“Literature is about turning the pre-verbal — if not pre-linguistic — objects into verbal objects with symbolic meanings attached to them. Literature constructs a world in which the objects gain new significance.”
…..– Cengiz Erdem on May 26, 2010
“For though in nature nothing really exists besides individual bodies, performing pure individual acts according to a fixed law, yet in philosophy this very law, and the investigation, discovery, and explanation of it, is the foundation as well of knowledge as of operation. And it is this law with its clauses that I mean when I speak of forms, a name which I the rather adopt because it has grown into use and become familiar.”
……– Francis Bacon, Novum Organum: Book Two, II
This is a republish and revised edition of an earlier post on Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology. Descriptions of materialism below are of those physicalists and reductionsists, rather than of the irreductionist dialectical materialisms of Badiou or Zizek, etc. Harman’s sense of vacuous actuality and Zizek’s notion of Democritean “den” as unsutured void of the sealed atom not as solid sphere, but rather as vacuous actuality: in my estimation the two are equivalent. Both remain undetected in the Real except indirectly through their effects on the sensual phenomenon of our perceptive existence or object-object relations. The distance between Harman and Zizek is over the notion of Subject or Object as having priority rather than any notion of relation or non-relation.
At the beginning of Tool-Being Graham Harman, in a style reminiscent of some of the greatest antithetical contrarians of the past two hundred years, says: “A philosophy is not some sort of private introspective diary to which the philosopher would have unique access. It is more fruitful to regard it as an experiment, a careful process of smashing fragments of reality together so as to see what emerges from the rubble.” Let’s call this rubble philosophy The Object Smasher, and let us not forget to smash all those dead philosophers and their vainglorious diaries too, because all “of us will be truer to what was admirable” in them “if we take responsibility for our own thoughts instead of trembling deferentially” before their statues (TB: iv). 
One can imagine Harman, the Philosopher As Carpenter-Engineer, a sort of super-hero of objects with the hammer of Thor in his hands, crushing, smashing, pulverizing objects into rubble; and then, raising the protective goggles onto his forehead, the whisps of his greying hair falling down in his eyes, he begins to study the rubble of his latest experiment in object smashing, burrowing through the smashed excess of objects, watching, waiting patiently, for the emergence of something new – some indelible footprint in the sand of the Real that might mark the foundation of objects in the universe and thereby shake the very foundations of the real object itself out of the rubble and ruins of smashed tool-being.
Like one of those scientists in Geneva in search of that mythical entity – the Higg’s boson, which some have called the God particle that scientists theorize gives mass to other particles and thus to other objects and creatures in the universe, Harman excavates the rubble of philosophical thought seeking a description of the illusive real object that is based upon substantive form rather than any search for foundational particles of any kind. This real object hiding behind the façade of sensual profiles lives in vacuous actuality, a void of self-reflecting nothingness, much like that misrecognized negativity that Slavoj Zizek terms “den” after that famed materialist of Being, Democritus.
Democritus is the progenitor arrives at den (subtraction) by leaving out only me from meh’den (“not-one”) and thus creating a totally artificial word den. Den is thus not nothing without “no,” not a thing, but an othing, a something but still within the domain of nothing, like an ontological living dead, a spectral nothing-appearing-as-something. The rise of den is thus strictly homologous to that of objet a which, according to Lacan, emerges when the two lacks (of the subject and of the Other) coincide, that is, when alienation is followed by separation: den is the “indivisible remainder” of the signifying process of double negation— something like Sygne de Coûfontaine’s tic, this minimal eppur si muove which survives her utter Versagung (renunciation). The later reception of Democritus, of course, immediately “renormalized” den by way of ontologizing it: den becomes a positive One, atoms are now entities in the empty space, no longer spectral “othings”( less-than-nothings). (LTN, KL 1522-1527) Instead of the positive atoms of historical materialisms false history we should realign the ancient atomistic philosophy with its updated form of dialectical materialism’s spectral nothings, those vacuous actualities of withdrawn objects lost within the dormancy of their volcanic cores, split and violent powers at the heart of the Real. Zizek describes the Subject, saying,
“Substance is Subject” means that the split which separates Subject from Substance, from the inaccessible In-itself beyond phenomenal reality, is inherent to the Substance itself. […] The point is not that Substance (the ultimate foundation of all entities, the Absolute) is not a pre-subjective Ground but a subject, an agent of self-differentiation, which posits its otherness and then reappropriates it, and so on: “Subject” stands for the non-substantial agency of phenomenalization, appearance, “illusion,” split, finitude, Understanding, and so on, and to conceive Substance as Subject means precisely that split, phenomenalization, and so forth, are inherent to the life of the Absolute itself.3
Harman will shift this into the thing itself, describing a “Substance is Object” in which the split object separates the vacuous actuality of the voidic and volcanic real object from its sensual appendages in phenomenality. So that Harman’s real object stands for the non-substantial agency of phenomenalization, appearance, “illusion,” split, finitude, Understanding, and so on, and to conceive Substance as Object means precisely that split, phenomenalization, and so forth, are inherent to the life of the hidden world of real objects itself.
What we discover in Harman’s Object rubble is not the reduction of part to whole, no synecdoche of some totalistic complete universe of relations, but the composite non-relational system of objects themselves. And, do not say, “Oh, I’ve got you now! What of atoms?” Harman retorts that even if a time comes when we must discuss these, so to speak precious “atoms” that you hold so highly as a sign of your materialist foundation, I tell you that “these molecules are not inert specks of present-at-hand matter – they too are machines, grand totalities concocted out of sub-mechanisms perhaps still unknown” (TB: 285). Yet, if we follow Zizek, these atoms are not positive solid substance, but rather the vacuum filled nothings (“othings”) of Den. Or, as Harman might say: vacuous actualities.
What does it mean to say that physical things exist? George Berkeley one of those idealist few would remember – except as the butt of Samuel Johnson’s joke about rocks being real – pointed out that our immediate experience provides only two meanings of “to be”: to perceive (percipere) and to be perceived (percipi). Simply to be perceived, however, is not to be actual but to be merely an idea in the mind of some perceiver. Only “being a perceiver” (which for Berkeley included the notion of being an active agent) gives us a meaningful notion of what it is to be an actuality.
So how can something that we have not direct access too, that is withdrawn and away, hidden behind the surface texture of sensual profiles and qualia to be perceived? This is the central truth of Harman’s real objects: they exist in a vacuum, sealed away and withdrawn into their own solipsistic world; some even dormant awaiting their moment to be lured out of their volcanic cores, allured by some glamour from the realms of sensuous objects where it can reveal indirectly the powers of its active existence.
Returning to Berkeley who, of course, used this argument for his idealist view, according to which the physical world exists only as perceived (by divine and finite minds); but Leibniz, by positing “petite perceptions” in nature’s elementary units, showed Berkeley’s point to be compatible with realism. As Whitehead (1967a, p. 132) says, Leibniz “explained what it must be like to be an atom”. Of course neither would have thought of atoms quite like Democritus (revised by Zizek) as vacuous actualities. Yet, reading Whitehead again in Process and Reality we discover just what this object in the void is:
…the notion of vacuous actuality, which haunts realistic philosophy. The term ‘vacuous actuality’ here means the notion of a res vera devoid of subjective immediacy. This repudiation is fundamental for the organic philosophy (cf. Part II, Ch. VII, ‘The Subjectivist Principle’). The notion of ‘vacuous actuality’ is very closely allied to the notion of the ‘inherence of quality in substance.’ Both notions— in their misapplication as fundamental metaphysical categories— find their chief support in a misunderstanding of the true analysis of ‘presentational immediacy’ (cf. Part II, Ch. II, Sects. I and V).2
As we can see for Whitehead such a concept had no place in organic process philosophy. So why does Harman (and Democritus if Zizek is correct!) take this up to describe his real objects? Let us add a further clarification from Whitehead before returning the Harman’s answer:
The difficulties of all schools of modern philosophy lie in the fact that, having accepted the subjectivist principle, they continue to use philosophical categories derived from another point of view. These categories are not wrong, but they deal with abstractions unsuitable for metaphysical use. It is for this reason that the notions of the ‘extensive continuum’ and of ‘presentational immediacy’ require such careful discussion from every point of view. The notions of the ‘green leaf’ and of the ‘round ball’ are at the base of traditional metaphysics. They have generated two misconceptions: one is the concept of vacuous actuality, void of subjective experience; and the other is the concept of quality inherent in substance. In their proper character, as high abstractions, both of these notions are of the utmost pragmatic use. In fact, language has been formed chiefly to express such concepts. It is for this reason that language, in its ordinary usages, penetrates but a short distance into the principles of metaphysics. Finally, the reformed subjectivist principle must be repeated: that apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness. (PR, p. 167)
Of course like Badiou, Whitehead preferred mathematics as ontology over language (poetry, rhetoric). And as is apparent in that last statement for Whitehead only subjects have perceptions and experiences, everything else is “bare nothingness”. Yet, one of Harman’s central insights is that real objects, these bare nothings or vacuous actualities devoid of subjectivity do have perceptions. We gain a hint when Harman tells us “conscious awareness can no longer serve as one of the basic orienting poles of reality” (TB, p. 225). Instead of direct access we have access to real objects indirectly as “actuality and relation” rather than “causation and perception”. So that for Harman it is important that we not understand “vacuous” according to the terms in a thesaurus, where we might read: “ignorant, nonexistent, stupid, thoughtless, trivial, vacant.” Instead, I take “vacuous” literally, as referring to the reality of tool-beings in vacuo, apart from any accidental collision with other objects. This is not as strange as it may sound; indeed, it is not even unprecedented. (TB, p. 228) Which aligns with Zizek’s revision of Democritus’s notion of “den” as the vacuum sealed atoms which is a concept developed to counter Parmenides notion of “thought and being” as the One. For Democritus like Harman the universe of things is made of a myriad and multiplicity of objects, real objects withdraw from all relation situated in the void of their own interior packages.
As Harman will relate by divorcing real objects from any actual causal relation, he may be defining it only as a center of potentiality for other relations that might someday exist but do not yet exist. As sensible as this might sound, real objects have no potentiality at all, but rather are sheer actuality.
Yet, for Harman philosophy is in no way a positive materialism but is closer to a “new sort of ‘formalism’ with Francis Bacon its unlikely predecessor” (TB: 286). As Harman states it: “I refer not to the vulgarized Bacon of the textbooks (“Do as many experiments as possible, and use the results to try to dominate nature .. .’), but to the forgotten Bacon of Novum Organum Book II, who, incredibly, lampoons efficient causation as ridiculous. Perhaps no great philosopher of the Western tradition has been so grievously misread, and with such self-serving aims in mind” (TB: 286). Yet, the materialism Harman rejects is the schoolbook history of Democritus as the father of positive atomistic science, not the new Zizekian philosopher of the Void and vacuous actuality.
Whitehead expresses things more directly than Heidegger, telling us that an actual entity is not a durable unit that “undergoes adventures” in space and time. The reality of a being is confined to the thorough particularity of a transient moment. To give especial emphasis to this point, he often calls actual entities “actual occasions,” so as to erode any lingering connotations of a long-lasting substance. For Whitehead, what endures through time is not singular concrete things, but a community of closely related Thing-events strung along throughout the span of what appears to be a coherent individual life. (TB, p. 231) Process philosophy is based on these actual occasions of a community of events related through temporal activation.
Instead of entities such as atoms that materialists wish to reduce into their final constituent parts, who wish to discover some ultimate terminus, some end point or substantive entity, exempt from all internal composition, which would “amount to defining that entity as a sheer present-at-hand building block,” Harman explains that instead “by taking the tool-analysis to its logical extreme, we discover that no entity is irreducible, since each is a formal machinic effect of its elemental components” (TB: 286). “But”, the materialist philosopher responds, “what of those larger structures in the universe?” Harman with a twinkle in his eye shakes his head, upturning his chin and laughing in mock display of such idiocy and says, “My friend, just as we exposed the smallest of objects as machinic, diving down into that tiniest of worlds, we must also pursue objects in the opposite direction.” As Harman states it: “Not only is each thing a galaxy of parts-each thing is also a part of the galaxy known as ‘world.’ Against Heidegger’s most vehement assertions, ‘world’ and ‘being’ really are just the set of all beings! The world is indeed a colossal referential machine, just as Heidegger suggests” (TB: 286).
Again, the materialist (read: physicalist) philosopher tries a new tact, “What of this relation of objects you tout so much? Just where is it in all this dipping and ascending into the machinic details of the micro and macro structure of this universe of objects?” Harman takes a moment, pausing to reflect upon the “troubling disappearance of relationality from the rough model of the world he’s developed” then responds, saying,
“I have already contended that every object can be viewed as the effect of a composite relational system (of many pieces, many atoms). Unless we want to have recourse to physical durability as an arbitrary criterion, it follows that a causal relation between two rocks is a system that forms an entity, and that hammer plus me is also a system forming an entity (“hammer-encounter,” we might call it). As a result of all this, is there anything now missing from the world that used to be at our disposal? Yet, and it is obvious what it is: any sense of a wide-open “clearing” is now abolished.
There is no longer a brute realm of effects destined to be transcended by some starry, windy space of explicit vision. For even a perception is now a new kind of entity, so that [our] face is always pressed up against subterranean reality as against a plate-glass window; there is no longer any ontological breathing room. We never manage to rise above the massive clamor of entities, but can perhaps only burrow around within it. For the moment, the mechanisms of this process remain obscure. But we at least know what is missing. The sanctuary of the human as-structure, with its free transcendence and partly liberated vision, has been jettisoned in favor of a dense and viscous universe stuffed absolutely full with entities. In this sense there is no vacuum, although in another sense every segment of this universe is nothing if not vacuous, in the literal sense of this term” (TB: 287).
Then the process-relational materialist thinks to himself, “Ah, Harman admits it, there is a process involved, a mechanism of process between objects, and that these processes are obscure. And, yes, we both agree that this anthropocentric vision of humanism that has locked philosophy in its correlationist anti-realist realm cut off from the real has got to go. But if there is no vacuum, no space for emergence of something new, then how is change possible in this vacuousness?” Then with a puzzling lear he jibes at Harman, “Okay, explain yourself, you object smasher, you master of the vacuous and of rubble…”
Harman delighted continues telling the materialist that there is a central distinction between objects in a system and objects in a vacuum. Genuine objects withdraw even behind causal contact. But now we discover that all systems are objects, and that there “is no system which is not also an entity,” so that even one’s perception of an object is in itself an object. And, he continues, here is the crux of the matter, the “perception is a tool-being, and as such, it resides in a vacuum uncontaminated by all relation, irreducible to all later introspection.
As we have already seen, the vacuum is threatened on both sides: a) by the systematic combination of the elements that allow it to exist (in this case, the hammer and myself as components of the hammer-encounter), and b) by the experience that objectifies it in some specific way (in this case, by the later introspection). Despite this dual threat, the entity (in this case, the full hammer-encounter) manages to be just what it is, undisturbed by the storms of relation that rage both to the west and the east of it” (TB: 288).
“Ah, hah,” says the materialist, “I have you, now: if the world contains no relations, as you suggest, and is nothing but entities from the tiniest levels of existence to the largest structures in the universe then how does anything ever get done in such a world? If everything is so densely packed as you suggest, then what you are telling me is that this universe would seem to be packed with non-communicative vacuous zones, none of them able to transmit energy or influence to the others? In such a realm there would be no windows, no doors into the great outdoors, and any contact between…” the materialist utters the impossible word, “objects, and more importantly any sort of alteration in the universe would seem impossible.” (TB: 288)
Harman reflects on this a moment, thinking to himself, “Is there any way to avoid these consequences by pointing to a medium through which tool-beings might genuinely interact? How can one vacuum impart its secrets to another? And what happens, ontologically speaking, when one entity perceives another, or lightly grazes it, or outright crushes it?” He admits to himself that there can be no definitive resolutions to these questions at the moment, but only a series of provisional analyses. (TB: 288).
Studying the impetuous materialist for a moment, he continues thinking to himself, if perception and the object form a unified object in its own right, and if we try to observe myself perceiving instead of the thing I’m perceiving, the object, a gulf opens up between the two: it is only one element of the experience that emerges into perception. It is no more possible to observe ourselves exhaustively than it is to observe the object exhaustively. Instead we must admit that what is going on here if “the terminology is stripped down to the bone, is that the perceptive entity (the system of thing and me) perceives not itself, but rather the elements of which it is composed.
This would remain the case even if I attempted to perceive in mystical fashion “the oneness of all things,” since the oneness thus focused upon and the meditative act that envisions it also cannot be one and the same thing. Perception is already a descent into its own particles. The system that includes myself and the hammer burrows down into itself, decomposing itself before our eyes in spite of its necessary status as a single entity” (TB: 289).
Watching the materialist begin to fidget, he asks himself a further question: “is this odd descent of perception into its own depths something that characterizes realities other than explicit human perception? For example, let’s say that instead of openly noticing [a] hammer, a specific human is related to it in the way of merely being tacitly affected by it. In the case of this miniature system of objects as well, is it true that the entire system is in contact with its parts? … The same question ought to be posed in the case of inanimate couplings of rocks and leaves and clouds. Even in these cases, is there a sense in which every systematic unity descends into itself and makes contact with its own interior elements? To express this once more, in something resembling layman’s terms: if [objects] are by definition non-relational, how can they ever touch one another? ” (TB: 289).
At this point the materialist philosopher looks him straight in the eyes, saying, “Well, what do you have to say for yourself?”
Harman smiles, and in an expository manner, recapitulates his arguments so far, saying, “the first difficulty lies in identifying the medium through which tool-beings can truly interact. If two rocks collide, then they must collide as these rocks themselves, not as loose surface-effects. And yet rock-in-itself is defined precisely by its impenetrability to any relation. We have also seen that any such relation as that between two rocks immediately generates a new hybrid entity: say, collision-system” (TB: 290). Harman also repeats that he suggested in previous arguments, saying to this proud materialist, “there may be a way in which every system is also a descent into its own elements in spite of the fact that it ought to be every bit as hermetically sealed from its component parts as it is from external entities” (TB: 290).
The materialist claps his hands, saying: “Bravo, bravo, you open a hole in being and let all the parts vanish within the darkness of its own irresolvable materiality; bravo…”
Harman interrupts him, instigating a new set of questions, saying: “if the tool-being of each individual rock inherently lies beyond all possibility of contact with the other, is there a strange sense in which they can inflict blows on each other as parts of the collision-system rather than as individuals? Or is this only a sort of corrupt back door through which the same difficulties reenter the picture as before?”
The materialist, intrigued, urges him with a comic gesture of complicity to explicate just what he means by this. Harman delighted that the materialist is listening rather than opposing him, continues:
“In any case, we are left with the following scenario-the world as a duel of tightly interlaced objects that both aggrandize and corrode one another. As Bacon expressed… “For since every body contains in itself many forms of natures united together in a concrete state, the result is that they severally crush, depress, break, and enthrall one another, and thus the individual forms are obscured.” The movement of philosophy is less one of unveiling (which would rely on a sort of as-structure that I have argued does not really exist) than of a sort of reverse engineering.
Often, teams of industrial pirates will lock themselves in a motel room, working backward from a competitor’s finished product in an effort to unlock and replicate the code that generates it. In the case of the philosopher, the finished product that must be reverse-engineered is the world as we know it; the motel room is perhaps replaced by a lecture hall or a desert. Behind every apparently simple object or concept is an infinite legion of further objects crushing, depressing, breaking, and enthralling one another. It is these violent underground currents that one should attempt to counter, so as to unlock the infrastructure of any entity or of the world as a whole” (TB: 290).
The materialist dissatisfied with this explication retorts, “But is this not just a piece of rhetoric in the end? What have you really uncovered, unveiled within this so-to-speak ontology of objects you so highly espouse? Isn’t what your telling me that these objects demonstrate nothing more than that your prized concept of relation lies somewhere between the status of a substance and a universal network of significations? And,” he sneers, “what of that set of ambivalent currents running equally through all entities? What of this crushing, depressing, breaking, and enthralling action of things?” (TB: 290)
Harman in a quick comeback, says, “Yes, yes,” laughing uncontrollably, ” you are right of course, the isolation of entities suspended in their vacuums must be bridged, and the various facets of each of these objects must be concretely charted. The motivating force for shifting to a method of this kind lies in a resolve to end the discrepancy between our lives as professional thinkers and our lives as humans immersed in the system of objects. Rather than following still further the methodological suppositions of some currently dominant school of thought, rather than taking up some available ready-made problem and mulling it over for a decade, we ought to let the innocent fascination of the early morning hours spread over into the remainder of our mental lives. I refer to that half-awake and passive state that is dominated by the sounds of faint alarm bells, the smell of fruit outside the window, the needle-like rays of sun that begin to bore through the darkness of our rooms. (TB: 291)
The materialist confounded by this strangely evocative discourse from Harman throws up his hands in exasperation, mystified by this poetic entrancement of alarm bells, fruit, and sun rays exploding into dark rooms. Wandering toward the door, he turns back one more time to study this philosopher of rubble, this object smasher, quizzically he sees that Harman has one last thought on the tip of his meditative mind: “Okay, out with it… you, you, object smasher!”
Harman in agreement says, “To a large extent we can thank Husserl and many of his French admirers for defining these transitory moments as a worthy philosophical subject matter. And yet, what we are really immersed in, in these situations and all others, is not a web of phenomena, but a world of objects. Quite apart from my indolent pleasure while lying in bed, steam genuinely scorches the air as it eddies from the stove, electrons from the sunlight pierce my skull like bullets, floorboards buckle under compulsive mutual pressure, heavy stone walls hold out the cold but poise themselves to destroy me in the event of an earthquake.
This sort of material reality, too quickly ceded by philosophers to the natural sciences, is what awaits any successful theory of objects. And if there emerges a philosophical method to unlock the secrets of hammers, steam, paper, citrus fruit, and salt-grains, who can rule out the rapid reappearance of souls and angels in the midst of philosophic debate?” (TB: 291)
The materialist atheist looks at Harman not only with disgust, but with a certain horror in his face as he turns and runs from the room screeching like a madman who has just been told of the death of all things, god and human alike, yet who still clings to the great substrate of process and reality he calls the material world.
Harman on the other hand returns to the glass of wine he is holding in his hand, sparkling in the sun’s rays, delighted by the richness of its ambient red light, the dark contours of its liquid presence sparking in the crystal glass, reminding him of the power of objects and their strange relations. Of the transparency of crystal, and the deep textures of the wine that seem to float within their own hidden life, yet behind the contours of glass and liquid are the deeper, hidden away, real objects whose power lies folded in a void of energetic delight never making contact with the human eye that might lure it out of its vacuum. Instead like some master magician the object relates to human perception indirectly through the sensuous profiles and qualia of its active appendages and representatives, the sensuous colors and textures the eye sees. Only the effects of these moving particles of light and sparkle reveal the truth hidden deep within these two objects now forming a third, the intentional object of wine, glass, and perceptive being.
(Note: revised and republished from 2013)
- Tool-Being: Elements in a Theory of Objects by Graham Harman (TB) ( 1999 UMI Company)
- Whitehead, Alfred North (2010-05-11). Process and Reality (Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Edinburgh During the Session 1927-28) (p. 29). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
- Zizek, Slavoj. The Ticklish Subject. (Verso, 2009)