HARMAN’S MAGICAL REALISM: how abstract monist relativist anti-realism masquerades as its opposite

Today, OOO is at a loss. Its hackneyed set of critical terms (philosophy of access, shams and simulacra, lavalampy overmining, atomistic undermining) clearly have no point of application at all to the new lines of research opened up by Bruno Latour, Bernard Stiegler, and François Laruelle. One has only to look at the utter incomprehension that OOOxians manifest with regard to Laruelle to see that their claim to “move beyond” deconstruction is an empty bluff. They never even understood the arguments of deconstruction and of post-structuralism, and so are ill-equiped to engage the ideas of its successors. Graham Harman’s newly published BELLS AND WHISTLES: MORE SPECULATIVE REALISM is a compendium of OOO’s familiar but disappointing history of misunderstandings and failed encounters, and its publication is a fitting monument to a set of gesticulations that never quite cohered into a philosophy.

Harman’s OOO is an abstract monism,  reducing the multiplicity and abundance of the world to “emergent” unities that exclude other approaches to and understandings of the world (cf. THE THIRD TABLE, passim) – his objects are the “only real” objects. More importantly, his (philosophical) knowledge of objects is the only real knowledge. All that is ordinarily thought of as knowledge, both theoretical and practical, is « utter sham »: « Human knowledge deals with simulacra or phantoms, and so does human practical action » (BELLS AND WHISTLES, 12).  Harman’s « realism » de-realises everything except his own abstract knowledge and his withdrawn objects.

Harman’s OOO is profoundly reductionist. Repeatedly, Harman goes to great pains to criticise a generic “reductionism”, but he seems to have no idea what reductionism is. He easily wins points against straw men, and then proceeds to advocate one of the worst forms of reductionism imaginable: the reduction of the abundance of the world to untouchable unknowable yet intelligible “objects”.

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 invisible, unknowable, ineffable object that withdraws. No example of a real object can be given. All that is given in experience, all that is contained in our common sense and scientific knowledge is « utter sham », « simulacra », « phantoms ».

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 of science and common sense with a set of bloodless and lifeless abstractions (« ghostly objects »).

For Harman, we cannot know the real object. The object we know is unreal, an “utter sham”. 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.

Harman remains stuck in a crucial ambiguity over the status of his real objects, oscillating between the idea of an absolutely unknowable, uncapturable reality (cf. THE THIRD TABLE, “Whatever we capture…is not the real table”, p12) and the idea that it can be captured in some very abstract and indirect way. In virtue of the unknowability of his objects he is obliged to place all types of knowledge, including the scientific one on the same plane (knowledge of « simulacra or phantoms »), as illusory, and at the same time presume that we can know something about these objects (e.g. that they exist, and that they withdraw).

In effect, science is demoted to the status of non-knowledge, as the real cannot be known. Harman is caught in a series of contradictions, as he wants to have his unknowable reality and yet to know it. Common sense cannot know reality, nor the humanities, nor even science. This leaves to philosophy the role of knowing ontologically the real, which accounts for the strange mixture of ontological and epistemological considerations that characterises Harman’s philosophical style. This generates such contradictions as pretending to accomplish a return to the concrete and giving us in fact abstraction,  and pretending to criticise reduction and in fact performing an even more radical reduction.

Harman’s epistemology is relativist, demoting science to an instance of the general relativism of forms of knowledge. However, by fiat, his own philosophical intellection and some artistic procedures are partially excluded from this relativisation. Yet no criterion of demarcation is offered. Harman dixit must suffice.

Harman judges science in terms of the crude philosophical criteria of another age and finds it lacking in knowledge of reality. He is then obliged to posit a shadowy “withdrawn” realm of real objects to explain the discrepancies between his naive abstract model of knowledge as access and the reality of the sciences. THE THIRD TABLE (and now BELLS AND WHISTLES), like the whole of his philosophy,  is the record of Harman noticing the discrepancies, but refusing to revise the model. His solution is a dead-end, a timid, nostalgic action propounding an antiquated epistemology under the cover of a « new » ontology.

Graham Harman proclaims that his philosophy is realist, when it is one of the most thoroughgoingly anti-realist philosophies imaginable. Time is unreal, and so is every common sense object and every physical object. All are declared to be “utter shams”. “Space”, one may object, is real for Harman, but that is no space one would ever recognise: neither common sense space nor physical space (both “shams”), Harmanian space is an abstract “withdrawn” intelligible space.

Ontology is not primary for Harman. His real polemic is in the domain of epistemology against a straw man position 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 an illusion 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, in Harman’s case it takes the form of a pessimistic negative epistemology that subtracts objects from meaningful human theoretical knowledge and practical 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 allied to its practical (and thus political) neutralisation.

One is entitled to ask: how can a withdrawn object “de-withdraw”? Harman cannot explain any interaction at all (NB: Harman systematically confuses access, contact, relation and interaction), he can only just posit it. I see no reason to postulate an absolute bifurcation between interaction on the one hand and withdrawal on the other. Whitehead tells us that: “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 absolute with its summary dualisms to be able to deal with the fine-grained distinctions that come up in our experience.


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