Object Lesson

Cover: Joan Jonas, Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy, 1972, video, black-and-white, sound, 17 minutes 24 seconds. Photo: Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

THERE ARE SEVERAL strange elements in Andrew Cole’s recent polemic against speculative realism and object-oriented ontology [Artforum, Summer 2015]. First, in a piece written specifically for Artforum, Cole never bothers to address our views on art, choosing instead to treat the magazine’s readership to a long lesson on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Second, after trying to make us look disrespectful by likening us to vandals who spray-painted “Kant is a moron” on a house in Kaliningrad, Russia, Cole himself takes a crude and macabre dig at Kant’s personal life: “Yes, Kantian moral philosophy leaves something to be desired, as when the philosopher exemplifies the categorical imperative by asking readers to imagine having sex near the gallows—easy to say for a person who never got laid.” It’s also strange that while Cole only cites one of my publications (The Quadruple Object [2011]) by name, he laments unanswered questions that are addressed not only in other publications, but even in the one book that he seems to have read.

Forgetting for now these unsettling signals, let’s briefly consider Cole’s argument, which is really an attempted counterpoint of two separate arguments. The first is that we have either misunderstood Kant or deliberately distorted his ideas to conceal the fact that we have stolen most of our insights from him. The second—always a crowd-pleaser—is that object-oriented philosophy is hopelessly complicit with capitalism and the “commodity fetishism” that Marx linked with the capitalist system. Cole handles the second point more impressionistically than the first, and a similar argument was already made by his sometime collaborator Alexander R. Galloway in a widely read but dreadful 2013 Critical Inquiry article entitled “The Poverty of Philosophy: Realism and Post-Fordism.” In what follows, I will therefore focus on Cole’s remarks on Kant.

Cole holds that speculative realism and object-oriented ontology want to “vitiate” Kant, and thus a good part of his article is devoted to showing that we add nothing to the work of the great German philosopher. One can always succeed for a while with this sort of tactic, because Kant is vast, and is such a turning point in the history of philosophy that to some extent we all live in his shadow. But Cole overplays his hand, partly by crediting Kant with everything and its opposite, and partly by ignoring our obvious differences from Kant. On the former point, Cole begins with the uncontroversial if comma-laden note that “one form of possible experience, Kant shows us, is ‘relation.’ This means, importantly, that relation, as we experience it, is never a quality of things-in-themselves, or noumena” (emphasis added). This is basic Kant: Relation is one family of categories of the understanding and hence cannot be applied to what lies beyond human access. Yet Cole also credits Kant with the opposite claim: “Kant, for his part, knew that . . . there are relations in the noumenal world, but we cannot think them directly” (emphasis added). It is hard to see how Kant could “know” that there are relations in the noumenal world when his table of categories forbids any discussion of relations beyond the phenomenal sphere, as Cole himself insists. He invokes some passages in Kant’s lectures on metaphysics to justify his claim that Kant knows it. But rather than noting the contradiction to which this leads and attempting to resolve it, Cole effectively snorts that if we had read as much Kant as he has, we would know the truth: that relations are restricted to the phenomenal world and exist in the noumenal world as well. It is remarkable how Cole paints himself into this impossible corner for the sole purpose of claiming that we misread Kant.

Cole also invokes Quentin Meillassoux without ever touching upon the central feature of my and Meillassoux’s respective relations to Kant: Rather than trying to “vitiate” Kant or copy him without acknowledgment, we both attempt to preserve one side of Kant and reject the other, though in opposite combinations. Meillassoux follows something like the old German Idealist path of rejecting the thing-in-itself while retaining the idea that the human-world relation has priority over all other relations. By contrast, I endorse the thing-in-itself while denying that it merely haunts human awareness: Even inanimate relations involve a noumenal residue that does not take part in those relations, which (contra Cole) is not a Kantian idea by any means. Cole cannot even claim to stand above this difference between me and Meillassoux, since he inclines firmly in the Meillassouxian direction. That is to say, he seems to endorse what Meillassoux calls the “correlational circle” and claims that I cannot escape it either: For since we always remain human, any nonhuman thing we choose to talk about is itself merely a phenomenon of human talk. This is a bad idealist argument, as I explained in my 2011 book on Meillassoux, since we can point at things without their consisting solely of our means of pointing at them. But Cole takes it so far as to claim that all of my technical terms (allure, sincerity, confrontation) simply paint the nonhuman world in anthropomorphic colors. The point of his puritanical aversion to metaphor is not to ensure the autonomy of nature but to deny it outright. Cole wants to insist on the dominance of the human cultural sphere, and by implication a respectably left-wing politics, as our point of access to everything else in the cosmos. In other words, he wishes to defend the preeminence of the sort of weather-beaten Marxist cultural studies that now finds itself challenged by emerging object-oriented approaches.

Cole has failed to grasp the genuine reason why artists and architects have taken an interest in my work. For the past four hundred years, Western philosophy has tried like an insecure teenager to copy the methods and triumphs of deductive geometry and the natural sciences. It has tried to turn philosophy into a form of knowledge despite the unironic claim of philosophy’s founding hero, Socrates, that he knows nothing. There are two basic ways of knowing what a thing is: We can reduce it downward to its components, or reduce it upward to its effects. I have called these strategies undermining and overmining, and have tried to show why both are harmful. Here the arts are in a special position, since they have cognitive value without providing knowledge. Except under highly contrived scenarios, artworks cannot be reduced to their constituent materials, nor can they easily be paraphrased in terms of literal intentions or meanings. Indeed, the aesthetic and the philosophical are the primary cases of counter-knowledge: a consideration of objects in which the reductions of knowledge are not the right means of approach. Although Cole thinks that artists have superficially misunderstood my work, they understand quite well that art is treated more seriously by object-oriented philosophy than by the sort of sour-faced political grumbling that too often passes for cultural critique—and sometimes even for philosophy.

Graham Harman, Ankara

Andrew Cole responds:

We’re finally getting somewhere. Only in response to my essay “Those Obscure Objects of Desire: The Uses and Abuses of Object-Oriented Ontology and Speculative Realism” does Harman come close to acknowledging that Kant beat him to a crucial formulation in object-oriented ontology. I’m not referring to the Kantian “thing-in-itself,” withdrawn from experience, but rather to Kant’s suggestion that while we cannot experience or know the mysterious “thing-in-itself,” we can think it. This dynamic between knowing and thinking is all over Kant, as I explain in my essay. And it’s all over Harman, who—and here’s the problem—claims this dynamic is his own invention. He goes so far as to appropriate silently the Kantian modes of allusion and indirection that enable us to think things we cannot know or experience, as well as Kant’s insistence that art is a special kind of thinking.

We can stare at the elephant in the room but not recognize it for the beanie on its head. Harman, that is, would rather we be distracted by tiny issues and ignore the large problem in his work, as when he responds by explaining the differing ways in which he and Quentin Meillassoux interpret Kant. But even on that point, the fact remains, as I wrote in my essay, that Harman and Meillassoux severely restrict their engagement with Kant, dealing only with the Kant of the Critical Philosophy, especially the Critique of Pure Reason. Why does this matter? It’s not to say that Kant is the answer to everything—only that Kantianism is the answer to the problem of object-oriented ontology. A broader engagement with Kant would produce either a better philosophy than the one on offer (Harman’s)—that is, a philosophy more responsible to philosophy—or it would produce no philosophy at all, given that the problem has been solved already . . . by Kant.

Harman comes close, but he does not actually recognize Kant as having anticipated him. Instead, he deflects the matter and claims instead that Heidegger is his (Kantian) inspiration. This is doubly odd because Heidegger himself rejected the metaphysics Harman insists we must adopt to respect objects properly—a metaphysics in which objects have essences and accidents, depths and surfaces, insides and outsides. To Heidegger, such scholastic abstractions were the worst ontology had to offer, because (in his idiom) they forestall the disclosure of Being and confuse what things fundamentally are. Meanwhile, Harman skips Kant’s lessons about the limits of human thought and language and sets out on his own in saying here that “metaphor” can “ensure the autonomy of nature” apart from the “dominance of the human cultural sphere.” So, one more time: We are told that we need human-generated “metaphor” to avoid human-centered interpretation or “dominance.” Only by making such impossible claims can Harman propose to move beyond Kant, which you could do just as easily by speaking of the man in the moon into whose eye the rocket of Pure Reason crashes.

In this strange sense, Harman is right, because his notion of metaphor certainly isn’t Kantian. If anything, it is anthropomorphic—precisely the kind of anthropomorphism Kant exposed. Indeed, Kant’s major claim is that while we can think (though not directly experience) the suprasensible or autonomous domain, we shouldn’t ascribe properties to it unless our intent is to indulge in anthropomorphism. Whether this is Harman’s explicit intent is one thing; he claims to do the opposite. But what a philosopher says and what a philosophy does is an entirely different matter. Harman’s philosophy ascribes human properties to entities and object relations left and right, as I showed, enabling us to think the unthinkably recessed entities in our own colorfully human and inevitably linguistic fashion. For example, you can pick up a rock and say it’s “sincere,” complete with a “primitive psyche.” It’s all there in Harman.

I understand that Harman doesn’t like my essay, which Artforum invited me to write, and that he needs to neutralize it from any angle he can find, via (here and elsewhere) institutional jabs, gossipy swipes, and special pleading. So much for philosophical method. For my part, I prefer to stick to the intellectual issues; but allow me two important clarifications. First, Harman calls Alexander R. Galloway my “sometime collaborator.” This is not true, though I would hardly be ashamed if it were, and I encourage readers to check out Galloway’s work. Second, Harman lashes out at Marxian-inspired critique. Dare show interest in the analysis of class or the critique of capitalism—or art that involves this—and Harman will call these approaches “sour-faced political grumbling,” just so much “weather-beaten” scholarship. He honestly thinks that no one cares about Marx anymore. Just tell that to Isaac Julien, who is staging a public reading of Marx’s Capital—all three volumes, mind you—at this year’s Venice Biennale. Or tell it to the young people today who are mobilizing in the streets to mitigate the problems in late-stage capitalism that Marx predicted so long ago.

As even our brief exchange here shows, object-oriented ontology is a vehicle for an anti-Left, if not outright conservative, politics. No wonder its ontology is, as I argued, “the metaphysics of capitalism,” an odd fetishizing of objects as something they are not—airy abstractions.

You can see why, in the end, there’s nothing to Harman’s claim here that “art is treated more seriously by object-oriented philosophy.” Seriously how, exactly? By denying materiality, embracing metaphysics, retailing abstractions, mocking the radical political potential of the humanities, and doing philosophy on the fly? I see nothing for art in that. For those who still do, John Coplans expressed perfectly the necessary caution in one of the earliest issues of Artforum (“The New Paintings of Common Objects,” November 1962): “Neither philosophical newness nor modernism of metaphysics has ever necessarily led to the deepest art.”