November 2009


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Object-oriented ontology, and to a lesser degree the other orientations of Speculative Realism, have been described as the first internet driven philosophy. Or, to put it differently, they have been described as the first philosophical movement to develop primarily online. On the one hand, there was the Goldsmith’s event that took place back in 2007 that hosted Graham Harman, Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, and Quentin Meillassoux. It would be interesting to map out the differences between their respective positions using the Greimasian square and I hope to do this for an article I am currently writing for Theory & Event. Collapse played a big role in the dissimenation of this event. However, I have a hard time believing that SR would have taken off in the way that it has without blogs like Speculative Heresy, Accursed Share, Naughtthought, Planomenology, and Fractal Ontology. And then, of course, there was the appearance of Graham Harman in the blogosphere– I kinda persuaded him to start blogging and still feel somewhat guilty about that –with Object-Oriented Ontology. There’s really a whole sociological case study to be written here employing the methodologies of actor-network theory.

In the beginnings, the key players here were Nick Srnicek of Accursed Share and the guys over at Fractal Ontology. Nick and I had been talking for years, ever since the inception of Larval Subjects back in 2006. I was always impressed by his critical acumen, his civility, his ability to remain above the fray and above board, never engaging in ad hominems or speculations about motivations of any sort, his focus on the concrete as far as outcomes, and his general theoretical brilliance. Back in the day, prior to SR, when it was all Deleuze, Lacan, and Badiou, all the time he would ask me some really tough questions. These questions were never attacks, but were issues he was working through as well. Later he would repay me with the tremendous complement of citing a number of my posts in his thesis. Meanwhile, Fractal Ontology suddenly appeared in the web around 2007 or 2008. Suddenly you had these two students, Taylor Adkins and Joseph Weismann translating all this obscure French philosophy that did not make up the canon as it has been appropriated in the United States. At the time Joseph and Taylor were largely Deleuzians, but what made their participation so remarkable was that they were tracking down all these obscure, yet key, Deleuzian references like Simondon, Ruyer, and Lautman, while getting all excited about Laruelle and translating his work as well. This was the first real whiff of Laruelle and I believe it played an important role in drawing attention to the work of Ray Brassier.

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Pete, over at Philosophy in a Time of Error, has an interesting, albeit brief, post up on Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason. Pete writes:

My point on Sartre was simply that I think he explains the pre-evental in a way that I find Adrian Johnston and others (Nick S. has written on this, too, as has Peter Hallward) have all wrestled with in Badiou’s work. Adrian Johnston in his new work points out that Badiou doesn’t really have an account of desire that would be a condition within a given set such that one would act for the event in question. Now, I think one could in a sense use the language of scarcity in Sartre, much derided, as but another way of speaking of lack, and thus I actually think in this way Zizek is more of Sartrean than Badiou, since he sides with Sartre on history, the void of the subject, and a certain freedom at the heart of any given structure. That’s a bit broad, of course, but I figure for a blog post, it’s better to be simplistic and provoke more than subtle and dusty about it. Of course, in Sartre, organizations such as the group in fusion are post-evental, too, and I think Badiou was wrong to stipulate in his move away from Sartre that for him the political was reducible to the historical. And in any case, Badiou never satisfactorally bridges the metapolitical and the situated worlds in Logic of Worlds and Being and Event. It’s a subtraction procedure, to be sure, but in the end I find Sartre tells me more about, say, hunger, than set theory does. That’s simplistic, but again, the first thing one thinks when one reads Badiou is something just this snarky, and I don’t know if that’s really ever answered, except through a lot of steps wind in too many circles up to an air too rarified.

Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason is, I think, one of the most unjustly neglected works in political theory. I’m really not sure why this is or what happened here. There is, of course, the infamous Levi-Strauss review. And the language of the text is barbarous (but what text in Continental philosophy isn’t?). And I’m certainly aware that the work is prized highly by Jameson, Badiou, Bourdieu, and Deleuze and Guattari. Nonetheless, it seems like a text that somehow fell through the cracks, never having the impact or hearing it deserved. With any luck there will be a resurgence of interest in the work.

My love of it has always been because of the manner in which it conceptualizes groups in fusion and the practico-inert. With neo-Marxist theory, especially that coming out of the Althusserian school, I’ve always felt that there’s too little focus on group formation and too much emphasis on critical breaks and whatnot. I’m not sure how social structures are to be changed without flourishing group formations or the formation of subject-groups. But if you begin paying attention to questions of group formation, then all sorts of questions arise as to how groups are formed and maintain themselves. I don’t see these questions really being posed at all in contemporary theory. As a result, what you get is a critique of reigning social conditions, how capital functions, ideology, and whatnot, but you don’t really get much in the way of an account of praxis as to how these “structures” might be changed. This is, in part, exactly what Sartre is trying to do in The Critique of Dialectical Reason. While he certainly develops a critique of the contemporary world, his mode of analysis is squarely focused on questions of praxis or how group formations (what he calls “subject-groups”, think Marx’s thesis that the proletariat is the “subject”) come into being and take of the force of transforming “structures”. This is a very different sort of question than the critical question or the question of ideology. Deleuze and Guattari try to complete this project in Anti-Oedipus, yet their nods at Sartre and his subject-groups are far too impressionistic to really provide much in the way of a well developed theory of praxis.

Mikhail sent me the following post in email, giving me permission to post it if I so desire. I think it gets at a number of important differences and assumptions, so it might be of general interest to others. Following Mikhail’s post you will find my reply. I hope others interested in the realism/anti-realism debate and OOO take the time to read through the post as I think some key points are made here, as well as some arguments potentially central the epistemological grounds of OOO and why the “speculation” of OOO is not simply “making things up”. Basically I rehearse Roy Bhaskar’s argument for transcendental realism, trying to show why I think that epistemological questions can’t properly be resolved without robust realist ontological claims. However, there’s an important caveat here. While I’m strongly inclined to endorse the form of Bhaskar’s transcendental argument for ontological realism, I am more circumspect about the ontological claims he is making. In other words, it is possible to endorse much of the reasoning that leads Bhaskar to the conclusion that we can know something of mind-independent objects that exist regardless of whether anyone knows them, while rejecting the specifics of this ontology on the grounds that it is inadequate.

I think this particular exchange is not about SR/OOO/OOP or anything that has been discussed so far, it’s an old philosophical issue and this is why I think it is important to address as it seems to underlie
many of the disagreements. I’d like to begin with some very basic issues before going any further. You write:

“In my view this position undermines the possibility of any fallibilism so we’re left without the means of determining why we should choose one theory over another.”

This is important. Now just because a position undermines a certain possibility does not mean that it is wrong, just that it is inconvenient. I hope we agree on that. Therefore, say, if skepticism has a good argument, we cannot simply say that if we accept that argument we will be deprived of certain possibilities. I take your observation to mean more than just an expression of preference – if we cannot have an access to the world, we cannot have a true theory of it, because it’s neither true not false and cannot be shown to be
either true or false. I agree.

Now let’s slow down here a bit and see what’s going on. As you say, this is not a real point of disagreement, it’s just a statement and it has consequences. This is going to be very primitive not because I’m being condescending, but because I found of late that most of the disagreements seem to be about very small things we overlook because we think of ourselves (I mean myself primarily) as having long overcome these problems. It seems to me that you are affirming a kind of duality: there’s a level of the world and there’s a level of the mind (the theory of that world) – am I correct in reading you this way? An immanent “inside” and a transcendent “outside” – of course, as we both know from Descartes/Kant, we need a
“third” level, a point from which one can compare the two – the world and its theoretical description – and declare it to be adequate. Let’s reject Descartes’ solution and forget about God or anything that’s
truly “outside” and stick with Kantian types of solution that places that “third” on some transcendental level.

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Difficulty sleeping again tonight despite being exhausted. In my half-wakeful fog I came across this link discussing Speculative Realism in my dashboard. It has been interesting watching how discussions of SR and OOO have developed in the last year. As I recall, and I’m paraphrasing here, somewhere Žižek says that first new ideas are rejected as nonsense and gimmicks, then they are taken seriously and engaged at the critical level, and finally it is declared that they were always obvious and that this is what the tradition was saying all along. Of course, this final stage is a sort of transcendental illusion produced by the fact that the tradition is like a hologram that appears differently depending on the frame through which it is viewed, coupled with the fact that antecedents, analogies, and parallels can always be found between the present and the past. And finally, of course, no philosophical thought occurs in a vacuum, but rather all thinkers draw on the tradition and other influences. The reduction to the obvious and what’s been said all along is the ignoble fate that all new forms of thought must suffer, but at least the concepts get through and modify that tradition.

Among the most vocal critics of SR and OOO here in the blogosphere, I’ve noticed that they haven’t actually read the actual works of the actual participants at the Goldsmith’s conference or that they have read very little of these works. This is sometimes explicitly stated and at other times implicit in the charges being made. At the very least, had these works actually been read it would put an end to the question “but what is SR!” as it would become clear that SR is a genus with different species where those different species are fighting philosophical battles amongst themselves tooth and nail, like categories of Rationalism, Empiricism, and German Idealism where you had tooth and nail battles between Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, and Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, and Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel respectively. I’m not quite sure why this is such a difficult point to get. Nor am I sure how it is possible to make the charge that there are not arguments for the various positions when the actual works have not been read. It seems that philosophers who previously understood that you first have to read works before critiquing them and that you first have to understand the concepts proposed by a philosophy before rejecting them have decided to rely on ordinary language connotations of terms and received conceptions of tradition inherited from a training dominated by anti-realism, to understand a position.

But this is not what I find most interesting about these very vocal critics (VVC’s). What I find most interesting, and I confess gratifying, is the odd obsession with SR and OOO among these vocal critics. On certain blogs we encounter post after post devoted to OOO. Often these posts have between thirty and one hundred comments! Moreover, throughout the theory blogosphere these critics reiterate their charges against, primarily, OOO: “It’s a gimmick!” “It’s all advertising!” (some might call “advertising” argument and the attempt to persuade others, but never mind). “It’s shameless self-promotion!” “It mirrors the inflation of capitalism!” (a personal favorite of mine as the thought is never entertained that perhaps the positions are articulating the right thing at the right time in our historical moment or, as Lacan would say, “hitting the real”). “It’s neoliberal ideology that mirrors the expansion of capitalism!” (I’m interested in how this radical theorist proposes to bring about his social revolution without getting others on board with his political vision). “It hates humans!” (nevermind that perhaps OOO holds that we must discuss the nonhuman to properly address the problems of the social, political, and the human). “It wants to psychoanalyze hummus!” (that was a really good one. apparently the author didn’t get the memo that objects are different, have different structures and properties, and must be related to in different ways). “It’s incoherent and makes no sense!” “It’s hardly worth our time!” “It’s all just poetry and metaphor!” The thing that tickles my funny bone about the VVC’s is that they seem to be against things on general principle: “I don’t know what it is, but damn it, it’s new fangled and I don’t like it! Gimme my old silent films any day! Talkies just can’t capture that level of meaning or expressiveness, that level of art! Society is collapsing, I tell you!” (shakes cane).

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Over at Complete Lies Mikhail and I have been having a rather pleasant conversation about object-oriented ontology. Even though he is leveling criticisms at my position, I am deeply appreciative of the manner in which he has expressed them. At any rate, at one point in our exchange I think we really get to a fundamental difference between our respective philosophical intuitions. These issues are of potential interest to a wider audience so I thought I’d post them here. Mikhail, of course, is welcome to respond here too if he likes. At any rate, at one point in our exchange, I write:

It seems to me that you’re conflating theory with the world. An ontology is not the world but a theory of the world. It is possible for that theory to be mistaken. Noting that there are different ontologies is merely pointing out that there are different competing theories of what being is. Each of these theories are trying to get at the truth and each of these theories critiques other positions and offers arguments in favor of its position. I am not “polishing my perspective”, but presenting a position or theory of the being of beings. In other words, I am trying to get at reality or the being of objects.

To this Mikhail responds,

I might be conflating theory with the world since I don’t think there’s a pre-theoretical world and that I can ever compare a theory with a world it theorizes and therefore see how it does or does not fit. So for me there is no one true theory of the world, since that presupposes that I have an access to this world and so on.

I think this is a fantastic remark– offhand as it is –on Mikhail’s part because it really gets at the fundamental difference between realisms and anti-realisms. I think this is one major point on which I disagree with anti-realisms. In my view this position undermines the possibility of any fallibilism so we’re left without the means of determining why we should choose one theory over another. Because everything is already immanent to theory and because any criteria by which we might choose among rival theories is itself already an element of theory, we are unable to provide any “non-theory laden” criteria for choosing among theories. Now, this observation does not undermine Mikhail’s thesis because this could just be the way things are, but it is nonetheless an issue worth thinking about.

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In response to “A Psychoanalytic Defense of Realism“, Chris over at the great science and psychology blog, Mixing Memory, asks:

OK, maybe I am missing something, but both your example from psychoanalysis and the nature of science seem to imply only one thing: that there is something out there that is the Other or the object of science. It doesn’t suggest that we can know anything about it. One could explain both with a Kantian position about the thing-in-itself’s unknowability, for example. So there does seem to be a leap not, as a previous commenter said, from epistemology/ontology to realism/anti-realism in epistemology, but from a realist ontology to a rejection of certain kinds of epistemology.

I thought this question might have occurred to others as well so I’m posting my response to Chris here, with a few additions, for anyone who might be interested in the ontology advocated by Bhaskar’s early transcendental realism.

Bhaskar’s realist claims are a lot more robust than a sort of nod to the Kantian in-itself. Bhaskar’s question, it will be recalled, is “what must the world be like for our science to be possible?” Where the transcendental idealist asks “what must our cognition to be like for such and such a type of judgment to be possible?”, Bhaskar instead inverts the question and makes it one about the world itself. He argues that minimally intransitive objects (objects independent of mind or society) must be causal mechanisms (what I’d call “difference engines”), that are structured and differentiated, and that act regardless of whether or not humans know about them or exist.

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