Timothy Morton: What If Art Were a Kind of Magic?

Chris Wainwright, Red Ice, from November 2015 Feature Timothy Morton
Chris Wainwright, ‘Red Ice’, 2009, c-type print. Courtesy the artist

From the ArtReview archives: one of the thinkers associated with ‘object-oriented ontology’ argues that we’ve been thinking wrongly about art since the beginning of the Anthropocene

For object-oriented ontology (OOO), art is far from a superficial and exclusively human-flavoured region of reality. Whatever human art is, it is telling us something very deep about the structure of how things are: ‘the structure of how things are’ being a pretty good paraphrase of the word ‘ontology’. Indeed, one of the things that art is telling us – that we still allow it (as opposed to what we expect from science textbooks, for instance) to tell us, perhaps – is something profound about the very workings of causality itself. OOO thinks of art not as decoration, but as the fundamental operation of cause and effect. To make an artwork is to interfere directly with the realm of causes and effects.

Thinking this way about art is so counterintuitive that we might consider it absurd or dangerous, even crazy. It appears so because the timeframe of the context in which we think the official idea – that art is pretty much decoration exclusive to humans – is so vast compared to our customary reference frames. We are talking, I have argued elsewhere, about a 12,500-year frame, and we have only just started thinking on this temporal scale, thanks to ecological awareness. What OOO is arguing is very similar to what Aborigines argue: that the world is dreamed into existence and that causality is a kind of dreaming; which is to say, a kind of art. Only marginalised people are allowed to say such things in our world. At least until OOO showed up.

To begin to get a feel for OOO’s radical conception of art, we will need to go on a short journey. And at the end of that journey we will still only have a feel for it, because my words here are few. And we will have to get there obliquely: for deep reasons, there is no way to point directly at what I am going to be getting at. So if you want to, keep reading and begin to sidle up to the OOO idea of what art is. We begin our journey in the late nineteenth century.

Max Weber was one of the pioneers who inaugurated the discipline of sociology over a century ago, but sociology’s structuring principle excludes the foundational concept on which it is based: charisma, a compelling energy emanated by certain individuals that fuels less hierarchically organised social forms. Weber argued that charisma-based societies give way to ‘disenchanted’, bureaucratic societies. But sociology does not see its task as related to exploring disenchantment. Sociology acts just like the bureaucratic society that Weber argues is its birthplace; sociology is part of the logistics of what Weber called ‘the disenchantment of the world’. In this and other normative thought modes, it becomes unacceptable to think charisma as an actual force; charisma is instead thought as an ideological illusion, borrowed from the social structure, or bestowed on an individual.

Sociology is afraid of its founder’s concept, which was a little scary at the time too, since charisma has to do with forces that many described as supernatural or paranormal. Weber was himself fascinated by the paranormal. In general, you can think of modernity – world history since the later 1700s – as a profoundly awkward dance of including and excluding the paranormal. Freud, for instance, developed his theories as a way to bowdlerise the theory of hypnosis, which was in turn a bowdlerisation of the idea of animal magnetism, a hypothetical force discovered by Franz Mesmer (hence mesmerism) later in the eighteenth century. Animal magnetism is to all intents and purposes identical with ‘The Force’ of Star Wars fame: it is, as Obi-Wan Kenobi observes, an “energy field” that “surrounds” and “penetrates” us, and we can interact with it, with healing and destructive consequences. Marx argues that capital makes tables compute value as if they were even weirder than the dancing tables of the quasi-religion of spiritualism. And so on – examples of this secret, almost completely untold history of modernity are everywhere, once you start to look.

The paranormal is what religion was already excluding, religion being the way Neolithic society – otherwise known as ‘Axial Age’ or ‘agricultural’ society (agricultural according to models such as that established in the Fertile Crescent 12,500 years ago) – monopolised what Weber calls charisma, restricting it to the King, who has the Batphone to the God or Gods whom he hears ringing in his ears, telling him to tell the people what to do, ‘what to do’ never being ‘dismantle agricultural society, which has created patriarchy and tyranny in the name of sheer survival, and return to hunter-gathering and a less violent, less hierarchical coexistence with nonhuman beings’. Because that would be absurd. Heaven forbid we stop the logistical functioning of the world of agriculture, which eventually gave rise to global warming, which was precisely and ironically what it was set up to evade in 10,000 BCE: the Holocene was when earth started warming, unsettling the hunter-gatherers. But dismantling that system would be ridiculous primitivism – right?

Restructuring or destructuring this logistics, which elsewhere I’ve called agrilogistics, is the one thing that would end global warming, but it is usually considered out of bounds, because it implies accepting a non-‘modern’ view, a view established on (although it thinks itself as a further disenchantment of) now ancient and obviously violent monotheisms, which in turn find their origin in the privatisation of enchantment in the Neolithic with its ‘civilisation’. We are all still Mesopotamians. We are Neolithic humans confronting the disaster the Neolithic fantasy of smoothly functioning agricultural logistics has wrought, and we want to hold on to the philosophical underpinnings of those logistics for dear life…

Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, 2011, dir Lars von Trier. Courtesy Zentropa

Despite what they claim, those on the supposed other side of the fence – those who appear to oppose modernity, namely the so-called deep ecologists and the anarcho-primitivists – are ironically perpetuating agrilogistics and its devastating Nature concept, the idea that humans and nonhumans are profoundly different, based on needing to categorise human social space as a war against such things as ‘weeds’ and ‘pests’. Such needs are intrinsic to agrilogistics, the survival-at-any-cost strategy that began in the early Holocene and that has given rise to the feedback loops we now recognise only too well via the Sixth Mass Extinction Event, namely the fact that, among other things, 50 percent of the populations of what biology calls animals (as opposed to fungi and viruses, for instance) have been wiped off the face of earth in the last 50 years, because of anthropogenic global warming.

It is too easy to dismantle the philosophical basis of our ‘world’ (aka ‘civilisation’). Without this basis, that world would collapse. The only thing inhibiting us is our habitual investment in that world, visible in the resistance to wind farms. We like our energy invisible, underground in pipes, so that we can enjoy the view. The very mention of changing our energy throughput raises the spectre of the constructedness of our so-called Nature. Think of the birds the turbines will kill! (Think of the entire species wiped out by not having the turbines and so forth.) Think of the dreams we will be disturbing! We want to be comfy in our thanatological world. Death is comfy, as Freud observed. The 1970s ecofeminists were correct. We live in a death culture, an extinction culture.

Dismantling the underpinnings of agricultural logistics involves dismantling the ‘metaphysics of presence’, the idea that to exist is to be constantly present. This idea is hardwired into Neolithic social space – ie, you can feel it in the gigantic empty car parks outside the superstore, the big-box houses sprawling in suburban nonplace, the nihilism and murder–suicide of the mass shooters with their social Darwinist replication of neoliberal paradigms. To exist, according to this, is to be a lump of extended stuff underlying appearances. Reality is a plastic, unformatted surface waiting for us (humans) to write what we want on it: ‘Where Do You Want to Go Today?’ (the 1990s Windows ad); ‘Just Do It’ (Nike); ‘I’m the Decider’ (George Bush); ‘We create realities’ (Iraq War press conference, 2005). There is the regular flavour of this metaphysics, basic default substance theories found in Aristotle, Spinoza, Descartes and Kant; or in atomism, popular today in reductionist scientism (but not actual science); and so on – the metaphysics is so default it would be exhausting to list all those who retweet it.

We contemporary scholars all think we are superior to such things, but they shape our physical life, which we happily reproduce, and we retweet them in the cooler flavoured upgrades, which speculative realism calls correlationism, which is the Kantian (and post-Kantian) idea that a thing isn’t real until it has been formatted by the Subject, History, human economic relations, the Will to Power, or Dasein

In a way, correlationism is a worse (in the sense of more ecologically destructive) version of the regular substance ontology flavour, which says that things are extension lumps decorated with accidents (such as colour). Now there aren’t even blue whales – there are only blue whales when we say there are. And lo and behold, it came to pass – there were no longer any blue whales

Happily, that particular extinction didn’t occur. It didn’t occur because people became enchanted by recordings of whale sounds during the mid-1970s. Enchanted. What does it mean? In terms of charisma, it means some of us submitted to an energy field emitted by the sounds of the whales. The fact that this is a wholly unacceptable, beyond-the-pale way of describing what happened is a painful and delicious irony.

But what if it were actually true? What would the emission of such an energy field imply? It would imply, for a start, that art isn’t just decorative candy. It would imply what ‘civilised’ philosophy from Plato on has been afraid of, the fact that (shock horror) art has an effect on me over which I am not in control. Art is demonic: it emanates from some unseen (or even unseeable) beyond, in the sense that I am not in charge of it and can’t quite perceive it directly, in front of me, constantly present. A dangerous causative flickering. In other words, magic. Magic is taboo cause and effect, or unthinkable cause and effect: either ridiculous or dangerous or impossible, or some weird borrowed-kettle combination of all three. (How can something be impossible and dangerous?)

What we are talking about is what Einstein called spooky action at a distance, by which he meant quantum entanglement, but which also means what happens if you visualise the Rothko Chapel even if you aren’t there, even if you have never seen the Rothko Chapel, perhaps even if you have never actually seen a Rothko painting, or a postcard of a Rothko painting.

We might conventionally argue that the charisma of the Rothko painting is bestowed upon it by humans: this would be the acceptable Hegelian way of putting it. We make the King be the King by investing in him. Investing what? Psychic energy – which, if you recall, is a bowdlerisation of the Force-like animal magnetism. So this is perhaps still a bit suspect. It is as if one is saying, ‘I really do accept that there are only plastic extension lumps out there decorated with accidents, but I’m very keen on the human meaning of things, even though I know, like Justine in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), that this doesn’t really mean anything in a vast mechanistic universe of particles.’

What if this attitude were not only masochistic in the extreme, but also – incorrect? After all, as Erwin Schrödinger already argued concerning entanglement, nonlocality is the basic feature of our reality. The one thing you can rely on is that, at the very least, two tiny things (an electron, a photon – but now physicists are experimenting on scales trillions of times bigger than this, with positive results) can be ‘entangled’ such that you can do something to one of them and the other will react in a complementary way instantly – which is to say, faster than light. And this complementary behaviour happens at arbitrary distances. Causality just is magic. But magic is precisely what we have been trying desperately to delete.

Rothko Chapel, Houston, Texas. Photo: Hickey-Robertson.

Magic implies the intertwining of causality and illusion, otherwise known in Norse-derived languages as weirdness. Weird means strange of appearance, and it also means having to do with fate. Neolithic ontology wants reality not to be weird. Eventually weirdness is confined to Tarot cards and vague remarks about synchronicity, an ‘acausal connecting principle’, as Jung puts it, in other words a model of causality that is nonmechanical. Jung developed the concept of synchronicity with the quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli. But we usually only make use of synchronicity when we admire seemingly anomalous flashes of coincidence, usually in casual conversation (‘Wow, weird synchronicity’). Getting serious about it – seeing it as the thing that happens all the time, while mechanical causation is only a good-enough illusion – is virtually taboo, if you want to appear smart and sane.

What does it mean, though, to entangle illusion and causality? What it means is that how a thing appears isn’t just an accidental decorative candy on an extension lump. Appearance as such is where causation lives. Appearance is welded inextricably to what things are, to their essence, but even ‘welded’ is wrong. Appearance and essence are like two different ‘sides’ of a Möbius strip, and so also the ‘same’ side. A twisted loop is exactly what weird refers to, etymologically speaking.

Unfortunately for the scientistic ideology that dominates our world and the neoliberalism that forces us to behave in scientistic ways to ourselves, one another and other lifeforms, the idea that appearance is where causality lives is also just straightforward modern science. David Hume’s argument (in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748) was precisely that when you examine things, what you can’t see directly is cause and effect. All you have are data, and cause and effect are correlations of those data. So that you can’t say, ‘Humans caused global warming’ or ‘Cigarettes cause cancer’ or ‘This bullet you are firing at point-blank range at my temple will kill me’. You can say, ‘It is 97 percent likely that…’ – thus opening the door to the deniers, who are in fact modernity deniers, unwilling to let go of the clunky mechanical, visible, constantly present causality that you can point to.

Data: things that are given, aka appearances. And Kant underwrote this devastating insight. All we have are data, not because there is nothing, but because there are things, but these things are withdrawn from how we grasp them. Kant’s example: raindrops fall on your head, they are wet, cold, raindroppy. This is raindrop data, not the actual raindrops. But there are raindrops, not gumdrops. And they are raindroppy: their appearance is entangled with exactly what they are.

Things are exactly what they are, yet never as they seem.

We live in a world of tricksters. We never left the pre-Neolithic. It was all a nightmare that went viral. And we know this, because we have modern science. And this is the world described by object-oriented ontology. Which is why OOO is so great, and the real reason why it comes in for such hostile fear and rage.

According to this view, an artwork cannot be reduced to its parts or its materials, nor can it be reduced to its creator’s life, nor to some other context, however defined (the last decade, the current geological era, the economic structure of human society, art discourse, power-knowledge – anything). And art has an actual causal effect. Art just is tampering directly with cause and effect, because art is what cause and effect actually is. Art is charisma, pouring out of anything whatsoever, whether we humans consider it to be alive or sentient or not.

So the task of dismantling the aura à la Walter Benjamin, which is the default self-hating mode we have been in since Modernism, is impossible. Scratch some Marxists, and you will find a Platonist, namely someone who thinks art is a little evil because it has an effect on them, interpreted as an alien, demonic agency that conjures up all sorts of ideas and emotions without our supposed free will getting a look-in. I have not yet been proved wrong in my hypothesis that the more committed you are to Benjamin, the less time you will want to spend in the Rothko Chapel, which is around the corner from where I live. That’s because the Rothko Chapel emits an undeniable, very affecting aura; and because it’s not easily dismissible as ‘only’ art or as (someone else’s) religion space. So far, Benjaminians (roughly a half of those whom I’ve taken there) have needed me to rescue them after a maximum of two minutes. Or there was the musicologist who told me that he only listens to noise music, “because I can’t remember any of it”. Exposure to art should be kept to a minimum, as if it were like nuclear radiation. Such reactions actually say something deep about art, in an upside-down way: art is causal. That’s what’s frightening about it.

What we think we hate about kitsch is its appeal, its incomprehensible charisma. How come there are so many of these Gandalf snow globes? Do people actually buy this stuff? Paradoxically those feelings about kitsch are saying something about art: we can’t control it, it’s the enjoyment of the other, it’s enjoyment without us, enjoyment almost as a palpable thing, like a force field. And something about what we think about art. Something not very nice: we are still Platonists at heart. But it doesn’t matter. Art sprays out charismatic causality despite us. And unlike a lot of things in our current world, and within limited parameters (sophistication, taste, cost), we still let it in.

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue. 

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