Thinking about the Politics of Objects
As an aftermath of my thinking about Spinoza and Heidegger it occurs to me that Heidegger ready-at-hand contains something of a notion of “Whiteness,” in the idea of invisibility (and his present-at-hand something of that of “colored”). I suspect that this probably has some strong correlate in Derrida’s critique and continuation of Heidegger, but it has been a while since I have engaged Derrida, so I want to think on it a bit myself.
The very invisibility of the ready-at-hand, which someone like Graham Harman would like to emphasize as absolute, conceptually has of it the whiteness of society, the unseen but pure transference of power across the object such that nothing within them, about them, inhibits or retards the fullness of their expression. Such beings, what Graham calls “tool-beings,” are like what we learned white light is, a certain combination of all colors, but as to be completely transparent to our sublunar eyes.
If this generalization stands, then we might want to ask the political question, How much Whiteness is in Graham’s ever retreating objects which hide entirely from our view? Or worse, how Causacian are his tools? (It seems odd when you put it that way, but perhaps “odd” is what is necessary to expose this proper aspect.)
We then must follow, Does not Heidegger’s veiledness of present-at-hand itself give us the very tried-and-true sense of interfering “color,” the drape of instantiated sense which forever keeps us from what something really is? (This is what you get when you love to play with binaries, you get history’s binaries.) So we ask a series of questions of a Heidegger follower. Of the sensuously rich vicars that are said to be buried in the intentional hearts of objects, the very mediating and jeweled indulgences of perception, are these really “colored people” idealizations, euphanies generated by the binarization of social terms (invisible/colored) in the first place? Is not the whiteness of society the condition of its very invisibility? And is Graham’s binarized ontology of the Real into mediating pairs then thus racially conditioned (or Colonialist)? I say this meaning no personal offense, since I believe that we all are in some sense, or even many senses Racist, by virtue of our histories. But these are questions that indeed must also be asked because Graham (as do most classical metaphysicians) asserts a certain independence of ontology from politics, and hence any ontology must defend itself when it seems to be unconsciously carrying out political forms. So are the exotic, frosted-over, accident-bedecked vicars from within, colored?
And if so, what does it politically mean to give such a representationally bestowed role to the colonial, to place the lavishly enjeweled other as our vicarious mediator? One must consider the accidental but significant fact that Graham does work out of a country he loves, Egypt, which is in a certain sense is the most resistant, and yet accommodating of colonial of countries, in my opinion. So long has Egypt been the repository for both economic wealth and the projection of esoteric wisdom for the West, it has inured itself to that cultural incursion, creating an autonomy within its representational, mediating force, strangely having insulated itself from the West, from the inside (I recall how viscerally Graham reacts against Flaubert’s idealizations and dehumanizations of “the Egyptian,” while at the same time feeling that there was an intimacy between Graham’s frosted-over and encrusted internal objects and Flaubert’s saturated depictions of Carthage in Salammbô). As I have suspected for a while, it is the qualities of object that Graham really is most concerned with.
Hölderlin Sings of the mediating Fremde
One has to ask in this continuing vein, Are these projections of sensuous, mediating and colored vicars not the very mechanisms of whiteness, in the sense that the colony becomes the necessary and mediating extension of the homeland (a homeland that ironically enough, as Heidegger likes to dream of it in Hölderlin fashion, we are expelled from). We are all caught between our Whiteness which we can never reach or return to, adrift in a colored East which forever mediates our connection to what invisibily lies below.
Again, I recall that Graham has a repulsion for Hölderlin, Heidegger’s laureate, something he attributes to the ad nauseum Heideggerian forays into the poetic. But Hölderlin himself seems to sum the juxtaposition perfectly, the weird world of Object-Oriented metaphysics connections, as our real states are forever mediated by what is alien to us, caught in a transferal between like and unlike:
Ein Zeichen sind wir, deutunglos
Schmerzlos sind wir und haben fast
Die Sprache in der Fremde verloren.
A sign we are, meaningless
Painless we are and have nearly
The Tongue in the “East” [The Foreign] lost.
Mnemosyne (lines 1-3) [rough interlinear translation here]
And is not the “bedeutend” [indicated] of the snow that gleams and glances on the Alpine meadow just like lilies, the very principle of “allure,” the metaphorical transfer that Graham claims is the mechanism of all causal connection?
Denn Schnee, wie Majenblumen
Das Edelmüthige, wo
Es seie, bedeutend, glänzet auf der grünen Wiese
Der Alpen, hälftig
For snow, like Maylilies
It would be revealed, gleams on the greening meadow
With Harman-like efficacy accidental allure brings each distant, retreating object across to another distant and retreating object, the “distant signal” of whiteness communicating, poking through the rich, veiling mediator vicars of a too-sensual world, a connection which Hölderlin calls in the hymn, “Fernahnend mit/Dem andern” (sensing-distant with another). The poet to his lost Diotima? Is Graham’s theory of causation in some determinative sense, Hölderlinian, the way that real objects of the home pierce through the richness of the foreign veil? Could it be that Graham’s strong resistances to the idealizations of the East in both Flaubert and Hölderlin are the very condition of his projections of the same into this metaphysics of mediating coloredness? And thus are this metaphysics intimately colonial of source, and accidentally so in project?
But there is a significant difference between Graham’s neo-Heideggerian position, and Heidegger’s own caught-in-the-middle universe. There is no wistfulness of detachment, or explicit longing to return home from the vicarious world; although the importation of the exotic pervades his object-universe, in a quest for the weird, (but we have yet to read his coming treatment of Orpheus, the veritable picture of lost retrieval). So though he has not been able to formulate a detailed explication of just how vicar-mediations might operate at the inanimate level, there is no sense at all that objects as such do not in fact continually interact with distinguished flow. The existential gap of sojourn is not at all immediately present for objects, in fact, objects of each type (the real white, and the sensuous colored) are actually barred, not from interacting with the the opposite kind, as if whites cannot mix with blacks, but rather are barred from mixing with each other. The white and distant objects in retreat actually need the colored vicars to touch each other. So if we allow a political extension, the Caucasian West needs the colored East to communicate at all with the Caucasian West, and the foreign is already internal to real object state connections (in fine dialectical fashion).
This is an interesting line of analysis. Graham tells us that the color world of inner vicars is one that is externally connected to those things of its own kind (an intentional object is composed of its qualities and even accidents, each sharing the same “conceptual space”). The problem in the intentional realm is not one of isolation, how each sensuous part might come in contact with the others of its kind, for they are ever ready to bleed into each, almost with lude enthusiasm. For this reason the colored world is somehow internally “buffered,” Graham says, keeping its characteristically natural gravitational collapse of sensuality at bey from one great con-fusion (one might read in separation of the sensous types, the ethnographic buffering of traditional or tribal customs, often to be contrasted with rational laws, a contrast then thought characteristic of “foreign” peoples). The white world of real objects have exactly the inverse of the difficulty. They are not ever-crossing the boundaries of each other, incestuous of their realm, ready to produce unexpected catalytic changes, but rather are forever in retreat, imploding, “vacuum packed,” in withdrawl from each other in isolating and unique distance. They are tellingly in tension with even their own qualities. Their qualitative manifestions they merely wear like clothing they are not quite comfortable in, like a restrained, northern people from colder climes. Little soul-cores of white essence shrink back from color (How White are Leibniz’s monads? Do we have to ask?). In this perpetual retreat of real objects do we see the rationality of Anglo austerity and Laws, strict non-contact formulations against the body and the senses, the puritanical clean of objects/citizens themselves? Is it no wonder that for Graham these two complimentary projections indeed form a necessary pair? We must ask, insofar as these are projections of a political, sociological creation, how much does that naturalize, metaphysicalize our political products?
The Vicarious as Ideal
As mentioned, the positive for Graham’s metaphysics is that these two, the colored object of sensuality and the white object of cold removal, are interdependent upon each other. He concentrates more it seems on the way that the white object needs the mediation of the colored object, and there is some sense in which the colored object only persists because it is enveloped in a greater real/white object (in his theory of causation, The Intentional as a Whole, which holds as somehow private the asymmetical meeting ground between white and colored objects). These are slight biases against the place of mediating sensual representation figures. But all in all he also seems to see them as completely interwoven kinds which from the wider view is really the interweave of two equal realms. They form complimentary “problems.” Each realm is seemingly autonymous but still needful of the properties of the other for communication with its own kind.
If any of this analysis of color is correct, then where does that leave the political imprint and force of Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Philosophy? It conceptualization seems to be derived from a colonialist inspired history of idealized foreignness, the dripping wealth of the native which is always placed in a mediating (vicarious) position towards whiteness itself. As with idealizations of the noble savage, one knows that such esteem always harbors the dangers of its suppressed reverse, the projection of the negative shadow of whiteness. In this Graham’s depiction of vicars does not explicitly, or even implicitly participate, which does not mean that it is not present.
But then there is that extraordinary metaphor of the bomb found in his essay on vicarious causation, which must have strong political resonance given the time and country that he inhabits:
Something must happen on the
sensual plane to allow them to make contact,
corrosive chemicals lie side by side in a bomb -
separated by a thin film eaten away over time, or ruptured by
(“On Vicarious Cauation” 197)
I put it in a stanza because Graham is an evocative, poetic writer at times and the point he is making is indeed the point of contact that subsumes the sensuous as part of its means. The “bomb” of the unexpected comes from the very proximity of the sensous colored ones, which somehow corrode into catalytic action, bringing real white objects into explosive collision OR, the bomb comes from the distant signals of real white objects sent to each other. (Actually, in the greater passage it is not quite clear to me just what is lying next to what, or what doing something to something else.) In this extraordinary analogy the bomb of the middle east goes off out of the very sensuous communicabilty of colored interactions, the provoked collapse of their customed bufferings, by the clean signal sent by white objects to one another, through their foreign medium. And all of causation in the world is seen to be something of a terrorist bomb.
Cairo, the Weird of Causation and the Democracy of Objects
Equal authority is granted to the colored realms - remember that the first occasionalist Graham turns to is notably Islamic, Al-Ghazali, though Object-Oriented Philsophy strips him of his God. That power is given to the colored facility of connection, in that it is at least rhetorically a form of political, fringe, violent protest against the West that becomes a model for causality itself, one sees through to Graham’s “democracy of objects” where each object has the same rights, the right to erupt from depths; and thus all things are imagined as engaged in a mutuality of two inter-locking realms even if in mysterious and unpredictable communication, beneath the surface. But the great problem is, at least for my theoretical ear, that much of this evocative and explanatory language has not only a deep entrenchment in the Idealist tradition (something I have argued at length from various directions), but also in the very ethnocentric projections of a determinatively White West. The very attributes of positive characterists that imbue the internal vicars that allow all these cold, distant objects who can’t touch, to touch, are charicatures of Eastern or more widely, colored rich. In this way they perpetuate the image of their own enslavement. And the very poetic gravitational centers which make such a description attractive (that give it its allure), are those aspects which retard us from being able to conceive of the dynamics between things as fundamentally and conceptually different than these projections of our historical past. Is it necessarily true that the white must depend upon a vicarious colored? And if so, is not this logical dependency born of its very imaginative split, upon the assertion of “white” in the first place?
But the attractiveness of such an exotic theory does not merely condemn it to a simple repetition of past forms. One must admit that the very lure of it is also the means by which it may allow a transformation of the projections it uses; that is, the exotic language of vicar description as it puts colored obects into more centralized mediating roles, may in the service of a “democracy of objects” allow us or future others to metaphysically write themselves out beyond such idealizations, at the proper time. And there is the sense that come from a Western writer in an American University, within Cairo, it is just such a “weird” metaphysics that is incredibly timely, expressing a logic of ethnic tension in a materialistic, capitalized Age. Yet if this is the case (and that remains to be argued), such a metaphysics I believe must also be strongly critiqued for its inheritance, as colonial, so as to trace the transformations it brings to Heideggerian (and Hölerlinian) whites and coloreds, so to fully allow the directional “bombs” of Graham’s conceptions to go off most soterologically. If we are going to binarize, we must keep track of our binaries, where they come from, and where they lead.
For my part, though I admit this possible productivity of the rhetoric, I find these kinds of metaphysical plays with binaries highly problematic, especially when they put forth the form of a naturalized “kind” which embodies much that really should be examined in a more rigorous way. And I wonder if Latour’s resistance to Graham’s retreating objects behind his own ANT occasional actors of ever kind and color is an instinctive retreat from any explanatory oppositional whiteness. The reason why actors may be enough for Latour is that coloredness is enough, there is only colorness, so to speak, not just as a matter of our condition, but of the condition of the world. While I do not find Latour’s flatness of actors and networks satisfying, and agree with Graham that a deepening is needed, I am suspect of any good that a binary of absent, invisible things does. Rather it strikes me that it is more in the very structural dynamics of power, into the depths of causal explanation itself, the way that understanding how something works gives real ontological change in the capacity to act, that we better turn. In this way we side step both the positivity and negativity of theoretical allure, rather to make of our philosophy the most articulate grammar of an effective communication across the currents of these rooted identifications.