My Conversation with Eric T.

After I posted my review of Graham Harman’s Immaterialism back in July, I got a reply with some truly insightful comments and questions from a reader, Eric T. Since I’m new to WordPress and am generally a dunce when it comes to tech, I had unknowingly disabled comments until earlier this month. But when I did find Eric’s comment, we began a thought-provoking, challenging, and mutually instructive correspondence in the comments section of that post. I recently asked Eric if I could publish that conversation as a separate post, and, happily, he agreed.  The conversation began with Harman’s book and has somehow morphed into the metaphysics of participation in the Clarke-Leibniz debate. I think you’ll enjoy finding out how we got there.

(I’ve offset the comments in italics and non-italics for clarity.)

Eric

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and was also very glad to find your review. I was itched by a different bug than your own smart question about when symbiosis happens in the life of an object. (I suspect progress on that front might hinge on trying to find a satisfying ontological explanation rather than what seems like an observational inference.) For my own part I wanted a clearer sense of what doesn’t quite work about the punctuated equilibria metaphor in Harman’s VOC example, in addition to symbiosis simply being more vivid. Harman mentions that it’s too event-oriented, but I still don’t grasp the difference in a concrete way.

Noah

Thank you for this excellent and insightful question. Of course, I can’t speak for Harman, but my guess is that you’re on to something when you speak about his preference for Margulis’s SET over Gould’s PE in terms of metaphor. From what I know of his general philosophical attitude, I don’t think Harman would be looking to empirical science for a metaontology. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to dismiss SET and PE as being mere metaphors. Harman thinks a lot about metaphor in his work (including this book), and he finds nothing ‘mere’ about them. Metaphors cannot be paraphrased or defined away in, for instance, a Russellian fashion. Their power is not in what they mean when their source has been discovered, when they’ve been found ‘pinned and wriggling on a table’; rather, their powers reside in what they do not disclose. Paradoxically, because meaning rests in their imprecision, metaphors challenge language users to be even more precise in using them.

Sorry if that sounds a bit pedantic. I’m just trying to preface my response. I think one reason for Harman’s preference for SET over PE is that SET directs our mind’s eye towards object-to-object interaction (as you say, it’s ‘more vivid’). But another reason for his preference may have something to do with the narcissism of small differences. The further OOO reaches into social theory, the closer it is going to come into Badiou’s orbit, just as it comes close to Whitehead’s and Deleuze’s orbits when it addresses the physical world. And if there is a metaphor from biology which fits in perfectly with Badiou’s evental philosophy, it is Gould’s PE. And Harman knows this well.

Marx was seriously uncomfortable with any attempt to extend Darwinian natural selection to historical movement. Yet, there is clearly a confluence between Lyell’s geological movement and Darwin’s biological movement on the one hand, and Hegel’s ideal movement and Marx’s historical movement on the other. Something in the 19th century air. Badiou, while remaining faithful to Marx in many ways, rejects the Hegel-Marx version of dialectical synthesis as historical engine. OOO too offers a radical alternative to dialectical synthesis (I offer my own thoughts on this in the ‘Marxian Amaterialism” chapter of my book). The difference between them is that Badiou holds out for some dialectical formation of an historical subject in its relation to the Event to which it is faithful. OOO, for obvious reasons, is less interested in such a subject. Nonetheless, the fact that both OOO and Badiouan Eventalism are both searching for an alternative to dialectical synthesis means that, to a certain extent, we are going to know one from comparison and/or contrast to the other. So, perhaps in addition to the evocative powers of SET and PE respectively, the preference of one over the other serves as a contrast-by-proxy between OOO and Badiouan Eventalism.

I hope that makes sense…

Eric

Wow, thanks for your generous response. I think you answered me and more. My ah-ha moment came when you gently noted that symbiosis concerns object-object interaction, which implies by contrast that Gould’s punctuated equilibrium is built on qualities (i.e., stable vs. rapid speciation). I can also now see the Badiouian element that Harman notes about PE, which went over my head when I first read it: some excluded thing upends the ecosystem and causes a period of rapid speciation (?). So, going a bit further, the cause of decline for Immaterialism would also not be an outside factor, but rather the reduction, somehow, of interior strong ties to a literal script…or is there room for both? (This is more abstract for me, since Harman doesn’t really connect the VOC’s decline with the theory, except by portraying an object’s decline as a failure to generate new symbioses–which suggests to me that it becomes more susceptible to Badiouian events.) In any case, I believe you on the analogy between Badiou/Harman and PE/SET — any aspect that doesn’t make sense to me there just results from my own lack of knowledge about Badiou and PE, and I’m certainly intrigued.

So, more on symbioses happening early… Making sure I got the theory behind this straight: since an object is formed from a small number of strong ties (the “Mother Ship” of compromise and dependence), it would be most open in its early life to forming new relations. It would thus be more vulnerable to a binary fate of either death or symbiosis. The latter add strong ties that stabilize it in its environment, which extend its life or at least its autonomy. But they also introduce additional essential parts, the breakdown of any of which would render the whole thing susceptible to decay.

If I got that basically right, then I think the strong possibility of finding counterexamples to the early symbiosis rule deserves at least two responses, one defensive, the other ceding a local problem: (1) The rule of early life symbiosis seems more probabilistic in principle than definitive; (2) Late-life symbiosis still needs a description. Maybe the decay of a strong tie opens a space of options for its replacement or even for a drastic series of new symbioses. …Adaptation? The larger historiographical issue seems to be the old continuity problem: if pre-existing strong ties weaken and then get replaced by new strong ties, does that mean we have a new object?

I’m glad you mentioned your book, since I now have an excuse to say how much I admire it and expect to keep returning to it. (I’m not a philosopher, but it’s just the thing that I have been looking for, teaching me a lot about issues of epistemology and OOO with an inviting ‘yes and…’ style.) I will just throw in my big question about its connection with Harman’s OOO. This is pretty off-topic to the above, but here goes anyway… Harman comes out strongly in favor of identity for real objects in Bells and Whistles. What could be the consequences of treating real objects as self-similar rather than identical? I have trouble parsing what this apparent gap between your two positions means, or if I am even grasping it right. Do you think object-oriented philosophy should concede self-similarity for real objects (and thus a temporal dimension beyond a few major turning-points)? Or, since self-similarity usually refers in The Being of Analogy to sensual evocations of identity, does that mean self-similarity has less to do with the real object itself than with the link between a sensual object and its real counterpart?

Noah

Thank you once again, Eric, for your penetrating questions and generous complements. I don’t know if you’re at all familiar with the Partially Examined Life podcast, but I’ve been a listener for years now. At the beginning of most episodes, the hosts lay out a set of rules which they try not to violate in their discussion (“except when doing otherwise would be more entertaining’”). One of their rules is to avoid saying things like ‘You’d understand X if only you’d read Such-and-Such by So-and-So.’ I saw and did plenty of that sort of name-dropping in grad school, but since then, I have done my best to abide by the PEL rule in everything I write. But I think I violated that rule in my last response to you when I went on about Badiou without explaining what exactly I was referencing. I apologize for that. I was primarily thinking of Badiou’s characterization of the French Revolution as a genuine Event, something which he has discussed in multiple works and talks. Badiou doesn’t actually look to an outside agent which would initiate an event. To do so, he would say, is messianic thinking. Rather, the subject of an event emerges on one side of the void (or empty set/absolute difference) between the actors (human and non-human) and the presentation of that set of actors. The presentation would be the French Revolution in capital letters, if you’d like. The subject comes out of a dialectic between itself and the presentation. I hope that clears things up a little, and I’d invite anyone to correct me if I’ve gotten something wrong.

I think you’ve given an excellent description of the lingering questions about the life and demise of an object. You were clearer on that than I was in my review. I would agree with you that the early symbiosis is most likely a probabilistic rather than a definite thing, and also that late-life symbiosis needs more theorizing. I had a brief exchange about this with Harman after posting the review, and my impression was that he too believes more could be said about this topic than he had space to do in that book. In fact, one of the things I liked most about Immaterialism was that it was an overture rather than a proclamation, an opening salvo in what should be a long and winding discussion about OOO and social theory. It felt very inviting to thinkers like you and me. And it seems from your comments like you have a good start on a piece which extends that discussion.

You also raised an important point about where exactly we can think of one object ending and another beginning. Harman’s version of OOO is quite promiscuous, which one of things I liked about it from the get-go. On the one hand, new objects emerge when existing objects come into contact–and the emergence of the new object does not vitiate the existent objects. On the other hand, Harman’s entire system pretty much rests upon whether or not objects endure beyond their relations with others (it’s where Harman departs from thinkers like Whitehead, Latour, and Deleuze (apologies for the additional name-dropping)). Perhaps because endurance is so crucial (particularly for a conglomerate object like the VOC), it felt necessary to think more about the link between an object’s identity and its demise. I wasn’t persuaded by Harman’s argument about early symbiosis and identity, but I’m not necessarily opposed to it either. In my review did offer as a counter-example Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire, which occurred around 500 years after Rome emerged as a political entity. But shortly after that, I thought about the effect the sack of Rome by the Gauls had on the Roman ethos. This happened relatively early in the history of the Republic, and it had an enormous impact on the way the Romans saw themselves in relation to the outside world. The effect was an ethos of defensive expansionism, which clearly endured through the failing of the Republic and the rise of the Empire. This is all to say that with particular historical case studies, there is almost always a counter-counter example, and so on.

Finally, thank your kind words on my book. I’m glad you found it worthwhile and interesting. My answer to your question is also related to this issue of object endurance. I’ll try to be as brief as possible: While I was always on board with the OOO theses that objects endure and that objects withdrawal from their contacts with others, I had trouble visualizing what endurance and withdrawal look like. I thought there needed to be some metaontological mechanics in place. My background is in rhetoric and sociolinguistics, and I had done some work in the past on genres as complex systems. The key thing about a complex system for me is that the system-object cannot be reduced to a synthesis of its actors. And yet, at scale, complex systems are self-similar. It seemed to me that the relationship between the actions of a system’s actors and the system itself is recursive and in constant violation of the law of the excluded middle. What’s more, complex systems are in constant flux, potentially replacing constituent actors completely as they go. When I came across Harman’s critique of duomining, it seemed to fit my thinking on the self-similarity of complex systems pretty well. Complex systems can neither be reduced to the identities of their constituent parts nor can they be explained by their relations with others. I started to think that perhaps instead of being a special kind of object, complex systems might give us a picture of objects in general.

But then there’s the issue you brought up about identity vs. self-similarity. By “identity” I take it you mean something like ‘self-identical’ as in Leibniz’s Identity of Indiscernibles (let me know if that’s not right). On this issue, I’m a little more Deleuzean. I see duration in terms of repetition rather than intransigence. I think an object endures by repeating itself across all of its interactions with other objects. But since objects have the capacity to affect and be affected by other objects without dissolving into those relations (a la Harman), I think they repeat self-similarly. In this way, the virtual of sensuous contact becomes actualized as the real object repeats itself.

To be honest my thinking on self-similarity and repetition had not yet matured at the time of writing the book. I have much more to say about it in a long piece I’m currently finishing up. If you’d like, I could send you a draft when I’m more confident about it.

Once again, I have over-responded, so I think I’ll stop before this becomes a monster.

Eric

That clears up a lot, thank you! I’ll have to go back over chapter 2 of your book. And I definitely want to learn about your thoughts on self-similarity and intensity as they crystallize.

I checked up on “identity” as I quoted it and Harman does have Leibniz in mind. However, it’s possible that he does not precisely mean the Identity of Indiscernibles (about properties). He seems to be thinking instead of something more general, an ontological version of the law of the excluded middle or non-contradiction, so it can be a kind of proxy dispute with Timothy Morton (and possibly yourself? but see below). First, here’s the Leibniz that Harman quotes:

“The primary truths are those which assert the same thing of itself or deny the opposite of its opposite. For example, ‘A is A,’ ‘A is not not-A,’ or ‘if it is true that A is B, then it is false that A is not B or that A is not-B.’ Also ‘every thing is as it is,’ ‘every thing is similar or equal to itself,’ ‘nothing is greater or less than itself,’ and others of this sort…[T]hey can all be included under the name ‘identities.’”

Second, Harman notes that his own position on realism supports contradiction in an object’s experience of another object (e.g., Socrates appears happy one moment and sad the next). But he believes this not to extend to real objects. He argues against Graham Priest, who “thinks contradiction is present in reality itself,” such as in the ability and inability to think the in-itself (I won’t go into details). Harman believes that contradictions must be “grounded in something deeper and non-contradictory.” Presumably, even a complex system should meet this criteria in his ontology. He might raise complexity as an example of going meta in a good way between surface effects and depth, with some hint of the latter inscribed in the asymmetrical complexity of the former.

So it looks like Harman does save a place for sameness in his ontology. Real objects are binary, with temporality reserved for their interiors. (Or something like this in Guerilla Metaphysics.) Yet I also think he could grant your concept of analogy to be a powerful ontological account of sensual mediation, as the glue that makes relation possible without reducing to a remainder of shared qualities. This is one reason I’m excited to find out more about the role of intensity in your theory. I could be wrong, but as I think more about it, I don’t see any immediate contradiction between Harman’s claim that a real object is self-same (if that’s his idea) and what I see as your claim that an object’s essence is self-similar, since the latter is mediated by relation and is changeable.

Noah

Now you’re pulling me in several different directions, and I’ll have to take some time to think about all the issues you’re bringing up. I’m currently thinking about your comments and questions instead of doing what I need to be doing this evening, which is grading papers. But what the hell?…I’ll have my dessert first. Anyway, I’ll be brief this time.

Bringing in Harman’s disagreement with the other Graham (Priest) perked my interest. To be honest, I wouldn’t have taken much note of that argument when I saw it the first time because I knew close to nothing about Priest’s work. Harman might have addressed Priest in other works with which I’m unfamiliar, but let me blindly speculate a little as to what else Harman might find objectionable, particularly in Priest’s more recent work. First, as I believe I pointed to in the book, Harman departs from Heidegger on the latter’s suggestion that there is a general Being beyond beings in which beings participate. I believe the phrase Harman used was something like “half-baked monism.” Priest resurrects just that notion in his own ontology, but he does so in a weird and cool way. In the past few years, he’s been talking about this idea of a ‘gluon’ (which also caught my attention because I spent so much time going on about the meson). A gluon, for Priest, is a third term in an object, a distinct unity of the object’s parts. Priest argues that to be is to be one, and the gluon is that oneness, identical to the object’s parts without transitive identity (a=g and b=g but a does not equal b). A gluon is and it is not (there’s your included excluded middle). To me, it’s as if the world of objects contains within it a plurality of monisms (and not monads) in which the objects themselves participate.

One of the things I’m arguing in this latest piece is that there are two mutually exclusive modes by which identity can operate: participation or repetition. Plato and Russell are obviously strong examples of participatory identity. In his own fantastically weird way, I’d say Priest belongs in that category as well (even though he’s not one for positive universals). As I’ve said, I fall under repetition. I believe the real object endures by repeating a contraction of itself just as an object translates the contractions of other objects it contacts. The contraction is a sensuous object, and so even the real object is affected by itself as a sensuous object (the virtual is actualized thusly). Clearly, Harman’s four-fold model of the object calls for some kind of intra-relation (or ‘intra-action’, as Barad calls it). What is not at all clear to me is, if you forced him to decide on participation or repetition as my metaontology does, which one would Harman choose. Then again, he or you or anyone else might just argue that I have set up a faulty binary, which is quite possible. I’m still playing around with it.

Eric

Thank you again for your time and thoughts — I consider all of my brainstorming in your comments section more or less yours to do with as you please, so feel free! (And as usual, there’s no immediate need to reply. But I do find this fascinating.) I have just three short points.

1) If I may depart a bit from the content, I would say that very few people work with analogy quite like you do. It doesn’t just come across as rhetorical spice or an uneasy hidden background. Which is to say I hope you copy and paste that pithy description of Priest’s gluon into your project, along with Heidegger’s big Being (nothing like connecting Being with gluons to raise eyebrows).

2) I like the choice between participation and repetition. I wish I had a smart missing piece, but nope. Whoever comes up with one will still admit it was a useful choice. A daydreaming skeptic might play the game of putting different thinkers in one of those two hats. In the Clarke/Leibniz dispute, Clarke (space is an empty container) falls under participation, right? And for Harman, well, he would go with a varied version of Leibniz where space is both relation and non-relation. Space is Harman’s gluon.

3) While trying to play the hat game with Harman, I can’t help but think back to the parts in Tool-Being about Heidegger’s concept of “reference.” That part is, I think, slightly different than subsequent versions, and in a way that is relevant here. Harman always uses reference to get at the idea of readiness-to-hand apart from presence, and he claims that it leads Heidegger to monism. Classic Harman so far, right? He usually then notes that the threat of monism leaves nothing in reserve for change; therefore, readiness-to-hand cannot be relational. But he is after something more intricate in Tool-Being. He notes that the holistic lump unity still has a present-at-hand terminus (Dasein). Given his critique of Dasein’s ontological priority, such must be true of every tool-being. In other words, withdrawal in the limited sense of a real object’s execution (not the full as-structure) is about how the parts of an object get absorbed into unity, like anonymous contributors. And it’s tool-systems all the way down: the world of real objects ends up looking a lot like a plurality of monisms.

Noah

I have to say, you’re far more fluent in Harman’s work than I am. The truth is that I still have not read Tool-Being. It’s been on my list forever, but then I just keep going to the new stuff. I understand your reference to ‘reference’, however. And it does seem as if Heidegger leaves us with just two options: either an ur-field of being or pure relationality. Heidegger obviously went with the first option, but Harman’s work is to try and think of a third. Not only does Heidegger’s position leave us with something like a monism, but it also leaves him without any ammunition against the argument that being is extensional and so, perhaps, describable (e.g. mathematically)…a position to which Heidegger would otherwise be allergic.

It’s interesting that you brought in the Clark/Leibniz debate. In my thinking about the metaontological division between participation and repetition, I talk about Plato, but otherwise keep it to post-Kierkegaardian programs. It’s a fairly arbitrary historical parameter, but there’s a manageable trajectory from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Bergson to Deleuze for philosophies of repetition without universals. You make a good argument for Clarke to fall under the participation side of the divide. I guess the question would be whether or not we would consider Newton-Clarke conception of space as a universal property. A certain extension in space would, under Locke’s rubric, be considered a primary quality (and so a particular form), but could the same be said about space itself? Insofar as Clarke adhered to Newtonian mechanics, things get confusing. On the one hand, Newton’s action at a distance suggests that gravity is a property. He doesn’t seem to think it’s a property in which objects individually participate, but rather something in which matter as an All participates (in which space is an absolute negative (but I might be Hegelizing Newton)). This might put him in the participation without universals camp. On the other hand, when confronted with the question as to why the All of matter doesn’t just implode into a One in its participation in gravity, Newton is forced into what I think is an occasionalism position, in which God constantly intervenes. (I would argue that occasionalism of any kind is a repetitive ontology, though not the sort of repetition I adhere to.) And this is where Einstein picks up on the debate with his concept of a cosmological constant, which he hated so much. Seems like we have hit upon yet another topic about which volumes could be written.

 

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