Man sees all things in terms of man’s own interest
this is why he does not understand things in themselves
he is useless to nature
he makes use of it and is unable
to be of the slightest use to her
It’s over: the contemporary was a brief period, a moment in the short American century when historical amnesia combined with postwar prosperity to flash like a strobe light on the entire world. That flashing light did not allow for continuous, durational time, nor did it encourage creative thinking about the physical world. The current inadequacy of the concept and its accompanying intellectual vision (never very good in the first place) has become evident, given the endangered state of the planet, the decisive shaking of economic platitudes, and the awakening of people to material—environmental, sensory, economic—conditions. History, far from ending in the postmodernist flatline of repetition has, if anything, accelerated and become more eruptive in recent decades. So it’s not surprising that writers and thinkers around the world and across disciplinary interests from philosophy to artificial intelligence to ecology are responding. This includes myriad scholars such as Bruno Latour, Isabelle Stengers, Graham Harman, and Levi R. Bryant as well as non-academics like David Abram, who engage the natural world and spirituality; the natural sciences are also exploding with fascinating books about planets, animals, glaciers, and black holes.1
Even as the content and details of the proposals diverge, a common denominator among them is a revaluing of matter and objects, and a corresponding adjustment of the scale and centrality of the human subject. Most generally grouped under the label “new materialism,” these skeins are at once new and connected to older materialisms. They lean and lead toward often neglected ways of understanding proposed by such diverse historical figures as Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, Alfred North Whitehead, and William James, to name just a few. This shift is not from one perspective to another, but to the loss of perspective itself, to the rejection of an anthropocentric worldview and its subject/object dichotomy. Basic is the recognition that humans are neither on top of the world or outside it; they are in the world, and not as a special category (the subject). Humans are objects and entities among other objects and entities. The subject/object polarity underlies and maintains categorical dualities such as organic/inorganic and nature/culture that we have used to carve up existence; dualities that, following the dismantling of the first opposition, no longer seem useful, much less true or still less inspiring. In terms of art, unthinking the opposition between representation and abstraction is particularly vital to understanding art objects and practices afresh.
So it’s dispiriting that discussions of these ideas in the arena of art have almost entirely focused, ironically, on the correct attitude to be adopted by the subject faced with the choice between criticality and belief.2 Such a choice refuses any kind of good-faith engagement with new ideas or the proposal to try out an object-oriented model of thought. The stance of academic criticality—at once belligerent and nitpicky—shuts down vast areas of illuminating and creative knowledge. Even on its own terms, the argument rests on a caricatured clash of positions: analysis on the one hand, fetishism on the other. Both of these extremes make the self a prisoner of its own subjectivity (whether critically knowing or deeply feeling), and celebrate that imprisonment, as odd bedfellows Theodor Adorno and computer games creator and critic Ian Bogost have both written.3
The deforming effect of the subject/object dualism, in fact, has shaped much writing about art. The formalist understanding of mid-century painting missed or suppressed the animated—and even animistic—nature of materiality in painting by Jackson, Pollock, Theodoros Stamos, Wols, Jean, Dubuffet, and others. Reductive versions of modernist materialism limned the material too narrowly and certainly because they were predicated on opposition to transcendence. Writing about the nominally figurative Robert Rauschenberg largely reads his work as revealing the ultimate sameness of all commodity objects with a sweeping gesture that knocks everything down. For Rauschenberg, however, that gesture was an embrace. On an early visit to Florence he admired a Leonardo da Vinci painting not for the assimilating indifference with which the artist treated the Virgin, grass, and rock, but for the equal care Leonardo showed to the human, organic, and inorganic entities. In this sentiment, Rauschenberg anticipated the first clause of the current object-oriented maxim that “all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally.”4 That is, each thing is of equal value. He similarly followed the maxim’s second affirmation, respecting the identity of each thing—chicken, car door, paint smear—in his combines, rather than subordinating them to his own univocal message, or dividing the cultural from the natural. As Rauschenberg said, with characteristic tenderness, “I don’t like to take advantage of an object that can’t defend itself.”5
How might humans making and thinking about things do this better, as well as more lucidly play their own roles as things? One simple method would be not to push so hard. Physicist and polymath Michael Polanyi argued for forms of “tacit knowledge”—that we know more than we can say—which allow for modes of thought not defined by their opposition to other kinds of knowledge.6 As Adorno put it, “In places where subjective reason scents subjective contingency, the preponderance of the object is shimmering through... The subject is the object’s agent, not its constituent.”7 This passivity paradoxically brings with it a more active, passionate putting oneself into the stream of life, as Henri Bergson envisioned. There are ways to be with other entities, while still respecting their nature. They call for intuition, following an impulse, trying-out. Not for faith—making this move does not instantly and inevitably propel us to the extremes of religious belief—but for enough positive willingness of spirit to take a leap. Sometimes just a step is enough.
These ways of thinking are obviously congenial to artists, even those less metaphysically inclined than Wols or less materially sensitive than Rauschenberg, and critics could learn from their example. Not only the art of the recent past asks to be rethought; many older art works too are reanimated by the current ebbing of belief in our own non-belief, as evidenced in the enormous recent interest in ancient objects from a range of cultures, featured in international exhibitions previously reserved for contemporary art. Outsider art too emerges as equally existing. Just as we are no longer certain that our culture has uniformly improved on those of other periods and places, our professionally produced art no longer seems obviously superior to art objects made by individuals not so culturally certified. And as culture recedes, nature no longer seems so distant from or inferior to it; indeed, the most professional of contemporary artists (Sarah Sze, Ugo Rondinone) are increasingly engaged with natural materials—rocks abound in the most unlikely venues.
The most basic clichés about contemporary art beg to be unseated. In a recent overview of these ideas and thinkers, Bryant points out that one major side effect of the historical centrality of the subject has been to reduce other kinds of objects to representations—signs, images—existing only as seen by humans, an insight particularly useful in thinking about art.8 The gap between subject and object produced “the image,” an etiolated version of the object, existing only as it appeared visually to a human, another side effect of the philosophical focus on the question of the subject’s access. Particularly in the 1960s, figures including Alain Robbe-Grillet and Donald Judd insisted on surface and rejected metaphors of interiority and profundity.9 They meant to repel subjective anthropomorphism, but despite their good intentions, tended to cast objects solely in terms of human apprehension. Conversely, there is and was an inability to see relatively flat or thin things (paintings, drawings, photographs) fully as objects instead of as “images” that are somehow less-than-real. This inability intensified as the image came to dominate contemporary discussions of not only art and commodity culture, but also the Internet.10
The concept of the image (and still more generally, the metaphor of flatness) serves political and ontological ends, but it has been damaging in thinking about materiality—the materiality of art in particular. I prefer Bergson’s description of reality as a balloon filling with air.11 Before and after, behind, and inside are animated as possibilities. A painting made in this spirit can bring together figuration and abstraction, vision and touch, pull past moments into present, and buzz with kinetic empathy, repulsion, or indifference between objects. In Magnus Plessen’s recent work, a table leg and a man’s leg trade places, a human seen and a human seeing exchange roles as if reality were (in his words) a revolving door; everything—painting, mental picture, space—spins.
Apparently divergent and even incommensurable things coexist in a reality that is full, and also multiple. Again, Bergson: “If you abolish my consciousness… Matter thus resolves itself into numberless vibrations, all linked together in uninterrupted continuity, all bound up with each other, and traveling in every direction like shivers.”12 The human wish to name and order stuff is a continuing theme for Latour.13 The way the newspaper breaks down, say, “Venice” into discrete sections or stories—ecology, culture, history, economics—limits our understanding of the city’s complex, enmeshed nature. Various iterations of the new materialism offer less ordered versions of the world that imply contingent connections between objects and are not organized along thematic or disciplinary lines. Most crucially, the expanse does not constitute a totality—“the world”—a ground for the human figure, or even a space or vacuum within which objects are arranged (with the art world as a parallel sphere reflecting and critiquing this larger reality). What is relevant to a dog, a tick, a piano stool, or a rock is not the same world seen from different viewpoints, but different worlds.14
This expanded sense of a multi-directional space, along with an expanded, even geological, temporality, diminishes the scale and permanence of social conditions. Both reinforce the feeling that the way humans live now—as moderns, or in capitalism, or however you prefer to cast it—is not a permanent state. The shrinking scale of human subjectivity is entwined with the (appropriate) shrinking commitment to current social conditions; quite rightly, Adorno tied the fate of the two together. And yet even though this shrinking of the subject is positive, a liberating shift in relative scale, at the same time there can be an apocalyptic feel to giving up the privileged viewpoint of the human. Amidst the onslaught of end-times literature, Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us offers a fascinatingly concrete look at the way the planet would (will) change when humans disappear, one made all the more vivid by details such as the persistence of centuries-old ceramic objects beneath the rotting, plant-overtaken ruins of the Metropolitan Museum.15 But why wait for the world without us? It’s not to late to wake up to the many worlds, with us.
1. I want to acknowledge artist Katherine Behar, who introduced me to these ideas; see her “Facing Necrophilia, or ‘Botox Ethics,’” in New Realisms and Materialisms, ed. Ian Bogost and Levi R. Bryant (Brooklyn, forthcoming). I also thank my imaginative and good-spirited graduate seminar class at Hunter College this spring for the chance to read this material together.
2. See, for example, Hal Foster, “Post-Critical,” The Brooklyn Rail (December 2012-January 2013).
3. Theodor Adorno, “Subject and Object” , in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt (New York, 1985); Ian Bogost, Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be A Thing (Minneapolis, 2012).
4. Bogost, 11.
5. G. R. Swenson, “Rauschenberg Paints a Picture,” ArtNews 62, no. 2 (April 1963), 48.
6. For example, Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension (New York, 1966).
7. Adorno, 506.
8. Levi R. Bryant, The Democracy of Objects (Michigan, 2011), 22.
9. The things themselves remained obdurate, unknown; one major strain of new materialism echoes the withdrawn nature of things following Heidegger, a model that can come rather close to phenomenology. See, for example, the writings of Graham Harman. I prefer the Bergson/Deleuze line of thinking that allows for the possibility of relations of closeness.
10. For a terrific counter-example of the social and physical materiality of the digital picture-object, see Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” e-flux 10 (November 2009).
11. Ironically, even though this essay inveighs against generalized thinking, a broad statement is the format and brief of this essay series. For specific versions of what some of these ideas might mean for art objects, see my recently published writing on Wols, Magnus Plessen, and Eberhard Havekost, and forthcoming essays on Robert Rauschenberg and Charline von Heyl.
12. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, tr. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (New York, 1994), 208.
13. A long bibliography, including We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, MA, 1993) and On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (Durham, NC, 2009).
14. For a fascinating exploration of the reality of different animals, including the tick, see Jakob von Uexküll, A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds”  in Instinctive Behavior: The Development of a Modern Concept, ed. and trans. Claire H. Schiller (New York, 1957), 5 – 80.
15. Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (New York, 2008), 37; for a new materialist take, see Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet (Winchester, UK, 2011).
KATY SIEGEL is professor of art history at Hunter College, CUNY. Her most recent books are Since ‘45 (Reaktion, 2011) and Abstract Expressionism (Phaidon, 2011); upcoming curatorial projects include Light Years: Jack Whitten, 1971-1973 and The Matter That Surrounds Us: Wols and Charline von Heyl (Rose Art Museum).