Friday, December 28, 2012

Object Oriented Philosophy: Reflections on Style and Method

Graham Harman 
A banana Peel

I have been tracking informally the development of Object Oriented       Philosophy/Ontology/Onticology/Speculative Realism for the past couple years, as not only several books, but also blogs have been committed to its development. Over the break, in preparation for my course in New Materialisms/Ontologies that I will be auditing, I have read roughly the first half of the semester's readings: Grahman Harman's Guerilla Metaphysics, Levi Bryant's Democracy of Objects, Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology (actually read over the summer), Latour's We have Never Been Modern, and the majority of Harman's book on Latour, Prince of Networks. I think I can firmly say that I have a grasp on the work, but I'm not sure how useful I find it, except perhaps to inspire me to compose a bit more naively and with a bit more confidence and wonder. Not because I find these texts "bad," but because I found them interesting, refreshing, and yet at the same time I wonder where they can really lead me.  Harman was most interesting of the bunch partially because he contextualizes his philosophy in the phenomenological tradition I am most familiar with in Guerilla Metaphysics (among other traditions). Harman is distinctly aware of the positions he is refuting, even if he does not do much with the texts of Spinoza, Kant, Leibniz, Hume, Locke, etc.

 Its interesting to me that he claims in Prince of Networks that a "minor author" or character (taking 'minor' as someone who has little impact, I guess, as opposed to D&G's notion of a 'minor' science and other such uses of 'minor') is one who is "reducible to content. The more a person, object, or idea can be summarized in a list of univocal assertions, the less substantial they are" (140). Given this definition, one could argue that Object Oriented Philosophy/Ontology as a whole deals in such propositions and content, so that reading one book by Harman or Bryant is enough, and differences between them are mostly reducible to comparing relatively clear positions. Certainly my friend Tim ( would argue that this is precisely the problem; actually, "argue" is not how he would put it. Philosophy, for some, does not consist of arguments. 

And yet, this would be a bit unfair to Harman, who does so much more than reiterate his positions and modify other thinkers. Harman is a dramatic philosopher, who  understands the meaning of "speculative" realism in sense that we can see him as writing Science Fiction philosophy or Theory as science fiction, to paraphrase Steven Shaviro in his book, Connected. Harman is truly interested in making philosophy more interesting because he thinks it has become boring. His targets are the analytic philosophers rather than continental, although his disdain for Derrida's style of writing (and his whole mode of thought, which he sees as indicative of "postmodernism," a movement abhorred by Latour)  is clear in Guerilla Metaphysics. But he admires Levinas, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Alphonso Lingis, even if these thinkers maintain an ontological privileging of the human. For Harman, the world is a "carnival of things" and as others have pointed out (such as Levi Bryant) his philosophy is populated with concrete objects, animals, and imaginary characters. For example, in Prince of Networks, he imagines a philosophical dialogue between Socrates and Latour in pitch perfect parody (and yet with sincerity) of Plato's style. Also, in order to illustrate how difficult it is to create enough allies to open a black box, imagines a scene in which Karl Rove has to transform himself into a philosopher so as to defeat Kant's Copernican Revolution, after trying to discredit his morality and even the sincerity of his thought (What if there was evidence that Kant wrote his whole philosophy as a joke? Harman muses). These are the moments where Harman shines as a stylist and as a rhetor that takes his audience into account as he is writing. 

Finally, he uses an endless series of objects for his examples, sometimes annoyingly so. Ian Bogost points this out in Alien Phenomenology and repeats this stylistic gesture. Bogost argues that these series of objects (Latourist Litanies) are a remedy to the philosophies of becoming, philosophies of which Harman and Latour take issue. Harman writes, “for the real novelty in philosophy no longer belongs to the tired old limerick of shifting fluxions and becomings, but to utterly concrete and utterly disconnected entities that cry aloud for mediators to bridge them” (105). 

I'm not against talking about more mundane objects and I am also drawn to the argument  that talk of flux, flow, becoming, is becoming a boring metaphorical description of interactions. However, sometimes these lists of objects don't really contribute to the argument and seem to simply function as a rhetorical ploy to make readers believe that this philosophy more than any other (especially the postmodernists/poststructualists) is concerned with the real, mundane, every day world of objects and other nonhumans. It is not the populations of objects that succeed the most in Harman's work, but rather his extended metaphors or imagined scenarios and thought experiments that truly do work to connect these objects. If Harman, Bryant, and Latour are correct that alliances among objects require work, when these authors list objects out of any sort of context or relation, we may bring these objects before our imagination, but they are disconnected. I usually skip these lists, as I can witness the wonder of the world by simply lifting my eyes from my post, noticing the lights on the windows or the chip in my coffee cup. 

Perhaps Harman is merely trying to illustrate his point that some objects do not affect one another and some metaphors do not work. One of the issues I want to take up in more detail in another post is Harman's reading of Derrida and his claims about the nature of metaphor (particularly Harman's claim that some metaphors 'don't work' -- that is, metaphors either work or not, in a binary fashion). 

But to end on an interesting note, I want to point out an explicit methodical instruction from Harman's Prince of Networks. Instead of critical thinking, Harman recommends hyperbolic thinking. Harman argues that the books that impact us the most are not the ones that are error-free, but "those that throw the most light on unknown portions of the map" (121). Hyperbolic thinking can be broken into steps: 

1.) Choose a particular provocative theorist, thinker, or philosopher 
2.)  Imagine that this thinker at maximum strength; that is, imagine that this thinker has dominated the intellectual world in the future: what would that world look like?
3.) Think about what would be missing from this world.  (121-122). 

In the text, Harman imagines a Latour intellectual domination in 2050: Here is a kind of science-fictional paradigm for thought: creating a narrative of an intellectual future and trying to figure out what one would like to see being taken account in that future. We do a similar thing when we read Science Fiction; As critics, we assume that this representation is not a blueprint, map, or prediction of the future, but rather think the underside of this representation. This comparison shines a light on OOO and OOP just as much as it illuminates a kind of Science Fiction method; That is, OOO  and OOP are, in some sense, representational philosophies. Writing serves to create vivid scenes and helpful narratives to explain and argue for positions. This is not necessarily a criticism, but it might explain why some hardcore Derrideans or Deleuzians might scoff at movement as moving backwards from these philosophies. 

I don't want to sit here and criticize this philosophy, especially since this "critique of critique" is integral to the mission and attitude of OOP. Harman has written compelling books that are readable without sacrificing argumentative rigor or compelling and vivid prose. Its going to be interesting to see how I might apply these insights to my own work as the semester develops. We can also look forward to an object-oriented view of language, writing, and or rhetoric. These well-worn themes of our discipline are not going away in favor of talking about objects, but rather could be rethought in terms of this new metaphysics. 

1 comment:

  1. I think you're spot on when you say that OOO and OOP are "representational philosophies," and that their "Writing serves to create vivid scenes and helpful narratives to explain and argue for positions." Maybe in the future you will say more on this and why it leads many to consider it a "regression". This has always confused me: as if somehow by talking about objects more, I automatically have more to do with them and with reality! And conversely, as if by speaking "abstractly" or "obtusely" I've somehow divorced myself from reality and real things!

    There's a lesson from the poetic tradition which speaks about the "materiality of words" to be learned here, I think. No matter what you say (no pun intended), any "intervention" is going to be using "language" as a thoroughfare-- especially in the long run. And so how you look at language, how you "use" language, matters in terms of how you are setting yourself in relation to objects and the world. OOO's almost obsessive concern about "style" only drives this point home. And yet their usage remains, to my mind, very "instrumental" and, in that sense, somewhat naive.

    Lastly, it should be noted how OOO's "vivid scenes," along with the cataloging of objects, often comes with the express purpose of ethically obliging the reader. What the subsequent program/prescription is, I'm never very sure-- other than to be more of a materialist than we had been before (whatever that means).