Recently I have been reading a lot of contemporary philosophy: probably too much, if truth be told. New terms and concepts are dropped like bombs onto my horizon, ever increasing the scope of what is demanded of me to look up, to read: to know. It appears to be never-ending; at the very point at which the field of interest seems pinned off to some extent, arrives another thought or, even worse, school of thought. It is worrying somewhat: for as I delve further and further into philosophy, I seem to only estrange myself even further from art – the very thing I’m supposed to be writing about. There are similarities between the two fields, of course. Both, I think, refract back upon the other field, mutually deepening, contradicting and enriching our understanding of the world. And yet I think the expectation placed before each diverges substantially, and rightly so.
Currently I am looking a lot at the expansive field of Speculative Realism (SR), the relatively new school of philosophy; the central figures of which include Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier and Iain Hamilton Grant[i]. For me, the implications for this diverse school of thought are exciting, but at the same time somewhat confused. All are united in their views contra ‘correlationism’, which denotes the post-Kantian tendency to view reality in terms of a mind/world, subject/object duality. But as far as I understand it, there is a crucial split within the movement, and this centers on the word materialism: for although Brassier and Meillassoux favour this term over realism, Harman certainly does not. For him, materialism implies reduction, in this case the reduction to a mathematic/scientific absolute:
[T]he original meaning of materialism is that all compound and non-physical things can be reduced to a simpler physical basis … this form of materialism seeks to eliminate all composite and immaterial beings, unmasking them as the gullible reveries of an unphilosophical populace[ii].’
Harman’s clear divergence manifests itself in his ‘object-oriented ontology’ (OOO), which treats the object as primordially shirking away from the human, and indeed from other objects. Demonstrating a clear debt to both Heidegger and Whitehead, for Harman the object never fully elides to human consciousness or understanding, but instead operates ‘vicariously[iii]‘. His is an egalitarian treatment of objecthood, perceiving in it a gauntlet thrown down to the scope of human mastery. Indeed, the shadowy depths of non-knowledge appear to be almost welcomed by Harman, seeing in this proposition the penultimate role of philosophy. For him, philosophy, ‘is the handmaid of nothing: for it is not wisdom, and must not serve anything that claims to be wisdom[iv]’. Looking at the etymological sense of the word ‘philosophy’ (‘philosophia’), Harman perceives in it the paradoxical notion of both having and not having wisdom, and thus loving wisdom[v]. In so far as one is wise, one is simultaneously also ignorant: such accounts for the love that both drives and founds philosophy proper. Thus, philosophy is always founded on a negotiation of knowledge and non-knowledge, a kind of wavering between binaries, never reaching true attainment yet subsisting still.
Now this is all well and good. Indeed, this seems like a way that one might describe the workings of art – as a love that founds itself on an interminably tantalising breed of non-knowledge. And yet, I know art is of a different breed to that of philosophy. I know, because I am not a philosopher; the more and more of it I read, the more I grow restless in the knowledge that art offers something different, if not more. These two loves cannot be identical, for in that case there would be no traumatic transition from the one to the other, no cause to identify primarily with either.
And yet for me SR broadly speaking, and OOO in particular, appears to be re-iterating a conception of the artwork that I feel to be increasingly suspect. For me at least, this revised conception of objecthood, whilst interesting, appears to reinforce a kind of intellectual laziness when talking about art. Perhaps it was present before OOO, but then again perhaps not. Hijacking Meillassoux’s use of the term, it appears as though a kind of aesthetic fideism has slipped into the frame, where nothing can be disproved or discounted as long as it makes no claim to reason. Outside of art, fideism might stake out the right to believe in God; within the sphere of art, the right to make some work of art, pointedly free from any view notwithstanding the ineffable, almost mystical connotations pertaining to it: in this work of art something always remains ineffable, unutterable etc. Apart from the claim to non-knowledge, it is mute. And it is at this stage that we must return to materialism. For if we tacitly accept that the realm of philosophy might shade and colour our understanding of art, then arguably we should note that what pushes, not follows or reiterates the already known. This, for me, denotes a side step away from OOO, into the materialist camp of SR. Insofar as it is reductive, the work of Brassier and Meillassoux offers an engagement with the absolute, an absolute that is nonetheless thinkable; that is, contingency. The problem of something rather than nothing, Leibniz’s fundamental question, ceases to be relevant: there could just as easily be nothing, as nothing that is is necessarily so – otherwise it would be contradictory. As Brassier says, regarding this question;
So long as the question remains unanswerable, the door is left open for every variety of religious mystification, and whether it is pagan, monotheistic, or pantheistic in tenor is beside the point.[vi]
Thus, what Speculative Materialism (SM) offers is the negation of Leibniz’s question: ‘nothing is necessary, not even becoming; nothing is immutable, not even eternal flux’[vii]. It obliterates the possibility for religious mystification, and thus, I would argue, the possibility of intellectual laziness. Radical contingency, of course, is not something that typically pertains to the work of art. Indeed artworks and the making of art more specifically, are definite acts, deliberately made with an intent that governs their form and execution. However, a radical contingency exists in them, a rogue factor that could be this or just as easily that way: that is that which is given by material (medium?). They are not always a certain way, and need not necessarily be. Perhaps, heeding this breed of philosophy might be more beneficial to art; perhaps it might be better to couch art in terms of contingency, rather than some ineffable and unknowable alterity.
[i] Although I have already tentatively discussed the ideas put forward by Meillassoux in particular, I feel greater explication is now needed, if only for my own clarity of thought.
[ii] Graham Harman I am also of the opinion that materialism must be destroyed (2010) Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2010), Vol. 28, pg. 775
[iii] For more on this see, Graham Harman On Vicarious Causation, Collapse II
[iv] Ibid. ii, pg. 789
[vi] Ray Brassier Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (2007) Palgrave and Macmillan; London pg. 73
[vii] Ibid. pg. 71