Sunday, April 05, 2015
Graham Harman on strange realism.
Despite being the star pupil of phenomenology, Heidegger began to notice from the relatively early date of 1919 that for the most part we do not deal with things as phenomena in consciousness. The chair and floor on which we rest, the atmospheric oxygen we breathe, the bodily organs that keep us alive through their continued functioning, the grammatical structure of a mother tongue mastered years ago, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn systems of Berlin, the basic political stability outside this lecture hall that will allow us to leave tonight without significant fear— all of these things are not usually phenomena in consciousness. For the most part, they remain unnoticed in the background as we deal consciously with the particularities of everyday experience. For the most part, we notice things only when they break. When the hammer shatters in our hands, when the bus fails to arrive on time, when our physical body fails us and requires hospital treatment, this is usually when we consciously notice them. Here we have the famous Hedeggerian duality between tools and broken tools, which explains a surprising amount of his philosophical career, for all its tens of thousands of pages.
The sensual objects we find in Husserl’s phenomenology never hide or withdraw in the least, since they are always with us from the start. When I encounter a fox walking through central Berlin, as happened a few days ago near the Hamburger Bahnhof, the fox as sensual object does not withdraw from my access to it. Instead, I saw the fox from different angles and distances, first in shock and then in fascination, and with a specific color of fur that could easily be varied through each season of the year without the fox becoming a different fox. The sensual fox was encrusted with superfluous, inessential perceptual detail at any given moment, but was not “hidden” from me in any way. Phenomenology simply asks me to subtract any extrinsic detail from the appearance of the fox so as to arrive at its essence.
But there is also something like a real fox there, or probably is— assuming I am not hallucinating, losing my mind, or misidentifying a dog as a fox. This real fox does hide, withdrawing into concealment. Any appearance of this fox to another sentient creature, or any encounter with it by an inanimate object, never makes direct contact with the fox, since the fox cannot be adequately translated into any relation that something might have with it. Precisely this is the center of my philosophical position, which is why we speak of “strange realism” or sometimes “weird realism.” Realism in philosophy usually does not just mean that there is a real world outside the human mind, but also that there are specific scientific methods which adequately capture that reality, and which should also be used to ridicule and annihilate any human conceptions that do not correspond to this reality. By contrast, I say that realism means exactly the opposite.
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