Marginalia on Radical Thinking: An Interview with Graham Harman

Graham Harman is a professor of philosophy at the American University in Cairo, one of the prime-movers of Object-Oriented philosophy and Speculative Realism as development in post-Continental philosophy, as well as an excellent writer on Latour and  Heidegger as well as H.P. Lovecraft.  He blogs at Object-Oriented Philosophy.  Between his recent travels and his following the Egyptian election, he took the time to answer these questions for me which range from his philosophy to what he sees as a real failure of imagination of the left. 

Skepoet: I am interested in your idea that I heard best expressed in the keynote speech you gave at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin (on February 2, 2012) that the idea of “connection” was “once but no longer liberating.” What interested me in this is its emergence in a time of both network theory and a resurgence of interest in Hegel. While your keynote speech pretty clearly articulates your view on the way networking has become ossified, I want to ask why this knowledge of relations and connection was once liberating.

Graham Harman: There were numerous problems with the traditional conception of individual substance, and no doubt the turn to relations had a great liberating force for that reason.

According to the reductionist view, only the ultimate tiny components of the world have reality, and there is something purely accidental about any combinations of them. Consider Leibniz, for whom (despite his notion of monads as reflecting each other like mirrors) there is an absolute difference between “substance” and “aggregate.” For Leibniz a person is a substance, but a circle of people holding hands is not. A diamond is a substance, but two diamonds glued together is not. A tree is a substance, but the Dutch East India Company is not. The mistake here is to think that if something is built of pieces, then it does not deserve to be called an autonomous real thing. The reason this is wrong is because things are not entirely dependent on their pieces. You can replace or remove a few ships of the Dutch East India Company without changing the nature of the company. Obviously, there are certain boundaries of change that cannot be crossed, and it may be difficult to know where to draw the line. If the Dutch East India Company still existed today but used only air transport, and had abandoned business to become a human rights watchdog, would it still really be the same company? But there is equally little reason to hold the opposite view, so that when one hair falls from the head of a single sailor, the company is no longer the same.

A related view considers only natural things as real, so that anything constructed by human artifice is deprived of anything more than accidental status. Or perhaps durability is used as an implicit criterion of the real, so that events such as the 1969 moon landing or snapping one’s fingers are excluded from the ranks of real entities. Sociology and geography become less real than particle physics insofar as everything is supposed to be “grounded” in that more ultimate discipline.

On all these points, the relational view has a strong hand to play against traditional substance. The coalescence of tiny things into a larger one, or the specific local effects an object might have at a fleeting moment, also deserve to be bona fide topics of philosophy— not just empty surface effects waiting in a prison cell for scientistic elimination. There is also the fact that many philosophies of substance tended to assign permanent essences to things, and this had dubious political consequences. If you speak of “the Arab mind” or “the feminine essence” as if these were eternal and knowable constants unchanged across the centuries, rather than as historically produced phenomena, then there are obvious problems. Relationality was supposed to free us from this bad sense of essence. Philosophy shifted from a fascination with the deep, the real, and the substantial to a preoccupation with performances, events, and surfaces that hide no “true” reality underneath. The rights of history were reclaimed, and objects were made to enter into the fray of the world. All of this was liberating indeed.

But it is seldom remembered that every revolution has a limited shelf life. There comes a point when each revolution transforms into the next stale orthodoxy, an empty litany of banal slogans fighting yesterday’s wars. And I’m afraid we have now reached that point with relationality. Now that relations and events have become king in continental philosophy, these battles have largely been won. Rather than endlessly using these theories to beat up the decreasing number of reactionary holdouts, we ought to take a closer look at the problems with relationality itself.

First, there is a simple metaphysical problem: if everything were defined by its relations, then nothing could ever change. Aristotle already showed this in the Metaphysics when speaking against his rivals the Megarians. If I am defined as the person who is sitting on this green stool in Room 208 of the Hotel Braavo in Tallinn, Estonia, and wearing this particular blue shirt at 5:30 PM on June 1, 2012, if there were nothing left in reserve in me beyond my deployment in this specific situation, and if the same were equally true of everything else (as a fully relational ontology requires) then everything would be frozen in its current state. The reality of everything in the universe would be adequately and exhaustively deployed in its situation in this very instant. You can’t get out of the bind by simply positing some sort of magical élan or conatus that would provide a principle of change, because this would merely amount to saying “the world changes by means of a changing faculty”— no better than the famous vis dormitiva of Molière’s comedy Le Malade imaginaire, in which a sleeping pill is said to cause sleep by means of a faculty for causing sleep. For change to be possible, there must be a reservoir of reality not exhausted in the current relational state of a thing. There is also the further point that everything is not related to everything else. Some things and people interact and some do not, even when in the closest physical proximity. This proves that holism is not true. But if everything is not related to everything else, then there is already a buffering principle that isolates things from each other. Any philosophy needs to account for such buffering.

Next, it is especially surprising when the political Left embraces relational ontology (I am astonished that Peter Hallward defends such an ontology), because nothing is more politically reactionary than the idea that we are all exhaustively the products of our context. If I am nothing more than the logical outcome of neo-liberal, late capitalist America, then in the name of what am I supposed to rebel against it? I should instead be profoundly grateful to this system that produced me, since under a different system I would simply vanish and be replaced by a different entity defined by its different relational context. Political transformation is not supposed to be a form of suicide, but a form of liberation. And there can only be calls for liberation if there is something to be liberated— something that does not deserve to be stifled and oppressed by its currently mediocre or horrible conditions.

The problem with the old theory of objects outside of relations is not that they were outside relations, but that one also thought they could know what these things were, and then use that knowledge as political or epistemological leverage. For example, despite the possible objections of Edward Said, there probably is a real thing approximating what we call “the Arab world,” a real cultural structure that channels the individuals who inhabit it in specific directions without their conscious choice. Or “the American mindset.” Or “the age of Romanticism.” Not all such claims will be accurate, of course. If someone speaks of “Des Moines grunge rock” as if it were a genuine musical style, then this is probably just a ludicrous marketing gimmick. In principle, it might be nothing more than a similar gimmick to speak of things like “Southeast Asian culture” or “the female approach to love.” Maybe so.

Nonetheless, if things are not purely relational, then it  also follows that things have essences. I am not the same person as you are. My individual qualities do not erupt into the world for the first time only once they have an effect on something else. I thrived in Egypt, while other expatriates gained nothing from being there; presumably there are things about me that Egypt successfully addressed, while those same traits were absent from the others. Matisse became an artist by accident at around age 21, and van Gogh even later in life. Yet it would not be nonsensical to claim that both of them had artistic gifts preceding those biographical dates, at least for a little while in advance. There is also a reason why it was Matisse and van Gogh rather than any other two people selected from their generation at random. This points to an essence, a reality in the two artists that is not exhaustively deployed in their total artistic catalogs or in their public “performativity,” no matter how unpopular essence has become in philosophy.

There are really just two problems with essence, and it is frankly not that difficult to remove them from your metaphysics while keeping the term “essence.”

1. The idea that the essence can be known. In other words, there is no political problem when we simply speak of “the Arab world.” The political problem comes from thinking that a certain elite group of Orientalist scholars from Oxford and Cambridge can identify the features of that Arab world, and use those features to proclaim that it is essentially Arab to be undemocratic, sensually corruptible, fanatical, retrograde, disorganized, and so forth. This would be an attempt to identify the essence of the Arabs with certain tangibly determinable traits, most of them negative. But in a philosophy like mine, the essence of the Arabs is no more knowable than the essence of van Gogh, a cat, a table, or a neutron. Orientalism results not from calling the Arabs dark and mysterious, but quite the opposite— it comes from explicitly identifying them as undemocratic, sensually corruptible, fanatical, retrograde, and disorganized. The minute you realize that everything is withdrawn from immediate access and can only be known obliquely, an automatic dose of caution and humility is injected into your knowledge.

2. The related idea that the essence is eternal is also a problem. Consider the Scandinavian people, who once produced an endless supply of ferocious Vikings, but are now often viewed as the “peaceniks” of Europe, champions of human rights and social and gender equality. Obviously, one must analyze the history here. If you were simply to say “the Scandinavians are such a civilized people,” this would be no more and no less true than saying “the Scandinavians are brutal marauders with no respect for the sanctity of monasteries.” We must recognize that Scandinavia will follow a different future path from Japan, Kenya, or Lebanon, because these places all have different cultures and histories and different aspirations. But this essence of a culture, like the essence of a person, eagle, army, or coffee mug, is not so easily pieced together from a list of explicitly proclaimed properties that one knowingly ascribes to them.

Stated more technically: metaphysical essentialism is politically harmless, but epistemological essentialism is not.

There is a certain hollowness to the relational standpoint that is not difficult to hear once you tap on it solidly. It has become both metaphysically and politically harmful, and the pendulum is about to swing in the other direction.

People speak of “fashions” in philosophy only in the negative sense, in order to dismiss shallow opponents who always latch onto whatever is trendy. But there is a deeper sense of fashion in philosophy that demands our attention. The world is a mysterious place, and it is not made of propositions. It follows from this that a proposition that is fresh and liberating in 1965 can become the most banal academicism by 2005, if not sooner.

For this reason, it is really quite important to be a trend watcher in philosophy, because trends give us a good sense of where the current boundary lies between fresh statements and platitudes. There is nothing superficial about, say, cheering Deleuze and Badiou in one decade and denouncing them in the next. Philosophy is historical because any statement can turn into a platitude once the surrounding conditions have changed, and philosophy is more about outflanking platitudes than about making eternally true propositions. I don’t believe we are capable of the latter— not because there is no reality, but because reality is not made of statements, and hence every statement is doomed to become an empty platitude someday.

And incidentally, this has nothing to do with being a contrarian. Contrarians simply reverse whatever the mainstream is saying, and therefore are merely parasites on the mainstream. Yet real innovators cannot just reverse the mainstream, but have to dig a new stream where no one was expecting it. It takes a great deal of vision to do this, because it is all too easy to fall into the pre-existent trench wars of the time and place into which we are born.

S:  Similarly, I became aware of your work because of my rejection of the idea of nature as an undifferentiated (thus not understandable) totality that could only be comprehensible by positing a schism that removes humans from the totality falsely. This while coming from a Hegelian background, and not so much a Heideggerian one like yours, but this is effectively the similar problem of the false implications one can draw from misunderstanding the relations between objects/subjects as a relations between independent realities and not something completely formulated by the structure. Why do you think this Gaia hypothesis/Romantic view of nature is so easily matched with the Newtonian/machine view in a way that viewing what we call nature as a relationship between subject/objects or an ecology of those relation may not be so amendable?

G.H.:  I regard Bruno Latour’s views on this topic as definitive. We Have Never Been Modern (1991) is the best account of modernity I’ve seen, and I am often stunned at how little headway it has made among philosophers, as opposed to Latour’s more devoted clientele: anthropologists, geographers, sociologists.

For Latour, the modern world is based on a false dualism between nature and culture, and an equally false effort to purify the two from one another’s residues—all of this accompanied by a hypocritical multiplication of nature-culture hybrids at the very moment of denouncing them. The mission of We Have Never Been Modern is to expose the trickery of these dualisms, and Latour succeeded in that mission flawlessly, though he was only 43 years old at the time, quite young for a philosopher. I cannot stop admiring that book.

Just as the mechanist view is based on an overvaluation of the “nature” pole of reality, the romantic view overvalues the pole of “culture,” or rather of “spirit.” Both strategies are totalizing maneuvers. For the first, nature is a gigantic clockwork system of dead matter that engages in stupefied collisions. For the second, nature is a holistic system of vital interconnectivities. The true situation, by contrast, is that there are simply objects (whether they be plastic, organic, or sandy). These objects are not holistically intertwined; indeed, they have great difficulty making connections, and only some combinations work. Everything does not affect everything else.

However, I’m not sure that any of this speaks against the Gaia Hypothesis. As far as I’m aware, Gaia is not making the massive romantic-metaphysical claim that the entire cosmos is one weeping, pulsating, vital organism. It seems to be the more limited hypothesis that the earth can be viewed as a living organism. This is something that must be decided on the evidence rather than on the basis of some programmatic aversion to romanticism or vitalism. I heard James Lovelock lecture in Dublin in April 2009, and found him perfectly tough-minded— indeed, even a bit grim.

S: Am I to understand you as being somewhat agnostic on the Gaia hypothesis?

G.H.: Only in the sense that I’m not a technical expert on climate change arguments and so can’t say whether Gaia is the right model for understanding global warming or not. But that wasn’t my point. My point was that you can accept Gaia without accepting a metaphysics of spiritual holism in which everything is a big happy organism of mutual interconnectivity. You could be convinced by Lovelock’s argument that the earth functions as a single organism, while still being “parsimonious” and rejecting any claims that there is some sort of world-soul governing the universe as a whole. Stated differently: Gaia is a scientific hypothesis, not a metaphysical one.

But that doesn’t mean it has nothing to teach us about metaphysics. What Gaia teaches us is that some objects might be deeply unified even though at first glance they look like a mere aggregate of multiple entities. If our planet functions as a single organism, then perhaps even larger or more complicated ones do as well. Perhaps entire galaxies or even fields of peas are a single communicating organisms. It doesn’t follow that we must immediately shoot the moon and assume there’s something called “the universe as a whole” that also functions as a single organism.

S: One point I have always wanted to get clarification on is at what point a system becomes an object in your view?  This seems vital to the project of trying to avoid both hyper-reductivism and the privileging of subjects.

G.H.: A sensual object is anything that we regard as a sensual object. We ourselves are the judge of this, because there is no reality principle at work in the sensual sphere apart from what we regard it as being. As soon as I acknowledge Popeye walking around on screen, a unified character enduring through various motions and changes of posture, then Popeye exists as a sensual object. There is nothing “inflationary” about this, because I am simply saying that Popeye must be taken into account, not that there is a real man named Popeye. I suppose certain cases of self-deception are possible even here, but that’s more a problem of faulty introspection than of bad epistemology.

However, as concerns real objects, your question is legitimate. Here we do need to make sure that the gates don’t open and let Popeye, unicorns, and square circles enter our farms and valleys. And we do this by saying that a system is a real object when it has intrinsic qualities that cannot be undermined or overmined.

If all the qualities of the morning star and the evening star turn out to be nothing more than qualities of Venus, then we have successfully undermined these two, and neither is a real object. They are relational phantasms generated by our own interactions with Venus.

If all the qualities of witches turn out to be nothing more than qualities of various disconnected phenomena that people have directly experienced (dead babies in the village, drops of blood near the well, a scarlet fever epidemic) then the supposed object “witch” has been successfully overmined, and the witch is not a real object. Note that Hume and his heirs treat all objects as if they were nothing but witches, breaking them up into symptoms, or into “bundles of qualities.” Despite his jovial demeanor, Hume is a cruel judge, condemning all real objects to be burned at the stake.

But the best we can do is build certain fallible methods to determine what can and cannot be undermined or overmined. That’s because, by definition, there is no direct access to real objects. Real objects are incommensurable with our knowledge, untranslatable into any relational access of any sort, cognitive or otherwise. Objects can only be known indirectly. And this is not just the fate of humans— it’s the fate of everything. Fire burns cotton stupidly, paying no heed to its color, smell, or beautiful purity and softness. Fire interacts with the cotton only insofar as it is flammable. And the same holds for all relations.

S: Why do you think Latour has had so much difficulty being taken seriously by philosophers and has had so much more appeal to anthropologists and sociologists?

G.H.: An excellent question! Perhaps the best way to answer it is to look at what has succeeded in philosophy in recent decades, and then think about how Latour might be a square peg in the eyes of the reigning trends.

We can simplify recent continental philosophy into four basic tendencies:

1. There is phenomenology in the widest sense: including Husserl and Heidegger, then Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and Gadamer, and one must put Derrida on this list as well. Then there is a handful of more recently favored examples such as Michel Henry and Jean-Luc Marion.

2. There is also a separate, Hegelian strand in continental thought. The Frankfurt School can be placed here, and in a different way there is the marked Hegelianism of Žižek, Badiou, and Meillassoux (though Meillassoux is now claiming that I am the one who is stuck in the elevator with Hegel, while Meillassoux himself has moved elsewhere, towards dead matter without a thinking subject). In yet another sense, Judith Butler also belongs to the Hegelian trend, and Butler has to be taken seriously even if her writing isn’t one’s cup of tea. (Butler’s impact has been even more widespread than Latour’s, and she’s also one of the smartest people and best listeners you’ll ever meet.) And I think we can put Lacan here too, or at least Lacan as retroactively read from Slovenia.

3. There is Michel Foucault, who of course wasn’t born in a vacuum, but who does stand somewhat apart from the other trends we’re discussing. Here the subject is not a unified and eternal ego-pole, because it is the historical product of discursive and disciplinary practices that must be studied in detail.

4. Finally, there is the group centered in Deleuze and also containing Gilbert Simondon. The conventional wisdom is that Deleuze can be read as a fusion of Bergson with Spinoza, and this is a case where conventional wisdom hits the bull’s eye. (Dan Smith, one of the best Deleuzians, tells me that Deleuze is actually Spinoza plus Leibniz. But I see nothing at all Leibnizian in Deleuze’s contempt for autonomous individual substances, and also don’t see how one can ignore the deep Bergsonism of Deleuze. In fact, the reason I don’t think that Deleuze is one of the very greatest philosophers is because I don’t think he fully overcomes the gifts that Bergson already gave us.) This group also tends to appropriate Whitehead to itself as a “process” philosopher, even though Whitehead has little in common with Deleuze, as will one day be seen more widely.

This looks like a marvelous diversity of options. But where could Latour possible fit in this schema? For the phenomenologists, the Hegelians, and the Foucauldians, the human subject stands always at the center, despite the constant assertions of many that they have overcome the Cartestian cogito. The human subject might not be so central for Deleuze and the others in Group 4 (though some interpreters still disagree). Yet even in Deleuze’s case there is still no room for the determinacy of individual objects. Some Deleuzians protest loudly at this, but Deleuze is all about becoming, lines of flight, trajectories, pre-individualities, virtual depths and vertical causation rather than horizontal causation along the surface of individual things.

So in the first place, Latour’s philosophy is a theory of individual actors of every sort, engaging in duels with one another, or in trials of force. They are not just phenomena in consciousness, but bona fide autonomous actors. These actors include atoms, skyscrapers, armies, national anthems, canoes, and cartoon characters. The only really object-oriented continental thinker in the four groups above is Husserl, and for Husserl there are intentional objects in consciousness, not actors independent of consciousness.

Whitehead is another object-oriented thinker, and Latour and Whitehead do have a great deal in common. But Whitehead has already been hijacked by Deleuzians, and thus he has not helped make an opening for Latour, since people are too ready to turn Whitehead into the proto-Deleuzian that he is not. And now there are efforts to turn Latour himself into a Deleuzian, which is not what Latour is either. We are well into the “Deleuze is compatible with everyone and foresaw everything” phase, the lack of a challenging outside, which always announces the closing decadence of any philosopher’s vogue; Derrideanism got this way by the early 1990’s. And now the Deleuze industry is finally on the point of overheating and excess inventory, and soon there will be layoffs and plant closures.

On one level it’s a shame, because Deleuze was such a liberation in the mid-1990’s from the all the excesses of Derrideans. But this is how the life cycle of popular philosophers works: all are doomed to overthrow by some future young generation. The really great thinkers are simply the ones who can bounce back from the collapse of their fashion. People keep coming back to the great thinkers because there is no alternative—there is something in those thinkers that you can’t forget, that you can’t get from anywhere else, even when they are no longer the latest style. Over the next twenty to thirty years, we’ll learn for the first time what Deleuze is really made of. Can he bounce back and remain an obligatory thinker even after Deleuzianism has become as dated as disco and lava lamps? Even now, we’re in the midst of seeing whether Derrida can clear this hurdle. And if speculative realism is successful, then someday it will happen to us as well. Our words will all look like annoying, imprisoning clichés at some point in the future, and (assuming we succeed to that degree in the first place), we will be a new orthodoxy that one must overthrow to build anything new. Fifty to sixty years from now, our grandchildren can see if we’re able to bounce back from that coming traumatic blow. And then Tristan Garcia and his peers will be fed through the same furnace a generation later. This is, inevitably, the price to pay for a successful philosophy.

But to return more specifically to your question… In the second place, the human being is of no central importance for Latour. We are just one actor among others. It may be true, as I’ve heard Manuel DeLanda claim, that Latour still requires a human observer for any network of actors to exist. In a sense, yes, this sometimes seems true of Latour. But I see this as an artifact of his focus on the philosophy of science, and science by definition always involves humans. There are other passages where Latour clearly states that objects interpret each other just as we interpret them.

To summarize: Latour like Whitehead has a flat ontology in which all entities are equally entities, and in which human knowledge and perception are not privileged forms of relation. But for most of the recent successful continental philosophies, either the human was overtly privileged, or if this was not obviously the case (as in Deleuze), then there was still a focus on “becoming” or on pre-individual forces and fluxes rather than on fully-formed individual things.

Object-oriented philosophy does the opposite, and thus it has found a living ancestral hero in Latour. Garcia never cites Latour and doesn’t seem to read him, but the increasing visibility of Garcia will probably also help the fortunes of Latour in philosophy, simply by helping shift attention away from the privileged human towards the multiplicity of both human and non-human actors.

So, why has Latour succeeded in anthropology and sociology nonetheless? For obviously enough, those disciplines have always been even more human-centered than philosophy. Perhaps it was through their very excess, the extremity of their anthropocentric illness, that they were desperately in need of an antidote. Perhaps this is why Latour became a necessary cure for them, and why so many of them remained Latour addicts even after the disease was cured.

S: What do you make of the recent turn from Heidegger to Hegel in many circles? Do see you this as merely due to mystification by other academics? Fear of political contagion? Or real, substantive difference? Or bits of all these?

G.H.: I do think political reasons are partly responsible, though not in the sense that “Heidegger was a Nazi, and we must have nothing to do with Nazis anymore.” A few scandalous books still say this sort of thing, such as Emmanuel Faye— but who in philosophy takes Faye seriously? Heidegger has received a fair hearing from philosophers despite his Nazism, and I must say that Heidegger deserved this fair hearing, despite his execrable politics. He was simply the greatest philosopher of the past century, and we can’t afford to get rid of him, even if it would feel good in some ways to give him the boot. If he were any less a thinker, he would already be an outcast, but he forced himself into the party through sheer genius. And he won’t be leaving the party, so get used to him.

But the political factors at play in the shift to Hegel are less negative ones against Heidegger than positive claims in favor of Hegel. Hegel stands for the elimination of the unknowable thing-in-itself, for the rationality of the real. In Hegel’s own case, this famously leads to a form of conservatism: the way things already are has a certain internal logic to it. Thus it is that (non-Marxist) Hegelians have not generally been revolutionaries. They tend to feel well-adjusted to their surroundings, and are often very happy people. And no wonder, since they do not feel haunted by the tragic, ungraspable residues that eat at the souls of Heideggerians.

But if you eliminate the thing-in-itself, then at least you eliminate the sense of a non-human element of fate or destiny that efforts at political change would otherwise be stumbling over. Politics becomes the sphere of what is knowable, and with Hegel the sphere of the knowable and first philosophy are one and the same. Thus, the turn to Hegel has obvious political motives to accompany the non-political motives of those who are convinced by the critique of the an sich in German Idealism.

Yet as I’ve said, there is nothing inherently “Left” in Hegel, and even something pretty conservative. To make Hegel worthy of the Left again, it is necessary to restore some contingency and decision-making power to the mix. And this is precisely what we find in three of the most powerful Hegelian thinkers of today: Žižek, Badiou, Meillassoux. In Žižek there is the mad human subject that punctures the fabric of the world and makes its own decisions. In Badiou there is the sudden event that breaks with the state of the situation and commands our fidelity (and all of Badiou’s “events” are recognizably “Left” events that pose little intellectual challenge to anyone who is already radical enough to admire Mao). And in Meillassoux there is the destruction of the principle of sufficient reason, the metaphysics of contingency, and the view that just as matter, life, and thought emerged suddenly for no reason at all, so too a world of justice might one day appear in which God and a Christ-like mediator resurrect all the unjustly slaughtered people of the twentieth century and earlier times.

In all of these philosophies, the subject remains at the center, and frankly it is always a privileged human subject despite Badiou’s various attempts to deny this. In such philosophies, politics may be a realm of sudden upsurges and surprises without any reason outside the subject itself. Yet they remain philosophies dominated by the subject, and too little aware of the political role played by non-human things. So, go ahead and call Bruno Latour “Roman Catholic and neoliberal” all you like. In the long run he may still have more to teach us about politics than these others, who are simply putting a new “contingency” spin on an already well-digested Marxism that has had more than enough problems of its own.

Q7: I was reading a dialogue you had with the blogger K-Punk on the failure of leftist imagination. While as a person in the harder Marxist tradition, I may be an offender, I actually found that I agreed with you on how severely limited the imagination of the left: not just the Marxian left either. Has Occupy changed your mind or expanded your thoughts on the matter? Or perhaps your direct experience of the so-called “Arab Spring?”

K-Punk (Mark Fisher) is a friend, and I greatly enjoyed his book Capitalist Realism. It is undeniably true that the political imagination has become paralyzed (though I doubt this is more true of politics than of other fields). 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.

Nor did it stop with the departure of Mubarak. In March, one month after Mubarak’s departure, we had the grotesque “virginity tests” on female protestors at the Egyptian Museum— effectively rapes of which no one was convicted. In the autumn of 2011 we had the massacre of peaceful Copts and their Muslim supporters in the Maspero neighborhood of downtown Cairo, and even worse, the bloodcurdling call on television for Egyptian citizens to come out and protect their army from the marauding Copts. In February 2012, we had the Port Said massacre of the pro-Revolution Ahly Ultras after a football match, an incident for which remnants of Mubarak’s apparatus were no doubt responsible. And now we have the upcoming June runoff election, with the terribly painful choice that seems to pit religious fascism against military fascism. Nonetheless, one must have hope. And having no voting rights in Egypt, I am at least spared what looks like a miserable decision between the two candidates.

Egypt was a great moment for the Left, and I even think it was a great moment for Badiou. Rarely have I seen such a great example of a Badiouian “event.” There was a bit of a backstory to the Egyptian Revolution, of course (the murder by police of blogger Khaled Said in Alexandria in June 2010, the Revolution in Tunisia just before Egypt’s). Nonetheless, it met many of Badiou’s criteria for a sudden event not previously inscribed in the situation, and it did command fidelity for any clear-thinking person who could sense what was at stake. We Americans were also clearly implicated in the counter-Revolutionary currents in Egypt, including our unlikely President Barack Obama (someone I like a great deal and whom I have supported, whatever complaints might be made about him).

Having said all of that, it is always important to avoid what I have called “the taxonomic fallacy.” The taxonomic fallacy is the belief that one particular entity or kind of entity can perfectly incarnate some ontological structure. The concept is not that different from Heidegger’s or Derrida’s critiques of “onto-theology.”

For example, the scientistic wing of speculative realism (Brassier and his associates at the journal Collapse) sometimes say that since speculative realism favors realism, then it must favor science against the humanities and listen to physics and brain science rather than sociology and literature. This is an obvious philosophical blunder. For the humanities also deal with what it is real, even if we are speaking here of large-scale realities such as nations and literary styles rather than particles and fields or neural activation patterns. At the same time, the natural sciences are also perfectly capable of failing to confront the real, as when they reduce bona fide mid-scale entities to an ancestral narrative of micro-sized physical subcomponents. The lesson of realism is not that certain human disciplines are realist and should be praised, while others are anti-realist and should be denounced. Instead, the lesson is that we should beware the tendencies of anti-realist currents in all human research, the natural sciences included. Otherwise, we commit the taxonomic fallacy in the typical manner of Brassier and his followers.

And this was one of the things I said to K-Punk in the exchange on his blog, or at least one of the things I was trying to say (I haven’t read that debate since it was posted). If we say that “capitalism” (or fuzzier still, “late capitalism”) has paralyzed the political imagination, it still does not follow that all capitalism oppress the imagination while all Left academic activity liberates it. As I asked K-Punk rhetorically, is Fredric Jameson really more imaginative than Steve Jobs?

We may live in a world dominated by “late capitalist” enterprises such as Apple, Amazon, Starbucks, and Facebook. And these companies can usually be found to have some blood on their hands, simply because you can’t grow that large without taking advantage and cutting corners (who wasn’t disturbed by the New York Times exposés on Apple’s metal-polishing practices in China?). Nonetheless, when that much money is poured into something, it’s not just a sign of exploitation and the sickening concentration of wealth, but also the sign of vitality. “Follow the money” is not just a maxim that allows us to point fingers at the morally corrupt. It is also a desperately needed reality principle that shows us where the energy can be found, not all of it bad.

And like it or not, Apple and Amazon are stirring up more interest, even among intellectuals, than most academic critiques of capitalism. Is that just because we are all a bunch of brainwashed idiots locked in on our own trivial conveniences? Hardly. It’s because these companies are also doing something exciting that addresses where consciousness really is today, and which it didn’t know that it wanted. Did I know in advance that my brain would catch fire as soon as I had a smartphone and a tablet computer? Not at all. I initially thought both of these things were consumerist pseudo-needs, just like the academic Left still does. But I was wrong, and so were they. To have the right electronic device in your hands can sharpen your brain as much as the discovery of an important new author. We should of course be aware of how the relatively cheap availability of such products leads to explosions, lung disease, and suicides among Chinese factory workers, and it’s a terrible failure of imagination if we close our ears to such reports. But it is also a grievous failure of imagination to be always on the side of the critics and the grumblers. Life has to be optimistic, or it becomes merely reactive. And I really fear that the Left is becoming the permanent homeland of the critics and the grumblers. The Left has its moments (Egypt for sure). But we should not commit the taxonomic fallacy of holding that to grumble is always a more profound political act than to put all the books of the world on an easily accessible website.

What I also miss on the Left, for instance, is a sufficient appreciation of 1989 (the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 is old news by now, but ’89 is an earthquake that many of us still remember). It is frankly a failure of imagination to try to explain away 1989 by griping about how Central Europe was simply recuperated into a banal consumer capitalism and nothing changed, or that at least political discourse mattered behind the Iron Curtain before ’89, and so forth.

Don’t underrate the obvious: would you want to live under Honecker or Ceauceşcu or Jaruszelski? If you can’t answer that question quickly, then you’ve had a failure of imagination, and I would recommend that you make some more friends from the former East Bloc. They will set you straight, and you will be ashamed to say the sorts of things to them that you might say among grumbling Western academics. But it’s a lot easier to forget and ignore what the years before 1989 meant in the East, because it’s a lot more fashionable to complain about late capitalism.

There is something to be said for making a virtue of necessity. The Leftisms we know were born amidst nineteenth century philosophical idealism, and it is hardly any wonder that they appeal to that idealism ever more explicitly as time goes by. But my sense is that the contemporary capitalism they detest harbors a fresher and more imaginative principle of reversal than the ones for which they call, which tend to be little more than Maoism or Stalinism—or worse yet, condescending grumbles without a program (at least the Maoists and Stalinists put their cards on the table and risk being harshly judged).

S: Do you think your concept of vicarious causation has political implications?

G.H.: I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll think of some, or maybe others will think of them for me.

What I most resist is the idea that philosophy should be the handmaid of anything else. I suppose we all agree now that philosophy is not the handmaid of theology. But now there are those who want to make it the handmaid of the Left, or of ethics, or even of brain science. Consider Thomas Metzinger’s appalling and shallow vision that brain science will solve all the traditional philosophical problems, but that we’ll still need philosophers to sit on ethics panels.

Philosophy is the handmaid of nothing, not even the handmaid of climate change. Does that mean philosophy is apolitical? No, it means that philosophy should play a longer game when it comes to politics. Locke, Rousseau, and Marx all had their real political effects long after their deaths. We’ve become too addicted to the specifically recent French model of the philosophe engagé, which is just one model among others. It is not necessarily one that can be exported outside French social conditions— the French politics of radical manifestoes and “clear and distinct ideas” does not work well in America, just as dry, ultra-technical German philosophy succeeds only when the social prestige of university professors is guaranteed in advance, which is not true in the United States.

Even from attending university time management workshops you can learn the valuable distinction between “important” matters and “urgent” ones. The urgent matters are those that must be taken care of right now, without delay. Climate change is one of those, and many of the other causes of the Left are urgent, since they deal with addressable exploitation going on at this very minute. But it does not follow that the mission of philosophy is to deal with urgent matters. Philosophy is not governance, but it is also not activism or militancy (I openly reject Badiou’s concept of philosopher as militant).

It is far from clear that philosophers can even be of use to activists, who are generally driven by facts on the ground that no philosopher is in a position to know, unless that philosopher happens to be an activist as well as a second occupation. Philosophy should not be “apolitical,” because politics is one of the important spheres of human life. But it does not follow that philosophy must always address the urgent political issues of the moment in which it is written. Urgent issues have a way of changing from decade to decade, while any philosophy worthy of the name ought to be readable fifty if not one hundred years or more after it is written. Feel free to appreciate the philosopher-activist. But do not demand that the philosopher be an activist.

Franz Brentano, one of the most underrated philosophers of all time, makes the claim that the great periods of philosophy have been periods when philosophy was committed to a purely theoretical standpoint, rather than used for ulterior motives such as political ones. Like all sweeping claims of this kind, there are surely counter-examples (though the remarkable contrast between the philosophies of reactionary Germany and revolutionary France at the time of the Revolution is widely known). But let’s take Brentano seriously for a moment. Is there not something to be said for the philosopher not getting too closely entangled with the passing events of the day? There may be times when this is irresponsible or even reprehensible. But if you find that you must act, whether by joining the resistance or denouncing a tyrant, is it really qua philosopher that you act, or only qua human citizen? And when you do resist or speak out, is it really the case that in doing so you must be informed by your metaphysics? Pure theoretical contemplation has a bad name these days, but it has its place under the sun, even an important place. We should no more expect metaphysics to save democracy, immigrants, and free speech than we should expect a mountain to dodge a cannonball shot at its face. The scale of movement is much slower. You can’t expect tap-dancing from a whale. What you can expect is that eventually, the movements of the whale will throw powerful waves against the tyrants living on shore.


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