Graham Harman is hot stuff and the latest pathetic fad in the sinking ship of academic philosophy. The popsicle licking radical likes to present himself as offering something new. He is tired, and mainstream philosophy is tired, with materialist reductionism. Harman, nevertheless, ends up in the same anti-humanist camp that all handmaidens of the empty rainbow have been since Thomas Hobbes made safe the structures and systems for Francis Bacon’s object-oriented philosophy from the seventeenth century.
Harman and the phenomenon of OOO is the sorry and sad example of a decadent and burning academy that has jettisoned the history of philosophy for only the occasional reference to Immanuel Kant, the Marxist reading of Hegel, and a heavy concentration (if not exclusive concentration) on Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan. One wonders if a modern philosopher or philosophy student is even competent in knowing the philosophy of Kant and Hegel, let alone Nietzsche, though they probably have a grasp on the Deconstructionists without knowing who influenced them. Harman presents himself, and OOO, as something new, refreshing, and radical. Indeed, he runs with the spirit of Kant and German Idealism while arguing that his philosophy is the manifestation of what could have been had the Germans followed Leibniz instead of Fichte—in Harman’s own words, “German realism” (instead of German Idealism).
The essence of Harman’s OOO is to create a world “without us.” Everything is simply objects in a world of objects. But these objects, though they entangle with each other, can never access the thing-in-itself (something Harman simply borrows from Immanuel Kant). These objects which we can never truly know are also atomized and autonomous (something Harman simply borrows from Francis Bacon). Moreover, these objects are also grounded in this world without nature or anthropocentrism (something that is simply a radicalized revision of Heideggerian rootedness and throwness). While Harman borrows from other thinkers like a sophomoric dilettante, he has the decency to name his opponents though fails detract from them or truly highlight the problematic outlooks presented by Whitehead’s Process Philosophy, Latour’s Actor-Network theory, and the Derridaean abolition of transcendent signifiers.
Harman relies heavily on his revision of Kant and Heidegger to make construct his philosophy which is, it appears, primarily aimed against teleological and process philosophies common to Platonism and Whitehead. This is somewhat ironic given the obvious Platonic and Process influences over Kant and Heidegger, Harman’s two biggest influences which he always falls back upon in his examples. Harman argues that that a single and autonomous object entity can be part of a grand symbiosis without knowing it. Beyond being repacked Aristotelianism and Augustinianism without knowing it (since it is doubtful that Harman has read Aristotle or Augustine). If Harman is suggesting that OOO allows for an autonomous object entity to be part of a grand orchestra without knowing it, there is nothing to gain from him since luminaries from Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas have argued as much in their own works. If Harman is also suggesting—as he is—that autonomous objects can never be truly understood, there is nothing to gain from him since that is just a restatement of Kant. If Harman is suggesting—as he is—that all objects are atomized and autonomous and hostilely come into contact with each other, there is nothing to gain from him since that is just a new articulation of Francis Bacon without the pro-human and pro-“science” tilt to Bacon’s functionally dualistic object-oriented philosophy.
The “Quadruple Object” (the division between the real and sensible) which Harman has staked his entire philosophical outlook on is also nothing new. That’s simply a fancified reinterpretation of Berkeley’s Immaterialism (without knowing it). (On this note Harman’s Tool Being is also just a re-packaging of the far superior insights and outlook of Martin Heidegger.) Harman’s QO is integral to his advocacy for a so-called “flat ontology” that stripes humanity of subjectivity (anthropocentrism) and transcendence (any reliance on God, Truth, or Cosmic Intelligibility which lead to process, teleological, or evolutionary philosophies).
To return to Harman’s belief that he is offering what “could have been,” he believes that the problem of modern philosophy was in the post-Kantian turn to subjectivity and transcendence (where he confronts Fichte and Hegel). Harman’s OOO and “flat ontology” wants to repave the ground for a purely object-object orientation which doesn’t privilege human subjectivity or the need for the transcendent other. To do this Harman articulates the sensible-real dichotomy which, as mentioned, is already embedded in Berkeley but, as it relates to Harman’s project, is but a dismal restatement of Kant’s mind/world and transcendental idealism/realism dichotomies. Harman wishes to undercut 200 years of modern philosophy, return to Kant, and marry Kant with Bacon.
To give Harman credit, though this also highlights his reliance on everyone before him, Harman relies on Husserl to beat back Hume. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to push Hume and British utilitarianism back into its corner of the world, but that project had been ongoing ever since Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Moreover, the very German idealists whom Harman scorns were the most significant and influential in this endeavor: Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, etc. Harman’s rejection of Hume is based on his rejection of materialist reductionism which I began with. Hume, for those who can’t remember, argued that all reality is reducible to the qualities of the object (or thing) in question. While technically everything is nothing more than mere atoms in motion and giving an impression of something, Hume’s famous thought experiment about the apple was to argue that the apple is the apple because of the qualities that the apple has. What distinguishes an apple from a cat or a human or a cat from a human, is the qualities that the object in question has. Through Husserlean phenomenology Harman is quick enough to proclaim that objects are more than there mere qualities, but did anyone who’s actually educated in the history of philosophy need Harman to tell them that?
This returns us to Aristotle. If objects are more than mere qualities then the qualities that constitute an object necessarily must inhere to something that is, or “present in them” as Aristotle would have said. In order for there to be the qualities of an apple, there must be a pre-emptive object in which those qualities inhere.
Harman’s OOO leads to the inevitable disregard for all relations and a return to the autonomous object-itself of early British materialism, specifically, the British materialism of Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and functional autonomous materialism of John Locke. There is much irony involved in this considering that Harman’s stated enemies include the reductionists who trace their lineage back to Francis Bacon. Furthermore, why should one just suddenly shutoff their thinking capacities as if objects are, in fact, autonomous and not in relationship?
Part of the leftwing critique of Harman, at least from orthodox Marxists (not pretend Marxists who say the name Marx or use the term capitalism as a pejorative), is that the autonomous object-being philosophy of OOO is fundamentally flawed. We are not, if one does disregard subjectivity and transcendence, autonomous objects not in relationship with other objects. Rather, we are objects in relationship with other objects. As such, OOO provides no means to safeguard against objectified fetishism (or “commodity fetishism”) or objectification in power dynamics and relations.
The notion that an architect’s plan to build a school in a city square is completely autonomous is nothing more than ignorant. The proposed building is situated in a world of relations. It is constructed into a world that has been culled, tilled, and transformed across hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The surrounding environment in which it is to built necessarily puts it into relations with other objects that create a dispositional aesthetic to any visual creature within a visible range. The idea that a new building is just a new building, free and autonomous, without relations to history, other objects, or an architect, doesn’t do away with the reality of relations it just causes anyone who busy into OOO to be ignorant of the reality of relations.
The phenomenon of Graham Harman’s rise to academic stardom is but the final nail in the coffin of the collapsing institution of philosophy. But this is a good thing. Philosophy was never institutionalized until the nineteenth century, the same century when philosophy lost its practical applications and became mere linguistic and intellectual masturbation with grandiose verbosity driving philosophical methodology and schools. The sooner the academy burns with Harman the better. Those who ride Harman ride into the fire. That Harman’s published works and articles have garnered little citations prior to the publication of his book, and that his stardom has been propped up by corporations and the media, ought to tell everyone everything they need about him and OOO.
Philosophy is in fact flourishing. It is flourishing in all the areas that Harman is ignorant of, dismisses, or opposes. The ongoing decentralization of philosophy and the return to philosophies of consciousness, subjectivity, and historicism, is where the real excitement in philosophy is. Speculative realism and OOO is but the passing fad of a dying institution and the sunset in the nadir of Baconian object-oriented materialism.