Objects

by craigepplin

I was recently asked if the ideas behind Nonhuman Collectives bore any resemblance to those of object-oriented philosophy (OOP). I wasn’t sure. I had heard of Graham Harman before, mostly because of his book on Latour (conveniently accessible for download here), and I had read a bit of his blog. The name itself resonates with me, since it hints at a flat ontology and a materialist,anti-idealist ontology. All this is to say that reading up on Harman is something I’ve been meaning to do.

And so, when a friend posted a link to this podcast I immediately downloaded it. It’s an hour-long interview with Harman, where he spells out the key suppositions behind OOP, its points of contact with and divergence from actor-network theory, and its potential political repercussions.

Like Latour’s actor-network theory, OOP is a realist philosophy, which is to say that it does not reduce the nonhuman world to its appearance within human consciousness. However, where it diverges from ANT is that it holds that objects should also not be reduced to their practical effects on other objects, humans included. Harman puts it this way (in an analysis of Heidegger that works equally well as a critique of Latour): “Just as things are deeper than any theory we make about them or than anything we see about them perceptually, so too are things deeper than any practical use we make about them.” There is, in other words, a resistant quality to objects that does not allow us to exhaust them solely in terms of their phenomenal appearance to us nor in terms of their relational, networked connection to others.

Harman is hesitant to map out an explicit political itinerary for OOP, but when he does hint in this direction he suggests that it is an ideal framework for thinking about political change. In his terms, the objectness of an object is precisely the reservoir for action that allows it to change its place in the network of relations around it. I’m not sure we need this depth of the object to account for change–why shouldn’t the nature of networks be dynamic, after all?–but it is something I’m looking forward to reading more about.

One thing in particular that I couldn’t fully understand from the interview, and that I’ll have to see if I can grasp from Harman’s books, is what sorts of feedback loops inform the static or dynamic character of objects themselves. To give a concrete example, Harman holds that philosophy works something like an infrastructure (also the title of a book he’s working on). He compares it to a light rail or subway system in a city. When you build rail lines, you don’t seek to cover the entire city with a grid, but rather you try to connect nodes of commerce and dwelling to each other. You look for the areas that will benefit most from greater connectivity. However, and this is something he doesn’t go into, the layout of the rail system also generates new forms of existence around its hubs. That is, an infrastructure does not only work on objects that are already in existence; it also serves to generate new objects. I’m not sure if this amounts to an objection to OOP–I’ll have to read more to find out–but it’s something I wish he would have considered more explicitly in the interview.

In sum, scattered thoughts for now, more reading ahead.