Reposting the Interview with Harman

I am happy to report that both Jane Bennett and Ian Bogost will be interviewed on this blog soon in relation to questions raised in reading them for the specualtive realism course. With that in mind, I’m reposting for those that missed it the interview that Harman did a couple of weeks ago. I know my students are really grateful, as are people who have gotten in touch with me from all over the planet about the previous interviews. Harman takes up this new internet environment in the first question, and what’s been exciting about reading Bogost’s work has been the way he also approaches these questions head-on.

[Cross Posted from my Course Blog for this Spring. The links provided below are by me for helpful posts on Harman’s blog that relate to our discussion.]

Graham Harman is one of the most exciting philosophers writing today. If you don’t love or hate his work, you’re not reading it, since he tempts you to take one side or another. His writing style, about which he gives a good explanation in Prince of Networks, is “hyperbolic”–all to provoke thought and not, as in the cynical hyperbole of other writers (metaphysics is dead, all politics is fascist, etc.), to bring it to its end. He is a professor at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, and has written numerous books and articles arguing for an “object oriented ontology.” His modus operandi, which we discuss below, is to offer a counter-revolution to the linguistic turn in all manner of contemporary philosophy. In the course, we studied this in terms of Michael Dummett’s work, but suffice it to say that Harman’s work looks to side with the oppressed objects said to be held under the thumb of our conceptual schemes, languages, or subjective stances. For those not in the course, we have studied two of Harman’s essays relating to art and beauty (my students found both extremely helpful and interesting), which, while not yet published, offer greater depth to his claim that “aesthetics is first philosophy.”

1. Graham,  just to bring you up to speed, in the course we’ve read some of your most widely available works on the Web: your book Prince of Networks, your essay “Vicarious Causation,” your essay on “Intentional Objects,” and several other pieces. In addition, my students have peeked into your work on your blog. Thus, I thought I’d start with a self-referential question, one that has interested me greatly in doing the Speculative Realism course: what do you make of this online environment for doing philosophy?

It’s changed everything, and that’s the main reason I’ve stuck with it. Anyone doing continental philosophy who isn’t currently involved in the blogosphere (whether as blogger or simply as reader) is inevitably falling behind. A new community has been building over the past two years, primarily through the blog medium, and Dundee in late March was perhaps the first time that many of the key blog players assembled together in person.

The philosophy blogosphere has its upside and its downside. The upside is that international philosophical discussion has become a daily event rather than just an occasional one. I’ve often been prompted to rethink things based on blog exchanges, and in the most famous example, I actually co-edited a book with two people I had never met in person! (Levi Bryant and Nick Srnicek.)

The blogosphere is also democratizing, since all blogs are in principle equal. In my graduate student days, there was no way I’d have been able to make open challenges to articles by continental kingpins such as John Sallis and Charles Scott, but in the blogosphere, students are empowered to do just that. Twenty-three-year-old students are calling me confused and mistaken all the time. Sometimes it’s pretty annoying, in fact, but on the whole I think it’s healthy. Some of them have already become blog celebrities and a few even have book deals as a result of it.

The downside is that it can be very emotionally draining to maintain a blog. There are certainly days when I wish I had never started mine, because once you have it, it feels like a garden that can’t be left unattended for long. There’s also an obvious dark underside to the “democratization” part, which is that you have a certain number of rude people lipping off beyond the limits of civility (some of them shielded by pseudonyms), including people who have never completed a significant piece of philosophical work in their lives. At times it’s unavoidable that you want to punch back at those people, but while momentarily satisfying, it just becomes another energy drain in the end.

Furthermore, the problem is not just the trolls, but also the useful comments. In the days when I was allowing comments on my blog, along with the worthless trolling remarks there were also many very good points. But then you feel expected to answer those quickly, and if it’s 3 or 4 per day, it already starts cutting into your own work. And your own work is probably going to need a certain degree of privacy, distance, and slow-paced reflection. So, I’ve not considered reopening comments, and probably never will reopen them.

At the moment, the blogosphere is still a supplement, with “real” work still appearing in traditional brick-and-mortar publishing formats. But soon that will change as well, in ways difficult to foresee, and everyone is going to need an online presence. That’s why I don’t quit (I did quit once, for less than a day, but too many people asked me to restart it). If I did, I know I’d just be back online again a few years later. The medium has so many advantages that it’s inevitable. However, we’re all still figuring out the rules in this new world. For instance, what’s the best way to handle the town drunks? How to punish the vandals? It’s being done piecemeal at the moment, but over time I think certain behavioral standards, and the enforcement thereof, will start to become established.

2. We have studied Meillassoux’s work as well as your 2008 review of After Finitude from Philosophy Today. Obviously, you take much away from his critique of correlationism. My students agree with your recent formulation, described often on your blog (http://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/), that Meillassoux is a “correlationist” himself. Yet, despite your great respect for him, nothing seems further from your work than his idea of a “chaotic in-itself” behind the phenomena of our world. Another way to think this is that many philosophers who argue for a form of realism seem to leave us without objects, but with a chaotic form of the real that bedevils our descriptions.

I’m in agreement that you can’t have realism without objects. Otherwise, you’re just left with a vague notion of “resistance” or “trauma” or “obstruction” at the limit of the experienced world, and if it isn’t allowed to be articulated into individuals, then you have to explain how the magical leap is made from a unified Real to a pluralized Experience, which in my view is clearly an incoherent jump.

Some try a subtler solution in which the Real isn’t just one, but it’s also not quite many. Examples of such solutions include Simondon’s “pre-individual,” DeLanda’s “heterogeneous yet continuous” realm, and in my opinion Deleuze’s virtual never escapes this predicament, either. We see it on the analytic side in thinkers such as Ladyman and Ross, the targets of my critique in Dundee. The real for them is “structure,” which supposedly avoids being a monolithic lump while also avoiding a realm of genuine individuals. All of these proposed solutions are, to my mind, the simple unearned positing of a wish. There is a serious philosophical problem in how to balance the individuality of things with their need to relate, and these positions solve it merely by saying “reality itself is already sort of individualized and sort of in relation.” You can’t do it that way. You have to grant that the two extreme poles exist and then show how to unify them. That’s what I’m up to with vicarious causation: trying to show how links are possible despite the inherent separation of things. You can’t start out by calling it a “pseudo-problem,” because then you’re left to solve it by fiat.

As for Meillassoux (I respect him greatly and he has become a personal friend as well), he rejects the principle of sufficient reason whereas I support it. In other words, he has a sort of occasionalist position in which everything is cut off from everything else, which I also start with, but the difference is that I think it’s a crucial problem to be solved and he doesn’t think there’s any solution. Nothing is connected to anything else; their connection remains purely contingent. But I would note the following point. Meillassoux’s argument, if true, would not only apply to the causal relation between separate things, but also to the part-whole relation within things. It’s strange enough to say that a flower could disappear at any moment and be replaced by a moose. But it’s even weirder to think that a flower in any given moment could be made of moose-pieces and still be a flower. If we look at sufficient reason inside a given moment rather than between two moments, it seems a lot harder to give up than Meillassoux thinks.

Incidentally, I should say to your students that the study of parts and wholes is called “mereology.” It was founded in analytic philosophy by a Polish thinker called Lesniewski, and those who want a good introduction to it should read the book Parts by Peter Simons, which still seems to be the best introduction to mereology more than 20 years later. Mereology has always been something of a rival to set theory, which is of course what dominates in Badiou and his followers. But one problem is that Badiou’s set theory is an extensional set theory, meaning that there is no internal organizing principle of the sets. You can randomly stipulate 17 assorted objects as members of a set, and then by fiat they become a set; it is the one who counts who determines membership, not some internal principle. Perhaps it is obvious why that’s an anti-realist gesture, and indeed very close to British Empiricism with its “bundle of qualities” theory of what makes a thing be one. I have a realist take on parts and wholes myself. Levi Bryant will be speaking on the topic at our first object-oriented ontology conference in Atlanta in April.

3. I want to take head-on the question of language. A number of my students (and not just them, of course) have really appreciated your clear expositions of Latour. But the issue they had, which is similar to what you describe as a problem as well, is the endurance of what Latour calls a “black box” or “plasma.” This is an old philosophical problem about the relation between identity and change, and Latour’s gamble is to say that there is nothing but relations. How then can the White House, etc., be seen to endure? Your route is to discuss an “alluring” interiority of things that can’t be related to anything, which is, thus also “nothing” (that can be described) but yet is the attractor for relations to other things.  Would this be correct?

First, I would say that the black box and the plasma in Latour are two different things. Black boxes are any individual things (technical devices, animals, societies) insofar as they are viewed as obvious units without internal structure. Much of Latour’s method involves opening black boxes that used to be closed. For example, instead of saying: “Pasteur was a genius and a great man who brought light to the darkness of medicine,” Latour retraces the whole history of how Pasteur got there, and it’s very interesting. My favorite part of The Pasteurization of France is the story of Pasteur’s shifting alliances. His first allies were the hygienists, who were very concerned with public health but had assembled a chaotic list of factors that might be making people sick, and Pasteur’s microbe gave them just the theoretical unifier they needed. Why was spitting in the street making people sick, and chicken left to thaw too long before it was cooked, and dark rooms without ventilation? Pasteur allowed them to say: microbes are promoted by all of these cases. But at the time Pasteur’s supporters thought wrongly that vaccinations would eliminate all diseases in advance, and hence doctors were viewed as useless relics who would soon be eliminated, and so of course, doctors started out as angry anti-Pasteurians. The alliances shifted once serums were invented, because those were administered in doctors’ offices. Empowered in this way, the doctors now became Pasteurians. It’s a wonderful story that is hidden by the understandably over-simplistic view of Pasteur as the isolated truth-seeker bringing a lantern into the darkness.

By contrast with black boxes, Latour’s plasma is never an individual thing, and that’s my objection to it. Latour defines everything in terms of its relations with other things, and there’s a philosophical problem with this. For example, if I myself am nothing more than all of my relations with everything else right now, then why would I ever change? Why would anythingever change, if it were nothing more than what it already is? To solve this problem, the recent Latour has posited a hidden plasma that is the source of change, even of very sudden ones such as the collapse of empires. He says that the individual networks are to the plasma as the London Underground is to the rest of London! In other words, the plasma is massive, and this is a major concession in his philosophy, which otherwise insists that there is nothing outside networks. However, it seems like for Latour the plasma is a single unified plasma. We’ve seen this move in the history of philosophy before, and it never succeeds. Why should my plasma be the same as your plasma, a dog’ s plasma, or the plasma of a cigarette factory? All of us are capable of changing in different ways, and hence I see little point in explaining all change through a unified plasma shared by all things. This is simply the heir of the ancient Greek apeiron. There’s no way to explain why a unified rumbling lump would ever break up into individual parts. This is why I think the world is already built of individual objects; they’re just a lot more weird than the everyday physical objects we know.

Ironically, the source of my anti-relational views is Heidegger’s tool-analysis. It’s ironic because usually people draw the opposite conclusion from Heidegger. He seems to say that the hammer in isolation is a bad, vulgar, present-at-hand object, while the hammer at work is defined by its relations to all other things in some work-related context. The hammer is defined by what it is used to build, the way I grasp it and relate to it, and so forth. As you know, I have long argued that this is a misreading. The key point about the hammer is that it can break. And if it can break, this means that it is not fully exhausted by any of its current uses or even any of its possible uses. The hammer is partly withdrawn from every network.

I later learned to appreciate this even more by reading Xavier Zubiri, Heidegger’s best little-known heir. Zubiri has even more classical realist sympathies than Heidegger, and for Zubiri the key point is that the essence of a thing cannot be defined in respect of its relations to anything else. This even leads him to go a bit too far, in my opinion… Zubiri claims that a farm and a knife are not real, because they have to be a farm or a knife for someone. All that’s real in its own right is what he calls the “atomic-cortical structure” of reality, which verges alarmingly on saying that only small physical things are real. Personally I do hold that there is a farm-in-itself and knife-in-itself that are not only constituted by the people who use them. But the wider agreement is more important. Though it took me some months to agree with him, I eventually saw that Zubiri is right: reality must be non-relational.

The summer of 1997 was the most important intellectual time for me. That’s when I studied Zubiri seriously at the same time as studying Whitehead seriously, and those two were the authors who allowed me to break free from Heidegger to some extent. (I had not yet read Latour; that was half a year later.) Zubiri showed me that reality must be non-relational. Whitehead showed me that the human-world relation is no different in kind from the relations between fire and cotton, dogs and pavement, or raindrops and milkweed. Those two thinkers combined lie at the root of my current position.

4. The analogy I’ve used to describe your argument is to suggest that, just as in physics, you can’t get bouncing relations without some X to hit off of, so too, it would seem that Latour needs “something more” to discuss as the pivot of relations. Yet, my students wonder if this something more isn’t really enduring because we simply talk about it that way. We might discuss the White House, as you do, and say “we know it changes constantly, but it’s an important term and while it always changes in its relations, the word for it doesn’t and this, not some strange interiority, is what endures.” You are clear about language not being the filter of the world of things back to itself, but what role does it have in your work?

Endurance is a separate problem. There can be withdrawn realities that last for just a flash and others that last for billions of years or even eternity. Sure, it’s quite possible to be duped by an identical word into thinking that identical things are being described. While reading Gibbon recently, I really started to wonder about the ontology of whether the final decadent stages of Byzantium are really “Rome” in the same sense as the Rome of the Roman Republic more than 1,000 years earlier. And there are lots of puzzles there for philosophers to work on. Let me just say, as an inadequate placeholder rather than as a full response, that I don’t think the unity of things is reducible to the unity of the words that describes them.

Language is an important topic for any philosophy. The problem is that took on a vastly inflated role for quite awhile as the sole topic of philosophy, and indeed my work is part of a reaction against that tendency. Language was being used in an anti-realist way to reduce things to their accessibility to us. By contrast, what interests me most about language is its power to make present without making present. The most masterful speakers and writers we know are those who do not make their subject directly present, but indirectly. One example is metaphor. If you take Max Black’s example of a (rather mediocre) metaphor, “man is a wolf,” there is no way to parse that metaphor in prose. You cannot exhaust the metaphor with a set of discursive statements such as “man is savage, moonstruck, and travels in violent hierarchical packs,” because none of these statements ever get at what the metaphor communicates indirectly. The same goes for rhetoric. Aristotle thinks they key to rhetoric is the enthymeme, which is when you say something without saying it. A trivial example: if I say “the Third Army then marched on Baghdad,” I don’t have to say “the Third Army then marched on Baghdad, which is the capital of Iraq, and during this war their goal was to capture the capital.” The latter part of this is unnecessary and boring, because it is already known to the listener without being stated. Language is riddled with enthymemes, because we are never able or willing to spell out exactly everything that we are trying to communicate. What metaphor and rhetoric teach us is that clear, plain language are not only impossible, but also self-defeating. Reality itself is not the kind of thing that can be parsed in a set of clear discursive statements. Something shadowy remains in the background of every topic, and we have to allude to it rather than bluntly stating it sometimes.

As you know, this is one of my most serious objections to analytic philosophy. It is a culture that prides itself on clear writing, avoiding pseudo-poetic gibberish, etc. And yet, almost nobody in analytic philosophy is a truly good writer. They never have produced and never will produce a Nietzsche, a Plato, a Giordano Bruno, or a Bergson in analytic philosophy. The reason has to do with what I said in the previous paragraph. Clarity in writing is better than unclarity, but it does not yet imply lucidity and suggestive power. Analytic philosophers seems to think that garble and fuzziness and fog are the only problems with bad writing. They’re not. One of the main problems with mediocre writing, in fact, is that it prematurely clarifies a topic. Not all aspects of a topic are ever clear, and you have to be able to allude to that unclarity in a way that is both vague and compelling at the same time.

In a sense, then, my philosophy of language is less visible in my theories of language to date than in my practice of writing. No one has ever called my writing unclear, so in that sense I think I meet the rigorous prose standards of analytic philosophy. (The first reviewer of Tool-Being assumed I was an analytic philosopher, in fact.) But I also try to be not only clear. I try to write in good vivid English, not just good plain English. The latter is merely a negative goal.

5. I want to turn to art. One question a student asked about your essay on beauty is how beauty is different from what you call “allure.” My students, one of whom is an artist herself, thought that your descriptions of sincerity were helpful in talking about how objects are always related in meaningful ways to one another, and it’s only in this set of relations that one could ever have cynicism or irony or what-have-you. But then it would seem that it gets hard to describe art objects as different from other objects, especially if aesthetics is first philosophy. Perhaps I can simply ask if you still take this to be the case and how you describe this in such a way that doesn’t get caught in the idea that “being is appearance.”

Your student is right; I haven’t addressed that topic yet. My aim in Guerrilla Metaphysics was to show that beauty is part of a larger class of phenomena that I called “allure.” When writing it, I had not yet read Dewey’s Art as Experience, which tries something similar, and also fails to demarcate beauty from all the other surprising departures from the everyday that count as aesthetic for him. Dewey and I are equally guilty on this point. But I do plan to write an aesthetics someday, and that’s where I’ll be trying to answer your student’s very accurate objection.

6. You have made this clear by now in some ways, but is there anything you’re moving away from in the earlier works of yours, some of which many of us have read?

Ironically, others may be able to answer the question better than I can, since I almost never reread my own works. Roland Barthes once said that he avoided reading his own books, too, but then at one point late in life he sat down and read them all again. That sounds like something I’ll want to do, too. Of course I read my books at page-proof stage, and usually hate them then. I like them much better when they appear in print, and I immediately read them once at that point, but even that experience can be strangely depressing. So then I don’t read them again for a long time after that, if ever. But sometimes I come across someone quoting one of my books, and in those cases I tend to think, “Wow, that’s pretty good.”

But to get to your question… Recently I was reviewing my list of publications for administrative reasons, and was shocked to notice that pretty much all of my work has been on 20th- and 21st-century philosophical topics. It’s a shock because, as a St. John’s College graduate, I have the most classical education one can still obtain. And I “think like a Johnnie” as well, in the sense that I’m not easily impressed by passing fads, try to size up books by whether they are likely to be readable two or three centuries from now, am unimpressed by recent jargon, and so forth. So I’m really a classically minded person who happens to like innovation, rather than an inherently modern-minded person like many in continental philosophy are. And that’s why it’s a bit of a surprise that I’ve worked so exclusively on recent philosophy. Because of that shock, I realized that I ought to start doing work that’s a bit more in keeping with my classical temperament—so you’re likely to see me publishing on Greek philosophy before too long, and maybe some Medieval as well. Plato and Aristotle still have much to teach us, and by that I mean they have much power to help us innovate. I have no interest in the crusty old notion of a perennial philosophy, that the Greeks already knew it all, that modern philosophy is a waste of time. I have much sympathy for classicism, but none at all for conservatism. The past is dead unless we continually revive it in our own thinking. For some people, classicism seems to mean “let us simply appreciate the great works of the past, and ignore these trendy innovations from France.” For me, by contrast, classicism means: “come one, let’s produce some new classics!”

But to get to that, point I do think that we should focus our attention on the best thinkers who have ever lived at various times, not just on who happens to be hot at a given moment. And Plato and Aristotle remain the gold standard for me. The attacks on Plato in recent philosophy are often outrageously shallow, even coming from people of the stature of Nietzsche and Heidegger (let alone Popper). But I’m increasingly sure that Plato is the best there’s ever been in philosophy, and that we need a new Platonist phase in continental thought more than anything else.

But in a way I’m dodging your question, which I take to mean: “are there any ideas you’re moving away from in your recent work?” I’m dodging it because I’m not sure I can answer it. I would have to go back and read Tool-Being carefully to look for signs of things in which I no longer believe.

7 comments

  1. Not all recent philosophy attacks Plato. Soren Kierkegaard, himself a great philosophical writer and prose stylist, once wrote that Plato (and Shakespeare) were great stylists and authors of beautiful metaphors.

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