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13 questions about the Object

In relation to 13 sculptures by Jeff Koons, Katarina Fritsch and Charles Ray, Graham Harman answered 13 questions about the notion of the object, posed by philosophers, business scholars, curators and artists

The Q&A-session 13 Questions About the Object, moderated by Art Initiative’s Director Isak Nilson, opened up for a discussion on the role of the object in the spheres of aesthetics, society and the market.

Lars Strannegård, Daniel Birnbaum, Marcia Cavalcante, Jenny Lantz, Micael Dahlén and other participants from the Stockholm School of Economics and the worlds of art and philosophy contributed with thought provoking questions that spurred the discourse and opened up for further contemplation. 

Below you´ll find an excerpt from the session.

Isak Nilson: The next question comes from the artist Sigrid Sandström who is a painter and a Professor of Fine Art with specialization in Painting at The Royal Institute of Art here in Stockholm.

Sigrid Sandström: I am also going to remain here, in this exhibition. Could you elaborate a bit on how you see different autonomous objects relate to, or interact with, one another? If we look at the sculptures in this room, what is the nature of their interactions? How does this relate to our understanding of and engagement with them? And how does the individual object relate to the exhibition at large?

Graham Harman: Very interesting question. Just as I was arguing earlier, I think an artwork is partly unified but also has different elements in it that can be moved around, and can interact with each other in different ways. In a sense, a show is an object in its own right, and I think this is part of why curatorship has become so hot in recent years. I often hear people talk about curators more than they talk about artists. Why is that? It’s because they’re putting things in new permutations, they’re bringing out different aspects of all these works. So in a sense, there is a new object that has been created here, precisely by bringing all these objects together. And I think a lot of what happens in the world, as far as new objects being created, is in fact symbiosis of pre-existing objects. There is often this debate in philosophy, for example, between two extreme positions. One of them is that you are always the same person, from conception or birth all the way to death, or are you many, are you constantly transforming your identity in different contexts, and things of this sort. In a sense, we already know that neither of those is true. What really is true is that our life mostly goes along on a continuum, and then once in a while there are big changes. You may have five or six big changes in your life. But these changes do not normally come from sitting around in your bedroom, brooding about your life, and wondering how to change it. They come from symbiosis with another entity: another person, an institution, a profession… These are the irreversible moments in our lives, the moment when we choose a certain university to attend, the moment when you become someone’s partner, the moment when you change professions… Maybe some incredible experience you have, after which you are not the same person as before. It is about a symbiosis of pre-existing objects creating new objects. And successful art shows have that effect as well. There are legendary art shows, I believe, just as there are legendary architecture shows, bringing objects together in such a way that they resonate with one another in new ways. And then of course, there are shows that are failures. And when a show fails, why does it fail? Because it was a mere aggregate of individual art objects that were simply put together in the same space, without open up anything about the other works

Isak Nilson: The philosophy of Husserl and Heidegger play crucial roles in your object-oriented philosophy. Our next participant, Sven-Olov Wallenstein, who is Professor of Philosophy at Södertörn University, has written quite extensively about both of these thinkers, and engage in research including aesthetic theory and German idealism.

Sven-Olov Wallenstein: When one speaks about object-oriented philosophy, my normal reaction is that it somehow opposes an over-emphasis on the subject. You orient yourself towards the object because there has been from, let’s say, the 17th century, Descartes, some kind of over-emphasis on the subject as being used to constitute the world, to give meaning to the world. Thus, we have to go back to the object and, as you said, perhaps not entirely erase, but at least minimize, this ontological divide between subject and object. In your talk, there was a lot of talk about objects. I have some objections to this vague and perhaps indiscriminate use of the term “object”. I really don’t see the point in calling anything from prime numbers to corporate entities, to Duchamp, to quarks, “objects” in general. I find that not very helpful, but that’s not the issue. My real question is that beside this, as it were, thematic, operative talk of objects, there is an implicit talk about subjects: experience, perception, human experience, “no, objects cannot be traumatized, not really”—there is always implied some other dimension, which we would traditionally call the subject. But it doesn’t really get any attention, any explicit acknowledgement. If everything exists on the same level, if objects relate to objects, still there is some enigmatic field called “experience” and “perception”. From where does this come?

Graham Harman: As for talk of objects being unhelpful, I disagree with that. The problem, if you don’t perform that initial flattening move, where you treat everything the same, is that you begin with other commonsensical, inherited, ideas of what the different kinds of objects are. You start, for example, by assuming that humans are completely different in kind from everything else that exists.

Sven-Olov Wallenstein: Not necessarily—why should I?

Graham Harman: Because people do it. People start by assuming that the human subject is radically different in kind from everything else.

Sven-Olov Wallenstein: But “people” is vague. Not everyone does that. “People do it” is not an argument. People do a lot of things.

Graham Harman: It is an argument, because if a majority of philosophy in our time in the continental tradition is based on the subject, then there is a certain efficacity in challenging that, and saying that we should start by treating everything the same. And if you’re rejecting that, it means that you don’t want to create everything the same, as your question indicates. So I think the first move that you have to make, and Latour makes a similar move, is to treat everything in the same way. For him, it’s actors—things are treated in terms of their actions. For me, it’s that things are treated in terms of their autonomy and their unity with respect to the parts that they are composed of, and the effects that they have. So that’s a very powerful opening move, and that’s why people object to it, because they don’t want to take that step. People want to start by assuming that there are differences between human subjects and everything else.

I don’t think that whatever makes humans different needs to be made into a totally different ontological category. There obviously is a difference between humans and other things. We are more interesting than many of the objects that exist. We are humans ourselves, and so obviously we are more interested in humans than we are in other objects. But that doesn’t mean that that difference needs to be built into very factor of ontology. You say that you don’t like the vague term “people”… Well, try Descartes, Kant and Hegel, if those names are good enough for you. 

So, that’s the first step, of simply flattening everything else. Now, you can’t stay there forever, because you need to be able to say different kinds of things about different kinds of objects. Not everything is an artwork, not everything is a human. And I didn’t really get the part where you were objecting to the supposedly implicit of the term “subject” in my lecture, because we know human experience exists, and there’s nothing wrong with talking about human experience, and trying to elucidate it. And there’s nothing wrong with saying that the human experience of an object is not necessarily different in kind from an object’s experience of an object. Obviously, humans have a different perceptional structure, as far as we can tell, from inanimate objects—inanimate objects might have none at all. But if you boil things down to a more basic category, which is interaction, and say that every interaction fails to exhaust its terms, and that every interaction is a translation, then you can start to look at the difference between humans and physical interactions a bit differently. Because you are starting off by assuming that there is a category called “interaction”, which many of these different kinds of things belong to. And then the question of how to rebuild human specificity out of such a theory, how to talk about what makes humans different, emerges again in a different form. I can’t sit here and tell you what I think makes humans different, other than giving you the commonsensical examples that we all know: We dream, we plan ahead in the future… But there is no reason to start by assuming that humans are different in kind from other objects. You can, of course, think of it the other way, the naturalist way, and say that humans are not different in kind, only because everything is built out of small physical particles. But then you are making the opposite mistake, I think, of reducing everything to one basic kind of object, which are the natural, sub-atomic particles of which everything is made.


Isak Nilson: In your beautiful text The Third Table,you describe the potential of the relationship between philosophy and the arts. This is an interest which you share with Marcia Cavalcante, also a Professor of Philosophy at Södertörn University, who will pose the ninth question tonight.

Marcia Cavalcante: During your talk, I was trying to figure out the politicial implications of your discourse, as you were doing with Latour. And I must say that it seems to me, in part, very dangerous. Because I think what you propose with this general equivalence of everything, in response to Sven-Olov Wallensteins questions, is a legitimating discourse to neoliberalism. When you say “everything is an object”, I would translate this into “everything is money”. Because you never address the question of what happens when human beings become objects. When mountains, and all other things, become objects. We don’t speak about human objects, because then we would have to address the questions of power, of slavery, of control. And this is a very problematic discourse, when we reduce all differences to the general equivalence of money. I think that is what speculative realism provides us with today, and I think that it’s very dangerous.

Graham Harman: Actually, I would say that we do exactly the opposite—at least the object-oriented brand does exactly the opposite. If you are saying that everything can be translated into its cash value, what you’re doing is you are looking at the thing from the outside, you’re putting a price on the thing, you’re converting it into its economic equivalence to something else. This is the opposite of what object-oriented philosophy does, because we are saying the object has a depth to it that cannot be translated into a monetary value, or into anything else. And if you think of what is the classic neoliberal statement that the left complains about, it’s Margaret Thatcher’s claim that “society does not exist”. Whereas for me, society does exist. What exists are not just individual humans, as consumers and voters, but society also exists as a larger object in which the smaller, individual objects participate.

The book on Latour’s politics is the first explicitly political thing I’ve ever written. One of my questions there was: What is the fundamental distinction in modern political theory? Usually, we get hung up on Left and Right—the Left are the progressives, the Right are the conservatives. Everyone we meet, we try to place them on this spectrum, and figure out where on this spectrum they’re coming from. While writing the Latour book it occurred to me that this is not actually the basic distinction going on in modern political theory. The basic distinction is actually the one between truth and power. And you will find commitments to truth politics and power politics both on the left and on the right. The truth politics of the Left would simply be the assumption that we already know that all people are equal, and there are certain corrupt class interests, or other vested interests, that are preventing us all from being equal, and therefore we need to fight these obstacles and destroy them, in order to reach the society that we want to reach. So you think of not only Marx, but also Rousseau. The truth is known, and we simply have to implement it against all these corrupt interests. But you also get truth politics from the Right, and I’ve seen this for example among the Straussians, who are very influential in America, and were influential in the Bush administration. The Straussians also think that they know the political truth—they simply have an opposite truth from what the Left has. They say that the truth, as Socrates knew, is that people are not equal, and there are certain eternal types that keep recurring over and over again, and we have to make sure that the best people come out on top. And so, it becomes a rather uninteresting political philosophy, because it simply becomes a question of “how do philosophers survive in the City without being poisoned, like Socrates was?” How do we prevent the superior people from being destroyed? But again, this also assumes that we know the political truth, and I don’t think that we do. But I also don’t think that politics can be reduced to a simple calculations of power and national interests, as in the Hobbesian or Machiavellian tradition—and even sometimes on the Left. In identity politics on the Left, you sometimes get the sense that politics is just a power struggle, and our identity needs to gain more power than it currently has. 

So, for me, politics is not just about implementing the truth, or just about a power struggle. It is about trying to determine what the truth is, and I happen not to think that anybody knows that. There are a lot of people today who think they know what the political truth is already, and are ready to act on it, and I think that’s politically dangerous. Even Žižek has recently tried to reverse his Marxist formula and said that “so far philosophers have tried to change reality; the point, however, is to contemplate it”. That’s a typical Žižek irony, to reverse the usual saying, but I think there is something to this. We are too quick to assume that we know what the problem is with the world, politically. We are too quick to assume it’s capitalism, we are too quick to assume it’s something else. I’m not sure that we actually know what the problem is.

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