January 22nd, 2011

S.C. Hickman

Graham Harman: The Object Machine; or, philosophy as the creation of objects

"Collectives are entanglements of objects. They can be entanglements composed entirely of nonhuman objects as in the case of an eco-system, or they can be entanglements that also contain humans as well as nonhuman objects."
     - Levi Bryant

"Our brain is not the seat of a neuronal cinema that reproduces the world: rather our perceptions are inscribed on the surface of things, as images amongst images.
     - Bernhard Cache

The Metaphysics of Absence

We have never been human(ist)! We are embedded/entangled actants in a world of objects, participating in and resistant to its affective relations with us, while other objects evade us completely withdrawing into the tangled skein of their own mysterious vacuums(Harman).  Actants in a endless duel between divergent fault-lines of negotiation and resolution, we suffer the world as network or machinic mesh, a zone in which all the real objects conceal themselves from the greedy touch of alchemy, a place in which we encounter the pressuring force of an excess within relation itself.  Subverting the centrality of the human(ist) and of all anthropocentric modes of knowing and experiencing the world by displacing the centrality of its metonymic stand-in, human (and humanist) perception we ride the waves of a rhizomatic reconfiguration of the human and the real in our time. Do not call it a tranhumanist vision, a jump into a cyborgian fantasy of an after life downloaded into robotic immortality, nor a human-machine merger in which the human vanishes beyond recall, instead this is the posthumanist recognition and reframing of the human not in terms of a granting to the other what we think ourselves to be, but by a radical reconfiguration of how we even think of ourselves in the first place. As Cary Wolfe in his What is Posthumanism? informs us, the ability to comprehend a "new reality" in which human beings occupy a universe "populated by... nonhuman subjects" requires a posthumanism which entails "an increase in the vigilance, responsibility, and humility that accompanies living in a world so newly, and differently, inhabited" (47).  I would agree with the statement above except I would replace nonhuman subjects with nonhuman objects - even that most human(ist) word of all, subject, has too much of the smell of the anthropos in it for my taste.

As an animal among other animals, as organic machines concocted out of the machinic assemblage of the inorganic and organic world we are all connected to the greater machines that surround us, and we translate this world of objects for the benefit of that real that exists in the hidden depths of our own machinic mystery. As Graham Harman tells us our "bodily organs are nothing but translation machines, transforming various energies from the outer world into terms that we can grasp or fail to grasp, allowing objects to show their faces in new and more compelling ways than before. Even when our digestive system translates bread into fuel and our nerves reduce pin-pricks to pain, this is not sheer appropriation or destruction, but rather a way of leveraging all that is strong in these objects by way of their most vulnerable points. Somewhat paradoxically, to appropriate something is also to pay tribute to it-precisely by acknowledging that its frailty is a door through which we hope to enter and participate in its mysteries..." (GM: 245).

Ontographers of the real we translate those dynamic tensions between differing kinds of objects, divining in their depths a strange force hidden away beyond our access, yet always-already in touch with us indirectly through the medley of its sensual allure. Like pagan priests or shamans of of some arcane world, we find ourselves rising up the tree of being or climbing down into its darkening roots below the earth, or sliding along the surface texture of its seemingly bubbling face where we begin that dance of the quadruple enfoldment of objects, stopping here and there letting the asymmetry of an object touch us with its sensual notes like a symphony played by an invisible maestro, one that is absent while present. Like infants reaching out toward those fuzzy play things that surround it, tentatively skimming their sensual surface, then withdrawing or escaping from their dangerous power of allurement into the folds of her own safe vacuum; she watches, she waits... listening to the palpitating notes on the wind... then less fearful and hesitant, after a thorough study of the colorful exterior of the those affective appurtenances unfolding through the window of reality before her, she stirs out of her timid withdraweness, buffering herself - then she slowly caresses the colorful globules of plasticity dancing in the sun like angels on a string of light, nudging against their smooth or rough surfaces, feeling the palpable pressure of something pushing back against her, a strange relation emerging out of the inner depths of those objects core, creating a new object one made of her and the sensual hands surrounding her in their embrace; this hidden force touching her indirectly through its sensual fingers awakens within her that ultimate strangeness of all relation: the shock of the absolute real awakening, unfolding, curling out of its inner core and touching her with its sensual hands is a terror even angels may fear to tread; yet, this infant, in jubilant delight, begins to cuddle up to this object unafraid, embracing its sensual hands, groping its body, stroking its face, tasting its plastic magic like a new born god who has for the first time discovered the art of the real: the creation of an object. 

What this infant has explored is the concreteness of objects. As Harman tells us: "The concreteness of objects (as already seen in Aristotle's primary substance) refers to something so real that no description or definition ever does it justice. Whatever it might be that humans do, it is not abstraction, but rather an exposure of their surfaces to an increasing variety of concrete objects - and concrete objects, like classical substances, are what always elude the senses. ... An animal organism is the first great translation-machine, rendering the motleyest crew of objects into a single mother-tongue: the language of the soul, which Aristotle regarded as the ultimate organ of the senses. The tendency of any soul is to assemble a single holistic mass in which the sensual parts of objects mix together and unify. But this sensual tendency is countered from the start by the inverse movement of intelligence, which tends toward antiholism, chopping apart incarnate elements and leaving us with a forest of ghosts-phantom objects that never show themselves. If sensation is the principle of unity, intelligence aims to split the world into districts, into isolated objects flickering independently from beyond. And like every exercise of intelligence, philosophy is less a creation of concepts than a creation of objects" (GM: 248).

1. Wolfe, Cary. What is Posthumanism? Posthumanities series, ed. Cary Wolfe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
S.C. Hickman

Graham Harman: Shaviro, Vitale, Jackson on Whitehead, Aesthetics, Objects and Relations

""Like discotheques, amusement parks, and videogames, but also like the best works of literature, science, and philosophy, Quai Branly succeeds precisely by liberating objects from their context. I will now give a brief description of the Museum, concluding with a plea that “the priests of contextualization” ... be exiled from the arts as quickly as I hope to see them banished from philosophy."
    - Graham Harman

Quadruple Object (detail)
Pencil on paper
65cm x 50cm
© 2010
Tammy Lu

Graham Harman's visit to the Quai Branly in Paris is like a throwback to those early 19th Century explorers of the exotic who travelled into the remotest corners of the earth seeking out the weird artifacts of ancient peoples for the deletection of a populice bored of its own insufferable inanity. One might be reminded of Edward Said, in Orientalism, when he once said in regards to human empires that "Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate." But for Harman it is neither the education and liberation of peoples of either ancient or modern cultures from the cultural prison of imperialism of western empires, nor is it the education of a ruling elite within the dark empire of  transglobalism which he refers too in his visit to the Quai Branly; instead, it is the empire of objects itself that needs liberation from the black grips of those contemptuous contextualists who present a "moralizing pose", offended by the Museum’s supposed "racist condescension" of a Museum that was built mostly to serve the personal vanity of Jacques Chirac. [1] Harman goes on to tell us the response of one reviewer who likened the Museum to a “a spooky jungle, red and black and murky.” That reviewer continued saying it is “an enormous, rambling, crepuscular cavern that tries to evoke a journey into the jungle, downriver, where suddenly scary masks or totem poles loom out of the darkness.” Worse yet, “the atmosphere is like a discotheque at 10 A.M.” But the ultimate sin is that Quai Branly places side-by-side such diverse entities as “Vietnamese textiles… contemporary Aboriginal paintings… pre-Columbian pottery… Sioux warrior tunics… and Huron wampum.”

Harman tells us that it is this kind of critique from contextualists, and this reviewer in particular, that present the erroneous idea apparently that the "atmosphere should be less mysterious, and that the objects in the Museum need a heavier apparatus of historical and economic context." Yet, he goes on to say, that " not only would this ruin the effect of Branly— it already ruins many existing museums whose objects would be better served if they were changed without delay into the equivalent of “scary masks and totem poles looming out of the darkness.” Indeed, I believe that only the Scary Mask Effect is likely to keep museums relevant in the future."

What is this "Scary Mask Effect" of which he speaks? In another essay on George Santayana, A Larger Sense of Beauty, Harman iterates the basic premises of Santayana's aesthetic, saying, " beauty plays an almost overwhelming role in everyday life. In our choice of clothing, homes, vacation sites, and mates, in our strong preference for certain kinds of pets or specific foreign languages, and in our near-physical disgust at annoying voices and hated styles of music, aesthetic considerations play a pivotal role. Animals detect the slightest variations in patterns of color and sounds, and even lifeless stars and crystals display a kind of aesthetic structure. According to Santayana, philosophers have ignored beauty mostly because aesthetic standards seem at first to be so personal and arbitrary."  [2]

 He goes on to explicate the two basic principles that were formulated by Santanyan in regards to Beauty: "First, beauty is not one limited neighborhood of reality, one tiny theater district or concert hall of the world, meant to entertain us after the day’s serious work is finished. Instead, beauty penetrates every square inch of reality; the world as a whole has an aesthetic structure. Second, the sense of beauty is not just a random personal taste projected onto a boring objective world of chemicals and neutrons. Although we humans may disagree about whether a canvas by Jackson Pollock is beautiful or not, this debate happens not because we are miserable isolated egos unable to communicate. There is no reason to be so cynical. Instead, we disagree about beauty because we live outside our private minds, agreeing and disagreeing about the objects that surround us all."

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"To create a model of anything is to simplify all the confusions of its context, defining it as an object with certain known and mysterious properties, independent of all relations with other things. This is something that the Quai Branly collection does wonderfully. To accuse the Museum of converting objects into scary masks is as useless as accusing Einstein of converting our subtle, highly contextual physical world into the vulgar theater of scary light and scary gravity. This is what the mind is for. Human activity discovers or creates objects, and objects, in part, always resist their context— even when they are created by it."
     - Graham Harman

Chris Vitale and Robert Jackson both have pertinent posts regarding Steven Shaviro's article for the Speculative Turn, The Actual Volcano: Whitehead, Harman and the Problem of Relations, in which each shapes a dialogue concerning Object-Oriented philosophy in regards to aesthetics and object-relations. In Chris Vitale's post he begins with Graham Harman's article "Response to Shaviro" in which he "was definitely curious to see how he responded to these arguments, which I find in general convincing." In his article he concentrates on those elements of contestation between what Harman sees in Whitehead's philosophy and what is really there in the eyes of Vitale. While Robert Jackson also responds that he too has gone through both Steven Shaviro's article and Harman's response a couple of times, and yet for him the important thing is the aspect of aesthetics that is most pertinent.   

Before I do an explication of the two author's posts I must now give a basic reading of Steven Shapiro's article, then a review of Harman's response to it before setting sail into the both Vitale's and Jackson's analysis and explication and critiques.

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