Saturday, November 5, 2011

On Landscape Ontology: An Interview with Levi Bryant

These days the term "landscape" is included frequently as part of several growing and exciting fields of inquiry interested in human settlement and occupation- landscape urbanism, landscape ecology, landscape archeology, and landscape architecture, among others.  Despite this, an ontological definition of exactly what a landscape is or might be remains problematic and ambiguous.

Levi Bryant is a professor of philosophy and the author of the recently released Democracy of Objects, as well as co-editor of O-Zone, a new journal of object-oriented studies.  As an object-oriented philosopher Dr. Bryant works to develop a philosophy that pushes beyond the boundaries of human subjectivity to grapple with reality in all of its nasty splendor.  In recent years the work of Dr. Bryant and others such as Jane Bennett, Timothy Morton, Graham Harman, and Ian Bogost is opening up new, actionable ways of thinking and working in the world.

Recently we had the chance to discuss intersections between his work and ideas of wilderness, landscape, control mechanisms and the ambivalence of utopian fictions in affecting public space.
[ectomycorrhizae are fungi that form symbiotic associations with plant roots, taking in the carbon provided by the photosynthetic capabilities of the plant; this symbiotic relation allows plants to access minerals and water in the soil that would otherwise be inaccessible to their larger cell structures]

Dr. Bryant, you've mentioned before many of the thinkers you are indebted to.  I'm interested if there were specific experiences or places which also pushed you to make the connections that you are developing in your form of object oriented ontology?

Brian, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.  It’s always difficult to determine what experiences might have made you fascinated with the things that fascinate you, and this above all because experience, as the analytic philosophers like to say, is so theory laden.  At the heart of all experience is something of a self-reflexive paradox.  Does something fascinate you because of experiences you have had?  Or do you have the experiences you’ve had because something fascinates you?  There’s an undecidability here.

Nonetheless, two experiences come to mind.  As a child I loved building things.  We would scavenge the local building sites to gather scrap wood and nails and build forts, tree houses, and a friend and I even built a beautiful bridge across the creek in the park.  We drove pilings deep into the creek bottom and constructed the bridge out of artfully arranged 2x4s.  It had a feel akin to a Japanese wooden walking path, which probably wasn’t much of a surprise as the interior design of the houses I grew up in had so many Asian influences.  In working with wood and landscapes in the way we did—especially with irregularly shaped bits of scrap wood –you really discover the agency of matter.  On the one hand, you can’t make materials do whatever you want them to do.  There’s a very real sense in which you have to submit to the exigencies, the singularities, the idiosyncrasies of your medium to do anything with that medium.  This was above all the case with scrap wood which, due to its various sizes and how it had been cut functioned in a way not unlike the manner in which the constraints on writing a haiku or in iambic pentameter lead to surprising inventions of language.  In short, there’s a poetry of matter, or perhaps a poetry of working with matter, that entails that any fabrication or construction is always a mutual result of the craftsperson, the artisan, and the material.  These are things that every artist, engineer, artisan, and cook, I believe, knows; though philosophers, in their commerce with ideas and texts often seem to miss this dimension of the world.  I think that these early experiences working with physical and natural objects gave me a healthy respect for the autonomy and agency of entities that would later render me receptive and sympathetic to object-oriented thought.

The other experience that comes to mind is a bit darker and less idyllic.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I went through a difficult time in high school and my family kicked me out of the home for a while.  Insofar as I worked at a restaurant that paid very little, I was directly thrown into poverty and was naked and vulnerable before the world.  Paraphrasing Heidegger with a Marxist twist, when you live in poverty everything is a broken hammer.  Here it will be recalled that Heidegger argued that in the midst of use tools are rendered invisible because they become, as it were, immediate extensions of our body and projects.  In working with a tool we are directed at the project, the goal in which we’re engaged, not the tool that we’re using.  However, when our tool breaks, we suddenly become aware of both the tool itself and the set of relations between tools that this particular tool belonged to.  The tool and the network become present to us where before they were unconscious and invisible (and here I won’t say “withdrawn”, but the invisibility I’m talking about here is different than the withdrawal Harman is getting at, I think). 

Well this is how it is with poverty and homelessness.  Everything becomes a broken hammer and the objects of the world and the networks to which they belong become visible everywhere.  They become visible precisely because they are no longer operative in the world of the impoverished person.  This is also how it is for excluded groups.  Suddenly the world becomes a menacing problematic place.  To eat and to live you must go to your job.  To go to your job your uniform needs to be clean.  For your uniform to be clean you must go to the laundry mat.  To go to the laundry mat you need transportation and money to buy soap and pay for the washers and dryers.  But to have money you have to go to a job.  Where, in ordinary day-to-day life, the objects that sustain our social relations and ways of living become all but invisible because they are functioning in the way they’re supposed to function, in a state like poverty and homelessness all of those objects become obtrusive and present precisely because they are absent. 

This experience, I believe, cultivated in me a strong sensitivity to the nonhuman objects that sustain our existence and social relations.  In my view, a good deal of philosophy and cultural theory is blind to this dimension of existence for the very reason that the material infrastructure—to use Shannon Mattern’s term –upon which our existence is sustained is invisible by virtue of functioning properly.  This leads to a systematic distortion of philosophical problems insofar as representation, signs, language, thought, ideas, and text come to be privileged.  What we miss is that not all problems are necessarily a matter of, for lack of a better word, the ideational or beliefs, but that the networks of objects that sustain us might very well account for much of the reason patterns of living continue in the way they do.  In this respect, design, at the material level, can be revolutionary even where it doesn’t involve any change in beliefs. 
[a painting in the limestone caves under southern Paris; note the prehistoric dinosaur bird, the canoe, the mycorrhizae-like wave crests, as well as the soda bottles and tea lights in the foreground]

The cover of Democracyof Objects features a series of fantistical objects of similar scale and spacing strung on a piece of something like barbed wire.  The book The Speculative Turn that you edited with Graham Harman and Nick Srnicek features a pair of pruning shears.  Barbed wire was a revolutionary technology that fundamentally shifted settlement patterns across the North American midwest; pruners are the ideal general purpose tool for maintenance and propagation of vegetation.  Can you talk a little bit about the choice of those images?

To be quite honest I had no role in choosing the images for either of my books, though I couldn’t be more pleased with the choices of the editors.  I’m particularly fond of Tammy Lu’s cover for The Democracy of Objects as I believe it very much captures the spirit of my thought.  Seen from afar it looks like flowers intertwined along threads of ivy.  This very much captures my conception of objects as something that “bloom” or unfold, just as the Greeks conceived phusis as a blooming or unfolding.  However, as you look more closely you suddenly see a hint of menace (the barb wire and fishing tackle), as well as a universe that somehow manages to beautifully interweave natural entities, computer memory storage devices, barb wire, fishing tackle and so on.  Tammy Lu’s work captures the sense of a flat ontology where nature, culture, and technology are not distinct ontological realms but rather where all entities are intermingled on a single flat plain of immanence and where there is no supplementary space that contains them but only the relations they forge with one another generating a network space.  It is a world of great beauty as well as lurking menace.

The cover of The Speculative Turn is a bit more masculine and difficult for me to decipher.  No doubt pruning sheers were dimly chosen to convey the sense of something of the tradition—the Kantian correlationist legacy –being pruned away.  This would be the aggressive, warlike dimension that seems especially popular among those speculative realists that fall in the nihilistic eliminativist camp and that seem to revel in death and destruction.  Indeed, perhaps a major fault-line in speculative realism is between that camp that emphasizes construction and building (though without a anthropocentric reference for these terms) found among the object-oriented ontologists and the process-relationists, and that side that seems delighted by tearing down, destroying, and death found among the nihilistic eliminativists.  A more generous reading of the pruning sheers, however, would be to comprehend them along the lines of the bonsai tree, as the collaborative process that takes place between humans and nonhumans in the cultivation of collectives.

You refer to your particular object-oriented ontology as onticology, which rests on the eponymous ontic principle meaning that beings or entities consist in producing difference.  Two concepts of onticology which you have established as important are wilderness and potentiality.  In fields concerned with an idea of landscape- geography, ecology, archeology, landscape architecture, art history, forestry, etc.- variants of these concepts of figure prominently.  Does onticology offer a definition for landscape?

I am suspicious of concepts like landscape and environment because, in the popular imagination, they seem to imply fixed containers that are already there and that entities must adapt to.  These concepts, I believe, point in the right direction, but don’t quite go far enough.  For this reason, I have tried to replace the concepts of landscape and environment with the concept of “regimes of attraction”.  In my view, landscapes and environments are not something other than objects, but are rather networks or assemblages of objects.  In other words, within the framework of onticology there is nothing but objects and relations between objects; though I insist that objects can be severed from their relations and that not every object is related to every other object.  A regime of attraction is a set of relations among objects.  I refer to these relations as “regimes of attraction” because these relations evoke or activate potentials within the objects related, leading them to actualize themselves in particular ways.  For example, right now it’s very cold in my house because the temperature has dropped and my heat isn’t currently working.  This is a regime of attraction involving my home, the position of the planet, weather patterns, my body, etc.  This regime of attraction leads my body to actualize itself in various ways.  For example, the skin about my fingers is tight and it is now hard to type as I write this.  These relations between entities generate a particular actuality or local manifestation in my body.  A key point here is that landscapes are not fixed and static, but, because the objects involved in the regime of attraction are acting and reacting to one another, are perpetually unfolding and changing.  They can’t be pinned down once and for all.  For example, my body nonetheless emits heat, vying with the coolness of the room.

I would thus refer to a landscape as a regime of attraction defined by a field of relations among a variety of different objects that presides over the local manifestations of the objects within this regime of attraction.  In short, landscapes are networks or assemblages.  They investigate what I call “cartographies” of entities and their relations in network time-space.  I do not wish to step on the toes of landscape theorists as I have more to learn from them than they have to learn from me, but I’m inclined to suggest that landscape thought can be divided into two domains:  landscape analytics and landscape activism.  Landscape analytics might be thought as the cartography of the space-time of these relations between entities or objects, investigating both how they interact to produce various local manifestations, but also to compose a “virtual map” of the potentialities or tendencies that reside within these regimes of attraction; the paths along which change in these landscapes is unfolding and possible.

Landscape activism, by contrast, is not merely a cartography of space-time assemblages of objects, but rather is the attempt to intervene in landscapes or regimes of attraction so as to form them in ways to produce particular desired local manifestations.  This work of design can range from the trivial to the profound.  It might consist of something as simple as interior design that strives to produce particular types of affects in people that occupy a room, to revolutionary transformations of social relations that through the artful arrangement of objects open vectors where humans and nonhumans become able to relate in entirely new ways, escaping claustrophobic and oppressive regimes of attraction that both quelled the possibility of these relations and generated misery for those occupying these regimes of attraction.
[a 47.3 foot diameter tunnel boring machine emerges near Niagara falls after tunneling 6.3 miles at depths of 500 feet under the Niagara escarpment as part of the Ontario Power Generation project]

Onticology seeks to reconcile the critical, discursive aspects of Kantian critique with an insistence that objects of the world have their own irreducible alterity by providing an affirmative definition of difference.  You've characterized this as a refusal to reduce objects to their cultural representations without remainder.  What do mechanisms of control- wire fences, cell membranes, code language- play in this process of differencing?

It seems to me that there is only a metaphorical relations between cell membranes and entities like control-wire fences and code languages, though I’ll have to think about this some more.  Every object necessarily has a membrane of some sort or another that regulates its relationship to other entities in the world.  This is part of what it means to say—in the framework of onticology –that objects are withdrawn from one another.  Objects never directly encounter one another, but rather encounter other through the distorting lenses of their membranes.  Put differently, every object metabolizes the other entities of the world through its membrane.  Membranes, of course, need not be films like a skin, but can just as easily be the structure of the object or linguistic and conceptual codes.

By contrast, when we talk about something like a control-wire fence it seems that we’re talking about something a bit more complex than a membrane.  Entities like control-wire fences are not membranes, so much as objects that function as intermediaries between one or more object and one or more other objects.  In the case of a control-wire fence you have an entity bound by one membrane (the entities on one side of the fence) related to an entity bounded by another membrane (the control-wire fence) relating to entities with yet another membrane (the entities on the other side of the fence).  There is thus a transmission of affect that is translated from one entity to another with the fence serving as an intermediary such that the affect can be transformed and modified quite a bit as we all experience when dealing with “red tape” and bureaucracies.  In this regard, the control-wire fence is what Marshall McLuhan refers to as a “medium”.  It is both an object in its own right and an object that transports and transforms the other objects for which it serves as an intermediary.  There are all sorts of significant implications that follow from entities that function in this way, some positive, others horrific.   

Your philosophy emphatically deals with reality, not just our access to it; in this way it seems related to John Dewey's instrumental theory of knowledge, especially with the notion that the activities of thinking and knowing occur when an "organism experiences conflict within a specific situation".  In his philosophy, metaphysics is concerned with ideas that open up new lines of action within a contingent and material reality.  As a result, the object of knowledge is the future, not a rationalization of the past.  Is it fair to suggest there are similarities here with your approach?

Dewey is a figure that I seldom mention, but is nonetheless someone who is everywhere present in my thought.  I first discovered Dewey through Experience and Nature in high school, where he articulated precisely the sort of relation between thought and being that I believed I was striving after.  Later, through an encounter with the sadly departed Hans Seigfried, I discovered Dewey again through Logic:  A Theory of Inquiry.  During that time I devoured Dewey’s writings on learning, inquiry, education, and aesthetics.  In my view, Dewey’s instrumentalist conception of knowledge and inquiry is the only theory of knowledge consistent with onticology.  Hints of this can be found all over the place in my treatment of Bhaskar’s philosophy of science in the first chapter of The Democracy of Objects.  I think Dewey’s instrumentalist theory of knowledge has the added virtue of being the only true theory of knowledge.  Dewey refused the idealist trend in philosophy inaugurated in Socrates’s disdainful treatment of the servant boy in Meno.
[Utopian Cartographies- Ortelius' 1595 representation of Thomas More's Utopia]

There seems to be a lot similarity in your philosophy, and speculative realism more broadly, and the tradition of the utopian project within design practice.  In design practice these are typically fictions where the objective is to suggest new relations and possible futures, a practice that stretches back to the Utopian works of Plato.  In this design practice representation is always at issue.  How is representation considered in object-oriented ontology, and how is it related to the agency of the medium of representation?

Within the framework of onticology fictions are themselves real entities.  In my own work I am always trying to emphasize the materiality of texts and identities, the fact that they are entities in their own right that circulate throughout the world and that affect other entities and objects.  Now clearly Josoph K. in Kafka’s work is not a real person that breaths, eats, is murdered, and so on, but nonetheless The Trial and The Castle are real entities that circulate throughout the world and that affect people in a variety of ways.  We can elect to live as Joseph K, seeing our place of employment or our country or our circumstances as the Castle or the Court; and in this way we can be led to interact with the world about us in ways that we otherwise might not do.  Two lovers can read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past or watch The Secretary or Punch Drunk Love and discovering new ways of loving, living their love, and feeling.  Did these affects already exist in them, or did the work cultivate these affects?  I lean in the direction that fabricators of fictions invent affects rather than finding them ready made, and that in doing so they invent the possibility of new collectives and forms of living and feeling.  This is why the domain of fiction is a site of both micro- and macro-politics, for it is both a site where both the imagining of alternative forms of collectivity are rendered available and the site where oppressive collectivities are maintained through the construction of dark affects.  This, I believe, is much of what John Protevi is getting at in his work Political Affect.

Popular conceptions of public space often reference a mythologized past of luscious recreation parks of the 19th century, Italian Renaissance piazzas, and ancient Greek agoras.  Most of the time these have nothing to do with actual public spaces today- contested zones of exclusion, power, spectacle, and insipid banality.  What are the implications for an object-oriented ontology approach in the practice of construing and constructing public space?

It’s difficult to respond in a single way to this question.  First, one of the ways in which we construct our present is through fictionalized conceptions of the past.  Yet these conceptions of the past can certainly be a double edged sword.  Take the examples of how conservatives often talk about the 1950s.  They talk about the 50s as a time that was idyllic, where children were innocent and polite, where there was civility everywhere, and where there was generalized prosperity.  This myth of the 50s takes on a teleological function in the present, both suggesting that contemporary society has fallen, and that we must return to this lost form of life.  Yet the reality of the 50s was quite different.  Domestic abuse and child abuse, no doubt exacerbated by war trauma from both World War II and the Korean War, was rampant, substance abuse was at all time highs among the white middle class, women lived under oppressive conditions lacking in freedom and autonomy, there was profound racial division, and so on.  The fiction of the 50s functions to mask and repress the very real social conditions that necessitated the cultural revolutions of the 60s.

On the other hand, utopian fictions have often served as a vital component of revolutionary change.  Here we might recall the role that Greco-Roman thought played in the Enlightenment.  There was an idealized conception of Greek and early Roman cultural, political, and speculative life that was integral to the invention of new forms of life, knowledge, and collectivity during the Enlightenment period.  The Enlightenment thinkers needed to, as it were, leap over Christianity and the Middle Ages to envision the possibility of a new life and a world.  It matters little whether Greece and Rome were actually like this.  They weren’t.  The simulacrum of Greece and Rome rendered an alternative world available for collective action.  This is the value of the reality of ficitons. 

Readers interested in a further introduction to Levi Bryant's work can check out his excellent blog Larval Subjects, which has made several appearances here at FASLANYC.  

He is also the author of several books including Difference and Givenness:  Deleuze's Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence.

Lastly, interested readers might consider submitting material this coming spring for the first edition of O-Zone, which has put together an excellent cast of editors and an exciting statement-of-intent which can be seen here.


  1. Loved this!

    It's like bouncing back from deconstructionist architecture:

    Instead of creating spaces that represent man's removal from the "centre of being", by functionally marginalising the needs of humans in favour of various subversions and clashes of classical design patterns, you reject the concept of the centre of being at all, and act not to marginalise mankind but to simultaneously respect and mediate human and non-human forces within a building.

    At the same time, you could use those elements of the deconstructive/formalist architecture that have formed valuable new spaces, as well as encouraging new experiments in program and spatial configuration so as to turn up new configurations of activities.

  2. Hi Josh-
    Thanks for your comment. I agree. One of the most interesting aspects of this philosophy is that it seeks to open up new possible modes of action, instead of tearing down and criticizing existing modes of operating.

    The idea of doing away with a centered, especially anthropocentric, concept of architecture is interesting. Perhaps it would be equally challenging and worthwhile to consider modalities where the center shifts through time, or multiplies?

    I think your notion of "simultaneously respecting and mediating... forces" is right on, and in line with Bryant's concept of wilderness.