MBK has published a long open letter to Tristan Garcia in LA REVUE LITTERAIRE (number 52, February-March, where he describes a “new conjecture” that is emerging as the rising generation of philosophers begin to free themselves from the conceptual space defined by the “hegemony” over the last decade of Badiou’s philosophy. For MBK a new conceptual configuration is forming, and his letter to Garcia is not so much an exhaustive analysis of his work as “an attempt to situate it in the contemporary configuration” (p112). This contemporary configuration includes, aside from Garcia, Quentin Meillassoux, Martin Fortier, Graham Harman, the other authors of the Speculative Realist movement, and of course himself, Mehdi Belhaj Kacem.
I will not try to give a full summary of this text, but shall limit my remarks to summarising and interpreting MBK’s discussion of Harman, insofar as he finds it typical of the contemporary conceptual configuration in philosophy. MBK cites Garcia’s distinction between a “substantial” ontology (which “carve reality up into 2 regimes of being, secondary qualities and reality in itself) and “vectorial” ontologies (ontologies of becoming). Whereas Garcia is at pains to distinguish himself from both of these ontologies, MBK argues that Harman’s ontology is “substantial”, positing a noumenal realm of objects. (MBK: Harman…remains in this sense a “substantialist”, p119).
(NB: This analysis concords totally with the discussion that I have been conducting of Harman’s OOO on my blog and in my review of THE THIRD TABLE).
MBK argues that Harman, like the other “post-badousians” (Meillassoux, Garcia, et al.), while positing an in-itself remains stuck in a crucial ambiguity, an “amphibolic vacillation” over the status of this in-itself, oscillating between the idea of an absolutely unknowable, uncapturable (cf. THE THIRD TABLE, “Whatever we capture…is not the real table”, p12) noumenon and the idea that it can be captured in some very abstract and indirect way. MBK resumes this as an oscillation between a strict Kantian understanding of the in-itself and a “set-theoreticist” understanding, where something can be known about the in-itself.
This point is very interesting because Harman seems to think that MBK is claiming that he, Harman, was influenced by Badiou’s ideas and is reacting against them, and protests that this is just not true (cf Harman’s post). In Garcia’s case, and in his own, he claims this explicitly. But I think that MBK is making less a point about Harman’s intellectual biography, than about the conceptual configuration to which Harman’s theorising belongs whether he knows it or not, and of which Badiou gives the best, because most abstract and general, formulation. For MBK insofar as our thought was deep, intense, and contemporary, we were all “Badiousians” for a brief period (a “decade”, give or take a little) whether we were aware of it or not, and now we are leaving that period behind, with some difficulty, and becoming something else: post-Badiousian, Meillassousian or Garcian, or Harmanian. At the same time MBK finds that these ways out from Badiousian set-theoreticism are compromise formations, they do not go far enough.
Harman objects to several passages in the LETTER where MBK subsumes him with the post-Badiousians under the idea that you can know the noumena by set-theoreticist means. I think that this is another case where MBK would say that this is implicit in the conceptual form of Harman’s OOO, whether there was a biographical influence or not. When it comes to a more specific diagnosis of Harman’s relation to science:
“If Harman were consistent, he would say simply that science is nothing but one mode of objectal relation amongst others, and thus that finally it in no way distinguishes itself from any other type of “prehension”…This is probably what he thinks, anyhow” (p132).
(Note on this translation: I read “se singularise”, distinguishes itself, instead of just “singularise”, as otherwise the text makes no sense).
Far from accusing Harman of giving priority to the set-theoretic matheme in his explicit philosophy, MBK diagnoses a contradiction where Harman, in virtue of the (Kantian) unknowability of his objects is obliged to to place all types of prehension, including the scientific one on the same plane – this would mean Harman is obliged to have a flat epistemology, and at the same time presume that we can know something about these objects (that they exist, and that objects contain and are contained in other objects, which MBK brings back to the set-theoretic relation of belonging), thus implicitly having a set-theoreticist understanding of objects. This is an example of the shared conceptual configuration of hesitation between a Kantian understanding of the in-itself and a set-theoreticist understanding that MBK finds in what he calls the “post-Badiousians”. Do I need to repeat that this is a structural claim and not a biographical one?