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2016.12.02 Fri, by Translated by: Banyi Huang
Telofossils, Network Hybridity, and the Politics of Pleasure in Speculative Realism

This piece is included in Ran Dian’s print magazine, issue 4 (Winter 2016–2017)

Imagine that you have just broken free from a silicon cube, stark naked, and erased of all memory. Ryoji Ikeda’s black-and-white barcode stripes flicker at high frequencies on the walls of a nearby glass building, and you are surrounded by slim figures sporting the black garb of Yoji Yamamoto, while Autechre’s Zenist electro-waves reverberate in your ears.

Yet is this enough to make you jump outside the human realm, to open untainted eyes to observe “the world without us” (1)? In fact, the fantasy of the outside (dehors) has always been a chronic ailment in humanity’s cultural genome, constantly project­ing all manners of peculiar concepts and imagination towards the two dominant temporal dimensions, the past and the future. If the goal of both Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s contempla­tions for a primitive golden age in the 18th century and Friedrich Hölderlin’s search for the homeland and fatherland in the early 19th century was to invent a point of origin that never truly existed in order to aim trenchant critique at the present moment, then the variety of utopian plans derived from literature, from Thomas More’s island Utopia to Kim Stanley Robinson’s sci-fi Mars Trilogy (1993–1996), can also be seen as paranoia about a future that cannot really exist.

Or perhaps it is that these fragile yet alluring smokescreens are so ingrained in our consciousness that once humanity has grown weary and wishes to return to the dimension of the present in such a way that the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer forewarned, he will have realized with futility and desperation that the so-called authentic “present” has long been drained by rampantly illusionistic “thinking-im­ages.” What constitutes the present? Which moment comprises the present, the realness of which makes it hard to breathe? As Walter Benjamin lurked among the masses hoping to restore the links that uphold the present, what he experi­enced was nothing more than traces of the cobwebs of memory. Yet, in Marx’s attempt to reverse the Hegelian headstand (as he described it in the “Afterword” to the second German edition of Capital in 1873, an inversion that prevented Hegel from perceiving the world as it truly is), he, too, could only recognize in the present a subversive mirror-image bent towards total revolution in the future. Or, just as Charles Baudelaire had said, the real present lies in the unadulterated turning point of “newness” and “difference.” But how can such a transient and incessantly transcendent moment furnish us with meaning and substance that is adequately clear and stable? Is it not even more feeble and empty than the imagery of nostalgia and paranoia?


格雷戈里·夏通斯基,“末世化石”,展览现场,独角兽艺术空间,2015(图片由中国北京独角兽艺术空间提供)/ Grégory Chatonsky, “Telofossils”, exhibition view, Unicorn Art Center, 2015. Courtesy UNICORN Art, Beijing, China.

格雷戈里·夏通斯基,“末世化石”,展览现场,独角兽艺术空间,2015(图片由中国北京独角兽艺术空间提供)/ Grégory Chatonsky, “Telofossils”, exhibition view, Unicorn Art Center, 2015. Courtesy UNICORN Art, Beijing, China.

Perhaps it is precisely on this point that Speculative Realism has most theatrically unveiled the allure of its ideas—though both pioneers of this school of thought, Quentin Meillassoux and Graham Harman are marked by differences and contestations in every respect. Having explicitly given up on “realism” in his only representative work, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (2008), Meillassoux adopted “materialism” as his stance. Diametrically opposed is Harman, who thoroughly defended Speculative Realism’s original ideas, and later even named one of his essays “Realism without Materialism” (2011). Upon closer inspection, however, the division between the two was nowhere near as extreme as Harman thought it to be.

In the introduction to his 2006 work After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux demonstrated his famous thought experiment by employing evidence founded upon cosmology and archeology (“archifossile” and “ancienneté”), thus achieving a break from Correlationism (in Meillassoux’s definition in the essay, “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other”),and conceived of an objectively existing world before the birth of mankind and of all other life forms. However, this experiment is far from straightforward. Meillassoux did not simply return to a stance of scientific realism to counteract the long-standing neglect of truth in contemporary thought. He was very clear that in the domain of philosophy, the affirmation of an objective world independent of human subjects would be an infantile and wholly ineffective claim. Any proponent of Relationism could effortlessly append a compulsory premise to the idea of being in itself: that is, “being for us.” Is there truly an independent, external world? If so, it can only be autono­mous in terms of either perception or cognition. Regardless, we would arrive at absurd conclusions. For a world that we cannot perceive, what does it matter whether it exists or not? Perhaps you can further demonstrate that, though an autonomous world is imperceptible, it can still think for us. Yet in this sense, such a world becomes one stipulated by human thought, and ultimately cannot escape the fundamental relationship between thinking and being.

As such, Meillassoux has delineated the most significant implication of this thought experiment. Archifossils not only precede us in time, for no matter how thoroughly you push for the notion of “pre” as a temporal dimension (pre-human, pre-life, even pre-all-life-forms, pre-universe)—as long as there exists even an inch of continuity (cause-and-effect, evolution…etc.) between this pre-human time and the human “present,” it does not establish an effective route out of Correlationism. It is precisely in this sense that Meillassoux explicitly rejects Realism, since any form of realism is premised upon the adequa­tion of man and the world he lives in. Yet materialism is more thorough than realism, as the former empha­sizes not only the autonomy and precedence of matter over mankind, but more importantly also that matter is “other” from mankind. It is a complete and absolute alterity. From this point of view, clearly there is not much value in Harman’s usage of spatiality in refuting Meillassoux’s temporality. In fact, neither time nor space constitutes Meillassoux’s key argument. Only with the rupture of “alterity” can the ultimate goal be reached.


Similarly, Meillassoux wanted to affix “archi-”, an important modifier, before the word “fossil.” The reason it is not a fossil in the anthropological sense is that its remnants are neither human “traces” nor an “origin” that humans have been able to trace back using current means of perception and technology. It transcends what we can perceive, measure, and speculate about time, and is independent of temporal measurements applicable to humans (whether physical time, psychological time, or the inner time found in phenomenology). As “fossil”, it confirms the existence of matter in itself; as “memory”, it maintains the self-preservation of the universe. This is in a true sense “deep time”: “A past that had never been present … such a time both not of this world and anterior to history is autonomous to any subject; it is a time of elements, a time of dust and particles.” (Ted Toadvine) (2)

Among recent experiments in contemporary art, none have further advanced the aforementioned thinking than Grégory Chatonsky, an emerging French artist. His various fantastical conceptions of fossils—his cherished subject—rival the philosophical reasoning of Speculative Realism. His titling of a series of work as Telofossils is quite a profound act in itself, since the Latin prefix “telo-” derives from telum, which originally signified throwing weapons such as spears or darts, thereby implying not only distance in space, but also an end point (a finish point or goal) in time. Judging by appearances, his method is the reverse of Meillassoux: archifossils point to “ante” and “pre” in the extreme sense, while Telofossils clearly looks at the apocalyptic state of human extinction. However, when we savor his work in greater depth, we find that its inner essence is no different from Meillassoux’s Speculative Realism; both are intent on highlighting the persistence and alterity of matter.

From “Telofossils”, shown at Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art in 2013, to “Telofossils II”, a duplicate of the former shown in Beijing in 2015 (at Unicorn Art Center), the overall trajectory of thought is clearly presented. In the 2013 exhibition, the trilogy (“End of the World Crisis”, “At the End of the World”, “Imagination of the End of the World”) revolving around motifs of apocalypse, destruc­tion, and termination expresses profound concern, in an effort to go beyond the human perspective, of reflecting on the crisis of the “present”. Ultimately, however, the dominant apocalyptic imagery of grand narratives could not escape pop cultural conventions that consume such landscapes for purposes of amusement. In recent movies featuring disasters, horror, monsters, and even in anime, the apocalypse as a subject has been overhyped to the point of vulgarity. On mega-screens in movie theaters everywhere, the earth has been destroyed over and over again by tsunamis, blizzards, raging fires, and nuclear wars. Moreover, huge game productions such as Fallout have vividly and realistically had infants of future generations walk among post-human ruins. Against such backdrops, the question of how to tackle the true meaning behind “a world without humanity” remains a dilemma for any artist taking up the position of Speculative Realism.

Meillassoux cautions us that any attempt to create perceptual imagery illustrating a world without humans will not realize the transcendence of the human realm. In other words, insofar as we remain at the level of perceptual relations between man and matter, any attempt to break free from the vicious cycles of Correlationism is bound to be futile. From here, Meillassoux ultimately turns to the classic Cartesian standpoint, using the fundamental means of mathematics to explore the nature of the world itself. However, Harman seems to disagree with this path. Rather than following the tradition of Cartesian rationalism, his point of intervention falls back on Heidegger’s theory of tool-being. (3) Through the reinterpretation of Heidigger’s 1927 work Being and Time, Harman gradually approaches the basic principles of Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), using the “broken tool” as a turning point: all material matter ultimately recedes from one another. Although they may have incurred some kind of actual or potential relations through various mediums, none of these relations could subsume the hidden core—hard to pry open and observe—embedded in each object. In a universe where all matter stands homogenous yet mutually autonomous, perceptual relations once again become more important. However, it is no longer a network unfolding around man’s corporeal substance, but rather the basic medium that maintains the lowest level of contact between objects themselves. Having borrowed the concept of “elements” from the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, Harman converts this to a plural form, using it to depict the shape and form of such medium. Yet in the work of visual artists fascinated by speculation, such as Chatonsky, we have already discovered incredible forms of media that can be described as richer, weirder, and more alien.

In “Telofossils II”, the exhibition in Beijing (in collaboration with the Canadian artist Dominique Sirois), Chatonsky more or less gave up on the grand narratives and mainstream imagery found in his previous works and returned to the present dimension itself in order to explore the bizarre features of the material world. Although the theme remains the imagining of an apocalyptic world (in an interview in 2015, the artist said that “Through preparation for death, we return to take care of life.”)(4) as well as clichés of ecological crises and technological alienation (in the video piece “Landfill”), the introduction of a great number of everyday objects toggled the artist’s point of view from futuristic imagery to the present reality, seeking to observe the varying distances between different objects amid the seemingly narrow yet threatening threshold of time. In this sense, hard-drives and computer casings made to look old and “ossified” appear to be overly direct, whereas in contrast, other not-so-science-fictionesque works have more potential to provoke thought. For example, “Laocoön II” freezes anachronistic objects such as power cables and bamboo fans in baked clay pieces, resulting in something similar to vivid primitive organisms fossilized in amber, at the same time embodying a grace akin to the reversal of seasons found in Wang Wei’s poem Banana Trees in Snow, adopting a dynamism that barges in on the present moment to fundamentally disrupt the otherwise orderly sequences of human time.


The reason for spilling a lot of ink on Chatonsky’s work is also because he reveals another creative dimension that corresponds with Speculative Realism, namely internet/post-inter­net art. However, it would seem as though the network, a typical form of organization, theoretically does not cohere with the position taken up by Speculative Realism and the latter’s endeavors to transcend Correlationism. In Bruno Latour’s theory on the internet, at least one of his key points consists of guiding us to understand the core thread of Speculative Realism—the distributed nature of the agent. In the interwoven web of the network, humans should not be assumed to be the naturally appointed central point, nor the agent that mobilizes action. Conversely, when all elements of difference congregate in one place they constitute, in Latour’s mind, “hybrids.” In his view, the formal features of hybridity are secondary in importance to its temporal features: in We Have Never Been Modern (1991) Latour writes, “The elements of each set of temporalities could assemble elements from different times.”

Consequently, the reason why only the present can be termed “real” is precisely because in the present alone can we feasibly collage, reconstruct, or further weave and “brew” new narratives using temporal elements and dimensions of difference. And it is exactly in this sense that the internet cannot be construed simply as a platform for communication between people. Moreover, not all artworks that make use of the web as a medium can be defined as internet/post-internet art. Only those that successfully obscure and eventually erase a dominant human position as the original agent, as well as those that theatrically realize the equal rapport between humans and objects, can be defined, in a true sense, as “internet art.” To use Harman’s words, man-matter interaction constitutes but one particular category of matter-matter interaction; not only does it not occupy a special elemental position, it is also not capable of autonomous and abstract thought divorced from the web of interconnectivity between all material matter. Another key proponent of Speculative Realism, Ian Bogost, explains in a more succinct way: “All things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally.” (5)

Therefore, many of the works exhibited in “Telofossils II” epitomize distinct characteristics of the internet. Using highly visceral methods, “Cultural Virus” displays the uncontrollable power intrinsic to the internet itself. Historically speaking, humans have always revered powers that surpass their own, but this sort of sublime experience is often an important source in activating human subjectivity (cf. Kant’s Critique of Judgment). As such, the proliferation of runaway computer viruses and that instant of the collapse of the World Trade Center have the potential to be reduced to subjects of human aesthetic appreciation. This has not so much as achieved an equal network between man and object as it has further incurred divisions and increasing distance between humans and objects through art. As such, in his 2013 book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, Timothy Morton highlights another extremely significant property of matter itself, namely “viscosity.” In other words, perhaps the best way to approach matter lies not only in highly theatrical moments such as sublime experiences; conversely, even in the most mundane circum­stances of daily life, the reciprocal flow between man and object, as well as the disintegration of boundaries between the two, is already happening in a concrete way at any moment in time. “Viscosity” aims to depict the unassuming and ubiquitous ways in which mundane objects permeate the human realm. Through microscopic material mediums such as oxygen—formless, colorless, and odorless—we are interpenetrating the world of objects every time we breathe.

From this point of view, rather than highlighting objects or placing them at the focal point of vision (in the manner of Van Gogh’s peasant shoes), the way to truly represent objects through art is rather to create a network depicting the intimate ties between man and object. Thus, Ian Bogost suggests in his masterpiece Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (2012), that the word “network” be replaced with “mess” (this also originates from Latour’s “imbroglio”), for it can more vividly illustrate the inextricable “tiny ontology” between man and object. This ball of mess is not utterly chaotic and intangible, however; it is instead filled with ruptures and fissures in all places at any point in time. It produces ruptures when rapports consolidate, and obscures boundaries when function/identity approaches certainty; and more importantly, it is fundamentally a hybridity that causes fermentation in different temporal elements. In “Telofossils II”, the work “Tombée II” is literally a fermentation machine for time in which each image, whether distorted, blurred, or reversed, simultaneously reveals cobwebs that illuminate each other in the fragments of time.

Doesn’t the collaborative artist project Aspartime’s “Nine Computer Exercises for the 21st-Century Online Digital Interactive Era”, a next-generation work filled with the playful spirit of youth, highlight even to a greater degree the entanglement of man and objects? Pertaining to this piece, perhaps it is precisely due to the fact that Bogost himself is a computer pro as well as an expert in source code research. In his Alien subject of research is his beloved PC, without which he cannot go for a day: “They are weird yet ordinary, unfamiliar yet human-crafted, animate but not living.” (6) Even if you take apart the case and unplug the cables, you might not be able to truly experience such “weird” and “unfamiliar” qualities. The way to turn a computer into an object and present it is to be “viscuous” with it, continuously weaving, disassembling, and reweaving the network of temporal fragments in intimate gaming sessions. Undoubtedly, we can con-template all we want, perhaps in a way similar to how curators reflect on art from perspectives of ideology, cultural studies, and other fields, but actually this simple and direct work merely provides us with the hint that only in the network entangled with man and objects can such a pleasure be realized.

The creation of sensual mediums that enable such pleasures to be derived is a rather more urgent political question. It would seem as though we gradually sank into an obsessive state bordering addiction in front of Aspartime’s optical imagery, yet at the same time, it is also an “exercise routine” to maintain a healthy liveliness and sensuality. As such, maybe Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects (2011) can be considered an effective yet pleasurable pathway to true democracy. This is perhaps another profound revelation brought about by Speculative Realism.

About the writer

Jiang Yuhui is Professor of Philosophy at East China Normal University in Shanghai. He is the Chinese translator of Deleuze & Guattari’s Mille Plateaux. He is also the author of Deleuze’s Aesthetics of Body (2007) and Truth and Painting: Merleau Ponty and Chinese Landscape Paintings (2013). He is currently working on an interdisciplinary research project: “Deleuze and Contemporary Art”.

格雷戈里·夏通斯基,《拉奥孔》,尺寸可变,2011(图片由中国北京独角兽艺术空间提供)/ Grégory Chatonsky, “Laocoon”, ceramic, dimensions variable, 2011. Courtesy UNICORN Art, Beijing, China.

格雷戈里·夏通斯基,《拉奥孔》,尺寸可变,2011(图片由中国北京独角兽艺术空间提供)/ Grégory Chatonsky, “Laocoon”, ceramic, dimensions variable, 2011. Courtesy UNICORN Art, Beijing, China.

格雷戈里·夏通斯基,“末世化石”,展览现场,独角兽艺术空间,2015(图片由中国北京独角兽艺术空间提供)/ Grégory Chatonsky, “Telofossils”, exhibition view, Unicorn Art Center, 2015. Courtesy UNICORN Art, Beijing, China.

格雷戈里·夏通斯基,“末世化石”,展览现场,独角兽艺术空间,2015(图片由中国北京独角兽艺术空间提供)/ Grégory Chatonsky, “Telofossils”, exhibition view, Unicorn Art Center, 2015. Courtesy UNICORN Art, Beijing, China.

格雷戈里·夏通斯基,《落下》,尺寸可变,2015(图片由中国北京独角兽艺术空间提供) / Grégory Chatonsky, “Tombée”, printed tapestry, dimensions variable, 2015. Courtesy UNICORN Art, Beijing, Ch

格雷戈里·夏通斯基,《落下》,尺寸可变,2015(图片由中国北京独角兽艺术空间提供) / Grégory Chatonsky, “Tombée”, printed tapestry, dimensions variable, 2015. Courtesy UNICORN Art, Beijing, China

格雷戈里·夏通斯基,“末世化石”,展览现场,独角兽艺术空间,2015(图片由中国北京独角兽艺术空间提供)/ Grégory Chatonsky, “Telofossils”, exhibition view, Unicorn Art Center, 2015. Courtesy UNICORN Art, Beijing, China.

格雷戈里·夏通斯基,“末世化石”,展览现场,独角兽艺术空间,2015(图片由中国北京独角兽艺术空间提供)/ Grégory Chatonsky, “Telofossils”, exhibition view, Unicorn Art Center, 2015. Courtesy UNICORN Art, Beijing, China.

格雷戈里·夏通斯基和多米尼克·西罗伊斯,《末世化石》,材料包括碳、矿物、稀有的土元素,尺寸可变,2013–2015(图片由中国北京独角兽艺术空间提供)/ Grégory Chatonsky and Dominique Sirois, “Telofossils”, material including coal, minerals, rare earth elements, dimensions variable, 2013–2015. Courtesy UNICORN Art, Beijing, China.

格雷戈里·夏通斯基和多米尼克·西罗伊斯,《末世化石》,材料包括碳、矿物、稀有的土元素,尺寸可变,2013–2015(图片由中国北京独角兽艺术空间提供)/ Grégory Chatonsky and Dominique Sirois, “Telofossils”, material including coal, minerals, rare earth elements, dimensions variable, 2013–2015. Courtesy UNICORN Art, Beijing, China.



(1) Alan Weisman, The World without Us. New York: Picador, 2007.

(2) Ted Toadvine, “The Elemental Past”, in Research in Phenomenology 44 (2014), p266.

(3) Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Chicago: Carus Publishing Company, 2002)

(4) Beckett Mufson’s interview with Chatonsky, “Here are Imaginary Fossils from a Post-Human Earth”, The Creators Project, link: http://thecreatorsproject.vice.cn/read/here-are-imaginary-fossils-from-a-post-human-earth

(5) Ian Bogost, “Materialisms: The Stuff of Things is Many”, on the website Ian Bogost—Video Game Theory, Criticism, Design, February 21, 2010, http://www.bogost.com/blog/materialisms.shtml.

(6) Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012, 10–11.