Art on the Beach: A Response to AC/DC

Over at Algorithm and Contingency (AC) there’s a substantive response to Dark Chemistry’s (DC) beguiling post Art and the Real, entitled Some Notes on the Art of the Real. AC is concerned with the problem of the ontological role of art within a realist metaphysics, an issue I fielded in my earlier review of the Art and Speculative Realism event at the Tate Britain earlier this year. What is it, exactly, that is problematic here? Well AC/DC both pick on the following passage in that review:

If we grant reality autonomy from our ideas of it, how is this sovereignty to be understood? What is the place of experience in our understanding of the autonomy of the real – including the experience of art – once we displace the subject from the centre of philosophical concern?

While this glosses the issues somewhat, I intended it to indicate an ecumenical spread of concerns within philosophy and art-practice rather than as a rigorous problem definition. Implicit in this formulation, though, is the assumption that aesthetics addresses an intrinsically ‘subjective’ or ‘inner’ sphere of ‘ideas’ or ‘aesthetic judgement’ over and against the ‘hard’, objective sphere of transcendent objects or determinate judgements. If this were the case, then DC’s phrase ‘The Art of the Real’ would be oxymoronic. There would be aesthetic interest and ‘a special category of object apt for that interest’. For the record, I’ve flat out denied this (See Roden 2010). Aesthetic attitudes do not require a special class of ‘subjective’ or ‘sensory’ object. Where we have a distinction of attitude we already have sufficient to individuate a field (which is not to say that such a distinction of attitude is available or appropriate in fact – read on!).

Some realists hold that realism is committed to ‘radically transcendent’ objects. Among contemporary writers, this position is most strikingly expressed in Graham Harman’s idea that objects are ‘withdrawn’ or occluded from one another. It’s a beautiful conceit, expressed in some of the finest English philosophical prose since the heyday of Rorty and Davidson, but I don’t think Harman gives us good reasons to adopt it. His famous reading of Heidegger’s tool analysis ups the metaphysical ante by presupposing that not being explicitly represented is a modality of things (or thinging, or whatever). If this isn’t good old phenomenological idealism, I don’t know what is! In contrast, I hold that intentionality brings us into contact with the real with numbing regularity. This isn’t a mystery. Intentionality itself is a real thing: supervening (‘superdupervening’ as Terrence Horgan puts it) on bodily transactions with the world. For example, our auditory systems are acutely sensitive to the dynamic shapes and spectral compositions of sounds – though, as Thomas Metzinger and others remind us, there are always deep nuances in auditory and other sensory discriminations which register perceptually without being explicit for consciousness (The distinction between vorhanden and zuhanden is metaphysically moot in this context, if phenomenologically salutary of course).

There are sensory discriminations (of varying refinements) of the real; not sensory objects over and against real objects. So it is a mistake to define the aesthetic in opposition to the real. In his post AC writes ‘Art does not illustrate ontology, it is ontology!’. I’m thoroughly sympathetic to this position. In Roden 2010 I argued that our experience of sound – including sound art – is an experience of the generative mechanisms which cause those experiences. We discriminate and track these mechanisms rather well; but it doesn’t follow that, because they form the real intentional objects of our experiences, we have anything like adequate or full knowledge of them. As the composer Trevor Wishart points out, and others, like Cage, have emphasized, we have become familiar with a lattice of harmonic and rhythmic categories which can barely limn the physical complexities which new digital technologies have opened up to ever more refined control.

For the kinds of generative event created by Cage, Xenakis or Varese, the lattice shreds in the face of auditory patternings that exceed our culturally sedimented skills of re-presentation. By prompting us to perceive new features and new kinds of object, these composers contribute to the ‘transformation of perceptual consciousnesses’ rhapsodically described by Paul Churchland in chapter two of Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind. There he asks us to imagine posthuman children whose common sense conception of reality has been informed by modern physical theory: ‘These …’ Churchland writes ‘do not sit on the beach and listen to the steady roar of the pounding surf. They sit on the beach and listen to the aperiodic atmospheric compression waves produced as the coherent energy of the ocean waves is audibly redistributed in the chaotic turbulence of the shallows’ (Churchland 1986, 29). The transformation of perceptual consciousness, via the shredding of culturally accreted perceptual categories, then, is one proper concern of art qua ontology. It is also, arguably, a concern of what we call ‘science’. This, of course, prompts the supplementary question: is there a domain of special interests that suffices to individuate the aesthetic as such?

Churchland, Paul (1986), Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind (Cambridge: CUP).

Roden, David 2010 ‘Sonic Art and the Nature of Sonic Events’, in Bullot, N.J. & Egré, P. (eds.) Objects and Sound Perception, Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1(1) (ROPP is a new Springer journal devoted to the philosophy of psychology and cognitive science). For those without a Springer subscription, a web version is available here.

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4 thoughts on “Art on the Beach: A Response to AC/DC

  1. You say: “The transformation of perceptual consciousness, via the shredding of culturally accreted perceptual categories, then, is one proper concern of art qua ontology. It is also, arguably, a concern of what we call ‘science’. This, of course, prompts the supplementary question: is there a domain of special interests that suffices to individuate the aesthetic as such?”

    This “shredding of culturally accreted perceptual categories” reminds me of Arthur Rimabud’s poetic vocation as seer: “to arrive at the unknown through a derangement of all my senses” (Letter to Gorges Izambard). Is not this derangement a shredding or decreation of the perceptual categories of correlational reason; or, as Ligotti might say, following Lovecraft, a turning of the unreal into the real; or, the perception of the real that is the pure experience of no one and nothing?

    Maybe Harman’s idea of a “plate-techtonics ontology”:

    “Vicarious causation, of which science so far knows nothing, is closer to what is called formal cause. To say that formal cause operates vicariously means that forms do not touch one another directly, but somehow melt, fuse, and decompress in a shared common space from which all are partly absent. My claim is that two entities influence one another only by meeting on the interior of a third, where they exist side-by-side until something happens that allows them to interact. In this sense, the theory of vicarious causation is a theory of the molten inner core of objects – a sort of plate tectonics of ontology.”

    I like what Robert Jackson says in his essay: “By contrast I hold that if you want a piece of work that leads a speculative mode of enquiry, it must take the formalist route and be discrete, independent and above all, ignore the role of the beholder.”

    Isn’t this the very definition of what Harman just explicated?

  2. Pingback: Algorithm and Contingency / The Roden response, a Zamalek realist counter and Jack Burnham

  3. I like your affiliation of shredding with Rimbaud’s exhortation to derangement. I don’t know Liggoti’s work (I have his novel My Work is Not Yet Done on order from Amazon) but, there seems no transcendental limit on the extent to which categorical structures – as long as these are not constitutive of the real – can be ground down and spat out by virulent starspawn. Bring it on!

    The Harman quote, though, I find very puzzling. I can see why he needs some account of how objects enter into causal relations in order to explain how reality doesn’t fracture at every scale. But the particular form that his account takes is an artifact of a theory of withdrawn substances that I see no reason to adopt in the first place. I’ve explained very clearly, I think, how we can formulate a theory of the epistemic independence of things without entailing their inaccessibility (http://enemyindustry.net/blog/?p=569).

    Once we allow that things are not locked in but can relate to one another (e.g by transferring conserved quantities of energy, information) we don’t need to use these metaphors. What can Harman mean by saying that ‘forms do not touch one another directly, but somehow melt, fuse, and decompress in a shared common space from which all are partly absent’ ? What, for example, are the properties of this space such that ‘forms’ co-occur within it but not touch?

    I feel I need to respond to Robert’s remark on algorithmic art at greater length. Discreteness – unless I’ve read him wrong – doesn’t seem to entail complete ontological separate between things. It only entails that things have discrete and independent dispositions by virtue of their causal powers – including their computational powers. Thus the fact that a java program being run in a particular System S is disposed to iterate a loop once started without stopping conditions is a fact about S which obtains as long as nothing outside of S tinkers with its computational structure. It doesn’t entail S’s inaccessibility to relations as such.

  4. Yes, I understand your thinking on Harman: at times he seems to reactivate concepts out of ontology into a quasi-metaphysical linguistic snare that darkens his thought with poetic figurations out of the halls of rhetoric, rather than clarifying it into a simple form of clarified reasoning; yet, this is his path, he sees a need for an expansive return to the mythicizing of Plato tempered by the valences of our post-Kantian traditions. Reading each of his books is like a dialogical debate, a perspectival tour or, to use the Hegelian “sublation”, the repetition of a tessearean antithetical completion that requires challenging everything that went before it.

    I am still working through the musings of Grant and Harman as against Brassier and others at the moment, which with the new essays in The Speculative Turn on each of their stances on Materialism and Realism is helping me grasp the tricks each uses to weave a speculative vocabulary.

    In the end each is creating and inventing new vocabularies as they go along out of the bricolage of our spurious philosophical heritage a language that will bring the real back into the center of philosophical discourse. What’s truly interesting is that there is this clash of ideas causing each of these thinkers to dig deeper and formulate more stringent and constrained vocabularies, sparking greater debates and helping spawn a more powerful surge in our universities and cultural centers as well as the net community.

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