Withdrawal is an important concept in OOO, and as such figures in the second of the two major theses of OOO: objects withdraw from each other. This « withdrawal » underwrites the peculiar ineffability of real objects in OOO: we cannot name them, describe them, nor even count them. The first word of Harman’s system is «objects», present to the «naive» point of view. Some people think that OOO stops there, and confuse Harman’s «objects» with the abundance of the sensual world. However, this is only the point of entry into the philosophy of OOO. The second word of Harman’s system is «withdrawal», which removes all «real objects» into an invisible, unthinkable, unimaginable domain, where they are forever cut off from all relation with us, hidden behind the veil of withdrawal.
The concept of « withdrawal » in Harman’s system is a major focal point for the convergence of contradictory determinations. By means of this concept, Harman tries to maintain together in one system both an ontology of withdrawal and an ontology of abundance. He does this by equivocating over the meaning of the « withdrawal » of an object:
1) logical – its withdrawal from relation (relational withdrawal)
2) physical – its withdrawal from other objects (objectual withdrawal)
Harman repeatedly tells us that an object cannot be exhausted by, is « more » than, its relation to another object, when strictly speaking it can only be said to be « other ». In relational withdrawal the real object is other than its sensual manifestations conditioned by its vicarious interactions with the sensual realm. In objectual withdrawal the real object has other qualities than those involved in the interaction with another object. Those other qualities are either not actively « in use » in that interaction (physical withdrawal) or not pertinent to it (logical withdrawal).
The recurrent example of the fire and the cotton is more complicated than Harman realises. Certainly if we mix phenomenological and physical predicates we can say that in the interaction of the fire burning the cotton, the fire is « more » than its involvement in this interaction. The fire’s heat is involved in the combustion of the cotton, but not, for example, its colour.
Yet in this argument Harman is conflating the phenomenological and physical domains, mixing elements from two different regional ontologies. Certainly « heat » construed physically, as a physical property of a material object, and colour construed phenomenologically, as a perceptual property of a perceived object (the colour perceived by a human eye), have nothing to do with each other, they do not belong to the same conceptual space. In this sense they could be said figuratively to withdraw from each other. Speaking more strictly, we must say that they «withdraw» from each other in that their logical grammars are incommensurable.
Thus the only literal sense that withdrawal can have on this construal is as a restatement of the incommensurability of predicates belong to different theoretical frameworks: the (physical) heat and the (phenomenological) colour of the fire “withdraw” from each other logically or grammatically, just as each withdraws from interactions involving the other. However this «withdrawal» is not universal, but relative to the frameworks in play: 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, so they do not “withdraw” from each other at all.
In Harman’s system this sort of grammatical or logical incommensurability is transposed into the domain of ontology. « Withdrawal » is the name of the pseudo-concept generated by the passage from the formal mode of speech to the material or referential mode, and by illegitimately combining incommensurable values and predicates in the same proposition.
Graham Harman frequently cites this example of the encounter between fire and cotton. Its rôle is pedagogical and popularising rather than systematic. It serves as a bridge from thefirst « naive » thesis (the world is made of objects) to the second, sophisticated, thesis (objects withdraw). From the systematic point of view, this example is complex, a case where we should slow down and analyse, whereas the desired effect in Harman’s deployment is one of simplicity and speed: instant recognition and adhesion.
If we mix indiscriminately phenomenological and physical predicates it can seem plausible to say that in the case 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. But what fire are we speaking of, the physical combustion or the phenomenological flame?
Harman tells us that the fire’s heat is involved in the interaction, but not its colour. But is this so if we consider things from a purely physical point of view? Are not the heat and the colour intrinsically linked aspects of one and the same occurence of energy emission? There is no « withdrawal » here, as long as we stop mixing together incommensurable frameworks.
As we have seen, 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, in order to generate a false sense of paradox. He can then proceed to resolve this false paradox with the pseudo-concept of withdrawal. In Sellarsian terms, he is illegitimately combining fragments of the manifest image and fragments of the scientific image, and then extrapolating vast ontological conclusions from the resulting hodgepodge.
OOO is based on a network of such equivocations. The key terms of the system (object, withdrawal, relation) give an appearance of simplicity and clarity to the basic theses of the system, granting it an initial plausibility which hides an underlying logical ambiguity and conceptual incoherence. This is the key to the specific method of OOO, as opposed to more analytic approaches. When 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.
(draft entry for a projected DICTIONARY OF OOO)
In one of Harman’s talks he speaks about « withdrawal » in connection to Tristan Garcia’s work: he says Garcia posits the gap between the real objects and the sensual objects as a difference between the two, whereas Harman claims the domain of withdrawal irreducible to any approach (even of difference??). In my initiate-level of understanding, it seems Garcia is closer to Zizek. If Harman extrapolates ontological conclusions from the gap, as you have said, then what of the gap as a gap or as a stain or as a blind spot impossible to get at? Is this another name for the void?