Like many others I’ve read the works of Graham Harman, Ian Bogost, Levi R. Bryant, and Timothy Morton. Even if I am an insubstantialist rather than a substantial formalist I can admire their work even as I disagree with it. One should still confront it and understand its basic premises.
Following up from yesterday’s post on the theme of Withdrawal I decided to enter another aspect of Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology with one of his main themes: the power of Allure. Wandering the blog world one can find both allies and enemies of Harman’s basic notions, but one thing I’ve discovered over and over is that many allies and enemies alike get it wrong – they give descriptions of Harman’s Objects that always seem to reduce them to some other flavor of philosophy. Nothing bad about trying to translate notions, concepts, ideas, etc. into one’s own terms I suppose, but most of the time when this is done one gets something other than the truth of the original. (And, no, I’m not going to burn down the web and find a bunch of examples of this. Why should I expose others to their own folly?)
But there is some truth in this – one almost needs an Object-Oriented Mechanics 101 course to understand and grasp the essentials of Harman’s, Bogost’s, Bryant’s, or Morton’s metaphysics or even meta-metaphysics. Realizing that the concept of Withdrawal came out of Harman’s involvement with Heidegger – not to say this was the only source of such a notion: just an educated guess that it was the main source – I move on to ‘allure’, which seems to be another concept that very few ever bring up in association with OOO. Why? Is it a difficult concept to understand? Or rather metaphor? Harman alludes to most people’s confusion in assuming he is a “pansychist”, and he assures them that no he is not a pansychist but is rather – to use a crude term, as he relates it: a “panallurist”:
Object-oriented philosophy is not panpsychist, but only “panallurist,” to coin a ridiculous and linguistically inept term. I have argued that allure exists in germinal form in all reality, including the inanimate sphere. This by no means implies that rocks can think and feel, just as it never entails that mulberry bushes have wings in germ or that sand grains tacitly know how to manage farms or fabricate stone tools. Allure is something far more primitive than any of these revolutions: indeed, allure is the principle of revolution as such, since only allure makes quantum leaps from one state of reality into the next by generating a new relation between objects. Without allure, we are trapped amidst the swirling black noise of any given sensual space. Even if the world were filled with nothing but dust, allure would already be present, and the whole of ontology would already be operative. Human consciousness, perception, language, or “death-drive” (Zizek) are certainly revolutionary in their own way, but they do not cause the sort of fateful rupture in the world that all idealists imagine. The ontological structure of the world does not evolve or undergo revolutions, which is precisely what makes it an ontological structure. Only objects undergo revolutions—and human beings make up just a few billion objects among others, and are not special guests at the table of Being whose absence would simplify the universe immeasurably. (GM, 244)1
It is in Harman’s conception of ‘allure’ that his sense of a need for Occasionalism or secular version of it in Vicarious Causation would eventually arise. But as he says, “Allure turned out to be the key to all causation, which is always vicarious, buffered, and asymmetrical” (GM, 245). Those three terms are critical: vicarious, buffered, and asymmetrical. But I will not tarry on them but will continue with allure itself, because ultimately allure is about communication – communication between objects, and also between levels of reality:
All consciousness is allure, but not all allure is consciousness. What we find in allure are absent objects signaling from beyond—from a level of reality that we do not currently occupy and can never occupy, since it belongs to the object itself and not to any relation we could ever have with it. Allure is the presence of objects to each other in absent form. It is the alpha factor of the universe, found in all objects from the ground up, but gradually built up into increasingly larger and more intricate shapes. While allure has no hope of ever getting us closer to the objects themselves, it can unleash objects that had been largely muffled in their relations with us, and can translate already recognized objects into more potent form. Allure is the fission of sensual objects, replacing them with real ones. It is also the principle of all concreteness, insofar as it points to objects apart from all relational impact that they have on us. In this way we invert the notion of concreteness found in Whitehead, who holds that an object is concrete only when we consider all of its prehensions or relations with other objects. Without this maneuver, Whitehead fears we will be left with an abstraction or vacuous actuality rather than a concrete object. But quite the contrary—the only truly concrete thing in the world is an object, and its relations with other objects can only reduce it to abstraction, even if new objects manage to be created in the process.(GM, 245-246).
One of the interesting things about any metaphysics is that sooner or later one enters a stage when it becomes cosmology. We’re all familiar with the metaphysics of modern cosmology and it four fundamental forces of Nature: strong interaction, electromagnetic force, weak force, gravitational force. We all accept the metaphysics of modern cosmology as science based on mathematical principles that have been tested in the laboratory of the universe itself. But most of the time we dismiss philosophical metaphysics because it is not science. Why? Is philosophy science? Of course most scientists think that philosophy is a quaint elder statesman who used to give us interesting ideas and conceptions about life and the universe, but have been replaced by the reductive naturalism of a set of theories and practices that actually do in fact fulfill that bargain. But is science all? Is our knowledge of the physical universe all there is to know? And is our actual physical sciences enabled to answer every last detail about reality, or is their an excess, a remainder outside of scientific control that has yet to be answered by experimental theory? Could there be a need for philosophy after all? Does philosophy tackle aspects of both the material and immaterial forces of nature and self that science with all its mechanical apparatuses still unable to deliver on its stated promises? Or is it just a little more time that is needed? A little more funding? Bigger Hadron-Colliders, better telescopes and microscopes, etc. ?
First let’s actually explicate the passage above of Harman’s, tease out strangeness of what he is truly saying and see if it works, if it tells us anything of import. He starts out telling us that “all consciousness is allure, but that not all allure is consciousness”. Just to get my head around that I had to stop, and like Socrates of old stand in the midst of a crowd on a street, hold to my thoughts and for hours think this through. The problem is that I’m still thinking but nothing is getting through. That’s not true either. If consciousness = allure, but (not all) allure ≠ consciousness or not all allure = consciousness, then if this is not some semantic knee-bender then what is Harman getting at? In another passage he talks about allure as a power that splits, divides, cuts:
Allure splits an object from its sensual notes. It cannot split an object from its real notes, since this would require that the object be destroyed. By splitting apart sensual objects, allure generates two byproducts of almost radioactive intensity: the distant real object signaling from beyond, and the sensual notes that had previously been implicit and compressed into a single point of unity, but which are now fragmented and drawn toward the deep real object to which they seem to belong. We also saw that allure must occur even in the inanimate realm, since otherwise causation would be impossible, and the world would be made up of frozen and isolated monads. (GM, 245)
In this passage the Real Object seems to act like an attractor – a sort of magnetizing force, maybe a strange attractor? We know that an attractor is a region in n-dimensional space. In physical systems, the n dimensions may be, for example, two or three positional coordinates for each of one or more physical entities; in economic systems, they may be separate variables such as the inflation rate and the unemployment rate. Harman speaks of the Real Object as communicating (“signaling from beyond”), and describes this communication as a corollary to musical notes in the sensual realm in which the Real Object uses sensual notes (“Qualities”?) there were, before the great split, both implicit and compressed into a single point of unity (almost like a singularity in modern cosmology). And, we know that this force of allure works on both animate and inanimate matter as well.
So now if return to the original passage maybe we can make more sense out of his second sentence: “What we find in allure are absent objects signaling from beyond—from a level of reality that we do not currently occupy and can never occupy, since it belongs to the object itself and not to any relation we could ever have with it.” Ok what do we have here? A transcendental communication from beyond… as if we’d entered the Kantian universe of the noumenal/phenomenal divide, and we suddenly discovered that something from the noumenal (‘absent objects’) were suddenly signaling to us from the noumenal abyss through some mysterious as yet undisclosed medium strange messages of its objecthood. All of this done through the power of allure?
Well, let’s see if the third sentence clears things up: “Allure is the presence of objects to each other in absent form.” Ok, that was clear? Absent form is the key in this communicative dynamics. As Harman tells us in a later passage: “For it must be noted that a level is a place from which objects are physically absent, but into which they phosphoresce all of their qualities, and by means of which they communicate with one another”(GM, 67). In another passage he remarks that the object-oriented model begins by providing us with a world of ghostly realities that never come into contact with each other, a universe packed full of elusive substances stuffed into mutually exclusive vacuums (GM, 75-76). Substances stuffed into mutually exclusive vacuums: almost sounds like atoms in a Void; yet, in this scenario there is a plurality of voids stuffed with an interminable sea of objects.
Now we can move on to the next sentences: “It is the alpha factor of the universe, found in all objects from the ground up, but gradually built up into increasingly larger and more intricate shapes. While allure has no hope of ever getting us closer to the objects themselves, it can unleash objects that had been largely muffled in their relations with us, and can translate already recognized objects into more potent form.” So allure seems to be a positive force, the alpha factor of the universe, almost like the old idea of the ‘ether’ that permeated everything in older cosmologies. Allure isn’t a medium of communication or physical relation, but seems to be a power of distancing, of separation, and a force that can translate objects from one medium to another ‘potent’ form.
As Harman relates in another passage: “The important thing is that any object, at any level of the world, has a reality that can be endlessly explored and viewed from numberless perspectives without ever being exhausted by the sum of these perspectives” (GM, 76). Trying to reduce these forms to one or another perspective or philosophical notion is superfluous, these objects will always be in excess of any description we might have of it at any one time. This is a dynamic cosmology of ever-changing or translating forms. Harman realizes all this is problematique, that the whole idea of translation is aesthetic: “The fate of language, as of perception and (we will see) of all relation, is forever to translate the dark and inward into the tangible and outward, a task at which it always comes up short given the infinite depth of things” (GM, 105). What this ultimately leads us to vicarious causation:
The root of vicarious cause is that every object is a private reality that withdraws from any attempt to perceive, touch, or use it. An object cannot be fully translated or paraphrased; it simply is what it is, and no other object can replace or adequately mirror it. But if an object cannot be touched in its full reality, some portion of its reality must still be open to contact: otherwise, we would be stranded in a world of mutually isolated monads, bridged by a vaguely defined god drummed up into existence for the sole purpose of linking them. Vicarious causation means that objects touch each other’s notes, or portions of each other’s essences. Yet we have seen that an object is really only a single note rather than numerous ethereal qualities bound together in one physical substratum. The plurality of an object’s notes does not belong to the object itself, but rises from the tension between an object and its multiple parts, which never fully commit to the object as whole. This tension plays out in sensual space, in the molten interior of an object or relation. Vicarious causation is possible because a thing’s full reality withdraws from the world even as its multiple notes do not recede. (GM, 222).
This leads us to the final commentary on allure from the passage we’ve been following: “Allure is the fission of sensual objects, replacing them with real ones. It is also the principle of all concreteness, insofar as it points to objects apart from all relational impact that they have on us. In this way we invert the notion of concreteness found in Whitehead, who holds that an object is concrete only when we consider all of its prehensions or relations with other objects. Without this maneuver, Whitehead fears we will be left with an abstraction or vacuous actuality rather than a concrete object. But quite the contrary—the only truly concrete thing in the world is an object, and its relations with other objects can only reduce it to abstraction, even if new objects manage to be created in the process.(GM, 245-246).” We know from Whitehead:
The answer given by the organic philosophy is the doctrine of prehensions, involved in concrescent integrations, and terminating in a definite, complex unity of feeling. To be actual must mean that all actual things are alike objects, enjoying objective immortality in fashioning creative actions; and that all actual things are subjects, each prehending the universe from which it arises. The creative action is the universe always becoming one in a particular unity of self-experience, and thereby adding to the multiplicity which is the universe as many. This insistent concrescence into unity is the outcome of the ultimate self-identity of each entity. No entity— be it ‘universal‘ or ‘particular’— can play disjoined rôles. Self-identity requires that every entity have one conjoined, self-consistent function, whatever be the complexity of that function.(PaR, 56-57)2
I think the key to Whitehead’s passage above is: “To be actual must mean that all actual things are alike objects, enjoying objective immortality in fashioning creative actions; and that all actual things are subjects, each prehending the universe from which it arises.” That is an central leitmotif running through Whitehead, and probably the central statement in Process and Reality.
Harman on the other hand “allure is always the allure of concrete objects”, as he remarks:
Throughout the ages it has been said that the uniquely human attribute is abstraction, that we humans can pick out universals from the fog of perception where dogs and birds see only specific cases. But allure is always the allure of concrete objects, not of universals. It is a process of concretion and not abstraction, as Hegel already knew when he wrote that the uneducated person thinks abstractly, not the educated one. Perception and relation are already abstractions; they are a reduction of the full reality of objects to a limited range of effects that they have on us or on other components of their surroundings. The concreteness of objects (as already seen in Aristotle’s primary substance) refers to something so real that no description or definition ever does it justice. Whatever it might be that humans do, it is not abstraction, but rather an exposure of their surfaces to an increasing variety of concrete objects—and concrete objects, like classical substances, are what always elude the senses. If paper and fire tend toward a kind of allure that exposes them to objects of direct physical effect on their parts, sensation is already a principle of distance. It creates a zone of safety, sensitive to objects but not immediately giving way to their force. It does this by annexing numerous organs or tools and using them to hoard the signals of countless objects in a single treasure chamber. An animal organism is the first great translation-machine, rendering the motleyest crew of objects into a single mother-tongue: the language of the soul, which Aristotle regarded as the ultimate organ of the senses. The tendency of any soul is to assemble a single holistic mass in which the sensual parts of objects mix together and unify. But this sensual tendency is countered from the start by the inverse movement of intelligence, which tends toward antiholism, chopping apart incarnate elements and leaving us with a forest of ghosts—phantom objects that never show themselves. If sensation is the principle of unity, intelligence aims to split the world into districts, into isolated objects flickering independently from beyond. And like every exercise of intelligence, philosophy is less a creation of concepts than a creation of objects. Ultimately, the phrase “object-oriented philosophy” is redundant. (GM, 247-248).
I think the center of this statement is: “Whatever it might be that humans do, it is not abstraction, but rather an exposure of their surfaces to an increasing variety of concrete objects—and concrete objects, like classical substances, are what always elude the senses.” And if allure is what splits, then as he tells us, and I repeat, “intelligence aims to split the world into districts, into isolated objects flickering independently from beyond. And like every exercise of intelligence, philosophy is less a creation of concepts than a creation of objects.”
So that, as he states it, and I confer: “Ultimately, the phrase “object-oriented philosophy” is redundant.” For Harman concepts are objects like any other object, material or immaterial. That Harman situates himself on the side of substance, and I on the side of the Void is only to say we agree to hold one side of a two-sided coin. For even objects have voids (vacuums)… but not all vacuums have objects!
1. Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (p. 244). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
2. Whitehead, Alfred North (2010-05-11). Process and Reality (Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh During the Session 1927-28) (pp. 56-57). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.