Graham Harman on objects & the neo-liberal table: a response to Terence Blake

I am responding here to some of the comments made by Terence Blake to the second part of my review of Graham Harman’s The Quadruple Object here. In my post, I bemoaned the fact that Harman very often talks about how his philosophy can cope with actual objects, but to my mind he more often than not simply dances around objects in the abstract. I did not consider there to be any real attempts to grapple with the theoretical difficulties that attend all philosophies that feature objects as real entities. Terence drew my attention to a post of his over at Agent Swarm, ‘Harman’s Third Table’ which features a clear and thorough review of such an attempt by Harman, namely his short brochure The Third Table.  These are some observations.

First, I would note that Harman would dismiss anything I might say here as misguided (since that is what hermeneutics is to him, as is anything which doesn’t simply assent to his position).  The inability to recognise that he is not providing us with a model of considering the object, but rather a vast and damaging oversimplification of what any such consideration may be, is at the root of the impasse here. Blake refers to Harman’s ‘scientist’, and this is precisely what is at issue. Harman believes he is being scientific, or rigorous, or objective in attempting to provide us with a model of how we consider/regard/theorise/think an object. Would that this were so. It may be, however, that Harman has misunderstood what a model is and what it can do. Models deal with data, and sometimes information. They cannot deal with knowledge and meaning, which is precisely what is at stake in the philosophy of an object. A model can tell us how many objects there are, sometimes what their interactions with each other are. The properties of these objects require a rather difference conceptual apparatus, depending on the question we are asking. These questions may indeed pertain to different scales, with these scales being occasionally incommensurate. This brings me to my first point.

Harman states that a scientist reduces down to tiny particles invisible to the eye. Really? All scientists have this model of downward reduction? Of course not, and the notion that an emergent wholeness is the preserve of OOO, or even its achievement, is nonsense. Emergence is found in various other directions, urban studies, ecology, and I would argue the hermeneutic notion of context. Harman is attempting to assert a monopoly on an idea here. This approach makes me think of a patent troll, asserting some spurious right to an ‘intellectual property’ which they have arrogated for themselves through underhanded means. The most important point about emergences is latched on to by Harman. It is cheering that he sees this much at least. What is troubling is the conclusion which he draws from it. This point is the notion I alluded to above of potentially incommensurate scales, questions which pertain to different levels. You do not use the idea of quantum indeterminacy to any level above the quantum. It does not apply. We may find similarities in our approaches to the questions we may ask at different levels, and that is fine. Just as history doesn’t repeat itself, but rather rhymes (Twain), we might suggest something similar of theory.

This is not enough for Harman. The notion that different questions are asked at different levels implies a radical incommensurability. A pragmatic, or hermeneutic incommensurability is insufficient for him. It isn’t sexy in the same way that a totalising break is. I perceive echoes with Derrida’s hypostatization of the gap. It is Alfred North Whitehead’s ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ again. This is why Terence Blake rightly concludes that it is a naive negative theology; naive because there are examples of the apophatic approach which are considerably more nuanced and sophisticated than this. The question becomes now, then, why is it so naive? Harman has a wonderful mind, so he isn’t simply misguided surely. The third table with which Harman presents us is fascinating to me, because I cannot help but consider this attempt at describing an OOO table to us in political terms.

If we think of the approach which is suggested to us by Harman, that of the notion that verification is not open to us. The real object, or the object as real “cannot be known, only loved”. We must accept, and revel in the given. This is the philosophical equivalent of “don’t rock the boat”. The object knows itself, and this knowledge is concealed from you. You cannot know, so don’t try. Accept your limitations, and realise that there is something bigger and greater than you. The phenomenological ur-notion of intentionality is almost totally effaced, and consequently so are agency and the subject. The only reality is to be attributed to that which cannot express itself, and we are wraiths in this world. All of our mental powers come to nothing, and our manipulative prowess is a fantasy. I am going overboard, because this OOO mindset deserves a reductio. What we see is that there are political implications for this metaphysics, and these politics are decidedly neo-liberal, given that the notion of any attempt at using our minds to deal with objects and events is rubbished from the outset. The object oriented is a laissez-faire ontology. Whatever your own political sympathies, this is something that I believe is worth considering. Where is this ontology leading us? 


3 thoughts on “Graham Harman on objects & the neo-liberal table: a response to Terence Blake

  1. Reblogged this on AGENT SWARM and commented:
    Graham Harman ” is not providing us with a model of considering the object, but rather a vast and damaging oversimplification of what any such consideration may be” according to Andrew Gibson. He goes on to argue, as I have, that Harman gives a vast and damaging oversimplification of science itself, ignoring the incommensurable levels described by our scientific theories. Harman’s homogeneous reality (it’s all objects) leads him to see scientific theory as more homogeneous than it is, even attributing a homogenising tendency (reductionism, “undermining” in Harmanspeak) that is yet another figment of his imagination. Is sensual objects are “utter shams” as Harman claims, then Gibson concludes that we ourselves are unknowing impotent “wraiths”. This denial of real knowledge and real agency to the human is inseparable from the constitution of a passive neo-liberal subjectivity condemned to repeat structures it can neither know nor act on.

  2. I think the concept of hermeneutics is crucial. Harman is in denial of hermeneutics, and as with his denegation of epistemology, ends up doing bad hermeneutics. His hermeneutics of Eddington’s text is quite inadequate and erroneous as is his hermeneutics of the history of philosophy. “Correlationism” and “epistemology of access” are ill-formed hermeneutical concepts, giving a grotesque simplification and deformation of the history of philosophy and of contemporary rival philosophies. Feyerabend argues that the sciences are not abstract cognition only, but have a constitutive, and thus necessary, hermeneutic dimension. This is why even the sciences provide some resistance against neo-liberal neo-leibnizian abstraction and speculative modeling and manipulation. The model, as you say, is not enough to account for knowledge, and it is Harman who is being reductionist with his real objects and their supposed sensual instanciations. This philosophy splits hermeneutic, ie participative, exploration into objective speculation (an absolutised and thus “withdrawn” context of justification and sensual or subjective encounter (an absolutised, and thus “sham”, context of discovery). This splitting demotes the subject to the world of shams, which leads to a “reurn of the repressed”, in the form of an implied subjectivity, but one that he is either unaware of or unwilling to endorse explicitly, adapted to the neo-liberal order.

  3. I still have problems with any ontology that requires five relations between secret withdrawn entities of ‘vicarious causation’ to explain how a hand becomes a fist.

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