OOO: A negative theology of the object?

As I’ve been working through Hägglund, I can’t help but recall this summer’s epic controversy with the OOO crowd over Derrida’s supposed correlationism. It seems to me that Hägglund’s contention that everything is necessarily non-identical bears some resemblance to the core OOO claim that “the object withdraws.” And I also think that Hägglund’s polemic against a “negative theology” reading of Derrida, while perhaps overdone in some respects, does provide a useful scheme for thinking about the relationship between Hägglund’s deconstructive claim and the OOO claim.

Hägglund follows Derrida in arguing that the negative language of negative theology is really intended to point toward a super-abundant fullness — and with regard to the historical tradition of negative theology it seems hard to dispute that. By contrast, Hägglund’s deconstructive ontology (if I may call it that) is putting forward the ideas of finitude and incompleteness without any ideas of infinity of completeness to compare them against, and indeed he’s arguing that infinity and incompleteness are impossible.

I suspect that OOO is more analogous to negative theology than to deconstruction, insofar as the object is supposed to have some kind of content. In fact, in conversation with Levi he has said that the “withdrawn” object includes unrealized potentiality, which then serves as the ground of the possibility of change. I still maintain that we don’t need any hidden content to make change possible. You can get change through negativity or inherent ontological incompleteness, and indeed I would argue that the change achieved in that model is more “real” than the change Levi was promoting in that conversation, because the unrealized potential of the object is “always already there” even if it doesn’t manifest at any given moment. (This isn’t the main point of the post, however, and I may be wrong about what Levi meant.)

What’s more, everything I’ve read from Harman and Levi indicates that the object is the self-identical “ground zero” of reality — so that the withdrawal of the object from all relationships (including and especially its relationship to human cognition) serves to reinforce its base-level self-identity.

So overall, it seems to me that OOO’s approach to the object is similar to negative theology’s approach to God. Am I getting anything horribly wrong here? (Just to be clear, I don’t mean to say that OOO is “secretly religious” or anything of the sort — I’m only talking about the formal similarity between OOO and negative theology.)

42 thoughts on “OOO: A negative theology of the object?

  1. Adam, I can’t comment on Hägglund (& I am friendlier to the apophatic reading of Derrida than, I gather, he is) but I also have a sort of negative theological take on OOO. I won’t presume to guess what wither Bryant or Harman would say, but for myself, I think that the irreducibly an-sich sense of the object is very akin to the unsearchable depths, not of God, but of the soul. The faultline (as I see it) between OOO and theology is that objects in OOO are incorrigibly plural and their unplumbable depths are, in a sense, a secularization of the infinity of God. But if you take objects as the endless iteration of the variety of creation, then their “molten interiors” become the hidden identities that no-one knows, save (perhaps) God–if you decide there is a God. As you know, Harman borrows some of the theological language of occasionalism but again spins it in a detheologized way; he takes away God as the privileged subject that would have access to the secret identities of objects, and instead just re-routes the in-itself via (‘mere’) appearances. Harman is fine with objects never fully “knowing” each other. Whereas I think there is a sense in which objects will (eschatologically) ‘know as they are known’.

    In short –or is it too late for that?– the difference between the structure of OOO’s take on objects and negative theology is, I think, that OOO is resolutely pluralistic. But this does sort of mean that it takes a theological stance and secularizes it. I know this is an old trope and is sometimes used to discredit positions, but I’m using it in a more neutral way, I hope.

  2. I believe Adorno saw a secularization of the divine as a “relocation” of alterity from God to the object (the “primacy of the object,” etc.)

  3. True enough, but sometimes those who take such a line (I’m thinking of Voegelin, e.g.) do so as an occasion (not to say a cover) for “re-theologizing” — a move I am OK with, sometimes, but I think one should be explicit about it.

  4. Actually Graham Harman himself brings up this comparison in The Quadruple Object (I think), I can’t remember exactly where, but I’ll dig it up tomorrow. I was thinking “this seems a bit like negative theology of all objects in existence” and lo Graham brings it up as I read but rejects it. However, given the Islamic flavour of Graham’s project (the use of occasionalism and so on), and the power of negative theology due to the absolute transcendence of Allah in Islam this could be something else he unconsciously inherits.

    Another ‘theological’ bit is like only God knows God, the immanent trinity etc, in the same way to only the object knowing itself, and all other knowledge of object is via the medium of the ‘sensuous object’ (the economic trinity?).

    This is also why there is a Kantian bit to OOO, the object is only available in the phenomenal sensual realm, but the core is always inaccessible to other objects. Sadly Graham is probably a bit busy worrying about the fate of his adopted homeland to respond to this at the moment!

  5. I got the impression, at the end of that spate in the summer, that it was Hägglund’s Derrida book (which I haven’t read) that finally got the OOO guys to calm down (even if they wouldn’t admit they had been being dicks). And Levi Bryant shared this, recently:

    Anyway, as I recall from reading Guerrilla Metaphysics, Harman basically says that occasionalism’s great, except for this whole god’s the only cause thing, so if we tweak that then we can finally slay the correlationist dragon. Which seems like a pretty apparent case of taking a theological stance and secularizing it, to me.

  6. As I recall, it was still bad that Derrida used a human-centered metaphor like “writing” as his starting point — a complaint that always struck me as mind-blowingly superficial. After all, it’s not like the word “object” isn’t drawn from a human-centric realm (i.e., the subject-object dyad).

  7. It was that Derrida wrote books about other books, instead of writing books about sea creatures or mountains. To which many people said, he writes about smoke and water and stuff like that sometimes, and anyways you are still talking about a dude writing books anyway, just books about sea creatures, and that’s still a book, so can he be that bad? And it was like, yeah, he’s that bad.

  8. Yeah. There was a comment on Levi Bryant’s “I’ll Regret This: Derrida, Again” post that went something like “no, Derrida isn’t saying that everything is structured by language, it’s that everything is structured like language” that I thought basically shut down their whole critique pretty concisely.

    Then again, Levi Bryant’s essay in The Speculative Turn seemed more or less like an essay on Derrida to me, too.

  9. Speaking of Hägglund, I didn’t like his combative style either, especially in the very beginning of the book, but I think once he got that out of the way, the rest of the discussion was quite calm and interesting, a rather fresh look at Derrida (even if, I think, most “Derrideans” would probably disagree with his exegetical strategy which is rather selective). Beats reading all those pseudo-Derridean volumes, this one was very straight-forward and clear, I thought.

  10. The Derrida wars spearheaded by Bryant and Harman are one of the saddest chapters of the blogosphere.
    I would like to remind everyone of a comment that Harman posted on a now-forgotten blogpost on OOP from early 2009 (when he probably was new to the blog world and was still humble enough to join us mortals in comments sections), which pretty much says it all:
    ‘People 10 or 15 years older than I am are often *really excited* by Derrida, seeing him as a liberating hero. Personally, I never had much time for Derrida, and see him instead as a self-indulgent wanker adrift in a sea of signs and boring high-culture collage.’

    which pairs up well with Bryant’s opening line on his ‘Derrida essay’: ‘For Tim. You made me not hate Derrida so much’.

    I guess statements like these are the product of decades of scholarly studies. And then they even dare call themselves ‘persecuted’! Forgive me then if I completely ignore anything OOO-oriented: not because they don’t like Derrida which is absolutely their right, but because I don’t take seriously any ‘scholar’ that dismisses any great thinker on the grounds of their being ‘wankers’ and therefore ‘hating’ them. This is undergraduate talk, plain and simple.

  11. Tim, Thanks for the response. I don’t understand how you can see Hägglund as arguing for “default scientism” or indeed failing to provide an ontology — indeed, his whole argument is that Derrida is elaborating a consistent ontology throughout his work. I don’t have the authority that comes from knowing Derrida personally, though, so I may be wrong.

    Also, the rest of your post seems to be a more general reflection on OOO and religion, which is interesting, but isn’t really what I’m asking about. I’m just asking about the formal features of negative theology and OOO. Other contributors have said that the formal similarity is there insofar as there is a fullness that can’t be fully captured, but that OOO “secularizes” this idea by dispersing that fullness among objects rather than having a single sovereign instant (God). You seem to be in agreement with that position, particularly in your notion of an “atheist OOO Christianity.” Am I reading you correctly there?

  12. Well, from what I’ve read (Radical Atheism) and what I’ve heard (two talks so far), Hagglund is keen on a view that can’t account for the one thing central to his view: time. He relies on the notion of time as a succession of instants, which is pretty default. And he relies on the atomistic reductionism of neo-Darwinism. Hagglund in addition never tells us what exists and how (ontology). He simply argues from within the philosophy he’s studying (Plato in the case of Chronophobia, Derrida et al in the atheism book).

    But most of all I was arguing that Derrida doesn’t ever explicitly articulate an ontology. Imposing one on him posthumously isn’t quite cricket. In the absence of this, Derrida leaves untouched the default scientism that is the basic ontology of our era. So that stuff was also about Derrida.

    Yeah mostly I was saying that OOO objects resemble the God of apophatic theology. There are some differences.

  13. Derrida elaborates something approaching an ontology in the second section of Of Grammatology. I am not sure why systematizing that a bit and filling some holes here and there is something bad. It’s what every reader of every philosophical text has always had to do. Is it wrong to talk about Plato’s ontology, since you kind of have to take some stuff from this dialogue and some stuff from that dialogue and add some stuff of your own to make it consistent? And, of all people, I think Derrida would be ok with people trying to make sense of his texts in various ways after his death, since that is the central premise of Limited, Inc.

  14. I don’t think Hägglund is saying that time is a succession of instants, nor is he embracing atomism of any kind. His whole analysis of time depends on the fact that every moment is internally divided, referring to a previous moment and anticipating a coming moment — I don’t understand this to be what the notion of a succession of (self-identical) moments implies. Indeed, it seems like OOO is atomistic, if the term has any meaning.

  15. Random question: Is it Hägglund or Hågglung? Morton writes his name as Hågglung which is not the same as Hägglund since it would be pronounced differently.

  16. Well, no. Time is external to objects for Hagglund and it’s internally fractured, yes, but as Madhyamika philosophy has argued, this is still a view of time as a succession of instants. OOO accounts for time in a less “ontic” cliched way.

    Here’s Derrida for a tie-breaker:

    “I wouldn’t say I am an atheist, I wouldn’t say I am a believer. It is this statement that I find absolutely ridiculous … who can say, ‘I am an atheist.’ “

  17. Or if you wish to argue it through within Derrida, this:

    “every moment is internally divided, referring to a previous moment and anticipating a coming moment”

    Is still a metaphysics of presence. It’s just Wolfgang Iser, basic hermeneutics, which Derrida undermines constantly in e.g. Dissemination. All this produces is an infinite regress of tinier fragments of metaphysical presence. It’s quite deconstructible.

  18. I guess Derrida’s own words are “relevant” because Hägglund has been used (by at least two of my colleagues here and others elsewhere) as a “decisive refutation of errors” (their words) of deconstructionists: i.e. as a policeman.

  19. The internally divided moments only causes infinite regress if you assume there have to be self-consistent moments at bottom — in which case, you’re not really taking seriously the inherent division.

  20. I guess I don’t see how internally divided things with no positive terms can be understood as constituting a metaphysics of presence. There’s no full, unmediated presence there.

    And perhaps Hagglund works well as a policeman. There are, as Derrida often said, bad readings (in his words, “that’s right, not good.”) And there are people who are pretty good at showing bad readings for what they are. Lots of Derridean and anti-Derrida readings are simply awful. It’s good to have someone who offers a rather coherent account of a mess of writings. Of course, as Derrida also said, “there’s the police, and then there’s the police.” As in, there can be a repressive force to any policing action. Perhaps it is needed to push back- Hagglund doesn’t give “the right” reading of Derrida. But he gives a rather consistent account of Derrida’s work. Like Bennington’s “Derridabase” (which Derrida himself worked on!), there are times to try and summarize and synthesize things.

  21. Yes, but you are noticing this inconsistency and calling him out on it– so you share in this oppression! Help, help, I’m being repressed!

    (With this infinite regress, we can see the violence inherent in the system.)

  22. I’m an editor of Oxford Literary Review, so some think of me as a deconstructor. I’m not unhappy with that. Don’t shoot the messenger. Derrida is saying that to claim “To be Derridean you must BE an atheist” is “ridiculous.”

  23. Though the Derrida as atheism, or at least, not as religious as previously thought is a big one of late: see the book Profanations by Patrick from Nottingham Trent. I believe Naas’ book suggests Derrida as secular in a deconstructive sense.

  24. Adam, I hate to be the one to break this to you, but I think someone posted a webcam of the time when Mikhail seduced you (remember the vodka shots with borscht chasers?)

  25. Tim – Firstly, I doubt anyone is “seduced” here, my nonsense is simply tolerated, so don’t judge the blog by its commenters. Plus, I’ve been reading this blog and other Kotsko-related blogs long before OOO officially made it in the blogosphere and long before your “conversion” to it. Secondly, I’m not sure how to take your “still” – I was never an Assistant Professor nor am I likely to become one. Is it one of those trick questions like “Did you stop beating your wife?”

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