Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Graham Harman's tool-being vs. Dasein's revenge

alFrEdO tRiFf

Debating metaphysics is a waste of time —of which I gladly partake at times. If metaphysics had a church, I'd post Bas van Fraasen's empirical manifesto on its door:
1. No form of inquiry into the nature of the world should be immune to the possibility of error or failure.
2.Correct logical or grammatical form should no be considered sufficient to render claims about the world substantive.
3. The epistemic status of one's criteria for theory choice should be linked to the epistemic status of one's theories.1
This is not to say the metaphysical enterprise is without merit. Metaphysics can be entertaining, even productive. As we shall see, metaphysics doesn't have to be entirely disconnected from the world.

While looking at a Heidegger compilation for my class, and I bumped into Graham Harman's Heidegger Explained which I found a cool introduction. This book led me to Harman's first book, Tool-Being. I was immediately attracted to Harman's flair for rhetoric and his clear and combative prose. It's through Harman that I learned about the Speculative Realism movement. The more I read Harman, the more I disagreed about his depleted version of things.

My take is that Harman is not doing thing-metaphysics as much as Dasein-metaphysics. Harman's metaphysics is an ongoing drama of thing & Dasein wrestling for power.

Harman's tool-being 

What is human life when seen from the vast expanse of future aeons? "Enough time, enough weight on top, and we're all squeezed into crude oil."2 The thing was here before us and will be here after we disappear.

It was right after the bang that,

... the fluid Mass, but downward purg'd
The black tartareous cold Infernal dregs
Adverse to life: then founded, then conglob'd
Like things to like, the rest to several place
Disparted, and between spun out the Air,
And Earth self ballanc't on her Center hung.-- Milton's Paradise Lost (7, 240).

Tool-being metaphysics may deserve a place in philosophy, but let's not forget that Dasein's imperialism is not far from the apprehensions of tool-being's fetishism. Even more dangerous is this: what if the thing becomes -thanks to the metaphysician's legerdemain- Dasein in drags?

So, let's introduce the characters of this metaphysical performance:
Dasein &
tool-being and the resulting doubles:

What's tool-being? It boils down to Daseining the universe sans Dasein. Harman takes the qualities traditionally reserved for humans — as he puts it— all the way down to the bowels of the earth!
The human being can no longer be viewed as a "creature of distance" (...) Dasein's movement actually occurs in the opposite direction. Dasein moves down into the bowels of the earth. Consciousness is not an epiphenomenon, but an intraphenomenon. (TB, 226)
Here's a quick five-point sketchy map:

1. Implode Zuhandenheit & Vorhandenheit, "two irreducible faces of the same entity" (TB, 31). Why? For Heidegger, Dasein and being (Sein) make up a hermeneutical whole. We cannot understand being without understanding Dasein, as Heidegger argues in sections 2 and 4 of B&T, whereas the notion of being (Sein) is also implied in that of Dasein, so that we cannot understand Dasein without understanding being. So, by taking Dasein's involvement out the picture, things can come to the surface. Power to beings!

What preexisting theories can one possibly entertain which are seemingly akin to this realm? Vitalism? Too bio-oriented for Harman.3 Hylozoism? Judging by this: "I am not claiming that material objects have souls; I simply lack the general term other than 'encounter' that would be painfully sterile," it remains a possibility. (TB, 30). So, get things to think!

2. Destroying Dasein's empire over things means degrading its moods.

Harman presents Heidegger as having been ready for a great discovery he actually missed: "It is clear that the liberating power of Heidegger's theory of equipment lies in its subversion of the traditional dominance of Vorhandenheit. The problem is in the additional assumption, often encouraged by Heidegger that human existence is the hero that frees entities from the present-at-hand real.  (TB, 19).
This is what Harman does with Heidegger's equipment in Section 3: 
Heidegger's tool analysis yields insights so fundamental that they cannot be confined to officially sanctioned tool-items (...) In brief: Heidegger has told us about beings in general, but nothing at all about tools in particular (...) For if structure of tool-being can be found in any entity whatsoever, animals and human beings must have the mode of being equipment.
Thus, "here as before there is a tendency to take two modes of being that can actually be found every where at all times, and to try to segregate them from one another in two distinct types of being." But this is precisely Heidegger's enterprise, the two modes offer a fundamental insight for Dasein's analysis. Harman is right that everything hinges on this distinction. In other words, freeing things from the tyranny of Dasein takes dismantling its proprietorship over theory. What's left? Harman doesn't care (why should he?)4

Dasein's Space is dispatched in a summary fashion: "It's useless to object that ontological place is spatial insofar as it makes up the ground of ontic space. For as we have seen, ontological place is the ground of everything." Yes and no. This is a misrepresentation of Heidegger idea of spatiality, which shows a gradual development from his B&T days to 1935's "The Origin of the Work of Art," to "The Thing" (delivered in 1950) to "Building Dwelling and Thinking" (1951). Discounting this development is to throw away 30 years of conceptual growth of oppositional threads. What started with "space" ends with the idea  "locality" and it concerns the thing!  

Edward S. Casey points out in The Fate of Place that the spatiality of "The Origin of the Work of Art" is no longer that of Dasein's "being-there." The work of art is not comprehensible either in terms of craft or ready-to-hand alone. This self-sufficient presence that Heidegger belabors as "The Open" will be transformed later, in his "Conversation on a Country Path" (1944).

Here, Gegend ("region") becomes a dyad: Gegnen ("regioning") and Gegent ("that which regions"). To be in a region includes "things and thoughts." Casey tracks the term "nearness" to Heidegger's 1950 lecture "The Thing," where "nearing" has very little to do with equipment -as Harman pretends- and more with the thing itself. Now, "in the default of nearness the thing remains annihilated," so, Casey poits out, "nearing is the thinging of things."   

Casey's analysis takes us into a built constructed thing, "the bridge" that Harman is so fond of in Tool-Being:
This remarkable passage reinscribes in terms now familiar to us -most notably, Stätte, Platz, but this is done in a way that constitutes a new composition, indeed a new vision, of place. For "place" is nothing "preexisting" --as "positions" are in a world space-- but arises with the bridge regarded as a thing. This first operation transforms what otherwise be a mere spot or position, a "simple location" into a full fledged location. On the far side space, on the near side localities.5 
Why does Harman dismiss this development? He forgets that we may take needless detours only to end up at crossing paths. If tool-being analysis supposedly takes into account the thing-itself, one wonders how much of what's left out could actually be incorporated to the thing.

It is as if the process of selection reflects more Dasein (the metaphysician's interest) than the thing itself. One wonders if what's demoted, as Dasein-like, could not in principle become tool-being material. Is this an error in interpretation?

Why can the thing not be ahead-of-itself, anticipating its own annihilation? Why can thrownness not be a form of thing external causality? Could Angst be reformulated as a form of thing-possibility?
Why is tool-being not free?

Harman's entity-ruled authoritarian paradise is legislated by Dasein ventriloquizing the thing as Ereignischaraktere.6

Van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes, 1886.
There are moments when Harman is betrayed by his shadow:
I do not make the claim in the name is a relativism that would liquidate all existing distinctions between being, so that all interpretations of any entity become "equally true" (TB, 97). 
Which brings us to the art of ventriloquy. Talking about things requires us to try to get below, to appropriate the voice of the things. English and German Romantics did it successfully. Heidegger has great moments, in the Origin of the Work of Art and The Thing. This only makes it harder for Harman, who is wearing so many different hats that at times he forgets which is which. One jumps from Harman, to Harman-as-Heidegger, to Harman-as-thing, and vice-versa, to Harman ventriloquizing himself!

3. Hide the thing. Make it withdraw! 

Heidegger's fixation with withdrawing harks back to Avicenna's idea of wajib al-wujud bi-dhatihi, "that which is self-withdrawing." Why is this important? Withdrawing assures Harman (as it did with Heidegger before) a lettre de course into deeper regions of Being and/or tool-being.

In essence, Being's oblivion, inasmuch as this means the Being's withdrawal, remains essential to Being. This is Being's Kapital! No wonder Heidegger's Being played hide-and-seek all along. Who needs epistemology when you have hermeneutics?

he motto goes: If you see it, you don't, if you don't, you see it.
If the being of the hammer withdraws from all of its relations, it is equally true that hammer-being is not a present-at-hand atom descended from the skies to breathe life into mere derivative relations. Instead tool-being is a form, a kind of formal cause that acts as a substance with respect to its surroundings. but which is born only as relational composite of its internal elements. On the other hand, the hammer is a vast surplus beyond human praxis, no less than beyond human theory. (TB, 171)
Harman's withdrawal is different than Heidegger's, not anymore a strategy of Being playing a Wessen/Unwessen game with princess Aletheia. Harman's withdrawing becomes tool-being's sole behavior! Isn't that moody enough?
The exact status of this system remains and must remain, inaccessible. Otherwise it would revert to the conditions of presence-at-hand (...) the tool is what withdraws from any particular expression of perception, including linguistic ones. (168)
Here is Harman-as-thing (or is it the other way around?)
Quite apart from the bridge as something perceived, there is the subterranean tool-being. The bridge is set loose on the earth as a distinct and independent power, giving birth to a universe in which canyon-effect and river-effect are more or less neutralized, partially surpassed in their former roles as obstacles. (TB, 220)
Alright, but words, not things, are doing the job of presenting. Things are not talking, Harman is. In fact, Harman's book could be entitled Who is talking? Above, in purple we have the voice of tool-being. For example, "loose on the earth," which is meant as thing-talk cannot be imagined without some sort of bridge-and-the earth relation, something which is prohibited to tool-being.

Can tool-being say no! to the metaphysician's straight jacket? Imagine the following conversation between the relational side and the tool-being-side of the same entity:
Relational side: Hey, I just underwent a radioactive decay, wow!
Tool-Being side: Good God, I felt nothing.
R-side: What do you mean? It felt like a f*** explosion!
TB-side: That's between you and the outside. Our sides are compartmentalized, You are sensuous, I'm subterranean.
R-side: How does "subterranean" feel?
TB-side: Er, subterranean-like.
R-side: C'mon mine Freund. Can you do better than that?
TB-side: It feels, er, "in vacuo." I can't even tell anymore. To say it, I must use sensuous words, which belong in the phenomenal realm.
R-side: Are you a noumenal freak?
TB-side: I think... I am... 
R-side: What?
TB-side: (the words become an imperceptible echo) ... withdrawing.
One has to pity tool-being's Dasein-imposed isolation. We must not forget that there is a powerful rhetoric of opposites going on here. The more tool-being withdraws, the more important its revelation becomes (for whom? Who else but Dasein).

4. Theorize without theory. Harman moves swiftly through his Section 6. The order here is to subvert:
"...even theory is unable to free us entirely from the unthematic contexture; there will always remain a depth to the entity that eludes any theoretical view." (TB, 59)
How can one write this and go on theorizing leaves me bewildered. Let's see: It's trivial that theories leave always aspects to be further adjusted, tweaked or reinterpreted. The reason is that theories are not a priori mandates, but built —or splintered— from previous ideas.

In that trivial sense Heidegger is right that theory interprets things in a way that abstracts from the global context of significance. Ideally, the new theory will be tested for adequacy, i.e, simplicity, consistency, fruitfulness, which amounts to explanatory power (or justification, depending your take). Besides, a theory is true (or valid) until proven false (or invalid), meaning that a theory is not necessarily true (or valid) forever. Unless there is a non-trivial conclusion that there is a structural impossibility of theoretical prehension, which is what Harman means. Part of the world is forced to withdraw from our view.

I agree with Pierre Keller's comparison between Husserl & Heidegger's theorizing styles. according to Heller, for Husserl one cannot develop general claims about human existence, whether "existentials or conditions of the possibility of any human existence except by considering the idea of what it is o exist as a human being in a context-independent manner." 7 Same with Harman: One cannot legislate the essence of the universe ventriloquizing Dasein's angst-driven transcendence from a rocking chair. 
Our awareness does not penetrate back behind objects into the systems of tools, but lingers in the sensuous zone of rain drops and handshakes and bright colors. In each instant, we contend with a set of irreducible elements or stock characters, with objects populating the earth." (TB, 47)
Am I alone in hearing noumenal overtones in the paragraph above?

This is not something Harman wants us to notice (though Dasein creeps through the back door to reclaim its place). In the end, as much as he fights for the thing, Harman forgets that Dasein is also a thing (not only that things are Dasein, which is his claim).

5. Another victim of Harman's steamrolling over Dasein is the "as-structure." Harman dispatches it readily: "Theory cannot be distinguished from other experience by appealing to the as-structure, since the "as" can never bring us the least bit closer to the things themselves than we already were." There is a brief toying with Heidegger idea of metontology8 only to get ready for the revelation in Section 9.

Up to this moment, Harman proceeds quickly by leveling and demolishing distinctions. As we know the only thing left is ready-to-hand and presence-to-hand as two sides of the same coin. But he cannot keep deferring an explanation that he owes from the start: Where is the beef?

Get ready for Heidegger's "On the Essence of Ground." Dig this Harman-as-Heidegger nugget:
... the presence of an object to though is only possible on the basis of a prior state of transcendence.
What follows deserves attention: 
Heidegger says just what we would expect him so say: that the beings that emerge in our transcendence are born from the robust power of a hidden depth, unearthed from the dark empire of a prior execution. Transcendence is a "not" that surpasses the anonymous real of tool-being: "That which is surpassed is precisely only beings in themselves, i.e., every being that can be unconcealed and become unconcealed to Dasein, and thus even and precisely that being as which 'it itself' exists."
For Harman-as-Heidegger, theoretical statements interpret things in a way that abstracts from the global context of significance in terms of which we orient ourselves in the world. That doesn't mean that theoretical propositions interpret the world in terms of objects which have no essential connection to each other.

Harman simply accepts Heidegger's insight that because there is no meaningful way of articulating what the object is independent of one's understanding of the world, the relation between statements or beliefs and objects is really an imperialistic way of construing what is. Yet, what Harman-as-Heidegger is doing is theorizing as not-theorizing. The safe-conduct is transcendence: 

"... phenomena are partly liberated from their occluded action into some sort of tangible form."

Harman finally reveals the arcanum:

Now you see it: "Überschwung! the "freeing of entities into the clearing where they are encountered." (TB, 91)

Now you don't: "But predictably enough, Heidegger also tells us that beings are never completely transcended, as if they were somehow able to become transparent at a glance." (TB, 91)  

Let's follow now Harman-as-Heidegger, in this tautological platitude:
Thus, whatever contours of objects may be illuminated through Dasein's transcendence, other possibilities remain whatever withdrawn. The objectification of things never offers full monetary equivalent of their dark and silent labor, since no such objectifying can exhaust their reality. "In accordance, with both ways of grounding, transcendence outstrips and withdraws at the same time."
Aber natürlich!

Harman understands he's on shaky ground: "It should be reemphasized that Heidegger is in no position to identify Dasein as the source of transcendence." For being so non-atomic,9 tool-being reminds one of Schrödinger's cat paradox: Accept that the cat is both dead and alive. If you open the box, you see it either dead or alive. As he doubts Dasein's transcendence, Harman inadvertently produces this false dilemma:

"This does not prove that only humans transcend, as if objects surrounding us were only dreary present-at-hand lumps that needed human touch to come to life."

For tool-being sans Dasein, click here (skip to 1:07).  The only problem for Harman mind-experiment is that the toys are not alone. They are being filmed by Pixar's non-toy camera! 

Here is Harman-as-Harman on behalf of the thing, now appealing to pity:
Perhaps entities are actually rendered bland or unidimensional only through their contact with humans. Perhaps instead of liberating objects into a clearing, Dasein is actually guilty of chloroforming the things, of pinning them down like the exterminated moths that bulk up an amateur's private collection. (My italics).
One can tell Harman is no too comfortable with Heidegger's Angst. Why? One can connect the dots of Angst to epiphany: Angst leads to fruition in resolution, which opens up a field for the authentic exercise of freedom. Now, Dasein becomes free from the tyranny of the meaningless domination of the anonymous "they." How will Harman connect Angst to tool being? By displaying nothingness as nothingness? 


Ray Brassier, another speculative realist, and a Harman ally, has a similar point to make about Harman's metaphysics:
It is not enough to evoke a metaphysical distinction between appearance and reality, in the manner for example of object oriented philosophies since the absence of any reliable cognitive criteria by which to measure and specify the precise extent of the gap between seeming and being or discriminate between the extrinsic and intrinsic properties or objects licenses entirely arbitrary claims about the in-itself. For an example of object oriented philosophies see Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things.10
After all is said and done one is left with two options: Either reject Einstein separability (locality) or reject objective reality. Most physicists take a mechanistic explanation of the Bell’s theorem, which results in some violation of locality. The detailed explanation of how one can get to assume that the observer may affect the things observed in quantum mechanics is rather complicated. It needs a summarized explanation of Bell's theorem which cannot be explored here. Yet, the result I want to draw is similar to Pascual Jordan, one of the major early contributors of quantum theory: 
Observations not only disturb what has to be measured, they produce it. . . . We compel [the electron] to assume a definite position. . . . We ourselves produce the results of measurement.11
Quantum mechanics, more than any other mode of measured observation opens the possibility that consciousness is just a euphemism for a participatory constituent of physical reality. Harman ignores this important vector in his tool-being analysis. Dasein, as part of the totality of things, brings forth a different angle to this discussion. When Von Neumann traces the act of observation back to the very edge of our mind, he's doing intraphenomenal Husserlian reduction. Is that undoing Harman’s tool-being and taking us back to point one? Not necessarily. This is more like a Hegelian Aufhebung

Then Harman's motto: consciousness is an intraphenomenon, makes sense but now from the opposite (and forgotten) axis of Dasein's thinking. Consciousness can be approached as an complex & organized form of tool-being, which of course has nothing to do with eliminative and other reductive materialisms. I advance that this is the best way to solve the riddle of correlationism that Harman et. al. pursue so diligently.

All my notes are taken from Graham Harman's Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Open Court, 2002). 1 See Anjan Chakravartty's Metaphysics for Scientific Realism (Cambridge University Press, 2009) p.  23. 2Gene Ray's "Note to On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life." Catalog for an exhibit Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture, December 1992. 3 "A substance is not one kind of entity amongst others, but a way of being belonging to all entities, even those which seem at first to be mere composites." Or, "... since every relation can also be regarded as an entity, the world is jampacked with entities: there is no room for nothing in ontology. (TB, 11).

So, Don Quixote = Cervantes = Pierre Menard = Jorge Luis Borges.

I'm sure Don Quixote (a stubborn Spaniard of the old school) would protest to this leveling. Flooring his world of adventures, imploding imaginary with non-imaginary? That's his business, not ours! Does it matter that Quixote is not Cervantes' author, but instead Pierre Menard? What if Cervantes was "really" a Spanish cross-dresser by the name of Dulcinea?
4 Dasein is always in a state of mind or mood which discloses how it is and how it encounters something that matters in the world. This is fundamental to Heidegger's project. For example spatiality emerges from Dasein's equipmentality because these entities that are ready-to-hand have a place even if it changes from moment to moment. 5 Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (University of California Press, 1998) p. 269-280. 6See Vincent Vycinas Earth and Gods: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger (Martinus Nijhoff, 1961). p. 40. Just as all meaning-contexts point toward Dasein, so the spatiality of the implements is based on the care-taking (the to-be-in) of Dasein. "Encountering the handy things in the space of their surroundings is onticly possible only because the Dasein itself, in respect to its to-be-in-the-world is 'spatial'."  7Event character. Never mind that to properly understand event character one needs to bootstrap it with Heidegger's temporality, which is disqualified by Harman: "You can say what you like, but Heidegger has no theory of time." (Harman's italics, TB, 65). 8Peter Keller, Husserl and Heidegger on Human Experience (Cambridge University Press, 1999). p. 143, 145. 9In a lecture of 1928, Heidegger promised a metaontology as the ontology for which fundamental ontology merely paves the way, taking up the question of the status of entities insofar as they are independent of human existence. Gerry Stahl puts it clearly in his Marx and Heidegger
Even in Being and Times there is a tendency, developed in Heidegger’s later writings, to talk of man as "being there" in a "clearing of Being." This circumstance is prior to the hermeneutic "as" and can perhaps be construed, as follows: Beings are present to people and as present are given with certain meanings. While these meanings are to be attributed to the subjects manifold of signification, the presence of the beings is independent of this subjective hermeneutic sieve, prior to it. "Being" applies to this latter level, as the determination of the character of the presence of beings as given beings in general, not as the determination of the meaning of individual beings or even of the system of their possible meanings. 
The question is not whether Heidegger ever achieved that idea, but whether it is achievable at all, i.e., to presuppose that one can conceptualize being independently of one's conceptualizing.  10 "To withdraw from the context of the world is not to become an atom" (TB, 170). 11 The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek & Graham Harman Ed. (re.press, 2011) p. 51. 12 Evan Harris Walker, The Physics of Consciousness: The Quantum Minds and the Meaning of Life (Perseus Books, 2000). p. 136. Though I disagree with other conclusions of Professor Walker, I agree with this one:  "(...)  The way out of our difficulty, the path we must take now, is to try to understand what was previously rejected. We must recognize that objective reality is a flawed concept, that state vector collapse does arise from some interaction with the observer, and that indeed consciousness is a negotiable instrument of reality. Our entire conception of reality must now be rethought. We stand at the threshold of a revolution in thinking that transcends anything that has happened in a thousand years. Now the observer, consciousness, something self-like or mind-like, becomes a provable part of a richer reality than physics or any science has ever dared to envision."


Lava Arms said...

"The way out of our difficulty, the path we must take now, is to try to understand what was previously rejected. We must recognize that objective reality is a flawed concept, that state vector collapse does arise from some interaction with the observer, and that indeed consciousness is a negotiable instrument of reality. Our entire conception of reality must now be rethought. We stand at the threshold of a revolution in thinking that transcends anything that has happened in a thousand years. Now the observer, consciousness, something self-like or mind-like, becomes a provable part of a richer reality than physics or any science has ever dared to envision."


We have no political affiliation. We are not against the police. we are not against the rich. Seems the best way to describe what we are is to describe what we are NOT! We are not like a book, with a beginning and middle and end, we are like the INTERNET : FREE, unbiased, and involving EVERYONE, RACE, AND CREED. A good book has a great ending. A good inter-net has NO ending.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Lava Arms. I posted in my facebook page.

Anonymous said...

Love it. This is definitely pataphysics!

Anonymous said...

Triff, good arguments though I have a problem with anything that smell of vitalism and I dont know if that's what you are defending.

Anonymous said...

I would have to consider objecting objective reality. If its true that reality can be independent of the mind as it is discussed in the theory of objective reality and that there can be objects unknown to our consciousness, I am not sure how that can be. I do think that items we touch come to life when we touch them. Mainly because we give our own perception of its life and its complexity that can be perceived different to another observer. The theory of quantum mechanics in itself is a tricky subject to discuss as most, including myself are not familiar with it and while I would object objective reality I am not very sure if I would agree with Einstein’s theory of seperability. I think some of his ideas may have been onto something but as he mentioned that the idea of objective reality would be incomplete I think his theories about it are incomplete as well. So what then? I think we would probably continue in limbo wondering about the philosophical aspects of reality? I think so.

Anthony DeCollibus

Ben Kraftchick said...

From my point of view, a reality independent of the mind is a necessary condition to forming a personal reality. Basically, to me reality exists both externally as a tangible framework of constants and internally as interpretations of those constants. In the same sense that the framework is needed to form interpretations, the ability to interpret is needed to perceive the framework in the first place. Thus, one cannot be perceived without the other. At least that's my theory

Feminista said...

Interesting engagement. As I see it and I'm no Heidegger expert, your differences are more because of tool-being's true independece from our awareness? Or am I lost?