18 October 2013

What if Objects Were Beautiful Without a Human Standing By to Judge Them to Be So?

Introduction to 'Art After Finitude: Speculative Aesthetics in the Humanities'

I want to start with a little aphoristic question: “What if objects were beautiful without a human standing by to judge them to be so?” And I stress the what if…? Because that is the key or tone under which one writes speculatively. Whether one is composing poetry (like many of our panel) or composing essays about poetry, the speculative attitude - as opposed to the critical or judgmental attitude, which sets up one position against another - is one of following a process of things being made and being surprised at all the weird stuff that gets into the composition.

Of course objects are beautiful, you might say, without us being there: ‘tiger[s] burning bright’ or ‘c-beams glitter[ing] in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate’. But the habit of always putting aesthetics into the subject-object relation, let’s call this the ‘I shall interpret the world’ approach, has an unfortunate effect. The human is solidified through its inevitable centralisation, and objects are generalised as all being instances of the same kind of external reality. But what if… what if we saw that that old subject-object relation was a very clumsy sort of philosophical prop, that there are multiple ways that objects relate to each other and enter into compositions with each other, enliven each other, long before any human enters the compositional mix? Then we might get more modest about our will to judge and interpret.

Maybe we will stop seeing objects as all dead in the same way, and rather, all animated in all their own ways and necessarily indifferent to ‘the human’, whatever that is. The human, as so many have been saying lately, is no longer the privileged subject, because we have language, or consciousness or culture, but is itself an object in the process of being reinvented as it enters into new and multiple relations.

Can you see how an object-oriented speculative aesthetic might be able to do things that a more human-centred one will not be able to do? Consider once again the object that has its own beauty independently of being processed by the Central Intelligence Agency, the human brain. Hang on, isn’t that a bit like the sublime, where the object awesomely exceeds human apprehension? If it is a Sublime, it isn’t a romantic one because the subject is not a kind of subject produced under those romantic historical conditions. For the speculative realist, the subject is a kind of object defined by its objective attributes. The subject-object correlation just isn’t there anymore.

The object doesn’t need human perception to exist, to get back to my original aphorism. The object will persist in all its beauty long after we are dead and gone, hence the title of this panel, ‘art after finitude’. Niagara Falls will be there in all its awesome, dare I say absolute, sublimity in the far-flung future. Except that the aesthetic is not absolute, it is necessarily contingent. When Oscar Wilde remarks about the landmark honeymoon destination that "It must be the second greatest disappointment for American brides,” Niagara as aesthetic object will not disappear because of the impact of Wildean wit, because it is sustained by all sorts of other object-relations, including millions of picture postcards.

Let me just say a few words about the origins of speculative realism, of which our speculative aesthetics is an offshoot. Graham Harman is a key figure. When I met him in Paris in the summer of 2006 he was talking about a book he was writing about a new group of philosophers that he was calling ‘School X’ at the time. He gave me a copy of Quentin Meillassoux’s Après la Finitude: La Nécessité de la Contingence, which had come out in January. When we met Meillassoux for lunch (I was brought along as translator), I found out that he had been Alain Badiou’s student, but with significant departures, most notably with his critique of correlationism. Harman got excited in the conversation and dubbed Meillassoux’s thesis a ‘Copernican counter revolution’: something’s existence isn’t defined by how it appears to the human mind, but things can make their own ontological interventions; they may not even belong to ‘our world’. At this lunch, Meillassoux was teed up to go to the first Speculative Realism event in April 2007 at Goldsmiths College with Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Harman. This ‘School X’ debated their departures from humanist phenomenology, and their thoughts on the figures in continental philosophy that most interested them: Heidegger, Kant, Laruelle, but with more contemporary figures like Latour, D&G, Stengers, and Zizek shadowing their discourse.  Elsewhere, Ian Bogost and Levi Bryant were already working on Object Oriented Ontology. Sigi Jottkandt has published Levi Bryant in the Open Humanities Press; Timothy Morton is a key figure from literature, and I personally have found usefully-related writing among anthropologists like Mick Taussig and Kathleen Stewart.

Harman, as a pioneering figure, writes with the clarity of expression he learnt as a sportswriter, before he came under the influence of an equally lucid philosopher, Alphonso Lingis, at Penn State. SR and OOO have gone viral on the blogosphere, so inevitably the ideas shift and change as they are adapted by non-philosophers. But I feel they won’t be subsumed as yet another theory that will be injected like a drug into critical language, only to get normalised by the usual moves of critique, as summarised by Latour in our epigraph, where us academics are slow to respond to ‘new threats, new dangers, new tasks’ because we are always all too ready with a discourse of critique.

In July 2006 there was a heat wave in Paris and the sun had burnt the leaves of trees in the Jardin du Luxembourg near where I was having lunch at Le Rostand with Harman and Meillassoux. A burnt leaf fell from a tree into a wine glass on our table and of course the contingent event of an object asserting its presence delighted the philosophers. But it wasn’t autumn. The era of climate change is the kind of thing we are slow to respond to, that humanists have trouble responding to. I think, as I hand over to the ECRs, to the future, that SR, OOO and the ‘speculative aesthetics’ they have invented with such amazing intelligence and verve are asserting that ‘it isn’t all about us humans’ as they find ways to amplify the eloquence, the enchantment and the cries of danger coming from what we used to call ‘mere things’, objects that are now raised from the dead, ennobled and asserting their own singular modes of existence.

- Stephen Muecke, (Intro to SAM Public Seminar on Speculative Aesthetics, UNSW) 2013


  1. Harman's philosophy is the exact opposite of Latour's

  2. http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2014/08/06/on-graham-harmans-attempted-annexation-of-bruno-latour-ooo-fails-to-give-an-adequate-account-of-science/