All things Great and Unmeasured [anaríthmêtos] Time
Births [phúei] unseen & having appeared [phanénta], hides [krúptetai];
(Sophocles, Aias; lines 646-647)
Graham Harman’s Response: The Lock on Objects
Sorry that I have been out-of-computer for a day or so, for when I first read Graham Harman’s response to my earlier questioning of his work and term “Object-Oriented Philosophy,” I wanted to enter in quickly so that the tempo between us could produce some clarity, for it seemed off-hand that Graham did not address my thought too directly, and a quick up-take of his points would prove light-shedding. But given that circumstances have driven some distance, it was my sincere hope that by spinning his response over in my mind, turning its being-of-being center, looking at every angle, I could come clear to a positive relation to what he is saying.
But this has not happened. That is, as I have more than absent mindedly contemplated his response, this thoughts remain distinctly apart from much of the point I was making, not only about Husserl’s notion of intentionality, Heidegger’s opticality, but most importantly, his own return to object-centrality…that all stem from one Cartesian picture of how consciousness operates, a picture come at least in part from the new science of dioptrics and the metaphors of lenses.
What is nice though is that I have time now to engage his response piece by piece, and as is sometimes the case with a text, by teasing out its directions, woof and warp, one may come to feel what is being said more directly, more positively.
A Trinity of Points
The best thing is perhaps to begin with Graham’s three-point assessment of my questioning. As an excellent writer he gives me something to hold onto right off. And if we are to find the source of a misunderstanding, it likely would be here. These are the three points he feels that I am making:
1) Harman’s focus on objects represents a typical rut of the tradition that needs to be overcome
(2) it comes from a desire for a “central clarity” (rather than, I suppose, a comfort with the inevitable lack of such clarity)
(3) instead of the “game” of trying to recapture the essence of things, we should realize that accidents are the name of the game
Right off at number one it seems that we are in the same ballpark. But something in the rhetoric, in the words, tells me that he is hearing something I do not intend. “Rut,” what a wonderful word. Do I mean that those sons of Descartes that have taken the Central Clarity image of consciousness are in a rut? We can see the groves worn into the path, as the centuries of wagons carrying their ontic weight to argument market, the praxis of human habit has philosophical steered just where such wagons can go, is this what I mean? Yes, I can see that. But I do not see this “rut” as typical in the sense that it is somehow mindlessly banal, as in the phrase, “oh, he’s so typical,” and nor do I want to be thinking of “types” or even of “the tradition” as if there is a necessary iconoclastic movement that has to be started. It is rather for me that there is an inheritance of an image, an expectation of the sufficiency of a take, what Wittgenstein would sometimes call a “picture,” and that this picture of consciousness (though it has its roots in the misty past of Greek Ur-texts, the kind of which Heidegger loved to play with) at modern times grounds itself in a particular moment in history: the development of optical prosthetics, and the experience of images seen through theoreticized lenses, which were taken to be models of consciousness itself. That is, the over-riding optical metaphors of Western Philosophy, in the person (and scientist) of Descartes, took on a very specific character as to how consciousness was to be “pictured,” carried forward through his metaphysics. When one realizes the origin of such framing, then the framing itself can at least be questioned. And I would say that at least as far as I read him, Harman’s work seem to be tensioned both inside and outside of this frame.
That is, like the tension that I read within Harman’s own work (soon to be noted), Descartes’ centrality of focus notion of consciousness was actually a concept which ran counter to his much wider semiotic Realism treatment of mind wherein ideas were thought of as actions. His philosophy of a sensing, communicating mechanism grew out of his main ambitions as a natural philosopher which likely superceded his interest in metaphysical grounds. It was Descartes’ theological need for a free, independent Will, (that is, an accountable soul), which lead him to insert into consciousness this notion of central clarity. The central clarity is what the Will (Soul) focuses on. And so too, as Graham Harman strains towards a post-human Husserl and Heidegger, one that does not privilege the human relation above all others, he (at least in my opinion) drags with him the heritage of the prime metaphor of consciousness as optical central clarity which Descartes originally inserted in order to privilege the human in the first place. Descartes’ semiotics of mind wherein the mind perceives the world directly through its bodily senses in the same (decentralized, non-optical) way that a blind man perceives the world through a stick, becomes a human soul which directs its Will, like a spotlight, on some core clarity…or really object.
His secondly summation,
(2) it comes from a desire for a “central clarity” (rather than, I suppose, a comfort with the inevitable lack of such clarity)
I like Graham’s second point, at least how it starts, but I am unsure where he got the sense that I am arguing for an inevitable lack of clarity (though I may suggest that in theories which I did not include in my response to Object-Oriented Philosophy). I suppose though this may be due to me not putting proper emphasis in my disagreement. My problem was not with a reduction of consciousness to Central Clarity, but to Central Clarity. Indeed there is clarity in consciousness (Descartes’ trope would not even function if there were not), and there may even be a Central Clarity (that is, there is a figure/ground feature to consciousness that is quite significant, and we say things like “can you make your point more clear?” or, “I can’t quite make out the bird in the bush”). But consciousness is not reduced to (or even super-achieved by) this centralization: no object constitutes it. The reason for this is primarily two-fold. The first is that I contend that if one looks to the very center of consciousness (that is, under the spotlight picture which imagines that consciousness is like something that shines out onto the world in some fashion, and reveals Being of whatever status at its center, leaving Non-Being at its wake or at its border), there in the center, the point of attention, is not a “clarity”. And there at the center is not an “object,” or even a “concept”. There is not even the apideîn of Heidegger’s Platonic abstractive seeing. If we are to think in terms of centers, the center of consciousness is a dissonance, an eruptive line. The second reason is that even if we cluster this dissonance center (might we say a laser center) with a broader object or concept center (the spotlight), this contrast in clarity is dependent upon the sense of all the lies beyond it…that is, the “clarity” would not even be restricted to this center (its object), but is spread upon a web of perceptions and beliefs, from which no dividing line can be taken. It is my point, at least insofar as I respond to Graham’s orientation towards the “object”, is that centrality itself (intention) when applied undermines the pure notion of clarity, but also, insofar as there is clarity, it is not centralized. The very character of consciousness is lost in the push towards central clarity.
Graham’s third point is an important one, because here at least I get the sense that he understands the very crux of argument against his treatment of “accidents” to essence, what he approvingly says Husserl calls the “gems” of a object:
(3) instead of the “game” of trying to recapture the essence of things, we should realize that accidents are the name of the game
What I would like to bring out is why the “accidents” are the name of the game. They are not the name of the game because they are more important than the essence (against which we are supposed to realize their very accidentally), but rather because in Graham Harman’s very dichotomy, the significance of what he calls accidents becomes lost. It is not that the accidents are what we should philosophically keep our eye upon, though I do insist that what Graham calls “accidents” are what our living line of consciousness is already on. It is that our very epistemic way of understanding bodies and relating to the world is one in which the contingent effects upon things in the world, and our ability to read those effects sensibly and make powerful, meaningful determinations, arises out of those effects. When a tree shakes unexpectedly, this is not an occasion of the essence of the tree suddenly exhibiting a new “gem”. We look into the air and at other trees, and may even attend to our own skin, searching for breeze. Then we narrow our gaze up into the branches, perhaps change our position unto the tree, and then see a squirrel flitting its tail energetically, perhaps territorially. We are not engaging a “real” object that is ever in retreat from us. The shaking of its leaves was not some apparitional shimmer of an essence caught on the intentional object of our minds. The shaking of the trees leaves was what directed our attention towards the shared world, towards a cause that has a bearing upon us (what shook the tree could shake us). The sound and spasm of the tree caught our attention because it was dissonant to our expectations and beliefs; not because the essence of the tree had acquired new gems. The accidents are the name of the game because events that catch our attention are those same events which direct us toward understanding the world better. Our “clarity,” far from being centralized, is composed and provisional. The world is largely transparent to us. We are not cut off from it, but are part of it.
Are Two Kinds of Objects Still Objects?
After these three digestions Graham goes onto make some important points, unfortunately these are directed more towards interpretations of Husserl and Heidegger, and spend less time on his own notion of the importance of “objecthood”. But because I link my trouble with his philosophical aim to a continuity in a tradition, perhaps this is fair. It is best then to see to what degree Graham is sipping from the Cartesian waters of consciousness as a Central Clarity insofar as he leans back on Husserl and finds objects in Heidegger.
He first finds a difficulty in a tendency he sees in me to treat “the theme of objects as if it were the same strategy” in both Husserl and Heidegger. Try as I might, I can’t quite see where he finds this, for I did not speak of the strategies of each thinker. Clearly Heidegger is in response to Husserl, and is not using the same strategy. What I do claim though is that the same fundamental optical metaphor for Being is exhibited in both, and this metaphor is one of central clarity. In Husserl this metaphor is taken to be definitive for consciousness (however then analyzed), in Heidegger, in a kind of Negative Theology, it is indicative of the failings of consciousness. The spotlight of the mind cannot see under being. In both cases the metaphor is that which sets the pragmata, the issues at hand.
Graham wants to tell us that the “objects” in Heidegger (which he himself as unearthed) are very different than Husserl’s. Of course they are. We are in infinite agreement. The point is that the very characterization of object as object, (that is, in some implicit way as the central focus of a clarity of consciousness), whether it be the intentional “over-arching” object or the object/thing/being that hides, is an adoption of this rutting motif. Even where Heidegger crosses out the object altogether in its hiddenness, as he toggles optically between alêtheia and lêthê (preferring the outright visual trope of “coveredness” rather than the more readily “forgottenness” or even dull “obscurity” which are perhaps closer to the feeling of the word in the Greek), he is still enrapture by a primary aim of consciousness that is of Central Clarity. It is just a Central Clarity which is perpetually denied of us…we can never really see the object before us. I think that Graham is quite right to rescue the notion of object from Heidegger and to place it in front and center, but in so doing, I believe he is calling attention to a history of thinking about consciousness as defined by a Central Clarity (perhaps CCC). By crossing out this Central Clarity, imposing Non-Being over its Being, so to speak, one is still in the game of CCC. That Heidegger’s objects hide and that Husserl’s objects don’t hide at all really are effects of the same diagnosis.
Edge of Philosophy
Graham then says something else which puzzles me a bit,
But what I most object to is the idea that Husserl’s eidos is some sort of traditional game, and that rejecting it immediately stations one on the cutting edge of philosophy in our time.
First of all, I have not so much interest of getting to the “cutting edge” of philosophy, if by this one means a newness that is marked by its newness. I am interested in philosophy that is germane to our time, and as he knows, my reinvigoration of Campanella (via Spinoza) means for me that the “cutting edge” may involve some very sharp edges from the past. (Nexus points of historical change often involve philosophical branchings which were not taken up in the mainstream, branching which may prove rich in conceptual possibility when paths taken deadend: argued for in terms of Spinoza here.) Graham here seems to feel that I think that just by making iconoclastic gestures, jettisoning some tradition, one gets to hop their place to the front of the line. My critique of Graham’s Object-Oriented Philosophy (again, still a surface critique), is not that it is not “on the cutting edge of philosophy in our time,” but that the very post-human aims of his philosophy are not served well by the object-orientation he wishes to retain, in fact, emphasize. That is, historically and conceptually, the centrality of the object is what has been most in the service of centralizing what is human — as I said, this can be dated back to a fundamental tension between Descartes Natural Science and his Christian Theology. Where Graham identifies the object buried in Heidegger, and returns to Husserlian intentionality to speak of a fundamental dyad of the intentional and real objects to give the Heidegger objects life, he takes with him the poisoned-pawn of human centrality (despite his every intention not to). When Graham speaks of these objects, or the tool-beings which are never seen fully, as they hide from our spotlight consciousness, the dyad is set up once again, one which fundamentally mischaracterizes (or oversimplifies into a picture) consciousness. And there are two levels of this problem, the first is the presumed authority of the optical metaphor in the very concept of “hiddenness,” and secondly that the very nature of opticality as a central clarity is already flawed, because at the center of optical perception is a living line of dissonance.
For me, at least insofar as I share Graham’s post-human aims, the very notion of a hidden tool is missing what is happening in tool use. When using a tool we inhabit a tool, we join a tool, we become it… we do not strictly “use” it (wherein at some level we are “beholding” it, or attempt to “use it up”). Drive a car and the car is not “hiding from us”. In fact, the car and us become a pansensual revelation of the states of the road, an assemblage of collaborative and really cybernetic perceptions. The fullness of the car is there, as well as the fullness of the road. Because we leave behind opticality, it is not that the road is hiding from us at all, but rather, the road, the car and us are expressing themselves in a consonance, one might say, a degree of power. Could the expression be more powerful? Sure. But opticality, the missingness of the rest of the object (be it the road, the car or me) is not the best characterization of the optimalization of an expression. Our communications can be increased. The shocks could be replaced, I might have studied a map before I left, I might wear glasses, the road engineers might have banked the turns more, I might obey the speed limit, I might have put better gas in the car, I might have better driving music on the mp3 player, but none of these increases have to with whether the object of the road is more or less hidden from us. Opticality simply is not the best trope. In fact, the accidents of the road, the “phenomenal qualities” of it are the very things which direct us to a conceptual understanding and increase in our ability to act. If ice is clinging to the trees in a beautiful glassiness about every branch, as it was here last week after an Ice Storm, I am notified that the road might have “black ice”. I touch my break, I feel the road. I slow down, I drive more freely, with greater control and expression. Where there is a philosophical concern it is how taking a position, an orientation towards these qualities which compose the very changes in power and freedom that make up the most important things in our lives. I believe though that indeed it is in the direction of tools and use we must turn, as Graham tells us, but our very notion of tool must change from an object used (which remains hidden from our view) to an thing inhabited and combined with, to a degree of power.
Graham claims that the “upper-hand” tradition is the tradition of empiricism, and it is this tradition which Husserl leads us away from. (Is there the suggestion that if we overcome this tradition we have come to the cutting edge?) But this is an odd response to my claim that Husserl is in the Cartesian tradition. In fact, both the empiricists and the idealists are largely under the Consciousness as Central Clarity picture, come from Descartes. The idealism/empiricism divide (with Graham firmly, and properly, replanting Husserl in the Idealist camp) is already structured by the CCC. Husserl is argued by Graham to have been the very first to have placed a schism that formerly fell outside the Idealist realm, within the Idealist realm itself, what he calls a “true distinction”. This may well be that Husserl invented a distinction within the distinction, but my point is that he is already operating within a mistaken conception of consciousness itself, the very notion of central clarity as reductive of consciousness. To divide a mistaken category is not in my view helpful.
But because Graham spends so much time speaking about Husserl (and Heidegger) and not his own notion of the Objects which should make up the orientation of Philosophy, I am left unsure if he is defending their positions or his own (insofar as he has appropriated them). I have no desire to get bogged down into Husserlian and Heideggerian hermeneutics, two thinkers, on which if 9/10ths of the literature written were lost in a fire I’m not sure how much would be lost to Western Civilization (one can say this about any of the heavy weights, Spinoza included). I would much rather entertain what Graham means by the importance of the Object, at least enough for me to dispel my strong suspicion that by rescuing the object from Heidegger and combining it with Husserlian Intentionality, he has also rescued an implicit CCC and homo-centricism, which he then hopes to throw back out. Or at the very least, the way that he is going about it is the long way around, one which will eventually leave him with no choice but to embrace a panpsychism of such objects.
The Central Paradox of Objects?
Graham then ends with the imagination of the ironic:
The irony is that all the people who reject objects because they think they’re beyond traditional notions of identity, or whatever, are thereby missing the central PARADOX of objects: that they exist in constant tension with their accidents, relations, qualities, and moments. Objects are always sliding away from themselves in two directions along two separate axes. It is those who reject objects who lessen the tension and offer some crude simplicity in its place
I cannot tell if this is directly precisely towards me, for I am unsure what “crude simplicity” I would have put in place of objects. Rather I embrace the very eruptive qualities of things when engaged, but certainly deny that it is objects themselves that are either “splitting” or “in tension with” something or “sliding away” from themselves. It is a beautiful, indeed poetic picture. But it is a picture that is misleading in two ways. The first is that it is the eruptive that is the indicative of consciousness. The center of consciousness is the living line of dissonance. Nothing is ontologically sliding away from itself, there is no object wobbling which works as a cause directing our attention to something important (one might say conditions can wobble, erupt, fraction, expections, tempo, loose emotions, textures, so many things that are not proper objects of consciousness). It is not a paradox of objects, but a fabric of the very nature of what perception (and conceptualization) is. Our attention is directed towards things, features, elements, qualities, events, differences, and these differences indicate (sêmainein), they direct our attention outwardly towards the causes of these events. The book has that color now because of the angle of the sun. The room has that sound now because a book just fell from its shelf. That face has that expression because he just heard the news. To locate these accidents within the very object, as a kind of tension, a paradox is to loose what “accidents” do…they indicate and expand. Part of this reading of objects through their accidents (or qualities) is also a fundamental ability to place ourselves in the bodies of them. I understand why you are saying the things you are saying, why your arms are moving the way they are moving, because I know (as Wittgenstein would tell us) that you are in pain, or that you believe such and such to be the case (as Davidson would say). I inhabit you, and read the world through you, as you do through me, and it is this very readability, this affective reflection or imitation which becomes truly cybernetic, which denies the ultimate opacity of objects. Objects combine with us, and we to they. If they only combine to a certain degree of optimality at a certain moment, this degree is what is possible at that moment in time (strictly, there is no such thing as the McCain Victory Coalition, I would say). If we are to speak of optimal combinations of objects, or, simply things, res, then the very distinction of objecthood (in any notion of hiddenness) is forced to vanish. That is, it is only One Thing that is combining with itself, what Spinoza would call Substance, Nature or God. In a sense, it is not the object which is wobbling or splitting, but our very degree of the power to act freely. The second thing wrong with this picture is that the very notion of a central object that does all these things [before our implicit and floating, unstated gaze] trades upon a notion of consciousness as Central Object Clarity. The reason why the object bucks and sways is that the very frame under which we look to uncover the nature of such an object is a simplification.
As opposed to what Graham calls “lessening the tension” that is supposed to exist in every object [a kind of jouissance of the object perhaps], I suggest that one recast one’s eye to where this tension lies. It is not in the object itself (whatever its status), but in the living line of dissonance at the center of consciousness. What this does is open up the direction towards which the eruption points, and I might say naturally points, It points to other things, to other persons (there is a reason why Heidegger’s obsession with the peek-a-boo object never lead him to any theory of friendship or an richly interpersonal groundings of meaning). When the tension is taken out of the object (which is either rattling around eruptively in our heads, like a piece of radioactive yellow cake, or incandescing there in the grass), it is redistributed in our relationship to the world, the choices we make, the alliances we form (epistemic and otherwise), the bodily assimilations we bring about. The vibrancy of the object is our vibrancy, across domains. Graham, yes, I agree, the object shimmers. In fact the world shimmers. But its shimmer is always indicative, opening, expanding, couched in our felt combination with other things and people that we read as inhabited.
Essential Dyads, May They Never Die
Lastly Graham makes an appeal to the soterial benefits of his dyads, something that preserves something at the heart of objects:
In Prince of Networks, the final chapter (which no one but me has seen yet) begins with a criticism of “radical” philosophies, where “radical” means the attempt to reduce one aspect of entities out of existence. The “dyads” criticized by Kevin are not fossilized relics of olden times, but are the only way to preserve the weird ambiguity in the heart of objects.
Beside the obvious appeal that the heart of something should always be saved (we even, or especially, wince when the vampire gets the stake driven in), there is a curious recursivity to this thinking. One must have fundamental dyads because they save the heart of objects. This is suppose to counter my claim that the very notion of a (split) heart of object is generated by the dyads themselves, itself a product of Central Clarity Consciousness. It is not the case that such dyads are dead bones, but rather they are living generators of the very thing that are necessarily imposed to protect. In fact, Graham’s choice of words here is I believe telling. I think he does see the dyads as relic-ous, or at least, he sees them as preserving a heart of things which resistant to what we can say about them, turning objects into relics. The saint’s finger bone has something in it other than all the properties that seem to be external to it. The whole world is filled with saint-finger bones. I don’t even wish to reduce this resistance quality out of existence. I wish rather to place it in a living service of ever-renewed combination, the increase of our power to act and understand ourselves and things in the world. Perhaps we can say that objects are not living-dead secret-keepers, but living secret-tellers. Because I see this tension not as an irreducible property of objects (or of consciousness), locked in a eternity of ontology, but as part of the connective between bodies, the very notion of entities has changed. The dyad between me and my car is productive of a reading of a triad me-car-road. But me-car-road can become part of a dyad me-car-road/rain, which in turn can read eruptively into a third. There is no limit to the dexterity or subtlety with which these combinations can be, and are daily, momently being made. The wanted resistant holiness of saint-bones is spread everywhere in directions of power, freedom and knowing. If one is argue that there are the saint-bones of “real objects” in tension with their qualities, and then the unreal saintbones of “intentional objects” which ally uneasily with their accidents, and somehow our getting along in the world is explained, made more vivid, more dynamic through these two “objects” furtively matching up, one is really left to explain the role these objects play in the mechanism by which knowledge as power enables us to become more free, more transparent, more fathomable, but also more dexterous, more articulate, more resonant, more intense, more maliable by degrees, and the question of complete transparency falls to a change in the picture of consciousness itself.
This being said, I do consider Graham’s philosophy to be on the cutting edge, in the positive sense. It is engaging. I have to confesss that I did not matriculate (at) through endless quibbles over Continental texts as Graham has endured. His vision is no doubt hard-won, and I do not aim, nor even suspect I would be able to shake it. But discussions are fruitful. What is one to do when one has found their own “tool analysis” concept of Being quite apart from Heidegger when discussing things with someone who traces nearly every philosophical position theyhave back towards Heidegger’s influence? Unlike Graham (at least it seems) who traces the path forward on mainly Continental terms, I see an synthesis of Analytic and Continental as the most opportune way forward, to work both before and after the breach. My encounters with Heidegger and Husserl were personal encounters. And like Graham, I was put off by the human-centric auras of these philosophers. And when I read Latour I too was struck by the deep metaphysical possibilities of his work. (But admittedly I was largely taken by the sense that all of this could be put in a much more usable philosophical framework, and Heidegger was not the philosopher I thought of, Spinoza was.) In fact I admire Graham’s renewal of Heidegger through a vigorous post-human inter-indices. I have yet to read his Prince of Networks to see fully what he does with it, perhaps it is convincing. I would want to add to all these thoughts that there is a very real and artistic sense in which objects do defy us, that they radiate, perculate, evanesce. I do not find this to be an ontological category, that is, a category which we must logically consider real in order to make sense of how we make sense of the world. The sculpter feels the radiation of the grains of marble, the traffic controller feels the tremble of the computer grid at a vital moment, just before snow fall there is such a terrible silence. Even a common water glass, if we hold it in our hand can strike us so weirdly. None of these do I mean to deny. This is a product of our cathexis of objects, that is the affective way we extend ourselves to them (and they to us). But instead of stopping their, and thinking, feeling that the “swerve” is in the object, pay closer attention to where your attention is going. It is not that the object is jumping, traveling away, wrargling, slipping. Your attenuation is traveling. And to where it is specifically going is something that is lost when it stops at the object, at something the object itself is doing. One can of course use the soft-focus of an emanating object as a crafting tool. One can get accustomed to its presence, its rise and fall. Like seeing gods in all things, there is something to it, but non-being is not there. Take it in your hand and do something with it, I say.
[Followed up here: Harman Brings Central Clarity to the Issue (wink, nod) ]