Tuesday 23 February 2016

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Thing Thinks

, Jae Wook Lee

We think, feel, and speak. Does an object also think, feel, speak, and voice its will? This article looks at a group of philosophers who have suggested the existence of an object world through the non-anthropocentric lens beyond human comprehensions.

We think, feel, and speak. Does an object also think, feel, speak, and voice its will? This article looks at a group of philosophers who have suggested the existence of an object world through the non-anthropocentric lens beyond human comprehensions. Some of them have labeled their works “Speculative Realism,” among them Graham Harman and Quentin Meillassoux. I will also discuss Bruno Latour’s Actant-Network-Theory and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter concerning the possibility of a network of things beyond human thought. They redefine the most fundamental relationship between things, and debunk the hierarchy between human and nonhuman, proposing a system that does not exclusively depend on human signification.

The Autonomy of Objects

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A collection of books about Speculative Realism.
From the top left to the bottom right: Realist Magic Objects, Ontology, Causality and Hyper objects by Timothy Morton, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence by Bruno Latour, Guerrilla Metaphysics by Graham Harman, After Finitude by Quentin Meillassoux, Form and Object by Tristan Garcia, The Democracy of Objects by Levi R. Bryant, and Towards Speculative Realism by Graham Harman.

The philosopher Graham Harman proposes the autonomy of objects, questioning the history of philosophy in which the human has been placed at the center of most discourses. He uses Martin Heidegger’s tool-analysis in Being and Time as his central argument. Heidegger discusses the two modes of being: “ready-to-hand (zuhanden)” and “present-at-hand (vorhanden).” Things are not mere substances, but they are primarily related to their purposes: an entity is determined by the shifting references and assignments in which it is encircled. This is one of modes of being that Heidegger calls “ready-to-hand”: a functioning object. When an object functions properly to us, we take the object for granted — we do not give much attention to it. Harman states:

As apposed to the “presence-at-hand” of phenomena in consciousness, the being of equipment is called “readiness-to-hand.” The latter term, ready-to-hand, refers to equipment that remains concealed from view insofar as it functions effectively [1].

For example, a hammer is transparent for a master carpenter. This is because a master carpenter is an expert in using a hammer, so is barely aware of the presence of the tool when using it. In this case, the hammer is a functioning object that conceals itself from our consciousness. By contrast, when a hammer is not functioning in a carpenter’s hand, or when the tool is not in use, but is for example, merely put on a table, the object appears to us as a broken-tool in a functionless state. The hammer on the table does not function its tool-ness. Rather, it is just an entity in the world as a mere object. This is what Heidegger calls “presence-at-hand,” referring to things merely perceived through our consciousness, without reference to their functionality. When an object is broken, its presence obtrusively enters into our awareness. For instance, if a building suddenly loses electrical power, we are conspicuously reminded of entities previously taken for granted. We now give closer attention to the electrical power. In this way, Heidegger argues that things have the two modes of being: Zuhanden and Vorhanden, tool and broken tool, invisible action and obtrusive presence.

Harman pushes Heidegger’s tool-analysis further. Where Heidegger confines his tool-analysis to the sphere of human existence, Harman pushes this thesis beyond the human relation to objects. He argues that the two modes of being in Heidegger’s tool-analysis can occur between objects in relation to each other, without human consciousness becoming involved. He calls his thesis “object-oriented philosophy.” Things cannot be reduced to certain functionalities for humans. For example, there are countless layers to the reality of the hammer. Even though humans created the hammer, even though humans see it as a tool, there is still an infinite number of qualities in the hammer itself that cannot be reduced by any seeing or using; i.e., the hammer can be a home for bacteria even if we are not using it as a tool. He states: “the dualism between tool and broken tool actually has no need of human beings, and would hold perfectly well of a world filled with inanimate entities alone. [2]” Harman does not privilege the human relationship to the world over any other kind of relation. Objects withdraw from us as they act in a world outside of our knowledge. Object-oriented philosophy suggests that the relation of humans to hammers, oxygen, birds, or bridges is no different from the interaction of these objects with each other.

Let us take an example in art: Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. The urinal, when located in a male bathroom, is a functioning object. But the urinal in the gallery space is a functionless object, revealing its obtrusive presence. By taking a ready-made object into the field of art, the object looses its original functionality. Although the appearance of the object is the same before and after, its thingness is radically changed. We cannot reduce the urinal to a container of disposal. The urinal finds itself with a new functionality as an artwork. A new meaning is born our of the relation between the urinal and the audience by their meeting in the field of art.

To take another example, in John Cage’s 4’33”, the piano is expected first as “ready-to-hand” (functional tool). Yet because the pianist does not play the instrument for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the piano becomes “presence-at-hand” as a malfunctioning tool. Our awareness of the piano dissipates as noises from the audiences start to reveal themselves. We start to attune our listening to the sound of these noises rather than the piano. So, the noises become closer to us, revealing their presence. The distance of noises becomes nearness. Cage describes in “The Future of Music: Credo” that, “wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” We discover the existence of noises beyond our awareness: the noises have been always there before we pay attention to them. The noises reveal themselves as they speak to each other independently of us.

A World Devoid of Humanity

There has been a long-lasting philosophical problem from Kant to Hume related to what can we know about the world outside the human perceptual experience, our only access to Things. In After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, Quentin Meillassoux begins by challenging Kantian correlationism. Correlationism is the idea that humans cannot exist without the world, not the world without humans: the body gathers the qualities of things in the world, and the perceptible world therefore exists as a relation. Without the body, there are no such sensations of tastes, smell, sound, and sight; without the perception of redness, there is no red thing; without the sensation of heat, there is no heat. Likewise, if there are no things out-there that are capable of being sensed, there are no sensations either. If there are no things that give the sensation of redness or blueness, there is no perception of a red thing or blue thing; if there is no real fire, there is no sensation of burning. Therefore, there is a constant link between the sensory body and the perceptible world. The perceptible only exists as a relation.

However, Meillassoux suggests that other things exist without any relation to us: there are “primary qualities” of things that act independently of their relation to us. By “primary qualities,” he means the qualities that do not belong to our subjective sensory experiences, such as the mathematical representation of a thing. For example, when cosmologists say that the universe originated 13.7 billion years ago, long before any intelligent life existed, there was no such thing as a correlate. The mathematized fact (the “primary quality”) proves the existence of a world beyond the human and all sentient living organisms on Earth. Meillassoux also suggests something can exist beyond our sensation (the “secondary quality”). This mathematization of nature allows us to see the “objective” view beyond the “subjective” human-centric point of view; i.e. the core of the Sun is not “hot,” but is around 10 to 20 million degrees C. There is no sensation of hotness of coldness in the mathematical representation of the Sun. The hotness is derived from the subjective sensation of the human body. In short, the objective representation in mathematics works independently of tis relation to the human sensations. Meillassoux coins the term “ancestrality [3],” to refer to the reality that precedes the correlate. He also coins the term “dia-chronicity[Iibid., p. 112.]].” The latter refers to the future after human beings are extinct. In short, other things exist beyond us.

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The fossils at JaeWook Lee’s solo show at O’newwall E’juheon in 2015.

However, we humans simply don’t know how the world beyond us looks. Even though the “primary quality” informs us of the nature of a thing without our sensory experience, the mathematical representation still functions only for humans: mathematics means nothing for other species. Therefore, Meillassoux argues that reasons and logics operate for the necessity of human understanding of the world. Any beyond the human cognitive process, one can posit the necessity of contingency. The world devoid of humanity could mean the world devoid of human reasoning. What we can do to imagine this world could be referred to as speculation. The act of speculation is a rigorous understanding of complex realities of the world beyond the naïve correlate. Although Meillassoux’s argument focuses more on the necessity of contingency outside human reason, another take-away from this Speculative Realism is that it allows us to realize the presence of things through the non-anthropocentric lens outside a reliance on human signification. It teaches us humility regarding human involvement: we are not the only sentient beings, but there are other sentient beings and non-sentient things in the world.

Network of Things

In his book Reassembling the Social: An introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, French philosopher Bruno Latour places human and non-human activities on a more horizontal than vertical plane of events. He sees humans and non-human things equally as actors, or as he calls them, “actants.” “An actant is a source of action that can be either human or non-human; it is that which has efficacy, can do things, has sufficient coherence to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of events [4].” Latour understands things not as substances, but as actants in so far as they have some kind of effect on other things, regardless their scale and complexity. In this sense, an actant is always an event as it relates to other actants. Everything happens only once in a single time and space as a momentary existence. An actant is not an entity with substance, but a performance.

According to Latour, as things affect each other, whether agreeably or violently, they create a network of connectivity in a given moment. This is because “an actant never really acts alone. Its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces [5].” Things enter into confederate bodies, grouping together in order to enhance their network power. What is at work here is what Deleuze and Guattari call an assemblage. An assemblage is a sphere of multiplicity, of heterogeneous elements of all sorts. Its parts are co-functioning, symbiotic, and sympathetic, mixing together like an alloy. An assemblage is a living confederation in which various things continuously cross paths without any central control: things move in multiple directions at different speeds and intensities, interacting all the while. This means the properties generated by an assemblage are emergent—an assemblage is an emergent whole. In her book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, social scientist Jane Bennett describes this temporal property of an emergent whole:

[Each] member and proto-member of the assemblage has a certain vital force, but there is also an effectivity proper to the grouping as such: an agency of the assemblage. And precisely because each member-actant maintains an energetic pulse slightly “off” from the assemblage, an assemblage is never a stolid block but an open-ended collective, a “non-totalizable sum.” An assemblage thus not only has a distinctive history of formation but a finite life span [6].

What makes an assemblage possible is the temporal networking of a set of elements from different paths. An assemblage is a living thing in which the members move in and out of phase over time.

Installation Art offers a good example of an assemblage. An installation is one of the dominant mediums that artists use today. It is a material and/or immaterial bundle of parts joined in proximity to produce combinatory effect. In mixed-media insallation, different kinds of art such as video, objects, text, drawing, performance, etc., are brought together as a network of elements shown together as a single piece. They enter, interact, and activate the combinatory effect of the event. Each element is linked to the others, and what is combined becomes a co-functioning symbiosis. In general, installation art invites the audiences to become part of the work. The viewers walk in an immersive environment as they wander around the space, creating a network of things. They are actors who connect things and activate the space in a fluid matter. That is to say, interdisciplinary art provides a physical space in which the interplay of human and non-human activity occurs as these players function like actants in an assemblage.

Alan Kaprow is an American artist whose works are can be seen as emergent assemblages, which he calls Happenings. For Kaprow, a Happening is an event in which the audience members become participating performers in order to experience the work. In a Happening, a number of activities occur without a clear beginning or end, creating spontaneous interactions among the participants. It is the participants’ actions and reactions that make up the course of the event, so that each event becomes unique. What is planned and what is improvised becomes blurred. In 1959, Kaprow hosted the event, 18 Happenings in 6 Parts. In the gallery, various things occurred at the same time, painters were painting on canvases, musicians were playing instruments, and people were following the given instructions on how to behave. The participating audience was told when to move, when to take a seat, and when to applaud. Various actors entered, interacted, and activated a combinatory effect. Each element is linked to each other, creating an emergent whole like an assemblage.


[1Graham Harman, Technology, objects, and things in Heidegger, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 2010, p.18.

[2Graham Harman, Towards Speculative Realism, The Bothy, Deershot Lodge, Park Lane, Ropley, Hants: Zero Books, John Hunt Publishing Ltd., 2010, Hants, pp. 99, 100.

[3Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, Trans. R Brassier(London: Continuum), p. 10.

[4Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter A Political Ecology of Things, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010, p. 8.1.

[5Ibid., p. 21.

[6Ibid., p. 24.

JaeWook Lee is an artist, writer, and sometime curator. Lee is the recipient of the prestigious award-the 4th SINAP (Sindoh Artist Support Program). Lee’s works have been exhibited internationally, including Museo Juan Manuel Blanes, Montevideo (2014), MANIFESTA 9 parallel event, Hassalt (2012), Chelsea Art Museum, New York(2011), Coreana Museum, Seoul(2006), etc. Lee is currently a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.