HARMAN’S BAD EXAMPLE: A Song of Cotton and Fire

Graham Harman frequently cites the example of the encounter between fire and cotton as an intuitively clear illustration of the concept of withdrawal, but this example is more complicated than he seems to realise. This is a case for which we should slow down and analyse, contrary to the desired effect of instant recognition and adhesion.

Certainly if we mix indiscriminately phenomenological and physical predicates it can seem plausible to say that in the example of the fire burning the cotton the fire is “more” than its involvement in this interaction, more than its performance of heating and setting fire to the cotton. Harman tells us that the fire’s heat is involved (inclusion) but not its colour (withdrawal).

But is this so from a purely physical point of view? In fact here Harman is conflating the physical and the phenomenological, mixing elements from two different interpretations, belonging to two incommensurable regional ontologies, those of common sense and of physics. No wonder he is able to generate mind-numbing pseudo-platitudes with such a method.

Certainly, heat construed physically and colour construed phenomenologically (as the colour seen by a human eye) have nothing to do with each other, and in this sense could be said figuratively to withdraw from each other. The only valid sense that “withdrawal” can have on this construal is as an ontologised restatement of the incommensurability of the two perspectives. This retranscription merely restates in an ontological or material mode what is a formal relation: the (physical) heat of the fire and its (phenomenological) colour “withdraw” from each other logically or grammatically, just as each withdraws from interactions involving the other.

However, if we examine this example from within the scientific perspective there is no withdrawal. Heat construed physically in terms of energy transfer and colour construed physically in terms of wavelengths of energy emission are one and the same entity, and so do not “withdraw” from each other at all.

Harman’s OOO is based on a network of such equivocations. The key terms of his system (real, sensual, object, withdrawal, relation) give an appearance of simplicity and clarity to an underlying logical ambiguity and conceptual incoherence. Whenever Harman is obliged to take into account such ambiguity and incoherence he prefers to ontologise his way out of the impasse, rather than to clarify the differences in logical grammar.

Harman calls this continued equivocation “naiveté”. I call it de-noetisation: the cynical elevation of concept-blindness into a method of philosophical exposition and polemics.

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