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If Popeye isn’t real, what is he?

by on January 31, 2013

Following — and influenced by — our class discussion on Monday, I approached the second half of Quadruple Object with a greater degree of skepticism (or, perhaps more accurately, a greater deal of alertness) with regards to a handful of the implications of (my understanding of) Harman’s theory of objects. In particular, while reading through the last five chapters of Harman’s text, I found myself wondering about:

  •  The potential for the sort of “slippage” (to borrow Johnathan’s choice of words) in which a sensual quality — for instance, the color “red” — becomes a sensual object, “red.” In particular, I was curious about the potential implication of a real object, some sort of murky shadow red, hiding in the basement of the sensual red.
  • The ontological status of thought, as such. In our class discussion, we seemed to conclude that Harman does not regard thought as being real — apparently, in contrast to Levi Bryant (looking forward to reading more on this in a few weeks).

Harman seems to confirm the  accuracy of part of the first point above — that concerning the slippage of sensual qualities into sensual objects — when he writes, in chapter 9, of the indistinct differences between sensual qualities and sensual objects: “given that there no longer seems to be any purely given sense data in experience, since qualities are always siphoned from objects. If I turn my attention to the supposed qualities of an object, what I find are further objects, not raw qualia” (131). As far as the issue of a potential basement-dwelling real red, he seemed to me somewhat less clear.

With regards to the second item above — on the ontological status of thought — Harman’s theories, as laid out in the book’s second half, strike me as somewhat odd. The problems with the status of thought in Harman’s metaphysics were highlighted by a conflation of terms that, although at work throughout the entirety of The Quadruple Object, had a noticeably obfuscating effect on the second half of the text. This indistinctness is discernible in chapter 7;  describing his new fourfold model, Harman writes that the four tensions (whose interaction constitutes time, space, essence, and eidos) affect every object in some way or another by virtue of the fact that they “already encompass both real and fictitious entities, given that sensual objects join real ones as a basic feature of the model” (102). Harman’s use of the term “fictitious entity” in this characterization of his fourfold model strikes me as odd in its synthesis of two terms (fictitious + entity) that each seem to occupy outlier positions in the descriptive vocabulary used throughout the text.

Throughout the book, Harman employs the terms “object,” “thing,” “unit,” and “entity” in ways that seem, at times, confusing in their apparent interchangeability. Object and thing seem to be, more or less, unproblematically interchangeable, with thing perhaps entailing a more specifically Heideggerian conception of an object. Unit seems to signify a concept that is, if not quite synonymous, certainly interchangeable with object — Harman seems to employ the term most frequently as a descriptive/mapping term, in the vein of the ontography discussed in chapter 9.

Entity, however, seems to signify something notably different than object/thing/unit. Harman uses the term in his characterization of what he refers to as the “Taxonomic Fallacy,” which erroneously “[assumes] that basic ontological divides can be identified with specific kinds of entities” (119). Instead, Harman continues, this ontological divide lies between “objects and  relations in general: between their autonomous reality outside all relation, and their caricatured form in the sensual life of other objects” (119-120). The terms entity and object seem here to signify two distinct concepts; this seems to be corroborated by Harman’s assertion that real objects are formed on the interior of relations between other objects, but  do not “require relations with other entities” (123). Entity seems here distinct from object, but does not seem to correspond to any distinct position in his wider schema.

Harman’s use of the term fictitious seems even more indistinct. In the above-quoted passage that references “fictitious entities,” the term fictitious seems to be employed as a counterpoint to real. However, throughout the majority rest of the text, Harman works with the two opposed “suits” of real and sensual objects and qualities — fictitious objects and qualities are not discussed, and do not seem to correspond to any particular location in Harman’s metaphysical structure. Indeed, the term fictitious seems to be not so much an ontological status, but rather to be a descriptive term for a particular quality of objects — this seems not very different from the sort of move Harman discredits as the Taxonomic Fallacy.

This taxonomic distinction seems to be at play in the final chapter of The Quadruple Object, when Harman describes Popeye and unicorns as being less real than neutrons:

the complaint might be heard that a neutron is more real than Popeye or unicorns. And here I would agree. But the real question is whether our concept of a neutron is more real than our concepts of Popeye and unicorns, and the answer here is obviously in the negative: all three are of these are sensual objects, not real ones” (142)

Popeye’s less-real-than-a-neutron status seems to be based upon the understanding that Popeye is fictional, in the colloquial sense of the word. However, it is unclear how Popeye fails to differ from Harman’s definition of being-real: Popeye certainly withdraws from direct access, is likewise possessed of “a multitude of qualities both real and perceived” (112) — love of spinach, sailor suit, grotesque and misshapen forearms, etc, in addition to darker real-Popeye qualities. How, within the context of Harman’s metaphysics, does this fail to grant Popeye a degree of realness equivalent to that of a neutron? Is Popeye, or any fictitious object (in the commonplace understanding of fiction), precluded from being real through some association with thought? This seems unclear to me, perhaps inconsistent.

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3 Comments
  1. jmdaven permalink

    Martin,

    I agree wholeheartedly that Harman’s readers would benefit greatly if he were to clear up his definitions and differentiations. Object, thing, entity, and unit need to be more clearly delineated. The absence of thorough differentiation and descriptions of where an “object” begins and where it ends points to a the very difficulty of Harman’s system. The relations between and margins of objects and qualities and the real and the sensual remains problematic.

    Furthermore I agree that the description “fictitious” and his gradation of “real” is difficult to understand. Surely Popeye possesses sensual qualities, is a sensual object in a system of relation to other sensual objects etc. Does Popeye become sensual or real only on Halloween when someone wears some sort of giant mascot like Popeye suit? On the other hand, for Harman, neutrons are more real, and would remains real objects as I understand, even if every electron microscope were destroyed, and none could be seen. What is “real” for Harman and why exactly he makes these differentiations remains unclear.

  2. traviswmatteson permalink

    As we discussed briefly in class, a real object’s perception of a sensual object is often a question of scale. In the case of the laptop and the table, we speculative the sensation of a real table against a sensual laptop. But we might also speculate an atom of the table perceiving a sensual atom of the laptop. I’ve been trying to think of a way to apply this scalar understanding to fictitious object including Popeye. Because I believe it is easy to understand that Popeye has a material basis, whether he is made of light, data, or ink on paper, or even brain waves. From an OOO perspective, we can say that these objects (light, data. ink, paper, brain waves) can perceive other sensual objects. And we can also say that particular arrangements of these objects constitute another object, namely Popeye. Is it incorrect to say then, that Popeye, as an object made of other object, has an autonomous reality and can engage in relations with other objects? Surely, since I cannot perceive a “real” neutron anymore than I can perceive a “real” Popeye, it is not correct to say that Popeye is less real.

  3. As we’ll see this is a matter of debate between Bryant and Harman. I think the more apt comparison in this case is not the neutron but rather the European Union, which Harman does assert to be a real object and not simply an aggregate. The test he applies is the principle of redundant causation. So the EU continues to exist even if its particular citizenship changes on a daily basis. Assuming that Popeye isn’t real, then he must be a sensual object: the idea/thought of Popeye. However that becomes complicated as well. Can there be a sensual object without a real one? Doesn’t a sensual object require real qualities? And real qualities can’t be wandering around without an object, right? Otherwise, Harman would fall into his own taxonomy fallacy.

    If Harman wants to say that Popeye doesn’t exist as such, fine; that would be true of any object.

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