I recently posted a blog about a book that I am re-reading entitled Object Oriented-Ontology: A New Theory of Everything by Graham Harman. At that stage I had just read the Introduction by the author and committed to post further blogs about various sections of the book I find helpful in terms of an ontological basis for my photographic practice.

I have now waded through Chapter 1 – A New Theory of Everything. Having said this, I would say, that with philosophy, I often have to read, read and read again the key aspects of the books and so my exposition and thoughts here are the result of only the second read through.

The chapter begins with a relatively large section about a history of the theory of everything – largely based in physics. The aim is that there might be a theory where its range of applicability is limitless. Brian Greene’s ‘string theory’, in Harman’s view can never get close to this aim. Indeed, controversially, he believes that a genuine theory of everything could only reside in philosophy rather than physics. In articulating his theory of everything, Harman starts by saying what his theory avoids: physicalism; smallism; anti-fictionalism and literalism – and he refers to these “intellectual toxins.”

  1. Against physicalism, in OOO physical objects are just one kind of object amongst others;
  2. Against smallism, in OOO objects exist at different scales eg electrons molecule the galaxy;
  3. OOO acknowledges the existence of fictional objects and
  4. Against literalism, OOO acknowledges that literalism – the belief that anything that exists must be able to be stated in literal propositional language – can only provide a translation but never a complete description of any object.

The American philosopher Wilfred Sellars:

“The aim of philosophy abstractly formulated; is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”

 Harman argues that in OOO is about how things do not hang together and indeed maintain a degree of autonomy in spite of their interrelations.

My question at this point in my reading was to what extent is OOO a theory of everything? Is it just an exposition about objects? For example, Manuel DeLanda suggests that complete realist ontology would not only be about objects but also events. The word objects, suggests a hard physical thing – “thing” being the preferred word used by Heidegger.

In philosophy there are only two ways to explain an object – what it is made of, and what it does? However, Harman argues that this approach is the result of the high value placed on knowledge and practical know how rather than other cognitive activities. He argues that the pre-Socratics ignored mid-sized everyday objects and were committed to all four of the basic notions OOO rejects. Modern philosophy has concerned itself most directly with the human mind rather than that which might be buried from the world of appearance. More recently, Latour has claimed that an entity is nothing more than it relation and effects and Derrida argues that there is nothing outside the text. As far as Harman and OOO are concerned his definition of an object is something that cannot be reduced downwards or upwards. Events (described as a highly specific incident) in OOO are considered as a real object and can be long standing or short lived:

“An object is more than its pieces and less than its effects.” (Harman 2018: 53).

OOO is a flat ontology. Modern philosophy from Descartes in 1600 to the likes of Zizek today is not flat as it assumes a division between human thoughts and everything else. Harman argues that flat ontology provides a good starting point for a new theory of everything but is less helpful as a finishing basis. Flat ontology ensures that we do not just consider natural objects. It is less useful in considering the features that belong to everything and the differences between things. Descartes and Kant argued that it is not possible to speak about a world without humans or vice versa. Recently, Meillassoux and Latour have questioned this view. Latour argues that it is important to determine the distinctions between nature and culture, and that it is difficult to do with so many “hybrid entities”, whereas Harman refers to “compounds”.

So, how does all this relate to my photographic practice? The truth is I am not sure at this stage. In general terms, I am interested in a theory of everything that can give an account of both physical and non-physical entities, that includes mid-sized entities and might include something about fictional entities. However, what I am more sceptical about is giving up the literal meaning of words – what is the route to the validation of the method and approach?

 

References

 HARMAN, Graham. 2018. Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything. London. Penguin Books.

Alison Price

Alison Price

My name is Alison Price and for the past ten years I have travelled the world photographing wildlife, including Alaska, Antarctica, Borneo, Botswana, the Canadian Arctic, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Skip to content