ReadySteadyBlog

As I mentioned last Monday, I'm enjoying Steven Shaviro's new Whitehead-meets-Speculative Realism (SR) book Universe of Things, but before I (hopefully) review it, I should perhaps make a brief comment on why I'm reading it. And that particular story makes better sense if I mention that I'm also reading Peter Wolfendale's Object-Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon's New Clothes (from the always excellent Urbanomic) and briefly mention why I'm reading that...

I read more philosophy books than books on any other topic – and, to be honest, it's probably more than time that RSB reflected that a little more clearly. It's a little difficult suddenly to begin a "justification" for my interests, but I want to start shaping up to providing one, not least because it will help me (I hope) articulate what I find lacking in a number of the works that have been fascinating me of late.

Like many, my head has been (somewhat) turned by the vibrant SR/OOO blogging community. And if you spend any time in this particular pond you soon come across the work of Graham Harman – one of the big fishes.

I find Harman's work... problematic. And I'll come back to that later. But I also find it profoundly engaging, subtle and intellectually exciting. For now, I'll just mention Harman's notion of withdrawal as an example of a technical term that, I think, is particularly fecund.

Levi Bryant defines withdrawal like this: "Withdrawal is a protest against all ambitions of domination, mastery, and exploitation. What withdrawal says is that all entities harbor – as Graham likes to put it – scarcely imagined volcanic cores bubbling beneath the surface that we are never completely able to master or control. It is this from whence his profound respect for things – human and nonhuman – indeed his indignation against those that would try to reduce things to signifiers, concepts, sensations, lived experiences, intuitions, etc., arises. Harman seldom talks about politics or ethics, but who can fail to hear an ethical refrain throughout all his work..."

Harman proposes that no object is ever exhausted by its relations; that an object's real properties are hidden and can never fully be grasped. I find that a fascinating and productive thought. And I find I read so much philosophy because of a love of – and a quest to find – words and phrases, constructions and contortions, that help me form new thought-words and new thought-worlds. Philosophy, for me, is simply a search for better ways to think about the world, and if that means working through some pretty dreadful prose every now and again, so be it. So, when I ask myself why I'm pushing through pages and pages of dry, technical, definitional analysis and forbidding, unforgivable academicese, it's because of the diamonds in the dirt. A term like withdrawal opens something new up for me.

Shaviro's book is useful because it is telling me that 'process philosophy' is able to shed light on Harman's thought, that a dialogue between those two thinkers is helpful to understanding both. It is also bringing my attention back to how very Deleuzian such thought is... all is becoming, nothing is static being, and so you can, I think, map onto that a constant 'flow' between the 'real' and the 'fictional' which doesn't bespeak a 'reality hunger' but more a constant lack in reality which is areadly always 'over-filled' by the fictive, the constructed. Reality is gappy, and thought is real. There are similarities here to Miguel de Beistegui's Proust as Philosopher. (And the car crash of scare quotes in this paragraph is evidence, of course, that further thought is needed!)

What I'm finding missing in Wolfendale's admirable volume, however, is such food for thought. Wolfendale's Kantian/Sellarsian takedown of Harman was waiting to be written. (You can read a 77-page "taster" in Speculations.) And despite Nick Land's recent comments that Wolfendale's book "deserves to be absorbed in very different terms to those it superficially invites," I'm afraid I find myself amongst the superficial. Wolfendale scores some knockout blows, but Harman bounces back up like a weeble. Wolfendale himself writes: "Whatever else can be said about Harman’s presentation of OOP, it is certainly compelling. On the one hand, it attempts to reveal the inherent oddness of the world we live in, by painting us a landscape of a reality in which everything is radically individual, cut off from everything else in almost every respect, connected only by fleeting glimmers of phenomenal appearance. On the other, it attempts to humble humanity by seeing humans as just one more disparate association of objects within the universal diaspora."

Like good fiction, philosophy, for me, doesn't have to prove facts – it doesn't need to limit itself to a theory of knowledge – it needs to open up our minds and make us epistemologically astute. And that starts with fascination, with an aesthetics perhaps. In such a struggle, Wolfendale can't help but come off sounding like something of a humourless pedant. His book does have virtues, however, and, as I said, I do find Harman problematic... but I've written enough for one day.

Readers Comments

  1. JJ Amaworo Wilson Saturday 27 December 2014

    Woah, that took me by surprise. I was expecting a post on literature, but got a thought-provoking piece on books I'd never heard of about ideas I'd never heard of written by writers I'd never heard of. Thank you. Enjoyed!

  2. Leora Skolkin-Smith Monday 02 February 2015

    Excellent thoughts, Mark. It pulled me to want to read Harman.

  3. I think that much of Harman's OOO's appeal is "affective" (for want of a better word" rather than conceptual. Harman dares to take on not just scientism, but science itself, for purveying a reductionist model of reality. The sense of both abundance and mystery is welcomed and legitimised, and objects become de-reified and re-estheticised. This is a heady brew and Harman's energetic and provocative style prevents us from feeling indifferent.

    However, this affective appeal is insufficient to plaster over the problematic aspects of the concepts Harman proposes, and that have rigidified into a system. I have tried to take into account both aspects in a short review of Harman's shortest book THE THIRD TABLE (only eleven pages in English, followed by a German translation): https://www.academia.edu/1572436/REVIEW_OF_GRAHAM_HARMANS_THE_THIRD_TABLE

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