The object takes on a life of its own

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A conversation between Thomas Feuerstein and Graham Harman

TF: We are now in the month of March. And as you know, in H. P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu (1926), March is an important month because artists, painters and poets have crazy dreams, nightmares about a weird architecture, a weird organism. Today is the 12th of March and I would like to start by talking about slime and H. P. Lovecraft. GH: Actually, I read Lovecraft late. Most people read him as a teenager, and I’m not sure if I as a teenager even knew who he was. I started reading Lovecraft only when they put out his Library of America volume, when he had finally been canonized. And I think if you had asked me about him I would have said, "isn’t he one of these pulp horror writers, kind of like Stephen King – and nothing against it, but I probably don’t have time to read it." But then the Library of America volume mentioned him in the same breath as Edgar Allan Poe, and I’m a great fan of Poe. So while I took that claim skeptically, I decided to give it a chance. The stories are arranged chronologically, so they didn’t really capture my interest at first. What first grabbed me was The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927). I really saw something new and great in that work and then, of course, once I got to the more famous great stories, I was really hooked. I like Lovecraft for a lot of the same reasons that I like Poe. It’s not just a shared subject matter, it’s a shared way of using language. They have a way of saying things while also retracting what they’re saying. Somebody once told me that Cthulhu isn’t scary, because a dragon with an octopus head isn’t scary. And that would be true, but that isn’t how Cthulhu is described. Cthulhu is described as something like: “In my disordered fancy I glimpsed something not unlike a dragon torso with a scaly, pulpy tentacled head and a vaguely humanoid outline – and yet, the general outline of the whole was somehow more horrifying than each of these things taken together.” See, you can’t directly illustrate it. Because you cannot add in visual terms what he’s adding in linguistic terms: the indescribability. And he’s not just saying, “it’s so amazing that it’s indescribable, it’s beyond words,” because he undercuts that strategy, too. For example in The Dunwich Horror (1928), when Wilbur’s body is degenerating on the library floor after the dog killed him, he says, “it would be trite and not wholly accurate to say that no human pen could describe it.” So he’s aware of wanting to avoid the cliché that something is so amazing that it’s indescribable, yet he goes on to describe it anyway. Poe does this a lot, too. Poe may have been the pioneer of this trick, unless there were some earlier French sources who did it. Poe often says things like, “there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire Usher with horror." So he leaves everything vague. And yet you still feel like it’s very concrete and very much there in front of you. This is important to me because this is what objects are for me. Objects are there; you can’t paraphrase them as a description, yet they’re really still there. There’s something beyond the words but not totally beyond the words. That’s my first thought about why I was drawn to Lovecraft so intensely.

TF: Slime is a central theme in my exhibition Psychoprosa. The description of Cthulhu by Lovecraft varies a lot. Sometimes, it is described as having an octopus head, but Cthulhu is also said to be dissolving. H. C. Artmann translated it as versprengte Plastizität, as "scattered plasticity". It’s like Negri’s multitude. It’s dissolving and coming together, so it isn’t a fixed or static form. In traditional sculpture, statues are made of bronze or marble, but this is a new concept to describe a form. It’s a form, but it’s always an anti-form, as well. And “form – anti-form” was a classical theme of concept art in the 1960s and 1970s, especially by Robert Morris and American conceptual art. For me, slime or Cthulhu is also a concept of contingency. It has all forms inside of it, but it’s always liquid, it’s a nightmare of a sculpture. It’s a symbol of order and disorder, of chaos, of entropy, of sepsis, of decay and so on. And in our culture, we are afraid of slime, because slime is a symbol of all these negative things. Nevertheless, we are born in slime and we end in slime in the grave.

GH: That’s a horrifying thought.

TF: It’s horrifying. But in the meantime, our culture tries to keep us dry and clean. We are now sitting in a library. Libraries have to be dry, museums have to be dry, have special air conditioning, etc. We also try to keep our faces dry, we try not to sweat, we clean our noses, we try not to have tears in the eyes and so on. We have a culture of mummification, of petrification and of musealization. Slime for me is also a broader concept of culture theory. And on the other hand it’s an interesting medium of sculpture for me. What do you think of slime in your philosophy? You’re always thinking about objects – what object is slime? Do you remember, for example, this fluid robot in Terminator 2? He could be any form, he could be a human form or any other form.

GH: There are a couple of ways of looking at it. One is to look at it as an anti-object oriented medium that’s nothing in particular, like the apeiron in pre-Socratic philosophy or Gilbert Simondon’s pre-individual: where it’s not really anything definite yet but in a state prior to any individual. I’m not so sure about that though, because Lovecraft often talks about things that seem formless, but they actually have form according to some principle of form unknown to earth. In Lovecraft’s stories, objects often look horrifying, yet they actually seem to have some organizational principle that’s simply beyond our understanding. If you remember The Colour Out of Space (1927), where there’s a blob-like color that lands in the well and poisons everybody. This is what slime means for me. For me it’s almost something that suggests a different sort of object than the ones that are visually available to us. An object doesn’t have to be durable or solid to be an object. All it takes for something to be an object is that it has to be irreducible in either direction: it cannot be reducible either to its pieces or to its effects. Slime meets that criterion as well as anything else, because if you decompose slime into atoms or subatomic particles, it’s not slime anymore. It needs an emergent sliminess. And also slime isn’t something that is only its effects on us or its horror for us. There is something there that demands that we approach it in a certain way. So there is an objecthood to slime for me as well. But I agree that in some ways, you could read human culture as organized around the avoidance of slime. I can’t think of anything more horrible than being covered with slime and being forced to stay that way for a long period. But in Lovecraft, I almost think it plays a different role. There’s a kind of transcendent role played by slime. It’s hinting at something deeper that we can’t understand.

TF: In classical art or in the art of the Middle Ages, you have a distinction of arts into artes liberales and artes mechanicae. Artes liberales were mostly immaterial art: literature, music etc. Fine arts were part of the artes mechanicae because they deal with materials, and materials are not that intellectual. They were not on as high a level as music because music is related to mathematics, and literature is related to rhetoric and philosophy. In the history of art it was always considered a shortcoming that art is made with materials. But for me, as an artist, it’s interesting to do my works with materials of the 21st century because there isn’t really a gap in the fine arts between materials and concepts or body and mind. For me, it’s interesting to create new materials and to create new works with these new materials. You also deal with this gap between the first culture and the second culture – for example in your essay on Arthur Eddington’s two tables, where you explain the difference between the molecular table and the table as representation in our language and thinking. For me, it’s interesting not only to tell stories with words or icons, but also with materials and molecules. And these molecules can be real in a scientific sense as well as fictional. I think bringing these two together is a classical theme appearing in American literature called speculative fiction since the 1950s. You are one of the founders of the philosophy of speculative realism. We had the linguistic turn, then the pictorial turn and some people say that now we have the material turn. What do you think about that?

GH: First of all, I think you succeeded in your Innsbruck show in producing new materials, in getting new effects out of them. I had never imagined the possibility of such objects as the slime I’ve seen in this gallery today. I’m opposed to the material turn, but not to what you mean by the material, which is that you’re dealing with certain constraints in the media that you are using and capitalizing on that by coming up with new effects. The problem for me with materialism is the same problem that Bruno Latour identified in an article he wrote called Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please? (2007). What he’s saying in that essay is that the problem with materialism is that when people talk about material, they assume they know what the underlying stuff is that the whole world is made of – and it’s normally physical matter. When in fact, what the world is made of is a mystery and remains a mystery. For me it’s always going to remain a form. But whereas form is usually associated with what the human mind can grasp, I say the opposite. It’s hidden forms, it’s what people in the Middle Ages called substantial forms that are different from the forms we grasp. In the work of my colleague Quentin Meillassoux, there’s a commitment to materialism that I don’t share. The reason why is that he wants to keep the Cartesian dualism of thought and dead matter while I see no point in doing that. I don’t see the philosophical basis for this. Why would we want to say that humans are half of the universe and dead matter is the other half of the universe? Although I like much of the work that goes on under the name of materialism these days, I can’t share the presupposition that the material is somehow more real than the formal. I’m a formalist in that sense, but it’s a formalism where the forms are hidden.

TF: Aristotle, for example, talks about the classical Greek concept of hylē. You go outside and there’s hylē, because in ancient Greece, there were a lot of trees and forests and hylē also means wood or forest. And then he says that we need some technology, téchne. And with téchne, we bring dynamis into the hylē. And so we produce entelecheia, the reality of our culture, our civilization. Nowadays, we have a new approach to material things, artefacts, because these artefacts are switching, in my view, from objects to subjects. Technologies bring new dynamics into matter. The formerly passive matter becomes a new state. So I agree with you as the founder of object-oriented philosophy. But for me as an art producer, the artworks I create aren’t only objects, but subjects. I’m not interested in subjectivism in art. I’m not important as an author in my art, but I’m interested in the pieces, because the pieces are processors, performers. They are doing things by themselves, they are producing materials for another work, they are telling stories and so on. For me it’s interesting to deal with artefacts as subjects. Maybe, our views are not that far apart, yet they differ: You are interested in objects and I say that objects for me as an artist are not objects, they’re subjects. Because they are teaching me what I have to do in my studio and in my thinking.

GH: Yes, of course. In the arts, the word ‘object’ has a history that it doesn’t share in philosophy. Especially in recent art, in the last fifty years or so, ‘object’ has often stood for the old-fashioned kind of art that people in the 1960s were trying to move away from with concepts and with performance and installations. I’m not going to weigh in on one side of that debate or the other, because for me, the term ‘object’ is much broader. But I’m happy to go along with what you’re saying about subjects. For me too there’s no great difference between objects and subjects. You have to start off at least by viewing them as all the same. Kant talked about the thing-in-itself that humans can never grasp. But for me, it is too parochial to limit it to the human being. This is not just some special kind of human finitude; the inaccessibility of the thing-in-itself happens in any relation. In any relation, two things making contact are only going to make partial contact. They are not going to fully unlock the forces of the other. Even when fire burns cotton, as in the favorite example of Islamic philosophy, the fire will not touch all the aspects of the cotton. When it destroys it, only a few aspects become its gateway into the cotton to destroy it. So, I’m happy to think of the objects as subjects. I’m also happy to think of art as always having a subject. Lately, I’ve been criticizing Michael Fried’s famous essay Art and Objecthood (1967), in which I think he’s conflating two very different things. He accuses the minimalists of being both literal and theatrical. Now, I understand the critique of literalism. Fried like Clement Greenberg is trying to say that there has to be some autonomy to the art, it’s not simply equivalent to its socio-political effects and its biographical meaning or its relational context. And I can go along with that because I don’t think an object can ever be fully paraphrased in terms of its environmental relations, because you can move it to different places and it has its own interior life. But then, he doesn’t like the theatrical either, because he thinks since the artwork is literal for the minimalists, it has no inner depth. The only possible meaning it can have is in prompting some reaction from the human beings, and that this unfortunately makes it theatrical. It would follow for Fried that art is art even if all humans became extinct. I’m not so sure I agree with that. I think art has to be theatrical in a certain sense. I think he’s confusing two different aspects of humans. On the one hand, humans are observers of artworks and I would have to agree that the artwork is deeper than the observer, because the observer can be challenged to reinterpret again and again, that depth in the artwork is there that eludes us. But the human is also an ingredient of art or, let’s say, the subject is also an ingredient of art. And you can’t really subtract that. Not only after a nuclear war when only cockroaches remain alive on the earth, but even if you have a three-year-old child running through this gallery, they’re not necessarily going to notice that it’s art. Or Joseph Beuys’ coyote could run through here – and that could be an artwork in its own right, but the coyote doesn’t necessarily notice that it’s art. So I think you need a subject in art. But the subject combined with the artwork forms a new object for me. That’s the key.

TF: What makes an object a subject for me is the natural or artificial dynamic in biology and technology that I describe with the concept “Daimon.” In that context the word ingenieur is interesting because in French it contains genius and the Latin genius comes from the Greek daimon. The English word “engine” also derives from genius. It is an inscription of idea into matter. Steel in the mill is just matter, but in the form of an engine it is a demon. And that’s why demons are interesting for me as a sculptor, because I am programming my sculptures semiotically, iconically, but also molecularly. Demons have a very long history. For me, the demon story starts in classical Greek philosophy, with Socrates and his famous daimonion. The daimonion was a political resistance. Demon or daimon can also be found in demos and in democracy. We have these philosophical daimones, we have animistic daimones, also in ancient Greece, for fermentation of grapes into wine and milk into cheese. And then we have these very logical, rational demons with Lord Kelvin, for example Maxwell’s demon or Laplace’s demon. So, in the 18th and 19th century, demons become part of rational, logical thinking. Since the Enlightenment, we have a new tradition of demons. Maybe we can say with Latour that “we have never been modern”, but these demons are changing to a kind of new technological hauntology. The cybernetic demons are everywhere, they are omnipresent. They are a highly rational new species, based on electronics and informatics. When I’m driving my car, I have a demon guiding me – a navigation system. When I’m sitting at my computer, it communicates with servers and I don’t know what it’s doing, but it’s doing things. When I send an undeliverable e-mail, then I get a bounce message from the mailer-daemon. So I communicate with a lot of demons, the majority of which I can neither see nor smell. In the future, we will have demons inside all the things – not only “intel inside”, but “demon inside”. That already happens today, but probably it will take on epidemic proportions in the near future. Maybe Latour’s way of thinking isn’t that different, because we are constrained by things and objects. It makes a difference whether what we have here is a water glass or a beer glass or a teacup. And we also make inscriptions in these objects. What do you think of this new category of objects, these objects becoming subjects with a demon inside? Do you think they will change our thinking, our society, our communication? GH: Yes, and there’s another aspect of demons in Latour, which is that in his new Modes of Existence (2014) project, one of the modes is called metamorphosis. And what he’s trying to do with this mode is to remove the idea that psychology is about something internal and not external; that things pass into us, we are conduits for forces that go beyond us. We can find ourselves doing something demonic. In his book, he talks about how we think that psychology is purely inner and yet most of our video games are about killing monsters. We are consuming psychiatric drugs in piles. And so we maybe need to rethink this notion of our psyche as something that’s walled off from the rest of the world; it’s actually something that good and evil forces pass through. I’m sure many readers are going to see this as obscurantist Catholicism, but it’s at least a challenge to our usual way of thinking of the psychological as something inner. And his mode of technology also plays into this, as you suggested with the ‘engineer’ etymology. Because Latour talks there about the link between technology and magic, referring to Gilbert Simondon. Surprisingly, even though Latour’s work seems very level-headed and contemporary, there’s something in there about non-human forces that pass through us, both in our technology and in our so-called psychological life. You’re right, that’s there in Socrates, the daimon. I have never been as hostile to religion as most of my colleagues in philosophy. The reason for that is that in my view there was a time for anti-clericalism, and there was a time for tearing down superstitions. And I think some people have wrongly extrapolated from that to say: “Since that worked in the past, we need to start tearing down even more superstitions.” Thomas Metzinger, for instance, says that there isn’t even a self, but he doesn’t really prove it in his book. He just proves the self has many parts, but he doesn’t prove it doesn’t exist. What I find in religion that intrigues me is a respect for the ungraspable. Whereas religion is often portrayed as dogma, there was a time when that was true, but that’s not what it is anymore. Quentin Meillassoux calls what I’m saying here “fideism” and he thinks it’s the worst possible thing – that you’re just choosing irrationally to believe in something. But in a way that’s what gives religion its continuing strength, and that’s the reason why it doesn’t disappear. It’s not just because of the ignorance of the masses, but it’s because there is a certain speculative streak inherent to religion and inherent to belief in these kinds of things. And even though Voltaire and his contemporary disciples would mock this, I still like the idea of keeping a placeholder there for something that we don’t really know. This is what religion can give us, when it’s not dogma. And this is what I think we would miss if people like Richard Dawkins succeeded in tearing it all down.

TF: The important point is that it is not a dogma. Because dogma is a hard story. Whereas in my view, science or art is more a soft story, not really a dogma. We can talk about it, we can change it and we can rewrite it.

GH: That’s right. But my problem is that I meet as many dogmatists on the other side as I do on the side they complain about. We’re not well off, having ISIS with us or some of the fundamentalists in the United States, who are bad to live with. But I find just as much dogmatism among the scientistic philosophers, who think that the only goal of philosophy is to become a unicorn slaughterhouse, as I call it. These people say that we have to just kill off everything that’s not real. I don’t see the point of doing that because this presumes that we already know enough to do that. And I don’t think we do.

TF: The title of your lecture today is The Aesthetic Future of Philosophy. This makes me curious because the aesthetic future of philosophy may also be the aesthetic future of art.

GH: Aesthetics is central for me because aesthetics is about something that’s usually not talked about in philosophy, which is the separation between an object and its qualities. As I wrote about artworks in The Third Table (2012), the object is not paraphrasable in terms either of its components or of its effects. The artwork is something in between. You for example have something very chemical going on with your show in Innsbruck, with all the tubes and bubbling fluids, but you can’t just explain the show in terms of the chemical facts about it. It helps elucidate what’s going on, but there’s a reason it’s an artwork and not a chemistry experiment. There’s something more to it. The viewer has to think about it.The work is there, it’s something objective, and it’s challenging us to interpret it differently. In this sense it is the third table. I have also traced the concept of third table back to Socrates. Socrates doesn’t claim any knowledge, and that’s not just a pose – he doesn’t have the knowledge. It’s the sophists who think they have the knowledge, that either everything is true or nothing is true. That’s why I see Socrates as the first philosopher, not the Presocratics. The Presocratics are fascinating early physicists, but I don’t see them as philosophers in Socrates’ sense. From the Presocratics onward, many philosophers get rid of objects by either undermining or overmining them, reducing them to their pieces or reducing them to their effects. Another way to get rid of objects is to treat them as a bundle of qualities. This is what David Hume did. He would say, “There isn’t really an apple, there’s just red, hard, sweet and juicy. And I see those go together so often that I assume there’s a thing called an apple, but really it’s just a nickname for all these qualities en masse.” You often find the same thing in analytic philosophies of language, that a name is simply a shorthand for a list of all the things we know about a person. Saul Kripke became a revolutionary figure in analytic philosophy by saying the opposite: that a name is a way of pointing at something whose qualities we don’t quite know. What you get in phenomenology, starting with Edmund Husserl, is the idea that an object is not just a bundle of qualities, because the object can sustain different qualities at different times. Aristotle already knew this, of course, but Aristotle was talking about real objects in the real world. Husserl was showing this for the first time for objects that only exist for some mind. So the apple comes before any of its particular qualities, because you can rotate the apple in your hand, it can change color as it ripens and rots – it’s still the same apple. For me philosophy as a whole, and not just aesthetics, is about driving wedges between objects and their qualities. In my book The Quadruple Object (2011), I try to say that not only can time and space be deduced from the tension between objects and their qualities, but also what I call essence and eidos. There’s actually a fourfold structure of time, space, essence and eidos. All of them come from the driving of wedges between objects and their qualities. Much philosophy and much science tries to eliminate that distinction completely, to say that an object is nothing but its qualities. In fact, science is under a lot of pressure to do that. If you discover the neutron like James Chadwick did in 1932, maybe you just have a name for a vague set of attributes at the beginning, and over time you’re supposed to learn things about the neutron. Maybe we know everything there is to know about a neutron now, I don’t know. Maybe there are thirty facts about a neutron that tell you everything you need to know. That’s what good science is, replacing a name with qualities. But that’s not what good art is. Good art should constantly be challenging your impression of how the qualities hang together. The more durable the artwork, the better it is, and that’s why didactic art doesn’t usually last long. You’ve got a few exceptions, such as Picasso’s Guernica (1937). Even though the Spanish Civil War is less relevant now than it was then, and will be even less relevant 500 years from now when politics will have changed, there’s a certain aesthetic value to that painting that allows its didactic value to continue. Inferior political art is just inferior art. For me, the aesthetic future of philosophy is about learning to take seriously the distinction between objects and their qualities. In all kinds of fields, not just in art, I like to apply this idea that the object is more than its qualities, more than its components. That’s an aesthetic thing for me. Aesthetics is the realm where that first becomes apparent. People often decry the aestheticization of politics, but they mean something else by that. What they mean is Nazis turning everything into a parade and cheap graphic design and propaganda. What I mean by aestheticization, by contrast, is gaining some access to the object apart from the manifestations of the object. In history, you can often do this with counterfactuals. Latour’s actor-network theory is strong in many ways, but one thing it’s not strong at is determining counterfactual things that could have happened. He wrote a nice history of Louis Pasteur and how Pasteur introduced the idea of the microbe and had to do politics to convince this group and that group. But his theory isn’t as good at identifying what Pasteur could have done differently or what Pasteur’s life would have been if he’d gone this way instead of that. It’s just not one of the strengths of actor-network theory, which reduces a thing to its effects. You could do the counterfactual method in the arts, too. I often look at artworks and ask: How could we ruin this piece? And often you can ruin an artwork by making it too literal. Language is filled with allusions and hints and innuendos, and this is what rhetoric is about. Rhetoric is often about leaving things unstated, as Aristotle already knew. And art is like this, too. What has happened is that we have given the sciences a monopoly on what truth looks like, which isn’t necessarily a good idea. Obviously, it doesn’t work in literature or history of the arts as well as in the sciences, but there are people trying to do things like this now, like trying to reduce art to which neurons are firing when you’re seeing art. There are people trying to reduce literature to Darwinism. They claim that the Iliad is about the stronger warriors killing the weaker warriors and then being able to reproduce. Or that Jane Austen is about beautiful younger women mating with rich older men and that this tells us something about natural selection. But that’s kind of silly, this idea that there is hidden scientific truth in the works; that’s not the point of the Iliad or of Jane Austen. We need to insist on a distinction between two kinds of truth. Some people say it’s very old-fashioned, that we will be left with just the two cultures of literature and science. Not really, because we can remove the taxonomy. We can remove the idea that science does all the talking about nature and the humanities do all the talking about humans. Because we can talk about nature in metaphysical ways as well. And the sciences can also talk about human stuff. But it doesn’t mean that they can replace all the human talk about human stuff. And it doesn’t mean that a metaphysics of nature can totally render irrelevant what the sciences are doing.

TF: In the exhibition we have a bit of a paradoxical situation, because the exhibition produces the smallest sculptures in the world, molecular sculptures. We can talk about this sculpture, but we cannot really see it, because it’s too small, a molecule. However, the exhibition space could switch from the outside to the inside of my body. I can exhibit the sculpture in my blood or in my brain. Then, it’s a psychotropic drug. And this psychotropic drug, which is related to aesthetics in the original meaning of aísthēsis, changes my perception of the real exhibition. Things in the real exhibition may become fluid, slimy and soft. That means that you don’t have only two tables – the scientific table and the linguistic table – but you have something in between. This molecular sculpture is both: it’s scientific, because it’s chemistry, but it’s also psychological because of the effects on my body that are real. This reality produces a lot of fiction and hallucination. This is a little bit confusing or paradoxical. What kind of table would it be? Paraphrasing a work of Joseph Kosuth – do we have “one and three tables” or does it disappear in “one and no table”? Is it a confusing mixture of tables to make a new table? What do you think is going on here?

GH: I think what’s going on is that you’re proving the point of the third table, but in a challenging way. Because the viewer can be very tempted in a case like this to read it – I think misread it – as one or the other. Somebody might think you’re just doing a chemistry experiment. Imagine a critic who says, “This isn’t art, it’s just a chemistry experiment masquerading as art.” Somebody could say that, or somebody could say positively that you’re doing a great chemical demonstration. But that wouldn’t be quite right. What chemical show would have these tubes connecting all the different parts of the gallery? Neither would a chemical experiment generate slime for its own sake. So first of all, there is a limited functionality to this, you’re not producing something to be sold in a pharmacy. But now, what if you were producing some kind of patented drug here and selling it? I can image a show like that. Then, it would maybe be a little bit closer to some Dadaist obliteration of the line between industry and art. But you’re not doing that. You’re also not just producing a spectacle that will dazzle the viewers, although it’s also there, the exhibition does that, too. People come in and say, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this in an art show before.” That was my first reaction. But then you have to back off and say that my first reaction isn’t necessarily that important. Art has been created here, and there is something that is challenging me. So it is a third table in between the two, because it would take some work to write a review of your show and try to figure out what exactly you’re up to here. And of course you might not even know what you’re up to here, that’s part of the interest of art. The object takes on a life of its own, unmastered by the artist.