Max Bouwhuis

20.06.2016

When the Thing Talks Back: Emancipation of the Object

The Dominant Subject: The World Is Only in Your Mind

Image: Joseph Kosuth, Self-Defined Object [green], 1966, 10,5 x 172 cm., green neon.

Esse Est Percipi, or “to be is to be perceived”, is the semantic cage in which objects have been allowed to exist, or given a certain presence – but only in the minds of Mankind. An object, according to the 17th-century Irish thinker George Berkeley, one of the more radical philosophers of Idealism, is only a mental construction that cannot exist without having a subject that can think of it. It is the fortunate Human Being, blessed with a “mind, spirit, soul or my self [being an individual]” as Berkeley himself argued, that provides things the possibility to dwell on our planet – yet, only in the abstract, ideal space of Man: the mind that perceives ideas and is able to think.1

This gloomy, mental cage, in which the object was predestined to be, has also been enhanced by René Descartes, who translated his philosophy in the words Cogito Ergo Sum, or “I think, therefore I exist”. This French philosopher argued that

I do not now admit anything which is not necessarily true: to speak accurately I am not more than a thing which thinks that is to say a mind or a soul or an understanding, or a reason which are terms whose significance was formerly unknown to me. I am, however, a real thing and really exist; but what thing? I have answered: a thing which thinks.2

He developed dualisms between mind and body, object and subject, or in other words, the distinction between those who think and those who cannot. He separated his immaterial spirit from the material body, and concluded that material reality consisting of the things or object outside Man’s mind is a res extensa, or “a substance wholly reducible to its geometrical properties”. Following his logic, any sensitive experience that is generated when the body interacts with material reality is a “shadow dance, a seductive deception” of colours, smells, tastes, and sounds revealed by our body.3

The subject-object dualism that originates from the ideas of early Modern philosophers, such as Berkeley and Descartes, became a strong tradition in Western philosophy, constructing a world view that conceives reality as divided into two constantly opposed and tensed spheres: the object or thing belongs to the world of the natural, the physical and the material, while the human mind is part of the supernatural, the mental and the ideal – the object became a silenced, passive thing, subjected to deterministic, physical laws, while the knowing subject was supposed to be driven by the ability of Reason and a free will. Immanuel Kant, today he epitomizes modern Enlightenment thinking, enhanced this view even further and defended the idea that the mind categorizes and organizes sensual experiences, through which humans are able to know external phenomena, but is unable to know the factuality of Dinge an sich.

The Death of the Object: Will There Be Any Material Future?

How, as Marlies Kolodziey also questions, did certain technical, cultural and socio-political developments that stimulate the dematerialization of the world we live in affect this way of thinking and our relation to objects? Within the artistic field, one can argue that the revolution of conceptualism in the late 1960s created the conditions for the hegemony of the idea today that contemporary art is first and foremost an idea: the materiality of much of the post-conceptual art is inferior to the concept and “the historical dependence of art upon physical form and its visual appreciation”. The role of art as an object was reduced. This “de-emphasis – or the dematerialization – of the object” allowed “the artistic energies to move from the object to the conduct of art”.4

Other forms of dematerialization include the mastery of brand names in the world of the consumer: it seems that it does no longer matter what we buy and consume – the symbolic power of the brand name dematerializes the commodity, or at least the desire. At the same time, as the influential Italian philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato shows us, contemporary class warfare is conducted through the dematerialization of labour and money:

Debt represents a transversal power relation unimpeded by the State boundaries, the dualisms of production (active/non active, employed/unemployed, productive/non-productive), and the distinctions between the economy, the political and the social. It immediately acts at the global level, affecting entire populations, calling for and contributing to the ethical construction of the indebted man.5

These current developments – one could argue that 1970 marks the beginning of the increased dematerialization of life6 – introduce a certain ambivalence to human life. On the one hand, as Jane Bennet also observes, “this quick substitution sustains the fantasy that ‘we’ really are in charge of all of those ‘its’,” but on the other hand, the boosted creation of abstractions of social processes that used to be materialized into things – money that becomes a credit card, or social interaction that becomes social media, for example – tends to destabilize and vaporize the once graspable and intelligible aspects of human life.

A Reappraisal of the Object – It is Their World, Not Ours

Turning this rhetoric around, the capitalist machine, which is founded on the act of turning the use-value of products – essentially things – into exchange value, becoming a commodity and thus transcending sensuousness and the satisfying of human needs, it is through the digitalization that even immaterial entities – love, friendship, human affects – are turned into commodities, or thingified (reified). Neoliberal existence in the oppressive, exploitative and reified capitalist social relations is a matter of ‘becoming-data’, used by Internet giants as Google, Facebook and even smaller apps, such as Tinder, in order to make commodified things out of subsumed human interaction.

Another development that catalyses the uncanny sentiment of being a free-floating subject in a dematerializing world is the global crises that out scale human spatial and temporal categories, stimulating human thinking away from “the small island of meaning to which philosophy has confined itself”7. A new movement within philosophy, know as Speculative Realism, appeared, critically reinvestigating the position of the human being amidst ungraspable ecological, financial and socio-political traumas of the current global age, which is constantly daunted by phenomena as global warming, rising inequality and masses of stateless refugees. It is, according to them, the spell of correlationism – the idea that meaning is only possible between a thinking human and the products of human thinking, which are the objects – that conditions contemporary problems that today’s “(sinking) ship of modernity “ faces.

It is us, beings, that must face a turn towards objects, instead of turning our lives away from them, separating our ability to exist and know this world from the things. The exploitative machine of capitalism, turning the once autonomous affects of the spiritual and mental mind into data-objects that can condition multi-national profit, as well as ungraspable ecological and economic crises, out-scaling our categories of spatial and temporal reason, break faith with the contradicting powers of human subjectivity. Hito Steyerl already proposed to stop criticizing the destructive power relations that are the result of global capitalism and start siding with the objects: “why not affirm it? Why not be a thing? An object without a subject? A thing amongst other things?”, she proposes.8 She is not the only one: “things and the senses are no longer in conflict with one another but have struck an alliance thanks to which the most detached abstract and the most unrestrained excitement are almost inseparable and are often indistinguishable”, argues Mario Perniola in his publication on Sex Appeal of the Inorganic. This subversion of the tradition phantasm that the subject is a “living, desiring, pleasure-loving” being allows the subject-becoming-an-object to “include the neuter of sexuality, completing the movement of libidinal appropriation of the opposites that led Sade and Masoch to sexualise fear and pain”.9

The objects, designed by Marlies Kolodziey, precisely participate in the current crisis of ontology – who are we and what is our relation to the world we inhabit, or colonise? They dissolve, or excel, the traditional dichotomies that used to define subjectivity and the conception of being in this world. They provide the possibility, in their aesthetics of both unrecognizable yet also vaguely tangible forms, for ‘becoming-a-thing’. Things; they are you and me. Both people and objects: but, should we not realize that it is not our world, but theirs, as Simons also propositioned?10 As Marlies Kolodziey designs possibilities rather than bespoken functionalities, she does not offer many traditional entrances that tell the perceiver – which is an object as well – how to perceive the objects: one can therefore say that she, as a designer, emancipated the objects she made from the narrow, individual, human-linguistic construction, the cage that once hid vital material from the potential to live and cooperate, in order to know the world better than we have ever done. Through a visual conversation with them – an essentially interobjective one – we can define who we are. But, without falling into the traps of the myths of subjectivity.

1. Udo Thiel, The Early Modern Subject: Self-Consciousness and Personal Identity from Descartes to Hume, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2011), p. 259.

2. René Descartes quoted in G. N. A. Vesey [ed.], Body and Mind, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. (1964), p. 24.

3. Drew Leder, The Absent Body, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press (1990), p. 130.

4. Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver and Rachel Weiss, Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s, New York: Queens Museum of Art (1999), p. viii.

5. Maurizo Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man, Joshua David Jordan [transl.], Los Angeles: Semiotext(e) (2012), p. 89.

6. Joshua Simons argues that 1970 marks the introduction of various credit technologies. Humans first go in debt in order to be able to enter the labour market: “from credit cards to mortgages and student loans, these involve different ways of privatizing the commons”. See: Joshua Simons, Neomaterialism, Berlin: Sternberg Press (2013), p. 18. Also, the so-called Nixon Shock took place in 1971, which cancelled the direct convertibility of the US dollar to a material reality, namely that of gold. This process resulted in a regime based on freely floating fiat currencies, destabilizing once fixed exchange rates. The 1970s also mark the institutionalization of dematerialized tendencies within art, better known as conceptualism.

7. Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press (2013), p. 10.

8. Hito Steyerl, ‘A Thing Like You and Me’, in: e-flux, vol. 15 (2010), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/a-thing-like-you-and-me/.

9. Mario Perniola, The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic, New York and London: Continuum (2007)

10. Simons (2013), p. 25.