Subjects v Objects

JJ Charlesworth & James Heartfield

First published in Art Monthly, March 2014

Recently, objects seem to have taken on a life of their own. This man thinks that another slice of cake will make him happy. That woman thinks that a better school will get her son good qualifications. This man has thousands of girlfriends stored on his hard drive. This girl thinks that a Hollister top will make people like her. Goods fly off the shelves. Exports boost Britain.

These are all examples of the fetish of objects. Modem society venerates things, and makes people into things. Human culture is invested in things – but the arts have long hoped to disclose the human essence within them. And yet artists and curators are increasingly turning their attention to what might be thought of as the agency of objects, instead of the agency of human subjects or human subjectivity. As Maria Walsh declared recently in her article ‘I Object’ (AM371), ‘The “subject position” is being given up and handed in. Autonomy and control are being ceded and artists are rushing to become objects or to side with the object.’ But what is it that motivates this rush among subjects to ‘side with the object’? What is it about the ‘subject position’ that makes not only artists but also philosophers and political theorists so keen to escape it? When did we become so uncomfortable in our subjectivity?

The rise of object-thinking in recent art-world debate isn’t local to any one critical development, but rather encompasses a number of approaches which, while they emerge from different contexts, converge on a point where the question of the subject has become intractably problematic. So over the past few years we have seen emerge a number of curatorial and critical projects that throw into question the agency of subjectivity, subject-object distinctions, and the dichotomy between an active subject and otherwise passive things. In philosophy, objects have found a new champion in the form of Speculative Realism, which, in its peculiar attempt to think about reality without recourse to the subject-object distinction, has provided new impetus for thinking about things – and artworks – as independent from subjects. Alongside this philosophical turn, curators and critics have returned to theories of ‘animism’ as a response to the contemporary preoccupation with the apparently irresistible lure and power of the commodity in capitalism, alongside capitalism’s tendency to reduce human subjects to the status of objects. What binds these recent developments is their ambiguous attitude to the figure of the human subject.

Ideas about animism, for example, permeated Mark Leckey’s much-talked-about 2013 touring exhibition ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’ (reviewed in AM370). For Erik Davis, writing in the accompanying catalogue, ‘the return of the object is a return of animism of a sort, at least of a weird realism that undermines our blinkered passages through a merely human reality’. For Davis, ‘the demands of such a “weird realism” surely block and obstruct the aspirations of modern human consciousness and its aspirations of autonomy, control and the cognitive correlations between mind and world’.[1]

Leckey’s show itself comes in the wake of curator Anselm Franke’s sprawling exhibition project ‘Animism’, which debuted at Antwerp’s MuKHA and Extra City in 2010 (reviewed in AM336), and is now in its seventh edition at Seoul’s Illmin Museum of Art. For Franke, the turn to animism offers a less dogmatic response to the compartmentalising, dualistic, and even ‘colonialistic’ drive of modernity and the modernist subject. As Franke would have it: ‘The modernist subject preferred to conceive of itself as the active figure facing a passive world of matter that it acted upon. What constitutes a problem in this structure is the inverse, the fact that we do not only make, but are also fundamentally made – not in the material determinist sense, but in the sense of our relational environments and milieus and the vectors of subjectivation they contain.’[2]

Explicit, then, in the ‘return of the object’ is the assertion that the subject can no longer plausibly claim the position of singular agency over an otherwise inactive and compliant world. It is initially an ontological claim about what we can and can’t know about the world – insisting on the limitations of subjectivity placed on it by an all-too-complex world. But there is an ambiguity at work here in that, from a certain perspective, the subject that is capable of knowing and controlling the world risks all the consequences of that power: as Franke’s retooling of animism through the politics of postcolonialism suggests, the figure of Enlightenment or modernist subject – that objectifying, active, asserting, controlling perspective – has become a byword for subjugation and domination, not liberation or emancipation, in contemporary critical thinking.

The turn to the object – or, rather, the turn away from the subject – is a side effect of the contradictions between different accounts of the politics of the subject. The subject is either too powerful or too powerless; either the avatar of an ‘imperialistic’ Enlightenment or modernist project, or, conversely, the disabled by-product of a wily cognitive capitalism. So, as Svenja Bromberg laments in one recent critical response to the rise of Speculative Realism: ‘We are at a point where our faith in the powers of the subject to critique and subvert reality, as grounded in Enlightenment theory, has been truly defeated, not least by capitalism’s now much discussed ability to demand precisely subjective – emotional or affective – investments in its exploitative machinery.’[3] In this reading, the active and critical potential of the subject has been neutralised by the machinations of a new kind of capitalism, capable of moulding and harnessing subjectivity to the goal of economic expansion and profit.

Such accounts of cognitive capitalism’s apparently comprehensive grip on the subject are commonplace. What underpins them is the pessimistic assumption that the subject has no mastery over itself, being formed by forces that it has no access to. So, in his contribution to the recently published anthology The Psychopathologies of Cognitive Capitalism, Franco Berardi wildly surmises that the individual subject is itself a fallacy since ‘individuals are actually composed of countless sub-individual substances and psycho-linguistic flows, and the socalled free will is only the effect of the changing elaboration of info-flows and neuro-chemical flows’.

Such a disarming of the subject is only possible if, like Berardi, you accept that there has been some kind of paradigm shift in the relationship between subject and capitalist society. Once again, things have just become too complex for our little heads, and cognitive capitalism and the internet are to blame, such that ‘the shift to the hyper-complex reality of the networked world has made impossible to understand and control the relevant flows of information circulating in the Infosphere’.

“The historical change, however, is that the left has become so frustrated with being beaten over the head in the name of freedom that it has adopted the self-defeating argument that freedom itself is a trap.”

While right wing and reactionary thinking has always been hostile to independence of thought and action, liberal regimes still base themselves, in however qualified a way, upon the sovereignty of the individual: for the New Right of the 1980s, market freedom was always hedged with a great many moral strictures. The historical change, however, is that the left has become so frustrated with being beaten over the head in the name of freedom that it has adopted the self-defeating argument that freedom itself is a trap. It is little surprise, then, that if the philosophical subject’s ontological access to the world, and the political subject’s capacity to reflect and act, have both been dismantled by successive waves of leftish theory, there should not be much of the subject left of which to speak. As Diedrich Diederichsen wryly observed back in 2012, ‘this situation makes it seem appealing to efface the animate self altogether … So why not affirm the inanimate? Why not choose a self without essence or history, as nothing but a conjunction of relations in the here and now?’[4] In other words – if you can’t beat objects, join them. The critique of the subject has effectively painted itself into a comer since, by dismantling the idea that the subject has any independence (however compromised) from the conditions that form it, there is no reason to consider it a ‘subject’ in any meaningful sense. If the object appears to have acquired ontological independence from the subject, it is because we too-readily accept that the subject, and our own subjectivities, have become evermore object-like.

The desire to become an object is a pathetic end-point to four decades of theoretical assault on subjectivity. But it is worth noting that what is genuinely in question here is the active, productive nature of human subjectivity as such, and not just a criticism of the distorted or corrupted subjectivity that is supposed to be the outcome of’ cognitive capitalism’. Because while the critique of ‘subjectivation’ under capitalism does the dirty work of placing a question mark over the legitimacy of the ‘subject position’ (you don’t really know who you are or how to act in your own interests), the real target is the legitimacy of a human-centred worldview as such, inasmuch as this subjects the world to human cognition and material control. Discrediting the subject by association with the evils of capital turns out to be cover for a discrediting of the anthropocentric model of human interest tout court, behind which lies some disappointingly orthodox and run-of-the-mill anxieties about the human impact on the world derived from environmentalism. So Berardi can lament that ‘global recession and the acceleration of the environmental decay seem to suggest that human evolution is over, unless society shifts from the present paradigm of economic growth and capital accumulation to a paradigm based on a different conception of wealth, so as to create a different set of collective expectations’. Elsewhere, in their introduction to the anthology The Speculative Turn, Graham Harman, Levi Bryant and Nick Srnicek argue that earlier continental philosophy has little to offer in the face of’ looming ecological catastrophe’. But why the odd attention to the environment? Because, ‘despite the vaunted anti-humanism of many of the thinkers identified with these trends, what they give us is less a critique of humanity’s place in the world, than a less sweeping critique of the self-enclosed Cartesian subject. Humanity remains at the centre of these works, and reality appears in philosophy only as the correlate of human thought.’[5]

That ‘humanity remains at the centre’ means that such philosophy isn’t, for Harman et al, properly a ‘critique of humanity’s place in the world’. It might seem strange for philosophers to be in the business of questioning the legitimacy of humanity’s place in the world, but this suggests that the desire to demote the subject to the status of object, or to fuss over to the ontological equitability of things, harbours more than a little antipathy to the desires and interests of actual human subjects and humanity in general – an antipathy that chimes happily with environmentalism’s rejection of the ‘anthropocentric’ worldview. Speculative Realists might object that their project has no such misanthropic intent, but others are more than ready to make the connection: US critic Katy Siegel intuits the humanity-humbling zeitgiest from which Speculative Realism draws its authority, arguing in the Brooklyn Rail that: ‘this shift is not from one perspective to another, but to the loss of perspective itself, to the rejection of an anthropocentric worldview and its subject/object dichotomy. Basic is the recognition that humans are neither on top of the world nor outside it; they are in the world, and not as a special category (the subject).’[6]

If these philosophical and political problems underlying the turn to the object appear broad and far-reaching, what are their effects on art? If nothing else, the shift in emphasis away from the subject and subjective agency deals a potentially lethal blow to the long preoccupation with art’s political agency. It is a preoccupation that, for some, has become exhausting and tedious, and from which the turn to the object provides a welcome escape. For artist Amanda Beech, in the recent roundtable discussion ‘Beyond the Contemporary’, Speculative Realism ‘presents a political question, the question of the assumptions that had been made about art’s politics, about its agency in the world’.[7] For co-participant Suhail Malik, Speculative Realism’s critique of correlationism offers a counter to the subject-oriented paradigm of art, which ‘posits an interpreting subject who also becomes the one who disputes the meaning of the art with others, who are also interpreting – and you end up with this nice soft democracy of plural disagreements that form a nebulous field of discourse’.

One might ask why art having something to do with subjects attempting to deliberate an object’s significance with other subjects should be such a terrible problem. The idea that art should have nothing to do with subjectivity is, after all, an entirely novel and extreme development in the history of thinking about art. But Malik’s irritable disenchantment with a subject-oriented paradigm makes sense in the context of the growing frustration with the older semiological model of the subject, in which discursivity and intersubjectivity are a closed system and subjectivity becomes nothing more than a game of signs. In place of this vapid ‘soft democracy’, Malik and others are looking for the smack of something harder – the stony indifference of objects.

Malik also has a dig at Jacques Rancière who, he suggests, exemplifies the ‘subjective richness’ that issues from the critical tradition of the ‘death of the author’. An attack on Rancière’s subject-sided aesthetics is hardly unexpected, however, since the French philosopher’s attempt to rediscover a politics of emancipation in the subject’s encounter with artworks has struggled to retain its credibility in the face of the sheer, brutal reality of contemporary capitalism. It is perhaps no coincidence that Rancière’s intellectual star has fallen in step with the increasingly dystopian cultural mood that characterises our post-recession era, while object-thinking, in its offer of the extreme negation of subjectivity, provides shelter for those who have finally given up on the world-changing potential of the subject.

Malik’s rejection of the semiological subject is an honest response, however, if we understand it as part of the dead-end that results from the broad assimilation of a theoretical tradition that characterises subjectivity as no more than an effect of discourse or power. There is a palpable sense in which art-world critics and thinkers have become self-conscious about the trammelled, institutionalised and circular discursivity of their own subjectivities – as Andrea Fraser keeps telling us, ‘we are the system’ – and it explains the renewed fashion in curatorial circles for ‘outsider’ art and the subjective innocence of the ‘visionary’ artist. Massimiliano Gioni’s 2013 Venice Biennale ‘The Encyclopedic Palace’ and Ralph Rugoff s Hayward show ‘The Alternative Guide to the Universe’ (Reviews AM368) both articulated the turn to those subject positions which seem to escape administration and institutionalisation. The subjectivity of the ‘outsider’ or ‘visionary’ artist becomes the emancipated Other of subjectivation. Gioni, a high-level art-world insider, has long been obsessed with this visionary outsider; in the catalogue to his 2008 New Museum show ‘After Nature’ Gioni could already enthuse that ‘many artists in this exhibition seek a prophetic intensity … fascinated by mystic apparitions, arcane rites, and spiritual illuminations’.[8]

This is why, similarly, Diederichsen is interested in the subjectivity (or lack of it) to be found in psychedelia. For psychedelists, stripping away the inauthenticity of normative consciousness means revealing the thing-in-itself: as Diederichsen puts it, ‘by cutting off the connections to the world of functions and instrumental applications, by subtracting them, one by one, from our sense perception, we attain an object we could never perceive as such with our senses’.[9]

Here, the instrumental character of subjectivity is denigrated in favour of a non-instrumental openness to the object. Diederichsen, and other critics of ‘reification’, see in such openness an escape from commodification. In this interpretation, the objectifying, active, human-centred character of subjectivity becomes identical with the objectifying, pacifying force of commodification.

The currency and popularity of such philosophical developments as Speculative Realism cannot be understood outside the broader political and theoretical crisis about the possibility of human agency, in which the very desirability of such a thing as human subjectivity is caught in a paradox. On the one hand, it is held that subjectivity is no more than the product of forces from which it has no independence – namely the machinations of cognitive capitalism – such that any hope for political agency is seen as delusory. But on the other hand, the idea of the human subject, as centred, thinking, acting and selfinterested, is itself mistrusted as an expression of ‘anthropocentric’ thinking, a justification for humanity’s exceptional status and priority over other things.

Art has always had a dialogue with the inhuman other of things and how the material universe exceeds the subject’s apprehension of it – reality is always more than its representations in thought. But historically, that dialogue was, whether unwittingly or consciously, conducted with a sense that reality might reveal itself in knowledge, knowledge formed by the testing of that reality through the mediation of human activity. If art for long implied the humanisation of matter and the human subject’s self-realisation in its active transformation of the material world, then, in stark contrast, object-oriented thinking only ratifies the dissolution of the subject and its final reassimilation into the dead indifference of things.


[1] Erik Davis, The Thing is Alive, in The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, Hayward Publishing, 2013

[5] Bryant, Levi, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (re.press, 2011)

[7] ‘Beyond the Contemporary’, Spike magazine, issue 36, 2013

[8] Gioni, Massilmiliano, After Nature, Reprint edition (New York: New  Museum of Contemporary Art,U.S., 2008)

[9] http://www.e-flux.com/journal/animation-de-reification-and-the-new-charm-of-the-inanimate/ 

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