Posted by: Johan Normark | March 27, 2012

How to define an object-oriented archaeological object (or not)

During the workshop on object-oriented methodology the past weekend Marcus Nilsson gave a nice introduction to the basics in Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy.  I will not focus so much on the workshop itself or how Marcus summarized Harman’s main ideas but a brief outline of what this object-oriented object is may be in order. Basically, when two real objects interact they are never in direct contact since they both are withdrawn, both from each other but also from themselves. They only interact by forming a new third object with new qualities different from their parts. Only in their interior do they form relations (domestic relations). The sensual object is how one object prehends the other object within the new real object.

Marcus did not discuss the quadruple object and the various tensions that exist between the real object, the real qualities, the sensual object and the sensual qualities. However, as an archaeologist I want to stress the importance of chronology/temporality and spatiality in various contexts. In object-oriented philosophy time and space are not external containers for objects and events. Objects themselves create time and space. For Harman time is the tension between the sensual object and its sensual qualities. Time only unfolds on the interior of a real object. Time is therefore not a flow or a continuum a la Deleuze or Bergson. The “flow” is a sense of accidents on the surface of sensual objects. Since two objects only can relate on the inside there are infinitely many times that unfolds on the interior of the object. As time “moves on” the objects are recomposed and they can seldom be decomposed to their former objects.

Space is the tension between the real object and its associated sensual qualities. The simultaneous withdrawal of real objects from one another and their partial contact through sensual objects is what space is. Space is therefore not about relations but by tension between objects and their relations.

Now, in the actualist approach Harman proposes most objects lose their history. We do not need to account for an object’s emergence or becoming. The object just acts its own capacities. Water encountering fire will only execute some of its qualities such as extinguishing the fire, whereas when the water content in clay is removed by intense fire a ceramic pot is created. However, the new pot’s history of emergence is, in most cases, unimportant for its new capacity to contain or pour water. The object can also be a medium for some other object, such as pot in the case of pouring liquids into a smaller vessel.

The actualist approach is positive for an archaeological approach. Most of the artifacts or ruins archaeologists encounter are like snapshots, instant moments, of when they “finally” entered the archaeological context (“finally” is never final though, there are always disturbances by later activities). We can never see beyond the “archaeological event horizon”, the event when the past human activity most archaeologists are interested in ended in relation to the object. We can never know the intention, cosmology, ideology, discourse, etc. behind that final act and the sensual qualities the sensual artifact contained for past humans. Many archaeologists would say this is a problem but I see it as a positive thing because in my view archaeology is not primarily anthropology. We do not need to fill the “voids” in-between the instants with anthropocentric narratives grounded in the linguistic turn.  

That said, there are problems in how I as an archaeologist should and can define an object. I can view the snapshots in the archaeological record as past actual states and see them as devoid of both temporal and spatial relations to other objects. Objects can merge and divide, creating new objects with new withdrawn qualities and so on. In any case, at each instant moment one has to keep a tremendous variety of scales in order to be able to contain all relations and processes on the interior of an archaeological object. This object must in all cases be greater than the single artifacts archaeologists encounter since each piece in the past formed a domestic relation of a human-artifact object. Where shall we draw the line in terms of scale?

Take my current research on caves and climate change in the Northern Maya Lowlands in southern Mexico as an example. If I go from local to regional scale in my study in our present, at this actual moment, I may have to include ceramic vessels, obsidian or flint blades, and petroglyphs in the caves, buildings surrounding the cave, bedrock itself, the Chicxulub fracture zone (the remains of a meteorite impact 65 million years ago), sedimentation records in Lake Chichancanab, meteorology, atmospheric circulation, etc. These objects, in our present, do not seem to form any greater real object. They seemingly only form aggregates of various objects. Only by following the history of the area from the Cretaceous period to present time do these objects show foreign and domestic relations (not at the same time and not with the same objects). If we look at the instants or actual states that can be detected in the archaeological and geological records the features may form objects that extend beyond the limits of earth itself. Before the impact 65 million years ago the Chicxulub meteorite had its origin further out in the solar system. Atmospheric circulation is also dependent on the heat from the sun. These are not unimportant past relations of a later present even though these relations no longer are actual in the real object. The archaeological discipline as a sensual object is encrusted with qualities that archaeologists translate into temporality and spatiality.

At some point it gets problematic to separate objects from one another even if we include Morton’s hyperobjects. Add to this the problem with dating. C14 dating, ceramic chronology and calendar inscriptions are based on quite different objects and how are we to relate them on the interior of the same great object? What object is this then? For sure not the “Maya culture” as the concept of “culture” has the same problem as “nature”. Is the object the archaeological discipline itself?


  1. […] tisdag morgon: Fredrik och Johan om densamma. […]

  2. Great post, Johan! I actually do believe that a lot of what you are talking about here is just archaeology, relations that archaeology wants to track and describe but are of little and sometimes perhaps of no relevance to real relations between objects.

    Object-orientation is all about making relations problematic, rather than taken for granted. We should always insist on keeping real relations (between objects) separate from associations that are made on the inside of a third object – usually a human being – but not on refraining from exploring such associations at all.

    Chronology IS important, so that WE can know more about what “state” the object was in when it was part of a particular assemblage or context.

    • When we find the objects today they do not have any real relations apart from being covered in soil, sediment, etc. However, they have been part of other objects in the past and my problem is how to “reconstruct” that object without falling into the easy trap of correlationism. Earlier I tried out what I called indexical polyagents, partly inspired by the retention/protention schema of Husserl’s time consciousness (modified from the anthropologist Alfred Gell’s work on art and agency). One object/polyagent simply became an index of an earlier object or a prototype for a later object of similar “lineage”. The human being was not a correlate here, simply a catalyst for the production of objects. I do not want to go back to that extreme position, but perhaps a slightly modified version as there are some common ground between Harman’s use of Husserl’s intentional/sensual objects and the way I treated Husserl’s view of time as a sequence of instants unified by retention and protention.

      • What was wrong with your “extreme position”?

      • The “extreme” part was that some people got the idea that humans are only here to make the artifacts reproduce themselves.

  3. […] likhet med Thomas, Fredrik och Johan tänker jag fånga upp lite tankar kring workshopen om objektorienterad metod. Detta senare – […]

  4. […] HERE. […]

  5. I think object oriented philosophy, objectology ,is close to psychometric.
    Very often on television, in police shows, the psychic person hold an object that was worn by the victim and all the information about the victim, and the hole crime is in that object, that the psychic can read, or see, I guess this means that, if the human thoughts touches an object, the object will keep those thoughts, Specially water. It is like magic. Many magicians, even leaders, and rulers tried to Weaponize this magic to destroy the enemy with magic weapons, swords, bullets etc.This happened even in recent times, in 1950 in Tibet, they tried to stop China with magic, and rituals.
    I dont know if any psychic tried to read ancient objects and artifacts, that is thousand of years old, or how long an object would hold information if it was covered with soil for a very long time.

    • Well, you are wrong.

  6. Hi Johan. I am a student just now encountering these theoretical debates. The possibility of applying an object orientation to an entire site, i.e. a related assemblage of artifacts, is rather intriguing to me. It may be possible to view such a collective “material culture” as simply a system of objects (without reference to authorship, human agency or anthropological culture) and explore its “interobjectivity,” if you will: the systemic relationships between the objects themselves, given some spatial and temporal proximity. If I look around me here at my home, for instance, I see many objects (tables, lamps, pens, notebooks, electronics), many without meaningful authorship or obvious isolated cultural meaning, but the way they might be said to interact or relate to each other (perhaps in a structuralist fashion) is interesting. The book and the bookshelf have an intimate relationship, for instance. Are you aware of any work in this direction. Forgive me if I have articulated this poorly, and thank you for your consideration.

    Eric Kingsbury

  7. Archaeological or philsophical literature?

    • Archaeological. Thanks.

  8. If you are talkning about OOO (object-oriented ontology) I am afraid there are not that many archaeological studies around yet. I am working on one article right now and it should be sent away for review before summer.

    I have not yet read Bjornar Olsen’s “In Defense of Things” but I guess that should be an apropriate introduction,

    My dissertation thesis on

    In these texts you’ll should be able to find references to other literature.

  9. Thanks, Johan! I do have Olsen’s “In Defense of Things,” but have not read it yet. Soon. I became intrigued by an object orientation in archaeology through a Chris Gosden paper called “What Do Objects Want?” (J of Archaeological Method and Theory 12, 5 (2005)), but he doesn’t take the thinking as far as he could, and I have been able to find little else until I started looking into speculative realism and related. Seems like open space for theory and research. Anyway, I’ll look at your dissertation, upcoming paper, etc. Thanks again for the insight. I do appreciate it. Great job with the blog and best to you, Eric

  10. My dissertation and articles in CAJ, WA and JAMT do follow ideas of DeLanda/Deleuze rather than OOO. However, there is a great overlap between DeLanda’s assemblage theory and the various OOO perspectives, particularly Bryant’s onticology. Harman has also reviewed DeLanda. In my upcoming article I do mix ideas of Harman, Bryant and Morton with some remaining DeLandian ideas. I should also read Bogost’s new book.

  11. Most interesting. One the reasons I became interested in object-oriented ontology, Jane Bennett, and moreso in Latour, is that I’ve been trying to make sense of contemporary graffiti, the stuff that originated in New York City and Philidelphia in the late 60s and early 70s and has since spread around the world. It seemed to me that the proper unit of analysis was the site, which is almost always outdoors, underground, or in an abandoned building, not the individual ‘work’ and that the site must, in some sense, be considered living.

    And I have similar problems of definition. There is, first of all, the problem of physical extent, which is not so obvious. There are other issues, such as visibility. Visibility is obviously related to extent, but is nonetheless different, as it has to do with how one can see the graffiti. Some of the most interesting stuff is hidden so that only graffiti-insiders know where it is. In a particularly notorious case, the Underbelly Project, the site has been rendered in accessible, but its existence has been proclaimed in major articles in The New York Times and The Sunday Times and in thousands of blog posts through-out the web.

    And then there’s the fact the many/most sites are illegal; that is, it was illegal for the writers to inscribe those walls. Is that incidental to graffiti or is it essential? For, once a wall has been inscribed with graffiti, that wall takes on a different ‘resonance’ in the social world. Its being has changed.

    One last issue: Can we legitimately thing of the collectivity of such graffiti, all over the world from the late 60s to the present, can we think of that as a single hyperobject?

  12. Are you familiar with Alfred Gell’s book “Art and Agency” (1998)? He focuses on the artist’s art works as one distributed object. One of the chapter’s discusses Maori buildings as other distributed object (perhaps more similar to the places of graffiti that you are looking for rather than the distributed object of one artist). Here the distributed object is like a hyperobject. I have one post about this which shows how Gell makes use of Husserl (and hence a connection to Harman):

  13. […] även posterna från vår lilla workshop i objektorienterad metod från i våras: Fredrik, Johan/Johan, Thomas, och jag/jag. […]


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