Theses on Harman’s OOO

1) Harman’s OOO is a variant within the general paradigm set out by Badiou’s philosophy. The terminological differences are important. Badiou speaks in terms of multiples and events, Harman in terms of objects. Badiou explicitly emphasises the pluralist aspect of his ontology (multiples) and makes room for time and change (events), even if he gives them a secondary place in his ontology. Harman prefers the more unitary term, and consigns time and change to the realm of the “sensual”, ie of “utter sham”.

2) Harman does not understand the positions he is arguing against, and that he is supposed to have gone beyond. He critiques only straw-men who have never existed. He has no understanding of, for example, Deleuze, and just deprecates his philosophy without getting into any detail. He gives affective refutations with no citations and no analysis. Further, he has given no substantial account of what is wrong with so-called “relational” ontologies in general.

3) Harman’s “master argument” against relational ontologies is that they cannot explain change, that if everything were related nothing would change. This is patently false, as relations include temporal relations. Deleuze for example talks about both kinetic (relative speeds and accelerations) and dynamic (relative forces, and relative capacities to affect and to be affected) relations. It is ludicrous to claim that Deleuze’s system entails that change is impossible. This shows once again Harman’s incomprehension of relations.

4) Harman argues against “philosophies of access”, but this is just to redo, only much more sloppily, the critical work done by Popper and Sellars, Quine and Kuhn, Bachelard and Feyerabend, Lacan and Althusser, Wittgenstein and Rorty. Far from going beyond the post-structuralists Harman has not even caught up with the structuralists. No important philosophy of the 20th Century has been a philosophy of access, and Harman’s OOO is a regression on most of the preceding philosophy that he claims to critique and surpass.

5) Knowledge is not “access”, it is not contact. Propositional relations are not access. An interaction is not in general access, either. More importantly, a relation is not the same thing as an interaction. Harman conflates all this to obtain some blurry straw-man that even a 10 year old child would have no trouble refuting. So the whole picture of relations as not “exhausting” the qualities of the object accessed is erroneous. Thus “withdrawal” has no sense as a general concept. These terms “access”, “exhaust” “withdrawal” are normally part of a temporal, dynamic vocabulary. They are used illegitimately in Harman’s system and serve to give an allure of temporality to what is in fact an ontology of stasis.

6) Harman is so concentrated on criticising the privilege given to human access and to anthropocentric assumptions in general, a rearguard action if ever there was one, that he has no understanding at all for the recent and contemporary pluralist philosophies that attempt to track down and dissolve the privilege given to reified categories and to monist assumptions in general.

7) Harman’s ontology falls under the pluralist critiques of Deleuze and Feyerabend. It falls under the Laruellian critique concerning the disguised mixtures of transcendence and immanence. It falls under Stiegler’s critiques of thought that privileges the synchronic over the diachronic. It falls under Latour’s critique of postulating objects outside the felicity conditions of the different modes of existence.

8) Harman’s OOO relies on a systematic ambiguity in his key terms (object, withdrawal) between their use as meta-categories and their use as categories. We can never see or touch or know an object (meta-category) but he constantly gives examples from different domains (category). Withdrawal means ultimate abstraction from sensual qualities and relations, absolutely no direct contact or relation (meta-category), or it just means the sensual richness of objects, always more than our immediate experience of them. We get a contradictory synthesis between a Northern asceticism and a Mediterranean sensualism. But in the last instance this concrete abundance, this aesthetic sensualism is declared to be an “utter sham”.

9) It is at the level of his ontology as rudimentary set of meta-categories that the homology of Harman’s OOO with speculative capitalism can be affirmed. Badiou accepts the existence of this homology for his own ontology, and takes it very seriously as a problem. Hence his repeated engagement with the concepts of the event and change, requiring him to complete his synchronic ontology with a diachronic supplement. Harman’s response is just incomprehension and denialism, as with all the other critiques. Nevertheless it is the internal homology between meta-categories and the categories that instantiate them (which makes of Harman’s system an elaborate pun) that makes possible the external homologies between Harman’s system and various concrete domains, including the economy.

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6 Responses to Theses on Harman’s OOO

  1. Philip says:

    I think some of this might be a little harsh but I agree with the general argument.

    As far as I can see, Harman’s concept of withdrawal (from which the rest of his philosophy follows) is basically just a fleshing out of Latour’s concept of irreduction. Irreduction states relatively what Harman states in the language of substance. Irreduction says that ‘nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else.’ Therefore, everything differs from everything else; everything exists by differing; if A was nothing more than B then A would have no independent existence from B, etc. (This is the beating, differential, Deleuzian heart of Latour’s philosophy.) Irreduction states itself in terms of a multiplicity of differing things; Harman restates the point in an individualising, substantialist vocabulary of inner depths, unpredictable irruptions, etc.

    And this restatement doesn’t even really contradict what Latour himself says as such. His entire corpus is based around the insight that no matter how intensively you study or collect information on a thing your thoughts, theories, papers, books, etc. never reproduce that thing — never ‘compress’ all the detail of that thing into a formal structure that could summarise every last part of that thing’s being. There must always be a remainder, not just as a matter of fact (since humans are finite, flawed, etc.) but as a matter of principle (because there’s no information without deformation). In fact, Latour is happy to speak of how every entity has an inner kernel that can never be emptied (or ‘accessed’), it can only be translated, allied, etc. The difference is that Latour doesn’t see this irreducibility of every existing thing as being in contradiction to an ontology that recognises the swift death that will be dealt to anything that evades relationality. It isn’t, as Harman constantly accuses others of believing, that “a thing *is* its relations” (Latour himself admits that he has no idea what this phrase means), it’s that a thing cannot endure without relation; without translating and being translated.

    To be is to be irreducible; to continue being is to relate and be related. For some reason Harman finds that distinction to be uncognisable. I find it to be fairly straightforward.

    Despite his ‘relationism’ it seems to me that, for Latour, a thing *can* actually exist without relations but only at the moment it vanishes into nothingness; on the precipice of extinction, deserted by all allies, deprived of all atmosphere — there *is* solitude for things but only in death. Harman takes an object’s greatest weakness to be it’s greatest strength. *That’s* the difference between the two — it’s not that one sees only relations and the other sees the substance beneath them; it’s that one sees substance as being fragile and the other as durable. For Latour substance is what must be made to endure through transformations, for Harman it is what endures despite transformations. For Latour substance is the explanandum, for Harman it is the explanans.

    I agree with your point 8. On the one hand, Harman jumps up and down about the important of giving mundane objects — tables, asteroids, pebbles, etc. etc. — their due but then these are not, strictly speaking, real ‘objects’ at all. They are merely sensual objects. The real objects are ‘withdrawn,’ i.e. transcendent. He wants to have it both ways: to dive, Lucretius-like, head-first into the world of living, swarming, vibrant things; but then he also wants the austere, solemn Aristotelian substances underlying everything, unspeakable by any means other than (his) imaginative reason. And this contradiction dissonates throughout his writings as he constantly conflates real and sensual objects in his narrative even though his reasoning is premised upon their absolute separation.

    Latour’s thinking certainly has its demerits (whose doesn’t?) but it does a considerably better job of ‘doing justice to things’ than Harman’s bipolar scheme. It’s concerning that so many people will encounter Harman’s Latour before they move on to Latour’s version of himself. Both are equally fictitious, you could say, but one is considerably more sophisticated, complex and vivid than the other.

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  2. terenceblake says:

    Yes, we are dealing not with hard and sharp demarcations but with nuances and aspects. I was trying to sum up some of the theses and arguments on my blog, give them that sort of point-like clarity of theses, but in fact make them evolve a little further. Sometimes I think that the distinction between Harman’s OOO and what I am searching to articulate is so tiny that it would need only the written equivalent of a wink and a smile on his part to make it come out OK and to dissolve my objections. Othertimes I find it so radically wrong-headed that I would jettison it all. Latour is far more acceptable for me, but there is some remaining conformism hidden behind all that radical revisioning. Harman just doesn’t “get” time and temporal relations, so the idea that substance is an ongoing construction, but not a social construction, is incomprehensible to him.

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  3. kubla says:

    ” Sometimes I think that the distinction between Harman’s OOO and what I am searching to articulate is so tiny that it would need only the written equivalent of a wink and a smile on his part to make it come out OK and to dissolve my objections.”

    Very interesting. That helps me to understand the violence of your objections to Harman. Flushing that kind of minimal-but-everything difference into the open is hard work.

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  4. Leom says:

    Terry & Philip,
    These are substantive claims. Terry, you have do much valuable analysis here (each point could be a secrion of a massive essay). I want to do something productive and of a synthesis with your best posts, Terry, including this one. To that end I’ve been toying with thoughts of starting my own indie open access press within a few years time, but more immediately you, me, Jason Hills need to do a an open Skype or google+ workshop to discuss with our blog’s readers these questions and criticisms. I’ll email you and maybe we can set something up in that vein, or record a discussion/ mutual interview/segmented workshop over Skype.

    Just some brainstorming here, your posts have my creative forces buzzing!

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