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Harman’s Speculative Bubble: The Runaway Capitalism of OOP

Philosophical Gambling: Let’s Make a Bubble

The Velvet Howler made a brilliant, off-the cuff diagnosis of Graham Harman’s so-called Object-Oriented Philosophy over in a Perverse Egalitarianism thread that started out light but has gotten more substance. It is really worth repeating for it pulls Harman metaphysical speculation into the general sphere of important societal trends and valuations, and opens the question of how we should do philosophy, and if our production of philosophy mirrors our production of other commercial commodities. Bryan was responding to Graham’s often stated thought that philosophy had to be more in the gambling game, that one had to take more metaphysical risks, a sentiment that I might applaud, but then I also ask: Is it gambling if nothing is at risk? or, What does it mean to gamble without real money? Upon this Bryan made a wonderful analogy between Harman’s gambler metaphor fueled by a “One Great Idea” approach to philosophy, finding it worth noting that the entire SR/OOP franchise mimicked the speculative bubble thinking that drives markets towards their collapse:

…There is undoubtedly a “bad” kind of speculation, which evokes the “spec”/”speculare” we find in political economy: risk taking for the sake of profit. Certain forms of speculative behavior, it seems to me, cannot be separated from their metaphysical counterpart. Here I think Harman’s thought becomes something of a mirror of contemporary American attitudes towards finance: his speculative gambling in search of that “one great idea” inevitably leads to the construction of a metaphysical “bubble” (his defense and support of panpsychism I read as a symptom of this) built on unsure ground and upon the continual deferral of the debt it accumulates. In that sense, OOP can be read, perhaps a bit too reductively for my tastes, but nevertheless as a form of packaged, repackaged, and traded collateralized debt obligations, which will inevitably collapse once the basis is revealed to have been nothing but a “toxic asset”, a transcendental illusion, a house of cards.

This was particular to my own experience when I read Harman’s theory of causation. While stimulative of thought, the more I took it seriously the more disappointing it became. As I heard audio lectures that followed my reading of his theory it seemed that indeed there was a kind of “debt” of explanation or coherence that Harman simply pushed into the future, a kind of doubling down into the next book (Latour) and a refinancing that went along with a method of repackaging. First his philosophy was part of a whole movement called “Spectulative Realism” (composed of thinkers who agree upon almost nothing), then it became “OOP” and had even spawned its own “splinter group” called OOO (insuring it the position of an imagined orthodoxy). One cannot help but feel with some force that this is running parallel to the dividend markets that simply cut and repackaged “risk” under new names creating a bubble of excitement which simply fed upon itself. Consider Levi’s recent enthusiasm over a new Graham Harman diagram, brought on by a general love of diagrams, which by virtue of simply being diagrams Levi feels get at a “bit” of the “real”:

Harman provides a brief commentary on how he’s thinking about his diagrams here. I’ll have to think through this more, but my initial impression is that this is really exciting stuff. I confess that his theory of vicarious causation and his analysis of the four-fold are the aspects of his ontology that have left me most scratching my head. [found here]

Nevermind that Harman’s theories have gotten Levi scratching his head (which means he doesn’t understand them or find them convincing), and never mind that before seeing this diagram Levi has linked his new OOO (brand) to this head-scratching OOP, this new diagram is “really exciting stuff”(!) Hey, I might actually understand what I’ve been supporting. Speculative bubble. Is this not just the kind of thing that was done in financial markets when repackaged debt was then rated as “A” level and put into assemblages of investment? Harman’s theory made no sense, but this diagram of it is really exciting, let’s buy some (and I say this as a devote diagrammist).

Add to this speculative excitement several other franchising maneuvers, the announced start of a “peer reviewed” OOO journal (which some people have speculated is only another “blog”) and even an All-American OOO conference and we really have something happening. These packaging movements meet squarely it seems with Harman’s own Great Idea concept of philosophical significance, the thinking that all the Great Philosophers were really exaggerators that some how fooled the public long enough to get their ideas off the ground. Once enough people “buy into” the intial debt of explanation it is passed off onto the whole group, the bad morgage is cut into tiny Madoff pieces and distributed everywhere. Philosophy as Ponzi scheme. It brings to mind Harman’s notion of a market place of ideas, and how he once stonewalled any attempts to find correspondences between Spinoza’s thinking and his own. “Spinoza’s stock…” he told me, “is simply over valued right now” as if he were a financial advisor and I should be looking into something to invest in. What does this mean, Spinoza’s stock is over-valued? Harman was not looking so much for the kind of discussions that found correspondences in cross-fertilization, as those that pushed the mercantile futures of his own one Great Idea, the “get rich quick” “buy stock low” concept of philosophical investment. One cannot help but feel that Bryan over at Velvet Howler really has struck at the Capitalist, all-American cord of the OOP movement and franchise. One must speculate because speculation (combined with constant repackaging and associative re-valuation) differs the debt of philosophical explanation. It allows one’s theory to proliferate in the kind of meme-like method that Levi finds so appealing.

Paying the Philosophical Debt?

The more significant questions might be, how is this different than just a bunch of fellows getting together that like the ideas of each other, and then selling/convincing others that the very idea of their group is appealing, pulling resources together? And how are we to weigh this organizational property against the very ethic that Bryan calls our attention to, a kind of All-American speculative bubble wherein the Debt of explanation or justification is passed along into greater and more diverse assemblages of investment? Do the memes of philosophy have to stand for anything? Does Graham Harman actually have to a coherent Theory of Causation and not just the name of a Theory of Causation (called “Vicarious Causation”)? Do those who align themselves with OOP and become franchised to it actually have to understand and become convinced of OOP itself? Is there a harm,  a social harm, in replicating the logic of Capitalist speculative bubble-making within the productive means of philosophy?

I suspect that the methods of packaging and Debt deferral are detrimental to both philosophy and social being, and that (in some tension to ethical aims) meme-like profusion might be essential to internet blogged philosophy. One wants a catchy name (or name of a principle or fallacy), and an easy to understand enemy, and then a loose cadre of alliances, maybe even a logo like The Brights wield. But also serious questions about the value of thought produced through such a speculative means do remain, a sense that yes, debt cannot simply be passed down into some other form without us losing the sense that philosophy is actually being done. How is it that so much philosophical activity has organized itself around OOP when no one, even the most aligned, actually find the theory coherent or convincing? And does it matter? And as a meme-type shouldn’t the value of its ideas (the implication of what they say about and reinforce about us and the world), and it means of reproduction, fall under criticism? I think that these are very important questions for those who consider the ethical value of internet philosophical idea sharing, especially amid its networking powers. Both the mode and the concept of our visions play at large in the world, and it is the philosophical check of criticism that often keeps the spread of ideas from simply becoming the spread of memes. 

As Bryan responds in the thread to a briefer summation of the above:

“…I think in some way the perspective of how Harman’s speculative metaphysics mirrors contemporary political economy also fits nicely with your argument you made over at Frames /sing, about how, in his very attempt to decenter and remove the human from the privileged point of access for any “first philosophy,” Harman actually naturalizes the human by smuggling it through the backdoor, vis-a-vis the Cartesian withdrawal-into-self through universal doubt (and its Husserlian extension)-cum-“objects withdrawing into themselves.”

* This general topic has bearing upon Carl’s recent thoughts on the potentiating relationship between Gramsci and blogging over at Dead Voles.

* For those who don’t want to wade through the chaotic comments section of the original thread, you might enjoy reading Bryan at Velvet Howler’s excellent summation of his ideas and intutions: here.

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19 responses to “Harman’s Speculative Bubble: The Runaway Capitalism of OOP

  1. Pingback: Velvet Howler › Blog Archive › Speculative Realism as Ponzi Scheme: On Financial and Metaphysical Bubbles

  2. bryank November 14, 2009 at 1:04 am

    I think it would interesting, as a kind of pet project, to take up a far more rigorous critique of Harman’s thought, using these initial sketches as a hermeneutical framework that could push the critique even further. What I mean by this is that, one could ostensibly unite your critique of Harman’s Orientalist theory of causation (“sensuous vicar”) with the “political economic” issues we’ve been discussing by looking at Harman’s objects through Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism and reification. The concept of “allure” used by Harman seems as though it would especially offer itself to this sort of analysis. In doing so, I think the goal would be, essentially, to destroy object-oriented philosophy, or at least expose it for what it is: a fetishistic ideology.

    • kvond November 14, 2009 at 2:30 pm

      Honestly Bryan, that really would be a very significant thing to do, in the sense that I feel that his Orientalization is symptomatic of some very strong trends in European thinking (the projection and mediation via the exotic “other”), but also the sense that Harman’s infinitizing of the human representalist caricature, into objects (in the name of liberating them, or giving them their “say”), has “American” characteristics. It really would be something to read, The Fetishization of the Object. If you pursue this line of thinking it certainly would be interesting. The odd thing about his concept of “allure” is that it is both an incredibly loaded term, but also a term that has almost no explanatory value at all (its the mysterious thing that does almost all the “work” in his theory of causation). It practically begs for analysis.

  3. Paul Ennis November 14, 2009 at 11:57 am

    I thought you might get a kick out the sub-heading:
    Researchers must take a stand now or be judged and rewarded as salesmen

    http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article6915986.ece

  4. Paul Ennis November 14, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    You might have to copy and past it but if it won’t work you can google: Impact on humanities

    It’s a good article in general besides the interesting sync with this post.

  5. glen November 14, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    Entertaining post!

    I don’t understand how or why Levi got caught up in this. His blog used to be interesting. I think it is because he was asked to be a reader for Harman’s Latour book and felt obligated to spruik it on his blog. When people started to attack or be critical of Harman’s book on Levi’s blog, then I think Levi backed himself into a corner by defending it.

    Perhaps a better way to think philosophy as ‘a roll of the dice’ is in terms of the ontology of the challenge. That it is more important to take a punt on something because it is worthy of being backed, rather than because you think it might be right or end up with a positive result. The result is whether or not you ‘win’ the ‘result’. The challenge however is in the capacity to turn the contigent dimension of a problem into that of challenge. Like the qualitatively neutured term ‘risk’, which only measures probability, a problem has a contingent dimension whereby a solution is needed and may not be right. A challenge also has a contingent dimension, one that needs to be affirmed if it is to be eventuated.

    Mobilisations in the distributed social of the contemporary blogosphere (like any asymmetrical distribution, for example different kinds of freelancers all working on a single project) occur when various people accept a singular challenge. The challenge is singular, but can be repeated in different ways. So Levi repeats the challenge of OOO/OOP (he affirms something + moves towards resolving the contingent dimension of OOO/OOP). I am very critical of Harman, mainly because of his reading of Whitehead and non-reading of the late Latour. So I repeat the singular challenge in a different way in my posts on Harman’s book or comments in various places critiquing the OOO/OOP position.

  6. kvond November 14, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    Glen, I’ll have to look at your comments with more depth when I have a bit more time, but the connection with the Latour book and Levi is a worthwhile one. The book is pretty much a book-report on Latour, and the few Harman parts, correcting Latour, are uninterestng. Its a kind of non-book. But Levi went on and on about it, mostly talking about Latour himself (which is not Harman’s book on Latour), and then ended up comparing the book to Deleuze’s book on Foucault. Okay, I can remotely accept a Latour/Foucault comparison, but Harman/Deleuze is about an absurd and silly as can be.

    But I certainly won’t make the excuse for Levi that he just got wrapped up in the Harmanian by accident. He actively has participated (Vampirism, etc.) and continues to participate in the self-identification with Harman, including of course the branding of an imagined OOO to OOP.

  7. Eli November 15, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    I really hope that you do prepare something for publication analysing (better: eviscerating) all this stuff in Harman about withdrawn vacuum packed objects, vicarious causation, allure etc. I think it needs to be done. I am sure you could publish it in, say, Philosophy Today or Continental Philosophy Review. I would personally be more wary of all the accusations of Orientalism and so on, though, as prima facie compelling as they might be, and just focus for the time being on exposing the hopeless incoherence of his central conceptual claims. As you know (and indeed as any intelligent person who has bothered to submit this stuff to any degree of critical scrutiny cannot have failed to notice), Harman´s entire “metaphysics” amounts to a sheath of vague metaphors held together by nothing more than a string of howling non sequiturs masquerading as profound philosophical insight. I think that anyone who has time and inclination to show, clearly and calmly (i.e. without undue polemic: though admittedly this would require considerable self-restraint!) that this is so would be doing a damn good service, and it seems to me that you might well be the best person to do it. Perhaps you could then follow this up with something about the shady Orientalist metaphorics and so on, but I think there would already be enough to go on to simply expose the thoroughgoing incoherence of the basic arguments (using the word in the loosest possible sense) at a first pass.

    • kvond November 15, 2009 at 5:38 pm

      Thanks for the positive response to some of my critique, but honestly by interest in Harman is in the context of the blogged internet discussion, this community. I honestly don’t think he is someone who anyone thinks needs to be rebutted in a journal. No one actually is convinced that he is remotely right, and surely most see his work as quite derivative with Heidegger and Husserl doing all the heavy lifting.

      I do find criticism of Husserl and Heidegger significant and worth doing, but it is not a major concern. As for Harman, even those that associate with him the most (Shaviro and Bryant) find his work incoherent (something they couch in softer terms).

  8. bonjo November 15, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    if ya don’t like someone, call ‘em a capitalist. works every time.

  9. bryank November 15, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    Kvond, this might be a lot of work on your part, but it might be a good idea, or at the very least useful, to have assembled a post that lists together all of your critiques of Harman’s thought, compiled together for easier reference.

  10. Pingback: Harman’s Commodification of Paper Writing « Frames /sing

  11. Montag November 16, 2009 at 7:05 am

    The only thing my failing wit understands in the short time allotted me this morning is “philosophical Ponzi scheme.”

    That is rather brilliant.

    It makes me – unfortunately – think of the growth of religions which promise some propitious future event.

    I shall come back to it later.

  12. Pingback: Humanities and Ponzi: Just What Secures the Investment of Thought « Frames /sing

  13. Pingback: AUFS’s failure of branding « An und für sich

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