I’m interested in how the world of “medium-sized dry goods”, in the phrase conjured by the British philosopher J. L. Austin, describing our evolved perception of the everyday world (Tallis 2016), engages with metaphysics. In the Order of Time Carl Rovelli speaks of the approximations and mistakes of the human perspective with regards to time that have, like a snowflake studied in the hand, melted away to reveal “a world stripped to its essence, glittering with an arid and troubling beauty”. As with time so with matter, such that as James Ladyman and Don Ross argue in Everything Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalised, what exists is scale-relative, such that for instance, over very short and very long time scales there’s no sense in talking about objects existing. From a structural realist perspective, the no-miracle view of the world, something remains conserved as our theories evolve, that something being underlying mathematical structure. For Ladyman and Ross we have no choice but to try to articulate metaphysics from where we are now, and there should be an egalitarianism in ontology (as they put it, that special sciences are on a par with physics). In a world where there are no self-identical objects – there are fields and relations, individual elements don’t exist – this world, not you, gets to determine what it is that you get to categorise and describe. It remains a question whether such levels exist in the absence of conscious beings.
Ladyman and Ross argue that there is no privileged level of scale or description, seemingly in contradiction with Graham Harmon’s concepts of overmining and undermining, descriptions of upward and downward reduction, processes he considers harmful. In Harmon’s book, Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) A New Theory of Everything he argues against the idea that the world is defined purely by relations and argues for the withdrawal of things from direct access since, reality is always radically different from our formulation of it, and is never something we encounter directly in the flesh, we must approach it indirectly (p7). It is this withdrawn quality that limits relations, and these relations require mediation permitting only indirect contact between objects. And of these objects he says, all of the objects we experience are merely fictions: simplified models of the far more complex objects that continue to exist when I turn my head away from them, not to mention when I sleep or die (p34).
Harmon has been influenced by the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset and in particular an early essay on metaphor entitled An Essay in Esthetics by Way of a Preface. Quoting Ortega, Now then, imagine the importance of a language or system of expressive signs whose function was not to tell us about things, but to present them to us in the act of executing themselves. Art is just such a language; this is what art does. The esthetic object is inwardness as such – it is each thing as “I”. He goes on: Notice that what I am not saying is that a work of art reveals the secret of life and being to us; what I do say is that a work of art affords the peculiar pleasure we call esthetic by making it seem that the inwardness of things, their executant reality, is opened to us.
In the wrap up to the September seminar it was suggested we “catch up with our unknowing”. I’ve since been thinking extensively, visiting exhibitions, and reading in varied directions.
My unknowing is a fast runner. In introducing Art Is A Problem, Joshua Decter’s selected criticism spanning 1986 – 2012 , Decter raises concerns over the assimilation of art, its unproblematic nature (he’s not referring to the actual making process here), and he makes the point that art is an aporia, that it can only allegorise its indeterminate relationship to itself, and to everything else. He writes: To some, this is inspiring; for me it is occasionally exasperating. So I’m happily expanding my fields of unknowing. Of course there rarely if ever is an aha! moment, just times when the sediment you’ve kicked up begins to settle. At which point, because that’s what you do, you kick it all up again. So I’m taking considerable comfort from much of Elizabeth Fisher and Rebecca Fortnum’s book, On Not Knowing – How Artists Think.
How might we experience and extend the world beyond Austin’s “medium-sized dry goods”? Perhaps in part through exploration of emergent qualities? Might objects at or approaching their limits expose something, allow some understanding, of how that object works in the world? Might this provide an indirect route to knowing, as proposed by Harman? Using relatively simple components based around white ceramics, I am interested in the potential held in a “scene”, what formal qualities in space convey, how elements congeal to become an object, what happens when objects “dissolve” and in relationships, how objects and materials behave and interact. The unpredictable nature of ceramic materials, the profound effects slight differences in constitution, timing, and heat can have, provide an intrinsic state of not knowing, of uncertainty. Perhaps materials connected with ceramics allow excursion into the nature of objects and relationships by virtue of material qualities, plasticity, changes of state and expectations of the material.
During the September crits a “held” potentiality in the work was revealed, a sense of energy reserve and structured flow, a field of tension. I am unsure whether I need to signal in the work more overtly. I want the work to be ambiguous and “slippery” and to lead to some abrasion of certainty, to question the nature and context of the “medium-size dry good”. What I intend to explore is whether the addition of temporal elements, and perhaps sound and imagery might add a sense of restlessness, promote unease and thereby activate without de-activating.
Decter, Joshua (2013 )Art Is a Problem: Selected Criticism, Essays, Interviews and Curatorial Projects (1986-2012). JRP∣Ringier, Zurich, Switzerland.
Fisher, Elizabeth and Fortnum, Rebecca (2014) On Not Knowing – How Artists Think.Black Dog Publishing, London, UK.
Harmon, Graham (2018) Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) A New Theory of Everything. Pelican Books, Penguin Random House, UK.
Ladyman, James & Ross, Don (2007) Everything Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalised.Oxford University Press, UK
Tallis, Raymond (2016) https://philosophynow.org/issues/114/Scrutinising_Material_Objects (accessed 11/11/2018)