Response to Graham Harman 2013 OOO or Agential Realism

– Madeleine Boyd

Harman suggests in his 2013 explication of Object Orientated Ontology (European Graduate School lecture), two possible critiques of relational and science-based ontologies in philosophy, which therefore could be considered critiques of Barad’s Agential Realism. Harman makes specific reference to Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory relational concepts, but the commentary applies to the broader field as well. The issue at stake here is the stability of objects and whether it is viable to contemplate that objects change as their relational embeddedness changes. Harman claims that objects have stable qualities that relate, but do not eternally emerge in-relation-to. Agential Realism, and new materialism of the non-OOO streams are heavily invested in emergent models of ontology. Johns-Putra (2013; p128) neatly summarises the difference as, “the difference between Barad’s and Morton’s formulations of agency and ontology is a matter of emphasis: Morton is interested in objects in motion; Barad is concerned with objects in motion.” Johns-Putra is referring to Tim Morton, colleague of Harman in OOO. On the second point of contention, Harman seems to relegate science-based ontologies in philosophy to a minor sub-sector of thought, which although attempting to get at the universe using measurements, fall into the same dilemmas of all philosophy and lack the rigour of analytic philosophy. At times he does seem to suggest that mathematics is the only real empirical reference of value to philosophy, outside of analytic traditions.

The frequencies at which Harman’s OOO, new materialism and Agential Realism do all resonate in time are the central contentions that the non-human has independent and significant valence in ontology, regardless of human presence, consideration or intervention; also importantly, that the materiality, or matter, of existence is of primary importance to philosophical consideration, rather than the spiritual, constructed or merely perceptual, for example. Differing views on the ways in which matter relates, touches, and comes into being is how the various material philosophies diverge. Harman suggests that he agrees with the ‘finitude of Kant’, but he asserts that new frontiers have opened up as we consider object-to-object relations, rather than the limits of philosophy being human-human or human-object. Important topics that emerge in these new materialist debates seem to be: how do objects touch?; the stability of objects as extant entities; and in which ways are objects able to be encountered by other objects or forces or entities, and the results of these encounters.

It is contented here that the relegation of important new observations in quantum physics to a sub-sector of philosophy is an incongruent starting point. If the matters at stake concern matter, then the only recently observed behaviour of sub-atomic particles surely has more to say about the processes of existence, than, say the musings of a wine critic about the affective qualities of a particular vintage (as Harman makes so much of). While the manner in which Barad has extended some of her insights to the eco-social sphere might be open to debate, the core subject of physics should be of primary interest to any materialist philosopher. Harman’s metaphors on magnets as descriptors of how objects relate could by contrast be considered nothing more than fanciful, for where is this shown to be true, other than in his own circular tautologies? It is therefore evident that Harman, much more than Barad, has fallen into the same old traps of philosophy. Barad, by contrast, has opened up entirely fresh frontiers in providing a non-mystical, yet still virtual (full of potential), basis for discussing matter.

As to whether objects or entities retain stability, I am sure that Barad is not suggesting that time is ahistorical, or that evolution has not occurred, or that entities such as birds, fish, rocks, and electrons do not exist. A clear statement is made at the outset of her book ‘Meeting the Universe Halfway’, that the new materialism has risen to remedy the problems of constructivism, which include this idea of non-existence outside of relation. Barad’s Agential Realism is firmly grounded in material reality, and the idea that the non-human universe does exist always already a priori to human encounter. Her work does develop radical ontologies and mechanisms for the workings of existence, but in a way that should be considered pragmatic for application to research projects, such as the temporal relations between species in environmental studies, or the manner in which political movements operate, and perhaps most importantly concerning ways of making new agential cuts in relations between the human and non-human.

Barad, Karen Michelle. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

European Graduate School. 2013. Graham Harman. Speculative Realism. .

Johns-Putra, Adeline 2013. “Environmental Care Ethics: Notes Toward a New Materialist Critique.” Symploke no. 21 (1-2):125-135.

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6 Responses to Response to Graham Harman 2013 OOO or Agential Realism

  1. Michael G says:

    Two quick thoughts: First, your statement that Harman relegates quantum physics to a “sub-sector of philosophy” is misleading, and probably an outright straw man. He insists on the relative autonomy of different fields, whether they be painting, molecular biology, music, geometry, or philosophy. But more importantly, your apparent reason for assigning a view to Harman that he does not hold is to place quantum physics at the center of philosophy, which Harman indeed rejects. For an account of this rejection, see his responses to Ladyman and Ross’s “Every Thing Must Go” in the article “I am also of the opinion that materialism must be destroyed,” in Environment and Planning vol. 28 (2010). A very brief rendition here would be to look closely at your claim that if we are talking about material things, then sub-atomic particles should tell us more than a wine critic. OOO responds that this is a classic “taxonomic fallacy,” in that it assigns unique ontological status to specific differences. Quantum physics surely gives us powerful indirect access to sub-atomic particles, but isn’t as uniquely illuminating about the being of a 2009 Napa Cabernet, let alone the paintings of Picasso, the adventures of Don Quixote, or the disturbing obsessions of Terrence Blake. More generally, placing sub-atomic particles at the root of all things denies emergence (or else you concede the point that every level of scale has its own identity).

    Second, you seem to have missed Harman’s point by (1) insisting on a hierarchy between FORM (“spiritual, constructed, or merely perceptual”) and MATTER (“materiality…is of primary importance”), and then (2) placing Harman in the “form” camp. He has recently argued against a form/matter dichotomy in “Materialism Is Not the Solution,” in the Nordic Journal of Aesthetics no. 47 (2014). But my first paragraph largely repeats his relevant points (particularly, that your position entails the rejection of emergence of individual things). What seems particularly strange here is your insistence that Harman champions the “merely perceptual,” despite his pretty strong claim for realism in the European Grad School lecture. And then you mention “circular tautologies” without mentioning what those loopy round circles could possibly be. Is it classic internet trolling or shorthand for an argument not mentioned here?

    • Thanks for your comment. My main point is that if we accept old perceptions of limitations such as Kant’s, then we are unneccesarily restricting the progress of existential philosophy. Chemistry was originally based on scent, just as wine tasting is, yet progress was made only once empirical methods were employed. Not to say that subjectivity is not a valid measure of phenomenological experience, but that this fabricates classist and speciest hierarchies of value.

      • Michael G says:

        OK, I think I see what you mean. I’m pretty sure Harman would agree with you that progress in chemistry must depend on factors that are specific to chemistry, even if it takes inspiration from other domains (mathematics, geometry, art, physics, philosophy, biology, whatever). Needless to say, he’d claim this rule is symmetrical. Philosophy does not reduce to a subset of empirical observations. As Harman has argued several times, knowledge about a thing’s parts or effects is valuable, but that’s only part of the story.

        You might be interested to read his two most recent books, which engage with the question of relations between humans and non-humans. Harman’s point is that we should NOT accept Kant’s limitations. Kant identifies his own distinction between relation and the in-itself with a division between human subjectivity and everything else. For Harman, making the human/world division primary is what leads to problematic hierarchies of value and divisions of labor.

      • Hi there I have been busy but finally got to rewatch this video in which Graham Harman says ‘I agree with Kant about finitude…’ the difference being that it isn’t only humans that can’t get at objects; objects cant get at objects…12:24.

        I have been reading his recent response to Barad in Rhizomes 30 http://www.rhizomes.net/issue30/harman.html
        My opinion is that his analysis is reductionist, and so fails to operate within the appropriate relational mode that would befit analysis. Notwithstanding that Harmon has a far superior intellect to my own, as well as an impressive grasp of the of philosophy, my special interest in non-human perspectives and justice tends to bias my attitude.

  2. terenceblake says:

    Barad’s philosophy is superior to OOO in that the latter is not just epistemologically but also ontologically dualist. There can be no explanation of the emergence of sensual objects from real objects: withdrawal is the opposite of emergence. Any “emergence’ in OOO is inevitably contained within a single regional ontology.

    The distinction between real and sensual objects is a dualism as Harman says very clearly and emphatically that sensual objects are mere simulacra, “utter shams” (THE THIRD TABLE, 6). It is also a dichotomous dualism due to its strong ontological concept of withdrawal. For all practical purposes, and for any examples whether common-sensical or scientific, Harman plunges us irremediably (cf. “withdrawal”) into the merely perceptual.

    On the question of relations, Harman’s arguments collapse due to his ignoring temporal relations, more particularly dynamic and kinetic relations such as “x is moving faster than y”, or “x, y, and z are accelerating at different rates”. Harman’s idea that “if everything is relational nothing would change” is easily refuted by such simple examples. Further, Harman constantly conflates relation, interaction, and contact, sliding glibly from one to the other without apparently noticing it. It must also be recalled in this context that for Harman time is unreal, belonging to the sensual domain.

    This a-temporal dichotomous thinking is the opposite of what is needed to think deeply about the world. Harman claims that his real objects are “deeper” than sensual objects. Sensual objects are not jlimited to perceptual objects, but include also the objects of the sciences, of the humanities, and of common sense. Concepts for Harman are also sensual objects (cf. THE QUADRUPLE OBJECT, 142).

    Harman makes an exception for art, but this is incoherent with the basic principles of his system of withdrawal, and is just arbitrarily stipulated rather than explained.

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