“Full of things, ready at hand”: towards a material economy of abstract thought

Derek Horton

I.    As technology makes more of the world superficially available to us, the more for most of us the world is unmanageable and unimaginable. Amidst an information deluge the best we can do is to feel, see and hear; to sense rather than understand. We’ve experienced a sensual revolution. Industrialisation triggered it. Technology completed it. The content of our screens is filtered through a seductive and apparently benign technocratic interface of human and machine, redolent of Modernist paradigms of exploration and discovery with ease and speed that pervade terminologies like ‘surfing’ and ‘super-highways’. Such rhetoric buys into both Modernist dreams of limitless progress and neoliberal dreams of limitless growth. but in many people’s daily experience, sucked up in a wave of late night web surfing and spat out at the end, bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived and wondering where the time went, its impact is far from revolutionary.
The forces that have driven the development of computer technology and digital culture and the kind of social relations produced by them—how people might engage, adapt or subvert the technology for their own purposes, the extent to which interaction is heavily directed and delimited, the priorities that drive technological development, the structures that make it accessible or inaccessible and to whom—remain hidden by the seductions of entertainment and the diversions of aesthetics that are so dominant both in its mass appeal and in its use as an artistic medium.

II.    ‘If you can’t see my mirrors I can’t see you’, reads the warning on the back of large trucks, a message that often oddly reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s ‘angel of history’, with the rearview mirror as a metaphor more suited to our mundane and banal world. “His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.” (Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940.)
In a tunnel’s darkness, a train’s windows become mirrors. In the looking glass city the masses are reflected back to themselves in shop windows as a body of commodity-fixated consumers. “It is our common destiny to become film”, said Paul Virilio (The Last Vehicle, 2000), and we all invent the real amidst the unrealities of multiplex screens or video art installations, unknowing subjects of video surveillance as we navigate public space. Digital technology (through YouTube channels, TV on-demand, and multiple other platforms) gives us synchronous present and past windows on the world a little like the double view of a car windscreen and its overlaid rearview mirror (an everyday experience for car drivers that Lee Friedlander made poignant through photography). In all the many mirror effects that envelop us, our alienated double is returned to us as cold flat reflection. Windows reveal a world beyond while mirrors return us to ourselves in the world. The medium that provides the view has much to do with what is seen—mirrors and windows are media in and of themselves, and have their equivalents in other media, from Renaissance painting to 21st century computer interfaces.

III.    Windows can be mirrors, but the opposite can also be true. Looking back at your reflection locks the outward gaze into an inward one, but shift the angle of the mirror and it can reveal the world beyond and behind yourself. The mirror always places us in visible relation to the world that ocular vision denies us.
Commodified information and communication, Internet search engines or social media for example, function dialectically between the window and the mirror, the outward view and its reversal. Google displays views of the world beyond us and offers up information about it. But the more we use Google the more its algorithms allow it to return views of the world based on our own search history, so the window of Google slowly turns, query by query, into a peculiar mirror. The longer we Google the world, the more we see a world fed back to us that is ever more restricted and defined by our own terms.
The real-time stream of Twitter feeds and Facebook status updates convey billions of tiny windows into the world of others, but like the train windows entering the tunnel, darkness descends and we can see only ourselves looking back at ourselves. The longer we use these windows the less we see through them. Like the myth of Narcissus and Echo, just as we catch glimpses of entire worlds beyond ourselves, the windows almost imperceptibly flip into mirrors in which we merely frame and regard ourselves. We don’t set out to be narcissists, but given the slippage between window and mirror, if we don’t pay attention to the world outside us and we confuse the media for the message, that’s what we become—a world wide web of inadvertent narcissists trapped in a hall of mirrors.

IV.    An artist with remarkable foresight, and incidentally one who made art with mirrors, but whose plane crashed before the digital revolution had got off the ground, Robert Smithson identified the way in which technology, adopted as an art form, all too easily descends into the worst kinds of kitsch and the power and impact of both the art and the technology are smothered by the processes of aestheticisation. The 1966 Art and Technology show at the Armory, New York, organised by the engineer Billy Klüver, brought together thirty engineers and ten artists, pioneering the way for the now-common practice of artists collaborating with practitioners from different fields. But, writing about it in An Aesthetics of Disappointment, this is what Smithson had to say: “Many try to pump life or space into the confusion that surrounds art. An incurable optimism like a mad dog rushes into the vacuum that the art suggests. A dread of voids and blanks brings on a horrible anticipation. … Nothing is more faded than aesthetics. … Futility, one of the more durable things of this world, is nearer to the artistic experience than excitement. … A nice negativism seems to be spawning. A sweet nihilism is everywhere. … Art’s latest derangement seemed like the funeral of technology. Everything electrical and mechanical was buried under various aesthetic mutations. The energy of technology was smothered and dimmed. Noise and static opened up the negative dimensions. The audience, steeped in agitated stagnation, conditioned by simulated action, and generally turned on, were turned off.”
A generation excited by an increasingly technological world fifty years ago was, it seems, unable to find artistic responses adequate to it. Whereas now, the overwhelming impact of technologies largely no longer excite us because of their sheer ubiquity and are leading artists and their audiences back to the materiality of things in the ‘real’ world. Amidst Smithson’s “sweet nihilism”, our nothing-but-sensual revolution has generated a counter-revolution, a return to the real, attempting to hang onto the solid even as it melts into digital signals all around us.

V.    As I write this, at an iMac keyboard, for online publication via the internet, I tread the line that is now precarious but unavoidable between advocating for an embodied experience of materiality in the production and consumption of art and the disembodied digital means by which such art is often distributed, documented and mediated. At this point I want to move away from the consideration of immaterially experienced technologies towards the idea of a more general immaterial world of thought, of abstract speculation, and how that might similarly be more rooted in or dependent on the experience of materiality than is immediately apparent.
The material world is where things happen, where things can be made to exist that previously did not. Matter harnessed, pushed, moved and shaped by human purpose, by physical, human labour, remains central to our existence even if it is increasingly lost in our abstract, mediated experience. The mental world, the world of abstract thought, exists in a sort of parallel universe to the material, but it is not where the action is, nor can it exist without the material world as its reference point. What is ‘done’ in the world of the mind is more a reflection of the material world than a world of its own. Furthermore, when abstract thought is articulated and communicated it depends on summoning up the material world as metaphor in order to be understood. The interior world of the mind can only be externalised and shared through communication, and communication depends on common things—things we have in common. And what we have in common is the material world, experienced through our physical bodies, so those things we have in common more often than not are actual ‘things’, objects and materials in the world.
The philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) imagined the possibility of the world and all the objects in it as language, drawing on Goethe’s idea (in a letter of 1809) that all natural things are pregnant with meaning and that anyone who knew how to decipher them properly would be able to do without writing and speech. It is unlikely that Goethe had read Jonathan Swift, but in Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver (1726), more commonly known now as Gulliver’s Travels, Swift had a similar, although more satirically conceived, idea: “Many of the most learned and wise adhere to the new scheme of expressing themselves by things. For short conversations a man may carry simple implements in his pockets and under his arms enough to supply him, and in his house he cannot be at a loss. The room where company meet who practice this art is full of things ready at hand, requisite to furnish matter for this kind of artificial converse.”

VI.    Several years ago, at a time when most art schools were obsessed with the supposed value of certain sorts of theory as a means of analysing the practice of art, I found myself reflecting on this image of Swift’s, and speculating what such a room full of things might look like if it was to be the site of a conversation between Derrida and Lacan, say, or Deleuze and Guattari. This led me to search their writings for objects, the everyday things they used to communicate. The result was surprising, revealing and often comical. Canonical theoretical texts rendered as a list of manufactured objects in the order that they appear in them become remarkable and somewhat surreal ‘poems’, fragments of language that generate peculiar images through their odd juxtapositions.
I have viewed it as a kind of act of translation and, on-and-off, have continued to select what to most readers, including me, are dense and often opaque theoretical abstractions and ‘translate’ them into lists of mundane objects. This results of course in new texts that are much more directly comprehensible in relation to our experience of the world around us, whilst at the same time they are perhaps even more obscure in relation to any possible ‘meaning’ than the sources from which they derive. What they do demonstrate though, is that even the most esoteric ideas, tumbling from the minds of the most abstract philosophers, are dependent on the mundane, quotidian material that surrounds us in the world. The mental work of the theoretical philosopher becomes dependent ultimately on the physical work of the artisan or the manufacturing labourer.

VII.    Six of these ‘translations’ are presented here; the objects used for communication in books of high theory and abstract thought by Theodor Adorno, Jean Baudrillard, Régis Debray, Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva.