The JPEG object in theory… part 1

Concern for the protocol object has been dominated by issues of relationality, processuality and potentiality. This has drawn a picture that can be seen as reductionist insofar as these accounts position digital objects as built on something more basic, as echoes of a deeper reality – in the case of JPEG, a deeper, more fundamental code. Alternatively the reduction happens upwards rather than downwards. Objects are no more than bundles of qualities, ideas in the mind or relations – in the case of JPEG, objects are reduced to a matter of ‘media’, ‘software’ or ‘imagespace’.

For an account of the digital object that takes objects seriously – even weird objects like JPEG. I turn to Graham Harman’s ‘Object Oriented Philosophy’ as outlined in The Quadruple Object (2011). In this work – a development of earlier work (2002) and traced in  (2010) – Harman lays out what he calls an ‘ontography’, a metaphysics of all objects. The examples that Harman uses are varied – trees, cats, cotton etc. – and he is clear that for his model to be worthwhile it has to be able to account for any and all objects. My aim in this chapter is to take up that challenge and map out a fourfold account of the JPEG object.

It is important to note that the aim here is not to evaluate or critique Harman’s reading of Husserl or Heidegger or even critique his ontological model, merely to use it as a way of mapping JPEG prior to my using it as way into understanding and practically exploring distributed, digital imaging and imagining. In this chapter I outline an object-oriented account of JPEG and in the next I report on an object-oriented account of JPEG photography.

This chapter follows closely Harman’s structure in The Quadruple Object, seeking to carefully construct a coherent picture of the JPEG object in terms of four tensions, three radiations and three junctions. I seek to methodically build a metaphysics of the digital object that can not only enable us to understand the weird character and workings of protocol but also offer a way of developing a new form of object-practice.

In the first section I revisit existing accounts of JPEG in terms of the two forms of reductionism Harman calls ‘overmining’ and ‘undermining’. In the second I follow his account of Husserl and Heidegger in identifying two sorts of object: the sensual object and the real object. In the third I explore how the JPEG sensual object and the JPEG real object can be seen as each having particular qualities (giving the initial fourfold structure). In the fourth section I address how that structure can enable us to trace JPEG’s relation to issues of time, space, eidos and essence. In the fifth section I follow Harman’s account of how objects connect in order to map an object-oriented account of JPEG within the technosocial assemblage.

It’s not difficult to see JPEG in terms of issues of relations. As I will discuss in The Governmental JPEG Object chapter, the protocol is enfolded and connected with other objects with real power implications. That account can be drawn in terms of actant networks where a Latourain litany of Google engineers, Facebook patents, software and camera manufacturing cleanrooms in Taiwan connect and render actants powerful. Similarly JPEG  can be imagined in terms of its potential to structure, empower and enable scopic practices and regimes, positioning imagers rather than photographers and the stream rather than the decisive moment. And JPEG can be particularly understood as a matter of process. JPEG is, after all, a protocol that is about processing data, compressing and rendering a JFIF or EXIF file. The markers, compression algorithms and tables we will address can be drawn as process – JPEG works and withdraws because it is best seen as a process, something that happens or becomes within software.

So what are the advantages of treating JPEG as an object and more specifically an object beyond relations, potential and process? I will come on to argue that treating JPEG as an object not only makes theoretical sense but also practical sense. To follow Harman in refusing to leave the object even when dealing with its connections, to remain rooted in actuality and presence and in particular to open up the fourfold structure of the protocol-object is to take protocol seriously in its own terms, to refuse to over or undermine its specificity and so make it open to struggle as well as creative use.

Before even that however, we need to show how JPEG can be seen as an object.

One thing all of those involved in the object-oriented ontology field, itself a subset of the broader speculative realist ‘movement’, would agree is on the importance of objects. From philosophy, Timothy Morton’s “hyperobjects”, Bryant’s “subjectless object” and Harman’s “quadruple object” all, in their different ways, advocate an attention to objects and emphasise that we can approach social reality through objects. Furthermore they open up a wider conception of what counts as an object. Bryant neatly sums up the stance in his title The Democracy of Objects. This call to take objects seriously and expand our definition of the object has been taken up outside philosophy.⁠1 As we have seen Bogost’s ‘units’ encompass ”people, network routers, genes, and electrical appliances, but also emotions, cultural symbols, business processes, and subjective experiences. Aggregates of these units, such as works of literature, human conditions, anatomies, and economies can properly be called systems,but such systems are fundamentally different from the kind units have unseated in the many disciplines noted above. Moreover, such systems can be understood in turn as units themselves”(2006, pp. 5-6). Bennett works with “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” (2010, p. 4).⁠2

These writers would doubtless be happy to say that JPEG can be addressed as an object but in order to begin working (creatively) with the JPEG object, as the project demands, it is important to explore what an understanding of JPEG as object entails. What characterises an object? In what way is JPEG an object? What value does this add to our understanding of JPEG?⁠3

For Harman, an object is what “is or seems to be one thing” (2010, p. 148). That addition of “seems” is important because it not only allows Harman to deal with imaginary, virtual and, I will argue ‘weird’, objects like unicorns, characters in books and protocol but also points to the fourfold character of objects that allow me to develop a JPEG-based object-oriented photography.

In his letter to a curious five-year-old, Harman gives us a series of ‘brief rules about objects’ (Harman 2010, pp. 147-8). We can use this as a way of mapping the way in which JPEG can be seen as an object in Harman’s sense.⁠4

1. “Relative size does not matter: an atom is no more an object than a skyscraper”. At one level this appears to have noting to do with software. Where is size in software? The number of bytes in the programme? The number of lines of code? When it comes to JPEG are we looking for the relative size of the code fragment governing ‘export to JPEG’ as against the rest of the code in Photoshop? Such investigation is possible but misses the more important point around scale that Harman is making. All objects are equal, on a flat ontological footing. In terms of JPEG, it has an existence and interest as an object regardless of its scale within software or within photography. Its ‘objectness’ does not depend on it’s scale or it’s relationship to something else – Photoshop, machine code, electrical charges etc.

2. “Simplicity does not matter: an electron is no more an object than a piano”. The JPEG standard is simpler than Photoshop but more complex than the specific Huffman coding algorithm it uses. As we have seen JPEG is a ‘family of compression algorithms’ ([NO STYLE for: Lane 1999]) each of which can be seen as an object, simply nested further ‘down’. This idea of nested objects must not be seen in either value or deterministic terms. Just because an object works at a different scale than another does not make it any less important nor any more powerful in determining that other object’s position or workings. Harman agrees with Bennett who argues that “‘in a world of vibrant matter, it is not enough to say that we are ‘embodied’. We are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of microbiomes” (2010, pp. 112-113), and Bryant who talks of: “the strange mereology of onticology and object-oriented philosophy where objects can be nested in other objects while nonetheless remaining independent or autonomous of those objects within which they are nested” (**UNRESOLVED**). As Ray Brassier put it: “You have this kind of infinite nesting of objects within objects within objects … Every relation between objects itself unfolds within another object… [w]hat you have [in Harman’s philosophy] then is a kind of egalitarian objective univocity, a kind of ontology of pure objectivity: there are nothing but objects, objects nested within one another, and the really significant metaphysical challenge is explaining their interaction” (Brassier et al 2007, p. 316). A Huffman table is an object, so is the JPEG protocol, so is a JFIF image. The thing to explore is how those objects interact within each other and other governmental objects.  It’s position as object is in its position as having “some sort of unitary reality” (2010, p. 147). JPEG, as an industry standard, as a selling point for cameras and software, as a recognised format (in it’s JFIF or EXIF instantiations) places it within the realm of objects.

3. “Durability does not matter: a soul is no more an object than cotton candy”. OOO’s willingness to extend the concept of object to short-lived, ephemeral, even imaginary or fictional things enables it to address systems and structures as well as cultural practices. Monetarism and Harry Potter may not endure but in their capacity to effect and connect, they must be seen as objects in play. The Huffman algorithm and DCT endure – they are mathematical objects, rules maybe. They also do things within the digital imaging pipeline. JPEG as an object does things but after encoding it ceases to be. For some, as we have seen, that is the JPEG process working, realising its potential and then  changing in the flux or plasma of becoming. For Harman, the JPEG object connects and then reconnects within other objects – the next image taken and written to a memory card, the next upload or data-mining operation. The rule is that its objectness doe not depend on its durability any more than on our ability to hold it in our hand.

4. “Naturaleness does not matter: helium is no more an object than plutonium”. Again the democracy of objects demands that we do not divide natural things atoms, trees, helium from tables, weapons grade plutonium and software. As things in the world doing things, being presences I trip over, use, am data-mined by – all are objects and therefore worthy of study and necessary to account for. This is not the simple point that media and cultural studies made when it said that Homer was as worthy of study as Homer or that we needed an account of tattoos as well as Titian. Nor is it the far earlier establishment of literary or art history studies arguing for their objects being worthy alongside the natural sciences. This is not a flattening of hierarchies and categories for political, professional or academic interest. It is a metaphysical statement that all objects are in play whether we like it or not. Once could debate whether cosine is a natural ‘thing’, a Platonic form. From an OOP perspective such a debate is meaningless. The DCT demonstrably is present within JPEG and does something in the digital imaging pipeline.

5. “Reality does not matter: mountains are no more objects that hallucinated mountains”. Here of course Harman lays himself open to the common criticism that his framework is so loose as to be useless. “When one can talk of unicorns and uranium, Donald Duck and Chairman Mao in the same way, what use is it?” he is often asked. But as he has said on his blog:

“A critique that was apparently stated on Facebook: ‘ooo would have popeye riding a pink unicorn with a lava lamp on his head’. No, OOO wouldn’t…

In my position there’s an absolute difference between real and sensual objects. Popeye riding a pink unicorn with a lava lamp on his head would almost certainly not be a real object. (You never know, of course. We’re not omniscient. But I agree that such an entity almost certainly doesn’t exist.)

However, this same Popeye must be accounted for by any ontology worth its salt. Why? Because imaginary things are not utter non-beings. They don’t have independence from the one who is conceiving them as real objects do, but they’re not just nullities or holes of nothingness. I don’t think Raskolnikov is a real object either, but millions of people have read Crime and Punishment and been influenced by it. Raskolnikov needs to be accounted for by ontology.” ([NO STYLE for: Harman 2011])

What Harman is looking to leave out of analysis is the idea of any kind of “non beings”. If things are at work, then they are objects. JPEG is not imaginary but it is certainly difficult to see or find. It is a standard written or maybe woven into software and hardware assemblages as well as business strategies and grandmother’s doting over a new baby. But even if JPEG was not ‘real’. Even if the idea that a standard compressed data efficiently and effectively was an elaborate Capricorn One-like conspiracy perpetrated by mad scientists, Adobe and Google, it wouldn’t matter. JPEG would still be worthy of study because it was still at play in people’s photography, their photographic consumption and their relation to images and imagespace.

In some ways JPEG is an ideal candidate to explore these rules. It does not really have a size; it is both simple in its role but complex in its form; it is ephemeral in its working but durable in its enfolding within imaging; it is unnatural and it is clearly real within the digital imaging pipeline but simultaneously unreal in its presence within the business plans of photo-network start-ups where it is designed to reassure venture capitalists of interoperability and flexibility.⁠5

What my practice has shown is that JPEG is an object. It has a unity, a presence and a power within imaging objects and apparatuses. What is more it demonstrates Harman’s three key themes about objects: their existence beyond relations; their presence beyond process and their working beyond potential.

1 Tim Morton would of course argue that his eco-philosophy marries the concern for philosophical rigour with a political concern around the environment.

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 What follows, as has been noted, is a specifically Harman-based account of objects.

4 Harman uses a curious negative way of framing his rules. Once could perhaps reframe these objects as positive statements: “an atom is as much an object as is a skyscraper”; “an electron is as much an object as is a piano”; “a soul is as much an object as is cotton candy”; “helium is as much an object as is plutonium” and “mountains are as much objects as are hallucinated mountains”.

5 Instagram’s API documentation says: “You must first save your file in PNG or JPEG (preferred) format“ ([NO STYLE for: instagram 2011]). This is not just instructions to engineers, it is a statement for the whole of the Web 2.0 community – including investors and partners, that instagram works with the standards users (for which read customers) use.

Note: This is a redraft and expansion of previous rags ‘n refuse.

  • Bennett, J., 2010, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology Of Things, Duke University Press, Durham.
  • Brassier, R., Grant, I.H., Harman, G. & Meillassoux, Q., 2007, Speculative Realism, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development, 3, pp. 307-449.
  • Harman, G 2011, not sure why this keeps resurfacing, Object-Oriented Philosophy. Retrieved May 18, 2011,  from
  • Harman, G., 2002, Tool-being: Heidegger and the metaphyics of objects, Open Court, Chicago.
  • Harman, G., 2010, Towards Speculative Realism : Essays And Lectures, Zero Books, Winchester and Washington.
  • Harman, G., 2011, The Quadruple Object, Zero Books, Ropley.
  • instagram 2011, iPhone Hooks, Retrieved September 15, 2011,  from
  • Lane, T 1999, JPEG image compression FAQ, part 1/2, Retrieved September 14, 2011,  from

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