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Graham Harman on 'non-relational aesthetics'


Speculative Realism expert Graham Harman has written about ‘art without relations’ for ArtReview. An excerpt below, the full piece here.

Let’s begin by introducing the term ‘nonrelational aesthetics’. This is not meant as a retort to Nicolas Bourriaud, whose influential book Relational Aesthetics (1998) is not my target. What Bourriaud means by ‘relations’ are staged encounters between humans who would otherwise pass each other anonymously but are now encouraged to interact through jointly cooking packets of soup or other forms of conviviality (as in the artworks of Rirkrit Tiravanija). What I oppose is relationality in a wider sense, one so sufficiently familiar to recent art history that I might seem to be wandering into a long-settled debate. At issue is the independence of artworks not only from their social and political surroundings, their physical settings or their commercial exchange value, but from any other object whatsoever.

Relationality has long had a good press well beyond the arts. Widespread sympathy for dynamic relations over dreary substances marks the general intellectual mood of our time. In recent Continental philosophy, figures from Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze to Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour and Jane Bennett are all cited as admirable champions of process and relation over static autonomous things. Yet the claim of object-oriented philosophy, which I advocate, is that the primacy of relations over things is no longer a liberating idea (since it reduces things to their pragmatic impact on humans and on each other).

Let’s begin with philosophy, whose vocation is to deal with the most universal subject matter. I propose to call this subject matter ‘objects’, in a broad sense that includes human beings along with everything else: copper wire, weather systems, fictional characters, reptiles, artworks, protons, transient events and numbers. Unlike the various special disciplines, philosophy cannot deal with some of these while ignoring the others.

By ‘objects’ I mean unified realities – physical or otherwise – that cannot fully be reduced either downwards to their pieces or upwards to their effects. We know that human and inanimate bodies cannot exist without tiny physical subcomponents. Yet we also know that objects have a certain degree of robust reality that can withstand changes in those components. An object is emergent beyond its subcomponents, and cannot be explained exhaustively by its pieces alone.

But for the arts, as for the social sciences, the greater danger is the upward reduction that paraphrases objects in terms of their effects rather than their parts. For it is dubious to claim that objects are utterly defined by their context, without any unexpressed private surplus. To defend this view is to commit oneself to a world in which everything is already all that it can be. Change would be impossible if this melon, that city or I myself were nothing more than our current relations with everything else.

The two reductions differ only in the direction in which they propose to destroy objects: pulverising them into sawdust, or elevating them into an all-devouring context. Admittedly, these are the two basic kinds of knowledge about what something is: either we explain what something is made of, or we describe its effects. But philosophy was never meant to be a form of knowledge. The Greek word philosophia, which means love of wisdom rather than wisdom itself, incorporates a basic ignorance into its etymology.

But if philosophy is not a form of knowledge, the same holds even more obviously for art. An artwork littered with scientific falsehoods might still be better as art than a pedagogical work that inspired young viewers to win a dozen Nobel Prizes. Just as little does art provide the sort of knowledge claimed by social or political explanations. Even a politically provocative work – Picasso’s Guernica (1937), for example – might succeed as art even among those it denounces. The specifically aesthetic handling of the theme might have greater or lesser power than the surface political message of the work, which in turn might be readable in ways that would baffle Picasso himself. Nor can we replace an artwork with its biographical or historical backstory. The art object, taken in a broad sense not restricted to mobile and durable entities, is just as resistant to knowledge as objects in the philosophical sense.

A quiet breakthrough in the theory of objects was made by the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. One key strategy of the empiricist philosophers was to deny the very existence of objects, replacing them with ‘bundles of qualities’. Strictly speaking there is no such thing as ‘moon’ but only qualities such as ‘white’, ‘round’ and ‘luminous’, which appear together so frequently that we come to use ‘moon’ as a sloppy nickname for this rough set of qualities. The greatness of phenomenology lay in its reversal of this prejudice. For Husserl, ‘moon’ as a unified phenomenal object precedes any particular qualities it might display. The object of experience comes first, and it endures despite considerable ongoing shifts in its evident features. Heidegger raises the stakes by critiquing his teacher Husserl as a philosopher of ‘presence’: although Husserl discovered a unified object of experience, irreducible to its sum of qualities, his objects are exhausted by their presence to the mind. Against this, Heidegger insisted that objects are usually withdrawn into a silent background.

Yet there is something overly holistic about Heidegger’s withdrawn realm of ‘being’, which he opposes not only to beings insofar as they are visible, but also to beings insofar as they are many. This excessive unity of Heidegger’s hidden kingdom of being haunts his famous essay ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ (1950). Heidegger’s notion of artworks as ‘strife’ between hidden earth and accessible world has not been improved by later philosophers. Yet Heidegger’s ‘earth’ is every bit as unified as his ‘being’, so that every artwork ends up pointing to the same hidden earth in all cases. Whereas normal experience is adrift in a realm of presence, the Heideggerian artwork seems to punch a hole in presence and gesture vaguely towards an irreducible reality-in-itself. Yet the Heideggerian artist is left with a fountain of sensual images in the mind (jugs, temples, peasant shoes) that all hint monotonously at the same earthy background.

*Image of Carsten Höller slide courtesy glenwoodnyc


I get that things might be fundamentally non-related, but aren’t some things less non-related than other things? It seems silly to replace the paranoid-hippy fantasy that everything-is-connected with this notion that nothing-is-connected—they both seem trivially true without being able to discern degrees of relation.


I think the idea Harman is putting forth - at least in this passage - is simply not to be reductive in either direction [qualities>objects>effects/relations] to allow for the possibility of new/changing qualities and relations.