Review of ‘Tool-being’ by Graham Harman

tool_beingIn this book, Harman alludes to truth being more like a key to a lock than adequatio or the revealing/concealing play of alethia. The mind numbing drudgery of thousands of pages of Heidegger’s gesamtausgabe are unlocked from their semi-mystical confusion (as Harman points out, Heidegger does get confused by his own discovery) and brought into a profoundly simple freshness and engaging clarity.

As a confessed Heideggerian now for more than two years, I’m constantly stuck by the tiniest of details that can reorient myself towards his work in quite bizarre and absurd ways. Last year I was decrying the absent gods and celebrating the call for their return, vouching to set on a course for the poetic reawakening of beings towards being, leading the charge against the technological dragon that stalks our essence, causing us to flee from being by cutting us off from the its own questioning. I even become obsessed with the mystical and religious currents of Heidegger’s talk of gods, which led me to read Caputo and other such religio-Heideggerians. From this I came away with wonderful answers and new insights into figures such as Meister Eckhart and D.T. Suzuki and the world was now a more magical place. Now, in contrast, I’m about to drink to the health of what I, and many others in the know, see as a redefining phase of philosophical brilliance… the speculative realism movement and in particular the work of the object-oriented philosophers and ontologists (most notable are Graham Harman and Levi Bryant). How right old Paul De Man was when he said that each profound moment is one of insight and blindness.

There is always a level of total bewilderment and deep understanding with Heidegger. When I first read ‘Question Concerning Technology’ which quickly made me a convert, I feel I grasped Heidegger almost as much as I do now, although now I am several thousand pages of dense text the richer. This is because, according to Harman, Heidegger has actually very little to say, he just says it in lots of fancy ways about many thing over many years. Heidegger’s master key, the famous hermeneutical ‘destruction’ runs thus: anything that prioritizes presence (PAH) is metaphysics, thus metaphysics is bad and I can clobber any philosophy which prioritizes PAH with a great big hammer for being a sucker to destiny of being they inevitably fall victim to. What we then get, says Harman, is 18000 pages of historical writings which appraise philosophers in their relation to the metaphysical myopia they are destined to regurgitate. This means that from Plato onwards all succumb to Heidegger’s tag line: metaphysics of presence. Harman seems to have learnt a similar trick from Heidegger as a condition of his object-oriented philosophy (OOP). Harman re-reads and re-constructs the history of philosophy from what could be described, in Deleuzian terms, as Harman’s minor literature: that which can be appropriated into something new outside the context of its own creation. Harman re-reads not only the past masters (neglected or well known) of philosophy against the lens of his OOP but those so called Heideggerians, who confidently decorate the halls of academia with their butchered interpretations of Heidegger’s basic concepts.

Chapter 1 puts the record straight: Heidegger is still within metaphysics because there is a world outside our own that we do not have access to. This is the ready-to-hand (RTH), the  endo-relations of objects (to use an expression from Levi Bryant). Objects are always more than their ontic present-at-hand (PAH) relations. No object, human or otherwise, can draw any deeper from the dark well of the object’s being than each other: there must necessarily always be withdrawn, subterranean aspect of an object. All modes of absorption in the world are ontologically identical: Buddha does not have any special ontological privileges any more or less than ‘Berlin lawyers’ or electrons. If this point is taken seriously, Harman discovers that the ‘question of the meaning of being’ must be a reverse tautology, as I will explain.

Objects have two dimensions (at this point in the book they do anyway): their references and their withdrawal. Their references point to something beyond themselves, to something else, as a relation to another object. When an object is at work there is always a part of them that is in withdrawal. Harman takes the word ‘refer’, which in German is Sinn, to be ‘to mean’. If an object refers it is being. Thus to be is to mean. Sinn = Sein. The meaning of objects comes from their relatedness to the world, this is true for Dasein, who is a being ‘in’ the world of relations, but for all objects. Objects are being ‘in’ not being ‘for': they are not representations. Thus Dasein is no longer elevated to be the only entity that has meaning and can uncover the meaning of being. All objects refer and must therefore have meaningful being. Which means all objects are Dasein! Ta da!

This may seem like some semantic chicanery, but following Heidegger’s own stance regarding the depths of objects, this logic must be taken to its fullest conclusion, which Harman sees as a the start of a full blown realism. He then goes on to trace the interpretations of Heidegger’s tool analysis from the Aristotelian continentals, such as Bernasconi who understands Heidegger’s notion of historicity to be the imperative to read the history of philosophy. As such Bernasconi reads Heidegger with and against Aristotle’s notion of poiesis. Harman emphasises that Bernasconi reads RTH as production. Which has a disastrous logical domino effect: production is teleology, teleology is PAH, PAH is metaphysics, thus Heidegger is still within a Greek ontology of PAH.

After more or less demolishing this position he moves on to the analytic pragmatists. These guys (and it mainly is guys) are obsessed with the idea of tools in use. Whereas Bernasconi saw Heidegger’s tool analysis not to do with actual tools but with the ‘exchange of presence’ between an objects RTH and PAH. The analytic pragmatists got one look at those tools and though, yes! The world is there for us to ‘understand’, to gain knowledge of in the form of ‘competence’ in its practical use: being = understanding. Harman say: wrong! Verstechen does not mean ‘knowing how to do something’ but is an unthematic ‘being-with’ that occurs in every moment of Dasein. Thus Okrent, Rorty and Dreyfus are seen off, although he is more favourable to Dreyfus for suggesting that Heidegger could be used for a ‘robust’ realism.

Harman seems to pull all this off through what seems to be his own interpretive trick-shot stating, “Heidegger must not be regarded as the absolute authority” on his own ideas! For Harman, all the interpretations of Heidegger have got themselves in a twist because they have tried to stick to the masters order of prioritizing human Dasein as something that has ontologically superior access to being than all other beings. Harman suggests to read tool-being against Heidegger’s own anthropocentricism and his failed experiments to explain it (such as his discourses on animal and insect ‘captivation’, Dasein’s ‘profound boredom’ and worldless rocks). Harman thus knocks Heidegger from his anthropocentric high-horse and, in true clockwork orange style, makes him watch the carnival of objects unleashed by a flat ontology.

The icing on the already overly ornate cake is Harman’s analysis of the fourfold. Put simply:

sky = the revealed process and tangible forces to be reckoned  within our lives. It reveals entities which are events unfolding as processes. It is an ontological category for ontic specific things.

earth = the withdrawn serving-bearer (load bearer?) of being.

gods = who comes to presence only in the absence of what is present. The Godhead is the ‘concealed sway’, the gods are the hidden messengers which remind us to wonder at being.

mortals = things capable of death as death. It is a grasping of the finitude of all that exists. Mortals means being as being. It is for all Dasein and not only human Dasein.

Harman has finally removed any hint of ontic appropriation or absurd taxonomy of beings from Heidegger’s mysterious das Geviert (fourfold/quadrate). What this means is that we can start having serious conversations about this later work and not snigger behind his back at the obscurantist later moments of Heidegger. The result of this is very important for tool-being as it helps to remove Heidegger from the hoards of linguistic philosophers who have pounced on his later writings on language. Harman makes it clear, Heidegger can teach us as much about non-language as he can about language (if you remember, ‘silence speaks’, apparently). His position can be summed up as this: the speaking of language summons the differentiation of the onefold of the world and thing, but is not the only thing that does so, and so shouldn’t hold a higher ontological importance than non-language in the questioning of being.

Zizek is a tougher nut to crack, although he necessarily has to be ousted. He too prioritizes the human subject as that which has an ontological passport to reality. However, Harman, like a bully in a playground, pushes Zizek out the way to grab Zizek’s flashy theoretical toy: retroactive causation. Harman however wields it not to gather all the other kids in the playground to marvel at it, but strides out into a vast jungle of objects: retroactive causation is a global ontological structure. The Real is that which is the gap between what is revealed and concealed by all objects where objects fantasies the ‘what is’ of other objects in specific configurations, contrary to their unknown depths. For example, not only do I fantasize my relation to other people by thinking they are complete beings who are what they display, but objects interact with other objects, deny their depths and engages in a phantasmatic relation to that object as a projection of its own desires. Abstraction is something all objects do, it is not unique to human Dasein.

What we are left with are Harman’s best friends: Levinas, Zubiri, Ortega y Gasset and Whitehead who encircle the now born-again realist of Heidegger. They join him for what look like his first tentative steps towards an object-oriented philosophy that he is still building. I have not yet read ‘Guerilla Metaphysics’, but I’ve read ‘Prince of Networks’, so I can see how the questions he left at the end of ‘Tool-being’ have been taken up fiercely in his recent work. For me, one serious consequence of Harman’s analysis is how he treats Heidegger’s work on technology. But I will leave that for another post. In conclusion, if you want to ‘get’ Heidegger (and become very unpopular with many Heideggerian’s in doing so), if you want to be part of a new wave of exciting philosophy now optimistically called ‘the speculative turn’, read this book.

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7 Responses to “Review of ‘Tool-being’ by Graham Harman”

  1. librarian Says:

    [censored on request]

    As far as i was concerned, Heidegger never prioritised the human being, he priorotised DASEIN: The Being-thereness of our experience. It is a category mistake for Harmen to think he can report the Being-thereness of anything beyond his Being-There. Can Harmen truely convince us that evrything is possible of asking the question of Being? If one does not appreciate language as the parameters of philosophy (or at least a depth of it) then one falls in to an inescapeble contradiction so obvious, and so neglected by Harmen (at least in ‘prince of networks’)-that one wanders how he proceeds with such clarity and vigour??

    That table over there has 4 legs and a top. It also has a relation to that chair and that person, and everything else in the current revelation of Being. It has a hidden depth, an essence maybe, something withdrawn. It also has a name: at this current moment i will hold on to the name, ‘table’. The table has a relation to this name, just as it has a relation to that window. The relation is contingent but has more ontological relevance then the relation with the window…If we move the table away from the window, or if we destroy the window then we distort a relation. If we change the name ‘table’ to ‘dog’ then the distortion has a massive affect…1) Language holds relation in a more unique and powerful manor then certain other things…There is somethin distinct about language for us. The removal of the window from the chair may have a similar effect, but we just have no way of knowing- Speculative Realism is just that, it is pure speculation!-

    2)The above description has something of a Harmen quality about it, one might beleive the first two or three lines two have come from one of his descriptions of alliance or essential relations between tables and other objects. But the above description is not the actual table and its actual relations, it is a linguistical description of such relations: it might be that it represents a truth, or it might be that it doesn’t. We just don’t quite know exactly.

    By reducing language to a relation Harmen uses language as a representation!

    Language may not be the be all and end all of philosophy, but without paying it the attention it needs and craves, the philosopher becomes locked in its games. The philosopher must know his medium!

    If I have missed something about Harmens ideas on language and the human please let me know-
    A philosophy of language need not determine the human as a centre point. In fact, for Heidegger, language de-centralises man!

    charles

  2. avoidingthevoid Says:

    Read the book ‘Tool-being’ and you’ll see how off the mark you are, especially on Heidegger’s human Dasein priority and Harman’s ‘representation’ of language.

    I actually wrote several pages in response to this post, but I think I’ll make it into an article by itself. You are right to emphasise the importance of language, but your example doesn’t make that make much sense. I understand what you are saying, but you’re not reading Harman correctly if you think he doesn’t recognise the importance of language (after all, the man speaks at least three!).

    You take what seems to be an angry swipe at Harman for no reason. Harman is not an analytic or continental philosopher: he wants to do metaphysics, he doesn’t want to do science or linguistics.

    He sees problems with realism and anti-realism as they both stand, so an experimental re-encounter with both of them might prove fruitful. If not then you are right, it is purely speculation.

    Do you think you could write a post on this that I could put in this site? Of about 1000 or so words? Maybe you could come at it as a critique of ‘Prince of Networks’?

    Cheers for your comment

  3. avoidingthevoid Says:

    The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude’ is good proof that Heidegger does specifically talk about the human and not Dasein (NB – from page 66 onwards there are some references to ‘good humour’ and ‘attunement’ that might be of interest for your work on laughter).

  4. Champion’s blog « Object-Oriented Philosophy Says:

    [...] 22, 2009 THIS BLOG BY MIKE CHAMPION, who is based in Sussex, offers mostly favorable thoughts on my writings. (I’ve exchanged two [...]

  5. Paul John Ennis Says:

    ”Last year I was decrying the return of the gods, vouching to set on a course for the poetic reawakening of beings towards being, leading the charge against the technological dragon that stalks our essence, causing us to flee from being by cutting us off from the its own questioning. I even become obsessed with the mystical and religious currents of Heidegger’s talk of gods, which led me to read Caputo and other such religio-Heideggerians. From this I came away with wonderful answers and new insights into figures such as Meister Eckhart and D.T. Suzuki and the world was now a more magical place.”

    This my entire first year PhD life condensed into one very honest paragraph!

    @Charles: at least where I’m from use of the word ‘cunt’ is not something to be used lightly and certainly not for the ‘crime’ of reinterpretating heidegger. might want to lay off the Heidegger for a week or two there…

  6. bryank Says:

    Avoidingthevoid: “The Real is that which is the gap between what is revealed and concealed by all objects where objects fantasies the ‘what is’ of other objects in specific configurations, contrary to their unknown depths. For example, not only do I fantasize my relation to other people by thinking they are complete beings who are what they display, but objects interact with other objects, deny their depths and engages in a phantasmatic relation to that object as a projection of its own desires. Abstraction is something all objects do, it is not unique to human Dasein.”

    Can you explain what this entails? Every summary of Harman’s thought that I read, and my own understanding of his work after having read (if not the entire thing, then large excerpts of) Tool-Being and Guerilla Metaphysics, gets to this strange deadlock whereby we jump from Harman’s theory of vicarious causality to absolutizing the Kantian thing-in-itself. For one, this appears to me as a major step backward, since the whole point of Zizek’s invocation and polemical defense of the Cartesian subject IS PRECISELY MEANT TO BE GOING AGAINST THE PHILOSOPHICAL GRAIN. In Harman’s reading, it’s as if he treats Zizek’s reading of the “subject” as some old fashioned humanistic anthropocentrism, which amounts to a major misreading of Zizek. Additionally, I question Harman’s hasty appropriation of Lacanian retroactive causality, not the least because Lacan’s theory is so intimately tied to the structure of fantasy (ergo, if we reduce the subject to just another object, we lose both its reflexive character, and are led to the mistaken conclusion of treating fantasy as reality, hence why I reject the use of the term ‘realism’ here).

    Finally, my last point… what does it mean for objects to interact with other objects while denying their depth and engaging in phantasmatic relations to other objects as projections of their own desires? The only real explanation for this seems to be an argument about how objects don’t exhaust the qualities of other objects… but what does this have to do with desire or fantasy? It’s just an old argument from metaphysics repackaged to suit the tastes of our contemporary rejection of human subjectivity (as you find in structuralism, post-structuralism, and cognitive science).

    Furthermore, It’s as if, with Harman’s theory of object-relations, he wants to have his cake and eat it too: he wants to keep all the cool phenomenological and psychoanalytic “tools,” so to speak, while transposing them into a domain they were never meant to be used for (i.e., category error). This, I think, is the central incoherence of Harman’s theory: how do objects phantasize other objects, and if they do, does anyone *really* think that this is true in terms of being qua being, or, does it really tell us anything about the world? Can anyone make sense of this for me?

  7. avoidingthevoid Says:

    Hi Bryank, thanks for your comments. I’ve been away for the last week so haven’t had a chance to do any blogging, but now I’m back I can give you my full attention. I agree that Harman seems to run when he should walk into his appropriation of retroactive causation, but his analysis seemed to tick all the boxes on my first read. I’ll give the Zizek chapter another going over as soon as I can get back to the library in the next few days to make sure I’m not missing anything.

    You say
    [I question Harman’s hasty appropriation of Lacanian retroactive causality, not the least because Lacan’s theory is so intimately tied to the structure of fantasy (ergo, if we reduce the subject to just another object, we lose both its reflexive character, and are led to the mistaken conclusion of treating fantasy as reality, hence why I reject the use of the term ‘realism’ here).]

    The first thing that struck in this statement was the expression ‘just another object’. The whole point of Harmanian OOP is that objects aren’t just objects. As if being an object was somehow a degenerate or inferior form of being against the mighty subject. From what I understand, Harman aims to perform a kind of ‘orientalism’ of the deep dark working of objects, in fidelity to Heidegger’s project of ridding philosophy of present-at-hand brutality. I don’t think this means that phantasy becomes reality. It means that we have to define ‘reality’ as Zizek sees it through retroactive causation, but now taken as a base ontological principle for all objects. Basically, all objects are faced with the incompleteness of the Other (objects) yet act as if the other was complete, ergo engaging in a phantasmatic intentional act – just as the aim of analysis is not to dissolve fantasy but to reorient oneself towards it through an affirmation of the gap (traversing the phantasy), it is impossible for objects to obtain the Real yet the Real is always already the cause of relation. In Lacanian terms, there is no direct object relationship. In Harmanian terms, objects can only relate vicariously and not through relating essences. Obviously, the type of fantasy space for a rock is very different to the phantasy space of a human being, precisely because the range of abstractions (or disinhibitors, as Heidegger would say) are opened up by the immanent conditions of human equipmentality.

    I On reading this back to myself, I can see why you balk at a Lacan/Harman chimera, and as you say, a category error seems to be obvious, but maybe the perverse appeal of trying such a splicing won out in the end. You should email Harman, I’m sure he’ll try and give you a good answer.

    I will be doing a though re-examination of Harman over the next month in preparation for a paper I’m presenting. I’ll try and articulate something more alluring after that time.

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