Photography and the Language of Things | David Cunningham | Monday, 18.07.2016

The Liberation of Things

I ended my last post with the suggestion that underlying the recent turn to the ‘object’ or ‘thing’ one might glimpse a certain ‘posthumanist’ anxiety – an anxiety occasioned by the degree to which capitalist modernity is a world “ruled by abstractions”, in the words of Marx; abstractions that have come to assume an objective reality which is ‘quasi-independent’ of the things, objects and individuals that constitute them, but which is not ‘material’ in any usual empirical sense. Such abstract social forms – money, the commodity, the value form – do not merely ‘conceal’ the ‘real’ social relations and objective networks constitutive of capitalism, but, on the contrary, actually are the ‘real’ relations that structure capitalist modernity as an increasingly global mode of social life encompassing human and non-human ‘things’ alike. The actual organisation of social and material relations is driven by a real abstraction that, far from being a question of mere faulty thinking or false consciousness, “moves within the object itself”. 1Christopher J. Arthur, “The Spectral Ontology of Value”, Radical Philosophy 107 (2001), 41.

In this context, it is not so surprising that current desires to speak a language of things should also have been accompanied, particularly in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, by frequent calls for a return to the “real economy of manufacturing and circulating goods at the expense of … incorporeal transactions”, as one recent artists’ piece entitled “Can Objects Perform?: Agency and Thingliness in Contemporary Sculpture and Installation” puts it. As an attempt to politicize the concerns of contemporary “object-oriented philosophy”, here the turn against an “economy of pure branding” mirrors a growing revolt against both, the authors argue, the conceptualist “dematerialization of art” (always a slightly peculiar notion) and the “immaterial” forms of financial speculation. Yet, in fact, it is precisely the ‘universalizing’ actuality of ‘objectively’ abstract social forms that constitutes, in some fundamental sense, the most ‘real’ dimension of the capitalist economy and its grip on social relations – not only because of the specific dominance of finance capital today, but because, quite simply, it is an abstraction (the value form) that makes capitalism what it is in the first place. Recall what Marx says of the commodity qua commodity: “Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values; in this it is the direct opposite of the coarsely sensuous objectivity of commodities as physical objects ”. 2Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), 138. Money, in particular, is both all-too-real, and yet, as value, is neither ‘real’ nor a material ‘thing’ in conventionally empirical terms (which is why, as Brecht, for one, recognised, it cannot be indexically captured as such, but only, as it were, indirectly in the traces of its effects). As Boris Arvatov puts it, if “the bourgeois deals with the Thing first and foremost in its guise as a commodity … [h]ere the Thing becomes an abstract category, it appears in the capacity of an a-material exchange value”. 3Boris Arvatov, “Everyday Life and the Culture of the Thing (Toward the Formulation of the Question)”, trans. Christina Kiaer, October 81 (1997), 122 (emphasis added).

For this reason, when it comes, specifically, to ‘the image’, it would not be hard to connect such a problem of abstraction to a set of parallel concerns about the changing ‘ontology’ of photographic images, for example, and of their own relation to a world of things, where an uncertainty about the shifting status of an indexical relation to reality brought about, most obviously, by digitalization can, at the same time, be understood to intersect with a far more widespread anxiety about the abstraction of social being characteristic of capitalist societies. 4The point has been well made by my Radical Philosophy colleague Peter Osborne in “Infinite Exchange: The Social Ontology of the Photographic Image”, Philosophy of Photography 1, 1 (2010), 59–68. This is not, however, to say that the technological issues concerning digitalization can simply be reduced to an issue of ‘capitalism’, nor that they don’t require specific thought, but it is to suggest that technological developments do have to be understood, at the very least, as fundamentally shaped by ‘value’, and as thus socially constituted in this specific sense. And, of course, insofar as ‘photography’ itself is (like ‘the image’) a thoroughly historical concept, the question of its relations to the changing politics of cultural forms more generally (as well as and in relation to technological forms) remains evidently central here.

As I have suggested in my previous posts, part of what is so interesting about Hito Steyerl’s recent writings is that, while registering their own turn towards (or, even, identification with) the thing, they also insist, by virtue of their Benjaminian inspiration, upon this historical dimension. Much of this centres on what I have described as a conception of the image-as-thing as a kind of fossil, capturing indexically the ways in which the “negativity of the thing can be discerned by its bruises” –“diagrams of political and physical violence” that, for Steyerl, means that even the so-called “digital image” can, as indexed in “the traces of its rips and transfers”, never be taken as somehow “outside history”. (From this perspective, of course, it is worth remembering that no image qua image is ever ‘digital’ as such; hence its inescapable ‘materialization’ in some form.) Part of what fascinates me here, then, is that, despite her call to escape the ‘realist paradigm’, Steyerl’s conception of a revitalized “documentary image” does not seek thus to sever the image’s relation to the real, but, on the contrary, looks to reinvest it to a particularly strong degree. Indeed – and this would presumably be the ultimate moment of its withdrawal from realist ‘representation’ – it would reinvest this relation to the real to the point of identifying the image with it as such. (In this sense, it is not just that every image is (also) a thing, but that every thing is an image.)

As I have implied, this is not without its problems. In particular, the need for the image to be, at some level, both a thing (like any other thing) and an indexical image of some (other) thing(s) – like the charred roll of photography that speaks of the historical violence of war in Steyerl’s essay “Missing People”, – does rather mean that some form of re-presentation, however minimally understood, is continually sneaking back in here. There is also a sense in which the privileged directness of the relation to the ‘real’ signalled by the image-as-thing – and which rests seemingly on the indexicality of material itself, as in the telling choice of the photographic roll as an example over any actual photograph – can come, in places, to seem more about certain aesthetic ‘signs’ of the real (as signified, most obviously, by forms of imperfection) than the actual reality of the material thing qua thing as such. After all, the so-called “poor image” is no more or less intrinsically a ‘real thing’ than is the “crystal-clear piece of official evidence”.
Duty-Free Art (29250) Hito Steyerl, Duty-Free Art, 2015/2016. Installation view, Museo Nacional Reina Sofía de Madrid © Joaquin Cortés/Román Lores

Still, this is perhaps ultimately less about an actual ‘escape’ from re-presentation – would such a thing be possible? – than about what politically this ‘shift in perspective’ concerning the image is thought to make possible. In the 2006 “Language of Things” essay, for example, this is what is clearly intended by a conception of translation that would privilege “languages of practice”, in which the languages of humans and things communicate and are reciprocally mediated, over the “national languages” that Steyerl sees as central to “romantic translation theories”. Against the “politics of the original content” (national culture, Volksgeist, and so on), it is the capacity for the “documentary form” to be “able to sustain non-national public spheres”, while resisting their control “by the dynamics of a general privatisation”, that is most fundamentally affirmed here.

It is in this context that, in her essay “A Thing Like You and Me”, Steyerl turns, for example, to Arvatov’s 1925 text “Everyday Life and the Culture of the Thing”, and, in particular, to its call for the object to “be liberated from the enslavement of its status as capitalist commodity”, or what he calls “the bourgeois world of things”. In this way, Arvatov’s vision of a transformation in “the material culture of a society” as a “universal system of Things” is read by Steyerl (citing its translator, Christina Kiaer), as a desire to imagine, above all, a different ‘animation’ from that generated by commodity fetishism, and hence “to return a kind of social agency to the fetish” – one that Steyerl identifies with a participation “in the image as thing [which] means to participate in its potential agency”. 5It is for this reason, among others, that Arvatov’s (or Benjamin’s) proposition is fundamentally different from the ‘philosophical’ or ‘anthropological’ extension of something like ‘agency’ to things suggested by Latour, Jane Bennett, and others. For, without any wider socio-historical basis for such an extension in reality (such as might be provided by socialism), what “can easily be lost in the liberatory rhetoric associated with the extension of agency to nonhumans” is, as Steve Fuller reminds us, the fact that “to increase the number of agents is not to increase the amount of agency in the world”. Indeed, it may be “to limit or redefine the agency of the already existing agents”. Steve Fuller, Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 375. (The search for a “language of things” can be understood, in this sense, not only as a search for a ‘real’ beyond the ‘human’ world of signs, discourse or language, but also as gesturing towards a ‘real’ beyond the in-humanism of commodity relations as such.) Yet, for Arvatov himself, of course, much like Benjamin, the possibility of an alternative relation to things was situated in the very historically-specific context of an historical avant-garde that could plausibly envisage a revolutionary transformation in the relation to the object across the entirety of modern society and culture after 1917.6It is for this reason, among others, that Arvatov’s (or Benjamin’s) proposition is fundamentally different from the ‘philosophical’ or ‘anthropological’ extension of something like ‘agency’ to things suggested by Latour, Jane Bennett, and others. For, without any wider socio-historical basis for such an extension in reality (such as might be provided by socialism), what “can easily be lost in the liberatory rhetoric associated with the extension of agency to nonhumans” is, as Steve Fuller reminds us, the fact that “to increase the number of agents is not to increase the amount of agency in the world”. Indeed, it may be “to limit or redefine the agency of the already existing agents”. Steve Fuller, Thomas Kuhn: A Philosophical History for Our Times (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 375. This is hardly our own context (as I suggested already in my response to Hito’s very generous reply to my previous post). As such, the question would be, I think, what, for Steyerl and others, would provide the social, technological and material ‘base’ for such a transformation in our relations to things today.

The answer to this question would seem to be contained in the opposition posited between ‘representation’ and ‘participation’ itself, as this is tied to changing regimes of the image, and in the correlation between political and artistic form that it suggests. Such an opposition is not, of course, a new one. Even if we don’t go all the way back to the canonical Platonic critique of mimesis, it could certainly be traced to, say, Rousseau’s notorious critique of theatre, in the Letter to D’Alembert, as a ‘representation’ to be passively consumed in the form of an external spectacle, rather than the properly political presentation of the people to themselves as actors participating in their own drama. (As Rousseau puts it in Book 3 of The Social Contract: “Sovereignty cannot be represented, for the same reason that it cannot be alienated; it consists essentially in the general will, and the will does not admit of being represented: either it is the same or it is different; there is no middle ground”. 7Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 114. ) Perhaps even more influentially, it is a similar opposition that also informs the specific critique of capitalist ‘abstraction’ at the heart of both Georg Lukács’s extension of Marx’s analysis of the commodity in his account of reification, written during the 1920s, and Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967), which famously begins: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation”.

We are, in some ways, on familiar ground then. What gives Steyerl’s project a particular (and welcome) contemporary thrust, however, would be its emphasis – as in her justly celebrated account of the “poor image” – upon certain historically-specific conditions at stake in such a politics of the image. As she writes, for example, in a recent essay subtitled “Withdrawal from Representation": to the extent that “people are increasingly makers of images – and not their objects or subjects – they are perhaps also increasingly aware that the people might happen by jointly making an image and not by being represented in one”. (Significantly, Steyerl also suggests that this is accompanied by a more direct withdrawal, a “widespread refusal” of representation, of which the proliferation of “image spam” functions as a kind of negative and “involuntary record”: “a subtle strike, a walkout of the people from photographic and moving-image representation”, in recognition of the “failed promise” of representation as a “political privilege”, in a “fully immersive media landscape”.) Consequently, “ny image is a shared ground for action and passion, a zone of traffic between things and intensities”.
How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational.MOV File (29251) Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational.MOV File, screenshot, 2013. HD video with sound, 15'52'' © The Artist

More than Lukács or the Situationists, the obvious influence here is Italian autonomism – one of its leading lights, Franco “Bifo” Berardi wrote the introduction to Steyerl’s The Wretched of the Screen, which collects together her e-flux pieces – and of a variety of novel concepts associated with it, including, perhaps most significantly, its famous account of the “refusal of work”, as well as of the “social composition” of the multitude as that which, in concert with technological developments, generates new modes of cooperation and collaboration or “mass intellectuality”, which are only secondarily ‘captured’ by capitalist valorisation. 8See Franco Berardi, “What is the Meaning of Autonomy Today?”: Certainly it is this that (along with the familiar references to Benjamin) provides the backdrop to, for instance, the following passage from “The Language of Things”:

“The rise of importance of global documentary jargons rests on the material base of information capitalism, which is defined by digitalisation and flexibility. … The new documentary forms … can be understood as articulations, which reveal the outline of new forms of social composition. This form of image production is largely based on digital technology and thus tends to merge more and more with other fields of mass symbolic production. They represent so to speak a negative of a coming public sphere, which has to be developed, in order to become functionable. This form of the public has left behind its entanglement with local and national mythologies and is characterised by similar precarious and often transnational forms of work and production. And the political articulation or social composition of these mostly still dispersed and wildly heterogeneous points of view and groups is anticipated in the complex montages and constellations of contemporary documentary experimental forms.”

Technologically, the focus here on forms of “image production … largely based on digital technology” seems most obviously to draw upon certain distinctive features of the digital – not least in relation to photography – that I mentioned briefly in my very first post: that is, what Melanie Bühler describes as a practical shift of focus from a ‘classical’ concern with the relation between reality and representation to one concerning the “multiplicity of relations that extend from a photograph”. If digital photography, in this sense, still relies, in most cases at least, on an indexical relation to the real in the recording of light, the translation of this into data out of which an image is then produced generates a more intense disjunction than in chemical photography between the apparently singular moment of ‘capture’ and the intrinsically multiple and ‘flexible’ actual images (or visualizations) that may then be produced from the digital data file. (This is, in a way, a function of course of the fact that digital data is never itself intrinsically ‘visual’ as such.) If this shift from the ‘realist paradigm’, as Bühler defines it – as a ‘classical’ relation between reality and representation – essential to the ‘digital image’ takes on, therefore, a simultaneously political and ‘aesthetic’ (as well as technological) significance, it is because, by virtue of its intersection with online networks, it opens up a new field for ‘participation’ in the image, as Steyerl phrases it. 9In her essay “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation”, Steyerl suggests a contemporary shattering of several “dogmas about the relation between political and pictorial representation”: “For a long time my generation has been trained to think that representation was the primary site of contestation for both politics and aesthetics. … It was hoped that changes in the field of culture would hark back to the field of politics. A more nuanced realm of representation was seen to lead to more political and economical equality. But gradually it became clear that both were less linked than originally anticipated, and that the partition of goods and rights and the partition of the senses were not necessarily running parallel to each other”. Had I more time to pursue it – including the artful (and, for me, more than justifiable) dig at Rancière’s aesthetic politics apparent here – one obvious question might be why, if this is the case, the link between ‘aesthetic’ or ‘cultural’ participation and properly ‘political’ forms should be any more intrinsically or strongly ensured than is the case with 'representation'. In other words, if a “more nuanced realm of [cultural] representation” does not automatically “lead to more political and economical equality”, why should the new participatory forms of image-sharing be any more likely to lead to actual political forms of participation? In the “coming public sphere” that can be glimpsed in image-sharing sites in particular, it is the ‘maker’/‘participant’ that assumes the autonomist role of constituting forms of practice “that are immediately collective”, in the words of Maurizio Lazzarato, and which exist “only in the form of networks and flows” – what amounts to both an inextricable embedding of the camera within the network and a fundamental socialization of image production itself.

In this sense, while the question of whether, as Steyerl writes, “the truth is neither in the represented nor in the representation”, but, rather, “in its material configuration”, is, in principle, a question addressed to all things-as-images tout court, it has a particular historical force by virtue of the shift to a dominance of ‘image relations’ or the ‘networked image’ through digitalization that shapes in specific ways what to “participate in an image” could mean. 10Most obviously, as far as photography itself is concerned, it is this that would set such new ‘image relations’ against that familiar critique of the “main effect” of the (single) photographic image as, in the words of Susan Sontag, “to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation. Through the camera people become customers or tourists of reality” – rather than participants in it. Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin, 1979), 110. To the extent that “to engage in the language of things in the realm of the documentary form” is, then, “not a matter of realism, but rather of relationalism”, as Steyerl argues, a “matter of presencing and thus transforming the social, historical and also material relations, which determine things”, this situates the contemporary image as less concerned with representing, say, “precarious modes of living or the social as such”, and more with “creating unexpected articulations” that presence “precarious, risky, at once bold and preposterous articulations of objects and their relations, which still could become models for future types of connection”. As Steyerl puts it more concretely, the “new documentary forms of production with home computers and unconventional forms of distribution thus can be understood as articulations, which reveal the outline of new forms of social composition.”

Steyerl’s argument here is not so dissimilar to that made by Jodi Dean in an earlier contribution to this blog in which she discusses the proliferation of what she terms “images without viewers” online. By this she means not that the images on, say, platforms like Instagram are literally “unseen”, but, rather, that, as images produced essentially to be shared or circulated, they are “not seen as separate images”. Instead, they take the form of something like a “visual common through which we converse, the archive or inchoate lexicon of our expression”: “Digital images don’t present themselves as objects for scrutiny and analysis but for repetition and imitation”. In other words, they are less about representation or the represented than they are effective media of participation, “the many participating in the common practice, the many imitating each other. The figure in the photo is incidental”.
Selfie in a Caracole (29252) Filippo Riniolo, Selfie in a Caracole, 2014 © The Artist

Dean’s principal example is, unexpectedly and somewhat unconvincingly, the selfie. But I am less interested in this per se than in her notion that such images, defined as they are by their “circulation value”, can thus be understood as something akin to what she calls a “communist form of expression”. Like Steyerl, Dean draws here on a parallel with Benjamin’s writings on photography and film of the 1930s – “we live montage”, writes Dean at one point, just as Steyerl refers to “the complex montages and constellations of contemporary documentary experimental forms” – and in particular on Benjamin’s attempt to find in technological reproducibility the basis of new forms of collectivity immanent to capitalist modernity yet opening onto a potential communist future. In this way, Benjamin’s famous analysis of the democratizing dimension of the destruction of the traditional artwork’s aura, as presenting an opportunity for the masses to “bring things closer”, is replicated, today, in a “setting of ubiquitous media”, as Dean puts it, “where we are enjoined to participate, contribute and share – and where we enjoy participating, contributing and sharing”. While the “general milieu” of a “commonality of images” is, like the cinema of Benjamin’s time, appropriated by a capitalism that “has turned our basic social interactions into a storable, mineable resource”, the circulating, networked image nonetheless “demonstrates”, she argues, “the emancipation of the commonality of the object from the commodity form”. The “platforms through which our common property is produced and reproduced are still owned by the few – but not for long”.

As a specific politics of the image, there is an evident echo in this of the autonomist adaptation of Marx’s “Fragment on Machines” from the Grundrisse, and of the argument of the 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy concerning that “stage of development” at which “existing relations of production” (i.e. those of capitalism) become “fetters” holding back “the material productive forces” (i.e., in this case, those of the network and of the ‘sharing economy’, from open source software to 3-D printing). 11See also, in a connected vein, David Cunningham, “A Marxist Heresy? Accelerationism and its Discontents”, Radical Philosophy 191 (2015), 29–38. Such an account of a supposed contradiction between the forces and relations of production in contemporary “communicative capitalism” is also, for example, that deployed in more popular form in journalist Paul Mason’s recent Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, as prefiguring “a new mode of production beyond capitalism” 12Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (London: Penguin, 2015), 123. , as well as in numerous variants of accelerationist theory.

Yet there are some obvious questions to be asked here, and it is with these that I want to end this final post in my series. First, and if nothing else, such a politics of the image relies rather too neatly, I think, on what has always seemed the most unconvincing aspect of autonomism’s assumption of the legacy of 1960s operaismo 13Particularly key here is Mario Tronti’s seminal “workerist” claim that it is the oppositional force and resistance of the working class which functions as the “active component” in capitalist development. However, the notion that this “primacy” of living labour in driving forward development, which was originally situated in the context of Keynesianism and the New Deal, is applicable to the relation of capital and labour across its entire history is considerably more questionable, as Tronti himself seems to have conceded in the face of what, in a recent text, he calls the “neo-liberal capitalist restoration”. See Mario Tronti, “Our Operaismo”, New Left Review 73 (2012), 119–139. : the reduction of capital to a mere “apparatus of capture” (in Deleuze and Guattari’s phrase) feeding vampirically off of a creativity and sociability that is always pulsating beneath it, and which merely needs to be lopped off, so to speak, to liberate the latter. This can give the impression that ‘things’, with or without us, are just getting on with doing their own thing and simply waiting to emancipate themselves from their ‘enslaving’ by capital or the commodity form. Yet – and this is part of Arvatov’s and Benjamin’s point – capital also produces its object world alongside a profoundly new set of social relations, and does so (increasingly) all the way down to matter as such, even as it (increasingly) subjects that world to abstract forms. At the very least, then, there is a danger of drastically underplaying the degree to which things, labour and technology come to be formed as moments in capital’s self-mediation and valorisation today, as if the ‘digital’, say, could be somehow exempted from its historical formation.

This is evidently not what Steyerl wants to suggest. But it is all the more important then to recognise that photography as a historical concept cannot (like the “documentary image”, let alone the selfie) be separated from this. Certainly, the relation between the networked image and what Peter Osborne terms the contemporary forms of “photo-capitalism” as “a distinctively transnational (and translinguistic) cultural-economic form” can hardly be ignored or regarded as being of merely ‘secondary’ significance. 14Peter Osborne, “Photography in an Expanding Field: Distributive Unity and Dominant Form”, in David Green (ed.), Where is the Photograph? (Maidstone: Photoworks, 2003), 63.

At the same time, one might wonder what a withdrawal from ‘representation’, as a condition of ‘participation’, exactly signals here. Such a notion is clearly modelled on the forms of ‘refusal’ and ‘exodus’ affirmed in autonomism, as well as in certain bodies of post-Situationist theory. The problem, however, with such appeals to withdrawal is that they can often seem to want simply to bypass the problem of political and cultural mediation altogether – rather than pursuing the more difficult project of distinguishing between progressive and oppressive forms of mediation according to their different, historically distinct modes of ‘violence’. The vision of a liberation of the object from capital, alongside the justifiable critique of ‘representation’ as the political form of liberal parliamentary democracy or Leninist vanguardism, can too easily become, in this guise, merely a techno-utopian (or perhaps, more properly, techno-Rousseauist) desire to be liberated from abstraction or mediation altogether – one often also visible in dubious appeals to some new agora or polis supposedly constituted by the networked participatory ‘communities’ of the Internet and social media.

Yet, like the photographic image more generally, the digital and the networked are intrinsically reliant on forms of social as well as technological ‘abstraction’. Indeed, one might well ask: is it remotely possible to conceive of a global social collectivity and connectivity, in ‘image relations’ as anywhere else, that would not involve an experience of abstraction as, in some way, essential to it, and to any ‘emancipated’ languages of things that might speak through it? 15See my review of Franco Berardi’s The Uprising at: Much as, then, a participation in the image-as-thing may be a necessary part of the overcoming of a capitalist life that “presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles”, I’m not so sure that to identify this with a “withdrawal from representation” per se can escape a certain romanticism of what Debord calls the “directly lived”, whether or not such “life” is extended to that of things or to a ‘vibrancy’ of matter beyond ‘the human’. Just as importantly, for those of us less than convinced that participation in the networked image constitutes, in the here and now of capitalist modernity, anything like a “communist form of expression”, to give up on the explanatory power of the “realist paradigm” – as a means of giving form to the abstractions of materiality and the materializations of abstractions – is not perhaps so quickly to be embraced. If this is something that, say, the late Allan Sekula and Harun Farocki well understood, so, practically, I think, do many of Hito Steyerl’s own works, from the narration of a commodity’s life story in her brilliant 2010 film essay In Free Fall to the tales of both the deep history of water and the 2008 crash that flow together in the 2014 Liquidity Inc. And things are all the better for it.