, and [] it will
articulates what both views, in spite of their contradictions, share in common and express the whole of the self.6 Bergsons position is both alluringly and nostalgically
what exceeds their terms and functions outside their constraints. metaphysical and strikingly simple: free acts are those that spring from the subject
For the hard-core determinist, if one had an adequately detailed knowledge alone (and not from any psychical state of the subject or any manipulated behavior
of antecedent events, that is, causes, one could predict with absolute certainty around the subject); they not only originate in or through a subject, they express
what their effects would be, whether these causes are material and external, or all of that subject. In other words, they are integral to who or what the subject is.
psychical and internal. In its most recent incarnations, determinism has affirmed In this understanding, the question whether the subject would or would not make
that causes may lodge themselves within the living organism, as effects of an en the same choice again is ill posed: such a situation is unrealistic and impossible. The
masse conditioning of the body and its behavior, or as a consequence of the more precise circumstances cannot be repeated, at the very least, because the subject is not the
microscopic molecular movements and structure of the brain or the even more same: the subject has inevitably changed, grown older, been affected by earlier decisions,
miniscule chromosomal structure of each cell. (Recent discourses on the gay brain5 is aware of the previous choice, and so on. If the subject were absolutely identical in the
the gay gene or the construction of queer through too close a contamination by replaying of a particular choice, neither the determinists nor the libertarians position
queer lifestyles are merely contemporary versions of this ancient debate.) What lies would be affirmed. All one could say is that the subject is the self-same subject. Yet even
behind each variation of this position is the belief that, if one could know the brain in the case of an example favored by the deterministthe subject under hypnosisthere
structure or genetic or behavioral patterns intimately enough, one could predict is a measure of freedom insofar as the act performed through suggestion must still be
future behavior, whether criminal, sexual, or cultural. rationalized, integrated in the agents life history, given a history, qualitatively inserted
On the other side is the libertarian or free will position which asserts that even into all the agents other acts in order to be performed or undertaken.7
if determinism regulates the material order, in the realm of the human subject, there With even the most constrained and manipulated of circumstances, when one
is an inherent unpredictability of effects from given causes. Given a variety of options persons will is imposed on anothers without his or her conscious awareness, Bergson
or alternatives, it is unpredictable which one will be chosen: it is an open or free act. argues that there must nevertheless be a retrospective cohesion between the subjects
Freedom is understood, on the anti-determinist position, as the performance of an current act and the previous chain of connections that prepared for and made it
act that could have been done otherwise, even under the same exact conditions. Both possible. Even in this case, it is only retroactively, after the act is completed, that we
libertarians and determinists share the belief that the subject is the same subject, can discern or mark the distinction between a cause and an effect, for in psychical life
the same entity, before and after the alternatives have been posed and one chosen; there cannot be the logical separation of cause from effect that characterizes material
the subject, even after choosing a particular course, could review that course and objects in their external relations to each other. What characterizes psychical life,
either would make the same choice again in precisely the same way (the determinist Bergson insists, is not the capacity to lay parts (in this case, psychical states) side
position) or could make a different choice, even in the same circumstances (the by side, for this accomplishes a certain spatial ordering that is not possible for, or
libertarian position). For both, the choice of one of the options does not annihilate the lived by, the living being, but the inherent immersion and coherence of a being in
existence of the others but leaves them intact, capable of being chosen (or not) again. time. Psychical states are not like objects, for they have no parts, cannot be directly
Bergsons position on the question of freedom is more complex than either the compared, and admit of no magnitude or degree.
determinist or the libertarian view. For him, it is not so much that subjects are free Psychical states have three relevant characteristics: (a) they are always
or not free; rather, it is acts that, in expressing a consonance (or not) with their agent, qualitative, and thus incapable of measurement without the imposition of an external
are free (or automatized), have (or lack) the qualitative character of free acts. An act grid (this already makes psychical determinism an incoherent positionif causes
cannot be measured and precisely calculated, then even if determinism is in principle
4 At bottom, Bergson argues, both the libertarian and the determinist are committed to a tautology,
in fact to complementary tautologies: The argument of the determinists assumes this puerile 6 Bergson, Time and Free Will, 16566.
form: The act, once performed, is performed, and [] their opponents reply: The act, before 7 For it is by no means the case that all conscious states blend with one another as raindrops with
being performed, was not yet performed. In other words, the question of freedom remains after the water of a lake. The self, in so far as it has to do with a homogeneous space, develops on a
this discussion exactly where it was to begin with; nor must we be surprised at it, since freedom kind of surface, and on this surface independent growths may form and float. Thus a suggestion
must be sought in a certain shade or quality of the action itself and not in the relation of this received in the hypnotic state is not incorporated in the mass of conscious states, but, endowed
act to what it is not or to what it might have been. Bergson, Time and Free Will, trans. F. L. Pogson with a life of its own, it will usurp the whole personality when its time comes. A violent anger
(London: George Allen and Unwin, 1959), 182. roused by some accidental circumstance, a hereditary vice suddenly emerged from the obscure
5 See Simon LeVay, Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research into Homosexuality (Cambridge, MA: depths of the organism to the surface of consciousness, will act almost like a hypnotic
MIT Press, 1996). suggestion. Ibid, 66.

50 Matter Matter 51

correct, ironically it remains unable to attain its most explicit goal: prediction);8 and imperceptibly becoming other than what it once was and is now, then free acts,
(b) they function not through distinction, opposition, categories, or identities but having been undertaken, are those which transform us, which we can incorporate
through fusion or interpenetration,9 through an immersion or permeation that into our becomings in the very process of their changing us. Free acts are those which
generates a continuity between states or processes and makes their juxtaposition both express us and which transform us, which express our transforming.
impossible (this is the basis of Bergsons critique of associationism);10 and (c) they What both the determinists and the libertarians misunderstand is the very
emerge or can be understood only in duration rather than through the conventional notion of possibility: the determinist assumes that there is only one possible act that
modes of spatialization that generally regulate thought, especially scientific or can occur from given conditions or antecedents for any given subject, whereas the
instrumental thought, that is to say, any mode of analysis or division into parts. Parts, libertarian assumes that there could be several different acts that could ensue from
elements, and states are discernible only as spatial categories or terms. While these given conditions or antecedents. Given two possible outcomes, X and Y (and fixing
attributes or divisions may be imposed on the continuity of life and consciousness, the antecedent conditions), the determinist assumes that only one was ever in fact
they do not arise from them, for life is as much becoming as it is being; it is durational possible; in contrast the libertarian assumes that both were equally possible. Neither
as much as it is spatial, though we are less able to see or comprehend the durational understands that the two options were never of equal value because neither exists in
flux than the mappable geometries of spatial organization. itself as an abstract possibility. If we follow Bergsons famous distinction between the
For Bergson, then, at least in his earlier works, free acts erupt from the subject possible and the virtual the possible is at best the retrospective projection of a real that
insofar as they express the whole of that subject even when they are unexpected wishes to conceive itself as eternally, always, possible but which becomes actual only
and unprepared for: We are free when our acts spring from our whole personality, through an unpredictable labor and effort of differentiation, an epigenesis that exceeds
when they express it, when they have that indefinable resemblance to it which one its preconditions.13 It is only after a work of art, a concept, formula, or act exists, is
sometimes finds between the artist and his work.11 Acts are free insofar as they real, and has had some actuality that we can say that it must have been possible, that it
express and resemble the subject, not insofar as the subject is always the same, an was one of the available options. Its possibility can be gleaned only from its actuality,
essence, an identity, but insofar as the subject is transformed by and engaged through for the possible never prefigures the real, it simply accompanies it as its post facto
its acts, becomes through its acts: shadow. So although we can posit that X and Y are equally possible (or not equally
possible), it is only after one of them has been actualized or chosen that we can see the
Those who ask whether we are free to alter our character lay themselves path of reasons, causes, or explanations that made it desirable.14 Only after one of the
open to [this] objection. Certainly our character is altering imperceptibly options has been chosen can we see that the unchosen option is not preserved there
every day, and our freedom would suffer if these new acquisitions were in its possibility but entirely dissolves, becoming simply a reminiscence or projection.
grafted on to our self and not blended with it. But, as soon as this blending Bergson has provided an understanding of freedom that is not fundamentally
takes place, it must be admitted that the change which has supervened linked to the question of choice, to the operations of alternatives, to the selection
in our character belongs to us, that we have appropriated it.12 of options outside the subject and independently available to him or her. It is not a
freedom of selection, of consumption, a freedom linked to the acquisition of objects,
Bergsons point is that free acts come from or even through us (it is not clear if it but a freedom of action that is above all connected to an active self, an embodied being,
matters where the impetus of the act originateswhat matters is how it is retro- a being who acts in a world of other beings and objects. Acts, having been undertaken,
actively integrated into the subjects history and continuity). More significantly, if transform their agent so that the paths that the agent took to the act are no longer avail-
this subject from which acts spring is never the same, never self-identical, always able to him or her except abstractly or in reconstruction. Indeed, there are no paths to
any possible action (that is why an action remains possible but not real) until the action
8 The causes here, unique in their kind, are part of the effect, have come into existence with it is acted, and then the path exists only in reconstruction, not in actuality. The path can
and are determined by it as much as they determine it. Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur
Mitchell (New York: Dover, 1998), 164.
9 Bergson, Time and Free Will, 163. 13 See Bergson, The Possible and the Real, in The Creative Mind, trans. Mabelle L. Addison
10 In proportion as we dig below the surface and get to the real self, do its states of consciousness (New York: Philosophical Library, 1946).
cease to stand in juxtaposition and begin to permeate and melt into one another, and each to 14 As reality is created as something unforeseeable and new, its image is reflected behind into the
be tinged with the colouring of the others. Thus each of us has his own way of loving and hating; indefinite past; thus it finds that it has from all time been possible, but it is at this precise moment
and this love or hatred reflects his whole personality. Ibid., 164. that it begins to have been always possible, and that is why I said that its possibility, which
11 Ibid., 172. does not precede its reality, will have preceded it once the reality has appeared. The possible is
12 Ibid. therefore the mirage of the present in the past. Bergson, The Creative Mind, 119.

52 Matter Matter 53

be drawn only after the movement is completed. Once the act is performed, we can Freedom and Materiality
divide, analyze, assess, and treat as necessary what in the process of its performance
remains undivided, unanalyzable, surprising, and utterly contingent. The act, once In his later works, Bergson focuses less on freedom as the exclusive attribute of a self,
performed, once actualized, is different from the indeterminacy of its performance. concentrated on only the one, conscious side of the distinction between the organic
Moreover, Bergsons understanding of freedom dissolves the intimate connection and the inorganic, as he did in his earlier Time and Free Will, and more on the rela-
between freedom and the subjects internal constitution or pregiven right. Freedom is tions between the organic and the inorganic, the internal constitution of freedom
not a quality or property of the human subject, as implied within the phenomenolog- through its encounters with the resistance of matter.19 If freedom is located in acts
ical tradition, but can only characterize a process, an action, a movement that has no rather than in subjects, then the capacity to act and the effectivity of action is to
particular qualities. Freedom has no given content; it cannot be defined. Any positive a large extent structured by the ability to harness and utilize matter for ones own
definition of freedom will ensure the victory of determinism.15 This is in part because purposes and interests. Freedom is not a transcendent quality inherent in subjects
it is not an attribute, quality, or capacity that exists independent of its exercise. It is but is inherent in the relations that the living has with the material world, including
not that subjects are or are not free; rather, actions, those undertaken by living beings, other forms of life.
may sometimes express such freedom. Freedom is a matter of degree and character- As the correlate of life itself, whose accompaniment is consciousness in
izes only those acts in which one acts with all of ones being, and in the process those a more or less dormant or active state, freedom is not a transcendental property
acts become capable of transforming that being. It is rare that our actions express with of the human but an immanent and sometimes latent capacity in life in all its
such intimate intensity the uniqueness of our situation and our own position within complexity. Life is consciousness, though not always an active consciousness.
it.16 But it is at these moments that freedom at its most intense is expressed. Consciousness is the projection onto materiality of the possibility of a choice, a
Freedom is thus the exception rather than the rule in the sense that it can func- decision whose outcome is not given in advance, which is to say, a mode of sim-
tion only through the autonomy of the living being against a background of routin- plifying or skeletalizing matter so that it affords us materials on and with which
ized or habituated activity. It is only insofar as most of everyday life is accommodated to act.20 It is linked to the capacity for choice, for freedom. It is not tied to the
through automatism, by a kind of reflex or habit, that free acts have their energetic emergence of reason, to the capacity for reflection, or to some inherent quality of
and aesthetico-moral force and their effects on their author or agent. Associationism the human. Life in its evolutionary forms expresses various degrees of freedom,
and determinism have their relevance in conscious life: they provide an explanation of correlated with the extent and range of consciousness, which is itself correlated
the automatized substrate of daily behavior that provides a probabilistic guarantee of with the various possibilities of action. The torpor or unconsciousness that char-
accomplished action. It is only against this assumed or taken-for-granted background acterizes most plant life makes the concept of freedom largely irrelevant or oper-
economy of details that free acts may erupt.17 In place of either a rigid determinism ational only at its most minimal level insofar as choice or action is not generally
or the pointless and undirected openness of libertarianism, Bergson poses indeter- available to vegetal existence.21
minacy as the defining characteristic of life and the condition for freedom: It is at Yet the most elementary forms of mobile life, animal existence from the pro-
the great and solemn crisis, decisive in our reputation with others, and yet more with tozoa upward, exhibit a kind of incipient freedom in some of their most significant
ourself, that we choose in defiance of what is conventionally called a motive, and this actions. The capacity for choiceeven if reduced to the choice of when and
absence of any tangible reason is the more striking the deeper our freedom goes.18 where to contract or expand, when and what to eat, and so forthexpresses both

15 Bergson, Time and Free Will, 220.

16 It is the whole soul, in fact, which gives rise to the free decision: and the act will be so much
the freer the more the dynamic series with which it is connected tends to be the fundamental
self. Thus understood, free acts are exceptional, even on the part of those who are most given
to controlling and reasoning out what they do. Ibid., 167.
17 It is to this these acts, which are very numerous but for the most part insignificant, that the
associationist theory is applicable. They are, taken all together, the substratum of our free activity, 19 Most notably in Matter and Memory; The Creative Mind; Mind-Energy, and Creative Evolution.
and with respect to this activity they play the same part as our organic functions in relation to 20 Theoretically, then, everything living must be conscious. In principle, consciousness is
the whole of our conscious life. Moreover we will grant to determinism that we often resign our co-extensive with life. Bergson, Mind-Energy, trans. H. Wildon Carr (London: Macmillan, 1921), 8.
freedom in more serious circumstances, and that, by sluggishness or indolence, we allow this 21 Even in the vegetable world, where the organism is generally fixed to the soil, the faculty of
same local process to run its course when our whole personality ought, so to speak, to vibrate. movement is dormant rather than absent: it awakens when it can be of use. [] It appears to me
Ibid., 169. therefore extremely likely that consciousness, originally immanent in all that lives, is dormant
18 Ibid., 170. where there is no longer spontaneous movement. Ibid., 1011.

54 Matter Matter 55

the particularity of each species and the specificity of individuals within them.22 Each But equally, Bergson argues, matter as a whole, the material universe, must
species, Bergson suggests, has the consciousness precisely appropriate to the range of contain within itself the very conditions for the indeterminacy of the life which it
actions available to it: each species, and here Bergson anticipates the work of some generated. Those mixtures or compounds may yield memory, history, and the past
of the theoretical biologists to follow,23 has a world opened up to it within which its and make them linger, press on, and remain relevant to the present and future.
organs have, through natural selection, the capacity to extract for it what it needs Matter must contain as its most latent principle, its most virtual recess, the same
for its ongoing existence. Each animal species, whether regulated by instinct as are indeterminacy that life returns to it. This is the common point of binary terms
the social insects or by intelligence as occurs in gradations through the vertebrates, (matter and memory, extension and consciousness, space and duration) and that
has a world in which it can act, in which it requires a certain consciousness and in which exceeds themthe fundamental interimplications of mind and matter, of life
which there is for it a fringe of freedom, a zone of indetermination that elevates and the inorganic, as well as their origins in the indeterminacy of the universe itself,
it above mere automated responses to given stimuli. the point of their endosmosis, where matter expands into life and life contracts into
It is this zone of indetermination that for Bergson characterizes both the matter in pure duration. Life, and its growing complications through the evolutionary
freedom representative of life and the capacity for being otherwise that life can elaboration, generates a reservoir of indetermination27 that it returns to the inor-
bestow on (elements or factors of ) material organization. Indetermination is the ganic universe to expand it and make it amenable to, and the resource for, life in its
true principle of life, the condition for the open-ended action of living beings, multiple becomings; and matter in turn, while providing the resources and objects
the ways in which living bodies are mobilized for action that cannot be specified in of living activity, is also the internal condition of freedom as well as its external limit
advance.24 The degrees of indetermination are the degrees of freedom. Living bodies or constraint. [The evolution of life] is at the mercy of the materiality which it has
act not simply or mainly through deliberation or conscious decision but through had to assume. It is what each of us may experience in himself. Our freedom, in the
indetermination, through the capacity they bring to the material world and objects very movements by which it is affirmed, creates the growing habits that will stifle
to make them useful for life in ways that cannot be specified in advance.25 it if it fails to renew itself by a constant effort: it is dogged by automatism.28
Indetermination spreads from the living to the nonliving through the virtu- Materiality tends to determination; it gives itself up to calculation, precision,
ality that the living brings to the inorganic, the potential for the inorganic to be and spatialization. But at the same time, it is also the field in and through which free
otherwise, to lend itself to incorporation, transformation, and energetic protraction acts are generated through the encounter of life with matter and the capacity of each
in the life and activities of species and individuals: At the root of life there is an to yield to the other its forms and forces, both its inertia and its dynamism. Matter,
effort to engraft on to the necessity of physical forces the largest possible amount of inorganic matter, is both the contracting condition of determination and the dilating
indetermination.26 Life opens the universe to becoming more than it is. expression of indetermination, and these two possibilities characterize both matter
in its inorganic forms and those organized material bodies that are living. Immersed
22 The amoeba when in the presence of a substance which can be made food, pushes out towards in matter and an eruption from it, life is the continuous negotiation with matter
it filaments able to seize and enfold foreign bodies. These pseudopodia are real organs and therefore that creates the conditions for its own expansion and the opening up of matter to
mechanisms; but they are only temporary organs created for the particular purpose, and it seems
they still show the rudiments of a choice. From top to bottom, therefore, of the scale of animal its own virtualities: [Life] was to create with matter, which is necessity itself, an
life we see being exercised, though the form is ever vaguer as we descend, the faculty of choice, instrument of freedom, to make a machine which should triumph over mechanism,
that is, the responding to a definite stimulus of movements more or less unforeseen. Ibid., 910. and to use the determinism of nature to pass through the meshes of the net which
23 See in particular Jakob von Uexkll, Theoretical Biology, trans. D. L. Mackinnon (London: Kegan Paul,
1926); Uexkll, A Foray Into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, trans. Joseph D. ODell (Minneapolis: this very determinism had spread.29
University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Raymond Ruyer, No-finalisme (Paris: Presses Universitaires de As isolatable systems, fixed entities, objects with extrinsic relations to each
France, 1952); and Gilbert Simondon, The Genesis of the Individual, trans. Mark Cohen and other, the material universe is the very source of regularity, predictability, and deter-
Sanford Kwinter, in Incorporations, ed. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter (New York: Zone, 1993).
24 Bergson, Matter and Memory, trans. Nancy M. Paul and W. Scott Palmer (New York: Zone, 1988), 31. mination that enables a perceiving being to perform habitual actions with a measure
25 Matter is inertia, geometry, necessity. But with life there appears free, predictable, movement. of some guarantee of efficacy. Yet as an interconnected whole, the universe itself
The living being chooses or tends to choose. Its role is to create. In a world where everything exhibits hesitation, uncertainty, and the openness to evolutionary emergence, that is,
else is determined, a zone of indetermination surrounds it. To create the future requires prepara-
tory action in the present, to prepare what will be is to utilize what has been; life therefore is the very indetermination that characterizes life. At its most contracted, the material
employed from its start in conserving the past and anticipating the future in a duration in which universe is regular, reborn at each moment, fully actual, and in the present. But at its
past, present and future tread one on another, forming an indivisible continuity. Such memory,
such anticipation, are consciousness itself. This is why, in right if not in fact, consciousness is 27 Ibid., 126.
coextensive with life. Bergson, Mind-Energy, 13. 28 Ibid., 127.
26 Bergson, Creative Evolution, 114. 29 Ibid., 130.

56 Matter Matter 57

most expansive, it is part of the flow of pure duration, carrying along the past with Freedom is the consequence of indetermination, the very indetermination that
the present, the virtual with the actual, and enabling them to give way to a future characterizes both consciousness and perception. It is this indeterminationthe
they do not contain. The universe has this expansive possibility, the possibility of discriminations of the real based on perception, the discriminations of interest that
being otherwise not because life recognizes it as such but because life can exist only consciousness performs on material objects, including other bodiesthat liberates
because of the simultaneity of the past with the present that matter affords it.30 life from the immediacy and givenness of objects but also from the immediacy and
givenness of the past. Life is not the coincidence of the present with its past, its
history; it is also the forward thrust of a direction whose path is clear only in ret-
Feminism and Freedom rospect. Indetermination liberates life from the constraints of the present. Life is
the protraction of the past into the present, the suffusing of matter with memory,
Feminists have long assumed that, as a coercive form of constraint, it is patriarchy which is the capacity to contract matter into what is useful for future action and to
and patriarchal power relations that have limited womens freedom by not making make matter function differently in the future than in the past. The spark of indeter-
available to women the full range of options for action that it affords men. And it is mination that made life possible spreads through matter by means of the activities
certainly true that the range of choices available to women as a group is smaller that life performs on matter. As a result, the world itself comes to vibrate with its
and more restricted than that available to men as a group. But the question of possibilities for being otherwise.
freedom for women, or for any oppressed social group, is never simply a question So what does Bergsonism, or the philosophy of life, offer to feminist theory
of expanding the range of available options so much as it is about transforming the over and above the liberal and Marxist, empiricist, or phenomenological conceptions
quality and activity of the subjects who choose and who make themselves through of freedom? If we rely on a conception of freedom that is linked to the controlling
how and what they do. Freedom is not so much linked to choice (a selection from power of the other, the socially dominant others, whether a class, a sex, a race, or
pregiven options or commodities) as it is to autonomy, and autonomy is linked to groups and individualsa view which all these conceptions in some way sharewe
the ability to make (or refuse to make) activities (including language and systems of abandon in advance the concept of autonomy. If freedom is that which is bestowed
representation and value) ones own, that is, to integrate the activities one under- on us by others, it cannot be lodged in autonomy, in the individuals inner cohesion
takes into ones history, ones becoming. and historical continuity: it comes from outside, from rights granted to us rather
Bergson has elucidated a concept of freedom that links it not to choice but to than capacities inherent in us. Freedom becomes transcendental rather than imma-
innovation and invention. Freedom pertains to the realm of actions, processes, and nent, other-oriented rather than autonomous, linked to being rather than to doing.
events that are not contained within, or predictable from, the present; it is that which Such an understanding of freedom, at least from the point of view of a philosophy
emerges, surprises, and cannot be entirely anticipated in advance. It is not a state of life, is reactive, secondary, peripheral, outside of life instead of being seen as the
one is in or a quality that one has, but it resides in the activities one undertakes that very (inalienable) condition of life. Freedom is a question of degree rather than an
transform oneself and (a part of ) the world. It is not a property or right bestowed on, absolute right. It is attained rather than bestowed, and it functions through activity
or removed from, individuals by others, but a capacity or potentiality to act both in rather than waiting passively for its moment. Being gay or straight, for example, is not
accordance with ones past as well as out of character, in a manner that surprises. a question of choice (of options already given in their independent neutralitymen
Freedom is thus not primarily a capacity of mind but of body: it is linked to the bodys or women as sexual objects, or masculine or feminine as modes of identification)
capacity for movement, and thus its multiple possibilities of action. Freedom is not but an expression of who one is and what one enjoys doing, of ones being. It is an
an accomplishment granted by the grace or goodwill of the other but is attained only expression of freedom without necessarily constraining itself to options already laid
through the struggle with matter, the struggle of bodies to become more than they are, out. Gayness (or straightness) is neither produced from causeswhether physio-
a struggle that occurs not only on the level of the individual but also of the species. logical, genetic, neurological, or sociologicalnor is it the consequence of a free
choice among equally appealing given alternatives. It is the enactment of a freedom
that can refuse to constrain sexuality and sexual partners to any given function,
30 This is precisely what life isfreedom inserting itself into necessity, turning it to its profit. Life
would be an impossibility were the determinism of matter so absolute as to admit no relaxation. purpose, or activity, and that makes sexuality an open invention even as it carries
Suppose, however, that at particular points matter shows a certain elasticity, then and there will be the burden of biological, cultural, and individual construction.
opportunity for consciousness to install itself. It will have to humble itself at first; yet, once installed, The problem of feminism is not the problem of womens lack of freedom, or
it will dilate, it will spread from its point of entry and not rest till it has conquered the whole, for
time is at its disposal and the slightest quantity of indetermination, by continually adding to itself, simply the constraints that patriarchal power relations impose on women and their
will make up as much freedom as you like. Bergson, Mind-Energy, 1314. identities. If women are not, in some sense, free, feminism could not be possible. The

58 Matter Matter 59

problem, rather, is how to expand the variety of activities, including the activities of Is Marxism a Correlationism?
knowledge-production, so that women and men may be able to act differently and
open up activities to new interests, perspectives, and frameworks hitherto not ade- Diedrich Diederichsen
quately explored or invented. The problem is not how to give women more adequate
recognition (who is it that women require recognition from?), more rights, or more
of a voice, but how to enable more action, more making and doing, more difference.
That is, the challenge facing feminism today is no longer only how to give women In this essay I deal with three complexes that I often discuss in other contexts as well:
a more equal place within existing social networks and relations but how to enable questions of the visual arts, of fashion and diagnosis of the present, and of philos-
women to partake in the creation of a future unlike the present. ophy, especially aesthetics and legitimating discourses that play an important role
in the visual arts. In the debates surrounding art and politics on the one hand, and
art and economy on the other, I feel it is important to adopt a vantage point com-
bining the two sets of problems; and to identify in the economic situation of artists
in general (and visual artists in particular) a hard and material web of reasons and
resistances that might explain what is political about contemporary artistic practice
in the sense of the politics of its economy, and how that relates to what makes up
that artistic practice economically. Specific living and working conditions are one
example, a highly specific type of self-exploitation, but also a highly specific new
production apparatus that harnesses leisure activity, audience mobilization, and
self-realization reflexes as economic resources.
Recently, two motifs have appeared that are already familiar from (or at least
preformed in) other discursive fields. Common to both discourses is what the
Austrian art journal Springerin has termed antihumanism, while others call it post-
humanism. What do they have to do with contemporary art, and why in the world
would I want to link them to Marxism?
Bruno Latours sociology, which is fairly well-known by now, can be described
as a continuation and escalation of constructivist positions. If constructivist theo-
ries take aspects of the world that are regarded as nature and disenchant them by
showing that they are man-made and hence criticizable and changeable, Latour
disenchants the humanist certainty of this distinction itself. He shows that man-
made phenomena are partially made or coproduced by things or other nonhuman
actorsor actants, as he also calls themarguing for the abandonment of a subject-
oriented, anthropocentric perspective on the construction of the social, which,
however, he continues to view as constructed.1 Unfortunately, in doing so he some-
times sacrifices the option of critique, which in earlier forms of constructivism was
still a plausible option, since those writers saw the world as partially constructed

This essay is loosely based on a paper given as part of the lecture series Power of Materials/
Politics of Materiality at the cx center for interdisciplinary studies, Academy of Fine Arts,
Munich. An expanded version appears in a volume based on that lecture series, Macht des Materials
Politik der Materialitt, ed. Susanne Witzgall and Kerstin Stakemeier (Zurich: Diaphanes, 2014).

1 See, for example, Bruno Latour, The Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans.
Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

60 Matter Matter 61

by discourses like critique. At the same time, he gains a retraction of the somewhat have become measurable and datable; consequently, things in themselves do not
flippant sense, which constructivisms so frequently involve, that the world is at absolutely elude measurability and hence cognition in general. Of course, it might
humanitys disposal. be objected that the very design and specificity of measuring instruments are them-
Unlike Latour, who as a historian of science originally based his reflections on selves correlational, but the Meillassoux school treats the arche-fossils and their
concrete laboratory situations, Quentin Meillassoux argues in strictly philosophical proven existence less as an epistemological argument against epistemology and for
terms and sets great store by doing so. His aim is to eradicate a fundamental flaw ontology than as an indication of the correlational inconsistency of epistemology
of all philosophy since Kant: the distinction between a knowable world for con- and thus as an argument for an ontological reality that, for Meillassoux as for his
sciousness and a world of things in themselves that the philosophical consciousness teacher, Alain Badiou, is accessible through mathematics.
holds at a distance and whose discussion it denounces as a metaphysical holdover The end point of Meillassouxs argument is the claim that the laws of nature
deserving no further attention.2 Meillassoux calls this position and all philosophies themselves are not necessary but ratheras was previously only the case for scien-
that share it correlationism, because they are only interested in the world in terms tific hypotheses about nature and the human formulation of its lawsnecessarily
of the co-reality of human consciousness, not for its own sake. In this context, my contingent and that they only apply as long as they apply. Indeed, for Meillassoux the
point of departure, particularly with regard to a diagnosis of the present, could not only necessity is the contingency of the laws of nature. He rejects the three Kantian
be further removed from the anti-correlationist position. The diagnostician of the options that Badiou sums up in his preface to Meillassouxs book After Finitude as
present is an even more extreme correlationist, because he or she not only posits dogmatism, skepticism, and critique, instead holding out the prospect of a kind
the relevance of the world for a/the consciousness of every question or problem but of fundamental critiquealthough he doesnt call it thatthat embarks on the
its relevance for a decidedly transitory, especially fleeting consciousness of fashion. adventure of cognizing a world in which everything could be otherwise, in which
It is paradoxical, then, that precisely my conviction that a thing that is in fashion people, for example, could rise from the dead. Meillassoux has been working for
can never lack dignity altogether, that it must always have a certain minimal rele- years on a project entitled Linexistence divine, mythologized by his followers, in which
vance, should move me to engage with a discourse that wishes to banish from the he seeks to show that the unprovoked arising of things such as cognition, suffering,
question of truth not only fashion but every other specific, historical, and otherwise or pleasure is a rational concept and that more such outrageous things are therefore
relativizing perspective of an interested consciousness as well. likely to arise in the future.
Meillassoux takes modern measuring methods for dating fossils and the These are the voyages of the Starship Philosophy. Its mission: to boldly go
technique of radiotelescopy as his starting points. With these, he argues, a sphere where no man has gone before This, roughly speaking, was my first reaction upon
becomes accessible in which the consciousness of those for whom the world other- reading a manuscript by Meillassoux and finding out in what circles he is read and
wise exclusively exists was not even present yet. Nevertheless, for this world, which admired. I was also reminded of something I said in philosophy class in my junior
could not yet be differentiated into a world for consciousness and one in itself, accu- year of high school, when during a group discussion of Kant, I objected that on
rate data can be gathered regarding the earth, the solar system, and distant quasar LSD the thing in itself could be cognitively accessed. Now, this comparison with
clusters. Meillassoux refers to objects from this timeformer things in themselves, my teenage self is unfair, of course. Meillassoux takes great pains to back up his
as it wereas arche-fossils. It was recently reported that around the year 1200 philosophical sensationalism with undeniably brilliant arguments that are naturally
CEas we know from the annual rings of very old cedar treesmassive gamma-ray speculativethats the idea, after all. In the interest of fairness, even a diagnostician
bursts probably caused by the collision of two black holes struck our solar system, of the present should avoid the temptation to categorize Meillassouxs philosophy
including Earth. At the time, however, people were busy with the death of Richard purely on the basis of its success and of the intellectual and spiritual needs of the
the Lionheart and the formation of guilds or, in the so-called Orient, with the firing young men who are so excited about itand not just in keeping with the maxim
of tiles and decorative art forms. They did not have the necessary measuring instru- that one should always make ones opponents case as strong as possible. Assuming
ments, modern methods of scientific inquiry, or other forms of curiosity that would he actually turns out to be an opponent: I am not interested in arguing with him
have tipped them off to the relevance of gamma-ray bursts, so they simply missed on his own terrainthat of metaphysical speculationnor in joining his all too
the gamma-ray burst entirely. It was one of the things in themselves that completely facile opponents in denouncing him as an escapist and an author of philosophical
escaped their consciousness. Today, however, former things in themselves like these adventure fiction.
I do wonder, however, why people who come predominantly from the Left
2 See Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude : An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier should respond with such enthusiasm to a philosophy that seems to reject the
(London: Continuum, 2008). central tenet of left-wing thought, the historicity of human societies, as doubly

62 Matter Matter 63

anthropocentrically limitedas a purely human and therefore subjective knowledge about the relationship between politics and ontology that cannot simply be reduced
of a purely human activitybut which meticulously avoids the elephant in the room: to its correlationism. Oversimplifying slightly, one might say that such political
How does it feel about politics? From time to time, there are isolated answers, for grounds are better received and more often cited in the United States, especially
example, that metaphysics, which is after all what this school claims to be practicing, among ecological leftists, whereas the adventurous philosophical grounds seem
can have nothing to do with politics and that political engagement and metaphys- to make an impression on communities in France, Great Britain, and the global
ical speculation are independent pursuits that must not be conflated. The attempts art world, which have long been influenced by and excited about Deleuze, in large
to translate into political practice the dialogues with political philosophers such as part because, at least in the imaginations of most readers, it is not so outrageous to
Slavoj iek and Badiou that Meillassoux does conduct and has conducted in the go from geological times, which were already a point of departure for Deleuze and
past never progress beyond the identification of highly philosophical differences. Guattari, to the arche-fossils.
Badiou and iek, for example, argue (with or against Hegel) for the contingency At this point, I would like to make another suggestion that may help unite
of necessity, whereas Meillassoux believes in the necessity of contingency. The various strands I have broached here, namely, Speculative Realism and Object-
art world, which pays close attention to all this, is used to taking its political cues Oriented Ontology, the political past of most of the authors, the political agenda
from authors such as Badiou and iek, and their numerous comments on current of most of the readers, and finally, the role of the visual arts. My jumping-off point
affairs. Presenting themselves as public intellectuals, the two philosophers revel in is a consideration I have presented elsewhere on the role of labor in the creation of
the opportunity to connect their views on global politics and current events, wom- value in the visual arts. Normally, reflections like these are dismissed on the grounds
ens rights, movies, and the Middle East (views that, in ieks case, are constantly that in the visual arts one is dealing with special objects whose value derives from
changing, while in Badious case they have been stubbornly the same for millions their singularity. Singularity here is understood in various ways: as pieces that are
of years) with their ideas on Hegel and thus to relieve their philosophy of a bit of its absolutely rare, meaning, unique; as pieces that are incomparable within a system
abstractness. In Meillassouxs case, such bridges are impossible: after all, his term of value and evaluation; or with reference to the inexplicable judgments of incom-
for the world in thing-in-itself mode or the beyond of the correlational world is le parable (collecting, curating, museum-going) subjects. I have sought to show that
Grand Dehors (the Great Outdoors). Constructions like this are attractive and pop- all kinds of artworks, including the value assigned to them, its discursive presence,
ular not just with a philosophy that is in search of a mission beyond administering and its function in regimes of attention, can be derived from the highly developed
the conceptual status quo or offering support to aesthetic and cultural-studies proj- collaboration of highly (formally and informally) qualified and dramatically under-
ects. It is also appealing to artists who come not from the hegemonic visual arts but paid individualsand that their value drops wherever these forms of collaboration
from its fringes, where irony is less mandatory and where elegant detachment and are less well developed and engage with each other more sluggishly, less precisely,
jaded theoretical sophistication are on the decline, where grand gestures, pathos, where there is no nexus of hipsterdom, collectors money, intellectuals expertise,
and above all an often nebulous romanticism rise up from dark drones and jagged and attractiveness technology at work. Moreover, I have tried to demonstrate
Black Metal sounds. that the classical labor theory of value (as corrected by Marx from a value-critical
Object-oriented philosophies, however, present another side, one based more perspective) can be applied to this collaboration. When the time required for educa-
on Latour. In Graham Harman, object-oriented philosophy has found a mediator tion, including the often necessary hours of informal education in clubs and bars, is
between itself and more hard-core Speculative Realism; in Levi Bryant, a canny incorporated into the calculation of an average socially necessary labor time, a very
diplomatic disseminator of the movement who Americanizes it and makes it less plausible relationship turns up between production level and quality, labor time,
dogmatic. Both Harman and Bryant draw their supporters less (or at least not exclu- and value, generating ways to speak about exploitation and surplus value in the art
sively) from philosophical and artistic circles but also, emphatically, from a new, market with greater precision.
deromanticized but politically radicalized ecological milieu. Evidently, speaking of In the present context, however, what is important about these ideas is a by-
nonhuman things gives philosophical grounds for rejecting the priority of the human product of them. It turns out that one can abstract even further from the Marxian
or subjective standpoint because it is contradictory, illogical, or disproportionate theory of surplus value and its application to the art market and the production of
(that is, inconsistent with reality), but also finds conflict-based, not to say political artistic objects and services, that the theory of exploitation it delineates can be framed
grounds, rooted in clashing interests, for straightening out and dusting off ontolo- even more generally for production and being produced per se, for the interaction
gies and metaphysics. There are grounds, as it were, in the secondary attributes of with matter and material. This can be done by formulating a theory of surplus value
things that make it necessary to change the way we think about the primary ones. like the one I have just described, which reflects the interplay of formal and informal,
Marxismeven beyond The German Ideologymight well have something to say material and immaterial labor, as a theory of input/objectification and output for

64 Matter Matter 65

purposes of exchange.3 Many minds, connections, beautiful physical attributes, fur- know about this process as lay people is that it took an outrageously long time
nishings and elements of interior design, address list managers, artists bodies, art- before the friction or the gravity-induced pressure that some land mass applied to
historical memes, quanta of knowledge, and trays of white wine invisibly contribute some organic stratum yielded something BP could commercialize. The subsequent
in myriad ways to the production not of artworks but of valuable artworks, of objects output or extraction of energy from the oil or other raw material produced in this
from which value can be output or extracted. Exchange value. The point of all such way stands in grotesque disproportion to the telluric eons it took for the resources
abstraction from the theory of surplus value, however, must be that such output is thus exploited to come into being. This disproportion is a central topic of all eco-
not fair and proportionate: it isnt the case that all the brain power, the incense and logical economies. If the term exploitation is used here in all innocence and
inspiration, the perfumed scent of gallery openings are retrievable when I purchase an without any ethical overtones, and it was used this way before the exploitation of
artwork. Rather, what is retrievable is an exchange valuewhose quantity, however, man by man became an object of condemnation, then perhaps one can argue along
has something to do with the magnitude of the invested quantum of incense and per- the following lines: the temporal asymmetry between input and output, between
fumes, because that quantum defines an average range within which the price varies. process and crystalline value or exchange value, might be seen as the basis for a
There are other objectification/output constructions that distort what is more fundamental materialist theory of exploitation that would encompass ecology
invested in ways other than capitalist value creation. Indexical recording media like without reducing economy to a mere episode of natural history.
audiotapes and film actually make it possible to output something that can be rec- One of the Marxian-inspired positions that speak about ontology and pol-
ognized as what was invested. To the extent that the input is mediatized, the output itics is Alfred Sohn-Rethels discovery that Kantian epistemology is an effect of
resembles it (in ways specific to the medium employed). Mediatization is a different capitalist real abstraction, that there is a relationship between the division of the
form of disproportionality from value creation. There are others as well, or others world into knowable and unknowable parts and the distinction between manual
are conceivable. What they all have in common is the fact that they take periods of and intellectual labor.4 Is the object-oriented, ecological reconstruction of reality,
time that a material in the broadest sense has spent together with a processing activity in of what lies beyond the reach of consciousness as something that is only provi-
the broadest sense and transform them into an object that is socially defined by the sionally beyond its reach but with which we are still very much connected and may
fact that it can be grasped without any inherent temporality, that it is crystalline and even one day reach, is this reconstruction, understood in this way, an attempt to
yields a meaning, that it can be exchanged, played, or eaten. The common feature reverse that division? And how is it supported by a notion of disproportionality
of all these transformations is the fact that they produce disproportionalities, incon- and asymmetry between production and retrieval time, between the processuality
gruities; their transformations are curses, metamorphoses, not phased developments of production and the form of retrieval?
that grow out of one another, like the evolutions that characterize production before In referring to this phenomenon as exploitation and presenting it as compa-
it is commercialized, but leaps, as Marx says at one point as well. The appearance rable, by dint of its asymmetry, to mans exploitation of man, we are only doing
of diseases, wear and tear, and symptoms of use are further rewarding examples what every garden-variety ecologist already does. Except that to make condemnation
that could be studied within the framework of this model. In so doing, it would be possibleindeed to allow for an ethical dimension of any kindthe ecologist must
important to conceptualize the transformation as value-neutral, to grasp the dispro- introduce humanity as the victim, despite the fact that it is the latters egotism (or
portionality technically and to evaluate it in specific local instances, in order to avoid capitalism as a version of it), which is actually the problem; it is humanitys fault.
either naturalizing exploitation or absolutizing proportionality. Here, object-oriented philosophies and ontologies seem to offer a solution, in that
With this in mind, however, it is possible to imagine another stage, beyond they seek to grant the object a right to speak (however that right might be exercised).
commercialization and mediatization (which usually takes place for the sake of Ecuadors new constitution, in which local nature has constitutional status, is often
commercialization, albeit according to the business model of reproduction, which cited as an example. Otherwise, there are the many examples in the work of Latour
is largely destined for extinction in a digital culture industry). In this stage, there is and his students, who almost insist that the activity of objects in their various conca-
neither media nor a goal of transformation such as value, recording, or symptom tenations and assemblages be interpreted as speech, as the casting of a vote (Stimme).
and hence no distinction between material and its processors, but simply two By contrast, the criterion of asymmetry in the extraction of time makes it
substances that rub against each other because gravity and other co-actants cause easier to imagine a non-correlational theory of exploitation, at least on the horizon,
them to do so, with oil, gas, or marble produced in the end. All that we usually that would not be confined within the classical Western, humanistic framework of
3 See, for example, Diedrich Diederichsen, On (Surplus) Value in Art, trans. James Gussen (Rotterdam
and Berlin: Witte de With / Sternberg Press, 2008); and Diederichsen, People of Intensity, People of 4 See primarily his Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology (Atlantic Highlands, NJ:
Power: The Nietzsche Economy, trans. Gerrit Jackson, e-flux, no. 19 (October 2010). Humanities, 1978).

66 Matter Matter 67

the conceivability or imaginability of suffering, pleasure, good lives, and so on, but idea why anyone would bother with them, whereas Meillassouxs anti-correlationism
would use noetic detours and crutches like the notion of ancestrality to conceptualize practically culminates in the assertion that such attributes not only exist but are
disproportionalities even before any (necessarily perspectival) evaluation has taken also philosophically accessible. Harman proposes a certain withdrawn-ness of
place. But is this merely a kind of cosmically inflated Marxism? Or does it enable the primary attributes, but he continues to regard them as existing and ultimately
us to take up a strand of critical theory that, on the one hand, develops something seeks philosophically to integrate them into an ontology of objects with his updated
prefigured in Sohn-Rethels critique of Kant and, on the other, harks back to Max version of Heideggers fourfold (Geviert): the quadruple object.5 All schools
Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adornos concept of instrumental reason, which can agree on the violence instrumental reason does to objects by adapting, twisting, and
also be read as a critique of correlationism? murdering them for the purposes of instrumental reasons users. The questions for
Sohn-Rethel might be said to take the critique of correlationism off its ances- usand I will end with them hereare these: To what extent is instrumental reason
tralist head and stand it on its historical feet by inscribing the absolutizing of a certain a violence directed against the primary attributes because it only sees the secondary
a priori within the historical process of the development of the money economy. ones? To what extent is that violence a creation of correlationism or at least made
From Meillassouxs side, one might object that it is not a critique of correlationism possible and justified by it? And to what extent is correlationism therefore a product
when one simply replaces one datum of the history of consciousness with another. of that aspect of the Enlightenment (avoiding the word dialectic for diplomatic
It can only be a matter of historicization, one might counter, since ultimately the reasons), which has also, in the final analysis, given us the capitalist mode of pro-
critique of correlationism is a datum of history too, which relies on man-made aids duction? Or is precisely this discovery of the contiguity of the Enlightenment and
to thinking like the radio telescope and the identification of arche-fossils. It isnt capitalism, which was already hinted at by Alfred Sohn-Rethel, a historical datum,
the man-made character of these techniques that is important, the Meillassouxians an epiphenomenon of another economic and technological line of development and
might respond, but the fact that they are reliably able to communicate with the therefore precisely not a datum of metaphysics?
reality unobserved by human beings.
At this point, I will leave Sohn-Rethel and Meillassoux alone and attempt Translated from the German by James Gussen

to explore the second question: Doesnt the critique of instrumental reason lead
to the critique of correlationism? Arent there many passages in the Dialectic of
Enlightenment that identify instrumental reason with the inability of human thought
to avoid becoming lodged within a perspectival and egotistical subjectivity? Isnt it,
at the very least, a small step from a critique that accuses reason of being subservient
to the problem-solving wishes of its owners to one that accuses it of only functioning
so long as it automatically regards the existence of what doesnt appear within its
horizon as worth ignoring?
The internal debate within the not-at-all homogeneous milieu of the object-
oriented and speculative thinkers is currently hashing out these questions, and
this too is above all due to Harmans negotiating and moderating efforts, which
tend to focus on the fine points of the classical philosophical problem of objects
primary and secondary attributes, their constants and variables, the essential and
the imputed. One can certainly complain that, in this as well as my other attempts
to translate the vocabulary and problems of one philosophical language into the
medium of another, I have unfairly left out the social or else that unfortunately the
social has not yet completely vanished (depending on ones position). There remains,
however, the desideratum of a political, non-esoteric, and non-technocratic philos-
ophy of ecology, which might justify these translation attempts.
For Harman, the primary attributes are a crucial point, because the possi-
bility of linking Speculative Realism and Latourian object-orientation effectively
depends on them. Latour says he doesnt care about primary attributes and has no 5 See Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object (Alresford: Zero Books, 2011).

68 Matter Matter 69
Entering the Flow
Boris Groys

Traditionally, the main occupation of human culture has been the search for totality.
This search was dictated by the desire of human subjects to overcome their own par-
ticularity, to get rid of their specific points of view defined by their life forms,
and to find access to a general, universal worldview that would be valid everywhere
and at every time. This desire to transcend ones own particularity does not neces-
sarily originate in the ontological constitution of the subject itself. We know that the
particular is always subsumed, subjected to the whole. So the desire for totality is
simply the desire for freedom. And this desire again does not need to be interpreted
as being somehow inherent to human nature. We know historical examples of self-
liberation in the name of totality. So we are able to imitate these examplesas we
may imitate any other form of life.
Thus, we hear and read the myths that describe the emergence of the world,
its functioning, and its unavoidable end. In these myths we meet gods and demigods,
prophets and heroes. But we also read the philosophical and scientific treatises that
describe the world according to the principles of reason. In these texts we encounter
the transcendental subject, the unconscious, the absolute spirit, and many other
similar things. Now, all these narratives and discourses presuppose the ability of the
human mind to rise above the level of its material existence and gain access to God
or universal reasonto overcome its own finitude, its mortality. The access to the
totality is here the same as access to immortality.
However, during the period of modernity we got accustomed to the view
according to which human beings are incurably mortal, finite, and therefore ines-
capably determined by the specific material conditions of their existence. Humans
cannot escape these conditions even by flight of imagination because every such
flight always takes the reality of their existence as a starting point. In other words,
the materialist understanding of the world seems to deny human beings access to the
totality of the world that was secured to them by religious and philosophical tradi-
tion. According to this view we are merely able to improve the material conditions of
our existence, not overcome them. We can find a better position inside the whole of
the world, but not the central position that would allow us an overview of the totality
of the world. This understanding of materialism has certain cultural, economic,
and political implications that I wont pursue here. Rather, I would like to ask the
following question: Is this understanding correct, that is to say, truly materialist?
I would suggest that it is not. The materialist discourse, as it was initially
developed by Marx and Nietzsche, describes the world in permanent movement, in
fluxbe it the dynamics of productive forces or the Dionysian impulse. According

Matter 71

to this materialist tradition, all things are finite but all of them are involved in the history of art often demonstrates such substitutions of the old supports by new sup-
infinite material flow. The materialist totality is then the totality of the flow. However, ports, including restoration and reconstruction efforts. Thus, as far as it is inscribed
the question is: Is it possible for a human being to enter the flow, to gain access to in the archives of art history, an individual form of an artwork remains intact, notor
its totality? On a certain very banal level the answer is, of course, yes: human beings only marginallyaffected by the material flux. That means that to get access to the
are things among other things in the world and thus subjected to the same universal flow, the form itself must be made fluid; it cannot become fluid by itself. And that is
flow. They become ill, age, and die. So human bodies are always already in the flow. the reason for the modern artistic revolutions. The fluidization of artistic form is the
The old-fashioned, metaphysical universality could be achieved only through very means by which modern and contemporary art tries to achieve access to the totality
special and complicated efforts. The materialist universality seems to be always of the world. However, such fluidization does not come by itself; it requires additional
already there, achievable without any effort and without any price. Indeed, we need effort. I would like to discuss some examples of artistic practices of fluidization and
not make any effort to be born and die and, generally, to go with the flow. Here the self-fluidization, and indicate some conditions and limitations of these practices.
materialist totality, the totality of the flow, is understood as a purely negative totality: Let us begin by a short consideration of Wagners notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk.
to reach this totality means simply to reject all attempts to escape into the fictive, Wagner introduced this notion in his programmatic treatise The Art-Work of the
metaphysical, spiritual space beyond the material world and to abandon all dreams Future, which he wrote in exile in Zurich after the end of the revolutionary uprisings
of immortality, eternal truth, moral perfection, ideal beauty, and so forth. in Germany in 1848. In it, Wagner develops a project of an artwork (of the future)
However, even if human bodies are subjected to aging, death, and dissolution that is heavily influenced by the materialist philosophy of Ludwig Feuerbach. At the
in the flow of material processes, this does not mean that human persons are also beginning of the treatise Wagner states that the typical artist of his time is an egoist
in flux. One can be born, live, and die under the same name, having the same citi- completely isolated from the life of the people who practices his art for the luxury
zenship, the same CV, and the same website, in effect remaining the same person. of the rich, and that, in so doing, the typical artist exclusively follows the dictates
Our bodies are not the only material supports of our persons. From the moment of fashion. The artist of the future must become radically different: He now can
of our birth we are inscribed into certain social orderswithout our consent or only will the universal, true, and unconditional; he yields himself not to a love for
even knowledge of that fact. The material supports of our personality are the state this or that particular object, but to wide Love itself. Thus does the egoist become
archives, medical records, passwords to certain Internet sites, etc. Of course, these a communist, the unit all, the man God, the art-variety Art.1 Thus, becoming
archives will also be destroyed by the material flow at some point in time. But this Communist is possible only through self-renunciation, by self-dissolution in the
destruction takes time that is non-commensurable with our lifetime. Our person- collective. Wagner writes: The last, completest renunciation (Entusserung) of his
ality survives our body, preventing our immediate access to the totality of the flow. personal egoism, the demonstration of his full ascent into universalism, a man can
To destroy, or at least transform the archives that materially support our persons only show us by his Death; and that not by his accidental, but by his necessary death,
during our lifetime, we need to initiate a revolution. The revolution is an artificial the logical sequel to his actions, the last fulfillment of his being. The celebration
acceleration of the world flow. It is an effect of impatience, an unwillingness to wait of such a death is the noblest thing that men can enter on.2 The individual must
until the existing order collapses by itself and liberates the personality. That is why die in order to establish the communist society. Admittedly, there remains a differ-
revolutionary practice is the only means by which the post-metaphysical, materi- ence between the hero who sacrifices himself and the performer who makes this
alist man can gain access to the totality of the flow. However, such a revolutionary sacrifice onstagethe Gesamtkunstwerk understood by Wagner as a music drama.
practice presupposes serious efforts on the side of the subject, requiring intelligence Nonetheless, Wagner insists that this difference is suspended, for the performer
and discipline comparable to those needed to achieve spiritual totality. not merely represents in the art-work the action of the fted hero, but repeats its
moral lesson; insomuch as he proves by this surrender of his personality that he also,
* in his artistic action, is obeying a dictate of Necessity which consumes the whole
These revolutionary efforts of self-fluidization, understood as the dissolution of ones individuality of his being.3 This repetition of the heros gesture by the performer
own person, of ones own public image, are documented by modern and contempo- is effectuated by the dissolution of his or her particular artistic contribution to the
rary art, just as the efforts of self-eternalization were documented by traditional art. whole of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Wagner characterizes the Gesamtkunstwerk in the
As specific material objects, artworks are perishable. But that cannot be said about
them as publicly accessible, visible forms. When its material support decays and 1 Richard Wagner, The Art-Work of the Future, in Richard Wagners Prose Works Vol. 1,
trans. William Ashton Ellis (London: Kegan, Paul, Trbner, and Co., 1895), 94.
dissolves, the form of a particular artwork can be copied and placed on a different 2 Ibid., 199.
material supportfor example, a digitized image accessible on the Internet. The 3 Ibid., 201.

72 Matter Matter 73

following way: The Great United Art-work, which must gather up each branch traditional poem, as an exposure of the downfall and disappearance of the indi-
of art to use it as a mean, and in some sense to undo it for the common aim of all. vidual voice, the descent of the human form into the totality of material flow. Ball
Here not only does the individual dissolve itself in the social whole, but the indi- describes the effect of the public reading of his first sound poem at the Cabaret
vidual artistic positions and particular mediums lose their identities and dissolve Voltaire in a following way: Then the lights went out, as I had ordered, and, bathed
themselves into the materiality of the whole. in sweat, I was carried down off the stage like a magical bishop.7 The reading of his
Nevertheless, according to Wagner, the performer of the role of the main hero sound poetry was experienced and described by Ball as an exhausting exposure of
controls the whole staging of his self-demise, his descent into the material worlda the human voice to the demonic forces of noise. Ball wins this battle (becoming the
descent represented by the symbolic death of the hero on the stage. All other per- magical bishop), but only by radical exposure to these demonic forces, by allowing
formers and coworkers achieve their own artistic significance solely through partic- them to reduce his own voice to pure noise, to senseless, purely material process.
ipation in this ritual of self-sacrifice performed by the hero. Wagner speaks of the The descent into material chaos is not presented here as a preliminary stage
hero-performer as a dictator who mobilizes the collective of collaborators exclusively that announces an impending return to the orderanalogous to the periods of revolu-
with the goal of staging his own sacrifice in the name of this collective. After the tionary chaos, social tumult, or carnival, as they were described for example by Roger
end of the sacrificial scene, the hero-performer is substituted by the next dictator. Caillois or Mikhail Bakhtin. To use the terminology from Walter Benjamins Critique
In other words, the hero (and, accordingly, his performer) controls his self-sacrifice of Violence, the violence of the material flow is divine and not mythical violence
from the beginning to the end. Wagners Gesamtkunstwerk shows us the descent insofar as the destruction of the old order does not lead to the emergence of a new
of the hero into the material flowbut not the flow itself. Communism remains a order.8 But this divine violence is practiced here by an artist and not by God. The
remote ideal. Here the event of descent into the formless materiality of the world Lautgedicht remains therefore merely a poemwith a beginning and an end, capable
becomes a forma form that can be repeated, restaged, reenacted. of being copied and repeated. Here we have a documentation of a descent into the
In Wagners Gesamtkunstwerk the individual voice of a singer remains flowbut not an access to the flow itself. The same can be said of the later attempts
identifiable, even if it is integrated into the whole of a music drama. Later Hugo of radical descent into the material chaosfluidization of the artistic form and cor-
Ball dissolves the individual voice into the sound flow. Ball conceived the Cabaret responding self-fluidization. I mean here Guy Debords drive, the artistic practice
Voltaire in Zurich (where Wagner had written the Art-Work of the Future) as a of Fluxus, or texts and filmssuch as Christoph Schlingensief s film workin
kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, inspired by Wassily Kandinsky and his abstract drama which the personality of the hero (or heroine) becomes decentered, deconstructed,
Der gelbe Klang (The Yellow Sound). Ball wrote about Kandinsky: He was concerned fluidized. All these texts and images show the limit that the artist necessarily reaches
with the regeneration of society through the union of all artistic mediums and forces. as he stages the descent of an artistic form into the flow. At the end, only the doc-
[] It was inevitable that we should meet each other.4 In his diary Flight out of Time, umentation of the descent into the chaos and flow is produced; the image of the
Ball writes (in the spring of 1916): flow itself remains elusive.
This limitation of a possible artistic access to the material flow was reflected on
The human organ represents the soul, the individuality in its wanderings by many artists, but I would like to use here as an example the art practice and writ-
with its demonic companions. The noises represent the backgroundthe ings of Kazimir Malevich. The Suprematist period of Malevichs art has its origin in
inarticulate, the disastrous, the decisive. [] In a typically compressed way the opera Victory over the Sun (1913). It was staged through collaboration with the most
the poem shows the conflict of the vox humana (human voice) with a world radical Russian avant-garde figures of the timethe poets Velimir Khlebnikov and
that threatens, ensnares, and destroys it, a world whose rhythm and noise Aleksei Kruchenykh and the composer and artist Mikhail Matyushin. Malevich
are ineluctable.5 authored the stage design. The opera was a Gesamtkunstwerk in the Wagnerian
sense of the word. It presented and celebrated the demise of the sunand with it
About three months later (June 23, 1916), Ball writes that he has invented a new genre of the whole old cosmic order. Malevichs famous black square emerges for the first
of poems, Verse ohne Worte (poems without words) or Lautgedichte (sound poems).6 time in the context of this operaas a part of its scenographyand symbolizes the
Sound poetry, as described by Ball, can be interpreted as the self-destruction of the coming cosmic night, the hidden origin of all the material forces. In his writings,

4 Hugo Ball, Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary, ed. John Elderfield, trans. Ann Raimes (Berkeley: 7 Ibid., 71
University of California Press, 1996), 8. 8 See Walter Benjamin, Critique of Violence, trans. Edmund Jephcott, in Selected Writings, Volume
5 Ibid., 57. 1: 19131926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
6 Ibid., 70. Press, 1999), 23652.

74 Matter Matter 75

Malevich often speaks about materialism as the ultimate horizon of his thinking Thus, Malevich proposes not to keep, not to save things that have to go but
and art. Time and again he contends that art has to manifest the general fate of all to let them go without sentimentality and remorse. This radical acceptance of the
things, their common reality being disfiguration, dissolution, and disappearance into destructive work of time seems at first glance to be nihilistic. But, in fact, at the core
the flow of material forces and uncontrollable material processes. According to this of this unsentimental attitude toward the art of the past lies a faith in the indestruc-
view, Malevich continually tells the history of the new artfrom Czanne, Cubism, tible character of art as such. The avant-garde of the first wave let thingsincluding
and Futurism up to his own Suprematismas a history of the progressive disfigura- the things of artgo away because it believed that something always remains, beyond
tion and destruction of the traditional image as it was born in ancient Greece and any human attempt of conservation. In this case the ashes remain, and can be also
developed through Christian medieval art and the Renaissance. Thus, the question treated as the artworks and put into the pharmacy that becomes here a new museum.
arises: What can survive this work of permanent destruction? Black Square can be interpreted as the image of ashes, as the most perfect image
Malevichs answer to this question is immediately plausible: the image of the of destruction. But now the following question arises: Is Black Square the most perfect
destruction of the image. The destruction cannot destroy its own image. Of course, image of the dark material chaos? If it is really so, then the Black Square is the final
God can destroy the world without leaving a trace because God created the world point of any possible descent into the totality of the world flowthe perfect image of
out of nothingness. But if God is dead, then an act of destruction without a visible this totality. However, then Black Square becomes a kind of true icon and the radical
trace, without an image of destruction, becomes impossible. The death of God avant-garde becomes a new church. The perfect chaos begins to look like a perfect
means that no image can be infinitely stabilized; but it also means that no image cosmos. Early enough, Malevich became aware of the dangers of such a claim of
can be totally destroyed. For the first wave of the avant-garde and especially for supreme, even Suprematist perfectionand of striving toward perfection in general.
Malevich, the operation of destruction of the old artistic forms served precisely the He was especially alarmed by the use of his Suprematist imagesand particularly
demonstration of the indestructibility of the material world. Every act of destruc- Black Squareby the artists of the post-revolutionary Russian Constructivism as a
tion leaves material traces. There is no fire without ashes, or, in other words, there foundation for the construction of a new order, of the new Communist world of
is no divine fire of total annihilation. technical perfection and material production. And so Malevich began to compare the
Malevich offers a good example of this attitude in his short but important Constructivist school, which transformed his Black Square from the image of material
1919 text On the Museum. At that time the new Soviet government feared that chaos into an origin of the new world, with the Christian Church.
the old Russian museums and art collections would be destroyed by civil war and This comparison was famously drawn by Malevich in his treatise God is Not
the general collapse of state institutions and the economy. The Communist Party Cast Down (1919).10 Here Malevich states that belief in the continuous perfecting of the
responded by trying to secure and save these collections. In his text, Malevich pro- human condition through industrial progress is of the same order as the Christian belief
tested against this pro-museum policy of Soviet power by calling on the state not to in the continuous perfecting of the human soul. Both Christianity and Communism
intervene on behalf of the old art collections, because their destruction could open believe in the possibility of reaching the ultimate perfection, be it the Kingdom of God
the path to true, living art. In particular, he wrote: or Communist utopia. Now, in this and later texts, Malevich begins to develop an
argument that can be characterized as a dialectics of imperfection. As I have already
Life knows what it is doing, and if it is striving to destroy one must not inter- said, Malevich defines both religion and modern technique (the factory, in his terms) as
fere, since by hindering we are blocking the path to a new conception of life striving for perfection: perfection of the individual soul in the case of religion, and per-
that is born within us. In burning a corpse we obtain one gram of powder: fection of the material world in the case of the factory. According to Malevich both proj-
accordingly thousands of graveyards could be accommodated on a single ects cannot be realized because their realization would require an investment of infinite
chemists shelf. We can make a concession to conservatives by offering that time, energy, and effort from both the individual human being and mankind as a whole.
they burn all past epochs, since they are dead, and set up one pharmacy. But humans are mortal. Their time and energy are finite. And this finitude of human
existence prevents humanity from achieving any kind of perfection, be it spiritual or
Later, Malevich gives a concrete example of what he means: The aim (of this phar- technical. As a mortal being, man is doomed to remain forever imperfect. But why is
macy) will be the same, even if people will examine the powder from Rubens and this imperfection also a dialectical one? Because it is precisely this lack of timethe
all his arta mass of ideas will arise in people, and will be often more alive than lack of time to achieve perfectionthat opens to humanity the perspective of infinite
actual representation (and take up less room).9 time. Less than perfect here means more than perfect because, if we were to have
9 Kazimir Malevich, On the Museum, in Essays on Art 19151933, ed. Troels Anderson, trans. Xenia
Glowacki-Prus and Arnold McMillin (New York: George Wittenborn, 1971), 6872. 10 Malevich, Essays on Art, 188222.

76 Matter Matter 77

enough time to become perfect, then the moment of achievement of this perfection by the bacilli of figuration and even socialist realism during the Soviet period of
would be the last moment of our existence. We would have no further goal and no fur- his artistic practice. The writings of the same time explain Malevichs ambiguous
ther reason to exist. Thus, it is our failure to achieve perfection that opens an infinite attitude toward the social, political, and artistic developments of his time: he does
horizon of human and trans-human material existence. According to Malevich, not invest them with any hope, any expectation of progress (this is also character-
priests and engineers are incapable of opening this horizon because they cannot istic of his reaction to film), but at the same time he accepts them as the necessary
abandon their pursuit of perfectioncannot relax, cannot accept imperfection and illnesses of time and was ready to become infected, imperfect, transitory. In fact,
failure as their true fate. However, artists can do that. They know that their bodies, his Suprematist images are already imperfect, flowing, non-constructive, especially,
their vision, and their art are not and cannot be truly perfect and healthy. Rather, if we compare them to Mondrians paintings, for example.
they know themselves as being infected by the bacilli of change, illness, and death (as Now it becomes clear that the descent into the material flow shares the fate
Malevich describes it in his later text on the additional element in painting); and it is of the ascent into the contemplation of God or eternal ideas. Religious and philo-
precisely these bacilli that at the same time are the bacilli of art. The artists, according sophical tradition demonstrates the repeated attempts to reach this contemplation,
to Malevich, should not immunize themselves against these bacilli but, to the con- but it never presents their results in a convincing form. All religious illuminations
trary, should accept them, letting them destroy the old, traditional art patterns. For and scientific evidence can be interpreted as products of our own imagination deter-
Malevich art is a virus: it lives by continually changing its hosts and transforming itself mined by the material conditions of our existence. But to the same degree and for
thorough time while still keeping its identity. That is why Malevich actually believes in the same reason, we cannot assert any evidence of reaching the flow. In this sense
the trans-historical character of art. Art is material and materialist. And that means the material flow is as unreachable as eternal ideas. But at the same time we have
that art can always survive the end of purely idealist, metaphysical, immaterial proj- a collection of attempts to enter the flow. The documents of these attempts build
ects, be it the Kingdom of God or Communism. The movement of material forces in their totality a kind of anti-archive similar to the pharmacy of ashes imagined
is non-teleological. As such it cannot reach its telos and come to an end. by Malevich. However, the anti-archive is also an archive. It demonstrates that the
In his later notes On the Concept of History (1940) in which he tried to material flow was never really entered, that the form never became really fluid. Now,
develop his own version of historical materialism, Benjamin famously evokes the today, we are the heirs of these attempts to enter the flow, of these artistic revolu-
angel in Paul Klees Angelus Novus, carried by the wind of history but with his back tionsand administrators of the archive of their traces that document their partial
to the future, looking only toward the past.11 Benjamin describes the angel as seized successes and ultimate failure. What happened here is a certain return to order. That
by terror as he sees all the promises of the future destroyed by the forces of history does not mean the return to the normal, traditional imageas some postmodern
and turned to ruins. But why is the angel surprised and terrorized by this view to theoreticians and artists wanted itbut rather, the inscription of the avant-garde
such an extent? Probably because, before turning his back to the future, he believed revolutionary images into the archive as finite, solid, material documentations.
in the possibility of a future realization of all the social, technical, and artistic proj- Today, the main place of archives of any kind is, of course, the Internet. The
ects. Malevich, however, is not an Angelus Novus. He is not shocked by what he Internet is often described in terms of a flowof information, data, etc. In fact, the
sees in the rearview window of his car. He expects from the future only destruction; opposite is the case: the Internet is a reversal of the flow, the anti-flow, a means to
and so he is not surprised to see only ruins as this future comes. For Malevich there freeze, to stop the flow. In the times of modernity, the notion of the flowat least in
is no difference between future and past. He sees ruins in every direction. Thus, the context of image and text productionwas applied mainly to the flow of mass
he remains relaxed and self-assurednever shocked, seized by terror or even sur- reproduction and distribution of these texts and images. There is a famous descrip-
prised. Malevichs theory of artas it was formulated in his polemics against the tion of this flow by Benjamin: the mechanical copies of certain historically inherited
Constructivistscan be read as an answer to the theory of divine violence described originals or the copies that originally emerged as copies (photos, films, and so forth)
by Benjamin. The artist accepts this infinite violence and appropriates it, allowing are siteless, deterritorialized, have no particular inscription in the historical time, and
himself be infected by it. And he lets this violence infect and destroy his own art, therefore uncontrollably multiply themselves in the topologically indefinite media
making it ill. Malevich presents the history of art as a history of illness, of being space. Now, contemporary, digital reproduction is by no means siteless. Its circula-
infected by the bacilli of divine violence that infiltrates and permanently destroys all tion is not topologically undetermined and it does not present itself in the form of
human orders. In our time Malevich is often accused of allowing his art to be infected multiplicity. On the Internet, every data has an addressand, accordingly, a place.
This place is determined by the invisible genius locithe Internet address. The same
11 Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, trans. Harry Zohn, in Selected Writings, Vol. 4:
19381940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University data with a different address is different data. Here the famous aura of originality
Press, 2003), 389400. does not get lost in the process of circulation but, rather, becomes permanently

78 Matter Matter 79

substituted by other aurasby means of new Internet inscriptions. Thus, the cir-
culation of digital data on the Internet produces not copies but new originals. And
this circulation is perfectly traceable. Every movement from one address to another
address can beand isrecorded. The individual data never gets deterritorialized.
Moreover, every Internet image or text has not only its specific unique place but
also a unique time of appearance, and this moment of an individual appearance
is again traceable. It is not so much the digital image or text itself as the image or
text file, the digital data that remains identical through the process of its reproduc-
tion and distribution. But the image file is not an image. The image file is invisible.
The digital image is an effect of the visualization of the invisible image file, of the
invisible digital data. Accordingly, a digital image cannot be merely copied (as an
analogue, mechanically reproducible image can), but always only newly staged or
performed. Here, the image begins to function like a piece of music, whose score, as
it is generally known, is not identical to the piecethe score being not audible, but
silent. One can argue that digitalization turns the visual arts into performing arts.
And every new performance of the digital data can be and isas in the case of the
musical performancerecorded and archived on the Internet.

So the Internet presents us with a new material support for the artistic formand
also for a human personality. Here it is really important to remember the fact that
the Internet is a material thing and not an immaterial something. The Internet is a
sum of computers and other equipment, cables, and Wi-Fi. Its material support is
electricityand it does not work without a supply of electricity and power stations
that produce this supply. So the Internet is again a material archive that functions
between the material (in this case, electric) flow and the Platonic realm of pure
forms. Accordingly, the Internet provokes the attempts to bring it to flow. We know
the strategies of anonymity and pseudonymity that try to make the Internet fluidto
hide or dissimulate the personality of the user or so-called content provider behind
the produced data. But we also know the attempts (like the Singularity project, for
example) to use digitization as a way to a new concept of immortality (consisting in
rewriting the subject as a form [a soul] on a new medium). Now, the problem with
the material flow is again this: it is infinite and cannot be grasped by finite means.
And the Internet is perhaps big, but still finite. However, the collection of attempts
to reach the flow, even if these attempts were unsuccessful, has the privilege of being
truly material and finite because it consists of material documents. Also: this collec-
tion offers examples of overcoming ones own material identity that can be followed
by everyone. The search for material infinity can always be continued and joined by
others. We have here a connection with what can be called the universalist tradition.
And it is always possible to join this universalist tradition by bringing it into the flow,
by attempting to dissolve it. It is not necessary to really enter the flow. It is enough
to descend toward it and document this descent.

80 Matter
Fig. 1
Fig. 3

Fig. 2
Fig. 5

Fig. 4
Possibility Spaces
Manuel DeLanda in Conversation with Christoph Cox

Christoph Cox: When realism was still a dirty word in continental

philosophy and cultural theory, you openly declared your commitment
to the position. What do you take realism to mean?

Manuel DeLanda: Realism refers to the belief that there is a world that exists
independently of our minds. It is about ontological commitments and implies
nothing about epistemology, ethics, or other areas of philosophy. It stands in
contrast not only with idealism, the belief that we create the world with our minds
(at least the knowable part of that world), but also with empiricism (or positivism),
which postulates that mind-independence is a property exclusively of what is
directly observable by humans. To illustrate this with a simple image: if a pow-
erful virus killed all of humanity tomorrow, a realist believes that ecosystems
and weather patterns, mountains and rivers, would still be there the day after
tomorrow, behaving pretty much in the way they behave today. But realists can
differ when it comes to specifying the contents of this mind-independent world.
The most influential realist philosopher of all time, Aristotle, believed that the
world contained not only individual entities, which are subject to corruption and
decay, but also species and genera, which are not. The latter he viewed as nonma-
terial essences that defined what individual entities were but that existed outside
of history, being eternal and invariant. My realism, like that of other materialists,
does not include essences as part of the mind-independent world, but only histor-
ically-determined entities, whether this history is cosmic, geological, biological,
or social. In addition, most materialists are not ontologically committed to any
transcendent entity, like gods or demons, heaven and hell. Only immanent entities,
those whose existence implies a material substratum, are legitimate inhabitants
of the world.

You argue that the philosophical and cultural left has largely abdicated
its long-standing commitment to materialism in favor of intellectual
approaches (for example, semiotics, post-structuralism, deconstruction,
and psychoanalysis) that are implicitly idealist.1 What is materialism
for you and what challenges does it pose to cultural and social theory today?

Conversation conducted by e-mail in September 2013.

1 See, for example, Manuel DeLanda, Materialism and Politics, in Deleuze: History and Science
(New York: Atropos Press, 2010), 2949.

Matter 87

Karl Marx himself was a realist philosopher, and certainly believed in the existence prisons); but physics, chemistry, and biology are certainly not. We will probably
of a material world and in impersonal forces shaping human history. He was, of never know what Foucault thought about the latter three fields and, hence, how
course, highly influential in the development of most social sciences in the twen- he viewed Deleuzes handling of them.
tieth century, which means that many intellectuals in the humanities remain com-
mitted to some of his ideas, using words like capitalism or commodification You often draw from mathematical fields such as differential geometry
as if they were unproblematic. Because of this lingering commitment to Marxism, and group theory. But what is the status of mathematics itself within
these intellectuals think that they can be ontologically committed only to subjective a materialist philosophy? How does one construct a materialist theory
phenomena (as shaped by language) and still be materialists. Marx would be highly of mathematics? Arent mathematical entities fundamentally ideal?
embarrassed by them. Marxists in the first half of the century were acutely aware
of their differences with phenomenology (and were among the most vocal critics of A materialist theory of mathematics begins by noting that most mathematical oper-
Heideggers ties to Nazism); but this incompatibility is entirely lost to contemporary ations (from addition and multiplication to differentiation and integration) are algo-
idealist intellectuals, who think they can mix and match ideas without any regard rithmic: they are well-defined mechanical procedures. In other words, they are just as
to ontological commitments. material as software is. But there is more to math than that, in particular, to the math
applied in science. Here the mystery is why mathematical models work at all, why the
Gilles Deleuze has generally been considered a fellow traveler with other behavior of an equation can mimic the behavior of a laboratory phenomenon. The
post-structuralists such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Franois transcendent answer is: the equation captures an immutable law. The immanent answer
Lyotard, and Luce Irigaray, several of whom were his good friends. You is: the space of possible solutions to the equation overlaps with the space of possible
read Deleuze very differently: as a scientifically and mathematically minded states for the phenomenon. This answer, of course, implies that one has developed
realist philosopher. Why do you take him to be such an exemplary realist a realist account of the idea of the structure of a possibility space, an account that
and materialist? philosophers since Bergson have tried to offer via the concept of the virtual. I have
given an extensive treatment of this notion, and proved its immanence (and hence
Deleuze was close to Foucault and Lyotard, but not to Derrida, and certainly not compatibility with materialism) in my book Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy.2 My
to Irigaray and her goofy notion of a masculinist epistemology. He wrote his strategy there was to show that the concept of a virtual multiplicity (in all its different
very first book on Hume, on the empiricist model of subjectivity, and with this variants) supplies the perfect tool to explain the genesis of form, in both the natural
announced to everyone that he was not a Kantian, that he did not believe that sub- and the social worlds. Every materialism needs a theory of the synthesis of form to
jective experience is structured linguistically. This is crucial because acceptance explain how the historical entities it postulates as mind-independent were generated
of the thesis of the linguisticality of experience leaves only one possible realist in the first place: the existence of solar systems, planets, ecosystems, animals and
position: essentialism. If the meaning of words determines what we perceive, then, plants, molecules and atoms, has to be explained by some historical process of syn-
for the objects of perception to be mind-independent, meanings must capture their thesis. Marx, of course, knew this, and adopted the Hegelian schema of the negation
essence. Thus, having rejected Kant, he was able to introduce scientific elements of the negation as his model of synthesis. But a single a priori model cannot suffice.
into his thought (without the Kantian maneuver of the synthetic a priori). But A large variety of virtual multiplicities, on the other hand, coupled to material and
he does not accept science uncritically. He rejects the notion of an eternal and energetic processes of morphogenesis, can do a better job.
immutable law of nature, which is a theological fossil, and suggests how to replace
it with a less transcendent, more immanent, concept: that of the structure of a What about language? How does one construct a materialist theory of
possibility space (or a virtual multiplicity). Now, Foucault seems to have accepted language? Isnt language, too, ideal? Doesnt Deleuze suggest this with his
this, since his own model of discourses is based on that notion, proposing a variety theory of sense?
of possibility spaces, like the space of possible objects of discourse, the space of
possible subjective stances, and so on. On the other hand, it is hard to tell just Lets first clarify one point. A materialist can be ontologically committed to
exactly what Foucault thought about science because he only wrote about fields mental entities (and their irreducibility to neurons) as much as anyone else.
like psychiatry, clinical medicine, grammar, economics, criminology, the study As long as one believes in embodied minds whose existence is immanent to their
of human sexuality, and so on. These fields may very well be mere discourses,
and are directly tied to the power of certain organizations (asylums, hospitals, 2 Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2002).

88 Matter Matter 89

biological substratum, there is no problem. Moreover, when it comes to social metal in your hand is gold (if it is the referent of the word gold) you do not
ontology, a materialist cannot use the phrase mind-independent to charac- consult your dictionary, you pour a certain acid on the chunk of stuff and if it
terize the ontological status of communities, institutional organizations, cities, melts it is gold, if not its fools gold. What this implies is that reference is linked
and other social entities. These are clearly not independent of our minds because to nonlinguistic practices involving causal interventions in the world, and not just
without minds there would be no community life, no organizational practices, mental semantic entities.
no urban processes, and so on. Thus, these social entities must be characterized
as existing independently of the content of our minds, that is, of our conceptions How does one construct a materialist account of thought? If such
of them: the dynamics of a community, organization, or city must be discovered a theory is an evolutionary one, isnt there an incompatibility between
through rigorous empirical study; and our conceptions of them may turn out to an evolutionary epistemology and scientific realism, for the former
have been entirely wrong once all the evidence has been gathered. Thus, a mate- would guarantee only evolutionary survival and adaptation, not an
rialist needs to believe in the existence of the contents of our minds, including accurate account of reality in general.6
meanings. In Deleuzes theory of sense (developed in The Logic of Sense), he clearly
distinguishes sense from signification (the semantic content of words or All that evolution could have done for the brain, in terms of increasing its cognitive
sentences), sense being more connected with significance (the capacity of powers, is directly related to our hunter-gatherer lifestyles, since we spent hundreds
words or actions to make a difference).3 But Deleuzes position on language is of thousands of years in that state. Agriculture and settled life, by contrast, is at
more clearly spelled out in the Postulates on Linguistics chapter of A Thousand most ten thousand years old. So, clearly, evolution could not have equipped us to
Plateaus, written with Flix Guattari.4 think about mathematics, physics, or philosophy. The deep structure of reality has
Now, if you view language as it began historically, that is, as oral language, been slowly discovered through a social epistemology involving entire communities
then its materiality is connected to the palate and the tongue, the lips and the of practitioners, working over many generations. It is a kind of collective search of
teeththe entire vocal apparatus needed to produce the patterned pulses of possibility spaces, in which some of the abilities that we acquired evolutionarily
air that make up its sounds. With the introduction of writing, this materiality (many ways of intervening causally in the world) are present at the individual level,
becomes more obvious: carvings on stone, ink on papyrus, or coded electric but there is also an emergent collective effect that cannot be traced to biological
pulses traveling the Internet. Then, given that populations of sounds or phys- evolution. Besides, once one accepts that genes are not the only entity that can
ical inscriptions are passed from one generation to another, and given that evolve, that anything that is replicated with variation (from words to scientific instru-
this transmission is never perfect and includes variation, the entire population ments) has this ability, there is no need to look to biology as the exclusive source of
can be assigned the capacity to evolve, just as genetic information can evolve. cognitive capacities. I am currently working on a book on the history of chemistry,
In A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, I provided a detailed account of this evo- to provide evidence that chemical knowledge was produced mostly through a social
lution for few European languages, showing that when variation decreases (as or collective epistemology.
when the Roman Empire enforced the homogeneity of Latin) linguistic evolution
slows down, while when variation increases (when the Empire fell, and a multi- So you think that the structure of possibility spaces (and, in particular,
plicity of Hispano-Romances, Italo-Romances, and Franco-Romances began to a collective exploration of such possibility spaces) can answer the question
diverge) it speeds up.5 This brings language within the purview of Information of how human thoughtthe cognition of a particular organism, the evolu-
Theory, which is not about ideal entities but about the physical coding of patterns tion of which is contingently determinedcould transcend its contingent
in a variety of media. particularity in order to capture the way the world really is (and not just the
Another key ingredient in a materialist theory of language is to separate way it is for this particular organism)?
meaning and reference. In the idealist tradition, you know what the referent of
a word is by consulting its meaning. But if you want to know if a piece of yellow Let me preface my answer with a few general remarks. First, in order for the
properties that characterize mind-independent entities not to be transcendent
3 Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, ed. Constantin V. Boundas, trans. Mark Lester with Charles (as in Aristotle) they must be viewed as emergent. An emergent property is a
Stivale (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990).
4 Gilles Deleuze and Flix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 75110. 6 For an elaboration of this point, see Ray Brassiers comments in Speculative Realism, Collapse 3
5 Manuel DeLanda, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Zone Books, 2000). (November 2007): 31112.

90 Matter Matter 91

property of a whole that arises from the interaction between its component parts. Philosophers such as Quentin Meillassoux and Ray Brassier have attacked
If the parts cease to interact, the wholes properties cease to exist, hence they Deleuze for espousing vitalism.7 For these critics, vitalism is inherently
are contingent on (and immanent to) those interactions. In addition, emergence correlationist, humanist, or idealist, insofar as it construes nature in
blocks reductionism: if the properties of a molecule cannot be reduced to those the image of human beings, projecting life and perhaps even thought
of its component atoms, then chemistry cannot be reduced to physics. And for (or, as Deleuze puts it, contemplation) onto inanimate nature. Is Deleuze
similar reasons, biology cannot be reduced to chemistry, psychology to biology, (and are you) a vitalist? And, if so, why isnt this vitalism problematic?
sociology to psychology, and so on. This already ensures that the world is open
ended, because we cant tell in advance what will emerge from future interactions. I do not believe that Deleuze espoused any kind of vitalism, at least not if we use
Furthermore, in addition to properties, mind-independent entities are characterized the word in the sense in which it was used in the nineteenth century, that is, as the
by their capacities to affect and be affected (what Deleuze calls affects). A knife belief that there is special life force that sharply distinguishes the living from the
may be sharp (a property) but it also has the capacity to cut. The latter, though, nonliving. Deleuze does use the word, but in relation to things like metals, which
is relational, so it must be exercised with something that has the capacity to be is clearly not the same thing. As with many other things that he expresses in his dif-
cut (cheese or bread, but not a solid block of titanium). This means that capac- ficult style, the exact point of speaking of a metallic vitalism is not immediately
ities are even more open ended, since the pairs that interact cannot be listed in clear; but it surely does not imply any kind of life force. Now, being a Humean about
advance: a knife has the capacity to kill when it interacts with a large organism, subjectivity (that is, rejecting the linguisticality of experience) does allow him (as it
that is, with an entity with the capacity to be killed. Hence, there is no such thing allowed Hume) to believe in a continuity between animal and human intelligence,
as reality as it really is because reality changes, there are innovations, multiple and therefore, to apply terms like contemplation to nonhuman entities without
levels of emergence, and unpredictable capacities to affect and be affected. This any anthropomorphism. On the other hand, replacing the concept of an eternal
is why science has bifurcated into many autonomous fields, and why each field law with that of the structure of a possibility space, allows him to see that organic
(say, chemistry) has continued to bifurcate into inorganic, organic, physical, and and inorganic phenomena may share, in some cases, the same structure, the same
quantum chemistries. virtual multiplicity; and it is to these shared multiplicities that he refers to when he
Now, to return to your question. The reason why we need the concept of uses vitalist terms. The hard philosophical work comes when, as a materialist, one
a possibility space is precisely because of the difference between properties and tries to tackle the question of the ontological status of these virtual multiplicities
capacities. Both properties and capacities are real; but while properties are always that are shared by both living and non living entities: one has to make sure that the
actual (the knife is either sharp or dull), capacities are only actual when they are dimension these multiplicities form (the plane of immanence) does not become
being exercised. Most of the time they are only potential (or virtual). So in order something transcendent. This is tough, but must be done, or else we are stuck with
to specify the kind of being they possess when not actually exercised, we need the the laws of nature, at least those of us who reject the silly slogan science is socially
notion of virtuality. Something is virtual if it is real but not actual. constructed. In Intensive Science I tried to lay the foundation for such an immanent
With respect to individual human beings and contingent evolution, the per- account but, no doubt, a lot of work remains to be done.
ceptual and cognitive powers that evolution has equipped us with give us direct
access to a tiny portion of this open-ended world. We cant perceive beings that Graham Harman and other new realist philosophers argue that the world is
are too small or too large, or becomings that are too slow or too fast. But we can fundamentally composed of objects. Why is an ontology of objects problematic,
develop instrumentation (microscopes, telescopes, slow motion and stop-motion and why are assemblages better ontological candidates than objects?
films) that make those beings and becomings perceivable. We must also perform
causal interventions into these beings and becomings in order to discover what I am not sure why Harman wants to stick to objects. I do not deny that objects exist
their capacities are. In other words, we must intervene to actualize their virtual (assemblages are objects), it is just that a full realist ontology must possess objects and
capacities. And in the process of doing so, we generate new beings and becomings events, with a process being a series of events. We need both beings and becomings,
that need separate study: the stuff that chemists research is substances and reac-
tions, but they produce thousands of new substances (and new potential reactions) 7 See Quentin Meillassoux, Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition: A Speculative Analysis of the
every year. They will never finish the job of finding out how chemical reality really Meaningless Sign, trans. Robin Mackay, in Genealogies of Speculation: Materialism and Subjectivity
Since Structuralism, ed. Armen Avenessian and Suhail Malik (London: Bloomsbury, forthcoming);
is. Objectivity is perfectly compatible with a knowledge that is partial, fallible, and Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007),
and contingent. 196ff and 227ff.

92 Matter Matter 93

even though one can argue that a being is just a slow becoming and, vice versa,
a becoming is just a fast being. Think of the Himalayas, the perfect example of a being
thats been there since humans came around. The object status of the Himalayas consists
in being a folded piece of lithosphere, folded under the pressure created by the clash
of the tectonic plates on top of which India and Central Asia ride. But, as it happens,
this clash is still going on (very slowly); some parts of the Tibetan Plateau are still
rising a few millimeters a year, so they are still being folded. Hence, the Himalayas
are really a very slow becoming. Furthermore, if objects are characterized both by
emergent properties and capacities, then we need events to account for the interac-
tions between parts that give rise to properties, and for the exercise of their capacities.
Interacting, cutting, killing, and so on, are all events. All this comes into play when
defining the most important notion in a realist ontology: causality. For the idealist,
causality is a concept that is as fundamental to organize subjective experience as are
the notions of space and time; for the empiricist, causality is the humanly observed
constant conjunction between a cause and its effect; for the realist, finally, causality
is entirely independent of the observer, being a relation between objective events,
a relation in which one event produces another event. Hence, if you impoverish your
ontology by including only objects, you deprive yourself of the means to define cau-
sality as a productive relation.

94 Matter
Art and OOObjecthood
Graham Harman
in Conversation with Christoph Cox and Jenny Jaskey

Christoph Cox/Jenny Jaskey: Your work has focused on ontology and epis-
temologyon the nature of objects and their access to one another. And
yet scattered throughout your books and essays are suggestions that art and
aesthetics have central roles to play in ontology and metaphysicsindeed
that aesthetics becomes first philosophy.1 Could you elaborate on this
intriguing claim?

Graham Harman: To answer the question, Ill first need to back up and explain my gen-
eral philosophical position. When all is said and done, the most important current of
twentieth-century philosophy was phenomenologyEdmund Husserls breakthrough
and Martin Heideggers ingenious reversal of it. Some readers will be surprised if I say
that the last truly great period in philosophy ran from approximately 1890 through 1930.
You can certainly speak of the golden years of Paris in the 1960s, and there are even
more recent figures worth admiring. Nonetheless, I dont think the star philosophers of
today have sufficiently assimilated or transformed the breakthroughs of the period Im
holding up as a model. In many cases todays thinkers go back even further, to German
Idealism, and in my opinion they do so in a manner that shows their failure to assimilate
what Husserl, Heidegger, Whitehead, and Bergson did to move philosophy to a new
level. Im perfectly responsive to the insights found in authors such as Lacan, Badiou,
Deleuze, and even Derrida (whose style I detest, but who also has something to say). But
Ive never been inspired with awe by any of them, simply because I think the 18901930
period provides us with a more important springboard to the philosophy of the future.
But neither do I worship this period either: Kant was an even more important shift in
philosophy than Heidegger. In many ways Heidegger still operates within the Kantian
horizon. To summarize, I think its very important to remain open to the latest thing,
but always remembering that the third- or fourth-latest thing might offer something
more. Having said all this, Ill work back toward your question by explaining what is
so fascinating about phenomenology, despite my frustration with Husserls idealism.
Empiricism mocked the notion of individual objects by treating apples, chairs, and
spoons not as individual things, but as bundles of qualities that habitually seem
Conversation conducted by e-mail in March and April 2012.

1 Graham Harman, Vicarious Causation, Collapse 2 (March 2007): 205. Cf. Aesthetics as First
Philosophy: Levinas and the Non-Human, Naked Punch 09 (SummerFall 2007): 2130. Also
available at

Object 97

to go together. To speak of one object underlying a multitude of qualities is to speak And yet Husserl does leave us stranded on the phenomenal level. For him there
of a traditional substance, which John Locke sarcastically described as I know not is nothing that cannot, in principle, be encountered by some observing conscious-
what. Even in the twenty-first century, the basic strategy of the cutting-edge intellec- ness. And this is the point where the young Heidegger strikes against his teacher.
tual is to regard objects as gullible fetishes of the commonplace mind, and to replace For Husserl, everything must be presentable to consciousness. But for Heidegger,
them with something supposedly more genuine. Often this takes the form of under- things are not primarily appearances in consciousness, which make up only a small
mining objects, a strategy that points to a deeper stratum of tiny physical particles or portion of our existence. While consciously reflecting on some photograph or geo-
mathematical structures lying at the basis of everything. This is the basic maneuver of metrical theorem, we take so many other things for grantedthe couch and floor
scientistic philosophy, which wants to treat minds and everything else as by-products on which I sit, the grammatical structure of the language I use, the political stability
of deeper neurophysiological processes. But sometimes objects are overmined as of the city which prevents me from fearing gangs and looters, the oxygen I breathe,
well, or reduced in an upward direction. If someone tells us that all realism is naive the bodily organs on which I rely. Heidegger notes that most of these things become
realism, that there is no deeply hidden reality lying behind language or power, that visible only when they malfunction. Insofar as tools function smoothly, they tend
there are no things but only events, that there is nothing hiding behind the curtain, that to remain invisible. In this way, Heideggers theory gives us a permanent strife
the supposed identity of the transcendental signified is merely an ontotheological form between concealed equipment lying in the background of experience, and revealed,
of self-presencein all these cases, individual objects have been undermined rather visible equipment that is consciously accessible usually because it has failed us in
than overmined. Usually the two strategies feed off one another in a manner that I call some way. This is his famous tool-analysis, one of the most popular passages in
duomining, but lets leave that point for another time. his 1927 masterwork Being and Time, but already presented to his Freiburg students
In order to prevent the undermining of philosophy by the natural sciences, as early as 1919.
Husserl called for a turn to the phenomena in consciousness. Scientific theories In some ways, my entire intellectual career is based on an attempt to radi-
about the outer world are all mediated rather than direct forms of access. What calize Heideggers tool-analysis and draw far-reaching consequences from it. The
is directly accessible to us are the phenomena before the mind. Instead of naively lazy way to read Heideggers analysis is this: all conscious theory and perception
accepting the chemical theory of fire, we can explore in stunning detail the various emerges from an unconscious layer of practical activity. But this doesnt work, for
shadowy layers of our perception of a fire. When Husserl says, to the things them- the simple reason that theory and praxis both fail in precisely the same way. It is true
selves, he is not talking about Kants hidden things-in-themselves, but about phe- that my theories and perceptions fail to exhaust the full reality of, say, a chair. The
nomena present in the mind. Now, I dont support Husserls bracketing of reality, chair always has a deeper reality not exhausted by my knowledge of it. But its also
but I do very much support his insistence that more is going on in the phenomenal true that my sitting in the chair does not exhaust the reality of the chair, which has
realm than the empiricist bundles of qualities. other qualities that may be detectable by dogs or mosquitoes but never by humans.
The paradox of Husserl is as follows. On the one hand hes a clear overminer, To repeat, theory and praxis both fail to exhaust their objects. There is a reality of the
since he does not actually overcome the realism/idealism divide through the fact object lying deeper than all human theoretical, perceptual, or practical activity. For
that that consciousness is always already outside itself in a world, as his admirers this reason, we cannot say that Heidegger is a pragmatist. Instead, he is a realist
too often claim. Instead, hes a sheer idealist: intentionality refers to immanent who believes in objects deeper than any type of contact they might have with us.
objectivity, as Franz Brentano already knew. We cannot make direct contact with any object; we always translate or distort them.
But if Husserl is an idealist, hes an object-oriented idealist. Contrary to the But we can radicalize the tool-analysis even further once we see that objects
empiricist tradition, Husserl by no means reduces objects to bundles of qualities, translate and distort each other as well. Translation and distortion are not the tragic local
since objects are what can have many different qualities at different times while by-products of full-blown sentient consciousness, but form the structure of all rela-
remaining the same object. I see a mailbox first from ten meters away and then tions, including inanimate ones. And this is the key to my object-oriented philosophy:
from seventy meters; I paint the mailbox blue today and yellow tomorrow without the world is filled with countless objects that withdraw from their relations with one
destroying it; I hang streamers from the mailbox or damage it with hammer-blows. another. Objects do interact and affect each other, but this can only happen indirectly.
In all these cases I still consider it to be the same mailbox, and since were only This has major implications for human cognition. There are those who say
dealing with the phenomenal realm here, its good enough that I consider it to be that the truth must always be stated in good plain English. What they mean is
the same. Thus there is an unexpected tension in the phenomenal zone between, that truth consists of accurate propositional statements about how the world is. But
on the one hand, a relatively durable object that I acknowledge across time and, on perhaps you can already see why, from my philosophical standpoint, it is impos-
the other, its wildly shifting patina of qualities: adumbrations, Husserl calls them. sible to make accurate propositional statements about the world. Not because there

98 Object Object 99

is no reality and everything is just truth-effects produced by diverse cultural contexts, accomplished simply by expanding the sphere of the noumenal. For Kant, the only
or some such rubbish from the universities of the 1980s. No, there is a reality, but role of the noumenal is to haunt humans with an awareness of their finitude. We
we simply arent able to access it directly, in the form of unequivocal accurate prop- cannot even speak of object-object relations for Kant, since the thing-in-itself need
ositions. The world is made of objects, not propositions, and Whitehead saw quite not be plural: after all, unity and plurality are categories of the understanding
clearly that propositions only give highly abstract versions of what they describe. for Kant, and hence in Kants world we cannot say whether the thing-in-itself
(In fact, I hold that Socrates already saw this.) is one or many.
We can already see this in everyday language, where innuendos, hints, meta- There are two basic metaphysical claims made by Kant. The first is the finitude
phors, and strategic silences are often more powerful means of communication than of human being, and that is the feature reversed initially by the German Idealists,
clear propositional statements. Instead of asking for clear language, philosophy and in our own time again by Slavoj iek and Quentin Meillassoux (whose book is
ought to demand vivid languageanalytic philosophy has thousands of clear writers called After Finitude for a reason). For my part, I think Kantian finitude is not only
but very few good ones, precisely because theyve convinced themselves that lack irreversible, but ought also to be expanded well beyond the human sphere. And that
of clarity is the principal cause of bad writing. On the contrary: one of the greatest is the second basic metaphysical claim of Kant, though it is never made quite as
causes of banality in intellectual life is surely premature clarity. In fact, I wish that explicit as the first: since the thing-in-itself can only be thought and never known,
premature clarity would become a common phrase in intellectual critique. philosophy must confine itself to discussing the human-world relation rather than
At last I can turn to face your question even more directly: In what sense the relation between raindrops and wood in themselves.
is aesthetics first philosophy? Precisely in the sense that artworks are irreducible Lets consider a counterfactual possibility in the history of philosophy.
to clear propositional claims. If you create a work of art that can be paraphrased, Following Kant, the process beginning with Salomon Maimon and Karl Reinhold
then youve done a poor job at art and should have done something else instead, tried to radicalize Kant by eliminating the things-in-themselves as a hypocritical
like write a political treatise. contradiction. But what if we had kept the things-in-themselves and eliminated
The other point of resemblance between aesthetics and philosophy is that instead the privilege of the human-world relation over all others? This wouldnt have
unlike natural science, philosophy and the arts dont really make incremental progress. been entirely lacking in historical motivationthanks to Christian Wolff, German
It is reasonable to say that todays standard model of particle physics is better than the academic philosophy was already awash in the Leibnizian way of looking at things.
physics of 1280 AD, but you cant really say that todays poets are better than Milton, Since the name Fichte means spruce, I once jokingly used another tree
that the art of the 2011 Venice Biennale was better than Giotto, or that Professor X name, Tannenbaum, for the nonexistent German philosopher who might have
at University Y is a better philosopher than Thomas Aquinas. Some aspects of the replaced Johann Gottlieb Fichte and sent post-Kantian philosophy on a very dif-
older classic works may be dated, of course, but they are still much better than most ferent course. In response, Michael Austin in Newfoundland claimed that F. W. J.
of what is being done in our time or any other. Like the arts, philosophy does not Schelling already did everything that I could have hoped for from Tannenbaum,
advance by way of a collective labor of micro-insights, but requires a total fullness and but I dont think Austin is right about this. Schelling doesnt deal enough with
ripeness of the creating personality. Analytic philosophy really gets this point wrong, object-object relations to count as the true Tannenbaum. For Schelling its still about
and in the end it spells doom for the entire school. I expect it to vanish without much nature and spirit, which is yet another version of the two familiar poles of human-
of a trace, for the simple reason that analytic philosophers are read primarily by each world correlationism. Why should spirit, mind, the subject, or the human make up
other, as terrible a sign in the humanities as it is a good one in the natural sciences. a full half of metaphysics? Science forever reminds us how tiny we are, how we are
just one isolated species in a vast cosmos. Certainly we are interested in humans
If never direct, what sort of access do we have to real objects? What for the obvious reasons that we are humans ourselves, but why give this self-obses-
distinguishes these objects from a sort of generalized noumenon, a thing- sion a full half of philosophy? Imagine a three-year-old boy narcissistically splitting
in-itself that is no longer, as in Kant, the necessary correlate of a human- the world into two kinds of people: himself and all others. Thats essentially what
world relationship but is now generalized beyond the human to include Descartes does when he makes cognition one of just two finite substances (physical
the relationship of every object (animal, vegetable, mineral, and so forth) substance being the other).
to every other? To summarize in a way that answers your question more directly, there are
perhaps two differences between my real objects and the Kantian noumena: my real
Lets start by supposing that there was no difference at all between Kants nou- objects are known to be plural (since plurality in the sensual world cannot be gener-
mena and my real objects. Even in that case, a great deal would already have been ated by a unified lump in the real world), and the relations between my real objects

100 Object Object 101


are on the same footing as human-world relations, whereas for Kant the latter is all prefer their own Friedrich Kittler to McLuhan. I also praised Heidegger, and even
we can know about. For Kant, we cannot really deduce anything at all about the though this meant praising a notorious Nazi in a city haunted by the ghosts of 1933,
collision of two inanimate rocks in distant space, nor can we even know whether no one reacted negatively. But I then praised Clement Greenberg (who was even
they are there as real plural things. For me, you can deduce as much about them as quite a Leftist, dont forget!) and the reaction was rather differenta long, loud hiss
you can about the ontology of the human distortion of such inanimate collisions sounded from somewhere in the third row, and then the most aggressive question
through observation. after the lecture was from someone else who demanded to know what was so good
about Greenberg.
How might artistic authorship be complicated by an object-oriented Well, I think its quite obvious whats good about Greenberghes an incisive
approach? critic, and also one of the great literary stylists of the twentieth century. And yet, so
deep is the hatred of him that there was also an angry reaction from an artist when
My reaction here is mixed. On the one hand, Im all in favor of the death of the I spoke highly of Greenberg on Facebook! Why this visceral unanimity of distaste
author. Once youve created something, it exceeds you and is irreducible to whatever across an entire profession? Its an indication that the arts at present are still too
hopes and intentions you may have had for it. Consider children as perhaps the most much a reaction to the sort of high modernism Greenberg representswith its sup-
obvious case. Parents have much to do with both the heredity and environment of posed formalism, supposed elitism, and actual refusal to let artworks bleed into
their child, yet the child exceeds the various causal influences of the parents, and their surroundings. Greenberg is the repressed bad conscience of contemporary
surprises those parents on a regular basis. The same is true of all the works and art. He was wrong about plenty of things, of course. I believe he was time-bound in
deeds of human life. It would be stupid to explain an artwork entirely in terms of his commitment to the flat picture surface (as Michael Fried eventually conceded),
its creator. All good works guide and astonish their creator, resist their creators but he was quite right to demand a certain autonomy for art from its socio-political
intentions, pull their creator in new directions, or are even flat-out misunderstood context, and also right to insist that questions of quality will always be paramount.
by their creator. A work has a certain autonomy from the one who made it, even Not all art is equally significant, just as not all philosophy is equally significant. And
before that person is dead. This needs to be qualified by saying that the author is theres a fairly obvious reason for this, which is that eventually everyone dies, and
never entirely absent from the work. Im a passionate reader of biographies, and you fashion moves on, and some works in every field dig deeply enough that they can
can learn a great deal about works from knowing something about the lives of their survive the death of the environment that created them while others do not. Major
authors. But the work is not an appendage to the life, and only some biographical work is an escape pod jettisoned free of a crashing spaceship. None of us will be
factors will leave traces in the work, not all. here a century from now, but a small number of our works will be. Which ones?
On the other hand, I want to defend individual authorship from those who Thats the question that critics are supposed to fight about, and Greenberg always
simply want to replace it with a cultural authorshipas if Shakespeares plays were took frank positions on that question, which we ought to appreciate. So what if he
produced by the Elizabethan Era as a whole rather than by William Shakespeare was wrong sometimes? Everybody is. You dont become an important thinker by
the person. Here once more, the autonomy of the work is lostthis time in favor making the fewest possible number of mistakes (thats how teachers pets are made,
of an overpowering social context. In my opinion this is even worse than individual not thinkers) but by discovering the most incisive possible truths.
authorship, since at least if we focus on Shakespeare as an individual we remain a Quality is the right sense of elitism, and we can and do argue about what
bit closer to the individual character of the work. The death of the author must be constitutes quality, but I see no good reason to claim that it doesnt exist. Of
supplemented by the death of the culture. course there is also the wrong sense of elitism: the snobbery of the happen-to-be-
Im well aware that it sounds old-fashioned to speak of artworks as having any socially-elite who listened to mediocre classical music in the 1950s while missing
sort of autonomy. The current fashion, in philosophy as in the arts, is to dissolve Charlie Parker, or who judge philosophers by what university department employs
everything into a sociopolitical stew from which nothing is allowed to escape. Leftist them rather than by what they think and write. Great work is often somewhere
politics has replaced Christianity as a moralistic voice in the cultural world. But different from where the social elite is looking for it, but that doesnt mean that all
philosophy and the arts are not here to save the world; they have a function both bebop was at Parkers level, or that every kazoo player is Charlie Parker. Elitism is
larger and smaller than that. built into the structure of reality itself: not all food is equally clean and tasty, we
Let me address a loosely related point. In February 2012 I gave a keynote dont fall in love with everyone we meet, and not all cultural products are equally
lecture at the transmediale festival in Berlin. During this lecture I praised Marshall good. It might often be difficult to reach consensus about these matters, but thats
McLuhan, and there was no negative reaction from those Berliners who might a separate issue.

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But back to the main point of your question: how an object-oriented approach appearance of things. The isolated object was trumped by a context lying outside
might complicate our consideration of artworks. It certainly requires that we shift that object. Context was king, and it will still be king for a few years longer, I think.
our focus to the works and away from both the individuals and the societies that But as I see it, the opposite is true. The supposedly isolated physical object
produced themunless we can show that certain features of the authors and the that we encounter is not isolated at all, since, after all, we are encountering it. It
social contexts were somehow inscribed in the work itself. already belongs in a relational context with me, the perceiver. In short, this suppos-
Ultimately, an object-oriented strategy also requires that we treat works edly isolated object is always already over-contextualized through its relation to me,
as deeper than all their specific details. Phenomenology taught us that a chair is and hence it is overkill to seek even more context by going outside that object to find
something different from the sum total of chair-qualities that we currently perceive. an ever broader framing mechanism that ultimately includes the gallery system, or
And a work of art or literature can remain the same work even if certain superficial capitalism, or some other even more massive context. The real movement should
changes are made to it. These works are not bundles of qualities any more than occur in the opposite directiontoward a decontextualization of the thing. And that
a chair is. One task of an object-oriented art and literary criticism, I think, would does not mean a naked physical thing sitting before our eyes, but a thing that is
be to imagine counterfactual cases in which certain features of any given work were deeper than what any eyes can grasp of it. In this sense, the frame of the thing
altered: How would the work be affected by each change, if at all? What if we add is not what lies just over the horizon, as Derrida believed in philosophy. The real
or subtract this or that feature to a work by Raphael or de Kooning, or Wuthering frame is what lies in the thing, deeper than any possible direct access to it, so that
Heights? What would be the effect on the work? This question puts the artwork not the thing can only be approached obliquely. And this is why McLuhan is ultimately
only beyond its author, but even beyond its own present configuration. On a practical a more important figure than Derrida.
level, computers will enable us to explore these counterfactual situations with ease.
Why so?
A basic yet very crucial aspect of art is its framein the general sense
of the term. Art of the past several decades (Conceptual art, institutional The first point is that McLuhan has a concept of reality, which is completely lacking
critique, and so forth) has increasingly pointed to this perimeter function, in Derrida. Suddenly its become fashionable to call Derrida a realist (Michael
showing us how contextual factors, including arts modes of production Marders book is simply the most annoyingly written and argued of this genre).2 But
and distribution, contribute to its meaning (such that often the frame of as far as I can tell, all such works are merely attempts to defang the word realism
the work becomes incorporated into the art itself ). Im wondering where, so that it no longer lies outside Derridas writings as a potentially dangerous, unas-
among the constellation of things inhabiting an object-oriented world, similated enemy. In other words, none of these Derrida-as-realist books seem to be
art begins and ends for you. Does art have a frame (ontological bound- saying what we would legitimately expect them to say: Derrideans up until now
aries)? Are those boundaries necessarily rooted in human perception? have completely missed the point of his philosophy. In this book I shall attempt a
daring inversion of the traditional reading of Derrida and show that Derrida must,
There are maybe two ways to look at the frame of a thing. The usual way is the one contrary to all appearances, be read as a firm believer in a world independent of
to which you refer, in which the frame is the excluded but important context of an human access. Instead, this new genre of books seems to be pretty much ratifying
object, with the frequent implication that an object is always entangled in that which the mainstream interpretation of Derrida, while simply denying that the word
supposedly lies outside it, so that all supposed autonomy is just a traditionalistic realism poses a threat. Instead of reversing the usual interpretation of Derrida,
sham. In philosophy, Jacques Derrida became the man of the hour because for him they do nothing more (from what Ive seen so far) than reverse the usual meaning of
the object vanishes into diffrance, always drawn beyond itself in dissemination rather realism. It would be like arguing that Marx was a conservative, then giving a rather
than burrowing deeper into itself in the supposedly naive classical manner. In the orthodox interpretation of Marx and simply trying to redefine the word conserva-
arts, as you indicate, attention was shifted away from unified and durable physical tive so that it now fits what Marx was already doing.
products to street performances, to the theatrical staging of transient works left to This is an intellectually dishonest maneuver, because Derrida is by no means
rot if not actively shredded or incinerated, or to provocative gestures establishing that a realist in the traditional sense or any other feasible sense of the world. The whole
just about anything could be an artwork if framed properly. And then the ultimate point of Of Grammatology, for instance, is to show that any idea of a transcendental
trump card, in both philosophy and the arts, became politics. The political came to
be treated as the most all-encompassing frame for everything, and to believe other- 2 Michael Marder, The Event of the Thing : Derridas Post-Deconstructive Realism (Toronto: University of
wise was to be nothing more than a simpleton or dupe hypnotized by the naive first Toronto Press, 2011)

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signified outside the play of signifiers would be a bad ontotheology of presence. For The third unfortunate feature of Derrida is his writing style, which I find
Heidegger, something real that is withdrawn from access is absent rather than present. atrocious. He is wordy, distracting, and far too interested in enveloping the reader
For Derrida it is quite differentif there were a real autonomous entity withdrawn in the folds of his own cleverness. Normally a good writer should disappear behind
from human access, Derrida would still call this presence, since it would be a kind the writing, yet Derrida disappears behind his writing less than any other successful
of self-presence of identity even if it were entirely absent from the human gaze. This is philosopher I can think of.
a major point of difference between Derrida and Heidegger, and it happens to occur You asked why I find McLuhan to be a more important figure. First, unlike
at precisely the point where Heidegger veers toward a bit of realism. Derrida, McLuhan has a genuine sense of the real: the background conditions of
Derrida never follows Heidegger there. His diffrance is not a withdrawal any medium have a deeper effect on us than any play of content on the surface.
in Heideggers sense. Look again at the essay White Mythology.3 What bothers This links McLuhan more closely with the Heideggerian legacy than Derrida links
Derrida in that piece is not only that Aristotle thinks that words have an original lit- with it (more and more, I see Derrida as a Husserlian rather than a Heideggerian).
eral meaning, but the fact that Aristotle thinks that things have an original univocal Second, unlike Derrida, McLuhan is able to talk about a wide range of entities.
being. I would agree with Levi Bryant that Derrida does not reduce things to their His media laws work for any human artifact, as he and his son Eric tend to put
context. Everything always escapes its context for Derrida. But unlike for Heidegger, it. But this already begins to point to the limitations of McLuhan, since any theory
that escape does not occur through some sort of dark subterranean withdrawal of focused on the human realm in this manner will not be enough to do the job in our
objects behind their presence (as for me, Heidegger, and Xavier Zubri). Instead, emerging post-Kantian landscape.
Derridas diffrance is a horizontal gliding that always leads us outside the present As for the question of annoying writing styles, I dont find McLuhans style
context toward other possible contexts, not toward the identity of an autonomous annoying, though I can see why some people do. Admittedly, it can be overly flippant
being outside all contexts. and is often deliberately filled with riddles that dont always have a significant payoff.
This antirealism is the first bad thing about Derrida. The second is that he In the late work, Marshall and Eric McLuhan develop their tetrad, or four-
writes only about books, never about things. This is another frequent complaint fold law of media. I think this is one of the most important results of the humanities
about Derrida that Derrideans pretend to ridicule, though they have no grounds in the twentieth century, even though McLuhans fans havent often joined me in this
for doing so. The fact is, Derrida is simply unable to write about any bona fide verdict. By contrast, what is Derridas most durable insight? The pharmakon inter-
objects. Hes always writing about various mentions of objects by Joyce, Mallarm, ests me more than anything else, but Derrida completely fails to link this idea to its
Anatole France, or whomever. Derrideans often become brash and combative obvious kinship with Aristotelian substance, which can sustain opposite qualities at
when this point is raised, but I have yet to see good examples of Derrida talking different times. Why does Derrida fail to make this link? Its because of his obvious
about actual, full-blown objects. On this point simply compare Derrideans with bias against realism, a fact obscured by the recent word games of Marder and others.
Latourians. Derrideans often focus their energy on discovering clever puns for their
titles, putting as many words as possible in parentheses, and interpreting literary According to your conception of allure, art functions by severing a thing
works. By contrast, Latourians go out and study volcanoes, steamships, apricots, from its qualities in such a way that the sensual qualities presented
and other such entities. That tells you everything you need to know about the dif- in the work of art point or allude to a real object that nevertheless
ference, and thus I was fairly stunned to see one prominent bloggers off-the-cuff fundamentally withdraws from our (and any) experience or relation.
complaint that Derrida already knew everything that Bruno Latour knows. For This aesthetic position may seem firmly representationalist (in an almost
that is not the case. I think what happened is that people over-invested in Derrida Platonist or Kantian sense). While you certainly dont claim that works
just as his sun was beginning to set, and they resent the fact that they now look a of art can or do straightforwardly represent or imitate real objects, your
bit old-fashioned. So were now seeing some revisionism in an attempt to recoup aesthetic position nonetheless maintains the key feature of any theory
some Derrida investment costs. I dont think hes a charlatan or any such thing; of representation: a two-tiered structure in which one term or tier is
that would be an absurd exaggeration. What I do think about Derrida is that hes subordinate to the other, which serves as its content and to which it refers.
an overly mannered post-phenomenological figure who is no longer well-placed On your view, the work of art has no independent standing but is onto-
for leadership given the direction that continental philosophy is beginning to logically subordinate to an underlying (real) object to which it (always
takea more frankly realist direction. inadequately) refers, points, or alludes. In constructing this aesthetic
theory, you draw on a number of twentieth-century philosophers, notably
3 In Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982). Husserl, Heidegger, Bergson, Zubiri, Jos Ortega y Gasset, Max Black,

106 Object Object 107


and Emmanuel Levinas. Yet its hard to see how the aesthetics of allure being elements in a horse), and these body parts are translations of tissues, which
could account for major developments in twentieth-century artabstract are translations of cells, and so forth. So from the outset your question overlooks
painting, sound poetry, and structuralist film, for examplethat challenge what is most innovative about my position. Namely, two-tiered models always revolve
the very structure of representation and assert the ontological indepen- around the difference between an objective realm and a counterposed realm of
dence of the work of art; or artistic programs in which aesthetic interest has human experience or knowledge that possesses the uniquely godlike power to project
nothing to do with representation, reference, or allusion, like Minimalism, its fantasies onto hard reality. By contrast, my model makes every relation a form of
Conceptualism, institutional critique, and relational aesthetics. Finally, how translation that does not fully exhaust that which it translates. In that sense, human
could the aesthetics of allure provide any account of music, which lacks the experience is shown to belong to the same class of phenomena as causal relation
two-tier structure necessary for representation, reference, or allusion? and part-whole relations; theres nothing special about human representation at all
(for this reason it is wrong to compare my position to Kants).
There seem to be three main issues at play in this question: representationalism, You also worry that the reference to a reality beyond direct access amounts to
the two-tiered structure, and my reaction to recent forms of art that seem to escape a form of subordination of the immediate sensual sphere to an objective reality
these categories. So, Ill answer in three stages. outside it. But in what sense is there subordination? Is a gold molecule subordi-
First, despite what you say, Im a non-representational realist who is not at all nate to the atoms of which it is composed? Well, it needs those atoms in order to
in favor of representation. There are two reasons for this, and you already conceded exist, but it would be equally accurate to say that the atoms are subordinate to
one of them in your question when you admitted that I certainly dont claim that the larger molecule in turn, the larger thing that contains them. When Czanne
works of art can or do straightforwardly represent or imitate real objects. Please paints Mont Sainte-Victoire, are his paintings really subordinate to an objective
note that this is no small step on my part, since most realisms in philosophy have physical mountain? I think it would be closer to the truth to say that Czanne sub-
not only maintained the existence of a real world outside the human mind, but have ordinates the mountain to his magnificent series of paintings, since the mountain
also asserted that the human mind should attempt to copy that world. I view this is world famous only because of Czanne. We arent speaking here of an original
as utterly impossible, since no form of knowledge or perception can ever model the and its deficient copy (and thus it is wrong to compare my position to Platos), but
world. An infinite number of true statements about a tree would never turn into a of object and translation. Martin Luthers New Testament in German is no more
tree, and hence we are left with obliquity and allusion as a way of referring to the subordinate to the Greek original than the reverse.
thing. This is what Socrates already meant with the word philosophia, which seems I reject the idea that its somehow liberating to explode the notion of reality
to be of Pythagorean origin. Only the gods have wisdom. Humans are capable of and turn everything into appearance, process, flux, relation, interactivity. What may
nothing better than the love of wisdom: we do not have direct access to reality in itself. be more useful is to say that liberation from reality is an idea once but no longer
The second piece of evidence that Im not in favor of representationalism liberating. We no longer live in the time of Nietzsche, when it was a bold maneuver
is that I definitely do not say that artworks allude to a real object that they are to launch assaults on reality-in-itself; now there are ten million people repeating
attempting to mimic. What I say instead is that artworks produce their own real the same purported revolution, the same triumphalistic fait accompli.The valid
objects, rather than imitating preexistent ones. In Guerrilla Metaphysics I spend some anti-representationalist critique must not turn into an anti-realist critique. There is
time with Blacks rather dull metaphor man is a wolf. In my account of Black, what a reality outside the mind for the same reason that there are facts about me that are
you end up with is a rather inscrutable human being surrounded by wolf-qualities that not relevant to the United States, and features of atoms not relevant to a molecule.
it both attracts and repels. But were talking about a wolfish human that is produced Lets now move to the question of whether certain contemporary arts escape
by the metaphor, not a preexistent objective human in the real world that is accurately the model I defend. It seems to me that much of this question rests on the false
modeled by wolf-qualities. In the latter case you wouldnt have a metaphor; youd assumption that I view art as imitative. In other words, you seem to be saying that
just have a boring if accurate description of something. I say this because in some since music doesnt really copy any original, and since abstract art doesnt depict
parts of your question it seems like you think Im championing art as a mirror of recognizable entities, that my theory is therefore incorrect in these cases. However,
nature, and thats not the case. Ive never defended the idea of art as an imitation of normal everyday entities.
Second, we are led to the question of a two-tiered model of the world. Lets start Artworks produce real objects rather than limping along behind them and trying
by observing that I dont have a two-tiered model, but an infinitely-tiered model. Its to produce a copy.
not just that human perception of a horse is a translation of the real horse, but also Music is actually not a good counter-example against object-oriented philo-
that the real horse is a translation of its body parts (which are not fully exhausted by sophy, since music is absolutely full of objects. Melodies and phrases occur with

108 Object Object 109


regularity and are recognizable as the same things even when transposed into dif- objects are about: rules of appearance lying behind the entire series of appear-
ferent keys or modes. Rhythms recur as familiar objects through all sorts of shifting ances. But this is nonsense. The intentional/sensual object for Husserl is not just
melodies. To say nothing of Wagnerian leitmotifs. an algorithm. Its a bona fide object, even if not a real one.
As for abstract art, the case against object-oriented philosophy here is equally Lets now take this same sensual object and tamper with the bond it has with its
poor. Is a painting by Pollock just a series of sensual pixels not grouped into any larger real qualities. Remember that for Husserl (and here he is right), once we strip away all
patterns? This seems obviously false. There may be no houses, mountains, biblical the adumbrations of the thing we are left with the eidos of the thing. To realize what
heroes, or mallard ducks in a Pollock, but there are various bulbous nodules and spin- the real features are of an intentional apple or horse is what we call theory. In any
ning filaments, and these are objects because each of them could have been modified theoretical enterprise, we are trying to grasp the truly pivotal features of whatever
by Pollock within certain limits without changing their basic effect on the painting. object our theory studies.
Minimalism? Its packed full with objects. Nor do I agree that allusion The bond between real objects and real qualities has traditionally been called
is missing here. Minimalism may claim to be a what-you-see-is-what-you-get oper- essence, and I call it that as well. To tamper with this bond, in my view, is what we
ation, but its really not. Take a plain white block. You cant see all sides of the block call causality. In causation, one thing has to borrow the qualities of another.
at once, but they are certainly there; the block is more than any given experience And finally we arrive at your question, though I will modify your phrase
of the block. This is a basic point of Husserls phenomenology, but the white block artistic object to speak more generally about allure. Allure concerns all events
isnt just an object of phenomenology. Those bare, minimal features allude to some that entail a broken relationship between a real object and its sensual qualities, and
inner nucleus that animates all the ascetic features that surround it. And that nucleus this includes Heideggers broken hammer and other experiences of surprise, along
doesnt preexist the work, which proves that nothing is being represented or imitated. with a number of other things.
In allure, the sensual qualities are stripped from a sensual object and assigned to
What, then, is the relationship between the artistic object and (a) the real a real object. I used to think this was an absent real object, but increasingly I think the
object that withdraws from all relation, and (b) the sensuous object of our qualities are assigned to me the observer, who is a real object on the scene rather than
experience? a hidden one off in the distance. In other words, perhaps the metaphor only thinks it is
getting at the hidden object in the depths, while instead it is using sensual qualities, in
Our normal experience is of sensual objects bound to their sensual qualities, to such combination with me as a real object, to produce a new but perhaps analogous object.
an extent that the former are often confused with the latter. Until Husserl, I know of This is not as weird as it sounds, since it really just amounts to a different interpretation
no other philosopher who fully grasped that there is such a thing as sensual objects of the old classical term mimesis, or imitation. Though mimesis usually is taken to mean
(which he calls intentional objects) that can endure through countless permuta- producing a copy of a real world outside the mind, my philosophy suggests that this
tions of shifting accidental detail on their surface (the Abschattungen or adumbra- will never be possible. But what if instead of producing a copy, mimesis meant that we
tions, the same apple seen from numerous angles and distances in many different ourselves tried to become an object other than ourselves, as if intellectual life were simply
lighting conditions and moods). a giant school of method acting? This idea would probably find favor with anthropolo-
There are four kinds of bonds between objects and qualities: sensual objects gists, and possibly even with Aristotelians, since Aristotle asserts that poets should be
are bonded with sensual qualities and real ones, while real objects are bonded with mad and should rant aloud and behave in character while writing their playsmuch
sensual qualities and real ones. Each of these bonds can be tampered with, and as Marlon Brando is said to have shown up already in character when auditioning for
thats how change occurs in the world.4 The Godfather. It is not just flippant if I say that, instead of the cold, clinical, antiseptic,
Lets start with the bond between sensual objects and sensual qualities. We transcendent subject, the knower in any field is more like Brando doing Vito Corleone.
interfere with this bond by treating the sensual object as simply a separate unit
that can generate all kinds of new sensual appearances endlessly. In The Quadruple Do melodies, phrases, and Pollocks bulbous nodules become objects simply
Object, I called this kind of interference confrontation. But that was always the least by our calling them such? If so, arent we led back to a sort of correlationism
satisfying of the four names, and I now call it simulation instead. We simulate a by which the world is cut up into objects by subjects? And, if melodies,
thing when we reduce it to a set of rules for producing a potentially endless series phrases, and bulbous nodules are objects, surely sentences are objects, too.
of new appearances. And this is also what some people think Husserls intentional If so, it seems odd to criticize some (literal) sentences and praise other
(metaphorical) sentences for their translations/distortions of the real, when,
4 See Graham Harman, The Quadruple Object (Alresford: Zero Books, 2011). by your account, every object necessarily translates/distorts every other.

110 Object Object 111


If simply calling things objects turned them into real objects, wed be dealing with What makes metaphor more vivid than literal language, I would say, is that it seems
something much more radical than correlationismit would be full-blown idealism. to create the thing before our eyes rather than simply describing it accurately from
So of course I dont think that. As for sensual objects, yes, it is our experience that the outside. If metaphor disturbs the relation between an object and its qualities,
generates them, but this is ontologically harmless. If a child starts dreaming up it also transfers those qualities to a new object, and thus we actually are seeing an
fantastic cities and monsters, it is not inflationary to call these sensual objects, object created before our eyes. It is different if I say: A pen is like a pencil. Here
it is simply doing justice to the situation. But objects are real or not real in their own the exact similarity in qualities is too great, and so I tend to focus on those qualities
right, quite independently of who calls them real. alone. We can move toward an intermediate case, such as that of apt comparisons.
I would say that sentences are objects, yes. But even if all sentences are objects, For instance: Krakow is like Prague, but quite a bit smaller. Here too we are atten-
it does not follow that all sentences make other objects present to the same degree. tive to the shared similarities of both cities (which are fairly numerous), but theres
All ice cream is equally ice cream, but there is a huge difference in quality between also a more striking metaphorical feel to the comparison, since we are tacitly asked
them, and the same holds for sentences. to think of a Czech Krakow or a Polish Prague, and hence there is something mildly
Good sentences and bad sentences are both translations of the world. Literal vivid about the similarity.
statements and metaphors are both translations of the world. It doesnt follow that As another example, consider this sentence: Nashville is the capital
they do the same thing in all other respects. Metaphors disturb the relation between of Tennessee, and Jackson is the capital of Mississippi. Here we have a literal
objects and their qualities, while literal statements do not. Literal statements treat statement of the sort that is taught to American schoolchildren. But now replace the
objects as though they were bundles of qualities. But metaphorical statements word Jackson and you have the following striking adage: Nashville is the capital
know that the object is something distinct from its sum total of qualities. And they of Tennessee, and Memphis is the capital of Mississippi. Memphis, of course, is
succeed in communicating this to us, though some do it better than others. Not all literally located in Tennessee rather than Mississippi, but Memphis is the capital
metaphors are equal. of Mississippi rings all the truer for its literal falsity. It captures both the geo-
graphical proximity of Memphis to its neighboring state and the cultural resonance
Could you clarify your conception of the relationship between so-called between the two places. But if we say instead: Nashville is the capital of Tennessee,
literal language (claimed by its proponents to consist of clear and accu- and Rio de Janeiro is the capital of Mississippi, this might hit home in various
rate propositional statements about how the world is), metaphorical Dadaist or smart-alecky circles, but the transfer of Mississippi qualities to Rio de
language, and the reality that you say we simply arent able to access Janeiro fails to brings us along with it, whereas it doesnt fail for Memphisat least
directly, in the form of unequivocal accurate propositions? You criti- not if you know Mississippi and Memphis a bit. Such examples may work differ-
cize literal language for claiming to offer a genuine correspondence with ently for some people than for others, but these are the sorts of things that people
reality. What, then, is (ontologically, epistemologically) preferable about justifiably bicker about, not the sorts of things that can be objectively percentiled
metaphorical language? Does the latter give us better, if indirect, access according to impersonal criteria. The criterion is always how vividly the qualities
to the real? Does it better capture the withdrawn nature of the real? fit with their new object. Too much fit (Jackson is the capital of Mississippi) and
Or is it better because it makes no attempt at correspondence or represen- you simply have a literal statement. Too little fit (Rio de Janeiro is the capital of
tation at all? You say that its more vivid, more powerful. But what Mississippi) and you fail to carry most readers along with you. Vivid language lies
makes it so? Is this due to its novelty? This latter view would seem akin somewhere between the perfectly plausible and the perfectly implausible. By creating
to that of the early Nietzsche, for whom language (always abstract and a fit but an imperfect fit between object and qualities, metaphorical language both
always expressing a human relationship to the world) is not interested makes objects present and gives us some information about them. Vivid language
in correspondence with the real, and for whom the metaphorical differs ought to exaggerate and lie a bit, but not too much.
from the literal solely due to its novelty and sensuous power.5 By what Heres another way to put it. The world is made of objects, but sensual
criteria do we determine whether one object offers a better or worse objects are too close to us and real objects are too far from us. Metaphorical lan-
translation of another? guage cant perform the impossible magic of giving us direct contact with the real
(even a god cant do that). What it can do is generate new real objects before our
eyes. Why arent successful metaphors merely sensual objects? Because we ourselves
5 See Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense, in Philosophy and Truth:
Selections from Nietzsches Notebooks of the Early 1870s, ed. and trans. Daniel Breazeale (Atlantic are implicated as a component in them, and we ourselves are real objects. Metaphor
Highlands: Humanities Press International, 1979). breaks qualities free from objects, just as moons are occasionally torn away from

112 Object Object 113


Saturn or Jupiter. And metaphor reassigns qualities to real objects, but to accessible not scientific. I love the sciences. What I loathe are the self-appointed philosoph-
rather than inaccessible ones. And what is the only accessible real object in any ical enforcers of the sciences, who lack the humility and the sense of wonder found
given situation? We ourselves. Not because we are capable of direct, untranslated in the great scientists.)
introspection (we arent; Im no less mysterious to myself than rain and billiard
balls are). But because we perform or execute ourselves at each moment, and in Within your Speculative Realism, how would one distinguish between artistic
metaphorical language we invite these qualities into our lives. We execute the representation and material reality itself ? Certainly there is a difference,
qualities of an orange just as a sensual orange was doing prior to its disintegration but what is it? Are artworks just as real as everything else around us?
via metaphor.
The second question is harder than it sounds. You might expect me to offer an imme-
In the essay On Vicarious Causation, you write that the separation diate yes, given that I supposedly think everything can be an object. But for me
of a thing from its quality [the notion of allure thats key to your aesthetics] the word real has a very specific meaning. My theory is often falsely summarized
is no longer a local phenomenon of human experience, but instead is as the belief that everything is real. Wikipedia said that for many months, and
the root of all relations between real objects, including causal relations. wrongly so. My entire theory is based on the difference between real and sensual
In other words, allure belongs to ontology as a whole, not to the special objects. The tree, dog, candle, and mountain that I experience are not real objects
metaphysics of animal perception. Relations between all real objects, at all, just better or worse translations of other things that may be real. For me these
including mindless chunks of dirt, occur only by means of some form are nothing other than what Husserl calls intentional objects, though I call them
of allusion. The impli-cation is that the notions of art and aesthetics sensual objects instead. A real object is not dependent on the one who experiences
must be extended beyond the domain of the human, the animal, and it, while a sensual object is dependent. If I fall asleep or die, the city of Cairo con-
even the organic. What would such a generalized aesthetics look like? tinues to exist, but my perception of Cairo disappears.
The question is whether an artwork continues to be an artwork when no one
It would look a lot like the world described in The Quadruple Object, though that is looking at it. My instinct is to say absolutely not, that its reality is generated not
book had to be heavily compressed due to a word count limit. only by the presence of an observer, but even an observer who is capable of under-
The usual view is that causality and aesthetics are two completely separate standing it. You cant just have noisy, distracted five-year-olds running through the
things. Causation occurs mechanically in an objective world of cold material slabs, gallery, but need someone with a bit of taste to be present. But then Tristan Garcia,
and aesthetics is a matter of freewheeling, arbitrary human projections. But most the emerging French philosopher, recently made the case in his book Forme et objet
observers have overlooked the remarkable similarities between causation and aes- that the artwork continues to signify even when no one is looking at it.6 And maybe
thetics as concerns their transformative power. There is also the fact that they either hes right, but I cant decide yet. As for the first part of your question, Im not sure
happen or fail to happen, without much gradation between the two extremes. Either that this is a bigger issue for aesthetics than it is for any other sort of human expe-
the earthquake knocks the air conditioner out of your window onto the sidewalk or rience. In fact no kind of human experience is the same thing as material reality
it doesnt; either this sculpture affects me or it doesnt. You can say the same about itself, because experience is always a translation.
jokeseither you find them funny or you dont. There is no such thing as direct access to anything, and its quite easy to grasp
According to my model, art generates real objects and thereby shifts attention this point if you think about it for a minute. An infinite amount of knowledge about a
below the surface of experience. By the same token, causation has to make contact tree would not itself be a tree. I challenge any of todays leading advocates of absolute
with objects below the surface on which things relate to one another. To come into knowledge (such as my colleague Quentin Meillassoux, a marvelous philosopher) to
causal relation with a thing is not to come into contact with its surface, but with explain that difference. Theyd have to come up with some sort of theory about how
something that has not yet exploded onto the surface. my knowledge of the tree shares the same form or structure as the tree itself, but that
I can never be a fire or a tree any more than I can be you, a plant, or a dog, so the tree itself inheres in physical matter. And youll see that its already a fairly lame
obviously Im not proposing that we give first-person accounts of what the aesthetic outcome when theories of absolute knowledge have to rely on such a traditional and
experience of an inanimate object is like. But we can start to work out the structure undetermined concept of matter to explain the difference between a thing and
of what the relation between objects is like. And Im saying that the aesthetic expe- knowledge of that thing.
rience is much closer to that structure than is, say, the scientistic obsession with 6 Tristan Garcia, Form and Object: A Treatise on Things, trans. Mark Allan Ohm and Jon Cogburn
clearly articulated explicit propositions about the world. (And I said scientistic, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).

114 Object Object 115


So I would say that art generates realities, yes, but Im inclined to say that
someone has to be there as an ingredient in the reality. Does this threaten my idea
that causation itself has to have an aesthetic structure? Not at all, because causal
agents also have to be present for causation to happen. To say that artworks exist
while no one is observing them seems to be the equivalent of saying that gunpowder
is exploding even when no fire or spark is present.

Why, in order to be art objects, do such objects require attentive human

observers? Why human? And why attentive?

With human I was simply trying to make a concession. Quite often these days Im
treated (by iek and even by Meillassoux) as a wild panpsychist who wantonly ret-
rojects purely human attributes into rocks and bottle caps.7 So, by saying human
I simply wanted to avoid the impression of having too inflationary a vision of the art
world. Aesthetics is everywhere, even in inanimate causation; this follows directly
from my ontology. But not all aesthetics is necessarily art. Here we are dealing with
what is surely a much narrower realm, though one whose boundaries I find difficult
to draw. Yet it seems clear that even if a horsefly landing on the Winged Victory of
Samothrace is having an aesthetic experience (in my expanded ontological sense
of the term), by no means will it be experiencing that famously mutilated statue
as an artwork.
The word attentive is an even more harmless concession on my part. Unlike
Garcia in Forme et objet, I dont think that artworks are artworks even when no one is
experiencing them. A spectator is a real component of the artwork, just as an engine
is a real component of a car or Paris is a real component of France. It is possible to
stumble into a gallery in a drunken stupor and utterly miss some unknown (or even
known) masterpiece, because you arent doing the needed work, or arent paying
attention. Stated differently, attentive is simply a placeholder term for a fuller
theory of how the spectator serves as part of the artwork, while human is a place-
holder pending a fuller theory of cognitive gradations in the animal kingdom.
No philosophy is ever finished, and it is often necessary simply to mark out avenues
where we hope to work in the coming years orGod willingweeks.

7 Slavoj iek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism
(London: Verso, 2012), 640.

116 Object
Fig. 6
Fig. 7

Fig. 8
Fig. 9
Fig. 10
Sonic Thought
Christoph Cox

Philosophical aesthetics suffers from a peculiar arrogance toward its object of inquiry,
an arrogance that the non-philosopher Franois Laruelle calls the principle of
sufficient philosophy.1 With this clumsy phrase, Laruelle names the pretension of
philosophy to elevate itself above any object or discourse so as to offer a philosophy
of it: a philosophy of science, of art, of music, and so forth. For millennia, philosophy
has conceived itself as the queen of the sciences, claiming the ability to reveal
what its object cannot reveal about itself: the essence, nature, or fundamental reality
of that object. Philosophy thus dominates its object, subjecting it to philosophical
rule. Convinced that its object is fundamentally ignorant about itself, philosophy
is little concerned with what that object has to say on its own behalf.
How might one challenge this domination, allow the object to speak, put
it on equal footing with philosophical thinking, permit it to generate concepts rather
than solely to be subject to them? In the case of music and sound, what would it
mean to think sonically rather than merely to think about sound? How can sound alter or
inflect philosophy? What concepts and forms of thought can sound itself generate?
My aim here is to track some of the ways that philosophy has or could be inflected
by sound to produce not a philosophy of sound or music but a sonic philosophy.

Sonic Ontology

Sonic philosophy begins not from music as a set of cultural objects but from the
deeper experience of sound as flux, event, and effect. Arthur Schopenhauer and
Friedrich Nietzsche are exemplary figures here, for both present not a metaphysics
of music but a musical metaphysics. For Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, music
directly figures the world as it is in itself, the primary forces and movements that
drive all natural change, tension, creation, and destruction. In a passage celebrated
by Nietzsche, Schopenhauer writes: Music [] expresses the metaphysical to every-
thing physical in the world, the thing-in-itself to every phenomena. [] It gives the
innermost kernel preceding all form, or the heart of things.2 Nietzsche famously
An earlier version of this essay appears in Artpulse, 2013 (
1 See, for example, Franois Laruelle, A Summary of Non-Philosophy, in The Non-Philosophy Project,
ed. Gabriel Alkon and Boris Gunjevic (New York: Telos Press, 2012), 25ff. In the context of aesthetics,
see Photo-Fiction, a Non-Standard Aesthetics, trans. Drew S. Burk (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2012), 3ff.
2 Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. I, trans. E. F. J. Payne (New York:
Dover, 1969), 26263, quoted by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, 16.

Object 123

argued that the relationship of music to images and objects is that of becoming visual arts fostered by Robert Morris, Robert Smithson, Robert Barry, Michael Asher,
to being, a virtual flux to the relatively stable actual entities it discharges.3 That is, and others whose emphasis on process, multisensory experience, and immersion defied
music and sound present us with an ontology that unsettles our ordinary conception the autonomy, medium-specificity, and purely visual or optical conception of art char-
of things. In philosophy, ontology is the subdiscipline that investigates being, deter- acteristic of high modernism, most famously articulated by Clement Greenberg.5 Post-
mining what there is or what sorts of things exist. We ordinarily operate with an Minimalisms challenge to these features of modernism opened two different paths
ontology that begins and ends with what J. L. Austin wryly called moderate-sized for artistic practice. Art could pursue the dematerialization of the art object6 by
specimens of dry goods, the objects of our everyday experience: apples, chairs, way of the concept, the idea, language, and discourse; or it could pursue an expanded
trees, cars, and so forth.4 This ordinary ontology extends to include larger objects conception of matter extending beyond the limited domain of ordinary, middle-sized,
such as mountains or stars, and can accept scientific objects such as subatomic par- visual and tactile objects (paintings and sculptures, for example), a notion of matter
ticles, provided that they are taken to be tiny versions of ordinary thingsstable, understood as a profusion of energetic fluxes. While a few artists saw these two paths
solid, and durable, though very small. Indeed, when we speak of matter, we tend as parallel rather than divergent, Conceptual art tended to follow the first path, sound
to think solely of solid matter. Few would take liquids, gases, or plasmaswater, air, art the second. In so doing, Conceptualism was bolstered by a set of latently idealist
or fire, for exampleas paradigms of matter. theoretical programs insistent that our access to the real is fundamentally discursive,
This ordinary ontology privileges the senses of sight and touch; or rather, the thus dismissing any notion of nondiscursive perception, materiality, or reality.
senses of sight and touch determine this everyday ontology. The invisible, intangible, During the 1970s and 80s, these critical programs came to dominate the
and ephemeral objects (so to speak) of smell, taste, and hearing seem to have only a visual and literary arts, offering powerful, sophisticated, and effective analyses of
shadowy existence relative to the standard of the ordinary solid object, whose pres- images and texts. By contrast, the provocation posed by sound art was not extensively
ence is guaranteed by eyes and fingers, and enshrined in common sense, which pursued philosophically or theoretically. As a result, sound art was left without a
names an entrenched hierarchy of the senses rather than some common agreement robust theoretical basis or mode of apprehension and was thus relegated to a minor
among them. But surely sounds, odors, and tastes exist, and surely they are as status, at best an adjunct to music, at worst a naive or retrograde incursion into the
material as sticks and stones. Sounds, to take the example that concerns me here, visual arts. Thus, while Conceptual art became a dominant concern for art histo-
set eardrums aquiver, rattle walls, and shatter wine glasses. Indeed, sound is omni- rians and critics and a pervasive influence on the art of the past half-century, sound
present and inescapable. Lacking earlids, we are forever and inescapably bathed in art remained (until recently) a neglected and underground mode of art-making that
sound, immersed in it in a way that we are not immersed in a world of visible objects. attracted very little critical or art historical analysis. It is no coincidence that the
An attention to sound, then, will provoke us to modify our everyday ontology and emergence of powerful realist and materialist philosophies since the late 1990s has
our common sense conception of matter. Sound lends credence to a very different been paralleled by a renewed interest in sound.
sort of ontology and materialism, a conception of being and matter that can account Sound arts greatest forefather, John Cage, invited us to think of sound and
for objecthood better than an ontology of objects can account for sounds. music not as bounded by musical works but in deeply realist and materialist terms
as an anonymous flux that precedes and exceeds human contributions to it. This
conception of sound courses through the history of sound art, from Max Neuhauss
Sonic Flux Times Square, La Monte Youngs Dream House, and Alvin Luciers Music on a Long
Thin Wire to Christina Kubischs Electrical Walks, Francisco Lpezs trilogy of the
Music has always posed an ontological problem, for (unlike the score or the recording Americas, and the work of contemporary soundscape artists such as Chris Watson,
that attempt to capture it) it is intangible and evanescent but nonetheless powerfully Jana Winderen, and Toshiya Tsunoda. If we accept this Cagean conception, sound
physical. This ontological problem is compounded by sound art, which, from its very constitutes one flux among many, joining the profusion of flows catalogued by
inception in the late 1960s, challenged the ontology of objects and, in particular, the Manuel DeLanda in his magnificent book A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, which
modernist work of art. Though clearly an outgrowth of the Cagean tradition in experi- conceives all of nature and culture as a collection of flowsflows of lava, genes,
mental music, sound art emerged within the milieu of Post-Minimalist practices in the
5 Notably in Modernist Painting, in Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4: Modernism with a
3 See Friedrich Nietzsche,The Birth of Tragedy, 5, 6, 8. For more about Schopenhauer and Vengeance, 19571969, ed. John OBrian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), but also in
Nietzsche on music and sound, see Christoph Cox, Beyond Representation and Signification: Sculpture in Our Time, in the same volume.
Toward a Sonic Materialism, Journal of Visual Culture , vol. 10, no. 2 (August 2011): 14561. 6 See Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (Berkeley:
4 J. L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), 8. University of California Press, 1973).

124 Object Object 125


bodies, language, money, information, and so onthat are solidified and liquefied, philosopher Nietzsche, who argues that there is no being behind doing, effecting,
captured, and released by way of various processes that are isomorphic across these becoming; the doer is only a fiction added to the deedthe deed is everything.11 Or
various domains.7 Yet, as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche pointed out, the sonic flux is as Henri Bergson put it: There are changes, but there are underneath the change no things
not just one flow among many; it deserves special status insofar as it so elegantly and which change: change has no need of a support.12 And if sonic philosophy liberates the
forcefully models and manifests the myriad fluxes that constitute the natural world. deed from the doer, becoming from being, the verb from the noun, it also liberates
the effect from the cause. This ontology of the causeless effect is richly developed
by Gilles Deleuze, who, inspired by the Stoics, distinguishes between two kinds of
Sonic Events entities.13 In the first place, there exist bodies that have various qualities, that act and
are acted upon, and that inhabit states of affairs in the world. Yet, in addition to
Sound, then, affirms an ontology of flux in which objects are merely temporary concre- bodies, there exist incorporeal events or effects that are caused by bodies but differ in
tions of fluid processes. This flux ontology replaces objects with events, an idea nicely nature from them. Like Nietzsche, Deleuze asks us to think the ontology of the verb
demonstrated in Casey OCallaghans book Sounds, which provides another exemplary as distinct from that of the noun (bodies) and adjective (qualities): the verb as a pure
instance of sonic philosophy.8 Sounds are intangible, ephemeral, and invisible; but, becoming independent of a subject. Such becomings are best captured by verbs in
OCallaghan shows, they are nonetheless real and mind-independent. Sounds persist in the infinitive (to cut, to eat, to redden), which have no subject and are bound
time and survive changes to their properties and qualities. Thus, they cant be treated to no particular context.14 They simply describe various powers of alteration in the
as secondary qualities (such as colors or tastes) that are relative to their observers; nor world, powers of becoming that are variously instantiated.
are they the properties of their sources, which cause or generate them but nonetheless As continuously varying fluxes that are separable from their causes and main-
remain distinct and separate. In short, sounds are not tied to objects or minds but tain their own independent existence, sounds exemplify this ontology of events and
are independently existing entities. This is exactly what Pierre Schaeffer (the father becomings, and do so in two senses. In the first place, sounds are not punctual or
of musique concrte and one of the progenitors of sound art) aimed to show in his static objects but temporal, durational flows. In this they accord with an empirical
analysis of the objet sonore: the sonorous object considered independently of its source, account of events and becomings as processes and alterations. Yet, beyond this empir-
an entity to which audio recording draws attention but that ordinary experience also ical sense, sounds are also events and becomings in another sense: a pure, incor-
routinely encounters.9 For Schaeffer, the sonorous object has a peculiar existence dis- poreal, or ideal sense. We saw that sounds are not only events but effects,
tinct from the instrument that produces it, the medium in or on which it exists, and results of bodily causes that are nonetheless distinct from those causes and that
the mind of the listener. Sounds are not qualities of objects or subjects; rather, they have an independent existence of their own. But sounds are effects in another sense
are ontological particulars and individuals. Yet Schaeffers language of the sonorous as well, in the sense in which scientists speak of the Kelvin effect, the butterfly
object misses the mark. For sounds are peculiarly temporal and durational, tied to effect, or the Zeeman effect.15 Such descriptions refer to recurrent patterns of
the qualities they exhibit over time. If sounds are particulars or individuals, then they possibility, diffuse multiplicities that nevertheless have a coherence or consistency.
are so not as static objects but as temporal events.10 The isolation or individuation of such effects is very different than that of a thing,
substance, subject, or person. Deleuze calls them haecceities, which names a mode
of individuation characteristic of events: a wind (the mistral or sirocco, for example),
Sound Effects a river, a climate, an hour of the day, a mood.16 Effects of this sort arise historically

This ontology of events is unsettling for it proposes that happenings, becomings, 11 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, 13, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche,
ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 1992), 481.
and changes exist independently of the subjects and objects that produce or undergo 12 Henri Bergson, The Perception of Change, in The Creative Mind (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2007), 122
them. To put it another way, it gives priority to the verb, which is no longer con- (emphasis in the original).
ceived as subordinate to the noun. This is exactly the view proposed by that sonic 13 See, for example, Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1990), 4ff; Dialogues, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1987), 6366; A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis:
7 Manuel DeLanda, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (New York: Zone Books, 1997). University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 86ff; and What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and
8 Casey OCallaghan, Sounds: A Philosophical Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 21, 1267, 156ff.
9 Pierre Schaeffer, Acousmatics, in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, ed. Christoph Cox and 14 See Logic of Sense, 18285.
Daniel Warner (New York: Continuum, 2004), 7681. 15 See Logic of Sense, 7, 70, 18182.
10 See OCallaghan, Sounds, 11, 2627, 5771. 16 Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 261; cf. Dialogues, 92ff, 15152.

126 Object Object 127


(hence their frequent attribution to the scientist who isolated them) but are recur- the type of casings and the material surfaces on which they fall. Yet, sonically, the
rent, forming relative invariants that are irreducible to their empirical instances. installation is remarkably tranquil and nonviolent, like a spare, aleatory percussion
This notion of effect, independent of cause, has a broad and important set composition or a cascade of rain. Ones attention is drawn to the timbral and textural
of usages in the world of audio. Musicians use the term to refer to the distinctive differences between the sounds rather than to their real-world or cinematic causal
timbral and textural modulations (reverb, fuzz, echo, flange, distortion, and so referents.18 Kubick and Walshs sculpture To Make the Sound of Fire (2007) similarly
forth) produced by electronic signal processing devices known as effects units. highlights the disjunction between source, sound, and function.19 Consisting of a
Sound researchers Jean-Franois Augoyard and Henry Torgue have adopted this list plexiglass box containing a few sheets of crumpled wax paper (used by foley artists
of effects and expanded it beyond the domain of music to generate a catalogue to generate the sound of fire), the silent piece invites viewers to imagine the sound
of eighty-two sonic effects [effets sonores] that characterize everyday urban sound- such a material might make, and to compare it with their silent mental conjurings of
scapes: attraction, blurring, chain, dilation, fade, etc. Though inspired by Schaeffer, the sound of fire. The infinitive title highlights the role of this and all sound effects
Augoyard and Torgue abandon Schaeffers object in favor of Deleuzes effect in as haecceities or singularities, elements or processes to be drawn into proximity with
an effort to describe the soundscape not as field of discrete entities but as a flux of others in the incarnation of actual cinematic entities and events.
haecceities, recurrent but transitory auditory modalities and intensities.17 An even Kubicks recent project Hum Minus Human (2012) elegantly brings together
more extravagant expansion of the notion and number of auditory effects can be several features of the sonic ontology Ive been describing.20 A single-channel
found in the archives of sound effects employed by the radio and film industries video, the project presents a nearly randomized sub-catalogue of drones
since the 1920s. Ontologically and aesthetically, the sound effect is a peculiar collected by searching through a commercial sound effects archive using the key-
entity. Generally anonymous, unattributed to an author or composer, these sounds word hum and subtracting those results that turn up human sounds. The
are produced for incorporation into radio plays, films, TV shows, and video games. piece freely combines the sounds of nature, culture, and industrylight trans-
Yet they float free of these concrete instances, constituting a general reserve used formers and cicadas, arc welders and bumble bees (etymological source of the
in very different productions and contexts. Though they are attached to particular word drone in English)that form the sonic backdrop of our lives. In one sense,
objects and situations in the image tracks of films to provide a convincing auditory the minus human in the title simply describes a search function. But it has
complement, they are very often generated from sources and events that have little a broader significance as well, attuning us to that Cagean, Nietzschean,
to do with the objects or situations that receive them. (Sheets of metal produce the Schopenhauerian sonic flux that precedes and exceeds human being. This non-
sound of thunder; frozen romaine lettuce generates the sound of broken bones; and human conception of the sonic fluxand the ontology of events and effects it
so on.) Moreover, sound effects are often combined with one another to generate affirmsis strange. It unsettles our ordinary ways of speaking, sensing,
new sound effects that diverge further from their components. and conceiving. A philosophical aesthetics that approaches sound and music with
These ontological and aesthetic peculiarities of sound effects have been explored a conceptual apparatus already in place will reject it or be deaf to it. Yet, sonic
by a number of artists. Working with commercial sound effects libraries, the duo philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Schaeffer, Cage, OCallaghan,
Chris Kubick and Anne Walsh present these effects in their virtual state, as detached and Kubick and Walsh do philosophy otherwise: beginning from a fascination with
sound files indexed by titles that are at once singular and generic (Amphibian Morph sound, they follow it where it leads, encountering a strange world in which bodies
4 From Rock to Flesh, Metal Squeal Huge 2.R, Power Buzz, invisible .R). The are dissolved into flows, objects are the residues of events, and effects are unmoored
sounds themselves likewise manifest this combination of the singular and the generic. from their causes to float independently as virtual powers and capacities. To think in
Though generated by particular sources and causes, they are capable of signifying and this way is to refuse the idealist enterprise that consists in imposing philosophical
functioning more broadly. Full Metal Jackets (2005), for example, is a sound sculpture concepts onto the real, subordinating the real to a set of formal syntheses taken to
composed of thirty-two small speakers scattered down a thirty-foot wall. A computer be ontologically distinct from it. Instead, sonic thought follows the flows of matter
draws randomly from an archive of 500 sound files documenting falling bullet shell and energy that constitute the real, producing concepts that are themselves instances
casings, and sends them to the speakers via eight different channels. At the base of of the syntheses by which the real articulates itself, as independent from the pre-
the wall and facing it, a monitor lists in real time the file names, which carefully detail tensions of philosophy as it is from those of non-philosophy.

17 Jean-Franois Augoyard and Henry Torgue, eds., Sonic Experience: A Guide to Everyday Sounds, trans.
Andra McCartney and David Paquette (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2005). On 18 The project is documented at
Deleuzes notions of event and effect, see pp. 10, 154n16. Deleuze briefly discusses sound effects 19 See
as instances of incorporeal events in Logic of Sense, 7, 70, 18182. 20 An excerpt can be found at

128 Object Object 129

Unnatural Participations
Nathan Lee

The Problem of Pleasure

In his famous critique of the institutionalization of sexuality, Michel Foucault argues

that the forces at work in the construction and regulation of the body should be under-
stood not as a matter of boundaries enforced or superseded, but rather as perpetual
spirals of power and pleasure.1 If there are, all too obviously, those who command by
saying no to wayward or unreproductive sexualities, Foucault redirects our attention
to the secret animating yes that affirms the pleasure felt in using such power.
Yet pleasure, as it turned out, has proven a less than seductive object of cri-
tique. The vast theoretical literature on biopolitics inaugurated by Foucault has
applied itself to an endless variety of problematics, and yet this discourse of power
has largely remained just that: an analytic of power, of control, of the regulatory
no, with far less attention paid to the nature, function, and co-determining role
of pleasure. This curious blind spot in post-Foucauldian critique is the subject of
a recent essay by Tim Dean titled The Biopolitics of Pleasure.2 Dean attempts
to unknot the elusive concept of pleasure and account for its marginalization in
contemporary thought. Power stripped of pleasure tends to isolate its position and
externalize its effects, whereas the immanent model proposed by Foucault allows
no easy demarcation between, say, sovereign power and homo sacer.3 Missing from
the dominant biopolitical critiques of power, Dean claims, is an account of the
microphysics of its functioning at the corporeal level.4 He returns to the figure of
the spiral, suggesting that Foucault may have had the double helix of DNA in mind
as his model. Thus aligned to the discourse of molecular biology, Foucaults spiral
may, according to Dean, shift the terms of critique toward a radical immanentism
accounting for what Foucault elsewhere called the subindividual microphysics of
power and pleasure. A biological perspective on biopolitics would reframe the scale
of analysis and recast the problems of control and relationality within a domain of
subindividual multiplicity.

1 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage
Books, 1978), 45.
2 Tim Dean, The Biopolitics of Pleasure, South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 111, no. 3 (Summer 2012):
3 One might venture that Agambens sovereignbare life relation caricatures that of Hegels
master-slave, were it not for the fact that the former hardly qualifies as a power relation
in Foucaults terms, owing to the extreme centrifugation that deprives one half of the couple
of any leeway whatsoever. Ibid., 491.
4 Ibid., 492.

130 Object Object 131


Theres nothing novel about this vantage point. Biologists have long understood social networks and structures of assembly, fantasies and identifications. And while
the human body as a vast, ever-mutating colony of microbial agents whose agendas barebacking in general has been met with an outpouring of discussion in the popular
may or may not coincide withor even determineour own. A good case can be press, as well as a growing corpus of attention from the social sciences, it is this more
made for our nonexistence as entities, Lewis Thomas observed as long ago as 1974. limited, subcultural usage that has produced a vigorous body of theoretical critique.
We are not made up, as we had always supposed, of successively enriched packets of More than some dubious, marginal kink, barebacking poses crucial problems of
our own parts. We are shared, rented, occupied.5 How pleasure might be brought to bodies and intimacy, relationality and ethics, genealogy and futurity, fantasy and iden-
bear on this indwelling swarm is a far less settled matter and one that reemerges as a tity. This new twist on the spirals of power and pleasure has received its most insightful
critical question given the advent of a sexual practice whose intense devotion to plea- analysis by Dean in Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking,
sure is organized around the transmission and affirmation of a microbe: the HIV virus. a book that questions what happens when we self-consciously open our bodies to
nonhuman life. For Dean, sexual adventure opens a space for other forms of cultural
or political adventure; and it is the distinction of bareback subculture to organize
Infection as Filiation an arena of invention that involves experiments in how to do things with viruses.8
One of Deans most striking examples is the concept of viral kinship: an
In his 1993 essay The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous, Gregg Bordowitz fantasizes embrace of viral transmission as the mechanism for transindividual connectivity.
about barebacking with Charles Ludlam, the founder of the legendary Ridiculous Bareback breeding reconceives infection not as contamination by a destructive
Theatrical Company: foreign agent, he argues, but as an inscriptionan unlimited intimacyof genea-
logical power. The peopling warned of in safer sex discoursebe careful when you
In my fantasy, I want Ludlum to fuck me without a condom. Id receive sleep with someone, for you are sleeping with everyone they have ever slept withis
his cure as gift. Searching for a model, I wish for a legacythe love and reconceived as a positive value. Affirming HIV transmission as a technique for sus-
approval of a father. I want to achieve his stature. In my fantasy, Ludlams taining relations to the past inverts the perspective on barebacking as a disavowal of
greatness can be passed on to me through his semen. A condom would history. Barebacking, for those who lived through the AIDS crisis, may be practiced
thwart this transference. This is a fantasy about immortality; that some- neither in ignorance nor as a dismissal of the battles won by their fallen brothers,
thing exists greater than ourselves, shared between us.6 but precisely as a way to maintain affective ties with them. (Dean goes so far as to
herald barebacking as the next logical step in the enterprise of gay promiscuity.9)
Bordowitz doesnt use the word barebacking because he couldnt: the term entered Likewise, for those who inherited the AIDS crisis as an historical event, barebacking
the lexicon a few years after the writing of his essay.7 Barebacking is a notoriously mul- cannot be dismissed as (nor excused from) ignorant self-interest. Just as Bordowitz
tivalent term that falls into two general applications. In the widest sense, it describes dreamed of being inhabited, and enriched, by Ludlams semen, viral kinship can be
any instance of anal sex without the use of condoms, whether calculated and deliberate deployed as a vehicle for transgenerational solidarity. What would it mean, Dean
(between monogamous partners with the same HIV status, for example) or spontaneous wonders, for a young gay man to trace his virus back to Michel Foucault?
and circumstantial (the situational slip). Another, more specialized use is devoted to
a subculture for whom the abandonment of condoms is linked to a self-conscious explo-
rationand celebrationof what it means to exchange HIV through sex. Barebacking, Micro(meta)physics
in this more specific and radical sense, has developed its own rituals and language,
Provocative as such ideas are in their revaluation of sex and HIV, Deans theo-
5 Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (New York: Viking Press, 1974), 34. For
a recent popular account of current microbial research and the challenges it poses to concepts rization of barebacking remains bound to a model of thought predicated on the
of agency and subjecthood, see Michael Pollan, Some of My Best Friends Are Germs, New York desiring subject. If, as he writes, the peculiarity of bareback sex resides in its
Times, May 15, 2013. deliberate involvement of a pathogenic parasite, his critique nevertheless largely
6 Gregg Bordowitz, The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous and Other Writings 19862003, ed. James Meyer
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 47. conceptualizes this involvement as a one-way relation.10 The corporeal critiquea
7 Barebacking emerged more or less simultaneously with the advent of antiretroviral drug therapies
in the mid-late 1990s and thus designates a historically specific practice; people fucked without 8 Tim Dean, Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking (Chicago: University
condoms before HIV/AIDS, but no one barebacked. For a concise overview on the origins of of Chicago Press, 2009), 47.
barebacking, see Eric Rofes, Dry Bones Breathe: Gay Men Creating Post-AIDS Identities and Cultures 9 Ibid., 5.
(New York: Haworth Press, 1998), 1217. 10 Ibid., 94.

132 Object Object 133


microphysics of bareback power and pleasurewould proceed from the proposi- Such charges operate throughout molecular biology, and are determined by the
tion that the things we can do with a virus are tied up with the things a virus can do electrostatic forces of chemical bonding. Chemical charge, in turn, is linked to the
to us. What are these weird little bundles of molecules capable of doing? What are play of strong and weak forces at the atomic and subatomic level. Scaling these
their involvements, affects, and modes of relationality? forces down to their epistemological vanishing point brings us to the positionless
Such questions are founded on a primary indeterminacy. Viruses trouble our indeterminacies of quantum mechanicswhich is to say, the domain of onto-
criteria, unsettle our classificatory systems: biology has reached no consensus as logical speculation.
to whether they constitute a life form at all.11 Like all living beings, viruses contain
genetic material in the form of RNA. They reproduce, they evolve. Yet they lack
fundamental categories of the organic such as cell structure, and their reproduc- Unnatural Participations
tive power is parasitic rather than sexual, dependent entirely on union with a host.
Entering into relations with so liminal a being as HIV calls for, if not a definitive Immunologist John Dwyer has remarked that the evolutionary changes distin-
classification, at least some clarity about how it operates. guishing the ancestor of the AIDS virus found in monkeys from the human virus we
A single HIV virion contains two strands of RNA bound by a shell of viral call HIV would seem to have been planned by some viral architect who knew his
protein. This viral RNA is in turn enclosed by a layer of fatty molecules called lipids. immunology, so clever are the design changes incorporated.13 If Dwyers analogy
Seventy-two copies of a protein called Env protrude from this viral envelope, with each indulges in the familiar anthropomorphic metaphorswith intimations of intelli-
Env consisting of three glycoproteins (gp120) attached to a stem of three other gly- gent design no less!he is quick to follow with another that points us back in the
coproteins (gp41). On entering the body, HIV virions come into proximity with T-cells direction of impersonal processes: And yet in biological terms these apparently
either in the bloodstream or lymphatic tissues. The trio of glycoprotein 120 molecules deserved triumphs are more like those of a man who, having no idea of a safes
protruding from the viral envelope engage a structure of glycoproteins called CD4s, combination, sits patiently twiddling the dials at random until suddenly he gets it
with which they form a perfect match. This docking of HIV to T-cell is compelled right and the safe door swings open.14
by the polar or nonpolar charges carried by all molecules: the molecular key of the The moment an HIV virion first encountered a human T-cell was not an
HIV virus is drawn to, and perfectly fits, the molecular lock of the T-cell.12 event predetermined by either of their histories, but rather a co-becoming that
cut horizontally across their fields of being. This is what Deleuze and Guattari
have named unnatural participations: the open-ended potential of bodies at any
scalefrom a single HIV virion to a bareback orgyto connect, commingle, and
inaugurate the New.

How can we conceive of a peopling, a propagation, a becoming that is

without filiation or hereditary production? A multiplicity without the unity
of an ancestor? It is quite simple; everybody knows it, but it is discussed
only in secret. We oppose epidemic to filiation, contagion to heredity,
peopling by contagion to sexual reproduction, sexual production. Bands,
human or animal, proliferate by contagion, epidemic, battlefields, and
Figure 1. HIV Virion (Image by US National Institute of Health, redrawn by catastrophes. Like hybrids, which are in themselves sterile, born of a sexual
Carl Henderson CC BY 4.0)
union that will not reproduce itself, but which begins over again very time,
11 For an overview of this matter, see Luis P. Villareal, Are Viruses Alive?, Scientific American 291, gaining that much more ground. Unnatural participations or nuptials are
no. 6 (December 2004): 100105. the true nature spanning the kingdoms of nature.15
12 This primitive biochemical mechanism is commonly described as the capacity of HIV to look
for and attack its desired object, the T-cells. The anthropomorphic character of such language
has been the object of longstanding critique in HIV/AIDS discourse. For a classic analysis of the 13 John M. Dwyer, The Body at War: The Miracle of the Immune System (New York: New American
linguistic construction of AIDS, see Paula A. Treichler, Aids, Homophobia, and Biomedical Library, 1989), 130.
Discourse: An Epidemic of Signification, in Aids: Cultural Analysis / Cultural Activism, ed. Douglas 14 Ibid, 130.
Crimp (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988). On the militarized tenor of HIV/AIDS discourse, see 15 Gilles Deleuze and Flix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis:
Susan Sontag, AIDS and its Metaphors (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989). University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 241.

134 Object Object 135


Unnatural participation, thus conceptualized, reframes the question of viral kinship Law and Disorder
on the plane of immanence and depersonalizes Bordowitzs desire for something
Susan Schuppli
greater than ourselves, shared between us. Within the microphysics/metaphysics
of barebacking, pleasure in the Foucauldian sense is what officiates these nuptials.
It could be said to operate something like the will in Nietzsches doctrine of the
will to power: an impersonal, universal striving as the motor of becoming. Pleasure
JUDGE: Do you think this tape has been doctored in any way or does it
would then link up with radical affirmation, the absolute Yes to existence advocated
represent what you saw at the scene?
by Nietzsche so that existence can be transformed, revalued, overcome.
It is certainly striking that Paul Morris, founder of the notorious porn studio
Among the more than 90 million court records that comprise the archives of the
Treasure Island Media and the most articulate polemicist from within bareback cul-
International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) are two video-
ture, describes the practice in a manner that sounds like pure Nietzsche. Confronting
tapes shot by Liri Loshi (and Sefedin Thaqi) in the aftermath of the massacres at
head-on the monstrous implications of affirming viral transmission, Morris heralds
Izbica and Padalishte, Kosovo, in March 1999. These tapes form part of its material
barebacking as radical irresponsibility, devoted only to the perpetuation of a subcul-
evidence archive and were entered as exhibits during the trials of Slobodan Miloevic
tural ethos with little regard for anything else, including life itself.
and Milan Milutinovic. The following excerpts from the open court session on
October 26, 2006, capture a sense of the discussion as it unfolded with respect not
The everyday identity evanesces and the individual becomes an agent
only to the veracity of the images recorded on one of the tapes, but also regarding
through which a darker, more fragile tradition is enabled to continue.
its material integrity and the custodial handling of the videotape prior to its admit-
Irresponsibility to the everyday persona and to the general culture is nec-
tance into the legal archive of the ICTY.1
essary for allegiance to the sexual subculture, and this allegiance takes the
gay male directly to the hot and central point where what is at stake isnt
Q. Mr. Loshi, are the images we just saw also part of the video you filmed
the survival of the individual, but the survival of the practices and patterns
that day?
which are the discoveries and properties of the subculture.16
A. Yes.
Q. And could you describe to us what was taking place there in that part of
Have we reached becoming-imperceptible, the cosmic formula, per Deleuze and
the video.
Guattari, of all becomings?17 Or has one persona (the self-perpetuating neoliberal
A. What we saw here is a burial where we buried all thethese bodies that
subject) merely been replaced by another (the self-indulgent libertine)? If bareback
were found in those places that I was just describing before, and also all
subculture constitutes the next logical step in the enterprise of gay male promiscuity,
other victims in Izbica that were found in some other different spots were
that scarcely ensures the valueethical or ontologicalof its discoveries. That it does
brought here.
constitute a discovery calls for a new image of thought, one that asks what it means
JUDGE. And you say in that statement under oath: I recorded this
to form a rhizome with our viruses.
videotape myself on March 31 1999, and this original exhibit has been in
my constructive possession from the time of filming until now. Now, we
already know, thanks to the testimony that you gave in our subsequent
statements as well as here today, that in fact this statement you made under
oath is not true and accurate because Mr. Thaqi is the one who recorded
the video. Now, is it also the case that the second part of this statement,
that is to say that you had the original tape in your constructive possession
at all times before delivery to the Prosecutor, that statement is not accurate
and in fact is false. Isnt that correct?
16 Paul Morris, No Limits: Necessary Danger in Male Porn. Paper presented at the World 1 The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is a United Nations court
Pornography Conference, Los Angeles, California, August 8, 1998. Cited in Dean, Unlimited of law established in The Hague in May 1993 to prosecute war crimes committed during the Balkan
Intimacy, 57. wars of the 1990s. The first international war crimes tribunal since Nuremburg and Tokyo, it has
17 Deleuze and Guattari, Thousand Plateaus, 279. charged over 160 people; thirty of these trials are still in various stages of completion.

136 Object Object 137


A. No. This is correct, but I believe this is a misunderstanding. Because Appearing initially as erratic magnetic interference, the damaged materiality of exhibit
what I waswhat I said there or what I was trying to explain there, and P232, otherwise known as the Izbica massacre tape, eventually migrates into the image-
I didI believe I did so, was that just after the taping was done by Sefedin field, as the mute horror of dead bodies slowly coalesces to reveal itself to the camera/
Thaqi inafter a few days, I believe this was April 3 or 4, I cant remember viewer. The material violations evidenced in the dense overlay of defects caused by the
it now, we transferred the whole filming from his tape to VHS tape, which repeated copying and over-coding of the tape immediately alerts us to the material
I had it all the time in my possession. But that tape I couldnt bring with violations of the body-proper that will soon emerge out of the depths of the image.
myself to Albania because I found it very dangerous to take it with myself. In cinema such frenzied distortion in the visual field has come to signal immanent
Q. Now, with respect to Mr. Thaqis tape, am I correct that this tape was danger and threat, as the stability of a world organized as a coherent picture falls apart
at one point in time stolen by some thieves? and is consumed by violence. The massacre video cannot, of course, be compared to
A. Yes. At the time where I was looking for this tape, his own camera was the narrative constructions of cinema, given its status as documentary evidence of
stolen, I believe not because of the tape but becausethe tape was stolen a crime. But the impoverished condition of the tape, with its material degradations
because of camera. The thieves didnt even know what was in. And then and destabilized image-field, are disturbingly resonant with chilling effect, reminding
with the help of Shaban Dragaj I get a hold of this tape again. us of the political program that sought to eradicate difference through ethnic cleansing.
Literary critic Shoshana Felman has argued that the difficulty of producing
While the testimony of eyewitnesses has, since the late nineteenth century, been aided an intelligible narrative in the face of historical trauma characterizes the true act of
by photographs and other visual materials such as drawings and models, court pro- bearing witness. Drawing upon the filmed documentation of the Eichmann Trial, in
ceedings are increasingly shaped by a forensic account of events in which materially which a witness, Yehiel De-Nur, or K. Zetnik, fainted while attempting to testify, she
encoded truths are narrated by experts. Forensic blood work, such as comparative asks under what circumstances and in what ways the withdrawal of the legal con-
DNA analysis, offers an exemplary marker of this shift in juridical culture.2 Yet in ventions of speech can constitute a form of legal testimony in its own right.4 When
order for a material object or an entity derived from a computational database to recounting his own experiences of Auschwitz, Primo Levi likens his memory traces to
bear witness legally, given that it cant swear to tell the truth, it must move through the machinic operations of a tape recorder, which can rewind and play back history:
a sequence of bureaucratic stages that address its relevant features or structurally I still have a visual and acoustic memory of the experience that I cannot explain. [...]
recompose it. The extended legal debates around the videos shot by Loshi expose the Sentences in languages I do not know have remained etched in my memory, like on
degree to which the tension between what is captured on tape as visual information a magnetic tape.5 K. Zetniks memory erased the trauma of the camp, whereas Levis
and what is captured on tape as incidental inscriptions starts to play an increasingly recorded it. In both cases the capacity to bear witness occurs not through acts of spoken
significant role in the narration and production of the law.3 testimony but through technologies of inscription: the fainting body, the mnemonic
operations that rewind and playback like a tape recorder. Likewise, rather than reducing
their capacity to stand convincingly before the tribunals of history as witnesses to a
crime, the degraded quality of both of Loshis videotapes enhances their capacity for
testimony, insofar as the epistemic dimensions of an image-regime typically called upon
to account for historical violence through explicative narration is refused. Instead, their
material defects saturate the tapes with a different kind of information, producing a
form of ontological reckoning that doesnt require the supplementary intervention of
a human witness endowed with the task of extracting meaning from errant electrons or
executed bodies. Forcing wholeness and clarity from the massacre videotapes erratic
Video frame-grabs from Liri Loshi and Sefedin Thaqis footage shot in the aftermath of the Izbica image-data would, in my mind, violate the events anew, whereas allowing the tapes to
Massacre, Kosovo, March 28, 1999. [Source: ICTY Case No. IT-05-87: Milutinovic.]
disarticulate their material strata registers the radical incomprehensibility of what has
2 These ideas draw on the collective work of forensic architecture, a European Research Council
project led by Eyal Weizman at Goldsmiths, University of London. The project undertakes 4 Shoshana Felman, A Ghost in the House of Justice: Death and the Language of the Law, in
research that maps, images, and models sites of violence within the framework of international The Juridical Unconscious: Trials and Trauma in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
humanitarian law, producing spatial evidence in support of legal investigations that address University Press, 2002), 13151.
violations of human rights. See 5 Primo Levi, cited in Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans.
3 ICTY, Transcript 061026IT (The Hague: ICTY, 2010). Full Transcript available at Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 2002), 27.

138 Object Object 139


taken place. Their relevance is located not exclusively in what they can tell us about the camera containing the crucial Izbica tape (IT-05-87) was stolen and later recovered
historic events to which they gesture as technical witnesses, but also in their struggle in Albania along with the video. Loshis admission corroborates the damaged state
to meet the courts demand for coherent accounts of history. of the tape, which in addition to drop-out shows signs of extensive image-loss,
Writing about Francis Bacons paintings, Gilles Deleuze contends that photo- indicating that it was reprocessed by incorrect video codecs. Moreover, the pres-
graphs cannot produce an intensity of sensation, or rather cannot produce differences ence of rolling scan lines and yellow streaks suggests that at one point the video
within sensation in that, unlike painting, they do not activate the body and provide was copied by filming directly from a television screen. These are all factors that
different ways of seeing. Rather, they are merely a recording and a resemblance of what point toward the tapes ongoing transformation as it traveled between Kosovo,
we see.6 Painting, says Deleuze, requires the cooperation of the artists hand, which Albania, and The Hague.
is always in a relationship of imbalance with the eye. What the eye sees can never be At every juncture in these administrative circuits, the media object is imprinted
registered absolutely by the hand: something different always emerges from within by and modified through these processes, such that a kind of violence is done to the
the depths of paint. I contend that many of the media artifacts presented during the object akin to the subjective processes of forgetting and lying that characterize the
legal proceedings of the ICTY emphatically register this imbalance at the level of human witness. Because we have become so preoccupied with narrating the singu-
the machinic. Sensation emerges equally out of the technical reorganization of the larity of the object, we tend to render transparent the very means by which we are
image-event as it does out its mimetic regime: the tapes defective materiality forcing able produce such biographies, namely, the discursive uptake of the object within
an intensification of affect that supplements and at times even supersedes the horror different epistemic frameworks. Matter, in effect, only becomes a material witness
and despair captured on video. A different stratum of knowledge about these events of when the complex histories entangled within objects are unfolded, translated, and
crisisknowledge that arises out of processingis impelled into presence, activating transformed into legible formats that can be offered up for public consideration
the sensorial domain of testimony at the moment that the plane of resemblance (the and debate. Conventions that enable public forums to confer legitimacy upon the
appearance of things) gives way to the furtive emissions of the ontological substratum. speech acts of objects, and agreed-upon standards that permit material evidence to
At these moments of intensified image-compression, a new material witness might stand up to the scrutiny of evaluative and adjudicative epistemological frameworks
be said to emerge from within the depths of magnetic particles or pixels.7 need to be continually queried and tested. Yet without this dimension of public
discourse, media artifacts cannot fully attain the status of the witness; rather, they
remain virtual, carrying their archives of encrypted data into the future as mere
latent potential.
When materials, including computational objects, are subject to external pro-
cesses that bring about their structural reordering, they produce what philosopher
Isabelle Stengers has called an informed material, in the sense that their internal
composition becomes progressively enriched by information.8 The forensic analysis
of media is concerned not directly with representational matters, but with matter
as captured by different forms of technology and processed by different kinds of
Video frame-grabs from Liri Loshis footage shot in the aftermath of the Padalishte Massacre, Kosovo, legal or quasi-legal apparatuses. Politics likewise enters into the field of media not
March 26, 1999. [Source: ICTY Case No. IT-02-54: Miloevic.] simply at the level of representationthe content displayed in an imagebut at the
structural level of its acquisition, processing, and transmission of information. In
While the visceral defects of Loshis massacre videos do bear sensate and even the case of digital media, this politicization takes place at each processional junc-
symbolic witness to acts of palpable violence, their material degradation raised ture: when pure data is captured by sensors, transformed into binary code, assigned
serious legal questions regarding chain of custody and the credibility of Loshi pixel values, algorithmically adjusted, composited to produce a digital image, saved
himself as a material witness. Under cross-examination, Loshi admitted that the in a standardized file format, and transmitted to recombine with other circuits
of technical and social assembly. This is what I would call the micro-politics of

6 Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon and the Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith (London: 8 See Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers, A History of Chemistry (London: Harvard
Continuum, 2004), 49. University Press, 1996), 206. See also Andrew Barry, Materialist Politics: Metallurgy, in Political
7 The concept of the material witness is elaborated in my forthcoming book, Material Witness: Matter: Technoscience, Democracy, and Public Life, ed. Bruce Braun and Sarah Whatmore
Forensic Media and the Production of Evidence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, forthcoming). (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 90.

140 Object Object 141


processing: all the points of contact between the various networks of information especially at the level of metadata, where informational inconsistencies can imme-
transfer, translation, and transmission that are also points of potential transforma- diately raise legal doubts. Consequently, the international forums that adjudicate
tion and that allow difference, and thus politics, to enter. If the objects capacity to these materials must archive media in its original acquired state, regardless of how
bear witness is achieved by explicating its passage through various stages of admin- damaged it may be, in order to maintain its relative integrity. When presented in
istrative processing, its political dimensions are rendered visible when we attend to court, however, such materials are often duplicated and altered in order to be played
the precise ways in which certain kinds of information combine and recombine at properly. This was indeed the case with several audio files that were unintelligible in
these nodal points to produce new aesthetic, technical, and legal configurations. their raw state. Corrected copies sit alongside their original versions in the archives
Digital media, like all digital information, exists first as binary code and of the ICTY. In another case of audio manipulation, the sound of shelling was
requires several stages of processing before it can recompose itself into a compre- replaced with a birdsong when the video was presented in court for a second time
hensible image or sound. In order for digital materials to have any legal traction as in a different trial, once again raising doubts as to the authenticity of the video.10
evidence, they require approved procedures that guarantee the security of data and What emerges from an examination of these audiovisual materials is the extent
standardize their processing from code to pixels. Given this predicament, should the to which the court itself becomes a processing machine that works over the mate-
stability and integrity of information transfer be held accountable to an originary rials that enter its legal infrastructure and, in so doing, not only transforms them
event, or does the very condition of post-processing render its role as a material but also inscribes its legal protocols, producing signifying traces that can be read
witness suspect at best? This is especially pertinent to media materials coming out of and narrated alongside the official biography of the object.
conflict zones that are often produced and/or secured under challenging conditions.
Several other cases in ICTY that relied upon corroborating video testimony were JUDGE: Well, thank you for assisting us.
thrown into doubt when expert witnesses could prove that the evidence in question WITNESS: Youre welcome. [The witness withdrew]
had been spliced and reedited, thus nullifying its apparent truth claims.9 JUDGE: Whats to happen now?
A. I have the unenviable task to announce, Your Honour, that we have run
out of witnesses for this week.11

Expert witness testifying in 2010 to the authenticity of videos IC00820 and IC00821, depicting
the destruction of the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993. [Source: ICTY Case No.

While the Internet has dramatically increased the reach of citizen journalism, much
uploaded content is edited and captioned, thus highlighting its postproduction, which
the court regards as an impoverishment of its evidentiary capacity. Nonetheless, these
are often the only source materials that prosecutors have at their disposal to sup-
port a legal claim. With the advent of digital processing, the integrity of metadata
becomes an even more urgent legal issue as the potential for subterfuge sinks below
the threshold of human perception. Disputes around accusations of genocide and
war crimes are thus archived by media materials whose status is in contention, not
only at the level of representation (the information contained within the frame) but
9 See for example, ICTY, Prosecutors Observations Regarding Expert Report on the Authenticity
of Videotapes IC00820 and IC00821 (The Hague: ICTY, 2010); and ICTY, Prosecutors 10 ICTY, Gotovina et al. (IT-06-90) Operation Storm, ICTY transcript 080408ED (The Hague:
Observations Regarding Expert Report on the Authenticity of Videotapes IC00820 and IC00821 ICTY, 2008) 94546. See also ICTY exhibit 014: ACE 80901R0000320056.
(The Hague: ICTY, 2010). 11 Excerpted from ICTY, Transcript 061026IT (The Hague: ICTY, 2010), 5322408.

142 Object Object 143

Blobjectivism and Art
Terry Horgan and Matja Potrc

Austere realism is the view that the correct ontology does not include numerous
putative entities posited in everyday thought and discourse, entities such as cats,
trees, chairs, and mountains. Naive common sense initially supposes that the cor-
rect ontology does include such items. But after it gets into reflective mode, deep
doubts about the existence of these entities tend to arise. The cats composition
changes as it grows from that kitten to a grown-up animal. At what point does
it become an adult cat? There seems to be no determinate answer to this ques-
tionwhich means that the attribute being an adult cat is vague in its spatiotem-
poral boundaries. At what point after it dies and is cremated does this dead cat
cease to exist altogether? Again there seems to be no determinate answerwhich
means that the attributes being a dead cat and being a cat are also vague in their spa-
tiotemporal boundaries. And as it eats and drinks, it is even harder to determine
which are the exact ingredients that are literally parts of the cat (as opposed to
merely being contained within its body). Is that molecule of water, or this other
atom that was there in the food, literally a part of the cat? So the cat seems to be
a vague entity with respect to its synchronic composition. Similar considerations
reveal that virtually all the putative entities posited in everyday thought and dis-
courseand most that are posited in science too (cells, tectonic plates, galaxies,
and so forth)are vague with respect to boundaries and composition.
Deep doubts arise about the real existence of putative vague entities and
attributes when one ponders the infamous sorites paradox, which always looms
when vagueness is present. Sorites reasoning leads, via a sequence of individ-
ually unobjectionable-seeming inferential steps, to an absurd conclusion. For
instance, consider Mount Triglav in Slovenia. Imagine a pin inserted on its
top, and a second pin inserted a centimeter away from the first one, and a third
pin a centimeter away from the second, and so on in a single direction straight
down to the bottom of the plain of Ljubljana. Now there arises the following
reasoning: if the first pin is on the mountain, then the second one must be
on it as well; and if the second one is on the mountain, then third one must
be too; and so on, so that the pin at the bottom of the valley must be on the
mountain toowhich is absurd. When such sorites reasoning is carefully and
unflinchingly pondered, the conclusion reached by reflective common sense is
that ontological vagueness is impossibleand hence that the right ontology
cannot include cats, mountains, or any of the other vague entities that are
posited in everyday thought and discourse (and in much scientific thought/
discourse too). Likewise, mutatis mutandis, for vague properties that are posited

Object 145

in everyday and scientific thought/discoursefor example, properties such Truth is normally a relation of indirect correspondence
as being a cat or being a galaxy.1 between language or thought and the blobject.

In everyday thought and discourse, and in most scientific discourse, too, it is common
A species of austere realism, blobjectivism, to posit a multiplicity of objects many of which are vague in various respects (for
recognizes just one material object: the cosmos. example, in composition and in spatiotemporal boundaries), and it is also common
to apply vague predicates to these posited objects (meaning, predicates such as
Although austere realism as a generic position excludes all putative vague objects is tall, is intelligent, or is red). So when one is thinking or speaking as one
and vague properties from the right ontology, some versions of austere realism can ordinarily does, it seems just crazy to say that there are no such entities as cats or
embrace an ontology that includes a multiplicity of non-vague material objects mountains, and it seems even crazier to say that the only material object that exists
such as cat candidates that are perfectly precise in all respects such as spatio- is the blobject. So isnt austere realism a crazy view, and isnt the blobjectivist ver-
temporal boundaries and synchronic composition. However, we advocate and sion of austere realism even crazier? No, and the reason why not is that austere
defend blobjectivisma species of austere realism affirming that the correct ontology realism includes (in addition to its ontological claims) semantic claims that smoothly
includes one and only one material object: the entire cosmos (the blobject). The accommodate the positing practices of everyday thought/discourse and scientific
blobject is not homogeneous, but instead has enormous spatiotemporal structural thought/discourse.2
complexity and variability. Nevertheless, this structural complexity and variability The key is austere realisms account of truth. Although truth is a matter of cor-
is not a matter of relations among material objects in the right ontology that are respondence between language/thought and the world, in most contexts of thought
proper parts of the blobject, since the blobject has no proper parts. Rather, the and discourse the operative form of correspondence is indirect. Consider, for example,
complexity and variability arise by virtue of the fact that numerous (ontologi- the statement Slovenia belongs to the European Union. Although this statement
cally non-vague) properties are instantiated by the entire blobject in (non-vague) is certainly true, its truth does not require that the right ontology include entities
spatiotemporally local manners of instantiation. answering to the name Slovenia or to the referring-expression the European
One can get an intuitive feel for blobjectivism by envisioning a mass of Jell-O Union. Rather, naive common sense would say that the statements truth is a
that is nonhomogeneous in various ways: partially jiggling in one specific spatiotem- matter of behavior by a lot of human beings, behavior that is coordinated in various
porally local manner while otherwise remaining still, partially congealing in another complex ways; thus, although the statements truth does depend on the world, this
spatiotemporally local manner while otherwise remaining uncongealed, being par- dependence is indirect because it does not consist in there being ultimately existing
tially one color in a specific spatiotemporally local way while otherwise being some entities e1 and e2 in the correct ontology such that e1 is the referent of Slovenia, e2
other color, and so forth. (Think of the Jell-O as literally partless; and think of the is the referent of the European Union, and e1 bears the relation membership to e2.
just-mentioned properties as instantiated not by parts of the Jell-O but rather by Refined common sense, aware of the considerations that motivate embracing both
the whole Jell-O-mass, albeit in (non-vague) spatiotemporally local manners of austere realism and blobjectivism, extends the notion of indirect correspondence to
instantiation.) The principal theoretical virtue of blobjectivism, in comparison to virtually all everyday and scientific thought/discourse. What makes true any statement
other potential versions of austere realism, is that blobjectivism is ontologically that posits putative entities other than the blobject is the blobjects instantiating, in
more parsimonious. various spatiotemporally local manners, various (non-vague) properties; this is indi-
rect correspondence, because the right ontology does not include real entities that
1 Sorites reasoning introduces vagueness of language and thought as the tension between individualistic answer to the statements item-positing apparatus. Contexts of thought/discourse
(modus ponens transfer of the same truth value between neighbors) and collectivistic sequences
(the truth value changes at the end as opposed to the start of the sequence). For elaboration of the in which the operative form of truth is direct correspondencecontexts where one
contention that the sorites paradox reveals a form of logical incoherence inherent to vagueness, is inquiring about the denizens of the right ontologyare rare indeed, even in science.
and the corollary that ontological vagueness is impossible, see Terry Horgan and Matja Potrc, Austere Nonetheless, within such a context the following statement is true: There exists only
Realism: Contextual Semantics Meets Minimal Ontology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), sections
2.32.4; and Terry Horgan and Matja Potrc, Blobjectivism and Indirect Correspondence, Facta one material object, viz, the blobject.
Philosophica 2, no. 2: 24970. We also argue there that the various proposals in the philosophical
literature for blocking sorites reasoningfor example, by resorting to some version of nonclassical
logicdo not eliminate the logical incoherence inherent to vagueness but instead only quarantine
it and render it benign. The two texts mentioned in this note also contain additional arguments in
support of austere realism generically, and in support of blobjectivism specifically. 2 We spell out the parsimony argument in chapter 7 of Austere Realism.

146 Object Object 147


Perception, judgment, and public language typically are governed Art, we take it, builds upon semantic slack. The phenomenological character
by normatively tight semantic standards, whereas artistic judgment is not. of ones own aesthetic experience vis--vis a given artwork, however different that
phenomenology might be in comparison to the aesthetic experiences of others
Thought and discourse are virtually always governed by contextually operative vis--vis that same artwork, figures constitutively as a factor determining the truth
semantic standards; ontologically, these are normative properties, instantiated or falsity of ones own aesthetic judgment. For instance, concerning a given art-
spatiotemporally locally by the blobject. Much thought and discourse is governed workfor example, an abstract paintingone person can correctly judge true
by contextually operative semantic normative standards that are tight, in this the statement The painting is interesting, whereas another person can correctly
sense: these standards combine with how things are with the blobject to jointly judge this statement false. The contextually operative semantic standards governing
determine the truth or falsity of a given thought or statement. (The truth or fal- interesting, together with how the world is, leave semantic slackwhich gets
sity of The cat is on the mat depends only on how things are locally with the taken up by the aesthetic response of the person making the aesthetic judgment
blobject plus the semantic standards governing the cat, the mat, and is on.) and the associated truth/falsity judgment. (Typically, an artwork that confronts an
Likewise, much perceptual experience has representational content governed by experiencer demands that the experiencer make an aesthetic judgment about itif
tight indirect-correspondence semantic standardsstandards that then get trans- only of the form This does nothing for methereby situating both artwork and
ferred to perception-based judgments and to statements expressing those judg- experiencer within a novel perspective on each other and the world.) Ontologically,
ments. (Thus, the veridicality or non-veridicality of a visual experience as of the ones aesthetic experience consists of the blobject itselfthe only concrete entity
cat on the mat depends only on how things are locally with the blobject plus the in the correct ontologyinstantiating a specific aesthetic-phenomenology-property
indirect-correspondence semantic standards governing the pertinent aspects of in a specific, spatiotemporally local, first-personish manner. Semantically, this
the experience itselfthe cat aspect, the mat aspect, and the on-relation aspect.) property-instantiation makes correct ones own affirmation that ones aesthetic
Some kinds of judgment, however, are governed by semantic standards that are judgment is true.
not tight, but instead leave semantic slack that gets taken up by the first-person
sensibility of the person making the judgment. Humor judgments are a case in
point: when one person judges funny a joke that another person judges not funny,
the contextually operative semantic standards do not themselves combine with
how the world is to fix semantic correctness (that is, truth). Rather, each per-
sons judgment is partially expressive of that persons own response to the joke.
Likewise, when the one person judges that the statement That joke is funny is
true, whereas the other person judges that it is false, each persons truth/falsity
judgment is expressive of that persons own response to the jokethereby taking
up the semantic slack in the contextually operative semantic standards governing

3 For elaboration of the tight/non-tight distinction, within the general framework of contextual
semantics, see for instance Terry Horgan, Contextual Semantics and Metaphysical Realism:
Truth as Indirect Correspondence, in The Nature of Truth : Classic and Contemporary Perspectives, ed.
Michael P. Lynch (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 6795; Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons,
Cognitivist Expressivism, in Metaethics After Moore, ed. Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 255298; Terry Horgan and Mark Timmons,
Expressivism, Yes! Relativism, No!, in Oxford Studies in Metaethics 1, ed. Russ Shafer-Landau
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 7398;
and Horgan and Potrc, Austere Realism, 5.7.5. As explained in Expressivism, Yes! Relativism, No!,
invoking the tight/non-tight distinction does not constitute embracing relativism, because
judgments that take up semantic slack via ones own responsesboth first-order judgments and
truth-falsity judgmentsare construed as categorical in content rather than relativistic in
content. See also Horgan and Potrc, Epistemological Skepticism, Semantic Blindness, and
Competence-Based Performance Errors, Acta Analytica 28 (March 2013): 16177.

148 Object Object 149

Absolute Spectacle
McKenzie Wark

no fear of decay.
A null slumbering
among objects, nothing
Brian Kim Stefans, Speculative Realism

The Fetish of the Nonhuman Thing

Its a zircon, the oldest rock in the world, about 4.4 billion years old. This particular
planet is 4.5 or maybe 4.6 billion years old; so the oldest rock, a little bit of zircon,
goes back a ways. Its from the Hadean Eon, named after Hades, because, from any
human point of view, or from the point of view of any kind of life, it was rather hot
and unpleasant. Or so it is generally thought.
When geochemists Mark Harrison and Bruce Watson studied this little zircon,
they found some strange things. Its a crystal and grew as crystals do, and, as it did,
embedded in itself other atoms of whatever happened to be aroundin this case,
titanium. More titanium ends up in zircons when it is hotter than when it is cooler.
So, by counting titanium concentrations, its possible to know how hot it was when
the rock was formed.
What Watson and Harrison found is that this zircon crystallized at around 680
degrees Celsius, which means that it formed in the presence of water. As Watson
explains: Any rock heated in the presence of waterany rock, at any time, in any
circumstancewill begin to melt at between 650 and 700 degrees. This is the only
terrestrial process that occurs so predictably.1
I am not a geochemist, so I will have to take Watsons word for that. For me,
two things stand out from this story. The first is that it is possible to have knowledge
of something happening billions of years before there were people. That little zircon
is a lovely example of what Quentin Meillassoux calls the arche-fossil, a piece of
evidence of a world that has nothing to do with our species-being.2
But theres one other thing of interest, to me if not to Meillassoux. It is the
question of what makes it possible to have knowledge of the arche-fossil. I can think
about the arche-fossil. I can write about the arche-fossil. But neither thought nor
language is all that central to its existence. Lets also bracket off from its existence

1 Quoted in Robert Krulwich, The Oldest Rock in the World Tells Us a Story, NPR, January 11, 2013,
2 Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier
(London: Continuum, 2008).

Object 151

the fact that there is a science called geochemistry, existing in departments of uni- that could project sound films at the dawn of the talkies. It then diversified into
versities, communicating through peer-reviewed scientific journals and conferences. scientific instruments, but came back into the human-to-human media business
In a sense thats just the thinking and the language part of a knowledge of the arche- briefly in the sixties with the famous Scopitone movie jukebox.4
fossil understood sociologically. Rather, I want to draw attention to two things that The movies, as we know from Dziga Vertov, replace human vision with the
make it exist, one of which is important to Meillassoux, and one that escapes his kino-eye.5 The movies show to human vision something that is already inhuman. The
concern but is important to me. scientific instrument extends the range of perception even further, creating forms of
The one important to Meillassoux is mathematics: the zircon arche-fossil as inhuman perception across all sorts of scales and temporalities. Among other things,
a mathematizable description of the universe. From the Big Bang to the formation such instruments can perceive and measure arche-fossils, things that are completely
of its galaxies, its planets, and even its tiny rocks, the universe can be described alien to human sensory bandwidth and memory. Machine perception alienates the
mathematically, and as such, can exist outside of thought or language. It can exist human from the human, by being the inhuman register of the nonhuman.
outside of the knowing subject who thinks or writes noso long as one takes math- By ignoring machine vision, the media of the inhuman, we are left with a stark
ematics itself to be real. choice. On the one hand we have human thought and language, to which we might
The perspective on the arche-fossil that concerns me, though, is an appa- add human perception. It is a rather finite and bounded domain. On the other, we
ratus that combines labor and technology, by which a mathematical description of have the nonhuman domain of mathematics. Lets assume just for the moment that
a cosmic process, even a geochemical one, is tested. The zircon mentioned above mathematics really can touch the absolute and is not limited to the human. Then,
has been subjected to two such tests. At least one scientific procedure dates the as Meillassoux wants to do, one could take the arche-fossil as a kind of emblem of
fossil, and another measures the amount of titanium that crystallizes in it. One the existence of an absolute beyond even the nonhuman accessible to mathematics.
can imagine a mathematical description of the world as something nonhuman, as Yet between the mathematics of the absolute and the finitude of the human,
existing without a human subject. The technical work of producing knowledge out there is something else, something Meillassoux does not really even mention: the
of the arche-fossil also in a sense dispenses with the human, resting as it does on an apparatus. It is neither human nor nonhuman, and it exists in a liminal, undecid-
apparatus, an assemblage of labor and machine. This dependency on an apparatus able inhuman space. The apparatus requires human labor, but it is not reducible to
I will call the inhuman. It is, as we shall see, not quite the same thing as the non- the intersubjective realm of scientific discourse. It includes also the machine, which
human qualities of mathematical description. perceives and measures far beyond the realm of the human, registering the existence
Once one starts looking into the technical part, one finds oneself in a world of a great outdoors without touching the absolute.
of company websites for hardcore geek machinery. Let me just mention the com- With this question of the apparatus back in the picture, as it were, it is possible
pany Cameca, which among other products makes Electron Probe Analyzers for to ask whether, when we claim that mathematics touches the absolute, it touches
Materials and Geoscience: the absolute of a world that is real. Meillassoux approaches this by reviving the
distinction between primary and secondary properties. The secondary properties
The SXFive comes equipped with a versatile electron gun compatible with of any thing are its sensible ones. I see and feel the object; but is this really what
W and LaB6. The beam current is continuously regulated, achieving a matters about the object? And is this perhaps just the object as it appears to my
stability of 0.3% per 12 hours, thus enabling reliable long-term quantitative senses? On the other hand, its primary qualities, its mathematical essence, exist
analyses. The beam intensity is accurately measured thanks to an annular independently of appearances. Or so Meillassoux, building on Locke and Descartes,
Faraday cup and electrostatic deflection. The high voltage system operates would want to propose.
at up to 30 kV for elements with high atomic number.3 At this juncture, one could argue, as J. M. Bernstein does, that there is some-
thing fundamental to modernity about this split, about this sequestering of sec-
I really have no idea what any of that means. Of all the websites on these things ondary qualities.6 There is perhaps something inhuman about modernity, about its
I found, I chose this one, because Cameca got its start producing movie projectors production of a whole apparatus for apprehending and transforming things, in which
4 Jean-Charles Scagnetti, Laventure scopitone 19571983: Histoire des prcurseurs du vidoclip
3 See See also Early Earth, a special issue (Paris: Editions Autrement, 2010).
of Elements: An International Magazine of Mineralogy, Geochemistry, and Petrology, vol. 2, no. 4 (August 5 Dziga Vertov, Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, ed. Annette Michelson, trans.
2006). Scientific writing also regularly brackets off the specifics of the apparatus, but one can Kevin OBrien (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
discover its presence in a journal such as this via advertising, for machines by Rigaku, Australian 6 J. M. Bernstein, Against Voluptuous Bodies: Adornos Late Modernism and the Meaning of Painting
Scientific Instruments, the wonderfully named Rockware, and Comeca, among others. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).

152 Object Object 153


secondary qualities play little part. For Bernstein, after Adorno, the realm of the rather than a dogmatic vein. The ancestral rock is his avatar of an absolute world.
secondary quality is the realm of art. Art redeems what is sensed from calculation. But theres a problem here. What constructs the knowledge of the rock as truly
One could argue that theres something of a sleight of hand involved in the idea ancestral, as predating any human world, of pointing back, even to the origins of
of primary qualities. In Meillassouxs version, they exist intrinsically in the thing, and the universe itself ? Namely: an isotope whose rate of radioactive decay we know.10
are comprehended in mathematical form. Primary qualities can thus be held to be real Well, how do we know it? Through the apparatus.
in a philosophical sense. But they are not real in a scientific sense unless they can also Obviously, it is not part of our remit to appraise the reliability of the techniques
be measured. The measurement of primary qualities requires an apparatus, of machines employed in order to formulate such statements11 Obviously? There is a slippage
and labor, via which the primary qualities can be accounted for in terms intelligible as here. I doubtless know even less than Meillassoux about the science of geochemistry.
secondary qualities, as a numerical readout or a graph that can be seen, for example. It would not be my place to assess the reliability of a Cameca SXFive or any other
Indeed, one might say that for primary qualities to be real in a scientific sense requires apparatus. I am pretty sure that is not even the apparatus involved in this particular
the primary quality to be made legible as a secondary quality via a tertiary quality. The case. But I do take it as part of theorys remit to think the apparatus in general.
tertiary quality of a thing is how the apparatus perceives it. It is an inhuman percep- What we can say about the apparatus in general is that there are no statements
tion that makes the nonhuman primary quality legible via human secondary qualities. to be made about the ancestral that do not pass through its inhuman capacities to
What makes it possible for Meillassoux to loose a speculative philosophy from perceive and measure tertiary qualities. There is no correlation, but not because
the constraints of a phenomenological one is the absence of a third kind of thought, the object can be thought independently of the subject. Rather because the object
which for the moment I will leave unnamed. Its preoccupation is not the absolute is produced via something else to which the subject, consciousness, languagecall
nor is it consciousness, it is the apparatus, that neither nonhuman nor human thing, it what you likeis secondary. Or in short, in this other view, both primary and
the inhuman media between them. secondary qualities are products of tertiary ones.
One thing I am trying to avoid here is a retreat from the great outdoors, the So yes, we can agree that the ancestral witness is illegitimate from the view-
remarkable fact of the arche-fossil and all it represents, back into a phenomenology, point of strict correlationism.12 And so much the worse for correlationism. But
for which we cannot represent the in itself without it becoming the for us.7 in freeing the arche-fossil from the correlationist circle while ignoring the appa-
On the other hand, while I admire the elegance with which Meillassoux deploys the ratus, Meillassoux opens onto a great outdoors of a singularly philosophical kind.
absolute to open up a speculative philosophy of the real, I want to argue that such a Appearances to the contrary, it is not the great outdoors of science. Science can
project can only be a contemplative realism, and thus an aesthetic one. As such, it falls think a time anterior to givenness and indifferent to it; but Meillassoux can only
short of a certain project that for philosophy might be its last good calling. contemplate that time aesthetically or mathematicallyin any case as a result of
Key to Meillassouxs argument is the attack on what he calls correlationism, an apparatus that remains unthought. It may turn out not to be the only way that
defined thus: Correlationism consists in disqualifying the claim that it is possible Meillassoux exempts philosophy from a certain kind of engagement.
to consider the realms of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one anoth- Correlationism has at least one virtue for Meillassoux. It wards thought away
er.8 While there may be stand-ins for subject and objectthought and being, for from dogmatism. Precritical philosophies offered all kinds of metaphysical abso-
examplecorrelationist thought proceeds in a circle. lutes. Critical thought holds itself accountable to a mapping of its own limits. But
thought armed against dogmatism opened itself to another vice, what Meillassoux
Consciousness and its language certainly transcend themselves towards the calls fanaticism. Correlationism put a stop to philosophical means of speaking
world, but there is a world only insofar as a consciousness transcends itself of the absolute, but not mystical ones, which install themselves again as spokes-
towards it. Consequently, this space of exteriority is merely the space of models for what is on the other side of the thing as it appears to consciousness
what faces us, of what exists only as a correlate of our own existence.9 the thing-in-itself.13 In so limiting what it says of the great outdoors, critical thought
only enables certain kinds of mystical thinking.
The result is a cloistered thought, in which the arche-fossil is no longer a nonhuman
object of real wonder. Also gone is the absolute that so fascinated thinkers before
Kant. Meillassouxs project is to revive precritical philosophy, but in a speculative 10 Ibid., 10 (emphasis added).
11 Ibid. (emphasis added).
7 Meillassoux, After Finitude, 4. 12 Ibid., 11.
8 Ibid., 5. 13 For a contemporary mode in which this line of thought might be reanimated, see for example Eugene
9 Ibid., 7. Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror and Philosophy Vol. 1 (Alresford,: Zero Books, 2011).

154 Object Object 155


Meillassoux writes: Against dogmatism, it is important that we uphold As Meillassoux presents it, the original move of this school is to turn the
the refusal of every metaphysical absolute, but against the reasoned violence correlation itself into an absolute. It begins with an acknowledgement of the
of various fanticisms, it is important that we rediscover in thought a modicum of Kantian constraint, that the thing-itself is not knowable except by some dogma
absolutenessenough of it, in any case, to counter the pretensions of those who or other. But there is something knowable in-itselfthe correlation itself: They
would present themselves as its privileged trustees, solely by virtue of some reve- converted radical ignorance into knowledge of a being finally unveiled in its true
lation.14 For those who want a monist, secular, or materialist thought, theres absoluteness.20
merit in this argument. But in shutting the door to revelation, Meillassoux might I would quarrel here with this use of the term absolute, as I think it is not
actually open it to another kind of divinity, and another kind of trusteeone necessary at all to think of Mach, and still less Bogdanov, as making the correlation
that plays dice. into an absolute. But it is the case that, in Mach, sensation and, in Bogdanov, what
Sheering away from correlationism, and its insistence on the self-monitoring I am calling the apparatus replaces the dualist correlation with a monist concept
subjects centrality in constructing the thought of the object, Meillassoux heads in that also restrains itself from making claims in advance about the real beyond the
the other direction, to the object thought outside of correlation. Here, he applies practice of the apparatus, and yet does not hold consciousness or language to be
more than a modicum of the absolute. For him, if the arche-fossil stands for the an external self-monitoring observer that might contemplate with disinterest what
ancestral, and is thinkable, then the absolute is thinkable. But again theres a slip- the apparatus produces in the labor of knowing the world.
page here, from the arche-fossil as it appears to science to what Meillassoux wants In any case, for Meillassoux, such an approach passes the first test, avoiding
to make of it. The arche-fossil is a thing from beyond human time, but the absolute the correlation, but fails a second one: facticity. For him, thought does not expe-
need not enter into it. Knowledge of the arche-fossil is a product of an apparatus. It rience its limits in facticity, but rather its truth. Meillassoux founds his specula-
may come from 4.4 billion years ago, as in my example, or even from the beginnings tive, nondogmatic philosophy the same way Mach and Bogdanov did: by making
of the universe, but it is a measurable thing. a virtue of necessity. In the former case, this necessity was thinking past the
Meillassoux asks: How then is thought to carve a path towards the outside problem of correlation; in the latter, it is thinking past the problem of facticity.
for itself ?15 Like most philosophers, he does not take the road of the apparatus.16 In an original move, Meillassoux makes the absence of reason the ultimate
Instead, he wants a rationalism of the absolute that is not dogmatic. On the one property of facticity. There is no reason for anything to be or persist. All that is, is
hand, this rationalism must extract itself from the correlationist circle, and, on the contingent. Meillassoux writes: Everything could actually collapse: from trees to
other, it must not run aground on what he calls facticity, or thoughts inability to dis- stars, from stars to laws, from physical laws to logical laws, and this not by virtue
cover why what is, is. In other words, how can the absolute exist outside of thought of some superior law whereby everything is destined to perish, but by virtue of the
or language? And yet, why this world and not some other? absence of any superior law capable of preserving anything, no matter what, from
There is a path already marked out here that might escape at least from the first perishing.21
of these constraints, the first metaphysical counter-offensive against Kantian tran- Contingency here means how things persist or perish. Meillassoux revives the
scendentalism.17 It is the now little-known school of empirio-criticism attributed absolute in the form of contingency itself, but not in a dogmatic way. It is not that
to Ernst Mach and others.18 From it descends the tertiary position from which contingency is the new dogmatic answer to the problem of facticity. Rather, facticity
I am approaching Meillassoux, a position that is even less well known today but is neither necessity nor contingency, but rather our non-knowledge of when one or
was certainly known in French philosophical schools a generation ago. Its name the other applies. Even contingency is contingent.
is empiriomonism, and its central exponent is Alexander Bogdanov.19 Here comes the fun part: he goes on to argue, and rather convincingly, that
correlationism presupposed the absoluteness of contingency. For thought to appre-
hend the thing without a dogmatic metaphysics behind it is to embrace the possi-
14 Meillassoux, After Finitude, 49 (emphasis added).
15 Ibid., 51. bility, even if only for a moment, of its absolute contingency. Thus, the absoluteness
16 On the allergy philosophy has for the apparatus, or techn, see Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, of contingency must at least be thinkable for there to be a correlationism that dis-
1: The Fault of Epimetheus, trans. Richard Beardsworth and George Collins (Stanford: Stanford pels the illusion of a dogmatic absolute. According to Meillassoux, This absence
University Press, 1998).
17 Meillassoux, After Finitude, 51. of reason is, and can only be the ultimate property of the entity.22
18 For a critical assessment, see John T. Blackmore, Ernst Mach: His Life, Work, and Influence,
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972). 20 Meillassoux, After Finitude, 52.
19 Alexander Bogdanov, La science, lart et la classe ouvrire, trans. Blanche Grinbaum (Paris: Franois 21 Ibid., 53.
Maspero, 1977) (published in the Thorie series, directed by Louis Althusser). 22 Ibid. (emphasis in original).

156 Object Object 157


The Nothingness that Speaks French global infrastructure. Computing that data with an accurate model of the physics
involved takes a vast amount of computational power. Both data communication
Lets take stock: and computation friction impeded the study of climate until the late twentieth cen-
First, there is certainly value in breaking out of correlationism. One of correlation- tury. At the base of our contemporary knowledge of climate and climate change is
isms limits is that it is not able to think contemporary science without expelling the evolution, from system to network to webs, of a global climate knowledge infra-
from it precisely that about which thought really should wonder, such as the ances- structure, requiring coordinated global labors.
tral evidence of a nonhuman world. But there is a problem with the thing on which Climate science is our Napoleon at Jena, not the world spirit on horseback,
Meillassoux wants to posit a new absolute. The nonhuman, mathematizable qualities but the biospheric totality via COMSAT. If there is a shortlist of things calling us
of a thing could be thought as being outside of the subject and thus outside of the to a timely rather than a hesitant thought, then surely it is on that list. But philos-
correlatonist circle, but only at the price of excluding also the question of detection ophy has turned away from such things. It grew bored with the double binds of the
and measurement, which I am here calling the tertiary qualities of inhuman percep- subject; but rather than lift its gaze toward this world, it conjured up anotherthe
tion that properly belong to the apparatus. world of the absolute object. This contemplative realism provides a window through
Second, Meillassoux acknowledges two paths out of correlation, one of which which to observe the beauty of a world that actually is collapsing, and the solace
is (in my terms) via the apparatus, by thinking that inhuman machinery of per- of knowing that the world will go on, even if the human does not. Philosophy has
ception and measurement, and the labor by which it comes to us, of Harrison and found a spectacle outside of history once again, while the sirens go off all around
Watson and so many others. This we might call the empirical exit from correlation. us, calling us to put out fires both conceptual and real.
But Meillassoux takes the rationalist exit instead. It rests on taking facticity to be This is why I choose to begin again, but elsewhere, with Mach and Bogdanov,
as real a problem as correlation, and answering that problem in an original way: and a quite other path out of the correlationist circle, toward the inhuman beyond
there is no reason why what is, is. And better: theres no way of knowing why some phenomenology but falling short of the nonhuman and intimations of the abso-
of what appears is contingent and some not. This in turn is a tool for prizing open lute. This other theoryin its engagement with the apparatusmight not even
correlation, which in Meillassouxs argument has to entertain the possibility of a be philosophy. Yet it may have a few modest merits. It begins and ends with that
contingent world in order not to think it dogmatically, even if it settles instead for mingling of labor and technology that characterizes the times. It hews close to the
the cloistered world of the correlationist circle. Lets conclude, as we started, with problems that such an apparatus detects as the problems of the momentsuch
a particular example of an arche-fossil, if of a rather different kind, one perhaps as climate change. It makes no claim to be the trustee of a portal between this
not as glorious as the zircon, or even as identifiable as a thing. Lets consider not world and another. It makes no claim that either it, or its subject, is a rare event.
cosmology, but climate science, which gives us evidence of a very pertinent kind of It seeks only to equip everyday life with the tools for its own sustenance and elab-
collapse. Climate science tells us of past events, such as the climate of the Hadean oration. It has no interest in rendering the contemplative spectacle absolute and
eon, but also of a future one, the imminent climate of the Anthropocene epoch. eternal. It has an interest only in dispensing with the spectacle entirely. In this
Climate science abstracts from the fetishism of particular, contingent actions it does not hesitate.
on a certain localized scale, that of the biosphere, to show us also a future event
that has already occurred. The already transpired rise ofamong other gases
atmospheric carbon has already raised global temperatures in the future. Climate
science raises the alarm about an event that unfolds in slow motion all around us,
but beyond the scale and memory of human thought or perception. It too is a thing
that in its full wonder is outside the correlationist circle.
Climate science knows nothing of the absolute. It depends on an apparatus.
Indeed, one of the leading histories of it is called A Vast Machine.23 It has three
elements: predicting the weather, modeling the climate, and the physics of how
both weather and climate work. It took many decades to bring all three together.
Gathering timely weather data from disparate locations and altitudes takes a huge,
23 See Paul N. Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global
Warming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010).

158 Object Object 159

Pessimism and Realism
Eugene Thacker

Here ... everything is by design. In the history of philosophy, there is no single, agreed-
upon definition of realism. Depending on what one thinks about philosophy, this
is an occasion for concern or for laughter. And yet nearly every philosophy relies
on some realist claim, a claim to be able finally and definitively to articulate the
way things areno matter how strange or counter-intuitive such claims may seem.
In fact, it could be argued that the criterion of realism in philosophy today is pre-
cisely how counterintuitive and weird the claims are for the real. But inevitably
disagreements arise, schools are formed, weighty academic tomes are published,
and academic tribalism abounds.
In many philosophies, what is at stake is a claim about the real, though no two
claims are alike. Historians of philosophy usually resolve this by simply enumerating
the realisms promoted by various philosophers, one following the next in a neat,
sequential progression: Platonic realism (the world I see before me and the world
of abstract forms); Aristotelian realism (the abstract forms as inseparable from the
world I see before me); Hegelian realism (the world in itself as commensurate with
the structure of thought); Whiteheadian realism (process, becoming, and change as
primary; substances, objects, and things as secondary); and so on. Another approach is
to brand the types of realism in a transhistorical manner, across historical epochs and
individual thinkers: a naive realism (in which appearance and reality are the same);
an epistemological realism (reality is distinct from appearance and resides in abstract
universals; philosophys goal is to interrogate not appearances but the universals); and
an ontological realism (that which exists is real, even if not actual).
But in such lists and tables we are obliged to mention another kind of realism,
for which we must thank Kant, and which he would undoubtedly call a critical
realism, a realism that doesnt presume that the realwhether tangible or not
can be adequately known. It is almost an agnostic realism, though in saying this we
have already begun, according to Kant, to depart from the domain of philosophy
proper. Kant brings us the most modern realism that is at the same time indelibly
premodern (dare we say, mystical).

What You See Is What You Get. Simplifying to the extreme, we might offer the fol-
lowing: philosophical realism is predicated on two related but distinct approaches.
The first is the what you see is what you get approach, the attempt to under-
stand something without subjective bias, without idealism, without distortion. The
second is the just the facts approach, or the attempt to understand something

Concept 163

as it is without reliance on speculation, hypotheses, guesswork, or hoping for the a Being and Event, without acknowledging the placation of a Critique of Pure Reason,
best. In a way, the second approach follows from the first. In the first, what appears or the delusions of a Phenomenology of Spirit? Surely every philosopher feels, deep
to be a value-neutral acceptance of the way things are relies to a great degree on down, that if we could have figured it out by now, we would have done so long ago. All
the experience of a cognizing subjectand subjective experience is, as we know, that has changed is that we publish more books, not better books. Perhaps this is why
not the most reliable of measures for realism. What you see is what you get, yes, Heidegger, Whitehead, and others left their books unfinished, why Schopenhauer
but what I get is not necessarily what you get, and vice-versa. One then moves to kept on adding material to The World as Will and Representation, why Wittgenstein
the second approach, attempting, as it were, to bypass the perennially problematic retired early, and why Nietzsche and Cioran never bothered in the first placeas
area of experience without totally jettisoning the domain of empirical sense data. if they each awoke from their own dogmatic hangovers, and realized, too late, the
What is real is what can be verified, measured, analyzed, articulated as an object futility of the realist impulse. Or, perhaps they understood that one begins philos-
of study. One parses out experience into an elaborate architectonics of cognitive ophy the moment one abandons it.
functions (sensibility, understanding, reason); or one brackets the world in its
appearing to us as an object of study; or one prioritizes becoming over being, the *
continuous over the discrete, process over product; or one makes a turn away from A Very, Very, Very Short History of Philosophy. Philosophical realism in the West is built
reality in itself toward language, logic, and signs; or one enlists the descriptive rigor upon three pillars, pillars that are shaky, full of fractures, and mottled with peeling
of mathematical set theory and its capacity for managing parts and the whole. The paint (like a dcollage). The first pillar, a classical one, is that of Plato. With Plato
approaches vary, but the upshot is that what is real is indisputable, apart from we are introduced to a two-world view, a world of the here-and-now and a world
our desires, hopes, and wish-fulfillments. But this too runs into problems, in that beyond; a world that is immediately given and a world that is far off or at least
someone is always doing the measuring. A decision has been made about the sort of inaccessible. While innumerable commentaries have been written about this or that
logical game we will play today; and the criteria for verification are at best moving aspect of Platos allegory of the cave, its basic message is quite clear: theres got
targets. The apotheosis of this scientific realism is tautologythe real is real. to be more. What is simply given is fine, but its not enough, cannot be enough.
Besides, one persons reality is anothers fantasy, regardless ofor indeed because No, theres got to be more. Perhaps another world lies above or beyond this one,
ofhow finely it is measured. perhaps its coextensive with it and we just dont realize it; but there has to be more.
No doubt Plato learned this from the so-called pre-Socratic philosophers. Air-
* dropped into a world one has neither created nor asked for, the self gazes about,
There is a pessimism built into all attempts at a philosophy of realism. Philosophys perhaps bewildered, horrified, or fascinated, and asks the primordial philosophical
desperate push to attain the real is matched only its inability to do so. Realizing question: Is this it? Answering this question means parceling out the world that
this, one rescinds realism, but not reason. A new problem arises, a problem specific is questioned, a self that is questioning, and a problematic relation between them.
to pessimismwhat then to do with thought? For Plato, as we know, this was not it, and beyond every particular chair or book or
jellyfish was an abstract, perfected form of chairness, bookness, jellyfishness. And,
* while Plato has been overturned many times in philosophy, the intuition of the two
There is no philosophy of pessimism, only the reverse. worlds remains, though it often goes under different names, each of which stands
in for this basic relationship between the world as given and another world, perhaps
* more fundamental, that is not given: the One, Logos, God, noumena, the Absolute,
A realist claim is not always a claim about the real. Spirit, Will-to-Power, Being, duration, process, difference, the One.
The second pillar, a modern one, is that of Descartes. If Plato gives us the intu-
* ition of the two worlds, then Descartes gives us the means of traveling between them.
All claims about the real are realistbut not necessarily realistic. Descartess celebrated, by now clich, phrase Cogito ergo sum is more than an affirma-
tion of the self-conscious, reasoning, human subject. It is the assertion of a sufficient
* and necessary link between thought and the world. More specifically, it is the assertion of
What baffles me is how unwise philosophers often areespecially those philosophers a consonance between human thought and the two worlds, one of which is immediately
most attentive to the challenges of systematic philosophy. How can one honestly given, and the other of which is not apparent and which must be mediated in some
undertake a project like Being and Time, a Process and Reality, a Difference and Repetition, way. Descartes even goes so far as to suggest that the way to get to the world beyond

164 Concept Concept 165


is through the world here-and-now. The Meditations makes this clear in its narrative
arc. One has simply to sit down next to a fire with a warm sweater, maybe a cup of *
coffee, and think. In fact, the Meditations is a performative text in which Descartes-the- The pessimist is a logician with an aptitude for disappointment.
character shows us how to get from the world here-and-now to the world beyond. But
there are many bumps along the road, and bit by bit the world here-and-now becomes *
more and more unreliable, more and more like a nebulous, spectral world beyond, Depressive Realism. Pessimism and realism seem to be two very different ways of
full of animatronic puppets, ghosts in the machine, and trickster-demons. The secret thinking. Realism implies a certain neutrality, seeing things the way they are, apart
that everyone knows about the Meditations is that, once Descartes starts down the path from self-interest or the interest of others, a neutralization of value that always seems
of skepticism, there is no good reason to stop, ever. God (the philosophers God, the to end in the vaguely streetwise tautology of it is what it is. Pessimism, by contrast,
God of Descartes, Leibniz, and yes, of Spinoza too) comes in to save the day, but is often regarded as a bad attitude more than a philosophical position. It is always
we dont really buy it. A deus ex machina if ever there was one. Of course, the irony opposed to optimism, if not logically then affectively. If pessimists are enthusiastic
of the Meditations is that one has come full circle: the philosopher has traveled into about anything, it is about pessimus, the worst, resplendent in every possible out-
the beyond in order to discover the self, the world beyond looks a lot like the world come, glimmering around every corner, an ecstasy of the worst that is shrouded by
here-and-now, and one has simply arrived where one had begun. a grimace or curmudgeonly grunt. Realism is often employed by necessityone is
The third pillar is that of Kant. Admittedly, Kant is a boring writer (though better never a realist just for fun. As a philosophical position, the necessity of realism is
than Hegel, who is simply a bad writer). But what Kant did for philosophy is something usually elicited by something non-philosophicalpolitics, science, or just getting
that has been a mixed blessinghe gave philosophy a job description. Certainly, phi- things done. Pessimism is a luxury: one must have spare time to complain, to moan
losophers had had jobs prior to Kants time; but they were either beholden to religious and groan and write lyrical poetry about suffering, all of which helps no one and
institutions (you can teach Aristotles logic, but stay away from biology) or they in fact makes things worse.
functioned in a transient zone prior to the disciplinary divisions of the humanities and That said, there is a connection between pessimism and realism. One example
the sciences (take Descartesphilosopher, mathematician, and amateur anatomist). comes not from philosophy but from psychology. Depressive realism is the official-
Kants critical philosophy is widely known for its delimiting effects vis--vis philosophy. sounding name that has been given to the proposition that a pessimistic outlook
It says what philosophy is not. Yes, debate the existence of God all you like, and for gives one a healthier and more realistic grasp of ones life and the world in which
as long as you like, but you will never reach a philosophically adequate answer, and one lives. Pessimistsso the argument goesare freed from the locus of control
philosophers shouldnt be bothering with this anywaythat is the job of the priests. fallacy; they do not believe that they are in total control of their actions and their des-
It is also a sobering up for philosophy as a privileged, human endeavor; it says what tiny. Pessimists are also less likely to presume that bad things always happen to other
philosophy cannot donotably, it cannot ever fully bridge the gap between the domain people (the optimism bias). As a result, pessimists hold no illusions about their
of phenomena (the world as it appears to us) and the noumena (the world in itself, own superiority over other people. They hold no high hopes, great expectations, or
apart from our experience of it). Kants critical philosophy is remarkable because it illusions of grandeur. They live and act, for now, for the time being, and if things
harbors within itself a contradiction: it is a grand, shimmering, systematic philosophy, dont work out, well, what did you expect?
a sort of cathedral of philosophy that argues for philosophys humility, even poverty. The jury still seems to be out on whether this is a viable psychological theory
But even Kants conciliatory gesture has a happy ending, for while we may or simply an attempt to view depression optimistically. Contemporary philosophers
not know the world in itself, we can know how we know, and we can study how the seem to have caught the bug, putting out pop-philosophy books that, in their almost
world appears to us, and maybejust maybeby doing this we can at least mini- absurd earnestness, begin to sound like self-help.1 However, at the broadest level
mally infer that there is something more out there, making an impression on us, one that exceeds psychologymight we add that the pessimist holds no illusions,
in whatever inevitably distorted way we may intuit it. not just about ones own individual being, but about the superiority or relevance of
From a certain vantage point, the history of Western philosophy looks like all human beings? Indeed, of all beingsof Being itself ? If this is a realism, then
a somewhat panicky, feverish attempt to cover up the suspicion that there may not be it is a realism that extends into antihumanisma sort of species-wide depression.
more. Every excited, anxious assertion of theres got to be more covers up a more
disappointing, more morose this is it. 1 See Roger Scrutons The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope (New York: Oxford
University Press, 2013), Alain de Bottons The Consolations of Philosophy (New York: Vintage, 2001),
All of this leaves out a possible fourth pillarthat of Nietzschewho excitedly and yes, even John Grays Straw Dogs : Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (New York: Farrar,
asserts this is it! And so realism returns to its pessimistic roots. Straus and Giroux, 2007).

166 Concept Concept 167


(a subjective attitude about a state of affairs) to a metaphysical pessimism (an

* objective claim about the world as such, with the caveat that the world as such
Black Bile. Every stumbling thought of purgation a halo of bones. The laughter of is generally indifferent and not worth the trouble). After almost a century of the
ash and dust. Caverns. Cold celestial limbs. An echoless desert of winged diagrams. more level-headed philosophies of language, logic, and politics, are there signs that
the angst-ridden and analytic impulses of pessimism are back? A variant of this are
* the so-called Speculative Realist philosophies, which argue for a philosophically
Born in the Ruins of Philosophy. At any given moment in time, the pillars of philo- realist understanding of the world apart from and indifferent to the perspective
sophy are nearly indistinguishable from ruins. They may still stand, but they serve of the thinking human subject and the interest groups he or she represents. Now,
less as functional architecture and more like tourist attractions. As ruins, they are while Speculative Realist thinkers never make any claims for their philosophies as
filled with cracks and fissures, but no one really is to blame, except of course the pessimistic (in either the moral or metaphysical sense), a glance at the history of
philosophers. And the demolition of philosophy is always carried out by philosophy philosophy suggests that Speculative Realism may be viewed as an extension of pes-
itself (for who else cares enough to examine so thoroughly every niche of the ruins simism, for only thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Pascal, and Cioran would suggest to
in order to spackle them over?). Historians of philosophy are the clean-up crew. us in the calm language of philosophy that the world is indifferent to usand that
In the meantime, those loiterers known as anti-philosophers keep hanging around, this realization is dark. But Speculative Realism, for all its cautious evocations
sometimes hidden in their nearby caves, sometimes just sitting about like lumps of of speculative thought, of a poetics of stoic objects, or of a mathematically-sublime
syllogistic clay. They are skeptics, cynics, nihilists, pessimists. They refuse to live chaos, still retains one foot staunchly, anxiously rooted in analytic philosophy and
within the ruins, in the shadow of the pillars, but they also havent left the site for science. Speculative Realism is analytic philosophy in continental clothing. And
better weather or tolerable coffee. The way they think sounds philosophicalskep- a principle of sufficient reason is the talisman for entering the self-fashioned, erudite
ticism, nihilism, pessimismterms that seem to denote methods, schools, traditions. halls of Speculative Realism.
But they also know that everything built up must collapse again, and this intuition But the limit of such philosophical movements is the limit that pessimism has
is evident within their very wordsthe all-too-convincing self-doubt of Pascal, the long ago identifiedthat of the world-without-us, and the impossibility of thinking
funereal spite of Schopenhauer, the stark transmissions of Cioran this except as a limit. In a sense, Speculative Realism doesnt go far enough in its stoic
But there is still a philosophical question embedded in their aphorisms, frag- and heroic quest for the absolute. It cannot. To question the principle of sufficient
ments, and missives against humanity. With skepticism, one must always answer mathematics or the principle of sufficient logic is to forego philosophy itself; and
the question, Where does doubt stop? Every philosopher finds their own stop- one has invested too much in philosophy to simply cash out and walk away. And so
ping point: doubt stops at God, doubt stops at self-consciousness, doubt stops at the game continues. And so we have the familiar signposts of a philosophical anti-
logical consistency, and so on. Of course, for some, doubt doesnt stop, and so the traditionskepticism, pessimism, nihilismnow under the banner of science
skeptic overlaps with the nihilist. With pessimism, the question is different: How and its almost juridical mania for proving what goes without saying. For Speculative
many nos make a yes? Every philosopher negates something in the world or Realism, analytic philosophy is a form of asceticism. It could never allow itself to be
about the worlda presumption, an article of faith, what passes as common sense. depressed, for instancenever allow itself to become a depressive realism.
But this negation always paves the way for a further affirmation, a claim about how
things really are. As with skepticism, there is also the possibility of a no that never *
leads to a yes, a no that must, as a consequence, devolve upon and devour itself, Schopenhauer: The definition of the absolute is: that point at which it has been
leading to paradox and contradiction. The outcome is suicide (the modern version), convenient for us to stand still and stop.2 I.e., art?
self-abnegation (the mystical, premodern version), or tragedy (the classical version).
Weve forgotten the postmodern versionfarce, slapstick, gallows humor. *
Toward a Philosophy of Futility. While it often has a quasi-philosophical status, pessimism
* is ultimately dismissed because it commits that most unforgiveable of philosophical
Pessimism has an ambiguous status in the history of philosophy. Though pessimists errorsit mistakes the subjective for the objective. But the acknowledgement of this
often make truth claims, no one really seeks out the pessimist. In fact, theyre usu-
ally the person no one wants to heargrumbling, grumpy, and complaining. Some 2 Arthur Schopenhauer, Manuscript Remains 4, ed. Arthur Hbscher, trans. E. F. J. Payne (Oxford:
philosophers, such as Schopenhauer, argue for a shift from a moral pessimism Berg, 1990), 112.

168 Concept Concept 169


error is already embedded within pessimism. This is the reason why Schopenhauers if such a branch of philosophy existed, it would have to be distinct from the typical
The World as Will and Representation only looks like a work of systematic philosophy. application of logic to philosophy, which would simply provide an elaborate descrip-
Really, by the books final sections, the whole has given way to crumbling ruins and tion of philosophys failure in terms of contradiction, sublimating failure as success
furtive appeals to Buddhist nothingness. He shouldve known better. Nevertheless, (thereby turning failure into farce). It would also have to be distinct from metaphi-
every pessimistic thinker understands at some level the pessimism inherent in the losophy, which is still committed to the capacity of philosophy to know everything
philosophical enterprise. The challenge of any philosophy is to account for itself in (including philosophy, from which it conveniently excludes itself when necessary).
the claims it makes (especially those claims deemed realist). And this challenge Finally, it would have to be distinct from antiphilosophy, which typically evades the
is abetted by another one, which is, in turn, to account for its own horizon, its own failure by moving sideways into adjacent fields such as fiction, poetry, or memoir.
limits, what it cannot say, know, or think. In this context, pessimism would have to be taken less as a subjective attitude
This is why there is no analytic pessimism in philosophy, only a metaphys- about philosophy, and more about the structure of futility inherent to philosophy.
ical poetics of finitude and angst. No one has ever claimed a scientific status for But such a proposition is ultimately, for the pessimist, tedious and pedantic.
pessimismthat is, almost no one. An exception is the late nineteenth-century As a philosophy, pessimism is always half-hearted, ready to give up or abandon a
American author Edgar Saltus, who, near the end of his book The Philosophy of line of thought at the slightest inclination. Pessimismspeaking (as it feels obliged
Disenchantment is curiously optimistic about what he calls a scientific pessimism to do) in its deep, resounding, philosophical tonessays that all philosophies must
of the future. But Saltuss scientific pessimism is as much about a mystical revela- fail, no matter what methods they deploy or from which tradition they may stem.
tion of limits as it is about logical rigor and verifiable claims. Eduard von Hartmann, All philosophies must fail because their truth claims must by necessity be partial,
disciple of Schopenhauer, takes a different route. In his massive, unwieldy The contingent, and grounded in some basis that cannot itself be directly questioned.
Philosophy of the Unconscious, Hartmann attempts to wed Schopenhauers pessimism Moreover, philosophys claims are contingent because its authority relies on prop-
with the biology and physics of his day. The entirety of the first part of his work ositions, those peculiar, hallucinatory uses of a language of effective rigorprop-
contains detailed descriptions of scientific experiments involving the decapitation ositions in language, with the aid of bounded concepts, through the structure of
of animalsas if to suggest a stark allegory between science and philosophy. But logical argumentation, all framed by the basic relation of intentionality and the
all that science teaches Hartmann is that the human species is at best an accident self-world relation. The result is that pessimism is often relegated to the dungeons
that has had the misfortune of thinking itself a necessity. As accidentally as we have or the attics of philosophy. It is forced to witness or to wait for its own failure, in a
come into being, so must we accidentally move out of being. But whether this be all series of infinite resignations: no philosophy can say anything about everything
at once or slowly and gradually, Hartmann does not say. Then there is Nietzsche, the no philosophy can say everything about anything
defiant convalescent, who rails as much against science as he does religion, telling us
that we have not gone far enough in our pessimism, not yet attained a pessimism
of strength. And yet, as he jibes, what we need now is a chemistry of the moral,
religious, aesthetic representations and sensations, likewise of all those stimuli that
we experience within ourselves amid the wholesale and retail transactions of cul-
ture and society, indeed even in solitude. But that is not all. Given this, Nietzsche
asks, What if this chemistry were to reach the conclusion that in this area too, the
most magnificent colors have been extracted from base, even despised materials?3
All of this would seem to require a distinct branch of philosophy dedicated
to studying the inherent futility of all attempts to philosophize. Perhaps pessimism
has a future after all. One imagines universities with undergraduate courses in
Voluntary Extinction (with a lab section); erudite, curmudgeonly professors with
titles like Schopenhauer Chair in the Study of the Worst; the publication of mas-
sive Germanic tomes of systematic philosophy entitled The Philosophy of Futility. But

3 Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human (I), trans. Gary Handwerk (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1995), 1516.

170 Concept Concept 171

Making Non-Standard Thoughts:
An Introduction to Franois Laruelle
John Maoilearca

Franois Laruelles concept of non-philosophy or non-standard philosophy

is said to expand the definition of what counts as philosophical thought. However,
this gesture goes beyond merely relativizing thought within a neoliberal pluralism
that is actually indifferent to philosophy (all opinions are valid) or anarchizing
science as part of a methodology where anything goes. Rather, the flat thought
Laruelle strives for is democratic because it is materialized in different ways,
some of them scientific (biology, fractal geometry, quantum physics), some of
them aesthetic (cinema, photography, performance), with other models (erotic,
mystical, animal) possible. What might look like relativism is always an expan-
sion, an inclusivity of thought. The non-standard philosophy of photography, for
instance, is not simply the generation of new thoughts (about subjectivity, light,
the flash, and so forth) through an unorthodox source, but the materialization
of thought through a photography of philosophy. Such an art of philosophy acts
as a non-philosophical practice, especially in terms of the materiality of photo-
graphic performance as it involves posture, exposure, definition, and resolution.
These are not mere metaphors, but models invoked to mutate what counts as
philosophical practice.
In Artistic Experiments with Philosophy, my interview with Laruelle in
this volume, two words stand out: failure and sample. In one form or another
failure occurs six times; sample occurs once. Though used in passing (they are
not part of the current non-philosophical lexicon), they are highly pertinent, both
to each other and to Laruelles project as it relates to art practices. It is notable that
the interview begins with a reference to another recent interview with Laruelle,
and the relationship discussed there between the general project of non-philosophy
and his more experimental or artistic texts. There, he recounted his ambition
to treat philosophy as a material, and thus also as a materialitywithout preoc-
cupying oneself with the aims of philosophy, of its dignity, of its quasi-theological
ends, of philosophical virtues, wisdom etc. He then added: What interests me
is philosophy as the material for an art, at the limit, an art.1 Furthermore, it is
not difficult to show that it is not just Laruelles experimental texts that aim for
this art, but that all his works partake in this experiment in as much as they each

1 Robin Mackay, Introduction: Laruelle Undivided, in Franois Laruelle, From Experiments in

Non-Standard Thought, ed. Robin Mackay (Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic/Sequence Press, 2012), 29.

Concept 173

attempt to demonstrate a new posture or orientation regarding what philosophy realists.6 That is why the non-philosophical orientation does not lead to philosophy
isboth as a material, and how it can be reviewed using other practices, such as becoming an art in some reductive merger, or art becoming philosophy, as its mere
photography (as outlined in The Concept of Non-Photography and Photo-Fiction, a Non- illustrator, but rather their standing as equals, both thinking equally, both samples of
Standard Aesthetics). His problem, as he puts it, is that of the re-orientation of the Real. No firstness at all. Thinking is everywhere. For standard philosophy, both
thought.2 Hence, if Laruelles approach offers us something new, it is not because it ontological and differential (from Parmenides through Heidegger to Derrida) this
is a new set of ideas about reality (or the Real) that must supersede others thoughts will be unacceptable. In truth, the real philosophical horror for them is not that we
because theirs are now to be seen as failures (or wrong, less productive, creative, are not (yet) thinking, but that there has always been thinking. Given the view that
rigorous, coherent, ethical, emancipative), and his as a success (or right, more pro- philosophy must have an essence (even if it be in difference) and so an exclusivity,
ductive, creative, rigorous, and so forth). It is, rather, that he is trying to convey a then what is (philosophically) unthinkable is that thinking might be found all about
new posture, orientation, or vision (in-One, that is, in absolute immanence) of us. Yet this is the monster, or philosophical clone, that Laruelle offers us.
all thoughts as equal (philosophical or non-philosophical), and equally belonging And what of the connection between sample and failure in this respect?
to the Real. If his approach is seen as a new set of ideas, as new representations of A notable aspect of Laruelles style of writing is the lack of examples and citations
the Real, then it does indeed fail in a pointless gesture, a zero-sum game.3 If seen in his work. He explains this absence in the following interview in this way: I dont
as postures or art-oriented stances, however, it goes beyond success and failure: talk about the great metaphysical poets like Donne, Hlderlin, and Mallarm who
it is itself a sample from the Real. have been the consistent prey of philosophical commentaries; my project is different.
Indeed, the concept of orientation also has something to do with the decisions Im not that kind of commentator and perhaps thats why Ive failed. The mention
made in philosophy (decisions being the structural invariants of philosophyits of failure is connected to his lack of citation, as he then continues to explain:
essenceaccording to Laruelle), given that the meaning of decision is with-
drawal or cut-off (from decaederede for off and caedere, cut). As Laruelle Just as I cite very few other philosophers (except as floating markers in my
put it in a previous interview with me, Marjorie Gracieuse, and Anthony Paul Smith: dream) and never cite myself at all, I do not cite applied work, much prefer-
To philosophise on X is to withdraw from X; to take an essential distance from the ring a certain type of paraphrase that is a destruction of commentary (as in
term for which we will posit other terms.4 Yet nothing is withdrawn from or out- Mystique non-philosophique lusage des contemporains). [] I try to do so in such
side the Real, not even the thought of being withdrawn from it. It is all a matter of a a way that I use just a strictly circumscribed piece or moment in my work.
particular posture (distance) or orientation. Immanence, again. It is not the object What I write is a sample, not an example, of what I do when I think. To think
that withdraws from an increasingly distant thought (as Speculative Realism is to make, no? 7
would have it) but thought (philosophy) that distances itself in a withdrawal from
the Real (object).5 Thinking is making, neither exemplary success nor inadequate failure. Thinking
In place of seeing philosophy go to the Real (with its categories, its concepts, is not of the Real, its ideal representation, but a material part or sample of it: we
its wisdom), from an outside, transcendent, position, we reorient ourselves to see think according to or alongside the Real. And making can also be thinking,
philosophy coming from inside the Realnot as its whole, the exemplary instance only of its own kind (rather than an illustration of one philosophical kind). A reori-
or essence, but only as one part, a sample. We shift vectors, no longer going from entation of philosophy into art-material, then, can be likened to Laruelles call in
Philosophy to the Real but instead going from the Real to Philosophy. And Photo-Fiction (which has no examples of philosophical photography but merely
what follows from this shift? Absolute flatness: no first philosophiesbe they the postures toward a photography of philosophy) to perform what he describes as the
metaphysics of classical thought, or the ethics (Levinas) or aesthetics of the new
6 For instance, see Timothy Morton, Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality (Ann Arbor, MI: Open
2 Ibid., 2. Humanities Press, 2013), 1920: I argue that causality is wholly an aesthetic phenomenon.
3 Franois Laruelle, Controversy over the Possibility of a Science of Philosophy, trans. Aesthetic events are not limited to interactions between humans or between humans and painted
Ray Brassier and Robin Mackay, in The Non-Philosophy Project: Essays by Franois Laruelle, canvases or between humans and sentences in dramas. They happen when a saw bites into a fresh
ed. Gabriel Alkon and Boris Gunjevic, (New York: Telos Press, 2011), 83. piece of plywood. They happen when a worm oozes out of some wet soil. They happen when a
4 Franois Laruelle, Is Thinking Democratic? Or, How to Introduce Theory into Democracy, massive object emits gravity waves.The aesthetic dimension is the causal dimension. See also Graham
in Laruelle and Non-Philosophy, ed. John Mullarkey and Anthony Paul Smith, trans. Anthony Harman, Aesthetics as First Philosophy: Levinas and the Non-Human, Naked Punch 09
Paul Smith (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 229. (SummerFall 2007): 2130; and the interview with Harman on page 97 in this volume.
5 See John Mullarkey, How to Behave Like a Non-Philosopher: Or, Speculative versus Revisionary 7 Artistic Experiments with Philosophy: Franois Laruelle in Conversation with John Maoilearca,
Metaphysics, Speculations 4 (June 2013): 10813. pp. 177 in this volume.

174 Concept Concept 175


under-practice of philosophical language. Yet this attempt, he adds, to under- Artistic Experiments with Philosophy
understand it, is not to lower oneself as an individual, or at minimum, it is to think
in a more generic manner without exceptions.8 Franois Laruelle in Conversation with John Maoilearca
From the very start, then, Laruelles most recent experiment in a non-standard
philosophy of photography fights against positing any philosophical aesthetics
that would over-determine this or any art from withoutthe Principle of Sufficient
Photography or photo-centrism, as he calls it. Instead, he gestures us toward John Maoilearca: In your recent interview with Robin Mackay, when
a philosophy that is photographys own:9 asked about your experimental writings, you said that you had aimed
to use philosophy as the material for an art.1 How far has this exper-
I call this gesture of creation non-aesthetics or non-standard aesthetics, iment also been pursued, if at all, in your own, more standard, non-
its standard form being philosophical and photo-fiction being one of its standard writings?
non-standard objects. [] This project seems absurd. It will no longer be
absurd if we accept changing our level of reference for defining the real. Franois Laruelle: I would like to use philosophy as a material (as one would use
Instead of treating the photo and the concept of the photo as two given and space or color, as a materiality) for an art that would be of a piece with concep-
describable physical, intellectual objects or representations, we treat them tual thought without making a new aesthetic or a new philosophy. The ambition of
as completely different than given objects closed in on themselves.10 creating a new genre is the deepest consistent core of all my undertakings. I have
always pursued two parallel and competing strands of work: first, the theoretical
The absurdity of his project is what will strike standard philosophical thinking: work of elaborating rules that rise like the tip of an iceberg from the non-philosoph-
it cannot abide not being allowed a transcendence over the (art) object, hence, it ical matrix, and also, secondarily, their quasi-poetic execution. At first this idea
takes quite an effort to render the photographic act immanent, to interiorize it, and was not absolutely clear and became confused with Nietzsches artists metaphys-
to render it real without external determinism or realism.11 And this new effort ics.2 Then there was a first realization of this effort in the experimental texts,
is also a matter of reorientation and posture: what we must really consider as an written in parallel with the rules issuing from my first formulations of non-philos-
indivisible whole is the photographic posture, a conjugation of optical, perceptive, ophy (Philosophy II and III) in something close to the form of a poem. Currently,
and chemical properties that can only be fully understood as those entangled, non- following the theoretical mutation of this matrix, I have started to reformulate the
local properties of a generic matrix.12 A true flattening, equalizing or deauthorizing rules on new foundations for a new effort to create this genre, in particular in recent
must include philosophy itself as a sample of the Real, an experiment in thinking no texts on art-fiction or photography. Its as though my entire theoretical oeuvre had
more or less than (but different from) photographic experiments: a failure to repre- been conceived as an effort to establish the conditions for a new genre or had been
sent but an invention, or making, in the Real. dedicated to one unique poem.
To what end? It is evident that the theoretical realization prevails over the prac-
tical realization. The ambition to create a new genre of writing and a poematics
[pomatique] of theory has probably failed; the project is currently on hold, though
I dont dare affirm that it is completely abandoned. There are echoes of it and
sometimes a type of formulation of it in my recent theoretical writingssuch are
the joys of writing.
I see this enterprise as a failure overall because, while I (usually) have fewer
doubts about my theoretical writings, I feel myself incapable of subjectively evaluating

8 Franois Laruelle, Photo-Fiction, a Non-Standard Aesthetics, trans. Drew S. Burke and Conversation conducted by e-mail, JanuaryMarch 2013.
Anthony Paul Smith (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2012), 62.
9 Ibid., 19. 1 Robin Mackay, Introduction: Laruelle Undivided, in Franois Laruelle, From Decision to Heresy:
10 Ibid., 1314, (emphasis mine). Experiments in Non-Standard Thought (Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic/Sequence Press, 2012), 29.
11 Ibid., 52. 2 See Friedrich Nietzsche, Attempt at a Self-Criticism, in The Birth of Tragedy, 2, 5, 7.
12 Ibid., 19. Translators Note.

176 Concept Concept 177


the experimental writings. These experimental texts would be rejected by poets and I see only a system of waves, not even of stages, barely of phases. To use filmic lan-
philosophers alike without something to tip the balance in their favor. This makes guage, the sequencing [squenage] of non-philosophy, its dcoupage,3 seems to me less
it difficult to ascribe recognizable value to them. Objectively, my relations with art urgent now that I see it from a distance and find in it the logic that comes with retro-
have been a failure: the impossibility of being a musician-composer was an artistic spect. Rivers contemplate their source all the way to the sea, carry it with them and
castration that has left scars and traces, in the same way that the renunciation of stay one with it, but the sea, as the Greeks discovered, is another matter altogether.
politics has done for others (like Plato). I quite late and only partially accepted
this renunciation (after several efforts to abandon philosophy and reengage with If non-philosophy does not offer us a new set of ideas to displace those of
music) around the age of fifty when I had the feeling that I had used everything up philosophy, then what does it offer? Is its offering connected to your state-
and couldnt hope to create again except in philosophy. Is it thus, by force, that one ment that your problem is that of reorientation?
becomes a philosopher?
Indeed, the reorientation of thought after its absolution and then its Hegelian
How do you see the relationship between the two types of writing? (or other) disorientation seems to me to be demanded not by our finitude but by our
transfinitude. Finite beings that we are, we are ceaselessly traversed and transported
For now, and most likely forever, I have not succeeded in achieving a good unifica- by affects and orientations rather than by objects. It is no longer a matter of being,
tion of philosophy and poetry in a new genre, even if certain effects of writing show like the classical and modern philosopher, either a fish surrounded by infinite water
their intertwinement or entanglement. I dont talk about the great metaphysical where we asphyxiate, or that fish washed up on the beach of the world, surrounded
poets like Donne, Hlderlin, and Mallarm, who have been the consistent prey of by unbreathable air and doomed to another suffocation. To be able to lift your head
philosophical commentaries; my project is different. Im not that kind of commen- out of the water and breathe the air of the stars
tator and perhaps thats why Ive failed. Poetry and philosophy are whats left of
music and of a grand project of fusion, the provisional paradigm of which is opera, Why are there no examples, or nearly none, in what appear to be your more
maybe Wagnerian drama, that is now too metaphysical for our time. Who will write applied works, especially in your photographic studies? Is this intentional?
an opera-fiction or a musical utopia? More than ever I am looking for the matrix
necessary for the fusion and the creation of what might be called a new particle of Just as I cite very few other philosophers (except as floating markers in my dream)
thought. Basically I should take an interest in al-chemy in the same way I once said and never cite myself at all, I do not cite applied work, much preferring a certain
that non-philosophy was an al-philosophy. type of paraphrase that is a destruction of commentary.4 First of all, I have enough to
say myself without getting anyone else involved (hence my usage of the etcetera).
In the interview with Mackay, you also cite Henri Bergsons view that each But most importantly, I have always fought fiercely against the famous examples,
philosopher has only one idea that he or she restates indefinitely. What is the concrete or abstract, pretty much the same war Ive led against the aesthetic. Rightly
one idea in your own work (if there is one)? How might it be recognized, or wrongly, and I admit that that it may be wrongly, if it is necessary to cite an aes-
in various guises, across your works? thetician, I try to do so in such a way that I use just a strictly circumscribed piece or
moment in my work. What I write is a sample, not an example, of what I do when
The one generative idea is without a doubt the one I just described. It has I think. To think is to make, no?
been progressively intensified, and enriched in places; it has broadened
in the same way that a river gains breadth and maybe even begins to be a bit oce- Is there a hierarchy amongst the arts, either in terms of your own personal
anic, but still it has stayed the same. In any case, this has been the thrust of my preference or their significance or kinship to non-standard philosophical
elaboration of it. Dare I say, without provoking too much misunderstanding, that practice?
non-philosophy is also a waking dream?
3 In cinematic discourse, dcoupage refers to the shooting script, the breakdown of filmic narrative into
Could this idea also be an image, or some other kind of object, perhaps shots and sequences. More broadly, the term designates the underlying structure of a film. See Nol
even an aesthetic one? I am thinking, for instance, of Jean Renoirs state- Burch, Theory of Film Practice, trans. Helen R. Lane (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), 3ff.
Translators Note.
ment that each filmmaker only makes one film, and remakes it again and 4 Franois Laruelle, Mystique non-philosophique lusage des contemporains (Paris: LHarmattan, 2007).
again. Might there be a filmic idea within non-standard philosophy? Translators Note.

178 Concept Concept 179


I have shared my obsessions and my fantasies (and my practical failures as well) artist experiments concretely with a defined model of activity, specifically distinct
concerning my preference for music more than any other art and the poem above all from others. Art as a positive practice is an instrumentalized intention that works
other forms of enunciation. I cannot stand novels, with their overlong passages, their within the limits of a type of material and techniques, and also within the limits
indulgence of details always rendered too explicitly. Theyre not dazzling and enigmatic of potential imitation of other works in the same genre. Non-philosophy proceeds
enough for my taste. Surrealism, along with Chinese poetry and a few other things, rep- completely otherwise, superposing three different models: 1) the empirical artistic
resents the ideal of concision and enigmatic brilliance. What I call the vision-in-One model that it takes as given or as reference material without necessarily practicing
is also this need of the spirit, naturally empty, to fill itself up with eternal emotions. it itself; 2) a philosophical model (the most general and invariant possible) that
interprets it; and finally 3) the scientific model of quantum superposition that allows
Is there any Real difference between non-photography and non-standard it to combine the two previous models in a matrix and to orient them generically.
philosophy? That is, in what way does non-photography escape from being If one judges it from a theoretical angle, the complexity of non-philosophy may
merely an example? seem overall superior to that of an art, but the positive arts also have their secret
calculations or mathematics. It is precisely this compressed character of diverse
Its just the difference of materials (and of syntax, which is included in philosophical instances that comprises the secret or the unconscious (the transconscious?) of
and aesthetic materiality) that separates non-photography and non-standard phi- art in general and that distinguishes art from technology. In art-fiction or non-
losophy, though at the same time we must not forget that this difference is reflected aesthetics, there are algebraic operations like idempotence and superposition that
in the effect and the force of the non and of its expression. Non-philosophy is assure compression (without concept, without end; see Kant)6 of the instances
univocal by its invariability for all arts and all thought, hence its formalism, but it is at play and guarantee a certain mathematical rigor. For its part, the philosophical
constantly varied by its materials (including the syntaxes that belong to the material), function of the variable assures the taking-into-account of the aesthetic in the non-
hence its material formalism, but certainly not its materialism. aesthetic. As for the reference to a particular art, it roots non-aesthetics in artistic
experience in general rather than in scientific or religious experience. This complexity
Is there a difference between applied and non-applied non-standard gives non-philosophy the character of installation that enlarges that of oeuvre.
philosophy? The oeuvre has an individual subject and a humanist context; the installation
demands, relative to the oeuvre, an expansion and an exteriorization of means. This
In a way, none, except as I just said, that of the material or the occasions (including generic extension paradoxically has the effect of under-determining the nature of
objects and syntaxes, that each in turn fall into material formalism). Non-standard the artist forced to abandon the lofty heights of philosophy and to confront instead
philosophy is an application of itself to the nearest non or to the nearest generic, a heterogeneous materiality.
but it is precisely not an auto-application in the way that philosophy is in relation
to philosophies. All that comes from philosophy and from its power, the different What might artists do with non-standard philosophy? How would someone
aesthetics for example, are replacements in a sequence of auto-modeling, a pro- recognize a non-standard philosophical artwork (if they could)?
cession of philosophical models, while non-philosophy produces only hetero- or
non-modeling because it combines and superposes heterogeneous models. One does not recognize a work of art that might be in the non-standard spirit or
might have a stylistic affinity with non-standard philosophy: that would imply the
You say, in Photo-Fiction, that you are working like an artist, that you are wish to found an aesthetic legitimacy for non-standard philosophy. One already
creating a kind of installation.5 How would you compare and contrast art practices it as such, free to recognize in it a power and the effects of philosophical
practice and non-philosophical practice? meaning. That is to say, non-philosophy is only a work of non-standard art if it
openly takes for its base material an artistic activity as given and causes it to follow
To work as an artist is not a matter of labeling oneself professionally, commercially, the constraints appropriate to that material. It is the end of aesthetic objectivity and
and technologically as an artist. The true distinction derives from a plurality the creation of a genre that must in all rigor be called non-aesthetic artor
of specific practical, technical, and theoretical differences that together create even more strictly non-art. But all these formulae are obviously ambiguous and
a veritable generic difference between the artistic and the non-philosophical. The can be taken up in a spirit of aesthetic objectivity that clouds their proper sense.
5 See Franois Laruelle, Photo-Fiction, a Non-Standard Aesthetics, trans. Drew S. Burk and
Anthony Paul Smith (Minneapolis: Univocal Press, 2012), 4, 11ff. Translators Note. 6 Specifically, see Immanuel Kants Critique of Judgment. Translators Note.

180 Concept Concept 181


Can one say that some artists, those not working under the authority of What would happen, both to non-standard philosophy and to standard
standard philosophy, are therefore already practicing non-standard phi- philosophy, were your work to enter into the philosophical canon?
losophy, avant la lettre? And if so, what is added to their work by reading
Laruelle? I dont have many illusions about the explicit perseverance of this difference; the
philosophical canon has seen plenty of other accidents. Like everyone, I will at best
I dont believe that the notion of virtually non-standard art is pertinent or that be assimilated by tradition, at worst marginalized by it (since it does have so many
non-philosophy would serve to actualize it. Each particular art has its own revolu- possible margins at its service). What will remain of non-philosophy? A destining
tionary tradition but that may not be be the case with non-philosophical art, which [envoi/Geschick] as Heidegger would say? A mini-wave [vaguelette]? Or rather, as the
gathers together several traditions and several possible revolutions. But I would prefer physicists say, a wavelet [ondelette]?
to be prudent here and, in the face of the inventiveness and creativity of the arts, not
prohibit liberty. In fact, the model of art and of its liberty of material is something Would that be a sign of failure? Or would it only be an illusion that
that encouraged me in non-philosophy. But obviously I lean toward safeguarding non-standard philosophy had been assimilated?
the notion of a non-aesthetic genre of art.
An awareness of the possibility of theoretical failure has always been with me in
Is there a political dimension to art practiced under the aegis of every way, quite aside from the fact that it has been carefully nurtured from the start
non-standard philosophy, one related, perhaps, to the defense of the (and still is today) by critics and traditional academic philosophers. But not by phi-
Human in your work? losophers like Levinas, Derrida, or Deleuze, who have never reduced me to despair.

From the point of view of non-philosophy, there is not a specifically political domain, Or, more positively, might it mean that standard philosophy itself no
though perhaps a political dimension may be possible as a function of the occasional longer exists?
material that one decides to treat that might be concerned with specific problems of
power. On the other hand, it can be called political in the last instance insofar as phi- I dont think so. It continues under multiple modalities and its life force has been
losophy is a constant variable of all phenomena and is a crowned power of domina- embodied in a quasi-mythological institutional form far too long for it to really dis-
tion. Philosophy is the eminently political variable of non-philosophy. Its a matter of appear. Ive always suspected that, in the order of thought, it was the twin sister of
diminishing its spontaneous self-importance and not just that of its specifically political capitalism, and capitalism is not about to die; too many metamorphoses are still
domain. It is, if one can put it this way, a sub-political determination of philosophy possible for this couple. The famous death of philosophy alludes to a very narrow
and an unconditional defense of humans insofar as they are generically definable. conception. And I am too gnostic not to see in it an expression of the world or of evil.

Can you speculate on the future of non-standard philosophy? Is it inevi- Might the future of non-standard philosophy reside within art practice?
table that it enters into 6th, 7th, ... nth phases/waves? And if so, why?
There is a certain affinity claimed with artistic practice. But since philosophy or
A wave succeeds a wave, the desire to create n phases or waves is in itself infinite theology are implicated there, we must accept a higher level of theoretical com-
but the brevity of the individual life is not the infinite unfurling of the sea!7 I have plexity and turn to scientific modelingwhich doesnt make non-standard thought
thrown myself into a final wave, between the quantum and the cosmological opening, a type of activity or a genre of life superior (in the classical sense of the Greek
always according to the same method of under-determination or subtraction, with philosophy) to that of art.
an aim to renovate the Anthropic Principle under a form of-the-last-instance, some- A last word. They tell me I am an artist-without-art and a philosopher-without-
thing I hope to be able to see through to completion without being sure that I can philosophy, that I take the pose of an artist without the practice, or a philosopher
do so. I have already let go of two once essential-seeming books, one on music and without the doctrineand I would add that of a believer without a religion. This
one on Eros, dreams lost along the way. criticism recognizes me by subtraction: I am exactly not one of the sincere liars that
the artist, the philosopher, and the believer are.
7 Laruelles phrase le moutonnement infini de la mer alludes to a line from Paul Verlaines
poem Lchelonnnement des haies (1875). Translators Note. Translated from the French Molly Whalen

182 Concept Concept 183

Reason to Destroy Contemporary Art
Suhail Malik

What does an artwork mean for you? What sense do you make of it? In the paradigm
of contemporary art the answer is clear: its up to you. Constrained by the artworks
subject matter (insofar as you can determine it), its material organization and pre-
sentation (including online transience), and the information you can glean from
the press release, the artists interests, or what the art invokes, you respond to this
configuration of mild injunctions. Mild because the parameters are open enough,
loose enough, opaque enough for you to (have to) make your own way through the
artwork. It asks you a question, making an open-ended assertion without definitive
sense. You replyusually not to the artwork but, in the best case, with a shift in your
own system of ideas, values, even the very way you formulate your languages. You
are the center of the artwork. Or, as Juliane Rebentisch accurately remarks, since the
artwork is not just its material being but also the sense that it makes and the values
it inscribes, what is primary in contemporary artits condition and horizonis the
art experience that is the transformation of both the subjective viewer and the artwork:

Aesthetic experience is nothing that can be had by the subject. The term
experience refers to a process between subject and object that transforms
boththe object insofar as it is only in and through the dynamic of its
experience that it is brought to life as a work of art, and the subject insofar
as it takes on a self-reflective form, its own performativity.1

What Rebentisch captures and affirms very well here is that under the name aesthetic
experience contemporary art depends upon its receiving subject, the addressee of
the work, who is taken to constitute it rather than arrive as latecomer after its pro-
duction. Put colloquially, the art leaves space for the viewer, the viewer com-
pletes the work. Contemporary art is the art that forefronts aesthetic experience
in this sense. Historically, it corresponds to the work made from the late 1950s by
Allan Kaprow and others against the strictures of high modernism (crucial to which
was the retrospective affirmation of Marcel Duchamps readymades), gaining trac-
tion through the 1960s in other modes, notably with the combined, if sometimes

A version of this essay appears in Spike 37 (Fall 2013).

1 Juliane Rebentisch, Answers to Questionnaire on the Contemporary," October 130 (Fall 2009): 101.
See also, in English, 7 Negations: Against Aesthetics Affirmationism, in Aesthetics and
Contemporary Art, ed. Armen Avanessian and Luke Skrebowski (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011),
5164; and The Aesthetics of Installation Art, trans. Daniel Hendrickson and Gerrit Jackson (Berlin:
Sternberg Press, 2012).

Concept 185

mutually acrimonious, developments of Conceptual art and Minimalism as well as effects are the reorganization of experience; it is the term of the intractable that
early performance art, and attaining total spectrum dominance in the metropolitan can only be felt or sensed through its materiality (Jean-Franois Lyotard), or of the
centers of the West since the mid-1980s and globally since the mid-late 1990s. The singularities of affect that can be mobilized but not perceived or conceptualized
centrality of aesthetic experience as the condition and horizon of art was abetted (Gilles Deleuze), or events that escape the consistency and logic of identification
by theoretical insights in deprioritizing authorial claims over meaning and privi- in an inaesthetics (Alain Badiou). In their common flight from communicable
leging instead interpretation and reception as the key moment of meaning making thought and conceptsometimes formulated as an anti-aestheticseach of these
(Umberto Eco, Roland Barthes, and, retrospectively, Mikhail Bakhtin were the key philosophies repeats the insistence that the artwork remain bound to a field of (per-
early figures in this regard). haps unthinkable) subjective experience that it cannot reflect upon or rationalize
That a reality such as art can only be apprehended by the thinking or without distorting itself irrecuperably. An emphasis on materiality in art carries the
consciousness of it such that it is necessarily accompanied by that thinking and same desire of a primacy of sensory and spatiotemporal experience: matter is held
consciousness is the dependency or injunction that Quentin Meillassoux has influ- to be extraneous, uncontrolled, excessive, or processual, but in any case against or
entially called correlationism.2 The problem with correlationism is that all accounts to the side of form/concept/thought/intention; unctuous, residual matter or emer-
of reality are necessarily accounts of how reality is thought or known. Put the other gent material organization escapes the control or command of the artists imposed
way, reality itself cannot be known in itself since it is always thought or appre- parameters on the artwork. How else to apprehend the chromatic bounciness of the
hended by a consciousness. Thought never takes leave from itself, if only because print, the light-sucking bleakness of the sculpture, the gloopy resilience of the paint
it thinks that departure and what is outside of it: what you know is always what in relation to the figures presented in such material presentation? Supposing sensory
you know. The many difficult self-reflexive philosophical problems that follow in and finite experience as a condition and term of art, the artwork has an inarticu-
establishing the possibility of a knowledge of the real for what it is independent lable or excessive presence in front of which there can only be an articulationa
of thoughtthat is, realismwill be left aside here, as will a detailed account of linguistic aftereffectthat necessarily misses or misapprehends it. That presence is
the various recent philosophies, gathered under the umbrella term Speculative of a material order other to languages semantic and transferrable dimension. While
Realism (SR), which strive to break out of correlationism. What is more immediately Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois proposed an art-historical mobilization of this
pressing here is that, in having a subject of aesthetic experience as its condition, insistent meaninglessness under the Bataillean name of the informe,3 the insistence
contemporary art is a correlationism. on/of matter as arts snaring of experience persists today even through digital pro-
To be clear: contemporary art as the aesthetic experience of sense- and duction with the emphasis on glitches, noise, disruptions, and slickness, all of which
value-making, as the co-constitution of the art object and subject, assumes correla- draw attention to what is produced and made manifest by the means of production
tionism and reproduces it, affirms it, in every moment of its open-ended experi- itself as much as by its manipulation by artists as human agents.
ence. The artworks and the discursive formulation of contemporary artobjects, For all the anti-conceptuality and experiential primacy of these approaches,
events, performances, images, press releases, reviews, magazine essays, auction and the paradoxical anti-philosophy of contemporary art as a post-conceptual
cataloguesstylize and configure a correlationism in how art is to be taken by its practice,4 they are in every case correlationist. As such, they are to be rejected by
audience. Contemporary art appeals to its addressees to determine the art in their any rigorous realism. (Such a realism, which claims to apprehend the real outside
own terms, including the disagreement between viewers that is the best ideal dem- of thought or the conditions of subjective experience, is not to be confused with
ocratic result. Artists have an interest in this or that; the artwork or exhibition realism as a style or genre of art committed to accurate representations of preex-
explores, plays with, interrogates, or shows a sensitivity about such and isting reality, since such a genre already assumes representation as an interval from
such topic. No more definitive or precise an account can be permitted at the cost a real elsewhere.) Aesthetically determined and organized, contemporary art has
of reducing viewers own capacities to make their call on the art. Abstractions serve nothing to offer non-correlational realism. Put the other way, a rigorous realism
this expectation and prioritization of experience well. And, for all their considerable
differences, experience is the key category in theories central to contemporary art: 3 See Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois, Formless: A Users Guide (New York: Zone Books, 1997).
4 For Peter Osborne contemporary art is post-Conceptual in that, consciously or not, art now
it sits on both sides of Michael Frieds split between absorption and theatricality; presumes the critical legacy of Conceptual art as a condition, including an indifference to medium-
it is the condition of Jacques Rancires aesthetic regime of art, whose political specificity as granting certain ontological privileges. See Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All
(London: Verso, 2013). Osborne claims that contemporary art is not an aesthetic art in any
2 See Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier philosophically significant sense of the term but rather only in its difference from the literality of the
(London: Continuum, 2008); and also Meillassoux, Time without Becoming, trans. Robin everyday (p. 10). For Osborne, contemporary art is then an art without aesthetics. The present essay
Mackay, Spike 35 (Spring 2013). argues, to the contrary, that contemporary art is the exemplar of the aesthetic constitution of art.

186 Concept Concept 187


can readily dispense with art as it now stands without loss or limitation. From yet be dismissed by a rationalist SR without consequence for the latter, bringing it to
another angle, realisms provocation to art is the undoing of aesthetic experience bear on art nonetheless forces a series of demands and criteria for art in terms other
as a condition or term of art, even in the avowal of arts ineluctable materiality. than those of contemporary art. The speculation it invites is what an art other than
Which is to say that realism speculatively indicates the conditions for another art contemporary art could be, not as a capricious flight of imagination or a frustrated
than contemporary art. wish but by being rationally known.
But it is important in this regard to proceed with some caution in the dimension We can begin that speculation at once: the critique of correlationism made by
of realism. For, as Documenta 13 amply demonstrated, mobilizing object-oriented rationalist SR is not the generalization of aesthetic experience but, to the contrary,
variants of SR within contemporary art is a trivial if not conservative undertaking: a demonstration that there can be a knowledge of what has never been experienced
the relation of objects amongst themselves, in which the human supposedly has no (for Meillassoux, such is the arche-fossil or the God arriving tomorrow; for Brassier,
particular privilege, fits very well with a formalist, perhaps proto-modernist notion of the death of the sun; for Iain Hamilton Grant, the natural, nonhuman concept). An
art that privileges its objects and their compositioninternal and mutualover the art responsive to this theoretically-led imperative would be indifferent to the experi-
external eye and ear of an observing, knowing subject but that nonetheless calls upon ence of it, an art that does not presume or return to aesthetics, however minimal or
a distributed notion of subjectivity in which the human participates on a supposedly fecund such an aesthetics might be. The condition and horizon of such an art is not
equal footing. The artist or viewer can appear as a mediator in this relation but is that it be felt, appreciated in vague ways, or made-sense-of as contemporary art is,
not necessary to it. Other versions of this logic include immersive art, networked art, affirming in each case the viewer in her or his sensitivities and capacity for judgment.
systems art, and so on. While the emphasis in object-oriented approaches on the Indifferent to aesthetic experience, it is an art of rational knowledge. Knowledge
(non)relations between all objects themselves equally challenges the primacy of here means that if there is an experience to be had, it can not only be formulated
the human subject as a prerequisite for their mutual (in)comprehension, an equality with a coherent logic and reasoned (even if its results are historically irrational),
between the art object and the human maker or addressee fits very well with any but also that it is subject to the predictive and generative exercise of reason qua new
number of clichs just exposed on the primacy, obduracy, or excess of matter and organizations of matter, thought, and experience.
object to human control. While revoking the primacy of interpretation it is nonethe- There are precursors to such an art. Example: the reduction of aesthetics
less a generalized variant of the co-constitution of object and (sometimes) human and the indifference to fabrication or reception was instantiated at the moment of
subject that is the aesthetic experience of contemporary art.5 moving from modern art to contemporary art with instruction pieces, in which
Contrast this to the variant of SR whose apparently paradoxical claim is that artists gave (usually typewritten) instructions for the fabrication of their work by
the real or absolute is apprehended without anthropomorphic, anthropocentric, or anonymous gallery workers. Such work has been described as an aesthetics of
noocentric distortion only by rational thought. The primary model here is science administration,6 the instructions taking the form of managerial or bureaucratic
(for Meillassoux, in the restricted form of mathematically organized science; for Ray edicts, and have themselves been more recently subject to commodification and
Brassier, in the general form of the explanatory power of the naturalistic technosci- aestheticization as they come to be traded as archived art-objects in their own right.
ences; for Franois Laruelle, as the intertwining of thought and the real, without a However, they also epitomize contemporary arts conventions insofar as the art
decision in favor of the former); and the demand upon contemporary art is strictly is taken to be completed not only with its construction as per the instructions,
nontrivial: it removes subjective interpretation or experience as a condition or telos butas advocated by several Fluxus artistscompleted by its addressee. Yet this
of the artwork, and therewith collapses the entire edifice of the contemporary art aestheticization of the instruction is not its operational logic, but the refusal of the
paradigm. While this need not be a direct concern for contemporary art, since same. What such instructions suppose in their open reproducibility as instruction,
rationalist SR need have no bearing on art (and should in fact rightly disregard or as much as in the art object whose construction or presentation it spells out, is
dismiss contemporary art as a lost cause), such a rationalism puts firmly destruc- (i) the indifference of such art to any subject or meaning imposed upon it other
tive pressure on the current operating, artistic, intellectual, and ideological para- than the fact of its systemic fabrication, and (ii) that the artwork qua instruction
digm of art, pressure that is much needed as contemporary art now all-too-happily is indifferent to its own material conditions (it does not matter to this art if the
continues to recycle standard tropes of anti-foundationalist critique, ethical piety, paper is lined or not, if the typeface is Courier or Times New Roman, even if the
apolitical politicality, and cultural hegemonization. While contemporary art can object is fabricated or not, if anyone reads them or not, and so forth). As Robert
Morriss Statement of Aesthetic Withdrawal from 1963 makes clear in declaring its
5 Graham Harman stresses aesthetics as first philosophy in On Vicarious Causation, Collapse 2
(March 2007): 187221. Harman also formulates this point in The Quadruple Object (Alresford: Zero 6 Benjamin Buchloh, Conceptual Art 19621969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the
Books, 2011) as the resurrection of a pan-psychism of objects. Critique of Institutions, October 55 (Winter 1990): 10543.

188 Concept Concept 189


own material redundancy as well as that of the work that is its ostensible referent, And it also aspires to what Buchloh might otherwise avow: the affirmation of singu-
in stating the condition for the art that it itself is qua instruction piece,7 such art larity in turn valorizing the uniqueness of its subjective appreciation. It is just this
is conceptually-systemically organized, immaterially determined, subjectively latter condition and destination of art that SR can undo if it is effectively mobilized.9
indifferent, aesthetically redundant, rationally cogent. It need not be experienced. This is but one, minimal, example of the demand rationalist SR places upon
Taking both of its dimensions together, instruction art acts as a paradigm for all art. That this injunction for reason against the primacy of experience as condition
post-Conceptual art in that it lends itself to (always temporary, partial) comple- or destination for art is itself a theoretically-philosophically derived demand does
tion in subjective experience yet, against this, it also need not be experienced at not present a problem since it is itself rationally constituted. There is no need to
all, but only known, in order to be art. This is conventionally a criticism of art, in find artists, curators, and critics advancing rationalist SR art to justify, ground,
fear of art abdicating its singularity for systematicity. The series of reductive banal- or lead the investigation. What is demanded, and what corrodes the interpretive
ities that Benjamin Buchloh attributes to Sol LeWitt as critic of high modernism paradigm of contemporary art as well its concomitant soft heroism of artistic,
typify such a reaction: curatorial, or interpretive anti-systematicity, is art as a rational exercise that evis-
cerates all lingering experiential conditions. Concept, not feeling; rational and
[LeWitts] work now revealed that the modernist compulsion for empiri- formalized, not wanton and uncaptured; indifferent and impervious to you: such
cist self-reflexiveness not only originated in the scientific positivism which is the binding force of reason directed to the real, a destruction of contemporary
is the founding logic of capitalism (undergirding its industrial forms of art as an art of indeterminacy.
production just as much as its science and theory), but that, for an artistic
practice that internalized this positivism by insisting on a purely empiri-
cist approach to vision, there would be a final destiny. This destiny would
be to aspire to the condition of tautology.8

7 Morris: The undersigned, ROBERT MORRIS, being the maker of the metal construction entitled
LITANIES, described in the annexed Exhibit A, hereby withdraws from said construction all
aesthetic quality and content and declares that from the date hereof said construction has no such
quality and content. Dated: November 15, 1963 [signed] Robert Morris. While the Statement is
taken art-historically to be a negating rejoinder to Philip Johnsons non-payment for Litanies (the piece
that is the statements immediate referent), theories supportive of contemporary art take it to be
either an instance of the broader negating of material-optical specificity and objectality in favor of
engagement with institutional and linguistic structures that is now a standard operation for
contemporary art (Buchloh, Ibid., 11718), or, concomitant to such a determination and no less
typical as a contemporary art procedure, as an ironic overdetermination of the artwork that
is its direct referent, exposing the Duchampian readymade as the common condition for both the
statement and the artwork itself (Martha Buskirk, The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art
[Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005]). In contradistinction to these aesthetically expansive accounts,
the Statement is here taken more emphatically to be a description of its own conditions as an artwork.
That is, Morriss Statement is at once performative and constative of itself, yet, in relation to Buchlohs
complaint against the scientistic positivism of conceptual arts empiricism quoted later in the
main text here, it is not tautological in that it is heterogeneously performative, constituting its own
terms of operation as art by virtue of its rational and didactic exemption of the art of Litanies from
its material external referent. This de-aestheticization was well-captured by Harold Rosenberg in
1970, though he identifies that movement or tendency with a return to primitivism in its rejection 9 And, with that, also undone are the first four of LeWitts Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969),
of artifice. See De-Aestheticization, in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson, eds., Conceptual Art: which still serve as a systems program for contemporary art and its putative critical operation:
A Critical Anthology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 22022. Rosenberg was not without cause in 1. Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. 2. They leap to conclusions that logic
this characterization, given the limitations of the art of the time and its broad identification of cannot reach. 3. Rational judgments repeat rational judgments. 4. Illogical judgments lead to
Conceptualism with anti-formalism understood as anti-idealism and hence as pro-materialist. What new experience. (Alberro and Stimson, Conceptual Art, 106). If LeWitts fifth sentence irrational
is advocated here is, rather, the rationalism of the Statement, whereby its art takes place in its thoughts should be followed absolutely and logicallynonetheless serves to characterize
presentation, here or elsewhere, strictly equivalent to its presentation on the document signed by Meillassouxs startling philosophy well enough, any consilience anticipated here must attend to
Morris in person; that is, it is art by virtue of its literal rather than material synthesis. a more basic divergence: that for LeWitt such an irrationalism arises despite and against reason,
8 Buchloh, Conceptual Art, 115. while for Meillassoux it is occasioned by and on behalf of reason.

190 Concept Concept 191

Non-Correlational Thought
Steven Shaviro

Speculative Realism calls upon us to escape from what Quentin Meillassoux

describes as the vicious circle of correlationism: The idea according to which we
only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never
to either term considered apart from the other.1 This formulation seems at first
to be symmetrical. Subject and object, or more generally thought and being, are
regarded by the correlationist as mutually co-constituting and codependent.
Not only does it become necessary to insist that we never grasp an object in
itself, in isolation from its relation to the subject, but it also becomes necessary
to maintain that we can never grasp a subject that would not always-already be
related to an object.2 Described in this manner, the correlation would seem
to move indifferently in either direction, from thinking to being or from being
to thinking.
However, under closer examination, Meillassouxs formulation turns out not
to be symmetrical or reversible after all. Rather, the correlationist movement is dis-
symmetrical and unidirectional. When thought and being are correlated, thought is
always the active and relational term, the one that actually performs the correlation.
Thinking per se is correlational, insofar as it necessarily implies a relation-to-the-
world.3 Thought begins with a radical decision: the assertion of the essential
inseparability of the act of thinking from its content. Once this decision has been
made, it is already too late: all we ever engage with is what is given-to-thought,
never an entity subsisting by itself.4
Being, on the other hand, just is. This makes it the dumb and passive term
in Meillassouxs account. Meillassoux takes it for granted that things, in contrast
to thoughts, are able to stand alone. Things do not correlate on their own; they
merely suffer being apprehended byand thereby correlated tosome sort of
consciousness or subjectivity that seizes them from the outside. In itself, being
does not speak. Thus, thought always refers to being; but being, in and of itself,
remains indifferent to thought.
Since thought is in its essence correlational, Meillassoux says, we can only
escape correlationism by affirming the pure and simple death, with neither con-
sciousness nor life, without any subjectivity whatsoever, that is represented by the

1 Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. Ray Brassier
(London: Continuum, 2008), 5.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid., 18.
4 Ibid., 36.

Concept 193

state of inorganic matter.5 We must reach a position, Meillassoux says, which addition, furnished by the perceiving mind, and not really present in the molecules
takes seriously the possibility that there is nothing living or willing in the inorganic and the radiant energy which influence the mind toward that perception.13
realm and for which absolute reality is an entity without thought. Beyond the In banishing the body and the senses from his account, Meillassoux takes up a
correlation, existence is totally a-subjective.6 In this way, Meillassoux presents position on the scientistic, reductionist side of the bifurcation of nature. This is the
us with the classical pictureinherited from the scientific revolution of the seven- only way, he claims, to escape the presuppositions of correlationism. I want to suggest,
teenth and eighteenth centuries, and, even before that, from the ancient atomists however, that the reason Meillassoux arrives at this position is, paradoxically, because
and Epicureansof a universe that is lifeless, mindless, and inert, and that operates he isnt anti-correlationalist enough. The principal target of Meillassouxs polemic is
entirely mechanistically.7 phenomenology, the legacy of Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. With its insis-
Together with this, Meillassoux also empties the world of what Kant called tence on the indissoluble tie between subject and object, or between the human act of
sensible intuition: that is to say, of everything that is experienced phenomenally, thinking and the world it thinks, phenomenology is the correlationist philosophy par
and that is discovered through the body and the senses. Sensory qualities always excellence. And yet, despite his opposition to phenomenology, Meillassoux still takes
involve a relation, rather than a property inherent in the thing.8 This means that for granted, and never questions, the phenomenological assumption that thought is
they are inevitably correlational and epiphenomenal. Meillassoux therefore suggests fundamentally and necessarily intentional. For phenomenology, every act of thinking
that we must reject anything having to do with phenomenality, with embodiment, and is directed to an object beyond itself. A mental state always points to something. This
with sensibility and affect. In contrast, he tells us that allbut onlythose aspects remains the case regardless of whether that something is a thing that really exists
of the object that can be formulated in mathematical terms can be meaningfully in the world, or whether it is fiction, or an abstraction, or a mental construction.
conceived as properties of the object in itself. Everything belonging to perception No matter the case, thought is always about something. It follows that thought is
and sensationor for that matter to the bodymust be removed; we are left only intrinsically a relational activity, and indeed a correlational one. The decision that
with those elements that are reducible to a formula or to digitization.9 inaugurates thought has ruled out any other possibility.
When he thus radically separates thought and sensibility from bare matter Because Meillassoux takes the intentionalist model of thought for granted,
and describes the latter exclusively in mathematical terms, Meillassoux reinstates he assumes that any non-correlationist ontology must dispense with thought alto-
an avowedly Cartesian dualism.10 He reaffirms the very condition that Alfred North gether. In other words, instead of questioning the overall bifurcation of nature, he
Whitehead diagnosed as the basic error of modern Western thought: the bifurca- affirms one side of the dualism and rejects the other. And this is what leads to the
tion of nature.11 This is the schema according to which we radically separate sensory curious dissymmetry that I have already mentioned. When Meillassoux first defines
experience from the physical actualities that generate that experience. We divide the the correlation of thought and being, he says that both terms of the appropriation
perceived redness and warmth of the fire, on the one hand, from the agitated mol- are originarily constituted through their reciprocal relation.14 But he fails to follow
ecules of carbon and oxygen, the radiant energy, and the various functionings of through on the implications of this reciprocity. He seeks to escape the correlationist
the material body on the other.12 These two descriptions are taken to belong to entirely claim that we never grasp an object in itself, in isolation from its relation to the
different registers of existence. The first is phenomenal, while the second is scientific. subject. But he never tries to undermine the reciprocal claim, that we can never
Once we have divided up the world in this manner, it matters little which side of the grasp a subject that would not always-already be related to an object. Indeed, he
bifurcation we favor. Phenomenology valorizes perceptual experience, while ignoring, takes this claim entirely for grantedwhich is precisely why his self-proclaimed
or failing to give an adequate account of the molecules and the photons. Reductionist materialism requires the elimination of any sensible mode of subjectivity.15
scientism, on the other hand, disparages phenomenal experience as merely a psychic Meillassoux thus presents only a limited, one-sided escape from correlationism.
He explores the way that objects exist for themselves, rather than just being for us.
5 Quentin Meillassoux, Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition: A Speculative Analysis of the But he fails to consider how thought might also subsist on its own, without any need
Meaningless Sign, trans. Robin Mackay, in Genealogies of Speculation: Materialism and Subjectivity to correlate things to itself. A more thoroughgoing anti-correlationism must also
since Structuralism, ed. Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik (London: Bloomsbury, forthcoming). explore the existence of non-correlational thought: that is to say, of a sort of thought
6 Meillassoux, After Finitude, 36, 38.
7 Meillassoux, After Finitude, 3637; Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition, 2. or consciousness, or sentience, or feeling, or phenomenal experiencethat is non-
8 Meillassoux, After Finitude, 2. phenomenological, insofar as it goes on without establishing relations of intentionality
9 Ibid., 3.
10 Ibid., 13, 1113. 13 Ibid., 2930.
11 Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2004), 30, 2648. 14 Meillassoux, After Finitude, 8.
12 Ibid., 32. 15 Meillassoux, Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition.

194 Concept Concept 195


to anything beyond itself, and even without establishing any sort of reflexive relation and Henri Bergson. Each had his own war cry: all consciousness is consciousness of
to itself. If we seek to liberate the world of objects from its servitude as a mere cor- something (Husserl), or more strongly, all consciousness is something (Bergson).21
relate of our thought, then we must also strive to liberate thought from its servitude Bergsons war cry resonates more strongly for Deleuze than Husserls,
to its own self-imposed grounds, reasons, and conditions of possibility. Only in this because Bergsons formulation short-circuits the correlation at the heart of phenom-
way can thought get outside itself as Meillassoux demands, so that we can truly reach enology. It allows for sentience without reflexivity, and for a kind of experience that
the great outdoors, the absolute outside to which he so stirringly calls us.16 remains in-itself, without transcendence toward an external object. If all con-
This point can also be made in another way. There is a curious slippage in the sciousness is something, then thought immanently coincides with matter, in the
course of Meillassouxs analysis. He argues that any non-correlationist philosophy absolute identity of the image and movement.22 Therefore, as Deleuze puts it else-
must be open to an absolute that is at once external to thought and in itself devoid where, It is not enough to say that consciousness is consciousness of something.23
of all subjectivity.17 The slippage comes in the way that Meillassoux implicitly Rather, we must move backward and downward, in order to reach the primordial
moves from an object, or a world, that is independent of anything that our thought point where consciousness ceases to be a light cast upon objects in order to become
imposes upon it, to objects and worlds that are also devoid of thought in themselves. a pure phosphorescence of things in themselves.24
Meillassoux seems to take it for granted that thought is unique to human beings. He Non-correlational thought happens on a level below or before what Deleuze
justifies this acknowledged anthropocentrism on the grounds that any attribution of calls the structure-Other.25 Without the explicit presence of an Other to provide
thought to nonhumans is simply a case of anthropomorphic projection.18 a structure of the perceptual field, such thought simply does not make the dis-
However, there are good reasons, empirically at least, to doubt that human tinction of consciousness and its object.26 In this register, thinkingor better,
beings are as unique as Meillassoux claims. Ample scientific evidence points to sentienceis nonintentional and noncognitive. Quite literally, it is not involved in
the sentience of organisms like trees, slime mold, and bacteria, and to the evolu- processes of cognition or recognition. It does not recognize or interpret anything;
tionary continuity between such sentience and that of animals, including ourselves.19 which is to say, it comes before, and does not participate in, anything on the order
Meillassoux is simply wrong to assume that a world not yet affected by the modes of of the Heideggerian as-structure, or of what the cognitivist philosophers of mind
apprehension of our subjectivity must necessarily have no subjective-psychological, describe as representationalist information processing.
egoic, sensible or vital traits whatsoever of its own.20 We might well describe such non-correlational thought or sentience as
It is also worth noting that there are many different degrees and forms of autisticprovided that we use this term in a nonpejorative and nonmedicalized
human sentience, and many different modes of perception, sensation, awareness, sense. Contrary to popular (and sometimes medical) prejudice, autists are not solip-
and cognition. Not all of these are necessarily directed at objects. The range is even sists, and they are not lacking in empathy. As the neurodiversity movement helps us
broader when we turn to other forms of life. Organisms like slime molds probably understand, autistic modes of thought should not be stigmatized as deficient, just
do not think according to our own all-too-human models of conscious intention- because they are evidently different from the neurotypical ones. In particular, people
ality. Even if human beings are inveterate correlationists, slime molds need not be. along the autism spectrum seem to be less incorrigibly correlationist in their
Establishing just how slime molds think is of course a matter for empirical basic attunement to the world than neurotypicals are. They do not entirely operate
research. But philosophy can give us guidelines as to how a non-correlational mode of according to Deleuzes structure-Other or Heideggers as-structure. Further
thought might work, either in ourselves or in other entities. Gilles Deleuze offers us one exploration of autistic perception and autistic affectivity might take us a long way
possible clue. He writes of the historical crisis of psychology that arose at the end toward an account of non-correlational thought.27
of the nineteenth century, at the very moment of the invention of cinema. This crisis
concerned the confrontation of materialism and idealism, leading to a duality of
21 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam
image and movement, of consciousness and thing. At the time, Deleuze says, two (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 56.
very different authors made efforts to overcome the duality: Edmund Husserl 22 Ibid., 59.
23 Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1994), 220.
16 Meillassoux, After Finitude, 3, 7. 24 Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester (New York: Columbia University Press,
17 Meillassoux, Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition. forthcoming. 1990), 311.
18 Ibid., 5. 25 Ibid., 309ff.
19 Steven Shaviro, ed., Cognition and Decision in Nonhuman Biological Organisms 26 Ibid., 307, 311.
(Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press, 2011). 27 Emily Thornton Savarese and Ralph James Savarese, eds., Autism and the Concept of
20 Meillassoux, Iteration, Reiteration, Repetition," forthcoming. Neurodiversity, Disabilities Study Quarterly 30 (2010): 1.

196 Concept Concept 197


Non-correlational sentience is an immanent attribute or power of being.

It involves what Whitehead calls feelings,28 rather than articulated judgments
or Heideggerian implicit preunderstandings. It is nonintentional: it is not directed
toward, or correlated with particular objects, even though it may well be implicated
with them. Such a mode of sentience is nonreflexive, and may well be unconscious;
it is a kind of phenomenality without phenomenology, or a nonconceptual what-
is-it-likeness. One task for Speculative Realism in the years to come is to explore
the potentialities of this mode of thought.

28 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1978), 4042.

Fig. 11
198 Concept
Fig. 13

Fig. 12
Fig. 15

Fig. 14
The Idiot Paradigm
Matthew Poole

Art today exists within a post-Duchampian condition that eschews any dominant
paradigm or, indeed, the very notion of art historical progress. It is a condition in
which art historical hierarchies of genre, aesthetic categories, and formal genealogies
have been flattened, creating a field of production that is now principally ordered by
the vagaries of capital exchange. This condition indexes arts presumed democratic
materialism1 as it provides a polyvalent groundlessness according to which all sub-
jects, be they bodies and/or languages (and body/languages), can participate equally
and freely in the political currency of art, free from the strictures of the academy
and the biases of ideology. This is, however, merely a pseudo-materialism, one of
the many ideological illusions of neoliberal idealism.
If by the term paradigm we mean model or pattern, showing things side-
by-side rather than progressively one-after-the-other, as per the once dominant
Greenbergian genealogy of modernism,2 then there would appear to be no models for
art now. Art is taken to embody a post-medium, post-Conceptual, post-diachronic
condition, where there are no distinct genres or hierarchies of subject matter,
where art may take any material or immaterial form, be that a static physical form
1 I use this term to distinguish classical Enlightenment liberal idealism from the rhetoric of various forms
of neoliberal economic politics that we see burgeoning today globally. Where classical Enlightenment
liberalist idealism is based on the unattainable but regulative ideals of Truth, Justice, and Beauty,
democratic materialism operates on and through the substrate of actually existing bodies and languages
proposing that, as Alain Badiou put it, The individual is convinced of, and formatted by, the dogma
of our finitude, of our exposition to enjoyment, suffering and death. So, instead of subjectivities being
oriented to and driven by and toward regulative ideals, subjects instead are driven to attend to their
own subjective affectual modulation and amplification as goals (or quasi-ideals) in themselves. This
analysis helps to explain the rise of the experience economies and economies of scope in contemporary
capitalism, as well as the burgeoning of immaterial labor models. See Alain Badiou, Bodies, Languages,
Truths, available at
2 As is well known, Clement Greenbergs genealogy of modernist painting maps a linear and progressive
trajectory of formal innovations and dialectical transgressions of subject matter from Gustave
Courbet and douard Manet through Abstract Expressionism to Post-Painterly Abstraction, halting
abruptly at and rejecting anything that might resemble what we now refer to as Minimalism. Marcel
Duchamps oeuvre challenges this linear teleological syntagmatic trajectory. From as early as 1912,
Duchamp produced things that were, formally, extraordinarily diverse and eclectic and that
appeared to represent a confusing blizzard of subjects. Duchamp indeed placed this diverse range of
things side by side as discrete paradigms, but by eschewing either formal or hermeneutic connections
between them he also and simultaneously collapsed the horizontality of syntagmaticism and the
verticality of paradigmaticism. This collapse of hierarchies within Duchamps oeuvre is crucial to
understanding the level and structure of the spatiotemporal critique that he was attempting to
produce through his work. Equally, if we take Duchamp at his word when he describes tant donns
(1966) as the same art work as The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (191523) then we are forced
to rethink the spatiotemporal specificity of the artwork since, according to Duchamp, it both exists
in two places at once and was produced at a minimum of forty-three years apart.

Concept 205

or a dynamic processual form, and where art is produced and evaluated outside and measured, though all these values/subjects remain in a state of pseudo-absolute
of a dialectics of the temporal. I propose, however, that this condition does have dynamism. As values, all neoliberal subjects, like all subjects, point toward a telos,
a paradigm, albeit a quasi-paradigm of particular malleability, a quasi-paradigm albeit an embodied one, an ideal of the permissive and permitting force of capital
that produces the illusion of and allusion to art having a particular ontological and (in the case of neoliberalism) in whatever form, even though the illusion of a total
epistemological malleability vis--vis the presumptions about bodies and languages pragmatism is expounded by their hidden attenuated ideology.
that democratic materialism proposes and propagates. I propose that art today exists It is important to note that all idiotae, self-declared or not, are apolitical fig-
within the quasi-paradigm of paradigmaticism: the idiot paradigm.3 ures without agency to engage in politics, without a polis, and specifically without
In ancient Greece, those regarded as idiotes were excluded from public affairs a civic connection. Aristotle famously believed there was something pathetic about
on the grounds that they had nothing to offer the affairs of the polis and nothing to being apolitical, citilesslike being a solitary piece in checkers.5 Similarly, in her
lose by the actions taken therein. The idiotes existed at the periphery of the sphere of 1958 book The Human Condition Hannah Arendt writes a brief passage focusing on
sovereignty of those with stakes in society and validated to exercise agency in public. the privations suffered by those engaging in or afflicted by idiocy.6 Arendt, however,
The uneducated, the mentally ill, slaves, and women were such groups barred from believed in the private sphere, the proto-idiotic domain, as an important space of
taking part in the affairs of the polis and thus regarded as idiotic. By not participating refuge, like a backstage, where one could regroup ones thoughts to reenter the pub-
in the civic or public life of the polis, the idiotes was a figure who lived an abstracted lic-political stage reinvigorated. Similarly, the likes of Antisthenes and Diogenes saw
life, disinvested from the field of politics, disconnected from the hegemonic relations freedom in this deliberate act of withdrawal, though they had no desire to reenter
of the wider society and thus trapped in a condition of assumed non-relationality. the metropolitan stage of, in their view, the corrupt polis of Athens. Indeed, pathos
The idiotes did have a relation to the polis and its sphere of sovereignty, but no legit- (solitary suffering) was their very condition of life, not ethos (collective habit(ation)
imate power to put into effect its agency to this relation as a validated political force or enculturedness). However, the freedom in which such philosophers believed is
because its relation to society was simply one-way: total subjugation. As peripheral only an illusion of and an allusion to another ideal image of freedom bound up
to the sphere of sovereignty, however, the status of the idiotes actively delineates a within the dialectic of public and private. It is not a materialist freedom, that would
horizon, providing a form of political potential, albeit a static one. consider existence per se utterly indifferent to the existence of perceptual appara-
Philosophers that deliberately undertook life as idiotes include Antisthenes, tuses (such as humans) that can perceive things existing; rather it is an idealist, or
Diogenes, other Cynics, and Socrates. To say that they were not concerned with we might say ideological, imago of freedom that re-invokes the ideologically con-
larger affairs, though, is not strictly correct. Such characters were concerned with structed public/private dialectic.
larger affairs, but believed that their way of life existed on a much larger and more The paradigm of contemporary arts freedom suffers this same pathos and rigid
profound level, a cosmic level unconcerned with the trivial business of other citizens. self-limitation as it seeks out ever more atomised paradigms laid side-by-side as if in
They thus deliberately withdrew from the status of metropolitan citizen to become non-Euclidean parallel lines. Private subjects exist within the illusion of a freedom in
cosmopolitanfigures without familiar topological or spatiotemporal grounds, or which they are permitted and determined as valuable simply because they can exist
at least figures that presented the illusion of and allusion to such groundlessness. as subjects, away from the form of a field or ground of any absolute relationality,
Unfortunately, it is within this illusion that neoliberalism proliferates, as it not only toward an assumed non-ground of what we will call a pseudo- absolute relativity:7
permits everything within its parameters of sovereignty (within the assumed-to-be away from any grounding syntagmatic rules or external governance of any kind.
infinite parameters of hyper-capitalist economies of scope); but, more significantly, This is the great lie of neoliberalism and, in the art context, the great conservative
proliferates by and as the reification of subjects to permits, radically renouncing
the dialectic of subject-object relations that might otherwise govern or constrain its 5 And a man that is because of nature and not merely because of fortune citiless is either low in
the scale of humanity or above it (like the clanless, lawless, hearthless man reviled by Homer,
subjects.4 Within neoliberal crypto-ideology everything that is valuable is a subject, for he is by nature citiless and also a lover of war) in as much as he resembles an isolated piece
and so every subject, including the human subject, has a value that can be calibrated at draughts. Aristotle, Politics, 1253a 47.
6 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1998), 38.
3 The idiot paradigm of contemporary art is a paradigmaticism in that it is a model that promotes 7 Absolute relativity appears to be an oxymoron, but only if it is conceived from the perspective of
a proliferation of diverse paradigms, apparently unconnected by linear temporal relations, an idealist language that seeks and operates upon an assumedly stable ground of assumptions of
a random bustling of atomized individual parts not subject to any conjunctive directional force an a priori spatiotemporal background. By analogy, in physics Absolute Relativity Theory (ironically
or criteria. It is a quasi-paradigm in that it is at once a paradigm, a syntagm, and neither. crowned with the acronym ART) does not presume a preexisting spatiotemporal ground to
4 Here, I literally mean that any subject, whether a human subject or any other material the universe, instead proposing that space and time are as much material symptoms of the as yet
abstraction, is permitted to effect any material or abstract force and transformation upon any unfathomed forces of the universe as anything else that can be currently observed or theorized
object whatsoever, simply by virtue of the fact of validation as a subject (and not an object). within it.

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irony of, for example, relational or dialogical aesthetics8that each and every Similarly, Tristan Tzaras 1918 Dada Manifesto alludes to such idioticism in its
participating voice is valid and free to be expressed as equally valideven though the imagery of dance and fecund creation from wild destruction:
proponents of such types of art believe that they are producing points of resistance
against the prevailing hegemonic ideology in interstitial spaces or microtopias, as abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create: Dada. []
both Nicolas Bourriaud and Hans Ulrich Obrist have consistently asserted. The lib- every object, all objects, feelings and obscurities, every apparition and the
eral assumption here is that the multiplicity of subjective expressions can and does precise shock of parallel lines, are weapons for the fight: Dada; abolition
emanate from stable subjects that are first of all assumed a priori to exist as such with of prophets: Dada; abolition of the future: Dada. [] Elegant and unpreju-
an a priori validated agency, and then secondly, but equally importantly, can be and diced leap from a harmony to the other sphere; [] the interlacing of oppo-
are located in and of themselves however abstract they areand they are necessarily sites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies: LIFE.10
material abstractions (meaning that subjects are reified). This in itself is a patently
conservative politics, as it does nothing to change subject relations, especially property But it is Richard Huelsenbecks 1918 Berlin Dada Manifesto where we see the
relations. Instead, it simply propagates the ground necessary for the more aggressive most direct connotation of idiocy: The true Dadaist [] half Pantagruel, half St.
forms of subjection and subjectivation that we find in neoliberalism. It is the cryp- Francis, laughing and laughing.11
to-ideological locating of subjects within their subjectivity that is the hidden ground Repeatedly in all the Dada manifestos we see references to powerful vitality,
that is never questioned (as all subjects must be ideologically oriented and produced, superabundant creative fecundity, ouroborosic hermeticism, and the collapse of
even if they are assumed only to point to themselves, as in neoliberalism), because the morality and ethics, which are all allusions to the condition of the paradigmaticism of
telos of their assumed embodied freedom obscures this contradiction from discourse idiocy. As the plurality of techniques, forms, subject matter, and approaches in Dada
that would otherwise diagnose the reality of their status and ontic state. works attest, each work is itself idiotic, and is believed to sit in parallel with every other
In the canons of art history, and in particular the canon of modernism, it is work: a nebula of non-relationality that creates the illusion of the uprooting of every
Dada that explicitly attempts to inhabit and embody this quasi-paradigm of the subject from its relation to a corresponding object, freeing it supposedly radically.
paradigmaticism of the idiot; and it is the Dadaist ethos that is reproduced in most These attempts at producing a radically paradigmatic (non-)structure ulti-
art today. In Hugo Balls 1916 Dada Manifesto his aggressive use of the concepts mately fail because the proponents of Dada aim to provoke the paradigmaticism
of first-cause, destruction and creation, foolishness, eternal bliss, madness, and the of idiocy; hence the need for manifestos. Because of this they unwittingly invoke
transmutation of subjects and objects: a quasi-syntagmatic field, albeit a strange pseudo-non-relational field in which the
de facto relation between nodal points of transgression is the illusion of refused
Dada is a new tendency in art. [] Dada world war without end, Dada revo- relationality. Dada ultimately reproduces the paradigmatic/syntagmatic dialectic
lution without beginning. [] How does one achieve eternal bliss? By saying because it attempts to provoke the collapse of the dialectic itself. This happens pri-
dada. [] Till one goes crazy. Till one loses consciousness. [] I let the marily because of the insistence that Dada is not Expressionism, is not Futurism,
vowels fool around. I let the vowels quite simply occur. [] I want the word and so on. What the Dadaists did not learn from the symbolism of the mythological
where it ends and begins. [] Each thing has its word, but the word has figure of the idiotes is that this state cannot be provoked but only divinely ordained
become a thing by itself, [] the word outside your domain.9 (if one believes in such things). It is as if they forgot that idiocy is allegoricala
metaphor, an ideologically constructed representation. Much like heroism, the
condition of idiocy cannot be self-declared. One must befall such conditions, and
8 I am referring to the participatory art practices championed by Nicolas Bourriaud, Hans Ulrich the befalling is absolutely chaotic and unpredictable, just as the anointment of the
Obrist, Maria Lind, Uta Meta Bauer, and Grant Kester, among others, where relational aesthetics
and dialogical aesthetics respectively denote the titles of Bourriaud and Kesters most well-known idiotes as Carnival King can only be divinely ordained. What Dada produced was
historico-theoretical accounts of the rise and proliferation of such practices in art from the late merely pseudo-anarchism, which is entirely commensurate with the radical pseudo-
1980s to the present day. It is worth noting, although it is obvious and well documented, that these freedoms expounded by neoliberalism, as it ultimately fails to escape the dialectics of
participatory practices have become a significant and dominant mode in contemporary art that is
dubbed politically active, or, more controversially, socially engaged. It is also worth noting that same and other, master and slave, producing simply a conservative reactionary form
these two phrases are not only woefully inaccurate, being both blindly tautological, but also often
used incorrectly because of the actually antidemocratic hubris of the ethics of those that utter them 10 Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto, 1918; available at:
in earnest together with the incorrect theorizations of sociability and the political that they espouse. 11 Richard Huelsenbeck, Dada Manifesto (1918), in German Expressionism, Documents from the End
9 Hugo Ball, Dada Manifesto, 1916; available at of the Wilhelmine Empire to the Rise of National Socialism, ed. Rose-Carol Washton Long (Berkeley:
/hugo-ball-dada-manifesto.html. University of California Press, 1993), 26769.

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of abnegated sovereignty. What we see in the ethico-aesthetics of much art today is sovereign realms allows it to be the embodiment of a complex matrix of conflicting,
equally pseudo-anarchism existing within the contradictions of the idiot paradigm. contrasting, or even contradictory paradigms, such as life and death (it is after all
Turning to the mythological figure of the idiotes to explore its symbolism, we begin a figure that is alive in the realm of the living, yet as an eternal child also somehow
to see how and why its epistemological and ontological status closely maps arts current dead) making it the paradigm of the paradigmatic.12 Such a state characterizes con-
idiotic status, albeit a status that is not fully or coherently achieved by contemporary art. temporary art today, which is distinguished by the paradigm of paradigm-less-ness,
One of the clearest depictions of the idiotes can be found on the Townley Vase, or a paradigm that permits the endless proliferation of disconnected paradigms.
a second-century Roman vase discovered in 1773. Upon its relief surface we see the The contradictions of the idiot paradigm are of course entirely commensurate
idiotes leading a Bacchanalian/Dionysian triumphal procession, its principal function with the contradictions of neoliberalism, where a pseudo-liberal humanism of pseudo-
to lead an epistemo-ontological collapse of reverie and delirium, to collapse the dyad radical individuality fuels and legitimates the crypto-syntagmatic field of capitalist
of the primal and the civilized. It is symbolized by alpha, signifying a new beginning, economic relations. That is to say, capitalist economic relations appear to be so blin-
first cause, or origin. So the idiotes is a heroic fool representing chaotic, irrational, dingly complex and intertwined with all aspects of life that we appear not to be able
random action intended to break the conventions of the polis. The idiotes is depicted to discern cause-and-effect relationships between social, political, ethical, or eco-
moving from right to left symbolising a shift from conscious to unconscious cognition, nomic activities in the world. However, there are ordering systems and logics at play,
eschewing its ego, entering an archetypal realm and becoming god-like, its own arche- as there must necessarily be (however difficult they may be to grasp) because capital
type, its own origin, and thus object-like, insomuch as it is shedding its skin of the can still be accumulated and subjects are still the points at which capital accumulates
ego-illusion of being a sovereign individual subject. The idiotes is also seen whistling, and around which it is oriented. Art today suffers within this contradictory system
representing a spirit of vitality. Fool derives from the Latin follis denoting a bellows; where its innovations, changes, and developments are either explicitly and overtly
follis is a Latin euphemism for the scrotum, another bag containing vital creative spirit. market driven or are explicitly and overtly driven by the ideological illusions of liberal-
The fool is then an unrestrained source of breath. So the idiotes is the ontic object humanist ethics. For example, the work of artists such as Jeff Koons or Maurizio
of aspiring creativity: an artwork sui generis. As such, it is beyond ethics embodying its Cattelan functions predominantly by the violence of repression in the apparatus
own telos, which it suffers existing within this pathos. In this sense it is Olympian. But, of the art market, but also in the museum, in art criticism, and in art history, while
the idiotes is also barefoot, connoting spiritual and material humility, grounding it in functioning secondarily by the more subtle violence of ideology in all these appara-
ordinary life connected directly to matter. Thus it is also chthonic. The idiotes cloak tuses to ensure its own apparent cohesion and the reproduction of the values that
is multi-coloured, representing spring, transformation, and rebirth. Its seven headband it propounds to self-legitimize its violent means.13 In the same way, but conversely,
feathers signify the pantheistic spirit of the seven planets and the fools coxcomb (the the work of a self-proclaimed ethical artist such as Marina Abramovic functions
cock heralding the dawning of new awareness). Dionysian primal fecundity is also predominantly by the violence of liberal-humanist ideology, but also secondarily by
connoted in depictions of the idiotes being followed by a panther, being in proximity
to vines, grapes, figs, a serpent, and wearing fawn skin. It also carries a thyrsus, a pine- 12 Here, for example, we can use the example of death to help clarify. Living human subjects can have
no access to or knowledge of death while they are living. To access death or to have knowledge of
cone-tipped stalk of the giant fennelthe tool Prometheus used to steal fire from the it means one is, of course, dead. This means that the knowledge of the living and the knowledge of
sun: a powerful phallic symbol of fecundity and liveness, but also an allusion to the the dead cannot be conjoined in any way. The manifold of the moment of death itself provides an
foresightedness, or scope, of the Titan (and the meaning of his name) and the eternal abyssal rupture in the continuity of the knowledge of the living. Death is a paradigm that the living
paradigm cannot assimilate and so the syntagmata of the living ends abruptly at the manifold
suffering inflicted upon him by Zeus for his acting independently of the Olympian disjunctive conjunction with death in the moment of death. The idiotes, by contrast, is able to hop
gods in his act of pity toward mankind. and skip back and forth across this abyss and thus contains secret knowledge of both the living
Most significantly of all, the idiotes is the archetypal puer aeternus, the eternal realm and the realm of death, though to neither of which can it disclose the others secrets. This
monstrous capacity that the idiotes embodies is a principal reason for the fear of and hence public
child. So the idiotes is half-devil/half-savior, the threat of destruction and the promise exclusion of those branded as idiots (women, slaves, the mentally ill, and so forth). What I am
of creation held synthesised within it. The idiotes is fundamentally immature, incom- proposing here is that art can be encountered idiotically but must not be regarded as embodying
patible with the public sphere as it can never be pubes, adult. Because of this it is or representing function or, worse, the meaning of the idiotes as paradigm.
13 In any market there are many layers and mechanisms of violent repression, such as those that allow
always alongside (para) and shows (digm) the path between worlds that can never be certain goods and certain vendors into the market place, the agora, or bar them from it. Others are
placed or arranged in order syntagmatically. The idiotes is always parallel to the sov- the mechanisms that determine the pricing of goods, which create violent repression of other forms
ereignty, or paradigm, of any given order, and can move simultaneously between and or registers of value or currency to be admitted to operate in the market place. And, of course,
the very notion of private property is a form of violent repression that confiscates objects or services
through dimensions that are ordered by their own respective paradigms, such as life from free public usage into the private sphere. Maurizio Cattelans and Jeff Koonss oeuvres have
and death. The simultaneous transverse movement of the idiotes between and through been deliberately choreographed by the artists to gain their value principally from the art markets.

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violent repression, even if this is highly attenuated and concealed, symbolic even, as Reason Is Inconsolable
with it is for the ideological state apparatuses of the family or education systems.14
What is at once obvious, banal, and ubiquitous is that the humanist-capitalist and Non-Conciliatory
matrix produces a nebula of pseudo-radical difference within the material of the field
of the art world (i.e., a plurality of forms, techniques, subjects, and attitudes toward Ray Brassier in Conversation with Suhail Malik
difference) in order to sustain and reproduce the illusion/allusion of the (pseudo-)
radical freedom of the individual artwork under the illusion/allusion that we are rad-
ically free individual subjects that are targets for and products of both the economic
and ethical surpluses of such art. This ethico-economic matrix promises that art can Suhail Malik: By way of general introduction, lets start with the develop-
make life better in some way, and indeed that its duty and function is to do so. What ment of your thinking and ideas through nihilism. In Nihil Unbound, you
this produces is a complex field of apoliticity, where politics as such is impossible. advocated a (perhaps modernist) project, maybe best exemplified by science,
Instead, the play of ethics is confused and misinterpreted as the force of politics; only in which the rational understanding of the world undoes all conventional
a self-sustaining field of ethics is reproduced and no substantive change in the material accounts for it (from the mythic to structured or individualized beliefs to
abstractions that govern permitted ways of life occurs, because the polis itself is idiotic. most philosophical structures insofar as they do not take seriously enough
In order to challenge this apolitical hegemony, a non-idealist materialist cri- the discoveries and horizons opened up by the sciences).1 As I see it, you
tique of the quasi-syntagmatic ethico-economic conditions of art needs to super- argue that the rational revisions of understanding, the cosmos (philosophi-
sede the self-limiting and confining illusions/allusions of freedom that are both the cally and scientifically apprehended), the self, and the conditions of thought
principal currency and the constraining embodied weblike structures of art today.15 do not depend on or lead to anything predetermined. Or, to put it otherwise,
they depend on and assume nothing as their condition other than the itera-
14 Abramovics work since the 1960s has been dedicated to an ethical way of living in which art plays
a central ameliorative and curative role. She believes in the power of obscure rituals, which are tion of rational thought in a material world. The absence of any positive term
prescribed as her art practice, to directly improve the lives of individuals. In a revealing interview, as a condition or result of this processthe absenting of a transcendental
Abramovic candidly explains her messianic world view and project for art: Art can help so much condition or determination of rational enquiry, its nothingmarks rational
in society because we have lost our beliefs. There [are] no churches anymore, so we have to
rebuild. [] Ive always believed that why Im here is for the big picture. [] I just want to create thought as a productive nihilism: nihil unbound, as the title of your book
situations where people forget time. [] I never saw so much pain. People are afraid to express has it. One way to capture this nihilistic condition for thought, its termless-
their inner feelings, but when you go inside, youll see it. People live in so much pain. I ness, is your image of the death of the sun, which, thanks to scientific pre-
understand it. Elisa Lipsky-Karasz, Once Upon a Time, Harpers Bazaar, February 7, 2012.
Available at diction, we know will happen in about five billion years. You ask the ques-
interview-0312#slide-1. The very fact that Abramovic believes her art to be the key to unlocking tion Lyotard does of how thinking addresses its own extra-terrestriality as a
the happiness of other people is itself a form of violent repression; and as the author of the rituals rational injunctionand perhaps organizes its own departure from the solar
that she uses in her practice for such unlocking she also controls the means. While her intentions
might be good, she paves the road to hell in precisely the manner outlined by Badiou (see note 1). system in a politics of survival2but, beyond that, solar burnout captures
At no point does her work challenge subject relations, especially not property relations. Instead, a kind of ultimate nothing for thinking as we have understood it so far, and
like the great charitable philanthropists of the nineteenth century, she dedicates her time to of its (terrestrial) conditions. Soand here is an audacious movesolar
making people happy by such means as making them eat bread balls wrapped in gold leaf while
bathing in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean, while children in the Third World continue to work burnout becomes a positive figure for how rational thought in a way assumes
under slave-labor conditions making the designer clothes that she also claims she agonizes about nothing as its condition. If this is right, clearly thought cannot be predicated
in the Harpers Bazaar interview. On the violence of ideology and ideological state apparatuses, see on human interests or have the human as its term, even if it is the human
Louis Althussers Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, in Lenin and Philosophy and Other
Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (London: New Left Books, 1971), 12788. who thinks rationally (perhaps not exclusively, but as at least one such spe-
15 This essay is principally a diagnostic summary of one of the many key problems in contemporary art. In cies-actor). This is the antihumanism and non-correlationism of your work.
order for it to contribute to a materialist critique of contemporary art and of the waning political currency My initial questions are twofold. The first concerns the drama
of art, it must provide no prognosis. To do so would be utterly contradictory as it would be an act of
prediction, of foreknowledge. As an element of a materialist politics, this essay, indeed any essay, can only of nihilism: solar burnout if not universal termination is a grand and
be diagnostic in as much as it properly will act as an idiotes as it passes through (dia-), acrossand not by
Conversation conducted by e-mail in September and October 2013.
a spiritual metaphysical knowledge (gnosis) but simply a knowledge of things, of knowledge as a thing.
However, this diagnosis is not merely a description but the statement of a position. As a diagnostic 1 Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
description it is an instantiation of the non-idealist gnostic elements of the parts that are stated here 2 Jean-Franois Lyotard, Can Thought Go Without a Body, in The Inhuman: Reflection on
as such, and so is a firm taking of a stance, which is its properly political materialist dimension. Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992).

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catastrophic vista from which to think the base conditions for rational which has been vastly amplified by Brandom. The basic idea is simple: if you believe
thought and its development. Your more recent work revolving around or mean something, you also ought to believe or mean everything that follows from
the work of the mid-twentieth century American analytic philoso- it. Inferentialism ties together semantic and epistemic holism. Semantic holism is
pher Wilfrid Sellars seems by comparison relatively modest. The aspects the idea that the meaning of any individual claim is defined by its relations to other
of Sellarss work you are interested in are his theorizations of how claims: not just the claims it implies, but those that imply it in turn. These relations
ideas are revised by a rational agent by the relation between what he are inferential: what something means is a function of what you can infer from it, and
calls the manifest imageapproximately how the world appears and what implies it in turn. But this means that to be committed to the meaning of any
makes sense to a general rational consciousnessand the scientific single claim is also to be committed to the meaning of all those other claims with
imagethe world as it is known in the terms of theoretical science. which it is inferentially bound. This has an epistemic consequence: any individual
Other than explaining your turn to Sellars, the questionwhich I think belief is defined by its inferential relations to all the other beliefs presupposed by or
is not just about rhetorical strategies but is close to core shifts in your implied by it. So if you believe one thing, you also ought to believe everything that
approachis: Why this modesty of returning to an encultured human follows from that one thingregardless of whether or not you are explicitly aware
actor as the basis of your inquiries now? At first blush, it seems a regression of it (which, clearly, most of the time we are not).
or stepping down from the scales and ambition of your earlier work in two This notion of discursive commitment is central to inferentialism: the
regards: first, it concerns only intricacies of processes of rational thinking meanings of our claims regularly outstrip what we currently intend or are aware
and concept generation rather than literally stellar conditions for thinking of. This is because the implications of our claims regularly outstrip what we are cur-
the future of thought; the scope seems much reduced. Second, given your rently aware of. To be rational is to keep track of those entailments and thereby to
earlier advocacy of a trenchantly antihumanist or non-correlational condi- track what we become committed to when we commit ourselves to a belief or claim.
tion and term for rational thought, the concept-monger (to take up your Deontic scorekeeping is the name Brandom gives to the practice whereby we keep
citation of Robert Brandom) involved here seems indelibly human. And track of these discursive commitments. We as rational beings strive to keep track of
this is very far from a now established perception of your interests. In either what we ought to say, think, or do, just as a good chess player strives to keep track
instance, the emphasis now seems more constructive than nihilistic, more of what will follow from all the possible moves that might be made given a specific
anthropological than cosmological. (I think they are no less nihilistic configuration of pieces on the board. In other words, what we mean when we think
but it may need some explanation to make it clear why so.) or speak is determined by all the things we also ought to think or say in its wake.
This inferentialist account of meaning and belief turns out to be a valuable
Brassier: At the heart of Nihil Unbound (NU) is an argument defending the necessary resource for me because it defends the autonomy of rationality without violating
link between rationality and nihilism, such that, as you put it, rational thought must the constraints of naturalism (or, if one prefers, materialism). The normativity
assume nothing (what the book calls being-nothing) as its productive condition. invoked in this inferentialist theory of meaning and thought must be distinguished
But the subsequent move toward Sellars, who was all too summarily dealt with in NU, from the sense in which we refer to as socio-cultural norms. Rational normativity
is a direct continuation rather than a detour or a regression from this agenda. I realize is distinct from social normativity even if it is invariably socially instituted. This
it may look like a step backwarda retreat from the impasse of extinctionbut in is something Hegel understood and its the reason why Hegel can be a rationalist
fact its a case of what the French call reculer pour mieux sautez, that is, stepping back (indeed, an absolute rationalist) while insisting that rationality is always socially
in order to leap farther. In this particular context, it means reconsidering my overly and historically embodied. Sellars is Hegelian to the extent that, for him too, the
hasty dismissal of Sellarss defense of the manifest image in order to think through practice of giving and asking for reasons is socially instituted. But institution is not
what it might mean to unbind thinking from its terrestrial condition. constitution: to say that reason is socially instituted is not to say that it is socially
Ive come to understand why Sellars insisted on the indispensability of the constituted; that is the kind of historicist relativism that both Hegel and Sellars
manifest image and its role in the process of conceptual revision that fuels cogni- were attempting to avoid, not least because it founders in incoherence. Reason is a
tive discovery. Theres nothing sacrosanct about the contents of the manifest image practice, but not all practices are equivalent. To claim that they are is to lapse into
(except perhaps for the category of personhood, which is not species-specific for the kind of vulgar pragmatism which subordinates all practices to a single standard
Sellars: persons need not be human). What is crucial is its normative infrastructure, of utility, whether social or biological. Inferentialism insists that the ends governing
by virtue of which it constitutes what Sellars called the space of reasons. This the practice of giving and asking for reasons cannot be reduced to those of other
normative infrastructure is spelled out in Sellarss inferentialist theory of meaning, social practices, even if they are bound up with them in complicated ways.

214 Concept Concept 215


This is one way in which inferentialism has allowed me to substantiate the other processes, but one whose peculiar involution generates a cognitive gateway
distinction I made in NU between the ends of thought and the ends of life. This is onto those other processes.
also why it would be a mistake to view my current focus on the inferentialist link
between conceptual function and linguistic practice as symptomatic of a drop Lets clarify and situate your broad ambition a little more. Two interrelated
from the cosmological register to the anthropological register. The modesty of aspects are worth highlighting here, even at risk of repetition. The first
my apparent stepping back from thoughts cosmic condition and returning to an is forward-looking, the second is backward-looking. Prospectively, what
account that roots thinking in the activities of encultured human agents is strategic. is the farther horizon you want to leap toward, that the turn to infer-
Its necessary in order both to ground the normative valence I accord to thinking, entialism will help you secure? Retrospectively, accepting the divergence
and to explain what thinking is and why it ought to be deterritorialized. Unless I between the interests and claims of reason and those of lifereason trans-
can give an account of the ought in a statement like thinking ought to be freed forms life because it is other to itit seems that rational thought is for you
from its terrestrial condition, its status as an imperative is null. More generally, more fundamentally yet the engine for its own extension beyond human
one has to give an account of the normativity of truth in order to break out of the determination, in two senses: first, you avow the extension of reason qua
paradox of nihilism: if nothing matters, then even the thought that nothing matters inferentialism outside of the human into material and practical processes
doesnt matter. Therefore mattering cant be adjudicated by thinking; it can only be in general; second, it is rational thought qua philosophy that generates
determined by living. Having destituted reason and truth, nihilism crowns feeling an adequate account of this extension and its possibility. Philosophy is then
and instinct in their stead. Living holds sway over thinking. not just a belated self-reflection on the conditions of thought and reality
Equally, the Laruellean account of thought which I sought to repurpose but at once a practice effected through language. This nuanced global distinc-
in NU proved unsuited to the task of liberating thinking from living because it tion leads to the question of what other recursive inferentialist pattern for-
relegated the need for justification to the transcendent realm of philosophy that mations there can be.
it claims to suspend. From the standpoint of what Laruelle calls radical imma- Certainly, making inferences through a recursive pattern formation
nence, rational normativity is just another philosopheme among others. The is a central conceit of capitalist markets as pricing mechanisms constituted
move from Laruelle to Sellars is the move from the absolute suspension of justi- through the Efficient Market Hypothesis. Here, all prices in a market are
fication to the justified suspension of the absolute. For my purposes, Laruelles true reflections of the market as a whole insofar as it is transparent to itself;
non-standard philosophy remains too static, too formalist a procedure; its price changes arise only as a consequence of nonsymmetrical information
realism of the last instance reifies conceptual structures and reduces inferential before returning to rationally determined equilibrium precisely through
necessity to authoritarian whimthat of the philosophical decision. But unless recursive operations of trading for maximal gains. This may not quite be
one can give an immanent, materialist account of the status of rational normativity, an inferentialism as per the philosophical lineage you are drawing on, but
one cannot but regress from the cosmological to the anthropological. Inferentialism it seems to observe the same functionalist account. If so, todays capitalist
provides an account wherein thinking that thinking makes no difference does make markets, drawing on these basic premises and also the automation of their
a difference in and for thinking itself. It matters whether or not anything matters; practical implementation, would seem to constituteyou may prefer insti-
determining whether or not nihilism is true makes a difference for thinking and tutea kind of rational agency, and at speeds and capacities that far exceed
this makes a difference in reality: not because thinking is magically keyed in to the human limits. At least, thats whats declared by those who advocate for cap-
fabric of reality, but because thinking is an activity performed by language-using ital markets as generating accurate prices. Equally, writers, artists, and
animals, an activity that makes a difference because it is embedded in material filmmakers have embodied capitalist markets or recursive information
reality. Because concepts are functions, they are relayed by the activities of lan- network systems as fantastical, spectral figures, proposing a personifica-
guage-using animals, but this does not mean that the properties of conceptual tion of a kind of nonhuman inferentialist functioning: William Gibsons
function are to be identified with properties or capacities exclusive to the human Neuromancer trilogy is one influential example here.
animal. Humans may be the only concept-mongers on Earth, but this is not to say If these or other extensions or generalizations of inferentialism qua
they are the only possible concept-mongers. Ultimately, the inferentialist account recursive patterning process have validity qua reasoning for you, how do
of conceptual practice ties into a metaphysics of processes wherein conceptual you locate inferentialism qua philosophy as a practice in relation to other
function may be realized by very different kinds of physical processes. Sellarss inferentialist/patterning operations? Sub-question: What is its privilege,
vision entails a transcendental functionalism wherein thinking is a process among if any, and what can you say about this privilege compared with the one

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philosophy had in the high Enlightenment as the rational discipline (given categories of past, present, and future. My wager is that our understanding of the
that philosophy then also covered what are now distinguished as sciences articulation of past, present, and futureand hence of the structure of timewill
and now does not)? eventually be transformed in the light of cognitive discovery. This is where I think
reason harbors the possibility of a cognitive solution to the problem of nihilism,
First of all, Id like to obviate a misunderstanding: I wouldnt say that I avow the which, as Nietzsche rightly saw, is simply the problem of what to do with time. Why
extension of reason qua inferentialism outside of the human into material and prac- keep investing in the future when there is no longer a transcendental guarantor, a
tical processes in general. While its true to say that reason is incarnated in mate- positive end of time as ultimate horizon of reconciliation or redemption ensuring a
rial and practical processes, this is not to say that these processes are themselves payoff for this investment? Reason promises to transform our relation to time such
rational or that inferential patterns are realized by all sorts of material and practical that the purposelessness of becoming would become intelligible as the enabling
processes in general. On the contrary: I want to uphold the crucial (Kantian) dis- condition of action. In Platonic terms, this would be to grasp the intelligible form
tinction between rule-governed conceptual practices, which I take to be constitutive of formlessness, which is time as such. This would be the rationalist alternative to
of rationality, and which are exceedingly rare and metaphysically exceptional, and Nietzsches irrationalist solution, which is simply to affirm, rather than understand,
pattern-governed processes, which are ubiquitous and metaphysically unremarkable. the senselessness of becoming (eternal recurrence as amor fati).
In other words, I want to maintain the exceptional status of reason and insist on Its an old quandary: either learn to love fate or learn to transform it. To opt for
the unnatural nature of our rational capacity without lapsing into a metaphysical the latter is to extend the Prometheanism of reason to becoming itself. Prometheanism,
dualism of the mental and physical (of the sort recently rehabilitated by philoso- in the words of Alberto Toscano, is the articulation of action and knowledge in the
phers like David Chalmers)3 but also without attributing to it a supernatural origin. perspective of totality.4 It is the attempt to eradicate the discrepancy between what is
The distinction between rule-obeying activity and pattern-governed behavior dis- humanly made and what is nonhumanly givennot by rendering the world amenable
qualifies the claim that markets think or dynamic systems reason. Rule-following is to human whim or by merely satisfying our pathological needs, but by remaking our-
pattern-governed but not every pattern incarnates a rule. selves and our world in conformity with the demands of reason. In metaphysical terms,
So, not everything thinks: rationality is a metaphysical exception. But its the this requires reinscribing the transcendence of time into the immanence of space. To
exception constituted by the rule that discriminates the exception from the rule. So grasp the form of formlessness would be to transform the structure of fate understood
the farther horizon toward which rationality propels itself is one that reason must as the way in which things happen to us. The gain in intelligibility is practically trans-
construct: it is not pre-given and it is fundamentally incompatible with the brand formative once one realizes, with Sellars, that thinking is a kind of doing, or as he puts
of metaphysical eschatology for which the ultimate horizon is the reconciliation of it, that inferring is an act. Thinking is not a preliminary to doing, but a kind of doing
mind and matter or reason and nature. Reason is inconsolable and non-concilia- whose potencies we have yet to understand. The point at which thinking and doing
tory. Rational inquiry is propelled by cognitive interests that are generated anew by coincide is the point at which idealism and materialism fuse.
breaking with past modes of understanding. In this regard, reason is the restless- Pete Wolfendale has suggested that its time to rehabilitate logocentrism,
ness of the negative. It progresses by refusing the lure of reconciliationeven and a sentiment with which I heartily concur. Everything is ultimately accessible to
especially the lure of being reconciled to the irreconcilable. The farther horizon reason, but reason is not accessible to everything. The Kantian resonances of infer-
toward which it progresses is the universal understood as determinate negation of entialism may chafe against contemporary neo-materialism, but among its clear
parochial, context-specific modes of understanding. advantages over the latter is ruling out the suggestion that corporations are per-
What this progression ultimately implies is a transformation of reasons rela- sons. The personification of complex systems, whether corporations or markets,
tion to time. Why? Because the critique of intellectual intuition, which is the ratio- is among the most unfortunate consequences of the pseudo-materialist tendency
nalist variant of the myth of the given, requires that we acknowledge the discursive to elide the distinction between rational agency and complex behavior. The result
structure of rationality: concepts are linguistically instantiated functions. But to say is neo-animism: the indiscriminate attribution of agency to anything and everything
that reason is discursive is also to say that reasoning takes time: just as there is no (speed bumps, traffic cones, pencil sharpeners, and so forth). This is theoretically
nondiscursive rationality, there is no timeless reason. It is because reason takes time and politically disastrous. Among the duties of philosophy is reminding theorists
that it constitutes a self-correcting enterprise in which even our most cherished that hard-won distinctions like the one between action and behavior cannot be
categories may have to be revised or abandoned. Among these are the temporal
4 Alberto Toscano, The Prejudice Against Prometheus, Stir (Summer 2011). Available at
3 David J. Chalmers, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1996).

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dissolved by fiat. But this is not to say that philosophy can reclaim its former priv- cognitive access to nature. There is no other way of knowing what nature is (cer-
ileges, such as claiming to be the rational discipline. The secession of the special tainly not intuition, pace Bergson and others). Third, Kants critique of dogmatic
sciences cannot be overturned. Philosophersand metaphysicians in particular rationalism, which I accept, rules out the possibility of an a priori or metaphys-
should be more humble before the astonishing achievements of the empirical sci- ical science of nature. This means that empirical science is the privileged source
ences. But philosophers need not abase themselves before natural scientists or social for our understanding of nature, as well as for demarcating the natural from the
scientists. Philosophy retains two indispensable tasks: scrutinizing the conceptual supernatural. But after Darwin, it becomes increasingly implausible to maintain
logic underpinning theoretical discourses and identifying the most fundamental cat- the Aristotelian thesis that a kind of proto-rationality is already encoded in nature.
egories presupposed by those discourses. This is a modest remit with far-reaching From a Darwinian perspective, rational purposefulness is an artifact of purposeless
consequences. Its preferable to a grandiose trumpeting of the return of metaphysics, processes. Yet reason is purposeful and is honed to track purposes. This engenders
which often means the regression to precritical dogmatism. the following dichotomy: on the one hand, there are naturalists who think reason
is natural because nature is reasonablea repository of essences and final causes,
Accepting that rational thought deprioritizes human life as its privileged as Aristotle maintained; on the other hand, there are rationalists who think reason
agent (a historical privilege attributable, in fact, to various evolutionary must be unnatural because nature is unreasonable. They see an absolute disjunction
contingencies and, in myth, to human self-regard) seems to subscribe to between reason and nature. I reject both forks of this dilemma, which leads me to
an antihumanism. Yet, that the human is one rational agent in the uni- my fourth consequence: reason is unnatural but not supernatural. It is unnatural
verse among others (a condition familiar from science fiction) would be a because rational purposiveness cannot be reduced to natural process: every rule is
trans-humanism. And if rational thought extends the human as its historical incarnated in a pattern, but not every pattern incarnates a rule. Yet reason is not
agent in terms other than those (primarily biological-symbolic terms) estab- supernatural because rules (i.e., concepts) must be realized in patterns: they can do
lished to date, this corresponds to a post-humanism. Would you identify nothing independently of their material realization. In other words, concepts are
any one of these as of greater importance to you than the others? Or do you functions, but functions must be materially realized in order to do anythingand
advocate these multiple yet cogent de-anthropologizing effects and conse- I use material in the broadest possible sense here, to encompass the microphys-
quences of rational thought (among others) equally and simultaneously? ical, neurobiological, and sociohistorical domains.
Where and how do you situate your work and ambitions in relation to the Part of philosophys remit is then to excavate the infrastructure of rationality
spectrum of antihumanism, post-humanism, and trans-humanism? as contingently instantiated in the cognitive capacities of the human organism. Since
Homo sapiens is the only concept-monger we know of on this planet, it is the bearer
My primary commitment is to a rationalistic naturalism, so there are elements in your of rational capacity and deserves to be privileged, albeit only insofar as it exercises
characterization of each that I would endorse, viz., that humans are not necessarily the this capacity. From this point of view, rationalist anthropocentrism is indissociable
privileged bearers of rationality (antihumanism); that humans may not be the only from logocentrism understood as reasons self-interestedness. In other words, reason
rational agents (trans-humanism); that rationality may extend itself through post-bi- is self-interested because it is the source and legislator of every interest. Without it,
otic systems (post-humanism). Others may quibble with these definitions, but what nothing is of any interest whatsoever. Reason is nonanthropological precisely insofar
I endorse in your version of these positions is the emphasis on rationality, which is as sapience is the defining attribute of humanity.
precisely what some advocates of these stances are concerned to minimize or deny.
The matter is complicated because there is a disavowed humanism in anti-, post-, Does nonanthropological reason then necessarily require its cosmolog-
and trans-humanism, and there is a necessary inhumanism implicit in humanism. Its ical determination as you have it in NU? If rational thought is a non-
the latter that Im particularly interested in. So I dont think one can simply pit the anthropological functionalist pattern formation by inference, there are in
nonhuman against the human, or plump for one over against the other. principle many determinations of the nonanthropological in addition to the
In order to clarify my own position on these issues, I need to explain what I cosmological one. Why then privilege the cosmic dimension of reason as the
think rationalistic naturalism entails. I think it has four basic consequences. First, direct consequence or horizon of its ex-human generalization? In doing
there can be no such thing as an extraterritorial or arational critique of reason, so, dont you flatten or obviate the proliferation of inferentialist processes
since critique is a normative term whose ultimate warrant derives from reason exposed in principal by the step back from the cosmic as condition of
itself. This remains the case even if one accepts, with Hegel, that the structure of rational thought to Sellarsian persons? Doesnt Sellarss functionalist
human reason is always historically bounded. Second, reason is our sole means of account of reason instead offer a complexification of generalized reason?

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Nonanthropological reason requires its cosmological determination if the cosmo- thinks the non-human in its exteriority to human apprehension but, more
logical is understood as the piercing of the terrestrial horizon by the universal precisely, how thinking as suchby any subject or person of thought such
construed as intelligiblebut inhumanexteriority, rather than some spurious as a postbiotic or alien rational agentcan think outside of itself (the real)
absolute alterity. This is what physics, biology, and cosmology jointly encourage without supposing that the exterior to thinking is thought. You are clear
philosophy to elucidate. But it doesnt if cosmological is understood in its limited that inferentialism as the functionalist account of rational thought permits
regional sense as a specific empirical discourse about the physical universea dis- the first-mentioned extraction of rational thought from the human as its
course that deserves no special epistemic privileging by philosophy. To follow up on historically privileged subject, and it also seems that Sellarss secular account
my previous response, it is a cosmological rationalism that affirms the inhuman core of transcendental reason is itself a realist account of rational thought (it
of human cognitive capacity, i.e., sapience as the gateway onto nonhuman reality, is an exceptional kind of pattern formation amongst others in a material-
while those varieties of post-humanism whose leveling of the difference between semantic dimension). But does it then follow that even such a de-anthropolo-
the human and the nonhuman is predicated on dissolving the distinction between gized thought is non-correlational? Put simply, even if it is not a human subject
sapience and sentience end up promoting an unbridled anthropomorphism. They that thinks the real but an abstractly determined person, if that generalized
generalize certain properties of human subjective experience and attribute them to rational thinking no less apprehends what it thinks in terms of its thinking,
everything. The result is what Wolfendale has called introspective metaphysics: even in what you identify as an immanent, materialist account of the status
a metaphysics that believes it can feel its way into the ultimate nature of reality of rational normativity, it is nonetheless a (perhaps ex-anthropic) correla-
because it claims that what is going on in us is also going on everywhere outside us.5 tionism. If it is to be non-correlationaland here, the conditional if is to be
This may well be realism, but its a wildly indiscriminate realism that is incapable stressedhow does inferentialism abdicate the thinking person it constitutes
of explaining the difference between appearance and reality because it has abolished with regard to what it thinks? How do you situate the realism rather than
the distinction between knowing and feeling. materialism (non-anthropic cosmology) of rational thought qua inferentialism?
Rationalist anthropocentrism, through which reason reveals a radically unfa-
miliar universe, strikes me as far less parochial than arational anthropomorphism, Its important to distinguish the good and the bad senses of correlationism.
whose absolutization of human subjectivity encourages us to believe everything is Correlationism as an epistemic doctrine is perfectly unobjectionable and indeed
really just like us. And since Im a rationalistalthough of the Kantian rather than undeniable. It simply means that we cant know objects without concepts. This
metaphysical varietyI believe enlightened anthropocentrism marks a decisive sound epistemic doctrine only becomes objectionable if its conflated with a con-
cognitive advance over anthropomorphism, whose rehabilitation leads to a kind tentious skeptical claim that we can never really know whether or not objects truly
of post-modern animism. It is somewhat disconcerting to see animism proclaimed correspond to the concepts through which we know them. The latter is rooted in a
as a theoretical advance: Im afraid I can only see in it a lamentable regression to fallacy commonly known as Stoves Gem, which Ive discussed elsewhere.6 The
pre-modern superstition. Its the result of privileging feeling as a source of insight inferentialism I endorse is a kind of naturalized Kantianism and it is correlationist
into nonhuman reality. But if using feeling to move beyond anthropocentrism yields in the first, epistemic sense, but not in the second, skeptical sense.
only untrammeled anthropomorphism, then its hardly preferable to correlationism. I share Meillassouxs antipathy to the skeptical version of correlationism, but
I think hes wrong to think it follows ineluctably from the first, epistemic or Kantian
You are associated for better or worse with Speculative Realism, the one sense of correlation. Indeed, the suggestion that we can only refute skepticism by
tenuously common point of the various thinkers and projects gathered dispensing with epistemic correlation, understood as the synthesis of concepts and
under that umbrella term being precisely an interest in overcoming the intuitions, seems to me untenable, since it assumes that either reason or sensibility can
limitations of what Quentin Meillassoux has called correlationism: that separately intuit the real, the former being the rationalist variant of the myth of the
thinking always assumes and reinstantiates the thinking subject, so the real given, the latter its empiricist version. So I dont think Meillassouxs appeal to dia-
outside of thought cannot be thought as such. Can you clarify whether noetic intuition successfully avoids the difficulties associated with what Kant called
for you the affirmation of rational thought is necessarily non-correlational? dogmatic rationalism.7 Once correlationism is understood as a strictly epistemic
To explain this question a little more: the problem captured with a
striking reductive power by the term correlationism is not only how thought 6 Ray Brassier, Concepts and Objects, in The Speculative Turn, ed. Levi Bryant, Graham Harman,
and Nick Srnicek (Melbourne: re-press, 2010).
5 Pete Wolfendale, The Noumenons New Clothes, Speculations: a Journal of Speculative Realism 3 7 See Quentin Meillassoux, Subtraction and Contraction: Deleuze, Immanence and Matter and
(2012): 365. Memory, trans. Robin Mackay, in Collapse 3 (November 2007): 433.

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doctrine, it can be seen to be the condition for realismnot just empirical realism, you propose, against a recent tendency to deprioritize human agency and
which is the corollary of Kants transcendental idealism, but transcendental realism, specificity, that we need not be unduly modest about this human privi-
which asserts the mind-independent existence of theoretical entities (this obviously lege with regard to reason nor unduly understate its capacity and effects.
requires a lot of unpacking, but I dont have the space to do it here). Granting this exceptionality, rational inquiry renews cognitive interests
I find the idea of a non-correlational realism incoherent because the issue by, as you say, breaking away from past modes of understanding. That
of realism is tied to that of explanatory justification, which involves epistemic cor- renewalthe work of reason, if you willcan be further specified: (a) it is
relation. The point is to know what we mean when we qualify something as real universalizing qua negation of particularized instances of understanding
and to be able to adjudicate questions about somethings reality on rational, (perhaps including its own bio-semantic ontic particularity of human
as opposed to dogmatic, grounds. Shorn of this rational constraint, the banner instantiation?); (b) it is not eternal since it emerges in cosmological time
of realism by itself becomes strictly meaningless. In fact, the relations between and history and also because it is a temporal self-correcting enterprise
realism, materialism, and idealism are of considerable dialectical complexity in discourse (reason is a contingent fact in the cosmological dimension
so I think its a mistake to brandish any one of them in isolation from the others. and there is no intellectual intuition); (c) yet reason is cosmological in that
They derive whatever philosophical sense they possess from their contrastive inter- it is how human intelligibilitywhich is for you defining of humanityis
dependence. Just as the assertion of an unqualified or indiscriminate realism is pierced by nonhuman non-terrestrial reality; and (d) rationalism is the
uninformative, the proclamation of materialism has also become meaningless, commitment to inferential adumbrations of any claim or proposition. Any
a genuflection to academic orthodoxy often licensing positions that are indistin- discursive or cognitive interest has to be committed to its consequences,
guishable from the most objectionable theses of idealism (subjectivism, spiri- and consistently so (in your own case, the espousal of a materialist ratio-
tualism, pan-psychism, vitalism, the identity of thought and being, and so on). In nalism requires you to abjure Kantian reason as itself a myth of the given,
this context, I think the term idealism merits strategic resuscitation as a way of hence the turn to Sellars).
reasserting the autonomy of the conceptual and combating the virulent anti-ratio- This last determination of reasonmeaning here only rational thought
nalism of certain contemporary strains of realism and materialism. Idealism and certainly not an autonomous realm of ideasis how and why reason
as a claim about the autonomy of the conceptual need not entail a realism of is normative. It is then clear why such norms ought not to be confused with
the idea in Iain Hamilton Grants sense, although the two are closely linked.8 sociocultural norms insofar as the latter are historically (which is to say,
I think what divides Grant and me is a divergence over the ontological status of parochially and particularly) derived rather than rationally constituted (that
concepts as well as the conceptual status of nature. But we both proclaim the is, universalizing and inferentially rigorous). To return to the terms of your
necessity of articulating eidos and hyle, idealism and materialism. As I understand earlier formulation: though rational normativity takes place discursively
it, this means upholding the primacy of reason together with the arationality of the in timeinstituted in language, with all the historical contingency that
real. Im not sure whether this makes me a materialist idealist or idealist materialist, supposesit is not constituted by given language or sociohistorical norms
but in any case, oxymorons are dialectically instructive. (let us call such norms cultures). Rather, rational thoughts inferen-
tialist injunction is, if anything, directed against the necessarily residual
Lets return then to the distinction between rational norms, as youve fur- commitments of cultural norms. (Which is not to say that rational thought
ther elucidated them here, and sociocultural normspartly in order to is necessarily cast against this or that cultural given, only that its avowal of
disambiguate the two and clear up confusions arising from the common term the same takes place on another basis than that of culture: that of its episte-
norm, but also to understand better if one informs the other and, if so, how. mo-semantic holism. For rational thought, culture must align with reason.)
The question here is a short one but its reasoning requires a fairly Now, if this outline of the distinction between cultural and rational
lengthy elaboration. From your earlier responses, we can take rational norms stands, then does it not follow that reason qua rational thought is
thought to be a bio-semantic or bio-social contingency particular on this aif not thecogent engine of counter-normative cultural transfor-
planet (so far) to the human: rational thought need never have happened mation (qua sociohistorical norms)? The reasoning is this: though rational
but it has, as a historical and conceptual fact qua Homo sapiens, and thought in principle negates the particularity of any culture or historical
fact in its universalizing tendency, rational thought nonetheless takes place
8 Iain Hamilton Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (London: Continuum, 2006). See also
Jeremy Dunham, Iain Hamilton Grant, Sean Watson, Idealism: The History of a Philosophy (Durham, in time and discursively. As such, it is always occasioned in fact at a partic-
NC: Acumen, 2011). ular time and in a particular language, however formalized that language

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may be (such a formalization could be understood precisely as a rational not then untenable to hold on to their distinction in fact and descriptive
undertaking in the continuing negation of the historical particularities and differentiation? Does the inferentialist account of rational thought not have
parochialism of our languages as given cultures; but even this formaliza- to accept that the consistent adumbrations of any statement are somewhat
tion is in fact specific and parochial: it has to be learned). In other words, shaped by sociohistorical particularities (that is, limited in time and language)?
rational thought is in principle distinct to culture but is in fact instantiated
in the languages we have, perhaps modifying them along the way. Manifest This is a very difficult question. The claim that, as you put it, rational thought
in and through a parochial language, predicated on a bio-semantic contin- is aif not thecogent engine of counter-normative cultural transforma-
gency, rational thought is historically located; or, again and in short, it is in tion (qua socio-historical norms) is a good distillation of the project of radical
fact cultural. In its negation of the parochialism of culture and language, Enlightenmentwith the proviso that the factual is be changed to a normative
its inferentialist imperatives even generate a cultural history. (Certainly, this should be, since, understood as a factual claim, this formulation is obviously
was the avowed task of the Enlightenment as a historico-philosophical refutable. Its the claim that rationality should be the engine of counter-normative
endeavor.) And even if rational thought were to confirm a particularity of cultural transformation that Im committed to, not that it is or has been. And Im
a given culture (a philosophy or scientific endeavor, say, but maybe also a committed to it precisely insofar as Im interested in reactivating the project of
law or a mode of production), it would only do so on the basis of its univer- Enlightenment in its radical, Promethean form. But then the problem is precisely
salizing inferentialism, redetermining that particularity in terms other than the one youve pinpointed: having conceded that, as a matter of fact, rational norms
the cultural ones in which it had been temporarily manifest to that point. are always socially instituted, can I really insist that they have to be distinguished
(The relevance of Hegels dialectic of the idea that you mention above is in principle without relapsing into an objectionable dualism of rational form and
pressing here as, from another angle, are Edmund Husserls writings on the sociohistorical content? This would be another version of the traditional distinc-
foundation of European science. But lets leave this aside for now since I tion between logical form and semantic content, which is precisely something that
think it is clear enough that the inferential account is distinct from these in inferentialism calls into question.
having the advantage of not proposing a horizon to the rational endeavor.) Inferentialism starts from the primacy of material inferencefrom It
More generally, we can assume that rational thought negates socio- is raining to The streets are wetand maintains that semantic content is
historical givensparticulars and normsbut it does so as itself a socio- individuated by the rules governing such material inferences. These rules are
historical fact. In any case a negation of sociocultural norms, reason is a constitutive of the meaning of linguistic expressions; they are not just some-
counter-normative functional process of rule-following with respect to cul- thing derived from or applied to pre-existing semantic units. Moreover,
tures insofar as the latter are merely givenincluding those cultures in which purely logical or formal inference is merely the rendering explicit, or
rational thought takes place discursively and historically. In fact, since it explicitation, of relations of discursive commitment, entitlement, and incom-
is contingently occasioned in bio-semantic particularity, rational thought patibility that are already implicit in everyday perception, reasoning, and
is at origin culturally given. It is not just that rational thought is articu- action. So logic, in Brandoms words, is merely the organ of semantic
lated and instantiated in sociohistorical norms but is not subordinated to self-consciousness.9 This is to say that discursive rationalitythe game of giving
them; rather, and moreover, reason countermands culture and, in doing and asking for reasonsis more basic than logic, which presupposes it. But this
so, it proposes new cultural facts (less parochial discourses, unfolding in also implies that what we mean is indissociable from what we do, that is, from
time) and so renews culture. Without this cultural manifestation of thought our everyday practical purposes. Since these practical purposes are embedded
observing rational norms, there could be only intellectual intuition or a in a social context, this means that our rationality, understood as our ability to
non-discursive, atemporal reasona meta- or ex-cultural reasonand so give and ask for reasons for what we do and say, cannot simply be abstracted
no inferentialism at all (as per Plato). from the social practices in which this ability is embedded. This is to say that
If the argument has traction for you, the primary question here is: discursive rationality cannot be dissociated from practical, which is to say social,
Even while observing the difference between rational and sociohistorical rationality. In this regard, inferentialism relays the old Marxian idea that concep-
norms in principle, does their confounding not in fact realize rational tual contradictions reflect practical contradictions. If the task of philosophy is to
norms as new cultural norms via a process that from any given culture can render explicit the conceptual norms implicit in discursive practice, and to identify
only be seen as a counter-normative violation? Accepting the distinction 9 Robert B. Brandom, Tales of the Mighty Dead: Historical Essays in the Metaphysics of Intentionality,
in principle and prescriptive conditions between reason and culture, is it (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 10.

226 Concept Concept 227


contradictions at the level of theoretical discourse, then it is also bound to expose the Sellarsian account of inferentialist practices? In an interview with Mattin
the contradictions, or rather incompatibilities, between theoretical norms and on the political and philosophical resources of post-music noise you propose:
practical norms, as well as the incompatibilities pitting various practical norms
against each other. Because rationality is indissociably conceptual and social, If noise harbours any radical political potential [determined per
theoretical rationality is inseparable from practical rationality in the broadest rational norms], then it needs to be elaborated via a process of
sense, which encompasses every variety of human practice, whether material or interrogation, which would involve working through questions such
intellectual. In this regard, what you call the counter-normativethrust of phil- as: What is experience, given that capitalism commodifies sensations,
osophical rationality is its latent revolutionary calling. affects, and concepts? What is abstraction, given that capitalism ren-
Philosophy does not (indeed, cannot) hold sociocultural norms account- ders the intangible determining while dissolving everything we held to
able to some allegedly superior tribunal of pure reason. What it does do is hold be concrete? What freedoms are we invoking when we proclaim noises
sociocultural norms accountable to their own implicit criteria of rationality freedom from the alleged constrictions of musical genre?10
by rendering explicit both their conceptual inconsistencies and their practical
incompatibilities. In doing so, it exerts the minimum degree of discursive pres- The content and direction of such interrogations are in line with your
sure required to initiate the process of revising and ultimately transforming both broad avowals of Marxism as the politics of a rational collective organiza-
social and cultural practices. Im not suggesting that such discursive pressure is tion necessary to challenge neoliberalism as the currently prevalent con-
tantamount to political pressure, or that rational critique is a sufficient condition figuration of capitalist domination. But the question that remains here is
of revolutionary transformation. But I do want to suggest that it is a necessary whether such interrogations need to be overtly philosophical or linguistic
condition, and that cognitive, political, and artistic revolutions can be understood inferential consequences alloyed to noise but not themselves noise as a
as propelled by the obligation to achieve the rational supersession of incompatibil- material practice distinct from language, or whether such interrogations
ities between saying and doing, or between implicit norms and explicit practices. and deontological scorekeeping can be undertaken through a cultural/
This is the rational motor of universalization and, thus construed, it does not nonlinguistic material organization such as noise (qua genre) itself. That is,
imply any hypostasis of the universal. Its an immanent and eminently Hegelian can the nonlinguistic material practice draw up inferences and address the
conception of universalization as a process that is implicit in every human society, questions you propose in its own logic and medium rather than in the con-
no matter what its state of development, and in every variety of human practice, verted and displacing terms of linguistic inference?
no matter how parochial. The task here is distinct from the inferentialism characteristic of a certain
Inferentialism is Hegelian insofar as it conceives of the universal as the self- modernism in which a particular artistic or cultural genre follows its formal
supersession of particularity. In Badiouian terms, I think this is how truth-pro- or material logic to the end: you propose that the interrogations a particular
cedures reconfigure the state of the situationbut the difference is that from an genre or medium needs to make are not determined or limited to its specific
inferentialist-Hegelian viewpoint, there are immanent cognitive criteria governing conditions and limitations but according to horizons external to it (experience
the inception of the truth-procedure that brings about the situations generic extension in conditions of capitalist abstraction, the content of emancipation, and so on).
(truths subtraction from knowledge is still governed by extant knowledge: knowledge To be clear: the question here is not about noise itself as a genre of
supersedes itself by recognizing its own limitations). That the sociality of human cultural productionthe same argument and demands can presumably
reason can compel us to overcome the shortfall between our practical ideals and be extended to other practices of material-cultural organizationbut about
our practical achievements, whether in science, politics, or art, is the basic wager the kinds of work that can be done by cultural practices: either as
of Enlightenment. being in relation to (and therefore not immediately) the kind of rationalism
you advocate or, instead, as being at once such a rationalist practice but
Inferential reasoning and the maximal prosecution of a propositions undertaken in and as nonlinguistic quasi-communication.
consequences that such reasoning requires have so far been understood
as a linguistic practice. That is faithful to Sellarss philosophy extended I think the answer to your question is yes, nonlinguistic practices can draw up
by Brandom, how far the argument can be taken in termss of broader cul- inferences and address the sorts of questions cited above in their own medium and
tural practices, can the modality or medium of inferentialist reason also be 10 Metal Machine Theory: An Electronic Email Conversation; available at
extended to nonlinguistic practices? What, if anything, would this change in METAL_MACHINE_THEORY_3.html.

228 Concept Concept 229


independently of language. Although the inferentialist premium on discursive Suprematist Ontology and the
practices privileges the game of giving and asking for reasons, this game is not only or
exclusively realized in specifically linguistic discourse. The category of discursive prac- Ultra Deep Field Problem:
tice is broader than that of linguistic practice. This is to say that reasoning understood
as the unfolding of discursive commitments, entitlements, and incompatibilities, is Operations of the Concept
not confined to the medium of explicitly self-conscious theoretical discourse, which
unfolds in and through language. Not every rational discursive practice operates in Iain Hamilton Grant
this specifically linguistic medium. Artists think, and some artists think as rigorously
as any theoretician, albeit in and through a nonlinguistic medium.
Where noise is concerned, an artist like Mattin is engaged in thinking through
the implications of the commitment to the ideal of free improvisation. In the It took fourteen billion years to produce this image, for time to present its insuperably
course of working out these implications, he has discovered an incompatibility partial self-portrait:
between what is implied by the norm of free improvisation and the conventions
governing its actual practice. So he has undertaken a series of experiments designed
to test the limits of what is allowable within those conventions and in doing so he
seeks to expose the latent contradiction between the norm and the practice. I see
Mattin as someone engaged in an eminently rational cognitive practice, in which
self-consciously linguistic theorizing is just one element deployed alongside other,
nonlinguistic elements: sonic, gestural, verbal, visual, and so forth. His perfor-
mances frequently bring all these elements into play. And the fact that the rational
reconstruction of the complexity of assertions implicit in these performances is
often retrospective in no way compromises their discursive rigor: the rationality of
a discursive practice is always retrospectively constructed. This is what it means to
say that thinking takes time; the rationality implicit in a discursive practicewhere
rationality is understood as the intersubjective elaboration of discursive commit-
ments, entitlements, and incompatibilitiesis never immediately accessible to its Figure 1: The Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF)1

participants at any single stage of its unfolding. The image raises many questions concerning the character of time, the emergence
Moreover, Mattins work is characterized by its self-consciousness (I mean of order, and the imageability of creation. It presents the early universe approxi-
this in the sense of cognitive awareness) about the status of artistic practice in late mately one billion years after the big bang, yet was taken in 2004. The Hubble Ultra
capitalist society and, in this regard, it explicitly addresses issues such as the nature Deep Field (HUDF) is the name of the image, not of what it images. It images
of abstraction and the content of emancipation. Thus he is doing more than merely time through space because the farther into the universe imaging reaches, the deeper
testing the conditions and limitations of a specific artistic mediumnoise and/ into time it descends. For all the marveling we might do concerning science, or what
or free improvisationhe is exposing the ways in which specific artistic practices knowing makes, the image does not, of course, present the inexistence antecedent to
are implicated in broader social and discursive contexts. And the philosophical the imaged infant universe or that inexistence antecedent to the universes emer-
tenor of his interrogation of his chosen medium has been generated in and through gence. The first inexistence is merely that of the billion years missing from the image,
his practical engagement with it: it is not an extraneous imposition. In interrogating which is, to that extent, a deep field problem. Yet this is merely a relative inexistence.
the limitations of a specific artistic practice, he has been compelled to investigate The ultra-deep field problem, which the HUDF does not image, involves not only
whether and how these limitations may be conditioned by the nexus of other prac- the relative inexistence that fringes the existent image, concept or entity, but the
tices in which it is enveloped. Thus the engagement with universality follows from absolute inexistence entailed when the deep field problem is acknowledged. Only this
unpacking the logic of a specific practice.
1 This image should offer new insights into what types of objects reheated the cold, dark universe
about one billion years after the big bang, when stars first started to shine, about thirteen billion
years ago. See

230 Concept Concept 231


warrants the qualification ultra-deep field, since it exceeds depth in the direction to the antecedence it conceives. In other words, the concept of creation is itself an
of the depthless, exceeds any existent in the direction of inexistence. instance of creation, involving the same irreducibility to the conceived as the universe
Historically, then, the HUDF is of something antecedent to its being imaged. In has to its creation: there is always an irreducible remainder between creation and its
other words, the image of the antecedent is consequent upon not only an image-capable concept, image, or additional element because the latter are instances of the former
universe (deep field), but also upon the universe (ultra-deep field). As such, the image and therefore involve their ineliminable inexistence.
is additional with respect to the universe: not merely an image of it but an additional ele- After Immanuel Kant,4 philosophers would object here that any attempt to
ment in it. The HUDF shows that every journey into the past takes place not only in the conceive or to image nature in its natural statethe time before the world5 is an
future of that past, as is entailed by journeying into it; it also shows that, as a result, this attempt to conceive without concepts, to conceive a preconceptual nature behind
past is consequent upon the future in which it is made; and that, as a result, the past for all concepts. Hence they would conclude that any attempt to conceive of what
which the infant universe was a future remains a past undisturbed by Hubbles intrusions. is without concepts is self-contradictory. The concept of universal inexistence,
From this perspective, despite the fact that the universe insuperably antedates its such philosophers would argue, merely captures a mourning, in the act of con-
being imaged, it is not inconceivable that creation itself be imaged, though this entails ceiving, for its inability to conceive its own creation, a melancholic Romanticism
the image of the inexistent universe consequent upon that inexistent universe. But the bewailing what the concept cannot conceive, or what is given in advance of
imaged creation would be the future of the unimaged, its consequent rather than its the concept (nature in its natural state and so forth). Rather than pursue the
reproduction, and would amount to the production or emergence, within that universe, self-contradiction, it would be better, it might be argued, to abandon the attempt
of its own inexistence. Accordingly, the irreducible remainder of imaged inexistence will to conceive of what being is before being conceived. Better not to do ontology at
be the existent universe. For the same reason, however, the surd or remainder of a newly all and to complete the shift that Kant initiated, according to some, from ontology
existent universe is precisely its inexistence, from which alone, according to the Earliest to deontology.6 The space of reasons that concept-using creatures by definition
System Program of German Idealism, creation can be understood as emerge[nt] out occupy, they argue, is insuperable for such creatures which, to that extent, are not
of nothingness,2 that is, historically or temporally. It is this inexistence, the nothingness saliently biological.7 To acknowledge that conceivers irrevocably occupy such a
or not-being of the universe, which, once there is a universe, is paradoxically ineliminable. rational space is thus to accept that it is not things that issue rational demands, but
To see this, consider what temporality entails. According to F. W. J. Schelling, only reason-givings. It is this on which philosophers should concentrate, and thus
temporality is what is always in excess of what is, because what is cannot be reduced privilege inference over reference, abstraction over representation, or the norms
to a thing or an object. He writes: Everything is temporal, the actuality of which is entailed in making judgments over (hypothetically) nonrational realities.8 This need
exceeded by the essence, or the essence of which contains more than it can contain not deny that there are photons before there are speakers, but only that photons issue
in actuality.3 Essence consists in more than actuality only if everything actual, every- 4 That contemporary philosophy is insuperably downstream from Kant is asserted, for example,
thing currently active, is emergent. Temporality therefore entails the inactuality from by Robert Brandom in his From German Idealism to American Pragmatismand Back, in
which being operative must itself emerge if it exceeds actuality. Thus understood, Perspectives on Pragmatism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 1: Developments over
the past four decades have secured Immanuel Kants status as being for contemporary
temporality is temporality only if creation is involved, and creation entails inactuality, philosophers what the sea was for Algernon Swinburne: the great, gray mother of us all.
an inexistence consequent upon what is actual that remains irreducible to the inexis- 5 This is the definition of Romanticism Novalis gives in 31 of his Allgemeine Brouillon, in Gerhard
tence antecedent to the emergence of this actuality. Accordingly, creation is consequent Schulz, ed., Novalis Werke, 3rd ed. (Munich: Beck, 1987), 455: The time of universal anarchy
lawlessnessfreedomnature in its natural statethe time before the world (the state). Pre-world
upon creation, or if creation is at all, it is creation to the nth power. time provides as it were the dispersed traces of post-world time. [] Chaos is creation fulfilled.
The time before the world, the antecedent of the image of the infant universe The future world is rational chaos, self-permeating chaos, chaos or .
or the HUDF, is therefore both a consequent of the existent universe and irreducible 6 As the neo-Hegelian philosopher Brandom claims, for instance, in Tales of the Mighty Dead
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 212.
2 F. W. J. Schelling, Friedrich Hlderlin, and G. W. F. Hegel, The Earliest Program for a System of 7 Examining Some Pragmatist Themes in Hegels Idealism, Brandom writes that, insofar as they
German Idealism, in Theory As Practice: a Critical Anthology of Early German Romantic Writings, occupy the space of reasons, merely biological beings [] become spiritual beings, undertakers
ed. and trans. Jochen Schulte-Sasse et al. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 7273. of commitments (Tales of the Mighty Dead, 217). He later clarifies this view: The world consists of
3 F. W. J. Schelling, On the Relation between the Real and the Ideal in Nature, or the Emergence things and their causal relations, and they can only cause and not justify a claim or a belief
of the Axioms of Naturephilosophy from the Principles of Gravity and Light (1806), Schellings (Perspectives on Pragmatism, 12324).
Werke II (Stuttgart and Augsburg: Cotta, 185661), 364. (Hereafter Schellings Werke is cited as SW 8 Robert Brandom, Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
plus volume number. Unless otherwise noted, all translations from Schelling are my own). For University Press, 2001), 1. Such non-rational realities are merely hypothetical in the sense
Schellings theory of essence (Wesen) or being operative (wirksam sein), see his Philosophical implied by the famous Hegelian dictum that what is rational is actual and what is actual is
Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom and the Objects Connected Therewith (1809), in SW VII, rational. See 6 of Hegels Encyclopaedia Logic, trans. T. F. Geraets, W. A. Suchting, and H. S.
341342, 346, 258. Harris (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991), 2830.

232 Concept Concept 233


rational demands to which reason-exchanging creatures are practically responsive.9 The Flight Paths of Dust
Such rational demands include well-justified scientific fact.
No one can deny that conceptual work is insuperable in all conceiving. But Malevichs theory of The World as Non-Objectivity, as its title argues, does not claim
can it be straightforwardly assumed that the space of reasons is therefore not nature? that because nonobjective art abandons imitation and expression, it therefore aban-
Surely to do so relies on an assertion concerning what reason is that, contrary to the dons realism, but rather that the world is nonobjectively.12 Thus the realism Malevich
hypothesis, privileges reference over inference, if only in this instancea realism, advocates for nonobjectivism, insofar as this consists in a knowing of what is, is for
that is, even if only with regard to the concept. This realism tends, interestingly, to him inseparable from the works of science, as he constantly argues, just as some
be cashed out in terms of doings, of practices (chiefly the making and justifying of scientists have argued that the productive element and transformative productions
judgments), rather than by considering the concept to be an object, a risk philos- that knowing makes turn physics into art.13 It is not by virtue of their various objects
ophers share, according to Freud, with schizophrenics.10 Yet since concepts issue (stars, paintings, concepts) that the sciences, arts, and philosophy are realist in the
only from judgments and do not precede them, the only conceivably real doings are sense I wish to spell out, but rather by virtue of the surd-structure, the irreducible
those of judgment makers. Attention is paid neither to the operations of the concepts remainder or the time before the world that the concept of creation entails and
themselves nor to actors other than those that occupy the space of reasons. Insofar as this that is entailed in turn if there are additional elements. The concept of creation,
position maintains but does not elaborate this restricted realism, it fails to note the that is, entails that what is created was not. This structure is universal, I will argue,
deep field problem: as the HUDF shows, no matter how deep the field, it is fringed insofar as, if true even in a single instance, it rules out its non-occurrence.
with the inexistence of that field in which all imaging, conceiving, and constructing Three theories underpin the philosophy of nonobjectivity, according to
are in consequence insuperably partial constituents. A consistent realism con- Malevichs unpublished writings of the 1920s. The first concerns the theory of the
cerning the concept, the image, or the additional element therefore entails either additional element, the second that of the world as nonobjectivity, and the third, the
that reality, being itself a concept, is a state that cannot be extended beyond the theory of the copula. Each entails the other two: To the question To what is an ele-
conceptual or that the concept of reality, if not so restricted, entails conceiving the ment additional? therefore, the answer isand of course, we might saythe
inexistence of the concept. world; not, however, the world just as we find it, the world of experience and con-
Examining the work of Kazimir Malevich, I will contest the claim that the crete objects for instance, but the world as it is, as nonobjectivity. Just as in any
conceptthis abstract entity or additional elementis not part of the universe in proposition the copula is that element that combines a subject (such as a square)
which conceiving arises. For it is hard to see how a concept, an image, or an abstract with a predicate (such as white), so too an additional element augments the non-
element may be added to a world if a world were not some field in which thoughts, objective world by means of the copula. What the copula does, therefore, its actions or
images, and abstract elements occur. In consequence, the insuperability of the con- operations, how an element is added to a nonobjective world, forms the theory of the
ceptual does not entail the abandonment of nature for norms, nor a naturalization of Suprematist copula. Crucially, how the copula operates and in what environments
normativity or, what amounts to the same thing, the normativization of nature.11 And it operates demonstrate that it is not reducibly a concept or formal device, where
so I deny, secondly, that the insuperability of conceiving licenses the abandonment formal is understood as not being material. We will address each of the three
of ontology: if conceiving arises, it does so (a) in a universe and, (b) consequently theories in turn. Malevich begins his account of creation thus:
upon the inexistence that the concept shares with the universe that arises and in
which that concept itself arises. The realism at issue concerns the operations, the Not in vain have little airplanes emerged from the bowels of the Earth [1].
distributions of antecedence and consequence, by means of which alone elements They will not be stopped on Earth by the three-dimensional law [2], they will
may be additional. fly to the place whence they have come [3], they are the dust of the Earth

12 Kazimir Malevich, The World as Non-Objectivity. Unpublished Writings 192225, ed. Troels Andersen,
9 See Brandoms discussion of the status of photons before there were vocabulary users in trans. Xenia Glowacki-Prus and Edmund T. Little (Copenhagen: Borgen, 1976).
Perspectives on Pragmatism, 12527. 13 Johann Wilhelm Ritter, Die Physik als Kunst [Physics as Art] (1806), in Fragmente aus dem Nachlasse
10 Sigmund Freud, The Unconscious (1915), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works eines jungen Physikers [Fragments from the Literary Remains of a Young Physicist], ed. Birgit and
of Sigmund Freud, vol. 14, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 195374), 204. Stefan Dietzsch (Hanau: Mller & Kiepenheuer, 1984), 288320. His account of what knowing
11 This last is John McDowells favored response to the problem. See especially his two sorts of makes [was das Wissen schafft], a pun on Wissenschaft, or science, occurs at pages 294 and 319.
naturalism, in Mind, Value and Reality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 16797; For a contemporary, albeit more constructivist variant, see Isabelle Stengerss account of science
and his responses to Robert Pippin in Reading McDowell on Mind and World, ed. Nicholas H. Smith as the experimental embrace of a risky future in Power and Invention, trans. Paul Bains (Minneapolis:
(London: Routledge, 2002), 27477. University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 16266.

234 Concept Concept 235


which flies off the Earths surface, and by this means pulverize the globe [4] to recapture striving among objects. The airplane does not leave the Earth but sits
[] Everything is striving to leave the globe [5], and to make its way further like a tick on the planet, locked into its changeless parasitism.
into space [6], but thanks to the relationship between the elements which Finally, then, if [3] appears to be confirmed by tick-talk, that is, that the local
have not yet been discovered, it sits like a tick on the Earth [7].14 holds flight captive, that return is not a habit but a physically insuperable cycle,
our attention is returned to the presupposition of the Earth, the history of which
The seven points I have singled out clarify the sense of the passage, which concerns gives point [1] its force. If the natural historymineralogy, metallurgy, manufac-
the character of the world as nonobjectivity or demonstrates the problems to which ture, electricity, and combustionon which the extended flight path is inalienably
the category object is ontologically prone. dependent, what gives the Earth its ultimacy, what licenses the Earths exemption
[1] Airplanes do not take off from airports but emerge from subterranean from this history? What makes it the ground upon which all else occurs and to which,
worlds. The scope of the flight is larger than its geographically located points of therefore, the flight paths of dust must invariably return? Malevichs first indication
departure; and destinations, or its essential operations, to recall Schelling, exceed of the Earths historicity is by way of its futurewhich turns out to be the future of
the actual flight. The airplanes natural history thus encompasses the ores from dust: Possibly our globe itself will be pulverized, as once a huge lump was pulver-
which its metals were smelted, the formation of these ores over geological times- ized, creating the globe [8].15
cales and the development of the engine. Accordingly, technology and nature are Is this another cycle? More tick-talk? If the Earth itself emerges from pulveriza-
not different in kind. tion, from dust, then either this is an eternal cycle, or escape is the rule rather than the
Just as the natural history of the airplane exceeds its flight, point [2] argues exception. With [8], we are thus returned to the problem first spelled out in [3], namely,
that the flight exceeds the limitations of terrestrial geometry. Yet it also problema- that the place whence all derives is the flight path of dust. Dust is itself emergent from
tizes this: implicit in geometry is that it does not measure all dimensions, but pulverization, however, once again inculcating a behavioural cycle, like the tick, but
only those of ge, of the Earth. It is a local or ontic science, tied to its object. That this time holding planetary formation (and everything consequent upon it) prisoner.
there are other dimensionsand not reducibly spatial ones, as [1] affirmsagain
attests to temporality, of what Schelling called the excess of essence over actuality,
of the operation over any local what is (What is the Earth? What is flight?). The Theory of the Additional Element
The core of the problem of the flight path that absorbs the entire passage is
addressed in point [3], which offers one solution to it, which I will call Trajectory A. The problem raised here is whether antecedent and consequent dust are the same. That
The passage asks whether the flight, as what Malevich will call an additional ele- is, is D1=D2? If [3] is true, then D1=D2; if [6], it is false. Only [5] supplies a possible
ment or culture of action, is a line or a curve. Here he asserts that airplanes, and by differentiator for the two trajectories, by raising the theory of action. An act occurs
extension natural history, will fly to the place whence they have come, that is, that only if its consequent is not contained in its antecedent, or just when it forges a dif-
its flight paths are ultimately circular such that origin and end points are identical. ference such that, in this instance, D1 D2. Malevichs fullest account of action, and
Point [4] thus completes the circuit: flight is from and to dust. From the dust the thus a guide to what is meant by striving in nonobjectivity, occurs in his Theory
flight becomes; the earth, its elements exhausted in this effort, turns to dust in turn, of the Additional Element in Painting (1926):
raising the crucial question of whether first dust (D1) is equal to second (D2), to which
I will return below. Point [5] argues that it is not, and reposes the problem of flight Under the sign of the additional element is hidden a whole culture of action
not in terms of orbits but of striving. If essential operations exceed actuality, then which (in painting) can be defined by a typical or characteristic state of straight
this amounts to a realism concerning striving that is, for that reason, not restricted or curved lines. The introduction of new norms, the curved fibrous-shaped
to the airplane or to the Earth. With point [6], therefore, it is not the airplane or additional element of Czanne, will make the painter different from that caused
the pilot (interestingly unremarked by Malevich) that strives; rather everything is by the sickle formula of Cubism or the straight line of Suprematism. [] After
striving to abandon earth for space. Point [6] therefore opens Trajectory Bthat Futurism comes a new element, the supreme straight, which I have called the
of the line in the aerial element. Striving is a straight line insofar as striving is Suprematist additional element of dynamic order, the appropriate milieu for
considered as such and not in regard to the objects within which it is caught or, the airplane, for the aerodynamic structure of planites, aerial Suprematism.16
what amounts to the same thing, to the subject whose striving it might be. Yet no
sooner is Trajectory B set against Trajectory A than an animal skepticism rears up 15 Malevich, World as Non-Objectivity, 112.
14 Malevich, World as Non-Objectivity, 11112. 16 Malevich, World as Non-Objectivity, 156, 188.

236 Concept Concept 237


This further clarifies the character of the problem that gives rise to the tick-cycle, sufficient to demonstrate that, even if the world were not created, creation is nev-
or to thesis [3] that D1=D2. Like a physicist, Malevichs construal of element is ertheless effected. Yet it is just this that Malevich disputes, insofar as, across large
not an indivisible atomic body, but rather concerns fundamental forces. An ele- timescales, the fact of flight is reducible to orbital dust.
ment is additional, therefore, when it induces actions of which the field in which it The flight paths of dust bring critical focus to the object as a frame of reference
acts was previously incapable. Thus Cubisms sickle formula (figure 2B) does not regarding the temporality of creation. Whether the measure of creation is world, air-
eliminate but mutates Czannes residual organicism, with its fibrous lines that plane, dust, or tick is irrelevant to the problem. Each entails its perspective accidents
curl, twist, and knot. With the Suprematist aerial line, as in Malevichs beloved because in each case these objects cannot but remain constant referents.
Schopenhauer,17 everything strives, nothing rests. Hence Malevichs emphasis on striving, on the actions that form the theory
of the Additional Element: Everything is striving to leave the globe. This prop-
osition counters the others: the airplane is planetary dust, the world is rest.
They can be countered because they concern particular states, so the truth or
falsity of the proposition is timescale dependent: as a simple consequence of the
second law of thermodynamics, the airplane will be dust and the world will be
rest, even if neither is dust or rest now. A key Platonic insight: what can be stated
of anything consisting of time-dependent states is neither true nor false, since it
will have been both.

Figure 2. A: Czannes fibrous curve, B: Cubisms Sickle-Curve, and C: the Supreme Straight.18 The three propositions at issue run:

It is from that perspective that the flight is minimally different from the earth from P1. Everything is striving.
which it emerges. It is the worlds future (the future of what is both world and rest P2. The airplane is dust.
in the Russian term mir) by means of which its past is first exhibited. The futurability P3. The world is rest.
of the earthhow long it will endure, rather than how long it has endured, being the
true measure, according to Kant,19 of its agebecomes finite just when it is destroyed; According to P1, an action (striving) is predicated of all things, an action ruled out
but its destructionand this is the second point to note from the earlier passageis if P3 is true, or if everything covers the same number of cases as does world.
coincident with its creation, just as the airplane will fly to the place from whence it Yet P1 and P3 are notably dissimilar to P2, which is the most concretely objective of
has come, remaining dust, or a tick on the planets skin. the three. This is because it simply asserts of one object that it is another. Yet in so
Hence the question whether D1=D2 remains unresolved. Implicit in this doing, the copula, the is in the proposition, effects or covers the transit between
account, if from dust to dust is true, is the impossibility of novelty or the non- what must, if P2 is true, be considered two states of the one object: the airplane state
occurrence of creation. To claim that there are no actions, therefore, amounts to and the dust state are, accordingly, not different objects but just one.
the hypothesis that creation has never been, that what is, insofar as it is or even if it
is, always is, so that the world is eternal. The slightest novelty in such a world, the
most meager additional element, would eliminate the hypothesis. In the present The Ring and the Copula
context, is a world without flight the same as one with it? Surely the fact of flight is
How the copula, the is in the world is rest, is understoodwhether it effects or
17 Troels Andersen cites Malevich from his notebooks as saying On Schopenhauers book it says eliminates transitionis what is at stake between P1 and P3. If P3, then no transition
The World as Will and Representation. I should have said The World as Non-Objectivity. takes place, so that P3 is the hypothesis of the eternity of the world, or the non-oc-
Accordingly, Andersens introduction to The World as Non-Objectivity analyzes the structural
similarities of the two works. currence of creation. If P1, then not only is there transition, but the transition has con-
18 Ibid., 118. sequences for the subject or the everything, such that no state is taken as primary
19 Immanuel Kant, The Question whether the Earth is aging, considered from a physical point of or as the ground of consequent actions, since every state consists in striving. P1
view, trans. Olaf Reinhardt, in Kant: Natural Science (The Cambridge Edition
of the Works of Immanuel Kant), ed. Eric Watkins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), is therefore object-eliminating while P3 is transition-eliminating. Malevichs decision is
16566. evident in a 1916 Suprematist manifesto:

238 Concept Concept 239


I have destroyed the ring of the horizon and got out of the circle of objects, is transition-eliminating since a cycle, having no end, has neither beginning nor
the horizon ring that has imprisoned the artist and the forms of nature. finality: in consequence, claiming to describe particularity, to outline things, the max-
This accursed ring, by continually revealing novelty after novelty, leads the imal non-particularity of the curve (the concave interior is externally convex, such
artist away from the aim of destruction. [] Objects have vanished like smoke; to that the single line describes both) entails the deep field inexistence of objects: the
attain the new artistic culture, art advances toward creation as an end in itself airplane is dust, returns to the earth which was and will be dust again. All is dust.
and towards domination over the forms of nature.20 Thus, an objects outline does not individuate it but generalizes it qua object such that
no object, insofar as it is an object, differs from another. At best, objects flicker in
Thus Malevich opts for P1 over P3 precisely because P2 is both true and false. Several terms and out of existence; but this, too, is a merely local phenomenon, since this, too, is a
are introduced here that flesh out the theory of the world as nonobjectivity. Firstly, the cycle, a being and a not-being of the same thing. The endlessness of the ring therefore
ring of the horizon imprisons not just the artist but also the forms of nature. As with proves, for Malevich, that reality is nonobjective, that is, that the world is nothing:
nature and technology, neither is art of another kind than nature. If this were not so,
nothing could bond the two and arts dominion over nature would be inconceivable. If the world is endless, i.e., has no end, neither a beginning nor a finality, then
Secondly, while art pursues creation as an end in itself, the artists aim is destruction the circumstances of the movement of matter are also endless. The facets,
in the first instance, of the ring. There thus arises the question of what this ring is, such therefore, are endless, if this is correct, [and] it proves that the reality of the
that it is capable of binding both artist and nature yet is susceptible of destruction. world cannot be expressed, for there is no limit, there is no beginning, there
The ring or cycle is the universal copula to the extent that it binds all things is no finality, and under this condition there can only be a nothing.21
(nature and art) insofar as it asserts of one thing that it is another (the airplane is dust;
the world is rest). As binding all things, it consists in continuous novelty as form follows What is there to image in all this dust? If all particularity is eliminated in it, then there
form; but this continuous sequence of forms thereby destroys all novelty. Thus the is nothing to image, nor, since an image is part of the world it images, could there
ring is accursed because, insofar as it is restless novelty, the only true noveltyrestis be sufficient differentiation between it and what is not it such that an image might
impossible, so that, conversely, because it is ceaseless, absolute novelty is absolute rest, be possible. In the nonobjective world into which the ring plunges all existents, the
just as the airplane is dust. Restmir, or the worldlures the artist from destruction deep field problem is that of the elimination of objects, of particularity, for which
and art from creation because the cycle returns all forms to ultimate formless indiffer- reason it cannot be resolved by representation or expression. But even the proposition
ence. The ring is the horizon, remaining the constant point of reference not merely for all is dust is a differentiator, so the image of dust remains, as the HUDF shows,
the division of earth from sky, mapping the terrestrial geometry within which aerial too objective. The image is trapped, as in Platos Sophist, between plurality of being
escape is condemned to return, but also thus fixing the coordinates of all transit, and unlimited not-being,22 but pointing forward to an inexistence antecedent to
sealing reversible motions into objects and all objects into one world, so that D1=D2. what both is and is not. Hence, once there is existence, ultra-deep field inexistence
The ring is accursed because it precisely eternalizes objectsnoveltiesand thus (unlimited not-being) arises consequently upon deep field inexistence.
imprisons the forms of nature in changeless eternity. It is destroyed when objects no
longer circumscribe the capacities of creation, when creation cannot be reduced to
the created. The ring is therefore the form and consequence, the self-identical pattern The Operations of the Concept
of entailments following from the hypothesis of the eternity of objects.
Malevich hates the curve because it welds all differences into a single intuition Thus, in accordance with the post-Kantian philosophical horizon within which he
of the world, a single horizon. As a partial ring, a curve describes the horizon of works, Malevichs realism is not only inferentially based, but realist concerning all
object, apparently guaranteeing particularity but betraying it to another, since limit inferences, all abstract or additional elements. That everything that exists for us also
states, like outlines, belong both to the limited and the limiting. As such, the curve exists in the universe23 does not mean that the universe consists solely in everything
endlessly unravels particularity: if the airplane is dust, if all things are just things, that exists for us. Rather, from conceiving the insuperability of the deep field problem,
then their destiny is not the maintenance but the elimination of particularity. As there derives the ultra-deep field problem of the inexistence of the universe. Inexistence
such, the ring or the curve, the universal copula that welds all differences into one, is ineliminably an element of the universe. Thus, it is due to the operations of the concept
21 Malevich, World as Non-Objectivity, 60.
20 Kazimir Malevich, From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Painterly Realism, 22 Plato, Sophist, 256e56.
trans. John E. Bowlt, in 100 Artists Manifestos, ed. Alex Danchev (London: Penguin, 2011), 10607. 23 Ibid., 87.

240 Concept Concept 241


that ultra-deep field inexistence is consequent upon deep field inexistence. Since such
an operation has occurred, therefore, it follows that it had not. The transition between
had not and has is itself therefore the additional element, the action that differ-
entiates the inexistence consequent upon the operation of the concept not only from
the concept itself, but from the inexistence antecedent to what acts.
If, following Kant, the great, gray mother of us all, everything is concept,
the concept concept is maximally indifferent. This is why Brandom insists that it
is the judgment rather than the concept that is the minimal unit of sense: to say some-
thing about something, even if this something is insuperably conceptual, is still to
say something, and from this, various rational commitments flow. Nevertheless, this
acknowledges even as it denies deep field inexistence: rational commitments buttress
concept users against the inexistence from which reason turns. Yet the world of which
the concept is part, when there is a world in which there is a concept, is capable of
differentiation only if the concepts actuality is not given in that world, but arises.
That the concept is thus operative rather than representative was, in fact, Schellings
response to the post-Kantian problem of the insuperability of the concept:

It comes to a point where man must liberate himself not merely from rev-
elation but from everything actual (Wirklich) in order to flee into a complete
desert of all being, where nothing is to be encountered but only the infinite
potency of all being, the sole immediate content of thought in which it
moves only within itself as within its own ether.24

Schellings reading of Kants lesson does not stop with the straightforwardly idealist
thesis that all is insuperably concept, so that the concept being is, firstly, the only
being there is, and secondly a consequent of conceiving (in fact Kant expressly denies
this, as does Schelling).25 Rather, thoughts or conceivings are acts or motions, even
if only in their own ether. Being consists in motions or acts only if being is cre-
ation. But it is by moving in itself that thought discovers the infinite potency of all
being. That is, even if being were a mere creature of thought, a concept, it would
be consequent upon an act antecedent to which being was not. Even consequent
being entails that inexistence from which alone its production can be conceived.
Moreover, if thought were this act by which being arose, then thought, too, would
have to emerge from what is not thought, or no act would have taken place. The
consequent inexistence of everything actual follows therefore from chasing down
the movements of thought that are instances of the potencies of being which, since
they are infinite, cannot eliminate inexistence once there are concepts at all.

24 F. W. J. Schelling, Grounding of Positive Philosophy, trans. Bruce Matthews (Albany, NY: State
University of New York Press, 2007), 142. (Translation slightly modified.)
25 Kant goes to some lengths to demonstrate that existence cannot be a predicate, from which
arguments Schelling draws the following conclusion: It is not because there is thinking that
there is being, but because there is being that there is thinking (Ibid., 203n).

242 Concept
In Defense of Representation1
Tristan Garcia

Throughout the century of modernity and postmodernity, representation has

been frowned upon, even forbidden, to such a degree that it has been necessary to
invent ways to dispense with this old and embarrassing concept in art, politics, and
ontology: expression, exemplification, reference, or even pure and simple presen-
tation, pure and simple.
There is an understandable aesthetic reason for the rejection of the concept: its
unsatisfying definition, capable neither of anticipating nor of following the mutations
of art in the twentieth century, from Kazimir Malevich to Allan Kaprow, from Marcel
Broodthaers to body art. But if representation no longer succeeds in accounting
for the natural inclination of the plastic arts toward presence (of objects, bodies,
events), it is also because philosophy has failed, has not been capable of proposing
and presenting to artists a well-grounded concept of representation inscribed in
matter and in the reality of objects.

Any theory that claims to be materialist or realist should be judged according to
its ability (or lack thereof ) to provide an account for the status of representations.
An image, for example, is certainly a material object or a real object, but it is also
another object that has the particular nature of not being what it is: a watercolor
and gouache by Drer that represents a hare is not itself a hare; moreover if it
were the animal, it would no longer represent the animal. But if it is not in any
way the thing itself, how can it represent that thing? Must I admit the existence of
an ideal hare, in addition to its image? In that case, entities proliferate: theres the
real hare, the image of the hare, the hare of which this is the image. Or perhaps
the hare of which this is the image exists neither outside of the image nor in the
image, but rather in the mind of the one who sees it? This way I remove represen-
tations from objects, locate them in consciousness, and then, eventually, seek a
materialist or naturalist theory of mind. Thus I am rid of representations, these
sort of half or double objects that proliferate in matter, in reality, and undermine
materialism and naturalism.
Yet it would be particularly strange to think that a materialist or realist
would not situate representations in things themselves rather than in consciousness,
because materialists, realists, and idealists agree on this one thing: representations
do not exist in truth except by and for those things that they represent. On the
1 Translators note: The French title, Dfense de Reprsentation, carries a double meaning that is
difficult to render in English: dfense can mean both defense and prohibition.

Representation 245

contrary, I assert that an authentic realist or materialist way of thinking should be II

able to account for the objective, real and material, existence of representations
produced by human art. The second model for representation is signification. This is the model that has
The history of Western philosophy proposes at least three major ways to dominated modernity since the nineteenth century, under the influence of the
conceive the status of representational objects: the representational object is work of Charles Sanders Peirce and Ferdinand de Saussure. A representation is
understood to be either a copy, a sign, or a duplex. no longer thought of as a copy but rather as a sign. For Peirce, representation is a
relationship between three terms, the representamen, the object, and the interpretant.3
A bison drawn with pigment that I perceive on the wall of a Paleolithic cave is the
I representamen; the bison that these traces seem to me to designate is the object; the
set of signs that I mobilize in order to attach the first to the second comprise the
The first model for thinking about representation is mimesis, which is the idea that interpretant. All the images of bison, drawn or photographed, that I have perceived
in the West dominates antiquity and the classical age. The major contribution of in the past contribute to the composition of this specific representation of a bison.
mimetic theories is the affirmation that representation is a relationship between To interpret a sign is to triangulate ceaselessly between the sign, its object, and other
two terms in which one of the terms transposes the other by extracting certain of signs. The same word, with the same spelling and the same sound, can designate
its qualities; thus a two-dimensional representation of a chair transposes the chair many different objects, depending on the interpretants brought into play. When
onto a surface, making an abstraction of its third dimension. Every copy made by associating the word rock with the terms Chuck Berry and Telecaster, you
representation is a diminished version of the representable object. Plato considers get a very different object than if you reference granite or clay. Thus, to signify
that there exists a ladder of ontological degradation from the idea to the object and is to link a sign to an object through the mediation of other signs; it is no longer a
from the object to the representation. Not only natural objects are susceptible to question of resemblance or imitation.
being imitated in this wayfor Aristotle, that which is said or that which should Within the context of our semiotic model, representation would never be
be is also representable. anything but a type of signification: the portrait of Emile Zola by Manet relates to
Mimesis can be understood as the linking of two objects or of two series what it represents, the French writer, by the mediation of a series of other signs. If,
of objects: the first is present, or real, and the second is represented, meaning after an apocalypse, survivors who lost all trace or memory of the existence of Zola
transposed into a form that draws certain qualities from the first. The identity were to discover the painting in an archaeological excavation, they would find a
between the two is assured by a certain resemblance: recovery, analogy, or structural representation of a bearded man, but not of mile Zola. And if we were to discover
homology. However, three difficulties hobble such a definition of representation. a representation of something that we couldnt identify, made by an extinct people
First, as Nelson Goodman has noted, resemblance, unlike representation, bespeaks of whom we know nothing, we would perhaps not even be able to recognize it as a
a symmetrical relationship.2 The portrait of Thomas More by Hans Holbein surely representation. Thus, according to the semiotic model, there is no representation
resembles Thomas More, and Thomas More resembles his portraitbut the portrait without signification, that is to say without interpretation.
represents the face of the humanist while the face does not represent the portrait. However, there is one major objection to the subordination of representation
So representation is not resemblance. Next, mimesis supposes not only the prece- to signification. An essential characteristic of a representation as a sign is its vari-
dence but the pre-existence of that which is represented relative to its represen- ability: the official sign for no smoking shows a cigarette in a barred circle. But
tation: one can not represent that which does not already exist. Finally, mimesis each airport, hospital, or cinema, in each region of the world, uses different images
implies an ontological degradation between what is represented and the represen- to embody this signa cigarette or perhaps a pipe, a cigarette with filter or without,
tation: that which is represented is in some way de-presented, since something a cigarette inscribed in a circle or a square, barred by a cross or by a simple trans-
has been snatched from its full and entire presence to make it exist under another verse line, on a black background or whiteyet the meaning remains the same.
form, diminished, as a copy. Several images can thus serve to signify exactly the same thing, such that one
can alter a sign without altering what it means. But does the same go for the image?
Lets try another model. A steam locomotive can easily signify any kind of train, because it has become the

3 See Charles Sanders Peirce, Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs, in Philosophical Writings of
2 See Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1976), 3ff. Peirce, ed. Justus Buchler (New York: Dover, 1955), 98119.

246 Representation Representation 247


archetype of this mode of transport in the collective imagination. But even so, it by naturalism (the recognition of images is a natural cognitive facility developed by
does not represent all trains. And an image of a cigarette does not represent exactly our species) and on the other by conventionalism (recognition of images is regulated
the same thing as an image of a pipe. by conventions that vary from one culture to another).
If the image can become sign, or the sign image, they nevertheless remain All the contemporary stances on the duplex character of representations
absolutely distinct; what separates them is the delicate attachment of the image to situate themselves in this complex three-dimensional space: Goodman is objec-
what it represents. tivist, while supporting a logical theory of reference and tending toward a moder-
Thus, no representation can be affected without affecting that which it rep- ated conventionalism; Hyman, by contrast, defends the determining character of
resents. Marcel Duchamps Mona Lisa with a moustache is no longer the Mona Lisa of resemblance (in his occlusion shape principle); Wollheims theory of seeing-in
Leonardo da Vinci; a photograph retouched by software that permits the accentuation is ontologically subjectivist, logically midway between resemblance and reference;
of contrast or the erasure of blemishes no longer represents exactly what it represented Waltons make-believe shifts this position toward a radical conventionalism, while
before. By contrast, the signdetermined by the triangular relation between the sign the defense of recognition by Schier pushes it the other way, toward naturalism.4
itself, the object to which it refers, and the interpretant that attaches one to the other What stays constant throughout all these variations is the concept of the image
can vary without changing the object, so long as the interpretant adjusts the triangu- as a duplex reality: one thing is two, two things are one. All these theories, what-
lation. In signification, the presence of the sign erases itself behind its relation with its ever their respective merits, tend to consider representation as the relation between
object mediated by an infinity of other signs, while in representation there is nothing two things presented in one alone. For this reason, they are condemned to develop
other than a relation between that which is present and that which is represented. ontologically, logically, and psychologically between two poles, always still missing
an aspect of representation. The more they account for the image as an object, the
less they can account for the object of this image, and vice versa. Their error is to
III attribute a single presence shared between two objects (the representing and the rep-
resented), instead of conceiving a single object shared between presence and absence.
To explain this phenomenon, a third contemporary model exists, one that per-
tains neither to classical or ancient mimesis nor to modern semiotics. The redefinition That is why I have been working for several years on a completely different model
of the image, as distinct from the sign, has been an important trend in analytic phi- of representation.
losophy since the 1960s. This trend has submitted the notion of mimesis to scrutiny,
all the while resisting the semiotic and structuralist groundswell that, in the fifties
and sixties, increasingly classified the image as a sign among other signs. IV
In pondering the status of iconicity, Goodman, Richard Wollheim, Kendall
Walton, John Hyman, and Flint Schier have attempted to propose a redefinition of To represent is first of all to absent.
representation. At the heart of their reflections, diverse as they are, lies the same
concern for understanding how an image can really combine two things in one: that All representation, be it visual, sonic, or even tactile, presupposes the work of
which represents and that which is represented. For this reason it is tempting to absenting present matter: an image is a three-dimensional object reduced to the state
describe this third model as the duplex concept of representation, since it is based of a quasi-surface, whose depth has been reduced to almost nothing, and one side
on the intuition that a representation presents itself as other than it is and that a of which has been transformed into the verso. Thus, to apprehend a photograph as
theory of representation should seek to model and explain this duplicity. a representation supposes that one is capable of not equally considering the edge,
It is possible to organize all the proposed answers by imagining that they have the recto, and the verso of the photographic image: the recto becomes the prominent
all evolved in a space defined by three axes: an ontological axis, a logical axis, and a surface, the edge is overlooked, the verso is the blind back of the image.
psychological axis. Along the ontological axis, the theories oscillate between objec-
tivism and subjectivism, according to whether the object represented is objectively 4 See Goodman, Languages of Art; John Hyman, The Objective Eye: Color, Form, and Reality in the Theory
or subjectively understood in the representing object. On the logical axis, it is a of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); Richard Wollheim, Seeing-as, Seeing-in, and
matter of the relation between the two that is debated: the positions vary between Pictorial Representation, in Art and Its Objects, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1980), 20526; Kendall Walton, Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts
recourse to resemblance (which leads to mimesis) and recourse to referentiality (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990); and Flint Schier, Deeper into Pictures:
(which leads to semiosis). Finally, the psychological axis is bounded on the one hand An Essay on Pictorial Representation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

248 Representation Representation 249


Thus, a visual representation consists first of all in the absenting of a spatial in My Darling Clementine seems to present to me is not really Henry Fonda himself,
dimension. For a sonic representation, its not exactly the same: when we hear, for but his absence.
example, the recording of a birds song, what is absented is the spatial origin of the But how to present an absence? All representation possesses a certain degree
sonic phenomenon, since we dont consider the speaker, the stereo, or the record of determination: in presenting me with an absence, even an emptiness, the rep-
to be the one that sings. Also, in a certain sense all music is representative as soon resentation determines, surrounds, or defines this emptiness. If I merely trace a
as you separate the sound from its cause and no longer hear the effect of a guitar circle on paper, I produce a large and enveloping absence: it could be almost any-
or a violin, but rather a sonic development where each sound seems to cause the thingme, you, a balloon, the earthjust as easily as it could be Henry Fondas
following sound, whether in a rhythmic or melodic phrase. head. In working the circle, scrutinizing it, I can constrain my perception to elimi-
Visual representation, like sonic representation, is the absence of presence, nate more and more possibilities: viewing a face traced in charcoal, with eyes and a
of a dimension of space or of the spatial source of a sound. And in absenting a mouth. I can always pretend to see the earth or a balloon, but my perception must
presence, one necessarily presents a presence. The key to our argument is that all strongly resist the drawing. By fortifying the stricturesfor instance, by including
representation should be understood as a system of exchange that takes place within a caption inscribed at the bottom of the drawingI can force the drawing to des-
objects themselves: in constraining a dimension or a portion of space to reduce ignate Henry Fonda. But the representation will never be constraining enough to
itself to almost nothing (in absenting it, that is), one, not by magic but rationally, be saturated, that is to say, to achieve the presence of that which is presented: this
makes something that isnt there appear. And the representation is not initially the will never be the cut-off head of Henry Fonda in person appearing on the sheet of
presentation of something absent that would exist elsewhere, but the emergence of paper in the same way that Henry Fonda will never be present in his representation.
something absent, owing to the absence of something present. One understands thus What is present in a representation is an absence, which can be strongly determined
that even Malevichs white square on a white background, the blue monochromes but never to the point of saturation with presence. In this way, there is no ultimate
of Yves Klein, or Pierre Soulagess black monochromes represent something in the degree of realism of a representation.
sense that they absent a dimension of space and therefore also present something A representation is thus neither an imitation nor a type of signification; it
absent. What? At least a surface. Maybe a colored surface. Maybe a surface broken neither resembles nor refers to what it represents. It presents something absent and
up by forms. determines it without otherwise transforming it completely into presence.
In this way, the great aesthetic illusion of the twentieth centurythe belief In redefining representation this waystarting from an ontology of objects, a
that we were done with representation because we had discovered the power of human art as a form of representation, a specific manner of absenting a certain part
abstractiondissipates: all representation is an abstraction, the abstraction of the of the presence of objectsI propose that it is possible to restore it to the heart of art,
presence of things. And this abstraction has the necessary consequence of presenting and to rethink the work of the artist as that of a transmuter of absence and presence.
something absent: a countryside, a face, a feeling, shapes, colors, an event, and so
forth. What we see in an image, what we understand in a piece of music, is never *
therethe image and the music present something absent because they absent Our representations are, then, neither in our minds nor in our perceptions: they
something present. are inscribed by human art in certain objects, which constrain our cognition to
This absenting is neither a conventional decision nor a power of our cognition: recognize the absence of a presence in them, and by way of compensation the
it is a constraint that the representing object exerts on our perception. Representation presence of something absent. This operation, which to me is the impetus of all
is a constraint produced by art and incorporated in an object by work, which forces human art, is neither mimetic nor semiotic; it requires a new model of ontology to
our perception to absent a part of the presence of things. Insofar as it is a constraint, understand that it is not a matter of magical, irreal, or immaterial thought: quite the
our perception can always oppose it, and I can try to consider a photograph as a contrary. The only way for materialist or realist theories to recognize the status of
three-dimensional object, observing with equal interest its front, back, and side; artistic representations is to understand that representation is that which objectively
I can listen to music forcing myself not to perceive the sound as the effect of an inscribes absence in matter, or in the real.
instrument. But in so doing I will need to spend considerable energy forcing myself
to believe that I do not see or hear the representation, because the representational Translated from the French by Molly Whalen

object contrives to constrain my perception from recognizing it for what it is.

The representational object is not a copy: it does not imitate another present
object, but rather, it presents an absent object. What a photograph of Henry Fonda

250 Representation Representation 251

Concepts That Surrender to Materiality
and to the Real
Katerina Kolozova

Quentin Meillassouxs critique of correlationism and Franois Laruelles non-

standard philosophy (or non-philosophy) have demonstrated that materialism is
yet another project determined transcendentally rather than realistically. In other
words, materialism is not determined in the last instance by matter or the real
immanently affecting the idea of matter, but rather by a philosophical doctrine
of materialism and matter. Eliminative materialism is yet another philosophy
about matter and materialism, a theory relying on the philosophical presumptions
that matter is in the last instance situated in biology and on the purely philosoph-
ical decision that materialism equals realism. The equation materialism=realism
pretends to have always already established the site of truth and appointed itself as
the supreme guardian of that truth. My claim is that in order to radicalize materi-
alism we ought to resort to the realism of non-standard philosophy, a term more or
less synonymous with what Laruelle formerly called non-philosophy. Both terms
refer to a theoretical position that enables use of philosophical material in a way
determined not by any doctrine but instead by what Laruelle calls the syntax of
the real. The procedure of realist thinking is one that follows the syntax of the
real, a procedure Laruelle terms cloning.1
Laruelles non-philosophy is a complex and open-ended project pursuing a
theory of scientific rigor that makes use of philosophical concepts in order to arrive
at their determination in the last instance, the conceptual result of the effect of the
real. The operation of conceptualization surrenders to the immediacy of trauma pro-
duced by the real rather than to the clarity of the transcendental plane of philosophy.
To produce a radical concept means to employ language and signification, that is,
the work of the transcendental in the sense in which the term has been used since
Kant. Like any other concept, the radical concept is transcendental. Nonetheless, it
is minimally so. It does not come from philosophy or science (not even from folk
psychology, which is yet another form of philosophy) but from the raw attempt
of the affected instance of the real to transpose its experience into an abstraction
that should represent an absolute and immortalization of the effect of the real. The
maladroit attempt to transpose the lived into a meaning is the first gesture of
transcendence. It is one bruised by the marks of the symptom (the only way that
the real leaves a mark that then serves as the backdrop for signification), one that

1 Franois Laruelle, Lintroduction au non-marxisme (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2000), 4647.

Representation 253

is descriptive and affective, while also rigorous through the accomplishment of the characterizes all these three forms of thought is that they are grounded in radical
simple task of indexing the instance of the real. According to the Western specu- concepts that are fundamentally hybrid or monstrous. They describe the effects of
lative mind (in Luce Irigarays sense), the affective transcendence belongs to the the real, the imprint of the trauma of the experienced. The singularity of the expe-
realm of the poetic/artistic, whereas the rigorous belongs to the scientific.2 If the rience they describe is elevated to a statement that stipulates a universal, which is
radical concept represents a hybridity of the two presumably incompatible modes grounded in the given of the experienced. It is fundamentally detached from pro-
of thought, it is then fundamentally monstrous. cedures of subjectivizationin spite of the fact that the theorizing subject invokes
How does one radicalize concepts and clone the real according to the method its own experienceand, therefore, does not impose a cultural, class, racial, and
of non-philosophy? To rigorously explain a reality means to describe effects of the other societal model as a universal that, in fact, only camouflages the generalization
real, and to assume a posture of thought that reacts to the workings of the real of ones subject position.
nesting in the conceptual phenomenon that re-presents it. In order to execute Does art need the radicalization and philosophical impoverishment offered
thought radicalized in the way non-standard philosophy proposes, it is indispen- by non-philosophy? Philosophy is any conceptual tendency to establish a self-
sible to disorganize any philosophical system or anti-system (which merely mirrors sufficient universe that will usurp the position of the real and act in its stead. It
the structure of a system). The philosophical cosmos should be affirmed for what it is defined by its decision (Laruelle) as to how the world and real/ity should be
isauto-referential. Simultaneously, its transcendental material should be extrap- enjoyed and what is thinkable. Art has always been constitutively co-defined with
olated from its cosmological structure in order to be conceptually minimalized by philosophy, just as philosophy has always sought to determine itself and the world
way of rendering it a philosophical chra, the unordered transcendental material aesthetically. A philosophical universe is always a cosmology: an orderly organiza-
with which thought operates. This chra succumbs to the authority of the instance tion of representations that aim to sublimate the real. Nonetheless, art has always
of the real rather than to that of a philosophical legacy or the authoritarian figure been heretical with regard to the philosophy it seeks to express. The affect, the lived
of a Thinker. (Laruelles le vcu), le joui sans jouissance (or the joy without a predetermination of
For example, one can theoretically operate with the concept of unilaterality its meaning and the ways in which it is to be enjoyed) 5 exceed the philosophical
one finds in Gilles Deleuzes philosophy without having to become a Deleuzian message of the artistic feat. That feat liberates itself from the idea, supersedes
or use it only in modes that are determined by and within Deleuzes system (or the intention, and through its raw materiality surprises the philosophizing subject
organized thought). In order to radicalize the term, that is, execute its transcen- that the artist is. The materiality at issue consists in the effect of trauma, that is,
dental impoverishment, one has to reduce it to its conceptual contents, describing the sheer lived that evades mediation through language. The almost autonomously
the symptom of the real that necessitated the creation of the concept. The minimally acting instance of the lived (du vcu) dissolves the masterful philosophical subject,
transcendental contents of a concept consist in its determination in the last instance. reducing it to the vulnerable, exposed, heretically rebellious realthe point of
In order to arrive at a radical concept, thought has to correlate with the real in an departure of all alienating processes leading toward the constitution of the speaking
immanent way rather than with the entire apparatus of a doctrine.3 subject. Philosophy or the transcendental is at work while constantly submitting
According to Laruelle, three doctrinal legacies are minimally philosophical itself to be checked by the purely lived. The lived or the experienced is in fact
such that their radicalization can prove to be more productive than that of the great the effect of the real introduced by the philosophical intention and desire. Desire
philosophical legacies sensu stricto. The three legacies at issue are Marxism, psy- or intention is an event of the real that precedes its philosophical transposition.
choanalysis, and Gnostic Christianity rid of philosophy/theology and grounded in A philosophical system is always dissolved into chra and subjected to the dictate of
the figure of Christ as a radical concept.4 The application at stake concerns the the real (in its aspects of trauma, the sheer lived, or the purely experiential).
use of concepts in the interpretation of a particular reality. The fact that concepts The more artistic work suspends philosophy, reduces it to chra, and subjects
of Marxian or psychoanalytic origin are used in an interpretation does not make itself to the pure trauma of the unmediated lived, the more radical it is and the
the interpretation and/or its author automatically a Marxist or a Freudian. What more the philosophical project has surrendered itself to the rule of the real. Take
for example Michael Gira and his band Swans. Beginning in 2010, the latest phase
2 Luce Irigaray explores this bifurcation in Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill of Giras musical project is essentially nonmusic in the sense that it steps out of any
(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985). known doctrine or philosophical definition of what music is. It is not anti-musical,
3 Ibid., 21, 66, et al. which would make it a philosophical project par excellence. It is nonmusic yet
4 See, respectively, Laruelle, Lintroduction au non-marxisme; Franois Laruelle, Thorie des trangers:
Science des hommes, dmocratie, non-psychanalyse (Paris: ditions Kim, 1995); and Franois Laruelle,
Future Christ: A Lesson in Heresy, trans. Anthony Paul Smith (Lo