File Note 110: Paul Johnson - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Timothy Morton



Attendencies Images References Quote Biography Credits


What’s underneath the stuff that we see in the stuff we inhabit all the time? I mean, when you take a box apart, what do you get? There’s nothing there, right? When you erase a list you wrote in pencil, is there anything left? What about the pencil marks that tell you how tall your kids are, on that part of the doorframe in the doorway to the kitchen? Come to think of it, what about that part of the doorframe in the doorway to the kitchen? 

According to default scientistic atomism, eventually you reach absolutely nothing at all. According to our habitual patterns, you reach nothing at all quite quickly. There’s nothing left after you erase the list. There’s nothing left after you take the box apart. 

Default scientistic atomism is quite different from actual science. Actual science says that there’s always going to be a little bit of something left when you take stuff apart. You can test this by isolating stuff. When you put stuff in a vacuum very close to absolute zero, you observe it shimmering, vibrating without mechanical input. There’s a little bit of energy there, a little bit of fluctuation, even when all the chances of being pushed have been reduced to zero. There is not a void. Even the vacuum of space is fluctuating like that. I read somewhere that you can find all kinds of amino acids and stuff there, let alone in comets – I mean, in actual space. Matter-energy comes in all kinds of colours – there are no flavourless particles. There are oceans of indigo, saffron, lime green down there. 

Stare at a light bulb for a moment then close your eyes. 

If you remove most of the rhetorical varnish and put the sentences a bit too close to the fire so they get slightly burned and cinders start to fly about, and then you crumple what’s left into a short essay on the brilliant Paul Johnson, what happens? I mean, if you stir stuff at the bottom of the bucket of significance around, what do you see? 

Samuel Beckett was interested in such things, although he tended to see a rather tasteful, in retrospect, blend of uniform greys down there. 

But if you repurpose some grey crates by stacking them on their ends, the most astonishing Islamic filigree emerges on the wall behind. ‘Removing’ appearances just means removing what humans expect of appearances. You will find, when you enter Johnson’s world, that there are all kinds of hidden dimensions in things, ways in which they slip out of their anthropocentric tethers and float, gently, revealing their infinite richness. 

What does infinite mean? It means you can’t count it. It doesn’t mean going on forever. There is a sharp difference between constant presence, going on and on, and infinity, as anyone who’s been in an intimate relationship can tell you. And Paul Johnson has been in all kinds of intimate relationships with all kinds of objects. There is something so loving about allowing them to tell their secrets. 

What I think you see when you erase the pencil list is the paper you wrote it on, probably plus some kind of smear, which without a context people may interpret as almost-writing, or as drawing, or as a smear. Repetition of words isn’t allowed in sentences, except that it is, after the Romantics such as Wordsworth applied it to such effect – repetition I mean – for example, of the word smear. They took rhetoric apart and found something underneath the rules, rules like variety is the spice of life (which begins to sound like very boring curry after a while), something that wasn’t nothing at all. 

Where on earth did we get this destructive, enabling-destruction idea that underneath stuff, there’s nothing at all? Way back in whenever that was, Aristotle convinces you that this can’t be true. You can’t subdivide something that has no parts. So if there’s nothing under the list, when you try to move your hand across wherever that is, you’ll never be able to. Forget about trying to get to Mars or New Zealand or whatever. You can’t even make it across the living room. You can’t even make it across the void where the list was. 

So I claim, with the uncool kids, that there’s something left when you take stuff apart. Something else. This something may have a strange form. It may make you think it has no form at all, because it doesn’t have a recognisable one. I’m very sorry to have to break it to Rosalind Krauss and Mr. Spock, but really, there’s no such thing as ‘pure matter devoid of form’ (as the latter was quite fond of saying on Star Trek). ‘Formless’ is just a very sloppy, grey goo way of saying I, a human being, can’t cope with the infinite fractal dimensionality of things, a deep aspect of how they are, of their ontology. 

You can’t cope, so you just look, fascinated. Consider Johnson’s grey clay translation of a fizzy drink can, bursting out of its can-ness to reveal the friable subtlety of the clay. The can translation has burst into still flames of grey. We live in a world bursting with friendly strangeness. 

Formlessness is just how something departs from my expectations about what form is. It’s the departure that’s interesting. When you break a glass, you don’t have nothing – you suddenly have all these fascinating bits of broken glass. That’s the phenomenology of how stuff happens – new stuff. Novelty happens in the universe as a deformation or distortion or anamorphosis. Suddenly there’s a shatter pattern of irregular crystalline chunks in your kitchen. The destroyed glass is nowhere to be seen. Or maybe there’s a recognisable part of that glass still left, say the stem and some of the container part, along with some shattered bits. What’s that called? What’s that called especially if you can take a drink out of it, quite carefully? 

You didn’t destroy the glass. You allowed the glass to tell a joke about what it’s like to be a glass. You watch its laughter, those little crystalline bits. 

Aristotle thought it was the shape of a thing, not what it’s made of, that determines what it is. But if you think about it, this shape business is a bit circular. It’s like the myth of Adamic language. Adam called the tiger tiger because it looked like a tiger. Quite soon you find yourself stabilising the idea that the essence of a thing is its form, with the idea of teleology, otherwise known as what it’s for. But then you have another problem. Ducks are for swimming, Greeks are for enslaving barbarians… You can justify Alexander the Great’s imperial mission if you keep going like that, and ducks aren’t for swimming according to Darwin. Evolution has no telos at all, at any level. It’s all rather retroactive. You look at the duck’s webbed feet and you go: wow, how perfectly designed for swimming. Then you remember coots. They don’t have webbed feet. They swim. Evolution doesn’t give a monkey’s about the purpose of webbed feet. 

And that shattered glass, it’s now a refuge for all these little dust particles. It’s not just a glass. Wait a moment – that means it never was entirely a glass. It was always something else too, like a helipad for this fly, a prism for this stream of photons, an example of how things aren’t totally anthropocentrically scaled in an essay that links the work of Paul Johnson to object-oriented ontology. 

Hanging out on the edge of novelty, allowing stuff to happen to you, allowing stuff to happen to the wallet you ignore in your pocket, that’s Johnson’s world. This crumbling edge of creativity is not a place where stuff occurs to you out of nothing, as in the patriarchal myth of Athena popping all at once out of Zeus’ head. It’s a place of listening, of attending-to, of attunement. Smiling is the experiential equivalent of having a new idea, or of something new happening. That doesn’t mean you have to be happy. There’s way too much compulsory enjoyment in our world, way too much compulsory extraversion. I can’t watch kids’ TV anymore, it doesn’t have enough pointless broken stuff made of wool and living on the moon eating pudding made of string. (Don’t tell me to watch the reboot – I know enough to know that it just isn’t The Clangers.) 

You’re not writing or having new ideas or doing your human civilisation business in a nihilistic void. You’re doing it in a biosphere on a planet. When you know that you start to act more tenderly. You start to attend to things. You notice tendencies where at first you only saw a pile of junk, afflicted by the Stockholm Syndrome that comes from living in a world where the concept property means I can dispose of it how I want, where dispose in the end means destroy. You are smiling in the centre of a teardrop – where exactly is that? Visualise it. Where exactly is the mathematical centre of a teardrop? 


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‘Unselfishness’ Odd Fellows Lodge Banner, circa 1900


Paul Johnson (b. 1972) lives and works in London. Johnson has exhibited at Focal Point Gallery, Southend (2015), Usher Gallery, The Collection Museum, Lincoln (2013–14), The Nunnery, London (2011–12), Saatchi Gallery, London (2010), CAPC, Bordeaux (2010), Frieze Art Fair, London (2011), Armory Art Fair, New York (2010), Ancient & Modern, London (2009) and Mizuma Gallery, Tokyo (2008).


Timothy Morton is the author of Hyperobjects, Dark Ecology and Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People. 

Supported by the Arts Council England.