A philosopher, a biologist, a rhetorician, and an anthropologist walk into a bar to discuss The Quadruple Object.[i] The philosopher says, “It’s not Heidegger.” The biologist says, “He’s discovered the scientific method.” The rhetorician says, “I thought metaphysics was dead.” And the anthropologist asks, “Is this a mandala?”
What follows is neither a summary of, nor belated initial response to Graham Harman’s The Quadruple Object (2011). That moment has passed. Though many readers didn’t quite grasp the book, the critical theoretical community has been experimenting with Harman’s key terms in various contexts. This is because much of the work is compelling and memorable, though the whole is a little obscure. I will use the comic scenario in my opening as a point of departure for discussing some stumbling blocks in The Quadruple Object, before arguing that the text deserves to be revisited and reconsidered. I assume a basic familiarity with the text. (The uninitiated should begin here; I’ve also recently posted a summary of Harman’s fourfold here.)
“It’s not Heidegger.“ Yes, this book isn’t about Heidegger. The Quadruple Object is not a reading, let alone a close reading, of any philosopher, and Harman makes no claims to that effect. This may be a stumbling block for the academic community, however, because the book is famously based on Harman’s Tool-Being which is about Heidegger (though not Heidegger). Revisiting even a few sections of Heidegger will confirm that The Quadruple Object is not Heidegger, not altogether a bad thing. Nevertheless, The Quadruple Object effectively directs our attention to Heidegger, and some of the best parts.
Comparing TQO[ii] to the scientific method may not be a misreading. Bacon, Locke, and Hume, fathers of empiricism, were far from naïve about access to objects. Bacon and Locke, more tentative in their assertions than Hume, might not only grasp, but also deeply appreciate Harman’s new fourfold. Bacon’s Idols foreground perception without bracketing reality, for example, and Locke struggled to balance under-standing with a desire to grasp things. The work of these philosophers has little to do with contemporary materialism and positivism, however. Harman is not a materialist, which is confusing since he critiques idealism (and some readers might assume a two-party system). Nor is he a positivist, though his engagement with metaphysics and “the real” may throw off those of us raised on critiques of essentialism.
This brings us to the rhetorician. In the 1990’s critical theorists repeatedly announced the death of metaphysics. This was confusing because every theoretical “death” was hailed as a distinct event. But, as I recall, the late twentieth-century complaint with metaphysics wasn’t so much philosophical (read, phenomenological) as ethical. At the birth of identity politics, essences, meta-narratives, and transcendent values were generally frowned upon, with good reason. This is not to say that Harman’s metaphysics are categorically insensitive to race, class, and gender, all of which may be productively understood as quadruple objects. However, metaphysics is a stumbling block, and in this book Harman appears unaware of the not entirely stale critiques (though he gestures to them in the Introduction to Guerilla Metaphysics). Moreover, it’s not clear in the text why TQO must be a metaphysics (except to assert it’s not merely an epistemology). Harman’s invention of partial access seems both more and less than metaphysics (as we know it), however, and metaphysics seems unnecessary to broad application of his thesis.
If the anthropologist thinks Harman’s fourfold evokes a mandala, s/he may not be far off the mark. The mandala, as a fourfold archetypal representation of the psyche evokes Jung (always in productive tension with Freud), as well as Lacan’s “four discourses.” (See Levi Bryant’s A Democracy of Object, section 4.4.) Harman discusses the psyche at length, but possibly with insufficient self-consciousness regarding his overall system. (And what about Deleuze’s Leibniz book, The Fold?) Folding, unfolding, and fourfolds are ubiquitous archetypal tropes. This is both a stumbling block and strength of the work. Harman admits that TQO may seem too systematic, but he also remains in thrall to the genius of his particular system. As in the case of his discussion of metaphysics, we might find him insufficiently urbane here. I do think the system is productive beyond what anyone has imagined, with the exception of Ian Bogost who has suggested that TQO is a magnum opus in a deceptively small package. But TQO only opens up, for us, if we can overcome our uneasiness with Harman’s sweeping gestures. If this is a conception of “the world,” then it must also be a limited view of the world as a sensual object, and this comment (admittedly), a limited view of TQO as sensual object.
I will now offer a paean to TQO using the text as a heuristic scheme. Let me begin with a very brief defense of the text as a sensual object (SO). If a sensual object is not identical to its qualities, and these qualities emerge over time, then TQO cannot be reduced to its initial bifurcated reception—caught up in a “political” struggle, praised by friends and snubbed by enemies of Object-Oriented Philosophy. Whether or not the book ultimately deserves praise or blame, I would like to see future evaluations (in bars and such) linked more closely to the work’s particular qualities.
Let’s imagine my opening fantasy of stumbling blockheads as a reference to one set of TQO sensual qualities (SQ). Now, let me balance these with some readily accessible points of praise for the work. TQO has been enthusiastically received by scholars and artists in various fields, and has invited them to explore Harman’s Tool Being, and Heidegger’s tool-analysis. For this reason, I think TQO is a relevant and successful work of philosophy (as love of wisdom rather than intellectual sparing). Particularly productive have been ecological applications, where TQO dovetails beautifully with Morton’s concept of “hyperobjects,” for example. TQO is obviously relevant to information technology, media studies, and the big questions of AI. Harman’s ontography also plays well with “carpentry,” as a coherent and fruitful, object-oriented aesthetic, as well as an allusion to real art as a hands-on mode of discovery. (See Graham Harman’s Guerilla Metaphysics and Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology.) Though political connections may be less obvious, TQO could productively be deployed to understand various forms of systemic discrimination and the technologies through which prejudices are iterated and dispelled. I also think TQO could be influential on psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience. Although TQO isn’t Heidegger, it is psychology. The sciences and social sciences may come to understand and appreciate the value of Harman’s philosophical model, though its potential in this context might be in a cultural trade-off relationship with its rhetorical potential to critique scientific discourse.
Going back to my fictitious anthropologist, I propose that the real TQO is a mandala, in the sense of a representation that contains and affects the world. Alternatively TQO is Schopenhauer’s The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason and also the Upanishads (which Schopenhauer intuited before reading the Upanishads). Yes, these are wildly speculative metaphors, but no one cannot access the real object (RO) directly, because it categorically withdraws. On a more serious note, Harman comes very close to illustrating that objects enfold the world, just as the world enfolds objects (and, we can assume, worlds enfold worlds). Such inversions are key topoi of folding as an archetypal figure, and reflecting on the archetype may be an eidetic approach to TQO as a real object. If we read the fourfold as an iterated, open structure, we may see a wildly productive concept withdrawn even from Harman (Harman would agree). Perhaps this is not Harman, but to the extent that Harman invokes Heidegger, Husserl, and Leibniz . . . TQO also enfolds the dizzying heights and depths of philosophical thought broadly distributed over time and space.
What about real qualities? While an object is depthless in its withdrawal, TQO invites us to imagine the real object as an infinite set of real qualities (RQ), also real objects with relations. Qualities, both sensual and real, are also objects in Harman’s scheme (though real objects can only relate to sensual objects). I don’t mean to confuse matters or flip the infinite into mystical monism here. The discourse of objects assumes more than one, critics will hasten to point out, and that argument is far from settled. I’ve never been invested in partisan politics. Nevertheless I share Bogost’s opinion that The Quadruple Object can function as a relatively small opening into a much more complex analysis.
Coming soon to Environmental Critique—comments on Harman’s Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy and the strangeness of ecology.
Image Credit: SAH Blog, Northern India: The Golden Triangle
[i] Slavoj Zizek interrupts them.
[ii] Please advise of a better or better-known short hand—I’m beginning to think that enunciation is the first stumbling block.