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The/An Importance of Metaphysics

The Science Fiction of Philosophy

This conversation over at Dead Voles has been winding, snake-back, but in this bend in the road some interesting things were being discussed.

Carl gives his rendition of what he believes my position on the importance of philosophical argument, something with which I agree in part. Carl’s general sense is that philosophy (or perhaps metaphysics) isn’t really of any historical importance, both in terms of social justice, but also simply in terms of historical causation:

Carl: “If I understand correctly, Kevin agrees with this as a description of how philosophy usually works, but has a more activist commitment to the potential of philosophy to break the materialist circle and become a guide to better living. If he’s right that philosophical activism can actually have an effect on the world, and not just be an effect of the world, the stakes in philosophizing get very high, conflict is warranted (even mandatory) and withdrawal is not an option. Therefore I would expect Kevin to think that an unwillingness to fight over philosophy is in effect a cover for conservatism; so he would in principle reject the separation of affect and commitment I have made.”

Kvond: I’ve never heard my position towards philosophy summarized by another so this is interesting.

First of all I am equally, if not more passionate about art (plastic, film, poetry, fiction, etc), I just happen to blog about philosophy because this is what feeds my artistic process. And yes, to take of your thought, what we paint, film and narrate indeed expresses our historical, material, economic circumstances, but it does not ONLY do so like a dumb image floating in a mirror, it ALSO helps determine them. So everything that is at stake in philosophy is also at stake in the arts. It is only that the mode of criticism of both is different. The need for criticism of each is acute. (Part of the problem I have tried to put forth in regards to Graham Harman under the question of his Orientalism is the way in which he evades criticism of both. When criticized as philosophy, is merely being poetic, when criticized as poet, is being a philosopher, in the end taking refuge merely as a non-author.) I do also believe that the arts can be critiqued through a mode of truth, and philosophies as modes of the social, but these are not their primary traction points in the world, the force they exert.

As of the secondary question of conservatism I am not so high on this, as if buried conservatism is an inherent and ever lurking evil. I think that conservativism plays its own social role in the world, it is meant to conserve (perhaps Deleuze would say re-territorialize) aspects or relations in the face of radical change or dissonance. I am concerned about conservativism in two areas though. For one, I find the the Neoliberal (and really Fascist) elements in Levi Bryant’s Latourian objectology to be a vast case of political hypocrisy, and when someone bandies about the big rhetorical guns, blasting them this way and that, as he does, one better have one’s ps and qs straight in the positions you advocate. I find Levi’s metaphysics indeed to be Neoliberalesque, and his behavior as a person (for instance his call for uncloaking blogger identities, among many others) Fascist. When in the arena of political ideals, most important is that we don’t drag with us the very thing we are claiming to oppose. This leads to the secondary sense in which I find conservatism worth tracking. That is, because it is a social force, and has a social role, it is best if we identify it wherein it lies, so we can take it’s import into account, and look to just what it is that we are opposing. I made this point with Harman’s Orientialism as well. It is not that Orientalism is inherently “bad”, but that it contains dangers, possible negative side-effects which have a greater opportunity to manifest themselves when we are less conscious of what is going on, what is being expressed.

Perhaps this answer of mine clears up why I have bothered to tarry over Harman’s theory of causation in particular and his metaphysics in general. In the next line of our exchange I try to point out to Carl why the difference between Science Fiction and Science (by analogy) is important to philosophy’s own power to contribute to the discovery (or invention) of the world:

Carl once wrote: “…even in this ghetto philosophy has spun off useful new disciplines like Sociology, Anthropology, Political Science and so on that do much of the work philosophers used to do.”

Carl writes: “I actually agree with this ethic of getting it right and knowing where you stand, and I think it’s therefore of value to read closely and criticize when it’s warranted. I just don’t think philosophy, in particular metaphysics, is an area where there’s any useful standard of getting it right. It’s all science fiction.”

Kvond: This is the thing. I know you would like to treat philosophy as the latter, but the reason why philosophy WAS able and is STILL able to make these “spin-off” contributions to the social sciences is precisely because it recognizes the difference (within itself) between (Science Fiction) Pulp-Philosophy, and (Science) Philosophy. The internal coherence driven by the latter (and not the former) is what gave the force to descriptive systems that then power the descriptions of (some) social sciences. There is no EXTERNAL standard in the sense of a one-to-one correspondence, but indeed there is the standard of internal coherence amid systematic descriptions of the world which forces rigor within a theory that attempts to describe the world as it REALLY is. And it is this rigor that is missing from the Science Fiction aspects of philosophy.

This is one of the good things that blogs can do, just alert people to things being discussed, so that others may take the discussion in other directions or elsewhere. The arguments have the disadvantage of being rough-edged, but the advantage of being living cultures.

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.

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 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.

Throwing A-causal Stones From Theoretical Glass Houses

I don’t read Harman’s blog, but directed there by Steve Shaviro I noted this rather odd criticism given toward Shaviro’s theoretical embrace of becoming, apparently only the mere illusion of change in lieu of a real explanation:

GH: “Shaviro claims that his position explains change, but all it really gives us is the illusion of change: like those card decks with stationary cartoons which, when flipped through in rapid succession, give the illusory impression of a dynamic event.”

This of course should be contrasted with Graham’s own theory of “vicarious causation” which not only possesses almost no explanatory value of what causation might be, but actually invents in perhaps a non-Occamian profusion, a host of objects imagined to interact in ways that are yet revealed by their author. The objects are posited, but they are still waiting for their theory. Indeed Graham’s thinking ALLOWS cars to be crushed and ice cream to be eaten, as he proudly proclaims, but his theory of cause and effect seems to fall even below the threshold of “illusion” when it comes to change itself. Instead vacuous objects retreat into ghost worlds connected through subterranean mojo mixed with the mysteries of intention, becoming all the more inapplicable at the level of bowling-ball type objects that the theory is supposed to rescue.

Adventures in Incoherence

Graham recoiled from Steven’s description of his (general) theory as incoherent, and Steven apologized for the word choice, and in fact praises to a strong degree the effect the criticism he has received. But at least in this aspect of Harman’s thinking – his explanation of cause - to this reader, the Harman account is incoherent. Which is not to say that I disagree with it, but rather, it lacks applicable coherence: the theoretical parts match up (Harman’s importation of Husserlian Idealist objects exotically fused to a Heideggerian matrix), to be sure, but they do so in an utterly non-productive way, leaving one to feel that one is just making categories up in some kind of meta-love of the Husserl-Heidegger tradition. There doesn’t seem to be anything to actually disagree with other than that the notion of “allure” (unexplained and largely undifferentiated) explains what causation is, especially given its anthropomorphic projection of human experience onto largely inanimate objects that are supposed to make up our orientation.

There is a thin line between “incoherent” and “the supposed coherence between concepts does not do the explanatory job”. “The hand of Zeus makes it rain” is both coherent (at least I understand what the sentence means), and also incoherent as an explanation. All the explanatory connectives are missing. As far as Whitehead’s causation as becoming I feel we are at least closer to having concepts that when understood contain a kind of explanatory value that is more satisfying. I find it very odd though that Graham would chose causation as the house from which to throw his stone.

In the comments section to the linked Shaviro post I offered a sketch of how Spinoza’s metaphysics might address the breach between these two camps, for what it is worth.

Its “objects” All the Way Down

Turtle Oriented Philosophy (TOP)

Harman has a brief note voicing his complaint that people take the “Its turtles all the way down” as some kind of knock-down argument presumably against his own claims about objects:

Why is the phrase “turtles all the way down” always taken as a game-ending slam dunk, even when the alternative adopted is “the final turtle at the bottom of the world”?

If you don’t want an infinite regress of entities, the choices are:

(a) a finite regress to some ultimate constituent of the cosmos

(b) no regress at all, with everything remaining on the surface of human access and nothing hiding beneath

Neither is a very good choice.

The way that he sets up his dichotomy is perhaps somewhat revealing for the position he holds. There is something called an “entity” (presumably an “object”) taken from Medieval philosophy, the combination of which makes up the constituency of the universe. What has to be explained is the causal regress of these “entities”. When we take this “entity” notion and translate it to “turtles” we begin to see something of the problem. The way we think of “objects” as objects (with boundaries, insides and outsides, etc) is a product of our visual, everyday sense of the world, just as an American Indian might feel that the whole world rests on the back of a turtle (something he is very familiar with).

So, when we take up Harman’s cruel alternative “a”: (a) a finite regress to some ultimate constituent of the cosmos, the reason why this is a “good” choice is that the so called “ultimate constituent of the universe” isn’t best seen as an “entity” (or an object, or a turtle). It is of a nature that is not like the kinds of things our visual cortex gives to us. It is probably best seen as a kind of process, one would have to say.

The problem with Harman’s approach is that all he can see is turtles, this kind of turtle and that kind of turtle, and really for this reason his science of causation, how turtles relate to turtles is quite devoid of real explanations for the real world. When looking for causal explanations or the relationship between things he can only ask the question: But what kind of turtle is it?, not a very helpful question at times. Though one has to admit that imagining the world full of turtles and nothing else is a wonderful and entertaining thing to do.

What Alice Has to Say

There is a curious, melancholy character in Alice in Wonderland, the “Mock Turtle“, whose name and identity is made up of the very recursive nature of a faux turtle soup:

Then the Queen left off, quite out of breath, and said to Alice, “Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?”

“No,” said Alice. “I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.”

“It’s the thing Mock Turtle Soup is made from,” said the Queen.

(Alice in Wonderland, chapter 9)

What we want to say is that like the mock turtle there is something of a confusion over what we “are” and the process and naming of soupmaking.

[Shaviro gives good context to the discussion here]

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

Graham Harman posts a beautifully if excessively written passage wherein Lovecraft seems to “get away with racism” at least in Harman’s eyes. He is mystified it seems why Lovecraft can write such things and remain largely innocent of the charge, but if Heidegger had written something of the same rather than the comparatively tame remarks he made, just think how vilified he would be:

In this case I think it’s fairly easy to see why we let Lovecraft get away with it… It’s the same sort of viscerally cosmic disgust toward foreign creatures that made his life’s work possible. If he were a philosopher we would be shocked at these words. (Imagine if Heidegger had written them in a letter during his Rectoral period.) Even if he were a musician or actor writing these words I think we’d be shocked. And finally, we’d be far more shocked if he were a writer working in a different genre- imagine Henry James writing those words, for instance, or T.S. Eliot. The effect would be far more sinister. To say nothing of finding the same words in Mein Kampf. But when it’s Lovecraft we just feel like he’s gearing himself up for Cthulhu and the fungoid crabs from Pluto, and he more or less gets a free pass.

The very framing of the question at first blush seems odd, as if we would all like to “get away with racism” but only Lovecraft gets to enjoy the pleasure of it (I think that there is some truth to this). Was it that Heidegger nearly got away with it, (if only he had allowed his former professor Husserl his library privileges)? Did Nietzsche get away with it with his poeticisms and hyperboles, not to mention his intellectual couchings? And what of Swift? I do not think that it is simply a question of profession or even genre but I can see that context does play its part in interpretation. I do think though that there is something to Graham Harman’s take on Lovecraft’s freedom as a freedom; there is a very real sense in which Lovecraft’s writerly abstraction of the “-Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid-” New York immigrant allows a certain deterritorialization of affects, the way that we can participate in them out and beyond their specific historical target, as he is naming or invoking the very essence of immigrative forces, the excesses of the organic: as Harman quotes Lovecraft:

“The organic things -Italo-Semitico-Mongoloid- inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of earth’s corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep-sea unnamabilities. They -or the degenerate gelatinous fermentation of which they were composed- seem’d to ooze, seep and trickle thro’ the gaping cracks in the horrible houses… and I thought of some avenue of Cyclopean and unwholesome vats, crammed to the vomiting-point with gangrenous vileness, and about to burst and innundate the world in one leprous cataclysm of semi-fluid rottenness.”

Getting Away with Affect-Language

Through the profusion of words and images, perhaps indicative of genre, we are invited to indulge, to travel. That is how he does it. But there is something further. Graham suspects that this exception, the way that Lovecraft is allowed to do what we can’t regularly do, is linked to the subject of “ethics”, a theory of ethics that he limps towards.

I don’t have a fully worked-out theory of the “getting away with” ethics, but I’m limping toward it, and do believe that it’s fairly fundamental to ethics somehow. We’re all allowed to break the rules at a few key points and no others, and those points probably tell us more about who we are than any other information we might give about ourselves.

It seems to me that Zizek has a very fine point on the ethical nature of the exception, when he tells us that it is not the laws that all agree upon that unite a community, but rather the exception taken, and joined in, to those laws. Yes, Thou Shalt Not Kill, we all agree, but we must kill “him” or “them;” or as he also puts it at a maximum “Liberty for all” becomes “Death to the enemies of Liberty”. Zizek contends that it is through our binding and shared guilt in the transgression of what we otherwise all agree to be universal prohibition that works as the glue to a community. There is a strong sense, even in the way that Graham phrases his question, that Lovecraft can be seen as allowing his reader to participate in the horror or revile of others, a kind of shared indulgence.  His priviledge becomes our privilege (Graham even rephrases and re-prints Lovecraft’s words for a second time, now hypothetically directed at the very Egyptians he protects from Flaubert’s literary encroachments. I have written on how Graham’s own richly poetic orientalisms of the exotic, in a sense, carry forth colonialist binarism, something Graham takes great exception to). There is not only the pleasure the words themselves, but also, I suspect, the pleasure of their reterritorialization, the way in which the excess can fall upon others without incrimination. Of course such de- and re-terriotorializations are the expertise of racism, as we can see in the merely humorous recent comic of the shot chimpanzee. Whether one “gets away with it” or not is, I suspect, not ultimately a question of genre, but of sensitivity and the historical construction of intent. Is there an indulgence in reprinting it here? Perhaps a painful one. This is the thing about metaphors, tropes, jokes, affect-rich language. They open the involuntary comprehension and collapse of meanings into regions we might not otherwise allow. If you simply “get” the joke, you participate in it. What makes affect-language the gateway for creative new worlds, makes it also the means by which we can unjustly concretize our fears/pleasures in reactionary forms, confirming older modes of perception.

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