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.]