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.