20 THESES ON GRAHAM HARMAN’S MONIST IDEALIST ONTOLOGY

Some people seem to have trouble identifying the theses in my survey article on Graham Harman’s OOO, and have emitted doubts as to its “philosophicality”. In the interests of clarity I have compiled in point form some of the theses from the beginning of the text. I do not know if I am writing a book on Graham Harman’s philosophy or just a long article, but the text I posted obviously needs expanding. I am live-blogging the various stages of the process, but I will be continuing with my analysis of Latour’s project as well, not to mention any other topics that catch my attention.

        1) 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 – his objects are the “only real” objects, all the rest are “utter shams”. More importantly, his own (philosophical) knowledge of objects is the only real knowledge. All that is ordinarily thought of as knowledge, both theoretical and practical, is also 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 Harman’s “realism” de-realises everything except his own abstract knowledge and his withdrawn objects.

 

2) Harman’s OOO is profoundly reductionist. Repeatedly, Harman goes to great pains to criticise a generic but non-existent “reductionism”, yet 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”.

 

3) Harman’s withdrawn real object is abstraction. 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”.

 

4) Harman’s terminolgy is equivocal, it does not mean what it seems to.Harman equivocates 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.

 

5) Harman’s ontology of the real is empty. 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,all that we can see and touch and create is “utter sham”, “simulacra”, “phantoms”.

 

6) 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, 12). 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 (“simulacra”, “phantoms”, “ghostly objects”).

 

7) Harman’s objects do not withdraw, they transcend. For Harman, we cannot know the real object. The object we know is unreal, a “simulacrum”. They transcend our perception and our knowledge, they transcend all relations and interactions.

 

8)Harman’s objects are deep, deeper than their appearance to the human mind, deeper than their relations to one another, deeper than any theoretical or practical encounter with them. 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.

 

9) The epistemological status of Harman’s real objects is ambiguous, oscillating between the idea of an absolutely unknowable, uncapturable reality 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).

 

10) Philosophical intellection has the contradictory the role of knowing ontologically the real,as that which withdraws from knowing. 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.

 

11) Harman’s philosophy is an epsitemology masquerading as an ontology. This obfuscation accounts for the strange mixture of ontological and epistemological considerations that caracterizes 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 criticize reduction and in fact performing an even more radical reduction.

 

11) 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.

 

12) 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. 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.

 

13) Graham Harman proclaims that his philosophy is realist, when it is one of the most thoroughgoingly idealist philosophies imaginable. Time is unreal, and so is every common sense object and every physical object. All are declared to be “simulacra”. “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 “simulacra”), Harmanian space is an abstract “withdrawn” intelligible space.

 

14) 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).

 

15) The ontological neutralisation of our knowledge is allied to its practical (and thus political) neutralisation. This explain’s Harman’s inability to deal with critiques such as that of Alexander Galloway, by any means other than denial.

 

16) Harman systematically confuses access, contact, relation and interaction.

 

16) Harman cannot explain any interaction at all, in terms of his system. One is entitled to ask: how can a withdrawn object “de-withdraw”? He can only just posit such de-withdrawal, which is why his system is condemned to be a dualist rewrite of more complex relational thinking.

 

17) There are no degrees of withdrawal. Harman just postulates an absolute bifurcation between interaction on the one hand and withdrawal on the other.

 

18) Harman cannot think withdrawal or its opposite (interaction) as an empirical concept applying only in certain circumstances.

 

19) Harman cannot think that withdrawal is itself one type of relation amongst many others, and that it constitutes only one variant of the more general class of discontinuous relations. In contrast, Whitehead tells us that: “continuity is a special condition arising from the society of creatures which constitute our immediate epoch” (PROCESS AND REALITY, 36).

 

20) The notion of cuts, jumps, ruptures, intervals, or discontinuities is a far more useful concept than the absolute bifurcation operated by the notion of “withdrawal”, which is too absolute (there are no degrees of withdrawal, all withdrawal is of the same type, there are no special conditions for withdrawal, it is a purely non-empirical concept) 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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4 Responses to 20 THESES ON GRAHAM HARMAN’S MONIST IDEALIST ONTOLOGY

  1. Bill Benzon says:

    “12) Harman judges science in terms of the crude philosophical criteria of another age and finds it lacking in knowledge of reality….”

    Very interesting. I fear there’s a good bit of this going around.

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  2. Philip says:

    With regard to 6, isn’t that the difference between Latour’s litanies and Harman’s? Latours lists are of the various entities that have their own ways of being – Harman lists *examples* of beings that are instantiations of an underlying, homogeneous model for being: the object. Latour’s lists demonstrate heterogeneity (because there is nothing ‘underneath’) and Harman’s lists demonstrate homogeneity (because they are nothing but the apparitional crusts of underlying singularities).

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  3. Jake Riley says:

    Phillip — in addition, Latour litanies don’t just demonstrate a meaningless heterogeneity. In other words, I think Latour is aware of the possible connections (and discontinuities) in his litanies. Harman himself claims in Guerilla Metaphysics that the test of whether someone is really talking about “the world” is to look at the words/things present in their texts. Since he doesn’t see philosophers talking about tables, candles, black holes, etc. he assumes that their texts cannot really be addressing “reality.” His argument is not convincing.

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