Some tentative thoughts on practice-research and the dialectic

Sullivan and Smith and Dean can be seen as working within the tradition of the Hegelian dialectic. Smith and Dean’s iterative cycle obviously owes much to a view of thesis, antithesis and synthesis[ref]It must be noted of course that Hegel did not use these terms. They were coined by his commentator  Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus{%Chalybäus 1854}[/ref]. Research can be presented, held up against practice and a new theoretically-located practice synthesis developed that can then become the basis for the next round of dialectic progress. Sullivan’s braid too is rooted in the idea of such movement. Here the enfolding and unfolding of practice and research-theory push a project towards new knowledges and works.

Both accounts are rooted in a notion of progressive history. Smith and Dean’s iterative steps and Sullivan’s moments of unfolding can be likened to Hegel’s account of water:  “With the increase or diminution of the temperature of the liquid water, there comes a point where this state of cohesion suffers a qualitative change, and the water is converted into steam or ice. A quantitative change takes place, apparently without any further significance: but there is something lurking behind, and a seemingly innocent change of quantity acts as a kind of snare, to catch hold of the quality”{Hegel 1892 @202}. Here gradual, iterative, quantitative changes can suddenly undergo a qualitative shift.

Within practice-research there is the same sense of progress as iterative change (the sort that Harman criticises Whitehead for relying on). Moments of practice and moments of research ratchet each other up, feeding new ideas and findings back into the dialectic as it realises itself. Even if we adopt a more object-oriented vocabulary and talk of practice objects and theory objects connecting this is still presented as an iterative/dialectical relation moving forward towards greater knowledge or better practice. From an object-oriented point of view, the problem here is the framing of those objects in terms of something else, something outside,  “something lurking behind”. For Hegel (as opposed to Marx of course) the goal of philosophy is to interpret the world, to grasp its ultimate rational principles, to discover Reason or Geist.  It is this that “lurks behind”. For Hegel of course that Geist is framed in religious terms: “the truth that a Providence, that is to say a divine Providence , presides over events of the world corresponds to our principle; for divine Providence is wisdom endowed with infinite power which realizes its own aim, that is, the absolute, rational final purpose of the world”{Hegel 1953 @15}. For Hegel, Geist realises itself as history progresses.

For Sullivan and Smith and Dean too there is something lurking behind. Firstly there is the field of relations between theory and practice, the context or the methodology that gives meaning to those objects. Just as for Hegel the dialectic is built on relations between temperature and water for instance, so for practice-research the qualitative shift of progress happens because of the relation between practice and theory. It is the space (or in Smith and Dean’s case, the oscillation) between that generates the movement.

There is a second thing lurking behind, outside the object. For Hegel it was God, for practice research it is the knowledge/work that realises itself through this dialectic. Unsurprisingly in the light of practice-research’s background in the Arts, there is a work at the end of the process/progress. It may not be ‘finished’ but it is certainly realised. The dialectical relationship in the studio has created something, or more correctly the something has been realised and embodied through that process as surely as Geist is realised and embodied through Hegel’s dialectic.

My object-oriented approach rejects the narrative of progress because it rejects the relational outside. From an object-oriented perspective, there is no wider context or meta framework providing a background and there is no Geist waiting to be realised or actualised. Practice and theory objects are already actual. They are the site of connection and power. To shift attention and arguably responsibility to the system, the context or the relations, is to fail to account for the nature and operations of the practice objects, the theory objects and the practice-research object in which ‘molten core’ they connect. This practice-research object (in my case my cameras and photographic practice) is not the realisation of a process or the embodiment of a progress. Rather it is at the same level as the other objects (the protocols, photographers, the images, viewers, App stores and wireless cards). These objects connect but do not relate. The difference is that the connections happen within the objects and crucially they are not steps on the road to something else – a realisation, actualisation or embodiment.

When Harman says that “object-oriented philosophy is a proud defense of the ‘something more’”{Harman 2009 @155}, he is not arguing for an outside, a context against which objects can be opposed or through which they can be understood. He stands against anything or anyone who strays too far from the concrete[ref]There is an ongoing debate within the broad field of speculative realism about contribution Hegel can make to the anti-corelationsit project, See for instance {Žižek 2011}, {Meillassoux 2009} and Harman’s critique {Harman 2009}. My aim here is not to discuss readings of Hegel and Heidegger or even the relationship between Hegel and object-oriented philosophy, but rather critique the way in which a particular reading of the dialectic within practice-research has undermined the potential of the methodology.[/ref]. “We cannot imagine Kant or Hegel invoking such a roll call of concrete entities, which shift the weight of philosophy toward specific actors themselves and away from all structures that might wish to subsume them,” he says{%Harman 2009 @102}. The polarities that Harman use to account for objects (see Theory chapter) are aspects of objects not outside them. The something more is object-oriented not processual.

Sullivan and Smith and Dean’s retreat from the specificity and actuality of objects to a wider progress/process, becoming and realisation leads to a focus on coherence and holism which undermines the power of practice-research.

My argument is not against the dialectic[ref]After all Benjamin’s Arcades Project was built around the dialectical image as a tool for understanding and writing history. See {BuckMorss 1989}.[/ref], but merely in the way in which it has been articulated in terms of progress, relations and realisation.

The objects I connect in my cameras and imaging are actual objects. They do not depend on something else. They are not waiting to be actualised or to realise something outside. They are not looking to progress. Their connection is certainly productive in terms of governmental practices and discourses as well as in terms of my photography and analysis, all these new objects are produced in object-connections. But they too are actual. They are not a telos. By approaching practice-research from a flat ontological perspective, we are able to build cameras, take photographs and understand protocol and scopic governmentality in its actual location as well as open the objects (not some abstract relations) to intervention.

  • Buck-Morss, S., 1989, The Dialectics Of Seeing: Walter Benjamin And The Arcades Project, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass..
  • Chalybäus, H.M., 1854, Historical Development Of Speculative Philosophy From Kant To Hegel, T. & T. Clark,.
  • Harman, G., 2009, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, Anamnesis, Melbourne.
  • Hegel, G.W.F., 1892, The Logic Of Hegel, 2nd ed. Translated by W. Wallace. Oxford University Press,.
  • Hegel, G.W.F., 1953, Reason in HIstory: A General Introduction to the Philosophy of History, Translated by R.S. Hartman. The Liberal Arts Press, New York.
  • Meillassoux, Q., 2009, After Finitude: An Essay On The Necessity Of Contingency, Continuum, London.
  • Žižek, S. 2011, Is It Still Possible To Be A Hegelian Today, in L Bryant, N Srnicek & G Harman (eds), The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism And Realism,, Melbourne, pp. 202-23.