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Negations or Networks?

To make a sweeping-statement, but one that is not invalid or unsupported, modern criticism has a very strong negative and caustic character, which is deprived of regenerating ambivalence. According to Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World we discover that this sort of strict seriousness of highbrow modern intellectuals could be otherwise; specifically, it could be more like medieval parody, which was a popular corrective laughter. Moreover, modern abuses are significantly different from the medieval period in that they are destructive and purely negative whereas it was previously ambivalent in meaning and held the potential for regeneration. “Only the bare cynicism and insult has survive[d]” and “at present conveys nothing but senseless abuse” (p. 28). In modernist form, criticism generally becomes gloomy and solemn. Even in parody it tends to be narrowly focused on cold, melancholic, destructive humor. Bakhtin presents an alternative in a more carnivalesque frame:

The principle of laughter and the carnival spirit on which grotesque is based destroys this limited seriousness and all pretense of an extratemporal meaning and unconditional value of necessity. It frees human consciousness, thought, and imagination for new potentialities. For this reason great changes, even in the field of science, are always preceded by a certain carnival consciousness that prepares the way (p. 49)

The analysis of modern abuses is a topic that Latour is also insightful enough to make. For Latour, the sacred task of modernity was to unmask and unveil. If modernity was about anything, it was foremost about revealing the underlying workings of reality and strip away all the false facades. In this sense, modernity is highly critical and negative; putting all things under suspicion and suspending any positive appraisal after all angles have been thoroughly scrutinized.

We find this same sort of investigation in Graham Harman’s book, Guerrilla Metaphysics; although not until the closing pages does he explicate the title of his work. What he means by “guerrilla metaphysics” is the modern attitude and awareness that metaphysics lies in ruins. And if, for any reason, metaphysical problems are resuscitated–such as the existence of God, the fate of the soul, the struggle between good and evil–the first impulse of learned professionals should be a critical and defensive attitude. To renew metaphysics is to lack a rigorous technical philosophy. For moderns, these problems should remain lying beyond the pale, exiled to the no man’s land of faith.

I do not think this is any less true for Nietzsche or Foucault. Nietzsche, for one, was very polemic towards Christianity and rhetorically exaggerated his position on many occasions. On a more abstract level as well, Nietzsche’s project was a space clearing gesture. As I have highlighted before under a reference to Žižek, Nietzsche was like a lion who cleared the table of false illusions and made room for the child who would come after him and posit something original. The point is that Nietzsche did not have the vocabulary to articulate something beyond his own social situation but could at least expose the absurdities of the traditions and conventions he inherited. Likewise, Foucault in many ways seems only to offer a genealogy of madness and the clinic, among other things, in order to unravel the vain ideas we have about them. As wrote Foucault,

The purpose of history, guided by genealogy, is not to discover the roots of our identity, but to commit itself to its dissipation. It does not seek to define our unique threshold of emergence…it seeks to make visible all of those discontinutites that cross us (p. 366)

Although these projects are certainly not insignificant they do fall within the modern stigma of acerbic critique mentioned above.

This makes the modern method of going about accusing one another in a critical and even indignant spirit subject to a sociology of criticism. This was clearly done in such works as Blotanski’s and Thevenot’s On Justification and Girard’s Violence and the Sacred. Instead of a resource or practice of criticism, these authors open up a systematic study to the spirit of modern critique itself, thus making us uncomfortable with the obviousness of our own scapegoating mechanisms. On the wake of these authors, according to Latour, “denunciation and revolution have both gone stale” (p. 45).

But having lost our foundation for moral judgment by denunciation are we without tools for analyzing everything that is important to us? Latour thinks not, for we have always functioned by other methods. “It is called arrangement, combination, combinazione, combine, but also negotiation or compromise… It is scorned because it does not allow indignation, but it is active and generous because it follows the countless meanderings of situations and networks” (p. 45). This supple rather than rigid form of examining, assessing, and describing reality has always been present with us; we have just opted for smugness and indignation in favor.

This means for Latour that neither anti-moderns nor post-moderns offer fresh solutions to the problem. While both sense “that something has gone awry in the modern critique” they nevertheless “prolong that critique” (p. 46). One of the characteristics they share is a proclivity for thinking about revolutions that will come along and solve all their problems in one swift swoop. But these revolutions that moderns and their epigones fantasize over are

scarcely anything more than small extensions of practices, slight accelerations in the circulation of knowledge, a tiny extension of societies, minuscule increases in the number of actors, small modifications of old beliefs. When we see them as networks, Western innovations remain recognizable and important, but they no longer suffice as the stuff of saga, a vast saga of radical rupture, fatal destiny, irreversible good or bad fortune (p. 48)

So, as Latour would have it, we’ve never been modern. We have only ever rearranged and translated preexisting elements and their relations. In a positive retrospective attitude we can affirmatively say that we have always been non-modern.

The Style of Things

Perception for Merleau-Ponty, as will other phenomenologists, is always an interpretation of a perceived object. Implied in this is the incontrovertible sense that we can never access things-in-themselves, unadulterated by our own subjectivity. An inevitable conclusion to the observation that we stuck with our perception is to question whether there are objects at all exterior to one’s conscious. Leaving aside this trajectory of though briefly, Merleau-Ponty seems to be leaning in another, more positive, direction. According to him, although humans mold sense data and perception, qualities are indeed attached to things outside of the self. In other words, “qualities are permanently subordinated to the things” (Graham Harman, Guerrilla Metaphysics, p. 48). In some sense this is a decentering of the human subject; an overturning of the Copernican revolution of Kant’s transcendental idealism. Things summon my entire being, rather than the inverse, my subjectivity summoning objects.

Returning to the infinite regress posed above, whether this world has an autonomous reality outside of our perception, we find that Merleau-Ponty is equivocal. “In one sense, he happily admits that the world we explore is something that exceeds us, and which needs to be approached on its own terms if it is every to yield up its secrets” (pp. 49-50). On the other hand, he is a product of his time and does not want to regress to naïve scientific realism. While he is, at times, a champion for a world distinct from human experience, he simultaneously holds that ““the thing is inseparable from a person perceiving it, and can never be actually in itself” (p. 50).

But it is noteworthy, however, that faced with this contradiction, Merleau-Ponty develops some innovative philosophical claims. Given his mixed concession as to the reality of the world, Merleau-Ponty sketches a make-shift metaphysics of relations. “If an object is not reducible to my perspective on it, and yet is also not a real entity outside of this perspective, then there is still another option: namely, perhaps an object is the focal point of many perspectives” (p. 50). The radical claim made here by Merleau-Ponty is as such: “the reality of a thing is defined by the sum total of perspectives by which other things perceive it” (p. 51). This world, in which inanimate things and objects actually perceive each other, is a simulacrum of the theory espoused by Whitehead. Put simply, objects come to be defined only in terms of their relation (or perception in this case) with other objects. This significantly creates a collective of objects to great thickness and depth, a “dimension in which things or elements of things envelop each other” (p. 53). Thus, to have a body, is “already to be folded into the things” (p. 53). Flesh or carnality, in other words, is the “intertwining, interlacing, interfacing” of the self with a democracy of other entities.

But we still have to account for the things in themselves. Given that objects are always already in a network of other objects that confer upon them meaning, it is a mere extension of this same thought to conceive of any given object as a collective or bunddle of other objects. One conclusion to draw from this hypothesis is that things, in general, have a specific profile, posture or style when interacting in the world. Perception, then, would be an attempt to understand the unique and animating impulse to things. Although a style is never visibly present, Graham Harman argues, our perception can grasp, in part, the an object’s “style of being”.