Cretinous tirade
12 Jan 2010

Graham Harman writes

I was going to say “somehow I missed this,” but it looks as though LEVI JUST POSTED IT.

You can read it for yourself, but I’m in general agreement with the notion that a successful philosophical paradigm is one that creates plenty of work opportunities for other people. And I say this not only on the basis of practical observation, but for philosophical reasons. I’m fond of quoting Aristotle as saying that a substance is what supports different qualities at different times; it follows that something is more substantial the more it allows for non-dogmatic variation and distinct personal approaches, as long as the underlying style is the same.

Levi mentions phenomenology as a successful example. Phenomenology is out of fashion in today’s continental environment, I realize, but it had and continues to have a good run. It appealed to atheists as well as Catholics, Paris hipsters no less than German scholars, and was useful both for precise academic technicians and for freewheeling novelists.

Another example Levi didn’t mention, but with which he would surely agree, is Bruno Latour. The breadth of his impact is stunning. Almost any field can take something from Latour, at least in the humanities, and I’m generally in awe of the people who are found at Latour lectures and events: young, brilliant, working in just about any field, and also extremely gender-balanced. Actor-network-theory has snowballed well beyond Latour’s own use of it, and he has built a good-natured empire of thousands of followers. This was really brought home to me during the period when people were requesting my Prince of Networks manuscript via email. Among the many requests was one from a Department of Fishery Science.

My favorite sentence in Levi’s post is the last sentence of the following:

“The emerging phenomenologist could always contribute something new, if only in a small way, but it’s difficult to see how Badiou has created a democratic philosophy that opens new paths of research. What we instead get is dogmatic discipleship. This situation is aggravated by his celebration of axiomatics that forecloses novel paths of investigation. It’s impossible to imagine a Badiousian Lingis.”

And I also agree with this:

“The trajectory of the scientistic materialist strains of SR are pretty predictable. Here what we’re going to get are increasingly reactionary, epistemological (and superfluous) apologia to various branches of the sciences (in particular, neurology and quantum physics) that contribute little to these sciences (because they’re just doing epistemological grounding work) and that contribute even less to the various branches of the humanities. Not only is this variant of SR mostly a militant-boys-no-girls-allowed-in-our-club-house style of thought (you can thank Mel for this characterization)– the tone is pretty macho and insufferable –but the inevitable consequence of this trend is a scientistic celebration of the hard branches of the sciences that provides little in the way of the cultural sciences.”

The word “superfluous” is on target here– the sciences don’t need this. And I agree about the insufferable machismo of the tone much of the time. The culture that is growing up around that side of SR often has a nauseating sort of “tough guy” tone to it, as also mentioned yesterday in my reference to Mel Gibson’s “Passion.” But to some extent that problem is simply adopted from the culture of analytic philosophy more generally… A female friend of mine, a very talented philosopher initially in the analytic style, bailed out on one of the top analytic Ph.D. programs after a year despite doing just fine. Why? Because she was simply sickened by the let’s-tear-each-other-to-shreds-on-the-basketball-court-and-then-smoke-cigars intellectual lifestyle of that Department. There’s none of that around Latour, for instance (despite his love of cigars).

My sense is that those strains of SR will simply drift further and further from philosophy altogether toward outright (and superfluous) commentary on the sciences. Initially the interest in that quarter, for me at least, was the interesting balance struck between the hard sciences and recent French thought. But the balance has been rapidly disappearing, and it’s turning into plain old Science Wars thuggery, which is the main reason I won’t be reading Collapse as avidly as before.

Further examples of Professor Harman’s hard-hitting prose can be found in his forthcoming volume, Circus Philosophicus.

Collapse may be purchased online.