Harman and I have certainly had our difference and I think that my onticology differs quite a bit from his object-oriented philosophy in a number of respects. Nonetheless, in light of David Berry’s rather unfair and ungenerous critique of OOO that I read this morning I thought I would take a minute or two to explain why Graham’s thought– despite my differences from it –has been of such importance to me. I encountered Graham at a pivotal point in my intellectual development and he was incredibly generous with both his time and discussion with me. While I had already been moving in a realist direction with the publication of Difference and Givenness, let’s face it; I was very much a high correlationist and social constructivist. There were tensions there in my thought on this blog between my Lacanian-Zizekian-Badiouian tendencies and my Deleuzian tendencies, but more and more it was the signifier that was winning the day. As Lacan puts it in Seminar 20, I was increasingly coming to hold that “the universe is the flower of rhetoric” (56). On the realist side of things, I was writing endlessly about Deleuze-Simondon’s theory of individuation– which I still write about and advocate in a modified form –holding that there is nothing but relations without positive terms.
Graham changed all that, irrevocably transforming my thought as well as my life and giving me a philosophical direction that I never before had. It seems like he’s had that impact on a lot of people– touching their research in all sorts of ways both inside and outside of philosophy –in one way or another. However one might feel about Harman– and a lot of people have had pretty unfair, unkind words for him –it’s undeniable that he’s been a true voice these last few years, significantly impacting philosophy and cultural theory. He’s gotten people talking, regardless of whether they agree; and that suggests that whether or not his claims are true or false, he has, as Lacan would say, “hit the real” of theory and cultural analysis as practiced in the humanities and social sciences. Paradoxically, despite arguing that all objects are withdrawn and that they never touch, he has been one of those actants that Latour likes to talk about that mobilize all sorts of other actants and that change assemblages.
At any rate, my encounter with Harman happened purely by accident. Nick Srnicek and I were in the initial stages of planning The Speculative Turn and were in the process of contacting potential contributors. We decided that we were going to invite all the original participants at the first Goldsmith’s speculative realism event held in 2007 (and ironically the term “speculative realism” is something of an accident as well, but that’s a story for another day; the important thing is to note just how contingent everything is). Nick struck up an email conversation with Harman which eventually led me to strike up an email discussion with him as well. After three, four, or five days– I can’t remember how long it went on but there were multiple lengthy emails daily –I came out the other side of this discussion a quite transformed thinker. It’s funny how very random and short encounters can have such a decisive impact on you. Harman completely changed my thought and direction. You could say that I got my ass handed to me, though in a very generous and friendly way. He made crushing arguments against my relationism from which I’ll never recover, he directed me to compelling defenses of realism such as Bhaskar’s Realist Theory of Science (a completely decisive book for me), he introduced me to Latour, and he forced me to completely rethink my social constructivism and linguistic idealism. Harman created work for me or the necessity of a complete revision of my thought.
There were four things, in particular, from Harman that completely transformed my thought.
1) Withdrawal: Graham’s central thesis is that all objects are withdrawn such that they never touch. I never sure if Harman and I advocate the same theory of withdrawal– these days I prefer to refer to my concept of withdrawal as “operational closure” –but Harman’s concept of withdrawal nonetheless had a tremendous impact on my thought for ethical and political reasons. Even if Graham doesn’t express it this way– even if we can give strictly ontological reasons for withdrawal as Harman does –what is the significance of Harman’s withdrawal thesis? Why is it so crucially important for ethical and political reasons? Withdrawal is a protest against all ambitions of domination, mastery, and exploitation. What withdrawal says is that all entities harbor– as Graham likes to put it –scarcely imagined volcanic cores bubbling beneath the surface that we are never completely able to master or control. It is this from whence his profound respect for things– human and nonhuman –indeed his indignation against those that would try to reduce things to signifiers, concepts, sensations, lived experiences, intuitions, etc., arises. Harman seldom talks about politics or ethics, but who can fail to hear an ethical refrain throughout all his work… Embodied above all in his discussions of sincerity? Ethically and politically the withdrawal thesis is important for two reasons:
a) First, it is a thesis of hope. Harman seems to say that no matter how tightly related things might appear to be, no matter how dominated and defined by alienating signifiers they might seem to be, no matter how defined they might seem to be, they always harbor hidden volcanic potentials (I know he doesn’t like the term “potential”), that hold the hope of being otherwise. Nothing is, for Harman, ever so defined, reduced, or dominated that it can’t break free and be otherwise. In a world of theory that had increasingly come to be defined by the pessimism of Adorno’s culture industry and Foucault’s networks of power, this is a hopeful thesis. The message is not that there aren’t these institutional networks of power, discursive construction, economics, etc., but that there’s always an excess that allows the possibility of the “more”, the encore, and the otherwise. People, animals, minerals, technologies, and microbes are always threatening to erupt and challenge all networks of power. At least this is what Harman’s withdrawal thesis has meant to me.
b) Caution: Graham’s withdrawal thesis is also the thesis that objects always carry surprises. We never fully know what an object will do. Sure, we learn a lot about how entities behave, but again they can never be reduced to their “sensual presentations”. From an ecological standpoint, this is a tremendously powerful and important message. Like the new materialist feminists, Harman cautions us against our narcissistic pretensions of mastery, reminding us that entities always harbor hidden surprises and are liable to behave in ways that we don’t expect. Ethically this cautions us to be cautious about our technological interventions. “There’s more in heaven and earth than thought of in your philosophy, Horatio.” We’re never sure what an object can do. I can scarcely think of a more powerful challenge to the “identity philosophy” and it’s drive towards domination that Adorno denounces, nor a more powerful critique of the drive for domination, and calculative mastery that Heidegger denounces under the title of “enframing”. Graham builds it into the very fabric of being or existence. He shows why, what I would characterize as the discourse of the master, university, and narcissistic consumption are a priori a sham. Harman’s got a lot of criticism for being a defender of neoliberalism because he defends individual entities, but how can anyone fail to see that the withdrawal thesis fundamentally challenges the theory of calculation and mastery upon which neoliberal ideology is founded?
2) Vacuum Packed– Non-Relation: One of Harman’s most famous theses is that objects are vacuum packed and that they never touch each other. For Graham objects never touch. Now I don’t follow Harman in the thesis that objects never relate– for me causation or relation is not really a problem –but nonetheless I think he’s said something of tremendous significance in his polemic against relationism. I translate Graham’s non-relation thesis into Deleuze’s thesis that “relations are external to their terms”. Why is this thesis so important (to me)?
a) First, it underlines the fact that relations are never given but are always precarious. Relations can be broken. New entities can be added to an assemblage of entities, causing all sorts of problems as in the case of DDT being introduced to bird and fish ecosystems. This is a new relation. Other entities can be subtracted from an assemblage, leading to all sorts of problems as is increasingly the case due to climate change where peoples are unable to grow their crops and therefore encounter starvation and war. Those of us in the humanities and social sciences spend a lot of time trying to draw attention to relations because our myopic students only see “sovereign individuals”. We thus rankle when we hear a thesis like the idea that entities are independent of their relations. Yet we fail to see that the thing we were worrying about all along was the breaking of relations and the addition of new entities to relations that are destructive. Harman’s thesis that entities are “vacuum packed” draws attention to this in ways that relationisms, that hold that everything is related, do not. As a result, Graham’s thought is paradoxically closer to the living practice of ecology than other ecological theories. It shows us just how fraught and precarious relations are and how they can generate a whole mess when changed. Ecology has a hard time theorizing this in its own relational ontological terms.
b) Second, there is once again the issue of hope. Thinkers like Marx and Foucault endlessly tell us how everything is related, leading us to a pessimistic frame of thought where we wonder how we can ever escape from the prison of relations. In arguing that all terms are external to their relations– which is quite different than claiming that interactions don’t influence entities –Harman opens the door to hope for other social assemblages. He says we can break free, we can change things. If there are only relations without positive terms this is impossible. The only condition under which change is possible is if terms are external to their relations. Harman says that the queer person is not so thoroughly constituted by relations that s/he can’t challenge these systems of power. Harman says that capitalism is not so monolithic that people and nonhuman actors can’t begin to constitute another system. All revolutionary theories of praxis have held that relations are contingent and capable of being otherwise. It has always been the reactionary theories that assert the internality of relations without positive terms. Yes, let’s look at networks of power. Yes, let’s look at assemblages. Yet let’s also remember that networks are never so powerful that it’s impossible to trace a line of flight. Morton, in his ecological writings, has developed an entire way of analyzing the world in these terms with respect to the mesh. The key point for Morton, I think, is that the mesh is always shifting and precarious. Relations aren’t given but require work.
3) Translation: Harman argues that entities only ever relate to one another by translating one another. A translation is an interaction that produces a difference in what is translated. The thesis that objects only relate by translating one another is, under my reading, the thesis that there will always be more in the effect than was there in the cause by virtue of how an entity translates the interactions it receives from another entity. So what does this entail? It entails perspectivism. Perspectivism isn’t the thesis that beings are nothing but perspectives– after all, beings are real –but is rather the thesis that we must attend to how entities other than ourselves encounter interactions with other entities in the world around us. How do they translate the world? How does the rock, how does the mantis shrimp, how do bees, how do computers, how do cameras, how do octopi encounter the world or those perturbations to which they are open?
Ian Bogost has developed an entire way of approaching the world with respect to this question under the title of “alien phenomenology”. Now one might think that this attempt to see the world from the perspective of other entities– as I would call it, this “second-order observation” –is merely an exercise in curiosity. But seriously, how are we to think about political power if we don’t think about what corporations want, what markets want, what institutions want? How are we to think about these things and free ourselves from them, without thinking about their tendencies and modes of operation? How are we to think about the impact of technology without, as Kevin Kelly wants it and as Bogost so cogently analyzes it, what technology wants and aims for? How are we to think ecologically unless we’re able to think how bees encounter pesticides and the emissions from cell phones? The important thing is to get beyond seeing things as they are for us; or, as Heidegger puts it, seeing things in terms of the worldhood of our world. Rather, we must learn how to see how we’re caught up in the aims and intentions of other entities other than us– cows, for example, have their own designs for us that are quite different from our own –so as to figure out how to strategize our own action. Harman’s generalization of the Kantian thesis that every entity translates every other entity in its own particular way broaches this form of analysis.
4) Anthrodecentrism: And, at the end of the day– and again, under my interpretation and not necessarily Harman’s –there’s one central teaching of Harman’s object-oriented philosophy, it’s that we are among many other beings that have their own aims and agendas just as we have our own aims and agendas. Harman shows us that the world is much bigger than we thought. We thought there were two domains: culture where there’s human autonomy and nature where everything is mechanical. Nature was comprehended as a brute and passive sphere awaiting human inscriptions. Graham, by contrast, argues that there are all sorts of agencies in the world with very different aims interacting with each other. There are sporting events, tardigrades, cotton, fire, institutions, armies, army ants, groups, governments, etc. If we are to navigate this world we must learn how to hear the gravity that these entities are exercising and figure out the best ways of navigating this cacophony of voices; where many of these voices are technological, corporate, institutional, animal, microbrial, and many other things besides. We live in a universe teaming with actants where we are actants among actants, not sovereigns organizing all the rest as the old Biblical narrative from Genesis would have it.
Harman and I might not see eye to eye on a number of points, but these are the points where he fundamentally transformed my way of thinking about the world and being.