Last night I went to the final seminar in The Architecture Exchange seminar series ‘Is there an Object Oriented Architecture?’ at the Swedenborg Society in London. Graham Harman, one of a group of contemporary philosophers arguing for an object oriented ontology spoke, answering criticism and questions posed to him by previous architectural speakers in the series. For an outline of the whole series go here or here.
Joseph Bedford and Jessica Reynolds, the organisers of the series, began with remarks about Harman’s idea of a ‘Circus of Objects,’ – of the possibility of objects interacting as objects, not as parts of networks or systems, narratives or hierarchies and asked whether this could be a way of thinking about and designing architecture. If the social and historical is bracketed out from architecture, what might this mean?
It was extraordinary. I had the sense of being in the presence of a radically original thinker, who is probably going to incredibly important for the future of western philosophy. These are the somewhat sketchy notes I took.
Harman began by giving an overview of his philosophy and defining what he means by ‘Object Oriented Ontology’ (triple o). Quite simply, it means putting objects at the centre of philosophy. This has been thwarted by three tendencies in Western thought, which he called ‘under mining’, ‘over mining’ or ‘dual mining’. Under mining relates all physical objects back (or forward) to a single giant blob, the primordial apeiron. The problem with this is that it cannot explain emergence, everything is just a fragment of some primal, durable condition which it comes from and reverts to. For over mining philosophers on the other hand, there are no such things as objects, there are only ideas. No real objects exist outside of subjects, of our knowledge of them. Latour is, in one sense a bit of an over miner – a thing is what it does, how it acts; there are no such things as objects, only events, networks, systems. He explains how things behave through his idea of ‘plasma’, something larger than networks. This makes him a dual miner, both modes of thought in league against object at the same time.
Object orientated philosophers are Aristotle, Leibnitz, Latour, Whithead, and, in Harman’s reading, Heidegger and Husserl.
Philosophy is not wisdom, but the love of wisdom.
One of Harman’s key ideas is that things are not transparent to knowledge, they do not reveal themselves all at once. They are only accessible obliquely, through hints, allure. We cannot know them through explanations, formulae, mathematics. Practical knowledge and mathematical knowledge do not give us access to objects. Poetic language is the best we have for getting at objects. Only art and by extension architecture can give us access to objects.
Speculative realism, which Harman is associated with, belongs to the Kantian legacy of things in themselves. However what Harman does not like about Kant is his privileging of the human – object relation above all else. For him objects are able to relate to objects directly (the circus of things); we should have had a German Realism rather than a German Idealism, he said. In other words for example, raindrops are able to discover (know) things about shrines that we cannot. Things know things about each other, relate to each other outside of us. Here he draws on Heidegger’s tool analysis, which he argues was the most exciting in 20th Century philosophy.
The best philosophers are politically indeterminate. Ontology and politics are not the same.
Can this be adapted to architecture?
At this point Harman turned to passing some remarks about Patrik Schumacher’s adaption of Luhmann to architecture. The problem he said, is that in Schumacher’s reading, Luhmann is all about communicative systems, not non-communicative ones; and therefore not about objects. Heidegger’s tool analysis is not a theory of tools and equipment, but of broken tools and equipment. We only know about objects when systems break down. Architectural objects, like any objects, are not parts of systems, but are anti-systems, what disturbs or disrupts the system. They are not about relations, but about non-relationality, unique places, singularities.
All objects are absent, non-relational. They have realities outside of their relations. They are ambiguous, this is what makes them objects. Actor Network Theory is very good at talking about things that happened. It is not good about talking about things that could have happened (at being counterfactual). Philosophy and by extension, architecture, should be counterfactual. Not just about buildings, but also the many buildings that could have been.
Four folds are intersections of two dualisms. Heidegger’s sky, earth, mortals and gods are, in Harman’s reading not to be taken literally, but serve as metaphors for the hidden and the revealed, the one and the many.
For further reading, Harman’s books are: Tool-Being (2002), Guerrilla Metaphysics (2005), Heidgger Explained (2007), The Quadruple Object (2011) and Quentin Meillassoux (2011). His debate at the LSE with Bruno Latour, published as The Prince and the Wolf (20111) also makes for entertaining reading.