HARMAN’S THIRD TABLE

This is an updated version of my review of Harman’s THE THIRD TABLE. Here is the new description I give:

This is my review of Graham Harman’s book THE THIRD TABLE (Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012). In this book Harman gives an account of Sir Arthur Eddington’s two tables argument, and proposes a “third table” to exemplify a new non-reductionist approach to objects. I argue that his account of each of the three tables is ultimately unsatisfying. Finally, I compare Harman’s OOO with Feyerabend’s ontology and conclude that OOO is a naïve and dogmatic form of negative theology.

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14 Responses to HARMAN’S THIRD TABLE

  1. Pingback: FEYERABEND AND LATOUR: Against philosophical caricatures of common sense | AGENT SWARM

  2. ktismatics says:

    Out of curiosity, do you, Terence, regard natural scientists as intellectuals? Do you regard literary intellectuals as scientists?

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  3. terenceblake says:

    Your question seems to pre-suppose differences and then ask if I affirm identity across the differences. So I am a little tongue-tied, not knowing what you are getting at. I am allfor transversality, which implies respecting the existence of differences but making them combine or communicate locally. The “intellectual” for me has most often been associated with some universal voice or subject, and is in view of the plurality of differences that I would like to acknowledge a monistic figure asserting or implementing the hegemony of one mode of existence. Stephen Hawking is an intellectual when he speaks in the name of science to deride philosophy or to announce the possiblity of seeing into the find of God. He is a bad intellectual promulgating a rather limited approach to other modes of existence, in Latour’s sense. There is another figure of the intellectual, that Deleuze and Foucault and Lyotard theorised as a specific intellectual, who speaks in the name of a singular practice, and whose way of proceeding is dialogic rather than hegemonic. Natural scientists can be intellectuals in this sense and there must be many examples. Maybe Schrödinger would be a good example from the physical sciences. I think your second question is less well-formed than your first, as you speak directly of “literary intellectuals” rather than separating out, as in the case of science, literary practitioners (in whatever sense) and intellectuals. If we limit this to writers of literature, the same distinctions hold up. Sartre was a writer who spoke, sometimes, as a universal intellectual. But of course he had no special knowledge of natural science. A writer who functions as a specific intellectual would be Wally Lamb. David Foster Wallace seems to have oscillated between the two, but is to my mind closer to the specific pole. So my answer would be writers are not scientists nor scientists writers (except when exceptionally they change activity, Fred Hoyle writing The Black Cloud or Asimov writing a thesis in biochemistry. Both can function as either universal or specific intellectuals, and their practice of transversality or not is yet another question.

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  4. ktismatics says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful engagement. In my too-brief question I was responding to the side observation in your paper:

    “distinguishing”, according to Harman (p5), “so-called literary intellectuals from natural scientists”. (One may ask why the literary intellectuals merit the appellation “so-called”, but not the natural scientists. There would seem to be a residue of scientism that creeps into Harman’s exposition from time to time, even when he is describing his two adversaries).

    Surely doing science is an intellectual pursuit in its own right, but my sense is that philosophers often dismiss scientists as technicians rather than thinkers, unworthy of the honorific “intellectual.” But I understand the converse dismissal you point out as well.

    So let me see if I get what you’re saying: To the extent that a scientist asserts that science is the only valid source of knowledge, to that extent the scientist might be an intellectual of the bad sort, a “scientistic” philosopher. On the other hand, to the extent that a practicing scientist engages in open dialogue with non-scientists, acknowledging that not just scientists but philosophers, politicians, painters, etc. can understand things, then that scientist might be an intellectual of the good sort. Fair enough.

    I presumed that a literary intellectual is someone who studies literature rather than someone who writes it. I don’t know if literary scholars regard the texts they study as sources of data for formulating and evaluating literary hypotheses, which would be a kind of scientific practice in my view. I wasn’t proposing that the writing of literature is a scientific project, but since you mention it I do think this can be the case: exposing a fictional character to a fictional situation is to enroll that character as a subject in a kind of thought experiment.

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    • terenceblake says:

      I was commenting on the lack of symmetry in the use of the epithet “so-called” that may be justified on a positivist or scientistic view but not on Harman’s view where both cultures are consigned to a realm of utter shams. Why not say “so-called natural scientist” as well, given that for Harman the scientific object is a sham? I don’t think Harman has any idea of what he means by “literary intellectual” but is just blindly following the suggestions of the facile typological analogies. that he set up. “Literary critic” sounds too limited and too specific, “Literary intellectual” looks more general in scope and so more hard-hitting.

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  5. ktismatics says:

    32 pages for 8 bucks — seriously? Is there a downloadable version that you’re aware of?

    “However, for any real physicist a table is an emergent structure of particles and fields of force (not just electromagnetic but also gravitational and those of the weak and strong forces) and space-time.”

    Right. Importantly, those emergent properties can be traced both “backward,” to the specific interactions of the particles and fields of force, and “forward,” to the effects of those emergent properties on other entities. The table’s surfaces reflect light of particular colors and intensities that are detected by cells in the retina; its flat surface affords placing food on it without the food sliding onto the floor; its solidity results in pain and bruising when the diner inadvertently bumps his shin against the table leg. I can understand talking about different views or levels of analysis for the same object, but to isolate the levels from one another as discrete objects is to disregard the levels’ interconnectedness, which arguably is an integral aspect of reality in general.

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    • terenceblake says:

      I bought a hard copy for 4euros 75c, and an electronic copy via itunes for 2 euros, ie less than half the price. I think it is essential reading to understand what Harman is actually getting at. The interconnectedness you talk of is closer to Latour’s idea of the table..

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  6. ktismatics says:

    Certainly if the physicist, the philosopher, the politician, and the painter were sitting around the table together they might well describe it in different ways. The politician might be concerned with its suitability for convening diplomatic conferences: an oval or rectangular table, for example, might bestow higher authority on those who sit at the two ends than on those seated on its longer sides.The painter might describe the table not in words but in images and colors. Could the physicist, in collaboration with the psychologist standing near the kitchen door, describe the emergent properties of the painting as predictable effects of specific causes residing in features of the table and character traits of the painter, whether oils or pastels were available to the painter that night, what sort of light was falling onto the tabletop from the overhead fixture and the lamps in the next room, whether the conversation around the table had been convivial or combative, how many glasses of wine had been served to the painter?

    The table in my house we borrowed from a neighbor when we first moved back from France. It was her mother’s table; presumably she came into possession of it when her mother died. When we moved in the table was standing against the inside wall of our neighbor’s garage, covered with boxes, not easily accessible because of all the other junk packed in around it. Was she glad for us to get the table out of her way so she could more easily park her car? Had she been feeling guilty not to be using her mother’s table, perhaps not liking it as well as her own table which she had selected herself, according to her own tastes? By our agreeing to use her mother’s table did we help assuage her guilt, or does she now worry daily about whether we’re taking good care of it, honoring the table as we would her mother herself? Would she suspect that we don’t much like the table because the legs along the sides are positioned so closely together that it’s hard to avoid bumping your shins when you pull up to it? Through the walls could she hear my shouts the day I bumped one of those legs, toppling over my glass of wine onto the newly-cleaned carpet?

    As I write about the table here and now, seated not at the table but on the sofa, is what I write different from what it might have been were you still seated across from me at your virtual table, engaging me in conversation about tables? Did you leave the table because you were offended by my remarks, because they left you tongue-tied and embarrassed about your inability to respond fluently, because you wanted to encourage me to engage in the sort of one-sided dialogue about which you recently wrote, or were you just bored? And me: am I still going on and on because my interest in the tables is not yet exhausted, because like so many self-absorbed dinner guests I’m indifferent to your presence and can’t take a hint that it’s time to put on my coat and go home, out of spite at your persistent silence in an effort to force you to respond, out of horror vacui? Tomorrow when I take my customary seat at one end of the table, facing out the back window onto the considerable accumulation of snow that will almost surely result from the winter storm that’s presently underway, will I incorporate this speculation about the motivations of two people, a guest talking to the empty chair of a host who is now elsewhere, into my current fiction, a text that is likely to remain unread and unremarked upon by others, positioned at one end of the table speaking silently but insistently into the void?

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  7. terenceblake says:

    Harman does find a use for literary criticism here: http://fracturedpolitics.com/files/4/5/7/0/5/160332-150754/43_2_harman.pdf. In this article he repeats his ideas as expounded in THE THIRD TABLE, with a few tiny modifications. But it is even worse rhan the book, as he develops a ludicrous idea of “counterfactual criticism”.

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  8. ktismatics says:

    I was roughly able to reverse-engineer Harman’s three-tables argument based on your critique, Terence. I read his Guerrilla Metaphysics, and as far as I can discern the core ideas have remained largely consistent since then. (You might be amused to hear that Graham wrote on his old blog that my 1/09 post on Guerrilla Metaphysics was the best summary of the book yet written.) I too find the withdrawn essence unconvincing; I too see him making strawmen both of scientific descriptions of objects and of “naive physics” phenomenal descriptions.

    In the linked literary article Graham asserts, in the context of literary works: “Allure alludes to entities as they are, quite apart from any relations with or effects upon other entities in the world.” I’m not persuaded. How is a poem like a hammer or a table? They’re all artifacts, intentionally designed and built by humans for the use of other humans. Other humans are more likely to “use” a poem if they find it alluring. The artist or artisan hopes to create an alluring object, attracting the attention of the audience, and so they build allure into the object. The “hook” in a pop song lures the listener; the flat solid surface of the table lures the diner; the hammer’s hard striking surface on the end of the handle lures the carpenter. As far as I know though, a pop song exerts no allure on my table or on my hammer; my table exerts no allure on the pop song, etc.

    To use JJ Gibson’s terminology, a table “affords” placing-on and sitting-at, so to that extent the table is alluring to someone for whom those affordances have utility; e.g., the guy who wants to sit down and eat his lunch. The flat raised surface is intrinsic to the table; the affordances of the table are relational properties involving the table and the diner. However, the craftsman who built the table intentionally made it with a raised flat hard surface in order that it would afford sitting-at and placing-on. So too with the pop song: the sonic vibration patterns are intrinsic to the song, but the songwriter intentionally organized those patterns in order that the song would to afford listening-to. Just as the hook is designed into the song, so are the affordances of placing-on and sitting-at designed into the table.

    Certainly the properties intrinsic to un-designed objects can have affordances too — a flat rock can serve as a picnic table, the sound of melting snow dripping in the chimney sounds pleasant to me. But still the affordances are relational: the flat rock out there under the snow exerts absolutely no allure on me today as I start thinking about lunch. Still, the flatness of that rock remains, apart from its sometimes-alluring possibilities as a table.

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  9. Pingback: LACAN AND ONTOLOGY: Response to Levi Bryant’s Lacanian “Deleuzism” | AGENT SWARM

  10. Pingback: The Tables | Ktismatics

  11. Pingback: Graham Harman on objects & the neo-liberal table: a response to Terence Blake | Wetwiring

  12. A bag full of questions on this paper:

    —what doest “reduction between worlds” mean?
    —”Onto-theology” = the tendency of metaphysics to be too religious?
    —what does “the flux of immanence” mean?
    —Your Feyerabend comment reminds me of http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2011/10/trouble-with-binary-thinking.html … aiming for “non-X” and ending in “X”, for him X=binarism.
    —personally I think “regarding any clear and definite arrangement with suspicion” should be slightly modified for mathematics: no one suspects ∃ finality. But in maths nothing’s there if the arrangement is not clear and definite. (In some reasonably deep sense this may be a way in which mathematics is not scientific.) Creativity and new questions and new viewpoints will arise and maybe even make irrelevant the old but so long as the old was correctly reasoned, it stands…perhaps a staircase to nowhere, but solid stairs nonetheless.…(my viewpt)

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