Terrifying and tedious depths
“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)