In the blogosphere, facebook, and twitter, a lot of fun has been poked at just how bad Alexander Galloway’s arguments are in his Critical Inquiry article “The Poverty of Philosophy: Realism and Post-Fordism” (follow the links here for a small taste of these criticisms), but little has been said about just why these arguments are bad. For those who haven’t read the article, Galloway is basically making an argument by resemblance (he uses the whizbang term “homology”) to criticize realist thinkers such as Badiou, Harman, and Meillassoux. The argument runs something like this:
x resembles y.
x has characteristics p, q, and r.
therefore y has characteristics p, q, and r.
To give a more concrete example, Galloway argues the equivalent of the following:
Walnuts resemble testicles.
Therefore walnuts are phallocentric.
I kid, I kid! But seriously, Galloway seems to have reverted to the sort of “reasoning” based on resemblance Foucault describes at the beginning of The Order of Things. In his critiques of Badiou, Harman, and Meillassoux, he attempts to show, in each case, that because there is some resemblance between some feature of capitalism x and a particular philosophy y, philosophy y is complicit in this particular form of capitalism and actually is trying to promote it! Thus, for example, because Badiou bases his ontology on set theory and because the dominant mode of intellectual production (in Galloway’s opinion), bases its programming on set theory, Badiou must support capitalism and be complicit in it! There’s no investigation of just how Badiou deploys set theory or whether it’s analogous to the way in which programmers use it. Rather, it’s simply asserted that they’re the same. The same claim is made with respect to Harman’s object-oriented philosophy, arguing that because Harman’s objects are withdrawn, and because we cannot see the programming of object-oriented programming, and because– according to Galloway –object-oriented programming is the dominant programming used by contemporary post-Fordist capitalism, Harman is a supporter of post-Fordist capitalism. Again, there’s no investigation of how Harman deploys his theory, whether he has his objects functioning as machines to extract surplus-value and exploit others, etc. No, based on a simple resemblance it’s simply concluded that they must be the same.
Of course, now that others have pointed out just how bad these arguments are, Galloway is backtracking and saying he didn’t intend to suggest this at all. No, now Galloway is claiming that he was just pointing out what he calls a “secondary correlation” between dominant modes of production at a particular point in history and these particular philosophies that challenges their ability to talk about a world independent of humans. This is supposed to demolish claims to have moved beyond correlationism (and for the record, OOO doesn’t claim that there are no correlations, only that beings need not only ever be talked about in terms of correlation). Had Galloway spent any time with Harman’s theory of metaphor and allusion in works like Guerrilla Metaphysics, he would know why this isn’t a problem for his thought. The problem, however, is that there’s a paper trail. Back in June, Galloway was quite clear in claiming that Harman’s ontology somehow supports and actively entails capitalism. As he then wrote:
This brings out a secondary problem with OOO in that it falls prey to a kind of “Citizens United fallacy”.. everything is an object, and thus Monsanto and Exxon Mobil are objects on equal footing just like the rest. Like other (human) objects, Monsanto is free to make unlimited campaign donations, contribute to the degradation of the environment, etc.
What this produces is a kind of marketplace ontology that essentializes and reinforces hierarchy even as it claims to circumvent it. The only thing worse than inequality is an inequality founded in equality. But that’s capitalism for you: everyone is equal in the marketplace except for, ta-da, the 1%.
In Galloway’s mind, pointing out that Exxon Mobil exists somehow entails that we should support its existence or that it ought to exist. For Galloway the grave sin of Harman’s object-oriented philosophy (for some reason he perpetually calls it “OOO” when the two aren’t the same) somehow entails support for the things existence. Of course, this begs the question: why, if these things don’t exist, if they don’t exert real power, are we fighting them and struggling against them at all? How does a ghost cause so much inequality, so much human suffering, and so much environmental degradation? He never answers the question. Rather, it’s treated as a sin claiming that these things exist.
But this is not the real problem. On the one hand, the reason arguments by resemblance or homology are so weak is that everything resembles everything else. There are no two things that don’t resemble one another in some respect or capacity. Consequently, the critic sharpening his knives against something he’s not partial to for whatever reason will always be able to find some resemblance allowing him to insinuate complicity against the thing he does not like. It’s an easy game. You can always suggest that something contains some sort of ugliness or dirty secret. Thus, for example, we can say of Galloway that his thought is an exemplar of bourgeois ideology in that in his perpetual tilting at theories rather than material phenomena of production, dynamics of capital, etc., he reveals that he is an idealist that believes that it is ideas that determine reality, not production and the social relations that forms of production engender. We could say that apparently Galloway never got the Marxist memo. Like the university professors Marx liked to poke fun at, Galloway seems to think of the social world on its head, rather than feet. Of course, this would be unfair because while Galloway indeed shows a strong tendency towards idealism, the content of his ideas don’t reflect that sort of ideology. Nonetheless, it’s easy enough to insinuate such things about his thought because there is some minimal resemblance there.
But the more serious problem lies in the ontological assumptions because Galloway’s critique. Let’s take him at his word and follow him in his claim that he’s only pointing out a structural homology between Harman’s OOP and dominant modes of capitalist production in today’s information economy. Harman’s philosophy would be guilty of recapitulating that structure of production, naturalizing it, and treating it as an ontological rather than a historical reality. What’s the problem here? The problem is that Galloway seems to assume that there’s an essence, no matter how historical, to how things or objects are deployed within social assemblages. If object-oriented programming is deployed for the sake of capitalist production in contemporary post-Fordist economy, Galloway seems to conclude that this is the only way it can be deployed. Object-oriented programming must be capitalist through and through. This is why Galloway doesn’t look for any disanalogy between Harman’s philosophy and how object-oriented programming is used in contemporary information economies or between Badiou’s use of set theory and how it’s used in programming. For him, if these things share one thing in common, they must share everything in common. If a scalpel is used by Jack the Ripper to kill women, it must essentially be a weapon of murder. It can never be something that heals.
What this misses is that objects are pluripotent. I take this term from the biology of stem cells. Stem cells are unique in that they can become any other type of cell: muscle, nerve, bone, liver cells, etc. Their essence is not relationally fixed. While few entities have the plasticity that stem cells do, they do all have their own degree of plasticity or pluripotency. A scalpel can be used to cut or heal. The spray mechanism on perfume bottles can be used to spray perfume, or can become the foundation of the fuel injected engine. Object-oriented programming can be used for emancipatory or oppressive ends. How an entity is deployed is not fixed by the relations in which it happens to exist. It always harbors potentials for other things. Objects are pluripotent. Artists of the Duchampian tradition show us this all the time.
Failing to recognize this as Galloway does has serious political implications. If everything is defined by the historical setting in which it emerged, if things– above all people –are not pluripotent such that they harbor potentials in excess beyond the way they’re related and deployed in the present, then there’s no hope for ever changing anything. Everything will be tainted through and through by the power dynamics in which it emerged. Everything will be but an expression of those networks of power. It is only where relations can be severed and where entities are pluripotent that emancipatory change is possible. A theoretical framework in political thought that doesn’t begin with this premise will only be able to have recourse to magic to account for how emancipatory change is possible. Because everything that exists is already sullied by the relations of domination, and essentially so, the theorist can only imagine change through a point that is completely outside such a system. No doubt this is why Galloway finds Laruelle so appealing in his more recent work, for Laruelle’s “real-in-the-last-instance” and One without duality is precisely such a point of purity, unsullied by anything else. Yet this Real and One cannot but seem like ascetic dreams that provide us with nothing concrete to act or engage upon in the world we engage in. It is unclear what we get from a theoretical orientation that tells us that nothing can be said of this Real or One beyond that it is. Indeed, one worries that such a framework generates a rage against all differentiated beings, a call for their extinction, arising out of the fact that they can never live up to this purity.