Graham Harman, Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory

Graham Harman, Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity 2016) 140pp. £9.99 Pb, £40.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781509500963

In Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory, Graham Harman examines the status of objects as part of his ongoing project of Object-Oriented Ontology. According to Object-Oriented Ontology, as well as the related perspective of Actor-Network Theory, one of the problems with Western philosophy going back to the works of Immanuel Kant is its treatment of objects. Most dominant views in the post-Kantian landscape regard objects in nature as ‘correlations’ with concepts and structures within the human mind rather than as entities in their own right, a position which Quentin Meillassoux terms ‘correlationism’. These new philosophical methods attempt to move out of this correlationist circle and give objects their own ontological weight. In Immaterialism, Harman critiques the responses of New Materialism and Actor-Network Theory to this problem and argues the case for why his own account of Object Oriented Ontology has decisive advantages over them.

It is rare to find academic and philosophical writing that is this clear. Harman’s explanations of not just his own position but also the other views to which he responds are thorough, concise and in a style and vocabulary that are accessible to non-experts. For example, his summary in a single paragraph of Immanuel Kant’s ontology in the Critique of Pure Reason (27) is a delight to read owing to its effectiveness in explaining an intimidating landmark of German philosophy. What makes his style especially persuasive is the systematic method with which he summarises and contrasts different positions in order to demonstrate the advantage of his proposed account. A recurrent stylistic device is that of giving long lists of diverse examples. This is not just an amusing rhetorical quirk, but also serves a conceptual purpose of demonstrating the diversity of entities that can be assimilated to his theoretical position, including physical objects, mathematical concepts, fictional characters, historical figures, real people, etc. What is most striking about Harman’s work is that, in contrast to early Anglo-American philosophy in the Analytic tradition (like the work of Willard Quine) that looks to the natural sciences as a model of inquiry, Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology looks to the humanities and social sciences instead, drawing from history and sociology, something shown particularly in his use of history as a thought experiment in this book.

To argue his position, Harman first introduces and critiques two related and competing positions, Actor-Network Theory and New Materialism. Actor-Network Theory defines all objects as entities that act. This gives all objects equal agency, but it has two severe limitations: it cannot account for objects that are not currently acting, and it flattens the ontology of objects such that it cannot distinguish between the significance of different entities and relations. New Materialism, meanwhile, is a position which considers an object as ‘historical, socially constructed, involv[ing] cultural practices, and [...] contingent’ (Bryant quoted on 13). The trouble with New Materialism is that it overdetermines the definition of an object, that is rather than understanding an object as an entity by itself, it defines it as a mystical abstraction of its tangible properties and effects. Drawing from this critique of these two positions, Harman advances his view of an immaterialist (ie contrary to New Materialism) Object-Oriented Ontology.

For Harman, an object is, borrowing from a Kantian vocabulary, a thing-in-itself that cannot just be paraphrased into either its constituent elements or the sum of its actions on other objects. They have an ontological significance and agency beyond these reductions. Contrary to Actor-Network Theory, objects are not objects because they act, but they act because they are objects. Most importantly, objects relate not just to the human subject, but to each other. In an ironic inversion of one of one of Gottfried Leibniz’s sarcastic remarks, Harman uses the Dutch East India Company (known by the Dutch acronym VOC) as a case study for an object. This is not meant to be a history but an ontology of the VOC (39-40). This is a compelling methodology that gives equal objecthood to different kinds of entities, including composite entities like the Company and its fleet, physical objects like ships and spices, real people like Governor-General Jan Pieterszoon Coen, places like Batavia or Malacca as well as abstract ideas like a monopolistic trade policy.

In response to the problem of Actor-Network Theory of flattening the distinction between significant and insignificant relations between objects, Harman proposes the notion of ‘symbiosis’. Symbiosis is a watershed moment in the life of an object when it enters into a relation with another, in which it is irreversibly transformed into a different stage of its existence. Harman’s ontology of the VOC examines what he describes as five key moments of symbiosis in its life (Coen’s publication of his treatise Discourse on the State of India, the founding of Batavia, the Ambon massacre, the controlling of intra-Asian trade and the conquest of Malacca). These symbiotic events contrast with trivial events in the workings of the VOC (like the succession of Jacques Specx as Governor-General, each individual voyage of the VOC ships, etc). Roughly, symbiotic relations are stronger ties than trivial ones, so while entities in a trivially-related entities (like Governor-General Specx) are no less objects than symbiotically-related ones (Governor-General Coen), they are however less important. It is through this idea of symbiosis that Harman’s ontology can see different entities as being equally objects while also distinguishing between entities of greater and lesser significance.

Still, some of the finer details of Harman’s argument are not fully clear. For example, he gives short shrift to his distinction between birth, symbiosis and decay of an object and why these are different ontological processes. His definitions of symbiotic changes to the character of an object, different stages in its existence and of significant and insignificant relations are mutually-referring rather than clearly separate, making them somewhat tricky to comprehend at first. Some of the rules for Object-Oriented Ontology that he proposes in the later section could also do with further elaboration as they do at times seem abrupt. It will be interesting to see how Harman develops these themes as his project continues.

As part of Polity's Theory Redux series, this volume is intended to be a brief, accessible and provocative intervention within contemporary social theory and philosophy. This book will be of interest to scholars in the humanities and social sciences wanting to know about developing methods in contemporary philosophy. The summaries of various philosophical positions that Harman provides make his book an excellent introduction to the field for those unfamiliar with it. Moreover, this book also continues debates within the field for the benefit of those more familiar with Harman’s other works. This project of finding an ontology of objects and their relations with each other independent of human subjectivity, and the notion of 'symbiosis', are ideas which will have resonances in a wide range of fields like the Environmental Humanities or even cyberculture and cybernetics.

Vivek Santayana, University of Edinburgh