Sunday 8 September 2019

Object-Oriented Ontology - Say What? (Part One)

“Ontology means something like ‘the study of being’.”
- Graham Harman,
Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything
(Pelican Books, 2018), page 13

“Object-oriented ontology maintains that 
objects exist independently of human perception.”
 - Wikipedia article about Object-Oriented Ontology.

“Photography is engaging with things in the world.”
- Ed Panar, American Photographer,
A Small Voice/Conversations with Photographers 
Pod Cast #109, July 20, 2019
Hosted by Ben Smith

“Are we having fun yet?”
- Larry Tayler, confused photographer

So, bear with me on this one, dear reader. I’m in new territory and am struggling to understand a challenging new photographic concept: object-oriented ontology. And I can feel my brain synapses working overtime!

The beginning: in late July, I heard an interview with the American photographer Ed Panar on A Small Voice/Conversations with Photographers, a podcast created by English photographer Ben Smith. (Episode #109, July 20, 2019 – link; Ed Panar’s personal website is here.) 

[Sidebar One: Smith’s podcasts are a delight – filled with interesting photographers talking about their passions. The conversations are mostly idea-oriented, not gear-oriented – one reason why I find them so refreshing.]

Panar is a Pittsburgh-based photographer who is exploring the concept of object-oriented ontology (OOO, as the cool kids say) in his practice. (If you listen to the podcast through the link above, Panar starts talking about OOO at the 33 minute mark.) I was immediately intrigued by his description of OOO, even though I didn’t understand what he was talking about. The first thing I did was look up the word, ‘ontology’!

Adherents of object-oriented ontology believe that the Age of Enlightenment in the 17thand 18thcenturies – despite its commitment to the role of science and reason in human development – placed too much emphasis on human understanding of reality and not enough on the wisdom of the non-human world. To this day, so-called Western societies privilege human experience over non-human. The non-human elements become mere tools for humans to use in the exploitation of the planet. A rock has its own integrity beyond any classification and purpose assigned to it by humans. Rocks had their own existence long before humans evolved – and will continue to do so long after humanity has flamed out. 

Ever since I heard Panar’s interview, I have been reading everything I could find about OOO and am fascinated by the concept, despite the fact that A) I am skeptical about its application to photography; and B) I am still confused about what it means. My explorations are tempered by a trusted friend’s caution that OOO might be simply ‘elevating the banal.’ In any case, this is an ideal opportunity for learning.

Photographers who use an OOO approach try to ‘decenter’ the human aspects and focus on the uniqueness of the non-human world. They honour the non-human reality. Or, as Graham Harman says, “OOO holds that the external world exists independently of human awareness.” (Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything, Pelican Books, 2018, page 10)

[Sidebar Two: Tragically, the privileging of humans over non-humans led to the horrors of slavery and its wretched legacy. ‘Enlightened’ white Europeans often regarded non-whites as sub-human, commodities to be bought and sold. When a human being can be reduced to a chattel, the transgenerational trauma lasts for centuries. Racism was not born in the Enlightenment, but that is surely the source of its intellectual ‘legitimacy’.]

And that’s the end of today’s lecture. I hope it was useful. Writing it helped me sort out some of my own thinking. Next week, I want to examine my skepticism about OOO and how that skepticism diminished as I began to feel OOO’s rhythms in my photography. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these OOO-influenced photos from Corbyville and Prince Edward County.

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