Objective Caricatures

The following is my response to a colleague and friend’s recent post on object-oriented ontology over at The New Knowledge Ecology.


It is probably possible to distinguish between a defense of OOO from an unfair caricature and a defense of OOO proper. I think what you’ve done here is a solid mixture of each. It is a young school of thought, but one which has grown in popularity quite quickly, either because of its skillful use of a particular media ecology (the Internet), or because of its radical intellectual novelty, or both. Personally, I’m not sure how genuinely new OOO is philosophically (I’m partial to tradition, of course; just look at the name of my blog). What I definitely do find novel about it is not so much the employment of its conceptual structure, but the poetics with which it conveys the curves and connections of this structure. It seems to me that Graham Harman is intuiting the same invisible noetic architecture that emboldened ancient philosophers to pronounce upon matters of metaphysical fact. He is seeing what Plato saw and communicating it with a fresh metaphoric fresco: for Plato, the cosmic process involved the extra-cranial and culture-independent participation of ideas in the organization of a formless but living Receptacle; for Harman, the cosmos is the complex and layered perception/causal relation of objects by objects within a sensual ether of elements (where the ether is really just the inside of the inside of the inside of an indefinitely nested series of objects within objects). What is the infinitely hidden identity of an object in itself but an archetypal form or essence existing in an eternity beyond (but still related to, albeit transcendently) space and time? The story is a bit different, but the same characters all seem to be present.

I’m still curious to see how Harman deals with the idea of evolution. Was Teilhard de Chardin right when he suggested that evolution is not merely a theory, but a fact that all other theories would come eventually to adapt themselves to? I’m on page 194 of Harman’s Guerilla Metaphysics, and he just mentioned “time” for the first time. There is a section towards the end of the book where he spends 6 or 7 pages on the issue, and I know he actually does want to preserve change (at least phenomenally), but it doesn’t seem as though there will be any mention of evolution (change with direction/s). My guess is he doesn’t think evolution is all that relevant to metaphysics and ontology. Teilhard would strongly disagree. I am not sure if Harman’s ultimate word on reality (that it is turtles, or objects, all the way down) does justice to our intuitions (and perhaps the intuitions of other organisms/objects) that the universe with its multiplicity of objects is not simply Being, but striving to become something more.

Meister Eckhart and the Core of the Soul

For a little more than a week now, I’ve been engaging with Graham Harman‘s object-oriented approach to philosophy. I’m intrigued, but not yet convinced by his tactics. I still have questions about access, about epistemology. How do I know anything about mind-independent objects if their essence remains infinitely hidden? I’m forced to rely upon analogy, the most important tool in the Hermeticist‘s repertoire. All knowledge comes through analogy, as all things are connected, not directly, but analogically. It is metaphor that carries the mind beyond itself to the inner life of things. Harman recognizes this, as well, going so far as to suggest that not just the human mind, but things themselves come into contact with others by way of analogical relationship.

The medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart, was deemed a heretic by a Franciscan-led inquisition, mostly because of the near identity he believed could come to exist between the human soul and God. He taught a path of inner stillness, so that, with the ideation and imagination of the desirous soul quieted, God might speak his silent Word. The utterance of this Word within our soul is a divine and eternal birth, “which occurred at one point in time, and which occurs everyday in the innermost recess of the soul–a recess to which there is no avenue of approach.”

There is no avenue of approach–no point of access, in other words–even to our own innermost nature. And yet, there is a state of transformed consciousness which grants us participation in that of which and by which we are always being made. Like Harman’s objects, whose molten core recedes forever from view, Eckhart’s doctrine of the soul is difficult–nay, impossible!–to grasp. We cannot gain access to the Son of God who is perpetually being born within us, because we are Him already. We cannot grasp the inner life of things, because it lives already within us. Knowledge of things themselves, then, depends upon knowledge of ourselves (which is also knowledge, or love, of God).

Perhaps there is still a trace of occationalism in Harman… or at least, perhaps I cannot understand his tactics without God’s help.

“The saints see in God an idea, and in that idea all things are comprehended–and the same is true of God, who sees everything in himself.”

Eckhart continues:

“There is Truth at the core of the soul but it is covered up and hidden from the mind, and as long as that is so there is nothing the mind can do to come to rest, as it might if it had an unchanging point of reference. The mind never rests but must go on expecting and preparing for what is yet to be known and what is still concealed. Meanwhile, man cannot know what God is, even though he be ever so well aware of what God is not…As long as it has no reference point, the mind can only wait as matter waits for form. And matter can never find rests except in form; so, too, the mind can never rest except in the essential truth which is locked up in it–the truth about everything. Essence alone satisfies and God keeps on withdrawing, farther and farther away, to arouse the mind’s zeal and lure it on to follow and finally grasp the true good that has no cause.”

Excerpts from Meister Eckhart: A Modern Translation by Raymond B. Blakney

Metaphor and the Allure of Objects

I’ve just finished Harman‘s chapters on Metaphor and Humor in Guerrilla Metaphysics. He explores the meaning-making capacities of language and laughter in the hopes that they might help account for how objects are capable of interaction despite their infinite concealment from one another. Through his explorations into Ortega y Gasset‘s ontology of metaphor and Bergson‘s account of humor, Harman develops the concept of allure, which functions as a sort of atom-smasher to reveal the molten core of objects, what he calls their style. Harman marks a difference between normal experience, wherein we habitually assume that an object can be defined by the sum of its properties, and the experience of allurement, wherein “a special sort of interference occurs in the usual relation between a concealed sensual object and its visual symptoms” (p. 150).

In the case of the construction of a metaphor, normal experience leads us to assume that saying “the sky is an ocean” really only means that the sky has qualities (blueness, vastness, etc.) similar to the ocean. But, suggests Harman, this is to reduce a metaphor to a simile, when in reality, what fascinates us about an especially beautiful metaphor is that it brings to our attention a connection between things that are supposed to be separate.

“The result, says Ortega,

“is the annihilation of what both objects are as practical images. When they collide with one another their hard carapaces crack and the internal matter, in a molten state, acquires the softness of plasm, ready to receive a new form and structure” (quoted on p. 107).

In this way, metaphor allows us to allude to the elusive inner core of things, their “I,” as Ortega puts it (which reminds me of how Christopher Alexander describes the I-beings that manifest in certain architectural forms). But the poet cannot actually produce an identity between such things as oceans and skies. The poet is “an audacious liar who claims absolute identity” between different objects, when what has actually been produced is an identification of our feeling for the style of the ocean and the style of the sky. The style or image I have of the sky forms a distinct unity in my experience, as does my image of the ocean. Through the surprise of the metaphor, both these images take on a new formation in my imagination.

“The [ocean] is not only an image sparkling with diverse features, but also a murky underground unity for me, and not just in its inner executant self. And it is from this strange concealed integrity of individual images that metaphor draws its power–not from the genuine reality of each thing, which language is powerless to unveil” (p. 108).

What Harman seems to be saying here, with both his style of writing and the content of his argument, is that an object-oriented view of the world demands a more imaginative view of language that takes metaphor seriously as a form of expression whose meaning cannot be conveyed literally. It is impossible to exhaust the significance of the identification between the ocean and the sky by cataloging the many properties they may share. Something exceeds every attempted reduction of this identification to a list of similar qualities, preserving a good metaphor’s ability to “dig underground into the cryptic life of things” (p. 122).

In short, philosophies of human access seem to have been shackled by simile, comparing properties instead of forging new objects; the return to speculative realism is made possible by the ontologization of metaphor. Normal perception is pushed to the point of a paradigm shift (see p. 152) by alluring objects that forever recede from their appearances. What really makes the concept of allure interesting is Harman’s demand that we

“globalize the rift between a thing and its features, no longer placing it under quarantine at the unique fissure where human meets world, but allowing it to spread throughout the cosmos to account for all interactions, including inanimate ones” (p. 152).

I’ll have to read on to better understand the implications of this more-than-human allure between objects.

Harman and the Special Magic of Human Knowledge

Among the most often tagged names on this blog are Rudolf Steiner and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, both of whose cosmologies privilege the position of human beings relative to other beings. The reasons for this elevation of human consciousness are complex, but in a word they issue from an intuition about selfhood. Both men dwell amidst an enchanted, animated universe full of non-human agents with their own interiority, but something distinguishes humanity from other beings: for Steiner, it is our ability to think consciously, and similarly for Teilhard, it is our capacity for reflection. Even Harman, who wants to move beyond issues of human access, admits that “human knowledge may indeed be something quite special” (Guerilla Metaphysics, p. 84). He immediately qualifies this statement, however, by cautioning against the artificial construction of a vast ontological gap between humans and non-humans. I think Steiner and Teilhard would be in agreement with this demand for some kind of continuity between the interiority of all beings, but a certain dignified anthropocentrism remains an irrevocable aspect of their respective approaches.

Teilhard’s cosmos is an anthropogenesis: he does not shy away from asserting that the universe is divinely driven by the desire to evolve beings capable of greater wisdom and deeper love. This is not to say that humans in their contemporary incarnation have arrived at this goal. We are not a finished product, but an idea still in the process of becoming manifest. It is also not to suggest that there may not be other planets in our galaxy with biological inhabitants who have hominized in a unique but not entirely disimilar way to human beings on the earth. The point is not that our particular species is the only unique and ultimately significant kind of being, but that beings in general evolve according to the divine lures of knowledge and goodness, tending to hominize in a diversity of ways we can only dimly imagine.

Steiner’s Anthroposophy is designed to lead the spirit of the human to the spirit of the universe. It is modeled after the ancient truths of the Hermetic tradition, whose most essential doctrine is the analogy between microcosm and macrocosm: as above, so below. For Steiner, thinking is basic to the self-organizing capacities of all beings, but only in the human being can thinking become conscious of its own activity. The human thinking of the self-conscious “I” is that unique place within the world-process that belongs to our own freedom. It is that place where observation and being do indeed coincide [contrary to Harman’s claim that an ineffaceable gap exists between image and execution (p. 103)]. In thinking, I am what I am doing.

This tension has already been very fruitful for the formation of my own thinking. Hopefully these comparisons are revealing for others, as well. More soon…

Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology

I’ve just finished part one of Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, Harman’s treatise on the relationship between the phenomenology of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Lingis and his object-oriented approach to philosophy. He is motivated by a desire to direct our attention to the things themselves, the independently existing objects of the world. It is a desire similar in spirit to Husserl’s famous directive: back to the things themselves!, but more radical in that his longing is less for descriptions of our attention than it is for adequate portrayals of the things themselves that aren’t stuck on issues of human access. Husserl’s work elaborates upon the intentional structure of consciousness, making clear that to be conscious is to be conscious of something. In other words, conscious subjectivity is constituted by its acts of objectification. Consciousness doesn’t access the world by interpreting a smear of raw sensory data, but always already perceives meaningful things: couches, water color paintings, and green coffee mugs.

Harman points out that the intentional unity of subject and object constituting consciousness’ relation to the world does not create an unbroken whole or “global purée,”  but rather a highly differentiated and layered matrix of relations between particular objects. When I direct attention to a coffee mug, I can still recognize a difference between myself as perceiver and the mug as a thing perceived. I can even recognize a difference within myself between the I that I am and the I that intends the mug.

As Harman puts it:

“Although in one respect the intentional act is a seamless fabric without parts, in another respect it is riddled with numerous interior objects that hypnotize me, that absorb my attention as I enjoy their sensuous facades and aim my attention at the illusive objects lurking beneath them. In short, the unified intentional experience is already a descent into its own particles.”

Harman doesn’t want to reject the important discoveries and re-orientations of the phenomenological tradition, he wants to extend them so that it becomes possible to imagine objects relating to one another, communicating with one another, independent of human consciousness. Intentionality, then, is not just a feature of human consciousness, but of the relationship between things themselves: the table intends the mug, the mug intends the coffee, just as I intend each of them.

There is so much more to be unpacked, and I’m excited by the prospect of bringing Harman into conversation with the likes of James Hillman, and perhaps even Rudolf Steiner. The similarities with the psychology of the former are sketched in my last post (which Harman noticed and found plausible). And Steiner’s richly textured ontology includes an etheric dimension that mediates between the unreachable substance of physical things (the mineral realm) and the pure qualities of presentational immediacy (the astral realm), which sounds similar to Harman’s call for an ontologization of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the flesh of the world, that mysterious carnal matrix that gives rise to both perceiver and perceived.

Here is an excerpt from Guerilla Metaphysics that might help make this connection to Steiner’s ontology more plausible (p. 24):

“We do not really dwell amidst objects, because they forever surpass our explorations of them, remaining inaccessible to us. But neither do we live among brute sensory givens, since there is no such thing as sensuous matter without objective form [b/c the essence of consciousness is intentionality]: a cacophony of random sound is already interpreted as a specific unit against its background, as are the minute colored points on computer screens. In short, we live in a strange medium located somewhere between substances and qualities, unable to touch either of them.”

It sounds to me like the strange medium he is talking about, which is neither physical nor ideational/presentational, is precisely what Steiner means by the etheric body. It isn’t the feelings and sensations of the private soul, nor is it the motions of minerals in the physical body. It is the sense-making, or imaginal processes of the etheric matrix, which is the place Steiner says thinking must come to dwell before any participatory epistemology is to be possible (he says the thinking of modernity and positivism is trapped in the brain, literally determined by the shape of the matter in the skull). I think Harman might be trying to enact this sort of space for thinking. Like Steiner, he seems to look at and feel into a layered and stratified world of real beings whose inner lives are not immediately accessible to consciousness.

It’s all still a jumbled mess of vaguely related ideas in my head at this point, but I’ll be trying to clarify my thoughts in more posts soon to come.

Graham Harman and James Hillman

The following is an exchange between Adam Robbert and I about the parallels between the speculative realism of Graham Harman and the re-visioned archetypal psychology of James Hillman:

Harman quoted by Adam (ellipses are used to increase continuity):

“Amidst all the repetitious manifestoes and dry meta-descriptions of human consciousness, we also find the works of Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. In the writings of these authors, we encounter the lascivious warmth of the sun and air and the mystery of strange flashes at midnight; we adjust our postures to the resonance of bird calls and acoustic guitars; we enjoy bread and raspberries, and respond to the demands of orphans. One living author who speaks in the same style as these figures is Alphonso Lingis, who began his life as their professional translator. Almost alone among contemporary philosophers, Lingis takes us outside all academic disputes and are placed amidst coral reefs, sorghum fields, paragliders, ant colonies, binary stars, sea voyages, Asian swindlers, and desolate temples…We find ourselves mesmerized by the objects in the world, rooted in a carnal setting where our bodies meet with the voluptuous texture of entities…the carnal medium in which we dwell can only be some sort of elusive ether or medium of nonobjective qualities, though not just of raw sense data…By discovering an apparent nonobjective realm in which objects nonetheless sparkle and recede, all of them shed some light on the glue that binds the material perception…But over the past few years, it gradually became clear to me that this sensual medium of the carnal phenomenologists is really just the human face of a wider medium that must exist between all the objects of the world.”  (Guerilla Metaphysics, pp. 2-3)

My response:

This is so relevant to what I’ve just been reading in James Hillman’s Re-Visioning Psychology. The notion of the human face being a particular mode of a wider medium, one possible form of hyper-complexification of the flesh-like material that glues all the objects of the world together (into… the face of an inexistent God?) is a lot like Hillman’s move toward a non-anthropocentric polytheistic animism, where the universe is full of non-human persons with autonomous motives. Hillman’s persons are Harman’s objects (are Latour‘s actants).

Adam’s response:

Yes, I think there is a strong connection there. Objects, actors and gods could definitely be thought as similar (the first two explicitly so). I haven’t read my Hillman in a while and I am wondering what he makes of the phenomenal/archetypal distinction. I know Latour and Harman probably wouldn’t reject the notion of a polytheistic animism, but they would reject a line drawn between the archetype and its representation. For both Harman and Latour nothing is reducible to anything else (though through certain acts of labour objects can be transformed into other objects, such as through the use of scientific instruments and methods an organism can be translated into its chemical proceses but never reduced to them or explained full by them). I think they would reject the idea that there is a polytheistic/animistic ‘undercurrent’ that pervades all phenomena if that undercurrent is viewed as more primary (i.e. more real) than the particular objects themselves. I think they would also push us to consider the polytheism of rocks, snowflakes and bunny rabbits in addition to the polytheism that humans experience. In a sense then an object-oriented polytheism would radically multiply the number of gods (since there would be a polytheism of all objects) and thus leave us in thoroughly god-saturated multiverse- this of course still leaves open the huge question of what a ‘god’ will reveal itself to be. I think Hillman would probably be ahead of the curve in a conversation about what a ‘god’ is from an object-oriented perspective,

My response:

I’ve never read my Hillman until just recently. I’ve always found comfort in Jung‘s archetypal perspective, however limited to the phenomenal it sometimes reveals itself to be. I studied Jung before I studied Kant, and so didn’t come to see the former’s indebtedness to the latter’s ontological skepticism until later. Hillman seems to want to overcome the skepticism by, first, reminding the transcendental ego of it’s relative status in relation to the other centers of agency and order within the psyche (not to mention the peripheral archetypes of passivity and disorder), and second, by personifying (or ontologizing) archetypes so as to make Gods of them. It might seem like bringing the conscious, knowing, willing ego down to size would only increase skepticism, but what Hillman seems to be suggesting is that psyhe, and not ego, is the true source of knowledge and power; that each of us as “individuals” is also a community of merging and diverging personalities. My thinking, feeling, and willing are polymorphic and relational, not autonomous and private. Archetypes become just as real and agentic as the ego, which is not longer understood to be the sole perspective of privileged objectivity. The idea of “representation” no longer seems to apply, since the ego is no longer the only person in the theater of the mind witnessing from some perspective of transcendence the passage of a merely phenomenal world across it’s screen. If anything, there is multipresentation: the world appearing in many ways to many different personal perspectives mingling in and between each of our psyches. I think Hillman is suggesting that what is finally real are persons, their scenes, and the stories they tell each other. This seems akin to an ontology of objects, events, and a sort of vicarious causality (which I’m assuming are the fundamentals of Harman’s realism).
I think Harman and Hillman are motivated by different ends, one being a metaphysician and the other a psychologist. This suggests to me that Hillman will always come off as more anthropocentric since his focus is psychological health. Not that be isn’t making cosmological moves to achieve this end, though…

Adam’s response:

Yes, thats a good point about the difference between a psychologist and a metaphysician. Still, Harman’s ‘Guerilla Metaphysics’ is essentially all about phenomenology and the infinite obligation (a la Levinas) to the other, the crucial shift being that one is now also asked to consider the broader understanding of objects as in some way also being thrown into obligations with one another sans human mediation, either in actuality or perception. So I am wondering if Harman’s metaphysics doesn’t also land him in a thoroughly experiential frame bringing him back in touch with psychology.

Graham Harman’s comment.