Missives from the Fortress of Uncertainty
Placing the cross-hair of analysis over the postmodern notion that everything is language, Speculative Realism is a philosophy that instead considers the relations between objects. Here Graham Harman, one of the school's key proponents, discusses what such a non-anthropocentric description of reality allows. Interview by Diarmuid Hester
Coined for the purposes of a Goldsmiths conference in April 2007 as an umbrella term under which to group the disparate work of four philosophers (Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux, Iain Hamilton Grant and Graham Harman), the term ‘Speculative Realism' quickly captured the imagination of many acquainted with the continental tradition of philosophy. Initially drawn to its practitioners' readiness to shed new light upon philosophical problems assumed to have been definitively solved since Kant, their mutual resistance to perceived anthropocentric and subjectivist biases in philosophy and their shared appreciation for the weird, the Speculative Realist ‘community' continues to multiply at an unprecedented rate. It has yielded offshoot movements like Levi Bryant's object-oriented ontology, Reza Negarestani's virulent vitalism of decay and Graham Harman's object-oriented philosophy (OOP). I had the opportunity to ask Harman about his past, the present incarnation of OOP and what the future might hold for the Speculative Realist.
Diarmuid Hester: I wonder if you wouldn't mind explaining, for the Mute audience, the central principles of your Object-Oriented Philosophy.
Graham Harman: Most activities deal with only a limited range of entities. Physicists are interested in fields and tiny particles. Chemists deal with slightly larger things. Politicians work with larger corporate bodies while ignoring molecules and artworks. Animals are interested mostly in food, mates and rival animals. But philosophy has always had a more global vocation, concerned with reality as a whole, though in rougher outline than the various special forms of human activity.
Image: Human object series, from left to right, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux & Ray Brassier
The first major principle of object-oriented philosophy (OOP) is that objects are the most universal topic. The universe is not just made of tiny micro-particles or mathematical structures that explain everything else. Nor is it made of a gigantic language or society that constructs everything else. No, reality is autonomous from us. And despite recent fashion it is not made up of process, fluxes, and flows - instead, it is made of individuals. In this sense OOP picks up and rejuvenates the Aristotelian tradition. Aristotle was not just the first Greek philosopher to take everyday objects seriously, rather than pulverising them into tiny physical elements or despising them as the corrupt shadow of otherworldly forms. He was also the first to recognise that the most important substances in the world are not necessarily eternal. For the pre-Socratics and Plato, it was always the case that air, fire, water, atoms, the boundless apeiron, or the perfect forms all had to be indestructible. But not for Aristotle, who knew that cats, horses and trees might be destroyed even though they count as primary substances.
But OOP is much weirder than Aristotle, and does a number of things he would dislike. First, OOP denies that substance must be either natural or simple. OOP can deal with complicated artificial objects such as airplanesarmy battalions, secret societies, art installations and so forth.
Second, at least in my version of OOP, objects cannot make contact directly but only through a mediator. Objects withdraw, to use Heidegger's term. Bruno Latour has a similar view that every relation needs a mediator, but the problem Latour runs up against is that there would also need to be mediators between the mediators, and so on to infinity, so that contact would never occur. This problem disappears for me, because for me there are sensual mediators which have no difficulty making direct contact with real objects. These mediators are the merely phenomenal entities we encounter in experience, and there are primitive versions of them even for inanimate beings. Two real objects never touch each other, but both can be in contact with the same sensual object, which allows for a form of vicarious causation. Whereas the occasionalists blamed all causation on God, and Hume and Kant rooted it all in the human mind, OOP holds that all entities are capable of causal interaction, but only in an indirect manner.
What real objects have in common is that all are inexhaustible by the relations into which they might enter. What all sensual objects have in common is that they exist only in the experience of other entities, and have no existence at all outside of this relation. What both kinds of objects have in common is that they exist in permanent tension with their own qualities. There are two kinds of objects and two kinds of qualities, and by analysing the rifts in this fourfold structure, fresh perspectives are generated on space, time, art works, jokes, literature, truth and perhaps even ethics and politics.
DH: In a recent article, Michael O'Rourke quite rightly observes that ‘right now, speculative realism is "hot" and the sheer pace [...] with which it has evolved, developed and extended its pincers into and across disciplines is nothing short of astonishing.'i Why do you think SR in general, and OOP in particular, has garnered so much popularity and interest? What would you say is significant about this historical juncture which has brought forth an interest in and a desire for OOP?
GH: Speculative realism (SR) is the name for a loosely affiliated group, and some of its founding members no longer wish to be associated with it. Yet the term has an undeniable staying power. SR refers to a type of philosophy working roughly within the continental tradition, but which rejects the continental tendency to turn all philosophy into a discussion of the human-world interaction. This regrettable process began with Kant, but was really cemented by Husserl and Heidegger (who are two of my heroes for other reasons).
The ‘realism' part of SR means that the world exists independently of humans, which is what continental philosophy likes to call ‘naïve' realism. The ‘speculative' part of SR means that the models of reality it generates are all notably strange. This is not the middle-aged sort of schoolmaster realism that likes to annihilate daydreams and turn everything into a bland acknowledgment of tables and cats on mats.
But the phrase ‘speculative realism' survives as a useful signal for a generalised revolt against the continental philosophy of the 1980s and 1990s, which turned everything into language games or power games. The new realist spirit wants to be open to a world beyond human influence, though in my philosophy this can only happen obliquely.
It's hard to say which brand of speculative realism is the most popular among philosophers (perhaps Quentin Meillassoux's), but in humanities fields outside philosophy there's no question that object-oriented philosophy is the dominant version. This is not surprising, given OOP's highly democratic approach to objects. Those forms of SR which claim that sociology is worthless compared with neuroscience are obviously not going to be useful to sociologists. By contrast, OOP is far less judgemental about the other disciplines and welcomes interaction with them. OOP makes room to an equal degree for electrons, medieval history, literary criticism, and musicianship, so it's little wonder that we've become a quick favourite across the widest variety of disciplines.
DH: What do you think of this proliferation of object-oriented theories and their extension to a variety of fields beyond philosophy (social sciences, art history, literary theory, political theory)?
GH: I love this proliferation, especially since it often occurs in fields I don't understand. Nothing makes me happier than to receive mail from people who say that they're doing work in anthropology that is inspired by my books, or doing an art installation named after one of my book titles. I don't believe in ‘purifying' philosophy, but in trying to let philosophy give and receive impacts in every direction.
My friend and fellow object-oriented philosopher Levi Bryant says that philosophies succeed when they give other people work to do. I agree with this formulation, and also suspect that it means the doom of most analytic philosophy as time passes, despite its long-standing dominance in the elite Anglophone universities. Analytic philosophy seems quite proud of the fact that it's read only by analytic philosophers. But I don't see the grounds for pride in writing in an arid jargon of interest only to narrow technical insiders.
There are so many brilliant and interesting people out there who don't do academic philosophical work: sculptors, geographers, chess champions. The more of these people you are able to address in some way, the more likely it is that you've reached the truly universal subject matter that philosophy was born to address. Otherwise, perhaps you're just trying to build a Fortress of Certainty from which to assault all possible opponents. What I want to build, instead, is a Fortress of Uncertainty. Socrates already began this project for us, and it's called philosophia: or love of wisdom, not wisdom. Philosophy was never meant to beat up the ignorant, since it was in many ways nothing but the systematic practice of ignorance.
DH: Towards Speculative Realism (London: Zero, 2010), your collection of essays and lectures, candidly charts your rise from upstart graduate student to tenured professor of philosophy at the American University of Cairo: do you find the confines of the academy conducive to your kind of work or were there advantages to being outside of the establishment?
GH: I'm not sure it's really possible to be an insider in the Western academic establishment while living in Cairo. In the wider world, if I'm known at all then it's through my books, which remain rather offbeat in flavour.
But within the university structure in Cairo, I suppose I'm now in the establishment. As of September 2010, I administer large research grant projects with a relatively sizeable budget, and as Associate Provost for Research Administration I am invited to important meetings where big decisions are sometimes made.
This is all purely accidental. As recently as 1999 I didn't plan to enter academia at all, for the simple reason that I hadn't enjoyed school since about age eight (I had enjoyed my undergraduate curriculum, at least, but not the student experience itself). In total, I spent 20 or more years as an alienated rebel in all academic settings.
What happened? First, I was offered a one-year professorship at DePaul University in Chicago where I had done my Ph.D. While filling that one-year post I thought ‘what the heck?' and looked at the job advertisements in philosophy departments. Cairo was one of the handful of fascinating opportunities that stood out, and I was lucky enough to get it. Initially it looked like this would be a four-year job at most, but one thing led to another, and it's now a tenured full professorship as well as an administrative post.
You ask whether there were advantages to working outside a university position. Maybe there are, but this one works well for me. There simply aren't many other careers at this stage in history that offer such leisure time and intellectual incentives for people lacking independent fortunes. Academia will probably be swept away by the forces of history at some point, but why rush that process? We won't necessarily end up with anything better.
DH: On reading your work, one is immediately struck not only by the clarity (and often welcome levity) of your style, but also by the persistence of - apparently random - objects: parrots, billiard balls and microbes often share space with cotton, sail boats and grapefruit. Is this a conscious decision on your part? Do you feel it is important that philosophy equally weigh the means and the matter of its expression?
GH: These lists of objects, which often appear in my writings, are not my own stylistic innovation. They can be found in any author who wants to reawaken our awareness of the particularity of individual things. Ian Bogost calls them ‘Latour Litanies' just because Latour does them so nicely, but they are far older than Latour.
In many cases I try to have the lists include one object from the sciences, one living creature, one machine, one compound entity, one human political unit and perhaps one fictional entity, just to enforce the notion of a ‘flat ontology' in which all objects are equally objects. So here's a sentence you might find in one of my books, though I'm inventing it right now: ‘The world is packed full with objects: neutrons, rabbits, radar dishes, the Jesuit Order, the Free City of Bremen, and Superman.' Generally readers enjoy such lists, though the usual cranky contrarians always pretend to be annoyed by them. They remain useful as a way of encouraging the idea that all objects must be granted the dignity of objects, without immediately reducing 500 kinds of objects to two privileged kinds such as quarks and electrons.
More generally, I think style is an utterly crucial question in philosophy. I doubt that any important philosopher has ever been a bad writer. There are difficult writers among great philosophers (Aristotle, Kant, Hegel) and even some relatively boring writers (Husserl, Whitehead). But all of them are capable to an unusual degree of extremely powerful metaphors and one-line formulations.
I've always agreed with Nietzsche's claim that the only way to improve your style is to improve your thoughts, but also believe that the best way to improve your thoughts is to improve your style. There is a tendency to think that philosophy is about explicit propositional content, and that style is merely pretentious ornament plastered on top of explicit propositions. Yet this assumes that correct representational statements about the world are possible, which is precisely what I deny. As I see it, truth is a matter of allusion, not of representational picture-drawing. To improve as a writer means primarily to improve one's allusive and suggestive power. We should not say ‘there is no truth', since this vapid relativism is irresponsibly empty. But we should also not demand a frictionless contact with the real, as many scientistic and absolutist philosophers do. Instead, approaching the truth requires something like insinuation or innuendo. That's precisely what style is: saying something without explicitly saying it. A style is the tacit background condition in which all explicit utterances are made. Philosophical breakthroughs are always rhetorical breakthroughs. And as Aristotle already knew, rhetoric does not mean ‘devious non-rational persuasion', but ‘establishing the tacit background conditions for later explicit statement.'
This is why truly bad writers cannot be good philosophers. All they can do is launch a salvo of explicit propositional statements, while the real action in philosophy is elsewhere, because philosophy is the investigation of backgrounds rather than of garrulous propositional figures. Here I am deeply indebted to Marshall McLuhan, who is in fact one of the most important 20th century figures in the humanities.
DH: You have stated in a recent article that ‘all philosophy should be grounded in aesthetics', and have even made initial sallies into an Object-Oriented Aesthetics when, in some beautifully rendered passages from the same article, you talk about ‘allure' as ‘the root of beauty'.ii Could you describe in more detail what this means for artistic experience?
GH: George Santayana notes that while aesthetics has usually been a minor sub-neighbourhood of philosophy, the sense of beauty plays a major role in the lives of both humans and animals. Every day we choose what clothing to wear and how to groom ourselves based on aesthetic principles. We avoid ugly streets when choosing a residence and going out for evening walks. We are stopped dead in our tracks by something mesmerising about the eyes or voice of a specific person, and may throw away everything to chase them for a while.
But aesthetics has an important role in my work for technical no less than temperamental reasons. The world is a set of polarisations in which the real exists in tension with the sensual and objects in tension with their qualities. Absolutely everything that exists, whether real or fictional, is dominated by these tensions. I've borrowed the mock term ‘ontography' from an M.R. James ghost story and turned it into a serious term for the systematic classification of these tensions. I call them time, space, essence and eidos, and place all four on an equal footing. There is also a special way in which each of these tensions breaks down, and I call them confrontation, allure, causation and theory. ‘Allure' is the realm of the aesthetic. It involves the tension between an absent real object and the sparkling surface qualities that seem to revolve around it while never quite belonging to it. For me this happens not only in art works, but in all experiences that involve any degree of shock or surprise. It would be interesting to compare and classify all the different forms of allure, and that's what I will do before long. For now, it is best to read my short book The Quadruple Object, which came out in French last year, and will appear in English in late July.
DH: You've become known, not only as a hugely productive thinker and author but also as a prolific blogger, and you have been quick to extol the virtues of the internet, stating in a recent interview that ‘anyone doing continental philosophy who isn't currently involved in the blogosphere (whether as a blogger or simply as a reader) is falling behind.'iii How does OOP consider the rapid technologisation of modern society? Does the discrepancy between, on the one hand, orienting ones thought towards the insistent reality of objects and, on the other, communicating these thoughts through a hyper-abstract means ever impress itself upon you?
GH: On the whole, I think the blogosphere hasn't fully matured as a medium of philosophical expression. Levi Bryant is the only blogger I know who does some of his very best philosophical work while blogging. He has pioneered the blog mini-treatise in philosophy, a genre that no one else seems able to practice so far.
As for my own blog, I treat it as an intellectual snack bar. It's a place for quick observations that would not fit in a book or article, and also a place for the rapid dissemination of news or reports on what I am reading.
I do think it's a mistake not to be involved in the early days of this new medium. Things happen so quickly in the philosophy blogosphere, and a certain degree of progress is made towards consensus about various topics, or developing fault-lines that cannot immediately be bridged. Some critics mock this link of philosophy with speed of transmission. But the great periods of philosophy have all been periods of rapid invention and sudden shifts, unfolding in relatively short periods of time. The fact that speculative realism went from non-existence to global recognition in four years is a point in its favour, not incriminating evidence: it shows that the world was hungry for something new, and found it.
Meanwhile, the slow, sober, incremental approach to philosophy is more characteristic of derivative periods of scholarly compiling and collating. These periods have their virtues as well, but I would rather run with the cheetahs. The past five years have been the most interesting period in continental philosophy in decades.
DH: Continental philosophy has a history of giving sporting endeavour fairly short shrift - yet in your previous incarnation, you have been a sports journalist, and your blog regularly devotes days to developments in the NBA, MLB etc. not to mention your absorbing coverage of the 2010 world cup. Do you think your philosophical outlook makes you particularly sympathetic to the world of sports?
GH: I do love sports, but I'm not sure I can make an immediate connection between my sporting interests and my philosophical interests. Actually, there may be a purely biographical way to do it, and I mention this only to put an interesting name on the table.
The first ‘philosophical' author I read was at the age of fourteen: a well-known American baseball writer named Bill James. If you were to interview everyone in my age group in America who writes in any genre, I think you would find that a surprisingly high percentage were influenced by James, who is not so old and now works as a valued consultant for the Boston Red Sox.
There were two things James always did well. The one for which he is most famous is analysing statistics in quirky ways leading to unusual insights. This has become more common in various fields: we now have Freakonomics, things like that. But in those days it was fairly rare, and it came as a revelation to see the genius of James at work, shedding intellectual light on the inner workings of baseball, which had seemed like mere entertainment.
The other thing he did very well was write. James wasn't a polished high-literary stylist, perhaps, but informal, often folksy, friendly, and blunt. This was a mind on its own path, and James knew how to reach the most paradoxical conclusions about the simplest topic. He once wrote a mini-essay about a promising young player named Juan Samuel who never really flourished despite abundant potential. The problem, as James saw it, was the ‘What do you with him?' problem. Samuel had plenty of talent, but none of it fit into any particular, available role on a baseball team; no matter what role he was placed in, his deficiencies for the task dragged down his talents. This led James to a more general philosophical reflection on how certain friends can't fit into our lives for the same reason, certain employees can't work for us, certain lovers are impossible on the very same grounds, and so forth.
At this point I'm expecting readers to be either bored or sceptical, since I'm addressing a non-baseball nation here. But I always wanted to be the Bill James of metaphysics. It won't happen; my skill set is too different from his. Yet once in a while I find myself editing or deleting a sentence because I've just written something in James's voice rather than my own. The influence of this baseball writer on my philosophical work is that powerful, nearly 30 years after I first read him.
DH: Whither OOP?
GH: There are three things that OOP must do.
First, there are numerous technical issues still to be addressed. This is the sort of work I like to do, and it will ultimately result in a big systematic treatise of the sort that all philosophers want to write. Now that I've just turned 43, youth is no longer an excuse and I just need to sit down and try to write it. But I first need to finish off some intermediate commitments before I get back to writing Infrastructure, as it is called. An infrastructure is different from a system. A system lays a geometrical grid over the universe and tries to explain everything with it. But an infrastructure limits itself to a small number of existing population centres, gradually extending itself as a city develops by nature or by plan. The point is that philosophers are never brilliant on every issue. We have perhaps 10 percent original thoughts, and the remaining 90 percent are simply the typical platitudes and biases of our era, nation, age, and gender. It follows that if we expect philosophers to address all issues on demand, we will mostly be hearing vapid clichés. Instead, we should follow the method of building infrastructure, focusing only on those few points where we do have something original to say, linking them together by a sort of light rail system that can gradually be expanded to incorporate future insights.
Second, OOP will want to say more about numerous concrete topics. Here I'm not as worried, because other people are doing much of the work for us already. It's not my job to tell anthropologists and video artists how OOP should affect their work. That's their job. They're supposed to tell me what they learned, and maybe it will have a retroactive effect on my philosophy.
Third and finally, one of the hidden advantages of OOP over other forms of SR is that we have perhaps the deepest roots in the tradition of Western philosophy. With our focus on the power of individual things, we are heirs to the long Aristotelian tradition, whose stock price is badly undervalued at the present moment. No major philosopher is greeted in continental philosophy with a more jaded sense of ennui than Aristotle. But I tend to agree with the Spanish philosopher Julian Marías that the greatest moments in Western philosophy have generally come from a serious engagement with Aristotle. My programme for the next few years involves lectures and writing projects connected with Aristotle and his tradition. Here I'm talking not about the supposedly ‘middle-aged' Aristotle described by Alasdair MacIntyre. I don't recognise that figure. For me, Aristotle is among the weirdest of jokesters, and we are going to make him even more weird, since the task of philosophy is always to make things a lot more weird than we ever believed they were.
Graham Harman is Professor of Philosophy and Associate Provost for Research Administration at the American University of Cairo. His Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making (Edinburgh: Edinburgh U.P) and The Quadruple Object (London: Zero) will be published in July 2011. The Prince and the Wolf (London: Zero), co-authored with Bruno Latour, will also appear in July.
i‘Girls Welcome! Speculative Realism, Object Oriented Ontology and Queer Theory', Speculations: Journal of Speculative Realism II, 2011, p. 277.
ii'A larger sense of beauty', http://dialogicafantastica.wordpress.com/2011/02/01/a-larger-sense-of-beauty/
iiiInterview with Peter Gratton, Speculations: Journal of Speculative Realism I, 2010, p.85.