I’ve been reading Graham Harman’s Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects and Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. More accurately, I’ve been dipping into and sipping from the first and systematically digesting the second. Given the amount of blogging that goes on under the rising star(s) of ‘object-oriented philosophy,’ ‘speculative realism,’ and Graham Harman himself, I figure it’s okay and may even turn out productive for me to air some of my reactions in public.

To start with, I will say that Graham is one of the most engaging, entertaining, enjoyable, rhetorically satisfying, and utterly lucid of the contemporary philosophers I have read in recent memory. And his project, as far as I can discern it so far, is of fairly direct relevance to the thinking through of socio-ecological issues, or at least to the philosophical working-out of some of the dilemmas, the conceptual blockages and theoretical miasmas, that have made it difficult for us to think our way through the complex socio-ecological issues that confront us.


Tool-Being, or Heidegger as told by the hammer

In Tool-Being, Graham presents an argument that pushes Heidegger’s tool-analysis to “its most extreme form,” or at least to its most non-anthropocentric form. In the process, he proposes an understanding of reality, or the things that make it up, as both relationally expressive and ultimately (on some level) unknowable — something akin to what Heidegger’s distinction of ‘world’ and ‘earth’ might amount to, where ‘world’ is the relationally, referentially networked cosmos of meanings and interactions in which we live, and ‘earth’ is the “bearing and supporting system on which all else forever rests but which itself forever recedes from view” (197). (I’m poaching this quote from Graham’s discussion of the fourfold, and the earth/world duality is not identical to the earth/sky duality he discusses there, but I think the point holds well enough.) Rather audaciously, however, he takes this duality to be constitutive not so much of the universe as a whole as it is of every thing in it: “every point in the cosmos is both a concealed reality and one that enters into explicit contact with others” such that “there is no such thing as a sheer ‘relation’; every relation turns out to be an entity in its own right” (288-9).

Our, human, role in this is as engaged participants: “There is no exit from the density of being, no way to stand outside the brutal play of forces and vacuum-packed entities that crowd the world. We ourselves are only one such entity among innumerable others” (289) and we can “never manage to rise above the massive clamor of entities, but can only burrow around within it” (294). “Everywhere, the world is a plenum crowded by tool-beings, by formal units that retreat behind any external contact with them.” (288)

By the term ‘tool-being,’ Harman intends, craftily and perhaps a little sneakily, to open up Heidegger’s own analysis of the ‘readiness-to-hand’ of tools to the more radical insight that tools are not only objects that we make use of or engage with, but they are what the universe is made up of — things that are engaged with by other things, all of which are also (crucially) things that are never fully knowable by another thing (including an outside observer). A tool or object, in this expanded definition, is not a category restricted only to things that we see, use, or relate to. Anything, from an idea or perception of something to the universe itself, is such an object. The world, for Harman, is “a dense and viscous universe stuffed absolutely full with entities” (295), “forms wrapped inside of forms” (293), each of which is relationally engaged with other forms, but not reducible to any of them. “The contrast between tool-being and its relations permeates all of reality, both animate and inanimate. In addition to objects in their prehensive relations with one another [that is, relations in which one object ‘prehends’ or takes note of, makes use of, interacts with, appropriates, another], there is something withdrawn behind any of these relations, irreducible to them.” (289)

Harman’s ontology is thus a kind of realism and a kind of formalism. It also sounds, at least in this book, like a kind of processualism insofar as he claims that “A tool exists in the manner of enacting itself” (22) — a statement that is resonant with the enactive cognitive biology that Varela, Maturana, and others have developed with their notion of living things being autopoietic, self-organizing systems (though Harman would no doubt push their view well beyond one centered only on living systems) and with Whitehead’s ontology of things always in process, actual entities that are always in the process of becoming (and perishing), subjectifying (and objectifying). But Harman’s focus on objects rather than processes is intentional, and it comes carrying the subsidiary argument that relational theories of reality, such as Heidegger’s and Whitehead’s, have “already performed” their “historical mission, and [are] now burdening us with [their] excesses” (23-4).

Here’s where I register my first hint of disagreement, and where my dialogue with The Prince of Networks will become fairly animated. I would readily acknowledge that processual or relational theories of something have been widely influential — for instance, all of poststructuralist thought and many of its antecedents, from Saussurian linguistics and even Marxist political economy through to Derridean deconstruction and Foucauldian genealogy, can be taken as relational theories, theories that blur the distinctiveness of objects or individual entities in order to make sense of them within relational contexts, systems, networks, and so on. And even in some of the sciences, notably those of complexity, systems theory, and the like, we find relational theories at the fore. But for something to be a ‘relational theory of reality’, it would have to adequately encompass all of reality, including human cultural reality as well as the physical and biological worlds. Poststructuralism, by and large, has avoided accounting for the complexity of the physical and biological, while the systems theories coming from the natural sciences have, by and large, taken inadequate measure of the human and cultural. Neither has particularly successfully grappled with the full density of their intermingled networkings – which is what makes the work of Latour, Deleuze, Whitehead, and other process-relational thinkers of reality (and not merely of culture, or of physical and biological systems) important and exciting.

On to Prince of Networks, then, to see what Harman does with Latour (and Whitehead, and Meillassoux, and many others). I’ll post that tomorrow. But as a bit of foreshadowing, I’ll propose the alternate subtitle “‘Latour’ + ‘Heidegger’ vs. Kant’s Copernican Revolution” (where the scare quotes indicate Harman’s role as puppeteer behind the stage, and Kant’s role is leader of the revolt that made “all reality [take] its measure from the conditions of human experience”).

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