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Category Archives: Graham Harman

Back When Speculative Realism was, err, Both Speculative and Real

An und für sich has a nice post up on Laruelle, that begins with a mournful nostalgia for a pre-capitalized Speculative Realism. Unfortunately I never witnessed this brief but golden moment for I was introduced to the movement through the exploitive fourth, but I have seen the afterglow:

In addition to making me nostalgic for a time when the very phrase “speculative realism” didn’t also signify “self-aggrandizing marketing tool-being”, but actually introduced me to three thinkers who work I found extremely interesting, challenging, and productive of thought (two as enemies and one as an ally, and a fourth whose work failed to capture my attention), it also served to remind me of the occasional series here about philosophers not understanding Laruelle.

The point of the post is to drive Laruelle’s solution of the Real and non-philosophy between the two Scylla and Charybdis of the ancestral arche-fossil and posterior Nihilism:

The real difference between the two philosophers has to do with the order of the Real as such (and I’m refusing here the difference Meillassoux tries to set up between the Real and realism) in relation to thought. For Meillassoux it is necessary to point to some ancestral moment prior to thought to break from subjective metaphysics, or what Laruelle calls the melange of thought and the Real, and what that ultimately means is that one must think a time preceding any possible thought or manifestation. Brassier flips this and instead of thinking from a time prior to thought attempts to breaks the circle through a radicalized nihilism that thinks a time posterior to all thought in the extinction of the universe. Laruelle’s theory of time can be said to refuse these two empirical theories and instead posits a determination-in-the-last-instance of thought by the Real. This determination does not posit a time prior or after to thought, but instead marks a unilateral determination of thought by the Real in each moment, thought is Real but the Real is not, as such, related to thought. This, in my view, is preferable to either the arche-fossil of Meillassoux or the nihilism of Brassier, because it passes the extensity test in thinking both the human and the Real without the need to rid itself of one to think the other.

I like the point, and find some sympathies with it and my Spinozism, but I wonder as well, what if we treat Speculative Realism itself as neither ancestral nor posterior closure. What if we think it as “a unilateral determination of thought by the Real”. By this I mean something Spinozist. The thoughts of Speculative Realism, the entire assemblage of it, before it became “self-aggrandizing marketing tool-being” (that is appropriated into a model of signifying commerce under the focus of one practice) held a brute determination that gave it its mark upon the world, a mark that can be decoded only through analysis of the power relations of its parts, the degree of reality of its members, partly through the kind An und für sich opens. Which is to say there is no determinative point from which to say when Speculative Realism ceased being Speculative Realism, and in fact ever was. There was only the brute Real of Speculative Realism and the attempt to express and/or harvest it. At one point it seems its name entered into an economy of names which removed a great deal of its potentiality.

Graham Harman’s Bad Poetry

Harman makes a note of the criticism no doubt someone has directed towards his writing:

Another example is when people accuse a philosophical text of degenerating into “bad poetry” (this is a popular one). The people who use this phrase would be no more supportive of good poetry than of bad; they simply want to exclude all poetry from philosophical work. Yet they can’t say: “But that’s poetry!”

I have to say this certainly isn’t a criticism I have leveled at Harman’s writing, though I have been very cautious in aesthetically judging the quality of his sometimes profuse use of adjectives and sensuous illustrations. Honestly at times the verge on the edge of “bad poetry”, and Harman himself has laughed at some of the phrasing he uses in the Vicarious Causation essay. As a poet and a fiction writer I would never exclude the poetic from the expression of a philosophical discourse, but one does have to separate the argumentative claim from its rhetorical force expression, and if the rhetoric is bad poetry, overripe, indulgent, sophomoric, well…its just bad writing. But as well I believe that the metaphors one uses to convince most certainly should be both examined and critiqued, just as they would be in poetry, especially if the theory is of the opinion that metaphors mean something and are the primary ways that all objects interact (as Harman has suggested). I find Deleuze and Guattari quite poetic, and to very good effect. One is swept up in the materiality of the expression and the transformation. Foucault can be like this, and many others. What Graham likely hides in this minimization of the “bad poetry” critique is that he believes he is a better writer than most philosophy writers (he has said that he refuses to apologize for writing so well, when the question of his metaphors has been brought up). I would say that Harman’s writing rises to the level of “entertaining” but seldom breaches the realm of Poetry, and when it does, well, perhaps it is bad. Perhaps it would better to characterize it as bad sports writing.

In the same post Harman goes on a nice rant about the nature of Vampires and Grey Trolls and the usual bestiary of essentializations directed at those who critique him. In this effusion he extends his thesis that the poster named “Eli” who made a rather liquid denunciation of Harman’s philosophical skills. The comment appeared in the comments section of one of my posts, and I reproduced it here. Harman’s claims in the usual incoherent manner that this fine writer was me, as I was reeling from his recent attack on my person. Of course “Eli” is not me. If one even bothered to think about it much one would realize why. I suppose it is interesting when the people you critique start to fantasize about you, either turning you into monsters or persona of every stripe.

Levi Apparently Has Never Read Harman’s Theory of Causation

Who Is Taking Harman’s Theory Seriously?

Levi writes in defense of Harman’s so-called Theory of Vicarious  Causation, after summoning the authority of the Principle of Charity a principle by whose force he tells me that I must assume that Harman actually knows what he is talking about when he proposes a brand new theory of causation. First my description, then his rejection of it:

Do you read as coherent that when a baseball hurls into a windshield it must FIRST send a representation of itself INTO the glass, and then it must brush this “vicar” into a state of phenomenenal breakdown, a breakdown which THEN results in the baseball cracking the glass? Does this make any sense to you? Aside from projecting a human caricature of experience and cognition, in what way does this actually seem to reveal how objects interact without human beings? (which I wrote at anotherheideggerblog)

 Levi’s dismissal:

The characterization of Harman’s position above is clearly absurd. Harman’s thesis is not that objects must first encounter other objects under the form of a “sensuous vicar” and then relate to them. Nor is it an anthropomorphization of relations between objects. Rather, Harman’s thesis is that objects only relate to one another selectively with respect to particular qualities, never exhaustively in terms of all the qualities that an object might possess or be capable of.

This is how Levi characterizes the Principle of Charity, something he feels that I have violated:

Rather, the principle of charity is a necessary condition for philosophical discourse, requiring that we present the positions of other thinkers in the most reasonable and plausible light before proceeding to criticism of that position. Working on the premise that our interlocutor is a reasonable and intelligent person that genuinely wants to get at the truth, explain features of the world, and understand things– a premise that should be granted at the beginning of dialogue and revoked only when proven otherwise –we should ask ourselves, with respect to our interpretations of the positions of others, “is this a position that a reasonable person would endorse or advocate? If our impression of another’s position is that it is batshit crazy insane, then it is likely we have misinterpreted the other person’s position, not that the author is making the absurd claim.”

Kettle Black

Obviously Levi did not follow my string of posts on Harman’s Theory of Causation when I originally posted them many months ago (and linked at the bottom), posts which were more than generous in terms of Charity. I sincerely wished to extract and find agreement with every possible coherence I could find, as one would see if you actually read my exegetic struggles with the said theory. Indeed when I found I could not make full sense of it I blamed myself, as Levi suggests, and this lead me to create diagrams of all the objects and their supposed interactions, and when the theory didn’t make sense even then, I even checked with Harman (with whom I was on good terms with at the time), to make sure that I got all the working parts right. And affirmed that I did. No one that I know of has gone this far in trying to local the sense of his theory. The Charity was immense and willingly given. [It seems though that Levi in making his  assessment of my explication and my criticism has not even bothered to read my posts on the theory, but has simply Uncharitably attributed them to an intitial uncharitable disposition on my part. This is quite common for Levi as he regularly reads his critics in the worst possible light, his rhetoric often rising to literally atrocious levels.]

Harman sans Phenomenology?

But more than this, in his defense of Harman’s Theory of Causation and its supposed non-anthropomorphic nature, Levi does not select a quote from Harman’s theory (the essay which he seems not to have actually read or read closely), nor even from Harman himself, but from Michael over at Complete Lies who presents an ENTIRELY non-phenomenological reading of Harman’s theory.

As Michael writes over at PE, confessing the expermental nature of his take on Harman’s causation:

“This is the gamble I’m making. It may fail, but I’m considering it an experiment in understanding. I want to see if OOP could be presented and understood with no post-Kantian material. This would obviously change things, but I am hoping it will lead to new understandings and clarifications.”

Harman’s theory is whole-hog a phenomenological theory (hello?). In fact the problematic anthropomorphism RESIDES in the phenomenology and the core assumption that Husserl’s Cartesian sensuous objects are explanatory of what non-human causation is. Take out the phenomenology and you go a long way towards taking out the anthropomorphism…you also go a long way toward destroying Harman’s theory altogether. Michael of course admits that by taking out the phenomenology he has performed a great gamble as I cited, but it is absolutely silly to appeal to Michael attempted rescue of Harman’s theory from its phenomenology to explain what precisely Harman himself is claiming. It has removed a core component of the point that Harman is trying to get across, and it is this core component (and how it is said to interact with other elements) which I have described far above with baseballs and windshields. It should be obvious that I am under no obligation to explain how Harman’s own theory might be readable without reference to any post-Kantian material when in fact Harman’s ENTIRE theory is about how post-Kantian Husserl and Heidegger objects are necessary to understand causation in the first place. Michael makes no reference to Harman’s theory of causation essay in his experiment (cool as it is), and the reason for this is that it wants nothing to do with phenomenology or Husserl. Levi’s turn toward a no-post-Kantian explanation of what Harman is claiming in unreserved and exclusively post-Kantian terms is beyond ludicrous, and shows the least respect for Harman’s theory one can imagine, a refusal to take it seriously on its own terms.

It seems I have been unfair in criticizing Levi recently for remaining silent on the incoherence of Harman’s theory of causation because in fact it seems that Levi has NOT actually read it  but only about it (as is evident by his inability to reference the essay in any way shape or form in support of what he thinks it claims, nor recognize those claims when made explicit).  Here is the essay.

As to my uncharitable assessment of the essay’s depiction, my reading is fair and reflects what Harman has asserted in his essay. Levi seems to have greatest trouble with the successive nature of the interactions between real objects as mediated by their sensuous vicars. It is that he thinks Harman is just concerned with selectivity and not the actual relations of which selectivity is made. But this is EXACTLY as Harman describes it, emphasizing this temporal quality of the imagined relations, in fact he speaks in terms of lag and interaction:

“We must discover how real objects poke through into the phenomenal realm, the only place where one relates to another. The various eruptions of real objects into sensuality lie buffered from immediate interaction. Something must happen on the sensuous plane to allow them to make contact, just as corrosive chemicals lie side by side in a bomb – separated by a thin film eaten away over time, or ruptured by distant signals.”

*cited from the essay none of the supporters of the essay seem to want to cite.

And again,

“There is a constant meeting of assymetrical partners on the interior of some unified object: a real one meeting the senuous vicar or deputy of another. Causation occurs when these obstacles are some how broken or suspended. In seventeenth century terms, the side-by-side proximity of real and sensual objects is merely the occasion for a connection between a real object inside the intension and another real object lying outside it. In this way shaves or freight tunnels are constructed between objects that otherwise remained quarantined in private vacuums.”

So, when Levi makes his Charitable appeal to Michael’s non-Phenomenological interpretation of Harman’s Phenomenological acount of causation…

Nor is it an anthropomorphization of relations between objects. Rather, Harman’s thesis is that objects only relate to one another selectively with respect to particular qualities, never exhaustively in terms of all the qualities that an object might possess or be capable of.

This denuded attempt to save Harman’s theory misses the entire failing of the theory itself, its proposed explanation of just what that SELECTIVITY consists of, ie how causation occurs. Where is Levi’s grasp of the nature of the “distant signal” Harman says is sent out from the vacuum-packed “real” object? Where is Levi’s awareness of processes of corrosion that are said necessarily to occur at the level of the “sensuous plane”? Where is the conceptual nature of what a “vicar” is (a vicar is a Representation, hello? Harman also uses the term “deputy”) appreciated or even acknowledged? Can it be the case that the only way to be charitable to Harman’s causation one has to strip it of ALL phenomenological and Husserlian object basis? This is not charity, this is plain old mis-reading, or as I suspect, non-reading. It seems that as Levi appeal to Michael’s version of the essay and not the essay itself, it is quite likely that he has not read the essay he defends, just as he had not read the evolution of my treatment of it. Instead we have in the usual Levi Bryant sense, a wild invocation of a “principle” (he just loves these principles) without understanding either the contexts he is applying them to, or really the principle itself.

Charity and Credit Deferred

To take up the Principle of Charity I go to Donald Davidson’s most famous positioning of it, which argues that the only reason why we can make ANY sense of anyone is through the initial and primary assumption that they are saying, doing, intending, is rational. This is foundational to cognitive, intersubjective relatability. And this we gladly presume, as I am Davidsonian. And one can see of course this is also something to be extended to theories proposed. We have to assume an initial optimality of coherence to as to see what is being attempted, how it all SHOULD work together. But this is not an infinite credit. The reason why one is charitable in this way is so that when testing the coherence of a theory it is against the backdrop of this intial coherence that we come to understand its failings. You try to make it work, and you try to make it work so that when it eventually fails you can say to yourself, “hey, this stuff is non-sense or in need of a radical overhaul”, or hopefully “With a little tweak here it functions smoothly”). 

Now it seems that Levi wasn’t even charitable enough to actually read Harman’s theory, or if he read it he read it so shallowly he didn’t even pay attention to what it was claiming. Instead he distanced himself from it, and did not challenge its merit as an honest friend might do. He doesn’t seem to be familiar with it at al, in factl. Instead he has appealed to an non-Phenomenological secondary treatment of it to attempt a summary which actually dismisses almost the whole of Harman’s claim about the nature of causation, intensional objects, Husserl, the whole ball of wax.  I would certainly agree with Levi that what Harman is trying to do is something of the bedimmed “selectivity” of objects, so to speak, but Harman is trying to stake out the actual mechanism, the means of connectives in selection and interaction upon a very specific armature of relations; primary among these is the Phenomenological intension of objects, and in the case of “vicars” a representationalist conception of interaction. The processes of real objects sending signals to their vicars in other objects, and these vicars being “poked” or “poked through” or “corroding” makes up the actual mechanism of causation that he provides however vaguely. To miss this is simply to abuse his theory altogether, to pretend that it is not what it is. Try not to explain away or simply IGNORE what Harman is trying hard to assert and describe.

Harman is rather explicit in his essay about this, and only a very lazy reading of his essay would miss it. It is the connection between elements that is vital:

“What remains to be seen is how these elements interact, how one type of relation transforms into another, how new real objects paradoxically arise from the interaction between real objects and sensual ones, and even how sensual objects manage to couple and uncouple like spectral rail cars. These sort of problems are the subject matter of object-oriented philsophy: the inevitable mutant offspring of Husserl’s intentional objects and Heidegger’s real ones.”

Levi has it all wrong when he thinks he has encapsulated Harman’s theory of causation: “The point is that there is always more possibilities open to any object than those actualized in any particular relation the object enters into.” This is not the point of his theory at all, only the presumption that drives the necessity of a theory of causation in the first place. The burden is in stating how and why THIS particular relation has been actualized, and not THAT or another relation has been actualized. His entire essay is an argument (and hopefully not just a fantasy) of “how these elements interact” and it is for that reason that the exact nature of their interaction so claimed comes under criticism. Only by vacating Harman’s theory of causation of all content, as Levi does, removing from it any claim for how the elements interact, any reference to the central role of representational phenomenology, do you end up with Levi’s very compassionate but empty reading. It would be really nice if those that claim to be charitable readers of Harman’s theory actually concern themselves with the stated aims of the piece rather than coming up inventive ways of avoiding its explicit content.

I would add that I praise Harman for attempting his theory of causation, precisely in the terms that he attempted it. It was a bold try. The reason one cannot simply ignore what Harman tries, the exact depiction of how causation occurs in particular to the assumption of a Phenomenological core (which Michael at Complete Lies does away with), is that Harman knows that if his four fold is actually to be shown as coherent, it is precisely this kind of theory, THIS theory (or one very similar) that has to take hold. It was just for this reason why Harman attempted it, and is continuing to work on it (as it is merely absurd or tremendously failing as it is). The reason why Levi’s failure to read the essay with any precision constitutes an abuse (as does Michael’s non-Phenomenological reading) is that Harman’s theory of causation is the joint-work of his entire metaphysics. And it is just for this reason that this theory in all of its anthropomorphic splendor, projecting Husserl’s objects and actions into every object in the world, displays the incoherence (or one might say fantasy nature) of his metaphysics. Harman needs his theory of causation to save his Speculation.

A short word about Charity and the extent of it. Levi in the past has accused me of not extending the Principle of Charity to his own wildly swinging theories as if the work of the explanation actually falls upon me, the reader. This is nonsense. Initially one assumes that someone knows what they are talking about, but as one encounters incoherences or rhetorical tendencies at deception (as one does with Levi), critical questions increase, rather than go down. When the car seems to be running fine, you get in and ride in it. When it starts to make a knocking sound, and then wobble a bit when steering, you get out. You presume the car can be fixed, and you try to fix it, but one is under no obligation to presume either that it MUST be fixable, or worse, that it isn’t even in need for repair.

This is the problem with some of the Speculation versions of philosophy operating at the upper end of the internet (because I don’t want to speak of the weightier writers of the now defunct Speculative Realism). Some seem to imagine that the Principle of Charity somehow works as a fill-in for the connective parts of a theory, that the theory itself MUST make sense, all the while remaining in the shadows of mere “speculation” (hey, don’t criticize it, I’m still working on it!). This goes right to the point I made about Speculative Realism and financial Speculative Bubbles which has caused something of a stir. Indeed in financial trading there are principles of Charity which ground and even drive the investment in different products. But one does not wisely invest in ANY financial product, or even accept any form of promisory note, just because one has to be generous. The economy of exchange is founded on the possibility of testing the merit of representational claims, and philosophy is no different. The problem I have had with some versions of Speculative Realism has to do with the difference between “This is a cool idea for a car!” and “This is a car.” The one you speculate, test, think about, maybe model and one day build, the second one you don’t get into unless it shows itself to do what it claims to do. I’m not against the first kind at all, in fact my entire blog (and many of the lower tier Speculativists’ as well) are exactly of this nature: This is a cool idea for a car! But it seems that some want to do the philosophical thing and make the further claim, and in Levi’s case, basically bluff your way into This is a car! with all kinds of references to Priniciples and fallacies, name-droppings, borrowings and science references. Fair enough, if you want to play philosopher, go ahead, but when checking under the hood before revealed a bunch of disconnected wires and old car parts and lots of very gruff “Hey, what do you think you doing in there!” most would pass on checking any further. But in either case,  criticism as to what is being claimed (fantasy car, or real car) is just what is needed to make what we have created better, so it works.

I would say that my criticism of Harman’s causation was the most charitable thing I could have done. And recent pressure I have put on the allies of Harman to actually engage it has done more good for the essay and what it was attempting to do than a thousand tepid avoidances or radical reinterpretations. At least Harman has a chance to renew the incoherence and see if he can rescue it, to speak of “distant signals” and “corrosive sensuous film” with more argumentative force. Levi might actually read the essay this time, maybe Michael’s non-Phenomenological causation gets Harman to change something fundamental. In any case, I don’t believe in black boxes, and presume that the more attention the essay gets the better the chance that Harman’s metaphysics will find the causal explanation that would justify its claims. I’m all for that. In the meantime, when Harman tells us that when a bug hits the windshield of a truck and has absolutely zero causal effect on the truck, an example of one way causation, we justifiably should laugh, and to do so charitably.

For those who would like to read the uncharitable approach I took towards the essay, these were my posts in evolution. Unlike some, I actually refer to the essay – in great detail – and attempt to grasp the specificity of its claims. 

My three overall points to Harman’s Theory of Causation are:

1. Insofar as it does work it is a problematic Orientalization of causal relations through a mediating exotic other (a cultural values insertion).

2. Insofar as it projects Husserlian Cartesian representationalism into every object relation it is one vast anthropomorphization and quite far from being “object oriented”.

3. Insofar as it fails to provide an account of the relations between posited elements it ceases even to be a theory of causation for it lacks the explanation itself.

How Do the Molten Centers of Objects Touch?

The “sensuous vicar” of Causation

More on Harmanian Causation: The Proposed Marriage of Malebranche and Hume

Taking the “God” out of the 17th Century

Spinoza says, “Individual things are nothing more than…”

Graham Harman’s “essence” contra DeLanda, à la Campanella

Vicarious Causation Diagrammed

The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman)

The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert

Binaries, Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic

Bourdieu on Blogging: Where to Find Symbolic Capital?

Living Beyond Your Means, On Credit

I don’t have time to summarize in depth, but some may be interested in this discussion over at the Latourian blog We Have Never Been Blogging: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop. In our back and forth I quote from Bourdieu, from his Homo Academicus, a passage meant to describe the avenues of academic respect hoped to be achieved through “journalism”. The passage has of course interest for the kinds of Symbolic Capital some are, or have been trying to accumulate through blogging and other heterodox philosophical publishing. Worthy of note, Bourdieu uses an analogy of credit quite similar to one that I employed recently, although I did not have this passage or even Bourdieu in mind:

The heretical traditions of an institution based on a break with academic routine, and structurally inclined towards pedagogical and academic innovation, lead its members to become the most vigorous defenders of all the values of research, of openness to abroad and of academic modernity; but it is also true that they can encourage to the same extent work based on bogus, fictitious and verbal homage to these values, and that they can encourage members to give prestigious values for a minimum of real cost…The structural ambiguity of the position of the institution reinforces the dispositions of those who are attracted to this very ambiguity, by offering them the possibility and the freedom to live beyond their intellectual means, on credit, so to speak. To all the impatient claimants who, against the long production cycle and longterm investment…have chosen the short production cycle, whose ultimate example is the article in the daily or weekly press, and have given priority to marketing rather than production, journalism offers both a way out and a short cut. It enables them to overcome rapidly and cheaply the gap between aspirations and opportunities by ensuring them a minor form of the renown granted to great scholars and intellectuals; and it can even, at a certain stage in the evolution of the institution towards heteronomy, become a path to promotion within the institution itself.

There is even more coincidence for those interested in the local goings on in the blogged philosophical community, as Levi Bryant actually holds related parts of Bourdieu’s book as authentication for why he turned down a future at four year colleges and universities:

“Why did I choose a position at a two year school? “There”, I told Fink, “I will have academic freedom. I will be able to explore my interest in all styles of philosophy, psychoanalysis, biology, physics, history, literature, and so on without being required to be anything. No one will care what or where I publish, so I will be free to do what I want.” In his characteristic manner he said “hmmmm!!!”, making a honking sound like one of the squash horns my grandfather used to make for me as a young boy. At the time I thought that was a rationalization. Often I still do. I took myself out of the prestige game, though I still yearn for it sometimes. But what I was doing ultimately, I think, was giving myself the freedom to speculate. What a relief it was to read Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus years later! Perhaps, above all, what that seventh chapter gave me was the authorization to speculate without bowing before the obsessional alter of “Continental rigor” [editorial note: defense]. However, the fact that I would undermine my own work in this way must indicate that here there’s still something unresolved. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel embarrassment whenever anyone wants to discuss the work or wants insight into it.” here

No longer did Levi have to bow down and kiss the rings of the “prestige game”. We might assume that much of the thinking that leads one to the freedoms of speculation, that draw one away from university pursuits, would also be integral to the pursuits of blogging where even more freedom and speculation can occur.

Monk-Mind and Speculative Thinking: Playing Seriously

But in another sense, if we are going to appreciate Bourdieu on this front, we should keep our eye upon all the Symbolic Capital accumulations (not just where and how they have been cashed in within the Institution), and see that Speculation is an interesting game, one that aims at kind of heretical prestige runaround, but also one that participates in the general game of the scholè, the reasoned preoccupations that only can occur within a hermeticism against practical, worldly pressures. The generation of the “scholastic point of view”:

I believe indeed that we should take Plato’s (1973) reflections on skhole very seriously and even his famous expression, so often commented upon, spoudaios paizein, “to play seriously.” The scholastic point of view of which Austin speaks cannot be separated from the scholastic situation, a socially instituted situation in which one can play seriously and take ludic things seriously. Homo scholasticus or homo academicus is someone who is paid to play seriously; placed outside the urgency of a practical situation and oblivious to the ends which are immanent in it, he or she earnestly busies herself with problems that serious people ignore-actively or passively. To produce practices or utterances that are context-free, one must dispose of time, of skhole and also have this disposition to play gratuitous games which is acquired and reinforced by situations of skhole such as the inclination and the ability to raise speculative problems for the sole pleasure of resolving them, and not because they are posed, often quite urgently, by the necessities of life, to treat language not as an instrument but as an object of contemplation or speculation.

Thus what philosophers, sociologists, historians, and all those whose profession it is to think and/or speak about the world have the most chance of overlooking are the social presuppositions that are inscribed in the scholastic point of view, what, to awaken philosophers from their slumber, I shall call by the name of scholastic doxa or, better, by the oxymoron of epistemic doxa: thinkers leave in a state of unthought (impense’, doxa) the presuppositions of their thought, that is, the social conditions of possibility of the scholastic point of view and the unconscious dispositions, productive of unconscious theses, which are acquired through an academic or scholastic experience, often inscribed in prolongation of an originary (bourgeois) experience of distance from the world and from the urgency of necessity.

“The Scholastic Point of View”

For those that follow Harman’s preoccupations, the forgotten Scholastics are principle among them. These now ill-respected thinkers for Harman form a whole portfolio of philosophical stock that can be purchased at bargain basement prices. Mix one of these thinkers into your paper and one suddenly produces a sense of weight and historical richness, we know. If you embrace one fully enough you’ve resurrected a lost soul locked in the catacombs of philosophical history, and have engendered a sense of personal originality, going against the tide of the Institution. But as well we might see that the connection between Scholasticism and Speculativism comes out of a certain kind of inherent idealization of what academic thinking is. Cocooned from practical concerns and pressures, the monk-mind is free to speculate and achieve a kind of non-worldly perspective. The isolation into institutions, and then, when run from, into blogged privacies is a participation in privilege to which the thought produce may very well be blind. There is real, Bourdieuian advisement that “the scholastic point of view” must be epistemologically leavened with an awareness of the structures which have produced it, and thus made aware of the unconscious investments that govern its own quietude.  If we may be monks, the conditions that allow our speculation are brought along with it, and if we really are pursuing, not just speculation for its pleasures of freedom and imagination, not just some kind of run-around of Institutional restraint, searching for cheaper prestige, but true ideas and ideas that inherently should matter to the world, the consequence of our ideas (politically, ethically, socially) must be embraced. In this way there is an epistemological mandate for our ontological speculation which immediately connects ethics to metaphysics. By way of example: Speculating that the world is essentially an Oriental condition of mediated cause as Harman does, should be related to the real world Orientalization which produces the cocoon of one’s own speculation, possibly to detrimental effect. To put it another way, the more our Symbolic Capital increases, especially in the field of philosophy, the more our ethical responsibility of our ideas to the world does as well.

Just as men out of prisons into holy sancturaries are fleeing, so these joyous men out from technical arts are leaping into Philosophy, as if those being most intricate would hit upon the little art of themselves. For in comparison with the other arts the honor of philosophy even though foresaken is more magnificent. This is the flight of the many unaccomplished by nature, who from the technical arts and even workmanship, their bodies have been mutilated and their souls envined and even crushed through the mechanical arts.

Plato, Republic [495d]

The Play of Fascist Objects: Object-Orientation and Latour: Updated

Adriano has a really articulate comment he put up under my posting on Latour’s implicit Fascism, Fascist Bindings In Latour: The Blinding Glory of Non-Human Agency. I have to comment on this later, but his essential Bourdieu vs. Latour political point is certainly a compelling one. Its has a double-edged blade when put to Harman and Levi because Harman declaratively wants to ignore any political complicity or consequence of his thinking (he embraces its Orientalism to no ill effect), while Levi who tries to preserve his social justice credentials and his hatred (yes hatred) for Neoliberalism wants to read Marx as essentially Latourian. For those interested in Levi’s self-proclaimed in-name political radicalism (and I am not, other than its implicit hypocrisy) Adriano’s pressing of a political, sociological critique is quite germane. For those interested in Harman’s implicit Capitalized logic (which I am), the question of Latour’s Neoliberalism which grounds Harman’s attempt to glue Husserlian objects to Heideggerian ones, Adriano’s point again presses home. The question arises, What is so sexy about objects?, if one could put it that way.

As Fuller writes in the article I cited, the very object-orientation of the concept of “translation” as a strong counterpart in our conception of desire:

” “Translation” was meant broadly to cover the process whereby one thing represents another so well that the voice of the represented is effectively silenced. Central to this process is the capacity of something to satisfy—and thereby erase—a desire. Callon and Latour exploited the Latin root of “interest” as interesse (“to be between”) to capture this capacity, which reverses the ordinary meaning of interest by implying that it is the presence of an object that creates (or perhaps reorients) a desire which the object then uniquely satisfies. That object is the mediator.”

When Latour’s very theory of objects as actors itself is seen in this light, as the “object that uniquely satisfies or fully orients our desire”, when our consciousness is defined by its objects, we of course lose the capacity to critique that desire itself, and the matrix of powers/desires it finds itself in. Is it not that the very verticality of ontology (aside from Harman’s fantasy of four-fold sensuality), the leverage point upon which ethics is built? And is not the very absence of an ethics from Latour, Harman and Levi, the mark of the failings of their ontological construction? In short, perhaps….where is Bourdieu?

Here is Adriano’s comment:

Well yeah, as we have coincide before: the foundational imposture that Latour retains is the source of the problem. But its also worth to mention that neither Harman nor Levi bothered themselves to take Latour`s work critically. Like i have said elsewhere, Latour´s work departures from a very and detailed systematic anti-bourdieusian imposture, say like ‘phantomizing’ Bourdieu´s constructive/conceptual preoccupations. So from this reactive foundation he is doing a cinical counterargumentation of all the work done by Bourdieu, and he keeps on feeding his stands by doing that.

Its seems that the position that Latour is occupying between the philosophical and the sociological fields is one of an ideologue who denies the relation that social research is meant to have in respect with other fields of knowledge, and this, in order to presume and to exalt the illusion of an absolute autonomy of the scientific field. But as he does this cynically, those who follow his work without any critical margins are meant to fall into a blinded spot in the exercise of their own practice, while they reproduce it as a naturalized scholastic point of view which gives a ‘fair’ sense of justification to their objectual laboratory. This is what i was trying to say to Nick the other day.

So the problem is also the lack of interest in adapting their work into the social research procedures: neither Harman or Levi are much worried to do this in the right way so to contemplate and conceive other critical angles regarding to what is known about the latourian assertions.They don`t do this because it would imply to realize how urgent is it for their sake to drop out a big part of what sustains their work. For instance, as a bourdieusian, its seems to me that they had never triangulate Latour`s work with Bourdieu`s, not even when there is a clear critical struggle underlined between these two sociologues. So they took an unquestioned part on Latour`s favor without knowing the specific and confronted vis a vis details of this very particular struggle, and obviously without getting to know closer the bourdieusian frame of work.

The results are evident: blinded spots within their practice that are reproduced through their pragmatic academic and granted commodities. This also means that they may not be aware how they are reproducing specific ideological interests that also might point out to their own social class and habitus) and this, in despite their good intellectual and ontological will. An object-oriented-naivety that ends to be self-oriented while they insist to defend it in they mean to fiercely embrace it.

UPDATED: For those interested in the Levi opera, I include here a link to a thorough-going response Adriano had to Levi’s separation of ontology from politics, which Levi in his usual fashion of refusing to publish critical objections to his position, deleted, in an effort to shape the impression that his position is both achieved through some kind of dialogic with all objections, and the production of a kind of consensus: here. He of course also has deleted any number of similiar critical questionings of his concepts by me, as well.  A discussion of these issues follows in the comments section below.

The Allure of a New Orthodoxy: Will “Collapse” Collapse?

Tim Matts over at his beautiful ecocritical, ecophilosophy blog, Violent Signshas some updates on the RealPolitik involved in the positioning of SRism, Harmanism and the various splintering pieces of the imagined movement. He focuses on the disseminating instrument – the  “Collapse” journal – and the coming and anticipated for eco-criticialists, Geo/Philosophy issue Collapse VI. It seems that in the editorial offices there is some worry that the journal will be swallowed up by this emerging Leviathan, ever mutating in its countless discoorinated hydra-heads. Can Collapse stand apart from this growing tide of commercialized thought, can it negotiate the path between meme-like viral fields condensing the aether into impromptu orthodoxy, and the possible failure to hook onto the Next Great Thing?:

Having recently spoken with editor Robin Mackay about the new volume, I can confirm that it is still in preparation, but an announcement will be made soon and advance orders will be possible at that time. Arriving some time in December, “late contributors and general perfectionism have held up publication…” Perhaps more interestingly, Mackay expressed concern over the journal’s affiliation with the latest philosophical trend, stating that “it’s not really centred on ‘SR/OOO’, indeed I’d be happy to distance Collapse from this apparent new orthodoxy!”

It seems that Tim jumped the gun in letting this “distancing” move of the journal out of the bag, and in doing so crossed the no-email-without-permission line that we find to be sacred. Tim felt that this was in good spirits and constructive, an interesting ethical topic in its own right, perhaps to be revisited. Its good to also post the “urbanomic” response, which does not refuse that such a distancing move is necessary, but that it needs to be clarified:

Hi Tim, to clarify – since you’re publicly quoting me from a hurried email response! – it’s not a matter of distancing Collapse from SR/OOO specifically – Rather, from the start the aim of Collapse was to avoid being associated with any philosophical ’school’, and to defy the tendency of philosophers to become jealous partisans of some particular camp or other and to spend their time defining and defending it; both by publishing important philosophical work that doesn’t fit into recognised academic categories – this was the reason for publishing Meillassoux et al in the first place – and by integrating work from outside philosophy.

Although this has always explicitly been its agenda, Collapse has inevitably been characterised in various places as being the ‘official journal of SR’ and suchlike, and even criticised for wavering from ‘real SR’. Whilst I’m more than happy with the association and with playing a part in disseminating that work, I don’t want readers to expect each volume to be some sort of ‘SR update’ and then to be disappointed. That’s why I mentioned it to you, since you were talking about reviewing the new volume as part of an overview of SR/OOO: Collapse played its part, but blogs and other publications will provide a much better overview of the current state of these developments.

I do think that we shouldn’t lose what’s important – the specificity and heterogeneity of each thinker’s work – in the excitement of a ‘next big thing’ and in the drive to determine affiliations and mark out territories.

Wrt your previous post, contrary to appearances, vol. 3 is in fact the best introduction, since it includes the full transcript of the original SR conference (year zero!)

And finally, one of the contributors to the ‘geophilosophy’ volume is Tim Morton, who you also discuss below (’speculative-realist-ecodeconstructionism’ set to become the next ‘next big thing?’

I’m not a great reader of Collapse (it was the home of Harman’s much discussed theory of Causation), but the coming issue certainly does strike a chord of interest, and Tim does a very nice job giving the context of the subject matter. For those of us interested in the local ethic which SR/OOP proliferation involves, the question of what substantive effect this loose theorizing and cadre-building (in particular the Harman/Levi variety) is having upon blogged philosophy, this new Orthodoxy associated chill is perhaps of abiding interest. In this way, as urbanomic says, if Collapse is an “SR update” I’m really not interested in reading it (though perhaps many people will be). Hopefully there will be other, more diverse ideas  involved. From the subject so described, I would have loved to have written on it.

Plus, I look forward to Tim’s promised comments on the question of Orientalization, either in Harman’s thinking (where it runs rampant) or in terms of ecophilosophy.

Harman’s Object Disorientation: Anthropomorphism At Large

The Unfinished Harman Theory of Causation

[click on picture for larger image]

Another Derrida?

Coincidently, what Harman thinks of Derrida: “Personally, I never had much time for Derrida, and see him instead as a self-indulgent wanker adrift in a sea of signs and boring high-culture collage.”

The discussion on the merits of Harman’s Husserl/Heideggerian Speculation has continued over at Perverse Egalitarianism in the comments section of Jon’s Points. Plenty of opinions abound, and software is distributing comments haphazardly so it makes a kind of grab-bag of objection and counterpoint. But one thing emerged that should be reposted here, Bryan’s limpid response to the passing suggestion that all this talk about the nonsense of Harman’s theory reminds us of the claims of nonsense about Derrida (some of which persist). It allowed a momentary conflation of Graham Harman the speculating philosophy book whisperer, and Derrida, radical critic of philosophy, culture, politics and literature. Bryan’s comments in response are worth reposting because the give context to the kind of sober check needed when philosophy simply has become Speculation:

1) First, I want to briefly cover an intellectual historical issue that has some bearing on this debate: the Anglo-Saxon philosophical-academic reception of Jacques Derrida’s ideas. As pretty much everybody knows, Derridean thought and deconstruction were seen as deliberately obscurantist, particularly by more analytically-inclined philosophers of the day. One might say the rejection of deconstruction in a wide array of philosophy departments is what opened up the field of comparative literature, which became a new critical space to do *real* theory.

I think this historical legacy of conservative skepticism towards the new and obscure is in some ways important, but not entirely relevant in the way that supporters or fellow-travellers of speculative realism view it to be. For one, I am not of the opinion—nor are many of us that are in some ways against OOP—that philosophy should be concerned entirely with examining “the canon,” as so many variations on textual interpretation and so on, the kind of thing that Levi is always ranting about from his bully pulpit at Larval Subjects. I am all for radical new systems, inventiveness, and a spirit of a return to metaphysics and ontology and all of the things that textual traditionalism and deconstruction alike swore off of, considered *Denkverbot*.

But that’s not a real substantive difference, the difference lies elsewhere: even when Derrida was under the fiercest of attacks by his conservative-minded critics, who charged him with nihilism and all the other litany of anathemas and what have you, there was still a large contingent of people who not only took Derrida seriously, but understood many of his most complex ideas. While it is, I think, an open question as to what degree Harman has made a genuine contribution to the field of philosophy (personally, I don’t view his critique of anthropocentrism as entirely convincing nor original, and the same goes for his depoliticized ontological universe of withdrawn objects), not a single person has claimed that they understand Harman’s theory of causation: neither Levi, nor even Latour, the Prince of Networks himself. This is astonishing, and absolutely underemphasized: as Kvond argued, Levi has dedicated his life towards unknotting some of the most
complicated thinkers who have ever lived, including Lacan and Deleuze. So, even though this might not count as direct evidence of Harman’s disingenuousness, it *should* (normatively speaking) elicit some degree of skepticism on our part.

2) Now I’d like to turn to the issue of the initial “faith” when approaching a philosophy for the first time. I am wholeheartedly in favor of this, principally because I reject the alternatives (skepticism, relativism, historicism, empiricism), and also because, at a basic ethical level, we owe it to others to grant them a modicum of respect when assessing their work: to treat it *as if* it has some inherent worth prior to determining whether this be the case or not. If we presuppose from the outset that the philosophical work is not sincere, then all end up doing is confirming our own hypotheses, which—although it often works for the sciences—is not necessarily an effective hermeneutical practice.

Personally, I was excited by Graham’s blog when it was first introduced, as I think were most in the philosophy blogosphere. I would also praise the speculative realist movement as a whole for breaking away from the dominant trends in continental philosophy associated with textual analysis, turning their efforts towards constructing new systems. But this is precisely where we need to distinguish that initial faith with a dose of skepticism. While many have continued their fidelity to the Truth-Event known as Graham Harman, it has become increasingly clear to me and others that his most central, core ideas do not seem to hold weight. This is suggested not only by Levi and Latour’s bafflement with his theory of vicarious causation—a sentiment which is shared just as well by Harman’s vocal critics—but also the extent to which Harman’s very own advice on how to write philosophy reveals a degree of cynicism about giving your work a sense of “shock value” and focusing on “One Great Idea,” painting a “philosophical landscape” using a pastiche of Classical and Contemporary, exotic and canonical, baroque and antique. This “mid-western ethic” of revealing how the game is played suggest a greater awareness on his part of using theories more as a means to an end, rather than as an end in themselves: it is less about the substance of the idea, than about creating networks and assemblages of power, authority, influence, and the “sizzle” of a brand name/identity. This, I think, is somewhat frightening, given that object-oriented philosophy claims to be investigating the question of BEING QUA BEING.

All I can say is that this is something I find myself in complete agreement with, and that my criticism of Harman is something that also grew out of my sincere desire to take him seriously as a thinker (which few seem to have wanted to do). I came to him with a tremendous sense of good faith, and put the long hours into ferreting out what all the claims were apart from his metaphors and allusions. I was genuinely excited, at first, to find as much common ground as possible, something I discovered which actually threatened Harman’s driving aim to be “original”. This need for originality, combined with the One Great Idea/Exaggeration approach, although it has generated interest, has proven to make of his “philosophy” an in-communication. No one understands it, but no one is supposed to critique it because it “is not finished” (and Harman only retreats into Husserl and Heidegger when pressed for clarity). It seems that one can only applaud it and not enter into dialogue with it.

Playing The Churl: Orientalism Good?

In this vein, Tim over at Violent Signs appears to find my questioning of the substance of Harman’s thinking both needed, but also a bit “churlish” (in particular my criticism of Harman’s self-admitted and embraced Orientalism):

The influence of Deleuze upon the principal OOO and SR writers appears marked, and a fuller post in this connection will follow. But in the meantime I want to add a word on what might be going overlooked in the rush to celebrate a (‘novel’) post-Deleuzian philosophy. Largely a blogospheric phenomenon, to suggest that the SR ‘movement’ conceals a sort of problematic Orientalism, and moreover, might amount to an exotic re-packaging of other object-oriented philosophies (something that many would still accuse Deleuzism of) seems nothing short of churlish, particularly given how exciting much of this thinking appears to be and how deeply amenable such materialisms are to ecocriticism, ecosophy or ecophilosophy. But these are thought-provoking and deeply ‘political’ criticisms nevertheless.

Whilst a fuller distinction between relational and object-oriented philosophies will have to remain forthcoming, I’d nevertheless agree wholeheartedly with Kvond that there’s a sort of “blogged responsibility” to comment on such insights/objections, “if only to triangulate and encourage more to post themselves”.

While I share Tim’s passion for an “ecophilosophy” (of which I read all of Spinoza to be), simply whether a movement of thought is friendly to ecocriticism is not the measure by which it should be criticized. And particularly in the issue of Orientalization (Harman’s desire to create a Sensuous, exotic mediating realm, and a cold, isolated “real” real) I am willing to play the Churl, since I find this one of the deepest problems with Harman’s regression back into Representationalist pictures of what makes human beings and what they do possible. And I think it is precisely on the question of Orientalization that ecophilosophy needs to get its ground. It is no more helpful to Orientalize Nature than it is to Orientalize causal relations, as Harman does.

Harman the Arch Critic: Real Objects Like Monkeys and Tornados

In this continuing vein of critique, there is another really well-written and well-pointed assessment of the substance of Harman’s appraisals, appraisals not only of philosophy, but of thinkers and their worth, the way in which he aestheticizes his authority. This is found in the comments section of my post  Harman’s Commodification of Paper Writing. Eli writes:

I think the point Bryan makes about how philosophy for Harman is all about painting pretty canvases is also absolutely spot on. Harman’s attitude toward just about everything is an “aesthetic” one, and he even says that we should regard aesthetics as “first philosophy”. But note that he means nothing remotely sophisticated by “aesthetics” here. Philosophy for him is about liking and disliking things – quite literally – and he views it as a purely aesthetic pursuit – not because he has some theory about how aesthetics judgement supplants all others or what have you; there’s no judgment, no cognitive dimension whatsoever involved: it’s literally as primitive as “x feels good”, “I like x”: hence his love of travelogue, catalogues, lists, photographs with pretty colours: the world is a vast aesthetic sensorium featuring the pleasing and the displeasing and philosophy is the catalogue and guide.

Go and listen, for example, to the lecture he gave in Dublin last year, most of which quite literally consists of him saying “so I like that” and “so I don´t like that”. Consider also all his “advice” posts in which says that bad arguments and non sequiturs are “the most trivial mistakes in philosophy” and that what really matters is that one writes with “style” and uses “vivid” language.

One of the ironies about all this of course is that he then accuses anyone who would base their ontological commitments upon the results of the empirical sciences of “crude reductionism”! Thus, reducing everything to aesthetics and fashion is fine, but it is “reductionism” to concern oneself with actual empirical knowledge. Indeed his whole attitude towards science is also a purely aesthetic one and the value of science for him purely comes down to what kinds of “pictures” it can give us. Amusingly, when accused of ignoring the sciences his response is always to say “I love all the sciences and in fact spend more time in bookshops in the popular science section than in the philosophy section” – flicking through looking at the pictures, presumably, or looking for vivid, colorful descriptions and metaphors.

Thus notice that in one post in which he was attempting to explain why he never draws upon science and yet nevertheless is “a great lover of all the sciences” he says “I love Dawkins for the vast landscapes he paints, populated with weird creatures” – note, not because he might actually learn something about such creatures, or about evolution or biology, but because he finds it aesthetically pleasing! However, he of course goes on to say that he “detests” Dawkins “arrogant scientism”.

Equally amusingly, in the same post he claimed that he wants “to increase exponentially the amount of attention we pay to comets and neutrinos”. But how exactly does he intend to do this? How on earth is one supposed to say anything whatsoever about such things without actually learning some science? – something that Harman informs us in the very same post he is not interesting in doing because “I simply do not have the head for it” and because he has “a remarkable inability to remember anything” he reads in science books (hardly surprising given that he limits this to flicking through them when in his local bookshop!). By “exponentially increasing the amount of attention we pay to comets and neutrinos” does that mean anything more than he will try to remember to include such items on his random lists of middle-sized dry-goods?

He also says that he rejects science because it does not fit in with his intuitive picture of how things are: “I just don’t feel on solid footing with the sciences. I can’t pretend to myself that I feel we’re in a safely solid domain when we talk about physics, for instance, because all sorts of non-physical entities immediately start leaking into the picture for me, and I can’t shut them out.”

What puzzles me most when he gives papers saying how philosophy should forget about epistemology and should instead concern itself directly with fire and cotton, monkeys, tornadoes and quarks, is why no-one just asks him straight out: “Could you give me an example of what a philosopher might have to say about monkeys or comets or neutrinos that’s not covered by the sciences?” What would he have to say? “Errm, well … when a monkey eats a banana, there is actually no interaction between the monkey and the banana, because monkeys and bananas are vacuum-sealed objects which forever infinitely withdraw from one another. No-one has ever seen a monkey or a banana in the purity of their individual essences, and they can only interact on the inside of an intention, and all objects relate to each other by means of intentions”. Why don’t people just start howling with laughter and derision when he says such things?

He also always puts the differences between himself and other “Speculative Realists” (a label that none of the others have ever actually used, by the way) down to purely aesthetic considerations: “My friend Brassier is temperamentally inclined towards eliminativism, but that’s not for me … Grant likes to think of the world as a ceaseless flux that somehow gets retarded to produce individual objects, but my intuition is that the world is carved up into individual objects, so I base my metaphysics on that …” This is not a direct quote but there have been plenty of posts like that, in which he characterises the four positions as if they were alternative pictures of the universe, something like choosing between various pre-Socratic worldviews according to one’s personal aesthetic tastes. For example:

 “When I read my friend Brassier, he’s too much of an eliminativist for my tastes. I don’t want to eliminate Popeye from the subject matter of philosophy, nor do I find it possible to do so” – presumably because whenever he tries to think about the world in terms of physics, pictures of Popeye keep leaking in to the picture and he can’t shut them out!

However, he does like some things in Brassier: namely, some of the vivid language he uses:

 “However, what I really passionately love in Brassier’s work is his fierce poetry of the insignificance of human being. Not the pessimism of it so much, because I am temperamentally an optimist and have a quasi-libidinal investment in even the most trivial objects that pass through my field of vision, and do not enjoy the thought of burnt-out husks of stars and the heat-death of the universe, which Brassier almost seems to viscerally enjoy”.

And ditto for Dawkins:

 “It’s for similar reasons that I often like reading Dawkins, even though I find his anti-fundamentalist tirades to be tedious and condescending …. But his vast landscapes of strange animal ancestors and archaic geological events … this I find highly appealing …”

 Thus, the entire ‘argument’ for his metaphysics goes something like this:

“Is reality divided up into chunks or is it a ceaseless flux? Well, which do you prefer? Which one appeals to you? I like the former. Why? Because my teachers likes all the relational stuff, and I got bored with that. I don’t like monism. Some people do, but my inclinations are different. Some people base their ontology on empirical sciences, but I like Popeye too much to go down that road. Anyway, I can’t remember anything I read in science books, and there aren’t any pretty pictures to look at there – except in astronomy, of course: I love stars and comets! I also love all the landscapes of weird and wonderful animals painted by Dawkins. But it puzzles me why some people prefer to think of gold in purely physical terms, thus giving up its shiny appearance. I find that when I think of gold all that comes to mind is its glittery shiny appearance, so my claim is that gold is metaphysically torn between its appearance and its inscrutable inner core. I guess those eliminativist types just have more austere aesthetic tastes than I do.”

The fact is, of course, that this stuff only appeals to overly impressionable students in the humanities for whom analytic philosophy is just too damn hard and who are constantly on the look out for the next new thing in continental philosophy: something abstract but user-friendly, undemanding, sexy, perfectly pliable for whatever ends they might require (geography, social theory, literary studies, cultural studies, film, business studies …). For such types, reading Harman is an absolute godsend: It’s easy and pleasant to read (lots of metaphors and imagery), deep- and lofty-sounding, doesn’t require them to do any thinking (thus saving unnecessary wear and tear on the brain tissues), it chimes perfectly with commonsense (albeit with some ‘weird’ twists’, which is cool), doesn’t require them to be able to evaluate arguments or learn anything technical, gives them a further alibi for continuing to ignore science and epistemology, gives them license to commit as many non sequiturs as they like (“arguments are the superficial skin of philosophy”, “logical errors are the most trivial mistakes in philosophy”), tells them that the only important thing about writing philosophy is to cultivate a literary “style”, to write “vividly” in bold and eye-catching colors, tells them that poetry is a greater cognitive tool than empirical inquiry, promises a direct revelation of Truth without having to acquire any knowledge … and, in general, it’s ‘fresh’ and ‘bold’ and ‘exciting’ … It’s irresistable!

To my ear Eli’s criticism is devastating to the very form of Harman’s expression, his modes of dismissal and assertion, and the supposed “logic” of his call to objects. The blued paragraph especially strikes me as precisely marking the absurdity of Harman’s call to “objects” as if he is getting us philosophy-minded type back onto the firm ground (as Wittgenstein liked to say).

Grouping Criticism

Lastly in this compendium of contemporary objections it is probably good to put all together the history of my critical objections to Harman. This involves not just criticism, but also my initial repeated attempts to actually UNDERSTAND what Harman was trying to say. The path then alternates between a genuine good faith excitement, and the realization that there is more allure than substance here. Finally I came to see that my objections to Harman operated on several levels, some of them reaching back into the branch of philosophy he attempts to work from, some of them found in his theory and his methodology itself. These thirty posts, presented largely in temporal order, clearly form the most serious engagement with the substance of Harman’s theorizing on the planet (conditioned by the absence of any other such engagement), the significant attempt to both understand and find common ground with the “allure” of his theory, as it positions itself. Any serious embrace of a thinker involves I believe a necessary criticism of that thinker’s ideas, at least the striving to assess just what is being claimed and what is its merit.  I actually consider the pass given to Harman by the halo of people who find him interesting a bit disrespectful.

An attempt to both interpret and dialogue with Harman’s main ideas:

 The “Picture” behind Intention: What Lies at the Center of Perception

The Bounce of the Being of Beings

Harman Brings Central Clarity to the Issue (wink, nod)

Downunder: Central Clarity Consciousness (CCC)

The Harmanic Impassibilty of Monism…Spinoza Sails Through

Heidegger: He Who Doesn’t Enjoy God

Graham Harman’s “Evil Twin”, The Quality-Loving Positor

The Coldness of Spinoza: Was He Really a Spock?

How the PSR lifts OOP out of Occasionalism

Graham Harman’s “essence” contra DeLanda, à la Campanella

 

Dealing Specifically With Harman’s Theory of Causation, including a critique of its Orientalism:

How Do the Molten Centers of Objects Touch?

The “sensuous vicar” of Causation

More on Harmanian Causation: The Proposed Marriage of Malebranche and Hume

Taking the “God” out of the 17th Century

Spinoza says, “Individual things are nothing more than…”

Vicarious Causation Diagrammed

The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman)

The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert

Binaries, Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic

 

Observations on Harman’s methodology and presumptions about philosophy:

The Coming Medieval Scholasticism of SR

Heidegger “Never says…” and Harman says…

Human Competence: Achilles On the Mend

Harman Wants to Know: How Does Lovecraft “Get Away with Racism?”

Its “objects” All the Way Down

The Centers of Sensuous Gravity, and Their Relations: Shaviro and Harman

The Initial “Brilliant” Exaggeration: The Mongering of Brilliance

Throwing A-causal Stones From Theoretical Glass Houses

In Praise of Aesthetics over Philosophy? The Metaphors of Projection

Harman’s Speculative Bubble: The Runaway Capitalism of OOP

Harman’s Commodification of Paper Writing

 

An associated critique of Latour:

Is Latour an Under-Expressed Spinozist?

The Flatness of Latour’s Concept of Origin and Holbein’s The Ambassadors

The Copiousness of Copies

An associated critique of Heidegger:

Heidegger’s Confusion Over “Truth”

Checking Heidegger’s Hammer: The Pleasure and Direction of the Whirr

Harman’s Commodification of Paper Writing

The blog has long since been deleted, but this trace of it remains in the discussion one of the posts inspired. Carl over at Dead Voles brought up the ethical issues associated around Harman’s insider-type advice for how philosophers should write scholarly papers: How Ideology Works, pt. 2 . For those following the recent discussion of the Capitalist-like deferral of the debt of explanation in Graham Harman’s thinking, a kind of Speculative Bubble and the tendency to commodify one’s philosophical productions, this trace makes interesting evidence. Harman is very strong on learning how to produce and “do work” very much in keeping with University as text producer needs. Philosophizing becomes a fulltime project of how to produce ideas that through their allure, and good old-fashioned elbow-grease, end up in texts and a circle of readers.

Most symptomatic of Harman’s sizzle-and-not-the-steak approach is his advice that it is always good to put an old forgotten philosopher in the “mix”:

Always good to bring an older classic thinker into the mix. My choice in this case is Giordano Bruno, who has so much in common with Grant. A critical analysis of Bruno’s Cause, Principle, and Unity would work perfectly here. Put it on the smaller bookshelf where I keep books currently in use for projects, where I will see it each day as a reminder to reread it when I have the time.

This post of Harman’s, given our past personal discussions on Scholastic philosophers and my reading of, what I have found to be his somewhat deceptive essay on causation “On Vicarious Causation”, really ended up convincing me of Harman’s disingenuous METHOD of philosophizing (despite enjoying his simplification of Heidegger as Tool-Being). The blog is now deleted along with all its helpful hints and clues on how to get ahead in the philosophy world, but at least this past discussion over at Dead Voles points us in the direction of much of Harman’s “allure” thinking about what makes good philosophy. In this his theory of causation and his methodology coincide. Personally I find this production-line thinking combined with Harman’s  “shock value” and “great idea” esteem to be antithetical to what philosophy should be about, and carries with it some substantive comparisons to Capitalist Speculative Bubble debt deferral. As such it draws our attention to the problems with the underlying theory itself, and the values that underwrite or inspire it. This is only to say that both his thinking and his methods should be shown in a more socially critical light, a light that ultimately goes to the question of cause and to the purpose of philosophy itself. Is philosophy ever anything more than “black box” making as Harman claims?

Aside from the questions this raises about a metaphysics of “allure” and the allure of rhetorical forces in philosophy paper writing, in the general sense that philosophers are in the business of selling their texts, one has to think about the “genuine” products of philosophers, what it is about the philosophical endeavor that gives it its importance, its foothold amid our more commercially vested institutions. When we write a paper, any such paper, what is it that we really would like to show? That is what matters.

As I wrote in a parallel discussion:

The answer to this is not to come up with One Great Idea, One Great Exaggeration, as Harman claims…It is to genuinely explore the past of our community discussions for the relevance that REALLY matters now, and to articulate that relevance convincingly. I do not consider this a matter of “repackaging” nor of repeating a past point, nor straining for “originality”. It is making persons of the past who answered questions quite well, answer OUR new questions, a far cry from simply bringing a classic philosopher into the mix for some paper-writing effect. It’s a question of engagement.

* More follow-up of the past discussion at Dead Voles here.

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.

In Praise of Aesthetics over Philosophy? The Metaphors of Projection

Dreaming Up The “Insides” of Objects

Steve Shaviro has a post up in praise of Harman’s use of aesthetics (metaphors and whatnot) over philosophy, offered in the wake of his recent criticism of Harman’s philosophy: Object Oriented Aesthetics?. I posted a comment on Harman’s creative insertion of human experiences into objects as an explanation for what causation is, and it grew to a length substantive enough to post here.  I’ve written on the problem of Harman’s theory of causation in the past: Vicarious Causation DiagrammedDownunder: Central Clarity Consciousness (CCC), The “sensuous vicar” of Causation and even treated the specific cultural and political problems of the Orientalism of his aesthetics: The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman), The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert, Binaries, Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic. But drawing the scope at its widest, the problem with Harman’s “aesthetic” solution to the question of causation is that he has just performed one great Anthropomorphic projection of human experiences into all objects in the name of some kind of “object-orientation”. He has, in short, turned objects into caricatures of human beings, and in so doing, not only reduced objects but also mischaracterized human beings. 

“While I would agree that the powers of the aesthetic judgment, the non-“content” weighing of complexity and balance which allow us to recognize a good metaphor or a funny joke, are an extremely useful tool if not our only tool forwards towards new knowledge, but this is not to say that our aesthetic projections INTO objects other than human, AS a theory is a meaningful way to go. When Harman projects intentional objects into dust balls and microwaves, and imagines that because human beings have mental pictures of how the world is (or some feature in it) ALL objects must, as a matter of logic, is straight out absurd (“vicarious causation”). But not only absurd, an outright anthropomorphization of the said objects that are supposed to get their rescue from the reported evils of correlationism. It might make a pretty hallucination that when my car window is crashed into by an errant baseball, or when a butterfly wing is torn off by a be-dumbed child, each receiving object is visited by a “sensuous vicar” that enters its inner realm and allures it into destruction, but this is sheer fantasy space.

When Harman puts aesthetics before philosophy in his thinking on causation, he is simply saying, Hey I don’t even have to make much sense, I can just dream up and project my inner processes (as I categorize them via Husserl) into every object and call it “object-orientation”. To my taste Whitehead does a bit of this, but to a much much lesser degree (thankfully). If indeed what makes Correlationism so bad is that it makes human knowledge the center of importances when thinking about the world (like upper-class aristocrats exploiting poor worker objects everywhere), spreading the fantasies of the human (“Hey, teardrops and microchips are just like us! They receive little sensuous visitors from the outside world.”) and introjecting them into the cores of objects isn’t the salve. Firstly, it simply transmutes the “rights” of our objects into fantasy zones of our own device. Secondly, it mistakes the very fundamental nature of what is human in the first place, imagining that human thought and interaction with the world is accomplished solely through the “sensuous vicars” of intentionality. It replicates an error to infinity. If there is going to be a real esteem for objects, a real ontology that tests the boundaries of the human, it will be one in which the operations of objects, their powers of action in the world, are those that defy our easy assumptions about ourselves, the stretch what we even mean by “human”. In such cases, in such an aesthetic, we discover ourselves to be objects capable of something more objectile than we ever thought. Otherwise we are just spreading the Myth of the Human everywhere, under the auspices of Philosophy, but with the freedoms of a fiction.”

I do feel that the powers of aesthetic judgment are core to human way-finding – it is key to my Chaoplexic approach – and even that much of what is most real in human political, legal and moral fields is accomplished through the organization of the affects, but philosophy is not art, for a reason.

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