No, it’s not the one about absolute vs. relative space. In fact, the challenge Graham Harman takes up in his latest book, Immaterialism, wasn’t so much a challenge issued by Leibniz as a throwaway comment about real objects and the Dutch East India Company. Having rummaged through the dustbin of philosophical history, Harman found Leibniz’s comment, uncrinkled the paper, and stuck it to his refrigerator door. At least that’s how I imagine it.
Leibniz located substance within monads rather than, say, atoms. This meant that a mid-level object like a diamond could have substance independent of the allotropic lattices of carbon atoms which constitute it materially. You could say that Leibniz was an object-oriented ontologist 400 years before his time. Except, except! Leibniz would not accept that substance could cross the gulf of artifice, meaning that assemblages such as pairs of diamonds, machines, and, yes, the Dutch East India Company could not be monadic substances, or real objects. This key limitation all but excludes Leibniz’s ontology from having anything interesting to say about social questions, though subsequent thinkers have made some fantastic gains in that direction. In the 19th century, Gabriel Tarde drew upon monadology to theorize social agency, and since the late 20th century, David Harvey has applied it to dialectical materialism in his understanding of historical movement. And, of course, without Tardean monadology, we probably would not have Latourian Actor-Network Theory (ANT). In Immaterialism, Harman takes on Leibniz via the Tarde-Latour lineage. Indeed, Harman devotes a fair amount of text in this short book defining his immaterialist program against ANT (98-107).
But since half of the book is a meditation on the birth, transformation, and decline of the Dutch East India Company, what we’re getting more than anything else in Immaterialism is the beginnings of an object-oriented historiography. In which case, Harman, while explicitly departing from New Historicism and ANT-based historiographies, is also (albeit implicitly) departing from the structuralist line, which goes from Durkheim to Freud to the Frankfurt School and its descendants. The structures with which the structuralists were concerned were those which were supposed to be common to the psychologies of both individuals and social groups. For example, just as the incest desire and its repression were channeled into the formation of the individual ego, so the collective incest taboo was channeled into politico-economic infrastructure. This naturalized property and regulated mobility, both of which came back around to affect the identity formation of the group’s individual members. Society was thus a macrohuman. Poststructuralist programs, along with ANT, went the opposite direction and turned the human into a microsociety, wherein the individual is an aggregate either of the identities it performs or of the interactions in which it is an actor. Harman’s immaterialist program does a little bit of both and a little bit of neither. On the one hand, relationships between entities play a far bigger role than do governing psycho-social structures. But on the other hand, social aggregates (being substantive objects beyond their constituent elements) exist in the kind of unified states which are usually reserved for constituent individuals.
Harman negotiates the relationship between object unity, interactions between objects, and historical change by drawing upon the concept of symbiosis. Of particular interest is Lynn Margulis’s Serial Endosymbiosis Theory (SET). SET joins Stephen J. Gould’s notion of punctuated equilibrium as correctives to the overly even and overly mechanical gradualism of traditional natural selection. (Visually and conceptually, this is such a rich area to mine. And Harman laced it through his own argument so adeptly that I wish he had actually spent more time on it.) The basic idea, as Harman summarizes it, is that “organelles inside eukaryotic cells were once independent creatures before later becoming subordinate components of the unified cell” (45). SET is useful because it is a way of talking about endurance and change without falling back on any default notions of synthesis. In other words, the prokaryote and eukaryote do not simply dissolve into one another to make something new. The eukaryote translates the effects of the prokaryote as the eukaryote. For me, opening up a way to think about change without synthesis is the most revolutionary aspect of OOO in general.
The other advantages Harman sees in the concept of symbiosis are that not all symbiotic relationships are of equal impact and importance to the objects involved, and also that symbiotic relationships are not necessarily reciprocal. As he says about his own life experience, “it is easy to recognize moving to Cairo in the year 2000 as a turning point in my own life, without being tempted by narcissistic delusions that Egypt’s storied capital entered a new stage upon my arrival” (46). In other news, water is wet…right? It’s such an obvious and seemingly irrefutable point that it takes some imaginative power to see what the opposing argument might even be, though it would doubtlessly involve reducing both Harman and Cairo to effects in an infinite chain of presents. Perhaps we’d see a moment of reciprocity when Harman exchanges twenty pounds for a plate of ful at a stall in the Souq Quarter, an event that alters lines of flight for the Harman and Cairo effects in the future. So, there are a few things we have to buy into if we want to accept the truth of Harman’s Cairo argument beyond its obvious face value. First, Harman and Cairo are enduring objects, and not evental series. Second–and to Harman’s main point here–interactions between objects are uneven. And third, symbiotic interactions between objects are inherently limited, relative to the lives of those objects. There are only so many times Cairo or any other object can effect a new phase in Harman’s life. Harman makes a similar argument about the relationship between the Dutch East India Company and Jan Pieterszoon Coen, a sort of Cromwellian figure who assumed the post of Governor-General in 1618, sixteen years after the Company was officially formed. The Dutch East India Company existed before Coen’s governorship and it lived on for about 150 years after Coen’s death. His impact on the Company expanded its potential in terms of its ability to monopolize the spice trade. But so impactful and irreversible was Coen’s interaction with the Company that it ultimately limited the Company’s potential to do anything but hold that monopoly together, which, eventually it could not. Just as in symbiogenesis, Coen entered as a bug in the cell, and it’s difficult to imagine what the cell would have looked like without its bug.
Regarding Coen and Coen-like objects, Harman makes the general historiological claim that such significant and irreversible symbioses occur early on in the object’s life (68-69). I’m not entirely persuaded by this, and I don’t think it is necessary to Harman’s larger argument about reciprocity and finitude. The most obvious counterexample is Rome, which of course was a republic for nearly 500 years before Julius Caesar put it on course to become an empire, the post-Augustan centuries having the most lasting impact on language, religion, and sovereignty. On the other hand, Harman’s claim bears an attractive resemblance to Max Weber’s notion of early charismatic authority, which gets bureaucratized into stability and normalcy, and I’d be interested to see if the resemblance could be taken any further.
In Immaterialism, Harman has taken on Leibniz’s challenge, turning a throwaway remark about the Dutch East India Company into a viable historiography. Whereas Harman’s other short book, The Quadruple Object, was a must-read overview of object-oriented philosophy, I see Immaterialism (which, at 134 small pages, is even shorter) as an overture. As an overture, Immaterialism issues a few challenges of its own to those of us searching for a way to think about change without falling back on either telos or synthesis. One of the most important discussions I see Harman’s book opening up for OOO’s supporters and detractors is on the role of intensity in change. If symbiotic relationships between objects really are uneven, asymmetrical, and limited–as Harman claims they are–then we must be dealing with something akin to intensity. Whereas Deleuze is able to explain intensity in terms of quantity and speed, OOO has already wrestled aesthetics away from the subjective realm, and it is to aesthetics that it must look as it theorizes intensity. Immaterialism does not explicitly address intensity, but Harman’s discussion on the relationship between metaphors and signs (101-104 (also see his Guerrilla Metaphysics)) is a great place to start.
One of the most outstanding aspects of Harman’s prose is that he seems never to write something he’d be uncomfortable saying aloud. And he does this without sacrificing complexity or nuance. Immaterialism in particular reads like an extended talk in front of a live audience. I read it in four sittings, but I tend to read slowly and distractedly, so I can see most readers managing it in one or two. Immaterialism doesn’t assume any prior knowledge of Harman’s philosophy, so the first part in particular could be read as an overview. But for readers familiar with Harman’s work and OOO at large, Immaterialism may very well represent a new phase in the philosophy’s life. The last decade has seen OOO in fruitful engagements with the physical sciences and the arts. The social sciences may now get their turn.
Harman, Graham. Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2016. Print.