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Artforum, summer 2015, pp.



Those Obscure
Objects of Desire
Andrew Cole on the Uses and Abuses of Object-Oriented
Ontology and Speculative Realism

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. [—eds.]

and he says also that the world is composed of noumena we cannot experience. He tells us that ours is a world of phenomena. as his friends called him. who lived in the area in the late 1740s. In such cases. You see. just a few miles from Kaliningrad. But Kant’s epistemology. I think. ribbing him for his annoying habit of exiting debates completely unscathed and triumphant. is not clear. the infinite array of objects and events we experience. What we have here. 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.‖ You rarely hear the words irony and Kant used in the same sentence. spray-painted in green and garnished with a groovy heart and a cute flower beneath. 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. 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). even in death Kant is the reigning AllDestroyer—Der Allzermalmende. Russia. Kantian moral philosophy leaves something to be desired. exactly. the equally infinite number of things that exist. but what’s ironic about this vandalism is the fact that the house isn’t Kant’s—the existing structure dates from the nineteenth century. but this assessment almost always involves a misreading—a misidentification. as it were—of his philosophy.[320] A BRICK HOUSE CRUMBLES in the village of Veselovka. the foundations of Kant’s system remain untouched and solid as ever. were translated in English-speaking media as ―Kant is a moron. in particular his insight into how we experience the world. Only the foundations are contemporary with the philosopher. These words. and . Yes. is a vivid illustration of how the critique of Kant—whether inscribed in graffiti or couched in academic prose—usually misses its mark. remains foundational. but what. You will often hear contemporary critics say that Kant is a moron owing to this or that failing of his.

museum studies. as it happens.which may explain why both have become irresistibly appealing to the art world. Second. describing. it is. These two domains are radically different but nonetheless linked. science and the philosophy of science. we can’t ignore such famously unfraught topics as ―thinking the unthinkable. including you and each of your thoughts. Let’s dive in. and the culinary arts—indeed. graphic design. vitality. In this sense. as we’ll soon see. and enough to get us going. as is its cousin.processes that transpire. there’s far more to Kant’s ―critical philosophy‖ than that. First. no object relates to any other object. and accordingly. Instead. everything is an object. materiality. inasmuch as noumena are the basis for the phenomena. involves a set of theses about All That Is. as such.‖ including not only art history and criticism but also architecture. Our interest here is in showing that Kant doesn’t crumble like his ersatz house (though props to the house for lasting this long). because the universe itself is devoid of all relation. For example. Of course.‖ But this is the gist. surveying its three major tenets. autonomy. well. an ontology—and. But object-oriented ontology. What is object-oriented ontology. speculative realism. It’s also because relation is typically a human mode of apprehending. you could say that any discipline or practice is ―object oriented. and interacting with the world. near and far. Kant’s ideas remain a crucial component of recent philosophies that try hard to vitiate his philosophy. literary criticism and rhetoric. archaeology. In fact. any field of study whose subject is objects. though every human is an object. however? You might surmise that it’s a return to the object qua object—a renewed focus on the composition. and durability of objects large and small. This crude understanding of object-oriented ontology also applies to speculative realism. autonomous beings. Why is there no relation in the universe? It’s because objects sever relations with every other object and withdraw into themselves to become self-subsisting. apart from our minds thinking them. wonder. you can’t have an object-oriented ontology if humans are at the . Given that not every object is a human. book history. Object-oriented ontology is one such philosophy. isn’t all that.

Latour. an electric chair. even Deleuze).center of it. the All-Destroyer. much less retails them. a speck of flea shit. lucid book The Quadruple Object (2011). arguing that. the founder of object-oriented ontology. You.‖ The former is withdrawn. and the sensual object that exists only in experience. critic. You see this quite a lot: People follow a trend. but it devotes much of its energy trying to get out from under Kant. they come in only two kinds: the real object that withdraws from all experience. Harman establishes the ―basic elements of an objectoriented metaphysics‖ in his short. ontologically speaking. start to divide objects into different kinds with various sorts of qualities than we begin to wonder whether we aren’t in Kant’s domicile. But it’s earnest. And along with these we also have two kinds of qualities: the sensual qualities found in experience. and a solar flare are all equal objects. NOT EVERY SCHOLAR. Does it succeed? That sounds like a rhetorical question. For no sooner does Graham Harman. and the latter is available to our perception. Third—and finally—all objects are equal and. on the same plane. object-oriented ontology builds on the work of several thinkers (Heidegger.‖1 So we have a distinction between the ―real object‖ and the ―sensual object. Hasn’t this been thought already by Kant. Why this focus on Kant? To be sure. Such an anthropocentric object-oriented ontology would be a contradiction in terms. but only in spirit. and free of all relation. Husserl. when declaring an ―object-oriented‖ approach to this or that field of study or aesthetic endeavor. curator. autonomous. it might be helpful to think about this new philosophy as a philosophy—to look at the letter of its laws and [321] see how it fares against the likes of Kant. or practitioner adheres to these major points. ―while there may be an infinity of objects in the cosmos. whose insight in the Transcendental Analytic put forward in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787) . For that reason. because objects are not a means to our ends: They are meaningful whether or not we perceive them. and the real ones Husserl says are accessible intellectually rather than through sensuous intuition. Whitehead.

our minds are always ready to render the world into experience. already related—to the subject. as filtering mechanisms within our minds that instantly translate the random data of the world into coherent and spontaneous experience. as well as a few of his own.e. and exhaust them. Kant is very specific about this. is never a quality of things-inthemselves. Kant calls these forms ―possible experience. we can see precisely how. Thanks to the categories working in the background. the noumena and the phenomena? The answer is a resounding yes. Kant shows us. or that objects wait around for the subject to hoover up their qualities. or noumena.. Nor are any of the other categories inherent to noumena. "all the elementary concepts of the understanding in their completeness. In fact. as we experience it. and are so only when they make themselves available to our experience. we would simply be bombarded by meaningless data. saying that these categories ―have been incautiously converted from being criteria of thought to be properties of things in themselves.‖3 It is technically incorrect to say (as Harman and his followers do) that Kant imagines things-in-themselves as already correlated—i. . Kant’s primary suggestion here is that objects are only partially correlated to our minds. that relation.concerns precisely the difference between the thing-in-itself and the objects of sense perception. Instead. or close a door and hear the latch click. gathering concepts from Aristotle. we don’t need to pause and decode our experience every time we look out the window and see a distant tree blowing in the wind. If we join Kant at the table of categories. as it were. Nothing of the sort. One form of possible experience.‖ because without them experience would not be possible. is ―relation. Kant presents this table quite early in the Critique. importantly. or categories. In fact.‖ This means. to portray the forms of experience. so that we already know that the swaying tree is actually large but far away. not small but close at hand.‖2 You can regard these forms.

theory. reciprocal. . we can confidently claim that there are ―a number of different kinds of relations . . fusion. no one has paused to work out how talk about these new terms for relation is supposed to improve radically on the concept of ―relation‖ in the history of philosophy.e. or anything more than a ―moment‖ of relating that’s always vanishing by dint of becoming and decay. in the cosmos: ten of them. and in alleged rebuke to Kant. squiggly lines that crisscross one another as they connect to the four poles of the sensual and the real like so many entangled Slinkys. after all. and confrontation. in object-oriented ontology.. . sensual qualities.‖ which ―is the insight that . objects make no direct link whatsoever‖ to us or other objects. or even fixed or permanent. such as fission. That’s why philosophers in the late Middle Ages commonly distinguished between relationes reales. There’s really no need to overturn the concept of relation in the cursory manner of the object-oriented ontologists. relations among all entities apart from human perception. that relation is what . sincerity. or real qualities—enter into relations. The problem is that the original sins of ―relation‖ are not rendered entirely clear in Harman’s and his followers’ writing.6 Amid all the excitement about object-oriented philosophy. we are to understand that ―reality is free of all relation‖ and pay obeisance to the ―founding principle of object-oriented philosophy. for his part. and human observation. theory. to be exact. i. systems theory.‖5 Objects— be they sensual objects. apart from glib remarks about poststructuralist relationality. . And these latter three—allure. and relationes rationis. real objects. because there’s already plenty in the history of philosophy since Aristotle to instruct us that relation is not always human or correlational. and confrontation—are named ―tensions‖ and are illustrated on the page by broken.However. allure.4 But this is about as Kantian as you can get—and here’s the kicker that exposes a contradiction in this philosophy: We are to turn around and adopt relation as the supreme philosophical category anyway. These relations are assigned a variety of intriguing names for novelty’s sake. knew that relation is not only aesthetic (what Aristotle derided as the ―said-of‖ of relation. Kant. According to Harman. those relations we’ve reasoned out in our inspection of the world.

Rather. even if withdrawn and unknowable. he understood that the problem of relation is exactly the same as the problem of the thing-in-itself: There are relations in the noumenal world. Realism is obviously what you could call this philosophy—or. isn’t the same as noumenal relation. Now. but we cannot think them directly because we have access only to phenomenal relations.we make of it). as Harman has it. somewhere in Ohio. say. This idea is all over Kant’s lectures in metaphysics. But there’s more: The fact that we can also think these object relations means that the relations are already thinkable—already correlated to our minds and thus already something we know about the world. observing an object indifferently ―theorizing‖ another object. . It’s here that Harman’s ten modes of relation reveal themselves to be equivalent to Kant’s forms of ―possible experience. because it points to further Kantian problems lingering at the center of a purported anti-Kantianism. ―weird realism. in other words. for—according to this philosophy— objects themselves have experiences. we can know that objects are doing things with other objects and will continue to do so behind our backs. one might say that Harman has simply extended the Kantian forms of possible experience to objects. as you will see below. THIS QUESTION of thinking versus knowing is an important one.‖ But realism (weird or otherwise) is a point of view about the world— a human point of view that requires the world to be accessible to us and structured in such a way that we can think it. which none of the object-oriented ontologists seem to know. and isn’t the only kind of relation. which thus experience other objects in multifarious ways. The human version of relation. the imperfect representations of noumenal relations. The epistemological gambit of object-oriented ontology is to say that object relations are thinkable because they are real. The much maligned ―correlationism‖ that object-oriented ontology hopes to expunge from its thinking is in fact its preeminent feature. an object somewhere will be ―sincere‖ to another object at some point in time. Even if we aren’t on [322] the scene. That would be partly right.‖ These ten modes guarantee in advance that. or that an object somewhere will ―confront‖ another object three days from now.

the speculative realist Quentin . Harman urges us to reject the idea that ―we cannot think something without thinking it‖—that is. his entire Critique of Judgment (1790) is nothing if not an exercise in extending the possibilities of thinking noumena of various kinds: positive. natural. and divine. He suggests we can think the unconditioned from our vantage point in the sensibly conditioned. to reject the notion that we can only think what is available to us as phenomena we experience. Similarly. such as the cinnabar outside of thought.‖9 This distinction between thinking and knowing is crucial for Kant. This is precisely what Harman and his followers claim to have invented: We can think the unthinkable if we adopt ―allusion‖ or other ―oblique approaches‖ to the object world we cannot directly experience. poetry. ever since the writing of his inaugural dissertation. the cinnabar as you experience it. causal. Harman attempts to get the human mind out of the picture entirely by resorting to a realism that assures us that we can think objects as those objects are.‖ the cinnabar in thought. for it bespeaks the difference between thinking what you cannot experience firsthand. Kant goes on to expand the possibilities of thinking what we cannot experience or know. you have to make up your own concepts and. analogy.For example. You could say that one feature of his intellectual biography.7 He asks us instead to perform a thought experiment by thinking what you cannot think. such as the ―tree outside of thought. and knowing. These are intriguing claims because they are Kantian at heart. shows Kant offering a variety of opinions about how we can think the unthinkable noumena. He tells us that to think these noumenal realities. in short. that’s about as Kantian as you can get. outside our minds. what is intelligible to us and what is knowable. using various media as the bridge from here to there: language.10 Again. and allusion.‖8 Here. Kant was obsessed with precisely these questions of what we can think and what we can experience. He tells us early in the Critique of Pure Reason that ―to think an object and to know an object are by no means the same thing. human. or ―cognizing. worldly. use whatever imaginative means you have at your disposal. In fact. math. no matter how mundane or sublime. art.

the ―supersensible‖ (Übersinnliche) world. would exhibit such a partial view of Kant is that either their reading of Kant is incomplete or they know this about Kant already but aren’t telling.11 The only answer I have for why two voracious readers of philosophy. broadens the Cartesian insight about extension into a whole thesis about our mathematical perception of objects. THERE'S MORE TO the curriculum of object-oriented ontology. but writes as if Kant had never attempted this himself. Each object. Contra Meillassoux. because—believing in dialectics—I think it’s a little of both.Meillassoux says that objects have ―mathematizable properties‖ that exist equally in thought as outside it—real properties we can think as they really are. no matter what it is. depths and surfaces. interiors and exteriors. Meillassoux’s Kant is the Kant of the critical philosophy. conforms to a template: All objects have insides and outsides. As . attempting to construe extension (after Descartes) as just one way to think the noumenal or. is abstracted in the same way. I’ll abstain from answering definitively. Each. But he nevertheless tried his hand at it. we can embrace the critical Kant and still think the unthinkable. insofar as Kant himself violates the distinction left and right in his work up to the very end. that another contradiction in the philosophy appears. It’s here. in the ontologist’s very idea of the object. for his part. Meillassoux. as he also terms it. I admit that Alain Badiou is right in saying that Kant was terrible at math. from whom many others receive lessons about the history of Western thought. But—and this is a pronounced problem in theory more broadly—it is wrong to uphold the distinction between the pre.and postcritical. that is.‖12 That we are supposed to look to precritical philosophy as an end run around the critical Kant is a compelling idea for theorists who can sense the persistent médiévalité or ―dogmatism‖ of modern thought. Having studied a few semesters of advanced calculus. Harman’s Kant is only the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason. and—especially—essences and accidents. if we so wish. Meillassoux in fact embraces a ―pre-critical‖ philosophy in order to ―revise decisions often considered as infrangible since Kant.

and so forth—are themselves human-centric. what qualifies as an object or not—and whose very perspective on that object determines what is ―inside‖ and what ―out. he thought. who is confrontational. such as fusion. Likewise. is a function of the old subject/object dualism. but fission prompts a similar . it’s that Heidegger had already created a philosophy whose very purpose was to destroy these old ontological constructions of essences and accidents. which is a dualism precisely because there is a sovereign subject around to proclaim what makes the cut. sincerity. Yet other terms. denote contemplation in its most humanly reclusive form. fusion.‖ The point isn’t that object-oriented ontology unwittingly centers an autonomous subject at the heart of objects simply in the way it tells us to look at objects. whether it concerns objects or subjects or both. confrontation. Rather. and Deleuze have shown. theory.e. recall problems my friend Charlie is trying to solve in the plasma lab where astrophysicists are creating a miniature star. But—is this reality the jug? No. allure. the construct of inside/outside in any ontology. obstruct the genuine thinking of Dasein.‖13 [323] Regarding anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism.Heidegger. each in his own particular style. and so forth—while others. who is alluring. Maybe it’s just me. object-oriented ontology can’t seem to avoid these perspectives after all: The aforementioned modes of relation— fission. Such terms. by which it is objectively controlled. This is important because object-oriented ontology claims to be a Heideggerian philosophy based on select passages in Being and Time (1927). interiors and exteriors.. Some of these terms read like authorial observations on the fickle characters in a novel—Dickensian descriptions of who is sincere. Harman) who could discover in Heidegger’s opaque essay ―The Thing‖ (1950) a schematic for ―quadruple‖ objects must have missed this philosopher’s poetic discussion of the jug in that very same paper. Fusion evokes the mysterious supersensible processes in our sun as much as it conjures up the human effort to duplicate and harness these processes before we destroy the planet with our capitalism and carbon emissions. along with his caution about realist perspectives on objects: ―Science represents something real. or being there in the moment. the reader (i. Merleau-Ponty. such as theory.

or why we should even fantasize about objects as scholastic assemblages. describing (for example) a piece of paper on his desk but never thinking the paper as the paper really is? To be sure. Erector Sets of the imagination. for us to picture the pure object relation it’s meant to describe. and all of these names are decidedly human. or the blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki ―equal‖ to a unicorn. these new terms for relation in object-oriented ontology are meant to help us decenter ourselves as we reflect on objects relating to other objects. Can we bracket our thoughts in this fashion. could never do it himself. But we access this object relation by thinking about the name of the relation. chock-full of meanings you can’t unthink or bracket. cultural. and you’ll soon encounter the problems of production and technology right where they shouldn’t manifest—in the object relation. yes. forcing us to realize that a rock cares not a whit about the difference between a nuclear weapon and a doorknob when it ―confronts‖ them. the names are in fact predicates. who will tell you that metaphysical mistakes are mistakes in natural language: Artificial languages. Husserl. This problem extends to the ethics of why we should even think a thoroughly reified world.thought—this time about whether an atomic bomb is really ―equal‖ to a doorknob. and literary—that is. you could throw up your hands and just admit that Kant was right: There are object relations. Or think about confrontation and you’ll eventually face the politics of what it means to ―be‖ autonomous. but we can’t really know or describe them in detail. This term requires some serious epoché. when the father of this practice. social. as called for by object-oriented ontology. chalking up these considerable difficulties in naming to the problem of language and solving them by taking a page from Heidegger. AT THIS STAGE. for example. . who uses neologisms to refresh the addled language of philosophy—though who really wants to hear more jargon? You could also consult your local analytic philosopher. right where issues of freedom or necessity shouldn’t appear—in the object relation. only allude to them in our inevitably human way. or mental bracketing. Contemplate fusion or fission. Or you could press on. anyone? In any event.

Or. Names.‖16 The effort here is to extend consciousness to the object world and to regard experience itself as the result of objects grinding up against one another: ―Experience is nothing other than [the] confrontation of an experiencing real object with a sensual one. objects. quirky lists of things. but never answering them. we can’t fathom what those properties tell us about how the table was made—by whom and under what labor conditions. raising serious political and ethical questions along the way. in the sense that objects are people too. and galaxies.‖ We don’t know how those properties satisfy our needs and wants—what is it about the wood? or the shape? Likewise. (Who cares if we never have guests over for dinner. so what’s needed is a category of experience ―applicable to the primitive psyches of rocks and electrons as well as to humans.‖ which holds that ―primitive perception is found even in the nethermost regions of apparently mindless entities. Marx tells us. baseball. characters. like aardvarks. to be technical as well as to the point: Objects are subjects.object-oriented ontology may. In his great work Capital. This is a people-person’s philosophy. want to decenter the human. or grilled cheeses.‖ Marx knew a thing or two about human nature as well—especially our tendency to personify objects. of course. and. after all. talks about that table you just have to have. as a philosophy. Harman offers up what he calls a ―speculative psychology. but as a language—and perforce as a way of thinking—it expands the human into all relations. especially now that it’s on sale and would look so good in the front room. I need this table!) The table has a certain allure.‖15 he argues. commandos. and Lake Michigan—these (―Latourian litanies. In describing the life of objects.‖17 These quotes speak for themselves and confirm what the great modernist poet Marianne Moore once told us: ―It is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing. They humanize the philosopher.‖14 ―It is not true that the psychic pertains only to the animal. But the table has . thanks to its ―metaphysical subtleties‖ and complex of ―properties. in a memorable passage. he speaks about commodities and.‖ as they are called) salt the prose of every object-oriented ontologist.

‖18 This is what Marx calls the ―mystical character of the commodity‖—mystical because we can only think the object’s inner properties by personifying it in a focus so narrow that we ignore the larger drama. ever attentive to history’s impress on our imaginations. 49. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. trans. this way of thinking about objects is what keeps capitalism ticking. 2. Ours is a time when schools of interpretation ask us to personify and caricature objects as autonomous and alive—whether they are the objects who ―speak‖ in the new so-called vibrant materialism. the metaphysics of capitalism. a professor of English at Princeton University.. 118. and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas. Martin’s Press. To identify such philosophy as the metaphysics of capitalism is theory. and capitalism capitalism. 47. Is this really the way to think at this moment? For Marx. 2011). far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will. 1965). We so admire the table as a commodity that it magically ―changes into a thing‖ like no other. or objects who fuss and act up in actor-network theory. 128. This is. The Quadruple Object (Alresford. Graham Harman. or objects with ―primitive psyches‖ in object-oriented ontology. in short. whatever we may dream. [384] NOTES 1. the greater historical process that makes a commodity a commodity. at least. Immanuel Kant. is fantasy—commodity fetishism in academic form. The Quadruple Object. 2014). no questions asked. Critique of Pure Reason. Andrew Cole. stands on its head. is the author of The Birth of Theory (University of Chicago Press. then as now. 4. ―It not only stands with its feet on the ground. Harman.meaning for us nonetheless and becomes ensouled under our gaze. To adopt such a philosophy. . but . 116. . . UK: Zero Books. an object an object. Ibid. 3.

Ibid. 1. Ibid. vol. 62. trans. 108. Ibid. 17. 7. 1976). 114–15. 26. 107. The Quadruple Object. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency.‖ in Poetry. Martin Heidegger. 133. 103. 35. Harman. Ibid. trans. Thought.. ―The Thing. 110.. 11. Harman.. 1971).5. Ibid.. 2013). 13. 6. 76.. . Ben Fowkes (Harmondsworth. 161. 10. 18.. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Karl Marx. trans. Language. Quentin Meillassoux. 8. 14. Ibid. Critique of Pure Reason. Ray Brassier (London: Bloomsbury. 103. 65–66.. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row. 31. Kant. Ibid. 15. 12. The Quadruple Object. 16. 163–64. UK: Penguin.. 170. 9. 98. Ibid.