One of the key points of disagreement between Object-Orientated Philosophy (OOP) and Critical Realism (CR) rests on the epistemic status of the object. While OOP and CR are in agreement that, as Harman puts it on pg 2-3 of his Immaterialism, objects should be treated as a “surplus exceeding its relations, quality, and actions”, CR takes a more optimistic view of the epistemological challenge posed by this surplus.

The key issue concerns the potentiality of objects. From Harman’s perspective, CR’s concern for casual power still constitutes a form of reduction. It’s an improvement on reducing objects to their effects. But, as he writes on pg 52, it’s still reducing objects to their potential effects:

Yet this purported advance still assumes that at the end of the day, nothing matters aside from what sort of impact a thing has or might eventually have on its surrounding. This risks obscuring our view of objects in a number of ways, which not only poses an ontological problem, but has methodological consequences as well.

I maintain that some of these methodological consequences can be avoided through a sophisticated account of how those casual powers are activated. In this way, the category of ‘effects an object might have in future’ always involves reference to a variable context, raising issues of how the features of an object and the features of a context combine to produce effects.

I’m nonetheless taking his challenge seriously. I’d earlier seen his account of objects as unduly pessimistic on an epistemic level: underestimating our capacity for knowledge of the parts, their relational organisation, their ensuing qualities, their ensuing powers and how these might be expressed in different contexts. But I increasingly realise that the CR formulation I’m so used to using, ‘properties and powers’, reflects a much clearer understanding of the properties than the powers. I think the former is often subordinated to the latter, such that properties are those features of objects we invoke in order to explain their causal powers. There’s a depth to the ‘surplus’ of objects which I realise I hadn’t previously grasped, even if I’m still not entirely certain about Harman’s account of it.

Reading Immaterialism by Graham Harman, I’m struck by the overlap between his account of ‘duomining’ and Margaret Archer’s critique of conflation. As he writes on pg 27-28,

“If we reduce an object downward to its pieces, we cannot explain emergence; if we reduce it upwards to its effects, we cannot explain change.”

While Archer’s argument is made in terms of the structure/agency problem, it can easily be recast in terms of structure alone. If we reduce social structure to the individuals who comprise it (alongside other material elements, which Archer is less sensitive to), we cannot explain how certain arrangements of people and things assume characteristics which the same ‘pieces’ lack in other arrangements (upwards conflation). If we focus solely on the effects of social structure, identifying how it constrains and enables individuals, we cannot explain how that structure might itself undergo change because it is the only causal power we admit (downwards conflation).

However this is only an overlap, as Archer and Harman’s arguments about modes of reduction are made for different reasons and they later diverge. Archer is concerned with the analytical temptations which inhere in the structure/agency problem that social science invariably confronts, even when it attempts to suppress it through various means. In contrast, Harman is concerned with ‘undermining’ and ‘overmining’ as two fundamental forms of knowledge which cannot be avoided: “what a thing is made of” (undermining) and “what a thing does” (overmining) (pg 28). Archer is concerned with a denial of relationality, as well as its temporal unfolding, with downwards and upwards conflation charged with suppressing the interplay over time between the different kinds of entities which make up the social word. Harman is concerned with the denial of objects as such, reducing their reality to the parts and their effects, losing a grip on the entity which is composed of these parts and capable of these effects without being reducible to either.

Both approaches explore a tension between the analytical and the ontological. Harman’s notion of overmining, which I found much less straightforward to grasp than his notion of undermining, identifies its roots in the tendency to treat objects as mysterious and unknowable in themselves. An ontological claim licenses an analytical one, as the analyst focuses upon the effects of objects as something epistemically tractable in contrast to the objects themselves. Even if they continue to recognise the reality of the object, it is a notional recognition which doesn’t enter into their analysis. This is something Harman addresses explicitly on pg 28:

After all, any claim that a thing is convertible into knowledge cannot account for the obvious and permanent difference between a thing and knowledge of it: if we had perfect mathematised knowledge of a dog, this knowledge would still not be a dog. It will be said that this is a “straw man” argument, since philosophers are obviously aware that knowledge is different from its object. Yet it is not a question of whether philosophers are personally “aware” of this, but of whether their philosophies sufficiently account for it.”

To which we might add: ‘and whether they incline social scientists drawing on their ideas to factor this awareness into their explanations’. This interface between the ontological and the analytical one is one that has long fascinated me: how does theory constrain and enable the explanations which enter into social inquiry? What other forms of ‘conceptual slippage’ can we identify as ontological claims contribute to social analysis?

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.

It’s difficult to express quite how much I agree with the passage below. Historically, some justified objections to specific understandings of essence led to a repudiation of the concept in its entirety. As Christian Smith points out there has been a pervasive tendency within social network analysis (though I think it’s much broader than this, at least in its implicit dimensions) to construe issue of entities and relations in either/or terms whereas, instead, we might construe it in both/and terms. Many of the problems associated with the notions of essences stems from an insufficiently relational view of what an essence is. If the essence of an entity is seen to be shaped by, though not reducible to, the network of relations in which it is spatially and temporally entangled then the notion of an eternal (ontologically unchanging) or knowable (epistemically transparant) essence ceases to make sense. Conversely, without some sense of entities having characteristics beyond their relational existence, it’s difficult to even make sense of the possibility of change. The attributes of entities cannot fully explain outcomes in which they are involved but nor can the relations between entities.

if things are not purely relational, then it  also follows that things have essences. I am not the same person as you are. My individual qualities do not erupt into the world for the first time only once they have an effect on something else. I thrived in Egypt, while other expatriates gained nothing from being there; presumably there are things about me that Egypt successfully addressed, while those same traits were absent from the others. Matisse became an artist by accident at around age 21, and van Gogh even later in life. Yet it would not be nonsensical to claim that both of them had artistic gifts preceding those biographical dates, at least for a little while in advance. There is also a reason why it was Matisse and van Gogh rather than any other two people selected from their generation at random. This points to an essence, a reality in the two artists that is not exhaustively deployed in their total artistic catalogs or in their public “performativity,” no matter how unpopular essence has become in philosophy.

There are really just two problems with essence, and it is frankly not that difficult to remove them from your metaphysics while keeping the term “essence.”

1. The idea that the essence can be known. In other words, there is no political problem when we simply speak of “the Arab world.” The political problem comes from thinking that a certain elite group of Orientalist scholars from Oxford and Cambridge can identify the features of that Arab world, and use those features to proclaim that it is essentially Arab to be undemocratic, sensually corruptible, fanatical, retrograde, disorganized, and so forth. This would be an attempt to identify the essence of the Arabs with certain tangibly determinable traits, most of them negative. But in a philosophy like mine, the essence of the Arabs is no more knowable than the essence of van Gogh, a cat, a table, or a neutron. Orientalism results not from calling the Arabs dark and mysterious, but quite the opposite— it comes from explicitly identifying them as undemocratic, sensually corruptible, fanatical, retrograde, and disorganized. The minute you realize that everything is withdrawn from immediate access and can only be known obliquely, an automatic dose of caution and humility is injected into your knowledge.

2. The related idea that the essence is eternal is also a problem. Consider the Scandinavian people, who once produced an endless supply of ferocious Vikings, but are now often viewed as the “peaceniks” of Europe, champions of human rights and social and gender equality. Obviously, one must analyze the history here. If you were simply to say “the Scandinavians are such a civilized people,” this would be no more and no less true than saying “the Scandinavians are brutal marauders with no respect for the sanctity of monasteries.” We must recognize that Scandinavia will follow a different future path from Japan, Kenya, or Lebanon, because these places all have different cultures and histories and different aspirations. But this essence of a culture, like the essence of a person, eagle, army, or coffee mug, is not so easily pieced together from a list of explicitly proclaimed properties that one knowingly ascribes to them.

Stated more technically: metaphysical essentialism is politically harmless, but epistemological essentialism is not.

– an interview with Graham Harman

An interview with Graham Harman:

it is especially surprising when the political Left embraces relational ontology (I am astonished that Peter Hallward defends such an ontology), because nothing is more politically reactionary than the idea that we are all exhaustively the products of our context. If I am nothing more than the logical outcome of neo-liberal, late capitalist America, then in the name of what am I supposed to rebel against it? I should instead be profoundly grateful to this system that produced me, since under a different system I would simply vanish and be replaced by a different entity defined by its different relational context. Political transformation is not supposed to be a form of suicide, but a form of liberation. And there can only be calls for liberation if there is something to be liberated— something that does not deserve to be stifled and oppressed by its currently mediocre or horrible conditions

The ostensibly revolutionary transition from consciousness to language still leaves humans in absolute command as the primary subject matter of philosophy. All that happens is that the lucid, squeaky-clean ego of phenomenology is replaced by a more troubled figure- a drifter determined by his context, unable to fully transcend the structures of his environment. In both cases, the inanimate world is left by the wayside, treated as little better than dust or rubble. When rocks collide with wood, when fire melts glass, when cosmic rays cause protons to disintegrate, we are asked to leave all of this to the physicists alone. Philosophy has gradually renounced its claim to have anything to do with the world itself. Fixated on the perilous leap between subject and object, it tells us nothing about the chasm that separates tree from root, or that dividing ligament from bone. Forfeiting all comment on the realm of objects, it sets itself up as master of a single gap between self and world, where it holds court with a never-ending sequence of paradoxes, accusations, counter-charges, partisan gangs, excommunications, and alleged renaissances.

Meanwhile, beneath this ceaseless argument, reality is churning. Even as the philosophy of language and its supposedly reactionary opponents both declare victory, the arena of the world is jam-packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball smacks green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them; damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of “access” to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish, and icebergs smash into coastlines.

All of these entities roam across the cosmos, inflicting blessings and punishments on everything they touch, perishing without a trace or spreading their powers further–as if a million animals had broken free from a zoo in some Tibetan cosmology. Will philosophy remain satisfied with not addressing any of these objects by name, so as to confine itself to a “more general” discussion of the condition of the condition of the condition of possibility of ever referring to them? Will philosophy continue to lump together monkeys, tornadoes, diamonds, and oil under the single heading of that-which-lies-outside? Or is there some possibility of an object-oriented philosophy, a sort of alchemy for describing the transformations of one entity into another, for outlining the ways in which they seduce or destroy humans and non-humans alike?

– Graham Harman, Object-Oriented Philosophy