ON INVENTED OPPONENTS: On Graham Harman’s imaginary enemies

Harman scores points against a very silly opponent: « Once blog exchanges reach a certain point of fruitlessness, I tend to stop reading them. Hence it came as a shock to me to learn that anyone ever made the argument that if I say that corporations are real objects, I must therefore support corporations ».

If we go back to Alexander Galloway’s original post, we see that nowhere does he say this. Something like this is falsely attributed to him by a commenter called Philip, of Circling Squares: « And as for the claims that granting reality to corporations justifies their political enfranchisement … well, my mind boggles at that. That would only be the case if ontology and politics were fused. Only then would the granting of ontological thing-hood simultaneously be the granting of political personhood ».

Once his position has been caricatured in this way, the caricature can live a life of its own and be »refuted » effortlessly in both curt (Harman) and long-winded repetitious (Bryant) versions. And the original argument, containing (horror!) concepts, can be forgotten.

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6 commentaires pour ON INVENTED OPPONENTS: On Graham Harman’s imaginary enemies

  1. Philip dit :

    From Alex Galloway’s « A response to Graham Harman’s ‘Marginalia on Radical Thinking' »:

    « This brings out a secondary problem with OOO in that it falls prey to a kind of “Citizens United fallacy”.. everything is an object, and thus Monsanto and Exxon Mobil are objects on equal footing just like the rest. Like other (human) objects, Monsanto is free to make unlimited campaign donations, contribute to the degradation of the environment, etc. »

    For what it’s worth I, the above-mentioned commenter, did read the post that I commented on. I didn’t just take Harman’s word for it. And I agree with his interpretation of what I’ve quoted above. It seems to me that Alex made ontological thinghood and political personhood one and the same thing and used that supposition to critique the philosophy of Harman et al. Harman’s claim, like mine, is that this doesn’t follow. Whether or not a thing is a political person is a property of that thing, not a question of the thing’s bare existence. Saying that an object exists tells you nothing about what kind of object it is. Therefore, nothing about saying that corporations are real necessarily means that they are or should be political persons.

    Simply, the claim that ontological realism vis-a-vis corporations necessarily entails the granting of political personhood to corporations is a non sequitur. I don’t know what ‘concepts’ of Alex’s got lost in my interpretation. As I read it his post was a fairly weak caricature based upon some simple misunderstandings and/or misrepresentations. It was actually rather light on concepts.

    p.s. I try to avoid engaging in the malice that these discussions seem to generate so I hope that this comment is met in the spirit of friendly discussion that it is intended, rather than the vindictive turf wars that these things seem to all too often degenerate into!


    • terenceblake dit :

      I probably should have taken more oratorical precautions here, but I was trying my hand at the curt response style that GH was using. Philip, I do think your interpretation was wrong, but I was quite aware that you were reacting to this passage (« everything is an object, and thus Monsanto and Exxon Mobil are objects on equal footing just like the rest. Like other (human) objects, Monsanto is free to make unlimited campaign donations, contribute to the degradation of the environment, etc.”) and I probably should have quoted it, so I was not accusing you of not having read Alexander’s post. My worry was quite elsewhere/ I think that the OOOxians (are you one?, I didn’t know that. I see you in your blog engaging enthusiastically but to my mind not critically enough with OOxian ideas and readings) create false rumours and straw man opponents that they then spread everywhere to give the illusion that their adversaries are very silly indeed. So I think that your reading served as the first step in the fabrication of a silly stereotype. Harman does not reply to Galloway, he replies to a caricature fabricated by Bryant on the basis of your eading. You at least are responding to a concrete text. (This by the way is typical Harmanian hand-waving, eg talking about the omnipresence of « epistemologies of access » without bothering to analyse specific texts by epistemologists such as Popper, who gives the lie to this sweeping stereotype).
      My interpretation of that passage is different than yours (but interpretation is a pluralist gesture, is it not?). I think that ontology has to be far more « granular » or heterogeneous than it is often taken to be. Alexander’s remark seems to mean that Monsanto and Exxon Mobil are political objects and that while OOO, at least in Bryant’s version, is capable of recognising and dealing that, this granularity is not reflected in the basic principles of OOO (especially in the mind-numbing phrase “all objects equally exist, but not all objects exist equally.” One of the techniques of ideological critique is the symptomatic reading, where the failure to make a certain sort of distinction is a political failing.
      So what « concepts » is Bryant blind to, I think he is blind to the heterogeneity of régimes of enunciation, having only a weak watered down notion of what it could mean. he is blind to the concept of « critique », and also of ideology (which is in practices and in objects too). He is blind to the specificity of religious enunciation and practice, and so is blind to his own reductionism.


      • Philip dit :

        Hi Terence,

        No, I don’t consider myself to be an ‘OOO-er.’ To be honest I don’t think of myself as an anything-er. Not so much out of any particular hostility towards labelling but just because I don’t find myself sitting comfortably in any particular camp. Latour is the theorist I know best by far in this area so my responses to these questions tend to come from that perspective. I suppose you could call me a Latourian (though with some caveats).

        If my recent posts haven’t come across as very critical of OOO, etc. then that isn’t necessarily representative of my thoughts as a whole. On this particular issue I tend to agree with Bryant and Harman. However, for instance, I find Harman’s reading of Latour to be deeply wanting (while interesting). His take on Latour’s ‘plasma’ is just plain wrong, in my opinion. (e..g.: http://circlingsquares.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/anthem-on-plasma.html)

        However, while I have my reservations about OOO-ers I think they’re an important counterpoint to the same old dogmatic pretensions of continental thought. My impressions on this are formed by my recent scrape with grad student life, being force fed poststructuralist theory as if it were the only alternative to outright positivist empiricism or paleo-Marxist materialism. Too many people are just repeating the slogans of decades past, pretending that what was radical in the ’70s is still such today — like ‘Theory’ hasn’t been gentrified. The kind of mishmash of linguistic-phenomenological social constructivism that gets forced upon you is just another sedimented dogma — just as myopic and self-regarding as those it supposedly critiques. At least these people are trying something a bit different, whether you agree with them or not at least they’re diversifying the gene pool.

        I cannot speak for or defend Bryant’s position. Suffice to say I am willing to look on his silences vis-a-vis the specificity of different regimes more generously than you are though I concede that he fails to properly explicate the differences and that it can seem as though ontology is the master discourse, explaining all the others. He does have a tendency to respond to criticism less than positively, which only makes matters worse. In fairness to him he does tend to be subject to the same sorts of criticism over and over — and when he thinks he’s responded to it enough times it’s clearly frustrating to have the same things thrown at you again and again. Sadly, the ensuing slagging matches fail to pick apart the real differences and nobody ends up any wiser.

        As for the importance of ideological critique and symptom reading, what we have here, it seems to me, is mutually incompatible modes of analysis. Symptomatic analysis involves a whole different set of rules of inference compared to the programmatic setting out of definitions in relation to each other, logically. It’s impossible to have a conversation on these terms since we’re really talking about different things. What constitutes a defence of a claim in one set of rules is nothing of the sort in the other. It’s a difficult bridge to build, that.

        To be honest ‘critique’ is one term that, in my opinion, needs to be subjected to severe critique itself. The symptomological reading has a hegemony of its own that restricts itself to particular pathways — paths that are, by now, well trodden. So, yes, I suppose I’m also more amenable to the ‘programmatic’ mode of discourse rather than the critical one.

        I’m not sure that answers all your points but hopefully it tells you something!


  2. Alexander Galloway dit :

    My reference to Citizens United simply references what we might call the “Personification problem” in Harman. When people quote only those two sentences, they’re unfortunately doing a straw man on me. But if one reads *the very next sentence* you’ll see that I address these concerns.

    Anyhow, here is the personification problem laid out in more explicit language:

    1) Harman assigns the as-structure to all objects. (Rationale: This is self evident, since it’s the central thrust of Harman’s tool analysis.) Specifically, Harman locates the as-structure in the sensual or phenomenal part of the object, as opposed to the real or noumenal part of the object.

    2) The as-structure is the essential ingredient of personhood. (Rationale: this is just straight phenomenology. In Heidegger, from where Harman borrows it, the as-structure is the key ingredient in Dasein, which we know is the special mode of being that is associated with the human person.)

    3) Thus to assign the as-structure to all objects is equivalent to granting personhood to them.


    • Philip dit :

      Hi Alexander,

      Sorry if I misunderstood you, it wasn’t my intention to misrepresent anyone.

      I can’t argue with the specifics of the Heidegger stuff since I don’t know him very well though I must say that just because Harman takes this idea from Heidegger it doesn’t necessarily mean that he has to take everything that goes along with it. Just because (a) this is the criterion of personhood for Heidegger and (b) Harman extends it to objects generally this doesn’t preclude the possibility that (c) Harman can supply a separate criterion of personhood that separates political or legal persons from objects altogether. If he fulfils the latter then your point 3 doesn’t hold for him. Assigning « the as-structure to all objects » is only « equivalent to granting personhood to them » if the Heideggerian concept is both adopted unmodified and if there is no other ontological distinction between objects and persons addended to that concept. From what he’s said it seems that this is just what he claims — that personhood follows on from bare objecthood and it isn’t implied by it and, therefore, that he doesn’t swallow the Heideggerian concept whole.

      If you’re saying that using Heidegger’s personhood criterion to define objecthood *suggests* the personification of things while it doesn’t strictly *denote* it then your critique really just amounts to ‘guilt by association.’ You’ve not demonstrated any concrete link, just hinted at a vague and possible one and taken that to be a symptom of a deeper ideological prejudice. I’m sorry but, with all due respect, that’s weak.

      I appreciate that the above quote was out of context. Here’s what you say just after the Monsanto bit:

      « The way out of this problem, at least for Bogost and Bryant, seems to be a kind of cake-and-eat-it-too Animal Farm koan: that all objects are equal, but some objects are more equal than others. This seems to be rather nonsensical, since on the one hand they want to reject correlation and put all objects on equal footing, but on the other hand retain a pop science view of the world in which some equal-footed objects nevertheless have more “gravity attraction” than other equal-footed objects. What this produces is a kind of marketplace ontology that essentializes and reinforces hierarchy even as it claims to circumvent it. The only thing worse than inequality is an inequality founded in equality. But that’s capitalism for you: everyone is equal in the marketplace except for, ta-da, the 1%. »

      In other words, they claim that (a) all objects equally exist but (b) they don’t exist equally (or exist as equals). In their view, there is no contradiction between a ‘flat ontology,’ metaphysically speaking, and between social or political inequality. A slave and a plantation owner equally exist but they don’t exist equally — it’d be absurd to say that one is more real than the other due to social subordination and it’d be equally absurd to say that their position within the social hierarchy is equal because of the bare fact of them both existing as material beings.

      But then I suspect that you know this. What you really seem to object to is the very notion of ‘equal existence’ (the first part) since you suggest that equal existence implies existing equally. You refuse the separation between the two because you find it nonsensical. And because you refuse the separation you can then say that OOO adopts a ‘marketplace ontology’ and is neoliberal in character, etc. since there is no longer a reasonably maintainable difference (in Bogost or Bryant’s own accounts) between being equally materially existent and being socio-economically equal. Collapsing the two together by pointing to their alleged absurdity makes the critique possible.

      So, the disagreement here is really on the possibility of collapsing the separation between equally existing and existing equally (or existing as equals). You say that this separation is based on little more than pop-science and so on. Maybe, but that isn’t a good enough reason, in my opinion.

      Can the separation be maintained? I think so. To be honest you don’t really provide any particularly strong argument to contradict this claim, you just make suggestions to that end. This is important since, as I understand it, your entire critique hinges on it. If the separation is absurd and unsupportable then equally existing can be taken to imply equal existence and torn asunder for all that implies. If, however, it is a reasonable separation then taking equally existing to mean existing equally is just over-reading or over-reaching — the connection hasn’t been demonstrated or justified but the same conclusions are drawn regardless. Again, it’s guilt by association. And, again, that’s just weak critique.

      I don’t think that intellectual condemnations should be made on the basis of such loose, undefined and vague connections. To be honest it comes across as being ideological itself. Gaps in the reasoning are bridged not by reasoning but by rhetorical fiat. It is just declared to be so. This is ideology just like the reactionary who denounces the immigrants who ‘come over here are steal our jobs’ and simultaneously ‘sit around and mooch off our welfare system.’ The obvious contradiction points to a deeper cause: hatred of foreigners is being rationalised according to whatever narratives are available. Similarly, here it seems that you just plain don’t like what Harman et al. are saying so you’re trying to find reasons to justify that dislike but, upon inspection, the dots just don’t join up. There’s a clear drive to tear these arguments apart but it’s done in such a way that doesn’t hold together. There just are too many unjustified inferences.

      At least that’s my critique. Harman, Bryant and the rest say that they do not believe that objecthood denotes personhood or that flat ontology denotes marketplace-esque equivalence between things or humans. Because you take each of these things to connote each other (but you don’t by any means demonstrate that one follows from the other) then I don’t think that your critique holds water.

      Perhaps I’m still getting it all wrong — it’s perfectly possible. I’ve certainly rambled on for long enough. However, I don’t think that I can be much clearer. A large part of these disagreements results from poor communication. I hope that I’ve at least communicated well enough!


  3. terenceblake dit :

    Thanks for the clarification. Granting personhood to objects is not an anodyne act, especially if ontological and legal régimes are entangled as in the case of corporations.


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