Minding the Matter: Material in Era of the After-Postmodern

Posted: July 23, 2014 in Uncategorized

with short Bibliography on Matter and Art below

Template-1, 001, by Ai Weiwei  2007

Template-1, 001, by Ai Weiwei 2007

After the recession of the postmodern period, materiality began to reassert itself as a fruitful theoretical idea which was not constrained entirely by language and which formed a world based solely upon textuality. This meant a re-evaluation of the idea of the Language-construction of all experience, perception and “the real”; and a questioning of the pronouncements of Saussure, and its strong iterations by Derrida, regarding the (total) textual composition of the world and all of its aspects. Primarily three focuses came to be developed in the after-postmodern milieu (approximately 1995 to the present day), to counter the strong constructivist theory of the postmodern era (approximately late 60’s to mid-90’s), and to reinsert materiality/reality into the play of theoretical consideration. These were: Perception, Sensation, and Affect. Materiality became evident in these three concepts outside of the totality of textuality of all events and objects and was seen, in the after-postmodern, as a means for the material or the eventual to disrupt the representational cultural (and subjective) systems which socially formed language (and its textuality) as contained and perpetuated. For the postmodernist thinker, as individuals can only think about the world through the linguistic, there was no means to connect (or perceive) to the world directly (or in the strong postmodern view no reality actually behind our words), and, therefore, there was only a world which was textually formulated to give the representation of reality. The after-postmodern thinker, however, came to reject this idea as they saw some aspects of immediate sensation and abrupt affect which could not be translated into, or actually escaped, the textual while still having some effect to inform a individuals considerations of the world (even as a social network).

Kazimir Malevich  black and red square 1915

Modernisms Search for a Language of Art (Painting)          Kazimir Malevich black and red square 1915

However, unlike the modernist position on materiality, the after-postmodernist idea of materiality/reality incorporated the strong and fundamental idea of multiplicity as lodged into the real. This was a very important turning point in the concept of matter as now reality is posited as existing before human experience and its linguistic systems, but this pre-existent reality operates to create multiple worlds from the same matter (or the differing “aspect” presented by the material/object). Now, though reality is seen as existent, it is incessantly various and therefore had many differing language systems which was possible to satisfactorily apply to it.

Whereas the modernist followed the idea of a singular real world (the world can only be one way with one best way of speaking of it, see Plato’s theory of Forms and Aristotle’s “excluded middle” argument*) with the modernist attempting to generate a single and correct language for detailing this stable real world (being the one way the world “is”), the after-postmodern viewpoint considers the real as generating multiple aspects of the world simultaneously and continuously productively (For the after-post the “is” is a “many” and not the “one” of the modernists or Platonists), thusly we will see the finite and the infinite continually conflate in the field of art.

Hilma af Klint Svanen (The Svan), No. 17  1915

Hilma af Klint Svanen (The Svan), No. 17 1915                    Perfect Language of the Absolute

These three alternations of systems between language and the world were clear in its meaning for Art and its Practitioners. The Modernist attempted a correct language of their medium which would correspond to the important reality of the world. The Postmodernist attempted an analysis of the representational systems of the culture and its over-scripting of the individual in society through its construction of reality only within the textual. While the after-postmodernist came to attempt an exploration of the multiple meanings, divergent knowledge constructions, and the manifest interplay of the compossible (the multiple, even contradictory, existences) which plays out on an imminent, though diffuse, reality.

As no singular system could elaborate the continually divergent aspects of the real, this multiplicity within the real caused a Fragmentation of Art Theory which came to imprint the new art system of the 21st century. These include a diverse set of theories as Visibility Theory, In-between Theory, Gift Theory, Affect Theory, Performativity Theory,  Participation Theory, and, of course, Archive theory. Each of these theoretical systems theory come to each be seen as divergent, but adequate, systems of knowledge production for art and each was seen as interesting for the elaboration of a theory of Multiple meanings/existences of the Material. Artistic endeavor came to investigate how each of these theories came to give a placement to foundation of an art practice outside of exclusive representationality, and how the theories could detail the production of meaning outside single unified systems while simultaneously detailing aspects of reality.

Cindy ShermanUntitled #465. 2008

Postmodern critique of the representational                                Cindy Sherman   Untitled #465. 2008

Within this period Jacques Ranciere and Alain Badiou have become important to the conceptualization of an after-postmodern as both try to compose a Multiplicity theory whilst keeping a world fuzzily separate from total Subjectivity and over determined textual (language) construction of the world in their writings, as well separating themselves from the strict postmodern position regarding the unattainably of the real. These two thinkers, as signposts of an after-postmodernist, accept some form of materiality of the world but regard it as “processes” (“event” of Badiou) or as “aspects” (“distribution of the sensible” of Ranciere) which yield a real which is not singular but many.

Both Jacques Ranciere (Aesthetics and its Discontents, The Ignorant School Master) and Alain Badiou (Handbook of Inaesthetics, Being and Event) argue for a ambiguous matter existing separately in the world which is a ground for multiple meaning constructions (under constant movement). This coupling of the Real/Materiality with Multiplicity is fundamental to the after-postmodernist positioning.

Thomas Hirschhorn. Cavemanman, 2002

After-postmodern’s matter, meanings, and the multiple real                                       Thomas Hirschhorn. Cavemanman, 2002


Some texts which may help to explore the attitudes of the after-postmodern take on matter and the search for meanings of the real can be found in the following set of writings on Materiality and Art:

Boris Eichenbaun

Theory of the Formal Method (1926)

We speak and may speak only about theoretical principles suggested to us not by this or that ready-made methodology, but by the examination of specific material in its specific context”

Martin Heidegger

the Thing (1935)

The Origin of the Work of Art (1935)

“But even the much vaunted aesthetic experience cannot get around the thingly aspect of the art work.”

Luce Irigaray

The Sex which is Not One (1977)

“…more than other senses, the eye objectifies and masters. It sets at a distance, maintains the distance. In our culture, the predominance of the look over smell, taste, touch, hearing, has brought about an impoverishment of bodily relations…the moment the look dominates, the body loses its materiality”

Arthur Danto.

Philosophizing Art (2001)

” The most striking contribution to have been made to our understanding of art by the art world itself has been the generation of objects, ones in every manifest regard like perfectly ordinary objects, things like bottle racks, snow shovels, Brillo boxes, and beds. We are (1) to regard these “things” as artworks, and not as the mere real objects from which they are indiscernible; and (2) to be able to say what difference it makes that they should be artworks and not mere real things. Indeed, I regard the matter of furnishing answers to these questions the central issue in the philosophy of art.”

Gilles Deleuze

What is Philosophy (1994)

“Sensations, percepts and affects, are beings whose validity lies in themselves and exceeds any lived being. 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”

Brian Mazzumi

The Autonomy of Affect (1995)

Affects are virtual synaesthetic perspectives anchored in (functionally limited by) the actually existing, particular things that embody them.”

Graham Harman              (founder of Object Oriented Ontology)

The Speculative Turn : Continental Materialism and Realism (2011)

” Art  and  design  seem  to  me  to  be  at  the  front  lines  of  the  struggle  as  well,  just  like  philosophy.  (There lies) the  tension  between  real  objects  (which  forever  withdraw  from  view)  and  their accessible  surfaces  (which  do  not),  or  between  real  objects  and  their  real  and  apparent qualities,  or  between  accessible  images  and  both  their  real  and  apparent  qualities.”  

edited by Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman   (this book is a selection of important essays on Object Oriented Ontology and is open source. That is: free (pdf) and on the web!)

Karen Barad

Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter  (2003)

“A performative understanding of discursive practices challenges the representation list belief in the power of words to represent preexisting things. Performativity, properly construed, is not an invitation to turn everything (including material bodies) into words; on the contrary, performativity is precisely a contestation of the excessive power granted to language to determine what is real.”

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