A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Toward an Object-Oriented Rhetoric: A Review of Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects and Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things by Graham Harman

Review of Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Open Court, 2002) and Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (Open Court, 2005)

Scot Barnett, Clemson University

Enculturation 7 (2010): http://enculturation.net/toward-an-object-oriented-rhetoric

"To balance our accounts of society, we simply have to turn our exclusive attention away from humans and look also at nonhumans. Here they are, the hidden and despised social masses who make up our morality. They knock at the door of sociology, requesting a place in the accounts of society as stubbornly as the human masses did in the nineteenth century. What our ancestors, the founders of sociology, did a century ago to house the human masses in the fabric of social theory, we should do now to find a place in a new social theory for the nonhuman masses that beg us for understanding."
-Bruno Latour, "Where are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts"

At first glance, some readers may find Latour’s question of the missing masses and the idea of “a few mundane artifacts” having agency and moral authority wildly speculative if not outright anthropomorphic. For Latour, however, making such a claim not only makes good scientific sense; it also (and perhaps more interestingly) serves as a generative impetus for rethinking the very foundations of sociology itself. If scholars (in this case sociologists) could begin to take these missing masses seriously and thus as worthy of sustained scholarly investigation, then, Latour concludes, novel opportunities may flourish for rethinking and refiguring several key disciplinary assumptions—most immediate among them the degree to which social theory has historically privileged human existence over the nonhuman masses that “beg us for understanding.”

In recent years, a number of theorists in rhetoric and composition have in their own ways begun to ask of our field the same question Latour poses to sociology: where are our missing masses? The responses to this question have been numerous and have, in turn, opened our field to a wide range of material objects that, along with language, we have to see as integral to our present understanding of writing as both a practice and an object of inquiry. Among a host of others, these material objects—these missing masses—have included: technology, the body, space and place, and the natural world. Not separate or merely additional constituents in rhetorical situations, these materialities and their intertwinings constitute our reality—are part of the very is-ness of that reality—in ways that fundamentally shape our very senses of what writing means and how we practice and teach writing in the world today. As Jenny Edbauer puts it in her refiguring of the rhetorical situation as what she calls rhetorical ecologies, when thought in terms of this is-ness of materiality, “Writing . . . is more than a matter of discrete elements (audience, a writer, text, tools, ideas) in static relation with one another (a writer types her ideas into a computer for an audience who reads the text). Rather, writing is distributed across a range of processes and encounters: the event of using a keyboard, the encounter of a writing body within a space of dis/comfort, the events of writing in an apathetic/energetic/distant/close group” (13).

Along with other projects such as Nedra Reynolds’s Geographies of Writing, Debra Hawhee’s Bodily Arts, and Paul Prior and Jody Shipka’s use of activity theory in their essay “Chronotopic Lamination,” Edbauer’s rich account of writing as an intensely embodied and situated practice suggests the beginnings of what might be described as a “material turn” in rhetoric and composition. Assuming this is the case, then the timing seems right to continue questioning after our missing masses, and in so doing to consider not only what these missing masses are but also what the question of the missing masses means for rhetoric and composition and what implications it has on how we presently think about writing, rhetoric, and communication more generally. In terms of this latter project, Graham Harman’s recent two-part study on what he calls an “object-oriented philosophy” seems to me distinctly poised at this moment to contribute to our emerging understandings of materiality in rhetoric and composition and, more specifically, to our sense of what it means to question after writing and rhetoric’s materiality in the first place.

Here, in two volumes of richly accessible prose, Harman moves to inaugurate a more widespread and systematic study of objects for his native discipline of philosophy by calling attention to the philosophical lessons that can be learned from the simplest of things: chairs, rocks, clowns, hammers, bridges, and all of the other objects that share and shape our experiences of everyday life. To the extent that it invites readers to ask questions similar to the ones he asks of philosophy, Harman’s work is immediately relevant to current studies of materiality in rhetoric and composition. Indeed, Harman’s work has already gained some traction in the field, informing, for example, Byron Hawk’s efforts in A Counter-History of Composition to rethink technê and invention through posthuman theory, as well as Jennifer Bay and Thomas Rickert’s recent essay in which they adapt Harman’s object-oriented philosophy along with Heidegger’s notion of the fourfold to rhetorical studies of new media platforms such as Facebook. As I discuss in the conclusion of this review, however, the significance of Harman’s work has hardly been exhausted by these important contributions, leaving many opportunities for future researchers to extend Harman’s thinking into the development of a broader and more nuanced rhetorical consideration of the world and our (i.e. human speakers' and writers’) being with others—human and nonhuman alike—in the world.

The two volumes comprising Harman’s discussion of object-oriented philosophy, Tool-Being and Guerilla Metaphysics, develop an ontology of objects that, among other things, serves to expand philosophy’s horizons to allow for investigations of things other than human consciousness and perception. As Harman puts it in Guerrilla Metaphysics, “Once we give up the notion . . . that philosophy should deal only with the conditions of possibility of objects or of human access to them, everything changes. From that moment on, every aspect of our experience, from the simplest motion of dogs and waiters to our dealings with ruined glass, wire, and cardboard in a garbage dump, begins to bear witness to a genuine metaphysical event” (179-80). This metaphysical event as Harman envisions it runs fundamentally against the grain of both current analytic and continental philosophies insofar as it suggests the possibility—indeed the actuality, he would say—of objects existing in their own rights, and as such having relations and adventures with other objects regardless of whether these adventures are directly observable or accessible to human consciousness or perception.

One of the central contributions of Harman’s object-oriented philosophy, then, concerns its tendency to question the often unstated and thus undisputed assumption in philosophical thought that privileges human existence over and beyond almost anything else. Even in seemingly object friendly movements such as phenomenology, which in the early decades of the twentieth century famously promised to direct philosophy’s attention back to “the things themselves,” Harman locates lingering preoccupations with the human and how phenomena such as a burning piece of paper shows itself to human consciousness. While phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty provide points of entry for a consideration of the things themselves and therefore an initial ontology of objects, more often than not, Harman argues, they end up imagining objects solely as phenomena or “appearances” whose philosophical significance matters only insofar as their appearances bear on one’s immediate experience of and relations with objects under consideration. In contrast to this view, “object-oriented philosophy holds that the relation of humans to pollen, oxygen, eagles, or windmills is no different in kind from the interaction of these objects with each other” (GM 1). Thus, for Harman, an object such as a circus tent “is neither a phenomenon nor any set of phenomena, but a real force throwing its weight around in the world and demanding to be taken seriously . . . The tent itself is an object, not a phenomena” (17, emphasis original).

This said, Harman nevertheless maintains that despite its apparent human-centricity, phenomenology still has much to offer object-oriented thinkers. Indeed, Harman even goes as far as to suggest that at least one of phenomenology’s principle adherents, Martin Heidegger, actually comes closest to acknowledging the ontology of objects and in so doing opening philosophy’s doors wide to the world’s vast carpentry of things. Thus in Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects, Harman sets out, through lucid and at times hilarious analyses, to explore the challenges and possibilities Heidegger’s well-known tool-analysis in Being and Time poses for the study of objects and their ontology today. In this analysis, Heidegger famously introduces the hammer as an illustration of the ways objects (or equipment, as Heidegger prefers) encounter human beings differently depending on the structures of attention they bring to objects. On the one hand, Heidegger says, the hammer may assume a status of unconscious usefulness for the user—what he terms ready-to-hand (Zuhandenheit)—while on the other it may present itself more conspicuously, as in cases when the hammer breaks or goes missing—a state Heidegger refers to as presence-at-hand (Vorhandenheit). Throughout his tool-analysis, Heidegger tends to privilege readiness-to-hand over “mere” presence-at-hand, in large part because, as his overall project in Being and Time attempts to establish, the question of Being and its forgetting in contemporary thought can only be revived through our (i.e. human Dasein’s) attunement to Being’s essential withdrawal, its necessary concealment from human consciousness that paradoxically sets the stage for the possible unconcealment of Being Heidegger locates in human activities such as poetry, thinking, and art.

According to Harman, most readings of Heidegger and the tool-analysis tend to follow this view and Heidegger’s own lead “in regarding human Dasein as the biggest star in the theater” (TB 1), assuming along with Heidegger “that only human being is filled with riddles, as if only Dasein were irreducible to traditional categories” (19). Swimming against the current of such readings, Harman instead maintains that the real breakthrough in Heidegger’s tool-analysis has nothing to do with human being as such but rather concerns the “fresh ontology of objects” (288) Heidegger unwittingly opens the door to in his discussions of hammers, chairs, desks, and bridges. “Far from the insipid physical bulks one imagines,” objects are, in Harman’s terms, “already aflame with ambiguity, torn by vibrations and insurgencies equally those found in the most tortured human moods” (22). (Although Tool-Being and Guerilla Metaphysics are intentionally written for a wider academic audience in addition to those versed in the nuances of contemporary philosophy, readers unfamiliar with Heidegger’s ontology of Being may find Harman’s short introduction, Heidegger Explained: From Phenomenon to Thing, helpful as either as preface or an accompaniment to their reading of his object-oriented philosophy.)

As Harman’s interpretation aims to demonstrate, at the moment Heidegger’s tool-analysis introduces the possibility of tools withdrawing from conscious consideration into an invisible background of manifold assignments, it does much more than clarify yet another condition of human Dasein. It also, and more radically, expands the Heideggerian concept of Being such that its “dual structure [of revealing and concealing] belongs to every entity, and is not a statement about the ups and downs of human activity” (TB 4, emphasis original). When taken to its logical end, in other words, the tool-analysis, albeit somewhat accidentally, ultimately proposes that being cannot belong to human existence alone but must also constitute and inform the existence and adventures of all entities in the world, be they politicians, clowns, rocks, sea turtles, or tents. The major aim for Tool-Being, therefore, is to make this case and to work through the implications of such an argument, which, as Harman shows, ultimately leads to an ontology of objects comprised entirely of what he calls “tool-beings”—entities, biological and otherwise, that exist in isolated states of withdrawal from other tool-beings. As a result of this withdrawing, no tool-being, he stresses, “ever exhausts the reality of another, never makes contact with the darkest residues of its heart” (283). Instead, every object resides in its own “vacuum-sealed actuality” so that when it finally encounters other objects (as a flame encounters a piece of paper), it does so without managing to fully exhaust the ontological essence of the other (the flame, in other words, only encounters the paper by way of its flammability, never as paper itself, which includes, among other things, its capacities to store and disseminate information).

If Tool-Being attempts to chart the ways all objects or tool-beings (both human and nonhuman) “recede from all relations” (GM 75) into worlds of vacuum-sealed actuality, then Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things attempts to demonstrate how these vacuums ultimately manage to interact and communicate with one another. Objects, after all, can’t exist completely independent of other objects. If they did, nothing would ever happen: rocks would never erode under the pressures of a raging river and houses would never sink into the grounds upon which we build them. Harman’s solution to these obvious instances of relationality is to introduce into his object-oriented philosophy the notion of “vicarious causation,” which he describes as “the medium” or glue “between objects . . . that makes possible the entire carpentry of things” (91). As in his use of Heidegger in Tool-Being, Harman builds his conception of vicarious causation in Guerrilla Metaphysics out of phenomenology, in this case out of the “carnal” phenomenologies of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Emmanuel Levinas, and Alphonso Lingis (who, it’s worth mentioning, was Harman’s mentor and who in his own work also grapples with the many of the ideas associated with object-oriented philosophy). For Harman, these carnal phenomenologists—while ultimately betraying the human-centric bias noted above—help draw philosophy’s attention to objects’ sensual qualities and our experiences of them, even as they acknowledge at the same time that “the sensual world is packed full with elements pressed up against each other, like vacuums or bubbles of reality somehow engaged in mutual influence without direct contact” (161).

The idea of vicarious causation therefore attempts to account for the obvious point that objects or tool-beings eventually come into relation with one another, whether purposefully or through accidental collisions. For Harman, these instances of contact and relation are both helpful and necessary for developing a more complete object-oriented philosophy. On the one hand, attending ontologically to the collisions of objects in the world furthers our understanding of the vacuous actuality of individual tool-beings and their ultimate inexhaustibility within all relations. On the other hand, putting objects into movement and relation with other objects opens the explanatory potential of object-oriented philosophy to the emergence of new objects that invariably follow from these interactions. So, for example, when the rock mentioned above encounters the river, its involvement with the river—which, of course, never fully exhausts the ontological essence of the river’s “river-being”—sets into motion the production of a new object: a river-rock-being, or, to put it less metaphysically, sediment, which itself now becomes a tool-being in its own right, primed to collide with other tool-beings in the constant refrain of collision and production that constitutes life in all its average everydayness.

These accidental collisions of tool-beings and the subsequent production of new tool-beings may, at first glance, seem wildly beyond anything resembling rhetoric, writing, or communication. In Guerrilla Metaphysics, however, Harman offers some possible ways of linking these ideas to long-standing topics of interest in rhetoric and composition. In a wide-reaching and inventive reading of metaphor, for example, Harman takes what might be described as the first step toward developing an “object-oriented rhetoric.” Within the object-oriented philosophy he proposes, metaphor acquires unique potential for thinking the problematic relationship between otherwise autonomous tool-beings and their presentations in language. Working within José Ortega y Gasset’s now mostly forgotten essay on metaphor, Harman suggests that the metaphoric nature of language “is a process of digging away at this inwardness of things and attempting the ultimately hopeless task of bringing it to light” (105). Unlike literal language, which rarely acknowledges the subterranean mysteries of objects, metaphor, according to Harman, manages—despite its inevitable failure—to gesture toward the actuality of objects and their ultimate inexhaustibility by other objects brought into relation with them. So the metaphor “the cypress is a flame” serves both to draw our attention to the essential natures of the cypress and the flame (producing what Harman describes as a feeling-thing of cypress-flame) and to accent the inevitable limits of our abilities to fully mine the depths of their individual mysteries and represent them completely in language.

For Harman, then, the project of object-oriented philosophy involves two key moves: first, the recognition of the ontology of individual objects or tool-beings and their perpetual withdrawal from other objects in the world; and second the attunement to the reality and implications of these objects coming into relation with one another and how those relations in turn produce new objects whose depths, like any other object, can never be fully known or expressed in language. As Harman colorfully characterizes this two-part move in one of many metaphors scattered throughout Tool-Being and Guerilla Metaphysics:

The universe resembles a massive complex made up of numerous caverns, outer walls, alleyways, ladders, and subway systems, each sealed off from the others and defining its own space, but with points of access or passage filled with candles and searchlights that cast shadows into the next. The cosmos is similar to a rave party in some abandoned warehouse along the Spree in East Berlin, where the individual rooms are each surprisingly isolated from all external sources of music, flashing lights, perfumed odors, and dominant moods—but in which it is quite possible to move from one space to the next, and in which the doorways are always flooded with faint premonitions and signals of what is to come. (GM 233)

As is the case with other theorists associated with object-oriented philosophy or speculative realism, as it is also known (e.g. Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Quentin Meillassoux, Alphonso Lingis, and Bruno Latour), Harman’s overall goal in this two-part study is to rattle the foundations of post-Kantian philosophy and in so doing displace the human’s privileged position in the philosophical scheme of things. Like many theorists of materiality in rhetoric and composition, Harman invites readers to imagine objects as much more than just passive resources for human use and consumption. In contrast to this commonplace instrumental understanding, he proposes a different vision of objects—and indeed the world itself—that is highly dramatic and prone to exciting collisions and ontological adventures that don’t necessary need the consciousness of human beings to carry on as they do.

In addition to his insightful readings of metaphor, humor, and perception that bear directly on long-standing interests in rhetoric and composition, Harman’s object-oriented philosophy can also offer scholars in the field opportunities to further examine material rhetorics within what Quentin Meillassoux describes as “the world without us.” As Harman writes in his most recent book on Latour and metaphysics, “Rhetoric has as much power as argument in establishing new paradigms in both science and philosophy . . . [f]or rhetoric deals with veiled background assumptions rather than explicit dialectical figures” (PN 175-6). If, as suggested here, rhetoric is distinctive precisely because of its capacity to attune human beings to the veiled backgrounds and subterranean worlds constituting being and relations in everyday life, then it may well be the case that rhetoric is itself already object-oriented in the way Harman understands objects. For rhetoricians, therefore, the challenges and opportunities at stake in developing an object-oriented rhetoric are—and should be—quite significant. At the very least, the idea of an object-oriented rhetoric compels us to re/consider the very nature of rhetoric itself and to think carefully through the implications our missing masses suggest about rhetoric as both a human art and an ontological condition potentially operable alongside human beings in the world’s vast and inexhaustible carpentry of things.

Works Cited

Bay, Jennifer and Thomas Rickert. “New Media and the Fourfold.” JAC 1/2.28 (2008): 209-244. Print.

Brassier, Ray. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

Edbauer, Jenny. “Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 35.4 (2005): 5-24. Print.

Grant, Iain Hamilton. Philosophies of Nature After Schelling. London: Continuum, 2008. Print.

Harman, Graham. Heidegger Explained: From Phenomenon to Thing. Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2007. Print.

---. Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. Melbourne, Australia: re.press, 2009. Print.

Hawhee, Debra. Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece. Austin: U of Texas P, 2005. Print.

Hawk, Byron. A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2007. Print.

Latour, Bruno. “Where are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts.” Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Eds. Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law. Cambridge: MIT P, 1992. 225-258. Print.

Lingis, Alphonso. The Imperative. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1998. Print.

Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. Trans. Ray Brassier. London: Continuum, 2008. Print.

Prior, Paul and Jody Shipka. “Chronotopic Laminations: Tracing the Contours of Literate Activity.” Writing Selves/Writing Societies: Research from Activity Perspectives. Eds. Charles Bazerman and David R. Russell. Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse and Mind, Culture, and Activity. http://wac.colostate.edu/books/selves_societies/prior/.

Reynolds, Nedra. Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.