Graham Harman’s The Quadruple Object: 2

[Continued from part one] Such a production is made of the notion that Harman’s philosophical project refers to objects as diverse as copper wires, bicycles, wolves, etc. This creates difficulties because it misleads us about what his philosophy is meant to do. In saying this, we give Harman’s work a sheen of specificity which it does not deserve. Even the occasional points where he does attempt to engage with things in a substantive manner, this is not usually successful, because for an object-oriented philosophy, it is weirdly uncomfortable with objects in the concrete. These forays into particulars are awkward, uncomfortable, as though Harman is straining at the leash to get back to the abstract and the general. There is nothing wrong with abstraction, of course, but it is remarkable because one is rightly entitled to expect from a philosophy whose entire project hinges on an engagement with objects, indeed which takes its name from such premise. 

It is now that I revisit Ray Brassier‘s hatchet attack on speculative realism in that Kronos interview:

The ‘speculative realist movement’ exists only in the imaginations of a group of bloggers promoting an agenda for which I have no sympathy whatsoever: actor-network theory spiced with pan-psychist metaphysics and morsels of process philosophy. I don’t believe the internet is an appropriate medium for serious philosophical debate; nor do I believe it is acceptable to try to concoct a philosophical movement online by using blogs to exploit the misguided enthusiasm of impressionable graduate students. I agree with Deleuze’s remark that ultimately the most basic task of philosophy is to impede stupidity, so I see little philosophical merit in a ‘movement’ whose most signal achievement thus far is to have generated an online orgy of stupidity.

I am not in agreement with Brassier, but I am in sympathy. The question I want to ask is whether the label of object-oriented philosophy/ontology is anything more than a marketing ploy? Is Harman any more object-oriented than Husserl or Deleuze? I have to confess, I do not find the occasional few lists of diverse objects, such as is to be found in The Quadruple Object to be sufficiently radical to warrant a label that attempts to encourage an entire movement. Phenomenology, ordinary language philosophy, critical theory…these all did and do what they purport to from the name. Simply listing objects does not tell us anything. Without something like a “case study” or a meditation on some specific object, I still have to say I find Harman’s project thus far to be a remarkably philosophy-oriented ontology – and that is not a label which will catch on, never mind the acronym.

I could accept all this, and leave Harman to one side, and be on my merry way, but for the fact that I am troubled by all this, because I want such a philosophy. I want to engage with it according to the premises what Harman gives us, because I am singularly unconvinced by the central element of his project. I want a book to present an object-oriented ontology (OOO) because I do not see how it could work, and yet to read an example of Harman’s which is a careful, controlled exposition of the particular implications of OOO in a given context. It is still regarded as vulgar to ask for applications of philosophy (outside experimental philosophy or X-Phi perhaps), but doesn’t OOO call for just this? Unless OOO can truly engage with objects in their specificity, I find it hard to consider it a valid title.

The first chapter of this book, “Undermining and Overmining”, would call my position here the extreme of overmining, which suggests that ‘instead of saying that objects are too shallow to be real, it is said that they are too deep.’ [p.10] Specifically my position is that of ‘relationism’ (under which bracket he collects Whitehead, Latour, and ‘some American pragmatists’), and Harman may consider this position to have been put to rest to his personal satisfaction, thus saving OOO, but I think this is precipitous. For one thing, I don’t think that his depiction of the relationist position is entirely accurate. He relies upon a tactic of totalizing the notion of relations, such that he allows himself to say that a given object, in this view, ‘is exhausted by its presence for another, with no intrinsic reality held cryptically in reserve.’ [p. 12] There is no reason why this should follow.

Why “exhaustion”? Does it necessarily hold that the existence of relations preclude the possibility of an object necessarily having a degree of individuality? Is Harman not giving in to that ontological crime of claiming to find an ultimate level of reality, upon which all things must be judged and labelled? Can we not say, of relationism, that the relation of one object with another is a specific level of analysis, and that to regard said object as an object, as a type of Kantian thing-in-itself (which is Harman’s project) that analysis must take place on another level? (Intriguingly chapter 8, “Levels and Psyche”, feigns a movement in this direction, but there is no progress made.) Harman further says of relationism that ‘if the entire world were exhausted by its current givenness, there is no reason why  anything would alter’, again, exhaustion invoked which is not explained. Why relations are more exhaustive or exhausting than objects we are not told. ‘For I am something real, here and now, not a tapestry of perceptions woven together from the outside.’ Whence the either/or here? Why not both/and?

Now, one possible reason for the lack of specificity is to be found in what Harman defines as essence, which is the tension between the real object and its real qualities, though he suggests that in the history of philosophy, ‘traditional realism lacks Heidegger’s remorseless sense that the real is entirely withdrawn from all access.’ [p. 101] This is what I consider to be the centre of OOO, that prime mover by which his entire system is set into motion, and its very necessity for the entire programme may be why no real engagement by OOO with relationism will ever happen. It is a blind-spot that is converted into a totemic point of pride for OOO. Rather later in the book, Harman comes out with a wonderfully insightful observation, which gives an excellent nugget of context for his undertaking. I would have started the book with it, in fact, rather than the rather twee and disingenuous claim to be starting from a position of naivety. He discusses the privileged position which has been held, on the whole, by the notion of there being a divide between human and world. Whitehead is a notable exception to this, with his concept of “prehension” (pdf here). ‘By contrast, object-oriented ontology holds that the human-world relation has no privilege at all.’ [p. 119] There is, of course, some sort of difference, but ‘the question is whether this obvious difference between humans and non-humans deserves to be made into a basic ontological rift […] The point is to avoid the Taxonomic Fallacy of assuming that basic ontological divides can be identified with specific kinds of entities. Instead, the basic rift in the cosmos lies between objects and relations in general’.

But, we might ask, does Harman not walk into a similar kind of trap, given that he has chosen one side of the ontological rift which he diagnoses, and turns this conscious and intentional limitation into a virtue? Is this not the foundational gesture of OOO, the Ur-sprung in Heidegger’s terminology, the originary leap that is first in time and first also in being creative and constitutive of all that follows? I do not agree with the catastrophic though poetic notion that there is a rift in reality (which smells like a hangover from the human-world relation anyway), and from this, I am not committed to the either/or of relations or objects. I am not committed to objects being total and unto themselves. I am not committed to the Heideggerian metaphor of there being a ‘cryptic reserve’ at the heart of all objects.

The irony is that this may be the destiny of OOO as only ever “to be written”. The cryptic heart of an object, the essence, the reality which is reserved for itself, and which will never be touched or communicated, this must also exist at the heart of OOO. So it may just be that by not ever giving us OOO Harman is being as faithful to this notion as he possibly can. The specific and particular may be anathema to ontology and metaphysics, but addressing this challenge was what struck me as the exciting part of the entire object-oriented enterprise. Pace Brassier, it’s not that there’s too much OOO or speculative realism, but that there’s not enough. We have yet to have real and existing speculative realism. It still has not delivered on the promises made, and until then I will have to regard Harman’s work as marketing material for a work yet to be written; philosophy in posse and in absentia.

[Since writing this, I came across Christopher Kullenberg’s less impressionistic review of The Quadruple Object here. Well worth a read.]

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5 thoughts on “Graham Harman’s The Quadruple Object: 2

  1. Pingback: Graham Harman’s The Quadruple Object: 1 « Wetwiring

  2. Pingback: Me on Harman on Green on Harman on literary criticism « Wetwiring

  3. Harman uses weighted terms like “exhaustion” to create a shock effect that gives the impression of an irrefutable argument when in fact there is none. The conceit that ‘if the entire world were exhausted by its current givenness, there is no reason why anything would alter’, which he hammers out over and over again, is seen to be absurd as soon as one recalls that relations can be temporal as well as spatial. If part of what is given includes relative velocities and relative accelerations then these relations are the reasons why things will change.

  4. Pingback: Graham Harman on objects & the neo-liberal table: a response to Terence Blake | Wetwiring

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