Graham Harman and the Autonomy of Objects

by Kirk Gordon (MLA '19)


“We live with the entire fullness of our spirit chiefly among things; we live in the world.” – Max Scheler

 Graham Harman

Graham Harman

This February, the University of Virginia hosted a two-part dialogue with prominent philosopher and educator Graham Harman. Harman is one of the founding figures of object-oriented ontology (OOO), a philosophical school of thought that has garnered tremendous interest in the disciplines of art and architecture since its conception in the early 2000s. Object-oriented ontology seeks to subvert an anthropocentric world view by considering how the existence and agency of objects extends far beyond our distinctly human conceptions of them. Harman holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at SCI-Arc, where he currently teaches.

The dialogue began with a lecture held at the A-School on February 16th entitled “On Knowledge in the Arts and Taste in the Sciences” and continued with a seminar the following day. The discussion centered primarily around Harman’s work on formalism. Harman’s insights on formalism and their connection to object-oriented ontology began with a simple observation: typically, things are described either by what they are (their material/physical properties, the parts they are made of) or by what they do (their effects, relations, or utility). Within this we can immediately observe a tired but familiar binary: form versus function. A wooden table, for instance, could be described as a unique arrangement of lignin and cellulose molecules, or as that thing which keeps a delicious roast from having to rest sadly on the floor. Harman argues that not only do either of these descriptions alone do an object justice, but that even when combined, they fail to adequately describe the object. This is because objects and their various agencies exist beyond whatever limited access our cognitive or sensory faculties afford us. Objects are more than what we can observe, and can do more than the roles we ascribe to them. In this way, objects are always partially withdrawn from us (and from each other). Potentialities lurk within. This is the essential tenet of object-oriented ontology. 
In the Anthropocentric milieu of shifting climates, ecological degradation, and post-industrial inheritances, the non-human agencies of everything from CO2 particles to discarded six pack rings have become strikingly clear. Extra-human desires reign supreme. With this realization comes a pressing sense of obligation to reexamine our place in the world, and to confront the unintended consequences of our actions. In contemporary practice, responsive design initiatives centered on sustainability or resiliency have placed a heavy focus on functionality. The success of a building is assessed in terms of LEED standards and energy efficiency; wetland restorations are a matter of stormwater retention and calculated ecological services. Given the high stakes (our continued survival on this planet), this intense obsession with quantified functionality and empirical progress is both understandable and useful. But as many have pointed out, including Beth Meyer in her pivotal essay “Sustaining Beauty,” a rigid prioritization of functionality at the expense of form and aesthetics leads us toward a dead end. Without the consideration of aesthetics in sustainable design, we overlook emotional attachment as a prerequisite for long-term stewardship. We are left to operate within a soulless, obligatory procedure of tacking solar panels, green roofs, and rain gardens onto every surface we can find.

During his visit, Harman offered participants a framework for considering sustainable practice by inviting us to explore Kant’s theory of ethics. Kant believed in a formalist approach to ethics. Formalism used here differs slightly from our architectural understanding of it, and is understood as the unrelational autonomy of a thing, a thing in and of itself, separated from any context. For Kant, ethical practice must exist outside of any rewards or emotions, like heaven or happiness. An ethical act is something someone does simply because it is right. To Kant, a curmudgeonly Samaritan is a more ethical being than an individual who finds happiness and personal fulfillment in their activist work. 

Max Scheler offers further insight into this premise. Harman explained that Scheler agreed with Kant in that ethics cannot be simply a reward system. However, Scheler believed that each person has a distinct ethical impulse, an individual ethical vocation driven by a person’s particular passion towards some thing. For Scheler, the basic ethical unit is not a detached rational mind, but “a compound amorous being made up of a loving entity and its beloved entity.” Scheler effectively brings ethics into the world, as an amorous and excessive exchange between objects and ourselves. Rather than allowing sustainable functionality to slip into a kind of mandated ethical automation, we must immerse it in a passionate dialogue between designer, audience, and design. Objects can speak for themselves, after all. 

Harman considers the aesthetic experience to be a particularly unique example of the dialogue between objects. During his seminar, Harman explained that an aesthetic experience takes place when the objet d’art suddenly withdraws from us, leaving its qualities suspended in midair, without support. As human participants we find that, all of a sudden, we have stepped in to take them on. To feel moved by a work of art is to actually be moved. In this way, aesthetic experiences are a practice in empathy. We take on the position and qualities of an object, and in turn expand the potential configurations of our own selves. 

Object-oriented ontology not only shows us that objects possess qualities and potentialities beyond our recognition, but that these potentialities are constantly reconfiguring by means of objects’ interactions with one another. The mysterious trajectory of the design process is a great example of this. In the dialogue between our tools, our materials, our inspiration, and ourselves, a number of interactions take place which reconfigure potentialities. Yet a majority of these interactions remain largely obscured. We iterate, we sketch, we explore, we get stuck. Our pens speak with our desktops while we are home at night, things reconfigure, and in the morning there is a breakthrough. Object-oriented ontology offers us an alternative way to conceptualize making. Our designs cannot be defined by methodology alone. Nor will they be defined by our intentionality alone. Objects are chatty and promiscuous beings, whose relations extend far beyond the arranged marriages we envision in our proposals. Our designs, as objects, have a private life all their own.

As designers, how do we come to terms with the withdrawn nature of objects, when so much remains indiscernible and beyond our control? Architecture’s fruitful and impassioned engagements with ideas like actor-network theory have given us oblique yet valuable glimpses of the world’s objects by way of their relations, allowing us to reorient ourselves within a much broader field of political and material ecologies. But as David Ruy observes in his essay “Returning to (Strange) Objects,” the shift from architecture-as-object to architecture-as-field has left many feeling unsure where the boundaries of the profession, and our expertise within it, should lie. And as Harman points out in his initial provocation: an object can never be fully defined by its relations alone.

Given this, we might expect a burgeoning desire for a return to the architectural object itself. Indeed, this seems to be the case. In the face of a discipline spread too far, many practitioners and educators are calling for a back-to-basics approach that refocuses on craft, materiality, construction, and form. Soil, trees, bricks, beams – this is what we do. A preliminary interpretation of object-oriented ontology, as an effort to highlight the object in itself, might even appear to support such a return. But an object-oriented architecture does not exist as a pathway towards the nostalgic security of pre-determined professional operatives. Nor is it an excuse to disregard the obligations and contextual weight uncovered by ecological discourse. Object-oriented ontology calls on us to synthesize our recent discoveries into an architecture that is irreducible, post-relational, and ultimately, very strange.
If relational architecture is all about context and communications, the object withdrawn invites us to carefully consider the ways in which architects are also curators of autonomy and non-communication. Doors create enclosure, windbreaks provide shelter, and fences afford privacy. In what ways are these principles useful tools for architects? To be immediately clear, they are not about permitting social disregard, professional opacity, or warped libertarianism. Gated communities, un-ramped staircases, and political echo chambers are all forms of non-communication. But in what ways are obstructed or restrained interactions advantageous? In a world obsessed with walls and floods, how might we find utility in the leak?

Returning to aesthetics, we may look toward forms which are bizarre, enigmatic, oblique, metonymic, allusory, or partially illegible. Mystery and occlusion are seductive, enchanting, and provoke continued engagement. We should begin to question existing context as the primary generator of form, and invite cross-divisional dances between the established and the alien, the familiar and the queer. Like Harman’s withdrawn objet d’art, the tools we use to design, or the entangled particles of quantum mechanics, there is qualitative potential for the architectural object to enact what Einstein refers to as “spooky action at a distance.” Discovering how we might embrace this potentiality is the exciting task at hand.