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Reading Response to Harman’s Quadruple Object, Chapt. I-V

by on January 24, 2013
  • The question of real objects and their possible interaction or relation to sensual objects and qualities: “the real hammer emits sensual qualities into the sphere of presence, despite being withdrawn in its own right. The qualities encountered in experience must somehow emanate from a real object no less than a sensual one, because even though such qualities are obviously attached to a sensual object in any given moment, they are the sole way in which the withdrawn tool-beings become present in consciousness.” P. 49, emphasis mine. This connection is not so obvious. The real object must remain concealed, and yet it has a relation to sensual objects and qualities, which are apparent? How precisely and why does a unified, real object require further real qualities? It would seem that again the real object exists only in so far as it is able to relate, that is structurally, to sensual objects and qualities, for if it cannot, then it is little more than noumenon. His argument continues in Chapter V insisting that that the “I” of consciousness is the direct instance or encounter or touching of a real object and a sensual object. However, this would rely on a metaphysics of presence, the full presence of a unified self before one’s own conscious, which of course ignores whole swathes of continental thought, psychoanalysis, and even some neuroscience. If sensual objects are reduced to a system, then does the difference between sensual qualities and objects become more of degree and quantity than of quality? And even if it remains of quality, the differences seem very slight. Real objects relate to one another via a “contiguous” environment or field of sensual objects. Sensual qualities relate to one another via sensual objects. His analysis of these relations on p. 77 is opaque and could use fleshing out (I suppose that is what the second half of the book is for). But it seems there is serious risk of his ability to relate these objects and qualities without falling into a form Kantian correlationism (as he calls it) and relying on objects not too dissimilar from noumenon.
  • “Any relation will be a translation or distortion of its terms” (p. 54), what of the relation between the real object and the sensual object? For if yes, as it seems it must be and as Harman admits, then the real object is never encountered. The object can only be known relationally.
  • Harman’s argument against Hegel’s idealist argument falls flat. Allusion relies upon knowledge, thought, awareness. This is an old argument, and he fails to add anything fresh to the debate, or convince me of his argument. • “What I have tried to show is that if we define an object through its role in a system of interrelations, objects are thereby undermined, reduced to the caricatured image they present to all other things. The only way to do justice to objects is to consider that their reality is free from all relation, deeper than all reciprocity. The object is a dark crystal veiled in a private vacuum: irreducible to its own pieces, and equally irreducible to its outward relations with other things” (p. 47). The fact that this is so of all objects (an perhaps of everything, for it seems that each and everything for Harman is an object) reveals it as a structural characteristic, a structural necessity and not an objective quality or possession.
  • “For if the being of things lies veiled behind all theory and practice, this is not due to some precious merit or defect of human Dasein, but to the fact that all relations translate or distort that to which they relate: even inanimate relations. When fire burns cotton, it makes contact only with the flammability of this material…Though it is true that fire can change or destroy these properties that lie outside its grasp, it does so indirectly: through the detour of some additional feature of the cotton that color, odor, and fire are all able to touch. The being of cotton withdraws from the flames, even if it is consumed and destroyed. Cotton-being is concealed not only from phenomenologists and textile workers, but from all entities that come into contact with it. In other words, the withdrawal of objects I not some cognitive trauma that afflicts only humans and a few smart animals, but expresses the permanent inadequacy of any relation at all” (p. 44). Harman reduces both presence at hand and ready at hand, that is systemic background equipment and tool usage for man to the exact relation between fire and cotton. The cotton is concealed from the fire until it starts burning it, and even then the cotton is only present in that it is flammable, it is not present-in-itself, but concealed and in fact it remains after the burning. What remains after burning, the eidos or real object of cotton? Flame does not relate to the flammable quality of cotton any more than it relates to the nonflammable quality of steel. I suppose if he wanted to get nitpicky about it, the only things that could really affect each other would be sensual qualities: the heat of the flame is what relates to the flammability of the cotton. It is not the flame itself that burns the cotton and it is not the cotton itself that burns. The reduction of action to object here is bizarre, and his explanation of the relationship between objects needs further exploration.
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4 Comments
  1. John, even though I’ve certainly taken more than a few sips from the OOO Kool-Aid (kOOl-aid, perhaps?), I do find Harman’s characterization, in chapter five, of the relation between real objects and sensual objects to be more than a little strange. It does not seem to me, however, that Harman’s description here necessitates, as you suggest, the presence of a pre-conscious unified self – which would bring us into the realm of Kantian human/world rapport. Crucially, although Harman does cite the “I” of Graham Harman as a real object in direct contact with a sensual object, he does not seem here to assert that the encounter between a real object and a sensual object necessitates a conscious entity or human self. Harman takes pains in this chapter to assert that the necessary condition for the existence of a sensual object is that an agent of some sort “expends its energy in taking it seriously,” and is absorbed in dealing with the object (74). Harman goes on to suggest on the next page (admittedly, somewhat unclearly) that “not all experience is of the human or even animal kind” (75).

    Harman does define a real object as a unified thing with specific qualities that withdraws from access, but he does not describe (as you seem to be suggesting, although please correct me if I’m misconstruing things here) the need for a unified self, per se, nor even privilege the “I” in the contact between real and sensual objects. Indeed, it seems as if the “I” described in this example is unified as such only in its relation with the sensual object. The real object that is the I-absorbed-in relations-with-other-objects arises only on the interior of the (indirect) relation between the sensual self and a real object – a concept that seems somewhat bizarre, and which I am still working my way through. However, I think Harman does do a much better job of explaining it in one of his briefer essays, “The Road to Objects” (available online, open access — http://www.continentcontinent.cc/index.php/continent/article/viewArticle/48) by way of the example of the relation between himself and a tree:

    “The sensual object and I cannot meet inside of me. Instead, our encounter occurs on the interior of the relation between me and the real tree (which must be indirect, but there is no need to complicate things here). When the tree and I somehow form a link, we become a new object; every relation forms a new real object… the definition of a real object is simply a unified thing with specific qualities that withdraws from any attempt to grasp it. The relation between me and the tree certainly meets these criteria: the intentional relation must be one, or it could not occur; it must have specific qualities, or it would be interchangeable with any other relation; and it withdraws from any attempt to grasp it, since I can never exhaustively grasp my own relation with the tree, and a fortiori the tree can never do so” (177).

    All objects, in Harman’s formulation, are irreducible downward to their components and irreducible upwards to their relationships with other objects. However, although the real object that is the Harman-pine tree relation is constituted by the relation between its component objects, it does not necessarily enter into upward relationships with larger entities. Harman seems to be suggesting here that the real object that occurs on the interior of another relation does not affect any other outside objects, and thus does not by necessity enter into any wider reciprocal systems — in this regard, its qualities do seem objective more so than structural.

    Or perhaps this is a false distinction in the first place?(Just speculating)

    Cheers,
    Martin

    • jmdaven permalink

      Martin let me know if this answers your question or if I’m off point on this…

      My question for Harman concerns his constitution of real objects and their relation to any of the other three entities. An autonomous real object would have absolutely no dependance upon, no need for the sensual world, so one must ask how this sensual world could possible have arisen from or have any relation with the seemingly prior real object. “Their reality consists solely in being what they are, not in some sort of impact on other things” (73), “To be an object means to be itself, to enact the reality in the cosmos of which that object alone is capable” (74), and “the ‘I’ that is sincerely absorbed in dealing with trees, wolves, or beach balls is the real me, not a sensual one” (74). The idea of “being what they are,” “to be itself,” and to be “sincerely absorbed” all rely upon a sort of self-relation of the autonomous object, a self-identification that would seemingly require mediation. This problem is clearest in the insistence that “to be an object means to be itself, to enact the reality in the cosmos of which that object alone is capable.” The problem of being-itself is most evident in this imperative that an object must be itself. It is echoed in Harman’s insistence upon the unique capabilities of the object, and sincere absorption. The problem is that all these relations or forms of self-knowledge rely on relation, on the possibility of another, of what is not, of what is and and what is capable. Furthermore in his repeated analogies of the autonomous object to a “unified” thing or a “pole”he fails to acknowledge that both of these imply an other, another, a plurality in the first case and an opposite pole in the latter. The very notion of an autonomous or unified pole is extremely problematic (unless he means a simple cylindrical object).

      Furthermore, he does not elaborate on the crucial importance of the sensual world as having “a retroactive effect on the reality that lies outside all experience” and the process of translating the real “into sensual caricatures of themselves” which are merely “the fuel for the causal relations” (75). These all occur “somehow.” And since these sensual caricatures may only serve as the fuel of causal relations, how are they instigated or ignited?

      The passage you quoted implies that the sensual world has the power to create new real objects:

      “When the tree and I somehow form a link, we become a new object; every relation forms a new real object… the definition of a real object is simply a unified thing with specific qualities that withdraws from any attempt to grasp it. The relation between me and the tree certainly meets these criteria: the intentional relation must be one, or it could not occur; it must have specific qualities, or it would be interchangeable with any other relation; and it withdraws from any attempt to grasp it, since I can never exhaustively grasp my own relation with the tree, and a fortiori the tree can never do so” (177).

      This would reveal a very different relation between the real object and the sensual world, in which the priority seemingly given to the autonomous real object is in fact traced back to the sensual world. The sensual world allows for the tree and the person to interact, without the sensual world, no action would occur, there would be no real object of one’s relation to a tree.

  2. 7sshare permalink

    “…a structural characteristic, a structural necessity and not an objective quality or possession.” Can autonomy not be both? Just because all centaurs are half-human, half-horse, is being half-human-half-horse not a quality of each centaur? I’m not sure I understand the distinction between structural necessity and objective quality. But the stakes of your distinction here would be to preserve relationality and thus defend Hegel: “…the real object is never encountered. The object can only be known relationally.” But if I’m correct Harman is uninterested in “knowing” objects, and concerned only with speculating about them. Perhaps he is working in a different domain altogether than that in which Hegel does?

    • jmdaven permalink

      In language and in thought it is a necessity for “centaur” to be half man, half horse. However, without the structures of language and thought, should a centaur exist as an object in itself, it would not be half human, half horse, it would simply be. Language, thought give the centaur a necessary characteristic or definition, outside of these, which is of course itself a debatable possibility, the object itself would be neither half horse nor half man. With no one to call something a centaur, without a man or a horse of which to be composed, there is no “centaur.” The thing might exist autonomously, in which case nothing more could be said about it. I think this is leading to another long debate on the mere possibility of autonomy that though interesting is perhaps only tangential to the topic at hand.

      The argument Harman seems to make against the “weaker Philosophy of Access” lies in his differentiation between “tree outside thought” and “thought of a tree outside thought” (66). In contrast to his claim, an idealist, even of the weak sort, may differentiate between these phrases in a manner distinct from Harman’s and so retain their grounds for argument. The main difference as Harman draws between the “the tree outside thought” and the “thought of a tree outside thought” seems to be of clarity and accessibility: “In the first case I refer explicitly to the tree apart from my thinking of it… its qualities remain mysterious and at least partly unknown” (66).

      I see two immediate ways to proceed. The first option being that the first sentence Harman wishes to differentiate should read “a tree outside thought” not “tree outside thought.” In this case, Harman’s accusation that idealism would view the two sentences as more or less identical in meaning would stand, but Harman’s own distinction would not, for in this case, both sentences would be equally precise and clear in the unpresented object.

      The second potential reading would read just as Harman has written in the published text: “tree outside of thought” vs “the thought of a tree outside thought.” In this case Harman’s distinction of clarity and accessibility might stand, but it would not overturn the idealist’s argument. For an idealist could easily continue by admitting that “tree outside thought” is different from “thought of a tree outside thought” by agreeing with Harman to a point. Whereas “tree outside thought” indicates the concept of “tree” in general outside thought, that could be the unconscious, as of yet unrealized, or pre-conscious tree, the concept of unconceptualized genus or category of tree, the latter “thought of a tree outside thought” would imply a specific, negative form of a tree, that is a single tree outside of thought. These two are for the idealist not the exact same thought unthought, but this does not mean that idealism cannot account for the difference.

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