3 Questions with Graham Harman
Philosopher and scholar Graham Harman on trends, human perception, and pursuing personal renovation.
3 QUESTIONS is series of brief, three-question interviews with PNCA’s visiting artists and lecturers. Each year, PNCA attracts innovative, thoughtful, and creative makers and thinkers who share our belief in the transformative power of creativity. In three short answers to three short questions, these artists offer perspectives on career, motivation, and transformation. When available, we include links to audio recordings, transcripts, slideshows, or video.
“Take the best classical work
What advice would you offer current students about to embark on a career in the arts?
With the arts as with any cultural career, it’s important not to get caught up in the trends of the moment. What’s hip in 2013 could look incredibly banal and backwards in 2030 by the time students are entering their maturity and doing their best work. The best antidote to getting swept up in the spirit of the age is to take the best classical work very seriously. Go back and study past revolutions in the arts, and focus not only on what was new in these revolutions, but also on what was preserved and amplified from one stage to the next. History works by sudden reversals, so what was assumed to be dead will generally return in modified and modernized form.
How do you maintain your creative practice? What keeps you motivated and engaged?
What keeps me motivated is a sense of dissatisfaction with everything I’ve done. In fact, I find it hard even to look at my own past work. As long as I’m dissatisfied, I’ll keep working hard and keep looking for fresh influences. Perhaps there will be time in retirement to appreciate myself and look back happily at past times, but to do that now would be too dangerous. One good thing to do is to make a point of discovering 3 or 4 very important new authors, artists, friends each year who can help renovate your world.
Could you describe a moment or experience that profoundly changed the nature of your work?
I had a very dramatic Christmas morning in 1997, at the age of 29. There was a Christmas party at a friend’s house, and I skipped the party because I woke up with an interesting thought in my head. As an admirer of Heidegger’s philosophy, I had for many years accepted his relational conception of entities as all gaining their reality from their interrelations with each other. But on that memorable morning I saw in a flash why it couldn’t work. The rest of my philosophy followed slowly from that moment, and continues to follow from it. Objects don’t just withdraw from human perception and cognition, they also withdraw from each other. Causation is actually quite a difficult performance, since objects are sealed in private vacuums and only barely escape those vacuums in order to interfere with or damage each other. Direct access to objects is not possible, and thus the arts (which realize that they can only allude to reality rather than making it present) are more intellectually central than contemporary philosophy is usually willing to recognize. It doesn’t bother me that mainstream avant garde philosophy still favors relations over individuals and immanent flux or flow over cryptic identity. It’s better to work on the other side of the fence from where most people are working, because the dogmatic spirit of the age will eventually jump the fence and will come right to where you are standing. Do not overreact to trends, but wait for the winds to shift in your favor— as they inevitably will if you manage to live long enough.
Graham Harman, a central figure in Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology, is Professor of Philosophy and Associate Provost for Research Administration at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Quadruple Object (2011), Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making (2011), and Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (2012). He is the editor of the Speculative Realism book series at Edinburgh University Press, and (with Bruno Latour) co-editor of the New Metaphysics book series at Open Humanities Press. He is a former Chicago sportswriter, an avid world traveller, and a sixth-generation native of Iowa.