The Edge of the Sea – Alison Price, August 2022

I was struck, when reading Harman’s (2018) Object-Oriented Ontology for the first time, that there appeared to be a contradiction between his insistence upon a ‘flat ontology’ and the use of the terms ‘Sensual Object’ and ‘Sensual Qualities’ in his Fourfold Diagram (also referred to by Harman as the Quadruple Object (2011) below:

The Quadruple Object of Fourfold Model (Harman 2018)

A flat ontology, Harman claims, is one where the human does not occupy fifty per cent of the subject, as with post-Kantian Correlationism, and where all objects possess Being (in Heidegger’s terms) or Ortega’s ‘I-ness’.  Harman implies, through this commitment to a flat ontology, that all objects, whether they be a rock beneath our feet, a galaxy a chair or a hammer, can sense to a greater or lesser extent.

The problem arises for me when we look at the signification of the word ‘sensual’, predominantly used by Harman. The Oxford English Dictionary defines sensual as follows:

sensual, adj. & n. In a more neutral sense: relating to, characterised by, or involving enjoyment derived from the senses; physically enjoyable or pleasurable.

https://www.oed.com/dictionary/sensual_adj?tab=factsheet#23605655

Other definitions include terms such as ‘carnal’, ‘erotic’, ‘bodily’ and so forth. In demarcating the ‘Real Object’ from the ‘Sensual Object’, and ‘Real Qualities’ from ‘Sensual Qualities’ Harman is implicitly suggesting that those aspects of the nature of an object, which are not ontologically withdrawn, give enjoyment or pleasure to another object that confronts or engages with the object in question. If that is the case then his ontology, I would argue, is decidedly not flat and comes suspiciously close to the ‘carnal phenomenology’, which he discusses in his Guerrilla Metaphysics (Harman, 2005).

The problem, I suspect is that Harman’s development of his ‘Object-Oriented Philosophy’ as reflected in his analysis of Heidegger’s Tool Being (Harman 2002) into his definitive (Harman 2011) ‘Quadruple Object’ straddled  Meillassoux (2008) ‘After Finitude’ and its attack on Correlationism and the birth of Speculative Realism. I would suggest therefore, Harman’s Object Oriented Philosophy, emerged as a product of his commitment to Heidegger’s ‘Gievert’ and the fourfold object, the concept of ‘vicarious causation’ (Harman 2005), and the prospect of a revival of a ‘carnal’ phenomenology as expressed in his Guerrilla Metaphysics (Harman 2005). His continuing use of the term ‘sensual’ in relation to the presence of objects is, I suggest, a carry-over from that phase of his development of Object-Oriented Philosophy, and is still there in his principal outputs (Harman 2011, Harman 2018, Harman 2020).

It seems likely that Harman’s commitment to a flat ontology would have crystallised following the meeting about Speculative Realism at Goldsmith’s College, London in 2007 involving Meillassoux, Brassier and Hamilton Grant, amongst others. It seems to me a minor point but, a radical commitment to a flat ontology should exclude any bias towards the carnal and reflect what has been termed the ‘democracy of objects’(Bryant 2011). Interestingly, Harman (2020) acknowledges the limitations of the word sensual (p.22) as a convenient label for those aspects and qualities of an object that are not withdrawn. However, post his Guerrilla Metaphysics I cannot find any other specific justification of the term in favour of a more neutral term such as ‘sensory’.

Therefore, in my interpretation of Harman’s Object-Oriented Ontology, I have removed the language of the carnal, whether as a remnant of the ‘carnal phenomenology’, which Harman attempted to revitalise in Guerilla Metaphysics, or as a convenient term to capture that which is not withdrawn. Therefore, I chose to use the term ‘sensory’ throughout my research. This word, although focused on the ‘physical process of sensation’ (OED), does not carry the ‘baggage’ of ‘sensual’ (Harman) or ‘sensuous’ (Bryant) and represents a minor departure from Harman’s terminology. It may be a trivial criticism of Harman’s terminology since it does not strike at the heart of his ontological position; it does, however, presage a more fundamental disagreement around the nature of the Real Object and the Paradox of Being.

 

References

Bryant, L. R. (2011). The Democracy of Objects, Open Humanities Press

Harman, G. (2002). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. Chicago, OPEN COURT

Harman, G. (2005). Guerilla Metaphysica: phenomenology and the carpentry of things. Peru, illinois, OPen Court Publishing Company.

Harman, G. (2011). The Quadruple Object. Alresford, UK, Zero Books.

Harman, G. (2018). Object-Oriented Ontology – A New Theory of Everything. Milton Keynes, Pelican Books.

Harman, G. (2020). Art and Objects. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Meillassoux, Q. (2008). After Finitude – an essay on the necessity of contingency. London, Bloomsbury.

 

Alison Price

Alison Price

My name is Alison Price and for the past ten years I have travelled the world photographing wildlife, including Alaska, Antarctica, Borneo, Botswana, the Canadian Arctic, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
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