Object orientations in STS?

by Timothy Webmoor

Graham Harman diagrams the ‘fourfold’ object at the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society

Graham Harman recently visited Oxford for a week as part of a Mellon funded Sawyer Seminar. The organisers, archaeologist Chris Gosden and geographer Sarah Whatmore, both of the University of Oxford, put together an innovative format whereby scholars who think and write about the supposed ‘ontological turn’ were gathered together with objects at the fantastically eclectic Pitt Rivers Museum. Immersed in musty stuff, the scholars were to think freshly about the interdiscplinary importance of things by talking through objects in-the-hands. Perhaps at home with the Heideggerian ‘throwness’ of the event, Harman contributed to the discussions through his advocacy of Object-oriented Philosophy. A theme which emerged at the event, particularly at the more conventional series of presentations held mid-week, was whether a turn to ontology could ever possibly ‘take things seriously’ on their own. Or whether a consideration of objects, devices, instruments and other missing masses – the under-labourers of a host of heterogeneous practices in science and society – must necessarily ‘shift out’ to a more holistic consideration of the relations that stuff enter into. A lesson of STS has of course been not to a priori bracket off what ingredients are engaged in what we are describing. This agnosticism leads researchers to acknowledge many untoward connections that might have been passed over in ‘conventional’ studies. So often how we relate to things is through relations.

But do we lose the trees for the forest? In emphasizing relations that things enter into, do objects themselves drop out of view? Sometimes reading magnificently sensitive accounts of how constellations of humans and nonhumans are coordinated to become semi-stable phenomena, whether electronic patient records in hospitals or location-based mobile phone technologies, I come away with little idea of the actual objects. Descriptions seem sometimes too eager to pass quickly to the ‘higher order’ scale of commodity derivative trading or atherosclerosis enactment and management. Is it intellectually blasé or even disreputable to describe objects themselves?

This is where Harman’s work intervenes. Amongst his many works that merge “the centaur of classical metaphysics . . . with the cheetah of actor-network theory,” chapter 6 in his Prince of Networks cautions against the influential trend of relationism in much of STS. Of course, we might subtly question the very categorisation and boundaries taken up in definitions of objects as isolated, discreet and self-contained. But Graham undertakes just this. A very close and phenomenologically sophisticated and sensual study of objects and their ‘essence’ as unified entities that can neither be reduced to their relations with other humans and nonhumans, nor exhausted by their qualities. But then ‘essences’ are out of vogue now too. For STSers, Harman provokes us to pause and consider the ‘thingly’ qualities of what matters. To consider the trade-offs involved in scaling-out our sophisticated accounts of how things enact ontologies. Archaeologists, who have long produced ‘thick descriptions’ of objects and developed nuanced theories for the relations of things and persons, find a much needed humility in Harman, a reminder that storying the past can never be too focused on objects themselves.

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