Notes on Immaterialism

A good theory must ultimately draw distinctions between different kinds of beings. However, it must earn these distinctions rather than smuggling them in beforehand, as occurs frequently in the a priori modern split between human beings on one side and everything else on the other (see Latour 1993 [We Have Never Been Modern]). This answers the question of why an object-oriented approach is desirable: a good philosophical theory should begin by excluding nothing. And as for those social theories that claim to avoid philosophy altogether, they invariably offer mediocre philosophies shrouded in the alibi of neutral empirical fieldwork. (Harman, Immaterialism, p. 4)

In Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory (Polity Press, 2016), Graham Harman applies his object-oriented philosophy to social objects. The book functions as “a compact list of the first principles of object-oriented social theory, which I have also called ‘immaterialism’” (126). This presentation of an object-oriented social theory includes a detailed analysis of one particular social object, the Dutch East India Company. Someone might think that this is just another book of object-oriented philosophy, tracing out the same principles that Harman articulates elsewhere. In some sense that’s true, but there’s much more going on than that. In what follows, I briefly sketch some key contributions that this book makes to the ongoing development of object-oriented philosophy.

This book provides a definitive response to any critics who claimed that object-oriented philosophy is inapplicable to social theory or that it presupposes some kind of methodological or metaphysical individualism. Objects can be individuals or collectives, small or large, singular or plural, natural or artificial. Social assemblages are made of objects, and they themselves are objects.

As the title suggests, this book also helps further clarify the difference between object-oriented ontology and new materialism. “Interest in objects is often confused with interest in ‘materialism,’ one of the most overly cherished words in present-day intellectual life” (13). There is clearly a lot of overlap between object-oriented ontology and new materialism with regard to their shared concern for redistributing agency beyond its anthropocentric limitations, but their conceptions of what is real are vastly different. Object-oriented ontology locates reality in things, whereas new materialism duomines things: undermining things by reducing them to their underlying matter, and overmining things by considering their thinghood to be a reification imposed by social conventions onto their vibrant materiality.

As with other books by Harman, this book also distinguishes the object-oriented perspective on the withdrawn reality of objects from the process-relational perspective on events or actors. “To treat objects solely as actors forgets that a thing acts because it exists rather than existing because it acts. Objects are sleeping giants holding their forces in reserve, and do not unleash all their energies at once” (7).

Object-oriented philosophy is immaterialism. “In an age when all the intellectual momentum belongs to context, continuity, relation, materiality, and practice, we must reject the priority of each of these terms, focusing instead on an immaterialist version of surprise and opacity” (19-20). Opacity is not otherworldly. The immaterial is hic et nunc; there is nowhere else to be. “Let us also put to rest another common prejudice about the thing-in-itself: the notion that it is ‘otherworldly.’ In fact, the immaterialist model acknowledges no duality of worlds” (32).

One other topic I want to mention is the evolutionary dimension of object-oriented ontology. While someone might suppose that you cannot account for evolution if you don’t have a process-relational or materialist perspective, Harman indicates that object-oriented philosophy does in fact include something like a model of evolutionary relations, something resembling serial endosymbiosis theory.

If all relations were equally significant, then every entity would become a new thing in every trivial instant of its existence, since our relations with objects are ever on the move. […] If we treat every relation as significant for its relata, we slip into a “gradualist” ontology, in which every moment is just as important as every other. In evolutionary biology, one prominent way of countering excessive gradualism is the theory of punctuated equilibrium, [which] could still prove too event-oriented [….] Thus, a better model for us can be found in the Serial Endosymbiosis Theory of Lynn Margulis. (44-45)

9 thoughts on “Notes on Immaterialism

  1. seems like a whole lot of misplaced concreteness to moi.
    how does one know what is out or in of an “object” like a company or a nation or such, and what if anything holds the object together?

    1. It doesn’t seem too hard to figure what’s in and/or out. I’m not part of the Dutch East India Company, and I am part of the United States of America. Fuzzy boundaries and ambiguities are welcome. Boundaries of objects aren’t thin and rigid: a doorway can be in and out of a room; an expat can be in and out of a country. The Whiteheadian phrase “misplaced concreteness” is an interesting choice of words, since Harman and Whitehead agree that “actual entities are the only reasons” (although they disagree on the status of a non-relational withdrawal of entities). What holds objects together? Their relationships and component parts, which are themselves objects (a classic objects-all-the-way-down scenario).

      1. It’s the usual standards of object-oriented philosophy: a hybrid of phenomenological standards for discerning objects and the standards whereby actor-network theory determines what counts as an actor, a part of an actor, inside or outside an actor, etc. It’s basically just a mutant ANT. The last chapter of Immaterialism is a list of 15 rules of OOO method, many of which revolve around Harman’s conception of symbioses (nonreciprocal, asymmetrical, weak ties that occur early in the existence of an object). Figuring out social objects is all about tracking symbioses.

      2. that’s what i was afraid of, a country doesn’t literally have anything like a skin, a central-nervous system, or dna and the networks of ANT aren’t literally like circuit-boards and all. My love is like a red red rose….

      3. Right, a country doesn’t have a skin or nervous system, and actor-networks aren’t circuit-boards. Those sounds more like new materialist metaphors than OOO (or maybe not metaphors but similes, “literally like”).

      4. yes Jane Bennett for example talks of strategic animism which I appreciate, part of why I prefer folks like Andy Pickering, Annemarie Mol, John Law and all is that they realize while you can combine anything on the page/screen when it comes to say wiring a circuit-board or phone network, or trying to reconstruct certain functions of a brain cell that the materials in the world offer resistances as well as affordances (part of why social ‘engineering’ is more poetic than actual) so if you want to make things work the concrete details matter otherwise abstractions (like talking about memory literally as storage and all) can be quite misleading when not merely academic, tho they make for good sci-fi!

      5. Thanks for the link. I hadn’t checked out Law’s site before. He, Pickering, and Mol are exemplary scholars. I’m not very sure about the abstract/concrete distinction, which has been haunting philosophers since Thales fell in a well. There’s Hegel’s circuitous response to the question, “Who Thinks Abstractly?” But I’m more interested in Deleuze’s abstraction: the abstract is not the opposite of the concrete. The discrete is the opposite of the concrete, and the intensive difference of the concrete is abstraction. Representation for Deleuze is the misleading problem, not abstraction (e.g., memory as storage is a representation, not abstraction). If anything, what misleads our engagements with the resistances and affordances of the materials in the world is that we are not being abstract enough.

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