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Tag Archives: Object-Oriented Philosophy

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 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.

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.

Human Competence: Achilles On the Mend

 

Carl at Dead Voles wrote a pair of ruminations that flowed from an all-too-honest confession of how to write a philosophy paper by Graham Harman (apparent Graham linked to the comments, and then deleted the link, finding the criticism out of bounds). First he critiqued Graham’s very helpful suggestions on how to structurally spruce up a paper, things like breaking it up into sections, identifying tensions with positions other than your own, and then mixing in a Classic thinker, drawing our attention to how as a historian Carl finds this process (expanded into a prescription for how to read books, and dovetail papers with talks) to be painfully different from the kinds of closer examinations he must carry out. Then in “Shopping at the Black Box Store” he draws heavier consequences from this kind of text and thought production, summing up the problems with the Latourian proposal that Theories operate primarily as Black Boxes, calling for perhaps a better, more lucid metaphors (linking parts of Metaphors We Live By), ultimately pointing towards the Black Boxes of Marxist thought:

This is an interesting metaphor to me, because in my dissertation I used it to characterize marxist approaches to revolutionary consciousness and suggested that its darkness contributed to enabling some pretty serious errors and atrocities. Perhaps a more transparent and reflective sort of thinking (not to mention a more glassy set of metaphors) might have contributed to a more humane revolutionary practice?

Part of this response falls at the feet of philosophy itself, with a real mourning that Graham Harman’s lessons how how to produce and package philosophical ideas does describe the requirements of a real environment for philosophy production. One really must roll one reading into another talk. One really should through in a Classical thinker every now an then. I mean, there is a brand to keep up. Distinct from the real sense that theories can be seen as Black Boxes that can indeed be opened up to see how they work, there is also in Latour (and Harman’s celebration of the same), the sense that the way that a theory succeeds is by Black Boxing itself, keeping its hidden mechanisms opaque to the viewer.

Two Kinds of Magic

Arthur C. Clarke said brilliantly in his Third Law, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  There is the sense that any theory that is to be successfully put forth has to operate as a kind of magic, and a magic that happens when we don’t quite know how they did that. This is distinct of course from the kind of magic one feels when we “see how they did that,” when we see how things connect and manifest. There seems to be a fundamental tension between these two kinds of magic.

Graham Harman’s behind the scenes “tricks of the trade”  benevolent advice to up and coming thinkers perhaps invests in both kinds of magic. This is how it all connects, what Carl calls the glimpse behind the curtain: this is how you can create the illusion of deep and analytical thinking, and gather momentum in your profession and your brand. And there is a beautiful magic in “How to be a Successful Philosopher” perhaps in the same way as magician in training would feel relieved to know now how to saw the lady in half. Much of Graham’s professional insight seems to fall into this category of “there is no mystery for how to make the mystery appear”.

But as I read it, Carl’s problem isn’t with Graham’s successful procedures, but with the very social conditions which reward and reinforce just these habits of reading and paper building. Do theories only become accepted through a kind of magical allure, a seduction into a willing-suspension of disbelief, a refusal to let others look under the hood? I believe that what flows from Carl’s objection to skim reading and antique philosopher insertion is something of the same objection to mass-produced objects of consumption. There is the sense that yes, you can do it that way, but perhaps I want something hand-carved. When philosophy bases itself upon idea and text production of this sort, does it not take as its very material that which is most malleable to such a process?

Achilles Contra Odysseus

With these thoughts in mind throughout the intermittency of morning I found my mind turning to a comparison which was somewhat prevalent in Athenian society, the contrast between Achilles and Odysseus. There is something to Carl’s appeal for a glassier set of metaphors, and his dissatisfaction with Graham Harman brand-building Black Box stores that for me invokes this antique difference. Odysseus was he man of many turns, polytropos. The word is rich in meanings. Because clever he can turn in any direction, he is a swiss-army knife of mentality and action, full of devices. Yet because of this, his life (despite the homecoming at the Odyssey’s end) is also in quintessential Heideggerian and Holderlinian fashion, a life of wandering, turn upon turn, endlessly thrown into and against the world. He is thought to be in many ways the essentially modern man. To some degree he embodied both the positive and the negative values of contemporary Athenian citizen ideas.

But Achilles was a different sort of figure, a man of a different sort of Age, someone who the Athenian Greeks often felt put the Odysseus of tricks to the pale. A man perhaps who no longer it seemed could exist. Contrary to Odysseus’s adaptability, Achilles was someone who exerted the pure force of his ability to act and manifest itself directly (even it its absence). He was something like a direct radiation of Being. His story in the Iliad told of how man is to act amid social injustice, when one’s nominal leaders lack the community of values which are required to lead. It is told that he is both a rhetor and a doer  in such a way that we understand that speaking is a kind of act and not something readily separable.

There is a very real sense that as the history of Western philosophy, particularly in its modern form, turned to the Greeks for their blueprints of questions and answers, the wrong, or least desirable Greek ideal was absorbed. People like Heidegger rejoiced over the alienations of Odysseus, his homeless machinations, and did not see the simplicity of force found in Achilles. A man conditioned by his loves (Briseis, Patroclus, Thetis, the Myrimdons, then lastly affimed custom, reconsiliation and mercy), and driven to personal yet mutual justice, someone who bent the rules of the very discourse available to express his dissatisfaction, and through a combination of refusal and action morally shaped both his community and historical events. Achilles was man before Man, something that could manifest both itself in surplus of the spectrum of the human, and become god-like, or in deficit of what’s human and become a mere force of Nature. It was the necessary capacity to bestride these two that he embodied to a far greater degree “what is human” than did the later Odysseus who articulated a specific historical domain, which he remained within. 

As philosophy recovers from the Idealisms which plagued the Rights of Man, and seeks to reorient itself within a Real World of forces and objects, it must be wary of ontologizing the Odysseus of what is human, the specific alienations we have generated through our choices (much of it imported through the ontology of the Negation, how his name can only be pronounced as “No-man” by the poly-phemic One). There is a real choice in philosophy I believe, whether to start with the Achilean man (woman), or the Odyssean one, a beginning which directs the kinds of answers we find.

My sense is that as sufferers of modern and post-modern conditions, it is best not to ontologize these to the degree that we cannot imagine ourselves beyond them. Yes, perhaps it is good to learn the tricks of the trade, to bring forth black box powers as a matter of survival, but it is better I suggest to learn the glow of an other competence, the competence of bond, withdrawl and speaking action. I think that there is something to Carl’s glassy metaphors that speaks to the proposed unifications of Achillean force. The ways in which powers are better read and expressed as Real.

What Does Odysseus know that Achilles does not? And what does Achilles know…ontologically?

The Coming Medieval Scholasticism of SR

A Debate “Worth Having”

Responding to Splintering Bone Ashes prediction that there will rise up an eliminativist (materialist) branch in the Speculative Realism debate, Graham dreams of waking up in a world where the Scholastic Realism vs. Nominalism debate had been permanently revived (part of his love for irreducible tensions):

What if I could wake up every morning and the big debate was between the eliminativist and non-eliminativist wings of the post-SR landscape?

And not only “every morning” but a debate confined to the wings of a post-SR landscape. It is a wonder when a “school” of thought [σχολαστικός (scholastikos)] dreams of the ideal intellectual activity as an internal split between the wings of its own party (a desire seen in Graham’s humorous title for a new talk, “Realism Good, Materialism Bad“). Perhaps it is notable that this confessed fantasy is that Graham himself could wake up to such an endless debate, and not that “we” a community of collective thinkers could. Apart from the self-revelry aspect, we might say, yes, this debate was one worth having, in fact they had it for nearly a thousand years, so why not have it within the SR landscape. But when it becomes so intrasquad and arbitrary to SR, will it not simply exhibit the worst aspects of Scholastism, with angels on heads of pins being “count[ed] as one”?

There is one interesting part of this nouvelle Scholasticism, Graham Harman seems to find himself a bit on both sides of the traditional Realism/Nominalism divide. As an Idealist of the Aristotlean tradition he favors the “intentional objects” of reductive Nominalism, but as Old World Latourian he wants perceived wholes, any collection of objects, to be considered as Real and actorly. As such he positions himself as something of a conceptualist, but wherein all objects hold conceptions, each one a little Kantian Copernican sun (collapsing into red giants, as Graham would have it). I have yet to be able to make sense of this claim except as the most poetic of appeals: what does it mean for my bank account and rusted lawn mower to both be continuously making metaphors about the world? Huh? But one could see how happy an environment this would make for such a claim. Never mind if this position is completely cogent or coherent, let it take its place in opposition to something that is also incoherent. Let me be oriented in opposition. In my view, quite apart from Graham’s love for irreducible and tensioned pairs, when two halves of a characterization perpetuate continous dispute and even sub-divisions, there is very likely something wrong with the initial binarization itself. Fixing it does not involve taking a little from each side. The answer just isn’t found there. (As much fun as we might have looking.) Each side brings about the other. A self-perpetuation machine.

Perhaps it is better to not be so Scholastic. 

The Whiteness of Metaphysics: Colored Readings of the Same

The Murderer of Agamemnon

ἆ ἆ, ἰδοὺ ἰδού: ἄπεχε τῆς βοὸς
τὸν ταῦρον: ἐν πέπλοισι
μελαγκέρῳ λαβοῦσα μηχανήματι
τύπτει!..

Ah, ah, See, see! Hold off from the cow
the bull!  Within robes
blackhorned she seized, by a machina
striking!

Agamemnon (lines 1125-1128)

Ἀργεῖός εἰμι, πατέρα δ᾽ ἱστορεῖς καλῶς,
Ἀγαμέμνον᾽, ἀνδρῶν ναυβατῶν ἁρμόστορα,
ξὺν ᾧ σὺ Τροίαν ἄπολιν Ἰλίου πόλιν
ἔθηκας. ἔφθιθ᾽ οὗτος οὐ καλῶς, μολὼν
εἰς οἶκον: ἀλλά νιν κελαινόφρων ἐμὴ
μήτηρ κατέκτα, ποικίλοις ἀγρεύμασιν
κρύψας᾽, ἃ λουτρῶν ἐξεμαρτύρει φόνον.

Argive I am, my father – you fairly inquire -
Was Agamemon, the nautical Riveter of men,
With him you the Troad uncitied Illion city
Claimed. His end was not so fair come
Home; but he blackhearted my
Mother slew, in the dappled game
She hid, the witness of a bath’s murder.

Eumenides (lines 455-461)

[apologies if the Greek fonts don't come through]

Examples of Greek Otherness

I wish to briefly examine conceptions of othernessas found in the Greek notions of the world, so as to get a grip upon how deviant from these the modern appropriations of the same are in concept, with a particular eye upon Heidegger’s evocation of invisivibility and presence. Above are two descriptions of the method of Clytemnestra’s murder of the returning Agamemnon. The details of which will cue us unto the Greek otherness of “woman,” and relatedly (though she is not Eastern like Medea), the otherness of the East, Persia, Phrygia, and finally perhaps otherness itself: Same vs. Different.

The first from Aeschylus tells us that she smote him with a device, a machine, horned and smothered in a mantel.

Within robes
blackhorned she seized, by a machina
striking!

The second is even more interesting, for the wordplay is excelerated:

blackhearted my
Mother slew, in the dappled [poikilois] game [agreumasin]
She hid, the witness of a bath’s murder

We must see in these means and their characterizations the very nature of her own representational otherness, her exotic quality and powers. With grammatical ambiguity she cloaks either herself or her husband in ποικίλοις ἀγρεύμασιν, itself an intricate phrasing. The poikilois has multiple meanings all of which point to things varigated and potentially confusing. To quote the Greek lexicon, “”many-coloured, spotted, mottled, pied, dappled, of leopards, fawns; of robes, wrought in various colours, broidered; intricate; metaphorically changeful, various, diversified; intricate, complex; subtle; of persons, subtle, wily” (LSJ); and the agreumasin, can mean both the hunter’s snares used to catch prey, but also the game animal itself. With remarkable economy of words, Clytemestra hid within and struck by means of the very intricacy of her plans, and a garment, as a dangerous, even technological force camoflaged by the powers of its own complexity. Complexity, folded-in-ness was the mark of a power of otherness. For the Greeks intricacy, such as that which typified the craft skills of Asia Minor, bore in its very profound and natural interconnection the magical danger, the trap and the power of animal forces to both hide and kill. It was not so much the lack of transparency, to be understood in a fundamental binary of invisible/colored, but the actual production of confusion on the part of the viewer, a “how did they do that!” born of the very incalculable implications expressed in variegation itself. A tangle, if betwitching knot of things, labyrinth in need of a “poria” a ford in the river of it. The mention of the labyrinth is not accidental. What is forewarned against is the very Daedalus, work-man skill of the foreign hand, the mythological name taken from the verb δαιδάλλω:

[to] work cunningly, embellish, “σάκος . . πάντοσε δαιδάλλων” Il.18.479; “λέχος ἔξεον . . δαιδάλλων χρυσῷ τε καὶ ἀργύρῳ ἠδ᾽ ἐλέφαντι” Od.23.200; of a painter or sculptor, Opp.C.1.335, IG14.967:-Pass., to be spotted, marked, “σφραγῖσι” Opp.C.1.324.

It was the imported capacity to beguile through complexity that made the Greeks wary. And thus it was this very complexity, into which Clytemnestra as a woman folded herself and executed her action. The last line from the Eumenides above, “…the witness of a bath’s murder” leaves us to feel that it was the intricately woven robe (somehow both animate and inanimate) that alone stood as legal witness to the murder which was folded up into it. It is as if the very fibres and twistings make up the eyes of the action. Complexity for the Greek not only revealed itself in surplus of detail, but any hyper-complex manifestion also was read as its complimentary, a kind of fog, an obscuring haze out of which the unpredictably occurs. In a certain sense the Greek mind did see the world itself as dangerously manifest of variegated complexity, obscurely verging on the threat of a cacophony, much as how a coming storm is both richly folded in cloud-effects, but also fogging to human vision. It is for this reason they sought the harmoniously and to some degree unseen wholes behind it.

Translating “true”: from Greek ἀλήθεια (un-forgotten, un-escaped), to Heidegger’s Alêtheia (un-concealed)

Why do I bring these details of the description of Clytemnestra’s murdering under examination? Recently I have been weighing against the metaphysical inheritance of a fundamental white/colored, colonialist conception that has been passed down to Graham Harman through his continuation of a Heideggerian dichotomy: ready-at-hand  invisibility and present-at-hand  cloakedness. (I have promised to leave off this critique so I will only stay at its specific surface here.) Under Harman’s interpretation of Heidegger the invisibility of working tool-beings carries the purity of object essences, their very whiteness (what he terms as “retreat”), while the colored cloak of “presence” necessarily occludes by virtue of its very shaded deception that invisible white. It is enough to point out that the projections of magical powers of inter-connectivity upon the East did not begin with German Idealism, but as is well known, but in the rough cut of Western culture with the Greeks. Phrygia and the surrounding areas passing all the way to Persia embodied the feminizing dangers of excessive wealth, sensuality and deceptively intricate skill (and it is not without coincidence that the entire Amazonian inversion of Athenian society was projected to the shores of the Black Sea). This is not to lessen the idealizations of wisdom and wealth to the South, Egypt and Africa. Eastern projections, orientalizations, are as old as Western civilization as it is classically conceived.

So as metaphysics proper, as a certain kind of study of the the idea of the Same and the Different, Unitary and Multiple, takes its main root from Greek Society, upon which there can only be a partial mapping of a Anglo-Germanic notions of purity of essence, there is the duty of the tracking of the concept. When taking European metaphysics in hand, one has to ask the cultural question, in tracing the dichotomy of Greek Same-Harmonious/Variegated-Dangerous onto a largely invisible/visible, How White is Metaphysics itself? Can one currently metaphysize upon primary binaries of same/different within a primary optical metaphor of invisible/colored and not be caught up in the historical contrast between white/colored?

From Intrication to Shaded Color

The question otherness as variegation or coloredness is complex for Greek society, for their divisions of Same and Different did not meet the same racial and necessarily optical categories that have been privleged in modern European thought since the 17th century. As I have mentioned, for the Greek there is an emphasis on manifestation, but it is not so much as optical manifestation as a kind of textiled conception of plexity. The world is in a way woven together of elements, forces, powers, and even the Platonic notion of forms is misunderstood if it is only conceived of optically as invisible or hiddenly white. Those modern Europeans for instance were the recievers of a image of the Greek which did not realize that the Parthenon was painted. The plain Greek marble forms were not the full expression of their art. The painted Greek was something that the 19th century wonderful and brilliant Gottfried Semper finally told only to dulled ears.

 

So when German Idealists pursued the white invisibles of pure Greek perception, they were handicapped in a sense. Not only did they have a historically incorrect view of Ancient Greek concepts of whiteness and form (so prevalent and enchanting are those stripped-away statues and columns, weathered of their colored “accidents” which a Classicists imagined were never there), but the pure, white receding essence of things had to be also discerned within a cultural context imbued with valuations of color which were much more over-determined than any in the Greek city state. The confusions of color, variegation and pattern now had become more shaded. There was the Asian, the Moor, the Jew, the New World Indian; and each of these skins themselves were reconstructed by European poltical and economic dealings. This being admitted, the question remains. Are our own metaphysics spun from the categories of European metaphysics not caught in the very white/colored ethnic projections which include those euphanic eroticizing ones of Eastern idealization (their sensuality, interconnectivity, wisdom, attachments, transgressive gender forms, connection to the world); and are not these concepts additionally polarized by the often suppressed animalizing real of the concept “black”? Did not the 17th century’s rise of black slavery in historical terms re-mark what foreign and mediating color meant in severe economic and ideological terms such that mediations on opticality necessarily carry with them include mediations on race and color?

I am interested in this because I do see how Heidegger’s metaphysics (and its attachments to the East) embody a possibly virulent white/colored dichotomy, [ The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman) ];  and thus I weigh criticism against all philosophies derived from Heidegger’s essential optical terms (including Graham Harman’s as I have outlined here and here). But still, I am an appreciator of metaphysics, and in particular that of the philosophy of Spinoza, and so I am curious as to how closely we can press this criticism to others of the modern metaphysics family.

I have said in the past the I find strong correlates between Heidegger and Spinoza, and that Substance in the latter speaks to Being in the former. Is Spinoza’s unity of Substance, its very invisibility like Heidegger’s, an invisibility of whiteness, an essential whiteness which lies behind colored deception?

The question of white and colored is an interesting one for Spinoza. As someone like Graham Harman would like to make the sensuous, interconnecting, enwealthed kinds, to be kinds of mediation, the 17th century Sephardim Jew serves as quite a likely fantasy space for just such a projection. The Jew, newly freed from really centuries of Inquisitional brutality at the hands of the Spanish, families having hidden within the Christian world as converted merchants, now became the ultimate vicarious mediators of European economics. And Spinoza’s family was part of an epicenter of growing Jewish commercial wealth, his father for a time a very prominent merchant of some standing in the community of Sephardim, who bore their Spanish/Moorish stain in the shade of their skin. It was the un-Christian Jew as the licentious, greedy other, the dirty human oil that helped the rising capitalist machine work. Long had they performed the marginal act of interest-charging usary, the unsaintly making of money on money, something out of nothing but relations. Come from such a mediating people and a merchant family, does Spinoza’s metaphysics also work with bias against the mediation of the colored and varigated? 

Spinoza’s metaphysics certainly keeps to a notion of the Imaginary which is marked by its confusing conflations of images and traces. The colored world of pictures for Spinoza certainly was a beguiling one, one that tricks you into not seeing the true causes of things. But we should temper; it was not so much for Spinoza that very the concrete complexity of the modal world was deceptive or dangerous, but rather that the profusion of inner imaginary associations that defrauded the “eyes of the mind” of greater power and self-determination.

Spinoza and Slavery

The question of color for Spinoza and his time is historically not that simple. In the 17th century not yet has “black” come to embody and polarize “white” such that all deviations from White became aspects of Blackness. Black was still “African” or “Ethiopian” and not yet a pure category, which does not mean that there was not an active white/colored binary informing social and economic structures. This complexity of color can be seen in the question of the role of Jews in the black slave trade, especially as it began to rise almost exponentially in the sugar trade, something the Jews of Amsterdam were thoroughly invested in. There is a notable historical absence of evidence of the direct involvement of Sephardim Jews in the Slave trade, but they were intimately involved the entire economic processes which relied upon it [ Spinoza Doubt? The Sephardim and the Slave Trade; Evidence for connection of the Spinoza family to the Sugar TradeSpinoza Sugar Time Table; The Hope of Israel, and What Spinoza Means by the “Ethiopian” ]. Was this relative abstention of contact with black and indigenous slave trade the respect the otherwise persecuted Jews had for people of color, or is it a sign of their careful buffering through New Christians. It seems history does not know. So there is no clear way to position the 17th century Amsterdam Jew within the white/colored dichotomy that was developing [Spinoza and the Caliban Question ]. In any case the question of clarity and invisibleness had not yet reached a polarizing limit, one in which black and white formed an entire spectrum of opacity and color.

So when investigating Spinoza’s metaphysics in terms of social color we are left without a solid place to stand. His family was likely involved in the sugar trade (a central investment of the Amsterdam Sephardim community), and it may have even been that trade that drove him to the pursuit of metaphysics and lenses (see, the collapse of the Recife colony). Both his brother and sister both later in life moved to Caribbean locals dominated by slave production. But, Spinoza was an excommunicate of his own Amsterdam Jewery; they were forbidden to even stand under the same roof as him. So he was twice removed from the “white” of Same.

Yet, this does not make him immune to the critique that metaphysics of invisible essence embody white/colored social dichotomies. In fact his ostricization may have further propelled him towards the dichotomy’s perfection, as he sought in letters to make himself a citizen of the world, quietly championing a radical democracy of freedoms. His ultimate appeal to the Same of Substance is difficult to assess. But it is notable that he very seldom appeals to metaphors of optical clarity or even to light itself, despite the naturalness of such an appeal. Not only was he a lens grinder and an telescope maker, but the Spiritual Collegiants with whom he had connections regularly used the trope of the light of God to forward their unitarian views. For some reason Spinoza found optical metaphors (in fact all metaphors) misleading. He wanted to speak of how things were, not what they were like, and even the notion of “hiddenness” was unhelpful. He even moved from Descartes’ optically inspired “clear and distinct” rather quickly, wanting to focus on bodily experiences of power and Joy, and the concrete connections between things and ideas. It was all of the body that had to be pulled into view, and not just its eyes. For this reason Spinoza’s is a philosophy of proximity I believe. Nothing is distant.

It is really this reluctance of Spinoza to engage in optical metaphors as the primary means for getting to the radical non-human truth of things that I believe keeps him from falling into the problematic of Same = White. Because most things in the world (objects) do not possess a visual cortex, while optical might make a good rhetorical/conceptual base for a metaphysics of purely a human realm like Heidegger’s, it is hopelessly distorting when trying to describe the dyanamic realities of things that cannot see. Once the colored veil is fully employed, historical notions of color find their anchor point. For the Greeks the notions of freedom and of color were not so determinatively overcoded, even for the Romans, and one might argue even for the 17th century (though I cannot help but see something quite “White” in Leibniz’s foundational reflective monads and his vision of universal rationality in response to the threats of democracy: Leibniz’ “optical” Response to the Theologico-Political Treatise ).

Further, insofar as Spinoza does accept a colored veil of confused “imaginary knowledge” he explicitly does not privilege this of foreign peoples, but sees it as explicitly constructive of the Jewish Nation, not to mention modern European society. The layering of the colored is a question of degree and isn’t one of mediation really. The colored complications of concrete manifestation and our imaginary states are the full-figured expression of God and Substance. Totality expressing itself to its limit. In this way Spinoza is much more in the “distaff tradition” (if I recall the Deleuzian term correctly), the tradition of weaving rather than of appearance.

Indeed it is the entire “veil of ideas” tradition that Idealism took up - carried on through Malebranche’s interpretation of Descartes, and then Reid’s of the same, that came to treat the opticality of ideas (or their phenomenal apperception) as object mediations between the self and the world. This approach to mental objects makes of actions of our minds an intermediary thing which might or might not pass us through to the world.

Distinct from this object-orientation, it is said that the very form of the Parthenon, its high lintel above subtly weightless columns, was readily understood by any Greek in the city to be of the form of the woman’s loom that dominated each and every hearth of the home. Perhaps it with this conception we should consider the internal play of colors and light, understanding that our mental actions not only knot and unknot things in the world, but also are cross-knottings themselves, expressions of the loom we find ourselves in.

Binaries, Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic

The Gleam of Gold and the Pasha of Causation

Graham was generous enough a spirit to take my cultural criticism of his metaphysics at a distance, and to allow my commentary to largely remain at the level of theory. In my last two posts, The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman), and then The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert I attempted to lay out the bare bones theoretical framework for such a critique, along lines of an essential “invisible but working” and “visible but broken” dichotomy, buried at the heart of Heidegger; and then, stretching into example, to show that the very words, metaphors and topics of Graham’s characterizations of the realm of “sensuous objects” bore a significant resemblance to the Orientalizing descriptions of North Africa, offered by Gustave Flaubert, an author that Graham has strong resistence to, due to his Orientalization of the land of Egypt. My point was that Graham’s Heideggerian and Husserlian essentializations, and in particular his use of them, carry with them a, perhaps historically unconscious, colonialist white/colored dichotomy which operates through much of our social stereotypes of the East and the Exotic, positioning these sensuous “essences” in a problematic role opposite necessarily retreating invisible essences (especially when one buries them in the heart of a universal theory of causation).

This was his response to the offered critique. He at first dismisses it, bluntly, and honestly, but then makes some important and debatable points:

I don’t think much of the connection, to be blunt. But there’s a certain beauty to the post, with its commentary on hilarious phrases that I’d forgotten I’d even written (“like streamers on a maypole or jewels on a houka”) and the always stunning wealth of illustration that is part of Kevin’s package in every post.

But no, I don’t see why binaries or hiddenness lead to orientalism in the bad sense. They do lead to orientalism in the sense of exoticism, and I do love the exotic. But you have to remember that I don’t think you need to be around non-white peoples to get the exotic. You can already get it from a cheap hammer withdrawing into its subterranean tool-effect in places like Logan, Utah and Waterloo, Iowa. I didn’t have to come to Egypt to get that sort of concealment.

Incidentally, I am made very suspicious by the fact that it’s almost always Westerners who accuse people of Orientalism. I’ve never been accused of this by an Egyptian (nor even a Westerner before Kevin). The West loves to accuse itself of horrible, apocalyptic crimes, but isn’t it clear that this is just the flip side of patriotic hubris? It’s a way of making the West a privileged term by saying “if we’re not the best, then we must be the worst.” And when people call themselves the worst at anything, it’s usually a way of fishing for compliments. (source here)

I have to say first off that I cherish the way that Graham is able to laugh at himself, especially when aspects of his old writing are brought back to haunt him. This is a golden capacity. Graham’s prodigious use of metaphor in his metaphysics is something that he savors. I recall him in a recent post being resolutely unapologetic for his metaphors, saying something of the sort, “Should I apologize for writing well?” (it made me genuinely smile). So to have your own metaphors turned against you, or exposed as a kind of “bad writing” (which I don’t really see them as), can’t be all that pleasant. But it is exactly to his metaphors that one is forced to turn. In part, because he uses them profusely, and in part because he leverages his entire theory upon metaphorization itself, folding his style into his content. If the strength of his theory is metaphorical, so there it must be tested.

And it was exactly his metaphorically charged synthesis of the objects of Husserl and Heidegger which exposed for me that hidden cultural, colonialist dichotomy to be found in Heidegger’s invisible-white/colored, working/broken, sense of the world. It wasn’t until Graham started talking about the sensuousness of the Intentional Object world in terms that were to my ear quite tribal and orientializing that the full picture came into view. There remains the larger question of whether Heidegger or Husserl fall to this critique (I believe that in the very least Heidegger does), but Graham Harman’s unique product from the thinking of these two seems specifically organized around a orientalizing projection. One might say that it makes up its allure.

“Good” Orientalism and the Money Changer

But I’d like to take up, anew, his appeal to the exotic through binarism. (I did post a response to his commentary which I will follow to some degree, found again here). He says, quoting from above,

“I don’t see why binaries or hiddenness lead to orientalism in the bad sense. They do lead to orientalism in the sense of exoticism, and I do love the exotic.”

It strikes me that though he explicitly denies my point in the first part, not seeing the “connection” I am making, he apparently does see that there is a connection. Binaries which emphasize hiddenness do  lead to orientalism, just not the “bad” kind of orientalism. This confuses me a bit for a variety of reasons. The first is the seeming outright contradiction (I see no connection, then I see a connection), but secondly as I pointed out in my response, he feels that there is a good kind of orientialism, ignoring the obvious tendency of “good” essentializations of peoples to flip themselves into “bad” essentialization. As I wrote in response, I am forced to state some rather obvious social facts, how a positive “exotic” quickly becomes the basis for a negative “exotic”:

One may eroticize the American Indian, and see them as spiritually attuned to Nature, but this too can animalize them, and make them unfit for self-determination, or in need of Salvation. One can see how great the American Black dances, how much rhythm they have and “cool” they are, and also realize by virtue of this, you really wouldn’t want them in charge of your money market fund.

Is this fair? Is Graham really stating that there are positive exoticizations of persons and cultures but remaining blind to the shadow of such a process? To take a historical example, does he not see that the exoticness of the Jew allowed him to historically stand outside of Christian law in a nether world, and make money through the otherwise un-Christian charging of interest? Is not the “Jew” (and there are so many other kinds of historical examples), an ideal model for Graham’s internalized, mediating Orientalization, becoming in the 16th and 17th centuries the very exo-teric mediating form for Capitalized growth? There is that spectacular story of how in Spinoza’s lifetime English royalty - I’ve forgotten which - had to literally come to the Jewish Ghetto in Amsterdam to secure funds to continue the war. How ex-otic. Talk about Vicarious Causation. And where does the “positive” of this binarization of the exotic stop? When does “they are so good at communications, calculations, accumulations” becomes “they want to rape our women, blaspheme our God, overturn our government”? These are obvious inversions, but I have to raise them if only to understand just how Graham imagines the fully positive role the exotic plays in the world (and I do believe that it does have a positive role). I love the exotic too. One just must realize something of the freight that gets carried with exotic, what processes are involved.

Veiled Whiteness and the Working Tool

Graham rightfully stresses that his notion of the exotic necessarily must be found not only in Bejing, but also in Logan, Utah:

You can already get it from a cheap hammer withdrawing into its subterranean tool-effect in places like Logan, Utah and Waterloo, Iowa. I didn’t have to come to Egypt to get that sort of concealment.

This is certainly an important aspect of his theory (but notably he spends little rhetorical time speaking in such terms to put forth the power of his descriptions). He, even more than his predecessor, wants to get away from actual tools and actual craftsman as fast as possible. Tool use is much more a launchpad for a great binarizing abstraction. And as I argued in Checking Heidegger’s Hammer: The Pleasure and Direction of the Whirr, if one paid attention to actually tool and instrument use, and were not governed by such optical metaphors as “hidden” and “veiled” and “invisible” one might end up with a very different metaphysical sense of the world. Rather, because Graham starts with Heidegger’s optically driven rhetoric of objects, he is already caught up in an invisible/colored dynamic, one which provides a near magnetic attraction for colonialist projections of “other” peoples. As I have tried to put forth, the very characterizations of sensuous objects, their properties and difficulties, are racially conditioned. This does not make them unvaluable, but it can make them entreching of binaries better left aside, something to be watched and tested. (And it does put political critique high on the agenda of such an otherwise to be assumed, apolitical ontology).

Because Graham’s comments were no doubt off-hand, I do not have a clear sense of the full grounding of the positive binarization which produces the exotic as solely “good”. Nor can I separate out his own writing, rich with orientializing rhetoric and conception, from that of Flaubert’s Salammbo, to which I draw explicit comparison? Is not Flaubert engaging in the very same “positive” orientalizations of the exotic as Graham suggests result from binarization? Is there a way to separate these out? I am unsure if Graham is denying that his theory is an Orientalizing one, or if he is simply saying that it is Orientalizing, but only in the Good Sense.

The inevitable question of Graham’s biography comes forward. There is the sense that if Graham’s theory orientalizes, then he is an orientalizer? He lives and teaches in a country he truly loves, Egypt. And has come to find his homeland of America more exotic than he does Cairo. I think it important to parse the man from the theory, in part because it is very hard, and actually unfair to critique a man, though much easier and fair to do so to a theory. (Not to mention, Graham seems like the more integrity-laden and intellectually generous of fellows.) Additionally though, I believe we all carry with us into our thinking the opposite for which we might otherwise stand, an importation that actually drives the creative process forward, such that work then allows the occasion to (perhaps unconsciously) engage with the material one objects to, to a give it a place. And as I have said, the importation of the orientalizing exotic in Graham’s theory actually may give us too a means for processing and forwarding the appeal of these rhetorical terms, the very “stuff” of his theory. Personally  I would rather work from different metaphors than those of visual color and hiddenness, especially when we are trying to describe a world beyond merely human conception such as Graham is attempting to do. But if one does engage in the exotic as a means of metaphysics, metaphors of color, wealth, vicars and all the jewels of perception, one should do so consciously, in full critique.

In answer to that path, I believe that when Heidegger begins with a principle trope of invisibility he is partaking in a cultural sense of Whiteness (one that he traces to a perceived whiteness of Greece). And when presencing works to coloredly veil the real being of something, this coloredness inevitably is caught up in the cultural dynamics of skin color and projections of the exotic. It is by the virtue of a primary optical conception of the mind and being that questions of color and visibility occur, and one cannot really separate out questions of color from cultural projections of color. In the 17th century these indeed occurred in a variety of shades and stereotypical fashions. The shade of one’s skin gave it a certain sensuous inner character, and the Asian, the Semite, the Moor, the New World Indian, all had their own internal and exotic qualities. But we also have to stay aware that these shadings which obscured pure and transparent white became entirely polarized by the enslavement of the “black”, particularly for the American consciousness, which re-inscribed the existing invisible/colored binary with an entrenching human limit. “Black” the opposite of “white” became the touchstone of what shading meant. In my opinion all optical metaphors of consciousness have to pass through the historical sieve of how color has been conceived in human beings. And any metaphysics that simply ignores this risks simply re-establishing the radical means by which it is carried out. Part of the satisfactions of the Continental school flat ontologies, ones that refuse a hidden and transparent essence, those of the kind that Graham and I both have some dissatisfaction, is that they have freed themselves to some degree from this white/colored optical projection, and have turned to new metaphors that do not carry so much unconscious and historically brutalizing baggage. Instead of invisible/colored, there are mechanisms, structures, genetic virtuals, networks, intensiities, layers, molarities, planes, etc., etc, etc. 

I do not feel that the recognition of severe cultural mistakes, the way that we have violated some of our most cherished values, is necessarily a kind of “patriotic hubris” as Graham puts it, or even the “fishing for compliments”, though I can see that this is a possibility. It is much more a question of learning from the past, and recognizing where we went wrong, where we have done things we would all be better off not repeating. And part of this recognition is realizing that otherwise seemingly benign conceptions even in the greatest abstraction helped forward certain social judgments to which they did not seem to be immediately connected. The result of a sensitivity to just this kind of connection is not the humorously self-contradictory slogan “Binaries are Bad”, but rather the idea that binaries, fundamental binaries, should be dug into, thought about, and checked.

The Allure of Graham Harman’s Orientalism and Flaubert

A mix from Salammbo and “On Vicarious Causation”

I recently attempted to draw out the implicit white/colored, colonialist conceptualization that I see in Graham Harman’s rather poetically depicted Object-Oriented Philosophy, in particular of its theory of Vicarious Causation. Further, I tried to point out that Graham actually exhibits in the very core of his concept of the sensuous vicar, much of the Orientalism he resents in Flaubert, and I presume Hölderlin. While this comparison to Flaubert may seem dubious, at least to Graham’s own ear, and rested only on my instinct of comparison, I thought it best to dig a little deeper into it, especially for those who have not read his engaging essay on causation, which can be found here [highly recommended]. I do this digging somewhat hesitantly because I have confirmed respect for Graham as I have encountered him, and he has declared Flaubert “unforgivable” (at least as the author of The Letters From Egypt); and in a vexing moment Graham said he would not think kindly on the man’s grave. Even in hyperbole, such a vehemence is not something to be trifled with. But if Graham’s feelings toward Flaubert are sincere, as I suspect that they are, a comparison is perhaps even more in order. In this service I have extracted some of the most oriental of Graham’s points, which, in order to understand my argument must be taken within the larger critique vicarious mediation itself, contained in the post before this.

Besides these I also place selections from one of Graham’s least favorite writers, Gustav Flaubert, taken from the “historical” novel Salammbo, interestingly enough, the work that most marked the author’s departure from the Realism of Madame Bovary. Aside from these juxtaposed citations which form only loose but instructive correlates, I will also comment when I can on the colonial, or white/colored contrast that seems to be evoked by Graham’s depictions of what is real, in the hope that my argument would become even more textually based. This is not  to say that Graham thinks like Flaubert thought of the Egyptian (or Carthaginian), for at most Flaubert was a surface traveler, and Graham an invested resident (a biographical fact to to be cheated); but rather it is to say that in his conceptualization of binaries, as inherited from Heidegger, and perhaps due to his own place and time in history, Graham’s theory of causation partakes in something distinctly colonial in flavor as he characterizes the properties, powers and role of the vicarious realm. This aptitude toward the foreign is a germ of Idealist, largely White, European thinking, the line from which Graham has come. Perhaps any other orientalizing fictional writer could be chosen beside Flaubert. It is only Graham’s stated resistence to Flaubert, and the association within me that this resistance started that brings this precise  comparison to bear.

Gustav Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert

The Place of the Sensuous Intermediary

Generally, if we assume a colonialist stance of the White on behalf of the “real” but retreating object, we have the distinct analogy of white powers communicating with, and inflicting themselves upon, each other, only through some passive and otherly colored mediary, a vicar from the sensuous realm:

GH: “For as I will contend, objects hide from one another endlessly, and inflict their mutual blows only through some vicar or intermediary.” (189-190)

But, as we seek to get a grasp of things, we must acknowledge that both the most primative or pragmatic of relations do not quite capture the hidden essence of things, the retreating whiteness of them. The scientist and the tribesman is deluded by the colors of its use-perspective, something with which Flaubert roughly agrees:

GH: “The tribesman who dwells with the godlike leopard, or the prisoner who writes secret messages in lemon juice, are no closer to the dark reality of these objects than the scientist who gazes at them.” (191)

Salammbo: All modes of worship, as well as all races, were to be met with in these armies of Barbarians, and consideration was had to the gods of others, for they too, inspired fear. Many mingled foreign practices with their native religion. It was to no purpose that they did not adore the stars; if a constellation were fatal or helpful, sacrifices were offered to it; an unknown amulet found by chance at a moment of peril became a divinity; or it might be a name and nothing more, which would be repeated without any attempt to understand its meaning. But after pillaging temples, and seeing numbers of nations and slaughters, many ultimately ceased to believe in anything but destiny and death;-and every evening these would fall asleep with the placidity of wild beasts.

Though because all of our real object, transparent states are cut off from each other, as isolated white objects, we must meet each other through the vicarious mediation of a third, something of the sensuous kind, those that lay side by side like entwined slaves in a harem. Yet behind this phenomenal incestual mix lies the retreating essence of an absent object, again, Flaubert assents:

GH: “Whereas real objects withdraw, sensual objects lie directly before us, frosted over with a swirling, superfluous outer shell. But this difference seems to give sensual objects the opposite causal status of real ones. Given that real objects never touch directly, their causal relations can only be vicarious. But sensual objects, far from being withdrawn, exist side by side in the same perceptual space from the outset, since we encounter numerous phenomena simultaneously.” (195)

Salammbo: The plain, which was wholly bounded by mountains, expanded around them. Here and there a palm tree leaned over a sand hill, and pines and oaks flecked the sides of the precipices: sometimes the rain of a storm would hang from the sky like a long scarf, while the country everywhere was still covered with azure and serenity; then a warm wind would drive before it tornadoes of dust, and a stream would descend in cascades from the heights of Sicca, where, with its roofing of gold on its columns of brass, rose the temple of the Carthaginian Venus, the mistress of the land. She seemed to fill it with her soul. In such convulsions of the soil, such alternations of temperature, and such plays of light would she manifest the extravagance of her might with the beauty of her eternal smile. The mountains at their summits were crescent-shaped; others were like women’s bosoms presenting their swelling breasts, and the Barbarians felt a heaviness that was full of delight weighing down their fatigues.”

In such a sensual realm, the problem is actually of over-sensuousness, the tendency to run like colors into each other into a muddy mess. For this reason sensuous objects have to be “buffered” from each other, kept off each other. It is the very precosciousness their sexuality that need to restrained:

GH: “If real objects require vicarious causation, sensual objects endure a buffered causation in which their
interactions are partly dammed or stunted.” (195)

GH: “Sensual objects, by contrast, are so inclined to interact with their neighbors that we wonder why they fail to do so at every instant. In other words, the only place in the cosmos where interactions occur is the sensual, phenomenal realm.” (195)

Sincerely Mining the Black Noise For the Invisible Signal

And when the real white objects do indeed pierce through the veil of richness, the result is incendiary. With timely reference to the unexpected bombs in marketplaces and hotel lobbies, real, planning objects that cannot touch reaching across and “touching” each other through the mediating connectivity of a feeling people:

GH: “The various eruptions of real objects into sensuality lie side by side, buffered from immediate interaction. Something must happen on the sensual 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.” (197)

The sensuous people/kinds are actually composed of their qualities and even their accidents which seem to float about them as if in a halo of “noise”. But this noise tellingly is not the noise of whiteness (the unstructured sound of untuned Western television or radio technology). It is a black noise, due to its very structuring, “buffering”, quality. It mysteriously keeps the sensuous types apart and functioning. Again, Flaubert has a taste for the same thing:

GH: “Finally, the sensual tree never appears in the form of a naked essence, but is always encrusted with various sorts of noise. Elsewhere I have called it ‘black noise’, to emphasize that it is highly structured, not the sort of formless chaos suggested by the ‘white noise’ of television and radio.” (198)

Salammbo: A noisy throng of people filled the streets from morning to evening; boys shaking bells, cried at the doors of baths; steam rose from hot drink stalls, the air resounded with the din of anvils, white cocks sacred to the Sun crowed on terraces, oxen bellowed in their temples as they were butchered, slaves ran carrying baskets on their heads; and in the depths of a portico appeared a priest, draped in a dark mantel, barefoot, and with a pointed hat.”

In a colonialist light, Graham draws on the mining metaphor as ideal of causation. Real, transparent objects have to tunnel into the rich sensuous earth in shafts, and draw out the freight of the connection. These contact-starved objects have to almost parasitically draw on the wealth of the intimacies of the colored world:

GH: “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 intention and another real object lying outside it. In this way, shafts or freight tunnels are constructed between objects that otherwise remain quarantined in private vacuums.” (201) 

And in keeping with the Orientalist flavor, the mere intentionality of real objects, the way that they are able to hone in on definite sensuous objects with what Graham calls “sincerity” is itself an austerity of Asian source, absorbed into its very contemplation:

GH: “For instance, I may be sincerely absorbed in contemplating glass marbles arranged on the surface of a table. This is my sincerity at the moment, since I forego other possibilities of greater and lesser import to witness this austere, Zen-like spectacle.” (205)

But despite the colonialist rhetoric and conception, Graham denies both the banality of pure white exploitation, making a grey mud of the mined third world, or even the “sexiness” of a fixed melodrama cast against that background. Instead it is an eruptive field of white and colored intermixtures, of cold objects and their warm though foreign intermediaries. The world is shot through with post-colonial shiftings and residues. And here Flaubert too sees the vivacity of sensuous people stirred (wow, one can almost see the conflation of the romantic European traveling through Greecian fragmented cult temple islands, and the modern Westerner threatened by the unpredictable human-bomb, epiphanically Delphic/Al Qaedic, Classical Terror):

GH: “The world is neither a grey matrix of objective elements, nor raw material for a sexy human drama projected onto gravel and sludge. Instead, it  is filled with points of reality woven together only loosely: an archipelago of oracles or bombs that explode from concealment only to generate new sequestered temples.” (211-212)

Salammbo: There were people in the square of Khamon shouting for arms. The Ancients would not provide them, esteeming such an effort useless; others who had set out without a general had been massacred. At last they were permitted to depart, and as a sort of homage to Moloch, or from a vague need of destruction, they tore up tall cypress trees in the woods of the temples, and having kindled them at the torches of the Kabiri, were carrying them through the streets singing. These monstrous flames advanced swaying gently; they transmitted fires to the glass balls on the crests of the temples, to the ornaments of the colossuses and the beaks of the ships, passed beyond the terraces and formed suns as it were, which rolled through the town. They descended the Acropolis. The gate of Malqua opened.”

But within our inner sensous field, our inner and tribal primitive, we search for the lost transparent object on the other side, much as how Hölderlin speaks of  “Fernahnend mit/Dem andern” (sensing-distant with another) as I mentioned in my last post. All of our orientalized inner realm sparkles with but the hints of what lies beyond. And Flaubert too feels this with passion, as he describes the tele-communication of Salammbo to her distant father:

GH: “In the sensual realm, we encounter objects encrusted with noisy accidents and relations. We may also be explicitly aware of some of their essential qualities, though any such list merely transforms the qualities into something accident-like, and fails to give us the unified bond that makes the sensual thing a single thing. Instead, we need an experience in which the sensual object is severed from its joint unified quality, since this will point for the first time to a real object lying beneath the single quality on the surface.” (215)

Salammbo: She did not know what was happening to Hamilcar [her father]. At last, weary of her thoughts, she got up, dragging her small sandals, with the sole clapping against her heel at every step, she walked at random about the great and silent room. The amethysts and topazes of the ceiling made made quivering patches of light here and there, as she walked Salammbo turned her head a little to see them.She would go and take the hanging amphoras by the neck; she would cool her bosom beneath the broad fans, or perhaps amuse herself by burning cinnamomum in hollow pearls. At sunset Taanach would draw back the black felt lozenges that closed the openings in the wall; then her doves, rubbed with musk like the doves of Tanith, suddenly entered, and their pink feet glided over the glass pavement, amid the grains of barley which she threw to them in handfuls like a sower in a field. But on a sudden she would burst into sobs and lie stretched on the large bed of ox-leather straps without moving, repeating a word that was ever the same, with open eyes, pale as one dead, insensible, cold; and yet she could hear the cries of the apes in the tufts of the palm trees, with the continuous grinding of the great wheel which brought a flow of pure water through the stories into the porphyry centre-basin.” 

GH: “In instances of beauty, an object is not the sum total of beautiful colors and proportions on its surface, but a kind of soul animating the features from within, leading to vertigo or even hypnosis in the witness.” (216)

Salammbo: He felt very near to the subterranean deities. It was as the joy of one of the Kabiri; and the great luminous rays striking upon his face looked like the extremity of an invisible net linking him across the abysses with the centre of the world.”

Yet, in this sensuous realm, the realm of the colored, it is the autonomous, need we say White, agent, he that holds court over all these undisciplined types. Over the local customs and their disputes is the law of the subject which trumps all appeals of those types:

GH: “Different sensual objects within the same intention are described as contiguous; they do not melt together, but are treated by the intentional agent as distinct, and this agent is the final court of appeal in the sensual realm.” (217)

Any connection between white objects is enabled solely through the principle of allure, illustrations of which either come from Germany’s pagan past, or the Middle Eastern traditional indulgences of tobacco or cannabis. But is not the object itself, but merely the thing that dangles from or sticks on the eastern “thing” that catches the westerner’s eyes:

GH: “Accidents alone have the dual status of belonging and not belonging to an object, like streamers on a maypole, or jewels on a houka. Accidents are tempting hooks protruding from the sensual object, allowing it the chance to connect with others and thereby fuse two into one.” (218)

Only by becoming sensuous in some fashion does the white object actually bring real causation into being. It must brush and stir the inside of another white object. It must become oriental…tele-kinetically.

GH: “I make contact with another object, not through impossible contact with its interior life, but only by brushing its surface in such a manner as to bring its inner life into play. Just as only the opposite poles of magnets make contact, and just as the opposite sexes alone are fertile, it is also the case that two objects of the same type do not directly touch one another.” (219-220)

But one must not become too indulgent, lost in one’s own eastern driftings. Other real, white objects must be brought into the dulled opium phantasm. One must receive the distant transparent signals. This after all is the need for the sensuous kinds to be cultivated in some sense, to bring their overly connected types into some kind of real connection, real order. Much in the same way Flaubert describes the march of the Barbarians into Carthaginian civility, the inventions of the wisdom of received distant signals:

GH: “But in the case of real objects, the only way to touch a real one without touching it is through allure. Only here do we escape the deadlock of merely rolling about in the perfumes of sensual things, and encounter qualities belonging to a distant signalling thing rather than a carnally present one. The only way to bring real objects into the sensual sphere is to reconfigure sensual objects in such a way that they no longer merely fuse into a new one, as parts into a whole, but rather become animated by allusion to a deeper power lying beyond: a real object.” (220) 

Salammbo: On the following day the Barbarian’s passed through a region that was covered with cultivation. The domains of the patricians succeeded one another along the border of the route; channels of water flowed through woods of palm; there were long, green lines of olive-trees; rose-coloured vapours floated in the gorges of the hills, while blue mountains reared themselves behind. A warm wind was blowing. Chameleons were crawling on the broad leaves of the cactus.

The Barbarians slackened their speed.

They marched on in isolated detachments, or lagged behind one another at long intervals. They ate grapes along the margin of the vines. They lay on the grass and gazed with stupefaction upon the large, artificially twisted horns of the oxen, the sheep clothed with skins to protect their wool, the furrows crossing one another so as to form lozenges, and the ploughshares like ships’ anchors, with the pomegranate trees that were watered with silphium. Such wealth of the soil and such inventions of wisdom dazzled them.

[A response from Graham and my commentary found here: Binaries, Orientalism and Harman on the Exotic ]

The White and the Colored In Heidegger (and Harman)

 

Thinking about the Politics of Objects

As an aftermath of my thinking about Spinoza and Heidegger it occurs to me that Heidegger ready-at-hand contains something of a notion of “Whiteness,” in the idea of invisibility (and his present-at-hand something of that of “colored”). I suspect that this probably has some strong correlate in Derrida’s critique and continuation of Heidegger, but it has been a while since I have engaged Derrida, so I want to think on it a bit myself.

The very invisibility  of the ready-at-hand, which someone like Graham Harman would like to emphasize as absolute, conceptually has of it the whiteness of society, the unseen but pure transference of power across the object such that nothing within them, about them, inhibits or retards the fullness of their expression. Such beings, what Graham calls “tool-beings,” are like what we learned white light is, a certain combination of all colors, but as to be completely transparent to our sublunar eyes.

If this generalization stands, then we might want to ask the political question, How much Whiteness is in Graham’s ever retreating objects which hide entirely from our view? Or worse, how Causacian are his tools?  (It seems odd when you put it that way, but perhaps “odd” is what is necessary to expose this proper aspect.)

We then must follow, Does not Heidegger’s veiledness of present-at-hand itself give us the very tried-and-true sense of interfering “color,” the drape of instantiated sense which forever keeps us from what something really is? (This is what you get when you love to play with binaries, you get history’s binaries.) So we ask a series of questions of a Heidegger follower. Of the sensuously rich vicars that are said to be buried in the intentional hearts of objects, the very mediating and jeweled indulgences of perception, are these really “colored people” idealizations, euphanies generated by the binarization of social terms (invisible/colored) in the first place? Is not the whiteness of society the condition of its very invisibility? And is Graham’s binarized ontology of the Real into mediating pairs then thus racially conditioned (or Colonialist)? I say this meaning no personal offense, since I believe that we all are in some sense, or even many senses Racist, by virtue of our histories. But these are questions that indeed must also be asked because Graham (as do most classical metaphysicians) asserts a certain independence of ontology from politics, and hence any ontology must defend itself when it seems to be unconsciously carrying out political forms. So are the exotic, frosted-over, accident-bedecked vicars from within, colored?

And if so, what does it politically mean to give such a representationally bestowed role to the colonial, to place the lavishly enjeweled other as our vicarious mediator? One must consider the accidental but significant fact that Graham does work out of a country he loves, Egypt, which is in a certain sense is the most resistant, and yet accommodating of colonial of countries, in my opinion. So long has Egypt been the repository for both economic wealth and the projection of esoteric wisdom for the West, it has inured itself to that cultural incursion, creating an autonomy within its representational, mediating force, strangely having insulated itself from the West, from the inside (I recall how viscerally Graham reacts against Flaubert’s idealizations and dehumanizations of “the Egyptian,” while at the same time feeling that there was an intimacy between Graham’s frosted-over and encrusted internal objects and Flaubert’s saturated depictions of Carthage in Salammbô). As I have suspected for a while, it is the qualities of object that Graham really is most concerned with. 

Hölderlin Sings of the mediating Fremde

One has to ask in this continuing vein, Are these projections of sensuous, mediating and colored vicars not the very mechanisms of whiteness, in the sense that the colony becomes the necessary and mediating extension of the homeland (a homeland that ironically enough, as Heidegger likes to dream of it in Hölderlin fashion, we are expelled from). We are all caught between our Whiteness which we can never reach or return to, adrift in a colored East which forever mediates our connection to what invisibily lies below.

Again, I recall that Graham has a repulsion for Hölderlin, Heidegger’s laureate, something he attributes to the ad nauseum  Heideggerian forays into the poetic. But Hölderlin himself seems to sum the juxtaposition perfectly, the weird world of Object-Oriented metaphysics connections, as our real states are forever mediated by what is alien to us, caught in a transferal between like and unlike:

 

Ein Zeichen sind wir, deutunglos
Schmerzlos sind wir und haben fast
Die Sprache in der Fremde verloren. 

A sign we are, meaningless
Painless we are and have nearly
The Tongue in the “East” [The Foreign] lost.

Mnemosyne (lines 1-3) [rough interlinear translation here]

And is not the “bedeutend” [indicated] of the snow that gleams and glances on the Alpine meadow just like lilies, the very principle of “allure,” the metaphorical transfer that Graham claims is the mechanism of all causal connection?

Denn Schnee, wie Majenblumen
Das Edelmüthige, wo
Es seie, bedeutend, glänzet auf der grünen Wiese
Der Alpen, hälftig
Da…

For snow, like Maylilies
High-nobility, where
It would be revealed, gleams on the greening meadow
Alpine, half
There…

With Harman-like efficacy accidental allure brings each distant, retreating object across to another distant and retreating object, the “distant signal” of whiteness communicating, poking through the rich, veiling mediator vicars of a too-sensual world, a connection which Hölderlin calls in the hymn, “Fernahnend mit/Dem andern” (sensing-distant with another). The poet to his lost Diotima? Is Graham’s theory of causation in some determinative sense, Hölderlinian, the way that real objects of the home pierce through the richness of the foreign veil? Could it be that Graham’s strong resistances to the idealizations  of the East in both Flaubert and Hölderlin are the very condition of his projections of the same into this metaphysics of mediating coloredness? And thus are this metaphysics intimately colonial of source, and accidentally so in project?

But there is a significant difference between Graham’s neo-Heideggerian position, and Heidegger’s own caught-in-the-middle universe. There is no wistfulness of detachment, or explicit longing to return home from the vicarious world; although the importation of the exotic pervades his object-universe, in a quest for the weird, (but we have yet to read his coming treatment of Orpheus, the veritable picture of lost retrieval). So though he has not been able to formulate a detailed explication of just how  vicar-mediations might operate at the inanimate level, there is no sense at all that objects as such do not in fact continually interact with distinguished flow. The existential gap of sojourn is not at all immediately present for objects, in fact, objects of each type (the real white, and the sensuous colored) are actually barred, not from interacting with the the opposite kind, as if whites cannot mix with blacks, but rather are barred from mixing with each other. The white and distant objects in retreat actually need the colored vicars to touch each other. So if we allow a political extension, the Caucasian West needs the colored East to communicate at all with the Caucasian West, and the foreign is already internal to real object state connections (in fine dialectical fashion).

This is an interesting line of analysis. Graham tells us that the color world of inner vicars is one that is externally connected to those things of its own kind (an intentional object is composed of its qualities and even accidents, each sharing the same “conceptual space”). The problem in the intentional realm is not one of isolation,  how each sensuous part might come in contact with the others of its kind, for they are ever ready to bleed into each, almost with lude enthusiasm. For this reason the colored world is somehow internally “buffered,” Graham says, keeping its characteristically natural gravitational collapse of sensuality at bey from one great con-fusion (one might read in separation of the sensous types, the ethnographic buffering of traditional or tribal customs, often to be contrasted with rational laws, a contrast then thought characteristic of “foreign” peoples). The white world of real objects have exactly the inverse of the difficulty. They are not ever-crossing the boundaries of each other, incestuous of their realm, ready to produce unexpected catalytic changes, but rather are forever in retreat, imploding, “vacuum packed,” in withdrawl from each other in isolating and unique distance. They are tellingly in tension with even their own qualities. Their qualitative manifestions they merely wear like clothing they are not quite comfortable in, like a restrained, northern people from colder climes. Little soul-cores of white essence shrink back from color (How White  are Leibniz’s monads? Do we have to ask?). In this perpetual retreat of real objects do we see the rationality of Anglo austerity and Laws, strict non-contact formulations against the body and the senses, the puritanical clean of objects/citizens themselves? Is it no wonder that for Graham these two complimentary projections indeed form a necessary pair? We must ask, insofar as these are projections of a political, sociological creation, how much does that naturalize, metaphysicalize our political products?

The Vicarious as Ideal

As mentioned, the positive for Graham’s metaphysics is that these two, the colored object of sensuality and the white object of cold removal, are interdependent upon each other. He concentrates more it seems on the way that the white object needs the mediation of the colored object, and there is some sense in which the colored object only persists because it is enveloped in a greater real/white object (in his theory of causation, The Intentional as a Whole, which holds as somehow private the asymmetical meeting ground  between white and colored objects). These are slight biases against the place of mediating sensual representation figures. But all in all he also seems to see them as completely interwoven kinds which from the wider view is really the interweave of two equal realms. They form complimentary “problems.” Each realm is seemingly autonymous but still needful of the properties of the other for communication with its own kind.

If any of this analysis of color is correct, then where does that leave the political imprint and force of Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Philosophy? It conceptualization seems to be derived from a colonialist inspired history of idealized foreignness, the dripping wealth of the native which is always placed in a mediating (vicarious) position towards whiteness itself. As with idealizations of the noble savage, one knows that such esteem always harbors the dangers of its suppressed reverse, the projection of the negative shadow of whiteness. In this Graham’s depiction of vicars does not explicitly, or even implicitly participate, which does not mean that it is not present. 

But then there is that extraordinary metaphor of the bomb found in his essay on vicarious causation, which must have strong political resonance given the time and country that he inhabits:

 

Something must happen on the
sensual 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.

(“On Vicarious Cauation” 197)

I put it in a stanza because Graham is an evocative, poetic writer at times and the point he is making is indeed the point of contact that subsumes the sensuous as part of its means. The “bomb” of the unexpected comes from the very proximity of the sensous colored ones, which somehow corrode into catalytic action, bringing real white objects into explosive collision OR, the bomb comes from the distant signals of real white objects sent to each other. (Actually, in the greater passage it is not quite clear to me just what is lying next to what, or what doing something to something else.) In this extraordinary analogy the bomb of the middle east goes off out of the very sensuous communicabilty of colored interactions, the provoked collapse of their customed bufferings, by the clean signal sent by white objects to one another, through their foreign medium. And all of causation in the world is seen to be something of a terrorist bomb.

Cairo, the Weird of Causation and the Democracy of Objects

Equal authority is granted to the colored realms - remember that the first occasionalist Graham turns to is notably Islamic, Al-Ghazali, though Object-Oriented Philsophy strips him of his God.  That power is given to the colored facility of connection, in that it is at least rhetorically a form of political, fringe, violent protest against the West that becomes a model for causality itself, one sees through to Graham’s “democracy of objects” where each object has the same rights, the right to erupt from depths; and thus all things are imagined as engaged in a mutuality of two inter-locking realms even if in mysterious and unpredictable communication, beneath the surface. But the great problem is, at least for my theoretical ear, that much of this evocative and explanatory language has not only a deep entrenchment in the Idealist tradition (something I have argued at length from various directions), but also in the very ethnocentric projections of a determinatively White West. The very attributes of positive characterists that imbue the internal vicars that allow all these cold, distant objects who can’t touch, to touch, are charicatures of Eastern or more widely, colored rich. In this way they perpetuate the image of their own enslavement. And the very poetic gravitational centers which make such a description attractive (that give it its allure), are those aspects which retard us from being able to conceive of the dynamics between things as fundamentally and conceptually different than these projections of our historical past. Is it necessarily true that the white must depend upon a vicarious colored? And if so, is not this logical dependency born of its very imaginative split, upon the assertion of “white” in the first place?

But the attractiveness of such an exotic theory does not  merely condemn it to a simple repetition of past forms. One must admit that the very lure of it is also the means by which it may allow a transformation of the projections it uses; that is, the exotic language of vicar description as it puts colored obects into more centralized mediating roles, may in the service of a “democracy of objects” allow us or future others to metaphysically write themselves out beyond such idealizations, at the proper time. And there is the sense that come from a Western writer in an American University, within Cairo, it is just such a “weird” metaphysics that is incredibly timely, expressing a logic of ethnic tension in a materialistic, capitalized Age. Yet if this is the case (and that remains to be argued), such a metaphysics I believe must also be strongly critiqued for its inheritance, as colonial, so as to trace the transformations it brings to Heideggerian (and Hölerlinian) whites and coloreds, so to fully allow the directional “bombs” of Graham’s conceptions to go off most soterologically. If we are going to binarize, we must keep track of our binaries, where they come from, and where they lead. 

For my part, though I admit this possible  productivity of the rhetoric, I find these kinds of metaphysical plays with binaries highly problematic, especially when they put forth the form of a naturalized “kind” which embodies much that really should be examined in a more rigorous way. And I wonder if Latour’s resistance to Graham’s retreating objects behind his own ANT occasional actors of ever kind and color is an instinctive retreat from any explanatory oppositional whiteness. The reason why actors may be enough for Latour is that coloredness is enough, there is only colorness, so to speak, not just as a matter of our condition, but of the condition of the world. While I do not find Latour’s flatness of actors and networks satisfying, and agree with Graham that a deepening is needed, I am suspect of any good that a binary of absent, invisible things does. Rather it strikes me that it is more in the very structural dynamics of power, into the depths of causal explanation itself, the way that understanding how something works gives real ontological change in the capacity to act, that we better turn. In this way we side step both the positivity and negativity of theoretical allure, rather to make of our philosophy the most articulate grammar of an effective communication across the currents of these rooted identifications.

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

How to Philosophize With a Hammer (or better…Spinoza’s Hatchet)

Heidegger is credited with profound originality in his treatment of “the hammer”, something even it is said his critics have to doff their hat to. With this we cannot, and should not dispute. But, it may be enough to point out that approximately 265 years before there was Heidegger’s Hammer, there was a similar point made by Spinoza, in the carpenter’s hatchet. Spinoza indeed, as a actual craftsman who thought deeply about his tools, had a sort of Tool-Being analysis which might help us reflect upon the nature of distinction that Heidegger was making (and that those that follow him continue to make). The comparison of these tools I originally found here, but is in reference to the essay “Heidegger’s Hammer, Spinoza’s Hatchet” by Eccy de Jonge, apparently defunctly found here, but which I have not been able to read. Here are the two complimentary passages:

Spinoza:

Seventhly, this knowledge also brings us so far that we attribute all to God, love him alone because he is the most glorious and the most perfect, and thus offer ourselves up entirely to him; for these really constitute both the true service of God and our own eternal happiness and bliss. For the sole perfection and the final end of a slave and of a tool is this, that they duly fulfill the task imposed on them. For example, if a carpenter, while doing some work, finds his Hatchet of excellent service, then this Hatchet has thereby attained its end and perfection; but if he should think: this Hatchet has rendered me such good service now, therefore I shall let it rest, and exact no further service from it, then precisely this Hatchet would fail of its end, and be a Hatchet no more. Thus also is it with man, so long as he is a part of Nature he must follow the laws of Nature, and this is divine service; and so long as he does this, it is well with him. But if God should (so to say) will that man should serve him no more, that would be equivalent to depriving him of his well-being and annihilating him; because all that he is consists in this, that he serves God.

The Short Treatise On God, Man and His-Well-Being, part II, chapter XVIII “On the Uses of the Foregoing”

Heidegger:

[The] less we stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is-as equipment … If we look at Things just ‘theoretically’, we can get along without understanding readiness-to-hand. But when we deal with them by using them and manipulating them, this activity is not a blind one; it has its own kind of sight, by which our manipulation is guided and from which it acquires its specific Thing character …

The ready-to-hand is not grasped theoretically at all, nor is it itself the sort of thing that circumspection takes proximally as a circumspective theme. The peculiarity of what is proximally ready-to-hand is that, in order to be ready-to-hand, it must, as it were, withdraw in order to be ready-to-hand quite authentically. That with which our everyday dealings proximally dwell is not the tools themselves. On the contrary, that with which we concern ourselves primarily is the work – that which is to be produced at the time; and this is accordingly ready-to-hand too. The work bears with it that referential totality within which the equipment is encountered.

 Being and Time, section 15, “The Being of Entities Encountered in the Environment,” under the Analysis of Environmentality and Worldhood in General 

First, I want to really thank the initial two authors for bringing the two selections into contact for me. It never had occurred to me that there would be so close an analogical connection between Spinoza and Heidegger, in text, though long I had sensed that Spinoza works to resolve something of the strained and willfully produced tension in Heidegger’s human-torqued universe of fundamental alienation. (Briefly I could say that metaphysics of alienation are naturalizations of political products, and as such work to make invisible the results of choices we have collectively made.) Spinoza’s insistence that human beings are not “a kingdom within a kingdom” seems a well suited antidote to Heidegger’s “thrownness” [Geworfenheit], in concrete terms.

How the Hammer and the Hatchet Touch

But let us look at the two passages and see if we can rough-cut the correspondences and divergences in such a way to see were the Heideggerian and Spinozian realms touch. Happily, each uses the example of a tool, Heidegger famously so, to illustrate a fundamental metaphysical realty. For Heidegger it is to point out just what readiness-to-hand is, and kind of invisible power of the efficacy of the tool (as Graham Harman will tell us, of any object), whose power defies conception, theorization, or presentation. When we cease to engage a tool, pausing to look at it and frame it (the move from ready-to-hand to present-at-hand), breaking it out of its assemblage of powerful action, the tool becomes strange for us. It recedes from our occupation of it. Its presencing veils it from us, like an apparitional cloak. Yet if we look to strip away this veil by taking up the tool again, and using it, as the veil fades, along with the increasing efficacy of tool in use, so does the object itself. What we are looking to grasp, in literal grasping, vanishes.

A similar thing seems to happen to Spinoza’s carpentry hatchet. While it is being used by the carpenter it is filled with hatchetness, performing all the hatchet-effects of what it is, but once it is retired from work, it no longer is a hatchet at all. Its very essence seems to retreat from the carpenter into a distinct but unspecified objecthood. How much are Heidegger and Spinoza pointing out similar things?

Let us dig into Spinoza’s illustration though so to see how deeply it cuts into Heidegger’s hammer example. The first thing to note is that Spinoza is using an analogy meant to describe both human, teleological action, and the ultimate ground of those actions, the ateleological actions of Substance. In that he is describing human action in which things are characteristically marked by their place in function, he seems to be touching on something quite close to Heidegger’s point. The object of the hatchet, even when being fully used by the carpenter, or when laid down and retired, is in surpass (or retreat) of either condition. The ultimate ground of the object is deeper than each, teleological action, or contemplative repose. It oscillates between hatchet-in-action and not-hatchet-in-inaction.

But there is a further dimension to Spinoza’s point, for by analogy the “carpenter” is not a functionally minded man, but God, Substance, Nature. And the use that the “hatchet” is put to is not to build a wall, house or chair, but simply to exist and express Substance. In this way the object is fully deployed when existing. It cannot be named because its function runs in every direction along the full web of interactions which it supports, and is supported by. So in existence, the object stands bright. radiating out all its possibility (though the human carpenter locked in his teleological perspective does not fully see it). And when the carpenter “God” lays the hatchet down, to retire it, it simply passes out of existence, though still having Being under an aspect of eternity. It is no longer deployed, no longer what it was, but its objecthood, as an essence, remains, de-nominated.

The Carpenter’s Hand

Yet, there is a bit of a trick here. Is it so for Spinoza that Heidegger’s general claim of two kinds of invisibility of objects, those invisibly in use, and those present in rest, are present in Spinoza’s example of the human carpenter? We can see that as the human carpenter looks to his hatchet he only grasps some aspect of it in the as-structure of its use, something that is a veil of its ultimate and active object-capacities. But is the hatchet also invisible when being used, and the carpenter concentrates on his work? I think that the whole of Spinozist philosophy works against just that kind of imagined and absolute invisibility.

First take in Graham Harman’s summation of the Principle of Invisibility  implied by Heidegger’s tool-analysis. Graham’s interpretation is important because it pushes to the limit the fully abstract character of Heidegger’s claims, and as such makes clear just where Heideggerian abstractions depart from the relevant world, forcing open a gap between a science fiction philosophy of objects, and an abstract philosophy of what matters.

Heidegger has shown that its [tool-being's] first notable trait is its invisibility. As a rule, the more efficiently the tool the tool performs its function, the more it tends to recede from view: “The peculiarity of what is proximally ready-to-hand is that, in its readiness-to-hand, it must, as it were, withdraw [zurückziehen] in order to be ready-at-hand quite authentically.” But this familiar point is rarely grasped in a sufficiently rigorous way. It is not just that equipment is generally invisible as long as it is working properly. Such a notion could never surpass the level of empirical anecdote, and only invites free-wheeling attempts at contradiction (“but then we noticed that it worked a lot better if you stared right at the damn thing”). The truth is far more radical than this. In the first instance, there is an internal chasm between equipment and tool-being. The wrench as reality and the visible or tactile wrench are incommensurable kingdoms, solitary planes without hope of intersection. The function or action of a tool, its tool-being, is absolutely  invisible – even if the hammer never leaves my sight. Neither gazing at an object nor theorizing about an object is enough to lure its being from concealment (21) 

Tool-being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects, Graham Harman

I want to take up Graham Harman’s call for “sufficiently rigorous” grasping of the Heideggerian notion of withdrawl. I think it is important though, as fast as Graham wants to fly into things other than outright tools (bank accounts, mindless jingles, hairballs), to stay with tools. For its is from human experiences with tools that Heidegger derives much of the convincing power of his great abstraction. If we are to be rigorous about the claim, we must concentrate on the exact nature of the site of the illustration, and see if the general point being made  can  even find enough ground there. Once approved there, we then can track out all the translations into The Great Wide Open of any object whatsoever.

Carefully we note that for Heidegger the two occluded states of invisible action (equipment) and veiled repose are the famously the two states of working and broken tool:

Equipment in action operates in an inconspicuous usefulness, doing its work without our noticing it. When the tool fails, its unobtrusive quality is ruined. There occurs a jarring of reference, so that the tool becomes visible as what it is: “The contexture of reference and thus the referential totality undergoes a distinctive disturbance which forces us to pause.” There is thus a double life of equipment – tool in action, tool in disrepair. These two planes would seem never to intersect, since the visibility of the tool immediately marks it’s cessation as equipment. But in fact, their point of intersection provides what amounts to the central theme for Heidegger’s career: namely, the as-structure. Through the “as,” the two worlds actually turn out to exist only in communion, in constant intersection with one another… (Harman 45)

Now we all know exactly what Heidegger is talking about. We are working away, concentrating on the nails, the wood-finish, thinking about lunch, hammering away, and the hammer is very close to being “invisible” (if we are a good enough carpenter). But then if the handle fractures, it sends up a vibration to the hand that suddenly shocks it into visibility, but as a hammer, as we look at it that is somehow lost. Beautiful, excellent poetic description of some aspects of what it is like to use a hammer, it kind of passes between these two states. I wish to bring up an objection though which hopefully will not fall too much into the category of “free-wheeling” “empirical anecdote” for a reader such Graham, for I already find Heidegger’s analogical binary a bit too free-wheeling on its own right. The objection to invisibility is not as Graham states it, “but then we noticed that it worked a lot better if you stared right at the damn thing” but it is much more radical than that.

The Texture of Communication

And that is, for a great variety of tools (and I will come to suspect, perhaps all tools and therefore objects), Heidegger and his radix purifier, has left out an entire dimension of visibility, the way that visibility and workability actually coincide together. In their pursuit of irreconcilable binaries something important has been lost, and their entire reductive, categorical claim depends upon the exhaustabilty of its split. Heidegger wants withdrawal to be the very mark of the authenticity of readiness-to-hand, but if anyone has used a tool that excels in its capacities, one understands that there is a way that the tool leaps into visibility that has nothing to do with repose or reflection or theorization. A musician who picks up a Stradivarius and pulls the bow, whether for the first time, or 1,00oth, has something of the instrument’s depth that reverberates with its very surplus of the mere functionality of the thing, a surplus that feeds back into its very function and performance. A baseball player who lifts and swings the right maple-wood bat, testing out is character of distribution, a character which fills his hands, has a presencing of the object which is conditioned upon its very performance. Swinging the bat in its arc, the bat only “disappears” in the most restrictively defined notion of sense. Instead the bat continually reports and manifests because of its mutuality with the human body. A racecar driver that is prostheticallyextended to the road through an expert suspension system, does not actually feel the suspension system become invisible in its performance, but rather the suspension is cybernetically feedback into the horizon of the body as a constitutive factor in the performance itself, making itself known as a series of limits and expressions. This is known as the “feel” of an instrument, not as the last visible vestige of  a tool’s inefficiency, but the very live, material connectivity to the world. As much as Heidegger (and perhaps even more Graham Harman) may want to divide an object into “working” invisibility and “broken” (in)visibility, there is a profound aspect of “working” which is made up of the very substance of revealed and composite com-munication, which means literally “to divide up within one, to share”. As such there is a variability of consubstantial change (the violin becomes the musician, the musician the violin) which oscillates between the parts, such that we can say that the parts are “seen” by each other. We certainly admit that the violin can indeed disappear before the music, the car before the road, but in no way is there a categorical link between efficacy of performance and invisibility. In the very fact that objects regularly become visible through their performability, the charge of their expressivity. This visibility of expression might indeed get us to pause, and to do as Graham says, look at the object, and notice its performance in it own right, but this is distinct from the expressive inter-relationship itself, the way that the very effective performance of a tool, and instrument, a prosthetic, depends upon the inter-relatability of the combination of our parts with its parts. We do not only notice our body when it breaks down. In fact, and dancer knows, inhabits with great visibility its own body, increment by increment, capacity by capacity, in such a way that the dance itself becomes visible, as an excellence.

So why did Heidegger (and Graham) miss this (or subdivide it into non-importance), and what does this have to do with what Spinoza says? Well, the problem is that each of the former are looking for binaries that will be locked against each other and that is because they come from an intellectual heritage of Idealism which wants to profoundly assert subject/object, Being/Non-Being, object/object dichotomies (CCC). When each looks at a tool they want to see how it can break into two, and only two pieces. In fact though, once Graham has isolated out this neat binary of the hammer, its supposed broken and unbroken parts, he wants to get as far away as possible from actual tools, real world human actions altogether:

I will argue that Heidegger’s tool-analysis has nothing to do with any kind of “pragmaticism,” or indeed with any theory of human action at all. Instead the philosophy of Heidegger forces us to develop a ruthless inquiry into the structure of objects themselves, and to a greater extent than even he himself would have endorsed (15).

He says this I think because he feels that Heidegger gives us conceptual capacity to be ruthless and transgress the human realm and give full rights to objects as things themselves, to make them each a miniature neutron star bombarding us with unknown energies. But the problem is that he runs a bit too fast from the human realm, and has not inspected the full vibrancy of tool use itself, the way in which tools necessarily employ visibility through performance.

The De-Centered Human in the Use of Mechanism

Counter to this I place Spinoza who like Graham also had a philosophical bent to de-centralize humans (nothing that Heidegger shares). Additionally, instead of using hammers as abstract, and quite theoretical objects like Heidegger, Spinoza was a craftsman of great care and precision. Much of his days was spent thinking about, choosing and using tools. A process which relied upon the manual improvements that come from a craftsman’s hand. One might say that as adept as Heidegger was at metaphysical reasoning, Spinoza was at instrument making (leaving his own metaphysics aside). His practice as lens-grinder was necessarily laborious and technique rich, relying upon not only precise measurement and material choice, but also harmonious and embodied physical labor. And with his hand-ground lenses he made some of the more respected microscopes and telescopes of his day:

A Spring-pole lens grinding lathe, mid 17th century

I believe much of his metaphysics was causally derived from his experiences with tools and their projects [An example]. If anyone would have concluded through a real life engagementwithtools that tools become categorically invisible when they perform well, it would have been Spinoza. It was precisely the opposite. Spinoza’s interaction with the glass blank and his lathe produced in him a shattering of the very human/world divide that enrapture’s Heideggerian disjointed universe of veilings. Likely, it was the distinct way that tools become visible in the very fabric of their performance (and not as an after thought, though that too), that Spinoza realized that human beings must be tools like all other things, and that only by the lived combination of powers, in manifesting displays of created self-determinations, that human beings experience a (relative) freedom. For this reason, human beings (and all things) become more perfect, more active, and most importantly in Heideggerian terms, have more being, to the degree that they combine with the manifestation of others. And tool use, tool-combination, is an irreplaceable aspect of this freedom. Performance is visibility.

So when Graham attempts to minimize the actual states of human consciousness under ultimate questions of visibility and performance, setting up two worlds…:

Someone might object that the tool is always invisible “only in a certain respect” rather than absolutely. And sure enough, a table obviously does not vanish into the ether once it begins to function as a support for plates and apples. But this complaint once again presupposes the idea of the table as a natural object, proportions of its reality momentarily visible and others unseen. On the contrary, it is not the chance fluctuations of human attention that determine whether the ready-to-hand is invisible or not. To say that the tool is unseen “for the most part” is ultimately superfluous, even incorrect. Whatever is visible of the table is in any given instant can never be its tool-being, never  its ready-to-hand. However deeply we meditate on the table’s act of supporting solid weights, however tenaciously we monitor its presence, any insight that is yielded will always be something quite distinct from this act itself.

(The Weight of Fleeting Thoughts)

…I feel in his quest to over shoot the concrete example and ascend to universalizing abstractions, he he misses the determining aspect of human action. It is not its the “humanness” of human action, or even its subjective character that makes it what it is. Rather it is exactly the incremental “fluctuations of human attention” that indeed do make up the degrees of power of ontological change. Spinoza I think would indeed agree that when using a tool or object or condition we as teleologically oriented beings do not fully grasp it, that there is a degree of invisibility (and also that when we nominalize it in a system of use and reference, particularly those of functional definition, we also have inadequate ideas, and it surpasses us). But what he would refuse is that our combination with other objects necessarily and categorically forecloses their visibility. Instead, it is our very participation with them that their internal natures are communicated to us, revealedly, in our bodies, because our bodies have become mutual. The reason for this is twofold. One is that, because Heidegger’s Idealist derived object-consciousness of definition of mental action has to be abandoned if we are ever to let go of a human-centric philosophy of the world, ultimately whether an object is not before our “mind’s eye” or not, whether we are locked in on the Stradivarius or not, is not a true measure of visibility. Mental action is not a picture-making, or picture-defined process. Mental action is revelation through both internal experience (across bounds) and expressional freedom to self-determine. The second reason for this is found in Spinoza’s treatment of just those “chance fluctuations” that Graham is so quick to dismiss as anything important.  Heidegger is talking about big things, not whether one’s mind lights upon the length of a table or the timbre of a cord played.

But Spinoza has it right, as he expresses in the General Definition of the Affects:

But it should be noted that, when I say a greater or lesser force of existing than before, I do not understand that the Mind compares its Body’s present constitution with a past constitution, but that the idea which constitutes the form of the affect affirms of the body something which really involves more or less reality than before (E3, General Definition of the Affects)

It is precisely in the moment to moment fluctuations of the mental life that the moment to moment ontological fluctuations of the power of the human body and mind are found. Each and every moment, each trace of thought to another thought, is veridically linked to increases and diminishments of the person’s capacity to act in the world. The Principles of Invisibility and Veiledness which Spinoza has some affinity toward, are cross slashed with vectors of raw power ruled by the experience of Joy. It is for this reason that Spinoza speaks of the excellent service of his hatchet. We human beings are already, as tool-beings of Substance, fully expressing ourselves unto our contingent causal matrix. We are at full service to Being. But through the following of Joy and the reading of the expressive power of other tool-beings, in increasingly self-determined assemblage, we can acquire more being, more freedom, more Joy. It is the very visibility that is experienced with tool performance, the way that a violin sings, and must sing, in order to be a playable violin, in order for our fingers to combine with it, that points us between Heidegger’s twin realms, making ourselves more visible.

In a certain sense Spinoza realizes that we are both external to events as human beings, and internal to them. Which is to say that because human beings do not comprise a kingdom within the kingdom of Being, but rather ultimately are expressions of it, though our passings between Heideggerian veiled and invisible realms seems to lock ourselves in, the greatest portion of our capacity to ingest our abstactions seems to be that like a water-mammal: when we go under the surface in performance with objects and they seem to recede into optical invisibility, because we too are made of the same stuff (the same primary connections between body and mind) and thus are in communication with it, when things appear to vanish into equipment, this is livingly so as an expressive state such that our growingly extensive bodies become inhabited across their dimension with perception and internal revelation. Subcutaneously there is conscious revelation in the experience of powers and Joys such that never is that world in-cognizant. We become what we know in action because we are already conjoined to it, however confusedly.

For those who want a world that is fractured, alienating, eruptive, weird, schizophrenic, I believe that there is plenty of room for that on the lived Spinozist plane of affective, bodily cybernetic reveal. There are disruptive paths that leap between local minima, that makes of one object the surprising neutron star of rays and beams. What is important though is not to naturalize our alienations as metaphysical boundaries in their own right, and so to see that the bridgings between this ontological moment so constituted by your relations, and the ones they follow, can rightfully have a path as vectored and free as our capacity to grasp and combine as we can make it. There can be no real hiding when we are part of the hidden, by degrees.

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