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Speculative Media

by on January 25, 2013

In this post the metaphysical reflections of Travis Matteson are presented in lucid form, aided by helpful diagrams.

Building on my half-formed desire to consider something like “applied speculation,” a project I mentioned during our first class, I’d like to consider the implication of Harman’s The Quadruple Object in relationship to questions of media and mediation. What I offer here are preliminary questions that I hope to investigate in our class meetings an on this blog in the coming weeks.

As I read it, Harman submits a philosophy of objects that takes all objects as autonomous. The speculative philosopher posits these objects as possessing an intrinsic reality outside the realm of human thought. And, though Harman does not present a media theory by any means, certain points seem to hold particular implications for understanding media.

Given that all objects, from Harman’s perspective, are autonomous and possess a reality unto themselves, this would imply a flat ontology, as we have previously discussed. This amounts to the rejection of the privileging of the human-world correlation. In a sense, Benjamin seems to arrive at a similar point in his “Work of Art” essay. In the “prying of an object from its shell,” the giving way of the aura, results in “a sense of the universal equality of all things.” Hierarchies of ritual give way to mass exhibition.

Harman seems to get closer to questions of media in his discussion of relations. He writes, “all relations translate or distort that to which they relate: even inanimate relations” (44). At first, this appears to be a rehashing of McLuhan’s now commonplace “the medium is the message,” provided that we can conceive of the above relations as mediated. But Harman provides an addendum, “even inanimate relations.” Is it possible to understand a relation between nonhuman objects as mediated in some way? In the context of these nonhuman relations, is the medium still the message, or does the message find a way through unmediated. As I think about it, a possible answer to these questions might be found in Harman’s concept of withdrawal, “the permanent inadequacy of any relation” (44).

In his quarrel with philosophies of access (in particular, his takedown of Žižek (not unlike the VIking conquest to which he refers)), Harman broaches the concept of allusion as an antidote to the odious argument that it is impossible to think anything outside thought. He writes, “an allusion to something that might be real but which cannot become fully present” (68). To me, this reflects the condition of metaphoricity that often accompanies discussions of media. Metaphor works on the basis of shared quality and substitution, so a medium might be said to possess a shared quality with the object for which it has been substituted. The object itself is absent, but the medium is the allusive condition that suggests the mediated object “might be real.”

Media and technology are often conflated, so Harman’s brief commentary on technology might also be relevant to this discussion. He says, “Technology strips things of their mystery and turns them into a calculable stockpile of present-at-hand materials, manipulable for human purposes rather than allowed to be what they intrinsically are” (60). Is there a medium that can allow for things to be what they intrinsically are in relation to one another, or is the act of relation, or mediation, doomed to disrupt the intrinsic nature of these objects?

A parting shot: This last comment has less to do with media than with the philosophical movement in general. I feel I must ask, “What’s up with the word ‘weird’?” What sort of rhetorical weight does Harman imagine “weird” wielding? The word appears multiple times in The Quadruple Object, often modifying “realism,” and I understand that Harman has written another book with “weird” in the title. To my mind, there are several ways of understanding Harman’s use of the word “weird.” On one hand, the word carries the colloquial connotation of exoticism and novelty that seems to have marked this movement: “it has proved wildly popular among the younger generation of continental philosophers” (136). And yet, the word weird also allows us to think of an unfamiliar realism or even an uncanny realism, which is appropriate since we are positing the autonomy of objects outside human perception. I think this word study is worth pursuing further.

 

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From → Quadruple Object

One Comment
  1. Several of Harman’s follow-up chapters seem to have added some clarity to some of my previous questions, but I am really struggling to understand his vision of “The New Fourfold” as laid out in chapter 7.
    Most of my understanding of space and time comes from cursory knowledge, intuition, and (surprise surprise) literature with only selective insight from formal philosophy and science. That being said, the idea that “Time is the name for tension between sensual objects and their sensual qualities,” (100) is something that I agree and struggle with. First, the description of time as “the remarkable interplay of stability and change,” struck me as a concise definition for how I have always viewed it, but at the same time, I think Harman overdoes it by including “stability”. I think the general notion of time is more on par with Entropy: that all things tend towards chaos, or in the case of time and objects, that all things deteriorate. Frankly, I don’t believe in pure stability. Just because an object appears the same to us does not imply that it has not undergone some degree of change, that seems to point back to a privileged view in that because we do not observe the change in sensual qualities, then the real object (which I understand is inaccessible) has not changed. The tension between the sensual object and its sensual qualities I think lends itself to this. Let’s put it this way: I am looking at a small piece of rusted metal. This little chunk of metal has been rusting for some time apparently, as the bulk of it is covered, and I can only assume that it is continuing to rust now. As far as I can tell, this piece of metal is quite stable; I don’t see the metal oxidizing with each passing moment, but it is safe to assume it is happening. So the sensual object has not changed for me, I still see it as it was, but as the physical stability of this object is clearly eroding with each moment, the real object has changed since it’s real qualities, regardless of whether or not I know it, are changing. This is the objects entropy, which can just as easily be described as time acting on the object, and thus “stability” can never really be used to describe time since all objects undergo this same decay. This includes the elusive example of intellectual objects as they slowly fade from memory, lose their original context, or even the death of the intellect that first imagined them, so as far as I can think it through, this notion holds up.
    I’m getting lost in thought as I am typing this, so I will likely add comments to this later in an effort to make my questions more clear. I still don’t see what repercussion time and space really has on an object beyond its own timeline (which we can’t know or understand), or how we perceive it (which doesn’t really matter anyway), so quite frankly, I really thought chapter 7 came very close to an invalid, completely unjustified eisegesis reading of Heidegger. If Harman is using this as the basis of his “New Fourfold”, it really has me casting doubt on all of this since he forced the meaning he is taking from Heidegger’s fourfold. It didn’t seem to me that he had any valid justification for his interpretation other than it suited his needs better than gods, mortals, earth, and sky. Kind of lost. I follow his logic, he builds his arguments well and fairly clearly, but I keep hitting points they I just don’t see his justification for his claims and I am seeing less and less practical application for any of it.

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