The JPEG object in theory… part 3 – the sensual and real JPEG objects

At the core of Harman’s conception of a unified, autonomous object is actually the idea of two objects: the sensual and the real objects (Harman 2009, p. 190).

He looks to bring together Husserl’s framework of intentional objects, the objects present to consciousness with Heidegger’s account of real objects that withdraw from access.

Husserl, whom Harman calls “an object-oriented idealist” (2011, p. 20), held that objects do not exist outside our consciousness (Harman 2009, p. 194). The camera on my desk, the CCD inside, the software ‘inside’ exist as intentional objects within my consciousness. When I sleep or fail to pay attention to them, in some sense they cease to exist. Intentional objects “exist only as passive figments encountered by something real” (Harman 2009, p. 213). It is this split and relationships between the real and the sensual that Harman’s quadruple structure seeks to unpick.⁠1

For Husserl:

“we never see all faces of the hammer at once, but always see it from a certain angle and distance, in a certain colour and intensity of light, and always in a specific mood. In this sense the hammer only appears in the form of specific profiles or adumbrations […] It does not matter that we can never see the whole series of hammer-adumbrations—this series is not the hammer. For Husserl, the hammer is the ideal unity that makes each profile a profile of the same hammer; the hammer is not a series of appearances of any sort. Hence, our inability to run through the infinite series of possible hammer-appearances deprives us of nothing as concerns the object. Nothing is ‘hidden’ behind the adumbrations for Husserl; the hammer itself lies within each adumbration, as an eidos encrusted with accidents.” (Harman 2009, p. 180).

To put it in terms of protocol: the JPEG we (or any other object) encounters happens in the intentional or phenomenal realm. Husserl’s intentional object is hidden from us but in a different way to Heidegger’s wikdrawn object. For Husserl, the intentional object is hidden only insofar as the object present to us inevitably comes encrusted with particular adumbrations, accidents, details, qualities. JPEG is ‘hidden’ only insofar as we encounter it through particular instantiations. We never encounter all of JPEG only a particular instantiation or dimension (encoding or decoding). It is not just that the workings of Huffman coding or DCT happen so fast or so mysteriously that we cannot ‘see’ them, it is that neither humans nor unhumans can encounter all possible dimensions of those characteristics. Another software object could run through every possible DCT and Huffman table, every possible encoding permutation but that would be just the equivalent of listing every possible view of a hammer in every possible light, situation and mood. Neither superhuman endeavour would exhaust the object. It may exhaust the ‘accidents’ but not the thing itself.

Harman reads Husserl’s accidents or adumbrations that swirl around the object we encounter as ‘qualities’. He argues that the sensual object (SO) that human and unhuman actants encounter displays two tensions: between the SO and its’ sensual qualities’  (SQ) and between the SO and its ‘real qualities’ (RQ). The SQ are the particular profiles of the SO, the object’s accidents or qualities, the particular instantiations of encoding, decoding or creation of a JFIF or EXIF file.

But the sensual JPEG is also in tension with its RQ. Harman says that if one were to strip away all the (SQ) accidents in a particular encounter or perception., what remains is not merely an ‘empty pole of unity […] a ‘bare particular,’ in the terms of analytic philosophy. Instead, we approach what Husserl calls the edios of an object” (2011, p. 27). The eidos of a sensual object is the form that ensures the objects I encountered or perceived as that object. There is something (the RQ) of a tree that means we perceive it as a tree no matter the light or the weather. There is something (the RQ) of JPEG that means an object (me as the photographer, the computer chip or software) knows it is working with JPEG. Just as we may come up close to a tree and realise it is a scarecrow (encounter a different eidos) so we could try an encode with JPEG but realise we are approaching JPEG2000. This is nothing to do with the SQ the particular accidents or momentary instantiations. This is a sensual connection with a different form (in a Husserlian rather than Platonic form (Harman 2009, p. 199)), a different eidos with different real qualities. If SQ are encrusted on the surface, RQ are ‘submerged’%Harman 2011c@29}, hidden but vital to our encounter with the object.

It is important to note that for Harman these ‘essential’ qualities are not universal. These are not the ‘eternal objects’ of Whitehead. Rather they are always particular to an individual object. When I press the button and encounter the sensual JPEG (that dimension to JPEG that I work with), I encounter a particular running of JPEG, in a particular moment, within a particular apparatus (JPEG’s SQ). I also encounter JPEG’s RQ, its particular digital imaging pipeline that make JPEG particular. These RQ can only be accessed by intellectual not sensuous intuition. One can map out JPEG’s form, its particular digital imaging pipeline, as I do in Chapter XX. But that is an intellectual, abstract exercise not an issue of perception. But that edios/form, those RQ are particular to JPEG. Colour transforms, DCT and Huffman Coding can be used in other applications or pure maths but when it is part of JPEG it has a particularity.

To summarise the sensual dimension to JPEG. Other objects in play (whether me as the photographer, the CCD, Facebook’s data-mining algorithm or a police database) encounter JPEG. They ‘perceive’ it in terms of working with it. That JPEG has a unity, a presence, a position in consciousness, even if that consciousness is not human but rather ‘virtual’.⁠2 This is the JPEG ‘sensual object’ (SO). That SO has two dimensions. It has particular a particular form, a way of arranging the digital imaging pipeline that makes it recognisably JPEG. This form is essential to it. Without it, we would not have JPEG. Alongside side these ‘real qualities’ or eidetic traits (RQ) we have particular shifting instantiations of JPEG. Each time I press the button or Photoshop saves an image file, we encounter a particular instance. JPEG appears in a particular form (‘super high quality’ compression or ‘save as’; a particular Huffman or Quantization table). These encrusted features of JPEG can and do shift and change in each encounter. We (Photoshop and I) encounter shifting profiles of JPEG, its sensual qualities (SQ).

Harman’s sensual objects are what we encounter. The reason we need this conception or dimension to the object is because the real object withdraws. Harman brings Husserl together with Heidegger’s tool analysis (which he explored in more detail in Tool Being (2002)).⁠3 Heidegger argues that the eyeglasses I use to look at this screen, my heart beating, the computer operating system and protocols are ‘ready-to-hand’ but are not present to us unless they break, stop working or fail. Objects disappear in favour of some purpose they serve (2011, p. 38)… at least until they crash.

These objects area real. They have an existence beyond the phenomenal realm. For Heidegger:

“the being of any object is always deeper than how that object appears to us. In the eyes of Heidegger, Husserl’s phenomena are merely present-at-hand in consciousness, exhausted by their appearance to us. Yet Heidegger holds that the hammer cannot be reduced to a set of visible features—not even essential ones—because these features are not what do the work of hammering in the world. The hammer as a Husserlian intentional object is always already present as soon as we acknowledge it, and is merely encrusted with non-essential features. By contrast, the hammer for Heidegger is a real entity that invisibly does its work in the cosmos” (Harman 2009, pp. 180-1).

Again in terms of JPEG: there is a real JPEG, a unity, an object but, unlike for Husserl, its reality is never accessible to us. It never appears. We may glimpse JPEG when the upload fails or, as in my work it is made to sit alongside RAW-encoding that breaks its transparency. The sensual instantiations we encounter do not exhaust JPEG because they are not what ‘do the work’. As I shall argue that ‘work of JPEG’ is deeply governmental, even disciplinary and the instantiation of JPEG (its encoding and decoding) we or even Facebook’s data-mining algorithm encounter are not the full story. JPEG’s “subterranean tool-being” is weirder and more power-full than that.

The real JPEG is not real in opposition to some imaginary, virtual or even ’sensual’ JPEG. It is a dimension to the object that lies beyond our sensual encounter and beyond relations. Real objects withdraw from our consciousness and also from all relations. Harman talks of cats:

“The real cats continue to do their work even as I sleep. These cats are not equivalent to my conception of them, and not even equivalent to their own self-conceptions; nor are they exhausted by their various modifications and perturbations of the objects they handle or damage during the night. The cats themselves exist at a level deeper than their effects on anything. real objects are non-relational” (Harman 2009, pp. 194-5)

As with cats, so with JPEG. It exists when I sleep or when I am using a paintbrush to image. It exists beyond its sensual presence in my or an algorithm’s imaging or processing. “Real objects exist ‘whether we like it or not’” (Harman 2009, pp. 195-6).

Harman is at pains to distance his reading of Heidegger from what he sees as a view that Heidegger’s withdrawn realm is a “deeper unified system of reference” (2011, p. 35) which he would see as a case of ‘undermining’. Objects withdraw not into some field or monastic lump of being but into themselves, into “private interiors, barely able to relate at all” (2011, p. 36). The reason we cannot reach JPEG, the reason it slips through our fingers and all we are left with are its traces in JFIF or EXIF files or our sensual encounters with its instantiations, is because, as with all objects, JPEG “does its work in the cosmos”. It has a reality beyond any relations or particular instantiations. This reality is not located in the specifications of the Joint Photographic Experts Group. It is a metaphysical reality: its status as object.

The ‘real object’ (RO) is “autonomous from whatever encounters it” (2011, p. 48). There is JPEG without me, Olympus or Javascript (which can only encounter or touch the sensual JPEG).  When I pick up a pencil or switch the camera off, the sensual JPEG vaporises but the real JPEG does not. It still has an ontological reality, an object status.

Just as the SO exists in tensions with its real and sensual qualities, so the RO has sensual qualities (SQ) which it “emits […] into the sphere of presence, despite being withdrawn in its own right” (2011, p. 49). The qualities we encounter, the particular instantiations of JPEG that objects like me or Google search work with, must come from something real not just something phenomenal. JPEG is not just phenomenal (although that is how we access it), it is also real. Similarly the real object cannot be an empty unit, a blank thing. It has real qualities (RQ), the essence that makes it object A not object B.

Harman draws on Leibniz’s argument that: “monads must have qualities, otherwise they would not even be beings” (Leibniz 1989, p. 216). Or in other words, each monad “needs a multitude of qualities to be what it is, to differ from other monads rather than be interchangeable with them” (2011, p. 49). The real, withdrawn tree has to have something essential about it to make it a tree not a shrub, this tree not that one. In terms of JPEG, it is not just the form of the digital imaging pipeline (the sensual object’s real qualities) that marks JPEG out but also the specific, essential qualities or elements that make it what it JPEG not GIF or TCP/IP. Huffman coding and DCT are vital parts of the real JPEG. We do not, indeed cannot, encounter them directly but without them JPEG would not be the object it is.

To summarise the real dimension to JPEG. There is a real JPEG, an ontological object, as I discuss earlier. It is more than the sensual object we encounter in imaging, searching, archiving or data-mining. But it is inaccessible. It only become apparent when it breaks, crashes, fails. That real JPEG exceeds its relations. It is not only more than a particular instantiation or presence to perception or imaging, it has an existence outside any other object. This is the JPEG ‘real object’ (RO). That RO has two dimensions. Although it withdraws, we know it exists. It projects into the world – not least when it breaks. These sensual qualities are what is accessible to thought or action. The JPEG RO has SQ I can write about, build apparatuses to explore etc. The JPEG RO also has real qualities (RQ, essential features that make JPEG… JPEG.

What this initial quadruple structure of the object gives us is a model that allows us to map the weird character of JPEG: the fact that it clearly exist but is hard to pin down (its RO withdrawal), its presence to us and other objects within imaging (its SO dimension and its RO-SQ tension) and its particular character and position, its specific form and essence as particular arrangements of coding and transforms within a digital imaging pipeline (its SO-RQ and RO-RQ tensions). This is all possible as a matter of objects. When we move on to address how objects connect, how those connections break and what happens when they do, we can see the power of this model for addressing how objects relate to governmentality as well as object-oriented photographic practice.

1 Harman prefers to use the more ‘charming’ term ‘sensual’ for this dimension of objects. He says: “Husserl uses ‘intentional’ to refer only to the unified objects of consciousness, while excluding the shifting surface qualities of things from the intentional domain. So-called ‘sense data’ are not intentional for Husserl, precisely because they are not object-oriented. For this reason, a new unified term is needed that covers both the enduring objects of consciousness and the overly specific facades through which they are always manifest” (Harman 2009, p. 136).

2 I am conscious of the difficulties of this language, particularly in terms of the use of the term ‘virtual’ notably in the thinking of Deleuze. I am using it here merely to address the way the space of the infinite archive and networked software connects with JPEG.

3 It is important to re-emphasise that I am not looking to engage with the philosophical deabtes around Heidegger or Husserl or even Harman’s reading of them. Rather I am taking Harman’s reformulation of them in The Quadruple Object (2011) as my starting point.

  • Harman, G., 2002, Tool-being: Heidegger and the metaphyics of objects, Open Court, Chicago.
  • Harman, G., 2009, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, Anamnesis, Melbourne.
  • Harman, G., 2011, The Quadruple Object, Zero Books, Ropley.
  • Leibniz, G.W., 1989, Philosophical Essays, Translated by R. Ariew & D. Garber. Hackett Pub. Co., Indianapolis.