Zizek and Harman: Strange Bedfellows

explore-haunting

[I]t is not possible to clearly distinguish the inconsistencies of our notion of an object from the inconsistencies which are immanent to this object itself. The ‘thing itself’ is inconsistent, full of tensions, struggling between its different determinations, and the deployment of these tensions, this struggle, is what makes it ‘alive’.1
—Slavoj Zizek

The basic dualism in the world lies not between spirit and nature, or phenomenon and noumenon, but between things in their intimate reality and things as confronted by other things.2
—Graham Harman

The passage above brings me back to someone Zizek never mentions except in regards to Levi Paul Bryant (Democracy of Objects) and Timothy Morton (Hyperobjects) in his new book Disparities. Here is Harman on Objects:

Object-oriented philosophy has a single basic tenet: the withdrawal of objects from all perceptual and causal relations. This immediately implies a single basic problem: how do relations occur? Despite the unsoundable depth of substances, their failure to express themselves fully even in physical collisions, objects do somehow manage to interact. These relations are the very carpentry of things, the joints and glue that hold the universe together. Given that objects never seem to enter into relations, what does enter into relations? If objects cannot affect one another directly, then perhaps they do so by means of qualities. The notion of free-floating qualities, stripped away from any underlying substance, is the central theme of a group of philosophers already termed the carnal phenomenologists. Following Husserl, they recognize that the objects aimed at by intentional acts never quite become visible. Nonetheless, we do not just float through a void, pointing sadly at the ineffable: we also live in the world as in a medium, enjoying juice and sunlight, suffering and dying from epidemics. We inhabit a sensual space in which, strictly speaking, objects cannot be present. Yet there are objects everywhere, like black holes or vacuums hidden from sight. By following the tension between these two moments of human perception, it may be possible to unlock the tensions found in the universe as a whole.(20)

In another place Harman will tell us that the notion of “tensions” is central: “We already know that Husserl departs radically from traditional realism, shutting out the existence of the natural world altogether and letting phenomena rule the cosmos. But even within this limited phenomenal sphere, we encounter a classical problem of philosophy that marks a central theme of the present book: the deep-seated tension between a single object and its manifold qualities.”(29)

This sense of the drama within an object, the tension between the real and sensual, the gap opened up that brings as Zizek says of it the full gamut of “tensions, struggling between its different determinations, and the deployment of these tensions, this struggle, is what makes it ‘alive’”. Strangely Zizek and Harman are gazing at the same thing from two opposing perspectives which seem oddly aligned in a perverse tension that one should not try to resolve, but rather hold onto and continue to keep hold of the gap between them while at the same time seeing in their diverse vision something akin to weird realism and materialism upon the same event.

Zizek prioritizes physics over biology and the neurosciences as a philosopher. For him the central motif of ontological dualism that is central to his dialectical materialism is derived by way of analogy to the quantum notion of decoherence:

to look at the precise ontological duality at work in decoherence, a duality totally foreign to classical metaphysical dualities (the sphere of Ideas in contrast to the ‘lower’ sphere of material objects, the sphere of actual life experience in contrast to the illusions it generates, etc.). Decoherence refers to the so-called collapse of the quantum field of oscillations, to the passage from quantum universe defined by the superposition of states (a superposition which forms a coherent multiplicity) to classic ‘realist’ universe composed of self-identical objects. In this passage, a radical simplification occurs: the coherent mulplicity of superposed states ‘decoheres’, one option is cut off from the continuum of others and posited as a single reality. (ibid. KL 1042)

This is where Zizek without realizing it comes close to Harman’s notion of withdrawal, applying the notion of subtractive act rather than Harman’s term ‘withdrawal’:

The paradox (for the metaphysical tradition) is here that our ordinary stable reality emerges as the result of the subtractive act (decoherence) out of the fluid quantum oscillations. (ibid. KL 1055)

In other words the objects in our universe come out of quantum flux by way of a separation that is at once a subtractive act and a withdrawal into singularities. So that our external universe is a fully deployed realm of objects withdrawn from each other, and yet as we learn there is a split within the objects themselves into real and sensual, invisible force and sensual appendage. What we perceive is the free-floating qualities used by the invisible forces of the objects much like dark matter and dark energy interact with the visible universe.

Obviously one can take this support of quantum physics only so far by way of analogy, and both Harman on Zizek use it sparingly realizing the pitfalls of such a path or methodology of linking disparities. In fact both thinkers pit the disparities and tensions among thought forms, both linguistic/descriptive and matheme/symbolic in a struggle without end. As Zizek will state it:

In our standard metaphysical (and commonsense) tradition, the primal reality is firm actual objects which are then surrounded by the aura of virtual waves that emanate from them. With regard to the distinction between subjective and objective, actual real things exist ‘objectively’, while virtual oscillations arise from their subjective (mis)perception. What ‘objectively’ exists in the quantum universe is, on the contrary, only wave oscillations, and it is the subject’s interventions which transforms them into a single objective reality. In other words, what causes the decoherence of these oscillations, what constitutes objective reality, is the subjective gesture of a simplifying decision (measurement). (ibid. KL 1056)

In other words the difference that makes a difference is the determination of perception whether of Zizek’s Subject or Harman’s Object, both agreeing that what constitutes an interaction between two objects is the mediation in-between; or, what both will refer to as the ‘vanishing mediator’. The point being that objects never directly act on each other, but only through a medium. When we look out on the world what we see is the medium, the sensual world of qualities: light, sun, water, mist, fog, heat waves, clashing gongs of sensual reality. We never perceive the underlying structures and forces supporting the sensual war of elements around us. And, yet, the structure is not of the Classical Aristotelian kind either. Not some substantial realm of Ideas, etc. (in the Platonic sense). As Zizek states it:

What this presupposes is a minimal gap between things in their immediate brute proto-reality and the registration of this reality in some medium (of the big Other): the second is in a delay with regard to the first. The agency which registers the collapse of the wave function is not in any sense ‘creating’ the observed reality, it is registering an outcome which remains fully contingent. Furthermore, the whole point of quantum physics is that many things go on before registration: in this shadowy space, ‘normal’ laws of nature are continuously suspended – how? Imagine that you have to take a flight on day x to pick up a fortune the next day, but do not have the money to buy the ticket; but then you discover that the accounting system of the airline is such that if you wire the ticket payment within twenty-four hours of arrival at your destination, no one will ever know it was not paid prior to departure. (KL 1061)

So in the above Zizek is stating that there is a brute dualism in our Universe that is imprinted on the very medium of our sensual objects of perception, and that such is registered through external processes that do not (as in Kant and anti-realists) construct or create the observed reality but rather register it retroactively while accepting the contingency of all events (i.e., they could have turned out otherwise).

What’s interesting and funny at the same time is Zizek comes close to Harman’s notion of Vicarious Causlity and the Occasionalist forerunners when he says:

What this presupposes is a minimal gap between things in their immediate brute reality and the registration of this reality in some medium (of the big Other): one can cheat insofar as the second is in a delay with regard to the first. The theological implications of this gap between the virtual proto-reality and the fully constituted one are of special interest. Insofar as ‘god’ is the agent who creates things by way of observing them, the quantum indeterminacy compels us to posit a god who is omnipotent, but not omniscient: ‘If God collapses the wave functions of large things to reality by His observation, quantum experiments indicate that He is not observing the small.’ (KL 1078)

Occasionalism  brought to the fore the problem of causality between things and operations or acts. Philosophers have long wondered about the nature of causality. Are there true causes at work in the world, and, if so, what makes them the causes they are? How do causes bring things about, and what kind of connection does a cause have to its effect? These questions took on another level of complexity when various religious and theological considerations were brought to bear on these issues. For instance, philosophers came to question how divine causal activity is to be understood, particularly, in relation to the natural causality of creatures. It is from this context, in which questions about the nature of causation intermixed with questions about the relation between divine and natural causality, that occasionalism emerged. Occasionalism attempts to address these questions by presenting as its core thesis the claim that God is the one and only true cause. In the words of the most famous occasionalist of the Western philosophical tradition, Nicolas Malebranche, “there is only one true cause because there is only one true God; …the nature or power of each thing is nothing but the will of God; … all natural causes are not true causes but only occasional causes” (OCM II, 312 / Search 448) As the Stanford article relates:

A full-blown occasionalist, then, might be described as one who subscribes to the following two tenets: (1) the positive thesis that God is the only genuine cause; (2) the negative thesis that no creaturely cause is a genuine cause but at most an occasional cause. Not all philosophers who have been identified as occasionalists, however, were full-blown occasionalists in this sense, since some argued that only a limited subset of creatures lack causal powers, and thus affirmed the causal efficacy of other creatures. In addition to this issue of the scope of occasionalism, we will, in the following sections, examine how these core theses of occasionalism address the issues aforementioned and what arguments are presented in their favor. 3

Harman would secularize this notion and subtract divine intervention from the equation. Levi’s article on Larval Subjects is probably one of the best expositions of Graham’s notion of Vicarious Causation (pdf). Levi will tell us that there are three characteristics of this notion: it is vicarious, asymmetrical, and buffered. By vicarious as Levi states it after Harman What he means by vicarious is that no entity directly interacts with or encounters another entity. As Graham writes, “I [speak] of vicarious causation. A vicar is the earthly representative of something that need not act in person. But the same must be true of causation itself” (48).  By asymmetrical Levi remarks “if it is true that objects only ever relate to sensual vicars and never directly with other real objects, then this no longer holds true. This for two reasons. First, because sensual objects only exist on the interior of a real object, when one real object affects another real object through the intermediary of a sensual vicar, it doesn’t follow that the affecting real object will be affected in its turn. Second, it does not follow that the affected object will be affected according to the nature of the affecting object. Harman writes, “…I claim that even the initial contact between two entities is only the contact of a real entity with a translated or phenomenal one” (50). What the object relates to is not the other real object, but rather the sensual object that exists in the interior of the affected object.” And,  Levi relates the third characteristic of vicarious causation is that it is buffered. As Harman writes, “[w]hat I mean is that things can be in contact with something else without being fully in contact with them, just as the philosopher loves wisdom without fully possessing it” (50 – 51).

As Zizek in his comic stance on occasionalism and vicarious causation from his atheist reasoning tells it:

The ontological cheating with virtual particles (an electron can create a proton and thereby violate the principle of constant energy, on condition that it reabsorbs it before its environs ‘take note’ of the discrepancy) is a way to cheat god himself, the ultimate agency of taking note of everything that goes on: god himself doesn’t control the quantum processes, therein resides the atheist lesson of quantum physics. Einstein was right with his famous claim ‘God doesn’t cheat’ – what he forgot to add is that god himself can be cheated. Insofar as the materialist thesis is that ‘God is unconscious’ (God doesn’t know), quantum physics effectively is materialist: there are microprocesses (quantum oscillations) which are not registered by the God-system. And insofar as God is one of the names of the big Other, we can see in what sense one cannot simply get rid of god (big Other) and develop an ontology without big Other: god is an illusion, but a necessary one. (KL 1084)

Strangely this aligns with R. Scott Bakker’s notion of Blind Brain Theory but on a Cosmic Scale of lunacy. The notion that this Big Other, the God or Symbolic Order is Blind to his/its own machinations and processes (disturbingly similar to the Blind God of the Gnostics, too.). But as Zizek will point out God is but a name for our objective Symbolic Order (Big Other).

On a final note we’ll let Zizek conclude:

The theory of decoherence is an attempt to explain the collapse of a wave function, that is, the passage from the netherworld of quantum oscillations to our ordinary reality, in an immanent way. The role of external observer in the theory of decoherence is therefore ambiguous, and therein resides its strength. Its basic claim is that decoherence (collapse of the wave oscillations) occurs only at the ‘higher’ macroscopic level, being registered by an observer – at the quantum level, nothing changes, coherence remains. This, however, in no way implies that we have to presuppose an external observer in whose eyes (in whose registering mechanism) decoherence occurs. One is almost tempted to claim that theorists of decoherence apply a new version of the old dialectical-materialist law of the passage of quantity into a new quality: when quantum interaction reaches a certain quantity, wave function collapses since the object in a way begins to ‘observe itself.’ Therein resides the strength of decoherence theory: it endeavours to articulate the purely immanent way a quantum process engenders the mechanism of its ‘observation’ (registration). Does it succeed? It is up to the science itself to provide an answer. (KL 1090)

It’s in this gap between wave and particle, coherence and decoherence that the oscillating tensions of Zizek’s and Harman’s philosophies touch base, collide and make contact. The duality between the symmetrical quantum level of pre-ontological chaos, and the asymmetrical realm of sensual appearance. And, as Harman will remark (relating to the epigraph I used at the beginning):

With this single conceptual step, metaphysics is freed from its recent pariah status in philosophy—supplanting all phenomenologies, hermeneutic circles, textual disseminations, linguistic turns, and other philosophies of access, and thereby regaining something of its former status as queen of the sciences. There is no question here of reviving the old style of metaphysics of presence criticized so vehemently by Heidegger, Derrida, and their various heirs. After all, the implication of the tool-analysis is that objects never become present—not even by means of some sort of gradual, asymptotic approach. All that really needs to be abandoned in the Heideggerian position is his unspoken assumption that the gap between Dasein and the world is the sole philosophically significant rift, the single chasm across which all of the problems of philosophy unfold. This assumption stems most directly from Husserl’s rejection of all naturalism, but is ultimately grounded in the Copernican Revolution of Kant. However, if we push the tool-analysis to its limit, we actually find that all relations in the cosmos, whether it be the perceptual clearing between humans and world, the corrosive effect of acid on limestone, or a slap-fight between orangutans in Borneo, are on precisely the same philosophical footing. (74-75)

In this sense both Zizek and Harman are moving philosophy back into the ‘things-themselves’, where everything is on the same footing and no one stance or observer (Big Other/Master Signifier) reigns.


  1. Slavoj Žižek. Disparities (Kindle Locations 998-1000). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  2. Harman, Graham. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things. Open Court. Kindle Edition.
  3. Lee, Sukjae, “Occasionalism“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

The Object Smasher; or, the Philosophy of Rubble

“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). [1]

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)


 

  1.  Tool-Being: Elements in a Theory of Objects by Graham Harman (TB) ( 1999 UMI Company)
  2. 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.
  3. Zizek, Slavoj. The Ticklish Subject. (Verso, 2009)

 

Graham Harman: An Ontology of Forces and Actions

quantum-jpg

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!”

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McKenzie Wark on Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects

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Noticed McKenzie Wark’s review (or should we say, series of notes) under Letters in Public Seminar section of Arts and Design: From OOO to P(OO). Wark’s work is usually succinct and pungent, informed by a Marxian vision that one can take or leave. From his early Hacker Manifesto with its formalist nod; to Gamer Theory that reads more like an instruction manual for the nerd in us all; to his inner history of the Situationist movement spanning the secret nerve center of our late modernity Wark leads us through the ruins of our belated era like a pilot without a rudder seeking the epistemological nuggets of some forgotten vein of truth rather than gold. Learned and observant, Wark appraises without a calculated estimation; targets but leaves us with the circumspect and peripheral rather than the bulls eye. For all that his mind is sprightly and gracious to a point, giving us the survey if not the details of the land and map; at once loquacious and insightful he opens a thought without finally closing it down.

In his review (letter?) of Timothy Morton’s Hyperorbjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minnesota, 2013) he tells us he has some problems with it as theory and will try his best to outline where his own thinking and Morton’s “overlap and diverge”. I’m not going to reiterate the long rambling notations of his critique in this post, but rather highlight certain points.

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Tom Sparrow: On Graham Harman and Object-Oriented Ontology

HarmanPhoto

Returning once again to Tom Sparrow’s book on the various new realisms abroad in the philosophical scene we discover him in chapter four introducing us to Graham Harman and his brand of Speculative Realism termed Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO). Harman early own was indebted to both Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger and their respective approaches to phenomenology. Yet, Harman would find problems with this tradition of what he termed the “philosophy of access”. As Sparrow describes it “phenomenology is, in Harman’s eyes, metaphysically limited because it effectively holds that the totality of what exists is identical to the totality of what appears to human consciousness”.1 Sparrow reminds us that Harman’s method of “reading phenomenology for unexpected clues to the hidden lives of objects” is not without complications and attendant metaphysical puzzles.2

Sparrow touches base with those specific phenomenologists that have left their mark on Harman’s thought. He begins with the work of Husserl who out of his apprenticeship to Franz Brentano developed the phenomenology and ultimately the methodology of phenomenological description that yields ideal species, involving what Husserl would later (notably in Ideas) call the “eidetic reduction”.  Husserl developed the method of epoché or “bracketing” around 1906. It may be regarded as a radicalization of the methodological constraint, already to be found in Logical Investigations, that any phenomenological description proper is to be performed from a first person point of view, so as to ensure that the respective item is described exactly as is experienced, or intended, by the subject. This deep-structure of intentional consciousness of the subject comes to light in the course of what Husserl calls the “phenomenological reduction” (Husserliana, vol. XIII, pp. 432 ff), which uses the mentioned method of epoché in order to make coherent sense, in terms of the essential horizon-structure of consciousness, of the transcendence of objective reality. The most global form of epoché is employed when this reality in total is bracketed. There is still something left at this point, though, which must not, and cannot, be bracketed: the temporal flow of one’s “present” experience, constituted by current retentions and original impressions.

As Sparrow tells us what Husserl discovered is that intentionality does not aim at qualities; it aims at objects. Even when someone investigates an object from a series of angles that yields countless disparate profiles (even drastically disparate, as in the case of a subway system or funhouse), he always take those profiles to be perspectives on the same object.3 The point being that the subject intends a specific substantial form or object rather than – as in empiricism, a bundle of impressions or qualities. For Husserl empiricism was the enemy for which phenomenology was the solution. As Sparrow demonstrates what makes Husserl an Idealist is his acknowledgement that what intentionality aims at throughout any series of profiles is not a real object located in the physical world. Rather it is an “ideal unity” or unifying form that binds all the qualities of the object together into a substantial form that is “immanent to consciousness”; a product constituted within intentionality.4 The point is that Husserl still held onto the need for the mind/world correlation in which the object was not mind independent but was immanent to consciousness of the human observer. For Harman it is the opposite: there is no need for the human or consciousness for the simple reason that all objects, humans included are real. It has nothing to do with some form of immanence conscious or otherwise.

What Harman takes from Husserl’s intentional methodology is the notion that intentions are not just something enacted by humans. Intentionality comes to figure as the very core structure of an object.5 This is where Harman will define the object as a unit: the object is not a solid, hard thing, but a thing that has a unified reality that is not exhausted by any relation to it, so that the intention as a whole is one thing.6 For Harman intentionality has two separate functions: 1) an “adhesive function”, that brings subject and object together to form a cohesive unity capable of being analyzed as such; and, 2) a “selective function”, intentionality applies a distinctive specificity when brining a subject and object together, as well as it works to draw out objects from the background of the perceptual environment.7

Husserl gave the uncanny feeling that we could have direct access to objects, or as Sparrow tells us he “makes it seem like we live among real objects”. But Harman will show this to be an illusion and that instead what we access is not the real object but profiles of objects, in what Harman calls “a strange medium located somewhere between substances and qualities, unable to touch either of them.”8 Sparrow speaking of Harman’s project says

Harman’s entire project is by his own admission an attempt to radicalize two paradoxes of intentional existence. First, within an intentional act subject and object are fused together in a single relation while still remaining separate from each other and the other objects in their vicinity. Second, any intentional object bears within it a tension between its unified core and its sensuous surface.9

Harman would discover in Husserl’s work the notion of a split object, of a separation between the real inner core and its sensual appendages or features. Harman presents us with an eliminative realism in the sense that a sensual object’s essence is never revealed to any spectator but might be attained by “subtracting [all of its] adumbrations” through the intellectual exercise that Husserl calls “eidetic variation.”10 The difference between Harman and Husserl comes down to his belief that the reality of objects is something that is closed off from both the senses and the intuitive intellect. They are not immanent to intentionality or necessarily correlated with human consciousness, which can only cut them down to human size.11 For Harman a full-fledged realism must give an account of interobject encounters and causal interaction when no humans are around as witnesses.12

… in the next part I’ll take up Harman’s relation to Heidegger as Sparrow interprets it.

1. Sparrow, Tom (2014-06-30). The End of Phenomenology: Metaphysics and the New Realism (Speculative Realism EUP) (Kindle Locations 2563-2564). Edinburgh University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. ibid. (KL 2585-3586)
3. ibid. (KL 2606-2608)
4. ibid. (KL 2611-2613)
5. ibid. (KL 2629-2630)
6. ibid. (KL 2633-2634)
7. ibid. (KL 2648-2649)
8. ibid. (KL 2656-2657)
9. ibid. (KL 2665-2668)
10. ibid. (KL 2680-2682)
11. ibid. (KL 2695-2697)
12. ibid. (KL 2727-2728)

Levi R. Bryant: Powers, Dispositions and the Analytical Debate

Meaning depends on rules governing use. To say what an expression means is to say what criteria govern its application across all the contexts in which it can be applied.

the late George Molnar. Powers: A Study in Metaphysics

In analytical circles the very notion of disposition is controversial, much less trying to define just what it is. Instead we might ask: What do powers and dispositions do?

Continuing my reading of Levi R. Bryant’s new book Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media under the heading “Machines Are Split Between their Powers and Products” he makes the assertion that the “being of a machine is defined not by its qualities or properties, but rather by the operations of which it is capable” (40).1 First we need to return to what Levi means by “operations”. What Levi is trying to do is move the ball out of the older ontological perspective of subject/object debates. When we think of objects we automatically infer that there must be a relation to a subject and vice versa. But is this true? It may or may not be, but that’s Levi’s point, metaphysics has a history of debating this from every angle to the point that any further debate seems futile. So instead of continuing the debate Levi has changed the terms of the debate from one of subject and objects to the notion of units and operations, or machines and their input/outputs, etc. Relying on Ian Bogost’s articulation of the notion of an operation who defined “…an operation is a basic process that takes one or more inputs and performs a transformation on it”2. Bogost explicating this in a previous book:

I use the term operation very generally, covering not only this traditional understanding but also many more. Brewing tea is an operation. Steering a car to avoid a pedestrian is an operation. Falling in love is an operation. Operations can be mechanical, such as adjusting the position of an airplane flap; they can be tactical, such as sending a regiment of troops into battle; or they can be discursive, such as interviewing for a job. A material and conceptual logic always rules operations. In their general form, the two logics that interest the present study are the logic of units and the logic of systems. In the language of Heidegger, unit operations are creative, whereas system operations are static. In the language of software engineering, unit operations are procedural, whereas system operations are structured.3

For Levi its this sense of a procedural rather than a structural operation that counts for the actions of machines as they provide outputs or receive inputs. So that instead of an ontology based on a structural descriptive approach we get one based on the pragmatic performance of the operations of machines and processing entities that provide inputs and outputs according to the dictates of particular powers and dispositions.

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Levi R. Bryant: Machines, Materialism and Onto-Cartography

Everywhere it is machines – real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections.

– Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

Levi R. Bryant in his new book Onto-Cartography nods toward Deleuze and Guattari reminding us that in Anti-Oedipus they’d recognized or contended that Freud’s great discovery was the “productive unconscious or unconscious as a factory” (40).1 Levi agrees with them that against Freud’s later investment in Oedipus and the theatre of representation that the unconscious is instead a factory for producing desires, that production not expression, operation not representation, is at the heart of the system we term the unconscious. “Machines do not express, represent, and do not constitute a theatre.” Levi tells us. “Rather, all machines are factories producing outputs through their operations.” (40)

Levi in his book on Deleuze Difference and Givenness – Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence once recommended that to understand Deleuze meant adopting his methodology, a methodology which began with problems rather than thesis to be expounded or expressed. Levi also recommended that in approaching the work of Deleuze that we not get bogged down in any specific set of concepts concerning the problems he grappled with such as him being against representation, established morality, recognition, the State, and so on, ad nauseam. Bryant affirms that taking up the stance of being against something: representation, established morality, etc. is ultimately self-defeating. It is to take up a normative stance which is contrary to Deleuze’s philosophical divagations. Instead Deleuze faces problems to which his philosophy is either a solution or a partial answer, and that his thought responds to a philosophical situation (Badiou) “characterized by the primacy of identity and representation as the common sense or historical a priori within which he finds himself” (DG, 5). Yet, as Levi, stipulates we must not stop there, nor assume that Deleuze thought that the problem was either identity or representation. No. Instead, Deleuze against his more romantically inclined followers sees no issue with representation, identity, and recognition per se; no, these for Deleuze were real phenomena and worthy of investigation. What Deleuze was against was the notion of reducing these concepts to metaphysical or epistemological primitives. For Deleuze argued that when these concepts are reduced in this fashion philosophy falls into indissoluble problems, so Deleuze’s philosophy of the problem was to develop a system that would allow the wary philosopher to navigate through or beyond these insoluble problems and discover alternative lines of flight and thought. (DG, 5)

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Notes on Levi R. Bryant’s Onto-Cartography: Chapter One

Young Man: In this process of “working up to the matter” is it your idea to work up to the proposition that man and a machine are about the same thing, and that there is no personal merit in the performance of either?

Old Man: Yes—but do not be offended; I am meaning no offense.

– from Mark Twain,  What is Man?

Mark Twain lived in a deterministic universe. For him the environment ruled all, external influences controlled, directed, and commanded both human and inhuman agencies from end to end. He might also be the progenitor of what my friend R. Scott Bakker terms the Blind Brain Theory:

Young Man: Oh, come! Where did I get my opinion that this which you are talking is all foolishness?

Old Man: It is a quite natural opinion—indeed an inevitable opinion—but you did not create the materials out of which it is formed. They are odds and ends of thoughts, impressions, feelings, gathered unconsciously from a thousand books, a thousand conversations, and from streams of thought and feeling which have flowed down into your heart and brain out of the hearts and brains of centuries of ancestors. Personally you did not create even the smallest microscopic fragment of the materials out of which your opinion is made; and personally you cannot claim even the slender merit of putting the borrowed materials together. That was done automatically—by your mental machinery, in strict accordance with the law of that machinery’s construction. And you not only did not make that machinery yourself, but you have not even any command over it.1

For Twain the presumption of free will was erroneous, a belief that would fall away one day.  We are the end product of the brain’s ongoing processes, temporary agents or functions in a never-ending cycle of environment testing. We are blind to the very processes of choice and decision that control our lives. We are in fact according to Twain nothing more than mere automata – biological machines built by natural selection over the course of history. The young man of the tale argues that we are free and willing creatures. But the old man says: “I am sorry, but you see, yourself, that your mind is merely a machine, nothing more. You have no command over it, it has no command over itself—it is worked solely from the outside. That is the law of its make; it is the law of all machines.”

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Levi R. Bryant: First Impressions on Onto-Cartography

Onto-cartography is the investigation of structural couplings between machines and how they modify the becoming, activities, movements, and ways in which the coupled machines relate to the world about them. It is a mapping of these couplings between machines and their vectors of becoming, movement, and activity.

– Levi R. Bryant, Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media

I have barely even begun to delve into Levi’s new work but already I’m pleased with the way he is approaching his investment in materialism. There is an opening preface by Graham Harman that introduces Levi’s previous and current work and situates it within Speculative Realism. Harman is generous with his praise telling us that Onto-Cartagraphy “is not only a thought-provoking and erudite book, but also a thoroughly enjoyable one”.1 I concur so far I’m impressed with Levi’s keen sense of materialism’s many traditions and how he differentiates the subtitles and nuances of these various forms. One thing he does right off the bat is to let the reader in on his own philosophical conversion. Levi like many of us had been weaned on twentieth-century Continental philosophy or as many term it the ‘Linguistic Turn’. Levi had gone the full gamut and become convinced that the socio-cultural or discursive materialism arising out of this era was the only way to go. Yet, something happened.

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Speculations on the End of Time: Gratton, Harman, Barbour

The primary dualism in the world is not between matter and mind, but between objects and relations, and most relations will be unrecognizable as anything mental, just as objects turn out not to resemble what is usually called the physical.

– Graham Harman, Time, Space, Essence, Eidos

Harman’s work must deny the reality of time in order to make his own claims for a certain realism…

– Peter Gratton, Post-Deconstructive Realism It’s about Time

I suggest that our belief in time and a past arises solely because our entire experience comes to us through the medium of static arrangements of matter, in Nows, that create the appearance of time and change. Tensors relate different things and bring them into lawful connection.

– Julian Barbour, The End of Time

Recently Peter Gratton’s essay in Speculations IV (which I’ve already written of here) reminded me of Julian Barbour’s book The End of Time which I’d read a few years back and found some interesting parallel’s on the theory of Time within a metaphysics of presence. What you see below is just bringing out the comparisons, this is not a defense of Harman, Gratton, Barbour or anyone else. Time is a philosophical bombshell, and not a notions that has a perfect solution: at least, not yet, in my honest opinion.  Time is still one of the grand mysteries for science and philosophy, along with ideas on causality, and we need to be open to the strange and unfounded speculations even if they appear at first as counter-intuitive or against the grain of one’s common sense experience. Even Einstein’s conceptions on relativity were not accepted outright, but were debated for years before becoming central to physics. What I show below is just such a comparison between a working scientist, Julian Barbour (quantum gravity theorist), and the speculative philosophy of Graham Harman. To draw comparisons is not to defend either side of the coin. Quantum Gravity Theory is not even the most accepted theory in physics: that being String Theory at present. But all these ideas are hotly debated with no perfect solution. It is to tease out speculative thought and see things differently from our usual habitual modes of thinking. My attitude toward philosophy is to keep an open mind, to take off my ideological blinkers, my philosophical presuppositions, and let the philosopher bare his or her conceptual framework without some ultimate judgment. Judgment is for critique, not commentary. What I try my best to do on this site is commentary rather than critique. You’ll find plenty of critique on a thousand other blogs.  Time is a hobby for me, so I find things interesting in crossovers between systems, even if those systems are true or not true, its the strangeness of the ideas that fascinates. In fact Graham can and will defend his own position in a new book from a comment on this post and on Gratton’s conceptions: here.

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Peter ultimately critiqued both Meillassoux and Graham Harman as metaphyscians of presence: philosophers for whom time is the cosmic illusion (my post on this: here). Harman considers himself a substantial formalist. In an early essay Time, Space, Essence, Eidos he lays out most of the themes that have from the beginning haunted his discourse on Objects and the fourfold tensions between real objects and real qualities, and sensual objects and sensual qualities. Every time I begin thinking about Harman’s system I want to pull out my nephew’s tinker set and start building objects in patterns that will somehow match his diagrammatic imagination.  Peter Gratton in his essay he remarks in otherwise frank terms tells us that neither Meillassoux or Harman believe in Time:

Meillassoux and Harman mark a return to the real that is anything but, as long as they treat the time of becoming as epiphenomenal, and thus deny the reality of time however aporetic it is, as we well know—at the beating hearts of thinkers they too quickly disparage while ignoring what were their central insights.

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Post-Nihilistic Practice: Levi R. Bryant and Arran James

Both Arran James’s ideas on post-nihilistic practice and Levi R. Bryant’s Axioms of a Dark Ontology and …Some further Axioms have some interesting and suggestive ideas. What Levi presents is the Lucretian heritage that we see within modern reductionary naturalism with some modifications and extensions from critiques of this heritage as seen within Levi’s own philosophical project. His work starts with the basic dictum that “There is no meaning to existence or anything in the universe. Life is an accident and has no divine significance (though it’s obviously important to the living).”

Since this is from the first axiom and underpins every other axiom as a sort of figure/ground of the system, then it is here that the system either frees up or fails to meet the criteria of the system as a whole. The stipulation is that there is no meaning in existence nor is there any meaning in anything in the universe. Why not shorten this to the simpler: “There is no meaning.” Period. Why the need to constrain it to “existence” and the “universe”. To do so is to imply that existence or the universe in themselves are already implicated in certain human meanings that we must free ourselves from in order to accept this criteria. Meaning already implies “sense, import, and intent”. Which in itself already implies either a subjective or objective awareness or intelligence to provide such intentionality. So to say that that meaning doesn’t exist automatically refuses consciousness, awareness, or intentionality its qualification as an arbiter for judging the meaning or non-meaning of existence or the universe. Removing human judgment from the equation also eliminates any “sense” of meaning, aesthetic or otherwise, from the equation.

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Graham Harman: Allure is the Engine of Creation for Objects

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?)

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