Graham Harman on Art and Ecology

Graham Harman on Art and Ecology

A PNEK event with one lecture on December 1st 2015 @ - and a follow up, open discussion on Art and Ecology at the PNEK office on December 2nd. Organized in collaboration with the Art Academy at KHIO - Oslo National Academy of the Arts, Norway.

The following is a transcript from the conversation between Graham Harman and Zane Cerpina, PNEK representative, on December 2nd 2015:

Zane Cerpina (EE): We have just returned from the Dark Ecology Journey, where we visited dark and harsh Northern cities such as Nikel, Kirkenes and Murmansk. I am interested to hear if seeing such unique environments has affected you or inspired you in some ways.

Graham Harman (GH): Often when we experience a new place we have a flurry of enthusiastic things to say about it immediately. This is fine, but often the real effect is deeper and takes longer to play out. I was especially pleased to visit Murmansk, because we studied it when I was 11 years old when we were concerned with the Soviet Union, and learned that it was the only ice-free port in Northern Russia. But in some ways Nikel had the most impact on me. It was a strange place: the most harsh-looking Soviet environment and the coldest place on the journey. And in some ways it had the worst conditions of all the places we stopped, yet it was fascinating to see what an intellectual life is there anyway. This is something that fascinates me about Russia. Obviously it has its big world cities: Moscow, St. Petersburg. But it is also in some sense a very provincial country, because it is so huge and has so many different cities far from the two largest ones. And yet every one of these cities seems to have a rich intellectual and cultural life. If you would look for the equivalent of Nikel in the United States, some extremely remote industrial town past its economic prime, it would probably be a place of complete intellectual sterility. No intellectual would be willing to stay there for a week. But in Nikel there was a cultural center, our tour guides from Nikel have gone on to international careers in art and architecture. In the United States, for the most part there is a collective intellectual life only in big cities and university towns. But in Russia they are somehow able to maintain an intellectual life throughout the whole country, no matter where you are. 

The most harsh-looking Soviet environment and the coldest place on the journey

EE: In your PNEK lecture you mentioned your experience when listening to a lecture by James Lovelock, who coined the Gaia Hypothesis. Lovelock suggests that we are all doomed, and there is really not much point of trying to save our existence on this planet, as it is already too late. Timothy Morton also notes that the catastrophe has already happened. What is your personal view on the future? 

GH: I’m not sure if the catastrophe has already happened. Even if we know that we’re headed for disaster, we don’t know exactly how it will play out, and when. There’s a big difference between radical climate change in 2025 and in 2100. There will be surprises along the way, and enough of them that I can’t really structure the rest of my life based on conditions that may or may not be present 35 years from now when I would be 82 years old. It is more the two generations after my own that may have to confront the most shocking developments. Also, in philosophy the thought of the catastrophe is often a way of playing a trump card on everyone else by seeming to be the most radical of all. Here I am not speaking of Morton, with whose views I am very sympathetic. I’m thinking instead of someone like Ray Brassier, a needlessly apocalyptic thinker. Global warming isn’t catastrophic enough for him, since he’s more concerned about the extinction of the universe itself. And since this extinction will apparently occur at some point in the future (at least according to our natural sciences, which aren’t very old) Brassier makes the strange assertion that we are “already dead.” But I don’t see the point in any of this. I loathe pessimism and cynicism in any form. I think there is always some way to reinvent things, to create new energies amidst seeming heat death.

In philosophy the thought of the catastrophe is often a way of playing a trump card

EE: And following the previous question maybe you can explain how Object Oriented Ontology can help us to understand the world we live in better and if it can help us to deal with possible future scenarios? Can it guide us through the age of the Anthropocene?

GH: The initial motivation of Object Oriented Ontology was the same thing as with many philosophers: namely, we need to begin with the widest possible category. That is what we do in philosophy. And since the modern distinction between subject and object still haunts contemporary philosophy, with its assumption that the human is a radically different ontological kind from all other entities, our first task is to flatten this distinction. I actually prefer the term “object” as the flat term that covers both humans and non-humans, simply because I see my thinking as building on the work of the Austrians from Brentano through Husserl. Some observers are critical of this term “object” and think I should change it, I’m more or less married to it now.

The modern distinction between subject and object still haunts contemporary philosophy

Flat ontology is a way of starting by talking about triangles, unicorns, and Oslo all in the same way, waiting until a later phase to clarify the obvious differences between them. But I am not one of those who thinks we can stay with flat ontology. The early Bruno Latour, for instance, says you have to talk about everything in the same way, and that what everything has in common is that it has some sort of effect on other things. At this stage Latour does not want to distinguish between real and non-real, but only between more and less strong. The difference between a neutron and a unicorn is not that the former is real and the latter unreal, but that the neutron has a greater effect on reality than the unicorn does. But I don’t agree that it’s merely a difference in impact that separates the two. Instead, I think there is a bona fide distinction between real objects and sensual objects. Sensual objects are the ones that are dependent on being encountered by some other entity, some real object. Whereas neutrons presumably exist regardless of any observer (human or otherwise), thisis presumably not true of unicorns. I think one of the reasons why Object-Oriented Ontology (pronounced “Triple O”) is becoming popular is simply because every field deals in some way with the difference between objects and relations. Art and architecture are forced to face up to this difference directly, and that is probably why OOO has such a presence in these fields. Archaeology is another discipline where it’s growing. I think part of why OOO fits so well with the time, is because the world of non-human objects is becoming more autonomous and advanced. Through the whole modern period, it often felt like the non-human world was just a blank screen on which we humans could stamp whatever we pleased. This has been dramatically falsified in so many areas that a new philosophical style has become necessary.  And frankly, this is why I think philosophies that continue to treat the human subject as ontologically special (Badiou, Meillassoux, Žižek) may be in for a hard fall.

History itself is becoming a matter of objects. Sometimes we encounter the quarrel between those who think that great individuals shape history and those who think that the collective mass is a more important force. The problem is that these two such opposed views are fixated on people as the moving force in history. But history is increasingly shaped by technological objects and consumer entities that are much more important and famous than their human creators. I’ve seen the World Wide Web change my own life and everyone else’s over the past twenty years. We can be polite and give Tim Berners-Lee some deserved credit for this, but he is not the household name that Napoleon and Thomas Edison were, even though his invention is known to everybody.

But history is increasingly shaped by technological objects

We can speak in this same connection about the environment. In one sense our environment is vast and independent, extending as far as the boundaries of the universe itself. Yet in another sense it is we who have shaped our nearest environment in a potentially dangerous way. We created the world, yet it exceeds our mastery, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. That’s what Anthropocene means. But although the Anthropocene is relatively new when it comes to the climate, there are other fields that have always been Anthropocene. Take sociology, for instance. It is obvious that sociology studies human society, which was formed by humans and will disappear once the human race is extinct. This means that humans are a necessary ingredient in human society. But it does not follow that human society is exhausted by what the human observer says about it.

Let’s turn now to art, which has always been Anthropocene as well

Let’s turn now to art, which has always been Anthropocene as well. If all humans (along with whatever animals are capable of aesthetic experience) were exterminated, I am confident in saying that there would be no art. Thus, human participation is necessary for art. But once again, it doesn’t follow that art is nothing more than whatever explicit impact it has on humans. An artwork resists our first interpretations, or has effects different from what the artist intended. This point would never have occurred to me if not that someone asked me in 2012: “What would an art without humans look like?” The question confused me at first, but after a few weeks of thought I realized it was a meaningless question, based on the overly literal notion that since Speculative Realist philosophy is interested in the world as it is beyond human access to it, therefore we must be trying to expunge humans from every corner of the universe. This is an absurd notion for which I blame, primarily, the overly literal minds at Urbanomic Publishing, who continue to promulgate falsehoods such as “realism means that science is more important than the humanities.” Hardly. The real exists everywhere, including in the purely human domains. There is no reason to get rid of the human in order to take reality seriously.

There is no reason to get rid of the human in order to take reality seriously

EE: You said that we are ingredients to art rather than being observers. But what is art’s role as an ingredient in human understanding of the world?

Graham: I would say rather that we are also observers of art, but that our observations do not exhaust the artwork, which refuses to reveal itself entirely to the observer. In some ways art has never been stronger. There are artists almost anywhere you go, and a great many of them are doing something interesting. You can find them pretty much anywhere on the globe without even looking very hard. And yet I don’t sense a strong conception among artists of what an artist is supposed to be doing. Maybe that’s useful in a way, since in the modernist period there was perhaps an overly polished and premature self-understanding that guided the art of that period. But these days it is very unclear where art ends and sociology or anthropology begin. The blurring of artificial boundaries is an activity that, in our time, always has a good press. Yet I’m not sure that it’s deserved. At a certain point, you need to gain individual or collective clarity about what you’re doing. I am hopeful that in next decade or so we will start to have a clearer vision of where things are headed in the arts.

Though I’m not entirely on board with the formalist conception of art as divorced from the society and politics of its time, politicization is a constant danger, precisely because our sphere of political thinking has become so banal. There’s a sort of “Lowest Common Denominator Leftism” that everyone in the arts is obliged to endorse. We must all oppose American and especially Israeli imperialism. We must express grave worry about the surveillance society and the destruction of the environment. We must bemoan the treatment of immigrants and refugees. Well, I can’t really disagree with any of this. As a citizen I will accept these views. But why use up valuable art-time to preach these already processed and adopted standard political ideas to each other? The chances of contemporary art successfully spearheading any fresh new political principles is close to zero. We’re just regurgitating a 19th century idealist discourse, and by choosing “neo-liberalism” as our recurrent target we’re not being as honest as the old Marxists when they said “capitalism.” By “idealist” what I mean here is the notion that the human mind is basically alienated, and needs to be liberated from this alienation. And while it’s true that there are places where liberation from oppression is badly needed, I reject the idea that this depicts the human condition more generally. That’s because I don’t think freedom is what we really want. We don’t really want to be free human subjects: in fact, we would rather be objects than subjects. We would rather be a particular thing rather than some vague free human subject that can be anything. 

In fact, we would rather
be objects than subjects

EE: You mentioned previously that art does not give solutions, but is more a way of knowledge making. Do you think that artists who focus on contemporary problems, such as the refugee crisis in Syria or global warming, can give the society new ways to perceive and deal with these issues?

GH: I am sceptical toward the idea that either art or philosophy should be dealing with the social problems of the moment, because then it is reduced to making the public aware of truths that we think we have already mastered. Art then is reduced to a public propaganda, however humane and admirable its specific goals may seem. Again, I am not entirely a formalist, and I don’t think that social content is entirely irrelevant in art. And yet, art cannot provide a great solution, just as it can not provide knowledge. If you what you need is knowledge, art is not the best place to look. Instead, please look first to science, or even to Wikipedia. When looking at art, you should be looking instead for an aesthetic surprise of some sort, some new way of looking at things. So I cannot say that the artwork on the frozen lake (‘Living Land’ - Below but also Above by Margrethe Pettersen) that we experienced in Kirkenes during the Dark Ecology Journey provided knowledge about the lake. Some such knowledge was transmitted, but it was primarily an aesthetic experience rather than a scientific one. Likewise, the work with the 12 miniature wind-turbines (‘IsoScope’ by Joris Strijbos) was not providing knowledge about weather or technology. Instead, there was an aesthetic effect, and even a somewhat frightening one. So it is pretty clear that art is a form of cognition without being a form of knowledge. In last night’s lecture here in Oslo,  I tried to say that philosophy is in the same position. Philosophy is not a knowledge. In part, Triple O is trying to recover Socrates’ energetic sense of this. 

It is pretty clear that art is a form of cognition without being a form of knowledge

EE: And what do you think are key factors in global change?

GH: The key factor in global change is always the movement of generations. People die, other people mature, others are born. The reason this  changes everything is that, even if you are speaking of  the same ideas as your parents, you mean something totally different by them. What was fresh and new to your own generation, is starting to become just an empty formal lesson to the next generation, not grounded in their own biographies. Each generation has its own experiences, has to learn its own lesson, and shape its own ideas to face the world. The way the world is when you are young seems to be the normal state of things, and then things start to change, and as a rule it will seem to be getting worse. It used to annoy me when that was done to my own Generation X by its elders, but now already I hear us doing the same thing: “kids these days are wasting their time with text messages and ought to just sit down and read a good book like we did when we were young,” etc. etc. The main factor for the younger generations today is the communications revolution, with which you can be friends with people all over the world that you haven’t even met. Obviously the coming environmental crisis is an issue. Nationalism in some way is intensifying; maybe the high culture class is breaking down, and other classes are becoming frighteningly intense. So, these two things are growing at once: a sort of super-cosmopolitanism on one level and a super-nationalism on another. Concerning the environment, my sense is that no one really believes it yet, even if we all express our worries. We believe it on an intellectual level. It’s a bit like terrorism in 1990s America. We hadn’t really experienced it yet, we all felt it was coming, and yet 9/11 was still extremely traumatic even though we’d all spent at least a decade imagining its eventual arrival. I was at the World Trade Center property in July 2011 and caught myself wondering if there would be an attack in New York soon, but somehow not imagining that the Towers would be the target again. An even worse example: I was legitimately terrified by James Lovelock’s Dublin lecture in April 2009 (which I attended in person) yet I find that my life plans haven’t really altered as a result. I still occasionally think of buying a house in Florida when I’m retired, as if I didn’t believe Lovelock’s words at all. So it will probably take some gigantic ecological disaster, like penguins going extinct or an iceberg crushing Argentina. 

Kids these days are wasting their time with text messages

EE: You are also using ideas from Marshall McLuhan in your philosophy. How do you think technologies affect our culture and thinking in the current times? 

GH: I was pleased to hear last night that you appreciate Marshal McLuhan, because so many people do not. This is especially true in the UK, where Raymond Williams was perhaps the most prominent author who poisoned the soil for McLuhan. In the UK he is often attacked as a “technological determinist,” though this is demonstrably untrue. In the United States his critics speak in different terms, picking on details: one critic doesn’t like the distinction between hot and cold media, and another rejects the idea of media as extensions of the human body. But as McLuhan used to say in his lectures: “If you don’t like that idea, I have others!” You can think what you like about McLuhan, but he was one of the great “depth theorists” of the twentieth century along with Freud, Heidegger, and Clement Greenberg. By “depth theory” I mean the idea that surface content is trivial in comparison with its hidden background conditions. This, too, has its limits, but it was nonetheless one of the great discoveries of the twentieth century. OOO starts from this contempt for the surface but does not end there. To push such twentieth-century depth theory another step, one needs to realize that, paradoxically, the surface is where everything in the depth is triggered. Causation, for example, happens at the most trivial layer of existence, yet it has so many consequences. So that even though OOO is widely considered a theory of withdrawn objects (and for good reason), it is about to flip into the opposite, into a theory of how the surface is triggered. 

Paradoxically, the surface is where everything in the depth is triggered

EE: Thinking about interdisciplinarity. You are often invited to give talks for art and architecture students and also in other fields, not only in philosophy. How do you see the importance of mixing different fields? Of being transdisciplinary?

GH: I think if you try too consciously to mix fields, it results in a kind of flavorless mush. I think it is important that if mixing happens, it has been a direct result of hard work in your home discipline, and was largely unintentional. Otherwise, I could not be happier, could not be more reassured about my work, than when other disciplines show an interest in it. Sometimes philosophers (generally not successful ones) attack me by saying that only other disciplines are interested in me. But I’m not sure why philosophers should be proud when no one reads their work but themselves?

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