Objects Untimely: Object-Oriented Philosophy and Archaeology

This article will appear in the forthcoming West 86th Vol. 30 No. 2 / fall–winter 2023 issue

Objects Untimely: Object-Oriented Philosophy and Archaeology
Graham Harman and Christopher Witmore
Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2023.
240 pp.
Paper $24.95ISBN 9781509556557

Time has long been a central concern of both archaeology and philosophy. For Plato, time was an absolute external reality. Aristotle, instead, emphasized the relative temporal relations between events. Archaeologists tend to straddle these two disparate philosophies of time as they both place objects and events in time and yet also tell time from objects. Most archaeologists do this implicitly: we are happy to work on the assumption that time exists as something of a container that can be subdivided into arbitrary equal units, such as years or centuries, while we also use the formal and physical changes of objects to devise chronologies based on such techniques as typologies, stratigraphies, and Carbon-14 dating. Objects Untimely: Object-Oriented Philosophy and Archaeology, brings together a philosopher (Graham Harman) and an archaeologist (Christopher Witmore) who share a quest against the former view of time as a linear arrow, a container, or a reality that is somehow independent from the objects it is thought to embrace. Their central axiom is that objects generate time. Questioning not only the common sense of time’s arrow but also more recent and nuanced theories of process and becoming, this book is a wake-up call not just for archaeologists and philosophers but for anyone interested in writing history from, through, and with objects. While readers might not emerge with many practical tools from this deep dive into philosophical first principles, they will doubtless leave these pages with new questions.

Archaeology is given rather short shrift in the book’s introductory chapter (“Time and Objects”), which serves both as a preamble and as something of a preemptive summary of the arguments to follow. After a few brief notes about the kinds of questions that archaeologists have tended to ask about time, the philosopher’s pen takes over and delves into a compressed and idiosyncratic history of philosophy and time, a whirlwind along such ringing names as Aristotle, Bergson, Heidegger, Barad, al-Ash‘ari, Malebranche, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Whitehead, Latour, Stengers, Deleuze, Serres, Brentano, Husserl, Einstein, Derrida, and Badiou. That this list is not exhaustive and covers a mere ten to fifteen pages speaks both to the density of this book and to the ambition of its authors. This is not an easy read. It requires a lot of background knowledge. But it also tends to look inward to a relatively secluded corner of both archaeology and philosophy. Indeed, both authors and their programs are situated at a remove from the mainstream of their respective disciplines (I take it that they will not read this as a form of critique!). Witmore is an archaeologist of ancient Greece, but he is known especially for his rethinking of the craft of archaeology, particularly through the lens of Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT). 1 For Witmore, archaeology is not “the study of the human past through its material remains” but the discipline of things (63).2 The reader leaves page 33 with a rather traditional historiography of archaeological practice, only to arrive on page 34 with an idiosyncratic archaeological program glossed in a mere two paragraphs. Harman has made his name as an interpreter of Martin Heidegger, taking the latter’s tool analysis as starting point for the independent existence of objects: things are more than how we see or think them and have an existence that exceeds our access to them.3 As one of the contemporary philosophers taking things seriously, he has been both an ally and a critic of Latour, who has arguably made the biggest mark on the material turn at large. His thought is often characterized as speculative realism and his object-oriented approach, along with his appointment history—he is currently employed at SCI-Arc, an architecture school—has made him a sought-after interlocutor for many disciplines engaged with objects, things, and materials. Harman’s philosophical quest is to devise a theory of everything via a fourfold schema of time, space, essence, and eidos anchored in relations that can be either sensual or real and that occur between objects or qualities (101). Familiarity with these programs, as gleaned from prior works by the authors, is a must in order to follow their specific arguments in these pages.

After the coauthored first chapter, each of the two authors develops their approach to time in a separate chapter (chapters 3 and 5), each one followed by a discussion chapter that adopts a question-and-answer formula between the authors (chapters 4 and 6). The latter method follows the style of similar works. 4 It is helpful in drawing out some of the conceptual complexities, even if the authors are rather too much in agreement to elicit true debate. A three-page coda concludes the volume, glossing a few of the models of time that had been introduced in the previous pages. 

In chapters 3 (“The Antiquity of Time: Objects Greek”) and 5 (“Objects as the Root of Time”), it becomes clear that time comes second for the authors, who find common ground first and foremost in a shared concern with objects. For the philosopher Harman, these objects are no “mere” things: his Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) aims not only to draw attention to dust particles, stones, and statues but to make them ontologically primary. Objects are more than the sum of their parts and (contra Latour) more than their effects. Moreover (as for Latour), they need not be material: deities, ghosts, and so forth, too, can count as objects and have the same ontological valence. Witmore is in agreement, yet his chapter 3 largely centers the “mere” things that have been the bread and butter of archaeology: the reader is taken on a trip to Mycenae on National Road 70 along a Cyclopean bridge, paved asphalt, limestone outcrops, and the Lion Gate. 

Witmore’s argument amounts to a redefinition of archaeology as the study of what has become of the past in the present. For Witmore, the analytical question should no longer be, “Which event or action happened (in the past) that left this object as its trace?” His stance could be viewed as an extreme version of a critique of representational thinking that has made headway in archaeology in the past few decades, which calls for a resisting of the urge to explain things in terms of something outside of themselves. 5 (Again, this move echoes Latour’s ANT.) What an alternative analytical question could look like is less clear, however. From Witmore’s colorful language and meandering descriptions, this reader distils something along the lines of “What can this object do for us now?” Such a question spurs an open-minded inquiry into what past an object—which we, by definition, encounter in the present—can help reconstruct instead of presupposing the shape of that past. Emphasis is placed on the contemporaneous presence that bundles objects of different durations (for example, a Mycenean gate or a chunk of 1990s asphalt) and on the observation that objects flicker in and out of view from us and from each other, creating folds in time along which some objects encounter one another despite gaps of millennia whereas intervening objects can fall through the cracks. Yet the question “What can this object do for us now?” could also encourage thinking of archaeology as a more future-oriented discipline, a possibility perhaps intuited by Witmore’s statement, “Archaeology now constitutes the study of things with an aim to generating stories, allegories, lessons, or understandings that are in service to the past, the present, and the future” (34). He, however, largely leaves this query unexplored. An archaeology reoriented towards the future—in both past and present—could presumably form one answer to Harman’s pertinent question: “What . . . is the point of studying objects apart from their relation to human history?” (61).6

Harman’s account of time takes aim at philosophies of becoming inspired, in particular, by Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze, which are popular in various archaeological takes on new materialism.7 By positing a constant flux, whether as absolute container or as emanating from materials, such philosophies sidestep the questions of how time is made or what shape it takes. For Harman’s OOO, time sits on the surface rather than in the depths of the world where the real objects (RO) linger. More specifically, time resides in relations between a sensual object (SO) and its sensual qualities (SQ), with sensuality standing for “immediate contact between two surfaces” (100). Time then—building on phenomenology and the philosophy of Edmund Husserl, in particular—is the tension between an object that remains stable and its shifting sensual qualities (SQ). In my reading, this means that the identity (a word not used by Harman except when critiquing Jacques Derrida) of any specific thing usually does not change, while some of its qualities can. For example, my fountain pen is still my fountain pen even if the ink level in its barrel declines with each word written. 

Abstract though this theory is, I see two important implications that should be of interest to archaeology and object studies at large. First, in sharp contrast to the constant flux of becoming, OOO’s theory of time takes seriously the stability that forms the basis of human experience (and, yes, I am still primarily interested in human experience). Even in times of crisis, we wake up in the morning and expect our bed to still be in the same place, expect to find our toothbrush where we left it in the bathroom, and expect to take the same train to the same job (of course, these expectations are increasingly signs of privilege, as the many people on precarious contracts know all too well). 8 We do not experience either a generative flux à la Bergson or Deleuze nor a constant remaking of reality à la Latour. This primacy of stability can be found in Witmore’s account as well: a Mycenean bridge is still here, enduring, and it is expected to remain here tomorrow, next week, next year, in twenty years’ time, and so on. In chapter 5, in the Q & A following Harman’s philosophical program, Harman broaches the so-called Ship of Theseus paradox: “Imagine if every piece of wood on the ship were replaced with a new one. Would it still be the ship of Theseus?” (153). The discussion that ensues posits that the ship might even become more real if stripped of some of its elements. Somehow, it seems to be implied, material reduction enhances conceptual clarity (again, my terms, not Harman’s), and the latter is the locus of stability. (Note, once again, how this contrasts with Latour, for whom every change in relations amounts to a new reality and to time passing.) Compelling though I find this argument, I am left wondering what defines the “identity” of any given object in OOO. What, for instance, defines the Ship of Theseus, and how can we know when exactly it ceases to exist? Clearly, no single plank of wood is a necessary condition for its continued existence. But what if the ship can no longer sail? What if it can no longer hold people? If, in other words, real objects are not permanent but stable, what makes them stop or disappear? And is this stopping or disappearing not always partial, meaning that one version of the objects’ possibly endless versions ceases to exist while others endure (for example, the Ship of Theseus might no longer exist as a ship but as a pile of wood)? 

A second and closely related significant implication of OOO’s account of time is that not all change is important. As Harman has it: “I can sit in a café for hours and pass through various shifting moods and rotating Coke cans without anything of significance happening” (101). Real change is tied to real objects (RO), which are always withdrawn and “cannot interact except through the mediation of something sensual” (102). Real change happens when a real object combines with a sensual object inside some third real object, which has a lasting effect on the former. To theorize this process, Harman borrows from biologist Lynn Margulis’s notion of symbiosis as the core driver of evolution. 9 The gist of this argument is very helpful indeed for archaeology as it allows us to recognize, as Witmore flags, that “some changes are of more consequence for the formation of what becomes of the past than others” (51). But nowhere do we get a clear sense of what defines “significant” time-making shifts. Under which conditions does the kind of symbiosis that Harman theorizes take place? Can OOO explain such difference-making alliances or only describe them, as ANT does? And how can symbioses be recognized? Such an “epochal” view of time risks tending toward a rather traditional view of history with Big Events and Big Actors and thus unlocking less rather than more diversity in the past (which is not, to be clear, the authors’ aim).10 Harman gets at this problem when he asks Witmore, “How do you go about deciding which artifacts are the key to the periodization of a given era?” (79). Witmore’s response contrasts relative and absolute dating methods, arguing that the former are inevitably made subservient to the latter. But as I see it, ultimately this is a question about what kind of past we are writing and for whom. As with ANT, it puts the onus on the analyst to make a difference. 

This return to the analyst—be it philosopher or archaeologist—as gatekeeper might not be appealing to Witmore and Harman since it reintroduces politics. Yet it surfaces throughout the book’s argument, as when Harman says that “the past reality of the ruins vanishes into inaccessibility and is re-enacted by the archaeologist or even the tourist” (124) or when he claims to create his own epochal changes and thus time by moving apartments every so often (128). While I sympathize with Witmore’s frustration with an archaeology “dominated by politics as first philosophy,” I do not see the political and the object-oriented as antithetical (75). Just as many objects have merely been explained away in favor of larger narratives, so too many people have merely been made to stand in for abstract explanations (such as “power” or “capitalism”). One puzzle about this book is that while it is unabashedly programmatic, nowhere does it introduce standards for what “good” philosophy or archaeology should look like (25). The ultimate arbiters of that seem to be the authors themselves. 

In this regard, Witmore voices a question that will no doubt resonate with many nonphilosopher readers when he asks Harman whether OOO needs to be taken “as a theory applicable to everything” or if it can be applied as “method” (160). As someone who claims to have used ANT as method in the pursuit of archaeology and of new knowledge about the past, I can see value in some of the key principles of OOO, yet I am unlikely to pursue the full ontological scheme of real and sensual objects and their qualities. My own answer, then, to Witmore’s question would be a pragmatic “yes,” but it would assume a standard of good archaeology as that which makes us think differently about the past. In light of this book’s quest to destabilize that past, it would be helpful to hear what Witmore’s standard would be. Witmore comes closest to articulating standards for archaeology when he urges us not to assume a priori which processes or pasts an object points to, and one could wonder whether that criterion is any different from mainstream good archaeology practiced today (58). Again, how much of the program does one need to accept in order to get something out of this book? I, for one, will continue to work through such concepts as stability and symbiosis while pursuing not a theory of everything but searching humbly (and perhaps naively) for new knowledge about the past.

Astrid Van Oyen is professor of archaeology at Radboud University, Nijmegen.

  1. 1 See, for example, Christopher L. Witmore, “Vision, Media, Noise and the Percolation of Time: Symmetrical Approaches to the Mediation of the Material World,” Journal of Material Culture 11, no. 3 (2006): 267–92; Timothy Webmoor and Christopher L. Witmore, “Things Are Us! A Commentary on Human/Things Relations under the Banner of a ‘Social’ Archaeology,” Norwegian Archaeological Review 41, no. 1 (2008): 53–70.
  2. 2  See also Bjørnar Olsen, Michael Shanks, Timothy Webmoor, and Christopher L. Witmore, Archaeology: The Discipline of Things (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).
  3. 3 Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Chicago: Open Court, 2002).
  4. 4 Bruno Latour, Graham Harman, and Peter Erdélyi, The Prince and the Wolf: Latour and Harman at the LSE (Washington, DC: Zero, 2011).
  5. 5 See, for example, Dan Hicks, “The Material-Culture Turn: Event and Effect,” in The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies, ed. Dan Hicks and Mary C. Beaudry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 25–98; Astrid Van Oyen and Martin Pitts, “What Did Objects Do in the Roman World? Beyond Representation,” in Materialising Roman Histories, ed. Astrid Van Oyen and Martin Pitts (Oxford: Oxbow, 2017), 3–19.
  6. 6 See, for example, Matt C. Reilly, “Futurity, Time, and Archaeology,” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 6, no. 1 (2019): 1–15; C. Meyer and M. J. Versluys, eds., Finding the Future in the Past: Object Orientations between Innovation and Anticipation, forthcoming.
  7. 7 E.g., Oliver J. T. Harris, “Archaeology, Process and Time: Beyond History versus Memory,” World Archaeology 53, no. 1 (2021): 104–21; Rachel J. Crellin, Change and Archaeology (London: Routledge, 2020).
  8. 8 Rebecca Bryant and Daniel M. Knight, The Anthropology of the Future (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019); Janet L. Roitman, Anti-Crisis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Astrid Van Oyen, “Roman Failure: Privilege and Precarity at Early Imperial Podere Marzuolo, Tuscany,” Journal of Roman Studies, January 11, 2023, 1–21, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0075435822000958.
  9. 9 Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet—A New Look at Evolution (New York: Basic, 1999).
  10. 10  In this context it is interesting to contrast the long list of éminences grises (almost all male) named in this book versus the mention of a discussion by Harman with “a young academic woman on Twitter” (155).

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