Object-oriented photography and vibrant matter

My photography is object-oriented. This OOPh, as I call it, is informed by the work of Harman but also by that of Jane Bennett who, in Vibrant Matter (2010a) identifies an agentic capacity in material objects⁠1

When she starts from “one large men’s black plastic work glove; one dense mat of oak pollen; one unblemished dead rat; one white plastic bottle cap; one smooth stick of wood” in a gutter (2010a, p. 4)⁠2 and moves on to the “quirky electron flow and a spontaneous fire to members of Congress who have a neoliberal faith in market self-regulation” at play in an electricity blackout (2010a, p. 28),⁠3 Bennett’s litany of objects echoes Harman: “Instead of an objective nature filled with genuine realities and a subjective cultural sphere filled with fabricated fictions, there is a single plane of actors that encompasses neutrinos, stars, palm trees, rivers, cats, armies, nations, superheroes, unicorns, and square circles” (Harman 2009, pp. 188-189). For both, objects are the focus.⁠4

It is this litany of objects that was the first starting point for OOPh.

The key move for Bennett is away from seeing objects in terms of representation. Bennett echoes Daniel Miller’s argument that semiotics can be “as much a limitation as an asset” (Miller 2010, p. 12) when looking at “the minutiae of the intimate” (Miller 2010, p. 41), the ‘stuff’ or things people have, use and (in object-oriented terms) connect with (Miller 2008).⁠5

The objects in her gutter are not some instantiation of an industrial process or structure. Of course the glove was made in particular social and economic system under particular modes of production. Its story can be read as one of globalisation and capitalism. It can be read as the trace or representation of those historical processes. But Bennett argues that the discourse of representation of tracing the power and meaning of things as signs, falls short of what is needed. “I caught a glimpse of an energetic vitality inside each of these things, things that I generally conceived as inert. In this assemblage, object appeared as things, that is as vivid entities not entirely reducible to the context in which (human) subjects set them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics” (Bennett 2010a, p. 5). Just as for Harman objects are never exhausted by their relations, qualities or accidents, so Bennett’s objet trouvé are more than their relations to systems of meaning or signs of something outside themselves.

It is this sense of objects as objects not signs that was the second starting point for OOPh.

For Bennett, objects are material. But that materiality is lively and active.⁠6 Bennett’s objects are real and located. They are presences in the world but they “call to us” and have a form of agency, ‘agentic capacity’, a ‘thing-power’ that animates the seemingly inert.⁠7 Bennett draws on a history of vitalism (Bennett 2010b) in particular the work of Hans Driesch, a early twentieth century vitalist.⁠8 Driesch developed the concept of ‘entelechy’ as a similar animator to explain what he saw as the question of the enfolded character of nature.⁠9 “Why then occurs all that folding, an bending…, and all the other processes we have described? There must be something that drives them out, so to say” (Driesch 1908, p. 50). Bennett says: “Entelechy is born in the negative spaces of the machine model of nature, in the ‘gaps’ in the ‘chain of strictly physico-chemical or mechanical events’” (2010a, p. 70). She is keen to stress that Driesch does not see this animating force in terms of a soul or even simply a ‘vital energy’. Rather it is located within materiality and its possibilities. Where Bennett moves beyond Driesch is in refusing to see matter as “so passive and dull that it could not possibly have done the tricky work of organizing and maintaining morphing wholes. [For Driesch] sometimes this matter is infused with entelechy and becomes life, and sometimes it is not and coagulates into inorganic machine” (2010a, p. 75). For Bennett, matter is always ‘vital’⁠10. Objects’ vitality lies outside the human-object correlate.

It is this sense of objects as outside correlationism that was the third starting point for OOPh.

Having worked as a photo-journalist, I was professionally steeped in semiotics and correlationism. The portraits I took for magazines were representations not just of the subject but also the Subject. I carefully composed and created the images to represent not only the particular Chief Financial Officer but also the profession, perhaps even capitalism itself. I moved furniture, adjusted clothing and lighting so the object signified. Similarly the media industries I worked within were correlationist. Their business and communications models were premised on a separation between human and world. Humans manufactured content-objects that other humans read. Photographers took photos of objects, created photo-objects that attracted readers. There was nothing flat about the media. Not only in the sense of work hierarchies but also in ontological terms. Portrait subjects, images, words, page layouts and magazines were objects, some more important and powerful than others. All were things to be accessed, used and read.

I designed OOPh to work outside these two frameworks. I looked to develop an OOPh sensibility akin to Bennett’s response to the objects in the gutter. I photographed not to represent but to encounter and experience that object-connection. I photographed not as the privileged subject-photographer or in order to create the privileged photo-object (the decisive moment) but within a flat non-correlationist photographic ontology.

I began (and continue) to photograph objects (what I call ‘Things of the day”):

These objects, encountered as I worked on this project, are ‘merely’ objects. They have histories, bear the traces of political economic processes and have carbon footprints. They quite literally connect with me in terms of chemical and psycho-social reactions my body and psyche has with them. They connect with me physiologically and psychologically and I cannot escape what they represent for me or could represent for others. But that is not what my OOPh encounter with that object is ‘about’. The imaging is just another form of object connection or encounter – the fourfold and tension-filled relations Harman maps in the Quadruple Object.

The image could be seen as a report on my (and other photography objects’) encounter with the object. But the image is not the important thing. In fact it is not necessary. OOPh is a sensibility to encounters. If that becomes an image through the connection of other objects, so be it, but the photography is in the photographic encounter. As I will discuss, if that encounter is encoded in an inaccessible form (RAW), it is no less an OOPh encounter.

If my OOPh Things of The Day is not about meaning or representation, it is even less about correlation. My (object) position within the OOPh imaging pipeline is no more nor less important or basic than any other object: the lego brick before the lens, the CCD, photons of light or protocols. While of course I am active in choosing what to photograph, where, when and how, all the other actants have an agentic capacity as they connect and reconnect. They are not passive tools of a photographic overlord but vital players in an imaging encounter.

I explicitly set out to establish an object-oriented photography.⁠11 The decisions I made were informed by that broader photo-philosophical project. As such, I looked to specifically open up the number and role of objects in the imaging. I chose to use my phone and the Hipstamatic iPhone App as my imaging apparatus. The digital imaging pipeline in operation included the objects outlined in chapter XX but the Hipstamatic software object(s)⁠12 added a new dimension. Unlike other Apps that can apply filters (software post-processing) to the encoded light-as-data before or after rendering it as a JFIF or EXIF file, Hipstamatic allowed the particular post-processing to be selected at random. When I shook the phone before taking the image, a software algorithm object decided on the parameters of the post processing. An unhuman object suddenly became more important.⁠13

As I began to explore the JPEG object, I started from my OOPh practice.



Appadurai, A. (ed.), 1986, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Bennett, J., 2010a, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology Of Things, Duke University Press, Durham.

Bennett, J. 2010b, A Vitalist Stopover on the Way to a New Materialism, in D Coole & S Frost (eds), New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, And Politics, Duke University Press, Durham and London, pp. 47-69.

Bergson, H., 1998, Creative Evolution, Translated by A. Mitchell. Dover, New York.

Bogost, I 2011, Seeing Things: Video and transcript of my talk at the Third Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium, www.bogost.com. Retrieved September 28, 2011,  from http://www.bogost.com/writing/seeing_things_1.shtml

Bourdieu, P., 2008, Outline Of A Theory Of Practice, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge.

Braidotti, R., 2002, Metamorphoses: Towards A Materialist Theory Of Becoming, Polity, Cambridge.

Coole, D.H. & Frost, S. 2010, Introducing  the New Materialisms, in DH Coole & S Frost (eds), New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, And Politics, Duke University Press, Durham [NC], pp. 1-46.

Deleuze, G., 1986, Nietzsche And Philosophy, Translated by H. Tomlinson. Athlone, London.

Driesch, H., 1908, The Science and Philosophy of the Organism: The Gifford Lectures Delivered before the University of Aberdeen in the Year 1907, Adam and Charles Black, London.

Frank, R. & Kerouac, J., 2008, The Americans, Steidl ; National Gallery of Art, Gottingen; Washington.

Gell, A., 1998, Art And Agency : An Anthropological Theory, Clarendon Press, Oxford ; New York.

The Genius of Photography, Episode 4, Paper Movies. (1996) BBC .

Harman, G., 2009, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, Anamnesis, Melbourne.

Harman, G., 2010, I am also of the opinion that materialism must be destroyed, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28, pp. 772-90.

Harman, G 2011, “Strategic Vitalism”, Object-Oriented Philosophy. Retrieved September 28, 2011,  from http://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/2011/09/21/strategic-vitalism/

Jones, G., 2010, The Universe of Things, Aqueduct Press, Seattle.

Khan, G., 2009, Agency, nature and emergent properties: an interview with Jane Bennett, Contemporary Political Theory, 8(1), pp. 90-105.

Massumi, B., 2002, Parables for the Virtual. Movement, Affect, Sensation , Duke University Press, Durham and London.

Miller, D. (ed.), 2005a, Materiality, Duke University Press, Durham, N.C..

Miller, D. 2005b, Materiality: An Introduction, in D Miller (ed), Materiality, Duke University Press, Durham, N.C., pp. 1-50.

Miller, D., 2008, The Comfort Of Things, Polity, Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA.

Miller, D., 2010, Stuff, Polity Press, Cambridge.

2010, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, And Politics, Duke University Press, Durham [NC].

Shaviro, S 2010, The Universe of Things, The Pinocchio Theory. Retrieved March 12, 2011,  from http://www.shaviro.com/Othertexts/Things.pdf

Thrift, N.J., 2008, Non-representational theory : space, politics, affect, Routledge, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY.

Tiessen M.  Creativity, Relationality, Affect, Ethics:

Outlining A Modest (Aesthetic) Ontology, in  (2010).

Turkle, S., 2007, Evocative objects: Things we think with, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.; London.

1 ‘New materialism’ is less a movement and more a shared concern among different authors and disciplines for expanding the conception of the material to explore issues of agency (see the papers collected in (2010) and  (Miller 2005a). Diana Coole and Samantha Frost even make a point of talking of new materialisms in the plural (Coole, & Frost 2010). It is not my intention to explore the different ontological positions, let alone the specific case studies, that have emerged under the label ‘new materialist’ but rather to explore the connections between a particular politics-based articulation of that concern. It is important to note  that as with speculative realism, there is a concern among its proponents that ‘new materialism’ does not simply substitute one orthodoxy or hierarchy with another. As Daniel Miller says: “Having dethroned the emperor’s culture, society, and representation, there is no virtue in enthroning objects and materialism in their place. The goal of this revolution is to promote equality, a dialectical republic in which persons and things exist in mutual self-construction and respect for their mutual origin and mutual dependency” (Miller 2005b, p. 38).

This concern for moving beyond representation can also be seen in the work of Nigel Thrift (Thrift 2008), Brain Massumi (Massumi 2002), Rosi Braidotti (Braidotti 2002).

2 Bennett is clear that thing do not have to be impressive or somehow deserve our attention. Anything is an object and can be lively. I would agrre with Matthew Tiessen (interestingly a practice-research artist-ontologist) who says: “ if nature and things have to be exceedingly impressive to deserve our consideration we’re left repeating the expectations that gave rise to our lack of recognition for thing-power in the first place. In response to Bennett’s concerns about fear and respect my modest proposal is that things be encountered from a position of responsive humility – a position that recognizes that things are all we’ve got, whether they command respect or not (Tiessen, 2010).

3 Daniel Miller is also fond of the Latour Litany: “We start with the need for a theory of stuff as material culture… that can account for every kind of stuff: bodies, streaming videos, a dream, a city, a sensation, a derivative, an ideology, a landscape, a decay, a philosophy” (Miller 2010, p. 54).

4 Harman, while embracing the commonalities between his position and Bennett’s is less welcoming of the term ‘materialism’. “Bennett uses materialism in a way that could easily apply both to object-oriented philosophy and to the closely related writings of Latour. She takes materialism to be a suitable name for any philosophy that dissolves the usual strict opposition between free human subjects and inert material slabs. Naturally, I am all in favor of this dissolution; I simply doubt that `materialism’ is the best name for it” (Harman 2010, p. 774). Harman is aware of the historical baggage associated with the term. “What links Bennett’s position most closely with Latour’s and my own is that she opposes reduction as a general philosophical method: music and governments cannot be reduced to carbon, oxygen, metal, or some deeper alternative structure. Instead, all human and nonhuman things of every scale are placed on the same footing. By contrast with this position, materialism throughout the ages has generally been reductive, and its victim of choice has been medium-sized everyday objects. One form of materialism tears these objects down to reveal their deeper physical foundations, as if mocking them from below. Another rejects the reality of these objects for precisely the opposite reason, denying them any depth beneath the way they are given to us, as if jeering from above. Given the apparent opposition of these two strategies, it is remarkable that both are often denoted with the term `materialism’” (Harman 2010, p. 774). Bennett is clearly away of these issues and when questioned on her relation to other forms of materialism in her interview with Gulshan Kahn says: “Mechanistic materialism does not attract me; it implicitly returns us to the status of consummate agents who run the machine” (Khan 2009).

5 A similar nuanced account of things can be seen in Sherry Turkle’s account of ‘evocative objects’ (Turkle 2007). A concern for things could also be traced back through Arjun Apaduari’s exploration of how things “move in and out of the commodity state” (1986, p. 13) and Pierre Bourdieu’s account of the role of everyday things in socialization (Bourdieu 2008). Similarly Alfred Gell sought to move beyond semiotics in account of how art works “a ppear as, or ‘do duty  as’, persons” (Gell 1998, p. 9).

6 Steven Shaviro draws attention to a similar idea of liveliness in his discussion of Gwyneth Jones’ novel The Universe of Things (Jones 2010). He says: “if we are to accept the ontological dignity of things, and do not reduce them to being just the illusory effects of quantum fields, then I think that we need to accept some sort of non-dualistic neo-vitalism, or what Jane Bennett calls vital materialism: the idea that ‘every thing is entelechial, life-ly, vitalistic’ (Bennett 2010a, p. 89)” (Shaviro 2010).

7 Bennett is not ashamed of the often very anthropomorphic language she uses. “We need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism – the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature – to counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world” (Bennett 2010a, p. xvi). Harman echoes this when he says: “a bit of anthropomorphism may be needed to overcome anthropocentrism” (Harman 2011).

8 Bennett discusses Driesch and later Henri Bergson in terms of Kant’s insistence on the “unbridgeable chasm between life and ‘crude matter’” in the Critique of Judegmentand his invoking of a ‘formative drive’ or Bildungstrieb (Bennett 2010a, p. 65). Bennett argues that Griesch and Bergson extend this idea by allowing the agentic force to be present in matter not just in organisms.

9 Driesch’s work began with scientific experimentation. Perhaps he can be seen as engaging in practice-research.

10 Bennett also draws on Hernri Bergson’s  ‘élan vital’,  a force, an “inner directing principle” (Bergson 1998, p. 76) that underlies his idea of how life and matter are not fixed categories but tendencies of a cosmic flow. There is perhaps an interesting parallel with the idea of active and reactive forces discussed by Deleuze in his book on Nietzsche (Deleuze 1986, pp. 39-71).

11 I make no claim for the originality of OOPh. Just as Ian Bogost has argued that Gary Winogrand can be read as object-oriented:

“Garry Winogrand made photographs of the things themselves. Lots of them […] His works are not commentaries, they are precisely the opposite. Garry Winogrand makes photographs not to capture what he sees, but to see what he will have captured. That’s what it means to take photographs to see what the world looks like in photographs […] It’s too hard for most viewers to take Winogrand’s project seriously, because they’re too busy looking for social commentary in his photographs to see them for what they are: pictures that help their viewers see things in pictures. The object-oriented ontology project is just as simple, yet still just as hard: to see things in pictures and everywhere else too. To see the world of things as things in a world, rather than our world, with things in it” ([NO STYLE for: Bogost 2011]).

I would argue that Robert Frank seminal odyssey (2008) is a picture of American objects (hats, cigars, flags, jukeboxes and of course cars as Iain Sinclair discusses in The Genius of Photography (Kirby 1996)). The Americans is a nested work. The objects in the coffee-bar or on the street are connected within other objects. The sousaphone-object, the flag-object and the ‘Adlai’-badge-object connect as object within the parade-object. There is no decisive object, no punctum driving the story or the meaning. These object connect again and again with Frank within his camera-object, with me-as-object within my book object. These connection are not located in some external realm of signification or practice but within objects that are themselves actants reconnecting within other objects.

12 As with all software, to talk of the Hipstamatic App as an object is to talk of a nested object or what Timothy Morton would call a ‘hyperobject’. The App includes many software and protocol objects connecting within the App object. I refer to the Hipstamatic object as shorthand.

13 In some ways this randomness echoed what happened with chemical photography when one never quite knew what the lab’s chemical objects or printer objects would do to/with your latent image. Sometimes getting the prints/slides back was a similar surprise. Hipstamatic plays with this memory in its device of forcing the user wait as the ‘print’ ‘develops’.