Ask/Tell: A carnival of things

My friend Richard is frankly amazing – his breadth of reading and understanding, thoughtfulness and imagination are quite simply unparalleled by anyone else I know, or know of. Having lived together, on and off, for the best part of the last decade we know each other, and each other’s likes and dislikes, well. Inevitably, this leads to a couple of email’s a week between us, with links of note, youtube videos, memetic images and the like. Occasionally they all come together in one big pastafarian mess – late last week he pointed me to a blogpost I’ve only just got around to reading, an interview with the metaphysical philosopher Graham Harman (Harman’s Wikipedia entry) on a blog called Ask/Tell. The interview is quite long, but worth the effort – covering a number of ideas like language, translation, understanding and the philosophical/political interface with deft finesse. It’s well worth the read:

TB: The world is not made of propositions. Yet any person’s experience can be conceived as being made of language. What is your sense of the limits of language in terms of your practice as a philosopher?

GH: The only limits of language in philosophy are the same limits found everywhere else– language cannot make the things directly present. The things cannot be transmuted directly into language. The attempt to set up rules for how to use language logically to refer to the real world rather than referring to mere illusions is hopeless. We need to be as inventive in our language as Picasso in his depiction of solid objects.

Different personality types dominate philosophy in different eras, as new needs come to the fore. The dominant personality type of recent decades has been the precise and assertive arguer who speaks clearly and likes to call people out on “nonsense.” It’s a personality that holds itself not to believe in very much, but to undercut the gullibility of other people’s beliefs.

My view is that the era of this personality has now run its course, and has become a pestilence of sorts. What we need now is something more like the artist type, given to new ways of staging problems. We need to find the equivalent of “philosophy installations,” whatever that might be.

There are too many calls in philosophy for clear writing, but rarely any calls for vivid writing. I agree that writing should be clear, but if this is your first priority, it means that you think the real problem with most philosophy is obfuscation, muddiness, evasiveness, and so forth. But the real problem with much philosophy is that it simply takes a position in some pre-existing trench war without innovating as to the terms of the problem. The result is an increasing supply of rational but boring assertions, not a fresh rethinking of the problem.

Philosophical language should be primarily vivid, and only secondarily clear. We should be clear when things are clear, but when we reach the edge of what is known, why pretend to know more than we do? I like a philosopher with a sense of when to use chiaroscuro. There are shadows in the world, and good writing should contain corners of shadow as well.

While this isn’t easy reading, there is encouragement from within the text:

TB: I tend to read a difficult long poem—Pound’s Cantos, say, Zukofsky’s “A” , or Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation—in the same way that I read a challenging philosophy text. I suspend any pretence of total understanding and forge ahead. I’m “studiously unprepared” to borrow a phrase from William Carlos Williams. I’m most engaged when I’m at least somewhat textually uncertain. I like having room for improvisational thought. But, you’re right, what sustains me as reader in such situations is vividness.

And this text has vividness in spades:

(GH) To answer your second question, the reason to focus on objects rather than on “language, social change, sexuality or animals” is because philosophy is obliged to be global in scope. If philosophy were to give one of these other entities a starring role, it would have to reduce the rest of the universe to them. “Language is the root of everything.” Here, you are choosing one specific kind of entity to be the root of all others, and there is no basis for this. Sociology tends to view all reality in terms of its emergence from human societies and belief-systems. Psychology treats all reality as made up primarily of mental phenomena. Physics deals with tiny physical objects and says that everything is made out of them, except that physics is useless when trying to explain things like metaphors, the Italian Renaissance, the meaning of dreams, and so forth.

All these other disciplines focus on one kind of object as the root of all else in the world. Only philosophy can be a general theory of objects, describing Symbolist poetry and the interaction of cartoon characters just as easily as the slamming together of two comets in distant space.

TB: … I find myself stuck on your idea of “philosophy installations” and imagining a room full of simultaneous translators amidst a giddy “carnival of things.” …

(GH) … language may still loom large in object-oriented philosophy even though it must be stripped of its transcendental-ontological constitutive power for everything else that exists…

But at the end of the interview, the philosophy is still grounded in the here and now, despite, it could be said, demanding an end to “the trench warfare” of the concept of “here and now” in some ways – a refreshing, self deprecating, perspective:

(GH) There is undeniably a certain banality to the world in our time, a demoralizing commercial hustle. But I’m extremely suspicious of the near-unanimity that prevails in political views in world intellectual circles right now. The price of admission to these circles is a series of expected denunciations that reassure everyone that you’re on their team. This is why I don’t respond immediately to demands to provide a politics of OOO, because I suspect that I’m just being asked to provide the usual, predictable denunciations, just as if I were being ordered to wear a flannel shirt and beard stubble at a grunge music party. That’s not intellectual debate, that’s just group solidarity, and I don’t care how good you think your group is– group solidarity is not a form of thinking.

For example, I’m writing this response from Istanbul, where I saw the 2011 Biennale yesterday. The theme was art and politics, and I was disappointed to find that all the political messages were exactly the same! Everything is America’s fault, Israel’s fault, capitalism’s fault. So, is the answer really that easy, and all we need to do is join forces to fight all the stupid and greedy corporate interests that prevent the truth from prevailing? Maybe, but this smells too much like trench war to me. It looks too much like the very “failure of imagination” of which everyone is so quick to accuse the current system.

There’s a wise old saying: don’t become worse than what you’re fighting. I would put a twist on that and say: don’t become less imaginative than what you’re fighting. This is the big danger for the political Left right now. I’m not interested in its moralistic self-congratulation, but only in what it can build. This is why I loved Žižek’s speech at the Occupy Wall Street protest; he hit the spot and said exactly what needed to be said. Maybe this Left will be able to build quite a lot. We will soon find out, because they are probably on the verge of seizing the upper hand. What is now called neo-liberalism is a little over thirty years old: the California property tax revolt in 1978, Thatcher in 1979, Reagan in 1980. Like any way of looking at the world, it has turned into a robotic application of clichés and no longer seems to be up to the challenge. We are about to undergo a big Leftward swing. When that happens, let’s see what people can do other than critique and oppose. They’ll have about thirty years of leeway before they start to become completely banal themselves, and then we’ll swing in the other direction again in about 2045, just as my own life is coming to a close.