HARMAN’S ABSTRACTIVE ONTOLOGY: a comparison with Badiou

Continuing the pedagogical rewrite of my review of Harman’s BELLS AND WHISTLES:

1) Harman and the neoliberal hypothesis

We have traversd a period of polarisation during which the neoliberal doxa reigned uncontested almost everywhere, except in a few academic and para-academic enclaves, where a “refined” or aristocratic critique was elaborated. The philosophical result of the extenuation of this cognitive polarisation is in part the development of an abstractive (and a-political) ontology of objects as legitimation, relay and effectuation of the neoliberal hypothesis (Graham Harman), and in part the elaboration of the subtractive ontology of multiples as legitimation, relay and effectuation of the communist hypothesis (Badiou).

2) Truncated Pluralism and Diachronic Supplement

In both Badiou and Harman we have a truncated form of pluralism: a synchronic ontology of objectal multiples where the diachronic dimensionis added on afterwards as a supplement. Badiou has two ontologies grafted together (Being AND the event), Harman has ontologically real objects, and sham time.

3) Unreality of time

For Harman time is not a real relation between real objects, but rather a “sensual” relation between sensual objects, in the illusory domain of simulacra (THE THIRD TABLE calls these sensual objects, i.e. the objects of common sense and of the sciences, “utter shams”, BELLS AND WHISTLES calls them “phantoms” and “simulacra). For Badiou time in the strong sense belongs to the event in the naming intervention, and there also, as for Harman, seems to be dependent, at least in part, on subjectivity.

4) Surface Pluralism and Overcoding Monism

There is also a monism which comes to overcode this ontological pluralism, at both the ontological and the epistemological level. At the material or sensual level we have multiples of multiples or plural objects, prehended in multiple knowledges. At the formal or meta-level we have transcendental restrictive categorisation and the primacy of philosophical intellection.

5) Ontological Monism

For Harman the real is a unique and separate domain, real objects are “withdrawn”; the objects of common sense, of the humanities and of the sciences are pure simulacra. For Badiou the real is the non-qualified mathematical multiple, and the objects of common sense, but also of the sciences and of the “humanities”, are constructed out of these multiples (it is to be noted, and this signals an important difference between Badiou’s and Harman’s systems, that for Badiou these constructed objects are not necessarily simulacra, nor is knowledge of them necessarily sham). In both cases there is ontological primacy of one domain placed over and above the others. For Badiou the unqualified domain of multiples of multiples has primacy and so Mathematics is ontology. For Harman the domain of real objects is unqualified in terms of knowable common sense or scientific properties, even if it is qualified in terms of its own noumenal properties.

6) Epistemological Monism

For Harman common sense and scientific knowledge do not accede to the reality of objects, the only possible knowledge is indirect and appertains to philosophical intellection or to the arts under the control of object-oriented ontology, which dissipates the ontological and epistemological illusions, such as the naturalist prejudice and the scientistic prejudice. Similarly, for Badiou, to each domain there corresponds a generic and paradigmatic truth-procedure (matheme, poem, political invention, love). Philosophy in Badiou’s system is not itself a truth procedure, but serves to assemble the truths of an epoch and to enounce the common configuration of the paradigmatic procedures of the conjuncture and also to dissipate the prejudices resultng from the suture of philosophy to just one of these truth-domains. Badiou here is again more pluralist than Harman, as he recognises the existence of four truth-domains, and not just one.

7) The decline of Harman’s abstractive ontology and Badiou’s subtractive ontology

Abstractive and subtractive ontologies are in regression compared to the pluralist philosophies of their predecessors. They are the complementary representatives (a politicised communist version in Badiou’s case, a “de-politicised” neoliberal version in that of Harman) of truncated pluralism, the synchronic shadow of the diachronic ontologies that they ape without being able to rival in their force of thought.

8) Harman’s Badiousianism: Materially Pluralist, Formally Monist

Harman’s OOO is a specific variant within the general paradigm set out by Badiou’s philosophy. The terminological differences are important. Badiou speaks in terms of multiples and events, Harmanin terms of objects. Badiou explicitly emphasises the pluralist aspect of his ontology by the choice of the ontologically basic term of “multiples” and manages to make room for time and change (events), even if he gives them a secondary place in his ontology. Harman prefers the more unitary term of “object”, and consigns time and change to the realm of the “sensual”, i.e. of shams and simulacra.

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