In the summer issue of Artforum, Princeton professor Andrew Cole considers the popularity and premises of object-oriented philosophy and speculative realism, two related theoretical currents that have taken the art world by storm in recent years. Examining the writings of Graham Harman, the founder of object-oriented philosophy, Cole argues that Harman’s claim to have overcome certain philosophical problems inherited from Kant is way overblown. While object-oriented philosophy presents itself as a innovative philosophy that has left Kant in the dust, Cole finds a thinly veiled repetition of Kant everywhere in Harman’s work:
Amid all the excitement about object-oriented philosophy, 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. The problem is that the original sins of “relation” are not rendered entirely clear in Harman’s and his followers’ writing, apart from glib remarks about poststructuralist relationality, systems theory, and human observation. There’s really no need to overturn the concept of relation in the cursory manner of the object-oriented ontologists, because there’s already plenty in the history of philosophy since Aristotle to instruct us that relation is not always human or correlational, reciprocal, or even fixed or permanent, or anything more than a “moment” of relating that’s always vanishing by dint of becoming and decay. That’s why philosophers in the late Middle Ages commonly distinguished between relationes reales, relations among all entities apart from human perception, and relationes rationis, those relations we’ve reasoned out in our inspection of the world. Kant, for his part, knew that relation is not only aesthetic (what Aristotle derided as the “said-of” of relation; i.e., that relation is what we make of it). Rather, 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, but we cannot think them directly because we have access only to phenomenal relations, the imperfect representations of noumenal relations. The human version of relation, in other words, isn’t the same as noumenal relation, and isn’t the only kind of relation. This idea is all over Kant’s lectures in metaphysics, which none of the object-oriented ontologists seem to know.
The epistemological gambit of object-oriented ontology is to say that object relations are thinkable because they are real, even if withdrawn and unknowable. Realism is obviously what you could call this philosophy—or, as Harman has it, “weird realism.” 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. It’s here that Harman’s ten modes of relation reveal themselves to be equivalent to Kant’s forms of “possible experience.” These ten modes guarantee in advance that, say, an object somewhere will be “sincere” to another object at some point in time, or that an object somewhere will “confront” another object three days from now. Even if we aren’t on the scene, somewhere in Ohio, observing an object indifferently “theorizing” another object, we can know that objects are doing things with other objects and will continue to do so behind our backs. Now, one might say that Harman has simply extended the Kantian forms of possible experience to objects, which thus experience other objects in multifarious ways. That would be partly right, for—according to this philosophy—objects themselves have experiences, as you will see below. 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. The much maligned “correlationism” that object-oriented ontology hopes to expunge from its thinking is in fact its preeminent feature.
Image of Kant via Wikipedia