A Harman-Oriented Ontology

I was sent an email the other day, after expressing some of my own amusement regarding Graham Harman’s recent placement of his foot in his own mouth, asking what my thoughts are on speculative realism and object-oriented ontology.

The person who sent the question, coming from an arts background, confessed a certain bias towards being interested in Harman’s work and the work of those around him, and wondered what my opinion was on the whole thing.

As is a habit of mine, once I’d pinged off a reply, it felt like good blog fodder, so here we are with a director’s cut of said reply.

First of all, I should say that I can relate to this inherent interest in the field that Harman is associated with — let’s call it anti-correlationism. This emerged for me from an innocent initial interest in phenomenology.

This was my way into philosophy proper, as I suspect it is for a lot of wannabe artists. Phenomenology is a field of philosophy that can be applied to almost any artistic practice very easily, asking many of the questions artists no doubt ask themselves on a regular basis:

What is it to be in the world? What is it to have a complex relationship with materials — haptic, aesthetic, emotional, physical — and try to understand why, as a species, we create so often as we do? What is the relationship between cognitive processes and artistic processes? What is it to be skilled in the act of mediating this world we live in?

When I was an arts student, these were the questions I specifically made work about. I was a photographer who made work about (the act and experience of) photography.

I was quite militant in what I wanted to express, hoping (but failing) to remove any space for misunderstanding. Any separation between thinking and being had to be dismantled in any expression of what I did as an artistic practice. Looking, listening, feeling, thinking happened simultaneously and without hierarchy. The central concern of my undergraduate degree, as a result, was related to how we can reveal the aesthetic act of making pictures within the privileged act of looking at the results. (Here, perhaps, we can already see how anti-correlationism is well suited to art world fawning.)

I tried to demonstrate this experience repeatedly over the three years I was studying photography, each time with more clarity, asking: How do I translate what is, to me, an embodied and multi-sensory experience into the experience of looking at a print on a wall or in a book? However, despite this, it was only after I’d finished my undergraduate degree that I discovered phenomenology and went, “Oh for fuck’s sake, you mean there’s a whole theoretical canon out there that’s already articulated what I’m thinking?”

I wasn’t completely ignorant — I’d written part of my undergraduate dissertation against Roland Barthes’ phenomenological romanticism in Camera Lucida, preferring the cold materialism of Bataille’s Tears of Eros, but — believe it or not — I’d entered this phenomenal swamp without ever having heard of Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty or Deleuze. And I only had name recognition for Kant and Sartre but I didn’t know anything about any of their ideas whatsoever.

What interested me then was nonetheless something I’d find echoed in more contemporary debates within phenomenology and New Materialism. I liked, for instance, an argument made by James Elkins in his book What Photography Is regarding the photograph of “Little Ernest” that Barthes is so disturbed by in his book. Whereas Barthes wonders about the fate of the subject of the photograph, Elkins wonders why Barthes wasn’t at all interested in the fate of the photograph itself. His fixation on its subject matter is contrasted by an absence of an analysis of the marks and scrapes that appear on the image as an object in its own right. Surely these materialist questions are just as interesting, just as important and just as unanswerable? What puzzled Elkins was how, in writing a book on photography, Barthes allowed the photograph as object to withdraw from the experience of looking so easily.

This argument isn’t done to inaugurated an object-oriented photography, however. It is deployed to reveal how superficial and romantic Barthes’ philosophy of photography — in that text at least — is, as well as how ignorant he is his own pathologies, so legible on the surface of the text. Elkins’ argument is that Barthes forgot the insights of his own philosophy in that moment — the studium and punctum of Barthes’ melancholic readings are nonexistent and Camera Lucida is all the lesser for it. Elkins, instead, rewrites Barthes’ book for the 21st century cold rationalist, imbuing his photographic theory with a psychedelic reason and a weird realism that I found, in 2012 and 2013, to be electric.

Once I had graduated and become more aware of the great big gaping gaps in my knowledge regarding phenomenology, despite this enthusiastic first dip into the pool, and having had no luck whatsoever in understanding Deleuze’s Francis Bacon — the first book of his I bought after finishing my degree — the first book of philosophy I decided to read properly was Heidegger’s Being & Time — alongside recordings of a course run by Herbert Dreyfus accessible on archive.org.

What Heidegger writes about in the first sections of the book — how we relate to the tools and objects around us — is something which I found inherently interesting as a arts graduate. I was interested in the way that, for instance, as a “skilled” photographer, the camera as a tool disappears. It too becomes “withdrawn”, as Heidegger would say, from conscious experience and is no longer an “object” but a sort of subject-extension. When you’re skilled with a tool, after a period of learning and apprenticeship, muscle memory eventually kicks in, and for Heidegger an analysis of this fundamental process, where thinking and being dissolve into one another, offered a fundamental insight into human consciousness.

This is, in a rudimentary sort of way, where Heidegger begins and then gets a lot more complicated. Suffice it to say, I think his work and phenomenology as a field more generally offers an insight into how we build worlds around ourselves and inhabit them. It’s phenomenology at its most fundamental and it’s interesting for artists especially to think about. Indeed, I think it is worth anyone’s time to become familiar with these works of philosophy that illuminate subject-object relations and reveal their precarity to us.

It seems to be Harman’s project to do this also, by reversing the polarity of Heidegger’s argument into an ontological dead-end. Rather than privileging the subject position, he says, “Well, how does the object feel in this encounter? What is the object’s experience?”

Since Kant we’ve looked at the world in this way and found a certain horror in this question. The thing-in-itself — the object outside of our experience of it — is so absolutely unknowable to us but our awareness of that unknowability is provocative in itself. H.P. Lovecraft is often discussed in relation to Kant in this regard, for instance. Nothing is more horrifying than the unknown and so Lovecraft dramatises this sense of the universe to extremes. (Harman wrote a book on Lovecraft, tellingly.)

There is some virtue in this as an approach to philosophy and many others have written on it in such a way that does not foreclose phenomenology’s philosophical potentials and limits into a system so benign. There is far more to said in this regard but it seems to me that the flaws in OOO will become obvious to anyone remotely familiar with the phenomenological canon. (Not that it has to agree but following its deadends so relentlessly isn’t, by default, an interesting and worthwhile endeavour.)

There are evidently many other people who have taken issue with Harman’s philosophy in this regard who are far more knowledgeable and skilled than I am but, nevertheless, the central flaw in Harman’s philosophy is, to me, made most apparent by his recent Facebook behaviour, which epitomises his notoriety as a compulsive Googler of his own name who will parachute into any discussion about himself or his work with a creepy velocity.

My favourite cunning articulation of this is the subtitle of Pete Wolfendale’s book on the topic of OOO, “The Noumena’s New Clothes” — a particularly witty condensation of what is wrong with OOO and how it convinces others it is worth paying attention to in the first place. OOO is likewise the emperor’s new clothes, and Harman certainly sees himself as an emperor.

My position on OOO Is similar, despite my predilection towards its talking points. Like the Barthes of Camera Lucida, it is hard to take seriously an “object-oriented” position from someone so mind-numbingly self-obsessed. If the intention is to de-privileged the subject, then why is Harman’s philosophy so entangled with his own narcissism?

Speculative Realism is, in itself, still interesting. It speaks to a renewed emphasis on certain ideas that have long haunted philosophy but find new valence in our contemporary world. As such. plenty of people have been doing speculative realist work for a long time without having to travel under the umbrella of that name. The same is true of Harman’s work although the paradoxical cult of personality that surrounds it is an oddly effective barrier that shields this point from view.

How he has made it so far in life and his career is a complete mystery to me. He is cunning, most likely, and focuses his efforts on selling his ideas to disciplines with no idea of the broader context and intellectual histories of his philosophical appropriations. He is, essentially, a snake oil salesman, selling a placebo to people who don’t know any better.

Today, as a result, Object-Oriented Ontology resembles a failed philosophical project that parasitises the art world to stay relevant. A lot of what they discuss is generally alive and well in philosophical circles more generally but its salesmen pretend it’s a niche concern and talk about it in isolation, suffocating their observations in a philosophical sense whilst making it appear cool in an artistic one.

As someone who came to these ideas down that common path of phenomenology and art, let me say that art and philosophy deserve a better relationship than the one the likes of Harman are offering, and its there for discovering if you can look past him for a minute.

UPDATE #1: It has been suggested that this post is an instance of “the pot calling the kettle black”. To attack Harman’s self-obsession by starting with a personal history is somehow hypocritical. I don’t think so.

There are two things I wanted to articulate in this post, and there may be some awkward crossover between the two, but I think both are worthwhile.

The first intention here, if it is not clear, is to demonstrate how and why Harman’s ideas are attractive to so many in the art world. I have done this through my own experience as someone who came to philosophy as a wannabe artist, particularly intrigued by speculative realism. I think that sort of subjective position in an argument is important and do not wish to claim otherwise.

However, that is part of Harman’s whole schtick. One of the central claims within Object-Oriented Philosophy is that the subject need not be the centre of philosophy anymore. At every turn that claim falls apart — and if you want a rigorous takedown, go get Pete Wolfendale’s book or something — but the most laughable and ironic stumbling block for OOO, as I see it, is that Harman himself is at the very centre of his own philosophy. He is OOO and is always adamant about the centrality of his own subject in his supposedly subjectless philosophy.

Hence the title of this post. (Also, true to form, he has predictably appeared in the replies to this post, although seemingly sheepishly and somewhat indirectly. He really can’t help himself.)

If you don’t like philosophy that speaks to an “I”, this blog won’t be for you. But I’m also not making any claims that it should be any different. I’m also not scrambling around social media attempting to rescue my own ego at every opportunity.

As Self-centred as my writings often are, I do also write a lot about the humiliation of that self by seemingly noumenal forces. So there are obvious crossovers. Harman’s general areas of interest are of interest to lots of other people. But what Harman encourages is a use of philosophical concepts and arguments in other fields that are woefully inadequate and he manages to persist in doing this, it seems to me, simply by strengthening the bizarre personality cult around him.

If artists explored his ideas on their own terms, by reading some admittedly difficult texts, or at least some other people’s thoughts on them, they may start to see the holes in what he’s attempting to do, and the way his monopolising of certain concepts that have a far richer history elsewhere — the noumenon being the most important example, perhaps — only serves to reduce artistic access to a broader tradition of thought. OOO is more an art project than a school of philosophy and, for both disciplines’ sake, I think that’s an important distinction to make.

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