August 17, 2016 · Print This Article
In one of my earliest conversations with Giovanni Aloi, he described the problem of being a plant studies person at an animal studies conference: by entertaining the subjectivity of plants, any moral high ground previously associated with vegetarianism/veganism get a little complicated. Undaunted, Aloi explores the mess of that new territory, tracing their appearance in contemporary art and art history. He is the Founding Editor of Antennae, a Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, teaches at The School of the Art Institute, works for Sotheby’s Institute of Art, moonlights as an art expert on the BBC, and is on the verge of finishing two books on taxidermy and art, and plants and art.
Caroline Picard: You work at the intersection of philosophy, art history, and contemporary art. Why is the animal interesting to you within those fields?
Giovanni Aloi: Since I was roughly three years old two things would excite me like no other: nature and art. I drew animals, I looked for animals in paintings, photographs, documentaries, and everywhere else—there was nothing better than finding a grasshopper, a beetle, or a tree frog! Plants caught my attention a little later, but back then, I used to spend most of my evenings drawing animals.
CP: So art and animals were joined at the start in a way…
GA: As I grew up I fostered both interests but struggled to combine them in my work; animals in art were not taken seriously as an academic/artistic subject (and there’s still much to be said about that lack of serious engagement today). In the late 1990s the emergence of animal studies placed that subject on the map. Jonathan Burt and Steve Baker have published important work in relation to animals and representation in art and film. Both, along with other scholars, contributed to the emergence of new aesthetic paradigms and practices challenging anthropocentrism and animal objectification in art.
CP: How would you characterize those early conversations around animals and art?
GA: The first ten years of analysis, which took place roughly between 1995 and 2005, focused largely on the deconstruction of metanarratives, the identification of objectifying tropes, and the representational friction between abstraction and figuration. Both, theory and practice, engaged predominantly in what I have called the “dismantling of the symbolic animal.”
In my 2012 essay, “Deconstructing the animal in search of the real,” I argued that following the dismantling of the “symbolic animal,” a new and productive path of inquiry could involve “tracking animals” through networks of environmental relationships/reciprocal entanglements. Although the non-anthropocentric slant of animal studies was extremely refreshing from a philosophical perspective, I looked at early developments with some suspicion.
GA: Personally, I believed that animal studies should be very weary of falling into the conceptual fallacy of proposing a zoo-centric system in place of an anthropocentric one. From earlier on, I thought that animal studies inquiries should unfold into rhizomatic networks of interconnectedness in which humans, animals, plants, and environments are equal parts.
CP: Do you feel like the animal studies conversation has shifted?
GA: Today, I am glad to see that contemporary theories and practices involving the non-human are indeed attempting to bypass zoocentrism in favour of a new holistic model. But this is happening outside animal studies. My impression has always been that re-thinking animals entails re-thinking everything. It is a deep ontological undertaking. Connections between the ways in which we treat animals and the ways in which we treat fellow humans have been exemplified by Agamben. But there is much more at stake.
CP: How so?
GA: Karen Barad’s agential realism and Jane Bennett’s vibrant materialism have both, in different ways, reconfigured our gaze to consider the atomic order and the invisible levels of interconnectedness that we are all enmeshed in, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. This leaves the discipline of animal studies in an odd position. I am not entirely sure if this new shift could be incorporated by animal studies as a move away from the values of the first revisionist wave of animals in art, or if there will be space for an expanded scope that considers animals on similar ontological levels as plants and bacteria. Would that change optics in a productive ways? And of course, there’s object oriented ontology, Morton’s notions of hyperobjects, broader notions of anthropocene…I am yet to see any animal studies scholar engaging with these philosophical tools. The challenge is to adapt them to fit the task. My forthcoming book on taxidermy in contemporary art attempts to do just that. But in any case, I think that the disruption of anthropocentrism caused by animal studies, posthumanism, and by the new waves of speculative realism is essential to the definitions of new cultural directions. We have clearly messed up—the planet is telling us that very clearly. Global warming and mass extinction are clear symptoms of the urgency with which we need to find new ways to think about our relationship to what we call nature. But changing people’s minds is one of the hardest things to do—especially when utilitarianism is involved.
CP: Do you mean that people have to change their way they think about the environment somehow? In other words, maybe like animals, there is a need to resist making the natural world purely symbolic? Even as I say that, it seems tied up with consumer culture…
GA: Capitalism has alienated us entirely from the plants and animals around us to a degree that, for too many people, looking into their phones or tablets is more interesting than looking at anything to do with the natural world. How can you care to preserve ecosystems when you don’t even care for what’s in your backyard or on your way to school or work? Capitalist normativity has reduced nature to a curiosity in urban reality and to a sublime escape in holiday adventures—this is the root of the problem.
CP: It’s hard to think of ways to shift that paradigmatic approach to nonhuman (or more than human) landscapes. I’m always interested in articulating openings for agency but it’s easy to feel daunted by the scale and conviction of capitalism.
GA: In truth, I believe that our anthropocentric miseducation begins in kindergarten or at primary school. The traditional education system is based on affirmation: children are trained to develop confidence through a “That is/I am” approach that promotes a pre-encoded identity formation necessary to the functioning of society. At this stage, nature is introduced as a series of objects to possess and exploit. Everything is thus reduced to cliché through the pre-coded work of symbolism. Children are taught that lions are brave, bears are ferocious, leopards are fast, butterflies are beautiful, spiders are scary, and snakes are disgusting. Thereafter, as John Berger famously argued in his essay “Why Look at Animals?”, we grow up to become constantly disappointed with the lack of the promised sublimity of animals. We expect them to somehow perform for us or engage in emotional exchanges they have no stakes in. Beyond dogs, the animal world is generally understood as dumb or as edible. Thereafter, not being interested in animals becomes a key moment in the rite of passage to adulthood. Adults should be concerned with other matters: work, buying a house, careers, children… animals become the object of hunting or entertainment.
CP: What do we do with that? It seems sort of impossible to work out an alternative approach, especially if you are talking about a problem that starts in kindergarten.
GA: This is where the idea of unlearning comes from in my book Art and Animals (2011): you have to undo that very normative process that you grew up in, shattering certainty and picking up the pieces thereafter to re-configure yourself all over again, allowing for a different conception of non-human/human beings to arise. This conception is one in which representation is at a point of crisis, and to make things more complicated, you cannot rely upon the tropes of anthropocentrism to rebuild what has been dismantled. The process is long and laborious, and it involves the making of new and difficult ethical choices—choices that you might have to define for yourself in relation to your specific geographical situation, cultural make-up, and personal sense of urgency.
CP: Can you describe a bit about your transition from Animal Studies to Plant Studies? What are some interesting comparisons between the fields for you?
GA: I don’t think I have transitioned from animal studies to plant studies. I am very critical of animal studies because I cannot ethically justify its zoo-centric scope anymore. Its reliance on post-structuralism almost 20 years on is becoming embarrassing. Personally, I don’t care anymore about what Heidegger thought of lizards, Agamben of spiders, and Deleuze of wolves, as they all knew very little about these animals. They wrote about them in transcendental terms—in the singular/plural chimeric catch-all form that the word ‘animals’ inscribe. 10 years ago it was interesting to recover these animal-fragments from the thought of continental philosophers, it was necessary to validate the subject of scrutiny for the field, and to lay its foundations—but we should be done with that phase, now! In any case, I’m still in the field, as I understand animal studies to be an important component of posthumanism, but I like to think of myself as a “grumpy dissident” within the system. Some of my colleagues also share my views—I think something interesting might be happening soon. But ultimately, I am not very interested in the discourses of a discipline that places animals first in front of plants and other levels of interconnectedness between human and non-human beings.
GA: That approach seems extremely out-dated considering the times we live in and the challenges we face. That is also why multispecies ethnography and new materialism are more interesting to younger scholars at present—these philosophical waves are at the cutting edge of contemporary thinking whilst animal studies currently seems to have shaped itself as a questionable ethical-minefield for vegan/animal rights ideologies. Those agendas are also mostly out-dated. Veganism refuses to acknowledge plant-intelligence because it causes the emergence of new and hard to negotiate ethical problems, whilst animal-rights is still bound to obsolete concepts like sentience, consciousness, and agency.
CP: Does plant-studies as run into similar problems as a defined field?
GA: I don’t think a field of plant studies has actually shaped up yet. Michael Marder has done some important work recovering plants from a number of philosophical texts, thus mapping a base for discussion on the subject whilst a number of artists have—for years—engaged with plants, knowing that we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. But there’s no unified field yet. Plants still carry a cultural stigma imbedded in a number of popular culture-layers of validating disregard: the association between sociopaths and plants is a recurring cliché. There’s also the gender connotation between plants and women imposed by patriarchal systems of value that still gets in the way. And the recurring notion that caring for plants too much would require an entire revision of ethical values involving animals and humans…the implication that self-aware (or even sentient) beings must act as an exploitable base for us to feel ethically relieved through the acts of basic subsistence. I am sure that things are just about to shape up; hopefully, plant studies will be a freer space in which to seriously consider non-human alterity beyond obvious anthropomorphic strategies and imbedded/obsolete ethical agendas.
CP: What do you mean?
GA: In a sense, animal studies and plant studies have thus far been shaped by the desire to recover specific narratives and reconfigure ontological strata. And that is pretty much what Marder has accomplished with his body of work for the field of plant studies already. Plants are the new animals—they push all the concerns involved with agency and anthropocentrism to a breaking limit: alterity, reciprocity, communication, co-existence, intra-action, and so forth…These are all new paradigms that have been explored in human/animal relations. But simultaneously, thinking about/with plants requires a more ambitious leap of faith. The hope for meaningful plant responses; responses that we can fully comprehend is very slim, much slimmer than in animals, but this should not put us off from being inquisitive and curious and from attempting, for instance, to envision what it might be like to be a plant beyond the tools of mimicry.
CP: I want to go back to the question of education again…like, how would plant-sympathy be taught if not through mimicry?
GA: One of the most glaring contradictions of animal studies is that the discipline, through its marked non-anthropocentric drive has identified science—and Cartesian thinking more specifically—as the humanist tool by which distance and objectification between animals and humans occurs. Yet, animal studies implicitly relies on the scientific definition of “animal” in order to retain topicality. That’s a critical problem of some proportion. If the premise is to re-think animals beyond the scientific realm of inquiry, at what point do we begin to find the strength to tamper with the very last question (which should have perhaps been the first): “What is an animal?” Or is that taking the whole thing too far for the philosophical framework? At what point is an animal plant-like in a way that becomes interesting to us beyond scientific taxonomy? This gray area between zoology and botany contains a number of disregarded beings who rarely, if ever, emerge in scholarly discourses. Animal studies claims to have recovered repressed subjects, but it simultaneously represses those at the fringes of its implicit mammalian-normative approach. I guess that more generally, plant studies polarizes the already charged questions of animal studies through a stronger desire to develop a holistic approach, rather than a phito-centric one.
CP: How have you noticed plants appearing into contemporary art recently? Do you think plant’s contemporary art appearance differs from past examples?
GA: Yes, there has been a substantial shift. One category I am interested in is postmodernist plants, like with Anya Gallaccio and Marc Quinn, whose work, in a sense, laid the foundation for what is being problematized today. Gallaccio was concerned with decay. Dutch still-life paintings, the beautiful vases of flowers that reminded us we would all eventually die, were painted at the height of their beauty and freshness. Postmodernism threw this lovely poetics up in the air by haunting viewers with the raw ugliness of decay in the gallery space or by upstaging the representational notion of the memento mori through the shock of materiality. Marc Quinn’s Garden from 2000 amazed viewers by representationally suspending the lives of a multitude of wild and greenhouse-grown varieties of flowers in a massive tank of frozen silicon. The illusion was mesmerizing—but the shattering of the utopian narrative resounded loud and clear through the darkened gallery space. I feel that most postmodernist work involving plants, and I hate to generalize here, was more concerned with notions of realism expressed through materiality. Because of that, postmodernism laid the foundations for speculative realist tendencies in art.
GA: It is the mistrust for metanarratives and the iconoclastic slant nurtured by postmodernism that paved the way for what is happening today. Yet, Gallaccio’s and Quinn’s works are largely concerned with symbolic registers of representation that, despite the material presence of the plant in the gallery space, end up leaving the living-plant behind, so to speak. The symbolic order in which they operate, as it turns out, was not deployed towards a new conception/understanding of plant-life and its interconnectedness with humans and environments, but it ultimately was transcendental and inherently anthropocentric.
CP: Didn’t you explore this question in the online journal you edit?
GA: In 2015, we dedicated two issues of Antennae to the importance of agential realism in contemporary art. We especially focused on the work of artists interested in reconfiguring the boundaries of nature within networks of inter and intra actions. Artists such as Janet Laurence have produced eco-artworks in which “care and caution” enable the abandonment of a human-centered view for a broader multi-species awareness. Patricia Adams has explored the challenges and productivities involved in transgressing the scientific protocol to tap into the potential to modify the human body through biotechnology. Claire Pentecost has turned her attention to the soil and to how what we take for granted from our anthropocentric conception is perhaps one of the most important sites of interconnectedness that we urgently need to reconsider. One of the most interesting and captivating works I have recently encountered surely is Revolutions by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot (2015) exhibited at the last Venice Biennale. The installation enabled three pine-trees to move around and outside the gallery space through a wheeled-base guided by a complex electronic interface, which measured the speed at which their sap flowed. This type of work produces new connections between the old categories of nature and culture, and object and subject, blurring boundaries and posing important questions about agency, perception, ontology, and epistemology. There’s a major difference between the new, speculative interest for plants now and past approaches.
CP: I’m always curious about what these artistic gestures do, somehow? Like, if it’s true that the world is ending, why bother making art at all?
GA: Ultimately, I think that contemporary artists involved in this new register of criticality are mobilizing their efforts on two fronts: the conceptual and the methodological. Conceptually, a substantial urgency to solicit awareness in the viewer has become paramount. Artists seem to think more carefully about their local reality and the connections between their specific situation and ones that are broader and further afield. They aim to push their thinking, and the viewer’s, toward under-scrutinized areas of discourse and practice in order to configure new connections between polarities. Sometimes these configurations reveal the absurdity of naturalized systems of knowledge, discourses, and practices; at other times they propose new alternatives.
Methodologically, artists like Heidi Norton, Jenny Kendler, Alyce Santoro, Suzanne Anker, Pierre Huyghe, and Andrew Yang are committed to rethinking our relationship with the non-human and are not interested in shock tactics or unnecessary theatricalities. Attention to their medium of choice is, in all instances, paramount and solidifies relationships that are developed over time, slowly, and meditatively. Thus the process becomes an intrinsic part of the artwork—sometimes this is visible in the works; at other times, it is embedded in the layers of complexity that characterize them. The general tendency, however, seems to revolve around time and slow consumption and production. This methodological choice implies that the speed at which our lives are consumed nowadays is one of the main factors that has led to the current climatic situation. Contemporary art thus becomes a place to experience a different rhythm in the hope of transposing that model to at least part of our chaotic everyday existence.
CP: You have two books coming out—one on animal taxidermy and one on plants. Since you have been working on them simultaneously, I’m curious about what kinds of connections you are making while working on both, even if those connections might not be apparent to readers?
GA: Yes, I do …and it is not something I would recommend. When I handed in my taxidermy in contemporary art manuscript to my editor she said: “Great! Now you can enjoy your summer!” to which I responded: “Not quite—plants have been haunting me for the past few months and I am not quite done with them yet!” But I think that in a way, one book has been productively informing the other. My book on plants in contemporary art is an odd hybrid between a monograph and an edited collection. I am basically writing a backbone for each chapter and have invited “guest authors” to contribute their own voices/experiences to each section. I wanted the reader’s experience to be as varied and idiosyncratic as possible. I wanted to move away from pretending to own a truth about plants that is universal and singular. I truly believe that if we begin to seriously value personal experience as valid epistemic tools in the reconfiguration of anthropocentrism, we then have to also question the monographic approach to writing. Fragmenting and interspacing one voice with those of others seems essential to me, especially in certain circumstances. But my books also wanted to take animal studies to task and address its approaches to central question “what is an animal?” that it still evades.
CP: How does that tie in to taxidermy?
GA: Thinking about taxidermy, the ultimate “animal-made object” has substantially shaped my ideas on agency and passivity in contemporary art involving the non-human; whilst Jane Bennett’s and Graham Harman’s work have substantially expanded my views on objects and agency. I have also been thinking a lot about surfaces in contemporary art. Taxidermy is all surface—a practical and metaphorical totalization of animality whilst plants are all-surface in a more, “helpless” but nonetheless related way. So far these ideas have filtered in my “plant book” and are being further problematized by the elusive/ambiguous essence of plant-being. Foucauldian biopolitics is also essential to both books—there is something of an ontological parallelism between animals-made-objects and plants that can be explored through the materiality of bodies. Notions of space and epistemology define the encounter between us and plants or taxidermy objects. This approach replaced the more general idea of the “encounter in the gallery space” that characterized my earlier animal studies writing. In both books I am concerned with notions of materiality and resistance as well as power as a productive/shaping agent that actively molds human/non-human bodies, ecologies, and intermingling. Don’t want to say much more yet…But I’m glad they came in that order: taxidermy first and plants after.
In his latest book, Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory, (Polity, 2016) Speculative Realist philosopher Graham Harman differentiates Object Oriented Ontology from New Materialism and Actor-Network Theory, using the Dutch East India Company as a primary example. In the following interview, we discuss some of those nuances, how they relate to art, the Anthropocene, and Harman‘s articulation of Object-Oriented Social Theory. Harman is the author of several books including Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (2005), Circus Philosophicus (2010), Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political (2014) and more.
CP: In your latest book, Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory, (Polity, 2016) you articulate how object-oriented ontology differs from Actor-Network Theory and New Materialisms. Would you talk a little bit about those differences?
GH: Let’s start with Actor-Network Theory, to which I’m much closer. I first encountered Bruno Latour’s work here in Chicago, as a student working on my PhD at Depaul in the late 1990s. What I immediately liked about Latour is that his tone was much more optimistic than Heiddeger’s. Latour is much funnier. He also provides more resources for talking about specific objects. For Heiddeger, all objects seem to be treated as faces of technology and miserable instantiations of presence. Meanwhile. Latour actually talks about individual technologies, each different in its own way. Yet what bothers me about the Actor-Network approach is that It defines things solely by their actions. That’s too limited; ultimately, you need to be able to talk about things outside of their actions because things are capable of multiple different actions.
CP: How does that relate to the main example in Immaterialism, The Dutch East India Company?
GH: I chose that example because Leibniz made fun of the Dutch East India Company as a pseudo-object, in his correspondence with Antoine Arnauld. As concerns the Company, Leibniz basically says: “How silly to think of it as a unified substance. It’s just a bunch of different people and different ships. How can it be considered one thing? There is no monad here.” Yet the fact remains that the Dutch East India Company lasted nearly 200 years, longer than any known human being has survived. Even if it changed its ships on a regular basis, it was a real object that exerted pressure both on its internal components and the outside environment. It remained roughly the same thing throughout that time, even when ships, people, or its operational strategies were replaced.
CP: But you are interested in the way it, as a single thing, nevertheless changes over time?
GH: Yes, but not according to the usual pseudo-cutting edge model in which everything is in a constant flux of becoming. This merely levels out everything in such a way that all moments become equal, which does not match what experience teaches us. In Immaterialism I try to identify five or six particular moments that were crucial for the life of the Dutch East India Company. My major source here is the Serial Endosymbiosis Theory (SET) of the biologist Lynn Margulis, who is only just starting to catch on in the humanities: Luciana Parisi at Goldsmiths in London and Myra Hird at Queen’s University in Canada come to mind as two authors working in neighboring areas to my own who have grasped the importance of Margulis for all of us. For those who haven’t read her but are interested, the book Symbiotic Planet is a good starting point.
Margulis had an important idea in the 1960s, during her years as a graduate student and assistant professor, that life forms evolve primarily not through a gradual process of survival of the fittest, but through intermittent symbiosis with other life forms. Consider the human cell and its numerous organelles. Her theory was that these organelles did not originally belong to the human cell, but came from the outside. Originally, there was the prokaryotic cell, which has no nucleus or internal membranes. According to Margulis, these organisms were probably infected by cellular parasites that fed on the nutrients inside the cell. Eventually, the parasites became important for our cells to survive when atmospheric oxygen drastically increased.
Margulis hypothesized that if we were ever able to run adequate tests to analyze the DNA in the nuclei of human cells, we would find that the cellular DNA does not code for all the organelles, thereby proving their extra-cellular origin. In the 1980’s those tests became possible and it turned out that Margulis was right. What she had proposed went from being a laughingstock of a theory to standard textbook biology.
CP: Is there another example of how that would work?
GH: Yes. Around the same time, Margulis asked, “Have we ever seen evolution happen in a laboratory?” They told her there was one such case, and it involved fruit flies in a tank, if that’s the proper term. Researchers split the tank down the middle, slowly turning the heat up on one side and down on the other. After however many generations, the two sets of fruit flies could no longer mate., and thus had effectively become different species. After dissecting them, they found that there was a virus in the hot fruit flies. The orthodox reaction to this might have been: “Damn it. The experiment is contaminated by a virus. It’s useless.” But the reaction of Margulis was different: “No. That’s the whole point. The point is that the virus allowed the fruit flies to survive in the heat.”
CP: What made you want to apply that approach to history?
GH: I was thinking first about human biography, because Levi Bryant and I had an interesting dispute. He claimed that since I think objects have fully formed essences, this would entail that a thing could never change, and that only combinations of things could change. I took this objection seriously, though it’s not inherently problematic given that everything for me is a combination in the first place, since there are no ultimate objects that consist of no further parts. But then the further observation occurred to me that we don’t really change internally as individuals anyway. We don’t sit around in our bedroom, brooding, and then suddenly our lives are different. Instead, this happens through symbiosis with some other object: a person, an institution, a career, a city, a favorite author. These are the things that can change our lives irreversibly. And furthermore, I don’t think these life changes are infinite in number. A typical person has maybe half a dozen in a lifetime.
And then it occurred to me just before writing this book that we could apply the same idea to history, by saying that the real changes in history are sudden and symbiotic, not gradual or internal. There are amazing moments leading to big changes, and mediocre moments that exist in the midst of long stable periods. I was looking for symbioses in the history of the Dutch East India Company, with the idea that the Company evolves by creating new objects in fusing with others. The resulting change is irreversible because the total object has a retroactive effect on its parts, even if the object isn’t irreversible. The Dutch East India Company eventually ended as all historical objects come to an end, but things did not revert to their previous state. A married couple can always get divorced, but in most cases the marriage —as a larger object containing two individuals—will have left retroactive effects on those individuals even if they decide never to speak to one another again. And you can always get married again, but you can never have a first marriage again.
CP: It reminds me of co-evolutionary theory, where things develop reciprocally within a specific niche. For instance, the Dutch East India Company continues to specialize until it only trades in spices and nutmeg—like a hummingbird whose beak evolves to get longer and longer…
GH: That’s right. Certainly, that is a disadvantage and why species disappear suddenly: they become over-attached to situations that do not endure. What happens to the Dutch East India Company in the 18th century is that nutmeg and cloves and other spices become less desirable on the market. In the 1700’s it was tea, coffee, and chocolate that were on the rise, and the British were in a better position to supply those goods, especially tea.
So, the fate of the Dutch East India Company goes hand in hand with the fate of nutmeg and cloves. Yet there are also cases without reciprocity. For example, I definitely had a symbiosis with Cairo. I arrived there at the right moment in my life. I worked there for sixteen years, lived there for thirteen, and will never be the same person I was before Cairo. At the same time, Cairo didn’t have a symbiosis with me. Cairo has an ancient history, and was barely affected at all by my presence there. I’m not a symbiosis for that city in the way that the arrival of Islam was, or that the Romans were, or whatever happens next.
CP: That’s where you bring up metaphor—
GH: —because not only does metaphor not give literal comparisons, it also does not give reciprocal ones. If we say that two things are alike in a literal sense, there is a reciprocal relationship between the two terms: the pen is like a pencil, or Chicago is like Toronto. There’s a reciprocal exchange of properties in such cases. That’s not what happens with metaphor. Here, one of the terms is in the object position and the other in the quality position. It’s an asymmetrical pairing. One object strips qualities away from the other, but not the reverse. In the new book I was trying to say that symbiosis is a metaphorical relation rather than a literal one, and therein lies its power.
CP: Using the Dutch East India Company as your main example brings out a political aspect in your discussion. There is so much violence and exploitation inherent in the company’s history.
GH: One of the paradoxes of the company is that the Dutch were the most liberal and humane nation in Europe at that time, and yet they created in the Company a very efficient monstrosity. It should not be forgotten that the Netherlands at the time was a newly independent nation, in true existential peril from their former Spanish masters, who committed a number of atrocities on Dutch soil. In this situation the Netherlands needed the huge monopoly profits promised by Jan Pieterszoon Coen’s vision for the Company, which entailed not only shutting out other European powers with violence, but even dominating trade among the Asians themselves. Yet there were limits to Dutch power, as seen by their failure to make inroads with Tokugawa Japan and Qing China. Japan in particular humiliated the Dutch, making representatives of the company go and bow before the Emperor, who as a rule would make the most minimal concessions. There were also occasional threats from local potentates, first in Java and later (and more seriously) in Malacca, where the Dutch Navy eventually had to come and save what was supposed to be an autonomous corporation.
Yes, there was a horrible amount of violence connected with this vast and powerful corporate monopoly.
Let me add that it was not my intention to single out the Netherlands for bad behavior. At a recent conference in Cincinnati, I received a rather emotional reaction from a Dutch reader who had appreciated the book but felt that I had focused on the absolute worst aspects of the Netherlands during that period. He offered some counterexamples of Dutch Liberalism, such as the de Witt brothers. What he was forgetting is that my case study was the Dutch East India Company, not the Dutch in the Netherlands, and the Company was largely autonomous of the Netherlands itself, a measure necessary to allow quick decision-making on the other side of the world in a time of slow communications. And I tried to stress the fact that the Netherlands was a young and vulnerable country at the time, despite its wealth, and was truly in danger from Spanish invasion. Moreover, the Portuguese and British were hardly models of fine behavior in the East Indies. The reason I focused on Dutch atrocities is simply that I was focusing on a period of relative Dutch dominance in the region. The Portuguese were much worse in at least one respect: religious bigotry. Ironically, the concerted efforts of the Portuguese to destroy Islam was one factor in the rise of the Dutch, who cared less about spreading religion than about securing profit for the Company.
CP: At one point you quote the archaeologist Ian Hodder saying “Anthropocene civilization cannot easily rid itself of disposable plastic trinkets and their ultimate Pacific Ocean dumpyard, because too many jobs depend on such trinkets.” It drew a parallel for me between the Dutch East India Company and a contemporary corporation—
GH: That was a paraphrase rather than a direct quote from Hodder, but that’s certainly his idea. He calls it “entanglement” and he wrote an entire book about this interesting topic not so long ago. Hodder’s point is that human activity is so path-dependent that we often become trapped by decisions made long ago. His chosen example is Christmas tree lights. They generate a lot of waste and use a lot of electricity, and so it’s conceivable that government under a Global Warming State of Emergency might choose to ban them, among other things. But so many jobs around the world depend on a thriving Christmas tree light industry that it’s hard to get rid of them.
I see that we both have iPhones. How many people scraped metal in mines and polished the phones in Chinese factories, perhaps getting horrible lung diseases to make these? Hodder says that an iPhone uses as much electricity as a small refrigerator, though I have no independent verification of that. It’s easy to say that it’s “capitalism’s” fault, but what then? How do we dismantle capitalism without people starving and the environment becoming as bad as it was in East Block communism?
Perhaps gold mining companies are the world’s most vicious corporate entities today. There have been cases of mining companies that use attack dogs on local citizens. The conditions in their mines are appalling and hideous. The temperature down there can run to 120, 130 degrees fahrenheit. You have to shimmy on your stomach because the tunnels are so low, according to my journalist friend Graeme Wood, who has visited one of these mines. And then of course there are the toxic chemicals they use, and the tiny wages people earn from mining gold. In fact, some observers have labelled AngloGold Ashanti “the most evil corporation in the world.”
CP: Within that frame, though, it feels as if the system propagates itself; it’s almost impossible to identify personal agency within this massive economy of extraction.
GH: I think it’s true that in some cases the remaining human agency is fairly minimal, and the corporations themselves become agents with their own inhuman interests. Occasionally, I’ve been puzzled to receive the criticism that Object-Oriented Ontology must agree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case that corporations are people. Frankly, this is a rather stupid misunderstanding of my position. My position is that corporations and individual humans are both objects, not that they have equal political rights. According to OOO, Popeye, unicorns, and square circles are objects, but obviously we would not insist that these things deserve human rights. The ontological and political questions are completely different. We don’t give votes to mosquitoes, and I’ve never even heard an animal rights activist say that mosquitoes should not be smashed, though I suppose Jainism would say that. Nor should we obviously give corporations political rights in the sense that the Citizens United decision granted them.
CP: Going back to symbiosis, I started to wonder how humanity might itself be a global object. I don’t want to reduce the complexity of our species into one unit, but if we are tied together in an evolving global system, where would the Dutch East India Company sit on that trajectory?
GH: The Dutch East India Company was the first modern corporation. It had to monopolize in order to function as it did. Fernand Braudel talks about this in his three-volume Civilization and Capitalism, as does Manuel DeLanda later on. Capitalism is really about anti-markets. It’s about international monopolies and cartels, because if you look at what the trade was like in the East Indies before the Europeans came, or more specifically before the Dutch came (because the Portuguese were unable or unwilling to stifle free trade in the region), the ports were completely open to Turks, Arabs, Chinese, Ethiopians—it was a multicultural paradise in terms of trade.
But those ports were eventually monopolized by the Dutch. Controlling everything was their specific innovation. The spices in question were very rare at the time, coming only from specific and limited points on the globe. At the time, nutmeg, mace, and cloves came only from a small number of East Asian Islands: the “Spice Islands,” as they were known, which lie midway between Sulawesi and New Guinea. The Dutch would actually chop down the trees on certain islands to make sure they only grew on the islands they controlled, in order to keep monopoly prices high. It works, and that’s a sobering lesson: anti-markets work.
CP: At the end of your book, you propose to develop an object-oriented social theory?
GH: I was trying to test the waters here for something different from Actor-Network-Theory, a theory I cherish but which has obvious problems, such as over-emphasizing the actions of a thing as opposed to its mere stable existence. ANT does not deal well with counter-factuals, and thus is most useful in describing things that have already happened, not things that might still happen. Furthermore, it doesn’t give us the proper tools to distinguish between important and unimportant actions, whereas Margulis’ notion of symbiosis does. ANT is also perhaps a bit too blithe about the reversibility of relations: for it, everything looks like a fragile and symmetrical assembly of different actors. This is one place where the Left does have a point in its critique of Latour: some relations are actually quite asymmetrical and difficult to reverse.
Along with ANT, I also made criticisms of the so-called New Materialism in this book. A lot of people group OOO with New Materialism, but I do not feel at home with the latter camp. What people overlook is that New Materialism has no interest in objects, and OOO (in my version, at least) has no interest in “matter,” a concept I would like to see abolished.
Materialism can be one of two things—both of them bad, from my standpoint. One of them reduces things to their pieces. That’s the old classical materialism. The other reduces objects upwards to the social practices or language or events in which they are manifest. I call these two strategies undermining and overmining, though they are usually combined in a joint assault I’ve termed duomining. Both of these materialism are not quite object-oriented theories, because obviously they eliminate objects in favor of an upward or downward effect.
CP: Part of what you’re talking about is how difficult it is to concentrate on an object; a kind of awkwardness or insecurity emerges about exactly what the thing is: is it a set of atoms—but if so, why would atoms be the smallest unit? Or if it is a net assemblage of effects—then still we have to explain why we prioritize one scale over another. One’s encounter with an everyday mug, for instance, becomes very peculiar.
GH: We should resist the temptation to know too quickly. When somebody asks you what something is, there are two possible kinds of answers: you can either say what it’s made of, or say what it does. These correspond to what I just called undermining and overmining, and they are the two forms of knowledge that human beings have.
But I argue, in the Immaterialism book and elsewhere, that philosophy and art are not forms of knowledge. Knowledge means paraphrasing the thing in terms of true properties that can be ascribed to it. This is precisely what science does. Science has of course been the gold standard of cognitive activity in modern civilization. For 400 years, it has been the ultimate authority. It has replaced the Church as the place where we all go for ultimate reassurance. Great. But there have also been some great artists over the same time period, and I would resist any tendency to downplay their cognitive impact and view them as mere decorators and mood manipulators. Should we really rank Picasso lower than Einstein or Newton? That would seem to be going too far. But we have to see Picasso as doing something different. I wouldn’t say Picasso gives us knowledge, as if I learned something about horses or acrobats from looking at Picassos (though this seems to be Alain Badiou’s position, oddly enough). That’s not what’s happening. It’s something else. An artwork cannot be paraphrased. Art critics have to swerve in from the side and deal with things obliquely. That’s how they should do it. Yes, it can slip into pretension sometimes. That is the professional risk of philosophers, criticsm and artists: we all risk falling into pretension in a way.
CP: I wonder if part of the anxiety that I feel—at least as it’s connected to climate change or major global corporate investments—is connected to how the landscape is stepping its traditional background position into the foreground—
CP: That we’re not in control, maybe.
GH: Or maybe we’re still too much in control. One or the other. In a few essays I’ve used “Anthropocene” as a technical term for philosophy, referring to any object in which humans are a necessary ingredient. Things like arts, chess, and basketball obviously have been Anthropocene from start. But now the climate is becoming Anthropocene for the first time because humans are an ingredient in it. There is some disagreement about when this first happened. Was it 1945? Was it the industrial revolution? Was it way back in the Stone Age? At the advent of agriculture? At some point, we became a crucial ingredient in the planetary climate. We’re part of it now. We have responsibility for it now. That in and of itself is anxiety-inducing.
CP: I wonder if the theoretical structures Western thought has used thus far to understand the world—philosophies, mathematics, sciences etc.— aren’t positioned to accommodate that shift.
GH: Certainly the kinds of philosophy and science we’ve had were probably not adequate to account for the shift. Climate and earth science are, of course, crucial in helping to identify what is going on. But these are very different kinds of sciences from the precise modern ones that we relied on for so long. To take one especially sinister example, the Nagasaki bomb in 1945 required the perfect implosion of a ring of plutonium so that all portions of the ring reached the center at precisely the same moment to create a critical mass. That is extremely precise weapons science.
But that’s not what climate science is like: they are not the kind where you have 100% indubitable evidence, which is precisely why there is more politics involved in such science than in the previous kinds. Bruno Latour is one of the first philosophers to have picked up on all those themes. He already wrote one book on ecology and will surely be writing more. I think Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern is the most important philosophical book since the Second World War. I’m probably still the only one saying that, but Latour drives a stake in the heart of Modernism with this book, and I don’t see that anything more important has happened in philosophy. As Latour teaches us, modernism is about the attempt to purify subjects and objects from each other. Within this paradigm, there are just two kinds of things: (1) people and (2) everything else. Nature becomes the cold realm of calculable automatic action and culture becomes merely an arbitrary projection of values with no reality principle behind it. People swing back and forth, choosing nature or culture depending what suits them at the given moment. Conservatives hold that war is a natural and ineffaceable fact but that domestic gun violence is “socially constructed” by violent movies and videogames and inadequate mental health treatment. Liberals say that the current status of women is socially constructed and thus revisable, but also say that homosexuality is a natural fact found in some people from birth and not something that can or should be changed by treatment. Whichever political tribe is yours, nature and culture are your two basic weapons, drawing first on one and then on the other to argue your point. But what if neither of the two is a good weapon? What if nature and culture are just two separate domains amongst trillions of others? Latour will try to say that most objects are hybrids, most of them involve humans and non-humans entangled, so you cannot tell which is which. The ozone hole is both natural and constructed. Global warming is an even better example. But there’s still a danger with this concept of the hybrid, which is that people might think that every object requires a hybrid of nature and culture. No, that’s not the point. The point is that neither nature nor culture is a good concept.
In any case, four or five centuries from now when the end of modernism seems as obvious a historical fact as the birth of it, I think Latour will be seen as the one who really put his finger on what is central to modernism: an artificial taxonomy of natural and cultural (or world and thought) in which the two realms are supposed to be purified from one another. The reason so many philosophers have a hard time appreciating this is that philosophers are still pursuing a modernist project even as other disciplines have been compelled to move beyond it. The Owl of Minerva flies at dusk, so it must not be dusk quite yet. We are still in the late afternoon of modernism.
CP: Does formalism tie into Latour’s account?
GH: Formalism can mean a number of different things, but perhaps the most relevant way to define it is in Kantian terms. He uses it in his ethics to refer to ethical principles that are autonomous of any reference to the material world and refer solely to the categorical imperative. Similar principles are at work in Kant’s aesthetics and ontology. I deal with this in my just completed book Dante’s Broken Hammer, which will be published by Repeater Books (London) in October 2016. Max Scheler makes a helpful start for us by opposing Kant’s formalism in ethics. Whereas formalism assumes (just as Latour argues against modernism) that self and world are two ontologically distinct zones that must be purified one one another, Scheler effectively argues that the ethical unit is not the human, but rather the human in conjunction with the world. One practical consequence is that Scheler has greater sensitivity to the different personal vocations of different people. If someone has a calling and a wish to a be a great viola player, there is an ethical imperative to follow this path that is not merely “hypothetical,” as Kant would put it. The ethical unit here is actually person plus viola, not just a person with a sense of duty.
The same holds in Kant’s theory of art, where both the beautiful and the sublime are actually about us, not about the world. Ironically, this gets flipped in twentieth century formalism, in which Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried, Cleanth Brooks, and other formalists want to say that art is all about the art object, not about us. Though it’s the exact inversion of Kant’s position, it’s still a formalism, because it still involves the notion that self and world must be mutually purified, and it’s still in search of an objectivity of taste that is binding on everyone. Here again, I argue in the book that the aesthetic unit is neither the person nor the object, but both in conjunction. One consequence is that just as there can be an individual vocation to become a plumber, painter, or parent, there can be an individual vocation to respond intensely to Schopenhauer (like Nietzsche did) or to Nicolas Poussin (as Cézanne did). Perhaps this is even easier to see if we look at cases in history where someone was especially inspired by a relatively minor figure. The one that’s always in my mind is how enthusiastic T.S. Eliot was about the poetry of Jules LaForgue, who by no means ranks among the greatest French poets of his time. Another example is how the young Heidegger was set on his path of the thinking of being after reading the doctoral dissertation of Franz Brentano on the many senses of being in Aristotle. Now, Brentano is in my view one of the overlooked great philosophers, not a minor figure, but his dissertation is not one of his obviously greatest works. It took Heidegger’s special sensibility to see something potentially world-changing lying in germ in Brentano’s thesis. Many others read it, but no one else saw it as crucial to the future of philosophy.
I’ve not yet mentioned Latour, who was the point of your question. But perhaps it will now be clear why Latour’s attack on the nature/culture taxonomy of modernism also gives us the resources to escape Kantian formalism, and its variants.
CP: So this goes back to my question about how knowledge production might have to change to accommodate the Anthropocene—
GH: Early on in his career, Latour was working with Shirley Strum on baboons for their paper “Redefining the social link: from baboons to humans.” What Latour learned from working with Strum is that baboons are more social than we are (and by the way, I owe my recognition of the importance of baboons for Latour to Peer Schouten). Baboons are constantly watching each other: who’s grooming whom today? A baboon has discovered a rich food source, and sees the rest of the baboons wandering off: now there is no alternative but to run after the others, because baboons are too social to be alone. Each day, baboons are keeping a close eye on the pecking order of their society as it shifts; they are constantly renegotiating their place in that order. And though we might tend to think of humans, in respectably cynical fashion, as cagey, social-climbing, manipulative beings, that’s really not true at all when you compare us with baboons. After all, humans wake up to a relatively stable world each day. We have birth certificates, driver’s licenses, jobs, names, wedding rings, bank accounts, titles, and family histories. All of these give us a relatively stable place in the world that changes only in moments of life crisis, such as professional or marital problems or financial catastrophe.
CP: So, objects help stabilize our world-position.
GH: Yeah. Inanimate objects stabilize us. We have homes. My wife and I have an apartment, and if somebody breaks in, we can call the police. The police will arrest the person responsible, if they can be found. My home is not available for anybody to come in and crash. It remains my home until I decide to move or am evicted due to non-payment of rent. If anyone doubts who I am, I can prove it with a birth certificate. I know that I have some money in the bank that I can withdraw when needed: nobody else can take that money out, and it will be available at all times unless there is a global financial crash. Baboons have none of these luxuries. Inanimate objects are the mediators that stabilize human society: this is one of Latour’s most important political insights. He rightly complains that there’s not much about inanimate beings in Machiavelli or Hobbes, who talk mostly about other people. Machiavelli speaks a bit about fortresses and guns, but he’s mostly concerned with out-foxing of overpowering humans. Latour is really the guy who has made inanimate objects part of politics.
CP: You always make lists when you’re giving examples of different types of objects. I was wondering if you have advice about …
GH: How to create them?
GH: We call them Latour Litanies. Ian Bogost coined this term because Latour does these lists especially well, though they’ve been around for centuries. Perhaps Latour’s finest litany moment comes on page 316 of Pandora’s Hope, when in one list he invokes golden mountains, phlogiston, unicorns, bald kings of France, chimeras, spontaneous generation, black holes, cats on mats, black swans, white ravens, Hamlet, Popeye, and Ramses II. Another brilliant one is when Richard Rhodes in The Making of the Atomic Bomb lists all the different types of objects that were destroyed in the Hiroshima bombing. Then there is Georgius Agricola in his De Re Metallica, when he lists all the different ways that people can be killed without metal, in order to absolve metal of the claim that it is used to make too many weapons: an early sort of “guns don’t kill people, people do” argument. And of course, Francis Bacon’s mind-blowing list in the Novum Organum of “instances agreeing in the nature of heat,” including “fire erupting from the cavities of mountains,” fresh animal dung, and “all flame.” Some critical readers of OOO claim to despise this technique, but I see no reason to stop using it. It’s an excellent rhetorical method for reminding us of the plurality of entities against any attempt to tame that plurality by privileging one specific type: usually the human mind.
As for practical methods of creating good Latour litanies, here are my own tips. Generally the human mind gravitates towards lists of three, so I try to use at least four at a time in order to get the mind out of that natural rut. Bogost tends to like alliterative litanies, whereas I prefer not to use them because I want the feel of randomness about my lists, and to that end it’s important not to have all the words begin with the same letter. I also want my litanies to cover a wide range of entities, so for that reason I always try to include at least some humans, some non-humans, some natural things, some artificial things, some live humans, some dead humans, some fictional objects, and maybe some impossible or self-contradictory ones. And then you have to pull out before it gets too long and you try the reader’s patience: I’m talking about sincere readers, of course, not the sort of people who pretend to be annoyed by litanies. And they are many— insincerity is one of the most abundant productions of modernism.
Steven Shaviro also noticed that I often include tar on my lists.
GH: Yes, tar. T-A-R. At one point I was listening to Shaviro gives a lecture, and he said something like: “I want to know why Harman is so fascinated by tar.” Part of it is simply that I like the sound of the word, and always remember that it rhymes with “star.” There’s probably a psychoanalytic resonance here, as there is with most habits and obsessions: “yellow star” was reportedly one of my first compound spoken phrases as a child. My bedroom as a child was next to the top of the garage. At one time it was being tarred, and of course my parents wouldn’t let me go out there while the tar was still hot. But I did eventually walk out there, barefoot, when the tar had cooled but was still a bit soft and mushy to walk around in. I’m not sure why that’s such a pleasant memory, but maybe that’s why tar makes frequent appearances in my own litanies.
January 22, 2013 · Print This Article
What is Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) and what sort of questions does it pose for art and aesthetics? Lets start with looking at the name of the movement backwards.
Ontology is the philosophical study of what there is. A way of examining the question is to re-arrange the question asked, which is to say, â€˜What is there?â€™
The question of â€˜what is thereâ€™, is an odd one, especially to those who donâ€™t ordinarily have a philosophical disposition – it isnâ€™t something you would come out with in a conversation for example. But nevertheless, the question of â€˜what is thereâ€™ also defines what sort of orientation is insinuated in OOO. As soon as anyone rummages around this ontological question for long enough we discover that we are Oriented towards something; it might be a pragmatic orientation, or maybe something commonplace and yet weird – inexplicably, unusually weird. The question of â€˜what is thereâ€™ can be applied to anyone in any situation; implying a sense of adjustment or familarization with ones surroundings, but also in the sense of establishing their own peculiar location in strange circumstances; acclimatizing, accustoming, attuning, aligning.
So â€˜whatâ€™ is it thatâ€™s being studied here? The ontological commitment of the movement (what there is) and what it must be oriented towards (what is there), happens to be the Object or thing. Ask yourself, what is there? You may reply rather awkwardly, there are lots of things here; mugs, wallpaper, dust, computer chairs, the keyboard button â€˜Oâ€™, spoons, trees and god knows what else. But it is also the case that I can conjure up ridiculous things within me that will never see the light of day in the same way the world arrives at my senses; mystical creatures of a sombre mood, square circles and cats that speak German. According to the major proponents of OOO, all of these things, both human and not-human are objects. They exist and we orient towards them.
But there are two realist interventions within OOO; that this orientation of ‘what is’ is never uniquely human, nor special to human understanding, and that no object cannot be privileged over any other, including the individual object which aims to be understood. So what is there? All objects are there – although this is complex.
The study of â€˜what there isâ€™ and â€˜what is thereâ€™, can never be a question of what exists solely for human interpretation and assumption. The question of â€˜what there isâ€™, is not the same as â€˜what is thereâ€™ – for a spoon is there in a place or position near to me, on a shelf, a desk, in a mug. We ignore it, even as we use it – and yet it still â€˜isâ€™ there in existence. It is real, it exists without me, despite me requiring its substantial reliance and frequent ignorance. The spoonâ€™s autonomous adventures in a shelf or a sink, never crop up until I ponder over it, but that has little effect on the autonomy of the spoon. The same can be said of sun radiation, my bank details, my MacBook – or oxygen molecules that pass through my alveolar capillaries; and whilst some of these objects remains critically important for my survival, none of them can justify any privileged reason to exist over anything else.
The key OOO difference between â€˜what there isâ€™ and â€˜what is thereâ€™, is the difference between knowing that there is an objectÂ and not knowing it. The first is a statement or conviction, the second is a question. The departure of OOO, as a study and movement, is identifying this difference. It simply states that we know there are spoons, organs, chairs, armies, planets and cocoa-beans: we just donâ€™t know what they are. Our orientation of the thing – â€˜what is thereâ€™ – hopelessly grasps at them for one reason or another, and yet we never grasp the thing itself – the â€˜what there is.â€™ The lynchpin of OOO – philosopher Graham Harman – terms this â€˜withdrawalâ€™, following Martin Heidegger; nothing we can do or say manages to fully explain or understand objects in their entirety. â€˜What is thereâ€™ can only ever be a strange exercise of translation, or of a secondary description. The â€˜what there isâ€™ of the object itself – its primary reality – cannot be known nor fully demonstrated when asking â€˜what is there?â€™
There are then, two sorts of â€˜what is thereâ€™ – a generic one, which fathoms different things quickly, scanning over contents within a menu or a desk. But there is a more direct version of â€˜what is thereâ€™, which examines the hidden contents of one or more specific things; like a fishing pool, a molecule, a planet or even the contents of a painting.
However it must be said that for OOO, the â€˜what is thereâ€™ is also not a principally human question, despite being a different question from â€˜what there isâ€™. Objects are also oriented towards other objects. Each object has its own characteristic, individual, operation for foraging out the orientation of â€˜what is thereâ€™, irrespective of cognition, reasoning or experience.
In the case of animals, this isnâ€™t too hard to speculate on; the â€˜what is thereâ€™ for the robin, requires foraging for food and nutrition whilst fending off hostile threats and unexpected weather. But for OOO this insight need not be restricted to the animate; the â€˜what is thereâ€™ for the security computer program identifies and removes external threats in its own image, just as much as the â€˜what is thereâ€™ for the falling boulder could be any contingent blockage or unfortunate creature that stands in its path. Each relationship has the same metaphysical properties, the same equality of relation between anything else.
It is for this very reason, that OOO shrugs any primary privileging of monism (everything is one or ‘nature’) or human access (everything is a product of culture). Its ontology is not an orientation of one thing, of one nature, one scientific law, nor reduced to specific things such as discursive cultures or political hegemony:Â it speaks only of individual, real objects. This ontology only contains detached, disconnected, disjoined objects, with each irreducible object partly connected towards another irreducible entity, like a continuous box of finite magnets being repeatedly thrown down a infinite staircase. Each magnet might be locked together with another, and then separated soon after repelling or connecting with something else – forever doomed to repeat the involuntary question of â€˜what is thereâ€™ on its finite journey.
Every proponent of OOO has a different insight and a different collection of metaphors to illustrate their nuanced ontological differences. Such bodies of work have different methods of asking, â€˜what is thereâ€™, without getting a lot back in return from the world. These descriptions only offer a brief summary of the differences between them.
Graham Harmanâ€™s ontology borrows and radicalizes past achievements in the phenomenological â€˜objectâ€˜, not only advocating a strict difference between â€˜real objectsâ€˜ and â€˜sensual objectsâ€˜ (the latter which tries to account for the dream-like aforementioned cats who speak German), but also a demanding non-relational ontology, where no object can ever be fully reduced to its relations.
Levi Bryant speaks not of objects, but of difference machines, or systemsÂ whose adventuresÂ are structurally open, but operationally closed. Bryantâ€™s machines are material processes that have differing power Â according to their contextual situations, and these instigate different, potential, namely ‘virtual’ effects within the activity of the entity.
Tim Morton speaks of ecologically strange â€˜hyperobjectsâ€™ – massively distributed transcendent entities (such as climate) whose viscosity and sticky-ness clamber onto our awareness and yet remain invisible. For Morton, objects are in essence, a blind contradiction of inconsistency; they are both themselves and somehow, not themselves, wandering in and out of a chaotic world, not tailored for our sole understanding.
And lastly there is Ian Bogost, whom also speaks not of objects, but of units, and the tenuous operations of units. Each unit has a hidden procedurality of operation, which is never made explicit nor fully revealed. His iteration of OOO is a tiny ontology: whole infinite universes crammed into specific things, with each one being a cog in another machine, or a module in another program.
So how would OOO, in its various orientations, engage with and deliberate on art and aesthetics? How would this ‘schematic of being’ help artists understand their own work or reinterpret its historical significance? The question of â€˜what is thereâ€™ must be, I think, an aesthetic call before anything else and this suitably serves as the focus for the next part.
Devin and I curated a show at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport; it opened a week ago and tonight we’re having a mini-symposium called “Location/Location: The Mistranslation of Objects.” It’s an exciting show for us with some great work by Rebecca Mir, Carrie Gundersdorf,Â Heather Mekkelson, Ellen Rothenberg, Stephen Lapthisophon, Christian Kuras and Bad at Sports’ own Duncan MacKenzie, as well as Mark Booth and Justin Cabrillos. We were trying to curate a show that might explore an object oriented ontology. This exhibit closes on Wednesday, the 13th of June. It is open on Sundays from 1-4 and by appointment.
You have entered the Co-Prosperity Sphere: a large corner-space on a neighborhood block in Bridgeport, five miles from the Loopâ€™s chain shops. The inside of this space feels old. It is massive â€” 2,500 square feet. A tin ceiling stands fourteen feet above you, not for stylistic preference â€” though it suits current vintage tastes â€” but due to an oversight; the previous owner of 40 years did nothing to maintain the building, using it instead as a hoarderâ€™s storeroom. Before his time, when Bridgeport was prosperous and you could see cattle moseying to their death outside of the window, this space was a department store. The owner was the wealthiest man in town, and is said to have had the first car in the neighborhood, driving it across the street to the church on Sundays, throwing pennies out of his windows at children in the street. Since then the space â€” and the neighborhood â€” have been through a decline normal to working class neighborhoods in American cities. Hoarders bought the space in the 80s. Ed Marszewski moved in a few years ago and cleaned it up.
The wooden floor of the Co-Prosperity Sphere creaks when you walk on it. Light shines through a host of upper windows, reflecting off the wood like an old gymnasium. The new white walls and spartan emptiness assign the space to contemporary art exhibitions. This particular landscape is comprised of material â€” pillars, windows, floors, and doorways turn into wood, screws, pipes, bricks, plaster, glass and tin. The composition of this space exists on multiple levels. As concrete, discrete materials they fuse into one structure. More abstractly, these materials exist as indicators of past and present; each object tells a story through its own unique, associative system of influence. Sometimes the story is responsive â€” the sound of your footsteps or the water that runs through overhead pipes. Other times the story is inaccessible but conjured â€” the imagined sound of mooing cows or copper pennies against cement, indicating a different American economy. Or, the story is simply material â€” the unfinished areas of this space, the space beneath the stairs on the far white wall: if you peer around its edge, you can see the buildingâ€™s insides.
What begins to emerge is an ecology that blurs the lines between life forms and inanimate material bodies. In Field Static we first wanted to create an opportunity in which relations between objects might be highlighted such that the field created via the installation of artwork would accent oneâ€™s material engagement. Each object within the Co-Prosperity Sphere would become focal point and periphery alike, suggesting both solitary histories and the peculiar synthesis of matter common to all things. Field Static rejects or, at least, torques artâ€™s historically anthropocentric position â€” the poem is written by a human, the portrait is painted of a human â€” in favor of a more egalitarian engagement with objects.
Through this, we donâ€™t mean to treat other species or categories of objects as citizens of another nation. Instead, we are trying to expand an established hierarchy where humans patronize other objects. How might a gallery show include the presence of bubble gum splotches, twigs, fan blades, icebergs â€” easily marginalized masses â€” in order to engender new political spheres? We hope to discover new ways of integrating experience and materiality so that less priority is placed on the humanâ€™s role amongst objects. This project is far-seeing: sentience in technology, impasses in distinguishing between â€œnon-livingâ€ computer viruses and â€œlivingâ€ biological viruses, and our current ecological condition all suggest the possibility that, to borrow the theorist Timothy Mortonâ€™s word, the mesh (1) we inhabit is much larger and stranger than we may have thought. This mesh is also able to exist, quite comfortably, without us. So how do we look at the relations between objects?
We became interested in curating a show around objects through familiarity with the work of Graham Harman, a philosopher and theorist based in Cairo, Egypt. Harman, along with Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost, Levi Bryant, and a few other thinkers, is one of the proponents of object-oriented ontology â€” a metaphysics that, loosely defined, rejects a human centered worldview in philosophy in favor of something more democratic. Instead of privileging the human subjectâ€™s relation to the world, object-oriented ontology hopes to democratize the field of metaphysics though a general inquiry about objects, specifically the ways in which objects interact with each other and the world. Object-oriented ontology is a metaphysics that asks not only how humans engage with the world, but also how forks, bee pollen, James Cameronâ€™s depth diving submarine, and Sancho Panzaâ€™s donkey relate to each other and the world. Harmanâ€™s work is less about deprivileging the human than opening up the nature of the field â€” examining the infinitely complex assortment of materials operating within a given frame of reference. As Harman writes, his â€œpoint is not that all objects are equally real, but that they are equally objects.â€1 In order to think the world, we must think about the world and the many objects that make it up, not only our relation to it. It is exciting and truly weird work.
Harmanâ€™s theories work out in many different directions. One of the most interesting, for our purposes, is the idea that though an object exists as a bundle of relations amongst itself and with other objects, these relations never eliminate the full spectrum of possibility residing within an object. The Co-Prosperity Sphere is a node within Bridgeport, within Chicago, both rife with their own complex network of encounters. You are distinctly aware of these very real relations, and together they build up the spaceâ€™s identity. At the same time, the Co-Prosperity Sphere could also, possibly, enter into a number of different relations that we might not have any understanding of: it could be used by a sect to summon demons, it could be eaten slowly by Larry Coryell to improve his jazz guitar, it could slowly erode a statue of itself in slate. These are humorous examples, but they reveal how objects can exist more fully outside of whatever relations they may exist in currently â€” whether they enter into those relations or not. Even if we were able to list every theoretical relation this space could enter into, it would still have other relations beyond our list. The number and variations of its relations is infinite but in every instance, whether micro or macro, the objects within that field can never be reduced to their relations. They are not simply indicators of signification, but exist within a network. Consequently, objects â€” as metaphysical bundles of all the possibilities of their relations with themselves and other objects â€” are ultimately withdrawn from each other and themselves. Objects are always at a remove from their relations.
Harman more fully explains this idea through the image of a sleeping zebra in CircusPhilosophicus, a series of alternately humorous and petrifying myths he wrote to explain the basic tenets of his ideas:
For first, [the zebra] rises beyond its own pieces, generated by them but not reducible to them. And second, it is indifferent to the various negotiations into which it might enter with other objects, though some of those might affect it: as when the zebra interacts with grasses for its meals, and predator cats for its doom. While the zebra is cut off from its pieces in the sense of being partly immune to changes among them, it cannot survive their total disappearance. But by contrast, it might survive the disappearance of all its outward relations. And this is what I mean by sleep, if we can imagine a truly deep and dreamless sleep…Sleep should not be compared with death and its genuine destruction of the zebra-entity: sleep entails that the thing still exists, but simply without relation to anything else…Sleep perhaps has a metaphysical function no less than a physical one: as a kind of suspended animation in which entities are withdrawn from the world. And perhaps this happens more than we think.(2)
Like the zebra, the Co-Prosperity Sphere could be ripped in half by a giant and sacrificed to Goran, Lord of the Impetus, or it could play a game of Go with the bar down the street, and yet, through all of these changes, it still exists, partly, as a space for the community to gather in. As Harman writes, objects are â€œpartly immune to changes among [its pieces].â€2 Were we to remove all of the spaceâ€™s outward relations â€” you, inside the space, reading this book about it, me writing this essay a month prior, thinking about the space, the printer printing these words about the space, the ink coming out of long tubes, the humidity wrinkling the pages, the recycling bin holding the book about the space, the recycler pulping the book â€” the space might still exist, withdrawn from these outward relations, in something like sleep. While it is impossible to gain access to the withdrawn aspects of an object, it is our belief that the best art, at least, allows us a place to exist in a type of still-sleep with an object. Weâ€™ve curated the artists in this show in the belief that their work engages with objects as bundles of relations in the field of the world, and yet, through their work, the artists show these objects as still, withdrawn, sleeping entities.
Still, the artists in Field Static engage the world of objects in different ways. The show should not be seen as as a grouping of artworks that fulfill any one approach to objects. While our curatorial impulse was inspired by Harmanâ€™s philosophy, we nevertheless present works that address objects in a variety of ways.
Of course, all exhibits exercise this interest; historically, art is the making and honoring of objects. However, the peculiar and various approaches these artists take to field and object-making seem particularly compelling, especially when their work could be assembled under the umbrella created by the Co-Prosperity Sphere. We are not looking to project human metaphor onto the state of these artworks â€” although those poetic nuances are probably an inevitable facet of an aesthetic experience â€” but rather to invite your imagination to consider the sleeping potential of these things in their thingness, their associative and personal autonomy in the world, each with its own discrete and, by now, non-contingent identity. A strangeness emerges â€” similar to the eyes of a fox, the unripe stem of a green banana, or Achillesâ€™ shield â€” all familiar and unknown, a potency common to all things that nevertheless remains out of reach.
Rebecca Mirâ€™s work is simple and understated. She often works with paper, small collections of objects, and her own body arranged quietly. This humility in equipment is connected to Mirâ€™s infatuation with punk culture that shifts into an engagement with the landscape. She has also written love letters to the ocean. Perhaps the best way to think about her work is as an amalgamation of bygone Romanticisms â€” nature, the lover, the explorer, the punk rocker â€” that add up to rediscover the sincerity currently lacking in all of these labels. For this show, we were most interested in Mirâ€™s engagement with nature. We gave her the storefront windows to fill up and she gave us hanging sheets of paper with flat black prints of icebergs on them. These are the most frightening objects in the world, slowly leading us towards underwater cities. Mirâ€™s prints garble our response; we instead encroach upon the ice.
When we met Ellen Rothenberg to talk about this show, she shared pictures of older pieces she had made and used during performances: clocks on a pair of shoes, or a wooden shovel with words engraved on its mouth. They were tempting to curate into Field Static for their embodiment of an inaccessible past-use, an original context no less significant then their present status as formal, sculptural works.Â But then Rothenberg showed us a more recent piece she had exhibited in Berlin. In her installation, Constellations, Rothenberg establishes a literal field via small blue signs printed with arrows and red vintage price tag cards. She assembles these on a wall or in a room; the proportions of the work vary depending on the site. In every version, these small indicators create an enigmatic field or map. The price cards elicit a time when two cents might have been a useful sum â€” think of those children in dirty boots on Morgan Street. Relative to our current economy, the sums are so small as to be powerless and dismissable. The oblique arrows, meanwhile, propel the eye to wander among these many numerical islands. The precision of placement combined with the interplay of materials and time: the slick, contemporary instructional arrows, against the foxed, nostalgic price tags are fixed to the clean white wall by antique metal clips. A tension emerges flike a magnetic field as the viewer is absorbed in the act of looking.
In Diagram (2010), Christian Kuras and Duncan MacKenzie installed a multi-leveled series of roofless recangular rooms; the entire system looked like a complex model of a building site. Balsa wood rooms connected by ramps on cinder blocks, coffee cans, and side tables. Cords lay around the floor of the installation, a bare flourescent light tube, a lamp, a plant. In one instance an antique sign, â€œGirls Toiletâ€ was legible. This assemblage conspired to portray some kind of institution â€” a university or a corporation â€” the â€˜roomsâ€™ clearly exist in a network, even if their function within that network is unclear. In an effort to grasp the purpose of this material system, you might lean in to read the pencil marks, left behind by the artists in the process of making. These do not unlock the piece. It remains at bay, undissmissable because of its sprawl and, even, the care toward detail. In Field Static, Kuras and MacKenzie work with letters, transforming a textual message in a game of anagrams. They began with one phrase originally mailed as an off-the-cuff collage from UK-based Kuras to Chicago-based MacKenzie. MacKenzie and Kuras reorganized the letters of the phrase into stacks, paintings, and phrases that may or may not be legible to the viewer. While connected to their original context, each new combination creates a new meaning contained in the original. The text is distant, distinct, and equitable to its physical counterpart.
Last winter, Mark Booth composed a durational performance at Devening Projects during his solo exhibition God Is Represented By The Sea. For one performance during that exhibition, the improvisational bellows and electronics duet, Coppice (NoÃ© CuÃ©llar and Joseph Kramer) played music with Booth for roughly four hours. During that time, twelve individuals were asked to read Boothâ€™s score: a stream of ever shifting phrases in a loop. The last word of one phrase became the first word of the following. â€œGod is represented by the seaâ€ became â€œThe Sea is represented by an irregular shapeâ€ and so on until we arrived at last to â€œAn owl is represented by God,â€ at which time the readers would begin again. The words became blocks, algebraic variables that could be swapped in and out of one another. Boothâ€™s piece evokes an intuited, physical structure in language; he seeks to find an equivocation, a way to codify experience through metaphor. Here, he has installed a sound installation with flags entitled: I IMAGINE YOU SLEEPING SIDE BY SIDE AND WHILE YOU ARE SLEEPING YOUR SOULS RISE TOGETHER LIKE A FLAG ON A POLE FLUTTERING SOUNDLESSLY IN A WINDLESS WIND AND THE FLAG OF YOUR LOVE IS SHAPED LIKE […]
Objects are often manufactured by human beings; it is sometimes difficult to imagine their autonomy. We know rocks come from mountains and meteors, so they observe an obvious independence from the human sphere. But what about old tires or tennis balls? In what way can those objects boast a non-contingent being when their original purpose is tied to human activities? How can such an object fulfill its potential if its potential is reliant upon human use? Heather Mekkelson articulates one possible answer. Over the past several years, she has made a practice of fabricating distress. Mekkelson begins with new objects â€” phonebooks, traffic cones, caution tape, fans, or blinds â€” everyday, banal objects. Through a variety of processes she imposes the visible signs of deterioration and stress on each object and, placed in an exhibit, these objects evoke a traumatic narrative, as ready-mades discovered by accident in the wake of disaster. The distress of the objects suggests their secret lives or past, an encounter made more interesting given that Mekkelsonâ€™s objects never endured such trials at all. Their life was spent in her studio. In more recent work, Mekkelson has created a telling-point on the object that allows the viewer to see the artifice of distress. At one critical point of perspective the viewer can see both the artifice of distress and the objectâ€™s unadulterated newness â€” like on a stage set when you see at once the faÃ§ade of a town and the plywood backing on which the town is painted. That point reveals a moment of interior instability; it is as though the object is telling you it is lying. The object is laughing at you, or winking, confessing its own ruse.
Alhough we first knew Justin Cabrillos as a sound poet, weâ€™ve been lucky to see him as heâ€™s developed into a somatic phenom. Weâ€™ve included his video Dance for a Narrow Passageway â€” a work that shows Cabrillos improvising a dance in a passageway. Before composing the piece, Cabrillos spent time observing movements in passageways, both his own and others: buses, subways, airports, even passageways in dramatic movies. He is embodying the influence that space and non-human bodies have on human choreography. The one rule of the improvisation: move like somebody would move in a passageway. When talking to us about the piece, Cabrillos emphasized his interest in the absence of other objects as he came into movement â€” the passageway encourages nothing but the supposed emptiness of transition. It also has a history: many bodies, winds, and drips have left their associative trace: that past is something Cabrillos is responding to as well, embodying it. Like a corporeal version of John Cageâ€™s famous anechoic chamber experience â€” where the composer learned that the world was never truly silent â€” Cabrillosâ€™ video indicates that one is always connected to other bodies.
Is it possible to imagine the inner life of objects? It seems we are not quite permitted to apprehend the idea. We cannot imagine what such a sleeping interiority would be like, especially when discounting the tools humans dream with â€” thought and words and pictures. Instead we must describe the possibility of an objectâ€™s interior space by activating a sense of its absurdity. In a kind of negative proof on his website, Stephen Lapthisophon shows a looped video of a potato, alone on a shelf. In the background we hear jazz music. Because of an automatic desire to anthropomorphize the potato, we imagine the potato â€” otherwise absolutely still and solitary in the frame â€” listening. The scene becomes comical. And yet it describes something about the constant, albeit invisible, movement of a potato: it is constantly deteriorating, or growing, or leaking, or emitting vibrations. Conceiving of its ability to hear and listen is a way to access, through metaphor, the potatoâ€™s experience of itself. For Field Static, Lapthisophon shows The Taxonomy of Root Vegetables, a long, crude shelf stacked with many different still growing, still rotting, root vegetables. The piece, to us, builds off Lapthisophonâ€™s humorous depiction of a morose tuber. Instead of an attempt and appraisal of projected experience, Taxonomy suggests unfamiliar, mutating ecologies and locates the fruitlessness of our contrived negotiations as we seek to categorize and map our world.
The inaccessibility of individual objects can be compared to the inaccessibility of our environment â€” as our awareness of very small objects builds up, we bump against the infinite array of inner lives, and the very large mesh that consists of animals, insects, bacteria, rocks, ashes, oxygen. Slowly, we bump up against the sky, the world of planetary bodies: the sun, the planets, the stars, light. Carrie Gundersdorf observes, paints, collages and draws solar phenomenon on two-dimensional picture planes that reference modernist painting. In one collage, Gundersdorf collects a variety of different images of Jupiter. She assembles these images in a grid on one sheet of dark paper. One sees the many sides of Jupiter at once but we are no closer to apprehending this planet. This is not simply the result of scale or medium; Gundersdorf is very literally transcribing astral photographs. And yet Gundersdorfâ€™s work shows how astral photographs are manipulated by space and technology. The picture of Jupiter has traveled through eons of space, been reflected on a variety of mirrors and then digitally enhanced with various colors and contrast in an effort to indicate data. Those manipulated images represent the source material that comprises our collective experience of Outer Space. In this show, we have included Spectral Trails with Absorption Lines, a drawing that depicts the spectrum of light. Here too one is called to consider not only the cameraâ€™s apparatus, but also the receptive reed of the body: the stereoscopic vision of two eyes â€” what is then intuitively and unconsciously synthesized into one cohesive whole. Add to this the limited capacity of our oracular perception: We can only see a very narrow portion of the spectrum. Given our minimal sensitivity to light, how could we possibly see all objects? What objects are we missing?
Hopefully these works, along with this book, will lure you into an experience of Field Static in which you begin to account, through perception, for the discrete fields asserted within discrete works; and then the field described by the works together; and then the field described by the entire show in the context of the space, a space in which we are immersed. It is an uncanny and perhaps anxious position, as we grow ever more aware of the inexhaustible relations between non-human things.
This essay was written by Field Static curators, Caroline Picard & Devin King.Â To schedule an appointment for viewing, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).
2. Graham Harman. The Quadruple Object (Washington: Zer0 Books, 2011), p. 5
3. Graham Harman. Circus Philisophicus (Washington: Zer0 Books, 2010) p. 72-3
4. Harman writes, objects are â€œpartly immune to changes among [its pieces].â€ Circus Philisophicus (Washington: Zer0 Books, 2010) p. 72.
February 22, 2012 · Print This Article
I met João Florêncio over the summer by accident. I was a tourist at a SEPFEP, a philosophy conference in York. My boyfriend was presenting a paper and I happened to tag along using up some free miles that must have accumulated with my parents’ help. While there, I wasn’t planning to visit any panels but nevertheless, I did. It was great. I had one of those brain infusions that sits with you for months and years, as your consciousness tries to digest what it has consumed. In particular, I got a crash course on feminism and learned more about Object Oriented Ontology — the subject of João’s presentation. He gave a paper about performance and how it might be considered as an object, a thing possessing its own autonomous being, a being not contingent on humanity. I wanted to ask him more questions on the subject and this seemed like a good opportunity. João is a Portuguese scholar currently based in London and researching on Contemporary European Philosophy and Performance Art. He is also an associated researcher of ‘Performance Matters.’
Caroline Picard: How do you think about performance?
João Florêncio: What first drove me to think about performance was my interest in what is generally known as ‘Performance Art’ (or its more British term ‘Live Art’). Despite having been both trained as a classical musician from an young age in a junior conservatoire and received my first degree in musicology, it was not until I discovered performance art that I started thinking about what it means to perform.
Anyhow, after a change of academic focus during my MA, I found myself enrolling on the PhD programme in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London, in order to carry out what would turn out to be a research project on a new ontology of performance. The reasons for that are varied but they can be summed up by an increased awareness on my part that ‘performance’ is a term that is increasingly used to describe the behaviour of various beings, from humans to computer networks, from national economies and stock markets to higher education institutions. Nevertheless, and despite some exceptions (here I’m thinking of theorist Jon McKenzie), Performance Studies, the academic field within which I’m working, hasn’t spent enough time trying to theorise those occasions of nonhuman performance; it suffers, in my view, from a certain humanist or anthropocentric malaise for reasons that I can point out, if you want.
The question I faced then was how to think of nonhuman performance, how to try to write a new general theory of performance that is able to account for occasions of both human and nonhuman performativity, when Performance Studies doesn’t seem to be offering me any kind of useful theoretical tools to do so? After a couple of years of research, I think I have finally found the medicine I was looking for, and I found it in a cocktail of Information Theory, Cybernetics, Actor-Network-Theory and the fairly recent branch of Continental Philosophy known as Object-Oriented Ontology. These bodies of work, along with a few dashes of Quantum Theory and Philosophy of Mind (for good measure), have helped me take Performance Studies to a place where it had hitherto dared not to go and find a new vibrancy in the world of objects.
Thus, and to finally kind of answer your question, I currently see performance in a very simple (yet useful) way: performance is nothing other than the process through which an object is translated into a version of itself able to be experienced by another object. By translatable object I don’t only mean a musical score, a theatre play, an idea, or even a person; rather, an object (like Graham Harman demonstrates) is anything that has an autonomous existence: from a person to a rock, from a shot of electricity fired by a neuron to a bankrupt financial institution, from a debt-ridden national economy to a melting iceberg. Performance is, in my view, that which allows for an object to manifest itself in the experience of another object by performing a double of itself. So yes, a performance is always performance and object at once. Because all objects that are given to us (or to any other objects) in experience are performances of other objects. Think about it as the whole world being a stage (isn’t that what ‘they’ say?). If the whole world is a stage, then everything in it is playing some role at some point and the only thing we (and everything else) have access to are the characters, the roles played and not the real actors playing them. Suddenly the whole world is full of life, packed with mysteries and hidden places I’d like to visit. What about you?
CP: Of course! That sounds amazing—in so far as suddenly the objects one encounters (including oneself, I assume) possess something autonomous and dynamic. One thing that makes me curious, though, is the kind of privilege that we have traditionally built into art objects. We want to distinguish them from everyday objects, like rocks for instance. But the way you talk about performance makes me imagine little to no distinction between aÂ Marina AbramoviÄ‡Â piece and an everyday encounter with a light post. Does art need to maintain its hierarchical plinth to be art?
JF: I’d say there are at least two different kinds of performance: the performance that brings forth an object’s double onto another object’s experience (the kind of performance I mentioned earlier) and then there is a particular second kind of performance, a performance that starts by being like the first one but that then becomes something else. It begins by translating an object into the phenomenological realm of experience but then, for reasons that, in my view, have to do with a change on the way objects engage with each other as audiences, it goes beyond the experience of the given sensual object to suddenly denounce the presence of the real object hidden behind it (even if it never really makes it known). I see it like the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, the defamiliarisation effect through which audiences realise the play they’re watching isn’t reality itself: they become aware of the fiction of theatre; the presence of the actor behind the character is denounced. If the first kind of performance gives us the experience of what graham Harman has called ‘time’ (by allowing us to perceive sensual objects and changes in their sensual qualities), then this second kind of performance gives us ‘space’, the sudden realisation that the real is much deeper than we had hitherto known. It is also this second kind of performance that is usually associated with the art object. However, in my view, it has nothing to do with the nature of the object being experienced but with the nature of the experience itself. If we are to truly support a flat and democratic object-oriented ontology, then we cannot divide the world into ‘normal objects ‘and ‘art objects.’ Art objects don’t exist ontologically. What exists is a particular kind of relation between objects, the aesthetic relation. The aesthetic relation can in principle exist between any two objects. If we think about it, that has already been the case since the first avant-garde. just think of Duchamp’s ready-mades: they are objects like all others; the only thing that changed was that they were placed in a context that triggered an aesthetic engagement on the part of the audience, that context being the so-called ‘art exhibition’. However we do not need art galleries to tell us when to engage with other objects aesthetically: I can be enchanted by anything around me as long as I allow it to myself. It’s almost like my teenage LSD tree-hugging trips. Didn’t ‘they’ say something about opening the doors of perception? Perhaps we are the new hippies but without their terrible sense of fashion. Anyway, I digress here. Let’s just say that in a world made of equal objects and ridden of anthropocentrism, there is no privileged ontological space for ‘art objects.’ Because if we allow the art object to be in any way privileged, then we are a step closer to getting back to anthropocentrism because if art is special, then so must be its creator (the human genius). There is no art; there is only aesthetic experience. And, yes, sometimes the light post is also present; presence is not a quality that only Marina Abramovic has.Â 😉
CP: That’s what I was going to ask, actually…are there certain objects that are not vehicles of aesthetic experience?
JF: I’m not sure if I understood your question but I think all objects are capable of some kind of aesthetic experience even if perhaps we won’t ever be able to fully know how that operates. We can only speculate that, if an object can never really access another object but only relate to its sensual double, then we can call that a basic form of aesthesis, understood in its original Greek meaning of ‘perception.’ Hence, I believe that Graham Harman called aesthetics the first philosophy because the nature of all relationality between all objects is aesthetic. In what regards Abramovic’s reenactments of her own works, I’m not sure if each reenactment of the work counts as a new real object or, rather â€” and this is what I’m inclined to believe â€” as a new sensual version of a same object. We can understand reenactment very simply as a new performance (or a new translation) of the same real object, very much like every time the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays Shubert’s Symphony No. 9, we are not listening to a new symphony but to a new ‘reading’ of it, a new interpretation, in this case Ricardo Muti’s translation of the original object. What different translations give us is a different point of view of an object without ever giving us the totality of that object (as the object will always withdraw or be protected from our full access via some sort of firewall). So, yes, Abramovic’s reenactments can give us different aspects of the original, to use your words. And those can be aspects that not even Abramovic herself is aware of as the original work as real object that it is, withdraws even from Abramovic’s full access.
CP: How you describe objects’ exchange with one another as audiences…what does that mean? Or, maybe more to the point: how does that work? Do objects have cognizance of one another?
JF: The answer to your second question comes from this previous answer: When I say objects operate as audiences when relating to sensual versions of another object, I mean that objects witness performance or translation, the reenactment of each other. This is not the same as saying that all objects are sentient and conscious of each other (humans and animals might be but I’m not sure about rocks and tree trunks). They are, however, changed by entering into relation with sensual objects just as audiences are changed when witnessing a performance. (I must note here that the relationship between performance and transformation of audiences and performers has been one of the core ideas surrounding Performance Studies since its inception as a field of academic enquiry). We can easily see that being the case: a tree enters into relation with an axe and, like an audience, it is transformed by it – gets cut, gets the shape of the axe’s blade imprinted in its own trunk – without ever having full access to the axe – it doesn’t know anything about the texture of the axe’s handle, its temperature, or its colour, for instance. Or a rock is shaped by the ocean’s waves, gets transformed, but still is not able to access the size of the ocean, the flora and fauna living in it, its saltiness, its reflection of the sunlight, or even the size of the oil spill covering it a few miles away in the Golf of Mexico. In that same way some of us sat in front of Marina Abramovic at MoMA and were transformed by it – some cried, some smiled, some felt reassurance – but nobody was able to fully access Abramovic’s ‘substance’ or, if you want, the totality of her being – her feelings, the sensations on her skin, her own sense of space, our image formed in her retina and being fired at the speed of light all the way up to her visual cortex, etc. As I see it, all relations in the world involve something or someone performing and something or something witnessing the performance, an audience.
CP: In closing, I am almost inclined to ask a sort of sentimental question; how has your day-to-day perception of the world shifted with the incorporation of this philosophy? I can’t help feeling like it might change the undercurrent of your most banal experiences…
JF:I like your last question. There’s nothing wrong with being sentimental. I’m Mediterranean, after all. I think the way I look at things has changed after having read all this object-oriented philosophers and after having been working for a while on the intersection of performance studies and object-oriented philosophy. I think I started looking at things in a different way… I think perhaps to try to ‘catch them’, to try to have a glimpse of what they’ve been hiding. It’s actually hilarious when I find myself sneakingly looking at things like if they came from another planet. It can be a sign of madness but I like to think it is a sign of a rediscovered fascination with everything around me, with the enchanting side of everyday objects. It makes the world suddenly full of stuff waiting to be rediscovered and experienced in different manners. Like every stone hides a treasure or something like that. Call me a romantic, it’s OK.