REVIEW OF WOLFENDALE (1): Context of Speculation

Over the last few years a self-styled “new” ontological hypothesis, calling itself “object-oriented philosophy”, constituted itself within a more general movement calling itself “Speculative Realism” (SR). This philosophical constellation multiplied self-proclaimed and self-propagated signs of success, at the same time as showing unmistakable symptoms of conceptual regression and communicative pathology. Purporting to effect a step beyond the impasses of post-structuralist “relativism”, it announced itself as a response to widely felt need for a return to the real world.

Based on the chimerical denial of a supposed undue primacy accorded to epistemology, and on a wilful blindness to its own status as (bad) epistemology, SR was able to capture the attention of those who were looking for a new speculative style, after the Science Wars. It was promoted in opposition to those who were content to extend and revise the already existing Heideggerian, Lacanian, Deleuzian, Derridean etc. Continental philosophy was thought to have distanced itself both from the real itself and from the metaphysical speculation capable of pronouncing new truths about the real.

However, the whole style of Continental Philosophy was now perceived as too obscure and abstruse, too erudite and élitist, and the new realism was in danger of being condemned for the same reasons. A more pop version of the same ambition was needed, and Graham Harman’s OOP (object-oriented philosophy) satisfied the strongly felt need both to have done with the relativist impasses of deconstruction and to return to “naiveté”. (This is Harman’s word for his new starting point, cited from the opening of his THE QUADRUPLE OBJECT).

It is this simplicity and radicality of approach that establishes Harman as by far the more radical thinker when we compare his ontology of withdrawn objects to the mathematism of Meillassoux, the scientism of Brassier, and the Lacanian naturalism of Bryant. Harman alone has been willing to discard the scientistic prejudice that vitiates the work of these thinkers.

Yet this superiority of Harman could only be maintained by sticking to the pathos of an escape from epistemology. For as long as he did not explicitly engage with epistemological themes in his own name the denegation of its status as epistemology on which his work was built gave it even more force of conviction and persuasive power. The objectual conversion remained a potent possibility. With the publication of Harman’s THE THIRD TABLE this overtly anti-epstemological posture was revealed as an imposture, OOP was seen to be far from expressing superior insight over and above “sensual” common sense, humanistic, and scientific realities, as it purports to do.

Harman’s wide-ranging critique not just of the reductive illusions of common sense but also of the more sophisticated reductionism in the humanities (overmining) and in the natural sciences (undermining), and his positing of a withdrawn realm of “real objects”, allowed him to combine in a new synthesis the appearance of speculative radicalism and that of a return to concrete reality. This new realism had the advantage of gratifying the narcissism of its adherents in the philosophic and artistic community while saving it from the chicanes  of postmodern relativism. Unfortunately it’s rapid rise to popularity was short-lived, and Harman’s OOP can now be seen as conceptually incompetent and sterile, unable to give a satisfying account of the world, neither of the real objects that it posits nor of the domains that it consigns to the status of “sensual” illusion.

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