Voyou Désœuvré

“You are doubtless like myself, you all have the same terrifying and tedious depths,” ads without products quotes Flaubert, reminding me of something in Graham Harman’s Guerilla Metaphysics:

In addition to being charmed by objects, we ourselves want to emulate them, and wish to charm the world. It is simply not the case that our fundamental wish is to be viewed as dignified free subjects with a chance to speak at the microphone of the universal assembly…. The kind of recognition we would prefer is always far more specific, since we often feel ourselves to be so painfully mutable that any specific role will do…. The one book that all of us would approach with greatest interest, that no human in history would be able to resist opening, would be a book of anecdotes about ourselves as told by other people. The appeal of such a book would not lie in some sort of grotesque human vanity, but in our wish to be something definite, a desire at least as great as our desire to be free. There is a profound need to escape the apparently infinite flexible subjectivity within, which feels far more amorphous to us than to anyone else.

Contrary to the usual view, what we really want is to be objects.

I do like Harman’s description of the “painful mutability” of subjectivity. This pain is compounded by the illusion that we are the only people to experience this mutability: so often everyone else seems to be exactly themselves, with the terrifying and tedious depths confined to ourselves alone. Would it be wrong to see this as one of the ways in which we experience the existence of inaccessible depths in objects?

Experiencing the existence of an object’s inaccessible depths (not, of course, experiencing the depths themselves, otherwise they wouldn’t be inaccessible) is part of  the main problem that animates Guerilla Metaphysics, of reconciling the inaccessibility of objects with their evident interactions with one another. Now, when I see an apparent contradiction like this, my first thought is always “it’s dialectical, innit,”  though I imagine dialectics seems like a nonstarter for Harman, for at least two reasons. The standard thesis/antithesis/synthesis dialectic is what Harman calls an “overmining” position, in that it would reduce any object that appears in it to a mere moment of the final synthesis. Worse, this synthesis occours preeminently between subject and object,  or, rather, between subject and itself mediated by objects; that is, dialectics privileges the human/object relation to such an extent that objects disappear entirely (the opposite of object-oriented philosophy).

However, I don’t think these are necessary features of dialectics, and I wonder what would happen if one attempted to do for Hegel what Harman does for Heidegger, expanding his notion of the relationship between subject and object to encompass the relations of objects to objects. I think you might get something like Marx. This might seem to go against the early Marx’s purported humanism, but his humanism is of a very particular sort in any case, not being about the deification of man, but the integration of humans and nature, which is not so far from an object-oriented idea of humanity existing alongside (rather than ontologically separate from) non-human objects. This appears in the young Marx’s discussion of private property, which he claims is problematic not just because it opposes the humanity of humans, but also because it fails to respect the thingness of things:

Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it – when it exists for us as capital, or when it is directly possessed, eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc., – in short, when it is used by us….

The abolition of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities, but it is this emancipation precisely because these senses and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human. The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object…. They relate themselves to the thing for the sake of the thing, but the thing itself is an objective human relation to itself and to man. (“Private Property and Communism,” Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts)

Now, this idea of objects being objects for human beings looks like it privileges humanity; however, Marx extends this idea to all objects, in that an object is an object when it is an object for another object:

To be objective, natural and sensuous, and at the same time to have object, nature and sense outside oneself, or oneself to be object, nature and sense for a third party, is one and the same thing.Hunger is a natural need; it therefore needs a nature outside itself, an object outside itself, in order to satisfy itself, to be stilled. Hunger is an acknowledged need of my body for an object existing outside it, indispensable to its integration and to the expression of its essential being. The sun is the object of the plant – an indispensable object to it, confirming its life – just as the plant is an object of the sun, being an expression of the life-awakening power of the sun, of the sun’s objective essential power. (“Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy in General,” Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts)

Here we have a picture of aleatory objects, with a shimmering and contingent existence as they become objects for further objects. I think Harman would probably find such a position too relational; nonetheless, it does seem to me to be a position that neither subsumes objects into something else, nor subordinates them to humans, too key features of object-oriented philosophy. It’s also interesting to discover that Marx shared Harman’s dislike of subject-centered critique:

“Criticism” is transformed into a transcendental being. These Berliners do not regard themselves as men who criticise, but as critics who, incidentally, have the misfortune of being men…. This criticism therefore lapses into a sad and supercilious intellectualism. Consciousness or self-consciousness is regarded as the only human quality. Love, for example, is rejected, because the loved one is only an “object”. Down with the object. This criticism thus regards itself as the only active element in history. It is confronted by the whole of humanity as a mass, an inert mass, which has value only as the antithesis of intellect. It is therefore regarded as the greatest crime if the critic displays feeling or passion, he must be an ironical ice-cold sophos. (Marx to Ludwig Feuerbach, August 11, 1844)


  1. echeneida, 3:04 pm, August 13, 2009

    Yeah I’ve been thinking the exact same things (especially that a materialist dialectic does for Hegel what Harman does for Heidegger), but how can an object not be subsumed into others in a relational ontology? Harman’s pretty sure that it necessarily must be; I’m not convinced, but I don’t have an answer for him.

  2. voyou, 1:28 pm, August 14, 2009

    I haven’t really grappled with Harman’s arguments against relational ontologies, so I don’t have an answer here either. My general thought is that, if you’re going to say a relational ontology subsumes objects into something else, you need to say what it subsumes them into, and I don’t see what that would be in a hypothetical object-oriented reading of Marx. You could say that a relational ontology ends up depending on some idea of a totality of relations to which anything else is subordinate, but that doesn’t strike me as an especially convincing argument.

  3. planomenology.wordpress.com/, 7:04 pm, August 14, 2009

    Excellent post! It’s somewhat ironic that the Flaubert quote did it, as Harman has expressed extraordinary loathing for Flaubert on his blog…

    I’m working on a response, though I’ll likely post it over at my site, it’ll be a bit long.

  4. N. Pepperell, 7:39 pm, August 14, 2009

    No time to comment in any detail unfortunately – but just wanted to say ‘yes’ to the characterisation of Marx… :-) For what it’s worth… ;-)

  5. andrew osborne, 6:02 am, August 15, 2009

    Thanks. Nice quotes.

    I’ve been wondering for a while if anyone would place object-orientated theory alongside Marx’s materialism. It could be a profitable endeavour. If I remember correctly Marcuse certainly writes about object-object relations when tackling Hegel’s Logic, but how succesfully I’m unsure.

    Obviously, the mysterious and phenomenal commodity is obscured for reasons different to the two-fold character of objects in Graham’s analysis, yet there seems to be an overlap of sorts. And it strikes me that whilst Marx and Engels’ materialism might be an insufficent ‘science’, it is laudable for many other reasons and could benefit from being supplemented with a more rigourous understanding of objects.

  6. Jamie Burns, 9:36 am, August 15, 2009

    For what it’s worth, I think Harman is the exact opposite of Marx in always all possible ways. I’d like to note that your citations from Marx are carefully selected and are almost all from early Marx. I find it hard to believe that Marx would be in favor of Harman’s object-orientation, or “objectification” in any interpretation.

    I know that it is customary in the this corner of blogosphere to praise Harman for his wit and originality, but anyone who has ever read a page of his ego-centric “philosophy” blog can probably tell that book “that all of us would approach with greatest interest” is in fact only an ideal for Harman himself as most people are not in favor of being objectified, especially those who in fact have been objectified for a long time (women, minorities, non-whites, disabled, etc etc) – Harman’s object-oriented approach is not only mostly nonsensical, but also seems to be politically irresponsible and even dangerous.

    Well, I suppose I am just being a “troll” here or is it a “vampire”?

  7. Paul Ennis, 8:14 am, August 16, 2009

    @Jamie: I think you might get a kick or a tumour depending on how you take my opinion on precisely this issue in the following blog post: http://anotherheideggerblog.blogspot.com/2009/08/speculative-capitalists.html

    Here are the relevant quotes:

    ”I stubbornly hold the opinion that philosophy has nothing whatsoever to tell the world about ethical issues. I’ve seen the horror this standpoint has generated in the past. In particular Marxists consider it a betrayal of the contemporary philosophical project. I do not mean to be provocative when I say this, but Marx over-extended philosophy when he thought it could change the world for the better. I agree with Zizek up to a point: the point is to interpret. One of the best things about reading Graham Harman is the absence of the political. I like my metaphysics politically disinterested.”


    ”Might I sneakily suggest that object oriented philosophy is the perfect philosophy for capitalism (and I say this not in a negative sense since I am politically neutral). In a way this would be a kind of maturity in that philosophy will have come to terms with the stick. On the other hand for many people it might be seen as too close for comfort, but we’re not trying to affirm the critical stance in speculative realism. Quite the opposite. Watch out for speculative capitalists. It’s all in the name baby.

    I would stress that I’m not actually all that interested in Marxism V Capitalism per se so much as the interesting divides it seems to prop up between philosophers. Personally I have no idea what the appeal of politics is to anyone.

    Nick Srnicek makes the following claim in a recent interview:

    ”Do we really need another analysis of how a cultural representation does symbolic violence to a marginal group?”

    In most of the interviews I’ve conducted with the speculative realists there seems to be a divide between Marxists who dig the materialist possibilities offered by SR and the fairly disinterested political vibe from the object oriented guys.

    I’m pretty sure every philosophical movement in history since Marx has played a variation on this theme out.

  8. voyou, 12:49 am, August 17, 2009

    It’s true that all my quotes are from the early Marx, because that’s what I happen to have been reading at the moment, but I think it would be interesting to think about the later Marx as an object-oriented philosopher, too. I’m not so sure, andrew, that “the mysterious and phenomenal commodity” is so far removed from Harman’s objects; his way of describing autonomous objects frequently reminds me of Marx’s table that “stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas.”

    For a long time I’ve been suspicious of the interpretation of commodity fetishism that equates use-value with good, and supposedly illusory exchange-value with bad (an interpretation that seems to miss so much of what’s going on in chapter 1 of Capital), and object-oriented philosophy might allow for an interpretation of Capital in which commodities would be, as autonomous objects, liberated from the realm of necessity as part of the same movement that liberates humans from that realm.

    So, Jamie, I’m not sure I agree with your moralizing objection to objectification – after all, a commitment to the philosophy of the subject didn’t prevent a whole raft of modern thinkers from contributing to the objectification of women and people of color. The main group of people I know of working on this question are the scholars associated with the Carribbean Philosophical Association, who, like Harman, start from an unorthodox reading of phenomenology. As far as I know, these two groups of dissident phenomenologists haven’t come into much contact, but I’d be interested to find out what would happen if they did.

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