Graham Harman is an interesting character. He’s a leading figure in contemporary philosophy and holds a professorship at the American University in Cairo, yet earlier in life had a stint working as a sports writer in Chicago. It seems an unlikely trajectory, but for Harman it makes perfect sense, as his work insists on grappling with the real stuff of the world rather than retreating entirely into the mysteries of abstract thought. This might sound slightly dull but in fact it is anything but. Harman manages to mystify this real stuff, so much so that after spending some time reading him, I can’t look at my toaster in quite the same way anymore. Based on my somewhat cursory exposure to his work, I’m going to try and quickly sketch out some of his basic ideas. I can’t possibly do them justice but I’m going to try anyway because I think they lead to an interesting new way of thinking about these photographs I am doing. Apologies in advance to any students of philosophy reading this. It might be best if you stop here.
Harman’s fundamental idea is that Western philosophy has completely lost its way for the last 200 years. Ever since Kant’s so-called Copernican revolution, where it was decided that the world revolved around the human mind and consequently that the task of philosophy was to understand the world by means of how it appears within this mind, philosophy has been fixated on the human. This manifests itself in various ways. An extreme version of it would be a form of idealism that goes as far as claiming that the world outside the mind does not even exist at all. A less extreme version is that represented by phenomenology, which suggests that while the outside world may exist, the only way we can access it is through our perceptions, and hence the starting point of philosophy is a rigorous examination of this mind/world interface.
Harman rejects this and insists that we should be examining things in the world on their own terms and not privileging how they present themselves to human consciousness. In one sense this leads us to what is normally called realism (as opposed to idealism) and possibly a very mechanistic, scientific, and empirical view of the universe, one that abandons the murky territory of human consciousness altogether in favour of physical entities that can be measured and analyzed. However, this is not Harman’s game either – he doesn’t abandon the weirdness of the human mind, but rather extends this weirdness to everything else in the world as well. So, there is nothing special about human experience of the world, it is in fact but one among a myriad of ways in which things within the world can relate to, and interact with, each other.
He uses the term object to refer to one of these “things within the world” and consequently his form of philosophy is referred to as object-oriented. He claims that all Western thought tends to ignore the object, either treating it as a construction within human consciousness and therefore not real (most post-Kantian philosophy), or else treating it as some sort of largely accidental conglomeration of more fundamental elements like atoms, particles or quarks (science). Harman’s goal is to restore the object to what he sees as it’s rightful place at the centre of our thinking. In order to help do so he develops a philosophy of objects that grants them status as autonomous entities and also transcends the idealist/realist divide by explaining how essentially they can both exist and not exist at the same time.
He does this by firstly making a distinction between what he calls sensual objects and real objects. A sensual object is the object as it exists within my mind, as it has been perceived by means of my senses, or at least by means of whatever apparatus I am equipped with to allow me some sort of access to the world. The sensual object may or may not be presently visible to me. As I write this, if I turn my head to my left I can see my guitar hanging on the wall. If I it turn back again, although I can’t actually see the guitar anymore, I am confident that it’s still there, and it still exists as a sensual object in my mind. The sensual object is constructed by means of sense impressions, or what Harman then calls sensual qualities, which are the properties of the object that we can ascertain by means of how we perceive or experience it – the blue of the body, the smoothness of the back of the neck, the fuller tone that I hear when I switch from back pickup to front, the pain in my fingers I get from the strings when I haven’t played it in a while.
Complementing these sensual objects with their sensual qualities we then also have real objects with real qualities, as Harman is no pure idealist denying the existence of the outside world. These real objects are deeply mysterious though. The guitar is clearly a real object, as it exists as a physical entity in the world, but I can only access its sensual counterpart, can only construct a version of it based on what my senses tell me about it. This is always inadequate. I can never exhaust the possibilities of the real object, or as Harman puts it, the real object constantly withdraws from view, into a shadowy domain that I am never privy to. The real object has real qualities: these are its properties, its characteristics, without which it would not be the same object, but examination of these real qualities can only ever be a speculative endeavour, as we can’t directly access them.
So, there is always one real object, with an associated set of real qualities, but this gives rise to multiple sensual objects, each of which is constructed from associated sensual qualities, and each of which is a result of some entity’s sensual experience of the real object. So far so good I think. An ant’s experience of my guitar, formed by crawling slowly across it’s surface, is radically different to mine, and it seems plausible that this consequently gives rise to a completely different realisation of the guitar within whatever passes for the ant’s consciousness. We could alternatively take this in the opposite direction and speculate on the existence of other forms of conscious beings (Gods or ghosts perhaps) whose experience of the guitar is completely different to ours, having the ability to employ a sensual apparatus the nature of which we can’t even conceive of.
This talk of consciousness is something of a red herring though, because where things get truly weird is when we then reintroduce the notion outlined above that consciousness (human or otherwise) has no privileged position within the universe; it’s only one means by which an object (the human in this case) can relate to, or access, another one. The guitar is hanging on a bracket which is fixed into the wall. This means that a relation has been formed between the guitar and the bracket, and the bracket’s experience of the guitar is mediated by means of the parameters of that experience. The guitar exists as a sensual object for the bracket and while this may not take a conscious form (though how would we know anyway if it did?) it may take a myriad of other forms that we don’t have access to, and hence can only speculate about.
This might be straying a little off-course here so let me get back to what I think is interesting about this stuff with respect to photography, and in particular with respect to the long exposure photography that I am doing. Harman takes these four aspects of his object model (sensual objects, sensual properties, real objects and real properties) and teases apart what he refers to as the tension resulting from the relationship between each of the four object/property pairs. In the case of sensual objects and their sensual properties, this tension corresponds directly to time, as the sensual object is built from a synthesis of it’s sensual properties that present themselves to us over time. Imagine if there was no time. In that case the sensual object would be directly equivalent to a fixed and determined set of sensual properties i.e. exactly as it appears to us right now and no more. But as we experience time, the sensual properties of the object are constantly shifting – we walk around and look at it from different angles, the light falls differently on it and changes it’s colour throughout the day, we pick it up and feel different parts of it and so on. We don’t suddenly think it’s a different object when this happens though; we are able to maintain the integrity of the sensual object in our minds in spite of its shifting sensual properties.
So, we might think of a conventional photograph as being a representation of a particular set of sensual qualities (those related to the reception of light) accessible at the moment the shutter was opened and therefore the notion of a photograph as something that freezes time suddenly becomes more than a well-worn cliche. In Harman’s world, that is precisely what a photograph does, not because of the usual reasons (as outlined for example by Barthes in Camera Lucida where the photograph is granting access to the past) but because the photograph represents a world without time, where a representative snapshot of some sensual properties of the object have been used to create a representation of the sensual object itself. There is no possibility of them unfolding further and therefore no time.
A long exposure photograph however seems to me to be doing something slightly different. In this, we are getting a sense of something that is occurring over a period of time, or to put it in Harman’s terms, we are getting a depiction of the sensual (visual in this case) properties of things, one that is not fixed to a single moment but instead consists of representations of these properties over a period of minutes or hours. It therefore corresponds more closely to how we experience the relationship between sensual objects and sensual properties, and hence how we experience time itself.
We can take this a little bit further though and try and tease out the implications of the word representation within this framework. In one sense the sensual object is itself a representation in the first place, as it’s a representation of the real object. We would have to conclude then that the photograph (any photograph) is a representation of a representation, or at least we would have to conclude this if we insist on holding to the idea that it’s a depiction of the sensual object. When you think about it though, this seems like a pretty strange thing to believe. The only way a photograph could really be a representation of the sensual object that I perceive would be if the camera was some sort of psychic device that had access to my consciousness. So what if we abandon the idea that it’s such a representation at all? If we do this then we are back to the traditional realist view of what photography is, i.e. the imprint of photons on photographic film and a resultant impression of reality, or as Sontag famously put it a “trace of the real”.
However, if we think about this in the context of object oriented philosophy, it stops being a rather well-trodden and outmoded way of thinking about photography, and instead becomes something that is replete with all sorts of Harmanesque weirdness. For example, we could conclude that the photograph is still some sort of representation of a sensual object, but it’s not the sensual object that results from how human consciousness accesses physical reality – it is the sensual object that results from how the film itself accesses reality. In other words what we are looking at is a depiction of how one object, the film, accesses or perceives another object, and what we get in the photograph is some sort of representation of its sensual properties at the moment (or moments) the shutter is opened. In conclusion, a photograph is neither a human construction nor a trace of reality, but instead is a rare glimpse into the murky world of how objects experience each other.
I think I had better stop here and briefly say something about the photograph at the top. It was taken during a rehearsal for the show Mirror Mirror that was running as part of Absolut Fringe 2012. Big thanks to Niamh Creely and her crew for setting this up. Finally, it’s worth mentioning also that there will be an event early next year in Dublin called Weaponising Speculations which will be about speculative realism (within which Harman’s brand of object oriented philosophy falls). Some information about this can be found here. Looks like it could be really good.