Sunday, September 6, 2015

Those Obscure Objects of Desire

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.

A brick house crumbles in the village of Veselovka, Russia, just a few miles from Kaliningrad. 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), but what, exactly, is not clear. 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. These words, spray-painted in green and garnished with a groovy heart and a cute flower beneath, were translated in English-speaking media as ―Kant is a moron.‖
You rarely hear the words irony and Kant used in the same sentence, 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. Only the foundations are contemporary with the philosopher, who lived in the area in the late 1740s. What we have here, I think, is a vivid illustration of how the critique of Kant—whether inscribed in graffiti or couched in academic prose—usually misses its mark. You will often hear contemporary critics say that Kant is a moron owing to this or that failing of his, but this assessment almost always involves a misreading—a misidentification, as it were—of his philosophy. In such cases, the foundations of Kant’s system remain untouched and solid as ever. You see, even in death Kant is the reigning All- Destroyer—Der Allzermalmende, as his friends called him, ribbing him for his annoying habit of exiting debates completely unscathed and triumphant.

Yes, Kantian moral philosophy leaves something to be desired, 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. But Kant’s epistemology, in particular his insight into how we experience the world, remains foundational. He tells us that ours is a world of phenomena, the infinite array of objects and events we experience, and he says also that the world is composed of noumena we cannot experience, the equally infinite number of things that exist, and
processes that transpire, apart from our minds thinking them. These two domains are radically different but nonetheless linked, inasmuch as noumena are the basis for the phenomena. Of course, there’s far more to Kant’s ―critical philosophy‖ than that, as we’ll soon see. For example, we can’t ignore such famously unfraught topics as ―thinking the unthinkable.‖ But this is the gist, and enough to get us going.

Our interest here is in showing that Kant doesn’t crumble like his ersatz house (though props to the house for lasting this long). In fact, Kant’s ideas remain a crucial component of recent philosophies that try hard to vitiate his philosophy. Object-oriented ontology is one such philosophy, as is its cousin, speculative realism. What is object-oriented ontology, however? You might surmise that it’s a return to the object qua object—a renewed focus on the composition, vitality, materiality, autonomy, wonder, and durability of objects large and small, near and far. In this sense, you could say that any discipline or practice is ―object oriented,‖ including not only art history and criticism but also architecture, graphic design, museum studies, archaeology, science and the philosophy of science, book history, literary criticism and rhetoric, and the culinary arts—indeed, any field of study whose subject is objects. This crude understanding of object-oriented ontology also applies to speculative realism,which may explain why both have become irresistibly appealing to the art world.

Andrew Cole
Artforum, summer 2015, pp. 318-23