I object

The debate between Steven Shaviro and Graham Harman in the first real collection of speculative realist writings (Bryant et al 2010), clarifies a number of issues, most particularly Harman’ attitude to Whitehead. Shaviro of course has been at the forefront of the recruiting of Whitehead for a new form of postmodern critique. In particular Shaviro has been keen to tie Whitehead to a particular reading of Deleuze as also a philosopher of becoming holding that: “Becoming is the deepest dimension of Being” (Shaviro 2009 : 17).

His critique of Harman (Shaviro 2011) is premised on what he reads as object-oriented ontology’s focus on substances and its consequent stasis which makes it unsuitable for addressing “a world where all manners of cultural expression are digitally transcoded and electronically disseminated, where genetic material is freely recombined, and where matter is becoming open to direct manipulation on the atomic and subatomic scales. Nothing is hidden; there are no more concealed depths” (Shaviro 2011: 289}. For Shaviro, while Whitehead and Harman share a desire to reject correlationism (the idea that the object is nothing more than its accessibility to humans (Harman 2011a: 22)[ref]The term ‘correlationism’ is Quentin Meillassoux’s{Meillassoux 2009}. While speculative realists argue over its form, they agree on its importance and power in western thought.[/ref]), and a concern for actualism (the idea that “there is nothing which floats into the world from nowhere” (Whitehead 1978: 244)), Harman’s focus on objects as exceeding their relations leads to a static perspective.

Harman not only defends his approach against this charge, going as far as to say: “object- oriented ontology (OOO) is the true philosophy of becoming and events”{Harman 2011@300}, but also uses it as an opportunity to read Whitehead not as a philosopher of becoming but rather a philosopher of entities[ref]Clearly this is a particular reading of Whitehead, one that Shaviro and many others would disagree with. My aim here is not to discuss the validity of that reading, but rather use it as a way of clarifying harman’s own position withe respect to objects and change.[/ref]: “Whitehead (like Bruno Latour) should be seen not as a philosopher of becoming, but of concrete, individual entities” (Harman 2011: 291). For Harman, Shaviro misreads Whitehead and consequently misreads Harman’s use and critique of him and his own project.

Harman argues that he and Whitehead share a concern of entities or objects as the subject of philosophical investigation. This is not the common caricature of Whitehead as a ‘process philosopher’ – far from it, Harman reads Whitehead’s “occasions” as a way of understanding the object, not rejecting the idea of entity. Where they differ, he says, is that Whitehead sees those entities as clusters of relations whereas Harman works toward a non-relational model of objects.

“The reason they can be called ‘occasions’ is because ‘the notion of an unchanging subject of change is completely abandoned’. An entity is not a durable substance undergoing accidental adventures in time and space: instead, ‘actual entities “perpetually perish”’. They do not lie behind their accidents, qualities, and relations like dormant substrata, but are ‘devoid of all indetermination’ (Whitehead 1978: 29) Actual entities are fully deployed in every instant and then instantly perish, attaining ‘objective immortality’ not by persisting over time (impossible for Whitehead) but by giving way to closely related yet new actual entities. In Prince of Networks” (Harman 2011: 294). For Harman, Whitehead and Latour are object-oriented philosophers insofar as they see objects doing things in the world. The problem comes for Harman in that they do not go far enough. For Latour objects derive their power and presence from their relations or alliances. For Whitehead they are moments of becoming. Like Bergson and Deleuze[ref]Shaviro of course ties Whitehead closely to Deleuze in his re-imagination of postmodern theory (Shaviro 2009).[/ref] this is primary, entities are secondary.

Harman says: “The major difference between my position on the one hand and Whitehead’s and Latour’s on the other is that objects for me must be considered apart from all of their relations… This does not mean that I think objects never enter into relations; the whole purpose of my philosophy is to show how relations happen, despite their apparent impossibility. My point is simply that objects are somehow deeper than their relations, and cannot be dissolved into them” (Harman 2011: 295).

For Harman a position derived from Whitehead and even from Latour alone cannot account for objects and change. Whereas Shaviro accuses OOO of denying relations and the possibility of change, Harman argues that only an account where objects are more than their relations, can address how objects do things, come into contact with each other and change.

Harman argues that an account of objects as constituted by their relations actually prevents an account of change. If there is nothing beyond relations, there is no ‘surplus’.”Every object would be exhausted by its current dealings with all other things” (Harman 2011: 295). Where Latour and Whitehead may argue that change is possible as objects become and perish (Whitehead) or enter new alliances (Latour), this demands that change is a series of discrete steps – new occasions or new configurations. For Harman this moves away from a strict actualist focus on the object to either advocating a second realm of objects (the “eternal objects” of Whitehead (Whitehead 1978: 61)) or a realm of potentiality beneath objects (the “plasma” of Latour (Latour 2005: 50)). Harman refuses to imag(in)e anything beyond the actual object. For him an object, if conceived as deeper than its relations, can account for change and networks without recourse to something else.

Harman argues that Shaviro reads the question of becoming and stasis as an issue of relation vs non-relation whereby if one rejects the primacy of relations, one is doomed to see objects in stasis, incapable of change and movement. “I contend,” he says, “that becoming happens only by way of some non-relational reality. An object needs to form a new connection in order to change, and this entails that an object must disengage from its current state and somehow make contact with something with which it was not previously in direct contact. My entire philosophical position, in fact, is designed to explain how such happenings are possible. Hence it is false when Shaviro claims that my rejection of Whitehead’s ‘perpetual perishing’ of entities implies stasis. Quite the contrary. For Whitehead, after all, nothing can change. An entity can only be exactly what it is and then give way to other entities that are a bit different, which then perish in favour of further entities that quickly perish in turn. There is no change whatsoever in such a philosophy, but only an endless series of frozen statues, which give the illusion of continuous alteration as we flip through them as if through those novelty card decks that allow children to watch moving cartoons” (Harman 2011: 300).

So, where Whitehead sees becoming as a series of discrete instants and Latour as a series of discrete alliances – both alliances outside the actuality of objects, Harman argues that potentiality is only possible when the object and the object alone are the focus. “If an entity is reduced to its relations (as Whitehead does) then that entity itself cannot be the home of any potentiality[ref]It is important to note that Harman rejects the terms “potentiality”. “I agree with Latour that ‘potentiality’ is a bad concept. It allows us to borrow the future achievements of an entity in advance, without specifying where and how this potential is inscribed in the actual. (And notice further that the work of potentiality is so often ascribed to formless matter, as if that solved any- thing.) With Latour I hold that there is nothing but actuality, and with Whitehead I hold that actuality is incurably atomic, composed of discrete individual entities. Potentiality is merely ‘potential for a future relation’, when we really only ought to be talking about actuality” (Harman 2011: 299). This is a move to focus on ‘actuality’ rather than join Deleuze and DeLanda in talking of ‘virtuality’. It is not that Harman rejects the idea of possibility or potential. He argues that OOO allows a new way of address movement and process, relations and alliances. Rather it is that he remains committed to the actual, specific object independent of foundation and essence even if that foundation is realtions.[/ref]” (Harman 2011: 298).

For Harman there are objects. That is it. Change happens in the world not as objects become and perish or enter new relations but as they connect. Connections are different than relations because whereas the latter depends on something outside the object – a context, a “quasi-plenum” or realm of potential, the former is a matter of objects. Here when an object connects with another this happens within the ‘molten core’ of a new object (note this is an object, not a network or alliance).  For Harman, “this contact might indeed be called ‘a sterile display’, since nothing automatically results from it. But the point is that it need not always remain sterile. Things can and sometimes do happen in the midst of this sterile relation…This model of contiguous entities in ‘sterile display’, but punctuated once in awhile by dramatic events, strikes me as a more adequate account of change than the truly sterile proclamation that everything is constantly perishing all the time. Becoming does occur: but in sudden jumps and jolts, not through a meaningless accretion of any-instants-whatever that float away in the canal of fluxion” (Harman 2011: 301).

There is no need in this framework for the object to perish or for the relations to be pushed to an outside context or structure. There is no need to take one’s eye off the object-ball. Rather the flux of objects (the assemblages, media ecologies, networks or whatever other term we use) can be addressed alongside an appreciation that objects also withdraw from view, they are difficult, even impossible to pin down or hold. By building an account of objects’ ontology and their working without recourse to ‘relations’, Harman can remain true to his reading of Heidegger[ref]It must of course be noted that, as with Whitehead and indeed Latour, Harman’s reading of Heidegger is not without controversy.[/ref], as well as the Whitehead/Latourian focus on objects’ actuality.

Harman’s OOO is a way of holding onto a Heideggerian belief in the withdrawal of objects while also accounting for object-networks. His is a framework that owes as much to Heidegger as it does to Whitehead and Latour. For Harman, objects do things in the world but they also withdraw from view. Just when you think you have them, they escape. It is only possible to account for objects’ working as well as their nature by remaining rooted in the actuality of the object and approaching its network working as a matter of objects not relations.

To bring this back to protocol. All three actualists would perhaps see jpeg as an object, an entity in the world. Latour would see it as constituted by its relations with other actants in the network (Google, Adobe, my camera, the WiFi Router etc). Whitehead would see it as a series of occasions, discrete instants of becoming and perishing (moments of encoding and decoding). Harman however would see it as an object that withdraws from view, that has an existence outside of its connections with other actants. Where Latour puts the emphasis on the network (relations) as what gives jpeg its presence and its power and Whitehead would stress the transience of jpeg as it encodes and decodes, Harman would put the emphasis on jpeg as something that withdraws from view, unvisible within software and in camera while at the same time in actual connection with Adobe strategy-objects, Apple software-objects, Google search-objects etc.

The advantage of Harman’s perspective that refuses to go outside the object (to a world of relations or occasions) is that one is never faced with having to provide a meta-framework (the network or becoming and perishing). Jpeg’s nature is not exhausted by Apple, Canon and the imager or even by its relation to them. It has a presence in camera, in software that withdraws from those relations, hence the impossibility of my experiments’ pinning it down.

For a relational framework the issue of jpeg’s involvement with Google and Facebook’s archives, the business practices and strategies at work within those archives as well as the governmental implications of those archives, is one of the relationship between the jpeg object and the Google algorithm object or the Facebook strategy object. For Latour these relations happen in networks (his plasma). For Whitehead those objects become and perish, countless instantiations of becoming. For a non relational framework such as Harman’s the jpeg object (an entity that withdraws from view) connects with the Google algorithm object (another entity that withdraws from view) not in some context or plasma but in a new object, a “jpeg-search object”. This new object is the site of governmentality and biopower and it is this object that is open to counter-protocological struggle (Galloway and Thacker 2007). By conceptualising the connections between jpeg and the archive as happening within objects rather than between objects we can see that new search-jpeg object as withdrawing from view while also seeing it as power-full.

To see the link between jpeg and Google’s search practices (with their issues of biopower and governmentality) as a relation (within an actant-network or as an issue of becoming and perishing) forces us to either look for a cause or context, a foundation or essence to that relation (technology, an assemblage, global capitalism) or to deny the possibility of change because there is nothing more than its current state of affairs – a particular instantiation of a relation/occasion. In contrast, by thinking of jpeg’s connection with search algorithms and governmental practices, datamining software or strategies as happening within the molten core of a new ‘search-jpeg object’, one is able to escape foundationalism/corelationism and also account for the changing nature of search/archiving and hence its governmental power.  It opens the door to what Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker call the Exploit (Galloway and Thacker 2007).

  • Bryant, L., Srnicek, N. & Harman, G., 2010, The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism And Realism, re.press, Prahran, Vic..
  • Galloway, A.R. & Thacker, E., 2007, The Exploit: A Theory Of Networks, Univ Of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
  • Harman, G. 2011, Response to Shaviro, in L Bryant, N Srnicek & G Harman (eds), The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism And Realism, re.press, Melbourne, pp. 291-303.
  • Harman, G. 2011a, On the Undermining of Objects: Grant, Bruno, and Radical Philosophy, in L Bryant, N Srnicek & G Harman (eds), The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism And Realism, re.press, Melbourne, pp. 21-40.
  • Latour, B., 2005, Reassembling The Social: An Introduction To Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford University Press, Oxford ; New York.
  • Shaviro, S., 2009, Without criteria : Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and aesthetics, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass..
  • Shaviro, S. 2011, The Actual Volcano: Whitehead, Harman, and the Problem of Relations, in L Bryant, N Srnicek & G Harman (eds), The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism And Realism, re.press, Melbourne, pp. 279-90.
  • Whitehead, A.N., 1978, Process And Reality: An Essay In Cosmology, Griffin, D.R., & Sherburne, D.W. eds. Free Press, New York.

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