Graham Harman


Having responded to Pete’s critique of the concept of translation in my previous post, I now move to his other criticisms. Insofar as I’ve provisionally laid the groundwork for some of my major claims this post should, hopefully, move a bit more quickly. After ridiculing the idea of translation that has, on this blog, been written about in great detail, as a mere metaphor, Pete goes on to remark that:

This is not in accord with Kant’s account, because Kant has a complicated transcendental machinery that establishes what objective representation is and how it can be prone to error. Inference plays an important role within this story, insofar as concepts are inferentially articulated for Kant. Precisely what I was accusing Graham of here was that he doesn’t have anything resembling this transcendental machinery (and I suspect he can’t), and something like it is necessary in order to give an adequate account of the structure of thought and the possibility of error it involves. There’s a question as to whether Graham is capable of providing anything like this given the meagre (and ontologically loaded) resources he’s given himself, and there’s a further question about whether he’d even want to, given that this would make his panpsychism far stronger than he’d like it to be (at minimum he’d definitely not want to say that all objects are capable of making inferences).

I cannot speak for Graham’s object-oriented philosophy, but only for my own onticology, but already two points are worth noting in connection to Pete’s point: First, as I already mentioned in my last post, the critique of Kant is not that Kant is mistaken, but that he is limited. What Pete refers to as Kant’s “complicated transcendental machinery” is what onticology would refer to as a particular machinery of translation. In other words, if Kant’s account of mind is fairly accurate– I’ve said that I don’t think it is, but all the same… –then onticology and object-oriented philosophy can fully integrate Kant’s account of the mind’s mechanisms of translation as depicted by Kant. In this respect, Pete is barking up the wrong tree. OOO’s thesis is not that Kant is mistaken about the nature of mind, but rather that what Kant says of mind is more or less true of all substances. Put a bit differently, Kant’s analysis of mind is system-specific and therefore fails to reach general ontology. Kant is engaged in a transcendental anthropology pertaining to how minds of the human sort translate objects. OOO’s point is that every substance has its own endo-consistency that translates the world in its own particular way. Nothing, therefore, prevents OOO from observing how observers such as minds observe or translate the world.

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Over at Jon Cogburn’s blog, Pete Wolfendale has written a lengthy response to one of my comments. I’ve decided to respond here as, for some reason, I’m unable to blockquote comments over at Jon’s blog, making it more difficult to formulate responses. Pete writes:

The idea of translation is a nice metaphor, but that’s what it is – a metaphor – and it needs cashing out. The simplest way to cash it out is that the effect the affecting object has upon the affected object is in some way dependent upon the affected object, i.e., that the same object will produce different affects upon different things. However, this is something that everyone accepts, and they can accept it without having to talk about ‘real objects’ or ‘proper being’ that withdraws. Maybe you can enlighten me as to the correct stronger way to cash this out, and how this solves any of these issues.

Hopefully Pete will be happy to discover that I “cash” this concept out in great detail in chapter four of The Democracy of Objects entitled “The Interior of Objects”. Before proceeding to briefly discuss how I cash this concept out, it’s necessary to make two points. First, it’s necessary to note that there are a number of ways in which Harman’s object-oriented philosophy and my own onticology differ. Second, it’s necessary to explain why I hold that these questions can only adequately be comprehended in terms of a model of withdrawal. The simplest way of explaining why objects must be thought in terms of withdrawal goes back to Aristotle’s concept of substance. In his account of primary substances in the Categories and Metaphysics Z, Aristotle is careful to note that substances are not identical to either their qualities or their parts. I discuss this in detail in chapter 2 of The Democracy of Objects entitled “The Paradox of Substance”.

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In response to a previous post responding to Christopher Vitale and my post on OOO and Epistemology, there’s been some interesting discussion of precisely how objects are individuated. Responding to a remark by Graham Harman, Mitsu lays his cards on the table and remarks that,

In response to your question about why I don’t want to go so far as individual objects, I would reverse the question and ask, why bother going so far as individual objects? The idea that there is some sort of ground with properties or patterns which are in some sense independent of perception or perspective it seems to me gets you everything you need to have a speculative realism without the complication and bother of positing independent objects.

The first question that comes to mind in response to Mitsu is that of how patterns differ from objects. In Mitsu’s comment I note that he pluralizes the term “pattern”, suggesting that he believes that there are a multitude of different patterns in the world. Are these patterns different from one another, or are they all the same pattern? If Mitsu suggests that patterns are different from one another, he’s already come very close to conceding the existence of objects. If Mitsu holds that there is only one pattern, I would like to know how closed settings in the experimental setting are ever formed. For if everything is one and interconnected, then it seems that it would be impossible for anyone to ever isolate things in the way we do in scientific experiments.

Mitsu goes on to argue that,

Again I want to make it clear that what I am objecting to is not so much the idea of independence as the idea of objects. (1) The most fundamental objection (no pun intended) I would have is that there doesn’t seem to me to be any objective (again, no pun, etc.) criterion for establishing the boundary of an object, or a way of dividing the world into these supposed objects. (2) An “object” it seems to me is by definition a separated out part of the world which has some kind of boundary defined in some way… but how do we define such a boundary, except in reference to a perceptual convention of some kind? I might consider this aggregate over here to be a “drum kit” as an object, but the amoeba certainly doesn’t interact with a drum kit as an object. In some sense, the whole idea that the world ought to be thought of in terms of objects brings us back to the human-centric fallacy which I understand SR to be critiquing in the first place.

The first point to note here is that Mitsu’s concept of pattern is no less immune to the sort of criticism he’s advancing in point 1, than the concept of object. It’s difficult to see how the concept of pattern avoids the sort of problem of cognitive individuation Mitsu is leveling at OOO than the concept of object. I make this point not to reject the notion of patterns, but to point out that if Mitsu is evoking the existence of patterns, he must do so on ontological grounds, not epistemological grounds. This point is of such vital importance that nothing in OOO can be understood absent a clear grasp of this argument. I have outlined this argument in two previous posts (here and here) and invite Mitsu to read these posts carefully, especially the second one.

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Responding to one of Anxiousmodernman’s comments in my post on BP, Circling Squares writes:

Estimates vary but its been reported recently that 27 million Americans are on anti-depressant drugs. (1) That is a heck of a lot of people who are medically numbed; it is pretty difficult to be angry, righteous and politicised when you are taking drugs to stop you from feeling. (2) Besides the direct effect on those specific people, this indicates a far wider tendency, as you said, to individualise blame, to accept failure as one’s own fault and thus, because one is trapped into that circle (there’s no way out, nowhere else to go from there), self-harm and self-medication follow.

There’s more to Circling’s response, so please go read it. There are a few points worth making in response to Circling’s remarks. First, anti-depressants don’t prevent feeling, but rather depression prevents feeling. When, in the grips of depression, everything is bland or gray. Nothing interests, nothing motivates, nothing excites, nor is there much in the way of any affect whatsoever. The depressed person is more or less paralyzed or completely numb. It is thus a mistake, I believe, to suggest– if this is what Circling is implying –that if only we weren’t medicated, if only we embraced our depression, we would be capable of acting. The reverse rather seems to be the case. Moreover, when anti-depressants are at their best, far from turning one into a numb zombie, they actually liberate affect and the capacity to engage with the world. It becomes possible to care or be engaged with the world around us.

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Graham has an INTERESTING POST up clarifying his views on the actual and the virtual. As it turns out I’m working on the chapter that develops my account of the actual and the virtual right now. I wanted to briefly draw attention to a couple of points in Graham’s post. Graham writes:

Yes, I use actual to mean “real.” There is a tendency by some realists (Levi, Roy Bhaskar) to use actual as more of a “bad” word. Such as when Levi says: “For me the term ‘actuality’ has connotations of presence or what is manifest. When I say this I do not intend to imply that qualities or actualities are present for a consciousness or a perceiver… but rather as present or actual in the world.”

In other words, for Levi “actual” has the connotation of “relational.”

Back in the day when I was heavily involved with Deleuze scholarship I would encounter something similar to what Graham describes here. The actual was somehow treated as a bad thing, while the virtual was somehow treated as a good thing. In the most egregious cases the actual was even treated as a sort of illusion or false reality. Needless to say, this is not a view I advocate. For me the actual is in no way a bad thing nor a mere “husk” that manages to get at becoming or something along those lines. Here I almost wonder if I don’t need a different term because these tendencies of thought are so sedimented in contemporary discourse. The sole reason for deploying the distinction between the actual and the virtual is to underline that objects cannot be confused with their qualities, but rather objects always harbor more than they manifest at any given point in time.

In this connection, I am deeply sympathetic to Harman’s critique of the thesis that objects are bundles of qualities (or in its more insidious correlationist formulation, bundles of impressions). It is precisely this thesis that I want to avoid. I attempt to do this by splitting objects between their being as substances and their being as local manifestations. Consequently, there’s a certain respect in which I want to take Locke seriously. Locke recognizes that objects cannot be equated with their qualities, yet when he tries to think this through he arrives at the idea of substances as a “bare substratum”. I endorse the thesis that objects cannot be equated with their qualities, while rejecting the thesis that substance is therefore a bare substratum. Rather, substance, in my view, has structure and organization. Yet to deploy this thesis I need an account of this structure that is something other than qualities. I need a ground of qualities in objects and this ground is what I’m trying to get at with the concept of virtual proper being. In many respects, my understanding of virtual proper being is very close to what Deleuze calls “real qualities”. Like Graham’s real qualities, virtual proper being is completely withdrawn and never a quality in the world nor a datum for experience. Rather, it is the ground of such things.

With all of this said– and perhaps this distinguishes me from Bhaskar and DeLanda, along with certain Deleuzians –I have a deep fascination with the dynamics of the actual or the coming-to-be of quality. In this connection, it will be noted that a good deal of what I write about has to do with the coming-to-be of quality or the actual. As a consequence, there can be no question for me of the actual being a “bad word”. For me the problem is not the actual, but actualism, where the latter reduces objects to qualities or local manifestations at a given point in time.

Within the framework of my onticology, the real embraces both virtual proper being and local manifestation. If I say the real is virtual proper being then I find myself in the awkward position of implying that local manifestation is somehow unreal. This, I think, is a problem that Deleuze and many Deleuzians ran into and one I patently don’t endorse. But if I say that virtual proper being is actual, then I’m left without the means of distinguishing the excess of objects over any of their particular manifestations. Terminologically I’m not sure what to do here.

Graham goes on to remark that,

And here’s why… Despite Levi’s caveat that “powers or potentials… are not to be confused with possibilities,” I sometimes think he is too focused on the fact that the withdrawn dimension of the thing is what can generate many more effects in the world than it is currently generating. For me this is a dangerous way to frame the problem, because this will give some people the impression that the reality of a thing is the sum total of its possible effects. Cf. Merleau-Ponty’s claim that “the house is not the house viewed from nowhere, but the house viewed from everywhere.” This sounds innovative, but in fact it fails in continuing to treat the house as a view, or in this case as a very large series of views. But the house is primarily something that exists, not something that is seen, or that is registered by other entities outside it.

This is certainly not an impression I wish to convey. In my view, the virtual proper being of the house, its existence, is not something that can be gotten to through a view or a plurality of views. Nor is it something that is incomplete. Rather, the being of the house is power or a force to be reckoned with. We don’t get at the existence or being of the house by adding up views because power is never a quality or qualitative, whereas anything we experience is always an exo-quality. More fundamentally, the house cannot be regarded as a totality of points of view because the process of actualization or the coming-to-be of quality always involves translation and is therefore a unique event each time powers of the house are actualized. My point here is that there can’t be an aggregative summation of points of view that would reach the house precisely because each actualization is a new and novel event that involves translation with respect to relations to other objects. Nonetheless, at the level of virtual proper being, it is still that house that’s being actualized. In other words, the house is a genuine existent, not an incomplete being awaiting fulfillment in the actual.

This is one of the reasons I distinguished between potential beings (Vitale’s formulation) and beings that are populated by potentials or powers. The house, in its virtual proper being, is not a potential being. A potential being would be a being that is awaiting existence. Here the assumption would be that this being is only a real being when it is an actual being (in my sense). But virtual proper being is fully real and actual (in Graham’s sense). It is not a being awaiting existence. It is a being that completely exists. And in this respect we can have real, existing beings that don’t produce any qualities at all but which are nonetheless perfectly structured. Thus I’m not sure how to respond when Graham asks, “…when Levi speaks of powers or potentials, I want to ask him where those powers or potentials are located. What is the actuality in which those powers or potentials are stored?” For me they are right there in the withdrawn dimension of any object. This thesis strikes me as no more odd than the thesis that real qualities and real objects are completely withdrawn and never present to any other objects in the world. In fact, I believe it does much the same work. It’s only if we begin from the premise that these powers or potentials are themselves qualities that the thesis seems to be strange and seems to place qualities in the object already (e.g. that they seem to claim that the acorn is already an oak tree). But a power is not a quality. It is a condition for qualities, but the production of qualities requires a whole series of translations, movements, and mediations to take place and is a new event in the world whenever it takes place. And here, admittedly, I can only allude to the powers of objects without being able to say what these powers are because whenever we say what something is we end up referring to qualities.

Over at Networkologies Chris Vitale has an INTERESTING POST up responding to one of my earlier posts on relations. I can’t respond in detail right now as I am in the midst of writing The Democracy of Objects, but I did wish to draw attention to a few points in Vitale’s post (and here I presuppose some background knowledge of these discussions). At a particular point in his post Vitale draws attention to Latour’s concept of “plasma”. Latour introduces the concept of plasma in Reassembling the Social. There Latour writes that,

I call this background plasma, namely that which is not yet formatted [my emphasis], not yet measured, not yet socialized, not yet engaged in metrological chains, and not yet covered, surveyed, mobilized, or subjectified. How big is it? Take a map of London and imagine that the social world visited so far occupies no more room than the subway. The plasma would be the rest of London, all its buildings, inhabitants, climates, plants, cats, palaces, horse guards. (244)

Latour clarifies what he is getting at a moment later, remarking that,

Of course sociologists were right to look for some ‘outside’, except this one does not resemble at all what they expected since it is entirely devoid of any trace of calibrated social inhabitant. They were right to look for ‘something hidden behind’, but it’s neither behind nor especially hidden. It’s in between and not made of social stuff. It is not hidden, simply unknown. (244)

There are a couple of points worth making here. First, it is clear that Latour’s concept of plasma is not an ontological concept, but an epistemological concept. As Latour quite clearly states, plasma refers not to what is and is not, but to what is known and what is unknown. However, second, matters are not as clear as all this. Latour refers to plasma not simply as what is not known, but as what is not “formatted”. Presumably reference to “formatting” is reference to structure. To claim that plasma is unformatted is to claim that plasma is unstructured.

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One of the things I’m particularly interested in accounting for is why, if objects are always distinct from whatever qualities they might happen to actualize or manifest at a given point in time and space. Here the concept of manifestation or actualization should not be confused with experience. There can, of course, be no experience without actualization of some sort, without exo-relations of some sort, but the category or dimension of local manifestation or actualization is broader than the category of experience. Local manifestation or actualization takes place throughout the universe, but experience does not. Local manifestation is thus an ontological category, not an epistemological category. Local manifestation is not the givenness of an object to a subject or a receiver, but is rather one half of the real with respect to objects.

If, then, local manifestation is not givenness, then what is it and why is it local? Local manifestation is that domain of being or existence composed entirely of events and nothing but events. As I argued in my post “The Mug Blues“, qualities of an object are not predicates or possessions of an object, but are rather verbs or actions on the part of an object. Qualities of an object are not something an object is but something an object does. Thus, for example, it would be a mistake to say that my blue coffee mug is blue. Why? Because the color of my mug changes depending on the lighting conditions. In bright sunlight the mug is a brilliant and radiant blue. When I share a romantic moment with my mug– yes I’m polymorphously perverse and have a pathetic romantic life (philosophers seldom fare well in that department, wonder if there’s a connection here) –and enjoy a cup of coffee by candlelight while listening to Barry White, my mug is a deep, flat blue. When I turn out the lights, the mug is black.

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