Clearing the Air
A recent conference at the LSE suggested new ways of dealing with the legacy of continental philosophy
For a long time, continental philosophy has dominated large areas of cultural criticism, not least in the art world. Its orthodoxies have infected the way in which artists understand and describe their own work, as well as the critical reception of that same work. Traditionally, continental philosophy’s main adversary has been a dismissive Anglo-American commonsense. But a sophisticated challenge to continentalism is now emerging, drawing upon some of the same theoretical resources but using them for very different purposes.
At the forefront of these developments is the philosopher Graham Harman, whose work on cultural theorist Bruno Latour was the subject of a symposium held on February 5th at the LSE. Latour himself was in attendance, and he expressed a certain scepticism towards metaphysics. Harman, however, is an unapologetic metaphysician, and his work makes a powerful case for a return to metaphysics in the grand style.
Harman’s work is rooted in his renegade reading of the notoriously hard-going work of Martin Heidegger. He is enthusiastic about Heidegger’s conceptual breakthroughs but impatient with his tone, which at the LSE symposium Harman dismissed as something to be ‘endured’ rather than emulated. This refreshing contempt for the great philosopher of Being’s ‘oracular heaviness’ sets Harman at odds with the mainstream reception of Heidegger in continental philosophy, which has tended to revel in precisely that tone of mystificatory piety. (At its worst, deconstructive theory ended up being a laborious cultivation of Heidegger’s tone, and little else.) In person and in his writing, Harman’s brisk style – crisply poetic in its lucidity – could not be further from the ponderous perplexities of continentalist theory.
Part of the scandal of Harman’s reading of Heidegger is his belief that Heidegger’s crucial insights can be communicated at all– a thought that for many Heideggerians is itself apostasy. For this priestly cadre, the title of Harman’s superb introductory text, Heidegger Explained (2007), might as well read ‘Heidegger destroyed’. But Harman does for Heidegger what Slavoj Zizek has done for Jacques Lacan: he makes available to an intelligent audience the brilliant insights of a thinker whose tendency to the obscure has been exacerbated by a philosophy industry that has derived much of its influence from a disdain for lucidity.
At the core of Harman’s reading of Heidegger is his account of the ‘tool analysis’ in Being And Time (1927). When we are using a tool, Heidegger suggests, it cannot be at the forefront of our attention. If we are using a toothbrush, the toothbrush withdraws from visibility; as soon as we concentrate on the toothbrush as a toothbrush, as soon it becomes visible again, it ceases to be functional. It is only broken tools, or tools that are no longer doing their work, which can be made ‘present-at-hand’. So something is always missing from any ‘present-at-hand’ entity. Harman argues that this is true of all objects: every object has a hidden subterranean dimension that cannot be made present.
One implication of the tool analysis, not appreciated by Heidegger or most of his followers, is a radical de-privileging of human subjectivity. The refusal to put the human mode of being – what Heidegger called ‘Dasein’ – at the heart of philosophy is another heretical move in Harman’s aberrant treatment of Heidegger. It is not only in the lacunae of human attention that objects recline into mysterious depths. When objects engage with each other, without a human observer present, they too ‘caricature’ each other. When fire burns cotton, it does not engage with the entirety of the cotton’s being, only with those aspects of it that are flammable. Something in every object recesses from presence.
Harman’s forthcoming book on Bruno Latour, Prince of Networks, under discussion at the LSE seminar, applies his ‘tool-being’ metaphysics to Latour’s ‘actor-network theory’. Latour’s ‘actors’ and ‘networks’ become ‘objects’ and ‘relations’. But Harman insists that objects have a reality that is irreducible to their relations. A chess piece may derive its meaning from its relation to other pieces, but this by no means exhausts its ‘objectality’: micro-organisms may be nestling inside it, for example. All objects have occulted depths which no external entity can ever fully access.
Whereas continental philosophy has turned endlessly, and increasingly fruitlessly, around problems of human consciousness and language, Harman, along with a small group of other ‘speculative realist’ philosophers, including Ray Brassier and Quentin Meillassoux, is fascinated by non-human worlds, by the interactions of dust mites in a carpet as much as by the dark sides of planets on which no human foot will ever tread. Harman asks us to stop being anxious about what an object means for us, the way in which it is supposedly constructed and constituted by our minds, and consider the object itself, alluring in its partial opacity. He calls his work ‘weird realism’, and wants to attune us to the strangeness of objects once they are liberated from commonsense’s somnambulant gaze.
Harman’s philosophy gives licence for a renewed boldness in cultural criticism. Deconstruction in particular preached against making definitive judgements about texts or artworks, favouring strategies of deferral and equivocation that suspended interpretative closure. The ostensible motivation for these evasions was a reverence for the irreducible complexities of the text. But instead of illuminating cultural objects, this often only obscured them; rather than engaging with the object, theory was induced into interminable meditations on how it was impossible to write about it. Harman shows that any encounter with an object must caricature it – but it is only through such caricaturing that a glimpse of the object’s hidden richness can be gleaned.
MP3s of the talks given at the symposium can be found on the LSE website.