September 15th, 2012

S.C. Hickman

Graham Harman: Weird Realism and Lovecraft

"What is this clueless anxiety waiting for, if the horrible has already occurred? The horrifying is what transposes all that is out of its previous essence. What is so horrifying? It reveals and conceals itself in the way that everything presences, namely that despite all overcoming of distance, the nearness of that which is remains outstanding."

       - Heidegger, Martin, Bremen and Freiburg Lectures: Insight Into That Which Is and Basic Principles of Thinking

As your eye roams across the canvas of Braque's Violin and Candlestick it moves into a multiperspectival world where time and space are not so much a stabilized function of human perception but are the very bedrock of a mathematized reality that has as its grounding the infinite gradations of objects in movement between past, present, and future. Hume would have seen this painting as the broken spectrum not of a singular violin but of the finite distribution of its qualities across the fractured canvas. He would have seen this painting as in itself a confirmation that the violin is nothing more than bundles of qualities exploding in cubist multiplicity. While those of a more materialist stripe would see in this cubist menagerie the dance of atoms in all their processual infinity.  These materialists would see in this painting confirmation of their atomistic theories that the violin is nothing more than the arrangement of atoms in a pattern emerging from the lump of the real.

Graham Harman in his new book Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy sees the reductions by Hume of objects to bundles of qualities, and by  materialists of objects to an indeterminate lump as the destruction of gaps in the universe (ie., the monistic reduction of everything to the One). He juxtaposes the destroyers of gaps to those philosophers such as Plato, the Occasionalists, and Kant who each affirmed in their own way the idea that objects could never be reduced at all, that in  fact objects were from the beginning split. Instead of the One we have the Two. Plato introduced a gap in the world between intelligible forms and a perfect world beyond all forms. The Occasionalists saw a gap between every entity that only God in his infinite wisdom could overcome as the first and only causal agent in the Universe. Finally, Kant, broke the world up by producing a gap between appearance and the noumenal (things-in-themselves). Harman divides these two types of philosopher into two camps: those that destroy gaps, and those that produce gaps in the Universe. The destroyers are typified by some form of reductionism, while the gap makers might be considered productionists: as "philosophers who find new gaps in the world where there were formerly none(3).1

Lovecraft the Gap Maker

"No other writer is so perplexed by the gap between objects and the power of language to describe them, or between objects and the qualities they possess," Harman tells us of H.P. Lovecraft, continuing: "Despite his apparently limited interest in philosophy Lovecraft as a tacit philosopher is violently anti-idealist and anti-Humaen(3)." Some would see this as the steady theme of Harman's own project as well. Harman in as many books has repeatedly emphasized that the reality of objects cannot be reduced to linguistic statements, nor are thinking and being one - as in the Parmedian traditions; for Harman objects can never be directly accessed, instead they must be coaxed out of their hiding places through allurement and translation, which is neither reductionist nor idealist in intent or practice. One can never reduce reality either into a bundle of qualities or into an indeterminate lump, instead the object-oriented philosopher produces gaps: he slices and dices reality into a parody of cubism by cut ups of objects into "vast crossections of qualities, planes, or adumbrations, which even when added up do not exhaust the object they compose(3)." This philosopher of objects also opposes the idealist reduction of reality to mind or language, culture or knowledge; instead he realizes that one can only hint at and allude to this allusive reality of real objects that always exceed our descriptions of it.

Harman revises his own stance against an earlier version of Lovecraft On the Horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl (Collapse IV: read here) saying: "...Lovecraft must be read not as a Husserlian author, but as jointly Husserlian-Kantian (or better as a Husserlian-Heideggerian)... And, second, horror as the specific content of Lovecraft's stories must be accounted for, despite the fact that he is also an author of gaps that might be stylistically incarnated in numerous different genres other than horror(5)". It is in this dialectical interplay of style and content and the tension between the two that becomes one of the major themes of Harman's new revisioning of Lovecraft's legacy. It is out of this tension that Lovecraft as a horror writer centers on those strange objects we have come to call monsters. It is this emphasis on monsters the "exclusive subject matter" of his work that separates him from Husserl and the vast majority of other fiction writers, and this for Harman presents a problem that will be presented in the tripartite series of his book's framework. 

In part one, Lovecraft and Philosophy, Harman offers a series of essays that more than anything else present the problematics not so much of language as it does the problematics of all theories of representation. As Harman puts it there "is no reason to think that any philosophical statement has an inherently closer relationship with reality that its opposite, since reality is not made of statements(14)". If epistemology is the theory of knowledge and justification, the object-oriented philosophy is neither a theory of knowledge nor does it try to justify its claims about reality, instead it offers an ontological approach that beckons reality out of its hiding places through a series of calculated moves that explore the infinite excess of real objects that can never be reduced to either linguistic structures or the structures of mental operations. As Harman defines it realism cannot be bound to "correct propositions" of the real world, instead it means that "reality is too real to be translated without remainder into any sentence, perception, practical action, or anything else(16)". Against epistemic realists and transcendental realists Harman tells us that both "attitudes abandon the mission of philosophia: a love of wisdom by humans who at all times both have and do not have the truth(17)". As Harman reminds us just because we do not have access to the real objects of the world does not preclude our ability to have what he terms indirect access to things-in-themselves. Yet, just because an episteme based upon propositional statements and justification of those statements cannot reduce the real world to its discursive plenitude of either mathemes or linguistic structures does not mean we cannot have knowledge since "knowledge need not be discursive and direct(17)". Instead epistemology must rely on ontological attraction, or as Harman so aptly puts it the object in absentia can have "gravitational effects on the internal content of knowledge (17)" thereby producing instead of a representational realism a more refined version of what Harman terms weird realism.

I will leave it to the reader to explore part two of Harman's book which is devoted to what he terms the theme of ruination: a theory that after Karl Popper's theoretical premise that a theory is scientific only when it can be falsified, Harman goes further and radicalizes this into idea that a statement not only effective when it can be ruined. but that a "statement is of a higher quality the more ways it can be ruined(41)". Harman takes 100 limit test cases from the works of Lovecraft to prove and explicate this theorem in part two Lovecraft's Style at Work. On ruination as a guiding principle Harman tells us that by "discovering how a given passage might be made worse, we find an indirect method of appreciating its virtues(51)". Harman even goes so far as suggesting that in a few cases we might even through this principle seek improvements within the purview of our favorite authors writings: subtracting, revising, and  ultimately improving on their virtues as exemplars of the oblique mode of access to the real of which Lovecraft is the foremost author.

Not to downplay the importance of part two I move on to part three of this unique and important work due to the limitations of this essays scope and objective, which is neither to exhaustively explicate the details of Harman's work nor to emphasize all its intricate reasonings, but to offer a bare or minimalistic introduction to his timely effort. Part three, Weird Realism, offers a window upon that allusive world of objects of which Timothy Morton has called the strange stranger: these beings are uncanny, unique, and utterly singular.In his description of the strange strangeness of these objects Timothy Morton in his essay Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, The Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul (Collapse IV):

"Yet their uniquenesses not such that they are utterly independent. They are composites of other strange strangers. We share their DNA, their cell structure, subroutines in the software of their brains. They are absolutely unique and so capable of forming a collective of life forms, rather than a community. Community implies a boundary between inside and outside, which implies inclusion and exclusion: scapegoating. The antagonistic energy of the community is pasted onto the scapegoat, who is then sent outside the community to purge it of its contradictions. Collectivity posits that the antagonisms are directly a feature of coexistence as such."   

For Harman this antagonism or duel at the center of objects "is the unremitting duel between an object itself as a real unity, as a single thing, and the same object as made up of numerous specific features”. The traits, attributes and features of an object are its notes. Some notes are inessential but even those which aren’t “do not in any individual case constitute its full reality as one thing”. “The object in and of itself is merely doubled, split between its formal unity and its abundance of traits” (GM, p.149)".2 It is in part three that Harman explicates his defense against literalisms that reduce and authors work to a set of periphrastic statements based on content rather than the stylistics of an author's presentation. Against such readings he sees in Lovecraft two separate fissures that obstruct the "power of literal language(234)". First is the power of allusion typified in Lovecraft in numerous passages in which he "alludes to realities that are impossible to describe". Second, are those passages that Harman describes as "forms of literary cubism ... in which no allusion is made to a thing exceeding the powers of language"(234). He explicates further:

" these cases numerous bizarre or troubling features of a palpable thing are piles up in such excessive number that it becomes difficult to combine all these facets neatly into a single object, thereby giving us the sense of a purely immanent object that is nonetheless distinct from any bundle of features(234)."

Third are the passages in Lovecraft that in which the objects and features he describes elude and resist any and all descriptions. And, finally, are passages found in Lovecraft in which even a phenomenal object, one that is known and accessible such as - in Harman's example - a meteorite or metallic ornament "is found to have unintelligible but real features(235)". These four types of passage make up what Harman terms the four tensions of "ontography". Originally ontography was a sort of homage to M.R. James who wrote of a specific pedant in one of his works as a "Professor of Ontography", and as Harman states in in his recent work The Quadruple Object, "Rather than a geography dealing with stock natural characters such as forests and lakes, ontography maps the basic landmarks and faultlines in the universe of objects (QO, 125)". Beyond the fourfold tension of ontography that Harman explicates in his reading of Lovecraft he also sees the issue of tragedy and comedy as
central to Lovecraft as an author of horror stories and novels.

In the rest of part three Harman opens up the heart of his philosophical enterprise describing and explicating in depth on his use of the philosophical terms fusion, fission, and the taxonomic fallacy. By fusion he he describes the two tensions of space and essence. Space embodies the fact that "objects spatially removed from us are both absolutely distant ... but also near to us insofar as they inscribe their distance in directly accessible fashion. Essence is the tension that describes the inaccessibility of either the object or its qualities(239). Harman tells us that what both tensions have in common is fusion: He gives us the example of the statement: "man is a wolf" which describes the fusion of two spatial objects: this happens when an qualities of an object are fused with an object that are disassociated with the normal associations of such objects. As an example of the tension of essence in fusion he describes Lovecraft's  god Azathoth's fusion with a wild assemblage of flutes and dancers all merging together. But, he reminds us this type of fusion requires as a prerequisite a fission, "since these qualities were not there beforehand just floating in the ether(240)."

The opposite of fusion fission "splits the usual relation between an accessible sensual thing and its accessible sensual qualities(241)". The two tensions that make up fission are describes as "time" and "eidos": first, time is "precisely what our experience of time involves - the fluctuation of numerous qualities around somewhat enduring (but not permanent) objects that remain the same throughout those fluctuations(242)"; and, second, is eidos - unlike the transient accidents of qualities that float along the surface of things and shift with the flows of time, this tension provides us the essential elements "between accessible sensual objects and the inaccessible qualities that are of structural importance for them(243)". What is important to note is that this process of fission brings about change and movement, with the emergence of objects out of the fission/fusion matrix of these tensions.

In describing the Taxanomic Fallacy Harman reverts to his use of this term in a defense against Brentano's view that physical entities "have no immanent objects while mental entities do is just a case of wrongly ascribing two different ontological structures to two separate kinds of being(QO,116)". He continues:

"For it would be more accurate to say that physical things and minds are both objects. And qua objects, both withdraw from any relations and simply perform the labor of being what they are. Insofar as they do relate to other things, they confront objects that are not immanent in themselves as privileged mental agents, but immanent in the larger objects into which they have entered(QO, 116)."

The point of this discursion into the taxanomic fallacy Harman tells us it that while it might be "correct to identify a difference between literal content and the unparaphrasable, there is no justification for allotting these two structures to two different types of human intellectual pursuits - a division of labor in which philosophy and science would be responsible for literal truths, while literature would handle all the irony and paradox(248)". This is Harman's critique of all forms of epistemic or idealist realism that would divide philosophical or scientific language from other literary endeavors such as philosophical thinkers like Wilfrid Sellars for whom the manifest and scientific image of man (Sellars, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) were a core truth in which philosophy and normal literary pursuits were divided from the scientific image in which Science, by postulating new kinds of basic entities (e.g., subatomic particles, fields, collapsing packets of probability waves), slowly constructs a new framework on this basis that claims to be a complete description and explanation of the world and its processes.Sellars claims that “the scientific image presents itself as a rival image. From its point of view the manifest image on which it rests is an ‘inadequate’ but pragmatically useful likeness of a reality which first finds its adequate (in principle) likeness in the scientific image”.  Against such divisions Harman offers his form of "ontography" and an object-oriented philosophy.  

In summation Harman tells us that he agrees that the literal reduction of reality to paraphrase is both an invalid pursuit and an inanity. The second point is that nothing in this world can be converted into anything else without "distortion"(251). All reductions or literalizations of objects to either their circumstances or effects is to distort the reality of the object. As he tells us to "paraphrase something by redescribing it in literal terms, or any other kinds of terms, is to place that something in context - namely, its context with respect to us"(254-255). Against a formalism that stipulates that the specific content  of any experience is relatively unimportant, as well as, a materialism, that "grants privilege to the original soil from which anything grows, and thereby denies the autonomy or relative independence of that reality itself, Harman offers us instead objects. He goes on to explicate:

"The reason objects are not formalizable is because they cannot be reduced to their conditions of knowability, whether mathematical or otherwise. But objects are also not "materializable," because the neighborhood conditions of their genesis are relevant only within strict limits. Nor are objects a hylemorphic combination of both form and matter, since objects are precisely what lies between these two extremes, engaging with them only occasionally and indirectly. Instead objects are what the classical tradition called substantial forms, inhabiting a mezzanine level of the cosmos, and can be paraphrased neither as a meaning for some observer nor as the dangling product of some genetic-environmental backstory(253)".

Against any form of paraphrase and literal reductions of reality to either formalism or materialism, which would be to the conversion of a "real thing into an accessible meaning without energy loss", Harman offers the ontography of objects. He uses the example of everyday life, of experience that is always an "object in its own right, since it can be analyzed endlessly without ever being exhausted, and without being replaced with any number of analyses whatsoever(258)". At the heart of this operation is the acknowledgment of a truth: "when new and difficult experience is produced by breakdowns along the fault-lines of things, it becomes evident that our experience of the new object is unparaphraseable, and that it is thus a reality in its own right. It may not be real in the sense that it lies in the depths at a distance from us, yet it remains real in the sense that we ourselves are sincerely invested in it(259)." In previous books in discussion of Comedy brings out this conception of sincerity when he reiterates Bergson’s theory of comedy: “comedy results when we witness what is human reduced to a mechanism”, which is linked to the sincerity of objects unable to free themselves from a kind of fundamental ingenuousness (GM, p.128). Comedy does not occur all the time but only at certain times. Comedy is a type of art. “What we laugh at is the way in which human transcendence and free decision making power are undercut by his being delivered to the force of things, unable to master them”, but only in the absence of feeling (GM, p.131). Comedy presents those who are worse than we are. Imitation brings out the automatism of people. Comedy and humour are aspects of allure.(see Dictionary of Concepts).

Yet, one must not leave out tragedy or comedy for in "both these ways ... a new real object is produced that contains a full dose of reality despite being generated directly in our midst, by fusing together a real object (the observing agent) with sensual experience(260)". For Harman there are both material and non-material objects.  

That there might be objections to this sort of philosophical project and seeing that it too might fall into the very taxanomic fallacy that it pretends to obviate Harman has foreseen:

"... the object-oriented standpoint initially runs the risk of holding that unparaphrasable reality lies only in the absent depths of the world while experienced content is always literal and transferrable. Yet, what we now find is the explicit production of unparaphrasable real objects ... in the very midst of the sensual realm. Deprived of access to the real objects that lurk beneath perception and all other contexts, we produce our own real objects in the midst of them - as if countless black holes were suddenly and deliberately generated in banks, hospitals, and malls, or in Florence, Stratford, and Providence(260)".

As with anything the meat is in the details, and anyone who loves the horror of Lovecraft's philosophical literature will enjoy how ontography is applied to its strange strangeness.


1. Graham Harman. Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy. (Zero Books, 2012)
2. Graham Harman. Guerrilla Metaphysics (GM) Open Court, 2005