STIPULATING OBJECTS: pseudo-realism in the world of Continental Philosophy

Graham Harman’s book THE THIRD TABLE (Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2012) begins with an account of Sir Arthur Eddington’s famous two tables argument, and proposes a “third table” to exemplify a purportedly new and non-reductionist approach to objects.

Eddington’s argument famously contrasts the familiar, solid, substantial, reliable table of
common sense with the the insubstantial swarm of particles moving rapidly in what is mostly empty space that constitutes the table as modern physics envisages it.

This allows Harman to couch his own propositions in terms of a running engagement with reductionism, in what Harman sees as its humanistic and scientistic forms.

In my review I examine Harman’s accounts of each of the three tables (common sense, scientific, and “real”) and argue that they are ultimately unsatisfying. Finally, I compare Harman’s OOO with Feyerabend’s ontology and conclude that OOO is a naïve, dogmatic, and self-contradictory form of negative theology.

Review here.

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STIPULATIVE IDEALISM vs SPECULATIVE REALISM: correctly characterising Harman’s OOO

Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy is often incorrectly associated with the movement of Speculative Realism, when in fact it is the exact opposite. OOP’s invisible, untouchable, unknowable real objects are mere dogmatic posits, abstractions asserted to exist behind the veil of withdrawal. Like a vampire, OOP has profited from the interest that has grown up around the themes of speculation, ontology, pluralism, and realism in recent Continental Philosophy. These themes were appropriated and codified under the appellation “Speculative Realism”, and OOP has tried to slip into the movement under false pretences. Harman’s brand of OOO is best described as stipulative idealism.

For details see my essay MORE MONIST IDEALISM.

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BARAD AND HARMAN: avoiding a-temporal dichotomous dualism

Barad’s philosophy is superior to OOO in that the latter is not just epistemologically but also ontologically dualist. There can be no explanation of the emergence of sensual objects from real objects: withdrawal is the opposite of emergence. Any “emergence’ in OOO is inevitably contained within a single regional ontology.

The distinction between real and sensual objects is a dualism as Harman says very clearly and emphatically that sensual objects are mere simulacra, “utter shams” (THE THIRD TABLE, 6). It is also a dichotomous dualism due to its strong ontological concept of withdrawal. For all practical purposes, and for any examples whether common-sensical or scientific, Harman plunges us irremediably (cf. “withdrawal”) into the merely perceptual.

On the question of relations, Harman’s arguments collapse due to his ignoring temporal relations, more particularly dynamic and kinetic relations such as “x is moving faster than y”, or “x, y, and z are accelerating at different rates”. Harman’s idea that “if everything is relational nothing would change” is easily refuted by such simple examples. Further, Harman constantly conflates relation, interaction, and contact, sliding glibly from one to the other without apparently noticing it. It must also be recalled in this context that for Harman time is unreal, belonging to the sensual domain.

This a-temporal dichotomous thinking is the opposite of what is needed to think deeply about the world. Harman claims that his real objects are “deeper” than sensual objects. Sensual objects are not jlimited to perceptual objects, but include also the objects of the sciences, of the humanities, and of common sense. Concepts for Harman are also sensual objects (cf. THE QUADRUPLE OBJECT, 142).

Harman makes an exception for art, but this is incoherent with the basic principles of his system of withdrawal, and is just arbitrarily stipulated rather than explained.

Note: this is a comment on the discussion of the relative merits of Harman’s OOO and Barad’s agential realism here.

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Many readers of Deleuze project a false unity over his philosophical evolution, behaving as if he never changed his views. A particularly persistent perspective reads the whole work in terms of DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION and LOGIC OF SENSE, ignoring the places where Deleuze explicitly states that he had moved on from that problematic. His problematic changed over time, and so not only did his terminology evolve but also his concepts. Particular cases of this are the relative importance of the concepts of difference and of the eternal return in his later philosophy.

I am glad that Deleuze no longer talked in those terms. The Deleuzian version of the ethical imperative is no longer to live life so as to will its return an infinite number of times but rather to live life so as to construct the body without organs the riches in intensities and connexion. None of this mistaken claptrap about return.

I see no reason to insist on the Eternal Return as a central Deleuzian concept. Firstly, the term is virtually absent in the books after DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION and LOGIC OF SENSE.Secondly, in RHIZOME it is assimilated to the fascicular system aborting explicit unity but maintaining it at a higher level:

“Nietzsche’s aphorisms shatter the linear unity of knowledge, only to invoke the cyclic unity of the eternal return, present as the nonknown in thought” (ATP,6).

Deleuze’s system is constantly changing, and I do not think it correct to treat Deleuze’s later philosophy as a philosophy of difference (but rather of multiplicity) nor a philosophy of Return (but rather of consistence).

In the later work, all the mystagogical mantras about a “return” of difference have been jettisoned. Which is just as well as they were incoherent, and a falsification of Nietzsche. The terminology has changed, but so has the concept, and I think this is an improvement.

Changing the name of a concept is not an empty gesture but changes its dimensions as well the concept. The “return” is a bad name and DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION is full of inflated empty rhetoric to get across the notion of a “return of difference”, an ultimately incoherent idea, and an unnecessary part of the concept of a deterritorialised time. So the usage is quite different. Both these concepts of difference and return came under attack from Badiou and Laruelle, and rightly so, but Deleuze had already moved on. It would be a rather strange affair if the philosopher of becoming and transformation always had the same ideas, and never changed.

Note: I am indebted to a conversation with Wayne Brooks for helping me clarify my ideas on this point.

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There is a very interesting discussion on THE DAILY NOUS around the post Are History’s “Greatest Philosophers” All That Great? My concern is less with the answer than with the way of conceiving the question. My own reply is not narrowly “Badiousian” but broadly Continental.

There is not a single real concept in this post, except the presupposed, scientistic, concept of philosophy as problem-solving. It is more an opinion piece than a serious philosophical attempt to raise a real question. It partakes of the concept-blindness that characterises both much of modern analytic philosophy and speculative realism. In cinematic terms this amounts to seeing THE MARTIAN as a greater film than 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY because the second film presents more problems than it solves.

Philosophy is much more the construction of problematics than the resolution of problems (though it is that too). This is not just my opinion, but is the way philosophy is taught in high schools and university everywhere in France, where I live and teach. This is also the way it is practised here. Bergson, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Bachelard, Deleuze, Foucault and Derrida did nothing else, as do Badiou, Stiegler, Latour, and Laruelle today. There is not a single French philosopher who tries to answer a pre-existing question without first deconstructing the question, making explicit its presupposed concepts and underlying problematic, and proposing different (or at least re-worked) concepts and problematics. A question or a problem is not the same when it is taken up into an incommensurable problematic, but only bears a family resemblance to its other avatars.

Scientism comes in when one regards philosophy as necessarily proceeding in the same way as the sciences, taken as problem-solving endeavours. This is not even a sufficient characterisation of the sciences, and far less appropriate to philosophy. Is Plato primarily a problem-solver? This is not the most fruitful way of considering his work, especially given that Plato created and gave expression to competing problematics that are still fighting it out to this day. He also did whatever he could to discredit his rivals (e.g. the Sophists) or to eliminate them from the historical record (e.g. buying up and burning Democritus’s books).

Badiou’s conception of philosophy as creating the concepts adequate to configuring the interplays and convergences between contemporary advances in the sciences, the arts, psychogenesis, and politics is no doubt too simple, but it is far less simplistic than the problem-solving model. You can’t just gawk at philosophy and count philosophers, do statistical arguments and expect to come up with significant results, that is the worse sort of naive empiricism.

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NON-ACADEMIC PHILOSOPHY or Deleuze and Zombies

The question is ever more frequently asked “Can philosophy exist outside the academy?” It is asked sometimes sincerely, sometimes disingenuously. Yet these “non-academic”, or perhaps it is better to say “non-institutionally based”, philosophers already exist and are able to flourish and to engage in fruitful dialogue thanks to their creative online presence. These thinkers are pioneering a form of philosophically lived digitality, rather than simply philosophising about the digital.

Here is my comment on the problem, with a brief list of such philosophers, including John David Ebert, Bharath Vallabha, Daniel Coffeen, and Timothy Rayner.


I would especially recommend:


LIFE CHANGING: A PHILOSOPHICAL GUIDE   (2nd Edition) by Timothy Rayner

READING THE WAY OF THINGS: Towards a New Technology of Making Sense (forthcoming) by Daniel Coffeen

IN SEARCH OF AN IDEAL blog by Bharath Vallabha

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I got very excited when I read some extracts of this book and watched the promotional videos on youtube, so I ordered it on Amazon. As I was very eager to begin, I did not want to wait, so I also bought the audiobook version, read by the author, available for purchase on Google Drive, and so was able to start reading immediately.

The book has two parts: the first part is a general introduction to the four world ages of European art, and the second is composed of specific analyses of individual artists of the post-modern epoch. Ebert points out that there is no single center or capital of art in the contemporary world, and that the major artists are geographically dispersed, so one can call the two parts Chronos and Gaia.

1) Chronos The book begins with a very interesting synthesis of the typology of historical periods proposed by Jean Gebser and of that proposed by Peter Sloterdijk in the SPHERES trilogy. His synthesis includes the ideas of Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michel Serres, Marshall Mcluhan, Hans Belting, Martin Heidegger, Arthur Danto, Cornelius Castoriadis, Vilem Flusser, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, and many more thinkers.

Ebert distinguishes 4 major epochs in the semiotics of art, and more generally of our relation to being: the pre-metaphysical period – the artist is a shaman, the metaphysical or perspectival period – the artist is an optician in Euclidean visual space, the modernist or aperspectival period – the artist is an archetypologist of geometric or anthroplological forms in multi-dimensional space, the contemporary or post-aperspectival period – the artist is a monadologist in a liquefied quantized fom-space.

2) Gaia Ebert argues that the contemporary period did not begin in 1962 with Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes”, but in the period immediately after World War II with the Abstract Expressionists. Pollock and Rothko correspond to a moment of effacing and liquefying the modernist “iconotypes”, and dissolving the shared multi-dimensional macrosphere of modernity.

These precursors herald in the contemporary period, where the artist can no longer presuppose a universal organised semiotic system, and is obliged to select and combine the signifiers of the present and the past, and to hybridise them with new signifiers, into idiosyncratic, temporary, partial, multiple organisations, with no universal legitimacy. Initially the living center of art moves from Paris to New York, only to be disseminated into a mobile polycentric dispersive phenomenon spread over the whole planet. From Parisian art has become Gaiatic.

Ebert devotes chapters also to Basquiat, Beuys, Richter, Kieffer, Beksinski, Nerdrum, Bacon, Hirst, Kapoor, Kounellis, Boltanski and situates their singular work within the general episteme of the contemporary world.

This is an ambitious work taking in a vast period of history, ranging from the ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians to the contemporary world. Geographically Ebert moves from New York through the German artists to London, Rome, and Paris.

The artists examined are very diverse, and allow Ebert to fill in his overarching general frame with many more fine-grained analyses. Further, his categories are interdisciplinary or transversal, in that they apply to much more than artists and art works. To be sure, art has become a proliferation of singular semiotic processes, but frequenting the diverse art works that are elucidated with the help of Ebert’s categories we find that our own lives are elucidated too.

This is more than an academic manual, it is also a useful guide to our own individuation in the pluralist ocean of foam that constitutes the semiotic and ontological background of our contemporary world.

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