Graham Harman

Oh, the Inhumanities…

Via the Inhumanities blog, what looks to be a good event, not least because it maps well onto some things I’ve noted here, namely a divergence of interests in critiquing anthropocentrism in animal ethics and speculative realism—and, though not mentioned here, environmentalism:

animal_index_circleWhile speculative realism has critiqued anthropocentrism in ontology, and critical animal studies has critiqued anthropocentrism in ethics, there has yet to be many productive connections made between the two. With each offering the other important insights, the question to be asked is, what is the relation between ethics and ontology? Does a realist ontology require the suspension of any ethical imperatives? Can ethics and norms be grounded in something real? Are nonhuman actors capable of ethical relations?

Larval Subjects begins to show just what one can expect when questions are formulated well, as here:

I will, however, say that earlier this year those of the various SR orientations had a debate as to whether trees are real. The eliminative materialist-Brassier side of this debate contended that it amounts to “folk ontology” to claim that trees are real. The OOO folk contended that reductivism fails to recognize that objects exist at multiple levels of scale and are irreducible to one another. This was treated as “folk ontology” because it was claimed that we were individuating objects by virtue of how we perceive objects. Long story short, I cannot say that I see much of use for ecology or critical animal studies coming out of the scientistic/reductive materialist side of this discussion. If we can’t even hold that trees are real objects, then I am unsure of what possible use SR can possibly be for the ecologist or the critical animal theorist. Fortunately SR isn’t exhausted by scientism

I think he’s right about the normative side of reductionist accounts. (Or otherwise put, when the reductionists, such as the Churchlands, begin going normative and talking about imprisoning people deemed to have certain types of brain functioning, be afraid, be very afraid.) Besides, as a reader of the Greeks, various types of African philosophy, and Heidegger—well, what’s so bad about so-called “folk ontology”? Or is that a cudgel used to short circuit questions about what role narrative plays even in reductionist ontology?

Agamben and Nancy on Language

Following up quickly on the last post, I would just say that for those interested, this is also part of the difference between Agamben and Nancy, who are often put together. For both, there is something of an infinite amount of sense at the heart of being, one that is reduced by discourse and, for Agamben, the split at the heart of the human (which he dubs negativity). But Nancy, I think, differs by not putting logos and discourse at the level of the human, which is clearly what is at issue in Agamben: bad old metaphysics and its linguistic separations. No, for Nancy these relations are relations of touch that occur as the real itself. That is to say that for Nancy, there is “discourse” in the things, and as such, while discourse tends to shut down other possible relations, this also happens between a lizard and its rock and between the stars. This is why ultimately, I think, he and Graham Harman share a love for cataloguing disparate objects. This isn’t something that is an add-on to their texts, but is integral to them, since any cataloguing mixes up but also shows relations between and among things, one that begins to lock in while other relations remain.

Words and Things

Larval Subjects has a great response to the ongoing discussion between Harman and Shaviro here. (Note to self: definitely part of the SR class I’m teaching in the Spring will have to take up the form of argumentation used, in particular the use of blogs, which means finding a way to make LS‘s stuff part of the course without wholly taking it out if its ongoing, experimental space.)


Let me dip my finger in here somewhere...

Let me dip my finger in here somewhere...

Now, if I can use of one of the terrible analogies that bring my classes to screeching halts, if the people doing SR are potters dutifully working away at their clay wheels on certain problems spinning past them, then I’m more like the person who comes by, tastes the mud, and offers a non-sequitur about the taste. But let me say that though I agree with about all that LS has written in his post, though I won’t step into the subject of Whitehead (what matters more, anyway, is less the reading of Whitehead than what LS and Harman are trying to argue through him). But let me cite a passage where I would take a pause:

If you find yourself immediately talking about language, signs, subjects, co-constitution, power, the nature of inquiry, etc., then you are an idealist. There is no ambiguity here. The implicit thesis in all these moves that the being of being cannot be even entertained independent of the human. …All philosophical questions do not revolve around the human. Nor is there any conflation of questions of access in Whitehead with questions of ontology. The question of how we have access to such and such a being, say a rose, is irrelevant to the question of what constitutes the being of beings. I find myself utterly baffled as to why philosophers seem to have such a difficult time distinguishing these two issues…

As I noted here, I think LS is right about access, since once one asks about the being of that access itself (this is the move of Meillassoux) then the epistemological question “how do you know the real?” moves to the background. There is a conflation of the epistemological and the ontological in the name of an idealism that goes by another name (I think that Hallward is right that there is a slight of hand move in Meillassoux on this, but that’s something I discuss quickly in my Pli article). But the linguistic turn was not wholly concerned with access, and where it was it ended up being a neo-Kantian schematism. In fact, it’s not an accident that the same people getting vapors over SR and the non-human are also likely to be heard railing against discursive systems, linguistic structures, and other marks of the end of what Foucault called “man” (the doublet of thinking being and being). One need not take on Foucault’s account—I don’t—to say that (a) linguistic questions do abound when we talk about questions of power, about articulations of onto-theology, and so on. Nietzsche, to cite one figure mentioned by SR, was clear, since this desire that SR discusses manifested itself in the oppositions of metaphysical language, (b) beyond this political question, this view of language as a wholly human artifact appears rather unsubtle. This, at least, I think is behind some of the work I’ve read at Fractal Ontologies.


This is why I tend to read back through SR in terms of Nancy’s work since I think it’s not enough to give a non-human account of the real, but what is truly interesting about work in OOO or OOP is a non-human account of the sense or meaning of being. This is not to say that language is our access to being. Let me repeat that: this is not the new linguistic schematism. (This is why codeFoucault, for those interested, took time out in two lecture courses to argue against “social constructivism.”) But one doesn’t need to believe that universe is one large mechanism for the transfer of information (variations of string theory and even evolutionary biology have this idea), which only shows how we tend to transfer the later technologies to our metaphors for the universe, be it the watch of modern philosophy or the computers of today, to think that language is not a wholly human province. (Which is Heidegger’s argument and Agamben’s in the Open.

So, ok, you might say with that last point: critiquing Agamben and Heidegger, you can expand language to animals, but that still leaves us with philosophy as explaining the being of beings as it is to the living. But if language is an object among others (I mean this not as an artifact, but in the larval sense), then why not think the sense that passes between each object and the object that is language? Why think language as a mere human artifact? It’s not a question of access. But it is a question about the non-human dimension of language, which is one I’ll come back to, filling this out better with quotes from LS and OOP that show this isn’t a lazy insertion of the human back into SR.

Are you down with OOP? … You know me…

(Sorry–I happen to hear that old OPP hip-hop song in my head every time I type out OOP.)

Harman writes:

Stated differently, you can’t say: “I’m not an idealist. I believe the human subject is a passive recipient of the world, not its constitutor,” or “Human and world are co-produced,” or “world produces the human.”

I think this is right. OOP once suggested that I was a phenomenologist, which as far as things one can get called, isn’t bad, especially given the respect OOP has for that tradition. I’m not sure what I wrote in that post that necessitated him responding with the above clarification, though it’s helpful, well-put, and right. I think all manner of bad philosophizing results from making everything a human artifact, and all the work being done in SR, OOP, OOO, ANT, AI, CIA, and whatever other acronyms you can throw out there to think beyond the human in terms of “the animal,” the worldly environment, and more generally in terms of objects is attempting a real thinking beyond the impasses of ontotheology. youthful-idealism

My assumption is that OOP thinks I insert a thinking of passivity here because I want to recuperate something in phenomenology. I wasn’t thinking about that at all in that post, but was instead writing about how I worry about dependence as a means for thinking relationality: dependence, I was simply claiming, just returns us to classical ontologies, the will for power, or what have you. That was a limited point. 

But—why not?—let me go in the direction OOP takes me (excellent example, that, of passivity). Do I think that the telos of phenomenology in the 20th century is a certain passivity that testifies to the object (or world or thing) as it is “beyond” phenomenology? Yes. Husserl’s “life world” is a good example of this: the horizon of all horizons that itself is not amenable to the epoche (since it is the epoche of all epoche), however he tries to tame it. But also the Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the flesh of the world. Levinas’s il y a is another example, since after the 1947 TIme and Existents essay, he really abandons phenomenology for the Other, so this is as far as phenomenology could take him before the leap to theology. And I think the Ereignis in Heidegger and the event in Derrida are also attempts to jump out of the problem of linguistic access, just as the others try to jump over one’s shadow to what is outside (the object) of thought, despite phenomenology’s problem of access. And that’s all that I would say, namely that I think you could read 20th century phenomenology as one failed attempt after another to move beyond the problem of access. One that Meillassoux, despite his critique of phenomenology, himself can’t bypass, and thus he’s not doing OOP or OOO. Or perhaps even SR at this point.

But more broadly, the passivity is as far as phenomenology can go. That’s it: we sit back and “wait” (and all the other metaphors brought to bear in all of these thinkers); the “thing” is a priori and a posteriori. That’s the problem of “access.” And it’s not to be  diminished. (The tour de force that Meillassoux performs in his work is a strenuous attempt to outrun this problem, which he doesn’t.)

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think access is an insuperable problem, not least because I think access itself is a particularly helpful “object” that shows a certain relation that OOP shows between each and every object: this intentional structure, to use his term, is there between me and the computer, and it’s also between the chair and the floor. And I would add, a priori to access is the relation (that would provide for any such “access”), which is the sharing of sense. As for “passivity,” it is the last stubborn attempt by phenomenology (whether in Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, or Levinas) to think the limits of where phenomenology can go. And for that, it’s instructive. But OOP is exactly right, that doesn’t mean that we simply make “access” writ large over being itself, where it is but always structured through the event or the il y a or the flesh of the world, which is another way of saying: it matters because there are people. And that is idealism.

Objects: Real and Intentional

sunimageLarval Subjects has another great post up, which follows on from a great set of posts from Graham Harman on the status of fictional objects in object oriented philosophy (or object oriented ontology [ooo]).

The worry I have with Harman’s distinction between real and intentional objects is that none of the entities listed above seem to fit his model of intentional objects. Whether or not something is money, whether or not someone is a college graduate, a president, or a king is not the result of an intentional relation. I cannot make something money by intending it as money, nor can I make myself a king by intending myself as a king. I am not claiming that these collective objects are not dependent on the existence of humans. I am perfectly happy to concede that without the existence of human beings none of these entities would exist. The existence of human collectives, in other words, is a condition for the possibility of these entities.

I’ll first add that I think this is what is the best part of reading philosophy in blogs: the concision that Harman and Larval Subjects bring to this subject would probably play out over endless pages in a book, or worse, a series of crossing footnotes from different books that you would have to put together. And both of these writers are particularly good at it. (Though I think it is LS who is more likely doing an ontography and Harman who is doing an onticology, strangely enough, but that’s for another post.) Secondly, I’ll make the obvious point that the problem here is a possible equivocation over the word “intentional.” This is not what Husserl means by “intentional” objects (and I’m grateful to Harman for time and again emphasizing what he rightly claims is one of Husserl’s central insights). In this sense, it is as much “intentional” as “unintentional.” But the question of “dependence” is important to raise, since this would simply make this a lesser substance, as Descartes and, before him, various scholastics, would claim, namely a quality of the cogito dependent on the latter for existence. But that doesn’t seem quite right either (not least for a democratic onticology).I guess I would want to read how we can introduce “dependence” without the hierarchy of previous ontologies. That’s the first question. 

Let me put this another way, which is another way of returning to a discussion on OOP last week about the question of relation, since in the sense the LS discusses it here, there is no object that is not dependent, which is to say, related to other objects, a point LS has made in other ways in recent posts. That’s not exactly a profound point for me to make, but it’s helpful, since money  for example is invented and then completely disrupts the assemblage known as human beings. LS makes the point that both LS and OOP have relations of objects, but with a different status given in that relation as part of his answer to this. Which would bring me to ask the question about language and symbols, where one could spend forever get tripped up with notions of dependence. shackles

Which then leads me back to Husserl and intentional objects. Now, I think it’s clear than any OOO needs to make the distinction that Husserl refused, namely between “intentional” and “real objects,” which Husserl believed could never be distinguished rigorously. (No life world for you, SR.) Now, to make a quick point before leaving this post for now, “intentional” objects are “independent” for Husserl in several key senses that are well known. (Who, for example, would intend pain?) And here I realize that LS means dependence simply on the fact that money or whatever is an artifact. But all objects, it would seem to me, involve an independent/dependent “parallax view,” if we can call it that: all of us are dependent on the object (and what an object!) of the Big Bang, to take the extreme example. The question then returns to the status of all of these entities and I’m not sure this gets us further. So I fear the word dependent…

Plastic Bodies

mpontyIt’s good to see some good stuff up on sensation and Merleau-Ponty. I like this on plasticity, which I would much rather read through M-P than through Malabou’s Hegel.

The upshot of conceiving bodies as plastic is that it erases the immutable core of bodily identity. It opens the capacity of the body to unforeseen and unforeseeable connections and encounters, putting the body in touch with its corporeal milieu without predetermining the possibilities of its embeddedness. This is a better way–in part, because it’s nonreductive–of thinking about the body’s relation to the world than, for instance, Merleau-Ponty’s. Where for Merleau-Ponty there is a certain ‘reversibility’ which obtains between bodies, plasticity regards intercorporeity as a matter of commerce or exchange. Body one is put under pressure and formed by body two; body two is then acted upon, perhaps but not necessarily, and formed by body one. The exchange is not reciprocal, nor is is necessarily symmetrical. Indeed, if we are to believe Nietzsche when he says that every encounter between bodies involves one stronger and one weaker body (see Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy on this), then there is no such thing as a symmetrical (and therefore truly reversible) encounter. In short, plasticity allows us to heed James’s insight that every little experience undergone by the body alters the body irremediably, and thereby creates a new body with new abilities and new powers. No elasticity, no recuperation.

Of course, I would love to ask Plastic Bodies a plastic body question–namely, if he was said to look like Ed Norton, I’m hoping it was before the fights scenes in Fight Club, not after.

The Harman-Gratton difference

I’m about to head up and give my CRESC paper–nothing major, and I’ll note when it’s published in some form or other. But I caught this from Graham’s blog (and it’s strange to read this while seeing him right across the room):

Before then, I’ll be hearing, among other things, a Gratton paper on Nancy that he says will refer to both me and Meillassoux. Gratton is a blunt enough character that it could well be a frontal attack, so I’d better be listening closely in order to respond.

Well, it’s a 6000 word paper that I’m going to run through quickly, but for those looking for the “frontal attack,” here it is:

First reference, where I quote him to agree…  After a discussion of Heidegger on animals: “Yet, we will in turn sovereignly declare human beings as having the touch, as we say in English. The result is that, as Graham Harman puts it in a different context, “One privileged entity is allowed to form links where others cannot. Against this notion, I propose the more democratic solution of a local occasionalism or vicarious causation, in which every entity that exists must somehow be equipped to serve as a medium of contact between two others” (IO, 8).

Second reference: “The responsibility today, the ‘more democratic approach,’ as Harman puts it, is very much about the public things—and how we accede to them, even if acceding to public things means questioning access itself.” 

And last reference, from the footnotes: “Graham Harman offers a helpful example in terms of what he calls ‘intentional objects’: ‘While the real tree is always something more than whatever I see of it, the intentional tree is always something less. That is to say, I always see it much too specifically, encrusted with too much accidental color or from an accidental angle, or in some purely coincidental melancholic mood. Any of these details could be changed without changing the intentional tree, … It is not an empty je ne sais quoi projected onto unformed sense data, because in fact it precedes and shapes any such data. As Merleau-Ponty knew, the black of a pen and the black of an executioner’s hood are different even if their wavelength of light is exactly the same. The qualities are impregnated with the objects to which they are attached.’ Graham Harman, “Intentional Objects for Non Humans,” available, with the author’s permission, at, p. 6. Henceforth cited as IO.

Also, Graham notes that we were “debating” last night. I was actually asking about his account of the distinction between substance and change, that is, Aristotle’s account of potentiality and actuality. He thinks you can’t think things as relational without falling into Aristotle’s critique of Heraclitus. But you also can’t have monism, either, as Aristotle had previously made clear in the previous section of the Metaphysics. And this all requires a rethinking of time, since Aristotle’s notion of substance necessitates a thinking of time found in the Physics (now time…), a point Heidegger makes well. Having read Graham on this, he doesn’t accede to Aristotle’s view of time and so I’d like to hear more from him (and this is genuine question–not a counter-argument) about how objects relate and what modicum of relation they can’t have on his account…without falling into stasis and oblivion. I don’t think I made that clear. The analogy I’ll try is that we can think this through Nancy’s notion of sense, or partage. An example that comes to mind is the way in which languages evolve through it’s self-differences. In other words, there is a real truth that the Brits and the English are two peoples separated by a common language. Without that “partage” of language, there would be no development of it, and yet, there must be some “touch” or such between them for there to be a relation in the first place. But in the end, I don’t think Graham realizes how much I agree with him.