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Graham Harman and Object-Oriented Onthology

by Gabriele Ottaviani

Graham Harman is the author of OOO: Convenzionali is so glad to interview him for you.

What are anthropocene and anthropocentrism?

The anthropocene refers to the era in which human activity has decisively affected the climate, though there remains a debate over when this effect began. As for anthropocentrism, I see this as referring primarily to the long era of modern philosophy, which holds that reality consists of two and only two basic zones: (1) humans, and (2) everything else. This is a philosophical error with serious consequences. I would recommend Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern as perhaps the most outstanding treatment of the theme, even though that book is now 30 years old.

Why is our society increasingly in crisis?

In some sense society is always in crisis and always think the crisis is historically unique. For a long time it was nuclear weapons, and today it is the climate. That’s not to say that these are fake crises: we could have experienced nuclear destruction and still might. But today it is the climate that should worry us most: as I write these words, the Pacific Northwest in the United States (usually a cool regions) is having a terrible heat wave.

What changes are needed?

Ultimately politicians need to solve the problem, not philosophers. And political measures against fossil fuels are already underway, though whether this is happening fast enough is a bigger problem.

What is ontology?

The study of reality, of everything.

What is the theory of everything? And why can’t science offer it?

Ontology is the theory of everything. For me this ontology needs to be object-oriented, because ultimately the world is made of individual things in tension with their own qualities. Physics promises a “theory of everything,” but this could only be true in the sense of explaining the ultimate elements of which everything is made. But you can’t understand anything completely by reducing it to ultimates. There is something called emergence, after all: even chemicals do things that do not happen at the level of their smaller parts. This is all the more true when we think of even less ultimate entities such as society, history, and fiction. That’s why I think we need to talk about objects and their relations, terms that apply at all levels: small, medium, and large.

What do objects represent in our everyday life?

Everything. The things we hope for and worry about are objects. The inivisble things that affect us –like the novel coronavirus– are objects. Even people are objects, though this is not the way the term is used in modern philosophy, which assumes there is a radical difference in kind between people and everything else.

Are there things that are not objects?

Qualities are not objects. Aristotle saw this very early with his critique of Plato. We say “Socrates is sad,” not “sad is Socrates.” Sadness can belong to many different objects. However, I do think that relations are objects, since any real relation is more than its constituents taken individually.

Does everything that exists have to be real?

No. I allow for a full range of sensual objects and qualities, which exist only for something else. The definition I give of reality is that something is real only when it has an autonomous and inaccessible existence. The real can never become directly present –here I follow Heidegger– but only translated into accessible form.

Why is aesthetics the basis for object-oriented ontology?

Aesthetics is the opposite of literalism. My definition of literalism is that it treats objects as “bundles of qualities,” to use David Hume’s phrase. An apple is nothing more than all of its qualities compressed together. What we have in aesthetic experience is a split between objects and their qualities, one that I hold was first discovered in Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, but which he never extended to the level of the inaccessible real (whose very existence he deemed “absurd”). In my philosophy, reality itself consists of ubiquitous fractures between objects and their qualities, and hence reality itself has an aesthetic structure than a literal one. That’s why reality can never be adequately paraphrased by a set of true propositions.

What is the theatricality of metaphor?

In my theory of metaphor, an object is detached from its qualities. The object becomes mysterious and inaccessible, while the qualities remain behind. But there is no such thing as qualities floating in a void unattached to an object. This means that the only object on hand to experience the detached qualities is I myself, the reader of the metaphor. In short, I myself must theatrically perform the missing object. Otherwise, there is no metaphor. But metaphor goes far beyond language, and extends across the whole field of experience.

What is the magnitude of formalism?

Formalism means that an object has some degree of autonomy from its surroundings. If this were not the case, then we’d have a situation where everything affects everything else. Some people claim this is true, but in practice, their anti-formalism cherry-picks which factors from outside the artwork to include in it. Usually this is political. People bring in their favored Marxist or feminist categories to explain an artwork. This can be done, but notice that it’s still a kind of formalism: one cannot take into account all of the factors that surround an artwork. Even the most “site-specific” work of art only takes into account a half-dozen or so aspects of the site. This is why a certain degree of formalism is inevitable. However, I reject the assumption of classical formalism that all aspects outside the work of art itself must be excluded. There are political artworks and interpretations of artworks, for instance, that succeed in bringing various political factors into the work itself. But at that point it is no longer a prose political statement, but has been aestheticized in some way.

What are politics and history for object-oriented ontology?

For OOO, politics needs to find a way to escape the two hidden suppositions of modern political theory. The first is that both the Left and the Right are grounded in a conception of human nature: for the Left we are naturally equal and kind but are alienated by society and its oppressions, so that some sort of revolution Is needed. For the Right, humans are essentially dangerous or evil and need to be prevented by force from following their worst impulses. Against all of this, I would point out that non-human objects are a major part of the political sphere, so that human nature is to some extent beside the point. The second supposition of modern political theory is that we can have knowledge of the political sphere. Either we can develop a science of the laws of economic exploitation, or we can gain a kind of Platonic knowledge that there us an eternal rank-order of human types that never changes historically. Against both of these views, politics is always a fragile experiment not exhausted by any form of knowledge.

What does viscosity represent for Morton?

For Morton, viscosity is one of the aspects of what he calls “hyperobjects,” which I think is a very important concept. Viscosity means that we do not stand at a distance from hyperobjects such as the climate, but are already entangled in them. What I love about his hyperobjects is that they replace the overrated notion of infinity with very large finite objects. As Morton puts it, children can say “infinity” to win an argument quite easily, but try counting up to 100,000. Just as Alain Badiou followed Georg Cantor in replacing a single infinity with many different sizes of infinity, Morton replaced our everyday sense of infinity with many very large finite forces.

Why is there still a need for philosophy?

Everyone already has a philosophy, and there are usually poor ideas somewhere in that philosophy. Unless someone is happy with the slapdash philosophy they probably already have, there is much work to be done for all of us.

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  1. Pingback: Convenzionali interview(s) | Object-Oriented Philosophy

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