Crafts and metaphysics – Elizabeth Grosz and the philosophy of matter and sense

Anders Dunker talks with philosopher Elizabeth Grosz about crafts, chaos and the potential meanings of matter

Australian philosopher Elizabeth Grosz has had a long academic trajectory and authored 10 books, beginning with Sexual Subversions in 1989, a work on French feminism. As her arguments about sexual difference have developed, influenced by Luce Irigaray, she increasingly combines the psychological with the biological – and she has engaged in a radical re-reading of Darwin’s works, summed up in Becoming Undone – Darwinian reflections on Life, Politics and Art (2011). Sexual difference, she emphasizes, cuts through most of organic nature, and processes of differentiation, attraction and change opens up the question of what life and matter is, at the deepest level. The dynamic interplay of bodies is metaphysical, connected to the nature of the cosmos as well as to the creative processes of art. Such explorations are also at the core of Grosz’ book Chaos, Territory, Art – Deleuze and the framing of the Earth (2008), translated to Norwegian by Anders Dunker for H//O//F in 2019.

From his home in Los Angeles, Dunker has spoken to Grosz over videocall to New York to discuss her latest book, The Incorporeal (2017), and how her work sheds light on materiality, crafts, becoming and chaos.

«Our intention is partly formed through our relationship to the material»

Elizabeth Grosz

Anders Dunker: One way of describing arts and crafts would be the activity of shaping material and imbue it with meaning. In your work, you explore how the encounter between the material and the immaterial take on complicated forms, where imperceptible forces are at play, processes that you try to root out through an interplay between philosophy, art and natural science.

In your latest book, The Incorporeal, you present a myriad of perspectives suggesting that the material is always already more than mere matter. To the crafts, who are constantly engaged with the subtleties of elaborating materials, these considerations seem very relevant. Even if you touch on the arts along the way, the book is mostly concerned with philosophy and you draw upon what could be called a band of philosophical outsiders to explore your topic: the ancient Stoics, Spinoza, Nietzsche and the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze as well as his lesser known precursors, Gilbert Simondon and Raymond Ruyer. Do all these thinkers have enough in common to be seen as a tradition? What do they have in common in their exploration of the material?

Elizabeth Grosz: Each is appropriate to his own moment, and addresses different questions, so they're not exactly commensurable. But I think they do share this idea that we can't really get rid of materialism. We can't think of the world without thinking of matter. Yet matter alone is meaningless. The question of its meaningfulness has to be addressed in one way or another. When I use the word meaning here, it shouldn’t be understood semiotically, as connected to signs and language. It is rather that materials in themselves have a sort of sense or acquire a sense as they are shaped.

AD: When you refer to the ancient Stoics, you point out that they counted four phenomena that exceed the material – the void, space, time, and something called lekta? The last is somehow connected to meaning?

EG: Lekta is clearly the most interesting here – it is something akin to what we call sense. Not a literal or coded meaning, but rather something that can potentially be expressed.

AD: So, this meaning is not just something we project onto the materials or the material world? Does sense come about only when we sculpt, shape and compose it – or does the material have a sense in itself, in its processes of change?  

EG: We have to be really careful here because if we collapse materiality into all of its levels at once, then I think we lose the question of sense very readily. Such a loss of sense is precisely what we find with Descartes and Newton who sees the material world as a mechanism. In classical physics everything is understood in terms of cause and effect – and the relation between the two is always seen as calculable. I think what Spinoza, the Stoics and especially Deleuze talk about, is that in the events we observe or in which we participate, there is an inherent meaning which isn’t calculable. The point isn’t that they are too complex to calculate, or that causation doesn’t exist, but rather that certain events have something extra in them that normal causal relations doesn’t have: something incalculable that is also a direction – something that potentially makes sense.

«we have to see in the clay the possibility of the pottery and we have to figure out a way how to attain that»

Elizabeth Grosz
Ceramic tiles by Beth Wyller in the exhibition 'Tegninger' at Galleri Format Oslo
Ceramic tiles by Beth Wyller in the exhibition 'Tegninger' at Galleri Format Oslo

«The pre-individual, almost by definition is what, the artist and the object share, the common resource from which each has grown themselves»

Elizabeth Grosz

Between order and chaos

AD: One name for the incalculable and completely disoriented mess would be chaos. In one of your former books Chaos, Territory and Art (which I also had the honour of translating to Norwegian) you talk about the artistic process as an interplay between chaos and order, noise and composition. Composition is obviously artistic, but which role is played by incalculable, uncomposed chaos?

EG: I don't think a being can exist in chaos. In chaos being dissolves and devolves to becomings.

AD: Yet in total, crystalline order, there are no events, no becoming, no creation?

EG: In other words, there has to be upper and lower limits to order for any kind of thing – molecular, artificial or living – to be possible. Chaos is everywhere – and emerging from chaos are these forms that allow even the molecule to form itself. I don't know how oxygen mixes with hydrogen, but oxygen and hydrogen know how to do it. So, their knowing is their doing. How do they form? By temporarily producing relations or liaison connections. The atom is so forming this way just like the embryo and the brain. Not with a given plan imposed from the outside but with a plan that is produced in the process of making itself.

AD: It sounds much like writing – or preparing this interview. You begin from different components that float about, often without a clear idea of how they can or should be connected

EG: I think this is, in fact, how all our artifacts and artworks are made as well. Whatever plan we might have for making a beautiful vase or a piece of pottery or something embroidered, we have to invent a way of making the artwork come into existence. What we produce at the end will have involved this invention and timing – and momentarily of these forces – according to the idea that we have. Same with writing an essay and same with riding a bike. Our intention is partly formed through our relationship to the material. If you have a direction, you are rewarded with getting somewhere, even if you don't exactly know where that is. You have a purpose, if you like.

It is easy to say this about human beings, but in a way it’s less clear how it can be true for animals and subatomic particles. But even when we humans have intentions, we often don't know how to carry them out. The process of invention is discovering a way to approximate that end. In fact, this is in part what craft is about. It's about making an object non-commercially, making an object that is of value, which isn't going to be mass-produced necessarily. Even if it can be mass-produced, it is an object whose function is momentarily unique. It's a question of the unforeseeable interplay between the person and the material.

From Kjell Rylander's exhibition 'not part of the collection' at Galleri Format Oslo
From Kjell Rylander's exhibition 'not part of the collection' at Galleri Format Oslo

Incalculable pleasure and embryonic objects

AD: One incalculable factor in this process is certainly pleasure. Not necessarily the pleasure the craftswoman or craftsman intends to give the recipient of the object, but the pleasure of making sense of the material, in composing the material?

EG: It's very rare that we pick up clay and find pleasure in it. But if we make it into pottery, then it's immensely rewarding. But we have to see in the clay the possibility of the pottery and we have to figure out a way how to attain that. Now that we have a potter's wheel, we can make it round, we can give it a certain density and so on. In other words, we have to have an idea of what to do with it. But it's also primarily a question of what form you want to attain and how able you are to attain it.

AD: There is an argument in Gilbert Simondon’s thought about form, and about shaping materials. He says that for instance when you shape something with a mould, it would be a mistake to see the material as matter and the mould as form. The mould is also material, it has also been formed and moulded. It is rather a case of two processes interacting, the history of the material, its extraction and preparation – and on the other side the history of the mould or instrument. Each is the history of a technological and artistic transformation. If we want to take it further, we could even say that the user of the tool is also a process, which is affected by the tools and the materials. Is this process what Simondon calls the pre-individual?

EG: The pre-individual, almost by definition is what the artist and the object share, the common resource from which each has grown themselves. But also, that from which the artwork itself has acquired its material characteristics. I think in Simondon, the pre-individual is like a collective inheritance with the earth itself. But remember, the pre-individual is pre-identity and pre-coherence. It's not pre-sense but it's pre-coherent sense. It is a whole that is more than the unity.

AD: In the Norwegian and Swedish schools, we have a subject called sløyd, and the idea behind sløyd, formulated as early as the 1830’s by Otto Salomon, was that the goal was not only to shape and manufacture objects, but also that of shaping and creating noble human characters, by having children interact with materials. Simondon would perhaps call this a process of individuation, where the individual and the collective world evolve together and shape each other. In the materials there is a potential. So, the pre-individual is that in what is shaped which in turn shapes its shaper?  

EG: So, the pre-individual also consists of the forces forming and informing the process of individuation, the becoming of beings and things. It’s interesting that you mentioned Simondon’s ideas about tools, because his thoughts also resonate with Raymond Ruyer. The tool is itself already an extension of the body, Ruyer says; an extension of the body's capacity to make itself and the being's capacity to make itself according to a form. It's not dissimilar to Simondon's notion of individuation, because it is a form that doesn't exist outside of the being.

AD: So, the form is something that emerges, rather than something eternal and fixed, like Plato’s ideas or geometrical patterns?

EG: This form is the same form that articulates, on the one hand, our bodily organs – and on the other hand, the tools that match our bodily organs that we use to extend our bodies into materiality, to make it represent what we need from it. Tools themselves are artefacts, and elementary toolmaking is the first kind of craft in a way. This craft is already present in organic processes. The tools humans make and use to modify their surroundings and themselves are an extension of the capacity that the body has to make itself as an embryo. The human embryo produces nothing but human beings, in whatever variation that might come – and the dog embryo, produces a dog. Humans and some other animals produce tools – but even these tools are themselves already extensions of the organs that are produced through their birth.

AD: If all objects can potentially enter new constellations and reveal new potentialities, can we then say that every single thing is embryonic?

EG: Yes, and not all the potential has to do with us making sense of it. The object also has a life of its own in the world of mechanical physics and subatomic physics. We can always uncover this life for our own purposes and transform it.

AD: To what end – in the end?

EG: That’s as open as all of the crafts are in themselves. Pleasure, usefulness and everything in-between.

AD: In the artistic activities both of animals and humans you talk a lot about the intensification of sensation. It appears that you see intensification as a goal in itself – more than a means to achieve an effect.

EG: Yes, in a way I think intensification is the goal of art. I’m not sure if it is the goal of the artist, but I'm sure it's the goal of the spectator. If intensity is a goal in itself, it is because the body is invigorated more, energized more. This intensity is pleasurable mostly, but sometimes it's painful. But even that painful intensity is epistemological: It's revealing something.

The images accompanying this interview are from Galleri Format Oslo's  exhibitions Tegninger by Beth Wyller and not part of the collection by Kjell Rylander (March–May 2020).