Paper proposal… in process: photography and ontology

This paper seeks to approach the philosophical questions around digital photography through the lens of ‘speculative realism’. Taking Graham Harman’s reading of Bruno Latour’s Irreductions as a starting point and developments characterised as the “speculative turn” in continental philosophy as a framework, I seek to account for the enfolded position of the digital image and what I will call digital imag(in)ing within and across the distributed “Live Web’.

Discussion of the philosophical position of photography in the digital age has tended to focus around questions of epistemology and ethics. The veracity and status of images when digital information can be reconfigured and repositioned as simulacra as well as the questions of the role of images and imaging in our understanding of suffering and subjectivity after Abu-Ghraib have positioned the digital image-object and imaging practice as the sites of philosophical enquiry.  While there has been discussion of the ontology of the photographic image from Barthes onwards, there has been little concern to widen out the range of photographic objects for ontological consideration. My paper takes a different approach not only in focusing on question of ontology but on ‘bracketing’ the image-object.

It would of course be possible to address the ontology of the photographic image-object from an OOP point of view but this paper looks to expand the range of objects within photography that need to be accounted for to include the software protocols that enable particular images and imaging practices to operate online.

I use Harman’s controversial reading of Latour and his development of what he calls ‘object-oriented philosophy’ to create an initial flat ontology within photography – an ontology that sees not only the image but also the software protocols, the hardware components as well as the network of other material and immaterial actant-objects enfolded with photography such as Apple, Google, IP law, surveillance databases and archives, as worthy of study. Where Harman departs from Latour is in arguing that those object-actants have an ontological status not only in their relations with each other within networks, but also in themselves. Here Harman moves from actor-network theory to ontology, a move that became known as part of the “speculative turn” and the “school” of speculative realism.

Speculative realism is of course not a unified school nor discourse. Harman’s debates with Ray Brassier’s eliminative nihilism, Iain Hamilton Grant’s cyber-vitalism and Quentin Meillassoux’s speculative materialism offer a way into debates about the status of not only the photographic object (the image or the file) but the photography object (the jpeg protocol that encodes light as data, the corporate object that structures the capitalist relations within the imaging industries). While there is much disagreement within this ‘movement’, there is a common rejection of Kant’s Copernican Revolution and an embracing of reality “in itself” – a move that I argue is particularly important when dealing with the (im)material digital. Similarly the movement’s speculative exploration of what Harman calls “weird realism” is important. Speculative realism does not merely expand what we can consider as an object or real (allowing us to look at protocol, software and App stores) but also allows us to deal with the ‘weird’ nature of those photographic objects as simultaneously material and immaterial, real and virtual.