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A talk with Graham Harman on the Anthropocene

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Philosopher Graham Harman visited Norway this month as a participant in the three-year art, research and commissioning project Dark Ecology, initiated by the Dutch Sonic Acts and curator Hilde Methi – in collaboration with Norwegian and Russian partners. In connection to his visit Harman gave the lecture “Art and Ecology” at Oslo National Academy of the Arts, and the following day the Back to the Sustainable Future core team met up with Harman in an open conversation at Pnek’s (Production network for electronic art, Norway) office in Oslo.

In his lecture and the following conversation Harman presented a new development in his philosophy, the ontological concept of the Anthropocene. After being asked the question “What does art without humans look like?” a few years ago, Harman’s long-standing insistence on non-relational objects seemed to move into a more nuanced territory: art needs humans to exist. This seems to be a quite radical break from his Object-Oriented Philosophy which initially claimed that things are not constituted by relations. In fact, Harman previously claimed that the world—reality as such—is non-relational. “Entities [exist] quite apart from any relations with or effects upon other entities in the world.”[1]

However, within the notion of the Anthropocene, Harman found an ontological concept that would allow for his non-relational conception of the reality of things and at the same time not fall into what Quentin Meillassoux calls correlationism. In the Anthropocene, humans have lost control of that for which we are responsible. We created climate change, but we cannot control it. Although humans are always by some means involved, the human agency is not the superior power in the world. However, in some situations, e.g. when it comes to artworks, Harman argues that human understanding is essential for art to exist. In other situations the human understanding is there, but not involved. The radical break in Harman’s philosophy—that seems to move in the direction of Heidegger’s Dasein—makes his thinking more utilizable. However, this shift opens up for some interesting questions. Does art withhold some special essence that separates it from all other objects? If human understanding needs to be present for art to exist, does art then happen to be in a separate category that somehow bring forth more ‘humanness’ in humans compared to human’s interaction with other objects?

The concept of Anthropocene allows for humans to be a thing among other things. A new geological era needs a new understanding of being, and although by no means new in any sort of way, Harman’s ontological concept of the Anthropocene seems to be a promising tool that can help us understand the relationship between humans, things and the world.

1. Graham Harman, “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism,” New Literary History 43, no. 2 (2012), 186.

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