Continued from previously…
The Art historian Esther Pasztory has described the profound role of objects in our lives – some are mute some are voluable, but most importantly, though, as many a designer will confirm, they speak across time, space, and culture. Writing about the role of the art historian to interpret meaning from an object she states:
There is a continuum, however, between things that communicate little and things that communicate a lot. Even potshards communicate a great deal to the archaeologist – where and when they were made, whether they are coarse and thick or delicate and thin, how the designs vary. Whole cultures, people and periods, have been built up on the basis of broken crockery… The means of communication were aesthetic but the aims were not. There are no art things. The aim of something has always been communication. There are only communicative things.
Both Uexkull and Pasztory, each writing almost a century apart see that objects hold special communicative roles in our lives. For uexkull it is primarily the unbuilt “natural” elements that fill the umwelten of his woodland creatures. For Pasztory its the cultural objects that we humans make to communicate about ourselves and to ourselves.
But it is Tim Morton, a philosopher working within the bounds of Object Oriented Ontology who sees the benefits of OOO to the built world. Not directly to the production of architectural form but as a means towards escaping the figurative gravitational pull of anthropocentrism and the collateral damage it has wrought on our planet.
In Hyperobjects; philosophy and ecology after the end of the World Morton makes exciting and provocative insights towards breaking free from anthropocentrism. To sum it up rather bluntly, Morton uses an expansion of Heidegger’s writings on tool-use to envision a new class of things. Things that confound the basic laws of physics and our human ability to describe them – hyperobjects. Admittedly difficult to describe, it is safe to say that hyperobjects are objects, systems or collections of systems that are so large, stick and viscous that they operate outside or human language and philosophy (planets, planetary phenomenon, the “environment”). For Morton the presence of hyperobjects, or our awakening to their presence present us with all kinds of problems. Primarily they have brought about the “end of the world…” a, time when the “concept of world” is no longer operational. But they also provide us with a possible way around, a method to rethink our currently world-less status.
For Morton it as much a problem of thought, language and philosophy as it is about ecological “problems.” We are simply under-equipped in every way to even think fully about the environment, it’s no wonder that we can’t motivate action. “Hyperobjects provoke irreductionist thinking, that is, they present us with scalar dilemmas in which ontotheological statements about which thing is the most real (ecosystem, world, environment, or conversely individual) becomes impossible.” And furthermore they “pose numerous threats to individualism, nationalism, anti-intellectualism, racism, speciesism, anthropocentrism, you name it. Possibly even capitalism itself.”
For Morton we should all come to the realization (and quickly) that the perception of a current ecological crisis indicates not only our potential physical destruction (via storm, fire, or drought) but the metaphysical evaporation of our “world.” Here for Morton, the Uexkullian idea of umwelten breaks down. Or rather it metastasizes to an grotesque plethora. There is no one “world” as something that exists in static equilibrium. There are billions of worlds… and many of them are dying.
So, one can see that environmentalism as a movement, as an attitude towards conserving one world would be problematic. Moreover, any idea of conservation is also twisted by the warping reality of global events where it is clearly no longer possible for us (humans) to consider ourselves as outside of what we thought was “nature” much less claim to be “masters” of it. The only path open to us full-throated sublimation into the environment. It’s almost a zen like, all-in-one and one with all… kind of state.
Without a world, there are simply a number of unique beings (farmers, dogs, irises, pencils, LED’s and so on) to whom I owe an obligation through the simple fact that existence is coexistence… what remains without a world is intimacy.
And I would add, objects. Objects, existing betwixt umwelts, have a unique status as worlding-vagabonds. Pulled in and out of various realities they are only sometimes perceived but always relevant, that is to say relational. Though there may not be such a thing as a mute object, there must first be a subject to receive the message. A thing only means something to something else.
Object Oriented Ontology therefore is not a solution to the problems of the physical world, nor a metaphor for a new design aesthetic. It is a re-definition of our human agency. This renewed awareness of the mutli-varied and complex realities of objects and their increasing presence in our lives can have profound implications for how we continue to produce and relate to our “things.” Objects possess a unique quality to bridge across life-worlds, uniting species that otherwise would exist independently. This has significant implications for how we view ourselves as decentered actors in a poly-verse and how we go about shaping the smaller realities that we know as the “day-to-day.”
If there is any direct mission or “call to arms” in the OOO project for architects and producers of the built world I would think that it would be to more carefully consider the implications of our objects to our relative contexts, globally, ecologically, aesthetically, across a wide spectrum of perspectives. Too frequently we create objects that one might call meaningfully thin, or lexically weak. They’re like high fructose corn syrup, all rarefied and easily digestible sugars with no complex carbohydrates. They are constructed quickly, often with little thought, and any “meaning” is writ only on the facade. Through them we speak only to ourselves, or a few members of an elite class. Our architectural objects should be much more robust and seek to actively bridge between the lives of many beings.
Finally, I am reminded of a quote from Walter Benjamin about technology:
“… technology is the mastery, not of nature but mastery of the relationship between nature and humanity.”
Technology, in contrast to what most of us “technologists” will claim, in not about the mastery of nature itself, but about the mastery of the relationship between mankind and nature. Likewise, with architecture. Architecture should be seen not as the mastery of nature/life but of the mastery of its relationship to life. For too long architects have been operating under the belief that architecture should demonstrate a mastery life. Object Oriented Ontology, maybe for the first time since Uexkull, can show us a new relationship, not to nature (this never existed), but to a much richer world filled with living, non-living, human and non-human objects.
Von Uexkull, Jakob. Trans. Joseph D. O’Neil. A Foray into the world of Animals and Humans with a Theory of Meaning, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects; Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World.Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
Pasztory, Esther. Thinking with Things. Texas: University of Texas Press, 2005.
Benjamin, Walter. “One-way street.” Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Selected Writings , Vol. 1, 487. Original in Benjamin, Walter “Einbahnstrasse”, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 4:1.
Heidegger, Martin. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. Being and Time. New York: State University of New York Press 1996. Originally published by Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tubingen, 1935.
 Uexkull 51.
 Uexkull 129.
 Uexkull 50.
 My intention here is not to critique central themes of OOO but to draw a link between the Heideggerian roots of OOO and Uexkull.
 Heidegger and Uexkull were certainly aware each other’s work and shared a common acquaintance in the poet Rilke. Heidegger was often known to cite the work of Uexkull’s and it is no coincidence that both thinker share some ideas [Winthrop-Young in Uexkull, 230].
 Heidegger, 69-79
 There is, therefore, a primal score for the fly just as there is one for the spider. And now I can assert that the primal score of the fly (which on can also designate its primal image) affects the primal score of the spider in such a way that the web spun by the latter can be called “fly-like.”
 Pasztory 10-11.
 Morton 19.
 Morton 21.
 Morton 125.
 Benjamin 68.