6. 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”. [1] Read More »

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5. If Commodities Could Speak

“A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood”, writes Marx, famously, in the first chapter of Capital. “Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”. For while, as an ‘ordinary’ object, “the table continues to be that common, everyday thing, wood”, “so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. Read More »

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4. If Images Could Speak

In a recent contribution to the collection Documentary Across Disciplines, based on a series of events held at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin between 2010 and 2014, Christopher Pinney begins his essay, entitled “Bruises and Blushes: Photography ‘Beyond’ Anthropology”, with a quotation from Barthes’ Camera Lucida: “Society is concerned to tame the Photograph, to temper the madness which keeps threatening to explode in the face of whoever looks at it”. Read More »

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3. 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”.

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2. The Return of the Real (Again)

In my previous post I tried to sketch out some of those questions provoked by a contemporary desire, in the words of Hito Steyerl, to side with and affirm the object. While this affirmation has coincided with a more general turn towards the object or thing in recent theoretical writing – and, consequently, away (or so it is said) from earlier concerns with language, text, discourse and sign – it has also been attached, in Steyerl and others, to a more specific call to rethink the character of ‘the image’, and of ‘our’ relationship to it, as one framed not by an “identification” with the image “as representation”, but precisely “with the image as thing”. Read More »

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1. Photography and the Language of Things

In her short 2010 text “A Thing Like You and Me”, Hito Steyerl traces what she describes as a shift from an “emancipatory practice” that would be tied to the “desire to become a subject” (of, say, politics or history) to the emergence, today, of a “different possibility”: “How about siding with the object for a change? Why not affirm it? Why not be a thing?” Read More »

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4. From the Kino-Eye to the Postimage

In this last post, we want to explore the relation between vision, image and machine. With film, or already with photography, a new age has started: that of machine vision, of machines that see (for us). The logical consequence is that at some point, these machines will no longer need us to function (we’ve already come a long way from hand-cranked cameras to webcams) or to look at their images (think of automated CCTV surveillance or assembly robots). They may still see for us, but will do so without our involvement, as with self-driving cars for instance. What is at stake then in the age of machine vision is not only the status and concept of the image (what does “seeing” mean for a robot equipped with various sensors, among them visual ones?), it is also the status and concept of the human as the producer and consumer of images. Read More »

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3. Softimage and Hardimage

PS to our previous blog, “On the Invisible (Image and Algorithm)”.  As a friend suggested, we should have imagined Paglen’s photo of a secret military base in the so-called top-secret lab run by Sergey Brin “in an undisclosed Bay Area location”: here is the place for thinking about secrecy. In fact, Google seems intentionally to be creating an atmosphere of mystery around “a pair of otherwise ordinary two-story red-brick buildings about a half-mile from Google’s main campus” [1]. It is impossible to find much information on Google (sic!) apart from two journal articles. In the one published in The New York Times in 2011 we can read: “It’s a place where your refrigerator could be connected to the Internet, so it could order groceries when they ran low. Your dinner plate could post to a social network what you’re eating. Your robot could go to the office while you stay home in your pajamas. And you could, perhaps, take an elevator to outer space.” [2] Read More »

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