The Surplus of Objects

In Immaterialism, Graham Harman offers a provocative critique of Latour’s social theory, praising Actor-Network Theory as “the most important philosophical method to emerge since phenomenology in 1900” (pg. 1) while also regarding its account of objects as philosophically deficient. While he accepts the ANT thesis that objects mediate human relations, something which chips away at the pervasive anthropocentrism of social theory, it nonetheless reinforces a human-centric world view in a subtle and interesting way. From pg 6:

To say that objects mediate relations is to make the crucial point that unlike herds of animals, human society is massively stabilized by such nonhuman objects as brick walls, barbed wire, wedding rings, ranks, titles, coins, clothing, tattoos, medallions, and diplomas (Latour 1996). What this still misses is that the vast majority of relations in the universe do not involve human beings, those obscure inhabitants of an average-sized planet near a middling sun, one of 100 billion stars near the fringe of an undistinguished galaxy among at least 100 billion others.

The commitment of ANT to defining actors through actions, itself understood in terms of effects on other actors, “allows objects no surplus of reality beyond whatever they modify, transform, perturb, or create” (pg. 10). Without this surplus, Harman questions how it can be possible for them to change. It is only when we recognise “an object is more than its components” and “less than its current actions” that its capacity to do otherwise becomes conceivable (pg. 11). Exactly what the surplus is, as well as how it underwrites this potentiality, might vary. As Harman notes of himself on pg 11:

The author Harman who currently types these words in the University of Florida Library while wearing a black sweater is far too specific to be the Harman who will leave Florida next Sunday and can remove the sweater whenever he pleases.

These features of the object which aren’t exhausted in its present actions are what account for its future capacities. If my specificity is exhausted in my writing of this blog post, it becomes mysterious how I cooked dinner or planned a trip earlier. There are the facts of these other actions but myself, as a unifying nexus in which these properties and powers converge, becomes emptied out into a frantic existence of constant process.

I couldn’t agree more with Harman’s claim that every object should be considered “as a surplus exceeding its relations, qualities, and actions” (pg. 3-4). Where I part company is with his epistemic pessimism. From pg 17-18:

And whereas naive realism thinks that reality exists outside the mind and we can know it, object-orientated realism holds that reality exists outside the mind and we cannot know it. Therefore, we gain access to it only by indirect, allusive, or vicarious means. Nor does reality exist only “outside the mind,” as if humans were the only entities with an outside. Instead, reality exists as a surplus even beyond the causal interactions of dust and raindrops, never fully expressed in the world of inanimate relations any more than in the human sphere.

This leaves me preoccupied by variance. My issue is not with the claim itself, as much as with it being framed in a way which makes it hard to unpack how this might vary between objects and contexts. How much surplus remains when we consider a given action? It depends on the action, the actor and the context. I don’t for a second believe this can be reduced to calculus but I nonetheless maintain there are differences of degree. I’m not convinced that the surplus of objects is quite as epistemically intractable as Harman makes it sound.

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