Saturday, August 13, 2016

A Commentary on Graham Harman's Immaterialism

A commentary on a philosopher whose work sometimes appears inimical to the philosophical commitmments of my project might at first blush seem incongruent if not reckless; yet Harman's work has already appeared in these pages, and at least some of his interests seem to resonate with themes in a phenomenology of givenness as I understand them. Only the reader will discern if I've shot myself in the foot with the remarks that follow, and if I've chosen a good topic to end a nearly 3 month hiatus.

A continuing critique of phenomenology, and a critique of Actor-Network Theory and 'the new materialism', Graham Harman's Immaterialism (Malden, MA: Polity, 2016) develops the philosopher's object oriented ontology and extends his new metaphysics of objects (and his recent critique of Heidegger's das Geviert) to 'objects and their relevance to social theory' (1). Though a familiarity with The Quadruple Object (Zero Books, 2011) serves a reading of Immaterialism, Harman's recap of the former's essential features and his signature concepts of 'undermining' and 'overmining' renders the latter something of a précis of his work in general.

Interestingly, something new comes to the fore in Immaterialism, namely the notion of the object as 'surplus exceeding its relations, qualities and actions' (3), (emphasis mine). Harman coins the term, 'duomining' (7) to acknowledge that neither the deployments of undermining nor overmining rarely occur in isolation, and that both and either threaten the surplus of things by denying objects their own dignity and integrity by reducing them down (undermining) to something more fundamental without remainder, or reducing them up (overmining) to their relations or actions (10)---the conceptual space of their manifestations---without remainder. 'Without remainder' here means without surplus of reality---the reality of things rests not in the things themselves but elsewhere.

Harman  therefore consecrates his approach to the thing in itself (27-8). Before I proceed any further, I must distinguish the 'thing in itself'  (27) from 'back to the things themselves'. For Harman the thing in itself is the reality of the thing that cannot be paraphrased (8) or reduced down to even more 'real', smaller constituent particles, or up to a greater 'reality' of 'what it does' (28). His speculative realism does not 'back into' the thing itself, but thinks the thing from itself; hence, Harman's project is a metaphysics from 'above', a metaphysics whose terms are not imposed upon a thing, but instead, are dictated by the thing. The phenomenological war cry that leads 'back to the things themselves' calls for an erasure of judgments and other a priori baggage that, now quelled, allow the thing to appear. This is not a subtle distinction: Harman's ontology is not phenomenology and a phenomenology of givenness is not a speculative realism, even if both share an abiding concern for the freedom of things, for things to be free to be (or give) themselves, unencumbered by methodological reductions that undermine, overmine and duomine. His argument, therefore, points at Kant more than Husserl.

If it is not already clear, I suggest that a phenomenology of givenness neither paraphrases things, nor converts things into a knowledge of them without remainder; it does not undermine, overmine or duomine. And what fascinates here, is the shared concern for the dignity and autonomy of things to be themselves, certainly, but to give themselves from and of themselves, on the part of Harman's metaphysics, and a phenomenology of givenness. Now to be sure, Harman uses the terms 'excess' and 'given' negatively, and he remains critical of the 'given' to the bitter end. Immaterialism gives an account of things apart from phenomenality, and certainly apart from (new) materialism. Still, Harman's 'surplus' of objects coincides nicely with the excess embraced in a phenomenology of givenness, even if Harman's 'given' is not quite the same as what it means in 'being given'.

Harman is quite clear that he wishes to negate the tenets of materialism by positing an immaterialism whose tenets are the direct opposite, the 'antonym of the approaches' of the new materialism: stability trumps change, boundaries are the rule and gradients are the exception, some things are not contingent, nouns trump verbs, autonomous essence is the rule, and experimentation approximates it no better than theory, what things 'are' are more interesting that what things 'do', thoughts and their objects are just like any other 2 objects, the singular trumps the multiple, the world is not just immanent (14-15).

These antonyms take on a greater thrust when viewed against the backdrop of Harman's critique of Adrian Johnston (29-32), who posits a very slippery slippery slope between the thing in itself and negative theology. Countering with Pseudo-Dionysius' 'lighted house' analogy of  the Trinity (30), Harman emphasizes its cataphatic power, and then concludes with a pounding of Johnston's 'all or nothing' epistemology as inadequate to account for art. Only art itself can direct an account of it, and 'sometimes we can only reveal things obliquely, looking for paradox rather than literally accurate predicates as our entry to a thing' (32).

The larger part of Immaterialism presents an analysis of the Dutch East India Company (VOC in Dutch) as exemplar of an object with import to social theory. I will not summarize Harman's provocative 'ontology' (39) of the VOC here, but instead observe several points in his method. He is not after history here, though he wishes to underscore seminal occurrences that define the 'stages' of the life of his object, the VOC. Taking his point of departure from Leibniz's reductio ad absurdum that the VOC is no more an object than a heap of stones, Harman proceeds to proclaim that the VOC is indeed a unified object (37). Further, he speaks of the life-cycle of objects and various stages in a single object, as opposed to the development of new objects.

In order to assure that 'an entity qualifies as an object as long as it is irreducible both to its components and its long as the object is not exhausted by undermining or overmining methods' (41), Harman develops the concept of symbiosis. The biological term has had a life of its own, and has undergone transformations of meaning, but in Harman's hands the term refers to a commensal interaction between objects without prejudice to the integrity of either object, even when they form a 'new' object, 'however fleeting' (43). He stipulates, along with Badiou, that 'events' are rare (47), and not every interaction between symbionts (Harman does not use this term) are 'decisive' (44): 'immaterialism proposes symbiosis as the key to unlocking a finite number of distinct phases in the life of the same object rather than the creation of a new one' (49-50).

Again stressing that the thing in itself cannot be reduced to what it does or 'can do', Harman warns that any privileging of 'doing' gravitates to the 'most histrionic incidents during' the lifespan of a thing, and excludes a good deal of ousia. Such a strategy might interest a history, but not an ontology. Instead, Harman's ontology focuses on the connection between two objects in the nominative case (53). The interaction between objects as ingredients (not actors) and symbionts, and this holds even when one of the symbionts are human.

What follows is a thorough investigation of incidents in the life of the VOC. By emphasizing a democracy of objects interacting in the life cycle of the VOC Harman eventually performs a sic et non critique of Actor-Network Theory (97-106). Finally, he levels his sharpest critique against the decadence of mindless recapitulation of great objects. Of special interest is his attack on the followers of Husserl, Derrida and Deleuze, on those affected imitators who have lost sight of the dangers faced by these original thinkers (125). In  this critique Harman can only refer to the overminers, underminers and duominers who have lost Husserl et aliter and find themselves lost in false realities of 'deeper 'substances and 'broader' accidents.

 I certainly do not want to blithely fall into a systematic decadence of things. A phenomenology of givenness does not, as it looks to the thing to give itself from and of itself, collapsing anything in epoche that would fetter the thing. Because Harman speaks of incidents rather than 'events' that symbiotically move an object through several stages in its lifecycle, we cannot levy the saturated phenomenon of the 'event' against his thesis, nor can we leave 'selection bias' on his doorstep because he proffers an ontology rather than a history of the VOC. So what then can a phenomenology of givenness and an immaterialism, as symbionts (can they ever make such a connection?), come to know about their respective life cycles? Can the thing that gives itself from and for itself enjoy a being and a giving that are modes of each other? What finally can it mean for a thing to give itself prior to being---certainly we mean by that something other than a statement of spatiotemporal status.

It is clear to me that Harman is about cherishing the integrity, unity and even dignity of all 'things' and especially the surplus in things, what phenomenology calls the 'excess' that inheres in things, an excess that cannot be known directly but only indirectly through counter-experience. When a phenomenology of revelation claims that God loves before he is, it means that the encounter with the divine depends on the givenness of God---God's self-donation, and not at all on a metaphysics of the analogia entis. Harman has no interest in that outdated metaphysics which his own seeks to supplant. In fact, Harman's ontology is a descending metaphysics whose descent from the thing in itself is the only proper pedigree for a productive metaphysics that does justice to the thing, whether under the aegis of an object oriented ontology or a genuine speculative realism. 

Regardless, neither rationalism nor any other positivism can sustain the argument that a phenomenology of givenness reduces to a negative theology, and Harman agrees with at least this much. Phenomenology would assent to the analogy of apophasis with undermining and cataphasis with overmining because givenness comes only from the given, from the gift. Phenomenology sees sacrifice as a kind of citation, a gift given, received and re-gifted; similarly immaterialism sees symbiosis as a kind of connection where immaterialism might concede a givenness informing that interaction: Harman has spoken of paradox as entry to a thing, but is he ready for the paradox of the gift? In any event, that both a phenomenology of givenness and a critical immaterialism should uphold the excess in things, whether in their phenomenality or immateriality, should give pause for a wave and a smile from either side of an ever so slightly narrowed chasm.