October 3rd, 2012

S.C. Hickman

The Meaning of Objects

"Philosophy never reverts to its old position after the shock of a great philosopher."

      - Whitehead, Alfred North, Process and Reality


Tonight I want to go back over an early essay by Graham Harman, Phenomenology and the Theory of Equipment (1997). In this essay he discusses the analysis of equipment within Martin Heidegger's Being and Time. It's in this work that Heidegger, according to Harman - offers his central contribution to philosophy: the critique of presence-at-hand. It's in this essay that we get a sense of Harman's conception of the centrality of objects as withdrawn from all relation; and yet, fully deployed in the universe. In describing the reality of a tool Harman tells us that a tool is most itself when it "recedes into a reliable background of machinery." 1 But it is in the next sentence that I find a fascinating conclusion: "tools do not occur in isolation. Their meaning is determined by their definitive roll in a referential contexture, their distinct position in this reality (ibid)." 

Now lets tease the truth out of this statement. Tools or objects do not occur in isolation. Harman uses a notion of levels of reality he takes over from Alphonso Lingis in which beings, he says, "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 a any single level, since their nature is never to manifest themselves entirely in any interaction at all. But insofar as entities interact at all, they share a common language of charm or brute force by which they are able to pursue or annihilate one another. The language they share is, in each case, a level of the world” (GM, p.70)." 2 This seems to complexify the issue, yet if we read this closely we understand that objects are never fully vested in their own actions, that in fact they never completely exist in any single level of reality but roam between levels and that it is in these wandering between levels that they open themselves to other objects for good or ill. Harman uses the term 'referential contexture' as well as 'field' to describe the the point of reference within which an objects meaning emerges. Now a contexture is a fact or manner of being woven or linked together to form a connected whole, which supports the notion that an object's mode of action is through this referential linkage to other objects among the multifarious levels of the differing realms of reality. That the meaning of an object as it is, as it's mode of being, is in reference to its distinct position within this fabric of reality.

The other thing to notice in his second observation is that objects communicate with each other through a "common language of charm or brute force by which they are able to pursue or annihilate each other." (GM: ibid). This is not the Platonic realm of forms and light, but the dark realm of eros and thanatos of Freud. Yet, even this is not quite exact, for as Harman has repeated in many phrases, one cannot reduce one set of ideas to another, something is always lost in translation. What is interesting is that this is not a dead and static realm of substance, this is not your Aristotelian or Spinozistic lump of static entities, no Harman's world of objects is dynamic and full of force and action. As he continues in his essay saying: "Some part of the physical tool may stay in view, but its action necessarily withdraws into a totality that cannot become visible in principle. The tool is the execution of a reality or effect that necessarily retreats behind the presence of any surface (SR: ibid)." The physical aspect of the object is phenomenal, but their is an inner life, a place of darkness within the object wherein its action withdraws, an interior that is a totality. This idea that an object is the execution or effect of a reality that cannot become visible in itself almost seems to hint at a sort of machinic life, an unconscious realm of drives and emotive forces churning away. But as he affirms this is not a nihilistic realm of forces, this is a positive realm of existence in which a reality "has emerged into the world to set up shop (SR: ibid)."

Each and every object has its place in the "system of significance" that shapes the universe. Objects are performative and affective, they relate and act in the world. The visible world itself is the stage upon which objects perform, the visible world "is the world of the "as", a tangible and volatile surface derived from a more primary dimension of being(SR: ibid)." The surface textures of phenomenal existence, the sensual life of our planet and the universe of dancing stars derives its life from a deeper "dimension of being". This is not to be seen as a return to a substantive reduction to a monistic lump below the sensuous face of reality. What Harman says of Heidegger equally applies to his own view: ".. the key to Heidegger’s being is not its absolute concealment, but its absolute reality, its definitive action(SR: ibid)." Absolute reality is in action, the realm of being in movement, productive and producing.

He tells us that when Heidegger attacked his former teacher Husserl telling us that “The being of the phenomenon is never raised as a question.”, Harman affirms this as a full blown critique of representation in the sense that Husserl had not gone far enough in his understanding of just what Being's being concealed in the phenomena is. Yet, Husserl did see phenomenon as an event, as an action or movement, an energia. For Husserl as for Whitehead and others the event was seen in this question: "An account is needed of how is it that our experience appears to stream through time." 2 What kind of causality is involved? For Harman it is Vicarious Causation, and in a post he explains this in detail: click here. The gist of his argument is as follows:

"Real objects can never touch, because by nature they must withdraw from each other but sensual objects always touch real ones, because they exist only insofar as they are confronted by a real object (real objects are never real “for” something else, but sensual objects are only real “for” something else) hence, the way that two real objects interact is through the mediation of the sensual realm."

He goes on to say that his "approach differs from occasionalism because I don’t try to lay it all on God as “a whizbang, superpowerful, grand poobah powerhouse that can surmount any distance or separation”. ... My approach differs from Hume’s and Kant’s, because while it is true that “in the secularized versions of occasionalism in Hume and Kant, mind is capable of acting as the third relating to the separate because mind is not relating objects but something strictly immanent to mind, namely sensations,” in my model it is a matter not of relations between sensations, but between real objects that happen to be using sensual media as their means of indirect contact." The idea of the "medium is the message" (McLuhan) fits well here, and I think Harman being a reader of McLuhan marshalls this idea to his own pragmatic use. The idea that a real object makes contact with other objects through indirect use of its sensual appendages as medium to carry forward its message also tends to move toward such researchers as Niklas Lumann as well. Lumann separates the human from the realm of communication. Luhmann's counter-intuitive system says the human never communicates directly, only communication does. So communication is a medium that we use indirectly to carry our message into the social sphere. So objects use the sensual realm as such a device to relate to other objects through the sensual medium. What we see in the phenomenal realms is the sensual messages from the hinterlands of the real, the sensual interfaces of accidental properties reveal the hidden world of something darker and more alive than we ever imagined. A realm of forces and desires below the surface of all bright things harbors a distinct presence that is forever surging and retreating, commanding and enslaving, tasking itself and other things with the imperatives of its hidden existence. All we ever see of its life is the mathematical and poetic revelations of its hidden being as it reveals itself within the phenomenal surface textures of this universe of physical being. Yet, this is not some dark god nor is it some vitalistic force, no it is something that is at the heart of all objects that are fully deployed and manifest within the only ever expanding system we know: the universe. And, like all things, it comes, it goes; it lives, it dies: for nothing that is lives forever.


1. Harman, Graham (2010-11-26). Towards Speculative Realism: Essays.
2. Guerrilla Metaphysics (GM) Open Court, 2005
3. Husserl, Edmund. 1960 [1931]. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology. Trans. Dorion Cairns. The Hague: Nijhoff.