During my MA, I spoke of how phenomenology became the “grit in my shoe” as I tried to find the philosophical underpinning for my photographic practice.  It no longer worked for me, life is not just about human-mediated experience, perception and presence.  I turned to Speculative Realism and in particular the Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) of Graham Harman (2018).  I was attracted by flat ontology, the underlying equality of objects whether they be large or small, simple or complex and also by Harman’s articulation of essence as being the tension between the Real Object (RO) and the Real Qualities (RQ), although Harman makes clear that:

“It should never be forgotten that OOO renounces all claims to know the essence of anything directly.  Yet this does not entail that nothing has an inner nature, and that therefore everything would be wilfully performed or socially constructed rather than having an inherent character that resists all our efforts to plumb its depths.  Since essence is the only one of the four tensions made up of two real terms and no sensual ones, it is admittedly also the most difficult of the four to investigate.” (Harman 2018 p159-161).

Thus, Harman issues a warning that in searching for the essence, we can never engage with the totality of the Real Object and Real Qualities and can only partially do so through its Sensual Qualities.  This idea is not new of course, as Immanuel Kant had written of the noumena centuries before.   My search then, is for that glimpse or emergence of a part or aspect of the Real Object.  While my mission remains unchanged, I have started to dig deeper into objects or “things” and their relationships direct or indirect.

While my practice in the past year began with a focus on lone trees (for example) as my work developed, I began to capture the interiority of collectives such as woods and forests.  I became fascinated by the hidden life of trees, their social interactions and natural entanglement and dependence on other trees and species.  My search for essence is not necessarily in relation to a single object, but rather to capture the combined being of many.  Does this leave me with a disjunct between the philosophical basis and my evolving photographic practice?

The shift in my practice has led me to consider whether OOO offers me a framework to consider the relationships between objects, whether human or other, direct or indirect and whether it offers an approach from which to understand and capture the dynamics of the natural world.

But first, what does Graham Harman have to say about relations between objects?  Given the nature of Kant’s noumena, Harman questions whether any object can possibly have an impact on another.  Harman says:

“Given that real objects are by definition incapable of touching each other, we need to find a way in which they touch without touching, through some sort of indirect contact.  This concept is known in OOO as ‘vicarious causation.”  (Harman 2018 p150).

Through the history of philosophy, the question of whether objects can have a direct effect on each has barely been raised although occasionalism suggested that causation was a matter for a higher entity – namely God.  Kant and Hume on the other hand see the site of causation as located in the human mind, not out-with human experience.  It was not until Bruno Latour that he considered causality should be mediated locally rather than seeking resolution from a higher authority – whether that authority be God or the human mind.

I can see the problem that Harman has in OOO – namely that if you accept the inaccessible nature of Kant’s noumena then it is impossible to conceive of direct relations between objects.  However, I do not feel that Harman adequately solves the problem through vicarious causation.  I feel I need to turn to other speculative realists and materialists to help me in this regard.

As I approached my Upgrade to PhD and after auditing the New Materialisms and Realisms module, I became uneasy with my hitherto slavish commitment to Harman’s OOO.  However, until this point, I felt that Harman provided me with a comprehensive and appropriate approach to support the development of my practice.  It remains to be seen whether I can reconcile these concerns by returning to vicarious causation or finding solutions in other philosophies.

I have spoken in other posts about moments of insight – a light bulb moment when the course of thoughts or ideas are changed or refined.  Although I do not know what the outcome of further research might be, I feel that this is the moment when I choose to branch out within the umbrella of Speculative Realism and find my own path to develop and underpin my practice.   OOO does not necessarily provide me with all the answers I am seeking, and others might be better placed to fill in the gaps in my philosophical journey.

 

References

Harman, G. (2018). Object-Oriented Ontology – A New Theory of Everything. Milton Keynes, Pelican 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.
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