The JPEG object in theory… part 4 – connections

As I have noted, Harman’s framework of autonomous, actual objects does not preclude the sort of actant networks that Latour talks about, and the sort of techno-social assemblages addressed by software studies. In fact the power of Harman’s quadruple object is that it offers a powerful way of  addressing the relations between human and unhuman actants, the sort of relations within which JPEG is enfolded, that characterise scopic governmentality and that I notice and work within my own practice. Harman is clear that these relations do not define the object. Rather his model looks for an object-oriented account of relations.

Real objects withdraw and so cannot ‘touch’. The tree, cat, protocol or social network business are deeper, more mysterious and weird than another object (whether photographer, CCD or search algorithm) can access. “Their reality consists solely in their being what they are, not in some sort of impact on other things” (Harman 2011, p. 73). But objects do connect. We know this in our experience. My JPEG apparatuses, imaging practices as well as the governmental scopic regime demonstrate objects connecting and reconnecting in power-full ways.

At the same time, sensual objects cannot touch each other. Harman says:

“The various sensual objects that co-exist in a single intentional act (intentional trees, mountains, leopards) merely sit around in a contiguous state, touching one another only in the sense that the perceiver perceives them both simultaneously. After all sensual objects consist only in being encountered, not in encountering. If I expend my energy in taking them seriously, they themselves have no such energy to expend; they are purely passive figments for an encounter of my own. Hence they are incapable of direct interaction of any sort, and belong to the same perceptual moment only through the mediation of me the perceiver. real objects can touch only through the medium of an intentional object, and intentional objects can touch only through the medium of a real one” (Harman 2009, p. 208).

In terms of digital imaging, neither I as the real photographer (object) nor the silicon chip as the real hardware object, can encounter or touch the full unfathomable, weird, withdrawn reality of JPEG. We withdraw from each other. As real objects, I and the chip do encounter JPEG in a particular sensual instantiation or form.The datamining algorithm that ‘reads’ JPEG-encoded light-as-data, certainly ‘touches’ JPEG in its creation of a marketing data point, but only the sensual dimension, that sense of JPEG that is present to perception. Real can encounter, connect with sensual. The point for Harman is that encounter, connection or relation does not happen in a field of becoming, plasma or potentiality but within another object. Why does that matter? Because it means we can explore it, critically and creatively.

When the (real) chip inside my camera encounters the (sensual) instantiation of JPEG as light is encoded as data, this happens literally within another object (the camera), but also ontologically within the ‘digital imaging pipeline’ object. Remember that for Harman, an object is anything that has a unity, presence and power. It doesn’t matter whether it is short-lived or conceptual. What matters is that it has an independent existence for other objects: the camera, me as photographer or me here as writer.

Similarly  the (real) JPEG, that withdrawn unity that works within the digital imaging industries, technosocial and governmental regimes and assemblages, does encounter the sensual dimension to other objects: the particular instantiation of me as JPEG imager, the particular elevator pitch of a Web 2.0 start-up. These do not happen in some psychological, semiotic or capitalist plasma, field of potential or relations. JPEG encounters the imager within an imaging object, a specific, unified, present actant in the world. That moment of imaging is not a process. It is an object, with a unity and presence for an another object. JPEG encounters the pitch to the VC within a rhetorical discourse of interoperability, social media and market share. That discourse is not a field of becoming or context. It is an object, a unified actant itself connecting with other financial, technological and political actants. Again that object has a unity and presence because it can be approached or present for other actants. This asymmetrical account of objects connecting within objects not only keeps the focus on objects and allows the actant-network to be mapped in its specificity and presence but also opens up a space for object-oriented practice, in my case imaging.

Harman often talks about these connections as happening within the ‘molten’ core of another object (Harman 2009, p. 215). In The Quarduple Object he phrases it slightly differently: “any relations immediately generates a new object”Harman 2011c@117}. The point is the same. The ‘digital imaging pipeline’, ‘photography’ or ‘business plan’ as objects are the site of connection. The enfoldings, relations and their governmental implications are located at the scale of objects.

Harman is not content with mapping only the real object-sensual object connection. He takes his fourfold structure of objects as a basis for mapping the full range of possible connections. And it is this that allows him to approach issues of ‘fusion’ and ‘fission’ themes that go to the heart (perhaps even molten core) of my practice and scopic governmentality.

  • Harman, G., 2009, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, Anamnesis, Melbourne.
  • Harman, G., 2011, The Quadruple Object, Zero Books, Ropley.