Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How Object-Oriented is Agamben? Withdrawnness and the Image

     In my last post I set out to determine in what sense Agamben’s inoperativity is object-oriented, concluding that it is and it is not. Clearly, such an answer sidesteps the real question, how object-oriented is Agamben? This post will attempt to show how in two crucial regards Agamben evidences tendencies towards Object Oriented Ontology.
     A major feature of OOO is the assertion that there exist objects “all the way down.” In Prince of Networks, Graham Harman claims that because of the withdrawnness of all objects, whenever one “opens” any given object, we see that it is composed of other objects. And when we open those objects, we see more objects, an so on down into the rabbit hole. In “Nudity,” Agamben makes a nearly identical claim. Discussing Clemente Susini's anatomical wax sculptures, Agamben writes, “But no matter how much we open the wax model and scrutinize it with our gaze, the naked body of the beautiful, disemboweled woman remains obstinately unobtainable” (79). In the context of his essay, these comments do not refer simply to Susini’s sculpture, but to all real objects. Hence, like the sculpture, all real objects remain obstinately unobtainable. In this crucial regard, Agamben is object-oriented.
     Now, we have objects all the way down precisely because each object is radically withdrawn: “the being of any object is always deeper than how that object appears to us” (Harman 180-181). And by being radically withdrawn, the real object undergoes a series of divisions of which the split between a real object and its sensual objectness is primary (the others being between a real object and its real qualities [essence] and a sensual object and its sensual qualities [time]). A consequence of this primary division is vicarious causation; because all real objects are ontologically withdrawn from all other real objects, they can only contact each other through a third, mediating object. This mediator is, according to Harman, the inside of a sensual object. Thus the division between a real object and its sensual object becomes crucial in explaining not only movement and change, but also all interaction between real objects. In some way, then, this split breaks off the infinite downward spiraling of objects by creating a disjunction out of which the object becomes, to a degree, intelligible through its sensual object. The disjunction itself is not that which is intelligible, but rather what is intelligible is the sensual object produced through and out of this split.
     What does this have to do with Agamben? In “Nudity” Agamben sketches out a form of visibility -- nudity -- that takes shape as an inapparent appearance. That is, nudity is an appearance that signifies nothing because it has no content and is, thus, the pure appearance of a human. While the technical term nudity refers to humans in their pure and inapparent appearance, it belongs to the genus of “image.” Drawing upon Meister Eckhart, Agamben claims that in the image the “real thing” (i.e. real object) stands “trembling” and “quivering” in “the medium of its own knowability” (83). For Eckhart and Agamben, the image is, simply and profoundly, the pure knowability of the real object. And like nudity’s pure appearance, the image’s pure knowability is inapparent and nonsignifying because it too lacks content. The question now arises, is the image (and with it nudity) a real object’s sensual object?
     Decidedly not. Rather, the image “is a perfect medium between the object in the mind [sensual, phenomenological object] and the real thing [real object].” Accordingly, the image is “neither a mere logical object nor a real entity” because it occupies the between stretching from real object to sensual object. This medium or between is nudity’s pure appearance (appearance without secret, an inapparent appearance signifying nothing because it lacks content) and, in general, the image’s pure knowability. Thus, both nudity (corresponding to humans) and image (corresponding to all objects, humans included) constitute a medium of absolute knowledge, or, in other words, the pure knowability of objects.
     Yet “knowability” is a misnomer. “Knowledge” here is not in any sense correlationist or in any way connected with a cogito. Rather knowability refers to non-knowledge. Because the image is pure knowability, the capacity for any object to be known and made to inapparently appear, it is not properly “knowledge” insofar as it, in having no content, does not signify anything. For Eckhart, the image, as a medium between sensual object and real object, exists in a “between.” As quoted by Agamben, Eckhart asserts, “The forms that exist in matter tremble incessantly, like an ebullient strait between two seas.” The image, then, resides in a “zone of nonknowledge” (the “ebullient strait” between the seas of the real object and the sensual object) that, as Agamben claims in Nudities’ final essay, we “keep ourselves in [a] harmonious relationship with” through a “recipe” (“The Last Chapter in the History of the World” 114). Now, Agamben holds that as of yet, we have “no recipe for articulating a zone of nonknowledge,” not, however, because such a recipe is impossible, but because Western thought has focused solely on developing archives of knowledge (113). A recipe of nonknowledge is, therefore, completely possible, and, more importantly, crucial, as the zone of nonknowledge, in being constituted by imagistic pure knowability, defines the rank and file of the known (113). The problem with this zone is that, if peeled open, it will reveal nothing definite, because, after all, it is composed of inapparent appearances -- images. These images are, Agamben concludes, “gestures” (114).
     A quick recap: Harman gives us a four-fold division of real objects, the primary division being that between a real object and its sensual object. Thus, on the one hand we have objects all the way down because each real object is infinitely withdrawn, a point similarly made by Agamben. On the other hand, a real object connects with another real object only through a mediating third -- a sensual object, something that Agamben hints at with the image. However, Agamben’s image is located at a curious crossroads for each object: it belongs to neither the real object nor the sensual object, but instead it the medium between “the object in the mind and the real thing.” This medium could mean one of two things. First, it could mean that the image is the eidos of a real object, which Harman defines as the tension between a sensual object and a real object’s qualities. Second, the image could be something else entirely. Being the medium between real and sensual object, the image performs a role somewhat different from the eidos: the generation of all knowledge. The image is pure knowability and is accordingly an inapparent appearance lacking all signification. Thus the image is, on the one hand, not a real object insofar as it is partially a sensual object by being an appearance, and on the other hand it is not a sensual object insofar as it is partially a withdrawing real object in its inapparentness. Thus, the image finds itself located in a zone of nonknowledge located between the real and the sensual object. This zone is a between out of which an inapparent appearance becomes not only possible, but visible as a “gesture.” Thus the image is the gesture of a zone of nonknowledge, for which we need a “recipe.”
     What the heck is a recipe in this case? In cooking, a recipe is a form of “knowledge” in the broadest sense -- a comportment towards the real objectness of food. Accordingly, a recipe is a performance of the ingredients; or, in other words, it is, partially, a medium between real objects (the food) and a sensual object (the food in our mind). The recipe is, more properly, the vehicle through which the gesture or image stretching between the food and the food in our mind inapparently appears. Not the image or gesture itself, the recipe is that through which the medium is performed.
     Therefore, to return to my ongoing efforts to develop a “hermeneutic” of the gesture, I can no longer call this project a hermeneutic. Instead, what will be developed will be a recipe book.
     And for vicarious causation: the image or gesture does and does not mediate between real objects insofar as it is the potential mediator between real and sensual objects. Thus it is the pre-condition (“pre” not in a chronological sense) for vicarious causation without which a real object could never contact a sensual object, let alone a real object (through, of course, the sensual object). No image, no vicarious causation. For this reason, the image cannot be what Harman defines as eidos -- the tension between sensual object and real qualities that, like a real object, withdraws itself from all direct access.


Thomas Gokey said...

I too have seen a connection between Agamben's nudity and OOO. Really I would love to see an extended study on naked/bare life and the traditional idea of a bare substance.

Agamben, like most people who have written on the subject, makes a distinction between two kinds of nudity (a kind of naked vs. nude). I've been thinking of the happy life as a kind of nudity, with bare life as a kind of nakedness.

For me this really comes through when we start to think about the theater. How does costuming and character coincide? Can you strip away the actor to reveal "Hamlet"?

martelmd said...

Sorry for missing this post for a week. The nudity/nakedness distinction is crucial to Agamben's thought and any attempt to reconcile Homo Sacer and Remnants of Auschwitz with The Open or The Coming Community. I have not thought of Agamben in connection with the theater, as I mostly work on Victorian fiction. Although, a lot of Dickens's journalism (especially his stuff on Victorian detective work) focuses on costuming and easily lends itself to an Agamben-like reading. If one severed the actor from the role, I don't think we would get "Hamlet" as much as the ontological nudity of the actor (who would then no longer be an actor). This all reminds me of Agamben's series of consume-like entities: genius, dignity, identity (there is an essay on identity in contemporary Western culture in the new collection).

Perhaps, however, Agamben's though as undergone a radical turn over the past decade. Whereas before nudity (and not nakedness) meant an radical epistemological openness, a sort of epistemic exposure, as in his essay on the Face, that made an object absolutely knowable. Now, with this latest collection, he seems to be moving away from such an all-exposing nudity towards an opaque nudity very much like Harman's conception of withdrawal. Objects are exposed in their nudity, but now, rather than losing all mystery, they simply expose their constitutive excess of knowability -- as if objects are always already just beyond the epistemic horizon between knowledge and a zone of nonknowledge. Such a conception would be, I think, unconceivable in Agamben's earlier work.