BEING WITHOUT THE EVENT: On Relations and the Problem of Change

A very amusing example of the inability of a synchronic ontology to comprehend even the terms of a diachronic ontology, yet alone to refute it, is given by Graham Harman’s repeated “argument” against relational ontologies. Harman’s ontology is a classic static ontology, spatialised to the point that he cannot even conceive of time as being real. Time, it will be recalled, in Harman’s system is the “tension between sensual objects and their sensual qualities” (THE QUADRUPLE OBJECT, 100), and so is confined to the sensual realm, the realm of “utter shams” as he calls it in THE THIRD TABLE (6). Harman’s real objects are spatialized essences that are absolutely atemporal, so Harman has a very big problem indeed in accounting for time, which is in effect unreal in his system: “Time concerns nothing but the superficial drama of surface qualities swirling atop a sensual object that is somewhat durable but ultimately unreal” (interview faslanyc).

Harman’s “Master Argument” against what he calls relationism is in fact rather a description of his incomprehension of diachronic ontologies. He repeatedly claims that if everything is related change is impossible. This is pure sophistry as it ignores dynamic relations (both temporal and force). In an earlier post I argued:

“Harman’s OOO is a-temporal and a-historical: Harman has no understanding of change, his philosophy has no place for it except by arbitrary posit. One of his favorite arguments is that “if everything was defined by its relations, then nothing would change”. This is a blatant sophism, as it ignores temporal relations (such as “x is going faster than y”, “m is accelerating faster than n”), and force relations (“a is crushing b”, “c is fighting back against d”). This denegation is preparatory to Harman’s re-essentialising of the object”.

Time and change are foreclosed  in Harman’s system. So one must agree with Alexander Galloway’s analysis:

there is no event for Harman. And here I agree with Mehdi Belhaj Kacem’s recent characterization of Tristan Garcia’s ontology, modeled closely after Harman’s, as essentially a treatise on “Being Without Event.”

A related objection put out by Harman is his critique of “internal” relations: that if everything is constituted by its relations and one thing changes its relations even slightly, it becomes another thing. This is based on an equivocation on the word “internal”: Internal relations are relations that enter into the very essence or definition of the things related. Given a thing all its relations are given and so all other things and relations are given. This is the ultimate block universe, true, but it is also the ultimate static or synchronic universe. Once again this objection does not take into account dynamic relations. It also confounds such internal relations with the relations that are “internal” to the thing in a different sense: the relations between the thing and its parts, and the relations of these parts between themselves. If a “thing” is composed of processes or becomings and their relations (Harman always leaves that clause out when he accuses others of “reductionism”) then it becomes different when these relations change, but it does not necessarily become a different thing. The thing is constituted also of the emergent relation between its parts and their relations (this is part of the explanation of the phrase from Whitehead that Harman has such trouble with: “the many become one, and are increased by one”). Harman simply assumes that such emergent relations are ontologically fragile and dissolve or decompose at the slightest modification.  Harman is not the inventor of “robust emergence”, and in fact is deeply indebted to the real Whitehead (and not his spatialised caricature). Matt Segall gives an account of such emergence in Whitehead in terms of the difference between concrescence and transition:

Concrescence is the process by which any given actual occasion prehends the many occasions of its extensive continuum into some new definite form of unity (=achievement of subjective value) to be added to the ongoing advance of nature.

The Sokal Hoax was a one time affair, but Harman seems to have perennised his own argumentative hoaxes, repeating the same old sophisms instead of engaging seriously with rival points of view. Jason Hills describes how “Harman… brutalizes Heidegger [and I would add Bergson, Whitehead, and Deleuze] on time” ie spatializes them into a caricature that can easily be refuted. This is to distract attention from the fact that his own system is incapable of dealing with change.

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7 Responses to BEING WITHOUT THE EVENT: On Relations and the Problem of Change

  1. Bill Benzon says:

    Interesting. I thought Harman’s account of time was interesting, but also something of an add-on.

    In my own reworking of Harman’s ontology I observed that, as sensual objects exist ONLY when objects are in relation to other objects, they are redundant upon those relation:

    http://new-savanna.blogspot.com/2012/08/harmans-ontology-on-single-level.html

    Hence we don’t need them. All we need are objects and relations. I haven’t thought all that much about time. I’ve got problems enough without that one.

    On the whole, this debate about relations seems unnecessary / pointless / diagnostic. I don’t think the conceptual systems that host it are ‘tight’ enough for it to matter.

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  2. terenceblake says:

    I think that Harman needs sensual objects because he has an impoverished notion of reality. As to the question of internal relations or not, I see no reason to decide in advance in favor of one side of the binary choice or the other. In my paper IS ONTOLOGY MAKING US STUPID? I quote Feyerabend’s view that entertaining one or the other idea is a special hypothesis applicable in some cases and not others. So I am in agreement with Whitehead when he says: “continuity is a special condition arising from the society of creatures which constitute our immediate epoch” (PROCESS AND REALITY, 36) and with Matt Segall’s gloss: “The advance of nature involves an inheritance of rhythmic pattern from one concrescent occasion to the next. Between occasional beats, intervals are opened up, leaving room for improvisation”. I think that this notion of interval, or discontinuous relation, may well be a far more useful concept than “withdrawal” which is too absolute and splits the world in two (real/sensual). Harman’s system is too “loose” with its dualisms to be able to deal with the fine-grained distinctions that come up in our experience.

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  3. noir-realism says:

    In most ways Harman’s whole metaphysics hinges on Vicarious Causality, which in turn relies on a secular reading of Malbranche and the Islamic tradition of Occasionalism. Without that as justification his whole argument for a real/sensual relationism falls flat.

    There is a long line of thinkers elaborating variations on the twin themes of `Mathematical Platonism’ or ‘Platonism of essence’ – from Duns Scotus and the nominalists such as Ockham via Baroque scholastics like Suarez and early modern figures such as Descartes and Spinoza to Wolff and Kant, and also virtually all of their contemporary disciples (including Deleuze and Derrida). Once creation is no longer seen as participation, it is gradually reduced to efficient causality, which means that particularity it is gradually reduced to efficient causality, which means that particularity is regarded as either a simple result of a divine fiat or as something brought about by an individual thing itself under a transcendental compulsion (or both at the same time). So, on the one hand, individuation retreats into fideistic mystery, but, on the other hand, it ceases to be something that requires explanation at all, because `being individual’ is now seen as the transcendental condition for existing or making sense in any fashion whatsoever. Thus by the time one reaches Suarez in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, individuality has an absolute ontological priority and all things ‘are’ in themselves before they enter into relation with each other.

    As a secular occasionalist Harman argues for substantialist over relations view of the object (i.e., his idea that all objects can be withdrawn and yet are fully deployed and at war (dueling)). Others such as Levi are moving back toward a relations over substance view of objects (Levi seems to be returning more and more to his roots in Deleuze and transcendental empiricism).

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  4. terenceblake says:

    I think that the concept of withdrawal is both dogmatic and incoherent: http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/withdrawal-is-abstraction-harmans-ooo-althusser-unmarxed/
    It is metaphysical in the bad sense of legislating a priori on the structure of reality and so limiting in advance the direction of inquiry: http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2012/09/20/is-ontology-making-us-stupid-3d-withdrawal-is-transcendence/

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    • noir-realism says:

      Yea, I’m not defending Harman or Levi, just showing the history of their metaphysical presuppositons. I have my own problems with his core inheritance in the Occasionalists rather than in any of his subsequent efforts to describe objects are their relations. I think his whole need for a sensual object as a mediator between real objects is to counter Zeno’s paradox. I’m just not convinced that his conceptual rube goldberg machine has done this. Whitehead’s notion that actual occasions never make contact with other actual occasions hinges on atomic Time as the key.

      Whitehead offers a conclusion that is both viable and in agreement with scientific theory in both physics and relativity as they were known in his own time. For me at least philsophical theory should at least help in confirming the truth of science instead of disparaging scientific effort. Harman’s argument agains Latour and Aristotle on Zeno’s paradox does not hold against Whitehead. Why? Harman issues the idea of Zeno’s paradox within extensive terms for time and space, which for Whitehead would not hold together since for Whitehead, as said repeatedly, Time is “atomic”. That’s why for Whitehead “creativtiy and freedom” are central notions rather than objects and relations. And, for me, this offers a more viable path. Panexperintialism as Whitehead enacted is is based not on knowing/observing (pansychism) but on experience/feeling, and as such for him every actual occasion is processual, and the universe itself is entirely connected temporally by “societies” and spatially by “nexus”, all mediated by experience. Whitehead returned the power of decision, creativity, and freedom to the world, and removed it from the human as the central agent thereby opening up the first philosophy to challenge the philosophies of finitude. I’ll leave out my own neo-materialist persepective, just to say that I see myself in the Whiteheadian tradition along with Simondan, Deleuze, and others….

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  5. terenceblake says:

    I would agree with you that the quarrel over relations is a symptom of a deeper dispute concerning time. I think that temporality belongs to both the objects of inquiry and to inquiry itself, so that there is no final horizon of convergence of research to be premised. Harman as you say uses “extensive terms for time and space”, and so remains in what I am calling synchronic ontology. I tend to think that the world is processual all the way down, but I would not like to enshrine that as an a priori dogma. Harman tries to make out that processual thought has had its day and has exhausted its utility. I am wary of such epochal arguments, but I think that processual-relational thought has yet to fully have its say.

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  6. noir-realism says:

    Reblogged this on noir realism and commented:
    Terence Blake of Agent Swarm has an interesting take on the recent issues concerning Relations and the Problem of Change that has cropped up in many blogs of late….

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