Turning to things – ontology, epistemology, and a case of metaphorism

by Marko Marila (University of Helsinki)

The recent turn to things in archaeology for me is first and foremost a turn to realism in archaeology. With realism I refer to the kind of ontological and epistemological realism that not only takes different parts of the world as things-in-themselves capable of holding their ground even after humans are no longer around to experience them and ‘give them meaning’ so to speak, but admits that the correlationist divide between consciousness and reality is not the most originary, but is something that all objects have to deal with. In this sense, the new realism does not imply a fundamental distinction between the material realm and the ideal realm, but holds both as equally real and equally existing.

My aim in this essay is to explicate to some degree what it is that the recent turn to things in archaeology means in terms of ontology, the science of the fundamental nature of things and existence, as well as epistemology, the science of knowing things. I have divided this essay into two parts. In the first part of the essay I will discuss what the so-called object- oriented philosophies and speculative realism have to give to archaeologists interested in things. In the second part of this essay, using speculative realism as my philosophical backdrop, I will propose a certain type of alien phenomenology, as introduced by philosopher Ian Bogost (2012). I will present a case of ruin metaphorism, arguing that shapes and lines have an immediate and tacit effect on our feelings, and, furthermore, that metaphorism is one possible way of conceptualizing the relationships between things.

Part I

When it comes to defining ontology within the framework of new realism in archaeology, we have to replace the old idealist ontologies with a non-anthropocentric notion of reality. Ontology and epistemology should no longer be treated as totally separate realms. There has been a resurrection of metaphysics in current continental philosophy, and one of the defining topics has been the relationship between things, including human thought and the rest of the world. Any Kantian philosophy that is based on the idea that there exists an unknowable reality behind the phenomenal reality has been labelled correlationist and many questions revolve around this topic. Correlationism is a term coined by the French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux (2008). It refers to the centuries-old idea that there exists a necessary and unescapable correlation between matter, or things, and mind, the human.

According to any correlationist, the world only makes sense as far as it is in relation to our thought and thinking of it. Extreme forms of correlationism rule out the existence of reality as independent of our consciousness altogether.

Meillassoux holds two traditions of the 20th century philosophy responsible for upholding a correlationist position; analytic philosophy, and phenomenology. Analytic philosophy with its preoccupation with language in particular, and phenomenology with its fascination with consciousness. Recent continental philosophies, however, have not only grown a new interest in ontology, but phenomenology as well, and I will return to these phenomenological topics further below. But first I want to discuss some of the ontological principles of speculative realism, a philosophical movement that has grown to challenge correlationist philosophies.

Ian Bogost’s famous assertion sums up the ethos of the so-called object-oriented ontology nicely. In his book Alien Phenomenology he writes that ‘all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally’ (Bogost 2012, 11). Object-oriented philosophy sets all things on an even level when it comes to their existence or reality. Social constructions, abstractions, and generalizations like politics, states, contracts and so on, are things just as real as any more material things like concrete bunkers or mountains. There are, however, differences in the manner in which these things exist for other things. Crossing a mountain by foot always involves a certain amount of effort and risk, something that can not be avoided under any circumstances. You could call these factors the hard facts of reality. Hit a brick wall with a car going 60 mph and the consequences are often catastrophic. While just as real, and often very effective, social constrains can not be characterized as hard facts. Their effectiveness is, however, similarly based on the anticipation of the consequences that would result if a certain law for example was broke. While laws may not qualify as hard facts (people break them all the time) prison cell walls surely do. So, all in all, we can agree that things equally exist. The question we are next faced with is the latter part of Bogost’s claim: In what ways do things exist unequally?

One of the central problems that philosophers today are dealing with is, as Levi Bryant writes, the nature of the most originary correlation, or the question about the most fundamental relation. He writes that:

Where for pre-critical, realist philosophers the question was ‘what is the true nature of substance?’, for critical philosophers the question becomes ‘what is the most originary correlation?’ Is it the relation between subject and object? The relation between language and world? The relation between history and world? The relation between noesis [thought] and noema [the object of thought]? The relation between power and discourses and world? Or something else besides?

The current realist metaphysics is therefore not about finding out the one defining correlation but about studying the multiple connections between things. Object-oriented philosophies do not reduce existence to the level of individual particles or atoms consisting of mere inherent or substantial qualities; nor do they reduce being to the level of relations. Contrary to what Descartes may have us believe, there is no distinction between primary and secondary qualities; all qualities are relational, and things never reveal all of their qualities at once. Two of the most prominent object-oriented philosophers Graham Harman and Levi Bryant for example would argue that there is always a part in any object that stays withdrawn from all relations. Objects are never brought into relations that would exhaust them completely. It is Harman’s (2005, 85) view that every relation is itself also a substance, an object. This ‘emergent’ object that comprises of objects, can not be reduced to its component particles, but is an object in its own right. An astronomer, for example, will always remain distant from a star she is studying. According to Harman (2005, 86), its is not even possible to get closer to a star in the sense that we would have a means of measuring how much further into reality we have entered. An important aspect of defining any object, then, is what will result from its becoming into relation with other objects.

In trying to describe the intricate ways in which things are connected, an array of terms has been deployed by philosophers as well as archaeologists. One of the most recent is Ian Hodder’s (2012) dealing with the term entanglement, by which he attempts to convey the stickiness of dependencies between things, as well as their differing affordances. Although he does not refer to any speculative realists or object-oriented philosophers in his book, Hodder has clearly adopted the maxim ‘all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally’.

All in all, what the return to things in archaeology would primarily entail is the idea that archaeologists are not just studying the relationship between humans and things, or things as they are relevant only to us humans, but the relationships between things as they are of relevance to each other.

Ontology will therefore extend itself from including the study of the nature of reality as it presents itself for humans, to include the realization of reality as a ‘mesh [—] of infinite connections and infinitesimal differences’, like Timothy Morton (2010, 30) writes. A mess that humans are a part of. Put bluntly, there is nothing original or essentially central in the connection between thought (or consciousness) and the rest of the world that would warrant it as more important than any other relation in the world. By the same token, there is nothing essentially central in any relation for that matter, although some things share more relations and are in this sense more central than others.

Part II

Of course one problem will always present itself to anyone trying to figure out what one can really know about a relation that is not a relation between human thought and reality. In essence, how is one to think about something without thinking about it. This is what finally brings us to the epistemological part of my essay.

Again referring to Ian Bogost’s recent book Alien phenomenology (2012), I wish to draw your attention to a certain type of relationship between things, namely the process of trying to understand what it is like to be a thing. Bogost calls this alien phenomenology. The central problem is, on what grounds are we to understand a thing from our human perspective.

Following the ethos of object-oriented ontology, Bogost (2012, 64) claims that we do not have direct access to the inner life of a thing but always understand them through analogy, a form of translation. As Graham Harman writes, all relations between objects are understood metaphorically (2005, 98). Learning to know about the relationship between two things becomes a case of relating ourselves to the relationship between those two things; a triadic relationship of relationships between three or more things. To anyone familiar with Charles Peirce’s triadic semiotics this may ring a bell.

An important aspect in Bogost’s philosophy, when it comes to defining relationships, is the replacement of the term object with unit. According to Bogost (2012, 25) every unit operates on others. Things are not merely what they do, but things do things as well.

Some units are concealed inside others and operate from within. Through this relation the reality of those units can be approached by other units operating on them. Following Graham Harman, Bogost (2012, 66) proposes that a unit, then, can reach the operations of another unit metaphorically, never by entering inside the other unit and somehow fully grasping the inner workings of it.

Of course, for us as human beings, these metaphors remain anthropomorphic. Take for instance our attempts to relate to another human beings experience of pain (as presented by Harman 2005, 103). My experience of headache, although human physiology remains relatively similar between two individuals, is most likely very different from yours. But consider the words used to describe pain. They are always metaphorical; stabbing pain, squeezing pain, cutting pain, burning pain, etc.

Another excellent example of anthropomorphic metaphorism is the way lines relate to certain feelings, or how different shapes convey particular qualities; a form of synesthesia if you will. In their 1924 article in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Poffenberger and Barrows (1924) provide an interesting study of the feeling value of lines. Referring to Kenyon Cox’s 1917 Concerning Painting: Considerations Theoretical and Historical they write:

Straight lines will always express rigidity and stiffness while curves will express some sort of growth or motion The vertical line is a line of stability, of strength and vigor. [—] All these characteristics of lines may be the result of association or they may have some deeper reason, but they are there, in the lines themselves, without regard to what the lines may be used to represent […].

With a group of 500 people asked to connect lines with feelings, they were able to show that there was considerable agreement as to what shape, or, as they also called them, unit, conveys a particular feeling. The adjective sad for example seems to be identifiable with shapes A, C, and L (see Figure 1), while the word dead seems to connect with curves rather than angles, which in turn are connected to feelings of power and rigidity.

Now, keeping in mind what Cox wrote in his book, consider the ways in which our feelings, relate to a scene of ruination. My example is an old house in Western Finland. What used to be the living quarters until the beginning of the 1920’s has later been used as a storage facility. Wallpapers seldom tear along a straight line (Figure 2), and there is a great amount of debris on what used to be the floor with it’s parallel planks (Figure 3). Furthermore, there are very few straight vertical lines in the scene and many horizontally oriented lines at the bottom of the scene giving rise to feelings of sadness, laziness or death.

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Figures 1-4

A well maintained and stable urban landscape on the other hand consists of more straight vertical lines and other symmetrical elements (Figure 4). The vertical line expresses stability, while curves will express some sort of motion. The annular opening in the wall in picture three will evoke a feeling of repetition and rhythm. The straight line is an especially central trait in understanding a modern landscape. As Tim Ingold argues in Lines: A Brief History (2007), the straight line has become to be more or less metaphorical of modernity.

These scenes of modern ruination, give us a point of view to the operations that are underway in things. An element of the landscape, in this case a line, will provide a tacit way of understanding the landscape more intimately than an extensive description in the form of a list of words, although they, in their written form, are also lines, could ever do. That is also one of the reasons why photographs, drawings, and art in general remains such a powerful medium. While it can be argued that the feelings we connect to particular shapes and lines are anthropocentric and therefore offer us no way of understanding what goes on in the ruins themselves, there is a continuity to be seen between lines perceived and their embodied feeling values. Much of the functions of the human body, like many other organisms, is dependent on the interconnectedness of lines that run across it, like the veins and nerves in our body for example. There are certain shapes that these lines follow, just like a river does when it meanders. Our understanding of the meandering line’s feeling value to water or the sediments that it cuts it’s way across remains metaphorical and translated at best, but there are analogical and functional similarities between the processes in both entities, and that is the common ground that makes communication between things possible.


This essay is based on a paper presented at the fourth Ruin Memories workshop in Svanvik, Norway, on September 28, 2012.


Bogost, I. 2012. Alien Phenomenology. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Bryant, L. 2009. Meillassoux II: Correlationism and the Problem of Ancestrality. [http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2009/04/03/meillassoux-ii-correlationism- and-the-problem-of-ancestrality/].

Harman, G. 2005. Guerrilla Metaphysics. Open Court, Chicago.

Hodder, I. 2012. Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things. Wiley-Blackwell, Malden.

Ingold, T. 2007. Lines: A Brief History. Routledge, London.

Meillassoux, Q. 2008. After Finitude. Continuum, London.

Morton, T. 2010. The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Poffenberger, A. T. and Barrows, B. E. 1924. The Feeling Value of Lines. Journal of Applied Psychology 8, 187–205.

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