Saturday, 13 April 2019

Harman's Object-Oriented Ontology

I finished reading Graham Harman's Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (Penguin Books, 2018). It's very accessible and at least in parts quite entertaining. I must confess that I'm a newcomer to object-oriented ontology (OOO), but I'd nevertheless like to put down my impressions of the book.

As I see it, OOO contains two core ideas 

First, there is an idea that I like. This is OOO's realism concerning "objects". According to Harman, idealism must be rejected since reality is different from our conceptions of it. Objects are real, but withdraw from us since they are not directly accessible to our senses. Hence we must approach them indirectly. This doesn't mean that we can only approach them negatively. We can do it through art and philosophy. Metaphor in particular is crucial in mediating our access to objects. Metaphor doesn't produce knowledge about things, but nevertheless has great cognitive value. If I understand Harman correctly, he claims that metaphors produce objects. Not by defining them or laying claim to knowledge about them, but by creating a semblance of withdrawn things-in-themselves which we must apprehend as real. Here it is obvious that OOO, despite its rejection of idealism, isn't a materialism. According to Harman, materialism is based on an untenable claim to know what matter is. OOO, by contrast, is a realism, but not a materialism. Objects can be real without having to consist of matter. It is a false assumption, he claims, that everything that exists must be physical (p. 25ff).

What are objects then? Harman's very concise definition is that objects are what can neither be "undermined" nor "overmined" (pp. 41-53). That objects can’t be "undermined" means that they can't be reduced to their parts. That everything that exists must be basic and simple is another false assumption, which cannot account for the reality of emergent entities. That objects can’t be "overmined" means that they can't be reduced to their effects. An object, then, is always more than its pieces and less than its effects. Examples of objects mentioned by Harman include the Dutch East India Company (p. 27), the American Civil War (p. 114ff), and a hospital (p. 186f).

Based on his definition of objects, Harman defends the Kantian notion of things-in-themselves. He also defends the idea of “essences”. Postmodernists dismiss this idea as politically repressive: “But this critique only works against those who claim to have knowledge of the essence of a thing” (p. 159).

I'm less fond of OOO' second core idea, which is the affirmation of flat ontologies. According to OOO, all objects deserve equal attention, whether human or nonhuman. It's ontology is thus “flat” in the sense that it at least initially treats all objects in the same way rather than assuming that different ontologies for different objects. The fact that human beings possess consciousness thus doesn't suffice to grant them any privileged ontological status (as assumed in what Quentin Meillassoux calls correlationism). Instead OOO claims that all objects, not just humans, interact through their sensuous qualities. This means that objects are opaque or "withdrawn" not just to humans, but to each other as well. There's a mutual darkness between objects, a mutual withdrawal that prevents the objects from making direct contact (p. 11f).

That these two core ideas don't necessarily go together is shown in Harman's criticism of other thinkers who also adhere to flat ontologies but who fail to properly appreciate the reality of objects. A typical sin is that they "overmine" objects by reducing them to their effects or relations. This can be seen in the case of Bruno Labour. The book is full of praise for him and his actor-network theory (ANT). But it also insists on how OOO and ANT differ. While OOO resuces the non-relational core of every object, ANT dissolves the thing-in-itself, reducing actors to their mutual effects on each other (pp. 106f, 256). Furthermore, ANT's flat ontology is too rigid since it can’t distinguish transformational and trivial events (p. 110f). By contrast, OOO allows for discerning asymmetrical relations and for stating that things endure over time since all relations don’t necessarily change it (p. 134f). Differences also exist in regard to Jane Bennett's "vibrant" materialism. She too adheres to a flat ontology, but differs from OOO in emphasizing matter and by relying on an ontology of flux and becoming which doesn't sit well with OOO's idea of unified objects (pp. 240ff).

So what do I think? I agree with the fundamental idea about anti-mining. Like Harman I don't believe that objects can be reduced to either parts or effects. Like him I think it's legitimate and necessary to have concept for macro-objects - such as the American Civil War or the Dutch East India Company - and that we should be able to talk about such objects as real. Insisting on that seems like an important advance on myopic, empiricist approaches such as ANT. Against them, Harman is right in stressing that the reality of objects doesn't depend on empirical knowledge. A question that arises here, however, is how OOO would view classical macro-concepts of the sort usually rejected in "flat" ontological approaches - concepts like "nature", "capitalism" and the like. Can capitalism and nature be objects in Harman's sense? In view of his definition of objects I would say yes. But doesn't OOO then risk reverting into a rather conventional or traditional sort of theory? Wouldn't it even be possible to use the idea of the "reality" of this kind of objects to resurrect the much maligned "Cartesian" dichotomy of nature and society? Here Harman's reply would probably be that OOO's flat ontology would prevent that.

That brings me over to what I don't agree with in the book.

Firstly, I’m not convinced of the usefulness of flat ontologies. Harman's examples (the American Civil War, the Dutch East India Company, the hospital etc) are all examples that centrally involve humans and that primarily seem to highlight the relation between objects and a human consciousness. In the absence of examples that show what we gain from presupposing analogous relations between non-human objects, the idea of mutual withdrawal between objects doesn't come forward as convincing. Let me take Harman's discussion about causation as a case in point. Since real objects can’t interact, Harman claims that interaction is only possible indirectly or "vicariously" through the senses (pp. 163-166). This means that only the sensuous side of objects can interact with other objects. But sensuous to whom? Here most people would probably reply: to living beings possessing senses. To Harman, however, this answer would be unacceptable since it goes against his flat ontology. His reply has to be: sensuous also to stones, chemical elements, and so on. But is this really convincing?

Let me formulate this more succinctly. By emphasizing the distinction between the "real" object and its "sensuous" apects, doesn't Harman come close to reinstating a subject-object dualism? Doesn't this in turn require him to grant different ontological status to the "sensing" subject and the perceived "object"? To be sure, his reply would almost certainly be that his ontology is still flat in the sense that he extends the ability to "sense" to all objects. Something like correlationism would thus be retained, despite his seeming rejection of it, with the modification that it is generalized or democratized to a trait characterizing all interactions between objects. But is this a convincing position? What do I gain by supposing that stones have the ability to sense? In other words, what do I understand better by thinking that they do, than by not thinking so? Nothing, it seems to me. But if there are no advantages to extending the ability to sense to all objects, are there any drawbacks? Yes, there is at least one obvious drawback - it dilutes the meaning of the term "sense" to the point that it no longer really seems to carry much meaning at all.

Secondly, I don’t agree with Harman's rejection of materialism. There are different kinds of materialism. We can take Adorno as an example. At first sight, there seems to be a basic similarity between how Harman and Adorno criticize idealism and in how both regard aesthetics as a way to apprehend the object, the "something" that is non-identical to our concepts. But there’s also an important difference: Harman talks about art and metaphor. Adorno would add that pain, shock and dizziness too are ways of apprehending non-identity. More than Harman's objects, Adorno’s seem to have the power to intrude on and disrupt our concepts. In this sense Adorno is more materialist than Harman. He also shows us a materialism that I believe escapes Harman's objections against materialism. 

Thirdly, Harman's argument about politics is unconvincing. Harman uses an entire chapter to discuss OOO's relation to politics, but the arguments presented here are weak. He states that OOO tends to agree with Labour in terms of politics and that OOO “avoids the left/right polarization” (p. 15, see also the similar statement on p. 137). The reason is said to be that there is no knowledge about politics (p. 136). From this it follows that “OOO cannot be sympathetic to most forms of radical politics, since these are invariably based on the claim to a radical knowledge” (p. 146). But does this really follow? My suspicion that Harman is here simply using the argument to camouflage his own dislike of radical politics is strengthened by the fact that other OOO-adherents - like Tim Morton - seem to be much more comfortable with embracing more radical positions. The idea that radical politics must presuppose a claim to real “knowledge” about politics seems to me to be entirely baseless. Why can’t it be based on, for instance, an aesthetic apprehension of reality through metaphors that Harman otherwise sees as fully legitimate?

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