I remember reading an interview somewhere with Ray Brassier where he referred to his big work, Nihil Unbound, as a “botched job.” I can’t recall why he thought that (it’s a fantastic work) or what he thought he needed to get right for next time, but I really admired him for saying it. Scholars and artists put so much of themselves into their work that it’s hard not to over-identify with it. It’s hard not to stand by your work, even if there’s something incomplete or perhaps wrong about it. Part of that is ego, but part of it is ethos. And ethos is real. It belongs to audience just as much as it does to the speaker/writer. If you’re publicly honest about the shortcomings of your previous work, you might get some points for that honesty–but how can you expect anyone to invest their time and trust into the next one?
With that in mind, I’m on the road to completing (or rectifying) that which was incomplete (or wrong) about my past work on OOO and epistemology. This includes my book and a recent article that never survived the editing process. Much of the inspiration for revising my thinking comes from the second of my blog-mediated conversations with Eric Taxier, whose sharp insights into object-quality tensions led me to a very different reading of ontography. I’ve never really put much stock into academic conferences but, man, critical engagement does matter.
Anyway, here’s a very rough introduction to a new essay I’m writing in which will attempt to apply a more systematic treatment of the matter. I submit it here not to illicit feedback (not just yet, anyway), but to thumbtack it onto the wall, to try to stay within the bounds of the few basic tasks I’ve laid out for myself:
Why Don’t Objects Have Properties? (subtitle forthcoming)
There is a perfectly efficient answer to the titular question of this essay: People in the analytical tradition tend to talk about ‘properties,’ whereas those in the phenomenological tradition like to talk about ‘qualities,’ even though they’re all essentially dealing with the same thing. Object-Oriented Ontology speaks with a phenomenological accent, so it uses qualities.
If you aren’t subscribed to Eric Taxier’s blog (The Mystery Bin), you should be. Eric T. is a musicologist who also traffics in metaphysics; and his insights into aesthetics, object-oriented ontology, and music are both rare and profound. You’ll want to hitch your wagon to his star now.
In the year and change since I started this blog, Eric T. has become a generous, challenging, and invaluable interlocutor. Thanks to him, some of the best stuff in this blog has existed underground, in the Comments sections. He has been kind enough to permit me to publish our latest conversation as a separate post. The real philosophical dialogue (distinct from the dramatized Platonic-style dialogue) is actually one of my favorite genres of scholarly literature, and when it is done with humility and good faith, I find it more productive than the co-authored monograph or the edited volume. The following, then, is a micro-contribution to that genre. I have edited out some of the salutations and my frequent apologies for being so late to reply, and I have also prefaced each entry with relevant themes. Other than that, what you see is what you get.
Briefly, we began with the topic of equivocation in contemporary political discourse in response to my short entry on Donald Trump’s post-Charlottesville comments. We then went on to discuss the relationship between the rhetoric of equivocation and philosophies of equivocity/univocity, referencing both Medieval theological and contemporary debates, citing a range of figures including Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, and Alain Badiou. We also talked about equivocal philosophy and the naturalization of nature–there citing the work of Arianne Conty, Felix Guattari, and Bruno Latour. The thread ended up with a discussion of aesthetic causality, in which we staked out positions on the relationship between withdrawal and endurance in Harmanian objects. As you’ll see, I largely came around to Eric T.’s POV on the deep distinction between withdrawal and endurance.
If nothing else, this dialogue serves as an excellent primer for the thinkers and philosophies mentioned above. But if you already have positions staked out on these things, some of the arguments in this thread might persuade you to think otherwise, as they have for me. Please read on!
Toledo has seen better times. But it does have an art museum left over from its glory days that can go toe-to-toe with just about any museum in the country. Seriously. Come and see it if you can.
I was there yesterday with my department to look at the new Shakespeare exhibit and, as a side trip, to show off some of the Etruscan and early Roman work we had been discussing in my lecture on the history of the alphabet.
But there was a wonderful surprise waiting for us. A new installation from Gabriel Dawe called Plexus no. 35.
The work is doubly exposed because there’s no behind to it and because it’s just bundles of thread attached from floor to ceiling by little, open hooks. Destroying the whole thing would be the work of a moment. There were two museum attendants at all times to make sure no one–child and adult alike–gave in the the temptation to run their hands along the threads. For my own sake, I’m glad they were there.
Plexus no. 35 is a pretty thing. And I suppose when we come across a pretty thing, the other organs get jealous of our eyes. It’s natural to want to touch, if not taste and smell it. I put a lot of things into my mouth as a child.
But standing in front of Dawe’s work was extra frustrating. It isn’t a light show or a new media work in any sense we’re use to. But it’s clear that light is the object. The light isn’t affecting the thing; the thread matter is there to affect the light. So that even if you did give into the burning temptation to run your hands along the thread, it wouldn’t satisfy. Perhaps the museum attendants weren’t there to keep us from destroying the work, but to save us from the disappointment. You can’t touch something that creates its own spatial frame.
The point of Harmanian object withdrawal is that there is always something in reserve which reason and sense cannot touch. But standing in front of a Dawe installation, repressing the toddler’s urge to touch it or to put it in your mouth is about as close as you can get to seeing what withdrawal looks like.
After I posted my review of Graham Harman’s Immaterialism back in July, I got a reply with some truly insightful comments and questions from a reader, Eric T. Since I’m new to WordPress and am generally a dunce when it comes to tech, I had unknowingly disabled comments until earlier this month. But when I did find Eric’s comment, we began a thought-provoking, challenging, and mutually instructive correspondence in the comments section of that post. I recently asked Eric if I could publish that conversation as a separate post, and, happily, he agreed. The conversation began with Harman’s book and has somehow morphed into the metaphysics of participation in the Clarke-Leibniz debate. I think you’ll enjoy finding out how we got there.
(I’ve offset the comments in italics and non-italics for clarity.)
No, it’s not the one about absolute vs. relative space. In fact, the challenge Graham Harman takes up in his latest book, Immaterialism, wasn’t so much a challenge issued by Leibniz as a throwaway comment about real objects and the Dutch East India Company. Having rummaged through the dustbin of philosophical history, Harman found Leibniz’s comment, uncrinkled the paper, and stuck it to his refrigerator door. At least that’s how I imagine it.
There’s a part in The Being of Analogy where I claim I don’t really know what “scientism” is supposed to mean. That was a bit of disingenuous rhetorical flourish used to distance myself from the term, and I probably shouldn’t have said it. I know perfectly well what it means and why it exists, but I’m still uncomfortable with it. I’ve been uncomfortable with “scientism” ever since I made the transition in graduate school from physical anthropology to English studies, which is when I first encountered the term. I identified then as a lone scientist besieged by an army of deconstructionists, and, as such, “scientism” smacked of glib, kneejerk anti-intellectualism. It still feels pretty kneejerk to me, but I no longer see it as glib or anti-intellectual. My beef with it now is that it’s too ambiguous and it’s often a gateway to either hypocrisy or disengagement with science.