Category Archives: Objects

What is the Lay of the Land: Part II

by Joshua Mason

Editor’s Note:  This essay is based on Mason’s presentation at DePaul University last October. See Part I here.

To ask ‘What is the lay of the land?’ is to ask what the land looks at when it sees itself.

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I’ve continued to photograph mirrors in the landscape. Of course the mirror has become a symbol retaining a long history and meaning, from reflection and perception to a stage in the formation of subjects, etc.. Is it a symbol of our seizure by desire, a beautiful hallucination, or is it the artist’s embraced place allowing for artistic liberty? Is it a way of looking at the world implying a psychological opening? All works of art are quotations of moments of the reflectivity as visual proof of one’s existence—it is ‘here I am’ for a time—but art is a terrain truly of that which is not me. As an artist I am not reflected in the mirror.[1] The mirror is also an abyss, shedding our interpretation for an unaccountable infinity. The other of us that it reflects is the stranger of the mirror itself.

Joshua Mason_Mirrorworks

Critchley, paraphrasing Socrates, says that to do philosophy is “to learn how to die.” I think something similar ought to be said about doing art, which is after all a form of philosophy. We are all subject to finitude. I think every artist who is sensitive to their craft knows this on an intuitive level: they feel it in the materials, at the edge of the catastrophic. As an artist I am conditioned by my own extinction.

Certain abstractionists wanted surfaces to be smooth, streamlined, hygienic—a sterilized picture plane, an insinuation of reduction of nature, complexity and chance. But time asserts itself upon sleek surfaces. Malevich, for example, who wanted to break from the earth and in whose discourse the earth takes on negative valences.[2] The Black Square, nevertheless, as one of the pivotal works of twentieth century art has cracks upon the painted surface. It is the revenge of the geomorphic quality of painting.[3]

The Extinctions series is a recent set of photographs. I am using a black square placed into the landscape. It cuts into the landscape like a black hole. It places a bomb in between images and the associations attached to them.[4]

Black Square.2

Escaping from words and into being, to be silent in the face of a work of art is to practice that silence elsewhere in the face of other objects. That being is catastrophic, poised always at the edge. It is subject to materialization and decomposition, sedimentation and erosion—to becoming. From confrontation with the edge, I look at nature in wonderment and trepidation. I am interested in geomorphic tendencies to mineralize the imagination. I am caught up in excitation and intensity. I am interested in speculating on my own disappearance in the midst of nature. To stretch out beyond oneself in a condition of difference, to that which loses the intellect. When this occurs the initial question—what is the lay of the land?—disappears.

All photographs by the author.
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[1] The mirror, traditionally associated with identity, is placed into the natural environment: the forest, the field, the shoreline. I am not reflected in the mirror because it is important that in the face of nature I attempt to displace identity. The beholder also sees the photograph of nature that includes the mirror but the mirror does not reflect the beholder: instead what appears in the mirror is the forest, the field, the shoreline—the land looking at itself, captured in a moment.

[2] See Malevich to Mikhail Matyushin, June 1916, cited in Zhadova, Malevich, 124, n 39. The symbol even of the negation is itself subject to nature’s ubiquity: entropy, erosion, sedimentation, disposition, weathering, time—becoming.

[3] Geologic catastrophism covers over the culture of painting like a landslide.

[4] A dream of escaping from words into being. Leaving the realm of conventions behind—historic, linguistic —in order to attain immediacy, moving signification out of the realm of the discursive where the object’s meaning would be the essence itself. To the challenge of the crisis of the sign, via signing and naming nature, via the image and its association, the black square is an extinction.

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Open Land Art & Fact Team: Interactive Installation at DePaul

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Mock up of the Open Land Art & Fact Team (O.L.A.F.T.) installation

The DePaul Institute for Nature & Culture is delighted to announce the upcoming installation of a new work of art on DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus. Conceived by Chicago photographer Doug Fogelson, Openlands Artist-in-Residence 2015-16, and executed by Fogelson and the Open Land Art & Fact Team in collaboration with Openlands.org, O.L.A.F.T. will be installed at DePaul University in April, as an interactive workstation. In an initial proposal, Fogelson described the project as a “conceptual art intervention.” At this stage, the audience is integral to the work:

This is meant to be an interactive experience where participants are invited to read, inspect, and comment on the items in the shelves. The table has instructions with stickers and comment cards that participants can affix to the back of photographs in the bin and leave with the objects. Artifacts in [sealed] bags are assorted natural objects such as leaves or twigs and assorted refuse such as plastic packaging, [that] have been found in forest or prairie preserves. There are also white sheet printed documents with demographic and ecological information on the locations (Initial Proposal).

The installation will be hosted by DePaul’s John T. Richardson Library in conjunction with Earth Day programming and the April 19th visit to the University of New York Times best selling author, Jeff VanderMeer (McGowan South, Room 108, 6:30-8:30 pm). University leaders are delighted by the obvious topical connections between Fogeslon’s work and Vandermeer’s, as well as the aesthetic resonance of O.L.A.F.T. and VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy.

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Fogelson collaborated with a team of artists, over the course of a year, to photograph and creatively survey eight Openland sites. Faculty and students from all colleges, schools, and disciplines are invited to visit the installation, examine the maps, photographs, and artifacts, and add their responses to the project. By interacting with this installation/social experiment, faculty and students will contribute to “meaningful public conversation about the relationship between humans and the spaces we occupy,” in effect co-creating a regional research project and work of art (Open Land Art & Fact Team: O.L.A.F.T. Proposal).
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The installation will be located against the west wall on the second floor of the Richardson Library, near room 201, and will be accessible to faculty and students throughout the Spring semester.

More images here.

Lead Artist: Doug Fogelson
Installation: Open Land Art & Fact Team (O.L.A.F.T.)
Dates: April 1st – June 1st 2017.
Location: John T. Richardson Library,
2350 North Kenmore Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614,
Second Floor, west wall, near Room 201

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(Art) Existence Without a World (Levinas)

By Zachary Braiterman, Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. Facebook | Twitter | Academia.edu.

Reading Existence and Existents by Emmanuel Levinas, I stumbled across this neat little bit about art in the chapter on “Existence without a World.” This is a 1947 text, written right a…

Source: (Art) Existence Without a World (Levinas)

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Doug Fogelson – Destructive Transformations

 

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“Doug Fogelson’s inquisitive practice in photography echoes the experimentation that was central to the medium’s inception. For the better part of 20 years, Fogelson has consistently produced seductive imagery while investigating unsettling issues (e.g., climate change).”

Source: Doug Fogelson – Destructive Transformations

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The Internet of Things: Roadmap to a Connected World

from the MIT Technology Review:

What if every vehicle, home appliance, heating system and light switch were connected to the Internet? Today, that’s not such a stretch of the imagination.

Modern cars, for instance, already have hundreds of sensors and multiple computers connected over an internal network. And that’s just one example of the 6.4 billion connected “things” in use worldwide this year, according to research by Gartner Inc. DHL and Cisco Systems offer even higher estimates—their 2015 Trend Report sets the current number of connected devices at about 15 billion, amidst industry expectations that the tally will increase to 50 billion by 2020.

The Internet of Things (IoT)—a sophisticated network of objects embedded with electronic systems that enable them to collect and exchange data—is disrupting technology and changing the way we live. Fewer than two decades ago, if I’d predicted that the IoT would transform the auto-rental industry, people would have laughed. Yet here we are now in the age of Zipcar. By pioneering a range of connected technologies, the car-sharing company has unlocked greater convenience for customers and kick-started the sharing economy. Now the functionality of IoT-enabled cars is transforming the auto industry—from the ultra-connected Tesla to Google’s self-driving cars—and Uber hopes one day to chauffeur you to your destination in an autonomous vehicle.

The IoT is ultimately bound to affect almost every aspect of daily life. In fact, I encourage you to try to figure out where the IoT will not be. But how “smart” is it to let the IoT pervade everything in our lives, without active and purposeful design?

Continue reading here.

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The Quadruple Object Revisited

india_figure-7 

A philosopher, a biologist, a rhetorician, and an anthropologist walk into a bar to discuss The Quadruple Object.[i] The philosopher says, “It’s not Heidegger.” The biologist says, “He’s discovered the scientific method.” The rhetorician says, “I thought metaphysics was dead.” And the anthropologist asks, “Is this a mandala?”

What follows is neither a summary of, nor belated initial response to Graham Harman’s The Quadruple Object (2011). That moment has passed. Though many readers didn’t quite grasp the book, the critical theoretical community has been experimenting with Harman’s key terms in various contexts. This is because much of the work is compelling and memorable, though the whole is a little obscure. I will use the comic scenario in my opening as a point of departure for discussing some stumbling blocks in The Quadruple Object, before arguing that the text deserves to be revisited and reconsidered. I assume a basic familiarity with the text. (The uninitiated should begin here; I’ve also recently posted a summary of Harman’s fourfold here.)

“It’s not Heidegger.“  Yes, this book isn’t about Heidegger. The Quadruple Object is not a reading, let alone a close reading, of any philosopher, and Harman makes no claims to that effect. This may be a stumbling block for the academic community, however, because the book is famously based on Harman’s Tool-Being which is about Heidegger (though not Heidegger). Revisiting even a few sections of Heidegger will confirm that The Quadruple Object is not Heidegger, not altogether a bad thing.  Nevertheless, The Quadruple Object effectively directs our attention to Heidegger, and some of the best parts.

Comparing TQO[ii] to the scientific method may not be a misreading.  Bacon, Locke, and Hume, fathers of empiricism, were far from naïve about access to objects. Bacon and Locke, more tentative in their assertions than Hume, might not only grasp, but also deeply appreciate Harman’s new fourfold. Bacon’s Idols foreground perception without bracketing reality, for example, and Locke struggled to balance under-standing with a desire to grasp things. The work of these philosophers has little to do with contemporary materialism and positivism, however. Harman is not a materialist, which is confusing since he critiques idealism (and some readers might assume a two-party system). Nor is he a positivist, though his engagement with metaphysics and “the real” may throw off those of us raised on critiques of essentialism.

This brings us to the rhetorician.  In the 1990’s critical theorists repeatedly announced the death of metaphysics. This was confusing because every theoretical “death” was hailed as a distinct event.  But, as I recall, the late twentieth-century complaint with metaphysics wasn’t so much philosophical (read, phenomenological) as ethical.  At the birth of identity politics, essences, meta-narratives, and  transcendent values were generally frowned upon, with good reason. This is not to say that Harman’s metaphysics are categorically insensitive to race, class, and gender, all of which may be productively understood as quadruple objects. However, metaphysics is a stumbling block, and in this book Harman appears unaware of the not entirely stale critiques (though he gestures to them in the Introduction to Guerilla Metaphysics).  Moreover, it’s not clear in the text why TQO must be a metaphysics (except to assert it’s not merely an epistemology).  Harman’s invention of partial access seems both more and less than metaphysics (as we know it), however, and metaphysics seems unnecessary to broad application of his thesis.

If the anthropologist thinks Harman’s fourfold evokes a mandala, s/he may not be far off the mark. The mandala, as a fourfold archetypal representation of the psyche evokes Jung (always in productive tension with Freud), as well as Lacan’s “four discourses.”  (See Levi Bryant’s A Democracy of Object, section 4.4.)  Harman discusses the psyche at length, but possibly with insufficient self-consciousness regarding his overall system. (And what about Deleuze’s Leibniz book, The Fold?)  Folding, unfolding, and fourfolds are ubiquitous archetypal tropes. This is both a stumbling block and strength of the work. Harman admits that TQO may seem too systematic, but he also remains in thrall to the genius of his particular system. As in the case of his discussion of metaphysics, we might find him insufficiently urbane here. I do think the system is productive beyond what anyone has imagined, with the exception of Ian Bogost who has suggested that TQO is a magnum opus in a deceptively small package. But TQO only opens up, for us, if we can overcome our uneasiness with Harman’s sweeping gestures. If this is a conception of “the world,” then it must also be a limited view of the world as a sensual object, and this comment (admittedly), a limited view of TQO as sensual object.

I will now offer a paean to TQO using the text as a heuristic scheme. Let me begin with a very brief defense of the text as a sensual object (SO).  If a sensual object is not identical to its qualities, and these qualities emerge over time, then TQO cannot be reduced to its initial bifurcated reception—caught up in a “political” struggle, praised by friends and snubbed by enemies of Object-Oriented Philosophy.  Whether or not the book ultimately deserves praise or blame, I would like to see future evaluations (in bars and such) linked more closely to the work’s particular qualities.

Let’s imagine my opening fantasy of stumbling blockheads as a reference to one set of TQO sensual qualities (SQ).  Now, let me balance these with some readily accessible points of praise for the work. TQO has been enthusiastically received by scholars and artists in various fields, and has invited them to explore Harman’s Tool Being, and Heidegger’s tool-analysis. For this reason, I think TQO is a relevant and successful work of philosophy (as love of wisdom rather than intellectual sparing). Particularly productive have been ecological applications, where TQO dovetails beautifully with Morton’s concept of “hyperobjects,” for example. TQO is obviously relevant to information technology, media studies, and the big questions of AI. Harman’s ontography also plays well with “carpentry,” as a coherent and fruitful, object-oriented aesthetic, as well as an allusion to real art as a hands-on mode of discovery. (See Graham Harman’s Guerilla Metaphysics and Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology.)  Though political connections may be less obvious, TQO could productively be deployed to understand various forms of systemic discrimination and the technologies through which prejudices are iterated and dispelled.  I also think TQO could be influential on psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience.  Although TQO isn’t Heidegger, it is psychology.  The sciences and social sciences may come to understand and appreciate the value of Harman’s philosophical model, though its potential in this context might be in a cultural trade-off relationship with its rhetorical potential to critique scientific discourse.

Going back to my fictitious anthropologist, I propose that the real TQO is a mandala, in the sense of a representation that contains and affects the world. Alternatively TQO is Schopenhauer’s The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason and also the Upanishads (which Schopenhauer intuited before reading the Upanishads).  Yes, these are wildly speculative metaphors, but no one cannot access the real object (RO) directly, because it categorically withdraws.  On a more serious note, Harman comes very close to illustrating that objects enfold the world, just as the world enfolds objects (and, we can assume, worlds enfold worlds). Such inversions are key topoi of folding as an archetypal figure, and reflecting on the archetype may be an eidetic approach to TQO as a real object. If we read the fourfold as an iterated, open structure, we may see a wildly productive concept withdrawn even from Harman (Harman would agree). Perhaps this is not Harman, but to the extent that Harman invokes Heidegger, Husserl, and Leibniz . . . TQO also enfolds the dizzying heights and depths of philosophical thought broadly distributed over time and space.

What about real qualities? While an object is depthless in its withdrawal, TQO invites us to imagine the real object as an infinite set of real qualities (RQ), also real objects with relations. Qualities, both sensual and real, are also objects in Harman’s scheme (though real objects can only relate to sensual objects). I don’t mean to confuse matters or flip the infinite into mystical monism here. The discourse of objects assumes more than one, critics will hasten to point out, and that argument is far from settled.  I’ve never been invested in partisan politics.  Nevertheless I share  Bogost’s opinion that The Quadruple Object can function as a relatively small opening into a much more complex analysis.

Coming soon to Environmental Critique—comments on Harman’s Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy and the strangeness of ecology.

Image Credit:  SAH Blog, Northern India: The Golden Triangle

[i] Slavoj Zizek interrupts them.

[ii] Please advise of a better or better-known short hand—I’m beginning to think that enunciation is the first stumbling block.

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Southern Reach IV: Annihilation and the Strange Origins of “the Novel”

question-concept-conceptual-image-green-mark-growing-ruins-41642578Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach novels, Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, evoke a wide variety of canonical literature. Reviewers have pointed to Poe, Thoreau, Kafka, Lovecraft, and Eiseley.[i] As an academic once focused on the origins of “the Novel” I associated Annihilation with Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. This comparison would not surprise those familiar with Defoe’s work. Both writers have a mesmerizing prose style that traps the reader in an expanding domain of uncertainty and anxiety, and both works confound epistemological categories and flatten hierarchies.

A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), though generally considered a work of fiction, reads like a straightforward personal account of living in London during the plague of 1665. Defoe’s language is somewhat ornate, in the typical manner of Eighteenth-Century literature, and in its rich details of London’s topography and culture, but this enhances rather than detracts from the “reality effect.”  The meandering narrative and elaborate syntax mirror the labyrinthine forms of London as a built environment, lead us through a maze of uncertainty and indecision, and help to articulate the emotional complexity of the scene.

In its depth of description, elongated periods, and flat affect Defoe’s writing creates a profound sense of dread and powerlessness. Indeed the steady rhythm of the Journal seems to induce a kind of trance or sleep paralysis. The reader is trapped in the web of the text, silently witnessing the horror and despair, and sharing the narrator’s conflicted impulses to remain within and flea the awful scene. Defoe’s “everyman” narrator deliberates at length about the best course of action, but the reader remains helpless. We become frozen spectators, watching the steady progress of an indifferent, “supernatural” disaster.

The Journal’s London is not only a maze of streets but also an alien cultural landscape marked by extraordinary civic and medical procedures, and myriad rituals of defense against the invisible threat. At the same time, the City is revealed as an organic, biological whole. The plague too is a creature of sorts, expanding and contracting, desiring, consuming, unpredictable—apart from and a part of the City. Hierarchies of the divine, the human, and the nonhuman are flattened. The formless plague has dominion, humans are subject to its inscrutable will, and God is degraded to desperate measures and last resorts.

Returning to Annihilation (2014), VanderMeer’s writing is also realistic and copious.  The first novel and the trilogy are clearly science fiction, but “read” like accounts of actual events. VanderMeer employs figures liberally, but generally in the service of detailed description: language brings natural and unnatural objects to life. Once the reality effect is established, however, these living, breathing objects become figurative language of another order. Annihilation’s complex “democracy of objects” evokes Gnosticism, the very best Twentieth-Century fantasy and science fiction, and the New Materialisms.[ii]  Within the context of VanderMeer’s virtuoso “objective” mapping of Area X, Southern Reach humans are, perhaps, predictably inscrutable, and the alien energies somehow familiar. (Read, Robbe-Grillet as an idée-fixe for this particular reader). Nevertheless, the trilogy contributes to a vatic survey of an epistemologically flat new “world,” or “worlds,” expanding the democratic topoi and perspectives of many canonical novels.

VanderMeer’s prose style has the same trance-inducing quality of Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, in its steady, protracted periods, and arresting syntax and diction. Many reviewers have commented that the novels engender a kind of compulsive engagement. One enters Area X and never really escapes. Like the former expedition members, the reader remains haunted by an alien agency with unfathomable potential. The novels colonize the psyche like a hypnotic suggestion. This may be true of all notable literature and art, to an extent, but in the Southern Reach trilogy hypnosis is an explicit leitmotif. The novels repeat hypnotic suggestions employed on characters in the narrative. In thrall to Southern Reach, we too are induced, bitten, compelled. “Paralysis is not a cogent analysis.” Who of us stunned by the sublime of global ecological crisis can forget such a statement? Is this counter-hypnosis? Does the VanderMeer cast or break a spell?

Though one might feel overwhelmed, even trapped, while reading the novels, the final chapters of Acceptance goad us to transgress boundaries of truth and fiction, real and unreal, original and simulacra, natural and unnatural.  Area X is largely indifferent to human beings, their ego investments, their technologies, and their institutions (or institutions, technologies, ego investments and their human beings). Indeed the structures and methods of the ineffective government agency, the Southern Reach, and its similarly ineffective parent, Central, are primarily a subject of ridicule. The illusion of human sovereignty is shattered. Something “other” is now ascendant.

Area X is surreal in the forgotten sense of “more than” real. It’s also more than human. VanderMeer plays with worlds to see what happens when they collide, and he may even offer us an unstated ontology. When two or more worlds are unceremoniously introduced they become one, alienated to itself, disoriented, but struggling for reconciliation. Is this the karma of the colonist and space invader, or just another passing phase? When we embraced the indifferent universe  did we imagine it could assert itself against our hubris?

If Southern Reach is ultimately a morality tale it is an unusual one. VanderMeer’s world is a trickster figure. The detailed mapping of Area X enhances the literary and philosophical conceit that objects within the landscape are pregnant symbols, but the ciphers remain unintelligible. This more than ecology as more than text effect defines a territory of questions, or provocations, rather than answers. Are we utterly dependent? Are we both dependent and responsible? Are we already exiled? We see the writing on the wall. We understand the words but not the meaning. We may never understand, but we may come to realize that we are functionally illiterate.

 

Image source: http://www.dreamstime.com/photos-images/grass-symbol-question-mark.html

 

 

[i]  “The Weird Thoreau”

“Annihilation”

“Jeff VanderMeers ‘Authority’ and More”

“Deciphering a Lost World”

 

[ii] See New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics on Duke University Press ; New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, available here; and Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects, here.

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