In the latest HKRB Interviews, Grant Hamilton discusses the provocative nature of objects with Graham Harman.
Since 2009, Graham Harman has published at least one book a year. The engine of such production has been a tireless exposition and defence of Harman’s own object-oriented philosophy – a philosophy that encourages one to think again about objects and their relation(ship) to the human world. While Harman’s ideas have proved to be nothing short of schismatic to philosophy departments up and down the land, those same ideas have become important waypoints in conversations held outside of such departments. Harman’s ideas are now frequently discussed by literary critics, by architects, and fine artists (amongst others). Given this transdisciplinary interest, one might rightly make the claim that Harman is one of the most discussed contemporary writers and thinkers today.
Graham Harman, Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (Penguin, 2018), 336pp.
Grant Hamilton: I think you would agree that your Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) is regarded as something of a provocation in the corridors of most philosophy departments today. But why do you think it has had such a polarized reception? Even those who are casually interested in such things cannot have missed the sometimes vitriolic exchanges between those who seem truly enthused by your attempt to refocus critical attention on objects and those who seem profoundly offended by such. What is it about objects, do you think, that divides the critics so?
Graham Harman: Perhaps it is best to begin by explaining to your readers what OOO means by “object.” When most people hear this word, they think of a medium-sized inanimate physical object. One of the things this definition obviously excludes is human beings: to “treat someone like an object” is considered the ultimate form of abuse. Instead, we are supposed to treat them as a dignified “subject,” as human beings deserve. Modern philosophy begins with René Descartes, whose own terminology is slightly different from the one just described, but who can fairly be called responsible for the distinction between two realms of reality: res cogitans and res extensa, or roughly, the mental and the physical. Descartes actually recognized a third sort of reality: God. But the intellectual atmosphere of modernity is so secularized that most readers of philosophy are not interested in hearing about God, and thus we are left with the physical and the mental. There are constant questions as to how we can build a bridge between these two different zones, as well as a number of contrarians who deny that there is any need to build a bridge because the two are somehow already connected.
But these contrarians are not as interesting as they seem, because as a rule they accept the basic terms of modern philosophy: thought on one side, reality on the other. The philosopher Maurice-Merleau Ponty and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (who are both great for other reasons) get too much credit for saying “it is not just humans who look at the world, the world also looks back at us!” When you think about it, this is actually not much of an innovation at all. Why are “humans” and “world” considered the two basic kinds of things that can look at each other? For one thing, animals are left completely out of this picture, as always seems to happen with modern philosophy, which is so committed to mind vs. body that it can’t really fit animals neatly into either category. But even more importantly, the various parts of the world interact with each other as well. This need not require a mind or a soul or even sense organs, but philosophy needs to consider what happens when two parts of the world interact with no humans on the scene to witness it. This is where people start becoming nervous or angry, because it is generally thought that science already takes care of object-object interactions, and philosophy is only needed when we are talking about humans somehow observing or interacting with the world. This is the trap in which all modern philosophy is stuck, and the same for so-called “postmodern” philosophy, which is really just a less lucid, more jargon-laden form of modernism. We need something completely different.
What makes philosophy different from all other fields is the vast scope of its subject matter. Physics deals only with nature, not with politico-economic forces or cartoon characters; philosophy is concerned with all of these. Economics has no business discussing the physical interaction of comets beyond the orbit of Pluto, but philosophy well might. OOO uses the term “object” to refer to everything in the cosmos, real or imaginary, including human beings. This extremely broad use of the term is not our own invention, but is drawn from the Austrian school of philosophy of Franz Brentano and his great circle of students: Alexius Meinong, Kazimierz Twardowski, Edmund Husserl, and others. The difference is that all of these figures remained within the modern standpoint, meaning that they were interested in what happens when a human mind refers to objects, not about the interaction of objects apart from human discussion or awareness of it.
On this basis, we can say that critics of OOO are bothered by several different things. First, there are those who live or die with the central philosophical status of human beings, especially those who want human politics to be the center of the universe. The worst example of this was Alexander Galloway, who has said things like “OOO treats humans as equal to garbage!” Not really. Humans and garbage are both “objects” only in the sense that both belong to the universe and need to be accounted for by philosophy. It does not follow that garbage deserves political and legal rights of the same sort as humans do. Human beings do not need to be philosophically unique in order to be politically and legally unique; that is a separate issue altogether.
Second, there are those who find it outrageous to consider object-object relations on the same level as human-object relations. The criticism comes from both sides of the modern division of labor, according to which natural scientists primarily deal with the inanimate world and social scientists/humanities scholars deal with the human sphere. There are critics in the natural sciences who think philosophers have nothing useful to add about inanimate reality, and are worried that we must be trying to claim that rocks and dust have minds. And we also have our critics on the social sciences/humanities side, who do not think it is conceptually rigorous to leap outside human knowledge and claim to speak about the world as it really is. But OOO simply does not accept the modern division of labor: the philosopher must fashion non-modern tools and attempt to speak about everything that is.
It should be added here that OOO is not exactly the first to try this. The great English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who flourished especially in the 1920s, also insisted that all relations are on the same footing, whether it be human perceptions of the world or the collision of stones in distant outer space. This was Whitehead’s non-modern (not anti-modern) turn. Then there is the contemporary French thinker Bruno Latour, who coined the term “non-modern,” and has picked up on Whitehead’s insight. Where OOO differs from both Whitehead and Latour is that they tend to think of objects as being nothing more than their relations with other objects, which is why Latour prefers to call them “actors.” For OOO, objects are never fully expressed in their relations or actions; objects are a kind of dark surplus, one to which we can only allude indirectly rather than capturing them entirely in clear prose propositions. And here we run up against another group of OOO’s enemies: ultra-rationalists who don’t like this poetic side of our thinking.
Hamilton: This leads me to think about the position of OOO in relation to other modes of critique. Do you think that OOO offers the most convincing way of reading the world today, or would you prefer critics to place it alongside other ways of reading – as one weapon in an arsenal of ways to apprehend the complexity of the world?
Harman: I’m always a pluralist when it comes to intellectual tools, because it’s never necessary to be right about the foundations. For example, someone might have horribly wrongheaded philosophical ideas but might still be a great economist, or literary critic, or have a knack for biting aphorisms. There’s no one with whom I agree less than Slavoj Žižek, yet on a purely animal level I find many of his insights dazzling.
But I do think that OOO brings many new discoveries to the table. What OOO is really about is not just the withdrawal of objects from direct access. The key is actually the tension between an object and its own qualities. An object both has and does not have the qualities that belongs to it, and that is why these qualities can often move from one to another, with metaphor being the clearest example. When Homer speaks of the “wine-dark sea,” numerous qualities of wine (and not just darkness) are transferred to the sea, and philosophical speaking, something astonishing happens. Since every field of human inquiry has to deal with its basic field of objects, their qualities, and the relations between them, every field has some use for OOO. Among these fields are the three “A”s where OOO has been picked up to an unusual degree: archaeology, architecture, and art.
Hamilton: In your most recent book Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (2018), you stress again that your notion of an object is one that is not easily reconciled with its common or popular understanding. For example, you discuss the Dutch East India Company as an object, and suggest that you might address the American Civil War in such terms in the future. To those new to your thought, it is a remarkable claim because it seems to raise the important question of the limit(s) of objecthood. If something as variegated as the Dutch East India Company is an object, is not everything an object? If so, what might an object butt up against that could stand as a guarantee of its own presence?
Harman: It is important to note that OOO recognizes two kinds of objects: real, and sensual. Real objects exist in their own right, whether they are currently interacting with anything else or not; sensual objects, by contrast, exist only insofar as they are encountered by other things. There is a Sherlock Holmes story called “The Red-Headed League,” which is supposedly a club open to those with ginger-colored hair. It turns out, of course, that there is no such organization; it is merely a ruse to trick a particular red-headed man into being away from home at certain hours so criminals can tunnel into his cellar without being detected. That’s an easy example of a sensual object. I suppose if they tricked enough redheads into being away from home and gathering together, at some point we would have a real Red-Headed League on our hands, and it would be interesting to examine the point at which that occurs. But for now I need to get back to your question.
In my book Immaterialism, I determined pretty quickly that the Dutch East India Company was a real object, or at least that it was just as real as any of its individual captains, ports, ships, or cargoes. I then went further and suggested that an object can be the same object for a long period of time (two centuries, in the case of the Company), whereas some philosophies –such as Whitehead’s or Latour’s– claim that every time a thing performs some new action or enters into some new relation, it is not really the same. I rejected the implied claim of these thinkers that objects change into something different every instant. But I also introduced an intermediate category between constant flux and permanent stasis: the symbiosis, a term I borrowed from the great evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis. I hypothesized that pretty much any object will experience five or six symbioses during its lifespan: irreversible changes that moves the object to a new stage of existence before it eventually stabilizes, rises, declines, and dies. This has some interesting corollaries. One of the ways we can be sure that the Dutch East India Company is a real object is because it has many early failures: a failure, as long as it does not destroy us, means that we are something real that does not yet fit easily into our environment. Something that immediately succeeds, by contrast, is often just a spare part for something that already exists perfectly well. Notice that important intellectuals often had a very rough time as students, while the “teacher’s pet” often has a thoroughly mediocre post-school career. I think the symbiosis model is a powerful tool, one that –among other things– allows us to determine that a great number of supposed objects aren’t real objects at all.
Hamilton: You give a really interesting account of the relationship between knowledge and disciplines such as Science, Art, and Philosophy in your book. Of philosophy, you say that it is not a means of conveying knowledge. Where does this leave your own work? Is this a tacit labelling of your work as provocation?
Harman: It is common to divide human mental life into theoretical cognition and practical know-how. But it should be easy to see what an impoverished picture of mental life this gives. Art, for instance, does not primarily gives us knowledge as the sciences do, nor is art just a kind of practical technique. Art produces objects to which beholders and critics can allude, without ever really being able to paraphrase them in prose statements. Yet there’s an even more immediately relevant example than art: namely, philosophy itself. In the modern period, philosophers try to model themselves after mathematics and the hard sciences, and hence philosophy wants to be seen as a sort of knowledge. Yet the ancestral hero of philosophers, Socrates, never claims to be teaching knowledge. Quite the opposite: he never tires of saying that he knows nothing, has never been anyone’s teacher, and so forth. Philosophy in Ancient Greek is philosophia, or love of wisdom, not wisdom itself. This aspect of philosophy has been swept under the rug in the mad rush by philosophers to be seen as scientifically rigorous. Meanwhile, political philosophy has been replaced by a political science that uses computers to crunch election data. No harm in that, of course—except when it replaces the realization that political philosophy can never mean political knowledge.
Hamilton: One of the features of OOO that I find most agreeable is the way in which it works to flatten ontology. I very much approve of your insistence that because humans have done quite extraordinary things – launched spacecraft, split the atom, cracked the genetic code (to borrow a few examples from you) – it does not mean that we are implicitly “worthy of filling up fifty per cent of ontology” (56). To my mind, this is a rediscovery of an animist epistemology which, if taken seriously, has severe consequences for the continuation of neoliberal capitalism. What other surprising interventions do you see arising from returning critical attention to objects?
Harman: You aren’t the only one to have seen some animism here, but I wouldn’t put it that way. The problem I have with the embrace of animist and panpsychist consequences of OOO (as by my friend Steven Shaviro) is that it repeats the central error of modernism by rating thought too highly. The moderns think thought is so important that it must be jealously restricted to human beings alone. The panpsychists also think thought is so important, but their response is to scatter it throughout the universe into every stone and grain of sand. But what if thought simply isn’t as cosmically important as we believe? That would leave both modern epistemologists and panpsychists high and dry. As I see it, they are really on the same team, and OOO is elsewhere.
Hamilton: Lastly, I would like to conclude our brief conversation by asking what direction your own research will be taking over the coming year. What should those who are interested in OOO be on the look-out for in the near future?
Harman: The more you write, the more people will ask you to write. Early in one’s career, it’s famously hard to get anything published; after a certain point, one publishes dozens of things per year simply because editors and journals are always clamouring for content. The basic problem of my life at this point is an inability to keep on schedule with all of my writing commitments, and I can’t always predict which ones will be completed earliest. So, maybe the best thing is to report on the latest contracts I’ve signed—the ones most readers are least likely to know about.
The second most recent contract I’ve signed is for Penguin under the Allen Lane label, entitled Waves and Stones. In this book I want to get to the root of one of the most basic intellectual puzzles, which appears nearly everywhere humans use their brains: the distinction between the continuous and the discrete. We find this puzzle in philosophy, mathematics, quantum theory, evolutionary theory, and in many other places. As usual when I write books, I don’t know exactly what my conclusions will be once I’m finished, and only have some initial working suspicions.
The most recent contract is with the University of Minnesota Press, for a relatively short book called Architecture and Objects. Somehow I’ve been swept up into the world of architecture, about which I knew very little a decade ago, to the point that I am now working at an architecture school: SCI-Arc in Los Angeles, a fascinating little place housed in an old train station. In this book I will try to show the reason why Immanuel Kant has such a miserably low opinion of architecture, and –despite my great admiration for Kant’s aesthetics– will try to show why he is wrong.
Grant Hamilton is Associate Professor of English literature at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He teaches and writes in the areas of contemporary world literatures and literary theory. His latest books include The World of Failing Machines (Zero Books, 2016) and A Companion to Mia Couto (James Currey, 2016), co-edited with David Huddart.
The HKRB Interviews series specializes in new books in philosophy and critical theory. Interviews have included Simon Critchley, Catherine Belsey, Agon Hamza, Bill Ashcroft, and Srecko Horvat. Coming soon: Rosi Braidotti.
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