THE LINGUISTIC ARGUMENT AGAINST OOO

In a very interesting article published in ARTFORUM Andrew Cole offers some very effective critiques of Graham Harman’s version of OOO on a number of points. I wish to examine in particular what I have called his linguistic argument. Harman actually admits he doesn’t understand it, which to his mind is a damning criticism of you, not of himself. This is despite the huge emphasis he puts on language, which all boils down to saying its “important”. He has no real reflection to offer on the subject.

This linguistic argument has nothing to do with the “correlationist circle”, because there is no such thing. The notion of “correlationism” is so vague that anyone and everyone could be called correlationist, including Harman himself (which is precisely what Alexander Galloway and Pete Wolfendale argue). I mention Galloway and Wolfendale as examples of authors having produced strong critiques of OOO and who have never received any other replies than his usual mix of “tonal” criticism, side-stepping, sarcasm and straw-manning.

Cole’s linguistic argument is more complex than one might suppose: it has in fact two prongs: an internal one and an external one. This admixture of internal and external considerations is standard procedure in academic argument. To criticise effectively position X one does not need to, and in mosts cases probably should not, transform oneself in to an X-ian and analyse that philosophy uniquely in its own terms. I do not need to convert to X to refute X, luckily enough, as this requirement would prevent all criticism.

Cole’s internal argument is that Harman’s real objects are incoherent posits that do no real work in his system. They cannot be described, nor even named, as objects “withdraw” from all relations including referential relations.

Cole’s external argument is that the language that Harman employs cannot be regarded solely as adjusted to his posited real objects (the internal prong shows that no such adjustment is possible). There is no linguistic tabula rasa. All Harman’s theoretical terms have both linguistic and political associations, and this needs to be taken into account in the assessment of OOO’s impact and utility.

The internal argument is a necessary preliminary to the external argument. Given the incoherent status of real objects in his system, Harman cannot plead that he abstracts from the common sense or theoretical connotations of his ontological vocabulary. He cannot declare convincingly “I mean what I mean”, as what he means is pure nonsense.

Harman’s condemnation of the “taxonomic” fallacy, of ascribing different ontological statuses to different kins of entities, is a smokescreen. It is a childish attempt to hide by denial what is visible to all: his whole division between sensual objects (given the status of sham, illusion, simulacra) and real objects (given tautologically the status of “real”, because one can’t say much else about them) is the perfect exemplar of the taxonomic fallacy of ontological bifurcation.

Any references to a so-called “Correlationist-Circle Argument” have no pertinence here. The only sense we can attribute to “correlationism” in this context is what others before Meillassoux (for example Popper) have called “subjectivism”. Harman’s presupposition that knowledge is “access” is a typical subjectivist assumption. Long before Meillassoux and Harman began recounting their fallacious historical narrative of the hegemony of “correlationism”, Anglophone epistemology and philosophy of science had dropped subjectivist premises in order to prevent the development of “correlationist”-like conclusions. For them knowledge is not access.

A good summary of this rejection of subjectivist presuppositions can be found in Popper’s “Epistemology Without the Knowing Subject”, which was first published in 1968 (the year of Graham Harman’s birth). It was later collected in Popper’s OBJECTIVE KNOWLEDGE, a book that pronounced the death-knell of subjectivist epistemologies, published in 1972 (Harman was 4 years old). The main theme of this book is that knowledge is not subjective access but objectively expressed and testable speculation. To take another example, Bruno Latour’s whole intellectual career from his first book LABORATORY LIFE is based on a similar rejection of the presupposition that knowledge is access, which he replaces with the thesis that knowledge is objective construction.

Harman’s phantasmatic history of philosophy effaces the anti-subjectivist advances of the 60s and 70s, that have continued on into the present. His object-oriented philosophy is a regression to a set of presuppositions that have long been abandonned, and he wishes to take us back decades into the past.

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