Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Object Strikes Back: An interview with Graham Harman

A few months ago I did an interview with philosopher Graham Harman who is Associate Provost for Research Administration and Professor of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo.The author of books with titles such as Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things, Harman is a very accessible writer. His business is philosophy (which few people make accessible) but he has lots to offer those of us working in design fields, whether practitioners or researchers.

Influenced by Heidegger and by Latour, Harman’s philosophy treats objects as real but with hidden depths. His work explores how objects have been thought about in philosophy and proposes an object-oriented ontology that offers a new way of thinking about objects. This is timely for design, given the requirement to conceptualise what it is that we are working on and within as we design things we call 'experiences', 'services' or 'interactions'. 

The interview is not published until 2013 and then only in a peer-reviewed, subscription-only, academic journal (the excellent Design and Culture) which will reduce access to non-academic readers. Since I'm legally unable to put a transcript online, I though I'd offer a sort of trailer in the hope that interested parties might get in touch with me directly.

Here are a couple of quotes taken from the interview - all Harman's words.

'Objects are the anti-reductive principle par excellence. They exist midway between their tiny components and their palpable external effects. In this way they resist reduction both downwards and upwards– neither undermined nor overmined, neither undercut nor “overcut,” to coin another new term. Objects occupy the middle range in any situation, lurking beneath their outward effects, but they are also something real that cannot be decomposed into tinier elements. This is important because so much of recent human intellectual life is trapped in a permanent trench war between the tiniest (as championed by science) and the largest (a human-centered perspective championed, of course, by the humanities). The avoidance of these trench wars by way of objects is a method –and “middle way” is what “method” means in Greek– that can be used in pretty much any field...

I think one of the weaknesses of the heavily relational approach of ANT (Actor Network Theory) is that it cannot adequately deal with the parts of the object that exceed its current relations. Latour’s best case studies (Pasteur, for example) are about things that have already happened. All the relations and translations have finally done their work, and we can use Latourian tools to explain how it occurred. ... 

Yet I’m not sure that ANT is quite as useful at counterfactual cases. What counterfactual cases do is allow us to look at the innate powers of a thing that might not have been expressible in their actual environment, and ask how things might have played out differently. ...

The danger of relationist thinking is that it focuses too much upon reciprocal interactions in the “now” and too little on what things should be doing that they are prevented from doing by the accidental set of physical and social relations in which they are now entangled. The term “essence” gets a bad press these days, because it has come to be associated with all kinds of oppressive and reactionary dogmas, but if we take “essence” in a more minimalistic sense to mean “what a thing is quite apart from its current accidental situation,” then a certain essentialism is unavoidable.'

See also

Harman's recent books published by Zero Books
Discussion of Harman's and Latour's work on the ANTHEM (Actor Network Theory Heidegger Meeting), instigators of the 2008 debate at LSE involving Harman and Latour, now transcribed into a book The Prince and the Wolf (2011) 
A downloadable PDF version of Harman's The Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (2009) published under open access by Re-Press

1 comment:

mhowardthomas said...

Thank you for posting this! I can't wait to read it. I'm likely way out of my depth here, but Harman identifies correctly some of the reasons why ANT has been criticized as being fundamentally a-moral. It's tricky, in my limited reading of Latour, is/ought is an invalid dichotomy, which would explain why,

"[ANT]...cannot adequately deal with the parts of the object that exceed its current relations", and, "what a thing is quite apart from its current accidental situation,”

Recall that Latour is coming from a Garfinkel(ian?)perspective. For Latour, there's no such things as "apart from...situation" or even "accidental" as identified by Harman. Harman again is correct that Latour can't manage counterfactuals, but Latour's ANT could never have been a normative philosophy per the mainstream understanding of normativity. I suspect that Latour's ANT is not so much a-moral as it is determinist.