Photography and the Language of Things | David Cunningham | Monday, 13.06.2016

If Things Could Speak

“What if things could speak? What would they tell us? Or are they speaking already and we just don’t hear them? And who is going to translate them?” It is such questions that Hito Steyerl suggests, in her 2006 article “The Language of Things”, are posed in an essay written ninety years earlier: Walter Benjamin’s posthumously published “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”. Here, Steyerl argues, the great German philosopher and critic “develops the concept of a language of things”, where “there is a language of stones, pans and cardboard boxes. Lamps speak as if inhabited by spirits. Mountains and foxes are involved in discourse. High-rise buildings chat with each other. Paintings gossip”.

These are indeed something like Benjamin’s questions. (“Who does the lamp communicate with?,” Benjamin asks. “The mountain? The fox?”) But it’s hard, too, not to see this concept of a language of things as prompted by, and as alluding to, a far more pervasive turn to things and objects in recent theory and art than could be disinterred from the ‘weird’ mix of pantheism, nominalism and early romanticism to be found in the young Benjamin’s essay itself (written when he was 24 years old). Indeed, from the post-Deleuzian vitalism of a so-called new materialism to the generalized ‘actants’ of Latourian anthropology to the ‘withdrawing’ but always active objects of object-oriented ontology, speaking things are pretty much everywhere in the humanities and social science today. (Speaking stones – a very old image – seem to exert a particular fascination. 1See, for example, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015); Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015). ) It is not so surprising, then, that (largely following up on Steyerl’s own suggestion) at least one author should have suggested that Benjamin’s 1916 essay can itself “be considered a precursor to contemporary discourse surrounding posthumanism and object-oriented ontology”, as well as of various forms of recent art practice that are “founded on ‘languages issuing from matter’”.2See Kayla Anderson, “Object Intermediaries: How New Media Artists Translate the Language of Things”, online at:
Avebury Stone (Double Exposure) (29240) Paul Nash, Black and White Negative, Avebury Stone (Double Exposure), 1933 © Tate

Exemplary of such ‘posthumanism’, it is as a quest “to give voice to a thing-power”, “to give voice to a vitality intrinsic to materiality”, that Jane Bennett, for instance, describes her project in her influential book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010). But this is not a projection or simple ventriloquism. No. Rather it is things themselves that issue “a call”, even if one where we have some difficulty in understanding what such ‘stuff’ is ‘saying’. 3Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010) 2–4. “As if a damning curse had been cast unto things, they remain asleep like the servants of some enchanted castle,” writes Latour in Reassembling the Social (published the year before Steyerl’s essay), complaining of the incapacity of conventional sociology to give voice to ‘the object’. “Yet, as soon as they are freed from the spell, they start shuddering, stretching, and muttering”. The likes of Actor-Network-Theory (or ANT), new materialism or object-oriented ontology thus play, Latour suggests, the role of a “Prince Charming” whose kiss awakes the “Sleeping Beauty” of the object world. 4Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 73.

As ontology or metaphysics, rather than, say, convenient fictions or thought experiments through which one might imagine what things might ‘say’ of and for themselves, such new materialist or object-oriented philosophies (including, increasingly, Latour’s own recent metaphysical turn) don’t stand up to much conceptual scrutiny. Instead, they tend to rely upon a rhetorical vigour as opposed to actual argument, as if one could, with the help of a bit of poetry, write oneself ‘into’ the thing, more or less intuitively. It’s striking that what should then substitute for argument in this work is often a form of primarily ‘aesthetic’ appeal that valorises a creativity and openness over the ‘negativity’ of critique, or what Bennett calls “demystification”. More often than not, it is then the quirky list of idiosyncratic individual things – a now rather tiresome ‘poetic’ feature of such work, to which Benjamin’s own image of lamps communicating with mountains and foxes might (too quickly) be assimilated – that generally substitutes for any actual philosophy of objects, ironically reducing the particular thing to an infinitely interchangeable series of examples.

I would not be the first to point out the problematic anthropomorphism – or, indeed, logocentrism, as the now-ever-so-unfashionable Derrida once termed it – that seems endemic to such work also, whereby, despite the self-defining call to recognise the indifference of things to us, and thereby to challenge any hierarchies of being (not really such a contentious position), the ultimate effect is to write as if human-like forms of subjectivity and agency are to be found in every thing everywhere. (Bennett’s own typically quirky list of “a dead rat, a plastic cap, a spool of thread” is significantly described as a cast of “characters” in her speculative “story”. 5Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 3. ) While, ethically as well as philosophically, the intention is here further to de-centre the human, and thereby to encourage a humility in the face of things that is frequently connected to an ecological politics, this tends, in fact, to reinforce a rather traditional propensity to animate the world around us precisely on the model of ourselves. Tellingly, it is thus the rather vague summons towards what Bennett terms “an aesthetic-affective openness to material vitality” that takes ultimate responsibility for providing a passage between humans and those things that are, in themselves, indifferent to ‘us’. It is not so surprising, as a consequence, that it has proved to be of considerable attractiveness to artists.
Neither From Nor Towards (29241) Cornelia Parker, Neither From Nor Towards, 1992; Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © The Artist

What Benjamin’s 1916 essay shares with such ideas is a critique or rejection of instrumental accounts of language, as a part of which he seeks to extend the concept of language beyond the human to a language of things, and thereby proposes an understanding of language as designating any system of expression, including what he describes as “the communion of matter in magic communion”. At the same time, however, if what appears as “mute” or “speechless” is thus not outside of but within language, properly understood, equally it is the case that specifically human language does have, for Benjamin, the distinctive property of “naming” the world, and through this of “translating” other languages (of things) into itself, by virtue of the ways in which it is less tied to the material.

One can see why this is an appealing notion, not least for artists. Yet it is undoubtedly odd also to go looking for a rigorously materialist Benjamin, as Steyerl evidently desires, in a text which – to borrow a phrase from one of his best Anglophone commentators – appears to be among his most “uncompromisingly occult”. 6Howard Caygill, Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience (London: Routledge, 1998), 153–154.

Indeed, as I’ll try to make clearer in a subsequent post, it is only by reading this back through the later Marxian Benjamin, and through his writings on capitalism and technology, that Steyerl is ultimately able to pull this off (albeit with certain peculiar consequences, I think). After all, what makes “translation” possible is, for the early Benjamin, as Steyerl does indeed acknowledge, a theological claim that “the name-language of mankind and the nameless language of things [are] related in God and released from the same creative word”. Human hubris lies in imagining, then, that human language might function as the instrumental measure for all other languages, since this would (in classical fashion) be to place humanity in the position of God, rather than allowing itself to be transformed by other languages. As a fall from a mutual affinity of human and things, it is a postlapsarian human language that confronts us in modernity – one that has arrogantly abandoned naming and translation, and which is, as Benjamin puts it in a telling phrase, the “origin of abstraction”, or, as Steyerl might suggest, of “representation”.

Nonetheless, a reading of Benjamin’s youthful work might also suggest why it might be less interesting at this point to assess the genuine philosophical plausibility of such claims – given the theological premises on which they rest (which have more than a little in common with medieval mysticism) – than to ask what it is that this kind of conception of a translation of the “language of things” allows ‘us’ to do. (Or, to put it another way: to ask why so many are so keen for things to speak, or so keen to “side with the object”, as Steyerl puts it.) Certainly, Benjamin’s conception of translation might be read in this light as playing a role akin to Latour’s Prince Charming, not only because it “addresses the relationship of human language and thing language,” as Steyerl puts it, but because in positing that things precisely have language it (re-)animates the world of things themselves. If humans can then “start listening” to things again, it would “be the first step towards a coming common language, which is not rooted in the hypocrite presumption of a unity of humankind, but in a much more general material community”. Translation would “not silence the language of things” but would “amplif its potential of change”.
Factory of the Sun (29242) Hito Steyerl, Factory of the Sun, MOV file, video still, 2015 © The Artist

Most interesting to me is that it is precisely in this context that Steyerl proposes that the documentary image perhaps best exemplifies one form of translating “from the language of things into the one of humans”, but, in doing so, would itself possess two different, ultimately conflicting dimensions: one which (on the model of Benjamin’s postlapsarian language) violently “objectifies [or abstracts] the thing in question, fixes its meaning and constructs stable categories of knowledge to understand it”, and one in which things “articulate themselves within the documentary forms”. To engage in “the language of things in the realm of documentary form” is thus not, on this latter account, about “realist” modes of “representation at all, but about actualising whatever the things have to say in the present”. As Steyerl puts it, the image is a matter of “presencing”, not re-presentation, and “thus transforming [or being transformed by?] the social, historical and also material relations, which determine things”.

Now, this is the point in Steyerl’s own essay in which she shifts from the 1916 piece on language to the later Benjamin (a move that I will follow further in my final posts), as in fact is necessitated by the concern for the “social” and “historical” that she articulates (and to avoid any collapse into actual mysticism, as is too often the case in at least some variants of the new materialism). But for my next post I want to consider, first, the questions posed by this conception of the documentary image itself.