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Technology and Culture 45.1 (2004) 232-234
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Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. By Graham Harman. Chicago: Open Court, 2002. Pp. viii+331. $29.95.
In three heady chapters, Graham Harman tries to clarify—or, in his words, "to better"—Heidegger's formidable exegeses on tools, Dasein, technology and the "as-structure." These topics, we are told, were fully developed in Being and Time (1927), then merely "beaten to death over 17,000 pages" of additional writing "with profound monotony" (pp. 3-4, 7). A tasteless and distracting tension pitting substance against style pervades this tome. On the one hand, Harman thoughtfully deconstructs many of the master's ideas and proposes his own "radical" (albeit metaphysical) theory of Tool-Being. But substance is continually overshadowed by a pretentiously self-promoting style of argumentation.
For example, Harman's (self-proclaimed) "fresh," "bohemian," and "audacious" reappraisal claims that "devoted Heideggerians" are all wrong [End Page 232] about tools, about Dasein, and thus about Dasein's Being-in-the-World relationship with tools. He suggests that there is no sufficient theory or philosophy of tools and their own Being because Heidegger wrongly placed Dasein and human praxis on a metaphysical pedestal. According to Harman, tools, equipment, substances, entities, and objects (terms used interchangeably) deserve the same stature of Being as humans, because consciousness, sentience, and praxis are not decisive factors distinguishing human Being-in-the-World from Tool-Being. Tools and broken tools (to use Heidegger's formulation) do not only exist, nor do they only encounter reality, through the medium of human praxis. Tool-Being lies in a metaphysical vacuum beyond both sentient and physical relationships. For this reason, Tool-Being is far more than Zuhandenheit (readiness-to-hand) but also more than Vorhandenheit (presence-at-hand), or what tools present to the world. Indeed, these oppositional kinds of Being—the "as-structure" of being either tool or broken tool—are forever simulacra. Apparently Heidegger never understood this.
Both rhetorically and concretely, Harman tries to show that objects impact and encounter each other on their own terms—without the benefit of human mediation and meaning and without ever exhausting their myriad functions. To give this central idea grounding, he clearly and effectively explores the Tool-Being of paper screens, bridges, knives, railway platforms, propane tanks, melons, shovels, frozen lakes, and even stars.
After establishing why tools deserve their own theory and philosophy of Being, Harman explores related themes in Heidegger's work, among them: concealment and revealing, tool and broken tool, time, space, truth, technology, and the "as-structure." Chapter 2 then provides an elaborate deconstruction of the (philosophical) insights of Dreyfus, Husserl, and Rorty, among others. In the third and final chapter, Harman's goals are to (1) clarify the ontological status of Tool-Being, (2) re-privilege substances without regard to Dasein (following Levinas and Zubiri), and (3) theorize about tools' multiple levels of Being. Harman repeatedly argues one key point: "the tool-being of the object lives as if beneath the manifest presence of that object" (p. 220) such that (human) consciousness and sentience are not relevant. Because human Being-in-the-World is always about relations, feelings, and perceptions, we can never really know Tool-Being, which forever lies beyond all relations and meaning.
After almost convincing me (by sheer repetition) that "Tool-Being is a theory of vacuous actuality" (p. 228), Harman proceeds—in the final seven pages—to overturn his argument completely! Not until page 290 are we actually introduced to his own "fresh," "extreme," and "pivotal" theory of substances: Tool-Being is inherently relational after all because our perceptions, objectifications, and encounters with tools are themselves modes of Tool-Being. Not that I ever doubted it, but instead of Tool-Being being about vacuous actuality and simulacra (as argued repeatedly), it is about [End Page 233] relations—all the way down to an essential substrate. Moreover, what really counts here is the form these relations take, not actual matter. Harman concludes with a final "daring" claim: "what is real in...