Monday, June 10, 2013

Book Triad (Minus Two Books): Graham Harman's The Quadruple Object

In a shocking change of pace, I actually finished a nonfiction book. And the review turned out to be pretty substantial in itself (disproportionately so, given the book's main content is only 140 pages), I thought I'd just post that. Review of Graham Harman's The Quadruple Object, after the break.

Graham Harman goes into depth on his version of object-oriented ontology, including the philosophical movements it's responding to, what it is, and what it does. I have to say, I've been reading my Graham Harman books all out of order--I read Circus Philosophicus and Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philsophy before I was able to track down a copy of 4X Object. The book consists of ten chapters. The first explains the basic problem, that theories of philosophy tend to dismiss objects, either by undermining them and saying that they're composed of some smaller universal unit or overmining, treating objects as only relevant in so far as they manifest in the mind, or are part of some event that affects other objects. The second chapter goes deep into Husserl's version of the object, where its real features lie in tension with its shifting sensual features. The third is the object via Heidegger, where the tension becomes the difference between the sensual features of the object and the real object, which always withdraws from being entirely known. There's a lot of Heidegger's Tool-Being, for those familiar with that discussion. In fact, those who come into this book with a lot of Heidegger and Husserl under their belt will have a distinct advantage; you don't need either to fully get Harman, but they don't hurt. Chapter 5 expands on the polarities that have been established thus far, creating four categories--real objects, sensual objects, real qualities, and sensual qualities, noting that, given these configurations, there are ten basic ways objects can interact.

Half way through! In chapter six, Harman returns to Heidegger, tackling his four-fold concept. The trick, he argues, is that the four shouldn't be taken literally, but as ways of thinking about the difference between being and beings, or absence and presence. Ultimately, though, this fourfold is insufficient, and so Harman creates his own. Having established the four terms previously, this chapter looks at the tensions between each of them. Sensual objects, for example, have sensual qualities, but these change over time, the first tensions. And the real object is different from its real qualities, which is a tension of essence. And then he tosses in ANOTHER four terms, for when those tensions are ruptured, or objects merge. A rupture in time is a confrontation. Ruptures involving essence is an issue of multitude. Chapter 8 clarifies some points, that the sensual is not just human and animal experience, and that real and sensual aren't fixed sites; every real object is composed of relations between component objects, and the hammer is a sensual object in relation to them, and vice versa. Chapter 9 solidifies the sets created in chapter 7 into further systems. And Chapter 10 clarifies Harman's position with regards to the larger Speculative Realism movement.

Having read those previous Harman works, I'm already familiar not just with some of the terminology Harman's using, but how it actually plays out when he applies it--something that's missing a bit from the book at hand. But it was still extremely useful to see the ideas worked out in a more expanded manner. I'll admit, the book loses me toward the end. The explication of previous object approaches is great (if a bit fast if you're not familiar with continental German philosophy) as is the original explanations of the fourfold. But somewhere around the tension ruptures, the terms start proliferating a little too quickly for my tastes. I will say that my favorite part is chapter 4, where Harman directly addresses one of my favorite philosophical questions, how can we think about the world outside of human thought? Harman's answer: there's a difference between saying there's no world without thought and saying there's no thinking about a world without thought. And that, in a nutshell, without bringing all the definitions into it, is the real value of OOO to me--taking philosophical and real-life questions that are inherently, often unconsciously, human-centered, and offering a different perspective.

And there you go. I have to say, even though I've read a few heavy philosophy books at this point--between Harman and Stiegler, they don't come much heavier--I don't think I'll ever be comfortable arguing the pros and cons of theory by itself. For me, it's always something that comes up in a given object. That is, I find some game or book that seems to speak to a given philosophy, and then I can critique both the object and the philosophy. From Harman, the negative way of viewing that is that I'm perpetuating the real/sensual split, or the mind-body problem--I can't talk about something as "insubstantial" as theory without an object to ground it. Personally, I prefer to think of it in terms of tension--I'm most interested in things when there's a rupture going on.

Later Days.

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