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Saturday, 9 September 2017

Object-oriented vacuous actuality

Harman's Immaterialism sets out to contrast his object-oriented approach to social and historical explanation to what is loosely labeled "new materialism" and to actor-network theory in particular. After a quick presentation of his ontology of objects stressing the speculative move from objects of human knowledge endowed with a withdrawn element that eludes every sensorial contact to an image of everything as objects enjoying a secret in-itself dimension and a quicker presentation of the adversaries of the object-oriented approach, Harman illustrates the strengths of finding objects behind events with a historical narrative of the Dutch VOC. Following a provocation from Leibniz, for whom it would be outrageous to treat the Dutch East India Company as a real substance, Harman sets out to present the history of the company as the history of an object - that supposedly would explain more than accounts that rather undermine it in terms of its components (fleets, trips, employees etc.) or overmining it in terms of events (expeditions, conquests, alliances etc.).

The narrative is persuasive in showing how middle-sized objects like the VOC have to be taken as real protagonists capable of symbioses where a different objects are brought to alliances that involve not only its sensual qualities but also the real, withdrawn and elusive element behind the perceptually available. In a symbiosis, an objects bets in another. This is is fairly illustrated. However Harman is less convincing when it comes precisely to show how his approach fares better than Latour's ANT (Action-Network Theory) when it comes to explain features of the history of VOC. To be sure, it is not enough to say that we need to postulate individuated entities like the VOC - Latour would have networks of actants that are individual enough when they pass successive tests of resistance. Latour's individuals, nevertheless, are always up for grabs, always at the mercy of tests of resistance - and they have nothing concealed but only their successive display of actions. Still, networks that can be broken up into actants at any moment, are individuated enough. There is one important point that distinguish Harman's objects from Latour's networks: potentiality. Harman is adamant in saying that the VOC is to be understood as an object with dispositions - for instance, conquered the Spice Island in potentia even before its attack on Macassar in 1656. It is clear that capacities and abilities could be part of what a real object is and the link between real objects and real qualities is indeed conceived by Harman to be composed by those features, by those "causal powers". But ANT postulates no such thing as potentialities. In "Irréductions", around 1.5.1 Latour analyses potentialities in terms of the engagement of several other individuals and not in terms of an internal feature. He writes (in 1.5.1): "With potency injustice also begins, because apart from a happy few - princes, principles, origins, bankers, and directors other entelechies, that is, all the remainder, become details, consequences, applications, followers, servants, agents - in short, the rank and file.". Now, it is precisely the engagements of these other individuals that would explain, for instance, how the Spice Islands were in the hands of the VOC since the early 1620s: a network of actants composed by local alliances, more powerful fleets and Macassar residents that would make the conquest of Macassar less than a priority. It is unclear what precisely an object-oriented approach could offer that is better than the positing of networks together with an account of how the name "VOC" related to different networks in different times yet retaining enough of the network to go through several tests of resistance. Not only ANT would need no appeal to internal potentialities, but it would explicitly dismiss them.

Perhaps the gist of the difference is precisely in the withdrawn element in objects that ANT cannot contemplate: Harman's real objects elude any contact with other objects. Real objects are dangerously close to what Whitehead labeled 'vacuous actuality' - precisely what brings his position close to that of Hegelians as them too reject vacuous actualities such as things-in-themselves. Vacuous actualities affect nothing. I guess there are two different ways to view the withdrawn element in something. Consider Levinas conception that the absolute other is elusive to representation and ultimately to the exercise of my spontaneity. Here, the absolute other is withdrawn and yet capable of affecting me - of hurting my otherwise unlimited freedom and sovereignty. Levinas wants to make sure that the absolute other is not unnoticed - or rather, that it is not unnoticeable while it can be systematically unnoticed. It affects by resisting. The same can perhaps be said about the Kantian noumena: it is the resistance of the thing in the objects; it brings about the transcendental distinction. The other way of thinking about the withdrawn element is that it has no effect whatsoever: they are present and yet inert, not affecting anything. In this case, they are vacuous actualities. But if real objects are vacuous actualities, it is no surprise that they can make no (explanatory) difference in the explanation of the VOC. They would at most make an object-oriented account hostage to the explanations provided by an ANT history.


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