The JPEG object in theory… part 5 – tensions

Harman’s fourfold structure allows us to understand a number of aspects of objects and their relations which are relevant not just for a comprehensive metaphysics, but also for our understanding of and work with JPEG. He argues that the two poles and their two qualities allows an understanding of time, space, essence and edios as well as causation, confrontation, theory, allure and causation.⁠1 To take each in turn.

Time is important not just in terms of philosophy but also in terms of software imaging. Photography is a time-based medium. The digital imaging pipeline and the infinite archive of distributed imaginings are matters of permanence, transience and process. For Harman time can be understood as a matter of objects and their relations, specifically the tension between the sensual object and its sensual qualities (Harman 2011, p. 100). Time, as we experience it is “a remarkable interplay of stability and change” (Harman 2011, p. 100). The flower remains the same flower to us as it wilts, as the encrusted qualities or profiles shift and change. In terms of protocol, JPEG endures. The JPEG a human or unhuman object encounters remains a presence even as its particular instantiations shift. Encoding my light-as-data today or yesterday, on quality setting 5 or 10  are different. We experience those imaging moments or encounters as happening in different ‘times’ but they can equally be seen as encountering different objects. The advantage of seeing them in those terms is we remain focused at the scale of the object and avoid falling into debates about the ‘arrow of time’ or discrete instances, process and becoming. What is more, when we work with object-oriented imaging, we can build new (object) apparatuses that explore that tension.

Space too can be addressed through objects, specifically the tension between real objects and their sensual qualities. The withdrawn RO has SQ that project into the world. If it did not we could not the object could not be accessible to thought or action. These qualities are what we relate to. But that tension is also about non-relation as well. The real 2012 Olympic velodrome withdraws from me. I cannot access its complete objecthood. But I do encounter its qualities, those aspects of its nature that project into my camera view as I walk around the Fence. That relation happens in Newham. When I sit writing or thinking about the velodrome in France⁠2, those sensual qualities are not present to me. I am not in the same relation with the real velodrome object.⁠3 “Space is not the site of relation, but of both relation and non-relation” (Harman 2009, p. 218).

It may seem odd to think of JPEG in terms of space. After all as a software protocol or standard it does not have the same physical presence as a piece of architecture. Recall however that size does not matter and also that the real withdrawn JPEG does have sensual qualities by which we encounter it.

Digital imaging is a matter of space and JPEG does have a spatial dimension – just a rather weird one. What is interesting about JPEG is that it highlights the different sense of space we are dealing with in distributed media. Regardless of physical presence we are in relation with JPEG. Space collapses. As I explore in my two imaging apparatuses (the Mashup and the RAW/JPEG camera), digital imaging happens offline and online. Pressing the button on my camera or phone sets the digital imaging pipeline in play, encoding light-as-data in a particular location of imaging. Accessing Flickr or a Google image search (or using my mashup) is also digital imaging. Pressing reload sets a distributed imaging pipeline in play. That imaging happens on a server somewhere in the US, on my iPad in my hand or someone else’s desktop – potentially in multiple spaces. But those multiple spaces are co-present in JPEG. Imaging objects (the imager, the hardware and software) are all present to each other regardless of physical space. In the digital imaging pipeline I have a relation with the sensual qualities of JPEG (its particular instantiations or eruptions into my sphere of presence) as I walk around the Fence. I also have a relation with the sensual qualities of JPEG as I call on it on a Google server thousands of miles away. It may only be the sensual qualities that we are in relation with, the RO withdraws, but I am in the same relations with the sensual qualities of that RO wherever I am. This does not undermine Harman’s account of what space is from an object-oriented point of view, it more interestingly gives us a way of approaching the weird nature of online space.

A third tension Harman identifies, that between the RO and its RQ, gives him a way of talking about essence. A real object has real qualities, what make it what it is. We may not be able to access the complete nature of the velodrome, but it is a velodrome not the athletics stadium or a security guard. Similarly, JPEG has RQ that make it JPEG not DNS or TIFF. This tension is what we commonly call essence. Here essence is not some stable ontological category or analytical folk-devil, but a dynamic tension within the object. An object’s essence is not dependent on other objects in a Saussurean sense but a matter of a tension within an objects quadruple form. The advantage of this account is not only that we can embrace the concept of ‘essence’ without being accused of determinism or reductionism and once again we can refuse to depend on relationality as defining objects, but also we can explore the specifics of JPEG as opposed to other protocols (as I look to do with my RAW/JPEG apparatus)

The fourth tension in play within the fourfold is that between the SO and its RQ. As well as the tension between the SO and its accidental surface qualities (SQ) (time), there is a tension between the object we encounter and its “truly crucial qualities revealed though a process of eidetic variation” (Harman 2011, pp. 100-1). These eidetic traits (RQ) are accessible by intellectual but not sensuous intuition. We can strip away the SQ and reach the nucleus of an object that makes it what it is “for those who perceive it” (Harman 2011, p. 101). Note that Harman is not saying that this intellectual endeavour gives us access to the reality of the object which always withdraws.  We perceive the velodrome. We mentally strip away all the surface accidents, the particular way the light falls or the viewpoint we take. We are left with a form that we perceive as the Olympic Velodrome. It is the tension between that form and the object we perceive that Harman (following Husserl) calls eidos. This is not the same as essence. There are no real qualities or objects here. This all happens within the perceptual, sensual realm. What is the reality of the velodrome, let alone what is its fundamental nature remains hidden and withdrawn

In terms of JPEG, my image editing programme-object ‘perceives’ JPEG’s surface qualities – particular instantiation or running but it also encounters its crucial qualities the form of the digital imaging pipeline that is JPEG, the particular Huffman or Quantization table. This tension between the instantiation and the form (this edietic tension) is important because it enable us to address the way JPEG is simultaneously dynamic and static. It is standard and has a particular form but also multiple possible instantiations and runnings. Here process is addressed through objects and their tensions.

Harman calls these four relations between the different poles “tensions” as a way of highlighting the way that the poles relate, what he calls fission and fusion.

The relations between a SO and its numerous sparkling features (SQ) that we experience as time, suffers ruptures – a “momentary breakdown in the former balance between sensual objects and their qualities; the object is briefly exposed as unified kernel dangling its qualities like marionettes”{Harman 2011c@103). At the moment of passing the velodrome at dusk we realise that unified kernel has transient sensual qualities as the light sparkles on the wood panelling – “I never noticed that before”. At the moment of encoding light-as-data we realise we can pick various compression settings. We (or the Web 2.0 business’ servers) are confronted with the transient qualities. The tension breaks: fission. The same break can happen in the tension between the SO and its RQ (edios). It is only through the intellectual labour of paring down that the real qualities can be accessed. This ‘reverse engineering’ through ‘theory’ is a matter of fission, breaking. As we shall see, it is this process of fission I look to explore in my RAW/JPEG apparatus.

The other two relations, between the RO and its SQ (which we know as space) and its RQ (which we know as essence) are also best understood as tensions but this time characterised by ‘fusion’. Real objects and their sensual qualities only meet when they are fused. “In such cases the sensual qualities are stripped from their current sensual overlord and appear to orbit a withdrawn real object”{Harman 2011c@105). The real, withdrawn, inaccessible velodrome has sensual qualities in particular locations as I circle it. Its sensual qualities fuse with it in a process Harman likens to aesthetic allure, as I look or take a photograph. Even in the non-locational space of JPEG, the SQ of JPEG that I engage with are fused to ‘JPEG’ so I can image with it or write about it. That weird question of JPEG and space that arises as we fuse the perceived with the withdrawn is similarly aesthetic, a matter of allusion. At the same time the relation between the RO and its RQ is again a matter of fusion. The essential characteristics of an object are fused as part of the withdrawn entity by an outside entity, a mediating term. As we have noted, objects meet others within objects. They effect each other within/through objects which fuse them in a process Harman calls ‘causation’. The Huffman table as one of JPEG’s essential RQ is fused as a part of ‘JPEG’ (the RO) by Photoshop as it encodes the data as a particular file at a particular setting. As we shall see, it is this process of fusion I look to explore in my mashup apparatus.

1 This theme has been developed over the past few years in Harman’s work. This chapter concentrated on that presented in The Quadruple Object but earlier workings can be see in  (Harman 2009, pp. 214-221) (Harman 2010a) (Harman 2010b)

2 I am not talking about any images on my computer in France but rather a more metaphysical presence in terms of my object connection with the velodrome through my thesis or my position as a taxpayer in an Olympic borough.

3 I may of course be in another relation with my my memory or even photos of the velodrome but these are different objects.

  • Harman, G., 2009, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, Anamnesis, Melbourne.
  • Harman, G. 2010a, Space, Time, and Essence: An Object-Oreinted Approach (2008), in Towards Speculative Realism : Essays And Lectures, Zero Books, Winchester and Washington, pp. 140-69.
  • Harman, G., 2010b, Time, Space, Essence, and Eidos: A New Theory of Causation, Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, 6(1), pp. 1-17.
  • Harman, G., 2011, The Quadruple Object, Zero Books, Ropley.