The carnival tent rustles in the evening breeze, disturbing the moods of those who approach. Inside the tent are swarms of humans and trained animals; there are jarring sounds, strange ethnic foods, and shadows. For a few moments the music of a concealed organ is countered by the rumble of thunder, as emaciated dogs begin to whine. A small fight breaks out, soon to be halted by a sneering, scar-faced man. Suddenly, hailstones strike the roof of the tent like bullets, frightening everyone: the visitors, the fortunetellers, the unkempt and corrupted security guards, the monkeys sparkling with costume jewelry. At long last, the organ player’s morbid inner anger takes command, and he begins an atonal dirge that will last throughout the storm.
It’s not just the beginning: Graham Harman‘s Guerrilla Metaphysics reads like a work of philosophy written inside an alternative steampunk world, its streets teeming with mongrels and halfbreeds, its shops chock-full of mismatched collections of things both mundane and fantastic, both tangible and imaginary. This is a wonderful book. Is it wonderful philosophy? I couldn’t say; I have no reliable basis for rendering such a judgment. I regard metaphysics as a genre of fictional nonfiction in which the writer elaborates an alternate reality, a vast mise-en-scene on which any number of actors might later take the stage and multiple plots might unfold. In constructing such a reality it’s the scope and clarity and even the audacity of the thinker’s imaginative vision that prevail. Did I find Harman’s reality stimulating, thought-provoking, engaging? Absolutely. Is it true? I have no idea.
In his prior book Tool Being (which I haven’t read), Harman describes a world populated by countless separate objects that overlap one another in a multi-layered and crowded space. Though objects can encounter and even use one another, they are also permanently withdrawn from one another in vacuum-sealed isolation. In Guerrilla Metaphysics Harman explores how these essentially insular objects can possibly interact with one another.
I think the gist is this: Objects never interact directly; they do so only vicariously. An object possesses various properties or features or notes — eventually Harman says that the object is its notes. But it’s possible for one object to encounter another object’s notes as if these notes had been cut loose from the object itself. These loose notes float through a sort of plasm or charged medium that extends itself within the empty space separating discrete objects from each other. The objects don’t interact directly; rather, their separate notes encounter each other in the mediatory plasm. There the split-off notes from different objects might combine with each other, and it’s through this combination of notes that new objects are created. And in this creation it becomes clear that the notes never really disconnected themselves from their original objects. Rather, these objects have become components of the new composite object, linked to the whole through those specific notes that encountered each other in the plasm.
Now it might seem that this sort of creative encounter between discrete objects violates Harman’s basic premise that objects never encounter each other directly, especially since an object never really cuts its notes loose from itself and since an object is ultimately the same as its notes. Harmon says that what seems to be an external encounter between different objects is really taking place inside the “molten core” of an emerging new composite object. The original objects retain their integrity as separate objects, but as soon as their notes reach across the plasm to each other they’re already occupying a newly-formed inner space opening up inside the composite object that’s in the process of forming itself. The component objects remain essentially isolated from each other even inside the new composite object, however: their mutuality is limited to those particular qualities or features or notes that the composite object uses in holding itself together as a separate thing. So, for example, a bridge might use the structural strength of the steel of which it’s made yet fail to encounter the steel’s shine or color or molecular structure or ability to inspire football players. Or the phrase “a cedar is a flame” conjures up a composite metaphorical object that blends certain notes from the cedar and the flame (shape, jagged edges, etc.) while disregarding others (color, temporal persistence, destructiveness, etc.). The steel bridge and the metaphorical cedar-flame possess their own distinct essences that aren’t reducible to the notes of their component parts. And the component objects are never “used up” in the composites into which they’ve been absorbed: they always retain their own discrete objecthood, sealed away from those specific notes that are used in assembling the composite object.
One consequence of Harman’s object-based reality is that the relationship between people and objects becomes a subset of the more general relationships among objects. So the relationship between a human thinker and the object of his/her contemplation isn’t categorically different from the gravitational relationship between a star and a meteor in some remote galaxy that’s never been detected by humans. In Harman’s universe, the meteor-star relationship is always vicarious: the two objects never encounter each other directly, never expose one another’s hidden essences. And the relationship between meteor and star always occurs inside of a composite meteor-star object. By extension, the human thinker never encounters the essence of that which s/he contemplates — the essence of things always recedes from human scrutiny. Further, human thinking about a thing never takes place from an outside, “objective” point of view — it always occurs on the inside of a merged thinker-thing composite object. I’m not sure how this thinker-thing composite object differs from Heidegger’s being-there or Meillassoux’s Correlation. Thinking-about, being similar to any other inter-object relation, encounters only those notes of the thought-about object that are useful in assembling the composite object called a “thought.” It seems to me that Harman’s realism doesn’t overcome epistemological uncertainty and relativism; rather, Harman just makes it less remarkable, less privileged, more similar to all other uncertain and relative relationships among the objects populating the universe.
Harman’s realism doesn’t privilege tangible material objects over imaginary objects. A metaphorical tree-flame and a centaur have essences and notes and can enter into vicarious relationships with other objects in ways are not fundamentally different from objects like horses and table lamps and movie theaters. If that’s so, and if the essence of every object withdraws from direct contact from any other object, then how can the object called “my mind” ever distinguish between a tangible material object and an imaginary object? In constituting an object, sensory notes encountered phenomenologically don’t seem privileged over other kinds of notes that manifest themselves in thought and imagination and words. On another post recently Sam asked me whether “God” counts as an object in Harman’s scheme. I said that it does, but I’m not sure how to determine whether the God-object is more like a horse or a centaur.
The other thing that struck me while reading Harman’s book is that I’m not sure how he accounts for the destruction of objects. I can see how the interrelationship of my mouth and a candy bar exploits only certain notes of the candy bar — taste, mouthfeel, nutrition — while disregarding the true essence of the candy bar. But as I eat, digest, and metabolize it, does the candy bar persist, along with its notes and its essence? Or does it eventually cease being a candy bar altogether? If so — if by eating it I destroy the candy bar — then hasn’t the candy bar entered into a direct encounter with my digestive system? Harman acknowledges in his book that he doesn’t talk about death and destruction. Still, I wonder how he accounts for these events that seem to remove objects from existence altogether rather than just incorporating them into composite objects.
I think that’s enough for now. Obviously I’ve skipped over vast tracts of Harman’s text and ideas by focusing on the parts that come to mind as I sit here writing this post. I’m also trying to think about the book from the inside, exploring the contours of the reality Harman has laid out for me. I generally resonate with the ideas, and I’m eager to think about implications for an “object-oriented psychology.” If readers would like clarifications I’ll do my best. I’m also open to correction if I’ve misconstrued or caricatured overmuch.