Thought Pieces 35 and 36 have focused on the lone silver birch tree on the hillside near Loch Cill Chroisd and how my practice has developed through my PhD. My research, as practice-led, has reflected on the insights that Graham Harman’s Speculative Realism might provide for my photographic practice. At this point in my PhD journey, the lone tree represents a fracture between my understanding of Harman’s Speculative Realism as detailed in Object-Oriented Ontology – A New Theory of Everything (2018) and my extension of his ontology into the Paradoxical Realism that frames my emergent understanding of my practice. I therefore offer it as the most formative example of the development of my work. Given the discursive nature of my thinking at this stage, this Thought Piece will be produced in two posts.
As I worked with the lone tree and noted in Chapter 2 of my thesis, I commenced a process of taking multiple visual readings of the tree in different lights, at different times of day, in different weather conditions, and different seasons (see previous blog https://www.wildreflections.photography/uncategorised/multiple-readings-and-multiple-exposure-images). During this period of extended practice, I appreciated the importance of subject commitment and spatial persistence as detailed in the Onion Diagram. However, in my search for a glimpse of the reality of the tree as a Real Object with Real Qualities, hidden behind the veil of presence, I became constrained by the metaphors of femininity, vulnerability, and resilience that the tree appeared to offer.
In taking this approach, I was following Harman’s assertion, influenced by Ortega (1914), that only through metaphor could essence be revealed – never fully, but as Plato’s flickering shadow on the wall of the cave (Harman, 2018). However, as I persisted in my practice, experimentation with the use of camera methods such as multiple exposure and slow shutter speeds, inspired by the work of Orton and Baryshnikov, among others, and my developing ability to enter a state of zonal flow or dwelling, led me through my innovation of practice to an awareness of the plurality of my own Being as Dasein (Heidegger 1953) – a Being in the world rather than of the world – and the plurality of the tree as a singular object of experience, but as a Being not alone, but sharing its reality with the world from which it derives and sustains its Being.
As a singular object, the tree, in its isolation and its presence, stands against the Cuillin, proud of the land, and accommodating of the climate and assault of foraging sheep and deer. It is a tree of the world but, in its presence not in the world. In its presence, Harman’s Sensory Object, with its Sensory Qualities are manifest and are generative of human perception and the response of the camera and its sensor. As a Sensory Object, Harman’s definition of an object as something which is more than the “sum of its pieces and less than its effects” (Harman, 2018 p53) is readily apparent. Following Aristotle and Heidegger’s lecture series on his work, the idea that the tree is ‘more than’ the sum of its parts is in clear view. The tree is not simply a sum of its trunk, its roots, branches and leaves, it is a ‘tree’ and its singularity emerges in the physical entanglement of its constituent parts.
Engaging with the presence of the tree lays bare and manifest the withdrawal of the noumena, and its location beyond space and time, as opposed to the phenomenal presence of both our experience and that, within the terms of a flat ontology, of all other objects clothed in their own singularity. The relationship between objects, the product of cause and effect and the temporal dynamics of change, are inevitably mediated through the Sensory Object and its Sensory Qualities and are realised through the inference of correlation. Causation is therefore, in the individuation of Harman’s philosophy, always vicarious, and subject to both epistemic and experiential loss. Harman’s phrase that we can never touch (a sensory gesture) without touching the atemporal reality of non-local and entangled Being (the Paradoxical Reality of the Tree’s Being), forms a seemingly impassable barrier. In the visual domain: seeing without seeing, also forms the ontological barrier that phenomenology cannot penetrate. Harman’s vicarious causation as expressed by the non-sequitur “touch without touching” or as those engaged in the aesthetics of vision “see without seeing” can lead to the existential despair that permeates Harman’s work (Harman 2018).
Following Ortega, Harman volunteers at some length that only metaphor forms a bridge to the noumena not, in its full revelation but, rather, as an ephemeral uncovering of the reality that lies behind the veil. He deploys Ortega’s arboreal metaphor ‘the cypress is like a flame’ to highlight the power of metaphor as a signification of a reality that both ‘is’ and ‘is not’. A cypress is not a flame, it is not burning in its presence, fire is not a Real Quality of a tree although it can sustain a fire which is a Sensory Quality if it happens to be caught in a wildfire. However, the signification within the metaphor points to its ‘flamelike’ structure and its ability to ‘shimmer’ like a flame as the wind blows. This focus on metaphor, whilst important, is in my view, incomplete. While it was, for me, persuasive in my early practice it created two problems: it came for a period to dominate my intentionality to the exclusion of all others; and in so doing formed a barrier to my understanding of my own Being in the World, Dasein, and its importance in my dwelling within the zone of non-conscious awareness.
To be continued . . .
Harman, G. (2018). Object-Oriented Ontology – A New Theory of Everything. Milton Keynes, Pelican Books.
Heidegger, M. (1953). Being and Time. New York, State University of New York Press.
Ortega y Gasset, J. (1914). An Essay in Esthetics by Way of Preface: 144.