A response to Graham Harman’s “Marginalia on Radical Thinking”

First let me say that, while this post will likely come across as confrontational, I do have a respect for Harman, particularly for his intellectual energy and literary output. I’ve never met him and can’t count him a friend, but I have corresponded with him on a few occasions. I must admit that his philosophy and politics (or lack thereof) leave me cold. A bit of context: my dissertation of 2001, which became my first book in 2004, is an analysis of networks as political systems, so I feel I have a lot to say about the topic of objects and networks. I’m also a computer programmer and, similar to someone like Ian Bogost, have actually coded the kind of object-oriented systems that OOO describes. (To his credit Harman rejects this association, claiming that “his” OO has nothing to do with computer science’s OO. But that’s a flimsy argument in my view, particularly when the congruencies are so clear. As Zizek might say, channeling Groucho Marx: if it’s called a duck, and quacks like a duck, don’t let that fool you — it really is a duck!)

I already wrote a bit about some shortcomings of the new realism particularly with Meillassoux. And I have a forthcoming long article that expands my position, in which I argue that SR/OOO is politically naive because it parrots a kind of postfordist/cybernetic thought, and that this constitutes a secondary correlation between thought and the mode of production that SR/OOO can’t explain. Shaviro, Bogost, and Bryant have all read this paper privately, but as I said, due to the ridiculous slowness of academic publishing, it’s still forthcoming.

Again, I do respect Harman’s energy, but like David Berry and Christian Thorne I’m more and more concerned about the political shortcomings of OOO. A case in point is this recent interview with Harman titled “Marginalia on Radical Thinking.” Harman’s comments in this interview coalesce a number of different threads in OOO, and for me galvanize precisely what I see as some of its main challenges.

So what exactly are Harman’s political instincts? Let’s use this paragraph as a starting point:

Harman: “I saw parts of the Arab Spring up close, and the events of that period taught me something, as genuine events should. There were plenty of protest movements throughout my time in Egypt against Hosni Mubarak, against torture, against the Emergency Law. And one could always agree with these criticisms while still thinking that ‘for now, Egypt is probably better off than it might be under other circumstances.’ But in January 2011, I like others was shocked into realizing suddenly what a wrong-headed attitude that was. Mubarak became for me, retroactively, something terrible that always had to be thrown out all along. The Revolutionaries showed me this through provoking a brutal response that showed the truth of the situation in Egypt, which I now see that I had accepted too lazily as a given. Indeed, I had been guilty of a failure of imagination, which is what philosophers should always be ready to avoid. The killings by snipers, the use of plainclothes thugs on camels and horses, and the cynical machinations of Mubarak in response to calls for his ouster, may simply have brought the pre-existent life of the Egyptian dungeons onto the street, as one of the human rights groups remarked at the time. But it took the events on the street to shake me from slumber, and I have not yet recovered from that experience.”

I cite this as a textbook example of the liberal bourgeois position that people from the likes of Zizek to Carl Schmitt have called “depoliticization and neutralization.” It shows Harman’s anti-political position quite clearly. Today we might even call this an anti-badiousian position (although Harman of course has no interest in being badiousian in the first place!). The reason is because he has no opposition to the state of the situation. By his own admission, he only expresses revulsion *after* the confrontation with the state has taken place, after he witnesses the excesses to which the state will go to hold on to power. That’s a classic case of liberal neutralization (“don’t rock the boat,” “we just need to go along to get along,” “this is the best of all possible worlds,” “ontology shouldn’t be political,” etc.). This is thus not a political desire of any kind, merely an affective emotional response at the sight of blood. But such palpitations of the “sensitive” bourgeois heart, no matter how reformed, do not a politics make.

By contrast, Badiou’s position is so useful today because he says that it’s all about the *first* antagonism, not the last. To be political means that you have to *start* from the position of incompatibility with the state. In other words the political is always asymmetrical to the state of the situation. The political is always “trenchant” in this sense, always a “cutting” or polarization. Hence the appeal of Badiou’s “theory of points” which forces all of the equal-footed-objects in OOO into a trenchant decision of the two: yes or no, stop or go, fight or retreat. Hardt and Negri say something similar when they show how “resistance is primary vis-a-vis power.” For his part Harman essentially argues the reverse in this interview: ontology is primary (OOO “is not the handmaid of anything else”), power is secondary (Mubarak), resistance is a tertiary afterthought (the Arab Spring). Yes we should applaud the Spring when it arrives, Harman admits, but it’s still just an afterthought that arrived from who knows where.

If you’re still skeptical just use the old categorial imperative: if everyone in Cairo were clones of Harman, the revolution would never have happened. That’s political neutralization in a nutshell. In other words there is no event for Harman. And here I agree with Mehdi Belhaj Kacem’s recent characterization of Tristan Garcia’s ontology, modeled closely after Harman’s, as essentially a treatise on “Being Without Event.”

It’s also symptomatic that throughout the interview Harman assumes that the political means “liberation.” Liberation may be involved with certain kinds of political projects. And certainly liberty and freedom are appealing social virtues that should be promoted when appropriate. But political means liberation only for a liberal. (And let’s not forget that liberalism itself is quite limited historically and more or less coincides with the history of western capitalism.) A more expansive view on politics will quickly reveal that the political means something else. The political means *justice* first and foremost, not liberation. Justice and liberation may, of course, coincide during certain socio-historical situations, but politics does not and should not mean liberation exclusively. Political theory is full of examples where people must in fact *curb* their own liberty for the sake of justice. This is why people like Zizek and Badiou talk about discipline and militancy, but not so much about liberty as such.

This brings out a secondary problem with OOO in that it falls prey to a kind of “Citizens United fallacy”.. everything is an object, and thus Monsanto and Exxon Mobil are objects on equal footing just like the rest. Like other (human) objects, Monsanto is free to make unlimited campaign donations, contribute to the degradation of the environment, etc.

The way out of this problem, at least for Bogost and Bryant, seems to be a kind of cake-and-eat-it-too Animal Farm koan: that all objects are equal, but some objects are more equal than others. This seems to be rather nonsensical, since on the one hand they want to reject correlation and put all objects on equal footing, but on the other hand retain a pop science view of the world in which some equal-footed objects nevertheless have more “gravity attraction” than other equal-footed objects. What this produces is a kind of marketplace ontology that essentializes and reinforces hierarchy even as it claims to circumvent it. The only thing worse than inequality is an inequality founded in equality. But that’s capitalism for you: everyone is equal in the marketplace except for, ta-da, the 1%. Or American race relations: we take these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, but, ta-da, in comes Jim Crow. Or protocological control online: universal adoption of networking standards between peers, but, ta-da, Google owns you. In other words inequality rooted in equality is not a very “liberating” political theory.

Harman and these others in OOO often take pride in calling this a “democratization.” But now let’s be clear, it is actually an anti-democratization, in two ways. First because it removes the point of decision from people (the demos) to the object world at large. So the word simply doesn’t make sense in the context of OOO. In fact the closest English word we have for Harman’s cosmology is “bureaucracy” (rule by office furniture), but “pragmacracy” (rule by things) or “hylecracy” (rule by stuff) are probably closer to Harman’s intent. And second because it allows certain objects to have more natural “gravity” than others, thus in essence letting their “votes” count double or triple.

So despite their protestations OOO still doesn’t have a reliable way to distinguish between “good” and “bad” objects. In other words OOO doesn’t make much room for a theory of judgment, since it’s busy kneecapping the human. And this is why we’ve seen that OOO can’t seem to produce the two things that philosophy has always grounded in a theory of judgment: an aesthetics and a politics.

(We should of course cite the evolution of Harman’s position, and his flirtations with aesthetics: “metaphysics may be a branch of aesthetics, and causation merely a form of beauty” [Towards Speculative Realism, 139]. Shaviro picks up on this in his essay “The Actual Volcano,” where he argues that Harman is essentially a modernist who is ultimately focused on the sublime.)

It’s easy to see how a non-flat ontology allows for a theory of judgment. If things are non-flat then there’s always some kind of dynamic or asymmetry to rely on. The dynamic could be “the human” or it could be “God.” It could be some other kind of arbiter like “nature” or “the natural state of things,” or even “the essence of the thing, to which it must accord.” Politics in a non-flat ontology is so easy it’s basically cheating.

However it’s harder to see how a *flat* ontology allows for a theory of judgment. The most notorious flat ontology that we know of today is that old friend capitalism: all things are reduced to objects on equal footing with everything else, be they wool or machine or man; everything has a use-value which recedes and is masked over by the sensual skin of exchange value; no arbiter impedes the endless flow of objects through circuits of exchange, no arbiter except that ultimate mystical medium, the marketplace. This is obviously the world of Latour, and now more recently the world of Harman (likewise De Landa falls prey to some of these same pitfalls, as he lauds a kind of market ontology, a kind of deleuzian awesome-ology of emergence and becoming). Harman has of course denied on several occasions that his ontology “looks like” capitalism, but if it quacks like a duck…

I don’t know if flat ontologies are bad per se, but they are certainly dangerous, particularly in this day and age, because they can be so easily co-opted by power. Hence the most successful flat ontologies are the ones that fortify their flatness with some newfound political dynamic. The two best examples I can think of here are Deleuze and Laruelle. Deleuze because of his timeliness and his sense that deterritorialization (in the late ’60s and ’70s) would really be the most political thing that could happen faced with the then current form of power as territorialized capitalism, territorialized patriarchy, territorialized subjectivity, etc. His flatness was thus a *strategic* flatness. Although that was forty years ago now, and already in the early ’90s when he wrote the “control society” essay near the end of his life, he was perhaps realizing that power had already co-opted his rhizomatic relational ontology in new ways. And in fact today it’s not that difficult to show how deleuzian ontology is quite compatible with capitalism (i.e. how Google or Facebook valorizes multiplicity and distributed networks, etc.).

Laruelle is the other good example, only now because of his profound untimeliness. Laruelle has a kind of flat ontology after all, being the “original” anti-correlationist, twenty years before Meillassoux made the tactic fashionable. But of course Laruelle’s flatness is *so* flat that it becomes “one,” unilateral, deterministic, etc. And here we see again how the deepest form of justice might actually have nothing to do with liberation, but rather with a kind of ontological determination, a kind of “destiny” (to use an extremely unfashionable word). It’s also why Laruelle has been roundly excluded by everyone involved in OOO, both the insiders like Harman and Bogost, but also some of the outliers like Shaviro. Laruelle starts from many of the same assumptions that OOO endorses — to reject correlationism, to introduce democracy into ontology, such ideas all come from Laruelle — but Laruelle actually walks the walk! He actually follows these axioms all the way to the end of the line. And what he discovers is a profoundly weird kind of realism. But also a profoundly political one — in my view Laruelle is one of the most radical political thinkers of recent years. Let’s not forget that Harman never rejects correlationism. On the contrary he merely “democratizes” correlation so that all entities including humans follow the as-structure. I think this is ultimately why Harman and OOO “can’t handle” Laruelle. (See for example Harman’s now notorious review of Laruelle’s book Philosophies of Difference in which he muddles and misreads even the most rudimentary axioms in Laruelle.)

If we look at the argument from The Exploit (the second book on networks I wrote in 2007 with Eugene Thacker), Harman is stuck in step two of the three historical steps we describe. That is, he’s willing to admit that there’s a new hegemony of flatness, even a new hegemony of relation/networks. That’s precisely what we describe in the opening section of The Exploit as the “new symmetry” position, or the “networks contra networks” position. This is more or less the position of a kind of global Latourianism or even a global Deleuzianism, where both power and resistance are flat, networked, and rhizomatic. But what Harman is unwilling to do is to take the third step, which requires the superimposition of a new asymmetry. This is what we call the “exceptional topology,” or for short the “exploit.”

Step two is essentially the position of today’s liberal — the dot-com exec, the Obama supporter, the OOO philosopher, those who ultimately desire a kind of capitalism-with-a-friendly-face. But this is not a “political” position proper, or at the least we can’t really call these kinds of people leftists. (Which is fine, since Harman doesn’t want to be called a leftist in the first place!) Only step three is today’s political position proper. This is where you will find the Occupy movement, Wikileaks and Anonymous, radical feminism, Tiqqun, Act Up, anti-racist campaigns, anti-capitalist parties, and so on.

Maybe in the end it’s a very boring tale to tell, because it’s just the same old story. It’s the liberals versus the radicals. The New Philosophers versus the old Marxists. The third way liberals versus the Leninists or Maoists. The reformers versus the revolutionaries. It’s OOO versus Zizek/Badiou/Laruelle/whomever. I’m not trying to change the debate, I just want it to be clear. Harman is not the vanguard of “radical thinking,” whatever that means. And Harman is most certainly not a political thinker of any caliber. In fact it’s the opposite. Harman’s self-stated goal is to remove politics from ontology, creating a new kind of pure ontology in which, as he says in the interview, philosophy should not be the handmaid of anything else. So we have to ask the old question again: Does Harman descend into the street? And if not, should we trust what he says about being? In the age of Occupy and Monsanto, of Citizens United and ecological collapse, of the Obama drone assassinations and unpaid online microlabor — there’s a litany for you! — I think the answer is a resounding no. Let’s hope that OOO wakes up soon and realizes that a philosophy without a political theory is no philosophy at all.

[Note: My several previous attempts to address “the political question” in OOO have all been met with, shall we say, some skepticism by those involved, whether it be on Facebook, on blogs, or in personal correspondence. When they’re not accusing me of bad faith or attacking me personally they usually either (1) put their head in the sand and pretend the political question will go away as they hunker down with the ontological purism argument (La trahison des clercs!; “ontology shouldn’t be polluted by politics in the first place!”), (2) position themselves as “victims” of a leftist faculty cabal who forced them to read too much Haraway and Butler in graduate school, or (3) simply ignore me and go play somewhere else. So let me issue a preemptive challenge to OOO: surprise me! how about an *actual* response that *actually* addresses the political question? My guess is it won’t happen — although, if anyone, Bryant is probably the one to do it.]

105 thoughts on “A response to Graham Harman’s “Marginalia on Radical Thinking”

  1. A superficial point before someone else points it out – the conflation of acronyms i.e. OOO/OOP.

    Haven’t had a chance to digest yet but broadly agree a la “The New Spirit of Capitalism”

  2. Alex, splendid! In my mind, I’m calling this “”Postscript on Societies of Control’ and OOO.” One of the striking things for me, as I look back on the past on the past decade-plus of continental philosophy, is how much the question of the connection between ontology *and* politics, so central for Deleuze, Negri, and Badiou, seems to have disappeared. I take this as an excellent polemic against such a tendency.

  3. Hello Alexander, this comment about Deleuze doesn’t have anything to do with your reading of Harman and OOO, obviously.

    Although that was forty years ago now, and already in the early ’90s when he wrote the “control society” essay near the end of his life, he was perhaps realizing that power had already co-opted his rhizomatic relational ontology in new ways. And in fact today it’s not that difficult to show how deleuzian ontology is quite compatible with capitalism (i.e. how Google or Facebook valorizes multiplicity and distributed networks, etc.).

    Deleuze and Guattari’s ontology in A Thousand Plateaus is about the relations of strata and rhizomes, to put it quickly, not just about rhizomes. Two quotes can bring this out.

    “The Earth … is a body without organs… flows in all directions…. That, however, was not the question at hand. For there simultaneously occurs upon the earth a very important, inevitable phenomenon that is beneficial in many respects and unfortunate in many others: stratification” (ATP, 40).

    “Never believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us” (ATP, 500).

  4. I get the dichotomy you are setting up here between the revolutionary and the reformist, and I can appreciate the differences between your work (which is great) and OOO. But is it really a good idea to ask if Harman’s descended into the street when he was, in fact, in the middle of the Egypt protests? I know that’s not what you mean, but it’s a strange phrase considering those experiences.

  5. Hi, Alexander. A brief reply. You write, “everything is an object, and thus Monsanto and Exxon Mobil are objects on equal footing just like the rest. Like other (human) objects, Monsanto is free to make unlimited campaign donations, contribute to the degradation of the environment, etc.” Couple this claim as well as this one, “despite their protestations OOO still doesn’t have a reliable way to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ objects.” And now I’m confused, productively so. First, “equal footing” is ambiguous. For OOO—and it seems for you also—objects are on equal footing in that they’re all objects: durable, effective, fragile as well, wholes that are both more and less than the sum of their parts, the latter being objects made of still smaller parts, etc. But also for you “equal footing” connotes political and ethical distinction. So, which comes first? Is this even a good question? “First” can be political and ethical but also logical. If politics comes first (logically), then Is Monsanto less of an object because it is a “bad” object? Or must granting it object status by OOO amount to affirmation of its powers (political and ethical)? Can one say that Monsanto is an object without simultaneously bowing before its goodness? I think so. Why not? What’s the risk? Quiescence? If for you politics amounts to the interested question “which one?” a Deleuzian/Nietzschian question, then how should we travel between ontology and politics? Or do you want politics without ontology, without and before ontology? You conclude, “a philosophy without a political theory is no philosophy at all.” And why not then “a philosophy without an ontology is no philosophy at all”?

  6. I think I’ve made it quite clear over the years that my political tendencies lie in the direction of Marx, Badiou, Zizek, Sartre, Foucault, Ranciere, and Deleuze. When I encounter an argument like Galloway’s, I’m just not sure what’s being asked for. Asking for a politics from pure ontology makes about as much sense to me as asking for a politics from chemistry or physics. Ontology is concerned with what is, not with what ought to be. But asking questions about what is, in no way forecloses questions about what ought to be. They’re just questions that arise in a different domain of inquiry. Let’s take Alex’s example of Monsanto and Exxon Mobile. Somehow Alex moves from the claim that Exxon Mobile and Monsanto exist, that they’re real, to the claim that we ought to advocate them giving unlimited campaign contributions. But how does this in any way follow? I can readily recognize that Jeffrey Dahmer once existed and was entirely real, but this is entirely different than claiming that we ought to endorse his murder and torture of countless young men. Further, what would be the point of struggling against unlimited corporate greed and the likes of Dahmer, if they weren’t real and didn’t have real effects in the world? It seems as if there’s an elementary is/ought confusion that’s at work in Galloway’s argument.

    Following thinkers like Foucault and the science and technology theorists, I readily recognize that ontology and sciences can be contaminated by unconscious political prejudices, but that’s quite different than claiming that politics is the ground of these inquiries. Suggesting that politics ought to be the ground of these inquiries strikes me as a catastrophe. It amounts to the claim that “is-ness” is legislated by whatever our political sympathies happen to be and that if something doesn’t fit with our politcal commitments we should pretend it doesn’t exist. We thus end up back and the era of, for example, Stalinist science where biology was set back for decades because it was seen as contrary to Marxist thought, and where linguistics became an utter mess. And since Galloway evokes Badiou in this context, he seems unaware of Badiou’s argument that philosophy encounters a catastrophe whenever it is sutured to one of its conditions: science, art, politics, or love (Manifesto for Philosophy. For example, he criticizes Stalinist theory for suturing being to politics, criticizes Heidegger for suturing philosophy to the poem, and criticizes Althusser for suturing being to science.

    I agree that Harman’s politics tends in the liberal direction– one that I don’t advocate –but that’s quite different than suggesting that his ontology necessitates that politics. This, again, is because questions of what is and what ought to be are distinct. I end up in quite a different place because of my focus on larger-scale entities like social systems and their dynamics, which push me in a Marxist direction. At most, I think OOO allows us to critique shortcomings of various political theorists by drawing our attention to questions of human agency. For example, while being sympathetic to much in Adorno and Zizek, I think their positions suffer from being overly focused on the discursive as the stuff of which society is made. Their thesis seems to be that it is signifiers and cultural contents that are the exclusive glue of society. While I agree that these are an important glue or binding mechanism, I think they miss the domain of objects that also exert significant power over us, binding us in a variety of ways. A failure to take into account this agency of things will entail that we get at only half of power and that we thereby fail to produce the change we want. I think this is a Marxian (not Marxist, because “Marxism” became so discursively driven in subsequent years) insight; e.g. his discussions of the working day and the factory and how they bind and form us in particular ways. However, while an ontology can point out that a particular conception of social assemblages is inadequate, you have to go elsewhere, to get a political theory of what we should do. That’s why I lean on people like Sartre, Badiou, Ranciere, Zizek, etc. So for me, two questions: 1) Is Galloway claiming that politics legislates what is? Is he willing to say this for Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology, etc? And 2) Why does he not recognize that discussions of what is do not exclude discussions of what ought to be?

  7. A minor comment: The particular Harman quote marshalled here seems a bit strange for the interpretation it’s then put to. Rather than defend a liberal status-quo stance, isn’t Harman precisely admitting that it was faulty to have ever held such a view, at least in regards to Egypt? He rejects his previous analysis of the situation as having been definitively refuted, and says that, moreover, the fact that he could’ve held such an analysis previously at all is something he has “not yet recovered from” and needs to learn from to avoid repeating. Those all seem like quite different sentiments than what’s then ascribed to him. The following few paragraphs in this post seem to amount to accusing him of being mistaken, and pointing out that political action would’ve been impossible if everyone else were likewise mistaken: all things he himself says up front!

  8. Mark N, i think Alex’s point is not that Harman needs to admit his mistake, which obviously Harman does. The point is about the way in which this mistake became evident to Harman. In other words, the point is that the politics that Harman ultimately accepts became thinkable for Harman only *after* others pursued that politics; Harman’s philosophy was unable to ascertain the need for such politics.

  9. I want to echo Bryant’s concluding questions and add something. Bryant writes, “1) Is Galloway claiming that politics legislates what is? Is he willing to say this for Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology, etc? And 2) Why does he not recognize that discussions of what is do not exclude discussions of what ought to be?” And just to head off one possible swerve, Galloway might say that Chemistry et al. are political. To which I would quickly reply, yes, that’s Latour’s point: it’s politics all the way down, and politics all the way up. But then we have a semantic problem: ontologies do seek to account for political assemblies and social assemblies. And even for the way that “oughts” are assembled and hold together by human and non-human agents. What’s the semantic problem? Politics also seems to mean human agencies, human evaluations. But why limit the political to the human? I think that’s Bryant’s point.

  10. Questions of ontology must – in themselves – be thought of as irrelevant or indifferent to politics in any positive sense – ‘matter cannot be disentangled from the social’ would certainly be plausible, but invokes a degree of the formalism that Bennet seems bothered by (but eg. Barad not).

  11. “Asking for a politics from pure ontology makes about as much sense to me as asking for a politics from chemistry or physics.”

    Agent Orange and the atom bomb are just objects, after all.

    “But why limit the political to the human?”

    Citizens United.

  12. “But is it really a good idea to ask if Harman’s descended into the street when he was, in fact, in the middle of the Egypt protests?”

    Roger, he wasn’t actually. Read his blog – he was out of the country for most of the initial protests (caught in India, then taking refuge in Poland to avoid trouble, he wrote about it openly at the time), and when back in Egypt he was mostly posting links to CNN and other publicly available information sources (only venturing to Tahrir to take a few photos once things settled down) – it hardly qualifies as being on the ground. Now, one might argue that it was dangerous on the streets for Americans (despite Harman’s usual cute stories about how he is always taken for an Egyptian and so on), but there were many brave Westerners on the streets, some were attacked and arrested and so on.

    Not that it really matters for the substance of Galloway’s post, but what you probably mean is that Harman retrospectively rethought his involvement as that of being “in the middle of the protest” – but unless he also retrospectively edited his blog, you can read for yourself.

  13. dbarber: But isn’t that precisely what Harman is arguing as well, that philosophy should be able to recognize such a need at the time, not only in retrospect? He’s not admitting merely a special-case error in this situation, but suggests a rethink of why he made that error is necessary, since philosophers should avoid such failures of imagination. So it seems like some sort of strangely vigorous agreement on Galloway’s part, in the guise of disagreement.

  14. Ron,

    Again, you’re missing the point. Are agent orange and the atom bomb existents in the world, or are they not. Your idea seems to be that pointing out that agent orange and the atom bomb exist somehow authorizes their use. But ontology doesn’t entail that at all. The question of whether they should be used is an entirely different question than whether they are. Nothing about pointing out that they exist entails that they should be used, nor does it foreclose questions about whether or not they should be used and if so how. Indeed, the whole ethical and political question doesn’t make much sense if agent orange and atom bombs don’t exist? Why would we get worked up about something that doesn’t exist and that isn’t producing real effects in the world?

    As for the question of whether or not politics should be restricted to the human, the question here is one of the sites of politics. Where is the political and what is politically relevant? Is the site of the political merely the domain of legislation and the state? Is the “private” home a political space? What about the workplace? Many struggles over the last century have revolved around demonstrating that sites previously understood as being outside the political are in fact sites of the political: gender, sex, the home, the workplace, etc. When I ask why politics should be restricted to the human, I am trying to point out that things that are often seen as apolitical are, in fact, sites of the political: information technologies, water resources, oceans and their fisheries, algae blooms, how we raise animals, ecosystems, the presence and absence of roads, plumbing, etc. I am asserting both that these things exert power over us, contributing to oppressive relations in particular ways, and that they are issues for all of us. How does this exclude also seeing decisions like Citizen United as sites of the political?

  15. I see no confusion of “is” and “ought” here, only the fairly simple remark that to remove politics from ontology, as Harman does, is a political act that amounts to the neutralisation of politics. Galloway has a right to evaluate Harman’s system according to criteria that are not contained in that system. He finds that system woefully incomplete, which Bryant does implicitly, given the huge amount of supplementation he mobilises to compensate for what is a lamentable regression compared to Deleuze, Lyotard, Badiou and Zizek.

  16. Theses on Harman’s OOO:
    1) Harman’s OOO is a form of monism – he begins usually with a preliminary gesture of recognising the multiplicity and abundance of the world, but rapidly reduces the multiple elements to overarching “emergent” unities that exclude other approaches to and understandings of the world (cf. THE THIRD TABLE) – his objects are the “only real” objects.

    2) Harman’s OOO is thus profoundly reductionist. Harman makes a big fuss about criticising “reductionism” (cf. also his bogus grab-all concepts of “undermining” and “overmining”), but he seems to have no idea what it is – easily winning points against straw men, then proceeding to advocate one of the worst forms of reductionism imaginable: reduction of the abundance of the world to untouchable unknowable yet intelligible “objects”. (For more details see my review of Harman’s THE THIRD TABLE here).

    3) Harman’s OOO is theological: He produces a a highly technical concept of object such that it replaces the familiar objects of the everyday world, and the less familiar objects of science with something “deeper” and “inaccessible”, and then proceeds to equivocate with the familiar connotations and associations of “object” to give the impression that he is a concrete thinker, when the level of abstraction takes us to the heights of a new form of negative theology: the unknowable, ineffable, untouchable object that withdraws.

    4) Harman’s OOO is a-temporal and a-historical: Harman has no understanding of change, his philosophy has no place for it except by arbitrary posit. One of his favorite arguments is that “if everything was defined by its relations, then nothing would change”. This is a sophism, as it ignores temporal relations (such as “x is going faster than y”, “m is accelerating faster than n”), and force relations (“a is crushing b”, “c is fighting back against d”). This denegation is preparatory to Harman’s re-essentialising of the object.

    5) The de-politicisation comes in when Harman, having argued illegitimately for non-relational essences (cf point 4), goes on to “inform” us that the essences cannot be known but that they are not eternal and unchangeable. But Harman cannot think change with the conceptual resources of his system, he can only posit it and then play on familiar but illegitimate associations to make it seem to be comprehensible in terms of his OOO. However, this incoherent posit cannot disguise the fact that change is foreclosed in Harman’s system: “there is no event for Harman”.

    6) Ontology is not primary for Harman. His real polemic is with a straw man epistemology that he calls the philosophy of human access. No important philosophy of at least the last 50 years is a philosophy of access, so the illusion of a revolution in thought is generated by the misuse of the notion of “access”, inflating it into a grab-all concept under which anything and everything can be subsumed. But a philosophy of non-access is still epistemological, a pessimistic negative epistemology that subtracts objects from meaningful human intervention (cf. THE QUADRUPLE OBJECT where Egypt itself is declared to be an object, albeit, strangely enough, a “non-physical” one, and so unknowable and untouchable). The ontological neutralisation of our knowledge is consonant with the political neutralisation described by Galloway. How can a withdrawn object “de-withdraw”? Harman cannot explain any interaction at all (he seems to be confused about the distinction between relation and interaction), he can only just posit it.

    Conclusion: Harman’s flattening of ontology is a reductionism, the reduction of the abundance and multiplicity of the world to an a-political, an-ethical correlate to his epistemology of inaccessible objects.

  17. And to decide on which actors in any assemblage are political actors, are necessary to the very being of that assemblage is itself ontological. Galloway doesn’t find Harman’s system merely incomplete, but contaminated by an constitutive exclusion. Your adverb “woefully” admits as much. So which is it? Is Harman’s ontology an ontology that could be mobilized for political laudable purposes? Or is it political through and through, i.e., merely liberal, as Galloway suggests?

  18. I also have to applaud Galloway’s Note – both Harman and Bryant chose a minor point (“Citizens United”) that they immediately twisted into some unrecognizable logical error and attacked it with much fervor. Bryant, by using his favorite “I just don’t understand this objection” technique; Harman, by feigning genuine puzzlement at how someone can be so stupid as to misunderstand OOO so profoundly.

    To the point of ontology as describing how things are: both Harman and Bryant have ontologies (Bryant likes to talk about “my ontology this” and “in my ontology that”), so both claim to describe how things are. But how are things? Are they the way Harman claims they are or are they the way Bryant claim they are? I’m avoiding the entire issue of how they know what they know about how things are (the usual response is “But this is epistemology, not ontology!”). The issue remains, if Harman says objects are X and Bryant says objects are X+y, are they both correct? If they are, then this is a kind of flat ontology that is usually referred to as “relativism” (or, if we go further, “nonsense”) – and if they aren’t, how are we to figure out who is correct and who isn’t? It is OOO’s failure to address these sorts of fundamental questions that, I think, causes most of the consternation.

    Remark on political preferences: a duck that calls itself a revolutionary Marxist is still a duck – Galloway’s point seems to be that you can call yourself whatever you want, your personal preferences might be Marxist, but to claim that your flat ontology is disconnected from any political implications (because you don’t see any) or that it has nothing to do with your human-oriented Marxist politics (I don’t recall any liberation of objects of labour in Marx, do you?) is simply to say “I don’t see any connections, therefore there aren’t any”…

  19. As someone who disagrees with more or less everything Graham Harman ever says, I can’t *believe* the debate still hasn’t progressed beyond imagining that his ontology is actually a big metaphor for his ethics and/or politics, and then pointing out that, if that were true, some uncomfortable conclusions would result.

    You talk as if there’s some great paradox (you actually use the word “nonsensical”) in holding to the proposition “ExxonMobil exists, just like humans” while rejecting the proposition “ExxonMobil can destroy the environment and that’s fine”. That is not an a priori untenable claim, but it’s not an obvious claim either, and I don’t see that you defend it at all in your whole post. What you DO do is rely so heavily on it for the rest of your arguments that the reader is led to think “well, I suppose he must have justified it somewhere, when I didn’t notice”. But no, you definitely didn’t.

    Frankly this kind of logic seems to me to be just the other side of the coin “since God is the most perfect thing I can imagine, he must be the most existent thing as well” — “if you’re saying that ExxonMobil exists, you must be saying that ExxonMobil is perfect”.

    A factual error from the post: Garcia’s philosophy isn’t “modeled closely after” Harman’s, it was developed independently.

  20. Probably going to hold off on any substantive comments, as I’m stuck on the side of the road after a minor accident on the interstate, but just to remind people of our comment policy which explicitly says not to turn this into a debate over procedure. So, for example, Alex’s end caveat serves to try to avoid this. For what it is worth, even if I don’t agree with his position, Levi Bryant is engaging here well within that policy and I think it could open up to a productive discussion. Whereas Harman calling Galloway an idiot on his blog is, well, not.

  21. I will respond to Bryant’s rebuttal and John Muse’s affirmation of his point. I also disagree with John Kemp’s later point that ontology has no bearing on politics. Below is part Bryant’s response:

    “Asking for a politics from pure ontology makes about as much sense to me as asking for a politics from chemistry or physics. Ontology is concerned with what is, not with what ought to be. But asking questions about what is, in no way forecloses questions about what ought to be. They’re just questions that arise in a different domain of inquiry.”

    In general, Bryant is correct, but in any specifc case more must be said. Is there not a relation between what is real and the political? Hence I ask Bryant…

    Given your ontology, whence the normative? If everything is an object, and you are a monist qua materialist, whence the normative? Is it not relative to the object, in which case a reconstructued liberal human politics might suffice? Or if I presume too much, what is the reality of normativity or oughtness? If you chose an anti-realist view, even that requires explanation. I would like to see some explanation, else all value fields cannot be discussed except provisionally.

    Most responses I see assume the normative and then discuss details and applications, but do not get to the heart of the question about how an OOO view can talk about them at all. Period. Even the responses I see here dodge that question, but that is exactly what the original post is about.

    Please answer the question, and then we might continue.

  22. I agree with Baklazh,

    Withdrawal as it is employed by OOP/O is a way of smuggling in a personal imaginary object and then elevating it to an ontological status whereby it taken as granted and commonsensical. It is frustrating as hell to argue against.

  23. Jason, I’m tempted to say, no values but in things. By which I mean to answer the question, whence (and whither) norms. You’re likely asking though, not for origin stories but for standards, criteria, principals. And then I head for pragmatism: antagonism, force, sustainable assemblages of bodies, human and non-human bodies, and supports. What’s the problem with all value fields being discussed provisionally? Isn’t there always a local stake, local actors? Do we need more than that for politics and ethics?

  24. Further to my earlier comments… which in OOO’s case (not familiar enough to extend my claims to OOP) when Bryant refers to the real ‘atom bomb’ he implicitly assumes that he refers to it whilst suspending referentially itself (referentially itself dismissed as anthro-narcissism). It is an incoherent position.

  25. Which is why I think OOO is apolitical despite claims to the contray as it runs together two senses of representation, re-presentation on one hand, and representation in the sense of a politician acting in the place – in(the)stead of – those he or she represents.

    OOO represents in the sense of bi-proxy whilst disavowing that it does so, which renders it very agreeable to technocratic rule.

  26. Quick question: if ontology and politics are entirely separate domains, why are claims in the political realm based upon the existence of supernatural entities illegitimate? Seems that people would want to say they are in the most part, but also seems it is impossible to say this without some metaphysical work prior to the political – much as Marx did, clearing the way via the inversion of the theological to criticise social relations – criticism of heaven to criticism of earth.

  27. Jason,
    Let’s switch up the question a bit. How do you account for the normative? I take it for granted that human’s make normative judgments, that this is one of the powers of humans. I see thinkers such as Brandom and Sellar’s as having done this work and thus find I have little to add. My only caveat is that as a naturalist I can’t endorse transcendent grounds for normativity such as Platonic forms or God. At any rate, how do you ground normativity?

    Fail to see how I’m suspending referentiality given that, well, I’m referring to the atom bomb.

  28. John Muse,

    Thank you for a response. Now, what is a value in OOO and how does it exist? You might give a general answer, but one specific to a scholar is likely more detailed. I am not asking about standards, criteria, or principles, insomuch as those are complex evaluative standards. I am asking about the source of value or valuation and a first principle of evaluation.

    If one heads for pragmatism, as I noted on my blog, then one either contradicts oneself or OOO becomes irrelevant. The contradiction occurs because any practical claim requires invocation of criteria that elevate a particular object. How so? The answer either ignores the question of value, in which case calling for “pragmatism” is really “just doing what I want” or it reduces value to practicality for someone, in either case the human object is elevated. (See my blog, where I argue that Bryant cannot be a realist about this.) Both of these are variants of antirealism, in which case OOO’s political promises are empty since any instrumentalism will do the work regardless of its ties to OOO, in which case a major selling point of OOO is BS. This still catches OOO in the Animal Farm dilemma wherein some objects are more important than others even though they are equal. Harman is likely safer than Bryant on this point.

    John, there is no problem with value fields being discussed provisionally in general, but the way that OOO appears to do it either violates its own principles or renders it irrelevant politically. It would be better to say that OOO is apolitical. Bryant says this … sort of … but then he trumpets the political aspects of OOO constantly. He appears to want it both ways.

    And yes, we need more than that for politics unless we reduce value to force. As a specialist in American pragmatism and valuation in particular, I am very, very familiar with pragmatic arguments and how to critique them.

  29. Levi,

    I do not mind at all as this is my speciality, and my blog is named after the answer to this question, “immanent transcendence.” Feel free to read more details in my recent Transactions article (of the C.S. Peirce Society).

    Normative judgments are not a “power” of humans, as you imply, but a natural process that anything in nature does. I affirm the reality of purposes in nature as emergent, dynamic teleology. Hence, when a human being “values” something as food, this means that thing becomes something beneficial for human life within a human context. There is nothing supernatural or magical about it other than noting that nature has dispositions, e.g., electron charges. Hence, valuation is not foremost an issue of judgment, but of life in the case of valuing food. If you are implying a Kantian viewpoint, I reject it for reasons I am willing to share in more detail. Judgment is only necessary for organisms such as humans that live in societies and require language and culture to live well. We require a semiotic homestasis as well as a physical one, else destroying someone’s mosque would not get the reaction we would all expect.

    There are not transcendent grounds here, and the private joke about “immanent transcendence” is that the transcendence is temporal, and thus there is no more ultimate foundation of normativity beyond growth, which points to what we know best at the time with all the seriousness and rigor that one can apply. I can respond elsewhere to the obvious criticisms.

    What about Brandom’s and Sellar’s work? They are neopragmatists, so anything I say is tangential to them at best. They are not working in the same tradition of philosophy as I am, so it would be best not to presume too much.

    In conclusion, I do not affirm the “moral equality of all objects,” because morality is something that humans do, though since humans are continuous with nature I gain many of the same joyous platitudes that OOO or even Whiteheadian positions trumpet. Since 1867. Yous are all youngins.

  30. Jason,
    I don’t affirm the moral equality of all objects either because I think that morality– as far as I know –is an exclusive domain of humans (I leave open the possibility of whether entities such as dogs, dolphins, other hominids, octopi, etc., make moral judgments). You write:

    If one heads for pragmatism, as I noted on my blog, then one either contradicts oneself or OOO becomes irrelevant. The contradiction occurs because any practical claim requires invocation of criteria that elevate a particular object. How so? The answer either ignores the question of value, in which case calling for “pragmatism” is really “just doing what I want” or it reduces value to practicality for someone, in either case the human object is elevated. (See my blog, where I argue that Bryant cannot be a realist about this.) Both of these are variants of antirealism, in which case OOO’s political promises are empty since any instrumentalism will do the work regardless of its ties to OOO, in which case a major selling point of OOO is BS. This still catches OOO in the Animal Farm dilemma wherein some objects are more important than others even though they are equal. Harman is likely safer than Bryant on this point.

    I think the contradiction you’re claiming exists here is based on a confusion. I do indeed go the pragmatist route with respect to value questions. Nothing about flat ontology denies that particular entities value other entities more than others; or, in your language, nothing about flat ontology denies that humans “elevate particular objects over others”. I elevate my daughter’s existence, for example, over that of a strangers. I elevate a stranger’s existence over the bubonic plague bacteria. We make these value judgments all the time. Claiming that all objects equally exist or are equally real is entirely different than claiming that one values one object more than another. There’s no contradiction between saying “I would like to eradicate the bubonic plague” and claiming “The bubonic plague is as real as its victims.” Flat ontology affirms the latter, without denying the former. These are two very different types of claims. In order for a contradiction to exist they would have to be the same type of proposition.

    Are you really claiming that rocks make value judgments? This seems to be what you’re suggesting here:

    Normative judgments are not a “power” of humans, as you imply, but a natural process that anything in nature does.

    I think something must minimally be living to make a value judgment or any judgment at all, but that’s just me.

  31. Wow. Quite a maelstrom of nonsense we’ve got going on here! Difficult to know quite where to jump in.

    Might as well respond to Alex’s last comment: “if ontology and politics are entirely separate domains” — nobody seems to be making this claim. Ontology and politics aren’t ‘domains.’ Ontology is the philosophical study of what is, politics is the process through which people form, contest and contest the formation of collective human being. ‘Realm’ doesn’t seem to be an appropriate term. It implies a divided spatiality that is difficult to conceive of and it implies a juridical separation that just misses the point. They are simply different practices practiced in different places for different reasons. They’re different things.

    The claim being made is that accounts of what is (i.e. ontology) should not (a) be determined by politics and cannot (b) determine any political position, practice or possibility.

    This does NOT mean that ontology and politics are hermetically sealed realities, totally parallel to each other. In fact they meet in a variety of ways. To describe but a few:

    — Firstly, our accounts of what is profoundly shape how we understand ourselves, the world we live in and without an ontology all politics — and all life, really — would be literally unthinkable. Moreover, any political movement that lacked any grasp on reality would fail immediately. In fact it could never come together in the first place. Therefore, politics presupposes ontology.

    — Secondly, while accounts of being cannot determine any political thought or action that might derive from them there are certainly some ontological claims that are heavily politically loaded; e.g. Thatcher’s claim that there is no such thing as society. Ontology can be politicised, it can be politically significant but that doesn’t make ontology altogether political. You can only politicise something that isn’t first of all political.

    — Thirdly, while we might say that there is being with no human beings there surely is no ontology without ontologists. Ontologists engage in ontology and produce this ontology, criticise that ontology, etc. Ontology is the name of their practice not their research subject (that’s ‘being’). Therefore, as fallible, embodied, emplaced, ‘thrown’ human persons no one should ever claim that their ontological pronouncements issue from a non-position, outside all social influence or historical particularity (or politics). Anyone claiming such a thing in this day and age would be a comical fossil at best and a tyrant at worst. Fortunately, neither Harman nor Bryant nor anyone affiliated with them make this claim.

    Politics and ontology can be intertwined in many ways but they’re still different things and one can quite easily talk all day about ontology without getting into politics. Ontology readily bumps up against politics and is easily politicised but that does not mean that it SHOULD be politicised — and it certainly shouldn’t be politicised all the time.

    So, our accounts of what is (our ontologies) must be generated, influenced and informed by much, much MORE than politics alone. This doesn’t make these things hermetically sealed discursive jurisdictions — far from it. But it DOES mean that any given politicisation of ontology must be undertaken FOR A REASON. It is not the default position.

    Ontology isn’t always already political — nothing is. Nothing is political which isn’t first politicised.

    And this isn’t ‘apolitical,’ by the way. The really apolitical position is that which says that ‘everything is political’ as if politics were some smoggy, unbreakable shroud enveloping absolutely every being, everywhere from miserable cradle to wretched grave.

    Politics is a pretty inglorious business most of the time. I really don’t understand why so many people take it as the master signifier to end all master signifiers. I’m really rather GLAD that politics is not omnipresent. A world in which it was would be a true dystopia. Fortunately it only exists as a utopia of the foolish.

    And as for the claims that granting reality to corporations justifies their political enfranchisement … well, my mind boggles at that. That would only be the case if ontology and politics were fused. Only then would the granting of ontological thing-hood simultaneously be the granting of political personhood.

    And they’re not fused…

  32. I’ve already taken a swipe at Levi this weekend in comments on his post about flat ethics and my response to it here. The short of it is that I’m as unsatisfied with OOPolitics/Ethics as much as Galloway is, but from the completely opposite direction. Why shouldn’t a flat ontology lead to a flat ethics or politics? Why shouldn’t undecidability be at the centre of ethics?

    It remains unclear to me the grounds upon which Levi asserts his reactionary humanism. (Normally reactionary humanists react in opposition to someone else–for instance, the critical realists against the Latourians–it is amazing to see someone assert a reactionary humanism in opposition to their own ontology.) Sure, his daughter is more important to him and some bacteria. No doubt. But this isn’t an ethical theory. It’s kin selection and egoism; not ethics.

    Surely an old growth forest has moral “rights” (for lack of better language) to exist that exceed consideration of how humans use of the forest (e.g., clear cutting). Surely a pig has moral “rights” to exist that exceed consideration of of its treatment (gestation crates, slaughter, being reduced to mere meat) by humans. Why can’t nature=the network of networks generate its own norms independent of any particular viewpoint within that system (i.e., the viewpoint of humans)?

  33. Levi,

    If value is relative to the object, all objects are singular, and all objects withdraw from each other, then each object must have its own proto-morality, no? If you disagree, then note the following. Given that you affirm nominalism, which is to say that only particular things exist and cannot be described in general terms, then how can you speak about the morality of human objects? Since one neither has access to the object, and nothing general can be said, does this not explode any concept of morality at all?

    Anything you say is prima facie, what Levi Bryant-as-object says. Jason Hills-as-object says something else. Since we do not share “humanity,” or even “community,” I suppose coming up with standards can only be pragmatic, no? So, how ’bout you don’t tase me, bro? That’s pragmatic! Do you not see how nihilism is on your doorstep? I have compared your words to Nietzsche before–would you disagree with the characterization per certain readings of Will to Power?

    I have not taken into account your processional take on objects. Perhaps there is something I am missing?

    Rocks do not judge. They value, which humans describe in third-person scientific terms best expressed in geology. You could say that I “naturalize” value, and since you’re into Whitehead, this move should look familiar. Family resemblance. A value is a purpose, telos, etc. and only in the human case does it become potentially “moral.” We did eat of the fruit, you know.

    I did not mean to imply that you claimed a moral equality of objects so much as a value-neutrality since morality is apparently perspectival for you. To be clearer, I am using your positions and methods against you like an intellectual judo. I might have misunderstood, but every time I go back to your blog and the Democracy of Objects, I see a disconnect between the methodology and position and the content of your claims, especially in value fields.

  34. Jason,

    You seem to be confusing my views with those of Harman. For me withdrawal means something quite different. It doesn’t mean that objects never relate, nor that they can never encounter one another, but rather that they are operationally closed or posses only selective relations to their environment– for example, we can’t see color in the ultraviolet spectrum of light –and that objects intergrate information according to their own internal organization. These days I’m trying to get away from using the term “withdrawal” because it invites this confusion. You can read a bit more about what I mean by operational closure by consulting this post or chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects.


    In my view, we can know all sorts of objects through engaging, observing, and acting on them in the ways described by theorists like Roy Bhaskar in A Realist Theory of Science, Latour, or Pickering. As I’ve said before, I basically endorse Dewey’s theory of inquiry.

    You’re right, I’m a nominalist if by that you mean that I hold that only material things, their relations, and void exist. I take it this follows from any naturalism or materialism. Within that framework there’s simply no place for universals as entities that exist in their own right like Platonic forms. Nothing about this denies the possibility of speaking about generalities or regularities. It just entails that they must be predicates of another entity and, like the color green, they don’t exist independent of the entity in which they exist. In mathematics, for example, we can adopt the stances of formalism, structuralism, or intuitionism, showing how maths are constructed or built in their universality according to rule-following and the grammar that emerges from that rule-following.

    You write:

    If value is relative to the object, all objects are singular, and all objects withdraw from each other, then each object must have its own proto-morality, no? If you disagree, then note the following. Given that you affirm nominalism, which is to say that only particular things exist and cannot be described in general terms, then how can you speak about the morality of human objects? Since one neither has access to the object, and nothing general can be said, does this not explode any concept of morality at all?

    This assumes that morality is a feature of individuals, but for me moral and political questions only arise when we enter into relations with other entities. Robinson Crusoe on his desert island has no morality, nor is he immoral, simply for the reason that he doesn’t interact with other people (or, making room for Craig’s worries, Robinson Crusoe, suspended in a void where nothing else exists, has no morality nor immorality, because he doesn’t interact with anything else whether human or inhuman. Moral and political issues only arise when collectives emerge and the elements in that collective encounter the problem of how to organize this collective with one another or “live with” one another. Here norms begin to emerge regulating interactions and relations. There’s no such thing as an “individual ethics”– just as there’s no “private language” –an ethics based purely on personal whim and taste, for the simple reason that 1) our actions are never entirely our own but are enabled and impeded by all sorts of other human and nonhuman entities, and 2) because we must navigate a network of entities with which we must perpetually negotiate. That navigation is part of what generates norms. The norms do not come before, but are results of these collaborations and negotiations between entities in response to the problems that arise through their collective existence.

    I write about this in greater detail in my article “The Ethics of the Event” in Deleuze and Ethics, but you can also read this post for a significantly abbreviated version:


    I see this as very much in the spirit of pragmatism, especially of the Deweyian sort.

  35. Hi, Jason. I, perhaps like Bryant, here will double down on pragmatism, with two adjustments: a., psychoanalytic ones—because humans don’t know what they want, I would have to generalize this to all objects, not the split subject but the split object, as Harman might say. And b., OOO ones, not human utilities or forces only but the forces of all objects. So it’s pragmatism all the way down and all the way up; it becomes the answer, an ontological frame, necessarily for all relations, not just human/world relations. Beings do what they can, but not everything they can, because there’s always a hidden reservoir of powers. Latour. But how is this nihilism? I take it that for you Nietzsche is a nihilist? But that’s perverse, and not in a good way. Nihilism luxuriates in no-values; OOO only points out that values are employed and created at all levels, employed, created, modified. Values are what things do. And so why then say that rocks value but they don’t judge? For you what’s the difference for you between valuing and judging? Why grant to humans a metaphysical power that no other being has?

    Yeah, don’t tase me bro. Why not? Because I’m sentient like you, suffer like you, and I’m your cousin, and you’re my brother, and we’re human, human together. Are these reasons good reasons? The pragmatist says, they’re good if they work. They’re not good in and of themselves. And they can take a long time to work. Martin Luther King’s arguments didn’t work for everyone. They still don’t. Knowing the pragmatist credo, you obviously know the drill. Sorry if I’m asking you to make arguments here again that you’ve made elsewhere.

  36. Bryant: “The norms do not come before, but are results of these collaborations and negotiations between entities in response to the problems that arise through their collective existence.” Ditto. And I might add. The folks who say that norms come before might win this argument. If they do—and occasionally they do—then for a time they produce the very collaborations and negotiations through which they can deny that these norms are the result. But this is the pragmatist in me. I’m also thinking about the following from Latour:

    “The difficulty of understanding Pasteur’s solution comes from his using two contradictory statements ‘the ferment has been fabricated in my laboratory’ and ‘the ferment is autonomous from my fabrication’ as synonyms. More precisely, it is as if he were saying that because of his careful and skillful work in the laboratory, the ferment is therefore autonomous, real, and independent of any work he has done.” [Pandora’s Hope, 135; emphasis in original]

    Jason, what’s the difference between a norm and a ferment? Perhaps nothing. So, can you show me how you could discover a norm the way that Pasteur discovers a ferment? Then we can do what Latour’s Pasteur does: build it such that it was already there. Real and built and still fragilie. Then I would have to make a different move.

  37. “Nothing about pointing out that they exist … foreclose[s] questions about whether or not they should be used and if so how.”

    But why would we want to ask such questions? They are just objects, like everything else.

  38. I am a pragmatist, and I affirm pragmatist ethics, but the devil is in the details, and what Levi affirms is utterly alien to classical or neoclassical pragmatism. SO, if you’re doubling-down, you’re doubling-down on something else. That’s just an issue of communication, not disagreement.

    Pragmatist ethics is an instrumental ethics, and a central problem is how to adjudicate judgments. This is a human problem and not a “rock problem,” because rocks don’t judge. Moreover, moral responsibility acrues to agents, and rocks are not agents. So the difference between valuing and judgment is synonymous with the difference between moral responsibility and not. Humans have no special power, and even what they use to make moral judgments is not unique to the species, but just more highly developed, i.e., symbolic/semiotic systems of homestasis. Rocks do not die of wounds of the heart.

    Sentience and humanity alone are not sufficient reasons not to tase someone in instrumentalism. The pragmatist says faaaaar more than “they’re good if they work,” and even invoking that phrase is a bastardization of pragmatist ethics.

    Don’t apologize. Let me keep it short. Pragmatist ethics is very complex, because the instrumentalism at is core recognizes that people chose “by their own lights” as Rorty used to say, but unlike Rortian neopragmatists, the tradition combats his anti-realism. It’s an ethics of transformation, where we do our best in the situation, but also add criteria to aid becoming better people both as individuals, as a society, and as a race.

  39. Jason,
    You fail to state how anything I say is contrary to a pragmatist ethics. What I say is quite in accord with what Dewey argues in The Public and Its Problems, with the caveat– following Jane Bennett –that this extends beyond humans to nonhumans as well. A public is not just humans, but a collective of humans and nonhumans and sometimes just a collective of humans. Additionally, I haven’t seen you develop any arguments for the grounds of ethics. You’re good at making charges that others don’t, even where untrue, yet you don’t say anything substantive yourself. You just claim that you’re a follower of this thing called “pragmatism”, without bothering to spell out what you understand by that, giving your interlocutor no means of evaluating what, precisely, you’re claiming.

    Returning to the issues of universals, am I to understand that you reject naturalism? You claim that “x is impossible if universals don’t exist”, but this really isn’t an argument, but, in terms of informal fallacies, an instance of wishful thinking. It’s equivalent to someone arguing that “if God does not exist then everything is permitted. That would be horrible, therefore God must exist!” Or it’s equivalent to Habermas’s argument that fields of inquiry like neurology threaten to undermine our humanity, therefore we should deny the findings of neurology and banish it from the field of inquiry! If you’re going to defend the existence of universals you’ll need a form of argument different from this argument from wishful thinking that shows legitimate reasons for introducing these weird things into our ontology. Suggesting that we need them to make generalizations– and surely you’re aware that a generalization and a universal are two quite different things; on Aristotle’s square of opposition the former belongs to the logic of the particular –is not an argument because it might very well be the case that, as horrible as it may be, we never successfully make a universal statement and that all universal statements are just statements of particularity or generalization parading as statements of universality.

  40. Additionally, if recognizing the distributed nature of agency, seeing norms as arising from problems rather than preceding them, and recognizing the roles of humans is contrary to pragmatism, so much the worse for pragmatism. Perhaps we need neo-neo-pragmatism then. John Muse pretty well describes my own views on these matters.

  41. Levi,

    Perhaps you have a point about conflating Harman and you and on withdrawal, and I think it a good thing to step back from the term. There is a truth at the heart of it, but I think Harman goes too far. Thank you for the reminder.

    If you endorse Dewey’s logic without his metaphysics, epistemology, or phenomenology, that is fine, but be aware that you are just appropriating it, and we’re using those terms in very, very different sense. You’ve gutted its heart. For those not familiar, it’s a logic of inquiry that unifies metaphysics, phenomenology, and science and has little relation to standard formal logic. It is an exquisite tool for those who like to naturalize, except they hate its grounding and cut it out just like Levi did.

    Dewey’s universal are called the “generic traits of existence,” and you can read all about them in Experience and Nature or his articles. He is not a nominalist, though I am a stronger realist that he was. Neither he, nor Peirce, nor I would say that “there’s simply no place for unviersals as entities that exist in their own right like Platonic forms,” and Matt and I have argued about this with you for at least 6 months, because you try to paint us as Platonists. You don’t understand Whitehead on this point for the same reason; you see what’s not there.

    Your explanation of universals shows the confusion. There is no “green” if every instance of green is predicated differently in every case in principle, which is what you say. There is just a pattern noted by convention; this is a basic point of logic. You need a better explanation, especially one that doesn’t commit you to anthropocentrism, else you must admit that you as an object cannot speak for other objects. Harman recently blogged a criticism of you that is related to this. Also, feel free to read my glod posts on scholastic realism wherein I give long, detailed arguments that I will not repeat here.

    Returning to universals and generals, there is a difference between those and a “generalization” such as a Lockean abstraction, and that is the distinction that you are making. I have not erred in it, as depending on the thinker a universal and general are the same thing. I prefer distingusihing them, as you do, but I confused too many people when I made it. I recommend reading Peirce, founder of pragmatism and formalizer of abductive logic, if you’d like further insight into exactly what critique I am making. See my reading list of pragmatism on my blog.

    I am intrigued by your discussion of norms, and I thank you for a complete answer and references.

    As for my own claims, I could deliver a book manuscript, but responding to my questions by turning them back upon me is not prima facie an acceptable argumentative tactic, especially since you are making the positive claism about ethics and I am not. I will still respond in the spirit of fairness. As for how what you are doing is contra a pragmatist ethics, I will grant that you have appropriated pragmatist ideas, but that you over-state your case. If you want to know, feel free to become a regular reader of my blog, wherein I explain and even cite which line of interpretation I follow (which would be the aesthetic reading of Dewey via James Gouinlock and Thomas Alexander thought against phenomenological readings of Sandra Rosenthal, Victor Kestenbaum, and Mark Johnson, etc.) I could explain in greater length, but will not do so here.

    Concerning naturalism, of course I am, but I define naturalism as Dewey does. All that exists is nature; it’s a monism. But it is not a materialism and is not reducible to the objects of science in either a hard or soft naturalism (as analaytics call it). There’ much more to say without going into minute details, since Dewey held what is called an “open” naturalism that doesn’t claim that anything doesn’t exist, and only claims that whatever does is natural. Scholastic realism is compatible with naturalism, but not with materialism.

    Concerning your last post. I’m not a neo-pragmatist; you seem to be familiar with them and not the other contemporary tradition, and I suspect that’s why you don’t see my critiques coming. Dewey would disagree with you–or at least be neutral–on that, but I agree with you and am against Dewey.

    Thank you for directly responding to the questions and for the references. I actually do read them when people give them to me.

  42. Having a political ontology is neither a sufficient nor necessary condition for “being on the streets.” There are a lot of radical professors out there. And presumably, the majority of people involved with Occupy and the Arab spring have not read Badiou.

    By the same token, not having a political ontology is neither a sufficient nor necessary condition for avoiding “the streets.”

    Haven’t we done this dance with Heidegger already?

  43. “The only thing worse than inequality is an inequality founded in equality.”

    I believe this is also an essential point of the piece. OOO’s “flat ontology” isn’t flat at all – it claims to be flat, it probably wants to be flat too, but it isn’t. See McFarlane-Bryant exchange about sharks and daughters (link) – in the end, it’s all about personal preferences of the ontologists, masquerading as objective realities. See also Harman’s “response” (or a post or two that followed it) – treading lightly here as this isn’t about persons, but about those persons’ publicly available statements on the matter (link):

    “And yes, I deliberately include things on this blog like ‘where I ate breakfast this morning’ and ‘the latest stories about the cat I saved from the alley.’ I think much of the criticism of such posts is sheer affectation by posers… The unifying principle of this blog is clear enough, I think: anything that interests me is eligible to go in this blog. That may be philosophy books, or revolution in Egypt, or a cat, or a concert I attended. It’s a kind of ‘flat biography’ in the image of flat ontology.

    One can blog about anything one wants, of course. But when one chooses to blog about one’s breakfast but not about an event that followed it, it isn’t ‘flat biography’, it is regular biography, perhaps with a peculiar selection process. In this case, such biographical blogging isn’t flat, it’s based on a personal preference of the blogger (“anything that interests me” = clear criterion of preference). And Harman is absolutely correct in pointing out that those who would choose to criticize him for it are wrong. And yet, it isn’t flat, is it? The fact that he connects it to “flat ontology” is significant. Bryant’s ontology is based on his personal vision of the world, it is “his” ontology” – it is how he thinks about the objects, it is how he chooses to think about them. Harman’s ontology is even more mysterious. Now we don’t even know what is or isn’t an object (Zizek points out Harman’s mysticism in his latest book). What if it is as well a simple extension of his own personal preference, say, for withdrawal from others, for self-imposed isolation, for bacon-and-eggs? Objects are like breakfast sausages, you have to turn them over if you don’t want to have that red nasty uncooked meat inside etc etc. Again, this is just to use the biographical (available) examples to point toward philosophical points.

    What would a genuinely flat ontology look like?

  44. Jason,

    Could you tell me where I should be reading Dewey to see his arguments about nature as you’ve laid them? Not that I thought I was being original, but it sounds a lot like what I was doing in my PhD and so I’d like to see where other people with similar intuitions took them. Increasingly I think that Laruellean non-philosophy has some similarities to Anglo-American pragmatism.

  45. Well there was a simple confluence of events, first Obama’s speech in Cairo, in 2009, where he denounced Abu Ghraib, while a stone’s throw, from the Citadel, where Qutb saw his last breath, and more significantly, Abdel Rahman served his time, Then you throw in the succession struggle of young Gamal, upsetting the military applecart, which have been in charge since 1952, then you have the simple economic reality of the increase in the price of basic staples, in short order, along with the shockwave fromTunisia. Now that doesn’t fit any particular template, but it’s as good an explanation as any.

  46. Anthony,

    You can read Dewey’s Experience and Nature, which Richard Rorty detested. There you get an emergentist, robust realist naturalism. It was one of the inspirations for Robert Corrington’s “ecstatic naturalism” if you are familiar with his work, and he and others are the religious wing of American philosophy (the tradition, not the country, which distinguishes it from Anglo-American). One of the conflicts between neoclassicals and neopragmatists is that they drop Dewey’s phenomenology and metaphysics that was supposed to ground his logic and epistemology, and they replace it with something anti-thetical, e.g., nominalism. For instance, Deweyan instrumentalism in inquiry and ethics is vicious without his metaphysics, in which case he would deserve the famous critiques of Santayana and M. White, and the later critiques leveled at him. This is why I am putting Levi Bryant to task on this, because he is borrowing a part of pragmatism while seemingly unaware that he leaves himself vulnerable to all the classical critiques of instrumental/pragmatic arguments. These critiques generalize to “practical” arguments in general of that type.

  47. LS,

    Fail to see how I’m suspending referentiality given that, well, I’m referring to the atom bomb.”

    Your insistence that you are actually referring to an object would be an earth shattering revelation to me if it was not for the fact that you are committed the thesis of supplementing, using OOP language, ‘sensual objects’ with the movie equivalent of John Malkovich.

  48. I’m just dropping in to say that I’ve read Alex’s article as well as many of the comments here and elsewhere. It won’t surprise Alex or anyone else to hear that I take issue with a lot of what’s said in both, but I’m not going to say much more about that for the time being.

    I will say something Alex didn’t, namely, that he and I have been friends for many years, that I currently serve on a PhD committee for one of his students (Aaron Pedinotti, who briefly commented above), and that we often interact in both the domains of digital media and of theory. It often confuses me to see Alex’s aggressive personal attacks in the name of a certain kind of righteousness, but I like to think that I do an admirable job trying to understand and synthesize the complexities of individuals and groups, even if I fail at it sometimes too. As someone who was reared during the same theoretical era as Alex (and as many of you, I’m sure), I thought part of the aim of that project involved such an embrace of nuance and accuracy. I hope that many of you may choose to take Alex’s thoughts as an invitation to read our work again, or perhaps for the first time.

  49. Thanks for commenting, Ian.

    Alex, he has a point: I think it’s an understatement to say that you are “agressive” and “personal” in regards to Harman. Since you’ve never met him by your own admission, you do not have the evidential basis to claim that he’s holding a “liberal bourgeois position.”

    That said, I am skeptical of the political claims being made by OOO in general, but I also think that Levi has here reinforced that realization there are too many stark differences among OOO theorists. Apologies for tying you too closely to Harman, Levi. Do look at my response to Anthony, though, as valuation is new ground between us. How do you handle the is/ought distinction for instance? A blog post would be better than a comment.


  50. What you are all failing to realize is that Alex’s “aggressive personal attack” seems to have many accurate points and many of his ideas about how OOO-ers behave and treat others, unless I am mistaken, seems to be shared by more than a few. So “no,” it was not too aggressive because it was simply telling the truth. I am shocked that you are surprised by it considering that the critique is the same thing over and over and over again, whether made by Alex or others who have seen how OOO carries itself online. There is absolutely no excuse anymore for some of the behavior that is going on here. Here is Graham for example,

    ‘I’d never heard the “macho chest-thumping” critique before, and chuckled a bit about that, because none of us are like that in person, and so that will disappear with a bit more time. That’s an artifact of the medium. Political blogs are like that. Sports blogs are like that. In this medium you face sudden ridiculous sallies of the sort that didn’t exist in academic writing in the past, and often you want to punch back.’

    Well, that’s the going critique and pretending you haven’t heard about it before doesn’t mean that it’s not pretty darn serious. Second, philosophy isn’t like sports or rip-your-face-off political blogs, Graham. It is supposed to be careful and reasoned (not you taking digs and then running away, which happens way too much). It is certainly not about you insulting others or treating them as second rate, inferior, or not worth your time when you ignore them. Finally, “laughing it off” doesn’t really help, especially when you are in the business of treating philosophy as bloodsport and using the popularity of your blog to knock down others knowing they have no way to defend themselves.

    Why does Graham go so far as to say that this behavior is just “an artifact of the medium” and that he and the OOO-ers do not behave this way “in person.” That’s just a lazy argument, if not an excuse. It doesn’t have to be this way, so no, it is NOT an artifact of the medium. But you not being like this in person? That’s precisely the point. OOO has developed a reputation for being rude, intimidating, bullying, and paranoid self-serving JERKS who constantly put themselves over, constantly brag about each other, and constantly push others around. Now I’m sorry that’s my “aggressive” opinion but obviously it is shared. If Alex’s post wasn’t true, then why do I keep reading blog after blog complaining about the same thing? To be frank, I know of many graduate students (myself included) who Levi has intimidated and pushed around on his blog. And let me say that this sort of word travels, as he is essentially known as someone who “can’t get along with others” and that has come back to bite him in more ways than one. To top it off you all complain about those who are self-congratulatory or who promote themselves or who gloat about their own egos, but that is exactly what you do!

    I’m speaking anonymously here but also on behalf of those who are fed up with the OOO crowd. Alex was on point. Jussi Parka was on point. So many others who’ve interacted with you have merely called you out on what is now just blatantly evident to everyone: you are all behaving like jerks. So get please get a clue and stop it already. Enough is enough. Maybe you’ll calm yourselves down some and realize that you had better change your ways. Even though I’ve never met some of you, you have me so turned off from your online behavior that I just don’t want to meet you. Shape up your act gentlemen.

  51. I’m a bit late to the party on this one (which is weird considering the post is only a day old) – but sure, while Alex’s post could have been written with a little more generosity in mind – he makes some points that do need addressing.

    Unlike Alex however (or D Berry), I don’t think you can easily palm OOO off as some sort of insipid conflation between the flatness of ontology and the flatness of capitalism; this is always a sign that one is unprepared to actually engage appropriately with a theory – as they’re too quick to judge the political ramifications as ‘cold’. This isn’t really a valid form of argument – especially for a philosophical mode of enquiry which is relatively ‘young’. Thats just trying to (rather ironically) control subsequent debate, by suggesting that because a political theory isn’t worked out, and leaves you cold – discussion should cease. “Not really” an argument. No thinker has any adequate knowledge of future theory appropriation, irrespective of discussions on the ‘is/ought’ distinction.

    For what it’s worth – well, for me anyway – any political question concerning OOO is about sovereignty. Indeed, Alex’s (and Eugene’s) work has been instrumental in locating the difficult problems of sovereignty within networks. And Alex’s first book accurately theorises how protocol control exists concomitant to the rise of decentralisation. Indeed for Alex, sovereignty is problem in a network, if protocol is a precondition of communicative engagement.

    So if Alex’s criticism is correct, any discussion concerning system to system interface interaction is always-already political and tied to human social production. OK, but this doesn’t negate (let alone address) how one ontologically accounts for automated protocol interactions which operate without being reducible to thought. It leaves open the question of whether these interactions are reducible to thought, proprietary platform or to any kind of social production. If one could justify that this is possible, an OOO political critique could start from that.

    For a thinker who is so concerned with thinking the independence of sovereignty, it seems to me that Alex spends too much time measuring everything to a standard or system of thought rather than allowing surprises to emerge – which is surprising for someone who writes about software code so eloquently.

  52. Karen,

    When sports fans act like that, we get football hooligans. When politicians act like that, we get the current American political morass. When philosophers act like that, they remind everyone that the love of wisdom is not its achievement.

    We can argue points on their merits and not get personal. Besides, meritorious arguments are already heated enough. Calling someone on poor behavior does not require vitriol, though we all have our moments, we should not pile-on as is occurring here.

  53. Karen,

    I don’t know if we’ve interacted online or in person, but I’m sorry to hear about the experiences you’ve had, and I apologize for them. As Jason notes, we all do have our moments, and one of the downsides to the upside of the online spread of philosophy is the generally abysmal quality of conversations online in general. I think this is what Graham was trying to get at in the post that you quote, although I can see why you could read it as making excuses. We’re all trying to figure this out, and certainly that’s gone poorly in some ways and well in others. The things that go poorly are often more memorable.

    I realize you’re in a strange position as a graduate student, but perhaps it will come as a surprise to hear that we full professors often feel the same–set up, scorned, backed into corners, and so forth. For example, I’m a bit exhausted from generic and unspecified accusations like yours, which have become quite constant and often nasty. I’m human and err, but I’m also human and feel. I’ve tried my best to deal equitably with others online and off, and where I’ve gone wrong I’m happy to be reproached specifically. But I simply can’t accept the blanket comments you’re making, and I don’t think my actions or reputation bears them out. It’s situations like these that lead to unfortunate stakes-raising, and I think we’re all guilty of contributing to that particular positive feedback loop.

    In any case, I’ll admit a little confusion here, because I didn’t see Alex’s post as reproaching the modality of online conversation at all–if it does, it’s perhaps hoist on its own petard in that regard. Rather, I meant to refer to the very specific characterological claims Alex makes about Graham here, claims that seem incendiary for no reason and that don’t have much to do with his argument (no matter if I agree or disagree with it).

  54. i was never depending on Graham Harman to develop a political “answer”. why are you? we’ve already seen how OOO can be congruent with anarchism, etc… (maybe it needs to be spelled out to you in jargon for it to be legitimized?)… which could probably be more developed, but im not going to hold my breath waiting for the treatise.

  55. To echo Ian’s comments on the “tone” issue, an additional problem is the fact that tone — famously! — doesn’t come across automatically in online communications; you need to supply it by making an educated guess. The unfortunate corollary of that is that once you’ve decided someone is an asshole, it magically turns out that all their comments have this unmistakable assholish tone! (But this is technically off-topic…)

  56. Adam,

    One of your virtues is that you do not let your feelings live shadow-lives just in tone. They come out and play.

    Aside, I interpret a thinker in terms of what they intended to accomplish in their words, and thus I read (what I have) of Bogost very differently from Bryant or Harman. Much of what we accept or reject in a thinker is what we think they are going to say, and not just what they actually do, and here Adam’s reminder of preconceptions of assholery come into play.

  57. Julien Villeneuve is a philosopher in Montreal at Collège de Maisonneuve. He is better known as Anarchopanda. His participation in the student protests has been well documented. I for one no nothing of his ontology. So I’d like to turn the question being argued here around. Not who’s nice and who’s not, but: it seems that Alex has inferred a politics fron an ontology. I’m wondering whether it’s possible to infer an ontology from a politics. Or, put another way, is there really a necessary correlation between one and the other? Some people in the street (Marxists, say) consider themselves materialists. Others (Catholic Workers, say, or some Unitarians) do not, at least not in the same way … Can anyone guide me to some readings that can help me understand whether there’s a necessary connection between an ontology and a politics? Thanks.

  58. I’m likely butchering this, but I seem to recall Adam at some point describing post-modernism as something like “evaluating ideas on the basis of their consequences.” I found this illuminating, and I think the principle disagreement here maps fairly clearly on to whether or not one considers oneself a post-modern theorist, in this sense. Adam, please straighten me out if I’ve wrecked this. I couldn’t find your original use of this definition.

  59. While I don’t know enough about OOO to tell whether Alex’s general political criticisms are on target, I can’t really see where he is coming from with the whole ‘flat ontology’=the ontology of neo-liberalism argument. Explaining, when I read this post, I couldn’t help thinking that if we used “ontological flatness” as a criterion for political soundness/unsoundness we’d quickly get a very misleading picture of which contemporary intellectual movements have a claim to being politically progressive and which didn’t

    I mean, take Badiou’s ontology. I could be wrong about this, but isn’t there a case for arguing that the ontology of Being and Event is even “flatter” than Harman’s, insofar as he sees the virtue of axiomatic set theory as, among other things, that it is able to describe everything that exists via a single relation: (belonging) and the “doubling” of that relation (inclusion)? On my reading, Badiou thinks that one of the virtues of set theory (for ontology) is precisely it’s ‘flatness’, i.e. that it can dispense with any intuitive/phenomenological sense of what constitutes an entity or an object, thus allowing him to avoid not only any talk of substance/subjects/properties, but even any presupposition of an entity’s inherent ‘oneness’. The ‘unity’ of an entity, which, despite it potentially being composed of a multiplicity of things is is shown, retroactively to be an effect of the ‘count’ (and thus ultimately of the ordering principle of a situation.) From the perspective of set theory, then, stars, dogs, concepts and other Harman-like things can be conjoined in the same set, but more importantly so can nameless counter-intuitive(analytic philosophers would say ‘gruesome’) -MIXTURES- of food-dirt-quarks-language-shopping trolleys. What matters is the way situations are structured and not the properties or composition of entities which, by being rendered, indistinct are ‘flatter’ than in any theory of objects. this, then, allows Badiou to infer the possibility of ‘generic sets’, or principles of counting that break with those that normally govern a given situation. But, it would be totally wrong to infer from his original penchant for ontological flatness that Badiou, of all people, was some kind of neo-liberal apologists, who thought that Exxon and, say, a political organisation dedicated to treating sans papiers as citizens were of equal -worth-.

    Conversely, as readers of AUFS, surely know, ‘Radical Orthodoxy’, constantly preens itself on the non-flatness of its ontology: in fact its devotees continually mention that their non-flat ontology allows its proponents to heal all the wounds of a modern world in a single stroke. (c.f. Adam’s paper on the absurd pretensions of this), especially insofar as it gives an appropriate criterion to moral or political judgment apparently lacking in modern (cough!) ‘nihilisms’. But, again, as AUFS reader surely know RadOx has shown itself to be (especially after the whole Red Tory debacle) not much more than a (dubious) theological patina on the ugly and all-too-familiar neo-liberal/neo-con alliance: i.e. not anyone’s idea of radical, progressive politics.

    I suppose what I’m saying, if it’s not a ridiculous stretch, is that there’s something about the original post, that reminds me of what I think of as a generally dubious argument, namely, that ‘our ontology is inherently more politically valuable than those other people’s ontology.’ But can any ontology really claim on its own to be so…politically apposite as to be a necessary (let alone sufficient) condition for, say, a universalistic or egalitarian politics? Badiou would certainly deny this of his own ontology; that’s why he insists that politics is a condition for philosophy and not something which philosophy prescribes. And he’s surely right about this: after all I find it very hard to imagine that any progressive movement past or present, would have been constituted on the basis of having got its ontology right: as if everyone who participated in the October Revolution did so on the basis of not choosing capitalist ontology…

    Now, admittedly, none of this says anything about whether OOO (or any of its authors) can be charged with dubious political tendencies. I wouldn’t know. I read “Tool-Being” a few years ago, after hearing about it on the internet and found the first part of it amusingly heretical as a reading of Heidegger. Later, I read Harman’s ‘Heidegger Explained’, which I thought was an excellent primer. After that, I have never had any idea what the OOO people are talking about. Quadruple objects withdrawing in the manner of Being for Heidegger? What? I’ve never followed any of this stuff up as I’ve never really been interested enough to put in the time. (Also Harman’s blog has way too many updates for any mere human to follow…] Still, I do think that Alex must have a better argument than the one he’s put here. The story about Harman and Egypt also doesn’t seem to me to be all that damning. Sure, Harman hardly comes across as a revolutionary firebrand, but has anyone out there really claimed that he is one? If anything, I thought that the quote in the article could be read as a positive admission of the failure of a kind of realist (Latourian) pragmatism, i.e. that it’s about Harman realising (against his own instincts) that politics as Zizek said, is not the art of the possible, but of the impossible…




  60. I’ve never interacted online with Ian Bogost, but I would like to second Karen’s comment’s about Harman, Bryant and Morton– OOO, intellectual failures aside, would be given a lot less grief if these three didn’t act so disrespectful and immature online when dealing with people (I myself have been weirdly dissed in email exchanges w/ Harman– only to see him remarking on his blog about a “dogmatic Badiouan”). Its not just generic, vague accusations of the failings of Internet decorum. Also, once they find out you’re not an academic you are pretty much ignored or sneered at, as their careers cannot be helped by you.

    So Alex’s comments are very welcome from me, not just for their content regarding politics, but if they are somewhat polemical, well, the OOOers have brought it on themselves with their bizarre, sophomoric arrogance.

    It seems OOO’s fall has come at the hands of interpersonal subjective relationships between human beings– huh!

  61. Hey, Jason. So now it’s clear that I really don’t know your tradition well enough: back to the books. My “pragmatism”—which isn’t a studied one, and so I should give up the name—comes by way of Hubert Dreyfus’ Heidegger, my own and Deleuze’s Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Butler, and a bit of Stanley Fish, whom I admire and who drives me nuts. ‘Cause he’s such a curmudgeon. I often cite though, approvingly, a line he throws down in The Trouble with Principle: “… whenever someone says that we live in a Rhetorical world, someone will immediately say… this means ‘Anything goes.’ No, what it means is that anything that can be made to go goes…” And maybe this baby’s still a bastard, but if so, I’m happy to adopt and nurture it as my own. Things don’t go or work or are-able by themselves. That’s what I meant and I think what he means. No one and no thing simply has criteria by which to judge; criteria, “lights,” and/or darks; criteria are both weapons and stakes. They are strong or fragile and, fortunately, subject to revision, amendment, and erosion; they are made, are argued for and against, explicitly or implicitly, through struggle, seduction, or powerful inertia. That’s my training in rhetoric talking—soon-to-be-more object-oriented rhetoric, I hope—and what I understand from Latour’s “Irreductions.”

    But I do want to try out something here. You write, “Pragmatist ethics is an instrumental ethics, and a central problem is how to adjudicate judgments. This is a human problem and not a ‘rock problem,’ because rocks don’t judge. Moreover, moral responsibility acrues to agents, and rocks are not agents.” And further, “Rocks do not die of wounds of the heart.” I so want to say that your very sentence, a beautiful sentence, precisely posits, through negation, a new object, a mortal rock, an affective rock, a rock exposed to loss, melancholy, that could die of wounds to the heart—which Harman would allow to be a sensuous object, but not a real one. And wouldn’t it be of some importance to think of rocks as strange strangers a la Timothy Morton? What do we lose if we think of rocks as mortal? And ourselves as rocklike, made of things that will outlast us? Strange strangers to ourselves.

    But stepping away from that lyrical bit, when you say that a central problem for instrumental ethics is adjudication, do you pose this problem as one of description? I.e., does instrumental ethics ask, what does it look like when human agents make judgments? When they suffer them or avoid them and or use equipment, such as criteria, to make them? In The Prince and the Wolf Latour says apropos law, “I’m exactly as interested in looking at every little way in which people speak or sit at the table as I am in understanding the essence of law in its most Socratic definition.” The “as interested… as…” tells us that both are necessary: not a pure behaviorism, but then again, even the Socratic definition is something that humans and non-humans conspire to do together. Yes, I would lean towards treating judgment as more like one rock resting on another, which either breaks or scars or shelters lichen and insects. Are the latter judgments for you? If not, why not? If so, then isn’t there something to gain from treating judgments like travel: judgments require infrastructure. Problems of judgment then become more like engineering and urban planning and less like mere thinking and feeling. Or rather, thinking and feeling are enabled by infrastructure and black boxed processes, some operationally closed, others not.

    But as I reread your posts, I think you’ll agree with most of this but will find it misses the point. The point: all fine and good to discover the richer ecosystems within which events occur and strange strangers mingle and combine into larger wholes or break apart, etc., quite another to act, evaluate acts, and act again, all on the basis of this discovery. No doubt. And that’s certainly harder. But first, am I even right?

  62. John,

    I will respond briefly, because this gets off-topic.

    American philosophy is arguably the third largest tradition in the US after Anglo-American and Continental. American pragmatism is a sub-tradition of American it dates back to the 1860s with C.S. Peirce, and is notable as a competitor to Freudian psychoanalysis, a precursor to Whitehead, etc–I’m mentioning the less-known points. It was appropriated by analytic in a way similar to Dreyfus and Heidegger: good work, but external appropriation. Much of Americanist work is done by individuals in history, education, and political science departments, and thus the super-disciplinarity of philosophy veils much of it.

    Pragmatism in some forms is very close to Whitehead, and in Dewey pragmatism would say that feeling is primally constitutive of consciousness such that the rock feels us as much as we feel it. But the details move away from Whitehead fairly quickly and more towards human-centered rather than cosmological issues.

    As for the ethics, any pragmatist scholar knows the basics of how to defend against criticisms of instrumentalist ethics since we’ve had them for about a century, whereas the more recent Anglo-American appropriations are newer, and likewise I can lob decades worth of critiques at appropriators since they usually haven’t appropriated the solutions–especially since most appropriators are nominalists rather than robust realists.

    As for your other points about judgments, they’re closer to pragmatist notions than you realize, and much of what I’ve seen in recent years is a rehash and development from older ideas that are not well known. Human thought moves slowly, and I think novelty is over-rated.

    Please see my blog–clock on my name–as I won’t get any further off topic than this.

  63. Thanks for the link, Jason. I’ll leave off here too. I am a fan of the tiny bit of Peirce I’ve read and taught and which has made its way far beyond its orgins: “What is a Sign?” Tiny but lovely.

  64. Trevor Owen Jones,

    “Also, once they find out you’re not an academic you are pretty much ignored or sneered at, as their careers cannot be helped by you. ”

    Good thing about symbolic recognitions is that it shows other people you are not batshit crazy. If you have finite time divided between lots of hysterical people asking questions, you are not gona want to spend it on batshit crazy.

    Put up good content and let them come to you.

  65. Trevor and Will,

    I do not know where you’re coming form, but let me say this.

    Personally, I get annoyed when I discover that a case of what I thought was miscommunication or a cross-traditional discussion is really a discussion with someone who does not have a professional-level background and doesn’t know how to manage that well. There’s more than a piece of paper to professional training or just having read the same books. That said, it doesn’t excuse impolite behavior. Also, recall that any professor has dozens to over a hundred students who pay to have the interaction that an online discussant might want for free.

    Getting somewhat back on topic, OOO seems to attract many non-philosophers and that appears to be part of its appeal. Many of their books are written that way, for a general(ish) audience. Mine are not.

  66. Jason– I’m certainly not the only one who has encountered this nastiness from the OOO crowd. I understand people have limited time (although time to regularly blog on NBA news and cats? Ok…) but have not at all understood why questions or remarks, very carefully put together to sound as polite as discursively possible, still posit ad hominem responses. In the cases they *don’t know* you’re an academic, what if I was? How are they planning putting together conferences when they’ve alienated and pissed off an entire generation of associates and grad students? Despite the vulgarity of going on about “brand-naming” your philosophy (which is ridiculous and disgusting), there’s not a lot of very savvy political thought going on here at the level of OOO’s dissemination.

    Will– “Symbolic recognitions”? “Batshit crazy”? “Hysterical”?

    I assure you I don’t understand your comment in the least. You’ll either have to rephrase or retract it.

    I know academics have this really great reputation of reaching out to non-academics and really cultivating dialogue in a heterogenuous, resonating way* and I’m being super counterintuitive and controversial here. Let me tell you though, I have access to some pretty arcane research that reflects the situation is otherwise!

    *Galloway actually being an exemplary professor in his efforts to bring philosophy to lay audiences of artists, activists and non-academics– most importantly outside of blogs!

  67. I think this is why our OOO comrades might benefit from adopting something like our comment policy. I know that they tend to have some form of “introductory” links, and I think it’s probably reasonable for them to ask that everyone read those pieces before asking about what is, after all, a pretty new school of philosophy. They might even be justified in thinking that someone should search through the archives to see if a question has been asked before, rather than being expected to answer the same question over and over, for each individual commenter.

    In any case, I can certainly sympathize if they feel impatient being asked the same questions over and over. Again, everyone involved is a human being. Maybe if they were infinitely patient and kind, their philosophy would be better-received — but that’s an impossible demand to place on anyone.

  68. Trevor, I’m saying something very much like what Adam is saying.

    The only thing that I’m adding is the obvious point that seemingly “introductory” questions can sometimes be “probing” questions not attributable to complete ignorance, and they deserve an answer, but making this call has all the common pitfalls.

    I have a hypothesis about why Levi runs into so many theoretical problems. He appears to be a syncretist, a person who cobbles together theories, which means that he might not aware of all the common criticisms of those disparate theories from all of their respective scholars. Thus, it might seem to him that he’s getting hit from all sides, but that is likely to happen with that approach to scholarship. Personally, I prefer to master a tradition and branch out, which is slower, less sexy by far, but more rigorous. Harman appears to have moved more slowly, which is helping him. It’s a hypothesis.

  69. Trevor Owen Jones,
    consider it retracted.

    Jason Hills,

    Three things, symbolic recognitions are not handed out like confetti, access to university for said qualifications is not exactly equal, humanities are under attack and face pressure from information being made more available.

    I’ll call bullshit if I think I see an argument from authority – I think ontological arguments under discussion are disposed towards these kinds of arguments, I think academics in the humanities should assume a social/critical role, and should not be afraid to put a price on their work (which necessitates the control of the flow of their output which is increasingly being taken away from individual authors which makes it undesirable to enter academia)

    Blogging has both opportunities and threats to the aforementioned topics. I tend to think this ontological turn is symptomatic of the conditions of late capitalism and it is to this extent that I am interested in it.


  70. Will,

    Three things. 1) Just about everyone feels the right to call bullshit whether they know what they are talking about or not, and humanities scholars are a disproportionate target of it because they are not as “respectable” as the sciences in the eyes of many. 2) Academics cannot assume a “social/critical role” casually without endangering their role as educators, and thus no universal statements to that effect should be made. 3) There is no ontological turn; it’s always been with us. OOO is not special in this regard.

    This is quite off-topic.

  71. @Ian Bogost

    Ian, you are likely an exception to the rule. Read this and weep:


    Not only is the author of the post under discussion called an “idiot” (who apparently doesn’t know the difference between words) but it is also done as if without anyone particular in mind, i.e. in a cowardly manner. Please tell me that this is totally acceptable and non-aggressive. It is assholish behaviour such as this that breeds all the “hate” of OOO. That and its utter philosophical inadequacy, of course.

  72. Baklazh,

    I will grant you this much; he should come out and identify his target, which looks like Alex or someone in this thread. That said, is he wrong? I’m not a sufficient judge of the matter, but prima facie it seems that Harman is right. Regardless, if I were addressed as Alex did Harman, I wouldn’t be too polite either.

  73. JH,

    As you say this is probably off topic so I will be brief as I can and leave it at that.

    1)I think part of the appeal of OOO arises from an inferiority complex of the humanities. That and its stellar analytical rigour. 2) Substitute ‘I think’ with ‘I desire’, luckily I do not have to juggle multiple roles and so I will concede your point. 3) We will have to agree to disagree, though I remain open to possibility that I may have been in my Derrida bubble for so long – what seems new to me might not be so to others.



  74. Baklazh, I can see where you’re coming from with Graham’s latest post — it certainly doesn’t exude temperance and it does come across as something of a missive. ‘Idiotic’ is rather an undiplomatic choice of words but then again he didn’t call anyone in particular AN idiot, he called the particular idea under consideration ‘idiotic.’ Hence this was not strictly an ad hominem attack — it was an attack on an idea. Contrast this with Alex’s original post which was extremely personal and almost completely ad hominem…

    It’s worth bearing in mind that pretty much exactly the same critique that Alex constructs above has been leveled at these guys again and again over the past few years. Therefore, they’re not necessarily responding to anyone in particular when they say things like this. It’s the idea in abstraction, not any particular enunciation of it. It might be new for some readers but for them it’s a zombie meme that just keeps coming back again and again — hence the frustration and the terse responses.

    It’s unfortunate that that blogging lends itself so much to this kind of brusqueness. The ‘filters’ that normally crop up automatically in conversation by being in the same room as someone, looking someone in the eye — basic civility — often fail to arise when simply sat at a computer facing a bunch of words. That said, this isn’t really an excuse. We shouldn’t just say ‘boys will be boys’. Bad behaviour is bad behaviour.

    But then it’s not always easy to judge beforehand where the line is between being pointed and being rude. I hope that my own choice of words from my post above — principally ‘maelstrom of nonsense’ — weren’t taken personally by anyone but frankly I stand by the sentiment as nothing anyone has said has changed my mind. We all owe it to each other to be civil but not to the point where we cease to be honest.

    And, in the spirit of honesty:

    While I find a great deal wrong with OOO/OOP, etc., the above arguments are badly constructed. They stem from a refusal to examine the relationship between ontology and politics, taking the two to be fused, axiomatically, and assuming that anyone who says otherwise must be some reactionary, rationalist, ‘liberal bourgeois’ fossil.

    The whole original post stems from making graspingly inferred assumptions about Mr Harman’s personal political convictions, or lack thereof. Harman apparently had a ‘better the devil you know’ attitude towards Mubarak before the revolution. That is his sin. Fine. And we are to infer an entire worldview from this kernel. Very well.

    However, a lot of the conclusions drawn from this just don’t make much sense to me. For instance: “if everyone in Cairo were clones of Harman, the revolution would never have happened.” What this fails to mention is that Graham is not Egyptian! He’s a foreigner! He lives there but frankly Egyptian democracy is none of his business. He’s not a part of it and from what I recall Egyptians weren’t that keen on outside influence during the revolution. If he spent all his time spouting off about what Egyptians should or should not be doing I’m quite sure that the critique would be turned around by 180 degrees and he’d be accused of being an imperialist, forcing his ideas upon others!

    In other words, while the hypothetical is undoubtedly true it’s equally unfair and beside the point. For me, as a student of international relations, this critique (so typical of political theory) ignores the fact that we live in a world of political multiplicity. We’re not embedded in a continuous, unbroken fabric of political solidarity and praxis. For better or worse, our actual political agency is relative to our membership of political collectives to which we are not necessarily geographically local. Judging a person for non-participation in a process that has no real place for them seems harsh.

    Moreover, Graham’s pre-revolution attitude (‘better the devil you know’) was shared by vast numbers of Egyptians — including Egyptians who eventually participated in the revolution. So, sure, if absolutely everyone held that attitude nothing could have happened but, evidently, the prevalence of such an attitude is not necessarily an impassable barrier to revolution. Are we to label everyone outside the vanguard apolitical, bourgeois apologists? I’d advise against it.

    That said, while Alex is probably reading a little too much into this one interview I think ‘liberal bourgeois’ probably does sum up Graham’s attitude, at least judging from what he’s published. He might not disagree. But, you know, so what? What difference does it make? Does that do anything whatsoever to discredit his philosophy? Not necessarily.

    What Alex needs to specify is why political predilections are of primary importance in assessing the validity or verity of an ontological argument. That they are primary is simply assumed. There is no substance to this assumption at all. THAT is the crux of the philosophical disagreement, quite apart from the sturm und drang of personal slights, perceived and misperceived.

    “Harman’s self-stated goal is to remove politics from ontology, creating a new kind of pure ontology in which, as he says in the interview, philosophy should not be the handmaid of anything else.”

    Does Alex mean to suggest that philosophy SHOULD be the handmaiden of politics? If so I’d genuinely love to read the reasoning behind that. I completely disagree but I’d like to read an actual argument specifically in favour of this position. I’ve heard it said many, many times but never heard anyone actually say WHY. Why is politics the master signifier? Why is politics the trump card?

    If only someone would make this case rather than alternating between being rude to other people and complaining when they’re rude back — then we’d be getting somewhere.

    As I’ve mentioned a few times, the critique Alex levels only makes sense if politics and ontology are fused — if ontology is and must be determined by political considerations. If they’re not fused then political reasons cannot in and of themselves sunder ontological claims. And if they’re not fused then conflating political personhood and ontological object-hood is just a basic category error.

    In my previous comment above I went through a few ways in which politics and ontology can be separated without pretending to create some impenetrable firewall between the two. I won’t repeat myself too much but it suffices to say that the ‘purity’ of ontology is a complex question, not one to be hastily judged one way or the other without consideration.

    Friends, some consideration, please!

    Let’s both be a bit nicer to each other and not take others’ criticism of our ideas so personally.

  75. Long time black sheep of the OOO family here.

    My interactions with these folks have been “far from productive” as well (which is the reason why I am partially off the reservation). So I can sympathize with the majority of complaints being made by Trevor, Baklazh, Philip, Will, etc. etc.

    Harman took a pot shot at me for simply voicing a common criticism, in a very small comments section no less, that the novelty of OOO runs dry because at certain points it seems to approach a re-formed Leibnizianism. (Although, also, Graham seemed fine until, as I am aware, he didn’t hesitate to say some not so nice things about me behind my back because I defended myself against his own friends’ “harsh” words about me.) Levi can’t interact with me because of my theism (and the fact that I read Whitehead with God ontologically intact; now that’s certainly honoring the open “come one come all” spirit of the blogging medium which we prize so highly). Morton seemed fine (unless, if he thinks poorly of me he’s never said it to me personally) and I never interacted with Bogost, who also seems fine (who, if reading this, why not collaborate or add my blog to your aggregator? Why not get in touch?) So, all in all, nothing has ever been said *to* me but always *about* me.

    I have never hesitated to communicate to anyone directly and would *gladly* do so in person. Those who know me know that without doubt. I can’t say the same for others, that such online behavior would mirror what they would say (I should say “how” they would say things) face to face. I think we all know that.

    I’ve done alot of good work in SR/OOO and there seems to be a mutual willed ignorance between me and these folks. I’ve appeared on the radio, given talks all over the world, am preparing to put in an outline for an SR entry on the Stanford website, am preparing my third book (on Meillassoux, among others including Peirce, Deleuze, and Whitehead), and have articles appearing on my own brand of influenced-SR which I call “speculative naturalism.” Yet, despite all of that, between me and the OOO camp it’s probably the *perfect* unproductive relationship due to misperceptions developed online. Nevertheless, I continue on and just do my own thing.

    I must note how Meillassoux and Brassier do not blog yet their popularity wildly exceeds any OOO’er. Whether blogs and a brusque online presence helps or hurts? Brassier has been wonderful in our few email exchanges, Meillassoux seemed very polite in person. They are top on the list because their inviting personalities helps; being a decent human being and an inviting scholar, instead of an asshole, only “helps the cause” – whatever it may be.

    Finally, it seems that some current pining in SR/OOO is to “put the band back together” (the original four). Yet, again, I really think that some of the personalities involved will forever prevent that.

    Part of me wants to say, rise above the hate and help each other, be productive and engage rather than ignore. The other part wants to say, haters are gonna hate so just ignore them. Part of me wants to just grow a thicker skin and just dialogue ignoring the intemperance, the other part wants to punch back. These days I’ll turn an eye every now and then but mainly continue to focus on my own work without taking things too personally or worrying about what others are saying out there.

    Trevor, I am especially saddened to hear your story. Not cool. Keep focused and just do your own thing. And somewhere above you mentioned that a lack of basic human decency may kill the whole deal. This might be true. I am seeing backlash against OOO from some of the new feminist materialists, some in circles of theology and politics, and so on. Mainly because of that macho “chest thumping.” But give them enough rope to hang themselves. I agree that saying, “Oh, but we’re not like this in person” cuts it, or saying “boys will be boys” cuts it. But I am also inclined wait to see what happens next.

    That’s my two cents, and no more from me. Now this old cranky dragon retires back to his cave.

    Leon/after nature

  76. Post scriptum for typo. “I just don’t agree that saying, ‘Oh, but we’re not like this in person’ cuts it, or saying ‘boys will be boys’ cuts it.'”

    That’s my two cents. Now this old cranky dragon is *really* retiring back to his cave.

    Leon/after nature

  77. Philosophy is a way of life which includes amongst other things a passion for concepts and arguments. All the rest is just a Game of Thrones. A philosophy professor can be a philosopher in this sense, but needn’t be. It was free to go to Deleuze’s and Lyotard’s and Foucault’s seminars, and if you had the nerve to ask a question you got an answer usually a very good one. So the argument that a professor from a big bucks university should not be expected to respond when he publishes a blog a gives his opinion on anything and everything is a little strange. Philosophy is not about opinions, but is one of the ways of individuating ourselves in a world vaster and more creative than the world of opinion. If Trevor Owen Jones individuates by means of philosophy without being a card-carrying philosophy professor this all the more to his credit, as life is short and material and affective means are scarce. If a philosophy professor shows he is more interested in the academic Game of Thrones than in pursuing the argument wherever it can lead us, that his is shame. Money is no argument. Nor is “superior” scholarship. I have known many professors with superior scholarship that was dry as dust and dead as zombies, little pawns put in place while better people were discouraged into fleeing into other fields. The sad thing is that on the internet you do not find a utopia, but the same castes and classes and cliques, the same social stratifications as in the rest of the world. Many are glad to re

  78. Many are glad to read and cite Bourdieu, or some other sociologist, without applying it to themselves and their milieu. The personal has lots of social in it, and “social” means power relations. So no Trevor you are not paranoid nor are you intellectually mediocre and insignificant if you are not a philosophy professor. As Leon says keep at it because individuation trumps the Game of Thrones any day, for lots of people. I hope you find them (or more of them)!

  79. As a graduate student, I made the mistake of incurring the ire of one of my professors, a prominent OOO philosopher, by posting a critical review of another OOO’er’s book under an online persona. He responded using my real name on his blog, including my institution, and (over the course of multiple blog posts) condemned me and my argument in very personal, ad hominem terms. I’ve known other graduate students who have been named and shamed by OOO’ers, with no regard to the unequal class positions involved.

    This seems intrinsic to OOO’s politics: it positions itself as embattled within the academy, and so it lashes out as other scholars.

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