Fabio on Dundee

April 1, 2010

Hypertiling (“Fabio Cunctacor”) weighs in with HIS OWN POST ABOUT DUNDEE, including a number of photos that he subjects to needless self-critique: they’re wonderful photos, especially by cell phone standards.

And I thought this passage was especially insightful:

“The title of the conference was ‘Real Objects and Material Subjects.’ There is no better place to start than from the title. But first of all, a general consideration, the average philosopher of just 10-15 years ago would have almost unconsciously labeled a conference with this title, in Dundee, Scotland and with a list of speakers mainly from the UK and the US as a conference of ‘analytics,’ perhaps discussing their latest metaphysical options.”

It’s an excellent point, and I think it’s testimony to how quickly things have moved in the past few years. I grew up in a continental atmosphere in which, frankly, conference talks were always reports on the works of other philosophers, most of them French and German and many of them long dead. Now while the focus on history of philosophy in continental circles has many positive aspects, I’m sure many readers of this blog would agree with me that it became excessive. One of the nice things about Dundee and similar recent events was that we’re really starting to argue about actual philosophical problems.

While at times as positive about the conference as the rest of us have been, Fabio also makes a large number of critical remarks. More than a few of them are aimed directly at me, and I want to respond to those briefly (though he also has a lot of nice things to say, for which I am grateful).

First, I should note that I never met Fabio at the conference. I wasn’t even sure who he was until clicking a few links on his blog, and I’m afraid I don’t even remember seeing him there, not even after having found his photo on his blog.

“I could go so far as claiming that the UK is is probably the single most active philosophical hub in the western world…”

For continental philosophy, I would tend to agree. That’s been my sense for the past 5 years, ever since my first visit to Middlesex and general astonishment at the sharpness of philosophical discourse in London and elsewhere. It’s been a remarkable learning experience to try to catch up with what all of these people are working on. And as I’ve reported before, Meillassoux was equally astonished at the depth of the talent pool in the UK when he came over to Goldsmiths for S.R. I. Further evidence comes from the rate at which North American students are gravitating toward Albion in large numbers, as evident from the Dundee conference itself. I often get the sense that the Brits don’t realize how lucky they are at the moment, but that’s usually how it goes; those who were in Paris in the 1970’s have also told me that they didn’t realize it was a special moment to be able to hear so many luminaries speak in a single week in those days. You need shocked outsiders to tell you things like that.

Fabio then has some kind remarks about my reintroduction of objects into the discourse, even though he rejects it. But he also has a number of moments of lesser sympathy, and a few of those deserve a response. For instance:

“One of my main questions regarding OOP is… ‘what next’? What avenues of evolution can OOP have except from an increasingly refined metaphysics based on middle-sized dry goods?”

There are several problems here.

First, my position doesn’t just deal with middle-sized objects. It does try to include middle-sized objects, unlike some other brands of contemporary philosophy.

Second, I don’t see what’s wrong with “an increasingly refined metaphysics.” Increasingly refined metaphysics, far from being the dry exercise that Fabio sees in contemporary analytic metaphysics (and there I think he’s already being too harsh) has generally cashed out over the history of philosophy into all kinds of concrete insights.

Third, I think Fabio is setting a higher bar for me than for the others. It could just as well be asked: what’s next for Badiouians? What’s next for Laruellians? etc.

Fourth, to some extent other people are answering the “what next?” question for me… The best example of a philosopher right now with extra-philosophical impact is surely Bruno Latour. In my recent post about Google Scholar I recorded that Latour’s five most-cited publications have been cited a total of 15,975 times (!), more than Quine, Deleuze, Heidegger, Derrida, Putnam, or Whitehead, and far more than Zizek or Badiou. The reason is obviously Latour’s great interdisciplinary applicability. Obviously I can’t claim to be in that league, but Latour’s circle (like Latour himself) has been interested in my work since well before Prince of Networks was published, and there’s a reason for that. Elsewhere, Michael Witmore’s excellent book on Shakespeare states at the outset that it was inspired by a footnote in Tool-Being. Reports have reached me of a medieval literature conference where I was being quoted extensively. My books have already been taught in university departments such as Film, Archaeology, Architecture, and Media Studies, not to mention art schools. Ian Bogost (mentioned by Fabio) before he knew me personally, found a way to use Tool-Being in a book on videogames. A recent high-profile art show in New York was inspired by Guerrilla Metaphysics. A Professor of Fishery Science in Scandinavia requested an advance copy of Prince of Networks, as did more than 200 other people from all kinds of disciplines. The ANTHEM group at the LSE, which organized the debate with Latour and has invited me two other times, is based in a School of Management. I’ll stop there, having given the list only because I’m surprised that “lack of fertility” would ever be a charge levelled at OOP. If anything, the question should be for me, as it is for Latour: why is OOP/ANT having so much more impact outside philosophy than inside it?

Fabio also says that he

“silently agreed with the pointed critical observations made by Hallward after Harman’s talk: how does the object-oriented metaphysical understanding of withdrawn objects cope with all those properties which an ‘object’ acquires when seen as an integral cog in the capitalist system?”

Hallward and I have been debating this point for 3 or 4 years, and this was the latest installment. (And incidentally, I always love debating with Hallward, due to his clarity and basic fairness.)

But I thought I answered Peter pretty well. My response was that water as a capitalist commodity is a different sort of object from water as a physical substance. That ought to be enough to satisfy both Peter and Fabio, in my opinion. But it’s not, and that seems to be because they want to push it a step further and say that the water becomes thoroughly constituted by its commodity status in the capitalist system. My complaint here is that this is metaphysically incoherent. Water is able to acquire that commodity status precisely because it’s water. Try replacing it with acid, or with urine, and see how well it functions as a water-commodity then. The debate here is not about capitalism, but about whether it makes philosophical sense to say that a thing is fully constituted by its place in a relational system. I say that’s impossible. But that doesn’t mean that I’m “privileging” physical water over capitalist commodity-water in fetishitic fashion. Quite the contrary, you need an ontology just like mine (with multiple layers, and not just the two layers found in the two versions of materialism I described) to cope with water in both of those roles simultaneously, which is just what the case demands. There seems to be the insinuation here that to speak of an object as having any sort of reality apart from its relational structure amounts to an inherently reactionary political stance, and I don’t get that. There’s nothing inherently Left about relations or Right about substances. That’s simply the way things have lined up lately, but it’s flipped around a bit over time.

“To be completely honest, my opinion of Harman the philosopher oscillates between the rhetorical master who skillfully defends an ultimately weak position and the prescient, out-of-the-box synthesizer who pays the price of creating an innovative system by being met with general incomprehension.”

(That is very nicely written, by the way.) Fabio seems to be leaning a bit more toward the first option at the moment, but of course that assumes that my position is actually weak. As argued in various publications, I think there are two fundamental strengths to my position:

1. It’s a position that avoids the incoherence of relationism (that’s the charge that obviously annoys Fabio the most) and in so doing it recovers the crucial features of substance and essence while not lapsing back into the bad features that were justly condemned in recent decades.

2. It’s also a position that avoids the problems of correlationism just as well as Iain Grant’s position does, and in my opinion better than the other S.R. positions. (As argued in my paper in Dundee, the scientistic positions, which are too interested in realist theory of knowledge at the expense of realist metaphysics, ultimately flip into correlationism.)

“I heard [Harman] claim: ‘the next 10 years or so will still be subject-oriented, it will take time for my philosophy to acquire general acceptance.’ This can equally be the claim of an arrogant prophet as it can be the somewhat sour confession of the miscomprehended innovator. Or it can be a bit of both.”

This is the harshest part of Fabio’s post. Two points:

1. The quotation marks around what I supposedly said are unfortunate, because if the content is similar to something I said, the tone isn’t even close. These sound like words that would be ascribed to me by the screenwriter of some future Speculative Realist film if they decided to spin me as an interesting but doomed kook with “man of destiny” delusions. And that just isn’t necessary, Fabio. It doesn’t help the discussion to quote party chat in public, especially when out of context and with inexact wording enclosed in quotation marks.

Here’s the real point… Present-day continental philosophy, in the circles I care about, runs along a Deleuze/Badiou/Zizek axis. And though I find plenty of things to like about all three of these figures, as long as they’re in charge of the show it’s quite obvious that I’m going to be a bit of a fish out of water. My own position is inspired by Husserl and Heidegger (viewed as a bit old-fashioned in these circles) and Latour (still not often viewed as a philosopher at all, though Fabio thankfully seems to take him seriously). Leaving Deleuze aside for a moment, I do happen to think that the subject-centered position of the latter two figures is living on borrowed time, because (unlike Johnston and Meillassoux) I think the human-world correlate is a weak rather than a strong basis for philosophy.

A philosophical disagreement can be had about that point, and in fact we are already having it. So why cast gloom onto a perfectly good, live debate by making me choose between being an “arrogant prophet” or a “sour confessor”? I’m currently in the minority, happily admitted it in Dundee, and I don’t recall expressing any sourness over the fact. And yes, I do think things are going to shift a bit more in my direction over the next 10 years. That’s not “arrogant,” it’s what Badiou calls a “wager.” I’m indeed staking my career on the ultimate weakness of the idealist and relationist positions. But we’re all going to learn a lot over the next 10 years, I suspect.

2. As for “sour confession of the miscomprehended innovator”… Quite the contrary, I think I’ve received a surprisingly fair hearing over the past five years from people who couldn’t possibly be less sympathetic to my position. And that was the case, most recently, in Dundee.

“Let me be very clear here: if I feel free to give my honest opinion is because I want to steer clear from the ‘trolling’ position: my opinions about Harman the philosopher do include Harman the person only insofar as I think that a radical distinction between the two is as impossible as the modern split between real nature and constructed society. Between this position of mine and one of outspoken and undiscrimnate verbal assault there is an abyss of difference. I sincerely sympathize with him for having repeatedly been the target of personal offenses. If anything, I admire his personal engagement in his philosophy: for I believe that such personal attacks have been possible because of his self-acknowledged role of (relatively solitary) innovator.”

I don’t think Fabio is a troll, I just think his attachment to relationism is adding a certain edge to his remarks about me that the situation doesn’t really call for. His general portrayal of my presence in Dundee is not without its positive features. But if you hadn’t been there and were simply reading Fabio’s remarks, you’d get the sense that I rolled into town with a shallow but flashy piece of rhetoric, then stewed on the sidelines afterwards while lamenting my minority status.

I’m willing to bet that not too many people saw it that way. In fact, what happened in Dundee was that I gave a paper (rather critical of the scientistic approach to S.R.) that was apparently well-received even by those who disagreed with it, and that convinced some people to rethink a few things; I then had a number of good, optimistic, and positive conversations with lots of conference attendees. The weekend was a shot in the arm in every respect, people treated me extremely well and I tried to treat them just as well, and I’ve been more excited about philosophy since the moment I left than I have felt in several years. It was a feel-good experience all around. But there’s little taste of that in Fabio’s account. He seems annoyed by my philosophical position, and I’m afraid it’s bleeding into his descriptions. (I think he also spends far too much of his post talking about me, which is why this post in response has to be so long.)

“Ladyman and Ross… as in ‘disguised sympathizers of scientISM.’ Funny that there isn’t a word for that.”

Maybe I’m misunderstanding here, but I think this is completely wrong. There is indeed such a word as “scientism,” and there’s nothing “disguised” about Ladyman and Ross’s adherence to it. They say in the book, and this is a direct quote that was included in my paper: “We admire science to the point of frank scientism.”

“[Johnston’s talk]… which Harman found good but still inescapably correlationist: ‘ how did any of his talk deal with relations between non-human objects?’ was his — admittedly, somewhat predictable for whoever is acquainted with his philosophy– comment.”

This is the second of two cases in Fabio’s post of the genre “cutting remarks by Harman overheard at the party,” and neither of them is justified. If I’m remembering the situation correctly, I was expressing my admiration for Johnston as a speaker, someone asked if I was convinced, and I responded with my usual (and indeed “predictable,” because I really believe it) line that no I was not convinced, because Johnston said nothing about the interrelation between two non-human objects. What’s the big shock there? It’s the same objection I make to pretty much every recent philosopher other than Whitehead. Why make it sound like I singled out Johnston (whose presence in Dundee I treasured) for a catty remark? As I told Johnston in an email yesterday, I hope he doesn’t move closer to my position. Meillassoux and I have had a similar discussion– we don’t want to convert each other. It’s too interesting to have other ways of doing philosophy clearly argued in the vicinity.

“positions that even if driven by the necessity of rediscovering a form of robust realism for philosophy to uphold, tend to be dismissive of the natural sciences and do so by upholding a realist metaphysics parallel, independent to, or even foundational of, scientific practice, hence accusing those in the former group of scientism, or of reducing philosophy to be the handmaid of a new, flashier cousin.”

And here the old straw man returns. In what sense was my paper “dismissive of the natural sciences”? In no sense. My paper was dismissive of the claim that metaphysics should be based on any given momentary state of the natural sciences, such as Ladyman and Ross do when they spend a whole book dismissing individuals simply because they don’t think present-day quantum theory has use for them. Denying that natural science should be the foundation of metaphysics simply is not the same thing as being dismissive of the natural sciences. People need to stop making that claim.

There’s also a sizable equivocation late in Fabio’s passage above: namely, there’s a big difference between saying that metaphysics should be either parallel to science, independent of it, or foundational of it. How can all three of those positions be put in the same basket as blithely as he does it? If he’s claiming that I said metaphysics should be the foundation of the natural sciences, then he’s simply putting words in my mouth, because that’s not what I think. If it’s a question of independence, that depends on what he means, but I certainly don’t see why there has to be a master discourse that enslaves the others. “Parallel” is a different case; sure, why not parallel? As I see it, the fact that there’s one universe does not entail that we need to rush toward a premature unification of all knowledge.

“mainly in the form of a certain caricaturist presentation of what ‘science’ is about and what ‘mathematized’ scientific language is about”

Red herring here. There was no specific claim made in my paper as to what ‘science’ and ‘mathematized’ scientific language are about. My claim is simply that neither of these can account for the sense of withdrawn reality that is the pillar of my entire position, and which you may not agree with but for which I have certainly provided extensive arguments. If I am right that such a withdrawn reality of objects exists, then it naturally follows that mathematical formalization cannot grasp it. That’s not a “caricature,” unless you want to claim as Nathan Coombs did that formalization can indeed be extended to withdrawn tool-beings (I still don’t see how, though). The discussion should be over the status of that withdrawn reality and whether I’m right about it, and doesn’t need to turn into distracting allegations that mathematics is being caricatured.

Fabio also makes a couple of points about how unfair it was that no real scientists were invited to Dundee to argue with us. I’m afraid I don’t see the force of that objection. But the implication seems to be that scientists and mathematicians would have taken the side of Ladyman, Ross, and Badiou, and I’m not even convinced that’s the case.

“today Harman, commenting precisely on the vibrancy of the UK philosophical community, reported a joke by an American con-national about those ‘continental’ groups which still deliver papers on the ‘Otherness of the Other’… To completely dismiss and mockingly dismiss this party as hopelessly stuck with a quaint method and passé preoccupations would be a grave mistake, and once again would operate an unwarranted reduction of philosophy to a self-referential enterprise.”

I’m afraid this misses the point. The joke was clearly not aimed at the category of the “Other” per se (as an admirer of Levinas I am second to none) but at the continued recycling of early 1990’s academic mantras, which most of my friends who still attend SPEP regularly continue to complain to me about (I threw in the towel after 1993, personally). Everyone who heard that joke in Dundee laughed about it. At this point in the post I get the sense that Fabio is just pouring it on, looking for any additional excuse to find fault.

And yes, I have to admit it’s a bit of a downer to read passages like this after the wonderful time I had in Dundee. There are other sorts of interactions I will choose to remember from this event instead.

“which I guess makes me a ‘mezzanine’ realist, in Harman’s jargon. Shame that my loyalties lie with relationism.”

“Mezzanine” was hardly “jargon.” It was a literary metaphor for the status of objects hidden between the two “floors” recognized by the two materialisms. Moreover, I used it at most two or three times in the paper (two, I believe). Save that word “jargon,” because there are times when you’re really going to need it.

The point of conferences like this one is to have friendly debates about important issues, and I thought the conference was quite successful in that respect. On the whole, though Fabio makes a few good points, I think the tone of the other bloggers’ posts is a more accurate reflection of what actually happened last weekend.

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