“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Staring at Toasters: Ian Bogost on Teaching OOO

I have had similar experiences in classes where I've presented my stuff. However, because many of these events have an ecological flavor, the feeling is slightly different. There is already an attunement to things nonhuman. I've said it before and will say it again: OOO is very congruent with an age of ecological awareness.

"If I can be a bit glib, [anxious questions on how OOO treats human suffering] ask, essentially, how can you just stare at toasters while children are starving in Africa?"

Here Ian "goes there," in his pleasing and inimitable manner. If I may pick up on the implied aestheticism of his "glib" way of putting it: this is precisely the issue at stake.

What disturbs about Kantian beauty is its object orientation. Beauty is an OOO object-like experience in that it is ungraspable yet verifiably real. And it's an attunement to a thing whose beauty is not locatable anywhere on its ontic surface at all: yet it's just this very thing that I find beautiful. This nice Persian carpet, not that one.

The aesthetic lineage from Kant to Keats to the Pre-Raphaelites to Warhol and more is often seen as dangerously lacking a "point" or agenda. It tacks perilously close to the dreaded commodity fetishism, or even worse...Buddhism.

This is the flavor of the reaction when I present the kind of work Ian talks about. There is a kind of Romanticism at work within Hegelianism and Marxism (Marx was a Romantic poet, first). This Romanticism has always been on the side of the cognitive upgrade, art plus manifesto, change your mind and your ass will follow. Despite what is said about the role of the (human) subject in the more structuralist and post-structuralist variants of these views, this has been the orientation.

(Marxists in these moments of condemning photos of toasters often forget what their main guy says about commodity fetishism: it resides in the object, not in my appropriation of it, or concept of it, or what have you. That weird blind spot at this point is rather telling, from the standpoint of a history of correlationism.)

Art under these conditions is a beautiful failure, a complicated architecture you get lost in, a machine whose object is...you. The ultimate form is concept art.

Art that tacks close to the "purposelessness" and non-conceptuality of Kantian beauty tends to be devalued as kitsch. As glib. Just look at what even Adorno, champion within Hegelianism of "the priority of the object," does to the Pre-Raphaelites (and look at what Adornian Rob Kaufman does to William Morris, or at any rate, what I've heard him do).

That's the trouble with Warhol too: he just forces you to stare at a Brillo pad. But even within Marxism, the jury is out on whether the constant upgrading of the subject (and shocking of the bourgeoisie) is the correct tactic. And the evidence is in: it is a two-centuries long failure that the left cynical mode loves to self-flagellate about.

We have been accused of nihilism, as were many of the “kitsch” type artists since 1780. Now let me go there in my way, inspired by Ian's bravado:

I truly believe that the future is through the nihilism: of the commodity form, of the revaluation of all values (which Ian's post speaks to somewhat), and so on. Through it, not despite it or over the top of it. Nietzsche pretty skillfully sealed the exit over the top: how do you overcome overcoming? So it's down we go, down underneath. Because, and I also believe this, underneath are OOO objects, otherwise known as Earth.

Resist this passage, and you end up with Nature. Or Nature and Culture. Or natureculture. There is Nature, outside the window; here is Culture, inside: you have explained everything—except for the window, the fantasy screen separating you from Nature. And except for windows, those pesky nonhumans.

Resist this passage, in other words, and you end up with--modernity. Nothing has happened.

So I will go a bit further than that part of Ian's post and say actually yes, we are nihilistic. And that's not a bad thing at all. I might even say at this point that OOO is better at nihilism than Brassier-ian thought. I'm not going to explain exactly why here, because it would take a lot of words: but it's in Dark Ecology.

"First there are mountains...then there are no mountains...then there are mountains."


Bill Benzon said...

Adorno on jazz made me blush almost as much as Galloway on OOP.

Anonymous said...

"Marxists in these moments of condemning photos of toasters often forget what their main guy says about commodity fetishism: it resides in the object, not in my appropriation of it, or concept of it, or what have you."

But commodity fetishism is bad, isn't it? It's all about assigning to the object want does not belong to the object but the social interaction between humans who produce commodities - no?

Timothy Morton said...

I make no claim that commodity fetishism isn't bad. But you do seem to fall into the category of those who think that it is somehow pasted on to the commodity, rather than emerging from the commodity as such.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's not me, it's Marx - you were referring to Marx, I thought. "Fetishism" part does not come from commodities but from the social relations of production. I just wanted to make sure you were talking about Marx's version. Commodity fetishism is bad, as you know, because what seems to be in the object is actually not there at all...

Nothing emerges from a commodity, commodity is something produced by humans. Are you equating commodities and objects? Maybe I'm just misunderstanding your parenthetical?