ON GRAHAM HARMAN’S ATTEMPTED ANNEXATION OF BRUNO LATOUR: OOO fails to give an adequate account of science

There is a widespread impression that object-oriented ontology is closely related to Bruno Latour’s philosophy and that it provides the metaphysics that is lacking to actor-network theory. This impression is based in large part on the publication of Graham Harman’s book on Latour PRINCE OF NETWORKS, in 2009, and its subsequent diffusion on the internet as a free ebook. As the first full length study of Bruno Latour’s work in English, this book tends to create an association between Harman’s speculative object-oriented philosophy and Latour’s empirical metaphysics. Harman’s philosophy is notoriously implausible and unsatisfying in its account of science, which it treats as pure illusion on a par with common sense and the humanities. When the question of science is raised, his followers have tended to gesture at the book PRINCE OF NETWORKS, as if Latour’s theories were the practical application of OOO to the sciences, and only needed some slight “correcting” to become compatible with, and prime confirmations of, Harman’s philosophy.

Harman is one of the most vocal defenders and most vocal critics of Latour’s philosophy. As we have seen, Harman’s book PRINCE OF NETWORKS was the first major general evaluation of Latour’s metaphysics in English. Its composition is rather puzzling, in view of the later attempts to associate Latour’s and Harman’s philosophies. A very interesting and very useful exposition of Latour’s early metaphysics in the first half of the book is followed by the outline of Harman’s radically opposed metaphysics in the second half.. Harman argues that the real is composed of objects that withdraw from all relation. This has the unfortunate consequence that real objects are absolutely non-empirical: they are by definition untouchable, invisible, and unknowable. All that we perceive and interact with, all that we know and care for is by stipulation unreal and illusory. Any view to the contrary is branded as “reductionism” (also called “undermining” and “overmining”, depending on the path of reduction).

Some consequences of this view are that time is unreal, a thesis explicitly defended by Harman, and that the existence and nature of these real objects is untestable, no trial can attain them as they are inherently non-relational and inaccessible. The title chosen for this philosophy, “object-oriented”, is thus a misnomer, as Harman’s philosophy is rigorously oriented away from any object that we may know or experience. Further, the name “object” for these entities forever hidden in the depths of being is also quite deceptive, as in OOO it is used to refer to real objects, which are entities bearing no relation and no resemblance to what we know and perceive as objects. There is thus no synthesis possible that would combine Harman’s a priori posits and Latour’s empirically observed actors.

On the contrary, I think that Latour’s ANT is totally incosistent with Harman’s OOO, and that they are totally opposed in spirit and in content. Object-oriented philosophy is the polar opposite of Latour’s AIME project, in that for it all the modes of veridiction and of existence analysed by Latour in AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE are, in OOO’s terms, in the “sensual” realm, and thus are to be regarded as sham, phantasms, simulacra, illusion. Harman’s philosophy thus pushes the bifurcation of Nature denounced by Latour to the extreme. It is antithetic to any idea of empirical investigation, as its posited real objects are inaccessible to all forms of experience and knowledge. In effect, this amounts to posing the philosophical mode as a unique overarching meta-mode.

Bruno Latour can be seen as a modern day Heraclitus. His system proposes a pluralistic diachronic ontology that gives primacy to “being-as-other” (including both alterity and alteration) over being-as-being. Graham Harman is a contemporary Parmenides whose synchronic metaphysics excludes time and the objects of common sense and of the sciences as illusory, prohibiting change and plurality.

Parmenides enshrined the split between the way of Truth and the way of Falsehood. The way of Truth speaks of the real as a withdrawn unchanging non-multiple block; the way of Falsehood is our illusory world of change and multiplicity. Graham Harman’s OOO is a Parmenidean vision where none of our ordinary “sensual” concepts apply. Neither time nor space (in the sensual sense) nor number as we know it are pertinent to the withdrawn real.

This conflict with experience, as long as it is acknowledged openly and not passed over in silence or obstinately denied, is not a problem. We need strongly divergent theories and counter-intuitive hypotheses in order to break thought out of its ruts and to open our minds to new interpretations. We need counter-induction to make our automatic, taken-for-granted interpretations visible and to allow us not only to become aware of  entrenched interpretations and to criticise them, but also to replace them with more accurate and more satisfying hypotheses and interpretations.

The problem arises when such a counter-intuitive interpretation is developped a priori, in total abstraction from any testable consequences. A bold and fruitful instrument for the criticism of established views turns into a dogma even more inflexible and untouchable than the interpretations that it is trying to bring to conscious awareness and open to test and to transformation. Harman’s bold speculative leap is immediately ossified by being removed from all scientific knowledge and empirical test. Latour’s speculative ontology is, at least in principle, open to the “protest” of experience. Harman’s system allows no such protest to get beyond the veil of withdrawal.

The problem with Harman’s Parmenidean theses is that he does not present them as simply conjecture, as divergent hypotheses to be judged by their consequences for the advancement of our knowledge and of our lives. He has no method for arriving at such theses other than extra-sensory intuition, nor does he provide any means to test them. His ontology is resolutely a priori and non-empirical, an instance of what Badiou calls approvingly an “absolute” ontology.

In a recent talk (video, text) Alain Badiou enumerated 4 traits of an absolute ontology: immobility, irreducibility, non-empiricity, and maximality. While orienting his explication of each trait towards his own mathematical version of absolute ontology, Badiou implicitly gives a very useful characterisation of alternative absolute ontologies, in particular of Graham Harman’s OOO.

1) Principle of immobility: change is unreal. The absolute realm of real objects is immobile, unchanging. Time is the tension between sensual objects and sensual qualities.

real objects are in a sense outside time (GUERILLA METAPHYSICS, 215)

Temporal predicates, as sensual, have no application to real objects.

2) Principle of irreducibility and intelligibility: objects are intelligible on the basis of nothing else than themselves. Objects occupy a middle ground between undermining (intelligibility in terms of atomic components, the scientific prejudice) and overmining (intelligibility in terms of subsuming ensembles of qualities and relations, the humanistic prejudice).

objects cannot be reduced to anything else, and must be addressed by philosophy on their own terms (THE QUADRUPLE OBJECT, 138)

Objects are irreducible, and as such are the source of intelligibility for everything that exists:

the tensions between objects and their qualities and other objects can be used to account for anything else that exists (THE QUADRUPLE OBJECT, 138)

However, this view is itself a reduction of the world to objects, rather than to facts (Wittgenstein), events (Deleuze), or processes (Whitehead). Such objectal reduction may be called meso-mining.

3) Principle of non-empiricity: real objects withdraw from all relation, and thus they withdraw from all experience. The real object is radically non-empirical.

While there may be an infinity of objects in the cosmos, they come in only two kinds: the real object that withdraws from all experience, and the sensual object that exists only in experience. (THE QUADRUPLE OBJECT, 49)

The real object is invisible, untouchable, unknowable. It can be cognized neither by science nor by common sense nor by the humanities. It is only “accessible” indirectly, by artistic allusion and by intellectual intuition. The only method is intellectual intuition, the accession to this method requires a conversion experience, the conversion to the point of view of objectal reduction.

4) Principle of maximality: everything that exists, every entity, is an object. Everything is intelligible in terms of objects. This objectal point of view, or “naiveté”, is a sophisticated philosophical construct.

Instead of beginning with radical doubt, we start from naiveté. What philosophy shares with the lives of scientists, bankers, and animals is that all are concerned with objects. The exact meaning of “object” will be developed in what follows, and must include those entities that are neither physical nor even real (THE QUADRUPLE OBJECT, 5)

Harman does not mention here that the objects of experience, the objects perceived by naiveté, are all sensual objects, and so shams, simulacra, phantasms, and illusions in terms of his system.

In sum, Harman’s OOO is a form of absolute ontology comparable to that of Parmenides: Being is immobile (time is unreal), non-empirical (all scientific, sociological, humanistic, and common sense objects are “shams”), maximally intelligible (the only direct access to Being is by means of a priori intellectual intuition and deduction, however indirect access exists for art guided by this philosophical Stimmung), and exclusive (any entities other than these real objects are “sensual” illusions, deprived of real being).

The most striking feature of the comparison of Harman’s OOO with Badiou’s philosophy in terms of these 4 traits of absolute ontology is the problem of method. Whereas there is a family resemblance between the two ontologies in terms of their general form, Badiou’s subtractive ontology makes use of set theory and the axiomatic method, Harman’s abstractive ontology has no method at all except for intellectual intuition, i.e. his own say so.

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4 Responses to ON GRAHAM HARMAN’S ATTEMPTED ANNEXATION OF BRUNO LATOUR: OOO fails to give an adequate account of science

  1. dmf says:

    be interested to see where Ian Bogost’s work on carpentry/alien-phenomenology and all go as I think he is more in line with the more neo-pragmatist/ANTish aspects of Latour’s oeuvre.

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  2. An object that is so “real” it cannot be perceived strikes me as quite an odd path to take in philosophy. Of course elevating “non-empirical” to cult status saves a lot of trouble such as rational discourse.

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  3. Robert Koch says:

    Really, Harman’s object – withdrawn from all relations (rational and empirical) – is simply the thing-in-itself, comprehended directly through intellectual intuition, as you say. Only Harman reserves for himself the right to tell us lesser mortals all about “the real thing.” Presumably other philosopher-kings (Meillassoux, perhaps, Bryant, Badiou) who also insist that thought and being are one have their own ideas on the ontology of the world: essentially, everyone is permitted in such a scenario to say anything they like about “their” objects and what they “really” are. Harman reminds me of Lichtenberg’s comment on the work of Böhme (actually quite similar to Harman, when you come to think of it): “his writings are like a kind of picnic: the author brings the words, the reader supplies the meaning.” As you say, nothing could be further from Latour: his metaphysical empiricism is diametrically opposed to speculative realism.

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  4. terenceblake says:

    Yes, there is the underlying political implication of élitism, plus the use of words as empty place-holders encouraging the reader’s projections. This is why Harman’s philosophy is in fact a meta-ontology, calling for any number of particular instantiations.

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