OBJECT-CULTURE: Art as Viral-Commodity

OBJECT-CULTURE: Art as Viral-Commodity
A dialogue between Paul Sakoilsky & Mike Watson to coincide with the exhibtion of the same name at RED, London, 15th – 25th April 2010.

Mike Watson and Paul Sakoilsky have been frequently dialoguing since early 2007. Using IM as a means of communicating, first across London, now across Europe, they have developed their respective practices (Mike, theorist and writer, Paul artist and writer) closely, yet not without considerable divergence on crucial topics.

Here they address recent attention given to the ‘object’ in philosophical discourse and ask what value the object has for the artist. Crucially they disagree on the centrality and worth of art praxis vs. art as an exemplary category, from which the object often creates a diversion.

Both Watson and Sakoilsky ‘object’ to the marginalisation of the subject and consider ‘art’ to be central to a re institution of the free individual, alone and as part of a community.

The generosity of the artistic process pitted against the ‘selfishness’ of the artist….

PS: To quote from the exhibition statement:
“The exhibition concerns the creative, intrinsic and problematic relationship between Art and Object, that is our contemporary stereotype of art as object, as commodity, and for the artwork as objection, that is, as a form of protest in the most general sense.

objectum – to present to the mind • to throw in the way, present, hinder • ob- in the way, + jacere, to throw … cult_ra • cultivation, cultivate • cultus – till, cultivate, worship • k–el – to move, turn (around) …”

If you look at the abbreviated definition of ‘object’ and ‘culture’, starting with the ‘object’, where does this take us; even if only as starting point?

MW: You mean the definition of ‘object’? Well, there has been a recent fast moving trend towards consideration of the ’object’ in its own right in philosophical thought. Whereas the object was previously considered as only conceivable via the thinking (human) subject, it is now argued that 1) the object exists in itself, and 2) the subject is a form of object, with no privileged status above other objects. These are the two primary innovations of Object Oriented Philosophy, or Speculative Realism, schools which I have come to place under the umbrella term ‘Scientistic Philosophies’ (SP), for their sympathy towards science.

PS: It seems to me, while this might be – and probably indeed is – a now welcome antidote to the anti-realist position (i.e. post-structuralism etc.), that all is discourse, language, perhaps it is also a step too far, or at the least, could easily be mis-read as such. Where is the subject in all this, that is, the one who sees, feels, and discourses upon the ‘objects’? That is, it seems to me, one cannot have one pole without the other. And this is not to say that the ‘subject’ is not also, always already ‘object’.

MW: True, and this is a worrying development for many, though Graham Harman did take this on in a recent interview, arguing: ‘Some people have even claimed that object-oriented philosophy says “humans are worthless.” I don’t get it. Did Copernicus say: “The earth is not the center of the universe, and therefore it is worthless”? Did Darwin say: “We are related to apes, and therefore we are worthless”? Why this all-or-nothing model, in which humans must be everything or nothing? There’s a lot of open ground between 0 and 100. To flip wildly between saying that humans are the best or the worst, just like political factions who flip between saying that the United States is either the greatest or most evil country on the planet, reminds me of one of the best-known symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder. ’

And I think he is right that one has to get some perspective. Although, I am not convinced that Harman’s strand of SP has really done away with the subject-object duality (and neither, for that matter, has Brassier; in both cases the thought of the subject’s likeness to the object is a thought for thought and by thought).

Harman clearly states the primary criticism for the proponent of SP towards of subject-object dualism: ‘The correlationist holds that we cannot think of humans without world, nor world without humans, but only of a primary correlation or rapport between the two.’

Yet I do not think it necessarily follows for someone who beleives in two distinct categories ‘subject’ and ‘object’ (i.e. the ‘corrleationist’), that the human cannot be separated from the world, nor that the world cannot exist without humans. Surely the isolation of these poles from one another provides the motive for philosophy’s tendency to conceive of subject (human) and object (nature) as different in essence. It is precisely in recognition of the fact that the human cannot subsume all of existence within its realm that the subject-object split is made so prominent by Kant.
Yet proponents of SP often argue the opposite case… that the philosophical subject represents a hegemony of the human over nature.

Additionally, I would concur that casting all humans as objects is decidely risky, given that the prevailing economic system seems to objectify humans in quite a different way. Philosophy should be careful to erect a defense of the subject, even if that be the subject-as-an-object. I do not think this is a distinct and separate issue beyond the bounds of philosophies of the object, because even if people are objects, there undoubtedly exists a scale of pleasure to pain for the subject-that-is-object, however objectively construed, and that scale beckons an ethical code, written in spite of the utter lack of an overarching reason why we might want to honour that code.

Again, I can see why one may feel this to be outside of the realm of philosophy, but then I cannot see how philosophy can claim to shed the subject – the vehicle of its communication with the object.

PS: “I can see why one may feel this to be outside of the realm of philosophy, but then I cannot see how philosophy can claim to shed the subject – the vehicle of its communication with the object.” Indeed, for me, your latter point is peculiarly worrying. This idea that unless one holds that all is ‘object’, ‘objective’, they find themselves outside the realm of philosophy is a position very like that held by the logical positivists. For me, such opinions, being absolute, are outside of the spirit of philosophy. Yet if such a position is correct, might we just do away with term philosophy itself?!

To return to what you say of Harman. Of course, I would totally agree that it is no problem that the subject is no longer the centre of all knowledge. But, I guess, within his eyes I am certainly a  ’correlationist’ in that I hold, similarly to you, that the subject, even if ‘it’ is always already object, is a very particular kind of being. Moreover, whilst it would be immediate nonsense to opine that the world doesn’t exist without a subject to view, discourse, to engage with it – at the same time, when we speak, when we write, we are always writing for-us, for-the-world, if you like, rather than the ‘Earth’.

You recently commissioned me to write a text which became, ‘3 objects randomly chosen from the studio’, and it was this that set me thinking again about ‘objects’, specifically cultural objects – art being a particular, peculiar or perverse variety of this. The term ‘object-culture’ – for which this dialogue forms an accompanying text – arose in light of this.

MW: Well, if I understand you correctly, the discourse we undertake is oriented towards a world in which the subject resides as a unique facilitator of experience over the natural realm. Yet I think one can reasonably take on board the innovations of SP whilst holding fast to this stance.

Firstly I think one might better understand Harman’s position by bearing in mind Harman’s vegetarianism. Now, I’m not going to argue some intrinsic link between his vegetarianism and his philosophy, but so far as biographical details can be helpful, it’s a good pointer to just why objects might be seen as so important within SP. Let’s say an exemplary pointer, in that what Harman heralds is a democracy of objects, of which the human is just one, that happens to have a unique apparatus of perception. We have to accept that this unique apparatus is bound to lend us the notion that we are supremely endowed, so to speak, but that is not to say that we are supremely endowed, any more than the existence of animals, ripe for farming implies that animals were made to be farmed by us.

Yes, the tools of perception, recall and communication are unique to the human, yet that is not to say that the object should not be addressed in its own right, and in a sense philosophy is uniquely endowed to do this. Take trees… one cannot know the true essence of a tree unless one is a tree. Science stops short of knowing that true essence. How could it not? Yet philosophy as a speculative practice can enquire further into the tree’s nature. And why not? – After all, the existence of objects has a huge bearing on the existence of subjects. Existence per se is only fractionally (an infinitesimally small fraction) a human experience… most of it is objective experience. However, philosophy has a commitment to ‘truth’ too, and it is this that may lead it down a dead end which entails its actual demise. In that once we have stripped the subject of its unique status it becomes meaningless, nothing… we are players in a nihilist consommé’, in which all the ingredients are uniquely void.

I haven’t yet been convinced Harman can escape this, anymore than Brassier can, even though the former currently cannot abide the reductive Nihilism of the latter. That’s why I think we need bring an artistic element to the debate. One that is strangely lacking, partly, I believe, for the lack of experience amongst SP’s proponents in this field. And here I say ‘artistic’, not ‘aesthetic’, specifically to make a case separate from that made by Harman in his article ‘A Larger Sense of Beauty’ in which aesthetics is addressed in distinction to those contemporary art forms that are void of beauty (following upon Duchamp’s ‘anything can be art’).

PS: “We are players in a nihilist consommé’, in which all the ingredients are uniquely void.” If this is one fallout of this argument – of the failure of philosophy – or one major conclusion, then, without a doubt one sees, that, as so often, philosophy really might actually have some kind of value, that is, that it concerns itself with what are perennial questions. And these questions do seem cyclical, as what you say here, re. Nihilism is of course, the position that Nietzsche arrived at, and worried over, at the start of the modern industrialized age proper.

Nietzsche of course, in many texts/ways, seems to take this to its absolute end point in nihilistic terms. One of its main motifs being his infamous and widely misunderstood ‘God is Dead’. It is a new point of radical doubt, one that he understood to be simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. It is also creative. Following this nihilistic end point, all that was left was the subject, well not even a clear cut subject, but rather the subject as the one that designates and creates meaning, order, and who, in doing so, binds particulars, objects, the world, into concepts/discourse/meaning, whereas unto itself, the world, as object, is in effect meaningless, pure flux, in a constant state of becoming. Now, SR/OOP, from my limited understanding of the terms, starts from a similar realist or nihilist position as Nietzsche, but comes at the problem this raises from an entirely opposite direction – strongly on the side of the object. Nietzsche, of course, gave aesthetics, art, a special place, for essential reasons.

MW: I agree on most counts, though I’d be careful not to equate this absolute nihilism with Harman’s intentions. Harman is categorically against a reductive nihilism. He merely puts humans and objects on the same footing. Though this is awkward for me, as I argued on Speculative Heresy some time back:

‘It’s just that I can only picture his system as workable on his terms if subjective thought is pictured as an object, the seeming superiority of which – with regard to the vantage point it holds in philosophical discourse – being also objective in complexion. In this sense though, all hierarchies between objects, as construed by the human ’subject’ (that is for Harman an object) are spirited back into the overall network of object interactions as existent entities, and so we again have a notion of a superior human ’subject’ as the objective ‘thought’ which attests to that ‘fact’.’ And I was unconvinced by Levi Byant’s riposte.

With regard to ‘beauty’ I see something problematic if we are going to accept that we humans are, at base, objects. Inherent beauty (the capacity of things to evoke beauty for the subject) is no more proof of the value of existence than inherent faith in God (for believers). What interests me about beauty (so far as I have an interest) is the notion of beauty as disinterested, removed from any political concerns or any bias in judgment. But that notion has its limits. It depends on the existence of beauty, for one… and there barely exists a landmark of outstanding beauty for which there is not a horde of accompanying tourists and all of the trappings: Beauty has been sold off, objectified as a motor for the production of money. So I am unconvinced that one can evoke beauty. And that is quite apart from the fact that beauty itself seems a fey and exuberant thing to evoke in the face of oppression, of objectification (both at the hands of science, and at the hands of capital).

PS: ‘Beauty’? I personally have a problem with this Kantian vision of beauty as ‘disinterested’. (Although, to be fair you answer my complaint in some way at the end of your statement). ‘Beauty’, unless the concept is spelt out, is already, for me, a limiting aesthetic construct, let alone as a concept invoked to guide praxis. As ‘disinterested’ I just cannot see how we can ever get to this vis-à-vis the art object (and indeed, on a wider note, the cultural objects)? I guess in this sense, my position is aligned with a phenomenological approach, although I would also call this a realist one. That is, we are always already in a world, and the world, is everything that stands – a marker for the world of objects, politics, art, commodities, houses, etc; the whole shebang, We are always already in a world, and we are always already political animals (where politics is understood in its most general sense) – and any work of art can only have a meaning if it is always already within such a world… very circular I know, but I think you know what I mean. But, we both agree, that the ‘art object’ is of a special nature – esp., it seems, within such a discourse as the one we have just been speaking of.

MW: Yes, I follow you, but I think we need first to just jettison this notion of beauty, and to replace it with Art, stripped of beauty and standing alone as it is. In this case one keeps only the disinterested element: i.e. for Kant that which was beautiful was that which had no intrinsic purpose. Art has no purpose, and this rids it of any obligations. It is, further, a field primarily aimed at deception. I would argue that art then is uniquely posited to help the human subject to claim its importance and its right to freedoms not extended to the object, not so that it might reign supreme over the object, but so that it might resist objectification by other subjects and by the economic system. Where art enables someone to present a canvas as a landscape, a human form, or whatever, art might also allow the subject to make a plea to its worth as something beyond a mere conglomerate of cells. This seems to me to be the calling of art, following upon Duchamp’s declaration that ‘anything can be art’ and Beuys’ that ‘we are all artists’. I think the role of art now is to rescue the subject from the reductionist auspices of science and capital, while at the same time acknowledging that we are indeed ‘material’. We are object, and subject, and the latter aspect in turn beckons ethical responsibilities. However, for me, this is a conceptual practice… each person must declare himself or herself as subject, no less than Duchamp declared his urinal as art. The art object is secondary to this, and might even be a distraction. However, just as religious devotees use objects, I can see no harm in the artist conjuring objects, so long as it is not seen as an end, but rather as the means for them to then utilize the artwork for the realisation of the subject as ethical being.

In this sense I am not sure the actual artwork is necessary anymore. Artworks become like cultic objects aiming at carrying the subject out of its objectivity. Like magic charms, again, that always fail. Yet why have the objects at all..? Or, at least, might we realise their superfluity? Though I can see you’re more taken by art objects. You are an ‘artist’. I am a theorist (though in light of the above I am not sure this makes me any less an artist). Figuratively speaking, I’m a Protestant you’re a Catholic.

Part Two.

PS: I would like to quote a paragraph of yours from an earlier dialogue of ours concerning art, and from there move on to address your last point, this interesting notion, our point of separation, where you suggest you are Protestant whereas I am Catholic (using these terms metaphorically, and post, the ‘death of God’,): The ‘word’ vs. the ‘object’, as it were.

“The reason I cite ‘Art’ is it has as its very basis the kind of sleight of hand needed by the human if it is to declare itself as a ‘subject’ in a completely ‘objectified’ world – i.e. one in which everything is reduced to its material value by Science, and then to a monetary cipher for that value by Capital. A painting, composed of pigment, oil and cotton duck can pertain to be a dense forest landscape, whilst maintaining its form as mere artists’ materials, arranged to deceive. It is an illusion that admits of its illusory basis. The same could be said of Duchamp’s ‘urinal’ (‘Fountain’), declared by the artist to be ‘art’ in 1917. Just as Duchamp, and his audience, know the urinal to a be a mere ‘urinal’, it is possible for the educated subject (which is objectified by the Scientistic-Capitalist system) to declare itself as a free subject, despite knowing itself to be being a mere conglomeration of cells interacting in a world for which all activity – objectified as its monetary value – merely oils the wheels of the runaway Capitalist train. This declaration, not predicated on a lie, or on a calling to some higher spiritual force or utopian future enables the subject to envisage itself as ‘free’ within an unfree system. Then collective political activity can in turn have a purpose. ‘Make Art or Die’ need be an injunction, because only Art can evoke life – as fallacy – in an unliving world. It’s a ‘fact’. The trick is to then make this effective in the wider realm, something which would be pointless without the initial declaration by the subject of its own subjectivity (as ‘Art’ – though the import of ‘Art’ here should fall into nothingness… the import becomes ‘freedom, merely enabled by ’Art’)” [Watson]

Whilst I agree with you on how you present art’s role: ” art might also allow the subject to make a plea to its worth as something beyond a mere conglomerate of cells. This seems to me to be the calling of art, following upon Duchamp’s declaration that ‘anything can be art’ and Beuys’ that ‘we are all artists’. I think the role of art now is to rescue the subject from the reductionist auspices of science and capital, while at the same time acknowledging that we are indeed material. We are object, and subject, and the latter aspect in turn beckons ethical responsibilities”. I cannot follow you to the point of the excision of the art object itself. My thinking being that the object (not necessary as a thing in itself), or rather, the object, and integrally to this, the making of the object (praxis), and the remaking of the ‘object’ (in perception, discourse etc) is essential to the whole game. Without the ‘object’ ’Art’’ falls away – the object, and here, the aesthetic object rather than simply a physical object, must be understood in a wider sense, (one can speak surely, of the object of discourse, of a literary object i.e. a text, a poem, etc)? Without object, no subject, the two are irrevocably connected?

MW: I am not intending on removing the object, but merely upon excising the subject, the creator, from objectification at the hands of capital and science, and in order to do that I would like to invoke ‘art’, but not via the art object, as art objects, works, products, are all too easily trapped within the system of production and consumption. Further, objects cannot very well act as an effective means of de-objectifying the subject, especially if the subject becomes in thrall to it, petrified by it! All I am advocating is that the artist- and ‘we are all artists’ – takes the exemplary message from art, the ability for art to present a deception, and creates his/her own deception; a deception as to our autonomy from the capitalist system, and from the objectifying auspices of Science, though one that is possible without recourse to a higher spiritual force, and without dismantling the capitalist system. That can happen later. And not before. An ‘artist’ might then make works, but without first declaring their subjectivity, as a ruse, and believing in it, they are mere objects changing, modifying other objects… the painter becomes an object twitching at the end of a paintbrush. The life, the freedom has first to be feigned before that act, the painting, or whatever, means anything, and that is the most important artistic gesture, whether you be a painter, a politician, or a bricklayer. The alarmist refusal of this idea comes from people who wish to defend the artwork for their own ends… I am not keen to destroy the artwork, but only to point out that it is not enough in itself. One needs to believe in ‘Art’, in subjective freedom, and one needs to feign it. Because one cannot know to what extent such a freedom is impossible in fact.

PS: I think, here finally, we have arrived at an interesting plateau, a point at which we can both agree, though coming at it from slightly different angles… I agree, entirely that the vouchsafing of the freedom implied in the act, the praxis, is totally necessary, and that discourse is similarly necessary and that the art object in itself is never enough. One also thinks here of all the horribly overproduced, hyperinflational (in every sense of the word), works that became so common during the last art boom, prior to the recent global recession. There is something so entirely unethical about such work, esides the fact that so much of it is, for me, just plain dumb, boring and one-dimensional. Art ‘strikes’ – in a mimesis of the wider discourse of worker protest – have of course been attempted, Gustav Metzger, Stewart Home more recently. But the only way that, for me, this could be a true power, would be if one could have a general strike in the name of ‘Art’, now that would certainly be an interesting piece of work (without a – physical – object).

The relation between art and capital has of course, always been fraught with difficulties. But then, in a world such as ours, (the world of late-capitalism,
society of the spectacle, the risk society, global capitalism, etc.), is not all labour, to use an old Marxist term, alienated; and are not all products of such labour, simultaneously alienated, fetishtized? We are all, whatever profession we undertake, then, beholden to Mammon. On a simpler note, there is of course, the fact that we all need to live, and this means, we all need money, unless, and until we can find a different way of doing things. In this world of ours, capital reaches from the top of our heads, to the soles of feet, it is enmeshed within all of our social transactions. Everything is measured out, commodified, objectified, and this, is why, yes, we certainly need to attempt to vouchsafe the ‘Subject’, and try and conserve and enlarge where possible, whatever freedoms are left to us in an unfree world. And art indeed may have a special place here. But for me, this entails the object, it entails making. It is one of the few remaining, even if, illusory in the grander scheme of things, free areas of endeavor left to us. But let me say here, firstly, that one must extend the very notion of the art object – a poem, a statement, a discourse, a painting, a song, all these are ‘objects’. The wonderful thing for me about art is that it eludes objectification – it escapes, it flees, splinters – The art object is a complex assemblage, one that is never merely the object itself.

In the conclusion of his extended essay/book, ‘Eroticism’, George Bataille speaks of language and discourse as being the necessary scaffolding, without which one could not understand, let alone be in the position to jump out of/beyond language, into the exemplary freedom of what he terms the excessive moment, the Bataillean sublime, eroticism being placed as an essential element of this. For me, when a piece of art functions, it is like language/discourse in the preceding example. It is the same with me for the making of art – the objects themselves are nodal points, stepping stones, as you say, the painter twitching at the end of the paintbrush – the experience of the making is paramount – just as dialogue is essential etc – I always think, the object as commodity can be bought and sold, but ‘art’ as making, as praxis, cannot be bought and sold – this is something, be one the maker, the viewer, the reader, the listener, that one has to ‘make’ and remake oneself, and this implies, more than implies, activates a possibility of freedom, qua. Subject-Object, that allows a passage beyond the mere conglomerating of cells (positivistic science) or the subject as mere nodal point, mere sump, for the input of commodification, etc.

In a way, the title of the exhibition, and the short statement (above), says it all, albeit in a condensed, necessarily, ambiguous fashion. Object/Object.

I use Object here, not merely as a noun, ‘to present to the mind – to throw in the way of, to hinder,’ etc, but also as a verb, to object, objection. Object-Culture. Object to the world, culture as it stands – place objections (yes, art-objects, discourse, etc) in its path. Culture/Culture. Perhaps we need to find a vaccine for artworks, or they should be vaccinated before being put on show.

MW: Well we sort of agree, though can I quickly tell you where we don’t agree? OK… I think things are so on the edge politically that if an artist were to give up practice in order to promote the notion of art as capable of of bringing about the subject, devoid of any recourse to the object, well that would be a very noble thing. And then, if an artist were to not do that, then, well that it might be seen as selfish.

Copyright: Paul Sakoilsky/Mike Watson.
London/Rome April 2010.


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