Notes on Graham Harman

Did I finish the Fukuyama dive this week like I said I would? No. Are you gonna do something about it? Nope.

These notes are pulled from a few online lectures I’ve listened to by Graham Harman. I still haven’t read any of his books but the signals are good that he’s a person worth reading directly. In the meanwhile, hat tip to Jordan Peacock, the high priest through whom I have seen Harman’s Word.

These notes are light sketches of Harman’s thoughts and philosophy, and maybe in time I can run through again with a darker pencil and hash the details out.


1. The 20th Century, as seen from the 23rd Century

In one lecture, Harman makes some broader claims about the big influencers of the last century that I thought were helpful. In the broadest of broad strokes, the 1900’s will likely be defined in the sciences by relativity and quantum theory and the earliest attempts to unify them. In the humanities, though, Graham claims that it was figure-ground interplay that would define the century’s thought:

  • Sigmund Freud’s emphasis on the [background] unconsciousness translating into [foreground] noticeable behavior and thought. The truth value of the theory is irrelevant, it’s been a tremendous influence, a source of reaction for major schools directly afterwards and an intellectual break from what preceded it.
  • Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message”, which from our relative proximity still kinda goes in and out of style, is considered by Harman to be currently underrated.
  • Clement Greenberg, who oversaw the movement of the artistic avante-garde from Paris to New York City prior to WWII, and who defended Jackson Pollock and early prominent American artists who demonstrated awareness of the canvas on which they worked. Apparently in some circles he is currently seen as kitschy, which might be the sign of his ultimate success. More on him later.
  • Martin Heidigger, who reversed Husserl’s phenomenology. Husserl argued that one should focus not on the hidden objects but instead on the details of experience. Heidigger claimed that we deal with equipment as hidden and withdrawn backgrounds. These tools and details usually only emerge into view when they’re broken: a sudden cough, or a strange noise brings background processes to the forefront.

2. How to Play with Objects

Anything is an object, including fictional things or events. Nothing is not an object- human “subjects” are objects, and while humans might be more interesting than most objects, they do not have a special ontological status when talking about objects and interactions between objects.

There are two (main) ways of explaining away objects, neither of which is good philosophical practice, according to Harman:

2.1 Undermining: Reducing to parts. Historically, western philosophy and science tends to break things down and tell you what they comprise of. The first nonreligious explanation that survives to us was “Everything’s made of water.” “No,” another Greek pre-Socratic claims, “it has to be air.” Then we get the more popular (today) conception of the elements of Air, Earth, Fire, Water, drawn together by love and separated by hate. The Atomists are mixed in there.

Another school worth noting: Apeirom, or the “Boundless” or “Limitless”, demonstrates another form of undermining. Apeirom is the great featureless mound from which all things come. As with the more atomist underminers, middle-sized things are just not taken seriously.

2.2 Overmining: Reducing to effects/force. For the Overminer, objects are too deep, not too shallow. Who needs hidden things behind what we see? Why not reduce an object to its perception, forces, power, or relations? A thing is what it does.

2.3 Duomining is another technique that Harman coins. He claims that this is a classic scientific realist tactic, where objects are pulverized into tiny particles (undermined!) and then the apparent behavior of those particles are mathematicized (overmined!).

2.4 Other Attitudes exist that Graham Harman sometimes talks about when he discusses these tendencies. Since I think it’s instructive to see who he’s listening to, here are a few:

  • Bruno Latour is a big influence and will appear later in a much more positive light. But Harman claims that Latour does the opposite of duomining with his theory. Everything is nothing more than their effects: thus Objects are called “Actors” in Latour’s language. I am how things react to me. So far, we have the overmining in this reverse-Duomining technique. In Latour’s Actor-based view, change is hard to explain within the same Actor. Aristotle invented the idea of potentiality to counter the idea that “You’re only a housebuilder in the moment you’re building a house.” You aren’t just what you’re doing now, he posits, there must be some latent capability for actions in you that you aren’t doing at this very moment.Latour, as Harman sees it, has tied himself into a bit of a knot with this problem with his Actors. In Reassembling the Social, he asks, “Why did the USSR dissolve overnight without warning?” His answer is The Plasma: a featureless lump of potential beneath and beyond the actors involved. In other words, an Apeirom.
  • Tristan Garcia is a French up-and-comer in the Object-Oriented scene. He recently made the claim that “a Thing is the difference between its parts and its effects.” Harman argues that this definition makes an object sensitive in both directions: a change in its parts or its effects makes it a different object.
  • Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington: This influential early 20th century physician and mathematician made a metaphor about “Two Tables” in a speech he gave in 1917. Standing in front of a table, he argued that he had two tables. The first table is talked about by science, a result of particular forces, and the second is a practical object that can be purchased and leaned on and moved about the room. Harman argues that both of Eddington’s tables are abstractions but are not the table. It is more than its parts and less than its effects.

2.5 Miscellaneous Thoughts on Attitude towards Philosophy and Objects: Harman rejects the way that many right-wingers interpret Socrates, influencing others to a truth he already knows through an act of playing the fool. Socrates is genuinely curious and ignorant and trying for a love of knowledge. Philosophy, Harman argues, should not strive for more. It should not try to be a science. Even Continental philosophy is being systematized by Badiou and Meillassoux.

Scientists take things and paraphrase and abstract them. Philosophy, art, and design can’t paraphrase in the same way. Good art criticism requires elusiveness because the critic is trying to talk around something ineffable. The risk run by this method is pretentiousness, if the mark is missed. In such matters, though, direct speech and clarity is sometimes too brute to be useful.

Sometimes a poem can’t be literally translated without caricaturizing it, squeezing out what made it interesting to begin with. Slajov Zizek:

In any large American bookstore, it is possible to purchase some volumes of the unique series SHAKESPEARE MADE EASY, edited by John Durband and published by Barron’s: a “bilingual” edition of Shakespeare’s plays, with the original archaic English on the left page and the translation into common contemporary English on the right page. The obscene satisfaction provided by reading these volumes resides in how what purports to be a mere translation into contemporary English turns out to be much more: as a rule, Durband tries to formulate directly, in everyday locution, (what he considers to be) the thought expressed in Shakespeare’s metaphoric idiom – say, “To be or not to be, that is the question” becomes something like: “What’s bothering me now is: Shall I kill myself or not?”

Returning to Harman’s own example: in the Godfather, the “Offer you can’t refuse” is more threatening because it’s so veiled. If the Godfather instead promised to “cut off your horse’s head and put it into your bed”, it’d certainly be more grotesque but it also is so direct that it’s not really as powerful. Also, the sheer shock is (perhaps only slightly) reduced when you wake up in a pool of Khartoum’s blood. Anyway.

Most philosophies try to collapse difference between an object and its qualities, appearance and reality. Harman is interested in driving a wedge between these things, though.

Final note that I’ll get back to:

“Aesthetics is the first philosophy, not neuroscience or physics.”

3. A Brief History of Pro-Object Philosophies

Most western philosophies are anti-object philosophies. Graham Harman draws a slightly alternative history of “Pro-Object” philosophy, arriving at a fork where the broad philosophical tradition zigged where he prefers to zag. Starting from the beginning:

3.1 Pro-Object Philosophy: From Aristotle to the Fork in the Path

  • Aristotle articulates that individual things are the primary object of study. In contrast to the apparent thinking of the time, durability and eternity were not criteria for being a thing. A horse is a thing even though it’s not forever.
  • Skipping ahead noticeably, Leibniz had a much wilder-seeming metaphysics but also recognized natural objects. He also allows for objects to be eternal in a sense, because God made them all. Harman doesn’t consider himself an Aristotelian or a Leibnizian (sic?) because he doesn’t favor “natural” objects over other things. Leibniz thought that two diamonds glued together would not be a single object, and neither men in a circle holding hands or the East Indian Company were objects either to him.
  • Kant is perhaps the most important modern philosopher. He is the signpost after which philosophy forks, where Harman Graham and his ilk go one way, and the German Idealists go another and take history with them for a while.Kant argues that humans can only perceive and mediate between things, but we are not privileged to total access to the “Things-in-Themselves.” This idea has elicited two responses, that define this fork in the path of philosophical development:
    • The German Idealists reject “Things-in-Themselves”. They argue that since we cannot think of things outside of thoughts, there is no leaving the bubble to things outside of our own thoughts. Hegel followed this path, and Marx after him (just to demonstrate the influence of this line of thought). Badiou and Zizek still follow this line of thought. Harman argues (quoting Latour, I believe) that many of these contemporary philosophers’ materialism is just “idealism with a realist alibi.”
      • A fun break: “New Age is recycled 19th century German schlock, intro, part 1
    • Harman’s Realist line of thought accepts Things-in-Themselves as an ingenious insight. The real weakness in Kant is his human-centric view. He’s all object-subject interaction, but the tragedy of finitude is not humanty’s alone. No object’s relation of any kind can grasp another object in its totality anyway.Any philosophical project that deals with subject-object interaction without getting to object-object is still within the horizon of Kantian thought.

3.2 Pro-Object Philosophy: Occasionalism

According to Harman, Occasionalism was “One of the most important contributions of Islamic thought to Western Philosophy,” which is quite a statement. The idea is roughly that things cannot touch each other directly without God as the intermediator.

In the eleventh century, Persian theologian Al-Ghazali published The Incoherence of the Philosophers criticizing an older school of Islamic thought and defending his own. In it, he defends the argument that fire can only burn cotton through the Will of God. He makes this case with a strict logical argument, where he divorces logical connections from necessary causal connections so that God can do anything (as he is supposed to) without also botching up the laws of logic.

As Al-Ghazali (or my personal, simpler projection of Al-Ghazali) understands it, God’s Will should not be subordinate to natural law, but what is logically inconsistent simply cannot be done. In a miracle event where cotton should burn but doesn’t, God is not transmuting the cotton or the fire into something different, but He is also not doing something that is against logic. Instead, apparent “natural law”, the relation between objects, is actually just God’s own rational will.

According to Harman, Occasionalism arrived in Europe through a French theologian and a translator of Descartes, Nicolas Malebranche.

Descartes himself was part-way there, using “God” as the glue between thinking substance and physical substance, allowing him to sidestep the “Ghost in the Machine” mind-body problem he had set up for himself (to be uncharitable). Descartes didn’t believe that there was a “body-body” problem that required God’s explicit hand, since they could interact via some scientific mechanism. Malebranche, on the other hand, intended to demonstrate God’s role in all interactions.

Western Philosophy has secularized quite a bit lately, but Harman argues that Hume and Kant use the Human Mind as a mediator, in place of God.

In the 20th century, Alfred North Whitehead brought back a boldly theistic Occasionalism at a time where that can’t have been easy. Whitehead was also apparently into process, reducing objects to their relations.

Whitehead admirer Bruno Latour, who will get his own chapter further below, and is also considered by Harman to be an Occasionalist: he posits that every relation requires a mediator. This is secular and specific- there is no Grand Mediator. This is considered by Harman to be a major breakthrough.

Latour’s Paradox: Jean-Frederic Joliot, scientist and political activist, connects Politics and the Neutron. But how can Joliot interact with Neutrons? Through lab equipment. How can he interact with lab equipment? Through his eyeballs. How can he interact with his eyeballs? Through his Nervous System. Infinite regress. Nothing really touches anything else. Latour says, “We can stop when it gets boring.” Harman has a problem with this (although I’m not sure that I do?)

Harman’s solution, instead, is “Vicarious Causation”. (Very) Roughly, he distinguishes between non-relating “Real Objects” [the stuff of hidden essences] and “Central Objects” [experienced, or as Husserl would put it, “Intentional” objects]. Real and Central objects can be chained together like magnets.

3.3 Pro-Object Philosophy: Phenomenology

Phenomenology, to Harman, is the biggest school in Western Philosophy.

Edmund Husserl is considered the father of the school of Phenomenology, breaking with more positivist attitudes of the day. He argued that phenomenology was a study of consciousness, and that philosophy could achieve rigor by rejecting the “natural attitude” (wherein things in our lives are often taken for granted) and paying careful attention to our experiences of things. Notably, he identified “objects” within experience, in contrast to Aristotle and Leibniz’s narrow, natural-only conception of objects.

Finally, there’s Heidigger, Harman’s great philosopher of the 20th century, He Of the Questionable Political Affiliation. According to Harman, today Heidigger is even being assimilated by his would-be enemies [not a Nazi joke], the Anglo-American Analytic folks. Harman is concerned that they are falsely labeling Heidigger as a Pragmatist. But both theory and practice fail to grasp a thing in its totality. They are both incomplete, human ways of interacting with an object: neither thinking about a tree nor using it for wood is an action of complete access to that tree.

Humans think of things not as they are in some outside realm, but instead as tools according to our systems of meaning. We generally act with some goal in mind. The hammer is “ready-to-hand” [zuhanden], capable of use without theorizing, in the background rather than the front stage of our awareness. In fact, stopping to really consciously think about the hammer might make it harder to use. Only when the hammer breaks or something unexpected happens might we change the hammer’s status to “present-at-hand” [vorhanden], the status of something being observed for theorizing. “Present-at-hand” is a secondary mode, and is not usually the way we encounter things in the world. It is the Thinking Slow to zuhanden’s Thinking Fast.

Heidigger is still talking about humans interplaying with being, instead of object-object interplay. We’re still playing in Kant’s backyard. It’s an awfully big yard, but we’ll need to leave it to get where we’re going.

4. Bruno Latour

I’ve already said quite a bit about Latour. Specifically, his assertion that every relation requires a mediator is judged by Harman to be a huge breakthrough, and Latour is considered one of the most important current philosophers by Harman despite a tendency to overmine.

4.1 “We Have Never Been Modern” argues that modernity has invented a “Culture vs Nature” distinction which premodern people would not recognize, and which is increasingly confused because of contemporary issues and crises [e.g. Global Warming, biotechnology] , causing a rise in skeptical postmodern and anti-modern movements. Latour asserts that we should learn to think about these things in conjunction, in a “Parliament of Things”. It’s an Actor-based model, where effects are king. Real people have more effects on more things than fictional characters, and that’s how we determine their status.

4.2 Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT): More a “method” than a theory. The idea is to build the map out without determining what’s important in a network beforehand.

Example insight: Louis Pasteur was not an instant hero. His germ theory was rejected by doctors for a time, perhaps out of fear for their professions. His allies in advocating for germ theory were instead the hygienists, who were looking for a causal theory for their observations. More on that can be found at the link.

Latour’s ANT is good with building from things that actually happened, but can’t say much about how things could have happened. That’s not a nonsense question at all, Harman argues.

4.3 Latour’s politics: Latour is basically a Hobbesian. For Hobbes, you cannot appeal to a larger thing than the State. Civil War will result.

Latour isn’t as far-right, obviously, but he doesn’t allow a transcendent authority or a world outside of society creating it. It’s all Actors, building a consensus. This falls under a category of politics that Harman calls the “Politics of Struggle”, where there’s no truth beyond what’s being defined. Carl Schmitt and Machiavelli are also students of this viewpoint. In the Politics of Struggle, you can’t reason with the enemy so you must simply defeat them. Alternatively, there is the “Politics of Truth”, where there is a greater truth but some interests are resisting it. Rousseau and Marx are students of the Politics of Truth from the Left, Leo Strauss might be a rightist example. The Politics of Truth is Overmining and the Politics of Struggle is Undermining: Marx has a grand scheme, Eddington’s “scientific” table [too long ago?]; Hobbes has no standards beyond what is, only Eddington’s “practical” table. Thus, according to Harman, the problem with Latour’s politics.

5. The Arts and Sciences

5.1 Clement Greenberg, Art Critic: Greenberg oversaw the movement of artistic avant-garde from Paris to NY, and defended Pollock and early prominent American artists. When he arrived in America he was annoyed by its provincialism, but by the end of his life he himself was considered kitsch by some of the art establishment. He was one of our 20th century Greats that I started this post with.

He was opposed to what he called “Academic Art”, or “art that’s unaware of its medium.” From the Renaissance era into the 19th century, realistic oil-painted scenes that felt like windows into another 3-D space were all of the rage. These new techniques were in great demand, and many people trained at it and got very good at basically emulating photographs. Soon, actual photography developed. Art needed to go somewhere else.

Greenberg believed that good art should stop pretending to present a 3D scene painted in space but instead pay attention to its own canvas (background). The trajectory for this increasing flatness began with Edouard Manet in the mid-19th century. Greenberg saw the Cubists as the most brilliant school.

To give a feel for his perspective: he disliked Duchamp and Dali, citing them as Academic Artists. Dali’s Surrealism focuses on shocking content and keeps the 3D oil painting medium fixed, which to Greenberg is a relapse into old technique. Duchamp’s Dadaism uses wild and different media with the same message (it’s less clear to me why Greenberg dislikes this, honestly).

Modern Painting is aware of its medium, and it has a certain flatness to it. Greenberg disliked Kandinsky’s work, citing him as misunderstanding the movement to flatter canvas as merely “Art getting more abstract.”

This cold critique of Kandinsky also involves another concern of Greenberg’s- provincialism:

There are two sorts of provincialism in art. The exponent of one is the artist, academic or otherwise, who works in an outmoded style or in a vein disregarded by the metropolitan center—Paris, Rome, or Athens. The other sort of provincialism is that of the artist—generally from an outlying country—who in all earnest and admiration devotes himself to the style being currently developed in the metropolitan center, yet fails in one way or another really to understand what it is about… The Russian, Wassily Kandinsky, [was a provincial of this latter sort].

Harman seems to actually like the painters Greenberg is detracting, but otherwise he is sympathetic to what Greenberg was trying to accomplish. He presents two problems with Greenberg’s theory:

1. At best his theory is valid between Manet and the 1960’s. Before the Renaissance, paintings were generally flatter depictions. The Rennaisance painters had frontiers in what they were doing without worrying about the nature of the canvas. The flatter-and-flatter arc of art will also exhaust.

2. There must be a residue of surface winking at the background. Greenberg would likely scoff at the idea that his ideal end-state would actually just be an empty canvas.

5.1.1 Quick Notes on Art Criticism beyond Greenberg: Some Speculative Realists have called for art without humans. Graham doesn’t think that’s a big deal. Some objects require humans, that doesn’t make humans all that special. As DeLanda notes, society requires humans, but society isn’t necessarily reducible to what humans think of it.

5.2 Literary Criticism

Literary critics Cleanth Brooks and Steven Greenblatt seem like opposites but have a lot in common. (Harman briefly ran through this, so apologies if it’s too reductive to be useful).

Brooks argued that one should cut off a literary work from its cultural and social surroundings, and treat it as a single unit where the component parts all affect each other intimately. Don’t worry about the author, but look at the poem holistically. This view was condemned by critics in the 1960’s for being elitist and unsympathetic to the influence of culture.

Greenblatt and the New Historicists argue that it’s essential to root a book in its historical context. Shakespeare was expressing the energies of his time.

Both views are too holistic. The counter-Brooks argument might be that words or characters can be changed around in many classic texts without ruining them. The counter-Greenblatt argument might be that a work is not so embedded in its culture as to be almost an afterthought.

Lovecraft was the subject of the first/only book Harman wrote on a “literary” figure. As someone who has written enthusiastically about Weird Fiction in the past, I was delighted to hear about this. Lovecraft, like Harman, insists on driving wedges between objects and their relations.

If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings; but it was the general outline of the whole which made it most shockingly frightful. Behind the figure was a vague suggestions of a Cyclopean architectural background.

5.3 Architecture

One of the lectures I watched was actually given to a school of architecture.

Zaha Hadid is a pretty cool architect. Her right-hand man and theory writer, Patrik Schumacher, calls the new style ParametricismHarman claims that he disagrees with the theory, though the buildings are beautiful.

The developing dogma is that buildings should blend into their surroundings, that sharp angles are no good, and that individual architects’ personalities don’t matter much. Gradient and flux are favored over neatly articulated parts.

Schumacher himself admits that he sometimes has trouble working out where to place windows or doors without differentiating them.

Harman cites that line about architecture marrying form and function: “The form is the way it looks to somebody; the function is the way it’s used by somebody.” But of course a building takes different forms at different times/angles to different people? A building certainly performs many different functions to different people at different times. But there must be some essence of the building?

Harman is comfortable with essences, in a secular sense. The essential object cannot be wholly grasped by any other object.

5.4 Briefly, on Quantum Theory

Quantum Theory is often used by idealists to make this sort of point: “See how important the observer is? It’s all Mind, bro.”

There is a less idealist, more object-oriented perspective you can take, though: you put an object in its quantum state by subtracting it from its relations. The particle has no momentum or position in its own right- those are relational properties, but the thing is still there.

5.5 Essence

Edward Said is famous for his rightful claims about Orientalism, where Westerners depicts foreign societies in an essentialist, backwards, and static light. Where Harman believes Said makes a mistake is in claiming that, for instance, “There is no essence of the Egyptian people.” Harman jokes at its apparent similarity to Thatcher’s “There’s no such thing as a society” should automatically make the Left uncomfortable with embracing this claim. More importantly, Harman claims that the problem with Orientalism is not necessarily that Egyptian culture doesn’t have an essence (albeit a dynamic, ineffable one), but that the some Westerners claim to entirely know it. Thinking of a society as only a collection of individuals or series of effects may not be so useful. There can be an object called society that means something more without knowing all of its actual properties.

For Harman, essence is the idea that a thing has a consistency to it outside of what we can necessarily see.

Lynn Margulis died in 2011, I remember reading about her contributions to the endosymbiotic theory, wherein Eukaryotic cells are the result of a symbiotic relationship between separate prokaryotic organisms. That theory is generally accepted nowm even though it received a lot of flack from the competing Neodarwinist school.

In an example that Harman gave, distinct viruses were present in two fruit fly populations that were separated in different tanks with different conditions in them, and the flies were no longer reproducing with each other. Some neodarwinist critics called the different viruses a source of contamination, but that might be exactly the point: the relationship between flies and viruses facilitated speciation in some way.

Harman speculates that individual people basically have essences, which generally doesn’t change too much except by symbioses: attachment to, say, a musical instrument, or another person, which changes their attitude and their trajectory.

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