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? 

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Me on Harman on Green on Harman on literary criticism

This is a post about a post about a review about an article, so cutting edge stuff clearly. From Graham Harman’s blog, where he writes

There’s an interesting critique by Daniel Green, HERE, of my recent article in New Literary History. It’s quite refreshing in the sense that I wasn’t expecting anyone to critique that article from the standpoint of New Criticsm, which many regard as old-fashioned and long since buried; what I was expecting instead was a lot of resistance from the New Historicist and Derridean camps.

It’s a weirdly 1980s view of the state of literary criticism, with these three schools posited as the only rigorous options for an engagement with what he is attempting to do for/with/to the literary text. By implication, queer theory, feminisms, eco-criticism, etc., are insufficiently serious to be considered as sources of critique.

He quotes Daniel Green as follows:

“This project is not an exercise in criticism but a further experiement in object-oriented ontology, a philosophical, rather than a critical, move. Harman seems to want to prove that OOO is correct, using the literary text as vehicle. How is this different from using the text to do politics or sociology?”

To which he responds with the following:

This isn’t it. No literary analysis can “prove” that OOO is correct; instead, I simply think the non-relational, non-holistic methods of OOO might be usefully applied to literary analysis.

The fact that Green thinks this is no different in kind form sociological or political analysis shows his basic presupposition, which is the literary text is a holistic unit that must be taken as precisely the whole that it is– with all the exact wording that it currently has, for instance.

By contrast, I think the literary text is something deeper than its current holistic configuration in the form of how the author chose to publish it, or the best available scholarly version of a text available at any given moment, or whatever is usually taken to be the real text.

Harman’s “this isn’t it” is a lazy rhetorical dodge. He picks the salad of Green’s argument (!), but leaves the meat of it intact. The use of the word “prove” by Green was not the killer kernel of his argument, and to treat it as such is self-serving. On top of this, Harman then appears to engage with  Green’s main point about the text being used as a means of doing something else, but instead goes to discuss how this is indicative of Green’s theoretical limitations. It’s a Komosol move, to accuse a member of a movement to be insufficiently committed to that movement: “In other words, I think I’m giving an even stronger critique of authorial intention than is usually the case. ” Comrade Green is insufficiently committed to the revolution, and his textual analysis is reactionary.

This post by Harman gets back to the root of many of my difficulties with him (such as here and here – I have dealt with some of the more detailed problems I have with Harman there, and I will not repeat them here). He claims to see insurmountable difficulties in spreading an ontology wider. Thus he uses the word holism as a stick with which to thwack dissenters. His exclusion of eco-criticism, queer theory, and feminisms here becomes a corollary of his philosophical position. They disagree with OOO in that they emphasise both difference and interconncetion, so they are not to be taken seriously. Only the philosophers who hold such ideas are to be engaged with – if at all. By contrast, instead of widening ontology, he sees few problems with deepening ontology. Connections are fictions; it’s objects/turtles all the way down.

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Graham Harman’s The Quadruple Object: 1

So, I understand how this book developed in the context of continuous blogging, etc., and I will immediately set out my stall and say that I don’t think it is any the better for it. It is mentioned that this book was written in an impressive (or “impressive”) 86 hours and something minutes. I am trying not to be snotty about this, but I mean… don’t shout about it. The reason I say this is because, well… those 86 hours… they show somewhat. I am not saying it is bad, and there is the occasional almost-striking turn of phrase, and to a point there is a certain amount of clarity to the writing. This is what brings me to my main issue, and primary intuition about Harman as a philosopher.

Up until chapter seven, the prose is lucid, and the ideas are coherently communicated. I confess that though I am a giant fan of diagrams, those included in the body of the text are unhelpful – at best. When chapter seven begins, however, I felt that this book would have benefited from a period of longer exchange with some similarly-minded philosophers. I say this because Harman is simply better in dialogue. Continue reading

Technology and ethics: a moralist proposal

One of the problems with thinking about technology is that because we are born into a world of technology, this clouds our ability to see how it restricts our ability to think beyond what is right in front of us. We have difficulty thinking clearly about it in and of itself, and so all our difficulties with it are effectively distributed. Accordingly we have an ethics of technology, latched on to the side of the big machine. We think of specific problems with technology, we even expand this into the biggest of spheres, and discuss the existential risks attached to technology, or the risks which are integral to certain types of technology.

This is not the fault of philosophers of technology. It is simply another symptom of how our thought about the implications of all our actions are farmed out to different areas. Continue reading

Heidegger for Cyborgs

The sun isn’t effective because I use it. Rather it can only be used because it is capable of an effect, of inflicting some sort of blow on reality. Graham Harman, Towards Speculative Realism (p. 51)

So it seems that the closer we get to objectivity, the further away we veer from the perceiving human being, and accordingly the more we swaddle ourselves in a contradiction. The critical project of Kant was an attempt to displace this question, such that the two sides would be mutually implicated by the very reason of their entailing one another. The recognition of the ability to posit both object and subject would lead Fichte to seek security in an absolute solipsism, but this was but one of the possibilities within the critical project, rather than its inevitable unfolding. As such, to question the distinction that has long held there to be a barrier between me and my world isn’t doomed. Is it? Continue reading