Review: The Quadruple Object

Spoiler warning: For those of you still reading The Quadruple Object, this blog post will reveal most of the content, along with my reflections.

It is summer and as the e-mails slowly stop flowing in and I accidentally left my mobile phone in a taxi the time is perfect for reading books that have been on my reading list. Sometimes certain objects need to withdraw from my attention for others, like books, to be able to emerge. So here comes a "blog-review" of Graham Harman's The Quadruple Object. And the blog- prefix means, as usual, that it is work in progress and not a final product. Please comment!

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After having read Harman's Prince of Networks and parts of Tool-being, I felt that The Quadruple Object would be a real treat. I especially found Prince of Networks to be perhaps the most insightful book on Latour's philosophy yet to have been written, as it is both a warm appreciation, simultaneously as it rejects parts of Latour's arguments with great consideration, especially what Harman calls "relationism". I will come back to this point below, since Prince of Networks paradoxically made me more of a relationist than I was before. Having been trained in Science- and Technology Studies for a long time, I guess it becomes more or less a habit to study relations, opening black boxes, and mapping networks. Habits are good to have, but they must every now and then be challenged properly. And The Quadruple Object is certainly one such challenge.

The book opens up with a brief preface where some interesting facts of the writing of the book are presented. For example, Harman clocked every minute of writing, and the book was completed in the impressing 86 hours and 34 minutes. Then comes an introduction where the most basic features of the object oriented ontology are presented. Here we learn that objects are the basic building block not only of our everyday lives, but also should be at the center of philosophy, that also non-physical entities are objects (but they don't have to be equally real), and that later on in the book the fourfold (quadruple) structure of objects will be presented.

But before we can arrive at a model of objects, much of the philosophical terrain needs to be cleared. Being an inventor of concepts, Harman identifies two general obstacles that need to be overcome in order to arrive at objects: "Undermining" and "overmining". To those not familiar with ontology, these concepts should not be confused with over/under-determination, which has a much more epistemological touch to them.

Undermining is basically a form of reductionism, some of which we may perhaps recognize in their clearest form in atomism and physical reductionism (everything is really just atoms). But included in the undermining camp are also varieties of monism, such as the notion of that "behind" all actual manifestations there is a "virtual plane" (perhaps Deleuze and DeLanda can be accused of this). A while ago I found the philosophies of the virtual quite seductive in argument, but my strong commitment to actualism + relationism has made this more and more impossible.

Overmining, on the other hand, is the opposite problem of that reality is something that we perceive, that a world without humans is unthinkable, and all that exists and can be rendered knowledgeable must go through a thinking subject. In chapter 4 this is defined more closely as:

"If we try to think a world outside human thought, then we are thinking it, and hence it is no longer outside thought. Any attempt to escape this circle is doomed to contradiction". This is not just a word trick: it is the tacit or explicit credo of a now lengthy tradition of philosophy that might be called the Philosophy of Human Access. (60-61)

Harman traces the "Philosophy of Human Access" to have originated in Kant, but is still the major view of contemporary thought, including such philosophers as for example Žižek. While agreeing with both the critique of "human (privileged) access" and "correlationism" fully, I simultaneously feel that this is a problem you only need to deal with once you encounter it. And personally I barely ever see Philosophy of Human Access any more. Perhaps this is because I lack proper overview of philosophy, or because the local and very small ontology scene in Sweden regards it as a "90:s" problem.

To me, it is far more interesting when Harman brings in thoughts that were produced outside the Kantian box, for example the passages on occasionalism and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) (who made very interesting contributions, perhaps the first ones, to contagiontology, long before Gabriel de Tarde). While occasionalism still leaves us with the problem of an omnipotent God that grants all causation, Harman makes some brilliant connections with the "inverted occasionalism" in Kant and Hume, where God is replaced with a no less omnipotent human, who is the only entity allowed to define the world.

So far so good. Undermining and overmining with exclusive human access are both counter-productive when you want to approach objects (or for that matter actants, rhizomes or even haecceities, to use some other idioms). But, as I mentioned above, I have a passion for relationism. Here, Harman is very clear:

The only way to do justice to objects is to consider that their reality is free of all relation, deeper than all reciprocity. The object is a dark crystal veiled in a private vacuum: irreducible to its own pieces, and equally irreducible to its outward relations with other things. (47)

In Prince of Networks this is the core problem that Harman finds in Latour. Being absolutely actualist Latour disqualifies of objects that have no relations. They are not real for Latour, since as we know from reading his Irreductions, real is what resists, and that actants necessarily are defined in relations with other actants (and networks). A "private vacuum" would be impossible for a relationist.

In place of relationism, Harman aims for his fourfold object. And he does so with the help of Heidegger and Husserl. I am only familiar with the former of these two. I have barely read a page of Husserls phenomenology, but for one year I read the entire Sein und Zeit with my friends over at the History of Ideas department. In retrospect, I unfortunately read the "humanist Heidegger", the common interpretation, which is surely guilty of the "human access"-problem. The Harman-Heidegger is, on the contrary, and for the better, heavily modified and draws on two manuscripts from 1919 and 1949 that I haven't yet read. This is where the largely neglected passages of the Gevierte is presented, which forms sort of the starting point of the quadruple object.

The Quadruple Object

This is not the place to summarize every step in how the quadruple object is assembled. This is already in the book itself, which is written much like a ladder, going systematically into more and more complexities. A few major characteristics are however necessary to grasp the argument.

First of all, there is a distinction between the real object and the sensual object. Here again, there is a strong claim against relationism - "the reality of objects is never fully deployed in their relations". In fact, real objects is something we can never touch, only sensible objects are "touchable". And, of course, this is nothing like Kant's phaenomena. This goes for all objects, even when no human is present. A chair never touches the real object of the floor, only the sensible object of the floor.

The full fledged quadruple object has four poles: real objects, real qualities, sensual objects and sensual qualities (94, and on the picture above). If I understand this distinction correctly, a real cat-object has real qualities (of swiftness for example, hunting skills etc.). A sensual object would be the cat lurking in the grass. It however has different sensual qualities for me (oh, how cute!) and a mouse (oh, scary!). The scary sensual qualities experienced by the mouse, the tasty qualities that the tick in the grass sees, are withdrawn from me. Yet they are very real. And this initial distinction seems very intuitive. The cat is of course a different object for me and for the mouse, and no matter how much scientific instrumentation I bring along to examine my cat, no scientist would ever say that that would bring out every single feature of it (social, biological, molecular, weight, height, religious symbolism etc.)

This, if read closely, differs a lot from the cat-actant, found in classical actor-network theory. Here me and the cat would have a social relation, it stays with me when I give it food and comfort, I stay with it as long as I think it is cute and not a monster. The tick-and-the-cat-assemblage forms a parasitic network, and the mouse needs to negotiate every day with the cat, pesticides and cheese. But there can be no such thing as a withdrawn cat, human, mouse or piece of cheese. These are all messy components in networks, components that are defined only by their role in the network (or, how they translate interests). It is food for the mouse, a product for farmers, a commodity for humans and perhaps a fertile breeding ground for bacteria. In actor-network theory there is no essence, only translations and inter-definitions of other actants.

But this is only the beginning of the quadruple object. For, as it is fundamental, it also affects such things as time and space: "Time is the name for this tension between sensual objects and their sensual qualities" (100). Now, continuing on the example of the cat, this would mean, that the sensual cat-object lurking in the grass has a specific time in relation to the mouse. How long until it runs away? As the cat and the mouse stare at each other, time is not in seconds and minutes, a continuous flow. Rather it is a sort of event, where time is deadly.

Then we have space: "Space is the tension between concealed real objects and the sensual qualities associated with them" (100). The real cat-object is in the grass and I'm sitting on a chair in the sun. It is hiding there so we have no meaningful relation since I can't see it, but I could go over there for a look and find it. However, looking at it and admiring its cuteness, I still would not exhaust every kind of sensual quality of it (I don't for example have the nervous system of a tick or a mouse).

In relationism, Latour says that every actant invents it own time. Me, the cat and the tick have different times. But there is no such thing as a "withdrawn" sensual quality. To me and my network, the tick-sense does not exist (unless I build a scientific laboratory, collect ticks, investigate them with instruments, write reports in zoology). But for Harman, they are very real without me having to become a zoologist.

Moving on we find two more tensions in the quadruple object: Eidos and essence. "This tension between sensual objects and their real hidden qualities is what Husserl calls the Eidos" (101). If I understand this correctly, the mouse can only see the cat in the grass. But the mouse can for sure know and imagine what would happen if it does not hide properly or run down a hole. It is able to act, even though the cat is still just lurking there. Even though I will probably never experience what it feels like to jump off a bridge, I have some sort of understanding of what will happen to me if I do.

But then comes essence, that horrible word that everyone tries to erase from their dictionaries. This passage is definitely worth a quote, because I think it is one of the best arguments for essence in a long time:

And finally there is the fourth and final tension, never accessible to human experience. I refer to the duel, underway in hidden real things, between the unified real object and its multitude of real hidden features. This tension between the real object and its real qualities has always been called its essence, though traditional realism lacks Heidegger's remorseless sense that the real is entirely withdrawn from all access. (101)

How the real object of the cat has its real quality of swiftness (and maybe thousands of other qualities, but to be a cat is to be swift) is something which we can never directly access, but must remain speculative. We can of course measure it scientifically, or just chase the cat for a while and approximate how fast it runs. But what we encounter then is sensual qualities (even when using instruments), or perhaps if lucky eidos. Not essence.

My first reaction, as an empiricist, is "why invent this strange place of essence if we can't do anything with it"? That reaction may be justified when I'm writing a dissertation and need to get job done. But it is not a justified position for philosophy in general, and especially not for ontology.

After struggling a bit with it, I finally found what disturbed me with this notion of essence. The realness and reality of withdrawn objects, and the essence dimension, is not real enough for me. And then it became clear to me that this is what relationism has been saying all along.

Since I am writing this on my summer holiday outside of the city center, cats and ticks will continue to be my examples, since they are very close to me.

The relation between me and the cat is very dear. I only exhaust a fraction of the cat-object when giving him food, playing with him or, finding him cute while playing with him. On the other hand, I really loathe ticks. I avoid long grass and even though I intellectually understand their role in an eco-system, I sometimes wish for their extinction. Cats and ticks, are able to do a variety of things with me, make me happy or frightened, scratch my skin with claws and infect me with various diseases; or have fine serotonin produced in my brain so I feel happy and laugh (there is a reason for why cats are called LOLcats on the interweb).

Speculatively, the objects are richer when withdrawn. My cat is richer than I can ever exhaust in this way. But the withdrawn object does not do very much, not even to itself. The serotonin in my brain and the disease that I received from the tick (this is fictional, don't worry about my health) exist because of relations with these objects. We could of course argue that these are other objects. But I would argue that serotonin and tick-related diseases are more real because they are "unable" to withdraw. They solely appear in particular relations: Human-cat-assemblage, human-tick-assemblage.

This brings us to scientific objects.

Some remarks of objects in action and uncertainty

We have on the one hand objects which are already there, such as chairs, copper wires, my cat, and trains. But there is another type of of objects, probably the weirdest of them all; scientific objects which are still not here, there, or in any fixed position. This is why Latour's Science in Action is such a thrilling and useful book, and contrary to what Latour himself claims, that it is "tamed for sociologists", I consider it (along with Harman) to be a very important philosophical book.

Indeed, the passage on the train station in Sein und Zeit is brilliantly weird, but it pales, in my opinion, to the first pages of Science in Action when Latour is reverting the black boxes of molecular biology, to a point when it is legitimate to ask "Is it a double helix or a triple helix?". For in these moments, it is not merely a "human" perception waiting to unveil the true nature of DNA, it is a matter of a whole assemblage trying to force "something" to withdraw, to resist their models (and thus become real).

Depending on how the equipment of the laboratory is configured, tweaked and debugged, it was possible to extract several competing models of the structure of DNA some decades ago. But only one survived, not because of human theory, but because of violent struggles among nonhuman entities. To me, the strongest realism is paradoxically found precisely in such moments of uncertainty, even though facts are contested and debated. It takes a lot of relations for the double helix to emerge, and only then are we able to make cyborgs such as onco-mice and Dolly the Sheep. Scientific practice is, when on the cutting edges of work, a "bringer of objects". Perhaps only hacking (as in hacking computers, technology, politics, etc.) is equally entangled in the minute details of objects and their way of functioning and withdrawing, appearing and hiding.

Now, this possibly brings me near "correlationism". After all, what we understand as science is in fact a human activity. But I think we are still able to navigate without falling into that trap. Technology studies and "posthumanism" has been around for decades. Scientific objects are no less real than chairs, bridges or satellites. Not even trees or grass, since most of them are products of human terraformation. And in fact, the split of the atom and the burning of fossile fuels are potentially even changing what is above us in the sky.

Then again, it would be naive for the domains of philosophy only to go where humans have gone. This is the true meaning of antropocentrism, and if "weak antropocentrism" was a Kantian product, relationism could be accused of "strong antropocentrism" if it did not have a speculative object, a term or theory for what we still do not know, still haven't touched and still not exhausted properly with enough efforts (there might even be things going on with cats that we do not know of).

To sum up, The Quadruple Object is a great book. It leaves me with many curious questions (after reading it 1.5 times, more will come), and I still haven't understood completely how the quadruple object works. I would have wanted more examples from uncertain, undecided and dynamic objects from the sciences. But then again, as a theorist of science, I am biased. What I like the most about the book is that it puts the question of realism in a whole new light. For many years I disliked philosophy that claimed to be realist, but only said "out there is the real world, now let us deal with language...". Now, this word has been re-appropriated by real philosophers like Harman, and for that I am very happy.