Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

The Philosophy Beat

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Speaking of definitive takedowns, Alex Galloway may have just posted one for speculative realism/OOO at An und für sich.

I cite this as a textbook example of the liberal bourgeois position that people from the likes of Zizek to Carl Schmitt have called “depoliticization and neutralization.” It shows Harman’s anti-political position quite clearly. Today we might even call this an anti-badiousian position (although Harman of course has no interest in being badiousian in the first place!). The reason is because he has no opposition to the state of the situation. By his own admission, he only expresses revulsion *after* the confrontation with the state has taken place, after he witnesses the excesses to which the state will go to hold on to power. That’s a classic case of liberal neutralization (“don’t rock the boat,” “we just need to go along to get along,” “this is the best of all possible worlds,” “ontology shouldn’t be political,” etc.). This is thus not a political desire of any kind, merely an affective emotional response at the sight of blood. But such palpitations of the “sensitive” bourgeois heart, no matter how reformed, do not a politics make.

By contrast, Badiou’s position is so useful today because he says that it’s all about the *first* antagonism, not the last. To be political means that you have to *start* from the position of incompatibility with the state. In other words the political is always asymmetrical to the state of the situation. The political is always “trenchant” in this sense, always a “cutting” or polarization. Hence the appeal of Badiou’s “theory of points” which forces all of the equal-footed-objects in OOO into a trenchant decision of the two: yes or no, stop or go, fight or retreat. Hardt and Negri say something similar when they show how “resistance is primary vis-a-vis power.” For his part Harman essentially argues the reverse in this interview: ontology is primary (OOO “is not the handmaid of anything else”), power is secondary (Mubarak), resistance is a tertiary afterthought (the Arab Spring). Yes we should applaud the Spring when it arrives, Harman admits, but it’s still just an afterthought that arrived from who knows where.

If you’re still skeptical just use the old categorial imperative: if everyone in Cairo were clones of Harman, the revolution would never have happened. That’s political neutralization in a nutshell. In other words there is no event for Harman. And here I agree with Mehdi Belhaj Kacem’s recent characterization of Tristan Garcia’s ontology, modeled closely after Harman’s, as essentially a treatise on “Being Without Event.”

9 Responses

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  1. “Definitive,” really? I’d probably agree with Galloway at the end of the day that OOO cancels politics, but I find this kind of polemic disheartening. First, because of the lack of care it displays in treating the ideas at hand (e.g. the purported “similarity” between Badiou’s idea of politics and Hardt and Negri’s is entirely lost on me). He marshals the list of proper of names to his side by adopting an external relation to their thought and then setting up superficial affinities between them. Secondly, and more importantly, I’m just disheartened by the ungenerous way in which he responds to Harman’s self-criticism in the face of what Harman himself describes not as “an afterthought that arrived from who knows where” but rather precisely in the terms of a true revolutionary event–something that was unpredicted but which nevertheless retrospectively creates its own conditions of possibility and produces consequences that exceed it and continue to reverberate. To invert Galloway’s backhanded compliment of Harman: I do not respect his intellectual energy in the case of this polemic.

    A. Geil

    June 3, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    • “He marshals the list of proper of names to his side by adopting an external relation to their thought and then setting up superficial affinities between them.”

      Definitive Galloway takedown?

      The piece zeroed in on my major objections to OOO (its anti-politics, and its inability to distinguish between the panoply of objects), so perhaps I was overly generous to Galloway. I don’t see, though, how your characterization Harman’s description of his reaction to the Arab Spring is really mitigating — isn’t it precisely Galloway’s point that for Harman politics can only be “retrospective,” and thus if everyone were like Harman it couldn’t exist at all?


      June 3, 2012 at 4:06 pm

      • No it’s not a definitive Galloway takedown. Come on now. :)
        But seriously, I mean when he was at Duke for his Lit alumni talk didn’t he essentially align Badiou on the side of speculative realism by virtue of the shared idea that ontology is the domain of mathematics and (much like he does here with Deleuze) that this position is unwittingly (or secretly) “complicit with capitalism” because set theory is also the basis for the software that enables finance capital? That was a really dumb line of critique. But the entirely different use he makes here in his polemic with Harman of Badiou’s approach to ontology and politics (now Badiou is on his side) is so inconsistent with that previous claim that I don’t find the charge of bad faith (which he says he is accused of by those who refuse to engage him) too surprising.

        I think you’re right about the point Galloway is making re: a retrospective politics, I just disagree with it, especially if the alternative is some kind of heroic decisionism in which it is impossible to have one’s position changed, let alone to be radicalized by an event because you are yourself already maximally radical and your political will is the source of all true events in the first place. Are we to say to everyone who claims to have been changed by a profound political event, to have been woken from their quietist slumber: “your testimony only confirms that you are a liberal, for only a liberal would be capable of having their convictions shaken in this way. And once a liberal always a liberal.” In a strange way, this for me is itself a kind of cancellation of politics because it denies the capacity for events to fundamentally change people and installs the heroic decision as the agent of history.

        That said, I just think a more generous but no less critical approach might have been to somehow try to show how Harman’s very reflections on the effect that witnessing the “Arab Spring” had on him cut against the grain of his apolitical ontology.

        A. Geil

        June 3, 2012 at 5:03 pm

      • But yes I agree with the essential objections to OOO (not that I’ve spent that much time with it) that you and Gallaway name. Being kind of wired polemically myself, reading his polemic helped me take a little distance on that mode of engaging with another’s ideas. It was also a good object lesson, as far as I’m concerned, for how extremely careful you should be when engaging in polemic to know what you’re talking about.

        A. Geil

        June 3, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    • agree, agree, agree, abe! especially with regard to galloway’s point about ‘retrospective politics’–a position that assumes not only (as you said) ‘heroic decisionism’ as the agent of history, but also proper ideology (his own, i assume) as the condition of possibility for for revolutionary action–an assumption that not only separates thought and action in order to privilege and prioritize proper thought as the necessary precondition to action (as though one might not think through action, creating an understanding of the world-on-the-fly in the moment of revolutionary change), but also goes against the historical emergence of a number of what he might call revolutionary events, which have begun when small actions and final straws (a slap, being denied bread, etc.) ignite or radicalize situations of need, of the intolerable, in ways that are rarely coherent as ‘proper ideology’ beforehand (which seems evidence to me that affect itself is not merely reactionary, a(nti)political, or incapable of instigating politics). i’d be very interested if someone where to actually write something that would “somehow try to show how Harman’s very reflections on the effect that witnessing the “Arab Spring” had on him cut against the grain of his apolitical ontology”–it strikes me as a far more useful way of understanding the politics *internal* (one might suggest, violently internal) to a positioning oneself as apolitical, and in ways that would be particular to ooo.


      June 3, 2012 at 9:01 pm

  2. Well, you guys are definitely making me feel bad about calling it definitive.


    June 4, 2012 at 12:32 am

    • ha! :) well, it seems to me to be a plausibly good take-down on a number of points, but the whole tenor of the conversation (including the comments) rubs me in the wrong way–both as a way of thinking/talking about philosophy, and as a claim to political (ir)relevance.


      June 4, 2012 at 1:17 am

      • double ha! I hope you don’t feel definitively bad, Gerry. I’m sure you’ve had to deal with many meaner responses in your blogging career. I actually think your remark was right insofar as the “takedown” does “define” a certain style. And, anyway, I totally agree with you and Lindsey that there are a number of important points being made in spite of the style. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.
        And hey Lindsey–your response was so much more thoroughgoing than mine and really helped me think through the implications of what I was sort of just intuitively objecting to in this takedown talk. Thanks!

        A. Geil

        June 4, 2012 at 9:46 am

  3. You guys do make a good case that Galloway’s politics (as a fantasy of “heroic decisionism”) just makes the opposite error as Harman’s. Clearly some dialectical synthesis is needed! I also take the point that “takedown” is not an especially helpful way of talking about what we do.

    I think if I were speaking more specifically my objection to OOO is not so much about “politics” per se, but just about withdrawal in general — the “withdrawal” of objects, the impossibility of differentiating or adjudicating between objects, and the rejection of the “correlationism” of the human subject seem together to generate a philosophy that immediately disappears up its own ass (to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut). Our discussions can never begin, much less end, because we’re trapped in a hopeless chase for radically atomic objects, which are always receding faster and faster, from both us and from each other.

    Maybe I just haven’t read the right OOOers, but my sense is OOO is really good at negative critique but almost by definition can’t produce anything positive.


    June 4, 2012 at 10:00 am

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