Popping up on the blog-dar today: Graham Harman was at Rice University yesterday…

“Harman’s [Lovecraft tinged] philosophy [the OOO variety of the new Speculative Realism] does not distinguish categorically between humans and nonhuman or life and matter. Drawing on Heidegger, Harman extends phenomenology’s account of the relation between human beings and the world to objects and the relations among objects.”

No video. But here’s a Dec 2013 talk by Harman I found, so decide what it all means for yourself…


I mostly fail to see the usefulness or point of modern academic philosophy, possibly because I’m not trained in it but also because its hair-splitting concerns seem so utterly arcane. But for my own amusement I’ve just attempted at a quick translation of the above-linked Wikipedia page section. At first glance Harman’s core ideas seem to me rather like a standard semiotics framework, shunted sideways into the language and categories of contemporary philosophy. Here’s what I can make out, in as plain an English as I can manage…

* Real physical objects are made up of complex combinations of objects, sub-objects, materials, and forces.

* Real physical objects exist amid complex landscapes of other real objects and physical forces.

* Amid such ramifying complexity, most humans find it useful to imbue a real physical object with a shorthand mental caricature of it.

* We use these shorthand mental caricatures to engage with real physical objects, just as much as we use our eyes / fingers / ears.

* These shorthand mental caricatures about objects exist and operate within culture and language, where they tend to interbreed and mutate over time.

So, let’s try that on a real world instance: a suspension bridge across water can be both a real physical object and a cultural form. The bridge is imagined and designed, and as such it is undoubtedly a cultural form. Yet once constructed, the bridge is also undoubtedly a real physical object. Yet the real bridge rapidly becomes a shorthand mental caricature, part of a more complex symbolic landscape of nation, city, travel, speed, ambition, work and commerce, structural elegance, the alluring sublimity of weather and light at play over a large human structure, etc. But this complex web of symbolic meaning is not enough to keep the bridge aloft: since we only wish to actually cross the bridge if it can be shown to rest on immutable and objectively-real laws of physics and geometry. In this sense the bridge also rests in part on the accumulated historical labour of many human minds, those special men who in the past discovered the countless correct object-combinations needed to build such a bridge. The bridge also replicates itself physically into the future, as designers and engineers are inspired by it to create new structures elsewhere. Poets and artists may likewise develop the bridge’s symbolic meanings, long after it has been dismantled or has fallen into the river and decayed to rust, weakened by the implacable web of objects and forces — weather, wind, waves, tide, rain, human use and neglect/repair, accident, barnacle attack — in which the bridge was placed.

I’ve not looked in any depth at the new Lovecraft-inspired philosophy before, but (judging by Wikipedia and a video, and some vague memories of a couple of book reviews) one of the most interesting things the OOO variety of speculative realism appears to ask is: what happens when real objects autonomously interact and recombine? Especially when objects are able to autonomously develop interactions that lie beyond human symbolic meanings (perhaps initially via some kind of embedded generative/emergent semantic artificial intelligence, I’m guessing?) Thus OOO seems relevant to autonomous generative emergence in nature (the wheeling flight of many flocking birds, complex weather systems, population dynamics over time, and even weirdly unknowable deep earth-crust ecologies), and also to autonomous emergence in new human technologies (AI singularities, unstoppable grey nano-slime, online bot ecologies, etc). Most of which emerge relatively independent of us, and appears to care little or nothing for us.

Hence Lovecraft, presumably: unspeakable knowledge about unknowable realities; the cosmic indifference exhibited by nature and time, in terms of the fate of man; the arcane trajectories of unfeeling inhuman conspiracies; and the frailty of the human mind when faced with knowledge that such things can exist without reference to us.