Circus Philosophicus, Graham Harman

Feb 7th, 2013 | By | Category: Book News

ferriswhThe Ferris Wheel

Imagine a gigantic ferris wheel of many miles in diameter. The wheel would be lodged in a massive trench in the earth, with the hub at ground level. At all times half of the wheel would be above ground and half beneath the surface. Over the course of twelve or fourteen hours, the wheel would make a complete circuit high in the air and deep beneath the soil. It would carry thousands of separate cars, each of them loaded with various objects. Some would contain printed documents, or zinc and molybdenum Buddhas. Others would be loaded with colorful flags, electric generators, reptiles and birds, miniature explosive charges, bottles of wine, tap dancers, brass bands playing military music, and other entities circling day and night. We will suppose the wheel itself to be made of an unknown and indestructible material not affected by anything that happens in the myth.

The reader should pause and fix this image firmly in mind: a giant rotating wheel, carrying thousands of beings in a long arc ascending to the clouds and vanishing into the darkness of the earth. Let it spin dozens of times in your mind before we move on from this beautiful spectacle. Imagine the faint machinic whirr of its concealed engine, the creaking of its bolts, and the varied sounds emitted by the objects riding in its cars: from neighing horses to mournful woodwind ensembles. Imagine too the ominous mood in the vicinity as its cars plunge deep into the earth. Picture the wheel loaded with animals, bombs, and religious icons. Picture it creaking under the weight of its cargo and emitting a ghostly light as it spins along its colossal circuit. Imagine the artists and engineers of genius who designed such a thing. And consider the human culture that would arise nearby, with the wheel as its sacred point of reference.

We now add a few new elements to the myth of the ferris wheel, burning the image ever more deeply into the reader’s mind. Above ground thousands of people would live in the vicinity of the wheel: some applauding it, others terrified by the sight, with a few insensitive souls bored by the wheel as by a commonplace. Some of the residents would observe its rotations minutely through binoculars, while others would go about their business with no more than occasional glances at the machine. A number of dogs would bark angrily at the wheel, and crows or eagles would sometimes approach for a closer look.

We might stipulate further that numerous chambers have been constructed along the underground path of the wheel. Every ten feet its cars would pass by one of these dimly lit spaces. Some of the underground rooms are filled with people, while others house devices of various sorts. It should be clear that the objects inhabiting each of these rooms will react with especial intensity only to some of the entities riding in the wheel. For instance, one of the rooms would be occupied by the members of a secret society or labor union. They have perhaps assembled for a celebration, but with strict orders to wait calmly and quietly until the special flag of their group passes by. When at last it does, they cheer wildly and erupt into violent revelry. There are poets writing verse in some of the rooms, their moods affected deeply by all of the objects, but especially by the various musical groups that circle past. As they hear the music passing their chambers, the character of their poems is altered by what they hear.rabid

A few more examples will clarify the upheavals brought about by the rotation of the wheel. Some of the rooms contain rabid dogs that bark at all passing objects, but especially at the cats and foxes that sometimes circle by, pushing the dogs toward a state of frenzy. Another room is a holding cell for a condemned prisoner, who endures additional torment as portraits of deceased family members pass. Let’s suppose as well that one of these underground chambers contains the main power generator for the town above. From time to time a huge electromagnetic coil circles past this room, disrupting the town’s energy supply for several minutes, though the wheel continues to circle through an alternate source of power whose nature need not concern us. Whenever this disruption occurs, the observers milling in the streets begin to curse and lament, forgetting the wheel until power is restored and life returns to what it was.

With the exception of the eternal wheel itself, each of the entities in this myth faces a certain degree of danger. After all, some of the cars contain explosive devices; no one knows when or how powerfully they might detonate. If these explode while transiting underground, the chambers closest to them will be annihilated without hope of survivors. If the bombs explode while circling in the air, then so much the worse: for in this case they rain lethal debris over the entire town. Yet the danger also works in reverse, with some of the underground rooms posing a threat to the objects riding the wheel. For instance, a number of the subterranean rooms might be equipped with dormant furnaces. Most of the time these will be inactive. But at sporadic intervals and random temperatures, jets of flame suddenly erupt from the room toward the car that is passing by, spraying fire on whatever entity it contains. Occasionally the flames are hot enough to melt even the metallic images of the Buddha loaded in some of the cars.

skullFinally it is clear that the rotating objects will have a profound effect on the crowd in the streets, harming or pleasing them on various occasions. The higher the objects move toward the summit of the wheel, the less visible they are to the townspeople. But when they first emerge from the earth, and again when descending to a point near the ground, they are recognized even by children. Indeed, children would surely assemble near the entry and exit points of the wheel, delighted by the sudden emergence or disappearance of surprising things. Each of the objects riding the wheel has a potentially serious impact upon local morale. Some strike the townspeople as comical, provoking sarcastic remarks. Others are melancholy reminders of human frailty: a lonely skull, or the portrait of a reviled former statesman. At such moments the mood in the streets veers toward the tense and the somber. But some of the objects strike different people in different ways, as when a whining kitten circles past, provoking mockery in some and empathy in others. There will also be moments when heavy explosives pass by: these are frightening times for even the most hardened cynics in the town. Some of the cars might also contain loudspeakers emitting religious or political messages. A few observers take these messages seriously and plan conversion or revolution, while others dismiss them with a wave of the hand.

This image of a revolving wheel is a picture of our world. In it, the dramatic interplay of object and network becomes visible. Countless entities circle into and out of our lives, some of them threatening and others ludicrous. The objects in the cars and those on the ground or in the chambers affect one another, coupling and uncoupling from countless relations— seducing, ignoring, ruining, or liberating each other. This process is anything but a game: in it, our happiness and even physical safety are at stake. It would be easy to follow tradition and speak of a Wheel of Fortune. But in keeping with the metaphysical nature of this book, it is better to call it the Wheel of Events, the Wheel of Contexts, or the Wheel of Relations. As the ferris wheel circles, new and surprising events are summoned into existence. Bombs detonate; solid Buddhas are liquefied; lackluster crowds become howling mobs; depressive writers are inspired by music; power outages are caused by disruptive magnetic fields. By affecting one another in this way, the interacting things generate new realities, each just as real as the basic elements circling in the wheel.

Let’s develop an earlier example, and say that one of the underground chambers houses a union of steelworkers. As they await the appearance of their familiar grey flag with its black crescents and diamonds, the workers and the flag are two utterly separate realities. But once the banner moves into view, the room erupts in raucous celebration. Now, we cannot agree with the classical theory which holds that the piece of cloth is a substance and each of the workers also a substance but the celebration itself just an accidental
intersection of two entities. For the celebration is no mere aggregate: instead, it is every bit as real as the physical piece of cloth or the human workers themselves. We admit that the celebration is unlikely to last for more than a few hours, while the flag and the workers may endure for decades to come. But this familiar criterion of durability is irrelevant to the metaphysical  question of what can be regarded as a substance. For as everyone knows who has taken part in especially intense gatherings, a celebration is a force to be riotreckoned with: a new entity to be taken into account by many other things. The workers may find themselves carried away by the mood of the party ––a mood that exists somewhere beyond each of the individuals as a reservoir of surplus energy. Riot police may be summoned should the atmosphere deteriorate, and the celebration might resist police efforts to control it. Even the union flag that triggered the party will be affected by the celebration-entity of which it is a key component. For it may gain historic value from being the very flag that triggered this particular riot; it could become outlawed, and thereby attain wide popularity as a symbol of resistance. In addition, the flag can be physically altered by the smoky fumes or spray of champagne that the party unleashes. In short, the party seems to have all the features of a genuine entity. We cannot use physical duration as a standard of what is real and what is accidental. Chemists are aware of this fact, and feel no shame in using the same periodic table both for the artificial heavy elements that last for fractions of a second and for the hydrogen and helium that have endured since nearly the dawn of time. The difference between substance and accident is not decided by stopwatch or calendar. If we provisionally accept that reality equals resistance (an idea I reject for other reasons) then the steelworkers’ celebration is very much a substantial reality, as any riot officer will testify.

Nor does the myth of the wheel require the presence of human beings or other sentient organisms. One can easily imagine a toxic spill in the area. The town and the underground chambers would be evacuated, and all living creatures removed from the wheel until the situation is clarified. As a precaution, it now circles with only inanimate objects riding aboard. Now let us suppose that one of the cars contains a barrel of seashells, and that one of the underground chambers holds a jet that sprays acid at random intervals. If the acid is sprayed just as the shells circle past, there will be a reaction between them resulting in a very different set of substances. Here again, one cannot say that acid and shells are real and their conjunction only an accident. The example can be pushed further by imagining that some of the cars contain subatomic particles, and that several underground rooms are able to split these tiny things by channeling powerful beams into their midst, even though no one is watching.

buddhaFor those who feel distracted by such bizarre examples, more prosaic scenarios are possible. We can assume that the entire complex of underground chambers has been shut down, all of them decommissioned and filled with cement. This having been done, the objects riding the wheel have nothing to hope for and nothing to fear when underground. They do nothing but circle, orbiting forever down into the earth and up into the sky. But even here there is a sense in which the objects change. If nothing else, they will tend to become cold at the top of the wheel as they approach the jet stream, but hot and moist at the bottom as they descend through their dank underground channel. Moreover, their relations with everything found in the outer landscape will change continually, depending on how high or low they are at any moment. These changes are real, and describe vastly different events. A zinc Buddha at the top of the wheel is involved in a different set of relations from the same zinc Buddha at the bottom. The fact that these statues never remain in one place for long does not mean that their specific position at any moment is of less importance than the timeless metal of which they are forged.

This concludes part one of the myth of the wheel. So far, I have used this image to defend the model of reality presented by such philosophers as Alfred North Whitehead and Bruno Latour, who focus on the pervasive interrelations of things and discount the existence of entities outside their effects. There is surely some truth in this standpoint, since it is difficult to think of an object apart from the varied relations in which it participates. The labor union, seashells, and magnetic coils are so thoroughly defined by the incidents in which they take part that their reality might seem identical with the events to which they give rise. The objects riding in the wheel seem no better than pawns of their interactions with other things. Some might even call it naive to think of some Buddha-in-itself or electrical coil an sich apart from the events in which these objects are involved. In this way the myth suggests that there is no such thing as an “accident” as opposed to substance, and also no such thing as mere “relations” that would be less real than the component pieces of which they are built. The various flags, machines, cats, and foxes in the myth would not be substances undergoing accidental interplay with other objects. They would only be concrete events, deployed in specific relations with all other things.


Zero_Books_master_coverCircus Philosophicus - Platonic myth meets American noir in this haunting collection of philosophical images, from gigantic Ferris wheels to offshore drilling rigs.

ISBN: 978-1-84694-4000-0, $9.95 / £6.99, paperback, 92pp

EISBN: 978-1-84694-602-8, $9.99 / £6.99, eBook

Platonic myth meets American noir in this haunting series of philosophical images, from gigantic ferris wheels to offshore drilling rigs.

It has been said that Plato, Nietzsche, and Giordano Bruno gave us the three great mythical presentations of serious philosophy in the West. They have spawned few imitators, as philosophers have generally drifted toward a dry, scholarly tone that has become the yardstick of professional respectability. In this book, Graham Harman tries to restore myth to its central place in the discipline.

Graham Harman is Associate Vice Provost for Research and a member of the Department of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.

Also see:

What is Speculative Realism?


If you enjoy the Zero Books podcast consider listening to the Inside Zero books podcast on Patreon!
Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Comment