What follows is still an attempt to work through Realist Magic. It is a working through that accompanies my reading the book. As such, any misunderstandings are my own fault and not those of Timothy Morton’s superb writing.
By embodying them with human privacy and imbuing them with our own personality, things are reduced to silence. If they speak, it is only our own voices that are heard.
Bjørnar Olsen, In Defense of Things: Archaeology and the Ontology of Objects. 2010.
All things are woven together and the common bond is sacred
– Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations.
Demonic forces, spectrality, white noise. These seem to me the key terms of Timothy Morton’s concept of casuality. For Morton ‘actual, real things are happening a multiple levels and involving multiple agents’ (RM). Things are complicated. Yet as I have argued their is a split in the real between an ‘originary object’ which is withdrawn and multiple ‘hermeneutic objects’ that the complex enmeshment of ontic being produces. These hermeneutic objects are effects and entities in their own right. There are as many hermeneutic objects as their are aesthetic translations of originary objects: the multiplicity of hermeneutic objects is identical with the the number of relations in the cosmos. These relations are translations. To ‘trans-late means “carry-across”‘ and so each hermeneutic object is a kind of carrying across of the originary object. Causation is the total structure of these translations.
It strikes me as strange to call these hermeneutic objects sensuous. The sensuous names the realm of sensory rather than cognitive work. There is an immediacy to the sensuous that the work of translation doesn’t sit well with. For someone like Albert Camus, sensuality was the answer to answer. It was an answer that refused to diminish that absurdity. All sufferings and miseries could be endured because of the felt relation of skin and sun, body and water, the touching of lovers. Camus evokes the intimacy of things played out on the surface his flesh. There is no effort in his voluptuous realism, except that of arms and legs slicing through the waves.
Morton gives numerous examples of ways translation occurs. A frog’s croak becomes a word to a human; strategic intelligence to a mosquito; a trigger to a female frog’s endocrine system. The passages concerning this ignoble noise, a small noise of darkness and cold waters, are, like much of the book, beautiful. In these examples we have ‘actual, real things happening’. The neurocognitive process of senseless noise fashioned into a linguistic tool; physical perturbations in the air being ‘read’ by the mosquito; biological stimuli and response priming physical systems for reproduction. Are these things really translations? The metaphor in which the croak is “interpreted” or “read” starts to seem less like a metaphor in Morton’s causal system. What does it mean for these things to be “trans-lations”?
To carry-across convokes a polysemy the genericity of which centres on ideas of movement across a distance. This isn’t surprising given that the problem is causation. The evil realm of aesthetics seems to be being established as the realm of demonic causation; the production of difference in object-object relations at a distance without a mediate third. This is why causation is magic. Specifically, causation is black magic. As Morton says ‘[C]ausality is an illusion-like play of a demonic energy that has real effects in the world’ (RM). The paradoxical structure of causation is that the disincarnate incarnates the incarnate; causality is disclosed as a kind of spiritual possession. What is it that carries-across that which is carried-across? The frog’s croak is carried-across by the air packets that constitute unique moments in emergent wind. Speaking of Dante’s Inferno and the way that demonic possession operates on “black winds” and trees and so forth, Eugene Thacker (DP) reminds us that ‘possession is not just the possession of living being but includes the nonliving as well…demonic possession in the Inferno is not just teratological, but also geological and also climatological’. In the Inferno a suicide that has become a tree remarks ‘we were men once and have now become brush’. The scene doesn’t depict a tree with a man’s soul trapped inside it. It is not a material prison for an immaterial soul as in the Gnostic vision. The soul is the tree. So not a tree as a prison for the soul but a soul-tree. Demonic possession operates by invading, colonising, settling in, naturalising, identifying. It makes the host-body uncanny to itself in a hideous becoming. And this is necessary because ‘a perfect translation of one object by another object would entail the destruction of that object’ (RM). To carry-across is to imperfectly possess an object, to tune into it, to pick up its transmission and to carry the signal out of it, across oneself, and deliver it to other objects. Possession suddenly resembles electronic transmission. There is the withdrawn and the sensuous; the essence and the appearance; the originary and the hermeneutical; the signal and the noise. The irony is that as me-ontic void, the signal can never be recovered from the noise. The object is en-crypt-ed.
If causation is a kind of demonic possession then the claim that it is magical makes perfect sense. I still feel that there is a slippage from the metaphorical to the real. Despite his gripping explanation, one that appeals to me in almost every facet of its own aesthetic potency, that draws me in and holds me with it, inside it, this slippage is still the crack in the wall, the unevenly paved floor: it causes me to trip over it. The spell is broken. The distance between the tool and the task gets lost somewhere so that the metaphor gets taken for the real. Its ot that nothing like this “translation” is going on, its just not as literal or as autonomous as it seems. Objects are bodies, and bodies aren’t absolutely encrypted.
‘Every object is a marvelous archaeological record of everything that ever happened to it’ (RM). The conflation seems to be typified in this sentence and the passage that follows. The archaeological record is not a record in the sense of a list or narrative. True, archaeology does assemble lists, litanies, narratives, a whole hermeneutics of civilisation, but it does so on the basis of “the archaeological record”. In his Understanding the Archaeological Record, Gavin Lucas cuts the term an elegant three ways. He claims that it refers first to ‘artifacts and material culture’, secondly ‘residues and formation theory’, and finally to ‘sources and fieldwork’ (p.10). For Lucas artifacts refer both to archaeological artefacts and “ecofacts”. Ecofacts are objects of “natural” origin such as seed or bones that archaeologists tend to separate from artefacts based on the tool definition of the latter. Lucas points out that ecofacts are equally tools as are built tools. We don’t just use hammers to hammer but in the past have used bones to hammer. To go beyond Lucas’s example, the agricultural revolution couldn’t have taken place if human being ad not used climatological conditions themselves as a kind of tool. As Lucas states the ‘artefact-ecofact distinction is really a manifestation of a deeper “culture-nature” dichotomy’ (p.10) of the kind that we are familiar with from Bruno Latour. For now all we need to note is that the this record is not just a matter of reading traces. It is also about material objects, material culture, and places and practices. Morton’s view of the object as an archaeological record seems to correspond to an idea of the object as residues.
This might seem unfair as Morton is keen to point out that ‘[T]his is not to say that the object is only everything that ever happened to it’. The object isn’t just the interpretations made of it by other objects. Objects can’t be fully possessed, their signal ever fully recovered from the noise. There is always more kept back. The secrecy of the object. When it speaks it does so in silences. Nonetheless, this is still an archaeology without artefact and without pragmatics. Even the example of the frog provide us with a pragmatic comportments; the female frog’s endocrine system interprets the male frog’s croak in order to prime herself for the potentiality of reproductive activity. This isn’t simply a chain of interpretations but a chain of activities aimed at possible activities. I like the claim that objects are archaeological, that bodies have memory, but it can only be the case if they are corporeal realities existing in a shared tactility. I take such an enmeshed tactility to be constitutive of the intimacy of bodies. Morton comes close to this tactility when he states that [the] ‘before and after [of causality] are strictly secondary to the sharing of information’. But without the corporeal aspect that his concept of withdrawal forbids, Morton’s highly appealing archaeological image of the object remains an ‘ontogenetic history’ of a mimetic ability that is generalised to all objects. In Walter Benjamin’s words
To read what was never written.’ Such reading is the most ancient; reading prior to all languages, from entrails, the stars, or dances. Later the mediating link of a new kind of reading, of runes and hieroglyphs, came into use. It seems fair to suppose that these were the stages by which the mimetic gift, formerly the foundation of occult practices, gained admittance to writing and language. In this way, language may be seen as the highest level of mimetic behaviour and the most complete archive of nonsensuous similarity: a medium into which the earlier powers of mimetic production and comprehension have passed without residue, to the point where they have liquidated those of magic.
The characterisation of object-oriented philosophy as a pancorrelationism is starting to look like a panmimeticism. In keeping with Morton aesthetics as first philsophy, is the idea that we take one another for runes and hieroglyphs, as language, but in reverse- in residue. The frog is a residue of a frog. It is the star as the star appeared to palaeolithic man. Morton’s hermeneutical objects, the objects that we encounter in everyday life, are only our reading of what was never written. The Benjaminian notion of aura is important here. For Benjamin the aura of the object consisted of ‘a distance as close as it can be’ (HP). This proximate distance could be read as an intimacy or as a possession. There is either a corporeal aura or an aesthetic concept of aura. Benjamin asks us what the aura is ‘actually’, and provides his answer thus:
a strange weave of space and time; an appearance of a distance, however near it may be. While resting on a summer’s afternoon, to trace a mountain on the horizon, or a branch that throws its shadow on the observer- this is what it means to breath the aura of those mountain, that branch.
There is no doubt that Morton would take issue with this idea of the aura, having rejected it himself as presenting nature as
‘a reified thing in the distance, “over yonder,” under the sidewalk, on the other side where the grass is always greener, preferably in the mountains, in the wild.
But this is a proximate-distance. It is the appearance of a distance. In emphasising the apparent distance he misses the ‘strange weave’ that is precisely characteristic of the radical interconnectedness of things that a concept of the ‘wild’ refers to. The wild or the wilderness is exactly the place where humans may enter but can’t dwell. In the wilderess man is not absent but he is not at home (unheimliche). It is the place where an archaeological concept of the object that conditions it ‘artefactual’ breaks down. The ‘apparentness’ of distance that the ecological concept of mesh was supposed to undo is replaced by a concept of withdrawal that absolutises a distance beneath the mesh, between it and substance. The point Benjamin’s idea of the ‘”auratic” capacity’ of bodies is precisely to explain their ability to affect and “speak” to rather than be read by us. Somewhere along the way in his encounter with object-oriented thinking Morton’s project has left its orbit of constructing ‘a properly materialist ecology’ (EUA) in favour of an ontology of spectrality where the “real” in its “realism” has disappeared into demonic white noise. It is for this reason that the distance I am making between myself and Morton is also a proximate-distance… but it is a real distance, not an only apparent one. I remain with the tactility of the strange weaving of bodies.
DP- Eugene Thacker. 2012. In the dust of this planet. Volume one: horror and philosophy.
EUA- Timothy Morton. 2008. Ecologocentrism: unworking animals.
RM- Timothy Morton. 2013. Realist Magic.
HP- Walter Benjamin. . A little history of photography.
MF- Walter Bejamin. . On the mimetic faculty.