Up to this point, this ontology of the present mostly remained in the realm of subjectivity and its modes of relations with the world. In other words, we have looked from the perspective of the human subject towards various boundaries created by modern protocols. In this section, there will be a change of perspective through a detour into the existence of objects. By entering into the field of new realist, neomaterialist and posthumanist philosophies, we will look from the frontier back at the moderns. In the remaining sections, while keeping an eye on other modern protocols, I will give more space to alternative notions of objecthood, materiality and the nonhuman. These understandings seek to release inferior sides from the chokehold of modern dualisms.
The dynamic between subject and object is constitutive of Western metaphysics and the philosophy of science. The subject―object ‘split’ is one of the most ubiquitous modern protocols. Individuating something/one as ‘object’ has immediate ontological, epistemological, as well as ethico-political implications. ‘Object’ is a possibility for (human) action “upon”. Object is that which does not hold agency, thus it may become a tool, a means to an end, an instrument of pleasure and satisfaction. Feminism has extensively unpacked the notion of ‘objectification’ as a way of subordination and exploitation of women and other humans. Theresa Brennan, following psychoanalysis, claims that objectification is a key moment of construction of the ego (2000: 19). In the context of capitalism, through a general proliferation of commodities, this ‘foundational fantasy’ of the ‘contained subject’ becomes a social reality (ibid.: 31). Subject thus founds reality. In this framework, object has strong associations with nonhumanity and the nonhuman world, whose ‘freely mobile energy’ is “bound in commodities” (ibid.: 87). The subject’s foundational fantasy thus encloses/contains both subject and object as commodity. Holistic ecosophies have attacked this modern interface by refusing objectification. However, this approach often uncritically subjectifies what were considered as objects, thereby humanising or anthropomorphising nature. There is another way of going about this crucial dualism with promising routes for rethinking both natures and cultures.
Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) or Philosophy, introduced by Graham Harman, elaborated by Levi Bryant, Timothy Morton, and Ian Bogost, creates an ontology in which objects are all there is. Objects in the OOO are not passive, they possess reality beyond their relations with the outer world. “The object is a black box, black hole, or internal combustion engine releasing its power and exhaust fumes into the world” (Harman, 2005: 95). Harman confers a full autonomy to objects, “a private inner reality that no other object ever exhausts” (ibid.:228). Importantly, OOO thinkers insist that humans are just another object among others (ibid.: 244). Harman strips humans from any ontological privilege through a trenchant critique of ‘philosophies of access’, phenomenologies that start with the human subjectivity to ‘access’ the world. OOO envisages a ‘democracy of objects’ (Bryant, 2011) in which even the tiniest molecule advances the same rights to ontological consideration as the largest animal.
OOO is a significant attempt to cancel out the hierarchical dualism between human subjectivity and the objective world. It is part of a group of philosophies that has emerged contemporaneously, and has been grouped under the name of Speculative Realism (SR)1. Despite the many differences, what connected the participating philosophers was an impetus to go beyond ‘correlationism’, the term that Quentin Meillassoux explains as “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (2008: 5). The efforts of Speculative Realists and associated philosophies is to access the “great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers” [original emphasis] (ibid.: 7). SR and OOO, with their distinctly non-anthropocentric thought, are of potential interest for posthumanist ecological philosophy. What is of particular interest is OOO’s espousal and formulation of flat ontology, a philosophical position that claims that “all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally” (Bogost, 2011: 11). From this perspective, any body, and even relations not involving humans, are worthy of consideration and they ‘exist’ in the same way that humans do. Flat ontology opens venues for a novel attentiveness to the world, a certain ethos or even poetics. This position, however, should not be equated with a flat ethics (Bryant, 2012). Although I recognise that some OOO texts, with their bias on extra-humans, lend themselves to this reading. Beyond the issue of ethics, however, I believe there is space for rethinking eco-art and eco-politics in light of flat ontology.
Of interest to environmental thought is Harman’s depiction of the world as made of “countless strata of reality: objects wrapped in objects sealed in objects frozen in objects, extending above, below, and within the theater of human consciousness” (2005: 23). There are many environments, and humans are part of some while not having access to others. However, an obstacle to a productive use of Harman’s ontology in ecosophy comes from his privileging of substance over relations, which deprivileges the capacity for change (Shaviro, 2014: 36). Whilst not following other aspects of his theory, I will adopt one of his central notions, that of ‘withdrawal’ (see 2.2.2.).
Timothy Morton, coming from ecocriticism, productively moves OOO towards creating an ecological/ethical vision of ‘dark ecology’. One of Morton’s interesting proposals are ‘hyperobjects’, “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” (Morton, 2013: 1). Hyperobjects are black holes, global warming and oil, but also a plastic bag. Morton develops a deeply ethical stance which situates humans inside of hyperobjects. Dark ecology goes against the phenomenological vision of reality to demand a real engagement with dimensions that are beyond our experience, such as ‘absolute past’ and ‘future futures’ in which hyperobjects dwell (ibid.: 61). Contrary to the modern relational ontologies of eco-thought, Morton constructs an ecology less based on what we know (epistemology), and more on the spatio-temporal ‘undulations’ and interference patterns that inter-body encounters produce.
Ian Bogost pushes OOO further by proposing ‘alien phenomenology’, inquiry into how things other than us experience the world. “In short, what is it like to be a thing?” (Bogost, 2012: 10). This is a task for ‘speculative fictions’ or the ‘ontography’ of things, a methodology geared at “draw[ing] attention to the countless things that litter our world unseen” (ibid.: 50)2. It may seem like a simple shift, but Bogost (following Harman) turns attention towards how other-than-humans make their worlds with other others. Both authors propose an expanded sense of phenomenology, which takes into account life experiences different from those of humans. A similar question was posed by Thomas Nagel when he asked “What is it like to be a bat?” (1974). Nagel recognises that we humans will never know “what it is like for a bat to be a bat” (1974: 439), because the structure of bats’ bodies is radically different to ours. However, Nagel warns that we should not “deny the reality or logical significance of what we can never describe or understand” (ibid.: 440-1). This is an important opening, and there is a strong ecological ethico-political charge in recognising radical alterity. How to live with the alterity is an open question, and OOO, apart from Morton, does not work in this direction.
In postulating that objects are beyond “human access” whist posing the question “what it is like to be a thing?”, OOO runs the danger of “of reinstall[ing] a humanist and masculinist sense of a disembodied subject” (Alaimo, 2014: 15). There is a sense that, even more than decentring, OOO performs a too quick yet smooth leap of human subject from its skin onto the ‘other side’. With Rosi Braidotti, I agree that Speculative Realists:
are really speaking from nowhere … however important it is that we concern ourselves with a-subjective and non-human matter, the politics of locations of the subject is something we cannot let go. (Braidotti & Vermeulen, 2014)
OOO imaginatively conveys an image and a poetics of a cosmos of lively things, but how to dwell with(in) it is a matter of “experiments with forms of affirmative relational ethics” (ibid.), which must always be conducted from the viewpoint of the ontology of a (post)human subject.
Object-oriented philosophies and speculative realisms have been a great source of inspiration for a number of practices over the last decade. This creativity has been facilitated by a close interaction with Harman and Morton, who were frequent guests at art institutions and symposia. The import of OOO for art was mainly to re-examine the status of the artwork and its relation to humans. The downside was that some aspects of the philosophy were taken perhaps too literally, and the philosophy was related mostly to a new wave of sculptural (object) productions3. Whilst productively raising questions about the agentiality of objects and the decentring of the human, the problem is that this often backgrounded a number of other bodies and processes.
The focus of a group of artists connected with OOO has been to foreground the inter-mingling of natural and techno-materialities4. Morton’s ‘hyperobjects’ are apt words to describe sculptures made of cutting-edge resins, plastics, microfibers, epoxies, rubbers, pigments, etc.. This so to say ‘dark ecology’ aesthetics has been instrumental in defamiliarising and estranging the position of the human in front of the artwork. The upshot is that ecology has become a widespread term to refer to a number of practices that do not necessarily explicitly deal with what is understood as environmental issues. This could be an interesting move towards a Guattari’s ‘generalised ecology’, however, the aesthetics of these practices often seemed to devalue the social ethico-political dimensions of the works5.
A show that in my view productively responded to OOO was And Another Thing (2011), because it traced a larger narrative of objectification, going from minimalism to body art6. In Katherine Behar and Emmy Mikelson’s curatorial statement, they write that: “The artworks on view do not treat humans as subjects, nor even as objects, but simply as things, like everything else” [my emphasis]. What Behar and Mikelson reveal are the more problematic notions of objectivity, as in the feminist corporeal works of Valie Export and Regina José Galindo. This is an important point since considerations of gender, race, class, ethnicity and ability are markedly absent from object-oriented philosophies and from most of artistic practices that privilege objecthood.
It must be acknowledged that the recent OOO-inspired and ‘post-internet art’ (Kholeif, 2013), together with abundant symposia and publications that accompanied them, have contributed to a spreading of a number of post-anthropocentric ideas, some of which border with more ecologically attuned philosophies. This contribution should not be underestimated, but more nuanced readings and qualifications that engage artists and philosophers is necessary. In the context of art, where objects have since always deserved especial consideration, there is a risk of re-commodifying and reifying artworks, which shows the risk of how an ontological flattening may not reconfigure the dualistic models of thought but may merely reshuffle it from one side to the other. Perhaps this is the outcome of relating OOO to object- and not process-oriented practices, instead of experimenting with speculative modes of relationality that these philosophies postulate.
- The portmanteau denominator Speculative Realisms was coined in the occasion of a conference at Goldsmiths College in April 2007. The conference was moderated by Alberto Toscano, and featured presentations by Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux. Successively, most of the philosophers, apart from Harman, have abandoned the label.
- Ontography is suggested by Graham Harman (2005).
- Stefan Heidenreich has emphatically claimed that OOO served as an “ideology” for a recent wave of art that privileges the materiality and objecthood (2016, 2016).
- As an example, many practices in the following shows were explicitly linked to Object-Oriented Philosophy: Speculations on Anonymous Materials (2013), nature after nature (2014), Geographies of Contamination (2014), curated by Susanne Pfeffer at Frediricianum, Kassel. Before that, a number of works in dOCUMENTA(13) (2012) were put into relation with SR and OOO, and the key philosophers of the movements were invited speakers to the expansive symposium programme of the exhibition.
- Some critiques of OOO and other new realisms along these lines can be found in “Questionnaire on Materialisms”, a collection of articles in October (Joselit, Lambert-Beatty & Foster, 2016).
- The exhibition was part of a larger programme about ‘Thingness’ (2011-13) at Vera List Center for Art and Politics in New York. Katherine Behar has further organised a conference on Object-Oriented Feminism (2010) and edited a book of the same title (2016, forthcoming).