Objects at Dusk

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cropped image of the book's cover

Graham Harman is Associate Provost for Research Administration and a member of the Department of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. He is the author of nine books, most recently The Quadruple Object by zer0 books [English Edition, July 2011].

“Instead of beginning with radical doubt, we start from naiveté. What philosophy shares with the lives of scientists, bankers, and animals is that all are concerned with objects. The exact meaning of “object” will be developed in what follows, and must include those entities that are neither physical nor even real. Along with diamonds, rope, and neutrons, objects may include armies, monsters, square circles, and leagues of real and fictitious nations. All such objects must be accounted for by ontology, not merely denounced or reduced to despicable nullities. Yet despite repeated claims by both friends and critics of my work, I have never held that all objects are “equally real.” For it is false that dragons have autonomous reality in the same manner as a telephone pole. My point is not that all objects are equally real, but that they are equally objects...”

(The Quadruple Object, Introductionpage 5)

The Quadruple Object by Graham Harman is a succinct and ambitious new theory of objects that reexamines Heidegger’s fourfold theory (a vague and, until Harman, unexplored and poetic idea of the world in four parts: earth, sky, gods, and mortals) through the lens of Object-Oriented Ontography (a slightly different take on Object-Oriented Philosophy). Harman, constrained by complications with the publisher, grant access, and his own lecture schedule decided to take a unique approach and “live-blog” his writing process.

“Live-blogging” might seem like an unorthodox approach for a philosophical treatise, but also a wildly brilliant one. Harman devised the blog as a way to speed the writing process along while also opening up the process to an audience of his own graduate students, fans of his earlier works, and anyone else who googled. Out of curiosity he also decided to time how long it took to write the final draft. He discovered that he finished the 143 page exposition in a mere 86 hours and 34 minutes, or the equivalent of two, slightly long, work weeks. (My timed reading of the book took 6 hours and 34 minutes.)

The constraints surrounding the book’s writing serve as a great introduction to Harman's theory of the Quadruple Object, because he believes a simple philosophical structure can reveal deep understanding. His extended version of Heidegger’s fourfold combines ideas from Husserl's construction and perception of objects that result in Harman’s own revised fourfold theory: real objects, real qualities, sensual objects, and sensual qualities.

”First, the real object is autonomous from whatever encounters it. If I close my eyes to sleep or die, the sensual tree is vaporized, beings are destroyed along with me. Second, though sensual objects always inhabit experience and are not hidden behind their qualities, real objects must always hide.
But despite these differences, there are important similarities between the two kinds of objects. Both are autonomous units. Both are irreducible to any bundle of traits, since they are able to withstand numerous changes in the qualities that belong to them. And most importantly, both real and sensual objects are polarized with two different kinds of qualities...”
(The Quadruple Object, Chapter 3: Real Objectspage 48)

Harman outlines the objects’ interactions in a system described in two kinds of objects, two kinds of qualities, and ten tensional relationships between them. Well-researched and defended, Harman carves out some intriguing conclusions about the world of objects that we live in.

Along the way he rails against the traditional human-centered perception of objects heralded by Kant, debunks Meno’s paradox, and refuses monism as an explanation of existence. Instead Harman connects his theory to concepts introduced as early as Aristotle and contemporary as his college Quentin Meillassoux. His writing style is clear as he builds his argument in steps, all the while peppered by example objects that range from “centaur, Pegasus, unicorn, and hobbit” to “rum, parrots, and volcanoes.” These light-hearted but familiar subjects accompanied by diagrams throughout, make Harman’s book a welcome change of style in philosophical exposition, while remaining more serious than Hennesy Youngman.

In Harman’s world all physical and non-physical objects exist on their own accord, which makes him an insightful read for someone experimenting with technology and pushing the boundaries of art. He even squeezes in a chapter on Polypsychism (a modified version of Panpsychism), which would grant some kind of psychic energy to all objects, including the inanimate (i.e. cotton or fire).

In the final chapter Harman describes Speculative Realism as a movement, how it started, who its major players are, and why his thoughts focusing on Object-Oriented Philosophy are different. Since there has been a lot of buzz around these newer theories, the final chapter offered some valuable inside perspective and understanding on Speculative Realism - which Harman describes as a “cradle for four very different philosophical trends.”

Harman closes the final chapter with an ambitious statement of belief that his theory of the quadruple object will be as applicable to the world around us as Freud’s psychoanalytics. Right now, the book and its provocative ideas are just getting to English readers. In the meantime, if you are in New York, you can check out the Public School class on Harman’s theories and his book tonight or any of his other lectures around the city this month.