Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Some Outlines for Art in the Time of Hyperobjects

Bridget Riley

Now several commenters have been asking me to explore the notion of tuning a little more, since I've been using it in my talks on art in the time of hyperobjects. Now that I've briefly reacquainted myself with the wonderful sounds of Terry Riley I think I can do it. At least a bit better.

I was talking with one of my Ph.D. students today (hi Angie!) about art in the time of hyperobjects. We decided that art in this fourth (impossible) moment of art history, the one that Hegel couldn't have predicted, but which is perfectly predictable within his system if you're not Hegel, probably has some characteristics:

(1) art as hypocrisy
(2) art as demonic force
(2) art as collaboration between humans and nonhumans

Let's sift through these one by one.

(1) Hypocrisy. This has two components: (a) weakness and (b) irony.
(a) Weakness. The object (1+n) of them exist ontologically prior to your art, and art's form and content are now asymmetrical. We know so much about real entities (modern science). Yet precisely because of this they loom uncannily towards us, getting stranger by the minute. All our representations are inadequate—we've kept this from the Romantic phase of art, 1770–2000 (more on this when I talk next).

Since we are inside at least one of these objects (e.g. global warming), and since “inside the hyperobject we are always in the wrong” (see my previous), art becomes an art of lameness and weakness. Nietzschean impulses are vanquished by sliding underneath them like a scared little vole or a slime mold. This in particular ends the Nietzscheanism of contemporary Marxian “critique.” That stuff is done.

(b) Irony. Rather than a vertiginous antirealist abyss, irony presents us with intimacy with 1+n objects that already exist. Irony is the canary in the coalmine of the hyperobject, a symptom that existed even during the Romantic phase. “The vicissitudes of this life are like drowning in a glass pond.” Irony is the experience of total sincerity, of being enveloped by a hyperobject, of being Jonah in the whale realizing that he is part of the whale's digestive system.

(2) Art as demonic force. Plato imagines artistic inspiration as an electromagnetic field (Ion). It's time we took this grandaddy of aesthetic vehicles out for another spin. Post-1800 physics presents us with a universe of waves: electromagnetic, gravitational and quantum. Then there are wavelike phenomena such as Lorenz attractors (high dimensional objects such as hyperobjects must be wavelike). Tuning in this respect is attuning the art object (voice, breath, instrument) to these physical waves, quite literally.

These waves are somewhat or entirely nonlocally distributed. Below the size of an electron, for instance (10-17cm), there is a vast ocean of .... what? Right down to the Planck length (10-33cm) and possibly lower (strings). It's possible that spacetime is an emergent property of objects larger than 10-17cm. This means that objects below this scale are “everywhere.” That is, if we think that quantum theory is telling us something about reality rather than simply acting as a correlationist tool.

But in a more mundane sense, Faraday and Maxwell imagined electromagnetic fields permeating the universe. The same can be said for gravitational fields. They never really zero out. So you can see the Cosmic Microwave Background from the “beginning” of the universe on your TV set when you see TV snow, and so on. Somewhat nonlocal I'd say.

Art becomes tuning to the depth of these fields. Genius is no longer something you are, as in the Romantic period, but something you “have,” like in previous periods. You “have” genius because art is an attunement to a demonic force coming from the nonhuman and permeating it (as we all know we have all been strafed by radiation, etc.)

(3) Art as collaboration between humans and nonhumans. (1) and (2) and their scientific underpinning (we know about global warming, gravity waves, etc.) give rise to a necessary knowledge about smaller scale, medium sized objects such as paintings and poems. Relativity affects pencils and professors flying at altitude above Earth. When you write a poem you are making a deal with some paper, some ink, wordprocessing software, trees, editors and air. (And so on.)

And given (2) you have to wonder whether your poem about global warming is really a hyperobject's way of distributing itself into human ears and libraries.

And given (1), even your poem that isn't about global warming takes place on the inside of a hyperobject—and so it's a function of that object in some sense.

1 comment:

Bill Benzon said...

When you write a poem you are making a deal with some paper, some ink, wordprocessing software, trees, editors and air.

Yes. And the formal properties of the poem (or painting or song) are as important to the artistry as the 'content' of the poem, what the poem's about. Those formal properties are necessarily physical properties; they're about how the physical stuff is deployed in the art work. They too are constitutive of 'meaning.'

Which is one of the reason I've been spending so much time describing formal properties of cartoons.