S.C. Hickman (earth_wizard) wrote,
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).


This infinite regression of forms into the 'infinite depths' of cosmic finitude without ground or (un)binding is truly a horror for Harman, as it should be if you accept his metaphysical stance regarding objects; for him "real objects never touch directly (Collapse II: 194). Instead they 'withdraw' behind the relational horizon of all specific relations. And, since objects that are real do not interact with one another he stipulates that they must mediate with other objects through a "sensual vicar" ("On Vicarious Causality," 201.): "Vicarious causation, of which science so far knows nothing, is closer to what is called formal cause. To say that formal cause operates vicariously means that forms do not touch one another directly, but somehow melt, fuse, and decompress in a shared common space from which all are partly absent. My claim is that two entities influence one another only by meeting on the interior of a third, where they exist side-by-side until something happens that allows them to interact. In this sense, the theory of vicarious causation is a theory of the molten inner core of objects – a sort of plate tectonics of ontology” (ibid. 190 -Italic emphasis mine).

What does it mean for an object to be withdrawn? A brief tour of Harman's previous work might telegraph his ideas into this essay and show the historical progression of his thought in regards to his Object-Oriented Philosophy. In Tool-Being he plumbed the work of Husserl and Heidegger and discovered how objects withdraw into into vacuum of their own interior cut off from any relation to any other objects. In Guerrilla Metaphysics he begins exploration of the work of the great phenomenologists Merleau Ponty, Emmauel Levinas, and Alphonso Lingis among others to discover how objects have any relations with each other at all, and it is here that he discovers 'elements': "What we have called elements are not collateral features of human reality, but the sole means by which the universe allows any relations to occur" (GM: 170). 

In Harman's work Tool-Being he came a realization that if the world is made up of entities withdrawn into their own interiors, cut off from all relations to other entities then "the world would seem to be packed with non-communicating vacuous zones, none of them able to transmit energy or influence to the others. There are neither windows nor doors to be found any longer. Any contact between distinct entities would seem to be thoroughly impossible; for the same reason, any sort of alteration in the universe would also seem impossible. Is there any way to avoid these consequences by pointing to a medium through which tool-beings might genuinely interact? How can one vacuum impart its secrets to another? And what happens, ontologically speaking, when one entity perceives another, or lightly grazes it, or outright crushes it?" [3] 

In Tool-Being before he'd clarified his concept of "vicarious causation" he spoke of this meeting of objects this way: "Perception is already a descent into its own particles. The system that includes myself and the hammer burrows down into itself, decomposing itself before our eyes in spite of its necessary status as a single entity" (TB: 289). Yet, the question remains: "if tool-beings are by definition non-relational, how can they ever touch one another?" (TB: 289). Quoting from Sir. Francis Bacon he states ""For since every body contains in itself many forms of natures united together in a concrete state, the result is that they severally crush, depress, break, and enthrall one another, and thus the individual forms are obscured." The movement of philosophy is less one of unveiling (which would rely on a sort of as-structure that I have argued does not really exist) than of a sort of reverse engineering. ... Behind every apparently simple object or concept is an infinite legion of further objects crushing, depressing, breaking, and enthralling one another. It is these violent underground currents that one should attempt to counter, so as to unlock the infrastructure of any entity or of the world as a whole." (TB: 290). At the end of Tool-Being he formulated the beginnings of a theory of objects that was to come:

"The step toward an actual theory of objects requires a clearer picture of the crushing, depressing, breaking, and enthralling action of things. The isolation of entities suspended in their vacuums must be bridged, and the various facets of each of these objects must be concretely charted. The motivating force for shifting to a method of this kind lies in a resolve to end the discrepancy between our lives as professional thinkers and our lives as humans immersed in the system of objects" (TB: 291).

 In Guerilla Metaphysics he opens the door on Object-Oriented Philosophy and states: "Object-oriented philosophy is necessarily a philosophy of elements. But elements are not solely the stuff of which sense perception is made. Spilling beyond unconscious praxis no less than they exceed the senses, elements are the basis of all relations, not just sentient ones. For not only is sentient perception object-oriented, bonded to fugitive objects in the night-but also interaction in general is saddled with this fate, and elements are the vehicle through which this destiny is enacted. Vicarious causation is not a special burden of human consciousness, but the very music of the world" (GM: 169).

The next thing we discover is that objects encounter each other as unified forms. Think of a boy who hits a baseball into a neighbors window. What the ball encounters, what it breaks, is the window as a whole. He continues, saying, "The story of the world is a tale of interacting forms or objects of all possible sizes at all possible levels, not of pampered scintillae of underlying material. ... All vicarious causation unfolds in this elemental sphere, whose inner workings remain a riddle" (GM: 170). Harman is seeking a philosophy that is sensual and vibrant, not boring and dry, a speculative realist philosophy that is no longer tied to the human:

"Once we note that the sensual reality of elements extends well beyond the human sphere, we thereby revive and expand phenomenology and push its theater of carnality into previously abandoned realms. The world described by philosophy is no longer the mere eruption of foundationless qualities into human view, nor a tiresome collision of solid points of matter, but rather a drunken alchemy in which dolphins, strawberries, and protons transform each other ceaselessly into gold. Objects are no longer merely unverifiable hypotheses that perhaps lie somewhere out there beyond our perception and perhaps do not. Instead, though hiding from all comers, they extend their forces into the world like the petals of a rose or the ten tacles of an octopus. The world is dense with sensual or elemental relations between things: a form of realism far more enticing than the tedious kind repeatedly denounced or evaded by human-centered philosophy" (GM: 170-171).  

We discover that the two major themes of Object-Oriented philosophy are "vicarious causation" and the "interior life of objects of tool-beings", and the skeleton key that unlocks both of these is the discovery of just what elements are: redefining Husserl's proposition that elements are the "notes of intentional objects" he tells us his definition is that "are the notes of sensual objects" (GM: 171). He goes on to describe this interaction with elements: "The sensual elements of sensual objects pose an exception to this rule. In the encounter with elements, we seem to find ourselves already within the volcanic core of the intentional object itself. The importance of this cannot be overestimated: for the first time, we find ourselves face to face with the interior of an object, with its internal magma or inner plasm" (GM: 171). Our experience of the world is never with objects-in-themselves but with "sensual objects as comprised of their notes. ... The object recedes from our grasp and the grasp of all else, while ceaselessly extending its notes toward other entities like a handshake or a fleeting kiss." (GM: 171).

(He has told us that he is decentering the human from his new phenomenology or Object-Oriented Philosophy, yet his use of anthropomorphic analogies such as "handshake or fleeting kiss" to qualify how objects extend their notes toward other entities seems a more human gesture rather than a move toward an inhumanist vocabulary. Is this a good thing? Would another analogy be more appropriate, or are we forever bound to our own human centered poetry of metaphor and metonymy with all its attendant rhetorical figures and flourishes?  How would one develop a sensuous vocabulary devoid of human anthropomorphisms? Do we need a new vocabulary with which to decenter objects from our anthropomorphizing tendencies?)

In a movement toward an understanding of relations he begins by exploring the metaphor of allure, but as a preliminary step in that direction he recasts Heidegger's opposition between "tool and broken tool can actually be restated as the duel between a thing and its parts" (GM: 172). He tells us that "a thing relates to its own parts in the same way that it relates to other things, and indeed in the same way that we ourselves relate to things: namely, by distorting them, caricaturing them, bringing them into play only partially" (GM: 172). He qualifies this stating since "every genuine relation already forms an object, the terms of a relation can be viewed for this purpose as its parts" (GM: 172). With this in mind he tells us that if the "first Heideggerian axis is equivalent to the strife of things and their parts, the second axis can be rewritten as the duel between a thing and its notes" (GM: 172).   

After exposing the failures within Husserl, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty he extols the work of Alphonos Lingis and his conception of the 'levels of the world':

"Alphonso Lingis, unnerving explorer of our planet, is alone among the phenomenologists in sensing the many autonomous levels of the world. For Lingis, a sort of carnal plasma bathes the entire universe and all of its interactions, and the human being is only a traveler or sojourner at each of these levels, not the lionized guest of honor. But with this step, phenomenology mutates into some thing quite different: each zone and particle of the universe becomes a self contained sensual reality, summoning us ever deeper while also reposing in its own immediacy. The key question in the wake of this theory of levels is as follows: how does one level grant access to the next?" (GM: 173).

To discover this he reiterates that allure is a "mechanism by which objects are split apart from their traits even as these traits remain inseparable from their objects. Above all else, it seemed to be aesthetic experience that splits the atoms of the world and puts their particles on display" (GM: 174). To show how things ever come into contact with each other he tells us that first, "the relation of objects must always be indirect or vicarious, since no object can enter fully into any interaction; and, next, that "the relation between separate objects is no different from the relation between a thing and its parts, since every genuine relation will have the status of a new object" (GM: 174). He goes on to say that objects do not "confront each other directly, but only brush up against one another's notes, like shadow governments communicating through encryptions or messenger-birds. ... When we say that one object encounters another, what this means is that it makes contact with strife between the unitary reality and specific notes of its neighbor" (GM: 174 - my emphasis).

After reading this passage on 'strife' it seemed like I was listening to some atonal score being played by a daemonic maestro in which objects strive with each other using prosthetic appendages that conceal rather than reveal the inner-core of their dark materials, sharing only the precious notes of their symphonic chaos and black metal screams the real objects hide the depths of horror within a molten core of voidic closure. Developing a metaphysical aesthetics of allure he continues, saying,

"The metaphysical role of allure is to present us with the intersection point of objects and their notes, the point at which reality hesitates between existence and essence or substance and quality. Allure is that furnace or steel mill of the world where notes are converted into objects. The engine of change within the world is the shifty ambivalence of notes, which both belong to objects and are capable of breaking free as objects in their own right. Allure invites us toward another level of reality (the unified object) and also gives us the means to get there (the notes that belong to both our current level and the distant one). It puts its objects at a subterranean distance, converts the notes of those objects into objects in their own right, and rearranges the landscape of what we take seriously" (GM: 179).
To understand the difference between normal perception and allure he describes how allure must accomplish three things: first, it pushes the sensual object to a distance, as if transforming it into something like a real object rather than just an intentional one; second, these notes become sensual objects in their own right, rather than disappearing into the thing to which they belong as happens under the usual conditions of perception; and, third, allure also rearranges our comportment so that we now occupy ourselves directly with notes that were previously enslaved to some other object of our attention" (GM: 180). Continuing his exploration he formulates two hypothesis: first, that whereas allure changes notes into objects) perception follows a contrary movement by converting objects into notes; and, second, an object is identical with its notes (GM: 181). Because of this he tells us that "object-oriented philosophy resembles the classical forms of metaphysics in its concern with three important themes: how a thing relates to its own inherent qualities, to the inessential traits that skate along its surface, and to other separate things in the environment" (GM: 183).

He goes on to differentiate between the "white noise of screeching chaotic qualities demanding to be shaped by the human mind," and "a black noise of muffled objects hovering at the fringes of our attention. ... the object can be viewed as a kind of black hole whose interior has receded infinitely from view, but which also leaks a certain amount of radiant energy, as Hawking's discoveries have shown. And this is precisely what objects are for a guerrilla metaphysician: inscrutable holes of withdrawn energy that somehow still emit fragrance or radio signals by way of the notes that ought to have collapsed entirely into their dark and unified cores, but have not done so. Here once again, black noise refers to the objected-oriented character of the radiation from objects, which surrounds us as a constant sensual ether" (GM: 183-184). He describes Black Noise, saying,  "Noise is defined as the peripheral material that accompanies objects on their promenade through the cosmos, with the adjective black indicating that this noise is at all times object oriented, not formed of loose universal qualities" (GM: 184).

The main difference between normal perception and allure is that (a) perception identifies an object with its notes, whereas allure splits objects and notes from one another, and (b) allure unleashes objects into an inscrutable depth, whereas perception preserves them on the surface of experience. But there are also definite similarities (GM: 186). He develops a theory of the 'sensual realm' that "unfolds in a space that always lies somewhere between objects in their duels with one another" (GM: 187). Summing up: "Perception is one special sort of reality in the cosmos, since it defines the immediacy of the world-and not just for human perception. Allure is yet another special sort of reality, one that awakens numerous overtones of an object now grown deeply hidden" (GM: 187).
Finally he returns to his interpretive model of vicarious causation in which objects enter into relation through the medium in which objects share "some sort of fascinated side-by-side relationship, before they enter into total vicarious relation and fuse directly into one another" (GM: 189). Both relation and perception happen within this third object or medium: hence, causation and perception are equivalent to objects and the interior of objects (GM: 189). Finally, he tells us that to "perceive is not to represent, but rather to live within the interior plasma of an object" (GM: 190). 

Like those voyagers to the center of the earth in Jules Verne's novel we enter into the dark interiors of objects discovering nothing less and nothing more than the volcanic fires of elemental creation itself: in the midst of this strange bizzaro realm of objects with their levels within levels that must be unlocked with the keys of allure and perception we voyage toward the center and circumference of the black hole of the real that forever recedes before us into that darker light from which all things arose within that voidic abyss that first split our binary universe into a flaming surge of radiant energy. Chasing fugitive objects in the night we discover the elements that open us to that black truth hiding at the core of all objects: tempted by the white noise of sensuous perception we follow the seething vitality of all things, while just below us and on the periphery of our vision the dark allure of objects invites us to dance to the black noise that emanates from the real.

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"Such is the conclusion of a history which I cannot expect every body to believe, for some people will believe nothing against the testimony of their own experience. However, I am indifferent to their incredulity, and they may believe as much or as little as they please."
     - Jules Verne, The Journey to the Center of the Earth

1. Collapse iv (2008 Robert Makay ed.)
2. Circus Philosophicus (CP) (2010 Zero Books)    
3. Tool-Being: Elements in a Theory of Objects by Graham Harman (TB) ( 1999 UMI Company, p. 288)
4. Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (GM) (2005 by Carus Publishing Company)

Tags: graham harman, object-oriented philosophy, speculative realism

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