HOW WE BECAME POST-VICARIOUS: Why Graham Harman can never be “touched” by any criticism

We are all familiar with the basic principles of Pre-emptive Counterfactuation. Graham Harman provided us with a paradigmatic example concerning an abstract of a future talk by Anthony Paul Smith here, reviewed here. Not content with APS’s abstract, Harman proposed a “more honest rewrite”. APS’s abstract was dishonest because it did not talk about Harman, and so had to be rewritten. That was enough to totally destroy it, and Harman did not need to actually produce anything stronger.

However one could argue that this was too easy. One might want to see how Harman could counterfactuate an abstract that was “honest”, that actually mentioned him as a central figure in the Controversy. The gods of the internet have been kind, and we now have the more advanced example of Harman’s minority report on an “unusually frank” abstract. In Harmanian language, let us recall, Katherine Hayles’ abstract is “frank” because it talks about him. Anthony Paul Smith’s abstract was “unfrank” because it talked about Laruelle and mentioned Meillassoux, so Harman had to correct it, to frank it up. Harman himself is always “frank”, even in his books on Latour and Meillassoux he talks more about himself than about the supposed object of study.

Harman begins with a basic reminder of his doctrine of vicarious causation as applied to philosophical critique. Alexander Galloway’s critique (and its sequel) of his ideas had no effect on him, it was just like “the experience of being shot at without effect”. This much is obvious, given that no object can ever touch another object. But vicarious causation is in fact much richer in its implications than that, it is in fact the theoretical basis for the practice of counterfactual criticism. Vicarious causation means that “each object reduces every other to a hazy caricature of its deeper plenitude” (Graham Harman, CIRCUS PHILOSOPHICUS, 49). Thus not only do we have a realm of “ghostly objects withdrawing”, we are entitled to, nay we are ontologically constrained to, replace them with “hazy caricatures”, and this is precisely what Harman does. Harman replaces Galloway’s argument by a hazy caricature, all that remains is a pun (“a pun in search of an argument”, as Harman so rigorously describes it). This pun is in Harman’s philosophy a “vicar”. Harman can of course never come into direct contact with an argument against his philosophy, what he does encounter is a vicar that replaces the argument and represents it. So Galloway’s arguments are replaced by a pun.

Once this pun is extracted from Galloway’s arguments, it can now by Latourian translation be deployed anywhere, even against Hayles’ talk before it is given. A simple consideration of her abstract is enough to show that it is “frank” (it mentions Harman by name) and a “pun” (it relates Harman’s philosophy to something else, and so dilutes its frankness). Whatever Hayles may say we know by the principles of vicarious causation that it will be a “pun” and that it will not, and cannot, “touch” or “move” Harman. (cf his verdict on Laruelle, which in fact applies to any thinker, Hayles included: “I for one remain completely unmoved by Laruelle as a thinker”).

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37 Responses to HOW WE BECAME POST-VICARIOUS: Why Graham Harman can never be “touched” by any criticism

  1. Naxos says:

    Harman’s ‘frankness’ is just idiotic ontologized self-cheating, there is no need to be elegant to say it. You forgot to mention his reaction on Jussi Parikka’s post, which was also pretty symptomatic about his schismogenetical manners. My salutes to you, Terence :-)

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  3. Isn’t the “pun” because both Galloway and Hayles critique OOO because of a tenuous link derived mainly from a shared word (Object-Oriented Programming/Speculative Finance). This just seems like lazy thinking. I am sure Hayles next step is to attack Hegel.

    Leaving aside this rather shallow critique, I thought Harman’s closing remarks (“But Galloway and Hayles are, respectively, in lucrative positions at NYU and (tobacco-endowed) Duke. Where’s the real trading pit, and who is the real resistance?), at least point to a real problem with critiques based around the question of who is “working” with capital. No?

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  4. Rob Myers says:

    stellarcartographies – No. Which is to say they don’t, and Harman’s ad hominem there is as cutesily nugatory as the rest of his responses. Next I’m sure you’ll just agree with me.

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    • terenceblake says:

      Nugatory nonsequitur. He systematically confuses a structural argument about homologies with personal aspersions.

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    • I’m not sure what you mean by “agree” with you. The argument in Galloway’s article (and perhaps in Hayles) is incredible weak and fails to do anything other than make an incredibly tangental relation based on shared vocabulary. Have you read the article? It is largely a sentimental reflection on the “good ol’ days”. There are an incredible number of philosophical reasons to reject OOO. It may be the case that homological arguments are legitimate and they do have a long history (as Terrence points out), but to base those critiques on a shared word is ridiculous and represents a desire to go for an easy joke over substantial critique. Again, go read Galloway’s article and identify the argument that is actually made. It seems to be beyond a doubt that Harman is a rather run of the mill liberal, but that does not seem to be sufficient philosophically (at least as I understand, as a process of argumentation).

      As for Harman’s point at the end, why is attacking someones ideas as re-enforcing the liberal assumptions of our current ideology acceptable, but identify practices (such as employment) out of bounds. Duke has an endowment of $5.5 Billion. How did that come about? Make no mistake, I find both of these perspectives to be illegitimate philosophical attacks, unless a great deal more “evidence” is presented. Galloway’s argument (where it actually occurs), like Harman’s point that ends his post, is an oversimplification of the actual situation and counts as cheap point scoring that allows for Galloway (and Harman) to maintain a sort of “beautiful soul”.

      If thats agreeing with you then I accept your prediction.

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  5. stellarcartographies: where in Hayles’s abstract is that “tenuous link” made? the abstract discusses “similarities” between SR and finance, but *does not specify what they are.* I realize it’s insane to suggest, but shouldn’t we have the actual argument to consider before we decide whether it’s valid or not? I realize that is not Harman’s method, but it’s one I stand by.

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    • You are, of course, correct that as I have not read her presentation then I should withhold judgment. I look forward to reading her paper or (hopefully) listening to her presentation. Lets just say that I am making a prediction about the difficulty of resisting the obvious “joke”. (The “joke” or pun being the shared use of the word speculation. Are all speculations already trapped by the capitalist logic? Will she say that its more than a coincidence that “speculative finance” and “speculative realism” arrived in the same time period? Will she expand her critique to Brassier, Grant, & Meillassoux as well? Or will they be guilty by association, as in Galloway?)

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    • terenceblake says:

      I too believe that we have to wait for the article. Harman’s conflation of Hayles’ talk with his pusillanimous caricature of Galloway’s arguments is an intellectual and moral blunder. As to Galloway, I have read his texts and given numerous explications and analyses, criticising them where I find them inadequate or erroneous, for example here: http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2012/12/14/badiousian-background-to-galloways-argument-vs-dumbing-down-of-the-controversy/.

      I would add that Galloway actually gives arguments where Harman just gives smoke. Despite claiming that Deleuze and Derrida have all had their day and now it’s time to go on to something else, Harman shows not the slightest understanding of his self-designated predecessors. Nada. So there is no symmetry here at all. Such a blog post, and Harman has almost ceased to publish substantive philosophical content on his blog, is a pure and simple disgrace.

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  6. Leon says:

    Just a thought: some very strong and quite legitamate critiques and arguments have been made by Jason Hills over at immanent transcendence blog for years. So far he and Terrance have been unanswered – I fear beacuse of the simple strength of their critiques. Galloway and Hayles are easy straw-man targets. I have yet to see them tangle with those trained as philosophers or answer back with arguments. In place its been tiring propaganda, rumor bombs, and deflationary rhetoric, all through blogs and social media. If I would be able to read some real *arguments* on their part then they’d appear less stale than they do. Oh, loved the thought that they are the resistance fighting big tobacco now, too. Grand neuroses and some serious obsessive self signaling there.

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    • I agree with this. Terrence has consistently given quite stellar critiques of Harman. Especially see, his writings on “The Third Table”. I am unfamiliar with Hills although I have read his contributions to a few of the longer discussions, e.g. over at Three Pound Brain. Pete Wolfendale is also quite precise in his attacks. It would certainly be nice see some attempt of Harman to move beyond the “Introductory Stage” of OOP and begin responding to the basic critiques. But there is a real problem with the distraction of Galloway-type argumentation. He needs to “show his work” or abandon this line of argumentation. To be clear, the form of the argument is legitimate but it simply never properly appears within his texts. Instead, he makes a direct appeal to our “political sympathies” by discussion all of the good works of critical philosophy. This is not argumentation and not worthy of a serious philosophical thought.

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  7. Tony Cochran says:

    Harman’s OOO seems to be seriously critiqued. I want to learn more. I have read some excellent critiques by Eilif Verney-Elliott, do you know him or his work?

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    • terenceblake says:

      Yes, of course. Sometimes he is excessive, but he is explicitly including feeling next to intellect, so i can only encourage his efforts.

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      • Tony Cochran says:

        Thank you, Terence. His work seems very engaging and lively. He is always changing, I have watched HOURS of Graham Harman and I am tending to agree with the criticisms, excessive and otherwise perhaps, I say hesitantly.

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    • The question of feeling aside, Eilif’s critiques of Harman are incredibly shallow, and are essentially an extreme form of Galloway’s. So not only is Harman guilty of being complicit with our capitalist masters but is in fact a fascist in philosophical clothing. The proof: Heidegger was a Nazi.

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      • terenceblake says:

        Yes, I have already responded to Eilif:

        “terenceblake says:
        April 5, 2013 at 5:48 am

        I do not wish to insult Harman personally. I have quarrel with his philosophy, and also with a certain part of his online presence. I do not think that he is “stupid” and undeserving of his job nor do I think that he is in some way “Nazi”. I have tried to make it clear that I think he has defended more radical and more courageous philosophical positions than Bryant, for example. I just think that they are also radically erroneous, regressive, and wrong-headed. As I try to keep my polemics not personal, I feel free to use a tone that reflects my intellectual reactions to what I read.”

        and he replied:

        “Eilif Verney-Elliott says:
        April 8, 2013 at 11:37 pm

        To be clear, I have never called Harman a Nazi. I have called his philosophy fascistic, as I believe it to be, and as I have noted in many ways. Also I don’t think he is stupid, but I do think he is a charlatan”.

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      • Tony Cochran says:

        Stellar, it seems that Eilif has never called Harman a Nazi. In addition to Terrence’s post below, I emailed Eilif demanding an answer to this. He replied that he thinks Harman’s ideas of fascistic or proto-fasciscit but that he never called him a Nazi. I think you have a misunderstanding perhaps.

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      • I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but on April 2 Eilif had a post entitled “Grahman Harman is a Fascist, Let’s Move On”. His site even has a tag for “GRAHAM HARMAN IS A FASCIST”t. His site seems to have been “restarted”, but Google maybe stupid but it does not forget. Maybe its not important, but maybe it is.

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      • Bill Benzon says:

        “…Eilif’s critiques of Harman are incredibly shallow…”

        I thought the “deconstruction” he offered in comments here, for example, was conceptually empty, giving no evidence that he’d carefully considered Harman’s thought.

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    • For a serious set of critiques (not written by Terence), check out Pete Wolfendale’s considerable posts on the matter. The link is to his collection of posts on the various strains of OOO/P. He also has written an article for the Speculations Journal called “The Noumena’s New Clothes (Part I)”

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      • Tony Cochran says:

        One last bit Stellar, Eilif’s website seems to be in edit (or crashed from too many hits), but my entire Philosophy department – including the director! – was BUZZING and HUMMING about Eilif’s critiques! What and who is he! I mean what in the sense of where does he work or teach? I know he is London based according to his website, but he is really getting popular here in California, at least at UCLA!

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      • Yes, I imagine that Dr. Lawrence is going absolutely crazy for the brilliant insight of Eilif. And I did hear that he is popular with sanitation workers with PhDs (see 4th comment for context).

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  8. Tony Cochran says:

    Yes, I did speak to the Professor and he had some remarks based on students discussions.

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  9. Tony Cochran says:

    I am talking about my department, where I do interdisciplinary work, there is a lot of talk about Mr. Verney-Elliott, the Professor I mentioned above is the distinguished Professor Mary Sweeney, not Dr. Lawrence.

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  10. Tony Cochran says:

    Stellar, I only see one comment, by me – I am a UCLA sanitation work, represented by the union AFSCME 3299. I am a union, social justice activist too.

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  11. Leon says:

    @TPBlake,
    Per the twitter “conversation”: Funny how GH says he won’t respond to blog snark, but just perpetrate it? And second, he will only respond to criticisms made in publication, yet haven’t your criticisms been published in ‘Theoria’ and if so, what is the meaningful difference between his suggestion of Pete Wolfendale/’Speculations’ as an example and ‘Theoria’ (Wolfendale, who, like you, hasn’ gotton a response and likely won’t…and no, the four criticisms in GH’sforthcoming book do not count as n one ever made those criticisms, i.e strawmen).

    So, I’m confused.

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    • terenceblake says:

      Leon, Harman says he will look at my review of THE THIRD TABLE as published in theoria.fr. But can it be he has never read any of my stuff, dismissing it as mere snarkery? If I am a snark it is in the Lewis Carroll sense, a wild uncoded singularity. How do you know about the 4 criticisms replied to in his forthcoming book? I was very surprised and confused by his offer, wondering if it was for real or not.

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  12. Leon says:

    Hi Terry,
    He’s mentioned them on his blog. If in the forthcoming book the criticisms aren’t cited then they are criticisms created in the mind of the author, to stand up only to be knocked down (a strawman). As they were listed, not one was ever made by anyone in any journal that I know of, so I doubt we’ll get citation or an actual name of a philosopher who said something tangible.

    Honestly I doubt he was serious about responding to you. In fact, responding to a review of one book would not be adequately handling the fairly large and bulky critique which you, Jason Hills, and myself have amassed (the most serious critique going today, again, one made by professionally trained philosophers). If we want to talk about “shots fired” but “not being effective,” essentially the critique on our part is the “shot between the eyes.” I think they know this.

    Other than stating that Hills hasn’t cut him “any slack,” and other than him taking just one easy potshot at me (which was quite personal at that as it involved a situation where he only knows half the story and assumes he knows who my friends are – which has come back to bite him in more ways than one) for criticizing the fact that his position resembles Leibniz (sorry, but it does), and other than him rather smugly avoiding you or interacting with you less than professionally, visibly for the world to see, he’s been among the comfortable clouds of gladhanders and yes-men who run on the fumes of faddishness. Zero *arguments* from him. Nada. None.

    If I could read a real argument I might consider the position in question something more than rhetoric protected by the propaganda of social media.

    In snarkiness,

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  13. Bill Benzon says:

    While I’ve got my own problems with Harman–most evident, perhaps, in my critique of his article on literary criticism, “The Well-Wrought Broken Hammer: Object-Oriented Literary Criticism“–I remain baffled by Galloway’s critique. The homology is demonstrated at such a general and abstract level as to be, if not meaningless, of little consequence. Whatever structural property Galloway has in mind, it’s so very general that it applies to many things and systems. That he chose to privilege a certain class of computer languages, a certain mode of production, and a certain metaphysical position says more about his will to argument than about homologies among those three phenomena.

    If I were to undertake a further critique of Harman I’d be inclined to do so obliquely, starting with the motto inscribed at the head of his blog and with his commentaries on the divide between analytic and continental philosophy (e.g. HERE and HERE). I don’t quite know why these two things strike me, but they do.

    Let’s play a little.

    The motto: “The centaur of classical metaphysics shall be mated with the cheetah of actor-network theory.” Why the centaur and the cheetah? What work are they doing in that assertion? Would it work by reversing the valence: “The cheetah of classical metaphysics shall be mated with the centaur of actor-network theory.” The figure of the centaur is, I note, a classical one.

    What happens to the assertion if we simply drop them? thus: “Classical metaphysics shall be mated with actor-network theory.” Is that what Harman’s philosophy is, the mating of classical metaphysics with actor-network theory? Alternatively, how about we drop the metaphysics? “Let the centaur be mated with the cheetah.”

    The metaphorics is obviously a verbal stunt and calls attention to itself, but to what end? Harman often talks about the need for vivid language and how it is more important to philosophy (that is, the kind of philosophy he favors) than precision (as in the analytic tradition). Well his motto is certainly vivid. But so what? Is he attempting to convert vividness into conceptual depth through the force of odd juxtaposition?

    As for his interest in the analytic/continental divide, there’s an undertow there. He certainly prefers the continental mode, as many obviously do. And he does so, in part because it pursues an old intellectual mode, a classical one if you will, that of philosophy as a comprehensive worldview. But it’s as though he just barely has faith in the integrity of that project and so feels haunted by the specter of narrowly constructed technical exercises. It’s as though he’s scaring himself into the continental camp peeping into the office at the accountants and their analytic eye-shades.

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  14. Leon says:

    @Bill, @Terry,
    I see your point – and glad to see you are doing some interesting work. (And as an aside: who *doesn’t* have a problem with GH given just “how he is”…And passing “the friendship test” – i.e. “s/he’s my friend so the critique stands!” doesn’t really float in my book, or, “my friends speak highly of so-and-so, therefore so-and-so’s thesis stands!” It’s a small town version of Ad populum.)

    It seems Galloway’s and Hayle’s arguments (arguments by analogy, let’s say at their strongest) are the weakest arguments. But they are not the only arguments out there, which is why I find it baffling that those are the one’s used to support the straw-man technique being perpetrated.

    Let’s see some good old fashioned *argument* and *debate* – which means actually responding to those who’ve critiqued your work – with philosophers who actually exist and have said some very intelligent things in their own right (e.g. Terry’s review, to start). Jason Hills (a Ph.D. in philosophy with a good head on his shoulders) has also made some fine points in the past, as has Pete Wolfendale. Not to drop too many names but my point is that other than Galloway and Hayles there are some *good* arguments out there. I would ask: Is it an honest philosophical practice to only focus on your weakest opponents?

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  15. jjpulizzi says:

    I was fairly amused to see GH’s denunciation of Hayles’ argument before he’s even read it. The talk at UCSD is probably very similar to the one she gave at the colloquium Scott Selisker and I organized at UC, Santa Barbara. Hopefully, we’ll have video of the talk to post soon.

    Her critique (at least as it came up in the Q&A) is nothing like that in Galloway’s Critical Inquiry article—a piece that was spectacularly disappointing.

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  16. terenceblake says:

    I would love to see the video. Galloway’s piece was not focused enough, it went off in too many directions. Plus it had very unsatisying argumentative threads: the specifics on resemblances to computer languages, the strange vision of mathematics. But it had some good stuff, which is why I tried to “save” it.

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