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? 

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.  Continue reading

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

Networks and philosophical style

Does a new subject in philosophy lead to a new style in philosophy? Sometimes it does, because it causes us to drop previous disputes, or to take up preoccupations. This is the content however, as contrasted with its expression. How does new content lead to a new style, and is this only of interest in terms of aesthetics or rhetoric? Does a different style of philosophy imply new thought?

Continue reading