Graham Harman: An Ontology of Forces and Actions

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Instead of exiling objects to the natural sciences (with the usual mixed emotions of condescension and fear), philosophy must reawaken its lost talent for unleashing the enfolded forces trapped in the things themselves. It is my belief that this will have to be the central concern of twenty-first-century philosophy.1

Philosophy as an engineering project or reclamation? Forces that must be awakened, brought to bare on the issues of our age, a revolution in those withdrawn and sleeping entities that seem to be forever waiting for something to happen. Is this the Philosopher as Hermes awakening the sleepers, or a software developer calling the hidden algorithms of some program awaiting its secret instructions. As I was revisiting Graham Harman’s early Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects it struck me again that his work is not so much about objects as it is about those invisible forces locked away from direct access to our philosophic and scientific reason. As if there is this world of forces just below the surface of things that none of us would believe or accept if we were to make them visible. And it is not just Harman, as I look back over many of the current trends in philosophy I see this antagonistic relation to the visible and the phenomenal traditions.

In the last century postmodern philosophies lead us down the path of a hyper-romanticism that took the inner turn toward mind to its ultimate limits in post-structural irony and endless disquisitions on the blindspots of mind and (inter)text(uality). What Dryden and Pope were to the neo-classical age the hyper-nihilists of late pomo-romanticism (cum post-modernist) crowd were to an era in obscurity to its own demise. It sought to further refine and embellish in baroque detail an already depleted and decaying tradition of Mind and Language. Dr. Johnson once remarked to his friend Boswell that it was the “weather in the mind” that caused all our problems, by which he meant we befuddle ourselves with ideas of the weather rather than the weather itself. If Romanticism can be considered the turn toward the inner life of Mind in both its Idealist and metaphysical materialist forms from Kant (Philosophy) and Wordsworth (Poetry) through Schelling, Fichte, and Hegel (German Idealism); and, below through Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bataille, etc. (German/French materialism-vitalism), then what we’re seeing today is the return of a renewed speculative realist and materialist retrenchment; or, at least the effort under way toward such a perspectival change. One that moves us toward the quantum worlds and the invisible forces that give birth to our visible universe of objects, and energizes us with the forces from alterity of being; the indirect realm of the invisible movement of the world itself that gives rise to the appearances and sensual realms we perceive.

Some will like Ray Brassier and Reza Negarestani follow Sellars/Brandom into a neo-Kantianism embellished with Hegelian dialectic producing a neo-normative ethicism that seeks to impose a new navigational system of negotiations between the ‘space of reason’ and its execution. While others like Quentin Meillassoux seek to bring Badiou and Hume into a universe of hyperchaotic time where sufficient reason is passé and our world can produce gods at anytime. And, even others like Iain Hamilto Grant would return us to a naturalist idealism allowing for a pertinent reflection on our current climate crisis, etc.. So Harman and his progeny would take us into a universe of bewildering forces, alien phenomenology, hyper-objects, and machinic entities plugged into or withdrawn from action. Philosophy isn’t what your mother taught in Sunday school by any means. One is tempted to say with Dorothy: “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!”

When I first read Harman a few years back I assumed wrongly that his return to substantial formalism was a return to this Idealist tradition from Plato and Aristotle onward in which form (eternal archetype, Platonic Idea, etc.) impressed itself on the structure of matter, etc. This is not what he is saying at all. This is not a return to such Idealism of breaching the walls between thought and being; or, fusing thought and being, etc. Harman is a realist, but of a weird realism. It’s not about the independence of thing from Mind, or co-dependency of Mind/World, etc. It’s about the independence of objects themselves without us, without our interference or disturbance; it’s about the Order of things from the perspective to the objects themselves rather than ours. As he puts it:

I will show that objects themselves, far from the insipid physical bulks that one imagines, are already aflame with ambiguity, torn by vibrations and insurgencies equaling those found in the most tortured human moods. (p. 19)

Whereas Zizek and Badiou among others speak after Lacan of gaps, cracks, breaks in the Real. That it is the Real and its contradictions that keep us from having direct access to the truth of an object, thing, entity, etc. That the Real is fraught with ambiguity, contradiction, and strife is from the dialectical materialist path the truth of things, etc. Both Harman and Zizek et. al. agree that the universe is not a totality, not a completed whole, that it is open and incomplete, a realm of happenings and events in movement; of a world of Ideas without idealism where ideas are as mortal as the appearances, etc. Yet, knowing that below the surface play of visible matter or objects there is a quantum realm invisible to the eye that harbors forces unimaginable to our natural experience or logic of sense (Deleuze). We live in a realm of forces rather than in a fixed and stable realm of substance, yet the forms that appear are shaped as events and time and are fully deployed in this void of our universe. For Zizek this is a continuous process out of which beings emerge from the fluctuations below the threshold, or the subterranean chambers of quantum voids in collision and conflict. Harman deals with one half of this in Tool-Being (i.e., flat ontology of objects, etc.), but hints at another aspect of philosophy, metontology where as Heidegger would state it “the question of ethics is raised for the first time”. (But I’ll not go into this in this short post)

Harman will describe our world (after Heidegger) as “an infrastructure of equipment already at work, of tool-beings unleashing their forces upon us just as savagely or flirtatiously as they duel with one another” (p. 20). Against any notion of atomism or the idea of an object as “an impenetrable, self-sufficient unity that shifts between contexts, (p. 23),” Harman presents objects as occupying a “specific position in the system of forces that makes up the world” (p. 23). So in this sense Harman’s philosophy is a philosophy of force and action rather than of objects-as-substances per se. He will describe a world of actions and forces rather than as interacting atomistic substances, one in which the “action of individual [objects, things, entities] has already receded from view, as it exerts its force against all other equipment, even if only by remaining at a safe enough distance so as not to impede or damage it” (p. 23).

Describing this notion of action he will tell us that an object “assumes a determinate stance in the midst of reality: compressing other entities into submission, while also giving way beneath the forces they return. As such, the work of the tool forever recedes behind its radiant surface profile.” (p. 24) Most of the critiques of Harman usually beg the question, and get confused over objects and substances as if that were the main thing, sticking with his concept of ‘withdrawal’ as if such a concept was totally absurd or a fantasy. But once you realize he’s not talking about objects and relations as Plato or Aristotle talk of substance and form etc., but rather he’s describing a realm of force and action, of event and movement rather than static objects bound in some thick realm of glue Harman’s is a universe aligned with current science in its quantum field theories of force, of action at a distance, etc..

One realizes this when listening to a description of equipment such as this:

By disappearing from view in this way, it allows the ultimate reference to swallow all of its component forces into an invisible system or network lying silently beneath it. (p. 25)

What else would this invisible system or network lying silently below the realm of appearances be if not our quantum world of modern sciences, that invisible realm of forces and actions that gives birth to our visible universe? When describing the active performativity of this realm he tells us that the meaning or reference implies two distinct senses:  “the performance of a withering subterranean force, but a force that also acts to summon up some explicitly encountered reality” (p. 26). Even Zizek in Less Than Nothing talks of the fluctuations in the void (along with the fluctuation of the subtracted void) that give birth to being(s). Nothing abnormal in this at all. About the only thing Harman has against materialists such as Zizek and Badiou is their insistence in the primacy of the Subject-as-Substance, this need to center the Real on the human process of subjectivation. Harman displaces it and flattens it into an ontology where the process of subjectivation is the bedrock of all objects, things, and entities in the universe, not just the prioritized valence of the human subject.

In discussing the object in its withdrawn state, folded into the quantum realm he’ll say “it is a slumbering brute force irreducible to any experience we might have of it”; and, when describing our world of appearances and visible sensual objects he’ll state that “it serves as the tangible object of some sort of perception or discussion, and is recognized by a specific shape and color and texture” (pp. 31-32). So it’s not two objects, but rather levels of being, the one invisible and quantum force, the other visible and based on observables. So that the so called split-object is none other than this interaction between force and action, quantum realm and visible universe. One wonders if this is closer to a dual-aspect monism; or, is it truly Heidegger’s notion of “dual forces”? Harman will speak of transitions (allure) between levels of being in which objects manifest themselves under differing profiles and properties as well as connecting to each other, so that the object we see one way might under other conditions and with the use of various scientific apparatuses share other distinct profiles and properties yet be the same real object which is forever illusive and removed from its sensual appearances. A world of field and force is always in metamorphosis and changing eluding our reductive abstractions and concepts, our orderly philosophies that try to corner reality; our sciences that want a final consensus that will close down our knowledge of things as they are. The world will not be closed down, ever.

Yet, Harman denigrates any assumption of a totality of force or any sense of Cosmos as some harmonious whole in the Greek sense. Instead as he says,

Resisting the one empire of unified force, the “for-the-sake-of” frees up the world into a menagerie of specific hammers and windows and blades of grass. (p. 34)

So in this sense he’d be in agreement with such as Badiou who attack the One in favor of the non-All of singular entities in an open unqualified realm of competing and contradictory forces, etc. Granted Harman’s poetic or metaphoric way of speaking gets him in trouble at times, as in his description of the ‘as-structure’ as “the eruption of personalities from the empire of being” (p. 47). He will describe these personalities as things like a hammer or bridge that act as “concealed agents in the world, real objects that build or institute their forces into the fabric of the cosmos rather than simply unveiling these forces” (p. 80). As if objects had personalities that could act on their own, interact with other objects and actively participate in the push/pull of existence, exert their hidden forces as actions and not just as evolving or unveiling in some passive manner the truth of their being in a mechanical mode. It’s here that many see a a tendency in Harman toward a form of panpsychism; or the notion that the mental is  ubiquitous in the universe, but that consciousness itself might not be widespread. (Harman has spoken to this, and I’ll need to research that and come back to it.)

Harman will point out the main difference between Husserl and his pupil Heidegger, saying,

The real difference between these philosophers can be stated clearly as follows. For Husserl, the relation between the appearance of the hammer and its still-unexhausted horizonal reality is only a relation of two representations , one of them currently in consciousness and the other potentially so, whether minutes or decades from now. For Heidegger, hammer and hammer-being are not both representations: only the former is something that can ever be intended. By contrast, he holds that the hammer-being is not just “withdrawn” (for even Husserl’s horizons withdraw), but withdrawn into a real effect amidst the cosmos, as an autonomous reality unleashing its forces upon the world quite apart from any of Dasein’s projections. (pp. 140-141).

This difference between action and potential goes to the heart of Harman’s use of the concept of withdrawn objects, one that shows forth his investment in a quantum view of those hidden forces that “unleash” themselves independent of their appearances to our visible eye or instruments. It’s as if Harman has both an anti-representational and representational theory that are not at odds but rather the one qualifies the other without the other (appearances) being reduced to it (forces).

For Harman the universe is a realm of strife and of “dual forces,” and a “fundamental ontology defines the philosophical collapse of all specific entities into a single fundament, the dissolution of every being into the repetitive play of darkness and light, tool and broken tool” (p. 189). So its not objects but rather forces that are the dualistic agents and powers that give birth to the visible universe of objects, things, and entities we see around us. Yet, these things are not one, but two: split into real and sensual halves, the one a subterranean realm of forces, the other the sensual aspect and profile we see or observe (observables) with our scientific apparatuses. But one must not think of them as amorphous or permeable substances, but rather as discrete objects, agents, personalities with active profiles that act in the world by the power of the forces within them shaping, warring, striving, etc. in the universe of things.

In fact Harman will describe Heidegger’s notion of the four-fold (of which I’ll not go into detail) as the “global play of four forces in all entities” (p. 204). Harman will accept Zizek’s notion of retroactive causation, but he will qualify it saying that it is both a “global ontological structure, and not a narrowly psychoanalytic one,” and given that “retroactive cause occurs on every layer of reality, there is nothing ontologically special about human retroaction, meaning that Zizek’s noncommittal distance from the question of realism is untenable” (p. 208). In fact against Zizek’s notion of the object as “specter” Harman will remark, saying,

No mere phantasm haunting the gap between the subject and its unfulfillable desire, the object fills the world with force, color, music, and electrical charges; it summons and cajoles its neighbors, or crushes them into splinters. Instead of continuing to embrace the hip “specter” of realism, contemporary philosophy should begin funneling arms and humanitarian aid toward some sort of guerilla realism—a fresh insurgency on behalf of objects themselves. (p. 216)

Ultimately Harman’s universe is one in which we “all stand at the mercy of the invisible kingdom of equipment, stationed unwittingly in a cryptic empire of force-against-force” (p. 220). So is this an object-oriented ontology or rather an ontology of forces at play in the universe at large? Closer to Nietzsche’s Will-to-Power as agent of unleashed forces at work in the universe? One way to understand it is to realize that for Harman an object is unreplaceable:

To repeat, the tool-being of an object is the reality of that object quite apart from any of its specific causal relations, and unexchangeable for any grand total of such relations. (p. 225)

Beyond the forces at play is something essential about an object, thing, or entity that no other object can mimic or replace. The point he makes here is that an object is an object because it is “devoid of all relations”: an object withdraws not just behind any perception, but behind any form of causal activity as well (p. 226). Again its not about the visible objects we see or that science can observe and measure, its about the hidden forces in objects:

Beneath the plateau of visible hammers and bridges, there is the raw causal energy of these objects, each bumping up against the others with varying degrees of violence or softness. On this level, the invisible forces of hammer and bridge are locked in an utterly distinct set of arrangements with the other beings in the world; it is deployed in a total set of relations with them. (p. 229)

So it’s not the visible objects that are related at each moment, but rather the invisible forces below the threshold of the apparent object that are “deployed in a total set of relations with them”. This sense that at the quantum level of being relations among things is not localized and distinct as it is in our visible universe of sense but is rather unlocalized and holistic (i.e., action at a distance, quantum bi-locality; but not at the level of the visible universe). (Obviously one will question this assumption on the scientific level since the data about the quantum level of reality is not in yet…). All I’m trying to do here is to show that Harman’s OOO is more of an ontology of force and action instead. That objects become the moving events and personalities visibly portrayed as the visible and sensual masks of these hidden and dynamic quantum forces at work in the world.

In fact the notion of describing an object is almost impossible according to Harman who tell us that there is no cleared transcendent space that gains a distance from entities to reveal them “as” what they are. There is no exit from the density of being, no way to stand outside the brutal play of forces and vacuum-packed entities that crowd the world. (p. 289) For Harman there are forces at play in the universe that are withdrawn beyond the purview of our physical and instrumental reason, forces that permeate objects and their relations yet irreducible to them.

In some ways Harman has done himself an injustice in labeling his an Object Oriented Ontology when it’s the invisible forces below the threshold that seem the backbone of his visible agents and personalities, his objects. That I situate myself in the Zizekian/Badiouian/Johnston with a tinge of Land/Bataille camp is not to disparage Harman and the OOO gang, who along with Harman include Ian Bogost, Levi R. Bryant, and Timothy Morton. Harman is deeply involved in a ongoing critique of Zizek which is a good thing, and helps one learn to shore up certain aspects of such a dialectical system. There are some lively debates on Harman and his epigones which is a good thing for philosophy at large. Keeps people honest and striving toward excellence in such an age old tradition. We know the tradition of the Sublime from Longinus through Burke was of a sense of greatness informed by the subterranean fires of energy bringing for a “loftiness of spirit” (Longinus).

Even Whitehead would tell us that a “moral education is impossible apart from a habitual vision of greatness”. If philosophy along with poetry can do anything else it should restore that “vision of greatness” we so desperately need in these dire times when the world seems to be sinking into apathy and moral bankruptcy. Even a vision of active nihilism, one that is both destructive of all that needs to be destroyed in thought, along with a creative and recurrent appropriation of all that is still great in our traditions should bring us back to our selves; full of that sublimity of vision that accepts the task of becoming fully awakened to what we are as humans in a world that exists on the flat plane of being still affords us. A world both real and surprising, open and incomplete awaiting those who seek to live according to the Order of things. A realm where humans are just one being among a plurality of beings, subject to the same conflicts and contradictions; yet, with one difference: we’re aware of the fact of our inexplicable and contradictory being-in-the-world.

For a materialist this is just another aspect of things to accept, a part of that dialectical interaction with the obstacles that make us realize we are set against this thing we term reality, its indifference and its unyielding force. We try to fill in the puzzle or gap between us and reality with our thoughts, our philosophies, our poetry, our literatures, our explanations; one might say, with our errors and ignorance. For Harman the realm of objects is divided up into localized chunks of space-time, and the philosopher discusses the existence on the interior of these objects not as the German Idealists did with the concepts of transcendence and critique, but rather with the object-oriented modes of sincerity and involvement.2  Harman takes his notion of sincerity from Levinas’s “sincerity of enjoyment” but adds a twist in that for him sincerity is present everywhere in the world, not just in comedy. In fact, sincerity is already the proper meaning of phenomenology’s definition of intentionality, that “all consciousness is consciousness of something.” Intentionality is already a sincerity. (GM, p. 135) The point here is that for Harman intentionality is not just a human attribute, but the bedrock of reality and objects in the world. I’ll leave you with one final lustre from Harman’s Guerilla Metaphysics that nicely sums up his stance:

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. Our dignity lies elsewhere than in some wizard-like power to see the world “as” it is. The cosmos is vast, and we are just one chemical in the lab, one species of leopard in the zoo, one atom in the haystack. We are one kind of object among others, and like the others we have our characteristic glories and defects. But this is our own problem and the problem of the objects that live near us. It makes no difference to Being itself whether humans die off or not; the axes of the world will continue their strife long after we have all succeeded in murdering each other. (p. 244)

Harman returns us to trope – to those “colors of the mind” (Angus Fletcher) that tell us that reality cannot be locked down with some staid unified descriptive science or logic, that reality is open and undefinable yet can paradoxically enter into our linguistic traces as metaphor, metonym, hyperbole, or many of the other figures of speech and intellect that make up the rhetorical and conceptual heritage of philosophy, art, literature, etc.; it is those turns of phrase and troping that are at the heart of Harman’s enterprise – a world wherein we are “one chemical in the lab, one species of leopard in the zoo, one atom in the haystack”. Allure is the gum, sincerity the active force working through intention in the world that is not bound by consciousness, yet is part of the mental fabric of things as existents. What Harman in effect is saying: let us have the poetry of existence rather than its literal death. Reality cannot be reduced to Mind, Language, or Scientific description. Reality is an open in indefinable ever-changing realm of metamorphosis within which we are but one among many entities, each impinging upon the other in a carnival of existence.

Whether one accepts this stance is another matter, and one to be argued at a future time. Either way Harman’s is a viable and thriving approach to ontology as any in our time. One may argue with him over the details, but one cannot dismiss him outright without degrading both your own philosophy and philosophy in general. If philosophy is to be more than a quaint artifact of the human project in the century to come then it will be taken up by those who accept or reject such approaches as OOO has to offer among others (i.e., base materialism, dialectical materialism, speculative materialism, neo-vitalism, new materialism, Badiou, Zizek, etc.; and, what remains of both the Analytic and Continental traditions).

Some in the sciences say philosophy is a doomed enterprise in an era where the neurosciences are doing in fact and deed what philosophy only surmised. But philosophy is not bound to any one field of endeavor, never was. Plato and Aristotle set up the first academies, and believed they were offering an education and value to their society. In our age the academy, humanistic endeavors, and philosophy in particular are coming under fire. Will they survive in a world where capital accumulation rather than the accumulation of wisdom is more important? Who know? Philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom as it was then and shall be in the future. And wisdom is an illusive enterprise, indeed; yet, one at least, I believe, is still worth pursuing if only because it helps me get on with my life, gives me that quality of thought I need to sustain my existence against the forces that would seek to command and control my mind and life. Philosophy still holds out that life of the independent and free thinker, which is part of the human heritage I hope we never lose sight of. If we do then we might truly become mindless appendages to the external systems that seek to have their way with us. That would truly be doom writ large.


 

  1. Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (p. 2). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
  2. Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (p. 255). Open Court. Kindle Edition.

6 thoughts on “Graham Harman: An Ontology of Forces and Actions

  1. Reblogged this on synthetic zero and commented:
    if only “withdrawal” pointed to what exceeds our grasps and or the enabling backgrounds/infrastructures of affordances/resistances that we manipulate, but for Heideggerians there is also the mystifications of disclosure…

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  2. My favorite article I’ve ever read on my biggest favorite of the authors in the new Object Oriented movement…which has moved on a bit, since the publication of the two books you cite (funnily enough, these are the only two books by GH that I haven’t read). I’m an Immaterialist myself, after the Zizek Studies conference in Cincinnati this year and the Immaterialism book…or maybe since I first read HP Lovecraft in the 80s…and I really applaud your fair and refreshingly unbiased and observant (yet beautifully open) approach to presenting this philosophy to others for their own judgment/enjoyment. I often have occasion to feel glum and somewhat angry at the reduction of all value in critical arguments to “who can say the thing that can most easily be called RIGHT” (which means the thing it’s most difficult to call WRONG; which means the most bottomlessly empty, undermining, cynical and belittling thing one can find to say, just so long as you’re not claiming to be “doing” anything so that nobody can call you a hypocrite). Thank you for NOT doing that, first of all, and for a piece of writing that is not only thorough and careful but lovely.

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