(Back to finitude for a second)

I was about the write the second post about Levi Bryant, but prepping for Adorno has led me briefly back to Kant. In December I mentioned that Graham Harman sometimes portrays his realism as a kind of response to Kantian finitude, which he simply calls “autonomy” in Dante’s Broken Hammer. I already gave the simplest possible version:

He observes that [Kantian finitude] conflates two distinct meanings: a human/world dichotomy (bad) and generic finitude (good).

This can be rephrased and expanded a bit.

For Kant, the boundary between the thing-in-itself and appearance has to do with human reason’s relation to the world. From what I can tell, he believes reason inherently tries to unravel the conditions of experience, with the ultimate goal of a stable, unified system. This goal can only be reached by asserting something unconditioned, like an unmoved mover or self-authorized authority or whatever. In other words, the trajectory of “pure reason” pushes us toward things that stand apart from any experiential correlate.

Kant believes that these unconditioned ideas, abstracted from all phenomenal experience, are impossible illusions (at least if we want to say worthwhile things about them). He is deeply skeptical about pushing reason to a point where it finds no correlate with our access to the world.

Now just as someone might frame Harman’s critique of Heidegger as a failed orthodoxy (see Wolfendale in the same December post linked to above), they might also frame Harman’s response to Kant as a failure to recognize the source of the thing-in-itself in the abstraction of human judgment from experience.

If that’s the hill you want to die on, you could say that a critique of Kant ought to accept the emergence of the thing-in-itself as a symptom of human reason. (Of course, you have to demonstrate that the in-itself can only refer to human thought, and that means doubling down on idealism.) From there, you’d try to reveal what Kant failed to see. For example, maybe thinking the unconditioned already conditions it, and the supposed gap between a thing and its appearance merely derives from the inseparable link – in actual concrete really real reality – between reason and its favorite object (itself). There are probably other ways to go about it.

But that doesn’t strike anywhere near Harman, since he doesn’t accept Kant’s account of the emergence of the thing-in-itself. Yes, he derives his real object from a reading of Heidegger (not Kant); yes, analyzing the criteria for producing certain knowledge is not his project; and yes, he denies a deep world-shattering difference between reason and experience (see his critique of the theory/praxis reading of Heidegger’s tool analysis in Tool-Being). Yet Harman still makes the rather orthodox observation that the Kantian perspective connects knowledge to the world (contra Hume) at the cost of a one-sided emphasis on human cognition. Something is “out there” for Kant, but we are trapped in what our perspectives allow us to see. Harman accepts this view, but only partly. The gap between the thing-in-itself and the thing for others emerges through any object being trapped in its own experiential conditions, regardless of whether it processes its experiences with acts of judgment.

What results, then, from refusing to derive finitude from human cognition alone? For one thing, the “unconditioned” takes on a different tenor: something like it appears as a kind of excess from the gap between non-relation and relation. Specifically, an object’s comportment toward other things fails to smoothly encapsulate its relations, so that a strange space of conditioned surprise can open. Even in introspection, an object will have an autonomous ground that exceeds its own conditions of experience.

Second, Harman sees no reason to posit any ground other than things in themselves, such as an unformed material substrate or “white noise.” The indeterminate character of some experience is instead a “black noise” with its source in numerous other objects, each one a determinate form that differs from our access to it. (The term black noise comes from Guerrilla Metaphysics.)

Third – and this will pop up again in my next post – things are made of other things. An object with its own determinate form contains countless other partially isolated objects. Harman’s answer to the question of where my experience is located turns out not to match the everyday assumption that it is located in myself. More on that next time.


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