The JPEG object in theory… part 2 – overmining and undermining

As I have sought to show in The JPEG Object in The Literature, a view of the digital object built around ideas of relationality, processuality and potentiality has been a pervasive and, in many way, positive theme running through the development of software and critical code studies. This project’s practice and research takes a different starting point. Following Harman’s model of the ‘quadruple object’ I work with a conception of the (JPEG) object as unified and autonomous. Here the JPEG object I use in my practice has a reality in and of itself, not dependent for its power on its relations. It has an existence (weird though it may be) that is more subtle yet unified than a moment of working or becoming. Despite its withdrawal from human access, it has a fully present character within apparatuses, imaging and imagining.

To position JPEG as an actant defined by its relations, as a process or as awaiting realisation is to be guilty of what Harman calls ‘undermining’ or ‘overmining’. These tendencies are not only philosophically but also practically problematic.

Harman says:

“The first critical response to objects asserts that they are not fundamental. All of the dogs, candles, and snowflakes we observe are built of something more basic, and this deeper reality is the proper subject matter for philosophy” (Harman 2011a, p. 8).

This undermining of the object can be in terms of materialism (that sees a more basic element as the starting point or even the end point of analysis. Here JPEG is just an a collection of more fundamental algorithms or even electrical fluctuations. A truly materialist, realist project the argument goes must keep digging: “only what is basic can be real” (Harman 2011a, p. 8). The problem with this of course is that one does not account for the specificity of so-called aggregates. If, as I argue, JPEG is a key player in governmental assemblage-objects, relations and power, then such a reductionist argument misses a key player. Furthermore from a practice point-of-view to deny objecthood to JPEG removes a key player from my apparatuses and my practice of imaging and imagining the digitisation of light as data.

A second form of undermining happens with the argument that objects are just the crystallisation of becoming. Here the fundamental flux of becoming, the plasma of potentiality somehow stabilises as objects, abstractions from something deeper. From this perspective JPEG is the abstract name we give to the moment of encoding, the flux of processes, algorithmic workings and mathematical transforms. Again JPEG itself is missed. If, as I argue JPEG is fully present in governmental spaces – businesses, surveillance and data-mining operations, then it needs to be accounted for. It cannot be bracketed in favour of ideas of scopic becoming or regimes of control. My JPEG-imaging practice shows that JPEG is fully present and realised within my imaging. It is not holding anything back, becoming and perishing or accreting new features. The specific, real and actual JPEG object is connecting and reconnecting within specific, real and actual new objects.That is how and why the mashup works.

Harman argues that such undermining of objects is philosophically indefensible:

“All are versions of reductionism in which objects only gain their reality from elsewhere. All are forms of critique that view individual objects in a spirit of nihilism, destroying them with bulldozers to make way for something more fundamental. They view objects as too shallow to be the fundamental reality in the universe” (2011a, p. 10).

I go further and argue that from my practice-research experiments with the JPEG object, such undermining removes the possibility of JPEG imaging and a critique of JPEG and governmentality.

Harman says the second tendency in the philosophy of objects is to ‘overmine’ them, to reduce them upwards:

“On this view, objects are important only insofar as they are manifested to the mind, or are part of some concrete event that affects other objects as well” (2011a, p. 11).

Empiricist overmining says that an object of experience is is just a bundle of qualities: “apple” is just a term for series of qualities we link together: red, sweet, cold, hard, juicy. Just as the brand Apple hopes to stand for values or qualities: trendy, user-friendly, cool etc. In both cases, the object has no reality outside its qualities. JPEG, is best thought of as shorthand for data compression, interoperable data, flexible digital information. Harman points out however that what we  encounter in the world is not qualities but unified objects: the apple not its redness; Apple as brand is not coolness. Redness on a corpse or coolness in Miles Davis are different. Similarly the objects in my scopic apparatus do not encounter qualities of JPEG. My mashup code encounters the complete encoding. As a photographer I encounter the whole JPEG object in its connection within my imaging. I cannot encounter only the compression, only the data.

A second strain of overmining comes in the form of what Quentin Meillassoux has called ‘correlationism’ (2009) – the folk devil that unites the speculative realist movement. This tendency within philosophy has argued that “we cannot think of world without humans or humans without world, but only of a primal correlation or rapport between the two” (Harman 2011a, p. 12). Harman calls this the “Philosophy of Human Access” (2011a, pp. 62-68).⁠1

Following this argument, to consider JPEG is to consider a human relation to JPEG. It is inevitably human-object. We cannot deal with JPEG, only deal with our dealings with it. The human-JPEG relation is of course central to this project. JPEG imaging is a human-object thing.⁠2 But it is not the whole thing. JPEG has an existence and a reality outside of my thinking about it, using it or having any relation with it. It exists in Web 2.0 business plans, marketing and surveillance strategies, databases and family memories.

But to see those relations as defining it is just another form of correlationism, one that Harman calls “relationism”. Here he takes Whitehead and Latour head on for arguing that an object’s power is defined by its field or network of relations or accidents. JPEG from this perspective is power-full because it is part of a scopic regime, apparatus or project. It is more powerful than Google’s alternative WebP because it is networks with Flickr, Facebook, Adobe, Nikon, data-mining and domestic memory management. . JPEG is either an image in the mind or just its effect on other things: a bit player. Harman argues that to follow this through means the object disappears. He says:

“If a house is encountered by three women, a child, a dog, and a crow in the same moment, each of these perceptions will have a very different character. And given a purely relational definition of what objects are, it would seem impossible to call all of them relations to the ‘same’ house. The house itself vanishes into a mob of house-perceptions” (2011a, p. 13).

But that house, JPEG is real. There is a unity to it and not just in the standards written and posted by its developers. It is in relations – within my imaging and apparatuses as well as within the governmental scopic regime – but that does not exhaust its reality, its unity.

The correlationist and relationist projects overmine the object. Empiricist or process philosophies undermine it. Both refuse to deal with objects in their multiple dimensions, connections, presence and reality. In terms of my project, they skip over JPEG entirely.

Harman argues that undermining and overmining are not mutually exclusive but partners in shifting the focus from objects. “Every undermining philosophy needs an overmined component as a supplement, and vice versus” (Harman 2011a, p. 14). A materialist call to find the basic building blocks demands then locates those blocks (atoms, sub-atomic strings or Huffman equations) in terms of relations or qualities – hardness, resistance, statistical chance, probability etc. Similarly a relationist picture of flux and becoming still demands a fundamental perceiver such as Whitehead’s God to correlate all perceptions. In both cases “autonomous objects are  […] excluded as a proper topic of philosophy” (Harman 2011a, p. 15).

Harman’s arguments against overmining and undermining are philosophical and logical, mine are practical and creative. Harman argues that these approaches fail to ask the right questions and paint a picture of reality that does not make sense. He reaches these conclusions after thought. I argues that these approaches not only fail to provide a coherent account of JPEG but also that they do not match my practical experience of encountering and using JPEG. I reach these conclusions through practice.

1 In The Quadruple Object and in his study of Meillassoux (Harman 2011b), Harman discusses various forms of correlationism and why, in his view, they are philosophically and logically indefensible. My aim here is not to enter into those subtleties but merely highlight the more general human-object formulation as a problematic.

2 I will come on to argue this human-object, JPEG-object relation happens within something that should also be seen as an object

  • Harman, G., 2011a, The Quadruple Object, Zero Books, Ropley.
  • Harman, G., 2011b, Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
  • Meillassoux, Q., 2009, After Finitude: An Essay On The Necessity Of Contingency, Continuum, London.