N(ooo) philosophers here

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

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ray Brassier Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (2007) Palgrave and Macmillan; London pg. 73

[vii] Ibid. pg. 71


3 thoughts on “N(ooo) philosophers here

  1. Hi Rebecca,
    Reading through your article, most of which is incomprehensible to me because of the jargon, I could not help thinking that the many different flavours of philosophy are similar to the myriad of methodologies in software engineering. Object Oriented design is very popular in software design. I feel that, like the methodologies which come in and out of fashion, philosophies are simply paradigms that reflect the current cultural landscape we find ourselves in. Like design methodologies, computer languages and a great deal of technological information, these new philosophies are intrinsically of no lasting value.
    I did a degree in philosophy a long time ago. It was fascinating and challenging but like all the other studies I subsequently pursued in electronic engineering, science and technology, a very substantial part of what I learned is now defunct. Probably the main benefit of those studies was the development of good analytical skills and some framework to assist me in my understanding of the world.
    I am not trying to denigrate your article: I can see you are intrigued by the contemporary philosophies you have been reading and what you appear to saying is that they lead you to a concept of art that clashes with your ideas and beliefs.
    The bottom line, however, is I simply do not understand what you are talking about. I would like to understand; I am curious. Is it possible you could explain in everyday English?

    • Hi Dermot, thank you for your considered response.

      I understand that a lot of the material under discussion in my post may indeed have been incomprehensible, due to the application of specific terminology.

      I am curious about the notion of object oriented design, and certainly sympathise with your view that philosophy, like any other discipline, is subject to trends and fashions. SR/OOO could definitely be read as a backlash against post-modernism – post-structuralism, deconstruction etc. However, whether this is a progressive or regressive movement is certainly still undetermined, and may never be: perhaps it is a shift, pure and simple. However, the philosophy born of a specific time and cultural context still, I would argue, has an importance and validity, even though that validity might not endure for very long. New philosophies come and go, but I think investigation of why such and such an era produces a new school of philosophical thought is an enduring and important proposition: why this movement away from the received wisdom of the centrality of the human in the world, towards the object? Why now?

      Additionally, I would like to state that the above post is not meant to be in everyday language: the terminology dictates that that cannot be so. I have re-read my writing and can see no reason why anyone should not be able to read it; the only obstacle being this necessary terminology. Therefore, what is required perhaps is to engage with these terms, and see what they mean. I do not mean to be condescending, but I would like the reader to not expect to just get it right away; rather, I would like him or her to engage with these admittedly difficult ideas and concepts, as I have, in putting these thoughts together. I do not think it is too much to ask: where is the joy in understanding anything right away? As a former student of philosophy you must agree that one of the joys of the discipline is that overcoming of vertigo, that eventual mastery of some seemingly impenetrable concept or idea. The ideas I have discussed are far from impenetrable, and if you do have a willingness to engage with them, I will certainly offer you some recommendations.

      On a final note, I would like to reiterate that this style of writing is my own, or at least I try to make it as much my own as possible. Basically Dermot, this is the way I write, and choose to do so. Furthermore, this is a blog – a virtual utopia free from the editor’s hand. That is not to say that I do not value your comments or suggestions – I do, and I consider them fully. However to ask me to change my style or dumb down my language is just a bit much: this is the way that I write; it is my everyday language. If you do not like the way that I write I would advise you, respectfully, to read something else.

  2. Nice response Rebecca. I think the problem that people have with engaging with art criticism is the fact that they are are confronted with issues and concepts with which they are unfamiliar. They naturally respond by anchoring these unfamiliar concepts in language and theories with which they ARE familiar (in Dermot’s case I suppose this is object oriented design). This actually negates the possibility of meaningfully engaging with these new concepts, which is a real shame. People need to be open and motivated to try something new rather than just advertising their own epistemological position at the expense of someone else’s. We get this a lot in psychology – it’s politics pure and simple.

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