January 5th, 2011

S.C. Hickman

The Theory of Objects: Graham Harman and Object-Oriented Philosophy

"The amazing wonder of the deep is its unfathomable cruelty."
      - Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea

"The image of the carnival is meant as a reminder that the world is far more bizarre than we usually remember: philosophy is above all else an exile amidst strangeness and surprise."
     - Graham Harman, Guerilla Metaphysics 

Reza Negarestani tells us that Robin Mackay drew a comparison between his work and that of Graham Harman in the introduction of Collapse iv: "Reading the persistent poring of phenomenological description over its object against Lovecraft’s circumlocutory evocations of the unspeakable, Harman discovers – like Negarestani – that ‘real objects taunt us with endless withdrawal’." [1] 

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Harman in his new book, Circus Philosophicus, speaking of an object such as a Calliope on which musical notes extend their sensuousness, alluring us toward the depths of that cruel maelstrom concealed within the heart of all objects, reminding us that empiricists "were misled to hold that we encounter individual qualities and then link them together through the gullible myth of an underlying thing. Instead, Husserl and his heirs were more on the mark in saying that we first confront the calliope as a whole, so that the eerie underlying style of the object imbues all the isolated songs and notes that emanate from it (CP: 34-35). [2] In a disquisition on substance and aggregate he tells us the calliope could never "be dismissed as a mere aggregate, since most of its pieces could be removed, replaced, shuffled, or altered without the calliope ceasing to be what it was. ... Everything in the cosmos was both substance and aggregate. Reductionism was false; geology, sociology, and rhetoric need not bow before the anger and arrogance of smug eliminators." (CP: 35).  

What he attacks is eliminative reductionism which is a reduction of a phenomena that rejects and replaces what was previously believed about that phenomena in favor of a new explanation. In an eliminative reduction, the old explanation is found to be fundamentally and thoroughly incorrect, and in need of wholesale abandonment, rather than reform. Some examples of successful eliminative explanations in the history of science are the replacement of epicycles by the realization that the earth revolves around the sun (epicycles were not reformed, but thrown out entirely), as well as the replacement of aether, phlogiston, and transmutation by theories that superceded them.

As Fabio Gironi tells us "for Harman, and for object-oriented philosophy as a whole, the task of philosophy is to discuss the real in its entirety, avoiding both its confinement in the epistemic confines of the ‘human ghetto’ and its subordination to an all-powerful, reductionist, science" (Science-Laden Theory). Yet, Harman is not dismissive of science itself instead what he is "dismissive of is the notion that science can replace metaphysics. Or rather, I think that the metaphysics lying at the basis of the science worship found in some sectors of speculative realism is a weak one and needs to be, if not ‘eliminated,’ then at least severely improved' (Ennis responds 2.18.2010). Gironi quoting from Harman's blog on a recent conference he'd participated in "at the University of Dundee, Scotland, Graham Harman delivered a paper directly attacking James Ladyman’s (and Don Ross’s) variety of scientific realism, coherently with his general rejection of any reductionist or eliminativist project since ‘the problem with eliminativism, as I see it, is that it makes no room for real objects at all. Its sense of realism is that of scientific realism, and so there isn’t any concept of withdrawal there. The difference between real and unreal, for that position, is simply a difference between real images and scientific images. It is a mere metaphysics of images, despite all its huffing and puffing about reality’" (Shaviro with an interesting twist May 9, 2010).

Back to the figure of the Calliope: in his essay the tunes played on the instrument, and the individual parts that make up the whole of the calliope, can all be "imagined as a strange calliope in its own right, even if the music was subtler or more banal for mere copper valves than for the instrument as a whole. Like the calliope, every entity remained itself in two directions, reducible neither upward nor downward: not reducible to an "event"..., but also not to a searing lake of sub-plasma...." (CP: 36). In an epiphanic moment he says "...I now saw that the world could be conceived as a series of interlocking calliopes, each emitting music into the local sky above it, and thereby combining with others to yield larger machines" (CP: 36). This brings him back to his central tenet which separates the real object from our perception of it as a sensual object: this instrument as I saw it was merely a phantasm of the real calliope itself, deeper than any perception of it. Within my experience the calliope was in strife with its qualities for me, yet the same strife occurred in the depths no experience could reach (CP: 36). Then he suddenly enters a discourse on finitude both of self and cosmos in which the calliope as it ruptures from its hidden depths on the fugues of Bach awakens memories within him that trigger innate recollections "not of my own final moments, but of the final few years of the cosmos as a whole. I suddenly felt that I had seen the end times before the world's decline. The beetle-like-calliope, I now thought I remembered, would recall the tsunami to India. It would subtly degrade the orbit of the moon to a lower shell, thereby corrupting and augmenting the tides. And with these memories I recoiled all the more to remember my new theory that all entities were larger and smaller calliopes just like this one: trillions of calliopes, reaching down to infinite depths" (CP: 37).


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