Attractive Additional Features

Graham Harman, Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism

Zero Books, 303pp, £15.99, ISBN 9781782790389 

reviewed by Sarah De Sanctis

The title chosen by Graham Harman for his latest book couldn't have been more appropriate. It is a collection of 16 essays, blog pieces, interviews and lectures that constitute (I quote from the Oxford English Dictionary) 'attractive additional features' to his theory. What you get, in short, is precisely more speculative realism, so if you're new to the subject this is probably not the right place to start. The title also refers to the different kinds of writings included in the book: bells are the long, more complex pieces, while whistles are shorter, like posts and fragments.

Graham Harman is an influential American philosopher working in Cairo, who has attached his name to the so-called 'Object-Oriented-Ontology' (OOO). This theory belongs to a broader current of thought that has been increasingly taking over continental philosophy since the early 1990s. Basically, what has been going on is a broad call for a return to realism after the postmodern anti-realist hegemony. One of the ways in which this has taken place is through ‘speculative realism’, the most famous proponents of which are Quentin Meillassoux, Iain Hamilton Grant, Ray Brassier and Levi Bryant.

What ties all these people together is a wish to go beyond Immanuel Kant and his claim that, in Harman's words, 'human beings cannot make direct contact with the things-in-themselves, but only with phenomena.' To put it simply, I can never know what this ‘chair’ really is, but only what it superficially looks like to me, to my limited and biased human perspective. Now, what these thinkers wish to demonstrate is that this is not true. Meillassoux’s notion of 'correlationalism' (see his After Finitude) describes precisely this Kantian dogma, and his clarion call is that we reject the idea that we can only have access to the relation between us and reality, but not reality itself.

Harman, in particular, sets his similar position against what he calls the 'Philosophy of Access'. The problem with this view, in Harman's opinion, is that it engages in a vicious circle - we cannot think something without thinking it. In other words, I cannot think of a tree as separated from my thought of it (as unthought) because if I think about it as unthought I’m still thinking about it. In the same way, I can think of a tree (consider it) without thinking it (as apart from my own thinking of it, as an ‘in-itself’). The underlying problem, I believe, is what the Italian philosopher Maurizio Ferraris has defined as the confusion between ontology (what exists) and epistemology (the discourse about what exists): philosophers of access cannot imagine being outside of thought and confuse the thought of a tree with the tree itself. According to speculative realists, on the contrary, there is the tree in-itself.

Now, in Harman's specific view, there is also another problem with the Philosophy of Access: namely, it places the human-world relation on a pedestal. What Object-Oriented Ontology is all about, as the name suggests, is valorising objects instead. Harman feels they have been somehow neglected throughout the history of philosophy, or rather they have been either undermined (by thinkers who posited that there is something 'deeper' than the objects, such as some kind of one, ultimate reality) or 'overmined' (by those who saw the objects as nothing more than the sum of their qualities, which gain relevance only when they are given a structure by the human mind).

Harman's focus, in particular, is on the fact that any kind of relation – whether between humans and objects, or between objects – is of equal importance: the human-world relation, which Kant regarded as crucial, is placed at the same level as any other, following Alfred North Whitehead's claim that 'all human and non-human entities have equal status insofar as they all prehend other things, relating to them in one way or another'.

This, of course, is nothing but a very basic sketch of Harman's philosophy. If you want to know more, from a strictly theoretical point of view, you should probably go for Tool-Being (Open Court, 2002) or The Quadruple Object (Zero, 2011). Bells and Whistles is for people who are already acquainted with speculative realism, and ideally for those who have read his 2010 book Toward Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures, of which it is a sort of sequel. Toward Speculative Realism collected Harman's early essays, and introduced the very interesting feature of prefacing every writing with a more ‘personal’ context. A postgraduate student could find in the young Harman the same struggles and frustrations that she was probably going through: the graduate student refines his theory and becomes a well-established philosopher despite his early invisibility, enfeebled productivity, rejection by conferences and publishers, and struggles with tyrannical advisors.'

Bells and Whistles presents us with the second part of this successful story, collecting his writings from 2010 to 2013 and maintaining the 'personal preface' structure we found in the prequel. In these later writings, which give us a glimpse into Harman's recent career, the OOO theory is already well formed, and the personal anecdotes are perhaps less appealing. The greatest strength of this book, I feel, is that it tests Harman's thought against several objections (including those from fellow speculative realists) and other areas of research, thus clarifying and further refining the initial project. There is also a very useful aphoristic summary of his OOO in the fifth essay: 'Seventy-six theses on Object-Oriented Philosophy', which will succinctly tell you 'everything you always wanted to ask about OOO but were too lazy to read in full'.

If you want to know more about speculative realism, if you were left perhaps a bit confused or overwhelmed by Tool-Being and The Quadruple Object, or if you want to see how the story of Toward Speculative Realism goes on, this book is ideal; otherwise you should start elsewhere. For aficionados only.