Drawn by their elongated proboscises to the perfumes of the exotic flora populating the Jardín Botánico, Buenos Aires, the silver cloaked figures of Eduardo Navarro’s Polenphonia, 2018, settle for a while. As if channelling the scent as a musical score, the haunting fragrance of flutes played by the performers flutters by in search of an elusive, ontologically levelled terrain. Following his previous attempts to channel the Pinta Island tortoise (Timeless Alex, 2015), collaborate with clouds (Instruction from the Sky, 2016) and metaphysically commune with horses (Horses Don’t Lie, 2013), Polenphonia seems to herald Navarro’s emergence as a key figure in practices concerned with the production of art “that lies outside our own species-centric definition of consciousness” (Kerr, 2016).

Thus, much as artists Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija can be seen, following Nicolas Bourriaud, to be inextricably associated with Relational Aesthetics, Narrarro seems destined to be linked to the speculative proposition of Object Oriented Ontology (OOO). Promising a fulfilment of the avant-garde dream that will finally emancipate the art object from the indexicality of the artist, OOO – Graham Harman’s version of a number of non-correlational ontologies that emerged following the 2008 Speculative Realisms workshop at Goldsmiths College – has come to capture “the imagination of artists and critics” and “dominate the art-world conversation” (Cole 2015).1 As the new noumenon of the art world, OOO seems – like the scent of a flower – to hold an irresistible appeal for artists (Beech, p. 1–2).

Eduardo Navarro, Polenphonia, 2018.

Yet the more exhibitions such as OOO: Object Oriented Ontology (2017–18) begin to mainstream Speculative Realist terms like correlationism and hyper-object, the more Harman’s ontology is conflated with other terms, terms reflective of a broader gestalt concerned with rethinking relations between humans and the world.2 In fact OOO is no more concerned with the Anthropocene than it is with the internet-of-things.3 Pressed into the service of other agendas – as it is by Ben Eastham’s appraisal of the OOO exhibition as an example of “why ‘things’ are back in vogue in the art world” again (Eastham, 2018) – such exhibitions are superficially emboldened by missappropriated onto-metaphysical arguments. Harman never intended The Road to Objects (2011) be paved with material ‘things’ alone, as ontology is fundamentally a metaphysical question.4

Any informed consideration of an Object Oriented Art-Object should then take into consideration the metaphysical question of how to engage in an artistic practice beyond human activity. While Polenphonia, as an art-object, may provide us with an evocative poetic image through which to contemplate the possibility of non-human existence, to snowclone Quentin Meillassoux, the idea of art can only ever provide us with access to the correlation between artist and artwork, and never to either considered apart from the other.5 Art-marking is thus necessarily correlational. Hermeneutically isolated from the ontological possibility of a non-correlational practice through the indexicality of the ‘image’, Speculative Realism seems destined to play itself out in art as ‘naïve realism’ – the speculative proposition of art-making, unmediated by human activity, “that is simply ‘out there’ and apart from us” (Shaviro, 2014, p. 66).6

Perhaps one reason for the popularity of OOO among a multitude of other speculative propositions7 is the succinctness and clarity with which Harman conveys complex philosophical issues to an audience not steeped in the philosophical tradition. The object in OOO is oriented towards an ontology derived from the Heideggerian fourfold,8 its quadruple structure facilitating a withdrawal of the Real Object in much the same way that the ‘real’ hammer withdraws from the hand in Heideggerian zuhandenheit, or readiness-to-hand (Harman, 2011 & 2002; Heidegger, 1962, p. 103).

It is neither possible nor necessary to expand on Harman’s arguments in depth here, both because as a prolific author, lecturer and blogger Harman is an exemplar at disseminating his own ideas,9 but also because other researchers such as Steven Shaviro have done much to expand on Harman’s work.10 However, for readers not familiar with OOO a concise outline of what Harman calls a New Theory of Everything, maybe helpful (2018b): Objects are everything, because any ‘thing’ can be an object, including non-living, artificial, or imaginary objects like unicorns. However, our knowledge of such objects is finite “since the things-in-themselves can be thought but never known” (Harman, 2011b). In line with other Speculative Realist philosophies that reject the notion that objects are simply a correlate of your ability to think them, the OOO world is made up of entities that are only ever accessible through their sensual qualities the real-object – the thing-in-itself – withdraws from us. OOO Objects are thus Oriented to themselves rather than to humans, and are said to operate within a flat Ontology11 that refuses to either reduce them to a list of parts or make them accountable to the sum of their relations.

The promise that OOO holds for the emancipation of the art object from human endeavours is no doubt that such flattened ontological fields resonate with practices committed to validating “ostensibly non-artistic phenomenon” as artworks (Harman, 2014). Or even those seeking art forms “uncontaminated by needless entanglement with humans and their conceptual stunts and whims” (Harman, 2018b). Naively perhaps, the final solution to the avant-garde tradition is to liberate art from humans. Regardless of the reason for the art worlds fascination with OOO, Harman himself has remained relatively quiet on the subject of art.12 It is only with the immanent release of Art and Objects in August 2019, that Harman – following Heidegger – seems ready to address questions concerning art in any depth.13

However, unless the upcoming publication deviates significantly from the stance taken in the catalogue essays, lectures and papers published to date, it is possible to anticipate the essence of Harman’s argument regarding aesthetics. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Harman – who is not one to eschew controversy – is, according to promotional material, set to undertake a rereading of aesthetic theory that will encourage us to view art history in a different way (Harman, 2018c). The motivation to do this stems from the withdrawn nature of the Real Object in OOO. As indicated previously, Harman’s Real Object – what we might think of as the irreducible thing-in-itself — is never available to us. Rather, extending the Husserlian phenomenological tradition,14 Harman’s Real Object recedes so that we only ever have access to its sensual qualities.

Thus, with the smoothest of ontological slight-of-hand, Harman inverts Clement Greenberg’s emphasis on the primacy of the ground, to ‘avenge the surface’ and reassert the significance of content (Harman, 2013). The deftness of the trick here, however, is that Harman is not advocating a return to the surface content of ‘academic art’.15 Rather, he is asserting the interdependence of content and form: “[H]owever important being, the medium, or the flat canvas may be, they need the help of a visible plane in order to achieve anything” (Harman, 2013, p. 73). While joining Greenberg in the celebration of background form, Harman also emphasizes that without content, form is “utterly sterile, [and] incapable of generating anything new (Harman, 2014, p. 262). The resulting McLuhanesque16 ‘manifold holism’, in which form and content influence each other “only through the mediation of the phenomenal world”, enables Harman to establish an aesthetic framework that is consistent with OOO: An indirect aesthetic,17 in which content equates to Sensual Objects and form to always withdrawn Real Objects (Harman, 2013, p. 73).18

Inevitably, I have greatly simplified matters here. However, my aim is not to summarise what we know of Harman’s position – it will be revealed to us in full soon enough in any case. Rather, approaching OOO from a position of art practice, I want to ask how the practice of an indirect aesthetic such as Harman’s might avoid the hollow gestures and traps of ‘naïve realism’ of the sort mentioned at the outset. The aim, then, is not to refute philosophy; more, perhaps, to abandon naïve speculations about it in art practice.19

Motivated by my own artistic research practice to engage with non-correlational concerns pertaining to digital ontology, the question of how to transcend the indexicality of the artist has drawn heavily on Heideggerian onto-epistemology. However, while sharing this debt with Harman, the methodological demands of artistic practice test the limits of academic research, highlighting the limitations of an indirect aesthetic. Such an aesthetic reflects the philosophical methods by which it is conceived – methods, that because of the ‘withdrawal of objects’, are necessarily speculative.

At the risk of opening up the question of Speculative Philosophy20 which clearly sits beyond the scope of this paper, the inherent limitation of speculative methods is that its correlational nature defines a metaphysical distinction between act and form, committing it to an interpretive function that necessarily holds objects at a distance, to the extent that their form is never truly available. In this sense, speculation is opposed to practice which is committed to the form of action rather than the content of ideas.21 In the case of a work like Polenphonia then, it is, perhaps, methodological demands that render the speculative endeavour of non-correlationism naïve in the hands of practice. To put it another way, an indirect aesthetic – one that allows only access to content and never to form itself – is of little practical use.22

Of course, the aesthetic split between form and content that OOO imposes is not as absolute as I am making it appear.23 In fact, with regard to the manifoldness of McLuhan’s tetrad,24 Harman seems closer to Alfred North Whitehead than he does to Kant.25 So, it is hard to see how Harman can be so dismissive of Whitehead’s ‘radical relationalism’, and yet accepting of McLuhan’s morphology (Harman, 2009 & McLuhan, p. 228). Stephen Shaviro clarifies the cause of this by pointing out that although Harman is indebted to Whitehead26 in his opposition to “philosophies of the potential”, he tends to focus “on the atomistic or discrete side of Whitehead’s ontology” but is not “sufficiently attentive to the dual-aspect nature of” it (pp. 37; 34–35). By this, Shaviro means the process by which “each actual occasion defines its own actual world from which it originates” (Whitehead, 1978, p. 210).27 Causally concretised, Whitehead’s objects are both entities and processes and as such are responsible for their own private satisfaction, as much as their public demise. Their withdrawn form and their surface content are not divisible by the real and the sensual in the way Harman’s objects are.

Following Whitehead then, form, rather than being something withdrawn and inaccessible, does not sit in opposition to content. As a process philosopher, Whitehead28 employs an “economy of self-enjoyment and concern” (Shaviro, 20), that requires a direct practice rather than a naïve and indirect speculative aesthetic. Whitehead’s obscure prose style aside, self-enjoyment – the process of appropriation out of which individual form arises — and concern – the affective tone that is the essence of perception — form an aesthetic of abundance that enfolds private form and public content (Whitehead, 1986, pp. 50–52. 1967a, p176; 180). In practice then, objects do not withdraw into private ontic shells of their own pleasure as they do in OOO. Rather, they are abundant in the relationality of the world: the otherwise withdrawn forms of self-enjoyment are constantly emerging and perishing in the concerns of world.

The question for practice, then, is not “how to get something new and different from an impoverished list of already expressed properties” (Shaviro, p. 39). Rather, it is how to concretise something “from the ‘boundless wealth’ of possibilities that already exist” (Shaviro, p. 39). This seems to be the essence of how Whitehead understands the aesthetic ‘adventure’ of art: the practice of an intensity that finds jouissance29 in attempting to concretise background form with surface content (1967, pp. 265–272).30 As a mode of prehension – or uncognitive apprehension,31intensity is found in any “process of self-creation” by “which an entity grasps, registers the presence of, responds to, or is affected by another [concretised] entity” (Whitehead, 1967a, p. 25. Shaviro, p. 29). As such, the “intensity of sensitive experience stands out as an ultimate claim of existence” (Whitehead, 1978, p. 16 [my emphasis]). Although, as Judith Jones argues, intensity is a “decisive component” of Whitehead’s speculative ontology, “the relative absence of a detailed systematic study of ‘intensity’ […] is a bit puzzling” (Jones, p. x; 9).32 However, in terms of practice, intensity functions as a primary consideration of causation: sitting at the prehensive intersection of form (order) and content (disorder), intensity is a practice through which actualities of coming-to-be are satisfied in terms of what they become (Jones, p. 21–22).

What is important to note here in pursuit of a non-correlational art practice, is that prehension does not assume a human subject, in that the subjective aim of intensity is of concern to all entities, not exclusively human. As Shaviro confirms, “for Whitehead, human perception and cognition have no special or privileged status” (Shaviro, p. 29). Thus, intensity is a practice common to all things and is not indexical to the human. Its method signals the potential of an art practice that avoids naïve responses to non-correlational speculations. However, the difficulty of maintaining intensity – of representing everything in terms of intensity – is that “intensity is lost to itself”. At the very moment in which we call something ‘intense’, “it is already less intense than is once was” (Garcia, 2018, p. 59).

In contrast to Navarro’s Polenphonia, I am reminded here of the Electric Venus – the eighteenth century parlour experiment of Georg Matthias Bose, re-enacted in 2009 by artist Arthur Elsenaar. In Elsenaar’s emancipated version, participants are invited to kiss an electrically charged subject. However, at the moment of highest intensity — “the moment suprême, a strong discharging spark would jump between their lips. In effect rendering the kiss into a non-kiss because the kiss would never really happen” (Elsenaar, 1993). Whereas in Polenphonia we have cause to inhale the aesthetic experience, dwelling on it and making it our own, in the Electric Venus the moment of intensity is fleeting, ejecting us at the pinnacle of desire so that “intensity is lost to itself” in intensity (Garcia, 2018, p. 59).

The jouissance of this electrifying moment is not lost on Tristan Garcia. Rather, intensity,33 as it is presented in The Life Intense, is seen to play a key role in the metaphysics that Garcia originally set out in Form and Object (Garcia, 2018 & 2014). Indeed, Garcia traces a modern obsession with intensity using the metaphor of electricity,34 to suggest that intensity has replaced aesthetics in contemporary culture: “…what do we find most beautiful? The thing which intensely fulfils its being” (Garcia, 2018, p. 8–9). Leaving aside questions of magnitude for sake of brevity,35intensity then seems to be even more significant for Garcia than it is for Whitehead. While intensity for Whitehead can be thought of as a process of self-enjoyment in which prehension concretises entities, for Garcia entities are fundamentally intense in themselves: “Intensity is nothing other than the principle of the systematic comparison of a thing to itself” (Garcia, 2018, p. 55 & 10). In this statement, the central question of Form and Object with regard to intensity becomes clear: what is a thing to itself? In response to this, at the outset of Form and Object Garcia enfolds intensity and thingness, stating that a “thing is nothing other than the difference between that which is in this thing and that in which this thing is”: intensity (Garcia, 2010, p. 13).

Still from video: Arthur Elsenaar, The Electric Kiss re-enacted, 2009.

Of course, in the rebuttal of this statement is the point: given that a thing is the difference between itself and another thing – how is it possible that a thing comprehends itself when “a self-comprehending object would subtract itself from itself and be nothing”? (Cogburn & Ohm in Garcia, 2010, p. xiii). Forgoing any explanation of complex terminology, Garcia’s response is, of course, that it is in the very nature of this contradictory resistance that things are what they are. And, although he does not tell us this directly, this is what intensity is: the measure of resistance to a thing being itself; the strength of the electric shock that repels us in the kiss (Garcia, 2013, p. 23).

In contrast to Harman’s object oriented ontology, Garcia’s ontology is, then, one in which there is no thing-in-itself – no speculative withdrawn noumenon; only ever the irresistible struggle of a thing being both more and less what it is (not), intensely.36 We seemingly have, then, two quite distinct speculative propositions: for Harman, things-in-themselves are withdrawn, inaccessible and in-themselves not for us; whereas for Garcia, the very notion of a thing-in-itself is meaningless.37 Both appear to insist on an impractical speculative proposition in that, for Harman, objects, being withdrawn, are never truly knowable and so are speculative; while for Garcia, objects, being intense, don’t exist as things-in-themselves and thus can only be speculative in nature. The unknown and the non-existent are, it seems, irredeemably speculative and impractical.

Of course, these are complex and emergent metaphysical arguments – ones that, as stated earlier, we do not attempt to reconcile here. Rather, the question is which, if either, might best avoid the sort of naïve responses found in artworks such as Polenphonia, and support an artistic practice unmediated by human activity?

Despite the apparent allure of OOO, the withdrawal of the ‘object’ is seen to fail the facticity of practice, reducing it to little more than the speculative function of an indirect aesthetics. Practice in-itself can never truly be known if its form is withdrawn or indirect, and so the idea of art-making remains indexically committed to thought. On the other hand, following Garcia, if the very notion of a ‘thing’ is an ontological contradiction, then art as a thing-in-itself independent of practice, not only becomes a nonsense but also remains indexically committed to humans. Art practice, it seems, is inescapably human. All else is simply naïve speculation.

But this reading of Garcia rather overlooks the temporal aspect of intensity identified earlier in Whitehead’s understanding of self-enjoyment. Constantly emerging and perishing in the concerns of the world, things, for Whitehead, fulfil themselves in much the same way that they do for Garcia. In the intensity of the struggle to separate form from content – in the resistance of a thing to being itself – things are constantly emerging and perishing in time. Time, rather than being a marker of discrete presence, itself becomes a variable intensity, marked by the level of a thing’s resistance to being itself. Things that are present – that are “more present: the maximum of possible presence, and not an absolute presence”, are those that are the most intense now (Garcia, 2014, p. 7). There is nothing speculative about their intensity.

To say that things are constantly perishing, as Whitehead does, is not to say that they have stopped existing absolutely, but that they now fade in intensity. “The ‘now’ of the now is simply the one that is the most intense possible: the ‘now’ of yesterday is a past now because there are objectively more intense ‘nows’, more present than it” (Garcia, 2014, p. 12). If the question of presence is the question of more or less intensity then it is simply not a matter of conjecture. What is most intense is now, in practice – all speculation is withdrawn.

As an intensive value, practice is no more one thing’s than another’s. With varying intensities, practice depends equally on “that which it comprehends and that which comprehends it”, and is a correlate of neither (Garcia, 2014, p. 11). Intensity depends on neither form nor content, but simply on being practiced, which is a condition, no-matter-what.38

That intensity dissipates like the scent of a flower in the breeze is not a problem for practice, any more than it is for other ‘things’. In fact, the struggle to make art – to make something that is itself and not something else — is the practice of being intensely now. In practice there is only now: maximum intensity. We might say, then, that art practice is the struggle with art’s resistance to being itself. And that as such, art, which is at its most intense in practice, necessarily fades in intensity.39 The challenge in making art, then, is not how to make “something new and different from an impoverished list of already expressed properties” (Shaviro, p. 39); rather, it is a question of how to let something be intense, now.40

Holding fast to things-in-themselves, speculation attempts to lay claim to the spark of intensity as a thing for humans alone. Inevitably, form withdraws, moving away such that content of diminished intensity is naively promoted via an “indirect aesthetic” – one that, in practice, is of little use. The emancipation of art practice from human thought requires no more and no less than the withdrawal of speculation. Through such an ‘aesthetic of intensity’, art might be practised as an on-going resistance to being in itself– itself a correlate of human thought. In the end, speculation risks little as it is a contingent form – the exotic fragrance of a flower never seen, only ever thought. Risking everything, practice – the practice of ‘aesthetic intensity’ – puts intensity on the line, now, to finally release form from the contingency of speculation.