Bruno Latour, Graham Harman, Levy Bryant, Materialism, Object Oriented Ontology, Peter van Ingwagen

materialism without materials (or; clouds are elementary particles arranged cloudwise)

The most common misunderstanding about object-oriented ontology is probably that it entails a rigid materialism. Since it talks of ‘materials’ and often does this with reference to ‘beings’ it seems not unfair to label it as a contemporary ‘materialist ontology’ (reminiscent of both Lucretius’ atoms and different Marxist positions). And a title like Material Beings would probably count as a good candidate for any object-oriented publication.
 Actually, there is a book, by Peter van Ingwagen, that is called ‘Material Beings’. Is he, a University of Notre Dame metaphysician, an object-oriented philosopher then? In brief, he argues that all material objects are made up of elementary particles, such that random everyday objects do in fact not exist; they are abstractions of a certain arrangement of elementary particles. As Van Ingwagen puts it, where it seems that there is a table, there are just elementary particles arranged tablewise. Importantly, an everyday abstraction like a table does not count as an object and thus, given materialist rigor, does not exist. They, perhaps give the impression that we are allowed to talk of an object, but we are not; tables are like a or on pair with a pack of wolves – we refer to it as a single object or entity, but for Van Ingwagen they are mere abstractions. This allows him to focus on objects and nothing but objects. So, he seems quite object-oriented to say the least.

Actually, he is not. And the fact that such a figure as Van Ingwagen is not relates to the fact that object-oriented ontology is having a hard time to free itself of the ‘accusation’ of materialism as well as to the justified question; ‘what exactly is the meaning of materialism’? I totally agree with both Levi Bryant’s and Ian Bogost’s (see here and here); materialism seems to be everywhere these days (‘new materialism’, ‘neo-materialism’ etc. etc.) but it is questionable what it actually comes down to.

In his article ‘I am also of the opinion that materialism must be destroyed’ Graham Harman distinguishes between two forms of materialism that, although adopting opposite strategies, both paradoxically end up losing what they thought to argue for; materials, individual objects. ‘Ground floor’ materialism consists of the attempt to dissolve all objects into an underlying structure (‘reductive materialism’) and ‘first floor’ materialism considers objects to be mere fictions posited behind all appearances (presumably best characterized as inevitably leading to correlationism). Harman’s own position, then, is to argue that the whole of philosophy needs to be rebuilt from the individual objects themselves. This, as such, does not exhaust the possible disagreements Harman could be involved in – given the fact that Bruno Latour would, at least in science studies be regarded as a rigid or at least strategic materialist (in this sense he is what Jane Bennett would be, would she be doing fieldwork) but in the end does seem to give up the individual object and emphasize its relations instead. In any sense, a ‘relational materialist’ still falls prey to Harman’s critique; for Latour, and perhaps also others, reduces the object to its relations without ascribing this (possibility of the) act of relating to the individual object. Instead he makes ‘relations/relating’ as such into an ontological principle-in-action. This, however, does not only drag Latour into discussions on epistemology (his new idea of ‘multirealism’ and modes of existence actually made me like Popper (o.k. perhaps for no longer than two seconds..), i.e. it made me reduce his beautiful article to the question of ‘how do we actually come to know that these multiple realities are so real and how do we distinguish between degrees of existence) but also on realism – discussions he probably would not want to be part of. More importantly Harman’s account shows that figures such as Van Ingwagen are, in fact, hardcore ‘reductionist materialist’ – given that he is constantly seeking to reduce objects (packs of wolves, swarm of bees, chairs, tables, neutrinos etc.) to some identical, underlying ‘stuff’. Realism, then, proves a better term than ‘materialism’ given the fact that it always has this sense of surprise or wildness to it.


2 thoughts on “materialism without materials (or; clouds are elementary particles arranged cloudwise)

  1. Pingback: Materialism Without Materials « Larval Subjects .

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