Object-oriented writing is a new form – neither poetic nor art-critical, yet retaining characteristics of both – that attempts to inhabit the object. That is, a writing that positions itself within the work of art, and also including all the necessary contradictions and impossibilities embedded within such an approach.
It could be suggested that the father of object-oriented writing is the Gertrude Stein of Tender Buttons, the mother the Roland Barthes of Mythologies. Though OOW is more likely their aborted fetus, having been revivified on a UFO by an extra-dimensional alien race that exists on a plane parallel to our own, and returned to this reality in order to contaminate it.
Traditional art criticism is largely predicated upon a two-tier approach – describing and judging. I’m not saying we should necessarily neglect these, but the field needs to be expanded. (In my own practice, I would like to bring judgment back to the table. You might have other goals.)
So, focus on a single work. Go inside it. Resist those urges that would reduce OOW to the status of mere exegetic response. Object-oriented writing is not a branch of criticism, but an art practice that allows the writer to collaborate with the art object. This allows a multiplicity of possible writings, ways, approaches, to flow forth; the poetic impulse of formlessness is the form. Everything is included, potentially, each element assuming equal value (let the reader decide what matters least): the historical = the formal = the philosophical = the poetic = the narrative = the critical. Etc. So one “historical” notation, in the same paragraph, might “illogically” follow a formal description and/or poetic eruption. You might spill your ink attempting to elucidate the reasons why the object willed itself into existence (if you believe it has.) Or proving that the object you see before you does not, in fact, exist. Or why it perhaps shouldn’t exist.
There are no rules governing this operation, nor should there be. For as long as I can remember, I have lived my life by trying to escape structures – the imposition of structures upon my being. Is object-oriented writing a crackpot semiotics? Maybe. Though I prefer the term “alien aesthetics.” I’m not so interested in language (I am), but in using language as an extension of my bodymind machine to inhabit the object. If you follow me there, you’ll find some interesting questions arise. Such as: Do we let the maker inside?
I’m really interested in exploring the site of no possibilities.
I acknowledge that object-oriented writing will always be, in its essence, an act of failed translation. But I am interested, as always, in the potentialities of a spectacular failure, rather than adding my murmur to the monotone that comprises today’s art critical chorus.
In his crucial book The Origins of Unhappiness, Smail describes how the marks of class are designed to be indelible. For those who from birth are taught to think of themselves as lesser, the acquisition of qualifications or wealth will seldom be sufficient to erase – either in their own minds or in the minds of others – the primordial sense of worthlessness that marks them so early in life. Someone who moves out of the social sphere they are ‘supposed’ to occupy is always in danger of being overcome by feelings of vertigo, panic and horror: “…isolated, cut off, surrounded by hostile space, you are suddenly without connections, without stability, with nothing to hold you upright or in place; a dizzying, sickening unreality takes possession of you; you are threatened by a complete loss of identity, a sense of utter fraudulence; you have no right to be here, now, inhabiting this body, dressed in this way; you are a nothing, and ‘nothing’ is quite literally what you feel you are about to become.”
Of course, the problems I’ve tried to lay out here are hardly unique to Bendik-Keymer’s essay. His arguments in favor of civility and against agonism are woven into the fabric of contemporary US culture and its prevailing political common sense. Over and over again, we have seen in recent years what can only be described as an emotional or aesthetic revulsion towards the tactic of protest from within the centers of liberal thought and culture—a revulsion that is often enmeshed with racialized and gendered ideas about who should or should not be protesting. The language of these critiques is often the same: acts of public dissent are “messy,” “angry,” “uncivil,” and “counterproductive.” I have at times wondered whether such expressions stem, at least in part, from a fear of conflict, or whether they come more directly from a deep but disavowed anxiety that the people who are yelling are, in some way, yelling at you.
A recurrent liberal response to the pressing social, political, or economic problems of our time is to have “conversations” about them—whether panel discussions, roundtables, or certain strands of social practice art. This fixation on conversation as a form belies, I think, a skewed understanding of actually existing social power relations. A classic liberal meta-narrative runs something like this: “If we act civilly, treat each other with respect, look at each other as equals, then the world will be the kind of place we want to live in.” That’s an admirable idea, but it doesn’t account for actual imbalances in social power, or the ways in which power is racialized and gendered in our modern societies. It doesn’t specify the role that particular institutions play—up to and including art institutions, or platforms like this one—in buttressing or rejecting certain arrangements of power. And it overestimates the ability of individual choices to prefigure the world to come (i.e., the liberal catchphrase “be the change you want to see in the world”) while vastly miscalculating the efficacy of talking as a means of addressing entrenched political problems.
Now, more than ever, we must consider the aesthetics of protest, but not in the way that Bendik-Keymer suggests. Once we get clear on what protest is, how it has functioned historically within the broader landscape of agonistic democracy, and how it can help lay the foundation for the society we wish to create, then we can get to work figuring out how to refine, redefine, and reconsider its aesthetic dimensions. In its fixation on conversation over action, civility over agonism, and its abstraction of power relations more generally, contemporary liberalism has too often obscured our ability to think clearly about the concrete circumstances in which we find ourselves. We need bold and considered aesthetic forms to give rise to the society we want to make manifest—a society more beautiful and more just than we previously imagined and one that liberalism has, in recent decades, repeatedly attempted to dissuade us from fighting for.