13 January 2009

Eclipse as Object

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:54 pm

Graham Harman has burst onto the scene, first on Nick’s blog and now on his own. I’ve been reading his most recent (I think) book Guerrilla Metaphysics, and something I encountered early in Part Two captured my attention. And so, in testing out my new mini-camcorder, I focus my attention on a small nuance in Harman’s contribution to “speculative realism”:

I find Harman’s book stimulating, innovative, and fun to read. As I read further Harman will doubtless offer further insights into the question I pose in my little video. Hopefully when I get a memory card I can focus my attention on the subject at hand for longer than 30-second sound bites.



  1. […] January 14, 2009 ktismatic posts a delicious video (2:18 in length). […]

    Pingback by eclipse as object (video link) « Object-Oriented Philosophy — 13 January 2009 @ 8:35 pm

  2. Yes, it’s a good response on your blog, Dr. Zamalek — shows I’m following the argument so far. I still have a hard time knowing what could possibly be on the interior of the eclipse. As I mentioned on Speculative Heresy, I’m reading Guerrilla before having read Tool Beings, so maybe I’ll just have to wait to read about what kinds of things might populate the interiors of objects rather than their interfaces with other objects. But you’re right, of course: the perception of the eclipse is what we tend to think about, whereas it’s the positioning of these component objects relative to each other that together constitute the eclipse. And it’s certainly possible to describe features of the eclipse empirically in angles, distances, percent occlusion, etc. independent of any actual observer.

    I’ve never seen anything approaching a full eclipse. My uncle Joe used to grind and polish his own telescope lenses and, when he worked for an airline, he used to fly all over the world to see and to photograph this spectacular phenomenon. Alas, Joe says his flying days are over, and his telescope is buried somewhere in the attic clutter of his ex-wife’s house.

    Comment by ktismatics — 13 January 2009 @ 9:29 pm

  3. Very informative. You also have a soothing, patient voice, John. I’d love to see a follow-up, once you’ve tackled the book (or along the way).

    Comment by seyfried — 14 January 2009 @ 6:19 pm

  4. Ktismatics,

    It seems from your comments that you find Lacan’s blackhole of the Real and Harman’s bracketed [Eclipse] object, dissatisfying (though inspiring).

    What do you think is “behind” the eclispe, and did drawing it (and then filming it) cause you to have a different sense of it, i.e. did Harmanm’s version become more or less convincing (or remain pretty much the same)?

    Comment by kvond — 14 January 2009 @ 8:24 pm

  5. Seyfried — “Soothing and patient” suggests that maybe 2 minutes might be the limit before the listener starts dozing off. Or maybe I shouldn’t have edited out all the strident impetuous bits from my monologue?’m

    Kvond — I’ve been trying to imagine what might be “inside” an eclipse that isn’t reducible to its qualities and the interrelations among its components. I’m prepared to regard an eclipse as an object, with an autonomy that’s independent of any actual observers. So I can picture the moon in its oscillating orbit around the sun, trailing behind itself a conical shadow wherever it goes in the solar system, a shadow that only occasionally intersects short strips of earth surface where human observers might gather to admire it and where other animals might stand transfixed in their confusion. I also acknowledge that scientists can measure some of the eclipse’s qualities without actually positioning themselves inside the conical lunar shadow. The part of Harman’s discourse I find hard to grasp is the withdrawn, hermetically sealed essence of the eclipse that withdraws from all interactions, even interactions with empty space.

    Having read Meillassoux’s After Finitude I understand the persistent philosophical conundrum of distinguishing being from manifestation. I also get the sense that Meillassoux would like to preserve realism through some sort of panpsychism, as though the universe thinks itself — a move not too far removed from Spinoza’s, I believe. Harman wants to avoid this move. It’s unfortunate in a way that I’m reading his Guerrilla Metaphysics, which addresses interactions between objects, without having already read Tool Being, where he makes the case for the isolated multiplicity of real objects with hidden essences. Still, the basic premise of realism — that stuff exists independent of any human perception or thought — seems worth fighting for.

    I think it is inspiring to see someone try to take on a project like this. I confess I tend to regard metaphysics as a sort of fictional genre. When I read a novel I like to let myself enter into the reality the writer is showing me, rather than standing outside that reality and critiquing it (which I can come back to later, of course). I feel the same way about the cluttered and multi-layered universe that Harman is revealing in his book. I’m engaged by the work/play of imagination, the bold interaction with other thinkers, the stimulating prose. “Speculative” is a good term for this sort of thing: “what if the universe is populated with monads?” is a rich sort of speculation, even if it’s not possible to prove or disprove the vast and intricate scheme Harman lays out.

    Comment by ktismatics — 15 January 2009 @ 10:24 am

  6. A few more things: I’ll agree that knowing about something isn’t the same as knowing the thing in itself. So, for Harman, a physical object dropped out an open 3rd-story window knows the earth only as a caricature reduced to a few qualities: its gravitational pull toward its center, its solid surface that impedes that pull. But are gravity and solid-surfaceness excluded from consideration as contributing to the earth’s essence precisely because these qualities enter into relationship with other objects? Back to the eclipse: is the occlusion of the sun behind the moon automatically eliminated from the eclipse’s essence because that’s it’s defining relational property? When humans arrived on the scene and became capable of investigating objects in greater intensity and detail than anything else had previously been able to do, did the objects start losing parts of their essence to their relationships with humans? And if some unknown but imaginable creature could actually encounter things in themselves, would their essences disappear entirely? I.e., while a thing can exist apart from its relationships with other objects and its knowability by humans, I can’t see why a thing’s essence has to be defined as everything other than relational knowability. Why can’t relational encounters and knowledge at least reveal glimpses into the essence, instead of causing the essence to retreat from such encounters?

    Comment by ktismatics — 15 January 2009 @ 2:00 pm

  7. Perhaps if you think of a hidden object as the complete totalization of all the possible relations it could possible hold, and compare this to the number of actual relations it is currently engaged in. That is, a screwdriver is right now screwing a screw in, putting pressure on your hand, reflecting a dull sheen, but it is not currently driving putty out from between tiles, or stabbing someone in the neck, or even operating as a metaphor for sexual intercourse. Can you see at least the potential difference between the two “objects”, the relational one, and the possibilities of relational one?

    Comment by kvond — 15 January 2009 @ 2:06 pm

  8. I can think of it this way, but in Harmon’s scheme it doesn’t work. He talks about the fourfold division of a thing: the difference between substance and relation, and the difference between the unity of a thing and the plurality of its features. The sum of all relations, be they actual or possible, never touches the substance of a thing in its vacuum-sealed isolation.

    Comment by ktismatics — 15 January 2009 @ 3:31 pm

  9. Yes, I understand that there is no strict correspondence here. You said that you could not conceive of an object that was anything more than its actual relations, and I hoped to open yourself up to an additional conception. Now that you can concieve of both, perhaps you are just a touch closer to understanding and accepting Graham’s argument. I find Graham’s argument flawed in its notion of object so I cannot argue for it. (I am not completely sure thought that Graham is not thinking of objects in terms of the possible, though non-existent, relations, as he put forth on Larval Subjects that he believed that in some important sense the McMain Victory Coalition exists, despite the candidate’s loss.)

    Comment by kvond — 15 January 2009 @ 6:45 pm

  10. Or if I understand him, he tells us that when we use a hammer only part of it is revealed, the rest of it forever in retreat. I would wonder how this is different than imagining the hammer under every conceivable use possible, which would be every possible revelation. Under such a conception, being revealed in every possible way, is there still something left over, perhaps.

    Comment by kvond — 15 January 2009 @ 6:53 pm

  11. Graham informs me, as suspected, that indeed there is some “stuff’ that is left over that is of a different nature, and unrevealed. I just don’t understand why he stops at “object” and doesn’t go straight to Spinozist Substance, for this “stuff”.

    Comment by kvond — 15 January 2009 @ 7:07 pm

  12. “You said that you could not conceive of an object that was anything more than its actual relations, and I hoped to open yourself up to an additional conception.”

    Sadly, you misconstrued what I said almost entirely, Kvond. I said I couldn’t conceive specifically of what an ECLIPSE could be other than its relations, including both actual and potential relations (e.g., relations to empty space through which the moon’s shadow passes). Maybe now you’re a touch closer to understanding me (lol).

    “Graham is not thinking of objects in terms of the possible, though non-existent, relations, as he put forth on Larval Subjects that he believed that in some important sense the McMain Victory Coalition exists, despite the candidate’s loss.”

    Sure he’s thinking about possible relations: in his response to my little video Harman specifically agreed with my inclusion of potential relations into which the actual eclipse might enter. In contrast, he was talking about the McCVC as a new object having already come into existence. I didn’t read the discussion carefully, but I presume teh McCVC could enter into a relationship with McC-as-winner or with McC-as-loser. The latter relation presumably brings an earlier and different end to the McCVC.

    “I would wonder how this is different than imagining the hammer under every conceivable use possible, which would be every possible revelation. Under such a conception, being revealed in every possible way, is there still something left over, perhaps.”

    That’s what I was talking about at the end of the video and in comment 6: for Harman an object’s relations are qualitatively different from its essence; the essence retreats from all relations; by definition the essence enters into no relations. This is the Tool Being argument based on Heiddeger: being ready-to-hand as a useful tool hides rather than reveals the hammer’s essence. So it’s this “something left over” as you say that constitutes essence — sort of the inverse of pragmatism.

    “Graham informs me, as suspected, that indeed there is some “stuff’ that is left over that is of a different nature, and unrevealed.”

    Like I said…

    “I just don’t understand why he stops at “object” and doesn’t go straight to Spinozist Substance, for this “stuff”.”

    I think he wants to keep objects from melting into some sort of undifferentiated soup. When an object consists entirely of relations entered into by other objects, the infinite regress leaves you with no “real” objects at all, but rather a universe shaped entirely by relationships perpetually crisscrossing the primal goo. Harman wants to retain objects’ essential integrity, entirely independent and isolated from relationships.

    Comment by ktismatics — 15 January 2009 @ 9:51 pm

  13. Ah, it was quite sad that I misconstrued what you said, very. Let’s be more happy about things. (Thanks for the brief lecture that followed.)

    And yes, I understand why he fears a Spinoza Substance, but this fear of melting objects is nothing more than the fear of the melting of man into the world (no longer being important) displaced across an imagined and hidden objecthood. The “integrity” of objects is nothing more than the “integrety” of the soul, spread thin. This fear as it its directed towards Spinoza is based on a misreading of Spinoza’s universe as an acosmicism, a mistake that Hegel makes in attempting to insert human centricity through the reality of the Negation. Where the negation is inserted, a human-centered (and in Graham’s case, a Cartesian, intentionality centered) conception of the world followed. Graham’s work is tensioned within itself, post-human but using a human-centered conception.


    Comment by kvond — 16 January 2009 @ 7:19 am

  14. “the fear of the melting of man into the world (no longer being important) displaced across an imagined and hidden objecthood.”

    That would be ironic, inasmuch as Harman’s explicit agenda is to break free of what Meillassoux calls the Correlation, in which everything in the universe is subjected to human awareness. Harman says that he wants to grant all objects comparable metaphysical status. Relations too: he doesn’t want to privilege human engagements with objects over objects’ engagements with each other.

    “The “integrity” of objects is nothing more than the “integrety” of the soul, spread thin.”

    I’ve wondered about this possibility, Kvond. If humans are on equal footing with other objects, then the same things could be said about humans as about inhuman things; namely, that the individual human “object” has an unapproachable essence. This essence would be irreducible to and unaffected by social relationships. So instead of a sort of generic or monistic or protean inspirited substance you could end up with a universe filled with countless individual souls. God too would be a separate object with his own inscrutable and unapproachable essence.

    But this is all speculation on my part, since I’ve not read enough of Harman’s books yet. Meanwhile, maybe if some other specific puzzling idea like the eclipse comes up in my reading of the Guerrilla Metaphysics I’ll put it up. What I’m wondering about is why this interests me. I read Meillassoux in part because of his stated purpose: how are we to conceive of the empirical sciences’ capacity to yield knowledge of the ancestral realm? — i.e., of the universe prior to humanity’s evolotion. A lot of continental theorists want to dismiss empirical science as hopelessly embedded in the Correlation even as the actual work of scientific discovery and explanation burgeons.

    I don’t think that providing a metaphysical apologetic for empiricism is Harman’s agenda. As I’ve said, to me his work reads like a long bold flight of imagination. I believe he wants to encourage others to undertake similar flights rather than getting too hung up on conducting detailed critiques of his own.

    Comment by ktismatics — 16 January 2009 @ 9:16 am

  15. “An endo-quality is a quality that resides in the thing itself. It’s there regardless of whether or not anything relates to it. An exo-quality, by contrast, is something that only emerges in a relation between two or more entities. Well I think qualities like the beauty of sunsets and the qualities of rainbows are exo-qualities: they only arise in relations. Take away neurological systems with particular biological (and cultural) imperatives, and there are no beautiful sunsets. There are just waves of electro-magnatism proliferating throughout the world. Take away organisms capable of perceiving colors and there are no rainbows. These things are real in the sense that there are real material events taking place in the relationship between electro-magnetic waves and organic (or technological) nervous systems, but they aren’t real in the sense that they are independent entities. In my view, these things can’t exist or take place without their relata.”

    It seems that Levi Bryant is back where I was 4 years ago when I first read Graham Harman’s book and posted this little video about the reality of eclipses. I subsequently came to adopt Philip’s POV in comment 3 to Levi’s post, which I thought was much closer to Levi’s position than the one he espouses in today’s post, and apparently also in his book. I’ll have to go back later to see the reply to this comment.

    Comment by ktismatics — 14 February 2013 @ 7:55 am

  16. Levi’s response to comment 3:

    Hey Philip,

    In my view, we only get a new object out of a relation when new powers or capacities are generated that aren’t there in the parts taken alone. For example, a molecule of H2O is a distinct entity because it has powers that can’t be found in either hydrogen or oxygen. Likewise with an assemblage composed of a man, a horse, stirrups, and a lance. In both of these instances, there’s a capacity to act on other entities that isn’t there in the parts prior to that relation. I don’t think a cat perceiving a rainbow generates any new powers.

    That’s just sort of sad. “A cat perceiving a rainbow” presumes that the rainbow exists separately from the cat that perceives it, whereas the rainbow itself — the arced parallel bands of color gradually shading from blue to red — is inseparable from its perception.

    Comment by ktismatics — 14 February 2013 @ 10:54 am

  17. I get wary of Philip’s perspective here:

    “So, beauty isn’t a property of the droplets or the lightwaves or even these things together but we can definitely say that it *is* a property of the rainbow. Beauty *is* a property of the rainbow so long as we accept that the rainbow is constituted by perceiving beings as well as rain, light, etc. — that it is not an object perceived by a subject but *an object that includes a subject*. The rainbow is not beautiful unless it includes a mind that perceives it as such but that doesn’t mean that beauty is not a property of the rainbow itself, that beauty is confined to the mind. It just means that it is contingent upon the precise constitution of the aesthetic event.”

    But the perceived multicolor array of the rainbow preserves information generated by the sunlight reflected from the surfaces of water droplets in the air. In that sense the perceived object corresponds to or translates or represents the object as it exists independent of the perceiver. Philip acknowledges that the beauty isn’t a property of the droplets and lightwaves: in that case its beauty is different from than its color, more wholly subjective.

    But according to WordPress’s stat counter, no one read the comments I put up on this post yesterday. Do my comments have truth value, or perhaps falsity value, even if no reader perceives or evaluates them subjectively. I.e., are my comments more like the rainbow’s color than like its beauty, which is dependent on the subjective observer? I would say that the truth or falsity of my propositions about the rainbow inhere in the propositions themselves, regardless of whether anyone ever reads them, because they point to a reality outside of themselves and the minds of those who read them. A true statement about a rainbow isn’t the same thing as the rainbow itself, just as an undistorted visual percept of a rainbow isn’t the same thing as the rainbow itself. But there is a correspondence that can be mapped between them, even if no one can crawl inside the subjective perceiver and see the rainbow as he sees it.

    Comment by ktismatics — 15 February 2013 @ 6:33 am

    • It’s possible to map aesthetic judgments onto features of objects to which people apply them. The rainbow is multicolored, symmetrical, circular, vast in scale yet ephemeral, contingent on the return of sunlight after rain. Evolutionary psychologists could probably make a case for an intrinsic organismic attraction to such features. These instinctive aesthetics can of course be overridden by more cultivated tastes, which might regard the rainbow as overdone to the point of kitsch, nearly as bad as sunshine or storms…

      Comment by ktismatics — 15 February 2013 @ 6:46 am

  18. Maybe both the aesthetics and the objective reality of the rainbow derive from its power to signify:

    And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth. (Genesis 9:12-17, KJV)

    Comment by ktismatics — 15 February 2013 @ 7:44 am

  19. Writes Levi in a subsequent comment:

    “The electro-magnetic waves are out there, but color isn’t. Proof of this is that there are other critters that can’t see such colors at all, while there are others like the mantis shrimp that can see electro-magnetic waves we can’t see at all. The way we experience these things isn’t in the things themselves.”

    Sure, but it’s not like we just invent or imagine our experience of the rainbow, just make up any old colors when we look at it. The way we experience the rainbow is related in precise ways to the thing itself. There are connections between the frequency distributions of the electromagnetic waves bouncing off the water-saturated atmosphere, the cones in the observer’s retina, the chemical signals sent from the retina through the optic nerve to the visual cortex… At least some of the environmental information is preserved, even if the way we experience that information subjectively results from a series of transformations of that information. Our subjective aesthetic response to the rainbow is arguably of a different kind from our subjective visual experience, requiring further transformations that take the response farther away from the informational array of the phenomenon itself.

    Comment by ktismatics — 16 February 2013 @ 6:16 am

  20. According to the WordPress stats, this post has received one hit over the past three days, during which time I have put up 6 comments (and now a seventh). Since the post originally went up 4 years ago it has been viewed a total of 191 times. In contrast, the short video around which the post is built has been viewed on YouTube 1306 times.

    Comment by ktismatics — 16 February 2013 @ 2:05 pm

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