For those who don’t already know, actor-network theory isn’t just a useful tool for getting grant money by guilt-tripping funders about all the various things in the social world they’re not attending to. It’s also a platform for philosophical innovation, in particular ‘object-oriented ontology’ (or ‘OOO’, as it is known onomatopoetically by its admirers). The chief scholastic in this field is Graham Harman, who nurtures and polices the boundaries of OOO with the efficiency of a micro-Aquinas. I recently posted a piece that provides a context for the development of this perverse line of thought, which veers towards a world-view that is at once objectivist, apocalyptic and, most importantly, misanthropic (aka ‘dark ecology’). Though making only a peripheral appearance in my discussion, Harman was emboldened to respond on his website. What follows below is my response to it.
I am posting my response on this site for several reasons: (1) I can’t figure out how to post on Harman’s site. (2) Sociologists interested in both metaphysics and politics should take this line of thought seriously because it is very much of our times and unlikely to go away soon. (3) It raises fundamental questions about the marking of the ‘normative’ in social theory, especially since people like Harman want to treat OOO as fundamentally apolitical.
So here is my response to Harman (addressed as if he allowed me to post on his website):
Sorry for my delay and thanks for linked article, which is very interesting as a guide to speculative realism. However, I’m interested in speculative realism as a moment in a movement of thought, not as a field of play. So I apologise for collapsing distinctions that you find significant.
Even if we grant for the sake of argument that your line of thinking does not court misanthropy, why are you so keen on conceptually segregating the human from other things in the world? When Latour first did it, it was simply a salutary methodological move to remind researchers that there is more to the social world than human beings – especially if one wants to understand why things happen as they do. Indeed, the proposal was initially offered in the spirit of a more complete empiricism. Of course, I don’t deny that Latour has always had grander ontological ambitions, and some of his more recent stuff provides a glimpse as to its normative payoff. I don’t buy his Gaia-mongering but I can appreciate it as a development of his ontological position.
As I understand your position, you want to reinstate the idea of a God’s eye-view on reality but without the historically monotheistic connection between God and humans, as philosophers and scientists have liked to talk about in terms of ‘getting into the mind of God’. The deity from whose standpoint your philosophy is done has no more special relationship to humans than to any other object in your ontology. Indeed, according to you, imagining that there is such a relationship can lead to philosophical error, as one ends up either shrinking altogether from the challenge (your view of Kant, whose noumenal noises reflected his pietistic upbringing) or recklessly projecting our best theories onto features of reality as such (the sort of anthropomorphism that science performs when it turns ontologically ambitious). I realize that you don’t put things in quite this way, but isn’t this how you generally position yourself? In short, OOO is a radically de-humanized objectivism, right?
If I’m right on this general point, then I guess you’re happy to let Nick Land go his merry way because his view is compatible with yours at the level that matters to you – regardless of its general implications for humanity. And this brings me to the business about being an ‘administrator’.
Let me apologise for confusing you about my remark concerning your (past) role as administrator. You should have focussed on the ‘Cairo’ part of what I said. I actually hold academic administrators in high esteem and have extolled their virtues – especially at the highest levels – on many occasions, especially if they uphold Humboldtian ideals, even in reinvented forms, such as James Bryant Conant, the mid 20c Harvard president whom I hold in much higher esteem than his clueless yet more influential protégé, Thomas Kuhn. To be clear: Academia does itself no favours by derogating those who assume administrative roles because, in the end, they are the keepers of the university’s soul. However, these visionary administrators shared an overriding desire to promote humanity, which from the standpoint of your philosophy should be completely misguided. Thus, it does not surprise me that you have administered a university in Cairo, a place where curricula that actively promoted the self-realization of humanity could get you into serious political trouble. Maybe there’s a politics to what you’re doing, but it’s the politics of Leo Strauss.