[47호] Immaterialism and its Consequences / 그레이엄 하먼 전 지구 화상강연문

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2020-04-26 12:26
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Immaterialism and its Consequences

A Lecture by Graham Harman

In the previous history of philosophy, the word “immaterialism” usually referred to George Berkeley. As is well known, Berkeley held that “to be is to be perceived.” Everything in the world is just an image seen by the mind of humans or of God. But this is not what I mean by the term personally. For me, “immaterialism” means that what exists in reality are forms rather than matter. There are actually two different kinds of materialism, and I disagree with both. Traditional materialism believes that all of the medium-sized objects we see can be reduced to tiny physical particles moving through an empty void. I can think of two reasons why this is wrong. The most obvious is that by reducing everything to its smallest pieces, this kind of materialism missed what we call emergence. The city of Los Angeles may be made of particles, but it has numerous properties that no particle has (such as warm weather and the ability to produce films). Beyond that, millions of particles leave Los Angeles every day while others come in, yet this does not make it a new city every day. To summarize, Los Angeles is a large-scale form that remains somewhat durable despite changes in its small parts. Another problem with this kind of materialism is that even the smallest particles themselves are reduced to relations rather than understood in themselves. We can measure the spatio-temporal position of each particle, its mass, velocity, and spin, but this only matters if we assume that the measurable physical properties are able to tell us what it really is. These are the main reasons that I do not accept materialism in the classical sense of the term.
But lately there has been a new and different kind of theory that calls itself “materialism.” This is so-called cultural materialism, or “New Materialism,” as it calls itself in the United States. New Materialism has no interest in tiny particles racing through empty space. Instead, it is “materialist” only in the sense that it thinks everything is constructuted by language, society, and history, and that everything is contingent. I see no reason to call this theory materialist at all, but since they call themselves that, we can let them have the name if they wish. More worrisome is the different problem with this sort of theory. The old materialism reduced everything downward to the supposedly lowest level of the universe: tiny particles. But the new materialism reduces everything upward to the supposedly highest level of the universe: human experience. They say that we cannot assume anything really exists outside language, culture, or power politics. But this means that reality has no surplus outside its current state of affairs, and therefore there is no reason for anything to change. Aristotle made this argument long ago in his Metaphysics, and the argument still works well. This is why I cannot accept this cultural New Materialism any more than the old kind. Instead, I am interested in objects, as that which is something over and above its pieces, and something under and beneath its effects.
One of the most powerful methods in social philosophy today is the Actor-Network Theory developed by Bruno Latour and others. I consider Latour to be an overlooked great philosopher, and in my own work I owe him a debt that can never be repayed. The greatest strength of his theory is that he is able to treat all objects equally, although he calls them “actors” rather than objects. This is important, because modern Western philosophy takes it for granted that there are two basic kinds of things in the universe: the first is humans, and the second is everything else. Latour escapes this trap from the start. Anything that exists is an actor, no matter how large or small, how important or unimportant. A human being is an actor, and so are a star, a cruise ship, a building, a nation, a cat, a worm, or a virus. All are real because they have an effect on something else. This creates what my friend Levi Bryant has called a “democracy of objects.” Since philosophy’s best feature is its ability to talk about anything rather than just one subject matter, this is definitely a strength of Latour’s theory. However, his use of the word “actor” rather than “object” is linked with what I consider to be the greatest weakness of his theory. He calls objects “actors” because he thinks an object is nothing more than whatever actions it performs, and has no reality beyond these actions. An actor exists only in relation to other actors, with no surplus held in reserve. In short, Latour has a certain similarity to the cultural New Materialists I criticized earlier, and like them he cannot explain why anything changes.
But today I am more concerned with a different weakness resulting from Actor-Network Theory. Since it views the whole world in terms of relations and does not accept any non-relational part of objects, this theory has a hard time to distinguishing between things that matter and things that do not. Every relation that happens changes things completely. Getting married or getting a haircut become equally meaningful days, and the founding of a normal Facebook group is just as important as the founding of ancient Rome. Latour would not admit this, of course. He would say that some actions affect many actors while others affect very few. But this is a mere difference of degree, and cannot explain why some things that happen leave no trace on us at all, while a few other things shake us to the core. This is important not only for writing our own autobiographies, but also for writing world history.
When writing the book Immaterialism, I wanted to choose an interesting object that could provide a model for social ontology. My reason for choosing the Dutch East India Company (often abbreviated “VOC”) was not that it was the first corporation in world history or that it was a bad example of European imperialism, although these facts are interesting. Instead, I chose the Company because the philosopher Leibniz said it was not natural, and therefore could not be real. I disagreed with Leibniz, since my own view is that artificial objects are just as real as natural ones. For this reason, I began to research the history of the VOC to see what I’d find. Also in my mind was the evolutionary theory of Lynn Margulis, who unfortunately died in 2011. Unlike Charles Darwin, who thought that evolution happens gradually, Margulis thought that it happened in sudden jumps, in her Serial Endosymbiosis Theory. For example, Margulis claimed that the organelles in the human cell were originally bacteria that lived independently of us. They first came into the human cell as parasites, but later our cells formed symbiotic relationships with them, and this gave new abilities to our cells.
This concept of symbiosis was interesting to me as a way of describing why certain historical events lead to lasting transformations while others, even some very noisy ones, have little impact at all. The Dutch East India Company made many business deals and fought many battles during its history, but most of these were not important, since even if they had gone badly the Company would have continued to exist in the same way as before with only minor losses. A few relationships, however, changed the VOC irreversibly in some way, and these are the relations that deserve to be called symbioses. For various reasons, I think that any social object –whether it be a corporation or a human being– will have roughly five or six irreversible symbioses. Once these happen it reaches mature form, and if it is well-adapted to its environment, it will enter a shorter or longer period of ripening. But as soon as the surrounding environment changes, the mature object will be unable to enter into new symbioses, and will therefore begin to decline until it finally dies. In Immaterialism I try to tell the story of the birth, symbioses, ripening, decline, and death of the VOC.
The birth of the VOC happened in 1602. The Dutch Republic had rebelled from the Spanish Empire, and needed large amounts of money to maintain its independence. Many different Dutch ships were trading in the East Indies at the time, in the area covered today by Malaysia and Indonesia. This area was then the only place in the world that grew spices in high demand in Europe, especially nutmeg and mace. The problem was that all of these trading ships were competing with each other in the Amsterdam market, which kept their prices relatively low. For the Dutch Republic to survive, it needed to force all of these shippers to join in a single monopoly company. In this way the Dutch East India Company was born, and became the first corporation to issue shares of stock that could be purchased by any member of the public. But being born did not make it important. Thousands of companies are born and go bankrupt every year. In order to survive and flourish, a company needs to enter into symbiotic relations that allow it to prosper, just as human cells needed help from parasites to survive when the oxygen levels of the earth dangerously increased.
The first symbiosis made by the VOC was with something it created itself, in 1610: a new position called “Governor-General.” Amsterdam is far from the East Indies, and in those days voyages could take months, and of course there were no electronic communications. This meant that there needed to be a Company leader in Asia itself, someone who could make decisions, sign treaties, and fight wars without waiting for permission from the Dutch government. This was the Company’s first step toward independence, and we can measure its progress by watching how it became increasingly independent over time.
Four years later, in 1614, came the second symbiosis: one that would lead to great financial success for the VOC, but also led it down a path of exploitation and frequently evil that would damage its reputation forever. In that year a document was written by future Governor-General Jan Pieterszoon Coen, an unusually ambitious and ruthless person. Studying the political situation in both Europe and Asia, Coen reached the conclusion that the Dutch Republic was in such danger that extreme measures were needed. In order to stay independent of Spain, even larger profit margins would be needed. This meant two things. First, the VOC must violently suppress all other European powers in the East Indies, meaning that force must be used to prevent the Spanish, Portuguese, English, and French from competing with them there. Second, and even more decisively, the VOC must also forbid Asian countries to trade with each other in the East Indies; all transactions must pass through the VOC from now on. This involved a terrible step, since the East Indies had long been a zone of free trade, where Arab and Chinese and other Asian merchants had long made deals with each other. Coen recorded all of these views in a document called Discourse on the State of India, and sent it back to Amsterdam for consideration. The Dutch government studied this treatise, and although they understood his argument about the need for higher profits, they shuddered at the level of violence that Coen was suggesting. For this reason, the policies he proposed were not acted upon immediately. But a seed was planted that would eventually grow dark fruit.
The third symbiosis of the VOC occurred in 1619, when the VOC gained further independence by moving its headquarters from the international port of Banten to a small city that they named Batavia, but which is today known as Jakarta, Indonesia. This gave the company a new and isolated base from which to pursue monopoly, at least after they drove other foreigners from Batavia and made it their own.
The fourth symbiosis, the worst of them all, was the Ambon massacre in 1623. We recall that Coen had advised the aggressive pursuit of monoply in the East Indies, and that no conclusive decision had been reached by the Dutch government. But at a certain point, the Dutch reached a peaceful understanding with the English, one that guaranteed the English a certain percentage of the spice trade. When Coen heard the news, he was enraged. He had already succeeded in outmaneuvering the English, and rather than being allowed to pursue a total monopoly, he was now being asked to give some of the spice economy back to the already defeated English. Since Coen was also being recalled to the Netherlands, there was not much he could do about it himself, but he did encourage his associate Herman Van Speult to proke a fight with the English in the region. This led to the Dutch massacre of twenty English, Japanese, and Portuguese on the island of Ambon. It led to such outrage in England that the peaceful agreement between the Dutch and the English was destroyed, and the VOC was again free to pursue Coen’s plan of a spice monopoly. Since he returned to Batavia as Governor-General again 4 years later, he was able to do this in person.
In the meantime, a fifth symbiosis had occurred that transformed the nature of the VOC and made it even more independent of the home country. In the early years of the Company, its model was long round-trips between Amsterdam and Batavia, with goods being sent in each direction. This was both dangerous and time-consuming, so that around the year 1625 (during Coen’s period back in the Netherlands), the VOC changed its business model. They would now emphasize trading within Asia rather than between Asia and Europe. This allowed for more efficient use of time, rather than wasting months for the right winds and currents to take the ships back to Amsterdam. There was always somewhere nearby in Asia to trade. But this also required the use of different kinds of ships, since most Asian river ports are shallow and could not be used by large European freight ships. For this reason, the VOC needed a complete change in the kinds of ships it used to emphasize smaller ones. At first they acquired them by capturing Chinese ships, but later they also learned to build their own. The result of this new Asia-specific fleet was that the VOC became even more detached from the home country and began to behave more like an Asian power.
The sixth and final symbiosis was somewhat delayed, but finally took place in 1641. There are really just two main routes into the East Indies for those coming from Europe: the northern Malacca Strait not far from present-day Singapore, and the southern Sunda Strait that leads today past Krakatoa Volcano to Jakarta. The Dutch had tried to gain the northern strait early, but failed, which is a large part of the reason why they turned their focus to the south, eventually choosing Batavia as their capital. But in 1641, the VOC finally succeeded in conquering the Malacca Strait. What made this so important was that, by also gaining control over the northern approach to the reason, they were able to tie together the old Arab and Chinese trade routes, giving them geographic control of the entire region. The Golden Age of the VOC was ready to begin.
With all of its symbioses complete and the VOC now in mature form, it was able to capitalize on its environment and earn colossal profits for many decades. No one else could supply nutmeg, mace, and other spices to Europe, and with such a monopoly they could charge outrageously high prices knowing that people would still pay. The Dutch government was now rich and powerful enough that the independence of the country from Spain was assured. Only in the early 1700s did the first signs of trouble appear. For one thing, the French had learned how to grow some of the same spices in the Caribbean, which meant that the VOC had a new source of competition that lowered its profits. For another, the European demand for spices slowly declined, while the market increased for such products as chocolate, tea, and coffee, which the English were much better able to supply. These shifts finally reached the point where English power surpassed that of the Dutch, and the VOC entered its period of decadence. It was a bad sign when, in the late 1700s, the VOC had to be saved from a local invasion by the official Dutch Navy, meaning that the Company had lost its true independence from the motherland. Eventually Napoleon invaded the Netherlands, the French flag was raised over Batavia, and the VOC was no more.
By identifying the symbioses of the Dutch East India Company, we are able to focus on those of its relations that truly changed its reality in an irreversible way. It also allows us to fight any sense of historical determinism by looking at all of the things that could have gone wrong or did go wrong, or at the things that could have happened but did not. Let’s look first at the symbioses that never occurred. We can call these the “proximate failures” of the VOC. I say proximate because we can only criticize the Company for failing at things that it might have accomplished, without making absurd criticisms like saying that the VOC never landed on the moon or dug the Panama Canal. To start with two examples, in 1606 the Dutch were the first Europeans to discover Australia, and in 1642 the first to discover New Zealand. Yet the VOC did nothing to develop trade in these areas, though others were able to do so later. The VOC also tried and failed to make profitable trade deals with Japan and military conquests in Macau, but were always outsmarted or defeated by the Chinese and Japanese. The VOC had similar bad luck when attempting to conquer British outposts on the east coast of India. Understanding these failures helps us set limits to what the VOC eventually was able to achieve.
We can also look at those symbioses that did occur and treat them in a counterfactual way. For example, I mentioned that the Dutch failed early on to capture the Malacca Stait in the north. They did so only in 1641, though by that time they had already rooted themselves instead at Batavia in the south. But what if they had succeded in their first attempt to capture the north? Arguably, this would have put them in a stronger position. With more forces in the north, they might have been able to capture Macau and even explore the natural harbor of Hong Kong, which would have put them in a strong position to resist later English efforts to become established in Asia. Having already gained the north, they could possibly also have established other bases in the south, though by then it might have been too late to crush the free trade between Asian and Arab countries in Banten. As another alternative, what if the 1623 massacare at Ambon had never occurred, and the Dutch and English had continued to share the wealth from the space trade. While it is quite possible that such a peace would have collapsed in some other way eventually, we should at least consider the possibility that the two countries could have reached an understanding that lasted for a century and more. But freed from conflict with the Dutch, perhaps the English would never have been forced into violent competition with them, and they would never have been spurred onward to move toward the British Empire.
The name I use for all of these objects that could have been born through symbioses that never happened is “ghost objects.” Although this term is only mentioned once in Immaterialism, in some ways ghost objects haunt the entire book. But the same concept is useful for philosophy in general. Today, it is popular to say that everything exists only in relation to everything else. But in some ways it is more interesting to think of the real objects that surround us at all times, some of which never relate to anything else. These are the untaken risks and untapped potentials that surround each of us at all times— and not just us, since they also surround cities, professions, and academic disciplines as well.
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