REVIEW OF WOLFENDALE (6): CHANGE WITHOUT TIME

An interesting difference between Wolfendale’s explorations of Harman’s contradictory theory of time and my own analysis can be seen in his desperate attempt to construct a logic that would make sense of Harman’s seeming contradictions. We both agree that there is an unresolved tension here. I argue that Harman’s “method” is one of ungrounded intuition – that is to say it is a non-method, as no theory of this intuition is provided by him.

This absence of method allows Harman to advance theses on the basis of descriptions that are systematically ambiguous as to their status, oscillating between metaphysical (or speculative) hypotheses and phenomenological (or empirical) experience or sometimes even conflating them. The intuitive acceptance that Harman’s persuasive descriptions aim at relies on the obliviousness to the question of whether this intuition is phenomenological (confined to the sensual realm) or metaphysical (confined to the realm of real objects).

A notable example of this can be seen in the opening pages of THE QUADRUPLE OBJECT where Harman appeals to the perspective of “naiveté”, which perceives a world of objects. This is precisely the world revealed by Harman’s metaphysical intuition, except for one detail that Harman omits to mention. This world of objects revealed to naive experience is a sensual world, and thus illusory in terms of Harman’s metaphysical bifurcation of the world into sensual and real. Yet this naive representation of the world revealed by our perception is treated as somehow confirming the metaphysical theory that it is illusory.

The status of time in Harman’s system is even more paradoxical than that of method, if that is possible. Harman constantly criticises so-called “relationist” ontologies, such as those of Deleuze, Whitehead, and Latour, as being incapable of explaining change. Harman argues that if everything is related then nothing can change, as the being of any thing is exhausted in its relations, so there is no reserve of potential that is necessary to make change possible. At the same time Harman often repeats that time is sensual and thus unreal. Harman’s own metaphysics is incoherent and he is mistaken about relationist metaphysics since he neglects kinetic and dynamic relations (those concerning rates of change and their relations, i.e. differences of speed and acceleration).

No doubt pursuing a charitable reading beyond ordinary hermeneutic limits, Wolfendale feels obliged to posit a concept that is not present in Harman’s system at all: that of “deep time”, or what one could call noumenal time:

“The reality of a deep time in which objects can come into being and cease to be provides the phenomenological background against which the intuitions of discreteness and causation emerge. Without this unthematised conception of time, his picture of vacuum-sealed objects that are nevertheless capable of violent interactions makes no sense” (Wolfendale, 206).

This conception of “deep time” is certainly “unthematised” as it nowhere appears in Harman’s own expositions of his system, and it is in contradiction with his explicit pronouncements about the unreality of time (itself in contradiction with his insistence on the reality of change). There is no reason to believe that it is part of the “phenomenological” background of Harman’s theory, never mentioned but logically required to ground the intuitions of discreteness, causation, and change.

Rather the concept of “deep time” is part of the intuitive background for Harman’s invocation of objects, in the sense I have described of an intuition that is systematically ambiguous between the sensual and the real. “Change” is used by Harman intuitively, without explanation, and without taking the trouble to respect the difference between real and sensual that is fundamental to his system.

“Deep time” is a concept that provides a way of attributing more coherence to Harman’s thought than it actually has. If we follow more closely the letter of Harman’s text it would be more appropriate to talk in terms of real change. I share Wolfendale’s perplexity about how we can have real change without real time.

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