After the End of French Philosophy

André Gali takes a brief look at object-oriented ontology and contemporary crafts

According to postmodernist statements (by Francis Fukuyama, Arthur C. Danto, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Roland Barthes, etc.), everything we basically hold to be real and factual has suffered a brutal death and exists now only in the form of ghosts. This has been said about history, art, grand narratives, ideology, philosophy, religion, the author, sexuality, politics, aesthetics, even reality itself. Jean Baudrillard speaks of the 'murder' of reality as the perfect crime - no one is even aware that a murder has taken place. The 'murder of reality', in this context, means that everything that is real, for these thinkers, is now understood to consist solely of social structures and psychological processes.

So, what do we do after the end of everything? 

Over the last ten to fifteen years, we have seen a new interest in and reinvestigation of reality. Most notably, the  philosopher Graham Harman has introduced a concept that may be of interest for people working and thinking within the field of contemporary crafts. Harman calls this object-oriented ontology, and his thoughts have developed from a critique of Martin Heidegger's existentialism, especially a re-reading of his concepts of tools and equipment (in Being and Time).

«What do we do after the end of everything? »

André Gali

According to Heidegger (1889-1976), there are two ways of relating to things in the world: through a subject-object relationship, or in a practical way, whereby things are considered equipment or tools to be used. In short, Heidegger speaks of the tools of a handyman such as hammers, drills and chisels as metaphors for the relationship between humans and things in the world. They are equipment that human beings use to achieve a goal, yet without the tools being destroyed in the process. If a tool breaks, says Heidegger, we become aware of its existence, which again leads to a realization of the relationship between human beings and things. When the tool does its job, functioning as it should to help us achieve our goal, it conceals the inner workings of reality or of existence. In Heidegger's view, a person's existence - or being-in-the-world as he calls it - is a phenomenon that transgresses the common notion in Western philosophy of a subject-object relationship with things in the world. The human being - called Dasein by Heidegger (translated as being-there or being-here) - always exists in a context. Dasein is thrown into the world, into time and space, and is involved in in relationships with other human beings and things in the world.

Harman, a previous admirer of postmodernist critique, especially Baudrillard, is not fully content with how Heidegger and his tool analyses have been interpreted. In fact, much of Harman´s work deals specifically with reinterpreting Heideggerian philosophy. He builds his concepts of being and the world on Heidegger's thinking, but claims that Heidegger did not fully understand his own concept of ontology: in Heideggerian terms, ontology pertains to humans; Heidegger does not think of ordinary objects as matters for ontology. In Harman´s view, this kind of thinking derives from Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and the idea that you cannot say anything true about a thing in itself; you can only say true things about the thing as experienced by a human mind. This is also one of the things for which Harman criticizes French philosophy: its view that the world - or reality - exists only as social structures and psychology. Baudrillard, whom Harman in fact admires but has diverged from intellectually, may in many ways be the extreme representative of this kind of thinking.

«Harman claims that Heidegger did not fully understand his own concept of ontology»

André Gali

So what is Harman offering exactly?

Primarily, Harman offers a theory of objects that is not defined by the idea that an object only exists in 'the eye of the beholder'. On the contrary, he thinks an object exists with many characteristics that are hidden to human perception. In Heidegger´s terms, a bridge is a tool that serves the purpose of facilitating movement for humans across water or an abyss. To Harman, that is only partly true; the bridge also has functions - serve as tool - for birds, the water, rocks, etc. In fact, all objects can be understood as tools. 

In other words,  Harman offers a reinterpretation of reality based on the idea that all objects (and this includes humans and animals) exist in a relationship as tools for each other. An object can thus not be understood as an autonomous 'thing' - something that stands out from the rest of the world - but only as something that stands in a relationship with the rest of the world.

Harman calls this tool-being.* To exist is to be a tool for somebody or something. Tool-beings exist also primarily through relations, or networks, to use the term of Bruno Latour, a French philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist whom Harman has written extensively about, not the least in his book Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. If we follow Harman´s and Latour´s concepts of objects - Latour sometimes calls them actors and at other times pseudo-objects - the idea of agency comes into play. The idea that objects have agency, understood almost as having a will of their own, turns the subject-object relationship on its head. 

From the French philosophy´s denial of access to what is real, objects in this new so-called Speculative Realism (which Harman´s philosophy often is categorized as) not only have an ontology but also a purpose. They play a central role in shaping the world.  

From a contemporary-craft point of view, the concept of functionality comes to mind - the relationship between the object in use and the user. This is largely absent in most contemporary craft objects (at least in Norway), but it is still there as a memory. From functionality, the route to relationships between objects (human or non-human) is short. I think Harman, Latour and a number of other recent philosophers, for instance Timothy Morton (who has written a book entitled Ecology without Nature and coined the term hyperobjects to include concepts such as global warming in his object-oriented ontology), are valuable sources for an altered understanding of contemporary crafts because they help us rethink the relationship between beings in the world, whether human or non-human.

«To exist is to be a tool for somebody or something.»

André Gali

Epilogue

This is a path of thinking I will follow further in the near future, as I am currently exploring the route of thinking about objects from Baudrillard to Harman (with financial support from Arts Council Norway). This perspective will reappear in my own contribution to the upcoming volume in the book series Documents on Contemporary Crafts, which I am editing together with Knut Astrup Bull from the National Museum in Norway. A longer essay on the subject is also in the making.

* ‘Tool-being’ is essential to Harman´s philosophy and was also the title for his first major work: Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Carus Publishing Company, 2002).