Tag Archives: Graham Harman

Whitehead in the Clouds: Objects and Relations

Graham Harman and other proponents of object-oriented ontology (OOO) follow Whitehead in taking up the task of articulating a speculative metaphysics, which is a relatively untimely task, situated amidst multifarious post-Kantian prohibitions against metaphysics. In particular, OOO follows Whitehead’s “ontological principle,” affirming the irreducibility of actual entities. The relationship between OOO and Whitehead looks mutually beneficial. OOO benefits by getting support for its metaphysical orientation toward entities, things, i.e., “objects.” [Does it need to be reiterated that this is a general sense of object as entity, not the modern sense of object in opposition to (or participation with) subject?] Whitehead benefits by getting a boost in popularity, making Whitehead more relevant and interesting for contemporary thought. Despite this opportunity for mutual benefit, both partners aren’t totally into it. Harman refers to Whitehead regularly (including in his latest, Immaterialism), acknowledging Whitehead’s unique contributions to metaphysics. How do Whiteheadians respond? Let’s face it. It’s not the mutual admiration club. Guess what, OOO? Process philosophers just aren’t that into you. Continue reading


Theological Implications of Object-Oriented Philosophy

An increasing number of new books are engaging speculative realism and object-oriented ontology in terms of their implications for theology and philosophy of religion. A good anthology of approaches is The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion, edited by Clayton Crockett, B. Keith Putt, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. One of the chapters in that book (“The Persistence of the Trace,” by Steven Shakespeare) cites a short piece I wrote in March 2011, “Theological Implications of Object-Oriented Philosophy: Factishes, Imperatives, and Cthulhu.” It was originally posted on the esteemed blog, Knowledge Ecology.

It was a guest post, and it’s expiration date has passed, so it’s not up anymore. I’m posting it here. [NB: this was only an abstract.  For a more thorough account of theological (and ecological) implications of object-oriented ontology in relationship to process, poststructuralist, and ecofeminist theologies, read On the Verge of a Planetary Civilization]. Continue reading


The Thing, Withdrawn, Asleep

Jean-Luc Nancy’s tiny book The Fall of Sleep (Fordham, 2009) is simply a pleasure to read.  When I read it, I just read it, no note-taking, no intentions.  But one passage stuck out so much that I feel compelled to make a note about it.  Here’s the passage:

The thing in itself is nothing other than the thing itself, but withdrawn from any relation with a subject of its perception or with an agent of its manipulation.  The thing, isolated from all manifestation, from all phenomenality, the sleeping thing at rest, sheltered from knowledge, techniques, and arts of all kinds, exempt from judgments and prospects.  The thing not measured, not measurable, the thing concentrated in its indeterminate and non-appearing thingness. (p. 14)

By describing the thing in itself in terms of withdrawal from relations, Nancy’s remarks resemble a key feature of Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy: that real objects are non-relational.  Nancy’s sleeping thing and Harman’s dormant objects have a lot in common.  Nancy and Harman are both Heideggerian, so these connections are not particularly surprising.  What really interests me about this passage is that it shows the similarity between Nancy and Harman while also exemplifying an important difference between them: Nancy considers withdrawal indeterminate, whereas Harman’s objects are still determinate even in their withdrawal.  For Harman, a chair in itself is still a chair, not merely a non-appearing whatever.  Furthermore, Harman is clearly a pluralist about objects, whereas Nancy’s reference to “the thing” in the singular indicates that he is more ambiguous about the singular/plural difference (as his Being Singular Plural indicates).  I’m not sure whose side I take.  They’re like my children: I love them both equally.


Weird Realism: Harman and Lovecraft

I’ve been reading and enjoying Graham Harman’s new book, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (Zero Books, 2012).  This is a great book, regardless of whether you already know the general outline of Harman’s philosophy and/or have any interest in Lovecraft. 

At the very least, I would recommend the book for Harman’s fun and illuminating uses of “ruination,” whereby he shows what is most effective in a sentence or phrase by juxtaposing the original version with alternative (ruined) versions of the passage. 

Harman’s proclivity for sincerity comes through in the style and the content of the work, as does his humor.  Consider the comment he makes when reflecting on Hume, “the patron saint of the philosophical debunker”: “though debunking has its uses, the clearing away of rubbish is a secondary chore best done once per week” (57-58). 

A guiding analogy for the book: As Hölderlin is to Heidegger and subsequent continental thought, Lovecraft is to Harman and weird realisms, e.g., object-oriented philosophy.  Whether Lovecraft will or should become a philosophical staple, I don’t know.  In any case, I very much like the idea that what might seem to be merely pulp fiction is here brought to a philosophical plane with sincerity and humor.  Even more than that, it’s fascinating (and horrifying) to get a sense of the strange realities that Lovecraft has in store for philosophy. 

Reality itself is weird because reality itself is incommensurable with any attempt to represent or measure it.  Lovecraft is aware of this difficulty to an exemplary degree, and through his assistance we may be able to learn about how to say something without saying it — or in philosophical terms, how to love wisdom without having it.  When it comes to grasping reality, illusion and innuendo are the best we can do. (51)


Objects: Between Whitehead and Heidegger

One of the exciting things happening in object-oriented philosophy is a synthesis of Whiteheadian and Heideggerian insights, namely, 1) Whitehead’s pan-experientialist concept of feeling or prehension, which deals a severe blow to human exceptionalism, and 2) Heidegger’s concept of the retreat or withdrawal (Entzug) of things.

It’s a mutually beneficial synthesis: Whitehead helps avoid the anthropocentrism of Heidegger’s philosophy, for which nonhumans are either poor in world or worldless; and Heidegger helps avoid the relationalism of Whitehead’s philosophy, for which individual entities do not harbor any actuality withdrawn from experience.

Heideggerians and Whiteheadians push back.  Heideggerians might argue that Heidegger isn’t entirely anthropocentric (maybe anthropocosmic instead), and Whiteheadians can claim that Whitehead honors the non-relational (i.e., non-experiential) dimension of actuality.  Those claims are not without their merit, as indicated by a recent post by Matt Segall in defense Whitehead’s objects (contra Graham Harman and OOO).  However, at the end of the day, it seems pretty clear to me: Heidegger’s thought is anthropocentric, and Whitehead’s is relationalist.

Regarding Whitehead, it’s important to clarify that he is indeed an object-oriented thinker.  He posits discrete individual entities (actual occasions) as the basic units of existence (see his “ontological principle”).  In this sense, Whitehead is similar to Latour, but he is unlike Bergson and Deleuze, who tend to think of individual entities as products of an underlying continuity.

Is Whitehead object-oriented?  Yes.  Does a Whiteheadian object have a non-relational dimension?  No.  Whitehead’s individuals are experiential through and through, experiencing and experienced, private and public, making actual while decisively cutting away (and negatively prehending, which is a kind of relating).

If there’s a non-relational dimension in Whitehead’s objects, it is the sundering of all relationality that takes place in the creativity of pure becoming, but such a fountain of creativity would amount to a monistic undermining of the plurality of objects.  Even aside from the pluralism/monism problem, a non-relational dimension of objects would be a dimension that is “void of subjective experience,” a “vacuous actuality” that Whitehead denounces (Process and Reality, 167).

I first read Whitehead a little more than 11 years ago (thanks, Pete Gunter!), and I liked his philosophy from the start.  Aside from the specifics of the debate regarding the new Heidegger-Whitehead synthesis, I’m just happy to see that Whitehead’s name is making its way into more and more philosophical discussions.


Gratitude for Graham Harman

Levi Bryant recently posted a sincerely warmhearted (and informative) piece in gratitude for Graham Harman.  Levi, reflecting on his own “correlationist and social constructivist” past, describes how Graham transformed his thinking and being.

Graham changed all that, irrevocably transforming my thought as well as my life and giving me a philosophical direction that I never before had. It seems like he’s had that impact on a lot of people– touching their research in all sorts of ways both inside and outside of philosophy –in one way or another.  However one might feel about Harman– and a lot of people have had pretty unfair, unkind words for him –it’s undeniable that he’s been a true voice these last few years, significantly impacting philosophy and cultural theory. He’s gotten people talking, regardless of whether they agree; and that suggests that whether or not his claims are true or false, he has, as Lacan would say, “hit the real” of theory and cultural analysis as practiced in the humanities and social sciences. Paradoxically, despite arguing that all objects are withdrawn and that they never touch, he has been one of those actants that Latour likes to talk about that mobilize all sorts of other actants and that change assemblages.

Levi goes on to describe his initial encounter with Graham.  Then he gives some very helpful and hopeful points about four Harmanian things that transformed his thought: withdrawal, vacuum packed objects, translation, and anthropodecentrism.  Simply a wonderful post.


Unity Versus Multiplicity in Object-Oriented Ontologies

Are objects unities?  Identities?  Or, on the other hand, are they multiplicities?  This question is answered in different ways in different kinds of object-oriented ontology.  Object-oriented philosophy (represented by Graham Harman) is more focused on unities and identities, whereas onticology (represented by Levi Bryant) prefers multiplicities.  Consider Bryant’s remarks in a recent post:

While objects there are, these objects are neither unities nor identities.  No, they are multiplicities.  The object-oriented philosopher, in a desperate gambit to preserve identity, declares that identity and unity are withdrawn. […]  Such is the phallic logic that haunts object-oriented philosophy.  [….]  The onticologist, by contrast, declares that objects have no unity or identity.  Rather, for the onticologist, objects are pure multiplicities.

Bryant brings up Leibniz and Deleuze/Guattari to elaborate on this point.  An important aspect of Bryant’s position is that objects are wholes and those wholes are parts amidst other parts.  Similarly, when the object-oriented philosopher (Harman, to be specific) affirms the identity of objects, it is not to privilege the whole as opposed to parts.  In short, object-oriented philosophy and onticology both avoid simple whole-part oppositions in their respective definitions of objects.  However, the question or unity or multiplicity nevertheless divides these two approaches to OOO.  Accordingly, Harman (mentioning Deleuze but not Bryant) recently made the following comments about the unity-multiplicity conflict in light of his own call for more attention to Aristotle (in contrast to Žižek’s call for more Hegel).

[A]s long as it remains fashionable to take easy cheap shots at unity and identity with appeals to such concepts as “difference” and “multiplicity,” then you’ll know that we’re still running on the fumes of Generation Deleuze, which was fresh and liberating from around 1995-2007 but now threatens to become last night’s vinegary red wine.

In other words, Harman appreciates Aristotle (as well as Husserl) for positing a unity and identity of objects, and he thinks that the Deleuzian distaste for unity and identity is getting stale.  Harman isn’t dismissing everyone working with Deleuze, he’s “just saying that it’s time to stop adopting all of Deleuze’s heroes and spitting on all of his villains.”  I assume that Harman wouldn’t consider Bryant’s appeal to “multiplicity” as one of the “easy cheap shots” being taken at unity and identity.  It is a shot nonetheless.

I’m not taking sides yet.  I’m just paying attention as object-oriented philosophy and onticology continue developing.  It is nourishing food for thought.  I’ve been deeply influenced by Aristotle and Deleuze, and this question of unity versus multiplicity makes me want to read, re-read, and rethink.