Notes: Graham Harman, “Non-Relational Aesthetics,” CMU Oct 23 2012

by Darius Kazemi on October 23, 2012

in philosophy,transcript

Hi. This post contains my notes from Graham Harman’s talk on “non-relational aesthetics” given at the College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA on Oct 23, 2012.

This is my attempt at something approaching a transcript. It’s not always verbatim, but where I condensed phrases or skipped sentences I did my best to preserve what Harman was actually saying. Any mistakes and misinterpretations are my own! My (sometimes flippant) commentary [is in square brackets].

I started taking notes a couple minutes in. He first started by reassuring the audience that his talk, “Non-Relational Aesthetics: An Object-Oriented Look at Contemporary Art” was not actually a dig on the concept of relational aesthetics as it’s known in the art world.

Today I’m going to talk about nonrelationality. Why that? Isn’t everything connected? No. Some things are connected, but it takes work to connect them. When I saw the scariest lecture of my life by James Lovelock three years ago, talking about how there will only be 1 billion people in 2100 due to global warming,  it was clear that not everything is connected. Just a handful of very important things are connected. The community of climate scientists had to do work to show which factors were connected. Holism can be a lazy gesture. Things are to some extent split off by firewalls from one another. Relationality has become a big buzzword in philosophy and elsewhere, and I’m talking about alternatives to it.

Heidegger is an intimidating figure, but is really as simple as the pre-Socratic philosophers. He comes from Husserl’s phenomenology. Husserl is definitely not a realist. He does not think there’s a real world outside of our thinking of it. Everything is the correlate of a mental act or a possible mental act. Heidegger’s basic breakthrough is that it’s wrong. We don’t encounter things as present in consciousness. Husserl was trying to stop the onslaught of experimental psych on philosophy. You can’t talk about sound waves when a door slams, you have to describe the minute differences in your consciousness when the door slams. But Heidegger says a lot of things aren’t present in consciousness. You weren’t thinking of the air in the room until I just mentioned it, but you weren’t aware of it until I said it just now.

The vast majority of things we rely on withdraw from us. For Heidegger there’s a deep layer of equipment we rely on silently to exist. It’s only in the case of malfunction that we notice these things (polluted air makes you cough). “What is deeper than presence” is the question of being for Heidegger

Heidegger is a bit deeper than people think he is. Tool analysis is often read as pragmatism: that practice comes first. The problem is that our practical actions distort and oversimplify things as much as theory and consciousness do. [See PoN on abstraction.] When you’re using a hammer you’re not exhausting it. Tool analysis is not about utility, it’s about what can break, which can be the things that aren’t relevant to its utility until they break.

In order for there to be a principle of dynamism and uncertainty there needs to be something beneath relationism.

Any human or animal interaction with things will translate those things. Truth is only something that can be approached, not revealed, which is not trendy relativism but rather simple Plato on wisdom.

But not just humans/animals. Objects also translate other objects. When fire burns cotton, fire doesn’t exhaust all the properties of cotton [ah here's the PoN abstraction stuff]. What’s going on is a duality between objects and relations. Any relation will oversimplify the objects that are in the relation.. The relation distorts the terms that are a part of it. Heidegger is the most nonrelational thinker because he’s talking about the being of things outside of his relations. As I’ve already mentioned obviously things relate. There’s been a misunderstanding people have about OOO where they think that in OOO, things don’t relate. But obviously they do! But you have to come up with a way to explain HOW they relate. Philosophy is about making things problematic that seem like common sense. Just because we know things relate, it’s helpful to think about how they might actually DO that. Occasionalism from Islamic thinkers.

Didn’t hit Europe until Descartes. Mind/body need God as a mediator. He didn’t seem to see the body/body problems like the arabs did, but Malebranch did. Later Western philosophy made the same move, but not with God, but with the human mind. The problem with God is not that it does not exist and we’re all atheists by necessity, but the problem is that it’s one special magical thing that does all the work. It’s the same with Hume, who puts the human mind as the thing that makes cause and effect. For Kant it’s categories in the human mind that makes cause/effect happen. Occasionalism is the very root of modern philosophy.

I think Latour is the most important philosopher living today. Most people don’t think that. Latour rejects whitehead’s occasionalism where things pass through god as relations. Latour says every relation needs a local mediator. Joliot linking politics and neutrons. Chadwick discovered neutrons, then less than a decade neutrons and nuclear physics were connected, and Joliot asked the government to fund neutron research. The problem with L is that if Joliot connects politics and neutrons, how does joliot touch politics and how does a neutron touch Joliot? L disappointingly says “stop when you get bored” because it’s a practical method.

Objects have internal relations and external relations. Most relations are external relations and things are cut off from the vast majority of their relations. Another idea: Delanda thinks of it as genetic memory. A thing preserves its entire history. I disagree, things preserve some of their history but not the entire history, it’s arbitrary. You can’t ignore the fact there are firewalls, there’s forgetting, there’s obtuseness.

I’ve talking about how there’s a duality between the hidden object and the visible qualities in Heidegger Earth and Sky. Earth is that deeper than all relation, Sky is what is visible to us, and art is the tension between world and sky. Earth for him tends to be a unified thing. The hidden world is a big lump. There’s no isolated tools, all tool refer to each other at their hidden level of being. The problem with that is that if it were true, nothing would break: everything would support everything else. Heidegger shouldn’t have a unified lump underneath the visible world. Heidegger was a nonrelational philosopher but felt like plurality was only on the surface– he should have embraced the plurality of things on the level of being!

Levinas says the human mind breaks things into pieces arbitrarily. But it’s arbitrary, and what makes the human mind special enough that it can do that? The human mind is part of the world?

Let’s talk about McLuhan now. He’s one of those serious writers that people don’t see as serious. They see him as trendy and frivolous. I see McLuhan as one of the more important authors in the humanities in the 20th century. He’s similar to Heidegger in that he says that the ground (background) is everything and the figure (foreground) is nothing. We should talk about the way the structure of television itself affects our consciousness, not the content!

Both Heidegger and McLuhan are engaged in triumphalism of the depth. The surface is superficial. But then they end up overly dependent on content! For Heidegger, if 2 objects are so withdrawn they can’t interact then they only interact on the surface of each other. Harman thinks that Heidegger thinks that only images end up interacting [I don't buy this is what Heidegger thought]. The surface ends up an important way for depth to reveal itself. For McLuhan the medium can never change by itself. The medium is so deep it can’t change itself. What changes a dominant medium to another? For McLuhan it happens in jumps like a paradigm shift. The only way this happens is through reversal and retrieval. Reversal is what happens when a medium becomes too saturated. Cars start out as a medium for speed/efficiency. Over time they become the very opposite of speed/efficiency. But it’s not because of cars as a medium but because of accidental superficial aspects of the car: pollution, bulk/size, traffic. Maybe one day they’ll be replaced with computer controlled magnetic monorails. [ha] Retrieval is when a dead medium comes back to life. You can think of examples like the CD retrieving the disc shape from LPs. (See the Onion article on the lava lamp, it’s really funny.) Reversal and retrieval both happen at the surface; they’re shallow. Historical change happens at the level of the surface. It’s completely wrong to say that McLuhan is a historical determinist. He gives lots of credit to human choice. He gives artists power: they’re the ones who revive cliches, and retrieve/reverse. They’re the ones who cause new media to dominate.

Another theorist lauds the depths and despises surface. Greenberg. For a long time you couldn’t talk about him in art circles, but now you can, with reservations. Greenberg thinks the medium is more important than the content. For painting it’s the flat canvas which is why thinks paintings should reflect that flatness. He ridicules content. He defines academic art: art that takes its medium for granted. Sounds like McLuhan Heidegger Art that takes the very artistic means it’s using as a given. Art should be reflecting the conditions of its medium, which is why he likes cubism in painting.

Academic arts. The most obvious kind of academic art that he’s complaining about is banal typical three dimensional illusionistic oil painting. Another kind he calls academic art (really a catchall for “art I don’t like”): surrealism. His problem with it is that it’s using the old tricks and just painting crazy content. Doesn’t take Dali serious at all, third rate shock artist. Another kind of supposed academic art: Duchamp. Duchamp seems to be trying to OVERTURN the medium so it’s a harder case. Greenberg’s case is that Duchamp tried to do avant-garde art and couldn’t cut it and misunderstood avant-garde art since Manet. Art since Manet was shocking to people but that was secondary, but Duchamp saw it as primary so that’s why he’s an academic artist to Greenberg.

There’s a problem with what he says about Dali. Greenberg admits that Dali did his stuff on purpose. So he’s not really taking it for granted. It’s like an experiment with a control . Using the old methods a control so he could focus our attention on the novelties of the content. It would be confusing to innovate in both places, which is what Latour says in Aramis: don’t innovate in more than one place.

The cubists always paint very simple objects. Think of how confusing it would be if they painted complex scenes in a cubist style!

In fact Greenberg puts dada and surrealism in the category of “academic art” which is too broad to be useful. In a sense dada is the polar opposite of surrealism.

Greenberg also talks about the “provincial” artist. 1: an outmoded style far from the urban center. A loser who’s behind the times! Feel pity! 2: An avant-garde artist who is self consciously avant garde but misunderstands what it’s all about. Kandinsky is the guy he picks on most of all. For Greenberg, abstraction is secondary to flatness, whereas it was primary for Kandinsky. In the first provincial case, that IS Cezanne. In G’s reading, Cezanne was moved by the impressionists but wanted to change some things to add more depth. But this flipped into the opposite, lots of flatness. To Greenberg, all 20th century artists are chasing after Cezanne. For Greenberg, Cezanne was only great late in his career. People who came in after him like Picasso were able to stand on his shoulders and innovate quickly.

For G: cubism good. Surrealism bad. Abstract expressionism good! Neodada bad. What’s remarkable about this is that if you read Greenberg’s works, there are only 2 mentions of Duchamp prior to 1968. After 1968 he’s talking about him extensively and polemically. Duchamp’s period of dominance was in the 60s, not when he was actually doing his work. Just as Greenberg wrongly identified dada and surrealism together, is it possible he mis-equated minimalism and pop? Pop is innovating on content, not on medium.

Let’s go back to kitsch. Kitsch for Greenberg(which was pretty much Rockwell) was an imitation of academic art. NO such thing as authentic folk culture. Seems to me that the reverse is more likely. I think high art grows out of the popular arts.m If we look at 20th century, it’s most likely to be remembered for pop music, cinema, videogames perhaps. Isn’t it possible that comic books will be remembered more fondly than Thomas Pynchon? [wait those are different things??? lol #adultally] Pop culture isn’t dadaist, it’s pretty straightforward art. So pop culture is closer to surrealism and pop art because it’s focused on the content. So let me just say that just as Heidegger and McLuhan try to eliminate content and talk about depth, but it flips and they have to come back to the surface, Greenberg is forced to the same. Even though Greenberg despises content he says “inspiration” is important in art which is basically just content. He lets himself off the hook by never talking about pre-modern art. He never accounts for it theoretically. His theory is historically limited. The second problem sit at he can’t account for all for the difference between surrealism and academic art. It’s barely passing the straight face test to say that Dali is an academic artists. Third problem is that Greenberg wants an end to Neodada but he can’t do it by extrapolating his own theory. You can’t get much flatter than abstract expressionism which is why I think a lot of people eventually abandoned it.

I criticize the New Critics in a recent work. They seem to be making a literary work an autonomous thing separate from their context, they think that they’re creating an autonomous literary work. But if you dig in, every poem affects every other poem. It’s like a unified whole behind all the separate pieces of art. We know that a successful novelist is one that can gives characters a life of their own that could walk right out o f the novel > I propose a n irreverent technique where you take a lit work and modify it. Add/remove chapters, characters, etc. To see what happens. As it see it, the work i s distinct from its actual state. You can remove a single word from a novel and it will still be that novel. You could even improve a novel [and make it MORE itself, I guess].

Almost out of time. Ultimately the problem for Greenberg is similar to the problem for Heidegger Heidegger waffles a bit in the difference between being and beings. For him it means two different things but he doesn’t seem to realize. Being/beings: hidden/revealed, but also singular/plural. In Greenberg there’s a similar idea. THe interplay is between the content of the painting and the medium. The medium is the unified flat canvas. That’s where the depth comes from. Greenberg is wrong in claiming that content is all literal content, sounds like Heidegger when he ridicules individual beings. One of the things that inspired these thoughts for me is that the most powerful art I’ve seen recently is the Tahrir Square graffiti. Not just because of its political content but also its aesthetic quality. Pharaohs and generals and chariots and people who have been sniped, etc. Greenberg would probably say it’s academic art [or provincial art!]. Is it possible that philosophy, the arts, and media theory will return to content? The graffiti in Tahrir seems like traditional figurative art. But not in the sense of a surface; there’s no canvas. The figures are separate and unearthly and remind me of Byzantine icons. There may be different ways to do it but what is coming is the end of a long period in theory where depth always triumphed over surface.
[In response to a Q about panpsychism]: I’m not really a panpsychic, I’m a pan-translationist, even though that’s a barbaric mixture of greek and latin roots! Also, where do you put animals? Descartes solves it by saying animals are machines, torture them all you like. You get folks like Zizek who basically ignore animals. Heidegger gives three different categories: humans, animals, stones, basically. Socrates talks about animals as midway between humans and gods, though that was probably metaphor. Heidegger says they’re midways between humans and stones.

Q: I wouldn’t have wasted my time on Greenberg. It’s interesting to compare Heidegger’s objects and tool being to Warhol. I’ve been thinking a lot about the sensual versus the real objects, and that difference is what Warhol is doing on his next step after Duchamp’s readymade, the consumer products and portraits of celebrities.

G: Do you think he does that more effectively than other artists in the 60s?

Q: I think Warhol is really important philosophically and aesthetically in rethinking objecthood beyond just the readymades he produces. He does it across media: sound objects, films objects, rock and roll objets. Can you apply that tension between sensual and real objects to one Warhol piece?

G: I’d like to do that. I share the intuition that Warhol is important theoretically and philosophically. I’d like to explain my interest in Greenberg: he’s a good writer stylistically, and he’s blunt. His theory is always out there on the table. His theory isn’t very good but it’s out there so you can see what’s wrong when he is wrong and it’s useful to see where he went wrong. He’s a good foil for other possible theories. It’s not always fair but it can be such a pleasure to to read blunt writers.

Q: When you talk about medium and content in Greenberg and McLuhan I’m interested in where form and style comes in as something that should be taken into account. Is that medium or content? [also a rambly second question I was too busy snarkily tweeting about to write down]

G: I think style is not something that comes from content. You don’t just look at a bunch of existing works and extrapolate style from those. [and next, answer to question I didn't listen to ]

Q: Why do we have to say something is the same work if I change the 255th line of a literary text? Where do we draw the line?

G: This is one of the famous differences between humanities and exact sciences, in that there’s a matter of taste involved. I would like to think that it’s not entirely a matter of opinion whether changing certain words ruins a film or not. Critics can argue about this but some taste will be better than others.

Q: But I’m not interested in taste I’m interested in where the line is between different literary objects?

G: To say the work is a holistic machine is vastly overstating the case, writers make chagnes up to the last minute, and in second editions.

Q; This might be a tangent, do you read much about neuroscience? They talk about semantic objects, our minds make multidimensional maps. That interfaces with OOO, right?

G: I find neuroscience really reductive. The argument that there is no self is the idea that the self is made of parts. But cars exist, and they are made of parts.

Q: But this book [I didn't catch the name] was nonreductive, talking about semantic spaces we make with our minds .

G: I’ve yet to encounter any neuroscience that offers respect for anything that isn’t the brain and physics and so on.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Chris Bateman October 25, 2012 at 3:23 am

Thanks for this, Darius! Great to catch this lecture’s echo via the internet. :)

Unlike Graham, I don’t think neuroscience has to be reductive. I talk about parts of the brain and neurochemicals when describing play, but I only see this as identifying the networks involved in particular experiences. It doesn’t tell you everything, but it doesn’t tell you nothing – and in particular it *does* give you ways to investigate beyond mere self-report. Graham seems to equate neuroscience with eliminative materialism – the kind associated with Paul and Patricia Churchland. But I work happily in this space without any kind of materialist or reductive presumptions or methods, and I doubt I’m alone.

The prevailing trend within neuroscience may be in that direction, but as long as the scientists do their job right we always have the capacity to separate what they say from what they do – as Latour has it, the experimental networks allow entities to ‘speak’. This is often more useful than what the researchers think they hear. :)

All the best!

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