Networks and Assemblages

speculative realismsHieronymus Bosch, ‘The Temptation of St-Anthony’

Networks and Assemblages:
PhD Roundtable with Graham Harman
20 January 2012
Centre for Research Architecture (London)


Morning session:
Discovering Objects is More Important Than Eliminating Them

Philosopher Graham Harman is Professor at the American University in Cairo and the author of numerous books and texts (several of which will be references in this day-long session). During the seminar, Harman will trace out the contours of an object-oriented philosophy and imagine how our world might look like “once the human subject in all its blatant and camouflaged forms exhausts the few remaining permutations and finally loses its status as Emperor of Philosophy.”

Afternoon session:
Is the Speculative Political Future of Egypt also a Philosophical Project?

This session continues the discussion of the morning and will deal with some of the political implications of the philosophy of Speculative Realism as it might pertain to the changing realities of Egypt today. How does its more globalised project intervene to engage directly with experiences in contemporary Egypt happening in the streets, online, and captured by mobile technologies? Can philosophy play a role to play beyond engaging with the hermeneutics of the written word whether expressed as criticism or commentary, in such rapidly changing and activist contexts? Moreover does the philosophy of Speculative Realism have a future in a project in which politics alongside its religious alliances seems to be the determinant factor in producing the new reality of Egypt — a kind of totalizing or universalist discourse that Speculative Realism would itself naturally be resistant to.

Response by Godofredo Pereira


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Introduction to the ‘Network and Assemblage’ PhD roundtable by Susan Schuppli

I would like to begin this morning session with a quote from Graham Harman drawn from his seminal book—Tool-Being Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (2002). “A philosophy is not a private introspective diary to which the philosopher has unique access. Better to think of it as a thought experiment, a process of smashing fragments of reality together to see what emerges. Just as the legendary Michelson-Morley experiment was retroactively transformed by the interpretations of Plank and Einstein, you and I have the right to purse the implications of tool-being in ways that Heidegger might not have suspected, and even in ways that he might of condemned.”

I propose that we extend this “right” (the right to engage with a set of philosophical provocations from the particular vantage point of research architecture) to all of the graduate students and participants here today, especially those in our centre whose practice-led research is organized by and through the analysis of complex spatial objects and phenomena. What are some of the implications of Graham’s work for us here in the centre, where smashing fragments of reality together to see what emerges is often quite literally the very means by which we produce and understand our work?

Not only does Graham recognize that philosophy must fall into the hands of non-expert users if its relevance is to be sustained, but that in deploying conceptual resources derived from other fields of theoretical and practical engagement, philosophy and architecture can enter into productive relays with each other to develop alternate analytic tools and produce new conceptual frameworks.

Late last year ghostly particles appeared to be breaking nature’s speed limit in a troubling violation of Einstein’s theory of special relativity. This experiment named “Opera” was conducted between the Gran Sasso laboratory in Italy and the large hadron collider at Cern, Switzerland. Smashing these bits of reality put the entire world on alert, raising the possibility that our fundamental understanding of the universe and our concept of time might need to be retroactively modified. The risk as Graham suggests, is not the risk that these neutrinos pose to scientific realism and its formulations of how the world is organised in it most fundamental and discrete nature, but rather that our conceptions of the universe should ossify, calcifying into stubborn materialist positions that cast the human at its centre without taking into account the perturbations that such particles might hold for each other or even for themselves alone, colliding as they do in their transit from Geneva to Gran Sasso. It was surely the possibility that these smashed fragments of tiny reality might radically transform the objects (our universe) upon which many of our convictions were built that gave many a scientist pause. Today what we will try and do in this seminar is conduct our own kind of thought experiments, albeit modestly, by smashing bits and pieces of architectural matter and philosophical materials together to see what might emerge; a process that I hope might in turn also retroactively vex or transform us all.

In as much as any endeavour should, I believe, always address the question of its own relevance/its urgencies, I have always found it quite useful to ask, “what are the practices for which certain kinds of questions, certain modes of narration still matter? In inviting Graham here to the CRA we collectively acknowledge that the significance of the questions that he has raised in his many texts, articles and lectures (esp. around the autonomy of objects that he teases out of realism against materialism), objects that, I might add, always range promiscuously in his writing from snowflakes, whales, flames, stars, and quarks to rubies. How are Graham’s questions and preoccupations being picked up amongst us here? How are they being refracted through our various practices as architects, artists, writers, curators, and activists?

For spatial practioners, committed as we are committed to “knowing” the intimate properties of matter, an object-oriented philosophy (that it to say, a non-relational ontology), one that contends that things-in-themselves cannot be fully known, that even when events such as the splash of raindrops onto a roof occur, neither the water molecules nor the tin alloy can grasp each other’s reality, likewise gives us pause. Generally we tend to regard our objects as a relational field of material flows and forces that continual redrafts the contours of reality blurring the distinctions between surface and depth, figure and ground, whether these objects are the Wall moving through the West Bank, the cyclone that violently remixes land, sea, and air, or the bundles of electronic capital that transform finance space into a mortgage foreclosure and abandoned dwelling. Graham’s project is both exhilarating and daunting for us. What I propose that we try and do is examine a common field of interest, whose theoretical productivity and power of imaginative suggestion, might be located within the developments and openings of the different areas of production operative here today, be they philosophy, architecture, aesthetics, or politics.