In my view one of the most under discussed aspects of Harman’s variant of object-oriented philosophy is his theory of the structure of objects and the division within objects between real objects and sensuous objects. The tendency is simply to talk about objects simpliciter, ignoring this complexity that resides in objects. I suspect that a lot of this will become clearer with the release of The Quadruple Object.
Graham schematizes the relation between real objects and sensuous objects in the following diagram:
I can’t give a complete commentary on Harman’s diagram as it would require a book in itself (indeed, there is not just one diagram but ten diagrams in The Quadruple Object), so I’ll limit myself here to a few brief indicative remarks. First, the distinction between real objects and sensuous objects is not the traditional distinction between appearance and reality. In the traditional distinction between appearance and reality the task is to pierce the veil of appearances so as to reach true reality. For Harman, the key points not to be missed are 1) that real objects are always withdrawn (Harman) or in excess (me) of any of their sensuous (Harman) manifestations (me), and 2) that objects only encounter each other as sensuous objects, never as real objects.
This brings me to another important point. When Harman refers to sensuous objects, he is not simply referring to objects as they are for humans or for animals, but objects as they are for any object. Thus, for example, a real rock no less encounters another rock as a sensuous object than a human encounters a dog as a sensuous object. The domain of what Harman calls “the sensuous” is a genuinely ontological domain pertaining to relations among all objects, not a domain restricted to philosophy of mind or epistemology. Moreover, the domain of the sensuous is not the domain of the unreal, but is perfectly real in its own right.
However, it is real in a way different from that of the domain of real objects. Where real objects, in Harman’s formulation, are subtracted from all relation to every other real object in the universe, where real objects are completely non-relational (at least in the sense of foreign relations), sensuous objects refer to the domain of relations among objects. In a discussion of “The Mug Blues” with one of my psychologist colleagues yesterday, she exclaimed that the flaw in my analysis is that the blue is not a property of the object itself, but of our perception of the object. To this I reply, yes and no. The particular shade of blue that the coffee cup locally manifests indeed requires an object to have a particular neural structure to exist. A dog, for example, has no experience of this blue because he doesn’t possess the relevant nerve receptors in his eyes.
However, the property blue is no less real for all this, nor can we say that the blue is just a matter of perception. The blue, rather, is a local or situated essence that only emerges in a specific entanglement of objects. For this blue to locally manifest itself as a sensuous quality, there can’t just be eyes with the relevant nerve cells, but rather we also need particular photons of light and the real mug with its powers and capacities. It is only in this relational network of entanglements that this local manifestation takes place. Thus, when we talk about sensuous objects we can say that sensuous objects are objects for another real object. Shut those eyes and the blue ceases to exist because one of the relations or entanglements have been severed. The power of “coloring” remains in the mug, but the bluing has ceased. For this reason, sensuous objects exist only in the interior of another real object (in this case, the perceiver). That said, these local essences can be instantiated in a number of different entanglements, e.g. two perceivers can instantiate the conditions for bluing to take place.
Yet, having said all this, I immediately hasten to add or emphasize once again that the domain of sensuous objects and qualities is not restricted to the domain of the living or the human. Once again, a rock no less encounters another rock as a sensuous object than a human. The chemist, for example, studies not real objects but sensuous objects and their qualities. Here, I think, we encounter a major difference between the philosophy of science advocated by subtractive variants of OOO and variants of speculative realism as embodied, for example, by figures like Meillassoux. Meillassoux wishes to resurrect the abandoned distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Secondary qualities are purely relational qualities that exist only in the relation between a perceiver and an object. In a gorgeous example he points out that when I touch my finger to a flame it is not the flame that experiences the searing pain of burning, but rather me. By contrast, primary qualities are non-relational and in the object itself. Here he evokes all qualities susceptible to formalization. These, he contends, are the true qualities investigated by science.
Here I think a glance at actual scientific practice shows that Meillassoux has things backwards. Science investigates not non-relational primary qualities, but rather relational secondary qualities. What science is interested in are those sensuous properties that are produced when objects enter into relations with one another. Thus, for the chemist, the key question is what occurs when, for example, hydrogen and oxygen snuggle up together, and in what amounts and conditions. In this respect, scientific knowledge is a knowledge of local or situated essences. It is a question of what sensuous qualities and objects erupt or are unleashed when these relations take place. And, of course, if we get relations between two atoms of hydrogen and a single atom of oxygen we get a new object, watering.
All of this is a strange way to begin a post that is ostensibly to be about love, yet it is all relevant. Among the most interesting implications of Harman’s account of the quadruple structure of objects is that there can be tensions between the different poles of objects. On the one hand, there can be a tension between the object as a sensible object and the sensuous qualities of that object. Likewise, there can be tensions between real objects and real qualities. However, most importantly there can be tensions between sensuous qualities and objects and real objects and qualities.
Harman, to my knowledge, first began developing this theory of tensions in chapters 8 and 9 of Guerrilla Metaphysics where he analyzes phenomena such as metaphor, humor, comedy, beauty, and charm, and where he introduces concepts like “allure”. The core hypothesis, it seems, is that these phenomena represent a sort of strife or tension between real objects and sensuous objects, where there is a sort of failed fit between the two, thereby bringing the real object into a strange sort of relief. As Harman writes,
Already, tragedy has turned out to be too narrow to make up the full opposite to comedy, and has been assigned to the wider category of charm. The same holds true of metaphor, which again covers too limited a slice of reality in comparison with humor. As seen with the cypress-flame of Ortega and even the wolf-system of Black, what happens in metaphor is that we somehow become attuned to the inner ingenuousness of things. The truly executant flame and wolf can never be perceived by other objects. But neither does metaphor leave us stranded at the level of perceptible qualities. Somehow, it manages to put the very sincerity of a thing at issue, by somehow interferring with the usual relation between a thing and its qualities— and this is precisely what charm means. Indeed, it seems likely that all forms of beauty and fascination have this sort of structure, including the beauty of people, birds, jewels, landscapes, cities, and the hypnotic power of ambient electronic music and roulette wheels. Such objects present a limitless field of inquiry, and I will leave it to some future book of aesthetics to begin to scratch their surface. (141, Harman’s emphasis)
I eagerly await this book or will have to write it myself, for I think Harman’s claim here is not simply of significant aesthetic import, but of significant ontological import as well. A moment later Harman goes on to remark that
We need a general term to cover both the comic and the charming ways of encountering the sincerity of objects, and the best term I can think of is allure… The most general distinction is between sincerity, which always exists for all objects at all times, and allure, which occurs only in special experiences and seems to have something to do with separating the agent from its specific qualities. Within the realm of allure, there is a difference between humor, which feels superior to its object, and charm, which feels enchanted by it. Finally, we have given passing descriptions of many different sorts of charm, including metaphor, beauty in general, the hypnotic experience of repetitious drumbeats or machine movements, as well as the cute actions generally undertaken by small animals or children, or by strangers in new contexts who misfire slightly in copying the locals. (142, Harman’s emphasis)
When Harman refers to the sincere he is referring not to the realm of sensuous objects or the domain of manifestations, but to the domain of real objects. The thesis is that in experience of allure, there is a disconnect, a short-circuit, between a real or sincere object and its sensuous qualities, indicating the withdrawn real object with respect to the sensuous object and its sensuous qualities.
Let me back up here for a moment to make Harman’s point more clearly and to explain why it is significant. In our day to day life we deal not with what Harman calls real objects, but with their sensuous surrogates or manifestations. And, in the language of my onticology, if this is the case, if we fail to recognize the split between real objects or virtual proper being and sensuous objects or local manifestations, then this is because we live amongst relatively stable entanglements where sensous qualities tend to be fairly abiding and enduring, thereby rendering us blind to the volcanic powers hidden within objects. When Harman evokes the concept of allure and relates it specifically to aesthetic phenomena, he is drawing attention to those moments where this apparently seamless fit between sensuous qualities and sensuous objects and real objects and real qualities break down and we get a mismatch between the two, opening us to a realm of abyssal withdrawn real objects. The aesthetic phenomena Harman notes become a condition for philosophy because they allude to the domain of real objects beyond their qualitative manifestations in sensuous objects. Put alternatively, in Bhaskar’s language, the aesthetic phenomena surrounding allure free us from imprisonment in actualism where objects are reduced to their sensuous manifestations.
It is here, I think, that we encounter beginnings of an object-oriented theory of love. For what takes place in love, I arguing, is a perpetual practice of undoing domain of sensuous objects and their sensuous qualities. Love practices the split of split objects, perpetually unwriting the reduction of objects to their sensuous manifestations, so as to allude to the real object beyond these sensuous manifestations. Pace Lacan, love is thus not a fusion of the Two in One, for love perpetually encounters the split in the beloved, the constitutive ontological difference between their sensible being or status as an object for another object, and lovers vigilantly practice this split, playfully exploring the way in which the beloved is perpetually in excess of any sensible qualities they might manifest. However, contra both Freud and Lacan, love is not a hypnotism that seeks to cover over the symptom or fill the void in being– Freud advised his patients not to fall in love during treatment as it rendered psychoanalytic knowledge impossible –but is, in fact, ontological and a path to knowledge. For in love, not only does the lover discover the split in the beloved that teaches the excess of real objects over their sensuous manifestations, but the lover also discovers her own split or how she is in excess of her sensuous manifestation to herself.
We can discern love as a practice of the ontological difference between real objects and sensuous objects in an infinity of tiny phenomena characterizing the non-relational relation between lovers. There is a constitutive difference in love making as it characterizes the one-night stand, prostitution, or pornography, and love-making among lovers. If there is something an-ontological in pornography, then this is because it seeks the reduction of the object of desire to sensuous objects and sensuous qualities. The pornographic seeks to abolish, eradicate, destroy the domain of the real, or the excess of real objects over all of their sensuous manifestations. It dreams of a world fully deployed before the gaze where there is no remainder, excess, or withdrawal beyond any recuperation in sensuous manifestations. The love-making of lovers, by contrast, is a sort of painful suffering of this split between sensuous manifestation and withdrawn real object.
It is not pleasure— the domain of the consumption of sensuous qualities –but rather jouissance, or the enjoyment of this split and the painful futility that senses this beyond of the real beloved yet is never able to grasp it. As the bodies of lovers desperately grasp one another, the desperation of their embrace is borne of this beyond, trying to reach this beyond of the real behind the sensuous, yet without ever being able to do so. This is why the love making of lovers oscillates between aggressivity where it is almost as if there is a desire to rip the other apart to find within them this withdrawn real object and the tender as if the real, due to its fragility, its perpetual precariousness of disappearing behind sensuous qualities and objects, must be delicately cared for to be sustained if only in its glance. Here the famous scene from Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love perfectly encapsulates this phenomena. As the two lovers intimately talk of clawing each others eyes out, ripping open each others bodies, smashing one another, and all the rest, they engage not in some perverse or deviant ritual, but express the jouissance of the withdrawal as real objects from one another.
Likewise, in The Secretary, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character fundamentally inverts James Spader’s sexual economy, transforming it from the dream of a reduction of woman to the mechanism of a sensuous object into an exploration of the split between the real and the sensuous in the beloved and the lover. What she teaches him and reveals to him is the domain of the beyond of the sensuous and the real that escapes even the most exacting disciplinary regime. And she does this by using exacting submission to discipline as a counter-strategy against discipline, generating in him the question of what remains when one has completely submitted to that discipline. For Spader she becomes a terrifying apparition by virtue of taking discipline upon herself, independent of his orders, thereby evoking the split between the real and the sensuous. And through this practice of discipline she mocks and undermines submission, turning it into a space of love where Spader’s dreams of mastery and reign of the law are subverted, opening up the possibility of the aleatory.
Yet it is not only in love-making that we encounter this practice of the split. The silliness of the talk between lovers has often been noted. The psychoanalysts theorize that the silly talk and nonsense talk of lovers is indicative of a regression to infantile object-relations that characterized the cooing practiced by mother, father, and child. I believe that something else is going on here. If lovers engage in silly talk, nonsense talk, and give each other nonsensical names, then this is not because lovers have regressed, but because they are practicing the split between sensuous objects and real objects. Lovers know that their relation is a relation of two abysses, of that which is perpetually withdrawn. And as a consequence they also know that language cannot represent the One or the Other or the relation of the two. And for this reason there is a practice of language in love that highlights this split, that brings it into relief, alluding to the three real objects involved in this non-relation. What nonsense talk does is undo the reduction of the object to sensuous objects. It mocks the language of representation so as to allude at the nonrepresentational.
There is so much more to say and develop here, but hopefully these crude indicators will do as a start in the direction of thinking about love. But above all what I want to think is the relation of love and the other aesthetic phenomena Harman describes to philosophy. And here, in particular, I would like to think the manner in which these phenomena are conditions for philosophy. For what these aesthetic phenomena open us on to is the ontological difference between sensuous objects and real object, allowing us to escape the will to mastery embodied in actualism and the pornography of the gaze, so as to encounter the domain of virtual proper being.