BEST INTRODUCTION TO OOO: some advice and references

I think the best brief exposition of OOO is to be found in a post on Graham Harman’s blog “brief SR/OOO tutorial“. He includes this as the first chapter of his collection of articles BELLS AND WHISTLES. I reply to the tutorial from a “Machian” (in fact pluralist) view here

Next I recommend reading Harman’s THE THIRD TABLE, which is available as a physical book (or rather booklet), and also in ebook form on ibooks and kindle. It’s only 26 pages long, 13 pages in English and then the same thing in German. It’s short and inexpensive, and summarises the main ideas in a very clear presentation.You can get a good idea of its contents from a summary published here. I have posted a critical review, which has turned out to be rather popular.

If that’s not enough THE QUADRUPLE OBJECT is not bad at 150 pages, but it contains a lot of “epicycles” that detract a little from the clarity. This is because Harman does not really propose one ontology but at least three, and slides from one to the other as if he were always talking about the same thing.

I think that unified expositions like these two books are better than his collections of essays. So I would avoid TOWARDS SPECULATIVE REALISM. However, the later collection BELLS AND WHISTLES has some useful articles, including 76 THESES ON OOO and some “replies to objections” (of course, only silly objections are considered). I give an extended review of the book here.

My general conclusion is that read out of context Harman’s ideas, and SR generally, can seem to be new, exciting, and constructive, when one can see that the reverse is in fact the case if one considers a wider context than the self-serving one that they propose.

I have done enough critical analysis of Harman’s OOO (e.g. PLURALIST THOUGHTS ON GRAHAM HARMAN’S MONIST IDEALISM) to permit myself to indicate two points that I find positive in his philosophy

1) Anti-scientism: Harman assigns only a regional validity to scientific truths and denies the pretention of scientists to cognitive hegemony

2) Anti-literalism: Harman defends the use of “allusive” language and style against the primacy of referential language and literal understanding

No argumentative strategy can succeed in its critique of Harman if it does not acknowledge the positive nature of these two hypotheses and their ensuing suggestions.

Peter Wolfendale, for example, is scientistic and literalistic, and despite scoring many points against Harman’s system he cannot provide a convincing alternative.

Wolfendale’s critique of OOP in “OBJECT-ORIENTED PHILOSOPHY The Noumenon’s New Clothes” is quite often not original, but his book has the merit of assembling in one place many of the criticisms of Harman’s system that have been made by others from the beginning up to now. Wolfendale tries to give them sense and weight by incorporating these arguments in his own less than satisfactory unified framework of speculative scientism (cf. my review of Wolfendale’s book) . So despite the arguments he borrows from others, Wolfendale’s position is in fact worse than Harman’s.

One thing that is lacking in Pete Wolfendale’s book is that gives a good account of why people were attracted to the original discussions around SR and OOO and their subsequent disappointment, but he doesn’t give a positive account of the attraction that Harman’s philosophy exercised at the beginning. Personally, I do not think that “correlationism” as such was ever the issue, but that underlying it is the problem of incommensurability and of communicative closure between different understandings of Being.

This problem is part of the heritage of the later Heidegger, that Harman tried to undercut with his generalisation of tool-being. This sort of incommensurability seems to lead to a radical relativism, and to the impossibility of explaining the changes in worldview that have occurred historically, or that can be found in an individual’s personal history. By seeing and proposing a solution to this problem Harman was trying to carry the discussion forward, and it was very much worth the effort of getting acquainted with his philosophy.

I can testify that I deeply felt the problem, and that is why I turned to Harman’s book TOOL-BEING. I had initially been drawn to the contemporary restatement of Heidegger’s incommensurable plurality of understandings of Being to be found in Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly’s book ALL THINGS SHINING, but I found that they didn’t really confront this problem of relativsm. An account of the intellectual context for the Heideggerian version of the problem of incommensurability can be found in my review of Dreyfus and Kelly’s book.

So I looked for alternative accounts, and discovered Graham Harman’s work. I was at first impressed by his freedom of style and inspired by his proposed solution. Tool-being was universalised to give us what amounts to a new philosophy of Nature, where there are no incommensurable boundaries thanks to the primacy of objects.

However, I quickly realised that the solution was worse than the problem. Harman’s account generalised the problem of incommensurability to all beings, treated as vacuum-packed “objects” sealed off from all relation, unable to interact except by a magical ad hoc process called “vicarious causation”.

I came to see that Heidegger had proposed his own solution in his “thing”-paradigm, which broadly speaking is of the same type as the various philosophies of assemblage going from Feyerabend through Deleuze to Latour. In these theories the existence of “incommensurability” is recognised, and it is admitted that it can occasionally prevent communication.

However, if we take assemblages as primary then incommensurability exists only as a level of abstraction where certain elements of the process of interaction are isolated out and frozen into structures that are regarded as the essence of what is going on. In other words, the problem is a local and historical artefact rather than a universal predicament. In a wider ontology, such as we find in the work of Paul Feyerabend, Gilles Deleuze, and Bernard Stiegler (see my essay IS ONTOLOGY MAKING US STUPID?), the “correlational circle” never gets formed, so there is no need of special means for dissolving it or for going outside.

 

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