January 23rd, 2011

S.C. Hickman

Graham Harman: Welcome to Interzone - the University of Metaphysics

"The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails."
    - James Joyce

"Causation can only be indirect between real objects, that is. Direct contact is always possible between the real and the sensual."
      - Graham Harman

"The object-oriented model begins by providing us with a world of ghostly realities that never come into contact with each other, a universe packed full of elusive substances stuffed into mutually exclusive vacuums. Neither I nor the monkeys outside my hotel room can ever see, touch, or consume a pineapple in its subterranean reality. Pushed to its logical extreme, this would make relations of any kind strictly impossible. Yet this is clearly an exaggeration, as it gives no explanation of how one object communicates with another, let alone annihilates another."
    - Graham Harman


Polarist explorers creating objects in the Interzone University

Reading Graham Harman is like entering the voidic realms of Poe, Lovecraft, and Thomas Ligotti, one is never sure just what will happen next, with each step one falls forward into another labyrinth of strangeness where the rules that preceded you have suddenly vanished into thin air, taken up by a new set of metaphoric figurations and hyperbolic malformations of the impossible possible truth that is objects in all their unresolvable and inaccessible glory. One follows each book from Tool-Beings, where objects are seen as hidden away in their own withdrawn vacuums totally cut off from all relation with other objects, only to be reconnected to each other in Guerilla Metaphysics where we learn about how objects learn the secret language of an alchemy of translation that allows the hidden forces of real objects to connect to the sensual world through intermediaries or vicars and thereby transform, mutate, or annihilate other objects. Then we take up the thread again in The Prince of Networks where we discover an affiliation between objects as they interact and are connected to each other through vast agglomerates or assemblages of levels of being: a network of object relation that entails both the macro and micro levels of reality in the dance of light and shadow we call this multifarious zone of the grand and carnal Carnival of Objects. Yet, as Harman has repetitively iterated in book after book there can be no reduction of objects to concept or to some mythical substrate, world-lump, formless being, or boundless aperion of matter or some other strange mucky plenum: objects are irreducible to any singular substrate of being or homogeneity of process or event, there is always something that remains in excess of our conceptual rigours or scientistic reductions and eliminativist praxis.     

A real object, like Stephen Daedalus's God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above any relation, invisible, refined out of all relation, indifferent, and, - if not pairing its fingernails, then at least living out its inscrutable and mysterious existence beyond all access, ever. Yet, this is only half the story. If Graham Harman's Tool-Being is about the private life of objects, then Guerilla Metaphysics is about their public interface: actors on the stage of being communicating and interacting with other objects disturbing, confounding, and sometimes even destroying each other. The whole world of objects must be seen as the two sides of this one complex story that is the private and public life of objects. If the cold icy phenomenologies of Husserl and Heidegger offered us the private life of objects in their withdrawness and interior mystery cut off from all relation, then the carnal phenomenologists offer us not just a phenomenology of perception, but also the outlines of a general theory of the translation of forces between objects. Harman tells us an "object may drift into events and unleash its forces there, but no such event is capable of putting the object fully into play. Its neighboring objects will always react to some of its features while remaining blind to the rest. The objects in an event are somehow always else where, in a site divorced from all relations" (GM: 81). Beyond these events is an inscrutable mystery and what "lies behind all events are inscrutable tool-beings or substances lying in some sort of still -undetermined vacuum. And somehow, the vacuums must manage to communicate with one another. This is guerrilla metaphysics. ... The theory defended in this book ... [holds] that there is an absolute difference between perceptions and objects, that the sum total of events does not exhaust the reality of objects, that there is no privileged layer of tiny parts that explains all else, and that physical efficient causation is only a special case of metaphysical formal causation."

What Harman is saying here is that there is always an excess, a remainder that can never be reduced to some mythical substrate, nor are objects cut off from each other in a dualistic world without recourse to any form of communication or link between them. These opposing camps are what he terms the radical and conservative views of objects. As he states it in The Prince of Networks,  "radical philosophy holds that there is no problem of communication between opposites in the universe, because everything is ultimately of the same nature. Meanwhile, conservative philosophy holds that there are absolute gaps or dualities that must be respected, and which are generally only described or else solved by fiat" (PoN: 155). He tells us that instead of the Kantian distinction between 'rationalists' and 'empiricists', which is a formulation of two ways of knowing the world, we should instead see the deeper distinction between an occasionalism ('conservative') and skepticism ('radical') philosophical positions which emerged from the battles within philosophy during the seventeenth century (PoN: 155). Later on Immanuel Kant took up the radical view that everything could be reduced to knowledge of phenomena governed by categories (PoN: 156), and the only conservative viewpoint that Kant maintained was that between self and world: a "sickly, minimal occasionalist gap" which Fichte would later view as a "rump remnant... a withered vestigial organ, worthy of amputation" (PoN: 156). Through an eliminative procedure things-in-themselves ('objects') were stricken by Kant and his followers from all philosophical speculation, and the afterlife of objects was left in limbo, until in such latter-day philosophies as Continental and Analytic thought we see a final reductionist vision in which the "question of human access to the world, and non-human relations are abandoned to the natural sciences" (PoN: 156).

Being neither radical nor conservative Object-Oriented philosophy is polarized: objects are both autonomous units, and exist in "conjunction with their qualities, accidents, relations, and moments without being reducible to these" (PoN: 156). The Object-Oriented philosopher joins those great alchemists of the past in seeking a way to translate and convert the opposing terms of the radical skeptic and conservative occasionalist into one another: the "world is made up of a basic set of polarities", what Harman will define as the fourfold. What we have in every interaction are two layers of being, the object itself and the object as caricatured by the relation; in turn, each of these realms is split in half by a further division between the object as a single system and the object as a system of features or traits (GM:77). The fourfold structure may seem bizarre, but only in the sense that all metaphysics has come to seem bizarre. Considered in itself, it is simply the automatic result of crossbreeding two utterly classical distinctions: (1) the difference between substance and relation, and (2) the difference between the unity of a thing and its plurality of features, between its existence and essence, or analogously between its tode ti and ti esti. (GM: 78). 

Harman speaks of a "carnival of levels extending throughout the cosmos" in which objects flicker from one level to another using a common language of charm or brute force in which they are able to persuade or annihilate one another. Each level of the world has its own unique language by which objects communicate with each other, and it is this "intermediary zone through which objects signal to one another, and transfer energies for the benefit or destruction of one another that the carnal phenomenology of Object-Oriented philosophy touches base with. For it is in this intermediary zone of the carnal and sensual medium that "objects are able to interfere with one another" (GM: 70). It is in this interzone where "beings collide with one another in a field, in a series of levels that connect them with one another. These objects can never be fully deployed in any single level, since their nature is never to manifest themselves entirely in any interaction at all" (GM: 70). 

One could imagine Harman as a philosophical traveler to that exotic Interzone at the center of the Real - not to be confused with that strange realm of which William Burroughs was so adept - no, this Interzone is to be imagined as a sensual realm between levels of being where that secret University of Metaphysics, Harmonia, exists in which the battles between differing schools of radical, conservative, and polarist factions vie for control of the real through arguments for or against the reality of objects and relations. Except that the Polarist faction lead by Harman would most likely sit back like the God of Joyce's Stephen Daedalus remaining within or behind or beyond or above their handiwork, invisible, refined out of all relation by ghostlier demarcations - buffered, indifferent, paring their fingernails watching on as the two opposing camps liquidate each other in the stew of their own impossible aperion's.




1. Tool-Being: Elements in a Theory of Objects by Graham Harman (TB) ( 1999 UMI Company)
2. Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (GM) (2005 by Carus Publishing Company)
3. Graham Harman, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (PN) (re.press Melbourne 2009 )