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"Literature is about turning the pre-verbal — if not pre-linguistic — objects into verbal objects with symbolic meanings attached to them. Literature constructs a world in which the objects gain new significance."
      - Cengiz Erdem on May 26, 2010

"For though in nature nothing really exists besides individual bodies, performing pure individual acts according to a fixed law, yet in philosophy this very law, and the investigation, discovery, and explanation of it, is the foundation as well of knowledge as of operation. And it is this law with its clauses that I mean when I speak of forms, a name which I the rather adopt because it has grown into use and become familiar."
     - Francis Bacon, Novum Organum: Book Two, II

At the beginning of Tool-Being Graham Harman, in a style reminiscent of some of the greatest antithetical contrarians of the past two hundred years, says: "A philosophy is not some sort of private introspective diary to which the philosopher would have unique access. It is more fruitful to regard it as an experiment, a careful process of smashing fragments of reality together so as to see what emerges from the rubble." Let's call this rubble philosophy The Object Smasher, and let us not forget to smash all those dead philosophers and their vainglorious diaries too, because all "of us will be truer to what was admirable"  in them "if we take responsibility for our own thoughts instead of trembling deferentially" before their statues (TB: iv). [1]

One can imagine Harman, the Philosopher Scientist, a sort of super-hero of objects with the hammer of Thor in his hands, crushing, smashing, pulverizing objects into rubble; and then, raising the protective goggles onto his forehead, the whisps of his greying hair falling down in his eyes, he begins to study the rubble of his latest experiment in object smashing, burrowing through the smashed excess of objects, watching, waiting patiently, for the emergence of something new - some indelible footprint in the sand of the real that might mark the foundation of objects in the universe and thereby shake the very foundations of philosophical thought itself. Like one of those scientists in Geneva in search of that mythical entity - the Higg's boson, which some have called the God particle that scientists theorize gives mass to other particles and thus to other objects and creatures in the universe, Harman excavates the rubble of philosophical thought seeking a description of the real that is based upon form rather than any search for foundational particles of any kind. What we discover in the rubble is not the reduction of part to whole, no synecdoche of the real, but the composite relational systems of objects themselves. And, do not say, "Oh, I've got you now! What of atoms?" Harman retorts that even if a time comes when we must discuss these, so to speak precious "atoms" that you hold so highly as a sign of your materialist foundation, I tell you that "these molecules are not inert specks of present-at-hand matter - they too are machines, grand totalities concocted out of sub-mechanisms perhaps still unknown" (TB: 285).

Harman would continue telling this philosopher of matter, this founder of the final substrate, that no, Harman's philosophy is in no way a materialism that it is closer to a "new sort of 'formalism' with Francis Bacon its unlikely predecessor" (TB: 286). As Harman states it: "I refer not to the vulgarized Bacon of the textbooks ("Do as many experiments as possible, and use the results to try to dominate nature .. .'), but to the forgotten Bacon of Novum Organum Book II, who, incredibly, lampoons efficient causation as ridiculous. Perhaps no great philosopher of the Western tradition has been so grievously misread, and with such self-serving aims in mind" (TB: 286). Instead of entities such as atoms that materialists wish to reduce into their final constituent parts, who wish to discover some ultimate terminus, some end point or substantive entity, exempt from all internal composition, which would "amount to defining that entity as a sheer present-at-hand building block," Harman explains that instead "by taking the tool-analysis to its logical extreme, we discover that no entity is irreducible, since each is a formal machinic effect of its elemental components" (TB: 286).  "But", the materialist philosopher responds, "what of those larger structures in the universe?" Harman with a twinkle in his eye shakes his head, upturning his chin and laughing in mock display of such idiocy and says, "My friend, just as we exposed the smallest of objects as machinic, diving down into that tiniest of worlds, we must also pursue objects in the opposite direction." As Harman states it: "Not only is each thing a galaxy of parts-each thing is also a part of the galaxy known as 'world.' Against Heidegger's most vehement assertions, 'world' and 'being' really are just the set of all beings! The world is indeed a colossal referential machine, just as Heidegger suggests" (TB: 286). 

Again, the materialist philosopher tries a new tact, "What of this relation of objects you tout so much? Just where is it in all this dipping and ascending into the machinic details of the micro and macro structure of this universe of objects?" Harman takes a moment, pausing to reflect upon the "troubling disappearance of relationality from the rough model of the world he's developed" then responds, saying, 

"I have already contended that every object can be viewed as the effect of a composite relational system (of many pieces, many atoms). Unless we want to have recourse to physical durability as an arbitrary criterion, it follows that a causal relation between two rocks is a system that forms an entity, and that hammer plus me is also a system forming an entity ("hammer-encounter," we might call it). As a result of all this, is there anything now missing from the world that used to be at our disposal? Yet, and it is obvious what it is: any sense of a wide-open "clearing" is now abolished. There is no longer a brute realm of effects destined to be transcended by some starry, windy space of explicit vision. For even a perception is now a new kind of entity, so that [our] face is always pressed up against subterranean reality as against a plate-glass window; there is no longer any ontological breathing room. We never manage to rise above the massive clamor of entities, but can perhaps only burrow around within it. For the moment, the mechanisms of this process remain obscure. But we at least know what is missing. The sanctuary of the human as-structure, with its free transcendence and partly liberated vision, has been jettisoned in favor of a dense and viscous universe stuffed absolutely full with entities. In this sense there is no vacuum, although in another sense every segment of this universe is nothing if not vacuous, in the literal sense of this term" (TB: 287).   

Then the process-relational materialist thinks to himself, "Ah, Harman admits it, there is a process involved, a mechanism of process between objects, and that these processes are obscure. And, yes, we both agree that this anthropocentric vision of humanism that has locked philosophy in its correlationist anti-realist realm cut off from the real has got to go. But if there is no vacuum, no space for emergence of something new, then how is change possible in this vacuousness?" Then with a puzzling lear he jibes at Harman, "Okay, explain yourself, you object smasher, you master of the vacuous and of rubble..."  

Harman delighted continues telling the materialist that there is a central distinction between objects in a system and objects in a vacuum. Genuine objects withdraw even behind causal contact. But now we discover that all systems are objects, and that there "is no system which is not also an entity," so that even one's perception of an object is in itself an object. And, he continues, here is the crux of the matter, the "perception is a tool-being, and as such, it resides in a vacuum uncontaminated by all relation, irreducible to all later introspection. As we have already seen, the vacuum is threatened on both sides: a) by the systematic combination of the elements that allow it to exist (in this case, the hammer and myself as components of the hammer-encounter), and b) by the experience that objectifies it in some specific way (in this case, by the later introspection). Despite this dual threat, the entity (in this case, the full hammer-encounter) manages to be just what it is, undisturbed by the storms of relation that rage both to the west and the east of it" (TB: 288).

"Ah, hah," says the materialist, "I have you, now: if the world contains no relations, as you suggest, and is nothing but entities from the tiniest levels of existence to the largest structures in the universe then how does anything ever get done in such a world? If everything is so densely packed as you suggest, then what you are telling me is that this universe would seem to be packed with non-communicative vacuous zones, none of them able to transmit energy or influence to the others? In such a realm there would be no windows, no doors into the great outdoors, and any contact between..." the materialist utters the impossible word, "objects, and more importantly any sort of alteration in the universe would seem impossible." (TB: 288)

Harman reflects on this a moment, thinking to himself, "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?" He admits to himself that there can be no definitive resolutions to these questions at the moment, but only a series of provisional analyses. (TB: 288).

Studying the impetuous materialist for a moment, he continues thinking to himself, if perception and the object form a unified object in its own right, and if we try to observe myself perceiving instead of the thing I'm perceiving, the object, a gulf opens up between the two: it is only one element of the experience that emerges into perception. It is no more possible to observe ourselves exhaustively than it is to observe the object exhaustively. Instead we must admit that what is going on here if "the terminology is stripped down to the bone, is that the perceptive entity (the system of thing and me) perceives not itself, but rather the elements of which it is composed. This would remain the case even if I attempted to perceive in mystical fashion "the oneness of all things," since the oneness thus focused upon and the meditative act that envisions it also cannot be one and the same thing. 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).

Watching the materialist begin to fidget, he asks himself a further question: "is this odd descent of perception into its own depths something that characterizes realities other than explicit human perception? For example, let's say that instead of openly noticing [a] hammer, a specific human is related to it in the way of merely being tacitly affected by it. In the case of this miniature system of objects as well, is it true that the entire system is in contact with its parts? ... The same question ought to be posed in the case of inanimate couplings of rocks and leaves and clouds. Even in these cases, is there a sense in which every systematic unity descends into itself and makes contact with its own interior elements? To express this once more, in something resembling layman's terms: if [objects] are by definition non-relational, how can they ever touch one another? " (TB: 289).

At this point the materialist philosopher looks him straight in the eyes, saying, "Well, what do you have to say for yourself?"

Harman smiles, and in an expository manner, recapitulates his arguments so far, saying, "the first difficulty lies in identifying the medium through which tool-beings can truly interact. If two rocks collide, then they must collide as these rocks themselves, not as loose surface-effects. And yet rock-in-itself is defined precisely by its impenetrability to any relation. We have also seen that any such relation as that between two rocks immediately generates a new hybrid entity: say, collision-system" (TB: 290). Harman also repeats that he suggested in previous arguments, saying to this proud materialist, "there may be a way in which every system is also a descent into its own elements in spite of the fact that it ought to be every bit as hermetically sealed from its component parts as it is from external entities" (TB: 290).

The materialist claps his hands, saying: "Bravo, bravo, you open a hole in being and let all the parts vanish within the darkness of its own irresolvable materiality;  bravo..." 

Harman interrupts him, instigating a new set of questions, saying: "if the tool-being of each individual rock inherently lies beyond all possibility of contact with the other, is there a strange sense in which they can inflict blows on each other as parts of the collision-system rather than as individuals? Or is this only a sort of corrupt back door through which the same difficulties reenter the picture as before?"

The materialist, intrigued, urges him with a comic gesture of complicity to explicate just what he means by this. Harman delighted that the materialist is listening rather than opposing him, continues: 

"In any case, we are left with the following scenario-the world as a duel of tightly interlaced objects that both aggrandize and corrode one another. As Bacon expressed... "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. Often, teams of industrial pirates will lock themselves in a motel room, working backward from a competitor's finished product in an effort to unlock and replicate the code that generates it. In the case of the philosopher, the finished product that must be reverse-engineered is the world as we know it; the motel room is perhaps replaced by a lecture hall or a desert. 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). 

The materialist dissatisfied with this explication retorts, "But is this not just a piece of rhetoric in the end? What have you really uncovered, unveiled within this so-to-speak ontology of objects you so highly espouse? Isn't what your telling me that these objects demonstrate nothing more than that your prized concept of relation lies somewhere between the status of a substance and a universal network of significations? And," he sneers, "what of that set of ambivalent currents running equally through all entities? What of this crushing, depressing, breaking, and enthralling action of things?" (TB: 290) 

Harman in a quick comeback, says, "Yes, yes," laughing uncontrollably, " you are right of course, 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. Rather than following still further the methodological suppositions of some currently dominant school of thought, rather than taking up some available ready-made problem and mulling it over for a decade, we ought to let the innocent fascination of the early morning hours spread over into the remainder of our mental lives. I refer to that half-awake and passive state that is dominated by the sounds of faint alarm bells, the smell of fruit outside the window, the needle-like rays of sun that begin to bore through the darkness of our rooms. (TB: 291)

The materialist confounded by this strangely evocative discourse from Harman throws up his hands in exasperation, mystified by this poetic entrancement of alarm bells, fruit, and sun rays exploding into dark rooms. Wandering toward the door, he turns back one more time to study this philosopher of rubble, this object smasher, quizzically he sees that Harman has one last thought on the tip of his meditative mind: "Okay, out with it... you, you, object smasher!"

Harman in agreement says, "To a large extent we can thank Husserl and many of his French admirers for defining these transitory moments as a worthy philosophical subject matter. And yet, what we are really immersed in, in these situations and all others, is not a web of phenomena, but a world of objects. Quite apart from my indolent pleasure while lying in bed, steam genuinely scorches the air as it eddies from the stove, electrons from the sunlight pierce my skull like bullets, floorboards buckle under compulsive mutual pressure, heavy stone walls hold out the cold but poise themselves to destroy me in the event of an earthquake. This sort of material reality, too quickly ceded by philosophers to the natural sciences, is what awaits any successful theory of objects. And if there emerges a philosophical method to unlock the secrets of hammers, steam, paper, citrus fruit, and salt-grains, who can rule out the rapid reappearance of souls and angels in the midst of philosophic debate?" (TB: 291)

The materialist atheist looks at Harman not only with disgust, but with a certain horror in his face as he turns and runs from the room screeching like a madman who has just been told of the death of all things, god and human alike, yet who still clings to the great substrate of process and reality he calls the material world.

Harman on the other hand returns to the glass of wine he is holding in his hand, sparkling in the sun's rays, delighted by the richness of its ambient red light, the dark contours of its liquid presence sparking in the crystal glass, reminding him of the power of objects and their strange relations

1. Tool-Being: Elements in a Theory of Objects by Graham Harman (TB) ( 1999 UMI Company) 


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 21st, 2011 08:13 am (UTC)
The Nature of Object Potency
Must all objects enter relationship with materiality? To be spoken or thought of, at least, an object implies relationship to materiality. Materialists insist on relation to materiality as a primary criterion for evaluating objects.

An aspect of the big mystery surrounding gnomes and angels as human relata is precisely their encrypted connection to materiality.

Even a centaur implies relationship with materiality. Evaluating the object through analogy to animal physiology we claim its existence QUA materiality impossible. It could, however, be the case that some Greek individuals in a certain spacetime zone had the experience of interacting with a centaur. Harman will grant this, and it is a strength of his approach.

There are places in Scandinavian lands in which, given certain causes and conditions, gnomes become visible, at least to the mind's eye. In such cases gnomes can affect the environment. Thus, gnomes must be accounted for.

Angel-encounters are famously valid experiences in many human populations. Thus, angels have a place in "the set of all beings".


As for the medium of object interaction, we must yet deal with Aristotle's views.

Consider that the word "Ousia" is the abstract form of the present feminine participle ousa (ουσα) of the verb “to be". This is worth some comment.

The feminine form is associated with the receptacle, however the participle indicates active reception. The abstract form indicates, perhaps, a universal similarity connecting all active reception.

Consider also Aristotle, Metaphysics, book 10, 1029a, 21:

"Therefore, the ultimate substratum is of itself neither a particular thing nor of a particular quantity nor otherwise positively characterized; nor yet is it the negations of these, for negations also will belong to it only by accident."

The view of prime matter QUA potency emerges here. Our object-oriented task can thus be a search for new attempts to clarify the nature of object potency.

Considering potency, the combination of objects takes on a variety of entertaining guises. For one, combinations of potencies are a way of describing alchemical experiments. Indeed, with the ontological spaces Harman has unleashed, it feels like we're in for an epoch of considerable alchemical experimentation.

Anyway, your posts are awe-some. Thank you for doing.
Jan. 21st, 2011 03:29 pm (UTC)
Re: The Nature of Object Potency
Harman has told us that the two most suppressed great philosophers in today’s mainstream-cutting-edge continental philosophy:

1. Aristotle
1.5 Brentano: introduced the concept of 'intentionality'
2. Husserl

Harman: "Brentano is number 1.5, the missing link between these two, and it’s no accident that Brentano is probably the most underrated philosopher by today’s mainstream-cutting-edge, which wants to dismiss individual entities as “manifest image” dupery in favor either of lavalampy materialism (Morton’s lovely phrase) or some vaguely defined mathematical structure. The cutting edge today remains a critical position. It wants to knock things down, and it can only knock things down if it thinks it has access to some immanent version of the thing itself so that it can then dismiss everything inaccessible as reaction and superstition and obscurantism. But the desire to denounce the hidden is no disproof of the hidden."

In Prince of Nework's Harman reminds us of this Aristotelian connection with potency on page 28-29 in which Latour rejects the idea of potency and Harman points out Aristotle's argument for it. Against the Megarians Aristotle wonders Metaphysics IX.3 if the house-builder at rest does not have the art of house building, how does he acquire the art when it is time to return to work? What this implies for Aristotle complaint that according to the Megarian doctrine that the builder at rest will never be able to stand due to his lack of potency.

Latour rejects this idea, which is founded on his principle of irreduction. To speak of something existing in potentia implies that it is already there but simply covered or suppressed. This is what Latour denies. For him a thing is only here once it is here, not sooner. To make something become actual is not to unfold a cryptic seed lying hidden in the ground, but to assemble a wide range of actors that begin in separation.

But for Harman we are only in contact with intentional or sensual objects, the real obect is withdrawn into its own vacuum. Withdrawn part of entities must be thought of as a potentiality or potency. Actualized properties of an object are a mere crust or rind, hiding its molten inner life.
The object contains within itself a reserve that is not present.

Jan. 21st, 2011 10:16 am (UTC)
n i c e
Truly a tour de force. Well done.
Jan. 23rd, 2011 10:08 am (UTC)
Harman denies all potentiality -- but does he deny potency?
Strangely, Harman states in a recent post that there is zero potentiality in his model. "In my model and Latour’s, there is no potentiality whatsoever in the world (or virtuality, though Latour tries to add virtuality in the form of the plasma), and thus change has to be explained along a different route. (And I don’t think it’s possible to do it the way Latour does, since for him actuality means the same thing as relationality. For me it doesn’t, and thus there are non-related actualities existing right now. These are the source of change in my model.)"

What are we to make of this?

Is there a distinction to be made between potentiality and potency?
Jan. 23rd, 2011 12:57 pm (UTC)
Re: Harman denies all potentiality -- but does he deny potency?
You ask: Is there a distinction to be made between potentiality and potency?

I've read almost everything in Harman related to this issue and come to the conclusion that he rejects potentiality and potency both, yet his use of the 'ghost' metaphor below shows that he has only a vague idea of just what seems to be happening in this intermediate zone between force creates change. Levi tells us in his Lexicon that Virtuality is not to be confused with virtual or artificial reality, nor with possibility. The term “virtuality” derives from the Latin “vitus” and has connotations of power, potency, or strength. The virtual refers to the powers or potentials of an object. Contrasted with actuality which always refers to qualities of an object that are actualizations of a power of an object. (see: Levi Bryant's Lexicon
http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2010/05/22/a-lexicon-of-onticology/ )

In this post Harman states it this way by contrast to Levi:


To point to an object, or to its essence (the two are different for me) requires an unyielding awareness of the fact that an object is reducible neither downward to its components nor upward to its effects. It is not merely “potential,” because when you say “potential” you’re really talking about potential future effects, and that shifts the hot potato forward in time without specifying what about the thing right now allows it to have new expressions in the future. (In fact, I don’t think potential is a real category at all, and in this I agree with the early Latour.)

Nor, in my opinion, is the object “virtual.” I still don’t think anyone (including Deleuze) has formulated this concept with the necessary degree of precision. For that reason, it functions in contemporary discourse mostly as a negative trope: “oh, you’re still confusing the potential with the virtual,” etc.

Furthermore, every version of the virtual I have seen so far (I await Levi’s version in his forthcoming book to see if he escapes this trap) plays a bit of a shell game by trying to let the virtual function as both discrete and continuous simultaneously, without facing up to the problems that this generates.

In other words, they tell us that the virtual isn’t a One. It’s, I don’t know, “clusters of intensities,” or “constellations of singularities,” or something of the sort. So, it has distinct zones of some sort and doesn’t represent a monistic apeiron.

But then if you point to the (occasionalist) problem of how individual zones can communicate then suddenly we encounter the monist move again. You see, the parts of the virtual don’t bleed entirely together, but they’re also not separate either.

In other words, the virtual is simply a way of positing a magical concept that, somehow, gives us both the discrete and the continuous simultaneously.

In short, I reject both the potential and the virtual in favor solely of the actual. But the actual is much weirder than people think. It is located higher than its components but lower than its effects. It is a sort of ghost, but it’s a rock solid ghost that burrows between the known floors of any building.

Edited at 2011-01-23 01:09 pm (UTC)
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )


S.C. Hickman
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