Object Oriented Phiasco
The quickly burgeoning philosophy blogosphere has made it possible for philosophers to have more low-stakes discussions and debates not only about their work, but about the field. In my view, this has largely been a good thing. I live in small town in Indiana. Up until about fifteen months ago, I lived in deep south Texas. Sometimes the philosophy world feels far away. I’m glad to be able to see what other people are thinking about and to engage, sometimes just as a voyeur, in these discussions and debates. I’m also invested in digital humanities and the idea that we can lower the barriers that prevent non-academics from participating in these engagements.
But like any tool, the blogosphere is double-edged, as likely to be destructive as constructive. The latest blogosphere debate over Object-Oriented Philosophy (OOP), also called Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO), has reminded me of how the philosophy blogosphere and certain parts of the field can be. This is not to say that this incident shows how certain groups of philosophers really like to debate and argue and women or minorities aren’t up to that — Leigh Johnson articulates the essentialism, and the raced essentialism at that, of such a position. What I am most concerned with is the way that philosophers (and probably others, I just know chiefly about philosophers) latch on to the latest ‘cool’ area of work and then defend it as the coolest and best and truest and then on top of that start policing the borders of who gets it and who doesn’t, who is allowed in and who is not, all for the seeming purpose of elevating their own status in the field. I don’t know the people engaged in the current round of blogottacks, but I do know something of the drive to read the most obscure, edgy, not-yet-read philosopher / philosophy and then argue that this work is the work that is the most important and will bring everything else to an end. Similarly suspect are the claims that everyone else is a scribe (just commenting on the work of others) and only a select few are actually ‘doing philosophy’. These are the things no one says in print, but they do say it, and the vibe is clearly communicated in graduate programs and conference bar scenes. Beyond the trendiness of such philosophical pursuits that make those who want to be ‘in’ forever behind, this approach serves the neoliberal drive of demanding that one become a better subject. This current situation is exemplary of how a philosophical position becomes a brand that becomes defended, regardless of whether it is legitimate, for the sake of defending and protecting the status of its practitioners.
So, to the current blow-up. Pete Wolfendale, recent Ph.D. from the University of Warwick, wrote a soon-to-be-released book, Object-Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon’s New Clothes, that develops his essay of the same name as the subtitle, which begins, “A spectre is haunting continental philosophy–the specter of Object-Oriented Ontology.” Ray Brassier wrote an Afterward. Jon Cogburn wrote a review of the preface which Wolfendale finds “profoundly patronising,” based as it is on assumptions about Wolfendale’s psychological and personal motivations for writing the book. To wit, Cogburn thinks there must be something motivating a 400-page treatise and Wolfendale does offer some of the personal motivations in the preface (first, Harman never responded to a blogpost-cum-article that he said he would respond to and second, OOO’s blogosphere popularity seemed to cry out for a closer examination). Wolfendale’s response to Cogburn, linked above, is a careful five-point analysis and critique of Cogburn’s critique, which given that Cogburn has just said that polemics in philosophy never succeed, I found quite successful as a criticism of Cogburn and as an account of why Wolfendale wrote the book. OOO is a subset of Speculative Realism (SR), a term that, as far as I can tell, was first used as a title of the Goldsmiths workshop, which was organized by Ray Brassier and included four philosophers–Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux (link to audio recording of his lecture), Iain Hamilton Grant and Graham Harman. Graham Harman discusses the history and the state of Speculative Realism in Speculations in 2013.
Cogburn’s post brought my attention to Brassier’s claim that speculative realism’s promise has been compromised by its practioners’ efforts to make it acceptable to continental philosophers, “an audience that equates representation with repression, objectivity with oppression, and naturalism with scientism (421).” I’m a continental philosopher, sometimes in a territorial, you-attack-my-people-you-attack-me sort of way, but I don’t think Brassier is that far off the mark here. While Cogburn criticizes Brassier for being “constitutively unable to accept that his opponents might have actual arguments for” these views, particularly how naturalism leads to scientism, I take Brassier to be arguing that OOOers have weakened their initial strong claims because they are talking to an audience, continental philosophers, who take these views as background assumptions, third rails, so to speak, that are not touched and are taken as the starting points. I read Meillassoux’s After Finitude several years ago with some continental colleagues, and if Meillassoux is representative of the speculative realists, I can see what Brassier means: Meillassoux’s argument challenges some of the fundamental touchstones of continental philosophy, most importantly correlationism. Whether you accept Meillassoux’s argument or not, his analysis of the implications of correlationism are not easily dismissed. If Harman is trying to soften the kinds of critiques of correlationism that Meillassoux makes in After Finitude (I’ve never read any Harman, so I don’t know if this is the case), I can see why that might need to be done for continental philosophers to get on board. I can also see how that would suggest the tail is wagging the dog–the philosophical claims are being made to appeal to a wider audience. That is what Brassier and Wolfendale seemed concerned with if a reading of Wolfendale’s article in Speculations (linked above and wherein Wolfendale writes, “Far from being a truly “weird” realism, OOP is no more than the eccentric uncle of the correlationist family,”) is any evidence.
In Wolfendale’s response to Cogburn, he writes that he asked Cogburn to review his book. I’m not sure why Cogburn responds with a review of just the preface and the afterward, since it seems that he will have a longer review forthcoming, and I am left wondering why not just wait to review the book. There is a long comment from Wolfendale’s editor, Robin McKay at Cogburn’s post (Monday, October 13, 2014, 5:55 AM), which I recommend. Supporting my concern that what we have is a circling of the wagons, “Mark” offers an extensive comment on Sunday, October 12, 10:01 AM that includes this paragraph:
To be quite frank, it seems to me that you have way too much emotional investment in all of this to write a review of the book, as you are completely lacking in neutrality with regard to the positions and personalities involved. What is most clear is that you intensely dislike Brassier (for some things he has said in interviews?) and have taken sides with Harman against him on matters both intellectual and extra-intellectual (thus, according to you, Brassier is the Leiteresque internet bully, not Harman: let me tell you that I know dozens of people who would find this, in your words, “transparently absurd”).
Graham Harman, from all accounts the chief target of Wolfendale’s 400-page critique of object-oriented ontology, piles on in a self-praising post on his blog, which he calls, “Notes from a Naked Emperor” (Wolfendale’s subtitle is The Noumenon’s New Clothes, not Graham Harman’s New Clothes). Harman makes a whole lot of hay out of the comment by “JLC” on Cogburn’s blog that Harman is widely read outside of philosophy circles. JLC says this to explain why Wolfendale might think it worth writing a four-hundred-page critique in light of Cogburn’s criticism of doing just that. JLC explains that because Harman is so widely read outside of philosophy, Wolfendale might think it important to show why the position is problematic or untenable, i.e., why it shouldn’t be so widely read. Harman pulls this sentence out and repeats it four, yes FOUR times in his initial post. After going on about how this book just comes out of a petty feud that Harman had with Brassier and Brassier’s jealousy of Harman because Harman publishes like mad and Brassier just gives interviews mad, making Wolfendale a proxy for Brassier, Harman writes:
What we are seeing from Brassier and his circle are signs of panic, as OOO becomes the almost exclusive topic of discussion whenever Speculative Realism is mentioned.
Harman thereby accuses his detractors of holding their positions not because they take philosophical issue with them but because they will lose popularity or they have lost popularity due to them. The next post from Harman quotes an email from a fan and then distinguishes between dogmatists and the open-minded, saying that dogmatists “have a hard time simply disagreeing with an argument or an idea…They think that any argument they happen to disagree with is not really an argument.” That dismissal doesn’t sound far off from Cogburn’s. Harman discusses all the books that he has written in contrast to Brassier’s angry interviews. He doesn’t explicitly link to it, but it’s this 2011 interview where Brassier talks about speculative realism spawning an “online orgy of stupidity,” a line that was gleefully picked up by Leiter, which Cogburn mentions in the comment section of his post as a warning (October 12, 2014, 6:26 PM).
Elsewhere on Harman’s blog he links to an interview with Rosi Braidotti which he says he will respond to. In this interview, Braidotti calls the OOO/OOPers and speculative realists in general on the carpet for failing to recognize the previous work done in this area by feminist thinkers in the 1970s, New Materialists and Deleuzians.
There are two or three things that I don’t fully get about the speculative realists. First of all, the treatment of objects as self-organizing entities is not in itself new. Media and science fiction scholars – like Jussi Parikka now, or Donna Haraway before him – have been theorizing objects along these lines for years. Similarly, the emphasis on matter, and the continuity between matter and mind, and between human bodies and the world in which they live, is not new either. It has always been at the core of Spinozist, Deleuzian and materialist feminist studies, including those of Simone de Beauvoir, Haraway and my own. I am surprised, sometimes even shocked, that their discussions and bibliographies make little mention of these debates. How can you wipe out the whole of Deleuzian studies in one footnote? ‘The Deleuzian quest, even process ontology really, is correlationist.’ Excuse me? What are you saying? Is that all Deleuze deserves? My political culture – feminism – never existed! Bryant makes these throwaway comments: ‘Oh yeah, 1970s feminism.’ Their mums, right? 1970s feminism: What is that? It’s a planet, it’s a galaxy. It includes De Beauvoir, Irigaray and Deleuzian studies. The disrespect, the competitiveness: that’s bad scholarship. This really needs to be said because it makes the conversation extremely difficult. I’ve read the stuff; I do my duty. I doubt they have ever read anything I wrote but, if they have, it doesn’t show. I can only describe this in terms of a political economy of negative affects.
I want to draw attention to a number of points. For one, it’s almost exclusively men posting and commenting. For another, as Braidotti points out women’s contributions have been effectively erased from the conversation. For yet another, doing philosophy, as the blogosphere shows, is communal. Deciding what to work on and think about is a decision about who to associate with. That’s not an ad hominem, it’s a description of the workings of disciplinary philosophy, so it seems worth asking how our blogging forms our community. I haven’t been blogging that long, and I know that Cogburn was associated with NewAPPS for a long time and that the folks over there did a lot to think through how to develop a welcoming blogging community (I also know that Cogburn left after the feedback he received from posting “In Defense of Ableism“). On top of that, I agree with Leigh Johnson and Ed Kazarian who have argued that calls for civility are calls, often, for dissenters to shut up, though the situation here seems to show that the problem is that those who are being treated uncivilly are those with less power (Wolfendale not Harman). This whole exchange looks to me like a negative example of how blogging should form community, which is to say, it looks exactly the same way that the the cool kids table / panel looks at numerous philosophy conferences: trying to be associated with the most important person in the room, staking out and defending philosophical positions because of the clout it gives rather than the worthiness of the position, making others look bad so that you look better.