I formally object

Victor Burgin identifies two “pitfalls awaiting the art theorist with no grasp of semiology, ‘the temptation to treat the work of art as a purely formal construction’ [… and a] focus[..] on the internal life of the autonomous object”{%Burgin 1986@1} Burgin picks up on a powerful tradition of anti-formalism that arguably has a new relevance when object-oriented approaches demand that everything starts from (and in Harman’s case perhaps) finishes with objects.

Raymond Williams was clear: Formalism’s “predominant emphasis was on the specific, intrinsic characteristics of a literary work, which required analysis ‘in its own terms’ before any other kind of discussion, and especially social or ideological analysis, was relevant or even possible”{Williams 1976@114}. In Television: Technology and Cultural Form, he said:

“The work of McLuhan was a particular culmination of an aesthetic theory which became, negatively, a social theory: a development and elaboration of formalism which can be seen in many fields, from literary criticism and linguistics to psychology and anthropology, but which acquired its most significant popular influence in an isolating theory of ‘the media’”{%Williams 1974@126-7}.

Had OOP been around in the early days of media and cultural studies, it would doubtless have faced charges of formalist fetishization of the object.

Of course Harman would be happy to be associated with McLuhanism. “No one in the twentieth century, not even Heidegger, does as much as the McLuhans to retrieve the metaphysics of objects as a viable medium”{Harman 2009b@122}, he says. Leaving aside Harman’s reading of the McLuhans’ fourfold alongside his own, how does OOP stand against the charge of formalism. Firstly one must show that OOP is formalist and then that formalism is, in itself a bad thing. OOP demands that the object is the core focus on analysis and interpretation. Particularly in Harman’s case, there is never any need to leave the object and look to a wider field, plasma, process or realm of becoming. The famous Latour litanies with which OOP is littered are testament to the belief that we can do philosophy and media analysis by concentrating on objects.

Formalist approaches to literary texts began with a similar focus on objects. Rather than the later preoccupation with systems. “The Formalists started out by seeing the literary work as a more or less arbitrary assemblage of ‘devices’, and only later came to see these devices as interrelated elements or ‘functions’ within a total textual system”{Eagleton 1996@3}. These devices, discrete, particular formal components  were the target of analysis because it was such elements (sound, imagery, rhythm, syntax, metre, rhyme, narrative techniques etc) that did the work, turning ordinary language into literary language with all its effects. “’literariness’ was a function of the differential relations between one sort of discourse and another; it was not an eternally given property”{Eagleton 1996@5}. It was this argument that powered the development of structuralism’s focus on systems where, by looking at how the system was put together, one could address its workings and power relations.

There are clear parallels with OOP. The focus on ‘devices’, specific components, mirrors OOP’s single-minded commitment to objects. Here ecosystems, computer games, indeed the whole universe is made up of objects connecting between or within objects. What we perceive as systems, meshes or assemblages are really just components clashing, connecting or relating. Just as language is not an eternal given property neither is the mesh, the hyperobject or, in my case the scopic regime.

In both frameworks the gap between objects is important. For Harman it is the sensual-real difference and the way the fourfold allows differential connection (what he calls ‘vicarious causation’) that characterises the mesh of objects. Sensual can only connect with real, real only with sensual. Objects withdraw from us and from each other. That is what drives the mesh, creates new objects and new relations. It is the making strange of language in literature, the gap between everyday discourse and that of the novel, the withdrawal that creates art and culture. And by focussing on the technical devices, one can see that, unpick it, critique it and create it.

My OOP account of imaging and of JPEG can be seen as formalist. I look to understand the whole through the parts. Social imaging, the new scopic regime, the scopic mesh – however it is defined as a discourse – is different to ‘traditional’ imaging, ‘top-down’ media regimes because it uses different devices/objects. Hardware and software actants, protocols and algorithms have turned seeing into social seeing, photography into imaging. My OOP account looks to identify those objects and when I have found one of them (JPEG) I make the same formalist move. JPEG is different than WebP or GIF. Its position as an imaging form, a literature if you will, arises from its formal structure. The Huffman tables, the DCT transforms are devices it uses to do its particular creative and productive work.

My desire to understand my own imaging and that regime or praxis within which it now works leads me to bracket the referent and concentrate on the device-objects. My imaging and that of the Social Graph, like a poem is a matter of objects connecting, like metre and rhyme forms arranged in a particular way.

And what is more, arguably, my OOP account of JPEG become even more structuralist. It’s not that I ignore the wider system. I am looking to understand and perhaps even critique the Social Graph, the infinite archive, governmentality and techno-capitalism. I am looking through JPEG to those structures but from an OOP perspective I see them not as a context, a background or even a media ecology or actant-network within which objects fit or on which they play out their powers. Rather that structure is nothing more nor less than objects connecting within objects. The structure is objects. Like Claude Lévi Strauss approaching his tribe{%LéviStrauss 1994} or Michel Foucault reading his “certain Chinese encyclopaedia”{%Foucault 1989a}, I see an order of objects.

The critiques of formalism and structuralism are legion. It is not my concern here to engage in a defence of formalism or structuralism. From Mikhail Bakhtin onwards this focus on objects has been seen as technicist, reductionist, determinist and apolitical. Surely to collapse the complexities, political-economic and technosocial relations of advanced capitalist culture into a matter of protocols or even an assemblage of objects is to lose a macro focus, a sense of process and relationality that make sense of how and why that mesh works the way it does, an how it can be changed.

My aim here is not to rehearse those debates but to reframe the question. To what extent does an object-focus (whether or not we call it formalist or structuralist) allow a coherent and critical account of the techno-social mesh, info-capitalism and scopic governmentally? Does a refusal to leave the scale of the object impoverish that critique or does it allow a new way of seeing complex realities and intervening in their power relations?

My way of answering these questions is through my practice…


  • Burgin, V., 1986, The End Of Art Theory : Criticism And Post-Modernity, Humanities Press International, Atlantic Highlands, NJ.
  • Eagleton, T., 1996, Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd ed. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.
  • Foucault, M., 1989, The Order Of Things: An Archaeology Of The Human Sciences, Routledge, London; New York.
  • Harman, G. 2009, The McLuhans and Metaphysics, in J-KB Olsen, E Selinger & S Riis (eds), New Waves In Philosophy Of Technology, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke [England] ; New York, pp. 100-22.
  • Lévi-Strauss, C., 1994, The Raw And The Cooked: Introduction To A Science Of Mythology, Pimlico, London.
  • Williams, R., 1974, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Fontana Press, London.
  • Williams, R., 1976, Keywords, Taylor & Francis, Ltd.,.