Andrew Cole

  • Civil rights demonstration, Los Angeles, March 10, 1965. Photo: MW/AP/REX/ Shutterstock.


    IN TIMES OF CRISIS LIKE THESE, I am constantly reminded of what makes my work both useful and useless. I am a professor at an Ivy League university, and as much as I believe that research and teaching can have a meaningful impact—changing both what we know and what we believe—it is difficult to argue that working in the ivory tower today is anywhere close to political activism. I labor under no illusions that what I do in the classroom is the equivalent of joining protests, rallies, sit-ins, sit-outs, and strikes. And, in fact, it’s important to be fully aware of this difference.


    OVER THE PAST TEN YEARS, people in all manner of disciplines have turned to things: to matter, stuff, obdurate objects. Often loosely grouped under the rubric “new materialisms,” these strains of thought have captured the imagination of artists and critics alike. The art world just can’t quit them, apparently—a perverse situation, since art and art history have, of course, already devoted hundreds of years to thinking precisely about objects as objects. But are things really as they seem? In the following pages, scholar ANDREW COLE takes the measure of the two new-materialist philosophies that have come to dominate the art-world conversation, arguing that object-oriented ontology and speculative realism are beset by contradictions, misguided assumptions, and outright fallacies.

    A BRICK HOUSE CRUMBLES in the village of Veselovka, Russia, just a few miles from Kaliningrad. It’s said that Immanuel Kant had something to do with this house back when the region was part of Prussia (and when Kaliningrad was known as Königsberg), but what, exactly, is not clear. Ambiguities such as whether the philosopher really lived here didn’t stop someone from regarding the house as his and tagging it with the declaration КАНТ ЛОХ. These words, spray-painted in green and garnished with a groovy heart and a cute flower beneath, were translated in English-speaking media as “Kant is a moron.”