ONTOLOGY: Abundance vs Withdrawal

Graham Harman’s philosophy of science promulgates an absolute difference between the “real” object as posited in his philosophy and the “sensual” object, i.e. both the theoretical object of science and the ideological object of common sense and of the humanities. Despite apparent connivences between Harman and Bruno Latour, everything separates them on the issue of realism in relation to the sciences. Latour distinguishes in his Gifford Lecures between an illusory monist, a-historical “Science One” claiming direct access to the world and a really existing “Science Two” that is realist precisely because it is pluralist, historical, animated, mediated, and controversy-rich. Harman judges science in terms of philosophical criteria of another age (Science One) and finds it lacking in reality. He is then obliged to posit a shadowy “withdrawn” realm of real objects to explain the discrepancies between his naive abstract model and the reality of the sciences. THE THIRD TABLE is the record of Haman noticing the discrepancies, but the solution he proposes is a dead-end, a regressive rearguard action masquerading as a decisive progress with respect to a supposedly idealist (or “correlationist”) post-structuralism.

Foucauldian power is not equivalent to subjectivity, nor is it even human-centered. The same applies tos Heidegger’s language or Deleuze and Guattari’s desire. There is no primacy of human access or of “correlation” in these systems. On the contrary, these conceptual assemblages were elaborated precisely to get away from what has come to be called the correlationist trap. They are part of these thinkers’ project of reconceptualisation of the supposedly familiar phenomena of everyday life. Harman’s concept of “withdrawal”, on the other hand, is not an innovative revisioning of such familiar phenomena, but represents an incredible simplification of the world that renders it computable while dispensing us of the need to individuate it and individuate ourselves with it.

There can be no withdrawal without abundance (in Feyerabend’s sense in his CONQUEST OF ABUNDANCE), but abundance can and does exist without withdrawal. “Withdrawal” is tied to a calulative or computational understanding of Being. The sensual object, demoted to the status of “utter sham”, is de-valorised ontologically in favour of the real object that is purely intelligible. Abstractions are given primacy over what makes a concrete difference in our lives.

The computational understanding of Being is the understanding that originates with Descartes and renders possible the various specific computational disciplines that exist today. It is the hegemony of the “count”. This is what de-valorises the sensual qualities to mere secondary status . Harman’s real objects are not sensible but only intelligible in the sense that they can only be objects of our intellection. They are transcendent abstractions (unknowable and untouchable, according to Harman). Both for the Homeric understanding (i.e. prior to Plato’s invention of metaphysics with its bifurcation of Being into real and apparent) and for our post-Nietzschean world things do not withdraw, rather they assemble and abound.

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 with a set of bloodless and lifeless abstractions – his unknowable and untouchable, “ghostly”, objects. Harman’s exposition of his system may begin with a preliminary gesture of recognising the multiplicity and abundance of the world, but he rapidly reduces these concretely given multiple elements to overarching “emergent” unities that exclude other approaches to and understandings of the world (cf. THE THIRD TABLE) – OOO’s objects are the “only real” objects.

Harman does not really begin from “naiveté”. He produces and persuasively imposes 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”. He then proceeds to equivocate with the familiar connotations and associations of “object” to give the impression that he is a concrete thinker, when his philosophy takes us to new  heights of abstraction: the real is the unknowable, ineffable, untouchable object that withdraws. According to Harman’s THE THIRD TABLE (page 12):

The world is filled primarily not with electrons or human praxis, but with ghostly objects withdrawing from all human and inhuman access.

Yet Harman’s OOO has legislated that its object is the only real object. In THE THIRD TABLE Harman calls his table, as compared to the table of everyday life and the scientist’s table, “the only real one” (10), and “the only real table” (11). As for the everyday table and the scientific table: “both are equally unreal“, both are “utter shams” (6).  “Whatever we capture, whatever we sit at or destroy is not the real table” (12). And he accuses others of “reductionism”! Harman constantly conflates ontological and epistemological theses while proudly claiming the contrary. To say that the real object is unknowable (“the real is something that cannot be known”, 12) is an epistemological thesis. As is the claim that the object we know, the everyday or the scientific object, is unreal.

Harman needs his “sensual” objects, despite being obliged to declare them unreal (“utter shams”) because he has an impoverished notion of reality, and also of scientific research. The bifurcation operated by the notion of “withdrawal” is too absolute (there are no degrees of withdrawal) and thus splits the world a priori into two (real/sensual) realms. Harman’s system is too globalising with its dualisms to be able to deal with the fine-grained distinctions that come up in our experience.

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2 Responses to ONTOLOGY: Abundance vs Withdrawal

  1. N Filbert says:

    what are your thoughts on Michel de Beistegui (I’m thinking of Truth & Genesis) or Brian Rotman (thinking Becoming Beside Ourselves) in regard to the correlation two-step and Speculative Realist computable ontology?


  2. Pingback: THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS (3): Weird Ontology | Xeno Swarm

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