The Quadruple Tension
by Adam Robbert
I’ve just had the opportunity to finish Graham Harman’s latest publication The Quadruple Object. As we have become accustomed to, Harman constructs a literary diorama of aesthetically pleasing objects (“diamonds, rope, and neutrons” or “rum, parrots, and volcanos”) to help forward his arugments which, in The Quadruple Object, have become even more tightly expressed and erudite. Apparently a combination of art history and sports writing makes for an excellent litarery style. I am totally delighted with his new work. Today I feel like doing a little digging into how OOO visualizes both the human and the cosmos. A perspective which I think has mostly positive, but mixed results.
There is certainly room to distinguish between humans and other objects from the OOO perspective, but deciding precisely what makes humans different from other animals (or from any other object in the cosmos for that matter) is a sordid affair. I certainly don’t pretend to have anything completely figured out here. However, I do think OOO is greatly enriching our sense of cosmos, whilst (somewhat) impoverishing our sense of anthropos.
What I love about OOO is that it relaxes the intense and self-critical glare of the modern subject. It helps soften the eyes and lets them rest on other entities- other entities to whom we owe so much and with which we are so tightly entwined. The modernist gaze is not transformed into an unwitting and uncritical day dream, but the eyes have definitely warmed in their touch to the world outside of human experience. Bruno Latour commented once that doing an actor-network study requires an infralanguage that lets the actors themselves speak, intsead of a metalanguage that would seek to script the whole drama of observation in advance, forcing entities to speak in foreign tongues. OOO is a soft, almost diverted gaze that attempts to witness the human and its worlds along side of all other objects and their worlds.
In this sense, we are whirring correlations amidst other correlations, each a shifting tide pool of space and time. But perhaps humans are not just another correlation. We can entertain such a line of thinking without engaging in some kind of vulgar ontological exceptionalism. We, as humans, are objects arrayed amidst the parliament of the universe, unfolding alongside an infinitely diverse variety of other objects. We certainly do not need to introduce new substances or create special anthropocentric laws to explain the functioning of our bodies, the emergence of our species, or our genetic relation to the whole universe. In this sense I agree with Harman when he writes:
It cannot be denied that human experience is rather different from inanimate contact, and presumably richer and more complex. But that is not the point. The more relavent issue is whether the difference between human relations with paper and a flame’s relation with paper is different in kind or only in degree (p.45).
And yet, despite this nod to the rich complexity of the human, we find, I think, little commentary on the absolutely fascinating increase in dimensionality that the universe seems to experience with the emergence of the human object in the OOO framework. This not really a criticism of OOO per se, but more of an opening towards the exciting potential for future research. Perhaps this is what Harman is calling for in his appeal to a “speculative psychology” , a philosophical move to describe the different levels of psyche operating in the universe (p. 120). Certainly we don’t want to swing the other way and return to a dull and unsophisticated anthropocentrism, but I think we could situate human qua cosmos in a way slightly different than how Harman does it here:
The cosmos seems to be gigantic in both space and time. It is more ancient than all our ape-like ancestors and all other life forms. It might also seem safe to assume that the trillions of entities in the cosmos engage in relations and duels even when no human observes them. However interesting we humans may be to ourselves, we are apparently in no way central to the cosmic drama, marooned as we are on an average-sized planet near a mediocre sun, and confined to a tiny portion of the historty of the universe (p 63).
This depiction of the human-cosmos relationship is one we are all familiar with. Humanity, once thinking itself to be the privileged center of creation, is mercilessly decentered physically (Copernicus), psychologically (Freud), philosophically (Nietszche), socially (Marx), biologically (Darwin) and theologically (Feurbach). Harman’s nod to this history of decentering in the western mind is clear. However, further in The Quadruple Object Harman, writing on Heidegger, adds: “As Heidegger depicts it, the human has world, the stone is worldess, and the animal is “poor” in world” (p. 58). In this context, I think OOO has actually done quite a lot to resituate human beings within a cosmos of objects, and in this way has made the cosmos look more weird but perhaps less alien(ating). Decidedly a step away from modernist thinking.
Returning a sense of “world” back to animals and stones is an important success, but may have cut the human a little bit short. We should push further by again engaging the important question of what it means to be human within a cosmological context. OOO lets us do this without reducing the human to the physics of lithospheres and solar systems. It also lets us do this without absorbing the human into vast evolutionary or thermodynamic networks (all whilst not decrying the importance of either). However, something in me calls to correct the descriptors “average-sized planet” and “mediocre sun.” Of course it is true that the earth is an averaged sized planet and our sun is not the biggest and brightest in the galaxy, not even close.
However, clearly life bearing planets are a relative rarity (as far as we know anyway), let alone planets with complex, self-reflective organisms. We also know that life on earth is intimitely tied to our sun, with the millions of single celled organisms on the planet slowly shifting and transforming as the sun throbs, emitting solar radiation towards the earth day in and day out. The atmosphere is a combination of sun and respiration. There is definitely something unusual about this process, something vast but intimate. An infralanguage of the human should surely let the human speak to all this strange excess and complex creative meandering.
Perhaps the opposite perspective of a totally flat ontology is the one offered by mystic and Jesuit scientist Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard clothes the flesh of the cosmos with an epic dignity that places the human at the center of a cosmogenic process, bursting forth into greater depth and dimensionality over billions of years. But Teilhard’s view is too bright, too promethean, and risks losing the human project to a species-wide cataclysm of optimism. Harman’s approach is more sober, less glorifying, and rightly calls to question the primacy of the human-world relation. Somewhere amidst these two perspectives lies something worth thinking about. What we need is a vision of humans and nonhumans that engages their particular nobility of perspective. In the case of the human we have clearly only begun to plumb the depths of whats going on.