curated by Mo Salemy
Notes on Aaron Gemmill’s recent works and Laruelle’s concept of Non-Photography
I first saw the works presented in Aaron Gemmill’s online exhibition Under the Big Blank Sun while visiting the artist’s studio in Brooklyn last winter. Around the same time, I was reading the French philosopher François Laruelle’s book The Concept of Non-Photography. I instantly found Gemmill’s handling of photography eerily similar to Laruelle’s thoughts on what he calls the “onto-photo-logical essence of philosophy.”
Gemmill is not really a photographer. The globe used in Provopoli (Wem gehört die Stadt?) is a readymade he purchased online from a small business that prints satellite pictures of the earth on inflatable material. A large number of images in this exhibition are aerial photographs of American cities. They have been downloaded from the US Geographical Survey’s digital archives before being printed and manipulated by the artist. Gemmill often rephotographs his crumpled pictures and exhibits them in a flat state, multiplying the original optical illusion inherent in every representational image. Occasionally, he installs his pictures so that they are removed from their role as art and integrated in the phenomenological experience of the gallery space, reminding the viewers of the murky line between experiencing the real and seeing its alleged representation. In addition to noticing an overlap between Gemmill’s and Laruelle’s treatment of photography, I believe the works in this exhibition question the inflated investment of dominant theories of art and aesthetics in various philosophies of the world. They also underline the limitations that philosophy unfortunately imposes on the thought and practice of art in the name of expanding their possibilities.
Gemmill’s alteration of sidewalks, cities, and the globularity of earth in his work disparages its photographic materiality, emphasizing the flatness and fragility of the signifying surface of art. By doing so, he points out how, as Ben Woodard has recently suggested in Ungrounded Earth, “the auto-binding of thought to earth caricatures both”. Gemmill’s work identifies the local reality of what we commonsensically call the global. It shows how anthropocentric and geocentric worldviews are two halves of the same small planet, a circulating and circular limitation that we will either have to overcome on our own or through enduring unexpected cosmological changes enforced on the “living island” we call the world.
“Man works the Earth, lives in the World, thinks according to the Universe”, declares Laruelle. Between these three ways of figuring space, Laruelle’s contempt is specially reserved for the world, “for being the endless confusion of man and Universe, the Universe treated as man’s object.” If for Heidegger the world picture is a contemplative field of aesthetics ripe for resolving the tensions between I and We, the personal and the collective, Laruelle’s loathing of man, the world, and essentially philosophy prompts him to conceive of an aesthetic theory that rejects photography as the modern delivery machine for the world picture.
Laruelle’s problems with photography convey his views on the ontology of light. Writing recently about the concept of pure luminosity in Laruelle’s non-standard philosophical system, Alexander Galloway notes:
“‘Light makes manifest,’ he [Laruelle] acknowledges. ‘But what will manifest the light?’ Systems of representation reveal aspects of the world to perceiving subjects; this is how light makes manifest. But is it possible to see lightin itself, not in relation to a perceived object? Is it possible to manifest the rigorously immanent genericness of light itself?”
Thus, rather than illuminating the world in a certain light, Laruelle ponders the science of luminosity and the consequence of its absence. According to Galloway, Laruelle abandons the directional light of philosophy, proposing instead a different kind of light, a generic luminosity that makes all illuminations and obscurity possible in the first place. Laruelle’s unworldly argument, which at first resembles that of Heidegger in “The Age of the World Picture”, is actually far more radical due to its disregard for phenomenology; instead of hermeneutically readjusting the relationship between the picture of man and the world or cybernetically integrating them into a single informational system, he rejects man, the world and their picture as relevant categories. By doing so, he unwittingly opens the door for younger philosophers interested in analogue, abstract and abyssal meta epistemologies, to map out an immanent navigational scheme that is simultaneously pertinent to inside and outside, microcosm and macrocosms, local and global.
In the background of Laruelle’s non-standard and non-onto-photo-logical heresy stand those figures from the history of philosophy that in the past have correlated human conditions of cognition with the world’s concrete reality. Perhaps we should remember that it hasn’t been even a century since Merleau-Ponty insisted that:
“[T]here is no such a thing as physical nature in the sense we have just given to this world; there is nothing in the world which is foreign to the mind. The world is the ensemble of objective relations borne by consciousness.”
This particular resurgence of Husserl’s thought and its synthesis with the concept of embodiment was taking place around the same time that the pioneers of cybernetics had begun conceptualizing information as the truly substantial essence of the world, inadvertently transmitting humanity’s chronic phenomenological illness to machines. However, Laruelle isn’t content only with rejecting correlation and harmonization between the world and thought, the given and riven. He condemns all philosophers for borrowing the model provided by photography in order to understand the world. He refutes the pictures’ promiscuous affair with truth and signification, seriously questioning their onto-photo-logical conditions.
For Laruelle, it’s as if photography’s thirst for luminosity transposes the typhlotic quality of light to its analogue and digital sensoria, an original sin rendering every photograph nothing short of an amphibological catastrophe. For him, photography, beneath its convincing surface, is a permanent blind spot covering human time, which itself is only a flashing moment within the deep astrogeological history of the universe. If the world’s conception by philosophy is nothing but an anthropic confusion and a feeble remedy for man’s chronic myopia, then the flat photographic surface, as the technological consequence of this ontological disorder, successfully camouflages its own cause by bearing witness to and guaranteeing an externally eternal life for the world. To break this vicious cycle, one has to completely abandon searching photographs for signs of direct or dialectical truth. Just as the real essence of philosophy is non-photographic, the ontological essence of photography can only be non-philosophical. A photograph, using what Laruelle calls vision force, can identify the identity of the world, but it can’t represent anything besides its own photographicality since it genetically inherits and reproduces the limitations of human perception. Thus, photography should not be approached as the medium of but only as a claim to epistemological objectivity. This is why in the Laruellian universe, every photo can only be a photographic instant of photography, if not also the evidence of what I would like to call “photocracy”, the long and never ending hegemonic rule of photo-logic over the western systems of knowledge and political order.
Laruelle’s propositions about photography are a breath of fresh air and the biggest blow to the synthesis of Benjamin’s and Barthes’ theories of photography and even Debord’s analysis of autonomous images. These worldly image theories unfortunately spawned countless iterations in the 20th century among which Sontag’s reflections on the medium is the one still echoing deeply in the hallways of various schools of photography:
“Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers). The production of images also furnishes a ruling ideology. Social change is replaced by a change in images.”
Laruelle shows that while photography does claim the world and bestows meaning upon it, it is tautological, if not also naive, to assume that photography’s essence, as suggested by Sontag, is solely ideological. For Laruelle— who liberates the thought of photography from both its phenomenological and historico-political limits— every photograph is an artificial scientific intelligence: “not an artificial perception of the World, but an artificial science or a technological simulation of science.” A synthesis between the outdated notions of photography and Laruelle’s new propositions, if such a thing could be possible, is that photography’s ontology as artificial intelligence is what guarantees the durability and effectiveness of its political and ideological functions. Lastly, Laruelle’s rejection of photography can be further extended to the realm of politics by serving as a reminder to Badiou and his followers that the negation of representational democracy must begin with a brutal interrogation of all other representational image machines, particularly photography, if not with a rigorous denunciation of all philosophies of the world including Badiou’s very own.
. Françios Laruelle, The Concept of Non-Photography, (New York: Sequence Press, 2011), 3-4.
. Ben Woodard, Ungrounded Earth: Towards a New Geophilosophy, (New York: Punctum Books, 2013), 6.
. Ibid, 5.
. Françios Laruelle, “Of Black Universe in the Human Foundations of Color” in the catalogue Hyun Soo Choi: Seven Large-Scale Paintings (New York: Thread Waxing Space, 1991): 2-4.
. Martin Heidegger, “The Age of the World Picture” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, (New York: Harper Row, 1977), 132-133.
. Alexander R. Galloway, “Laruelle and Art”, Continent, 2.4 (2013): 230.
. Ibid, 231.
 . For a new epistemological configuration of the global and local see: Reza Negarestani, “Globe of Revolution: An Afterthought on Geophilosophical Realism” in Identities, issue: 17 (2011): “Heretical Realisms”, (Euro-Balkan Institute), pp. 25-54.
. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Structure of Behavior, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), page 3.
. For an abridged history of cybernetics, please see N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999).
. For more on the historical development of correlationism in philosophy and its relation to digitality please see: Alexander Galloway’s Ten Theses on the Digital: http://vimeo.com/48727142.
. “We mean to say, with this formula, that photography must be delivered of its philosophical interpretations, which are one and all amphibological; from the confusion of the perceived object and the object in itself or of the real, of objectivity and of reality.” Laruelle, The Concept of Non-Photography, 17.
. Susan Sontag, “The Image-World”, On Photography, (New York: Farrar. Straus & Giroux), 178.
. Laruelle, Concept of Non-Photography, 10.
. For Badiou’s views on representational democracy see Alain Badiou, “The Democratic Emblem”, in Democracy in What State?, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).