ABUNDANCE IS DIACHRONIC, “WITHDRAWAL” IS ITS SYNCHRONIC SHADOW

Is the OOO emphasis on “withdrawal” merely the negative side of a nostalgic attachment to certitude? Is the critique of the “philosophies of access” more than just a polemical parade bravely overcoming a straw-man position that noone has ever held? Knowledge is not access but composition and assemblage, so the existence of technical and conceptual mediations is not filtering or diluting our “access” to things, but rather establishing real connexions. Graham Harman’s philosophy of science promulgating a difference between on the one hand the real object as posited in his philosophy and on the other hand both the theoretical object of science and the ideological object of common sense and of the humanities has a very strong resemblance to Althusserian tenets, only de-marxised to render it more palatable to the object-oriented public. Thus nostalgia and consensus are the reigning ideals for this ontotheology that gives itself airs of radicality and anti-conformity.

Despite apparent connivences between Harman and Bruno Latour, everything separates them on the issue of realism in relation to the sciences. Alexander Galloway distinguishes between a synchronic philosophical realism and a diachronic more historical apprach that he calls “materialism” to distinguish it from its philosophical travesty. Paul Feyerabend already distinguished between this sort of a-historical realism and what he analysed as a form of  realism that takes into account the historicity of the sciences (see “Realism and the Historicity of Knowledge” in CONQUEST OF ABUNDANCE, p131-146). Latour distinguishes in his recent Gifford Lecures between a “Science One” that never really existed and a “Science Two” that is realist precisely because it is pluralist, historical, animated, mediated, and controversy-rich. Harman judges science in terms of philosophical criteria of another age and finds it lacking in reality. He is then obliged to posit a shadowy “withdrawn” realm of real objects to explain the discrepancies between his naive abstract model and the reality of the sciences. THE THIRD TABLE is the record of Haman noticing the discrepancies but his solution is a dead-end, a timid, rearguard action masquerading as the New Thing.

1) THE “NEW” REALISTS

LES NOUVEAUX RÉALISTES (THE NEW REALISTS) by Alexander Galloway is a book that aims at giving a unified perspective on a group of 5 French thinkers (Catherine Malabou, Bernard Stiegler, Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Quentin Meillassoux, et François Laruelle) who do not form a movement, but who have enough of a “family resemblance” with each other to allow them to be discussed together in a single book. The book thus contains 5 chapters, each of which deals with one of the 5 philosophers, plus a Preface, an Entracte, and a Postface, that give a more synthetic treatment.

The authors discussed form more of a constellation than a movement or a school, and they are related by their shared desire to inherit from the great preceding generation of French philosophers (Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard) and to engage critically with their common themes and their individual theses. The title is slightly deceptive as these thinkers are neither “new” (certain of them, for example Bernard Stiegler and François Laruelle have a published work spread out over more than two decades) nor necessarily “realists” (some of them, such as once again Stiegler and Laruelle are very critical of the classical philosophical vocabulary and have elaborated bodies of thought that cannot easily be classified in such traditional terms). Further, the book also contains an extended discussion of the philosophy of Alain Badiou, whose shadow looms over the whole book, as he comes in a certain sense “between” the two intellectual generations that Galloway thematises. Engaged in a critical dialogue with his vanished elders, Badiou has elaborated a philosophical system which serves often either as a positive model to be imitated or simply as a source of inspiration or rather as a negative model of what is to be avoided or to be criticised. He functions as a foil for the 5 thinkers discussed in Galloway’s book.

One of the major themes of the book is an opposition that Galloway develops between on the one hand what he calls “materialism”, a positive figure of thought (“positive” because it takes into account the materiality and the historicity of our knowledge and of our intellectual systems, and because it is elaborated on the basis of an emancipatory project involving the critique and the transformation of the capitalist system), and on the other hand “realism” as negative figure of thought, declared by Galloway to be a-historical, ignoring the material conditioning of our ideas, and providing a conservative mirror image of the functioning of contemporary capitalism. In Galloway’s typology materialism is scientific, or at least on the side of the sciences; and realism is ultimately ideological, seriously compromised by its homology of structurewith “post-fordist” capitalism.

2) ON HOMOLOGY: GALLOWAY’S BADIOUSIAN METHOD

One of the polemical targets of the book is the “movement” (this time the label has been officially endorsed, at least by some of its purported members) speculative realism (denoted SR) and of its offspring object oriented ontology (denoted OOO). Galloway’s argument aims at establishing a correlation between the ontology of SR/OOO and the structure of contemporary post-fordist capitalism. Galloway contents himself with indicating the existence of this correlation and with describing it in very general terms, in order to pose the question of the pertinence and of the utility of this type of ontology for any emancipatory perspective. Galloway allies this general argument with a more specific one concerning the resemblances, or the “correlation”, between Badiou’s ontology (and also that of the OOOians) and modern programming languages, more specifically object-oriented programming languages.

I think that Galloway went out on a limb unnecessarily with his putting so much emphasis on object-oriented programming as opposed to other sorts of programming languages. The general argument does not rely on this, which has the status only of an interesting or amusing instantiation of his general idea that software is mathematics and that capitalism is now, to a large extent, materialised mathematics. So the term of “homology” to describe the similarity of structure between Badiou’s (and OOO’s) ontology and contemporary capitalism is in fact too weak, what we are confronted with is rather an identity of structure instantiating itself in different ways. Badiou himself accepts the existence this identity, or “homology”, and is very worried about it. He is given a certain degree of acceptance by Galloway as opposed to Meillassoux. This special treatment is accorded not because of Badiou’s explicit pronouncements in favour of Marxism, but because the whole architecture of his philosophy is based on assuming and overcoming this homology by adding to his ontology of pure multiples an ontology of the Event. The Event is what is non-homologous to capitalism and it is the keystone to his political ontology. This countervailing feature is absent from object-oriented ontologies.

To unpack the allusion to Badiou without going into the massive detail of BEING AND EVENT, a brief consideration of his MANIFESTO FOR PHILOSOPHY may be illuminating. In chapter 5 Badiou makes it clear that he acknowledges the identity of structure between capitalism and set theory, which serves as the basis for his ontology. It is not a question of capitalism making use of set theory or not, in both cases capitalism is or approaches as its limit, the abstract manipulation of interchangeable elements, that are treated as pure quantitative multiples (or sets) whose qualitative aspects can be bracketed out as such, although they can be factored into the capitalist computation as giving rise to diverse forms of extraction of value.

Capitalism as abstract power impels the movement of unbinding, revealing beings as pure multiples:

“that is the ineluctable effect of the universal investment of the terms of our situation in the circulating movement of the general monetary equivalent” (MANIFESTO FOR PHILOSOPHY, chapter on nihilism, my translation. Note, all this chapter is relevant).

Nothing is essentially bound or correlated to us, all is unbound or withdrawn, within the generalised computation of capitalism. Badiou accepts all this. He argues that the disjunction of ontology and politics is a political act with dire consequences and that therefore we must bring ontology under the condition of an emancipatory politics. For Badiou, a generalised atomistics of withdrawnness is nihilistic sophistry allied to cynical exploitation, unless politics is there from the start as a condition of a way out of this closed and sterile “atonal” world.

Foucauldian power is not subjectivity, nor even human, nor is Heidegger’s language or Deleuze and Guattari’s desire. There is no “correlation” here. On the contrary, these concepts were elaborated very precisely to get away from the correlationist trap. They are part of these thinkers’ project of reconceptualisation of the supposedly familiar phenomena of everyday life. Harman’s concept of “withdrawal”, on the other hand, is an incredible simplification of the world that renders it computable while dispensing us of the need to individuate it and ourselves with it. There can be no withdrawal without abundance (Feyerabend’s concept), but abundance exists without withdrawal. “Withdrawal” is tied to a computational understanding of Being. The sensual object, being “utter sham”, is de-valorised ontologically in favour of the real object that is purely intelligible. So abstractions are given primacy over what makes a difference in our lives.

Even Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly, ie two Heideggerians who are very much NOT marxists, use homology arguments, that were put on the cognitive map by Heidegger and structuralism. These sorts of arguments are massively present in continental philosophy and can be done well or badly. Baudrillard did it brilliantly against Foucault, and may even have been resposible for the ethical re-orientation of his later work. The same can be said for Lardreau’s critique of Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy phase, which led to his ethical and political turn. French thinkers are very sensitive to this sort of objection that they may be reproducing metaphysical and/or capitalist structures and presuppositiuons in the deep structure of their concepts. They take this sort of argument very seriously and think it important. It is one of the major motors of their conceptual evolution.

The computational understanding of Being is the understanding that originates with Descartes and renders possible the various specific computational disciplines that exist today. It is the hegemony of the “count”. This is what de-valorises the sensual qualities to mere secondary status . Harman’s real objects are not sensible but only intelligible in the sense that they can be objects of our intellection. I have thus argued that they are transcendent abstractions (unkowable and untouchable, says Harman). For the Homeric understanding things do not withdraw, argue both Dreyfus and Feyerabend. For Melville, once again things do not universally withdraw but abound, argue both Dreyfus and Deleuze, though there is progress compared to Homer in that Melville (as exemplar of the pluralist paradigm) does make room for withdrawal as well. Badiou’s references to set theory are tied to a detailed argumentation in BEING AND EVENT on the role of set theory as an ontology of the pure multiple. It as if Badiou considers post-cantorian set theory as the accomplished formulation of what was implicit in the Cartesian primacy of the computo.

Many thinkers share Galloway’s view of the triumph of computational capitalism (Bernard Stiegler, for example, highlights the contemporary progression from investment-oriented to speculative capitalism) and find it a horrifying prospect. In response they wish to elaborate a philosophy with an emancipatory potential. Badiou acknowledges that his philosophy is in danger of reflecting the same structure as capitalism and considers that this is an important difficulty that needs to be addressed. The idea is that you will not be able to propose any real change if the very structure of your theory reproduces the structure of that which you want to change. Hence Badiou’s extreme care in including and accounting for the Event in his ontology. And also for the possibility of politics as event, and not just as the management of multiplicities. This necessity of including politics in the very fabric of his ontology is for Badiou a political necessity. And the disjunction of politics and ontology affirmed by OOO is in Badiousian eyes a political gesture in itself.
Thus nothing crucial hangs on whether set theory or any specific programming language is actually used in any specific capitalist endeavour. Unfortunately Galloway muddied these waters by mixing in a very interesting comparison of OOO and object-oriented programming. This is at a much lower level of abstraction than the general argument and is much more empirical in nature. It leaves him open to superficial replies such as that object-oriented languages are not used as much as some other language for example, and these replies miss the general argument altogether.

It is interesting to note that Badiou’s correlationist theory of politics was criticised by Jean-François Lyotard already in 1989. Lyotard does not use the term “correlationist” but uses the synonymous expression “curious mirroring” coined by Badiou himself to describe a problem in his theory of the event: “this curious mirroring of the event and the intervention” (BEING AND EVENT, p209). Lyotard argues that Badiou’s way out of this impasse does not work, and accuses him of both a certain anthropologism and a certain decisionism. The “mirroring” is asymmetrical and privileges the subjective pole of the decision: “I know that this is not what you say…But I can only see the impact of the decision on the event, in your text, I do not see a path from the event to the decision” (le cahier du collège international de philosophie, volume 8, 1989). Lyotard is careful here to distinguish the explicit content of Badiou’s pronouncements from the structural homologies of his system.

It is distressing to see in certain comments that one can find on Galloway’s theses a widespread ignorance surrounding the uncovering and articulation of structural homologies as a way of evaluating the political charge of various philosophies.Badiou himself as we have argued has no problem with homological arguments and explicitly draws attention to the homology of capitalist un-binding and nihilist atomised philosophies. For him the question is

“how to get out…of romaniticism, without consenting to the nihilist sophistic whose pure present is the world market, the economy, and the consensual automatism of capital” (le cahier, Osiris 1989, p266).

3) THE PROBLEM OF CHANGE IN HARMAN’S OOO

My own analysis of Harman’s OOO is convergent with Galloway’s so I will present it here in the form of theses:

1) Harman’s OOO is a form of monism – he begins usually with a preliminary gesture of recognising the multiplicity and abundance of the world, but rapidly reduces the multiple elements to overarching “emergent” unities that exclude other approaches to and understandings of the world (cf. THE THIRD TABLE) – his objects are the “only real” objects.

2) Harman’s OOO is thus profoundly reductionist. Harman makes a big fuss about criticising “reductionism” (cf. also his bogus grab-all concepts of “undermining” and “overmining”), but he seems to have no idea what it is – easily winning points against straw men, then proceeding to advocate one of the worst forms of reductionism imaginable: reduction of the abundance of the world to untouchable unknowable yet intelligible “objects”. (For more details see my review of Harman’s THE THIRD TABLE).

3) Harman’s OOO is theological: He produces a a highly technical concept of object such that it replaces the familiar objects of the everyday world, and the less familiar objects of science with something “deeper” and “inaccessible”, and then proceeds to equivocate with the familiar connotations and associations of “object” to give the impression that he is a concrete thinker, when the level of abstraction takes us to the heights of a new form of negative theology: the unknowable, ineffable, untouchable object that withdraws.

4) 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 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.

5) The de-politicisation comes in when Harman, having argued illegitimately for non-relational essences (cf point 4), goes on to “inform” us that the essences cannot be known but that they are not eternal and unchangeable. But Harman cannot think change with the conceptual resources of his system, he can only posit it and then play on familiar but illegitimate associations to make it seem to be comprehensible in terms of his OOO. However, this incoherent posit cannot disguise the fact that change is foreclosed in Harman’s system: “there is no event for Harman”.

6) Ontology is not primary for Harman. His real polemic is with a straw man epistemology that he calls the philosophy of human access. No important philosophy of at least the last 50 years is a philosophy of access, so the illusion of a revolution in thought is generated by the misuse of the notion of “access”, inflating it into a grab-all concept under which anything and everything can be subsumed. But a philosophy of non-access is still epistemological, a pessimistic negative epistemology that subtracts objects from meaningful human intervention (cf. THE QUADRUPLE OBJECT where Egypt itself is declared to be an object, albeit, strangely enough, a “non-physical” one, and so unknowable and untouchable). The ontological neutralisation of our knowledge is consonant with the political neutralisation described by Galloway. How can a withdrawn object “de-withdraw”? Harman cannot explain any interaction at all (he seems to be confused about the distinction between relation and interaction), he can only just posit it.

Conclusion: Harman’s flattening of ontology is a reductionism, the reduction of the abundance and multiplicity of the world to an a-political, an-ethical correlate to his epistemology of inaccessible objects.

Harman’s OOO is a school philosophy dealing in generalities and abstractions far from the concrete joys and struggles of real human beings (“The world is filled primarily not with electrons or human praxis, but with ghostly objects withdrawing from all human and inhuman access”, THE THIRD TABLE, p12). Despite its promises, Harman’s OOO does not bring us closer to the richness and complexity of the real world but in fact replaces the multiplicitous and variegated world with a set of bloodless and lifeless abstractions – his unknowable and untouchable, “ghostly”, objects. Not only are objects unknowable, but even whether something is a real object or not is unknowable: “we can never know for sure what is a real object and what isn’t”, states Harman in a reply to Alexander Galloway’s criticisms.

Yet Harman’s OOO has legislated that its object is the only real object (cf. THE THIRD TABLE, where Harman calls his table, as compared to the table of everyday life and the scientist’s table, “the only real one”, p10, and “the only real table”, p11. As for the everyday table and the scientific table: “both are equally unreal“, both are “utter shams”, p6.  “Whatever we capture, whatever we sit at or destroy is not the real table”, p12. And he accuses others of “reductionism”!). To say that the real object is unknowable (“the real is something that cannot be known”, p12) is an epistemological thesis. As is the claim that the object we know, the everyday or the scientific object, is unreal.

How can this help us in our lives? It is a doctrine of resignation and passivity: we cannot know the real object, the object we know is unreal, an “utter sham”, we cannot know what is or isn’t a real object. Harman’s objects do not withdraw, they transcend. They transcend our perception and our knowledge, they transcend all relations and interactions. As Harman reiterates, objects are deep (“objects are deeper than their appearance to the human mind but also deeper than their relations to one another”, p4, “the real table is a genuine reality deeper than any theoretical or practical encounter with it…deeper than any relations in which it might become involved”, p9-10). This “depth” is a key part of Harman’s ontology, which is not flat at all, but centered on this vertical dimension of depth and transcendence.

4) BEING WITHOUT THE EVENT 

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).

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. Harman presents us with a caricature of Heidegger, as he caricatures Bergson, Whitehead, and Deleuze on time, ie spatializes them into a caricature that can then easily be refuted. This is to distract attention from the fact that his own system is incapable of dealing with change.

Harman needs his “sensual” objects, despite being obliged to declare them unreal (“utter shams”) 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 amounts to adopting a special hypothesis within a more general ontology, 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). I think that the notion of intervals, or discontinuous relations, may well be a far more useful concept than the bifurcation operated by the notion of “withdrawal”, which is too absolute (there are no degrees of withdrawal) 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.

About these ads
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to ABUNDANCE IS DIACHRONIC, “WITHDRAWAL” IS ITS SYNCHRONIC SHADOW

  1. Anon says:

    I found your argument crystal clear and quite persuasive. It may just be me understanding more than I used to, but your writings on SR/OOO seem clearer and better as time goes by.

    Like this

  2. arranjames says:

    This is pretty savage stuff. I share your concerns re: ideas of withdrawal as absolute, but I don’t see any problem with it if we’re talking about thing withdrawing from epistemic relations or total material presence to one another. I’ve been writing some similar stuff (much more tentatively!) in relation to Timothy Morton’s aestheticisation of OOO as its expressed in his new book Realist Magic. Although Morton still takes a position in a ‘world of matters of concern’ and shares Badiou’s desire to exit Romanticism, there is still a sense that his nuanced thought (mesh; hyperobjects) has become dualist and spectral. It’s this ineffability, this ghostliness, this absolute incorporealism that makes me think there is something I can’t go along with. Not that I’m being asked to, mind.

    Like this

  3. Pingback: Agent SWARM picks at the bones | attempts at living

  4. Pingback: LATOUR DE-TEMPORALISED: Graham Harman’s synchronic travesty of Latour’s experimental metaphysics | AGENT SWARM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s