So what?: On Graham Harman’s Abominable Review of Laruelle’s Philosophies of Difference

Imagine the expressions of apoplectic rage we would all discover on the various OOO blogs if Ray Brassier were to write a review of Harman’s Quadruple Object with the phrase, “And if Harman can respond to the criticism that his philosophy is not a substance based one, so what?” We all know that these are not calm men, that they bandy about the blogosphere chastising their critics in equal measure for not having read all their posts on topic X and for criticizing them on the basis of “just a blog post”.At the first sign of criticism they will jump behind any number of well-worn and tiring devices, almost immediately to the unassailable charge that the critic of their work has made it personal, while the progenitor of OOO has remained above the fray dealing only with the ideas of these abominable writers and Grand Moff Tarkins. But still, it wouldn’t be a rage that lacked a real cause, because there is something altogether reckless and disrespectful about writing a review that suggests that even if the philosopher being harshly reviewed could respond to all the criticisms put forward, well, so what?

That’s exactly how Harman has ended his awful review of Laruelle’s Philosophies of Difference. Of course it isn’t surprising that I think this review is awful since I have a personal stake in Laruelle’s non-standard philosophy. His method forms the basis of my PhD thesis and my own translation of his Future Christ came out at the same time as Rocco’s excellent translation of Philosophies of Difference. But as someone so invested in Laruelle I’m well aware of his shortcomings and yet for all the bluster of Harman’s review he does not touch on any of those real shortcomings (for instance, why accept the Eurocentric definition of philosophy?). Instead, once we cut away Harman’s own philosophy of the history of philosophy (which has nothing to do with Laruelle and everything to do with his philosophical accountancy) and his own rather flimsy reconstruction of the chapters, we are left with two criticisms. The first is that Laruelle’s style is “abominable” (though he does seem to like a section title which he refers to as “magnificent”) and that Laruelle doesn’t explain how his One differs from the Neoplatonic One.

The second criticism is strange. It’s clear that NDPR should have asked someone more familiar with Laruelle to review the book (perhaps Ray himself, who isn’t exactly known for being kind about Laruelle), since Harman appears unfamiliar with any of Laruelle’s other works. But already in Philosophies of Difference Laruelle is clear that his One is a name for something that is irreversible with Being and Alterity (where the concepts of difference and finitude play most openly). It’s an old philosophical name that he takes from the tradition, yes, but it is mutated beyond recognition. For instance, there is no emanation from the One in any ontological sense and the One is not transcendent, but radically immanent. That right there is already enough to differentiate it from Neoplatonism and Rocco’s introduction, if he missed it because of Laruelle’s abominable style, already makes that clear.

I’m not going to pretend that Laruelle’s style is easy, but it is not abominable. His style is actually quite playful in the French, not at all sober and academic as Harman suggests, and this playfulness comes through even as he lays a lot of stress on the importance of non-standard syntax for thinking non-philosophically. He also plays with and mimics the style of others, and so in the Derrida chapter of Philosophies of Difference you have a Deleuzian reading of Derrida (the Jewish Body without Writing being one of the more interesting concepts). I think Rocco captured this excellently in his translation and so reading him is no more difficult than reading Derrida, Henry, or Deleuze (and they are all difficult to read). Of course Harman’s point is that we might not have any reason to make that effort and it is true that someone at Harman’s stage in his career will likely be disinclined from undertaking the necessary work. This is true even though Laruelle himself has his own theory of occasions, objects, and realism as well as early experimental readings of Heidegger, Husserl, and Simondon. That’s just the life cycle of an intellectual since we are, even if objects, only human. But it isn’t true that a thinker has to prove themselves important prior to our undertaking that work. Why do students spend so much time reading Hegel if that were the case? The reality is that the work of others can convince us of the worth of spending that time. So, for me, it was seeing how Laruelle was used by John Mullarkey and Ray Brassier, to very different ends in the end, to think through the concept of immanence that first attracted me to his work. But equally a disparaging comment can convince someone that a work isn’t worth reading and that, I think, was the real point of Harman’s abominable review.

I’m guessing that the reason NDPR asked Harman to write this review was because Laruelle, despite his own protests to the contrary, has been lumped in with the fashionable discourse around Speculative Realism. I’m not going to rehash this all-too-talked about history, but of the original four participants to a panel called Speculative Realism, only Harman uses this term in his self-marketing (and I’m not saying that to simply disparage him, but the self-marketing has to pay off and I’m not sure it does). Brassier, who can be a bit grumpy in interviews about this term and who is especially hostile to OOO, has disowned the term. And that, to me, is the real cause of all this antipathy towards Laruelle. It is perceived by the OOO crowd as a proxy war in their battle against the nihilist-materialist “wing” of Speculative Realism (even as that “wing” refuses to associate with the other “wings”). How else can you account for the strange view of the history of philosophy you find in Harman’s review? Laruelle never wanted to be part of some Philosophical Supreme Court! And those of us working with Laruelle’s non-philosophy (Rocco, Mullarkey, Alex Galloway, Katerina Kolozova, etc.) have never suggested that he should be assigned to this imaginary court either! Where does this fantasy even come from? I know Harman and his acolytes are keen on using stock market analogies for discussing the importance of philosophers, but why would you impose such banality on the rest of us!

There are a number of inaccuracies in the review as well as mischaracterizations (for one, Laruelle explicitly does not proclaim the end of philosophy). All of which is rather impressive since the review only really discusses Laruelle’s book (the actual object of the review) for just over a third of its length. Instead of placing the book historically within Laruelle’s own development (it’s the first book where he begins to lay out the theory of philosophical decision, where he first begins to discuss the importance of his conception of the One in relation to the history of philosophy, but it’s also not fully developed here yet as that happens in Principes de la non-philosophie) or putting the book in its actual historical context (it was published in 1986), he spends his time painting Laruelle as some cruel-faced, arrogant sadist who thinks that every other philosopher has only been larvae at his feet. But Laruelle’s true point isn’t that philosophers are worms that writhe about for his entertainment, but that philosophy as a discourse expresses a desire to attain something that is hallucinatory. A salvific self-hood beyond the state of actuality. The larvae comment is an obvious nod to Deleuze’s larval selves (made clear by later context in the passage) and sets up Laruelle’s own theory of the ordinary wo/man that is radically immanent already against the philosophical drive to some overman. To be a larvae on the earth writhing about seeking after salvation requires nothing more than to understand that to be saved. That’s what the theory of the philosophical decision performs, not a radically negation of philosophy, but an understanding of it that allows for some freedom from its more oppressive elements.

Now all of this isn’t going to convince the OOO crowd and I fully expect to see yet another snarky comment from Levi Bryant saying that if I think Laruelle is worth the trouble I should make that argument without the jargon. Setting aside the richness of such a demand for jargonless philosophy from Byrant, I have already done this. There are plenty of articles published where I have attempted to lay out what I understand Laruelle to be doing and where I put that to use in different fields, especially the philosophy of religion. I’ve done that on the blog at times and I will continue to do it in the new book I’m working on entitled A Stranger Thought: An Introduction to the Non-Philosophy of François Laruelle. I have no other response to Bryant than “well, go read those”. Sadly, I can’t hope to avoid the stupidity, shared by idiots like Johann Hari, present in picking out random difficult sentences, but hopefully at some point these marauding objectologists will actually deal with the ideas instead of their own hallucinations. But if they don’t, so what?

27 thoughts on “So what?: On Graham Harman’s Abominable Review of Laruelle’s Philosophies of Difference

  1. I was reluctant to take up yet another philosopher when Anthony first began discussing Laruelle, but reading Anthony’s thesis — which I have strongly encouraged him to publish — convinced me of the value and, above all, the usefulness of Laruelle’s work. (I have not yet studied his work independently, but I intend to as soon as I regain access to the University of Chicago’s library, or until Anthony moves into my neighborhood and gives me access to his own personal stash of Laruelle’s French texts.)

    It does seem strange to me that Laruelle appears to have been taken up into some kind of proxy battle by OOO types and that they spend so much energy dismissing him, because it seems to me that he provides potentially valuable resources for their project. The fact that he is a proxy for the war against the “nihilist” SR types is also weird, given that they tend to be highly critical of Laruelle — wouldn’t defending Laruelle against their attacks make more sense?

    Anyway, I’d better stop, because some random person on Twitter said my swipes at OOO are childish…

  2. One issue I have with this is that, yes, it seems quite evident the review sets out with some agenda or other, hence the lack of situating of the book in the wider project Laruelle has. And while it’s fair enough if Harman has these opinions on Laruelle’s work, I suppose, there needs to be more substance to the criticisms. The critique of the style as “abonimable” strikes me as somewhat bizarre given the (largely post-Derridean) movement in continental philosophy that leans towards taking a deliberately less “rigorous” approach to language. As someone with a heavy investment in this movement who also has the ability to write with (pseudo-)scientific clarity — if I do say so myself — these arguments always strike me as weak, patriarchal and a means of dismissing philosophical viability based on unrelated premises. However, given that I am at such a neo-fledgling point in my philosophical career (i.e. I have no such thing, and may never have such thing, because I’ve not even started a PhD yet), I also am quite disheartened by this mud-slinging approach to “critique” whereby one’s supposed authority on a subject removes the need for critical engagement. On an entirely selfish level, this is particularly bothersome to me since I have a contract with Continuum, along with Anthony, to co-translate Principes de la non-philosophie, and having people with the profile of Harman openly if somewhat emptily trash Laruelle with the wave of a hand feels like it might have the knock-on effect of tarnishing our reputations (and diminishing our royalties). To suggest that Laruelle is simply not worth reading is hubristic and indicative of the insular, self-satisfied nature of philosophy that already drives some young philosophers, such as myself, to question whether to bother pursuing an academic future at all.

  3. I’m becoming increasingly ambivalent about the New APPS blog, on which Harman has been praised for the review in question. As a person unacquainted with Laruelle’s non-philosphy, I was convinced by Harman’s review at first, not least because he has this authoritative literary persona and I trusted that NDPR chooses reviewers who are well-versed in the works of the author and/or the subject area of the book under review. But having read this post by Anthony, I’ve realised how little substance there is to his review, other than the “two flimsy criticisms” that he pointed out. Harman’s a great rhetorician, no doubt, but it is with such people, I’ve found, that one has to be extremely careful, because rhetoric is, after all, the sophist’s main weapon. I cannot help but feel that Harman has manipulated my lack of familiarity with Laruelle’s work, by making himself seem more qualified than he actually is. The most sincere kind of criticism tends to come from precisely the camp of the criticised, like atheists criticising other atheists; because otherwise, the chance of getting trapped in a différend becomes quite likely.

  4. Whatever fight this review is situated in, its agenda is clearly to “innoculate” people against the need to take Laruelle seriously. The strategy is to expose them to just enough that they decide it’s bad and not worth the trouble: “He’s too hard to read, and the payoff isn’t worth it — plus he has such crazy overblown claims!”

    This strategy has been used against virtually every continental philosopher in the 20th century. Derrida, Heidegger, Deleuze, Lacan — every single one of them has gotten this exact same treatment, down to the ill-chosen examples that supposedly demonstrate their writing is nonsense. (I guess Harman is immune to it because his prose is clear, though.)

  5. I did try and trawl Harman for an appropriately “gotcha” sentence, but it was, to be fair, surprisingly difficult. Others are welcome to succeed where I have failed, however.

  6. a couple of thoughts I had on the review before reading this, so I’m perhaps repeating a bit: first, it seems terribly uncharitable and unengaged – there’s some attempt to situate the book within huge (and very debatable) philosophical trends, but very much less in the way of doing so within Laruelle’s own wider oeuvre, or even in terms of the significant English-language reception of his work, besides the fact that it amounts to some kind of groundswell of popularity or hipness which we seemingly must nip in the bud with great urgency.

    Second is that, while I’ll admit that the closing paragraphs were reasonably powerfully written, I’m not sure book reviews are the place for the kind of polemics at work there – negative book reviews obviously have their place in scholarly work, and while they’re not exactly setting out to encourage people to read the author in question, it seems to me that they should have enough of an engagement with the book on its own terms such that the reader can in some sense make their own decision as to whether they should look into it further. This kind of brutal takedown, on the other hand, seems downright unphilosophical – it not only doesn’t seriously engage with the material at hand, but it amounts to telling the reader what to think (and I don’t think any of us read philosophy for that), to denigrating not only Laruelle, but anyone who works on him or otherwise takes him seriously, and to unreasonably deterring people who would find the book interesting or useful and who would be drawn in by a more even-handed review, even if it is negative (and maybe they’ll read it and see that they agree with the reviewer, but is the relatively short period of time spent on that really so valuable?). It’s a pretty hefty price to pay in the name of some well-phrased zings.

  7. The proxy was idea seems to be working this way: You (Ray Brassier) care enough about Laruelle to mention him and discuss him (doesn’t matter if critically or affirmatively) – we hate you for being mean to us in interviews, therefore we will shit on everything you hold dear in one way or another instead of taking on you directly.

    I actually don’t share Anthony’s sentiment that people will pay less attention to Laruelle because of Harman’s review. Idiots, of course, will pay less attention, but who needs their attention anyway. I for one now want to read the reviewed book and Anthony’s translation just to see what the whole fuss is about. I’m sure others will do likewise. Perhaps even in academic circles there is no such thing as a bad publicity?

  8. I’ve never not read a philosophy book just because someone told me the argument in it was silly. I’ve read lots of philosophy books where I thought the arguments in them were silly, usually because they were silly in interesting or provocative ways (I think Capitalism and Schizophrenia is thoroughly silly, for example, but would recommend it to anyone).

    I take it that an aspect of Laruelle’s characterisation of “standard” philosophy is that it’s beset by a kind of silliness that is beyond its power to rectify, captivated as it is by the principle of its own sufficiency. It doesn’t seem as if Laruelle thinks no-one should ever read any standard philosopher ever again, however.

  9. Generally I like the stuff Harman writes. It is cool that he’s actually doing original philosophy; his blog can be pretty inspiring with regard to the practice of being a student; I dig his relationship to speculative fiction. But I really don’t understand why he was asked to review this book.

    Where this review really falls short, IMO, and apart from the obvious fact that experts on Laruelle like Anthony find his interpretation inadequate, is revealed in this paragraph:

    Earlier I said that the appearance of this book in English is not just the publication of a set of arguments about philosophies of difference. Implicitly it is also a trial balloon to test the reception of Laruelle in the Anglophone world, to see if he might join the recent Supreme Court of French thinkers from Derrida and Foucault through Deleuze and Badiou.

    Which seems to indicate that what Harman is reviewing is the meaning of the translation and publication of the book in English rather than the actual book qua book. But if so, why even bother with the summaries of chapters — if you’re just going to dispose of them with sociological / meta-commentary? That, I think, is the real crux of the formal problem with this review: it’s just really weird what it actually seems to be reviewing given what it purports to be about.

  10. The best part of the story is that both Bryant and Harman called on the proponents of Laruelle to show his significance, i.e. a basically nice gesture of ‘So let’s at least talk about it’, and now have gone completely mute either because of the obviously unexpected shit storm the review caused (although as Anthony points out, it should have been very expected) or because the whole point of the review was in fact just a ‘snark from nowhere’. As for the Supreme Court of Thinkers, isn’t it pretty clear that Harman himself wants to be on that court (with an exploratory committee chaired by an incredibly – and surprisingly – dickish John Protevi) and this is his promotional video for it?

  11. Last time I checked (and I have to say I’m not a big fan on that blog), there was no engagement with the substance of Laruelle’s supposed lack of philosophical awesomeness. To be honest, I’m just lazily hoping that you would laid down point-by-point Laruelle’s philosophical positions so I don’t have to do the work myself. Or I might actually read your Translator’s Intro to Future Christ…

  12. Galloway has lectured on Laruelle for the Public School. You would have to ask him for specifics on his new projects, but he has two pieces that are coming out with two things I’m editing. An EUP book and an Angelaki special issue.

  13. I think it’s time to state the obvious.

    Harman is not that great a philosopher and most definitely not a cautious and insightful reader.

    His presentations of the history of philosophy are time and again at a ‘history of metaphysics 101’ level, and his critiques are based on pretty superficial readings of other philosophers: Deleuze (lava-lampy? Seriously? since when is this an acceptable piece of philosophical terminology?), Derrida (too pretentious to even bother), Heidegger (yes, Heidegger, his favourite thinker, of whom he offers the most bland, dumbed down –he’s say, innovative–interpretation effectively reducing him to the ‘thinker of tools’ and now Laruelle, as APS pretty extensively demonstrated (neoplatonic One? Really?).

    (The cynic might say: could this be the reason for his popularity, among many?)

    He has reviewed a book which he clearly hasn’t undesrtood well, and has spent more words going on about his rants than with actual review because he had precious little to say about it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Laruelle is pretty damn difficult and I myself could not have written a satisfactory review. But I am not incensed by some as (and not-even-so-secretly feel myself) a ‘great philosopher and stylist’.

    He is not, let’s bring this piece of information home and get on with our work.

  14. I do think Harman can do a good job explaining philosophers he likes. The first half of Prince of Networks was a good philosophical introduction to Latour, much clearer on the philosophy than anything even Latour himself has written. I don’t like his style in the cases where it becomes consciously overwritten, though.

Comments are closed.