An encounter with the object qua radical estrangement

by Lena-Johanna Herrmann

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Can immediate experience of objects of any kind be guaranteed by frameless presentation?

When paintings became objects on their own right in Abstract Expressionism they lost their frames. They lose their window-like appearance, leading the viewers gaze nowhere but to the object right in front of him. Within the frameless confrontation they ought to be encountered in the mode of immediacy. What can the art of our days gain from a philosophy that promises to bring about a new orientation toward the object?

By framing an object we draw nearer to it. We find out what it can be for us. Hence framing an object is a way of determining it in order to arrive at the meaning that we hope to find in it. This works in analogous manner for the conceptual frame we give to an object. What would be estranged to our understanding becomes a for-us through the conceptual frame we add to it in the process of our thinking.

What shall be tried here is a face to face encounter with the object as an alienated one. It is a thought-experiment in dialogue with the texts of Ray Brassier, who became well-known in connection with the philosophical movement called speculative realism.

So let’s begin: We encounter the object by strolling nearer to it. There it is. What do we see through the eyes of philosophy? After Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason we see the object, while knowing that what we see is determined by what we a priori put into it. And while we now start to circle the object, facing it from each possible angle, we know that this brings us no step closer to the object-in-itself. By focusing on the object and on our thought about it, we can comprehend how we perceive the object in space and time. We can see reason working and struggling with the object that appears in our consciousness.

And this is where concepts become important. A concept stands at the very point of contact between two questions: ‹What is the world?› and ‹How can I know?› – Because whatever this world is, it arrives in my consciousness as what I perceive of it. Thus we read in the writing of Ray Brassier: ‹The question ‘What is real?’ stands at the crossroads of metaphysics and epistemology. More exactly, it marks the juncture of metaphysics and epistemology with the seal of conceptual representation.1 Understood as this juncture it is the concept in which we see objects represented. Concepts are maximally correlated to our mode of thought and language. What represents the object corresponds to us and our cognitive capacity but is maybe not at all corresponding the object it represents.

Yet however far we are in our conceptual framing from the object itself we establish the possibility to relate to it on safe grounds. Based on these grounds discourse can take place. Only in this relation to the object can we draw nearer to the object or establish – speaking with Heidegger – any kind of relation that presupposes a being-at-hand of the object. The object stays alienated to us, as what it is in-itself, but it can be faced as related to our capacity of thinking within any possible conceptual framework.

But now a new scientific attitude toward the object is supposed to pave the way for a new approach to the object. Furthermore it shall be able to fathom the depths between the thing-in-itself and the concept. ‹The scientific stance is one in which the reality of the object determines the meaning of its conception, and allows the discrepancy between that reality and the way in which it is conceptually circumscribed to be measured.›2

The step into a new kind of Nihilism

What is sought in this scientific approach is concrete knowledge about the measure of the distance between the thinkable concept and the, until now, unthinkable space lying between the object and its representation in a concept. To measure the unthinkable, maybe even to establish some knowledge in its former space, is what speculative thinking wants to achieve.

From now on, say the realists, our gaze is meant to be fixed on the space between the object-in-itself and the empty space around it, impassable for any human thought. This enfolding nothingness can be seen as one of the figures of speculative thinking, if it is to be neither idealistic nor dogmatic. Already in the Critique of Pure Reason Kant indicates this tendency: ‹By such procedures speculative reason has at least made room for such an extension [of reason], even if it had to leave it empty.›3 Focusing solely on this emptiness, the speculative realists could have given rise to a new nihilism. They could have gained the possibility to understand the object as an estranged one, as one that is not at-hand, as autonomous from our conceptual framework. The thinking of Ray Brassier does de facto bring about strong and elaborate motives for nihilistic thought. But as there is a strong temptation to offer more than nothing and pure abyss, he goes one step further to bridge nothingness and to arrive at the object.

The step into a new scientific attitude in philosophical thinking

The weaker – maybe even naive – trait of this philosophy comes about when the newly established access to this place of speculative emptiness shall be used to host some scientific knowledge. All speculative hopes are pinned on science.

Is it not true that science analyses objects, independent from their concepts? And if that is so, does science not look at objects from an angle that is uncorrelated to our conceptual framework, to our human approach? Through this use of scientific knowledge speculative thought reckons to be able to leave behind the concept and with it the human-correlated framework, which it adds to the object. Object and concept are now seen as located within a relationship of contravalence (object ≠ concept). This allows for the possibility to differentiate between the limit to conceptual understanding and the limit to any mind-dependent understanding. This way the correlational limitations ought to be left behind. In the words of Ray Brassier ‹the classic correlationist claim […] [is] a fundamental confusion between mind-independence and concept-independence.›4 Now science will finally carry our minds further than any conceptual framework ever could.

Why would this approach in its flattering hopefulness be naive? To call something ‘naive’ is indeed beyond the standard of any philosophical discourse. So let us just call this speculative realist method problematic. And here is why: Science can be seen as just another conceptual form. It is driven by the correlationist desire to make the world knowable for human beings. While not operating primarily with linguistic concepts, it requires concepts based on scientific models, data and algorithms. Many of these demand a higher standard of objectivity, while they are really – just as the linguistic concept – far from reaching at any point the object as autonomous from human thought. It is just another quality of correlation, not something altogether different. To fill a space, that is better left empty, with scientific knowledge leads to scientific dogmatism, a dogmatism that is in no way better than the metaphysical dogmatism Kant fought off. It causes an unreflective acceptance of data that would be better to be constantly put into question by human thought, rather than accepted as scientific truth.

But why would concepts be any better than this data? Any conceptual discourse is still rooted in critical thinking. And while it is very well true that any discourse taking place among human subjects is full of dodges, sophistry, rhetorical tricks, illusions and simulacra, it still has the ability to reflect and comprehend its own limits. Concepts are designed to be thought while the thinker is constantly on his guard against them. We cannot just leave our conceptual framework behind to head off on a speculative realist adventure. Kant, who knew about the temptation of this kind, writes in the end of the Critique of Pure Reason: ‹Nothing but the sobriety of a strict but just criticism can liberate us from these dogmatic semblances, which through imagined happiness hold so many subject to theories and systems, and limit all our speculative claims, […] [can prevent us from] venturing out into a shoreless ocean, which, among always deceptive prospects, forces us in the end to abandon as hopeless all our troublesome and tedious efforts.›5

An unframed non-relation

What have we gained through our speculative gaze on the object that we are facing? What have we gained, leaving behind concepts turning towards a thinking that claims to overstep the limitations of human thought? By turning towards a philosophy that, as non-human-correlated, takes the extinction of humanity as highest reference point? Is this a new philosophical modesty that is conscious of its inadequacy towards the autonomous object it faces? Does this allow for a new view on our non-understanding of the in-itself of the object? Is this a new scientific approach, finally establishing an adequate access to the object? – Whatever it is, in none of these options lies the possibility to relate to the object as a human being. By trying to finally get closer to the thing-in-itself, we lose the possibility to draw nearer to it on human feet. As philosophy lifts its eyes to the object again, we have established in front of us a radically estranged one. Between it and ourselves lies nothing but speculative emptiness that gives room for the experience of alienation or scientific enthusiasm. Our relation to the object becomes a non-relation in the enfolding nothingness.

The question remains: why of all things has such a philosophy caused such an overwhelmingly positive reaction in the ‘art-world’? The wish to escape an all too present discourse and strong conceptual frameworks, to make the experience of the object possible, these may have been reasons. Nevertheless the direction of this flight is still odd. Why would art throw itself into the arms of a philosophy that takes inhumanity as one of its most important reference points? This cannot be anything but a misunderstanding, can it?

Lena-Johanna Herrmann studiert seit 2011 Kunstwissenschaft an der Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe. Den Schwerpunkt ihrer Studien bildet das Fach Philosophie und Ästhetik. Ihr Hauptinteresse gilt der epistemologischen Wirkung von Narrativen und Sprachbildern, sowie deren Wechselwirkung mit der Möglichkeit die Welt mittels menschlicher Vernunft zu begreifen.

  • 1. Ray Brassier: ‹Concepts and Objects›, in: ‹The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism›, Melbourne 2011, p.47.
  • 2. ibid. p.55.
  • 3. Immanuel Kant: ‹Critique of Pure Reason›, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood, Cambridge 1998, p.113.
  • 4. Ray Brassier: ‹Concepts and Objects›, in: ‹The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism›, Melbourne 2011, p.58.
  • 5. Immanuel Kant: ‹Critique of Pure Reason›, trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood, Cambridge 1998, p.439.