The sensual and real objects and qualities… once more with feeling

Why should theoretically informed or even philosophical writing be inaccessible? Why should it be unclear? As a journalist and editor, clarity was the most important thing. It was what got readers to buy the paper. When I began teaching I always used to tell my students that if their writing wasn’t clear, chances were it was because they didn’t understand what they were trying to communicate. So go back, think some more until you can explain it clearly and straightforwardly to an ordinary reader.

My supervisors asked me the other day who I was writing this PhD for. Their point was to have a reader in mind. I told them I was writing for someone like myself. Not stupid but not a genius. Interested but wanting ideas grounded in things I could relate to.

Why have I gravitated towards Harman? In no small part because I understand him. His writing invites me in, takes me through the ideas and neither treats me as a duffer nor as a philosopher with 30 years reading the classics – heh I’ve been busy being a journalist, photographer, consultant, oh and Dad and cyclist. If I think back to the writers whose ideas have got me excited, they had  similar accessibility (yes I know that’s a bad word for some), clarity and openness: Foucault, Stuart Hall, Latour, Christopher Norris, Jane Bennett. I’ve got a longer list of people who I know are ‘brilliant’ and who I should ‘get’ or at least engage with but… when I reach the end of a paragraph and feel stupid, well…

I used to tell my students that when they had finished a piece of work they should give it to someone to read. If they ‘got it’, chances are the student was onto something. If they didn’t, chances are the idea were not yet clear in their own head let alone on their page.

At the end of this process I’m going to give my manuscript to some ‘real people’. If they get something out of it, then I’ll be happy to submit (that’s part of the reason for this Blog and its half-baked ideas). If they say “I’m sure it’s very clever but…” then I’ll go back to the drawing board.

In that spirit, I’ve revisited a section I wrote recently. I read it as a reader and parts of it didn’t make sense. I realised I didn’t have the idea as clear in my mind as it should be. So I rewrote it. If there are any real people out there, you know where the comments box is…

The sensual and real objects and qualities… once more with feeling

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). These should not be thought of as two distinct things but rather two dimensions to the complex, powerful actant-object. Harman 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).

Husserl’s intentional object is hidden from us but in a different way to Heidegger’s withdrawn object. For Husserl, the intentional object is hidden only insofar as the object present to us inevitably comes encrusted with particular adumbrations, accidents, details or qualities. These qualities, in their sensual and real forms are the other two poles of the fourfold.

The Olympic velodrome-object I perceived (or photographed) yesterday, perceive today and will perceive tomorrow always comes encrusted with particular qualities or accidents. It is always perceived in a particular light, from a  particular point-of-view or in a particular mood.

In terms of protocol. I as a photographer-object and the in-camera software-object encounter JPEG. That encounter happens as I press the shutter or the Save As button or software encodes light-as-data. What the software and I encounter is the particular qualities of JPEG, particular to the encounter. Those qualities shift and change as a particular ‘quality setting’ is chosen, a particular Huffman table is accessed or a particular DCT is used. Each instantiation of JPEG is particular, but I and software perceive JPEG each time.

Harman calls these adumbrations, the particular profiles, accidents, the object’s ‘sensual qualities’ (SQ). The sensual object (SO) that human and unhuman actants encounter is in a relation with these shifting accidents. These profiles are how we access the object. But Harman points out that amid the myriad of possible view of the Velodrome or compression configurations, we recognise the 2012 Velodrome or JPEG. This he says is because the object has real qualities (RQ) that the sensual object forms a relation with. He 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).⁠2

There is something (the RQ) of the velodrome that means we perceive it as the Olympic velodrome, a sensual unity, no matter the light or the weather. These features mean we know we are dealing with the Velodrome not the Aquatic Centre or even the National Cycling Centre Velodrome in Manchester. It has wooden banking, with a particular geometry, a certain length etc.

In the same vein, 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. We know we are encountering JPEG because it use DCT not the Wavelet Transform coding that JPEG2000 uses. The particular Huffman tables may shift but the unity remains.

Harman’s sensual objects are what we encounter. They exist only for another object that encounters them (Harman 2011, p. 48). But there is a second dimension, what Harman calls real objects (RO). These differ from sensual objects in that they are autonomous from any object that encounters them and they withdraw from all access, all relations and each other. Here Harman turns to Heidegger’s tool analysis (which he explored in more detail in Tool Being (2002)). Heidegger argues that the spectacles 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 me 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 are 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).

There is a real Velodrome. It exists in the world but we cannot access it. Its reality, nature, even existence is withdrawn. We encounter it’s sensual dimension but unless the building collapses or the turnstile fails to recognise our hard-won ticket, it remains out of reach. Similarly there is a real JPEG, a unity, an object (as I have argued above) but it too 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.

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).⁠3

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.

Although the object withdraws from access, Harman argues that the RO is in relation (or ‘tension’ as he calls it) with the object’s sensual and real qualities. The shifting sensual qualities we encounter as we walk around the Velodrome or the particular Huffman table or instantiation the software encounters in a particular imaging moment, cannot just be phenomenal. These qualities must have some connection, emerge from something real. The object may withdraw or be inaccessible but it “emits […] into the sphere of presence, despite being withdrawn in its own right” (2011, p. 49). There is a relation between the RO and the object’s SQ.

The RO is not an empty unit. It is in tension with real qualities (RQ), those essential features that make the object what it is. As a cyclist I encounter the Velodrome. I ride a particular geometry in a particular temperature-controlled space. Those essential qualities define this as the Olympic Velodrome not the National Cycling Centre Velodrome. Those qualities are connected with the withdrawn RO. If the RO did not have those specific but real qualities, it would be indistinguishable from any other withdrawn object.

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).

In the case of protocol, JPEG is not an empty unit. It has real qualities Colour Transforms, Huffman Coding, DCT, the things that make JPEG compression what it is. The withdrawn RO must have a relation to those qualities or JPEG would be no different than any other protocol… and it is.

This is Harman’s fourfold: Real Object (RO), Sensual Object (SO), Real Qualities (RQ) and Sensual Qualities (SQ). These are four poles to the unified object, four dimensions that allow us to explore objects without recourse to fields of relationality, potentiality or process. To map JPEG as a quadruple object is to see:

  1. it as a real object present and active in the world, beyond relations, inaccessible
  2. it as a sensual object present to human or unhuman consciousness or access, whenever energy is expanded on it but always through
  3. sensual qualities – particular instantiations, particular Huffman tables or arrangements of coding and transformation algorithms
  4. having real qualities – inaccessible characteristics like Huffman Coding that make it specifically JPEG not JPEG2000, Gif or WeP.

In addition those four poles are ‘connected’ through four tensions.

  • 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.

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 It is important to note that for Harman these real or eidetic 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.

3 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 has a metaphysical reality: its status as object.