Thursday, August 6, 2015

Is object-oriented ontology good for artists?

I have read that many artists are intrigued by Graham Harman's object-oriented ontology or object-oriented metaphysics.  Having just read his The Quadruple Object (Washington, USA:  Zero Books, 2011), I would say they could do better.  Harman's theory is fascinating, but deeply flawed.  Mainly he is inspired by Husserl, Heidegger and Whitehead.  Although he rejects Husserl's idealism, his theory inherits some of the weaknesses of Husserl's phenomenology.  Most importantly it suffers from a lack of the kind of insight a close reading of Dewey would provide.  Harman makes some of the same criticisms of traditional empiricists that Dewey made, and yet finds himself committed to a Cartesian-like dualism.  This is the fatal flaw of the theory.  Some might find Harman attractive simply because his theory is not anthropocentric. But there are other ways to go against anthropocentrism. Sometimes Harman worries that he might be considered a crackpot. Although I take much of what he says quite seriously and admire him for the scope of his thought, there is a crackpot dimension to it. Anyone who claims that he has isolated exactly ten ontological categories and then goes on to explicate the system in terms of the relations of suits in a deck of cards, as Harmon does in his ninth chapter, is hard to take seriously.  Or, to put it another way, Harman takes himself way too seriously.  

I was introduced to Harman by an article in the current issue of Art Forum, "Those Objects of Desire" by Andrew Cole (Summer 2015). Cole is critical of Harman although from a different perspective than I am.  He basically thinks that Harman has failed to see how Kantian his theory really is, and that personifying such objects as commodities runs up against criticisms already raised by Marx.  Although Cole makes some good points, my response draws more from the American Pragmatist tradition.
One way to test Harman's theory, which is supposed to cover all sorts of objects, is to see how it works in relation to a work of art. Heidegger himself in "The Origin of the Work of Art" developed his notion of the thingliness of a thing in relation to works of art, famously a painting by Van Gogh of shoes and a Greek Temple. Harman argues that all objects have two sides, one side being the real object, something much like Kant's thing-in-itself, and the other being what he calls the sensual object, i.e. the object-as-experienced. (It is not clear whether the thinks that the sensual dog and the real dog are two sides of the same dog or two completely different things, although usually he talks as though they are completely different things.)  He believes that real things are completely autonomous and do not depend in any way on relations to other things. This raises many concerns.   Use our example of a work of art. It is impossible to understand a painting by Edward Hopper, for example, without understanding something about the context in which it was created.  

I should put my Deweyan assumptions to the fore before going on. (David L. Hildebrand has written an excellent book that explains how Dewey avoids the very dilemmas that Harman finds himself in: Beyond Realism and Antirealism:  John Dewey and the Neopragmatists, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2003).   Rather than saying that we should base our metaphysics on isolated or autonomous objects, Dewey would stress experience, although experience understood in his own way.  Dewey is no subjectivist or idealist.  On his account, experience arises out of the interaction between ourselves as live creatures and our environments.  Because Dewey takes a naturalist perspective he does not rank humans as anything special.  Animals and even plants can interact as live creatures with their environments, although the nature of their experience would be quite different from that of humans.  Nonetheless, Dewey is not guilty of a mechanistic worldview typical of previous naturalist philosophers, or of the simplistic approach to empiricism found in Locke and Hume.

For Dewey, and me, the live creature, say a human, confronts an object, say a watch, directly.  Rejecting dualism, Dewey would not accept that the watch that we confront sensuously is to be distinguished from the real watch.  There are, of course, many manifestations of the watch, many ways in which it appears to us. These manifestations are all ways we confront the watch. 

One of the ways in which Harman's philosophy is both anti-art and anti-aesthetic is the way in which he discusses sensuous qualities. Harman likes to talk about these qualities as "gems, glitter, and confetti of extraneous detail" (25).  The aesthetic aspect of experience is to be degraded to the merely pretty.  Following Husserl, he sees sensuous objects as "frosted over with accidental features" irrelevant to their identity.  Again, as he understands Husserl, the objects of our world are "heavily adorned with frivolous decorations and surface-effects."  Whereas Harman sees these sensuous qualities as superfluous, the everyday aesthetics position I advocate, approaches them as rich in meaning.  Moreover, from a pragmatist perspective, these meanings are played out in the activity of the live creature.  The sensuous qualities may be pursued to fulfillment, for example, in "an experience."  

Not to be overly negative, I want to give credit to Harman for stressing one point which he derives from Husserl.  He writes:  "what we encounter in experience are unified objects, not isolated points of quality.  Indeed...the individual qualities of things are already imbued with the style or feel of the thing as a whole.  Even if the exact hue of red in my apple can also be found in a nearby shirt or can of spraypaint, the colors will have a different feel in each of these cases, since they are bonded to the thing to which they belong."  (11)  This seems right, although at the same time one should take into account Goodman's idea that objects can exemplify certain qualities, thereby indirectly referencing all other instances of that quality.

Harman is opposed to something called "correlationism" which holds that "we cannot think of world without humans or humans without world."  He is right to reject this view.  We can certainly think a world unperceived by humans.  However, whatever we think and whatever we experience is, by necessity, thought or experienced by humans.  We cannot expunge that aspect of experience.  We start from out own positions in life and in philosophy.  There is a real world, but the world we experience is one that has us at the center and is experienced in our terms.  For example, any description we make of such a world is a description necessarily in a language of human making, with terms and meanings that carry out contribution.  So, although correlationism is false, it does point to a certain truth that Harman ignores.

Harman is also interested in Husserl's notion of eidetic features of the sensual object, features that make up the eidos of the object. Harman follows Husserl in thinking that real eidetic qualities "can only be the target of intellectual and not sensuous intuition."  The radical division of intellectual and sensuous intuition is the source of yet another problem:  this is another dualism that needs to be undercut.  All intellectual intuition is in part sensual and all sensual intuition is in part intellectual.  I have written about essences elsewhere and will have more to say about them in the future. Suffice it here to say that essences on my view are emergent from the activity of searching for essences.  Essences are not eternal and unchanging but emergent.  Nor are they solely intellectual objects. Moreover, they may be deeply connected to the particular and the accidental.  Some quality in all of its particularity can exemplify.  We can say for example that this particular thing standing for universal, but I think that sometimes it is deeper than that.   When a particular thing stands for a universal it does not do so in such a way as to lose its particular nature. 

Harman's object centered metaphysics is based as much on his interpretation of Heidegger as on his interpretation of Husserl.  In particular he focuses on Heidegger's understanding of a hammer. He also has his own understanding of what Heidegger means by the four-fold, which I will discuss in a future post.  I think that Heidegger's understanding of a hammer in Being and Time is deeply flawed, and this is the basis for many problems I also find in Harman.  Heidegger says that hammers are usually present to us only when they fail.  This idea undercuts (and is in deep opposition to) the entire aesthetics of design.  When I handle a hammer I am aware of its design.  It is satisfying when it feels good in my hand, looks good, and does its job well.  The awareness of the hammer I have when it is broken is different in kind from that:  it is an awareness of a functional ugliness.  But when a hammer works well, looks good, etc. it is a thing of beauty, more so of course for a carpenter than for me.  Heidegger and Harman just exclude from consciousness the aesthetically positive value of the hammer.

Let Vico intrude here.   Here is a quote from wikipedia on Vico:  "Vico is best known for his verum factum principle, first formulated in 1710 as part of his De antiquissima Italorum sapientia, ex linguae latinae originibus eruenda (1710) ("On the most ancient wisdom of the Italians, unearthed from the origins of the Latin language"). The principle states that truth is verified through creation or invention and not, as per Descartes, through observation: “The criterion and rule of the true is to have made it. Accordingly, our clear and distinct idea of the mind cannot be a criterion of the mind itself, still less of other truths. For while the mind perceives itself, it does not make itself.”"   Vico and Dewey are on the same page here:  Descartes, Husserl, Heidegger and Harman are on the other page.  We know the hammer through its creation and through using it in the act of creation.  Knowledge is connected with the live creature doing things in the world. Knowledge is an aspect of experience.  The hammer by no means functions behind or beneath experience.  Heidegger should have known better since he is the one who stressed the way in which technology has made us close our ears to Being.  It is technology when treated in a merely mechanical way that causes the hammer to recede.  Things lose the shiny sparkly quality of aliveness in a world which is mechanized.  Heidegger's and Harman's philosophy of the receding hammer is just a sign of the very concept of the thing as mere object of use that Heidegger critiques elsewhere.

Harman's Heideggerian talk of hammers withdrawing into "subterranean background, enacting their reality in the cosmos without appearing in the least" is offensive mystification.  In talking about what lies behind all phenomena, Heidegger and Harman go in the opposite direction of Dewey, since Dewey rejects precisely this dualism, the phenomena/noumena dualism that goes back to Kant, but even further to Descartes and ultimately Plato.  

The sentence "conscious awareness makes up only a tiny portion of our lives" (37) seems innocuous at first, perhaps trivially true, and yet what sense can really be made of it.  Even when engaging in psychoanalysis everything that happens to me is in consciousness: I become conscious of unconscious desires.  Moreover, the other manifestations of those unconscious desires also happen, for example in my Freudian slips, in daily life.  Conscious awareness makes up most of our lives, not a tiny portion...we are the lives we live, the lives we experience, our conscious lives.

Harman and Heidegger say that I usually fail to notice my eyeglasses.  In a way that is true.  If my attention is directed elsewhere from my eyeglasses I do not notice them: they are on the very edge of my consciousness.  However it is easy to redirect my attention to my eyeglasses, and this does not require that they be broken or even maladjusted.  I can attend more or less to my eyeglasses and to their various features, for example how well they work and how good they look.  Although the idea that tools "withdraw in order to be ready-to-hand quite authentically" just seems implausible when I think about my glasses, Heidegger at least recognizes that tools exist in terms of relations to other pieces of equipment, often in a system of interrelated things, for example ink and inkstand. 

The absurdity of Harman's position has be found in the sentence:  "the world in itself is made of realities withdrawing from all conscious access."  (38)  The realities we encounter in life, for example my glasses, do not withdraw from conscious access.  If I want to have conscious access to my glasses I simply attend to them.  When I lose my glasses I can find them:  that is because they are still available.

Following Heidegger, Harman says "an earthquake calls my attention to the solid ground on which I rely..."  I have been through a major earthquake, the Loma Prieta earthquake in Northern California.   I was in my backyard when it happened.   It drew my attention to the way in which the ground, which I formerly saw as solid, could take another form entirely, something more like a wave at sea.  Retroactively I could think of how my assumptions about the earth or the "solid" ground and what it could do were naive.  The solid ground is not always solid.  At the same time, it is easy for me to attend to the solidity of ground in non-earthquake times, for example when I am looking for a good foundation for a ladder.  What does it mean to "silently depend" on the solidity of the ground? 

Harman has a strange way of combining what seems to be common sense with nonsense.  He says "There will always be aspects of these phenomena [for example the solid floor of my home] that elude me; further surprises might always be in store.  No matter how hard I work to become conscious of things, environing conditions still remain of which I never become fully aware.  When I stare at a river, wolf....I do not grasp the whole of their reality."  Who could disagree!  And then "This reality slips from view into a perpetually veiled underworld., leaving me with only the most frivolous simulacra of these entities."  (39)  What sense can possibly be made of this idea?   It must mean something more than the mere truisms that preceded it.  

For Harman there are only two kinds of objects:  "the real object that withdraws from all experience, and the sensual object that exists only in experience."  (49)  The alternative position is that there is only one kind of object, the real object which is also the sensual object, i.e. the object that I sense.  Although we can imagine stuff that never can be experienced we can only deal with the world as experienced, and even the most hypothetical and intellectualized or fantastic objects are experienced in some way, for example unicorns are experienced by way of unicorn pictures even though it would be wrong to say that there are animals rightly called unicorns.  



1 comment:

Terence Blake said...

You write: "Harman has a strange way of combining what seems to be common sense with nonsense". This seems to me to get to the heart of the matter. Harman's discussions combine seeming self-evidenc platitudes with mind-numbing "deepitudes". I present a way into and out of OOO here: