Over at Algorithm and Contingency, Robert Jackson has an interesting post up discussing his experience in the whole “substance versus relation” debate. As Robert writes:
Earlier in the year, I tried to convince a number of art historians at the AAH that substance and objects (in the OOO sense) could play a returning role to Art History and Art Criticism. The ontological commitment to total relations (both in entities and between artworks and viewers), is, somehow, widely accepted and yet at the same time considered reactionary as it is ruthlessly expanded to all sections of the arts. The reaction I met was one of simple nihilism. Graham unpins the forced choice available here;
“…people continue to assume that belief in objects detachable from their relations somehow entails stasis. It’s really quite simple: a horse is the same horse in different contexts, but the horse can still be born, grow, develop, and die, as well as be affected by some (some, not all) of the things that happen around it. The choice is not between an eternal horse-essence and a horse that becomes a new horse every time a hair falls on the floor or every time the horse rotates 10 degrees to the west. But that is the choice that relationism offers us.”
Except art criticism doesn’t even get this far with total relations. The co-relationship between humans and artworks are valued higher than the artwork itself. Artwork to artwork relations are, for the most part, considered absurd unless humans are involved, even for the most creative of minds. In an interview, the contemporary artist Liam Gillick quoted that, without people, the work cannot exist.
There’s a lot more in both posts, so check them out. As this discussion continues, I find myself increasingly baffled by the relationist position. Who would have thought it was so controversial to claim that substances can’t be reduced to their relations? Somehow the thesis that substances can’t be reduced to their relations gets translated into the thesis that we should ignore relations. But that doesn’t follow at all. Rather, the thesis that substances cannot be reduced to their relations is the thesis that substances harbor within themselves to break with any and all contexts, generating new contexts and relations. This was a point– strangely ignored –that Derrida had already made in his seminal essay, “Signature Event Context”:
a written sign carries with it a force that breaks with its context, that is, with the collectivity of presences organizing the moment of its inscription. This breaking force [force de rupture] is not an accidental predicate but the very structure of the written text. This allegedly real context includes a certain “present” of the inscription, the presence of the writer to what he has written, the entire environment and the horizon of his experience, and above all the intention, the wanting-to-say-what-he-means, which animates his inscription at a given moment. But the sign possesses the characteristic of being readable even if the moment of its production is irrevocably lost and even if I do not know what its alleged author-scriptor consciously intended to say at the moment he wrote it, i.e., abandoned it to its essential drift. As far as the internal semiotic context is concerned, the force of the rupture is no less important: by virtue of its essential iterability, a written syntagma can always be detached from the chain in which it is inserted or given without causing it to lose all possibility of functioning, if not all possibility of “communicating,” precisely. One can perhaps come to recognize other possibilities in it by inscribing or grafting it onto other chains. No context can entirely enclose it. Nor any code, the code here being both the possibility and impossibility of writing, of its essential iterability (repetition/alterity). (Limited Inc., 9)
(How strange the spectacle of people arguing that Derrida “really meant this” in light of passages like this!) What Derrida says here of the sign is true of any and all objects. Objects are a force de rupture, capable of breaking with any contexts in which they might be embedded. They are, for this reason, explosive or perpetual reservoirs of surprise. Here I’m led to wonder whether the art historians Robert speaks of aren’t cutting off the very branch they’re sitting on. For isn’t this iterability, this ability to fall perpetually into new and different contexts, the bread and butter of their interpretive work or what allows them to produce endless interpretations without limit? Isn’t the existence of a work of art as a substance that which guarantees that the work of interpretation will never be exhausted or completed?
The iterability of the work of art is not restricted to the thought of Derrida. We encounter a similar theme in Deleuze and Guattari. The very first point Deleuze and Guattari make about the work of art is that it preserves. As they write,
Art preserves, and it is the only thing in the world is preserved. It preserves and is preserved in itself (quid juris?), although actually it lasts no longer than its support and materials– stones, canvas, chemical color, and so on (quid facti?). The young girl maintains the pose that she has had for five thousand years, a gesture that no longer depends on whoever made it. The air still has the turbulence, the gust of wind, and the light that it had that day last year, and it no longer depends on whoever was breathing it that morning… And it is no less independent of the viewer or hearer, who only experience it after, if they have the strength for it. What about the creator? It is independent of the creator through the self-positing of the created, which is preserved in itself. What is preserved– the thing or work of art –is a block of sensations, that is to say, a compound of percepts and affects. (What is Philosophy, 163 – 164)
While I take exception to Deleuze and Guattari’s thesis that art is the only thing that is preserved, the point here is that the work of art is an independent substance that is able to trace a nomadic and mobile course through the world independent of relations. Every work falls into relations, no doubt, but it can never be reduced to these relations. This is why every work, as Badiou might put it, is, in principle, infinite. Situated in terms of Graham’s object-oriented ontology we can say that the work of art, like many other cultural artifacts, is a sensuous object a translation that has become a real object. Graham’s sensuous objects are objects that exist only on the interior of another object. The fearsome monster that I am now thinking about will cease to exist the moment I cease thinking about it. Real objects are objects that exist in their own right, requiring no other object in order to exist. This is the case with art. In creating a “block of sensation” (what a marvelous expression!), a sensuous object has become a real object.
Deleuze and Guattari go on to remark that,
Percepts are no longer perceptions; they are independent of a state of those who experience them. Affects are no longer feelings or affections; they go beyond the strength of those who undergo them. Sensations, percepts, and affects are beings whose validity lies in themselves and exceeds any lived. They could be said to exist in the absence of man because man, as he is caught in stone, on the canvas, or by words, is himself a compound of percepts and affects. The work of art is a being of sensation and nothing else: it exists in itself. (164)
It is in this respect that we can say that fictional and symbolic entities are nonetheless real substances. Having been made to stand, having become real objects, they trace a course in the world that is capable of breaking with any and all relation. And it is precisely this substantial nature of the work that guarantees the infinite fecundity of the work. For it is precisely because works are substances that they can be grafted into an infinite number of contexts and relations. However, such a possibility is only possible if substance precedes relation.