A moot point

Following Jussi Parikka’s posting, thoughts towards a Media Object-oriented OnTology[ref]Perhaps we can play with the language a little further and move from a media object-oriented ontology to a medial object-oriented ontology. An ontology of the middle objects. In Harman’s model, objects connect in the molten core of other objects, in the middle, the medial[/ref].

An object-oriented ontology offers a number of ways of thinking through the complex enfolded nature of media, notably digital media. By approaching the components that make up the assemblages and topologies as objects (I’ll address the importance of how that notion of object is conceived,  in a moment) we can not only avoid foundationalism and determinism and main rooted to a realism and actualism. Furthermore, a media object-oriented ontology opens up new critical possibilities.

Firstly there is the issue of media as objects. Then there is the issue of the object as relational or non-relational.

Latour, Whitehead and the loose collection of speculative realists including Graham Harman would all agree as to the importance of ‘objects’ as a basis for critique. For all of them, objects or actants a provide a way of remaining realist and rooted in actuality – the actual existence of things and the world. This is a critique that starts and finishes in the real world with actual things (the stuff that Daniel Miller talks of), the way they (actants or occasions) work, connect (or relate or form alliances – depending on whose vocabulary you use). For both Latour and Whitehead, these objects must be addressed in terms of those relations, the processes and alliances that constitute their nature and power. In terms of jpeg, the protocol/standard is actual, ‘real’ and powerful because it is enfolded in alliances with other actants (hardware memory cards, photo management software, human photographers , non-human Web 2.0 businesses) or because it is a process, a moment of becoming, a technical instantiation of the bifurcation of nature (a rendering of light as data as image/sign). Here ‘objects’ as a conceptual tool allow one to unfold and unpick the network, those power-full relations of translation or becoming. By approaching jpeg as object within a flat ontological framework allows one to deal with its specific relations in camera and in the scopic regime without having to trace it back to a founding structure or essence. Here the focus can remain at the level of Facebook’s face recognition strategy, Google’s server farms and automated surveillance systems’ databases. The governmental relations running through those networks can be approached as object relations.

Such an approach plays well with a media-archaeological focus on how devices and apparatuses are enfolded with networks of truth and power and inscription and scopic systems. Here jpeg can be approached as specific technological object with a historical and material presence within discourses and practices of photography and wider visualisation. Here the jpeg object, like the camera obscura object, the medical imaging reosnator object, the iPhone object, the traffic camera object or the face-recognition algorithm object are material technologies of vision and governmentality. They are actual, real and connected.

It is here where Harman’s object-oriented philosophy diverges. As I have argued Harman’s OOP differs from Latour and Whitehead (as well as those taking their  work into media such as Steven Shaviro) in that it presents a non-relational ontology. Here objects withdraw from all relations. For Harman, one does not need to push the working of objects out to a wider field of relations. Rather by understanding the connection between jpeg, the iPhone, the Facebook database and governmentality in terms of objects not object-relations, one can better account for change and potentiality.

For a fully object-oriented approach, objects do not relate in some broader space of becoming or some contextual network. Jpeg and Facebook’s strategy or the wireless memory card are not joined or in some sort of assemblage-relation or ecology at some deeper or more structural level. Global info-cpaitalism is not the backdrop or even the structural space within which these objects connect. To hold to that is to move away from a commitment to actualism, to addressing objects in their actual location – a concept dear to media archaeology or to demanding a second level of objects (eternal objects) or realm of potentiality beneath objects (the “plasma”). Rather the jpeg and the Facebook object exceed (or withdraw from) their relations. They connect in real and powerful ways in terms of Facebook’s archiving of images, social graph traces and ‘data-memories’. Those connections are deeply (sic) governmental. They constitute subject positions and gender identities. They are saturated with biopower but they can approached at the level of objects and so rendered actual and open to reconfiguration and the Exploit. The objects connect in the ‘molten core’ of a new (actual) object, a new player on the scene. This “image-search-object” as a strategic object in the Faecbook/Google battle or the “image-memory-object” as a data-presence in (sic) a photo frame or corporate database seen only by machinic eyes, are actual objects open to new connections, never exhausted

If we take the key concepts and founding principles of object-oriented ontology, we can see how they add real value to our understanding of media.

The actuality of (media) objects. A refusal to move far from a view of media technologies, hardware or software as actual, as existent and real, allows media archaeology to trace material practices and discourses. The “scopic regime”, the “media ecology”, the “discourse network 1900” are fully located and grounded.

Anti-correlationism. A willingness to challenge the mutual interplay of human and world, as the basis for philosophy. “The correlationist holds that we cannot think of humans without world, nor world without humans, but only of a primal correlation or rapport between the two. For the correlationist, it is impossible to speak of a world that pre-existed humans in itself, but only of a world pre-existing humans for humans. The Big Bang is not an ancestral reality preceding human beings, but only happened in itself for us”{Harman 2009 @122}. By refusing to stray from the object or tie it to a human perception we are forced to “consult the world”, to once again remain grounded. By challenging the view that jpeg must be addressed in terms of the humans that established it, the human that uses it or sees/fails to see it, one can explore the actual, real, located and deeply powerful and significant ways in which it works and connects. It does not matter whether I can pin it down or even where it ‘came from’ what matters is what it does.

So far so speculative realist. Although Harman notes that there is much disagreement about why correlationsim is wrong. As noted above, Harman’s adds a couple of extra principles that, I would argue make media object-oriented ontology even more vibrant.

The (media) object’s withdrawal from all relations. By focusing on objects rather than a wider/deeper/broader notion of network or becoming allows our account of the “regime”, “ecology” or “assemblage” to account for specific material objects in specific material instantiations. By saying that jpeg has a status as an object beyond its instantiation “in camera” software or in a moment of becoming, paradoxically allows us to focus on its work and connections within other objects. If jpeg is more than part of a Photoshop assemblage or an automated database, if it exceeds Google’s search business, then we can approach its connections with the other objects in those spaces in their specificity rather than as in some way structured or determined by jpeg… and vice versus.

The connection in the heart of a new object. Finally to work with connections rather than relations, to remain at the ‘level’ or scale of objects and posit them as the site of connection allows for a new account of change both in terms of analysis and political practice. If jpeg’s disciplinary effects are not part of some broader or deeper network or context but are rather the workings of other objects, “contiguous entities in ‘sterile display’, but punctuated once in awhile by dramatic events”{Harman 2011 @301} that , then change can be seen in terms of sudden jumps and jolts, “not through a meaningless accretion of any-instants-whatever that float away in the canal of fluxion”{Harman 2011 @301}. This allows us to talk of the establishment of jpeg as ‘the standard’ not as the outcome of a network process or a chain of instants but effect of different real connections as “image-search-objects” became important or marketable or  “image-memory-objects” became sellable or worthy of surveillance. These objects (where governmentality is instantiated) can be explored in their concrete emergence.

  • Harman, G., 2009, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, Anamnesis, Melbourne.
  • Harman, G. 2011, Response to Shaviro, in L Bryant, N Srnicek & G Harman (eds), The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism And Realism, re.press, Melbourne, pp. 291-303.

2 replies on “A moot point”

  1. Indeed – many material media theorist might insist this, but to attribute it to \”media archaeology\” in general is problematic. Actually, I would say that a lot of them would say the opposite: that much of media studies has insisted too much on the actual, and forgotten the imaginary, etc. (I take a position where the imaginary is discursively connected to the weird materialities of technical media).

  2. I think an interesting issue is how objects can work across \’imaginary\’ and \’material\’. What I find useful about Harman\’s way of thinking is that there is no necessary opposition and certainly no privileging. Some of the \’things\’ you address in your imaginary chapter are enfolded with the material, Harman\’s OOO allows us to work with that productive crossover?

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