Manuel DeLanda, Graham Harman: The Rise of Realism

The Rise of Realism Book Cover The Rise of Realism
Manuel DeLanda, Graham Harman
Polity
2017
Paperback €19.02
240

Reviewed by: Mark Losoncz (Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, Belgrade / Novi Sad)

This book presents an enthusiastic dialogue between two contemporary philosophers, Manuel DeLanda and Graham Harman. Neo-materialism and object-oriented ontology face each other as equally inspiring conceptual approaches to the key issues of new realism. One might have thought that DeLanda’s philosophy of dynamic relations and intensities, strongly influenced by Deleuzian concepts, can only be interpreted as a devoted rival of Harman’s philosophy which is very clear, in a partially neo-Aristotelian manner, about the priority of individual-substantial objects. But as the dialogue evolves, we have to realize that things are much more complicated.

So, what binds the interlocutors of this book together? First of all, they needed a common enemy to unite them. Indeed, the enemy has no clear outline – it embraces as different currents and thinkers as social constructivism and Alain Badiou, culturalist pseudo-Marxism and Karen Barad. According to DeLanda and Harman, they can all be brought together under the flag of anti-realism, either because of the denial of a mind-independent cosmos or because of treating human subjectivity as an ontologically outsized (co-)creator of the world. While DeLanda and Harman sometimes present realism as a heretic alternative with respect to mainstream continental trends, they also offer another perspective according to which 20th century continental philosophy can be re-read, at least partially, as a series of realist tendencies. For example, it is claimed that Deleuze is a continental realist, that Husserl’s concept of the object as an invariant form can serve as an inspiration for contemporary realism and that Heidegger’s tool-analysis has also serious realist consequences. Roughly speaking, in continental philosophy, realism is both an excommunicated pseudo-problem and the hidden message of its exciting underground. What is more, Harman does not hesitate to mention the fellow travelers: the speculative realists, Maurizio Ferraris and Markus Gabriel.

Although DeLanda and Harman are careful to emphasize their shared rejection of anti-realism throughout the book, the lines between their respective philosophies are not blurred. Already in the first chapter it is obvious that DeLanda’s neo-materialism cannot easily be reconciled with Harman’s “realism without materialism” which denounces materialism as a reductionist approach, being unable to account for immaterial entities such as fictional characters in novels. From the viewpoint of Harman’s flat ontology, “materialism has often led to premature decisions about what should and should not count as real.” (15) In contrast to this position, DeLanda proposes a material-energetic-informationism that “involves a rejection of entities that transcend the world of patterned matter-energy” (16). This immanentist model gives fiction a less mystifying status by defining it as an emergent property, or, more precisely, as a level of emergence. The first chapter of the book is valuable for several reasons. In particular, it is useful for clarifying the difference between materialism and realism, for being critical of various reductionist approaches (“undermining” / micro-reductionism and “overmining” / macro-reductionism) and for thematizing the dilemma of aprioristic and aposterioristic thinking in philosophy. Furthermore, there is an interesting debate on Aristotelian essences and forms, Harman being sympathetic to these concepts and DeLanda rejecting them on the grounds of his historical-genetic theory of singularities. The critique of Marxism is arguably the worst part of this chapter, especially when DeLanda suggests that Marxists have a “special brand in which a priori schemes of synthesis (the negation of the negation) form the core of their position” (12). It seems almost superfluous to say that this extremely abstract use of the term “Marxism” ignores the rich diversity of classical and contemporary Marxisms, with special regard to those that are highly critical of dialectical categories and the Hegelian legacy of Marx.

The second chapter relies upon Lee Braver’s 2007 book A Thing of This World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism in order to make precise distinctions between realist and anti-realist positions. The key issues are the mind-dependence of the world, truth as correspondence, the possibility of a complete description of the world, the possibility of true and untrue statements, the relationship between knowledge and the knowable, and the claim according to which the human subject has a fixed character. DeLanda and Harman complete Braver’s list with three more problems. The first concerns the question whether the relation of the human subject with the world should be considered a privileged relation for philosophy, the second is whether subjective experience is linguistically structured and the third is about the world as a holistic entity in which everything is inextricably related. One of the most valuable aspects of this chapter is DeLanda’s and Harman’s insistence on defining the concepts of relation and relationism as precisely as possible. While Harman criticizes Whitehead, Latour and Barad for conceptualizing relations without properly taking into consideration the relata that are prior to them, DeLanda emphasizes that we should not accept “intrinsic relations that determine the very identity of what they relate”, but only extrinsic relations (32). The other aspect that deserves special mention is the interlocutors‘ agreement with respect to the impossibility of a complete description of the world. According to the conclusions of object-oriented ontology, Harman claims that “things in the world cannot be converted into bundles of accurate descriptions” (44), that is to say, there is always and necessarily a withdrawal of real objects. On the other hand, by relying on insights from the philosophy of chemistry and fuzzy logic, DeLanda focuses upon the problem of emergence, i.e. of new properties that cannot be reduced to the interactions of already existing entities and that can never be exhaustively described.

The third chapter is by far the richest one. DeLanda and Harman carry on with the topic of realism, but this time by focusing more on the main statements of object-oriented ontology and neo-materialism. It is almost impossible to summarize this chapter as it ranges from the concept of possibility, through the critique of reductionisms, to the ontological status of objects. We would like to underline two important aspects: one concerns essences, and the other is about dispositions. With a strong background in Aristotelian-Zubírian ontology, Harman argues that essences are “salvageable” and that otherwise it would not be possible to interpret objects as consistent entities. Whereas DeLanda claims that the concept of essence is illegitimate and unnecessary, the interlocutors seem to make a compromise by concluding that there is haeccity (“thisness”) that makes objects identifiable. In this context, DeLanda rightly insists on the fact that, according to Deleuzian ontology, the virtual is segmented into distinct actual objects as products. There is another extremely exciting debate on dispositions, i.e. on capacities to affect and being affected. Harman refuses to put dispositions into things and comes to the conclusion that dispositions should be treated as new compound entities that result from interactions between objects. DeLanda elaborates his philosophy of tendencies and capacities in details, with a special emphasis on defining the identity of actual objects as a combination of actual properties and virtual dispositions. In short, DeLanda suggests that we should account for the enduring identity of objects “by the mechanisms of emergence behind the historical genesis and day-to-day maintenance of an object’s identity” (88).

The fourth chapter deals with the question of cognition and experience. The interlocutors seem to agree that “epistemology” is a bad term, either because it implies a dualist ontology that privileges the relation between humans and everything else, or because epistemological debates tend to ignore many kinds of “rightness of fit”, e.g. the know-how dimension of experience. Accordingly, this chapter is very critical of various scientist epistemologies (empiricism, mathematic reductionism, etc.). Harman explains his approach to cognition by stressing the point that certain essential aspects of objects are necessarily withheld or withdrawn and that our access to objects is always mediated by processes of translation. In light of this, he presents his view on the difference between real and sensual objects. DeLanda’s concept of cognition resonates with the object-oriented approach only partially: he emphasizes that “we can use the possibility of future novelty, the imperfect record of past traces, the spatial and temporal scale-dependence of the world’s presentations … to spell … out [the withdrawal of objects]” (103). Similarly to Harman, DeLanda’s theory gives importance to the mechanisms of transformation between real objects and our experiental patterns, but with more attention to the biologic origins of embodied cognition and selective attentional processes. The common ground in this  chapter is the insight that absolute knowledge is impossible, either because of the fundamental withdrawal of objects, or because of the open-ended character of nature and the untraceable aspects the past.

The last chapter articulates conceptual dilemmas with respect to time, space and philosophy of science. Harman equates “real time” with changes in space and defines sensual time as a relational entity that is derivative of the succession of objects. While he seems to accept the irreversibility of sensual time, on the other hand, he claims: “if we consider time as belonging to the real itself, then I guess I’m not a realist about time” (119). DeLanda is strongly opposed to this non-realist philosophy of sensual time and he emphasizes the irreducibility of real time, i.e. the succession of causes and effects by relying upon insights from the theory of relativity. DeLanda also offers a very useful analysis of the concept of intensity. After a longish debate on Latour, the interlocutors debate on the role of knowledge, semantics, falsification and the definition of truth. Harman summarizes the difference between their respective philosophies as follows: 1. while DeLanda privileges dynamic entities, Harman gives importance to the “inertia” of objects; 2. in contrast to the emphasis on the philosophy of science (especially on the philosophy of chemistry) in DeLanda’s philosophy, Harman’s philosophy seems closer to the arts (and for Harman “the exemplar is aesthetics”); 3. while object-oriented ontology focuses on individual-substantial entities, DeLandian neo-materialism offers a detailed conceptualization of outside factors such as phase-spaces and attractors; 4. while Harman puts emphasis on formal causes, for DeLanda it is more important to clarify the role of final causes. DeLanda completes this list with his critique of the object-oriented concept of fundamental withdrawal and Harman’s denial of real time.

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