© Graham Harman and Figure/Ground Communication.
Dr. Harman was interviewed by Laureano Ralon on July 12th, 2010.
Graham Harman is Associate Provost for Research Administration and Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at The American University in Cairo, having come to Egypt from Chicago in 2000. He is the 2009 winner of the AUC Excellence in Research and Creative Endeavors Award. Dr. Harman works on metaphysics, the study of the ultimate nature of reality, which he pursues in the form of an object-oriented philosophy. Drawing on the writings of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Bruno Latour, Saul Kripke, G.W. von Leibniz, and the Islamic and French occasionalists, he tries to develop a model of vicarious rather than direct causation between objects. He is a co-founder of the London-based “Speculative Realism” and Atlanta-based “Object-Oriented Ontology” movements, spent Fall 2007 as Visiting Associate Professor of Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science at the University of Amsterdam. He is also a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Open Humanities Press, where he co-edits the “New Metaphysics” series with Bruno Latour. Dr. Harman is a former Chicago sportswriter, an avid world traveler, and a sixth-generation native of Iowa.
You completed your PhD at DePaul University in 1999. What did you write your dissertation on, who did you work with, and how was your overall graduate experience?
My dissertation became the 2002 book Tool-Being. The dissertation and the book are roughly the same piece of writing. In early 2001 I did go back through and improve almost every sentence of the dissertation on a stylistic level. And at the same time I also added the half-section on Dreyfus and the full section on Žižek. But otherwise, the dissertation and the book are the same piece of work.
My advisor at DePaul was Will McNeill, a native of Northern Ireland who is well known as a Heidegger translator and has already written two books on Heidegger as well. We agree on almost nothing philosophically, and I haven’t seen him in a number of years. But he did make some good suggestions that improved Tool-Being quite a bit. One was to shorten the second part of the book, the part about Heidegger commentators, which even now is pretty long (it was much longer initially). The other was to add the remarks on Aristotle and primary substance in the final part of the book. Also, at my proposal defense (in June 1995) McNeill said something like: “The radical thing about this dissertation,” though truthfully he never liked it much, “is its tendency to speak about the things themselves.” And strange though it may sound in 2010, when it is quite obvious that I’m a full-blown realist, that was the first time anyone had said “things themselves” in connection with my work. Until then I had always been somewhat agnostic about the realism/anti-realism dispute, just like most people with a phenomenology background. But McNeill’s comment at my proposal defense, along with some rather assertive questioning two years later by classmate Daniel Selcer (who now teaches at Duquesne) and additional proddings from a former classmate named Viren Murthy to take Whitehead more seriously, were some of the main impulses that led me to think about realism in greater depth.
And finally, rather dramatically on Christmas morning of 1997, after a powerful snowstorm the night before had buried the streets of Chicago, I became what I am today: a “weird realist.” It all started to become clear to me that morning for the first time, and I skipped Selcer’s Christmas party for hours while thinking over the implications of what I had glimpsed (until Selcer finally called and forced me to come). The world not only withdraws from human access, but objects withdraw from each other as well. There is no such thing as direct contact between any two entities: causal relations must be indirect, vicarious. Naturally, when ideas are new you can’t usually articulate them clearly in words, so I wouldn’t have been able to state it that clearly on December 25, 1997. It took me many years to piece all these ideas together, and in fact I’m not yet finished even today.
You ask more generally about my graduate school experience at DePaul. The DePaul program was just what I needed in many ways. My undergraduate years were spent at St. John’s College in Santa Fe and Annapolis (I studied at both campuses), which represents the gold standard of classical undergraduate education in the United States. We learned the classics very well in science, mathematics, and literature no less than philosophy. But we read nothing more recent than Freud and Husserl, except for a few genetics papers from the 1950’s. After those four years of voluntary confinement in the great works of the past, I was ready to read nothing but loads of contemporary philosophy for awhile, especially since Heidegger (not on the curriculum at St. John’s in those days) had already become my favorite philosopher during Sophomore year.
DePaul had abolished all comprehensive examinations, and Ph.D. advising was generally done with a light touch (McNeill only read my dissertation once, when it was finished). Essentially, the DePaul program in those days could almost be viewed as a giant Independent Study program in twentieth century continental philosophy. Not quite, of course: there were still the usual course requirements, and they were perfectly rigorous. But you were mostly left to work on what you wished, and the pathos of distance between faculty and students was not as extreme as in many places. Graduate students were even free to attend Department meetings in those days. The entire setup of the program was the brainchild of David Farrell Krell, who had come to DePaul from Essex in 1989. I actually found Krell a difficult person much of the time, but he has shown a tremendous brilliance over the years in shaping programs and departments in interesting ways. Reinventing the DePaul program (which had been a somewhat sleepy outpost of French Catholic existentialism until then) was among his most admirable labors. Many people benefitted, including me.
That said, I did not enjoy graduate school very much. This was not DePaul’s fault: I simply never enjoyed institutional settings or academic hierarchies of any kind in my early years, and probably would not have been happy in any program at that stage of life. Hence it is ironic in the extreme that I am now Associate Provost of my university; I truly never saw that coming, nor would anyone have who knew me in the early 1990’s. Most of the problems I had in graduate school were ones that I now address in the “advice” posts on my Object-Oriented Philosophy blog, http://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/ In some ways I was a slow-ripening fruit. In those days my intuitions were always ahead of my ability to express them. This led to a lot of stress about class assignments and eventually about the dissertation, which could have been finished several years earlier than it was. There was another in-built problem for me, which was that Derrida and Foucault were the reigning giants of continental philosophy in those days (Deleuze was still a playful fringe figure) and I’ve never been especially interested in either of those two. Then as now, my modus operandi was to start a bit earlier in the century and attempt to radicalize Husserl and Heidegger into something strange. The Husserl/Heidegger people saw that as simply bizarre, while the postmodernists (insofar as they even noticed) found my method a bit old-fashioned, given its lack of deconstructive resonance. I attended our subfield’s big SPEP conference three times (in 1990, 1991, and 1993), felt not the least bit at home intellectually, and have never returned.
However, hard work and intense seriousness were never lacking in me; they simply weren’t always channeled into places that my professors could see. For instance, I was busy reading literally all the writings of Heidegger that existed in print at the time, finally finishing the job in 1998. I was thinking very seriously about philosophy all the time, and about philosophical questions themselves rather than just about historical scholarship— a distinction that is not yet fully appreciated in continental philosophy circles, I’m afraid. I never tried to beat people in arguments by slinging around big-shot terminology borrowed from the books of others, as one too often finds among competitive graduate students. Though I was not very productive in those days, I never lost my childlike admiration for those who were. And I also became an even better writer through my sportswriting experience in Chicago from 1996-98. These were all important factors in my later success.
I wonder if you still remember the research proposal you sent to DePaul University. Did you your original topic change much?
The original research proposal would have been on Heidegger, for sure, since he had been my philosophical hero since Sophomore year. The proposal to DePaul would have been made in 1991, and all I really knew at that point was that the tool-analysis in Being and Time was my favorite part of Heidegger. After a year at DePaul, I had decided (in summer 1992) that the tool-analysis was also the whole of Heidegger. And seriously, even today I don’t think there is any aspect of Heidegger’s philosophy that is not contained in the reversal between tool and broken tool, no matter how many pages he wrote. What’s the use of the maxim that “every great thinker has one great thought” if we aren’t allowed to apply it to Heidegger’s own case?
So the topic didn’t change, but I did learn many new things over the next decade, of course. I’ve written elsewhere that Zubíri and Whitehead were the key figures in my 1997 escape from the Heideggerian prison (many never escape it, and serve life sentences). Both of those authors were time bombs sitting on my bookshelf. I had been in a Whitehead reading group as a college freshman in 1986, but couldn’t make much of Process and Reality at the time, and didn’t stick with the group for more than a few months. Zubíri’s On Essence is a work I had ordered from a catalog, simply because I knew his name through my interest in other Spanish philosophers. In 1997 I gravitated back toward both of them, through an instinctive sense of needing them at that very moment, and they impacted on me in different but complementary ways. Whitehead attacks the Kantian view of the human-world relation as the foundation for philosophy, which still dominates Heidegger’s position. And Zubíri was a sort of weird realist in his own right, convincing me for the first time that the essence of any thing must lie deeper than its relational effects on the outside world.
In 1998 I began to read Bruno Latour, and the next year I corresponded with him and finally met him, near London. His approach to objects further influenced my own developing theory, and his witty, irreverent tone certainly soaked into my own voice as a writer. By 1999, though still unpublished in philosophy, I had also become a popular speaker among my fellow students, and an effective writer, and I’m not sure either was the case at the beginning of the decade. I had been a serious and imaginative but fairly quiet, tongue-tied, procrastinating undergraduate, in the bottom half of my graduating class (though I think I left a better impression than that statistic suggests). School was never easy for me as a student, but then strangely enough, becoming a professor was just about the easiest thing I had ever done. Teaching was always easy, at least from the second semester onward. I would never have expected that, but that’s how it happened.
In the year 2000, you decided to move to Cairo. What attracted you to Egypt?
A sense of adventure! I had grown up completely landlocked and deprived of travel, as had mostly been true of my family for generations before. My family was among the first to settle Iowa City, in the 1830’s, before Iowa was even a state. Peter D. Harman, born near Gettsyburg, Pennsylvania, came to Iowa City as a master stonemason to build the Old Capitol building, which still stands today as the center of the University of Iowa campus. His son Spear, my great-great grandfather, was described in his obituary as “the second white baby born in Iowa City” (as opposed to Native Americans long in the area, presumably). He had lost a finger fighting under General Grant at Shiloh in 1862. My mother’s side, by contrast, were largely Czech immigrants from Prague, all of them more recent arrivals in the Cedar Rapids area. There were many named Zitek among them, and I suppose it’s possible that I’m related to the prominent Czech architect of that name: Josef Zitek.
In any case, both branches of the family had been in Eastern Iowa for quite awhile, and there was a background sense of being so rooted in the area that I was never sure if I would be able to escape. I actually went to the same high school as my father, in a little town called Mt. Vernon, just 3,000 people at the time. My parents were very young hippies (they actually met at a Rolling Stones concert) and thus during my childhood we were always poor in the hippie manner, scraping by from one stage to the next, with numerous colorful visitors and episodes sprinkled in along the way— such as The Hardrock Kid, the elected “King of the Hoboes,” sometimes spending the night on our couch.
And then my parents opened a hippieish sort of restaurant in Iowa City, and it was a very good one that thrived. But another consequence of this lifestyle is that we never really traveled, except to Chicago now and then, only four hours away. But I hungered to see the world, and admired the few people I knew who had been abroad. Finally, for my thirteenth birthday, my parents gave me airplane tickets to visit my aunt and uncle near Washington, D.C., and I remember staring at the tickets, bewitched, as if they were golden idols unearthed from a royal crypt. Washington was my first time out of the American Midwest. Three years later our high school band was invited to a parade in San Francisco, and that was my second travel experience outside the Midwest. And I was hooked, as I knew I would be.
At 21 I finally made it to Europe, spending a summer in Bremen in northern Germany. And at that point I was ready to make a permanent lifestyle of travel, if possible. Throughout my graduate studies I went to Europe whenever possible. I also made a quick trip to Mexico one time, and with the frequent flyer tickets I had earned from all that travel, I made additional trips to Alaska and even Brazil, loving everything I saw.
When the offer came through from the American University in Cairo, there was not an instant’s hesitation in accepting. I did ask for one night to think it over, but that was more just to give myself one night to enjoy the thought by myself before it became official and public. I had never been closer to the Middle East than Rome. Furthermore, I had narrowly missed two earlier chances to teach abroad (one in Asia, one in Latin America) for different reasons. Cairo was the third possibility of a foreign job, and in accordance with the old saying, the third time was the charm.
Egypt was my twenty-first country, but most of the others had been in Europe. My current total is fifty-eight countries, mostly because Egypt is very well positioned as a base to go almost anywhere. Egypt after ten years isn’t quite as exotic as Egypt during the first month, but it’s still a more colorful place than Iowa. Nonetheless, absence has allowed me to appreciate the Midwest too, by turning it into a sort of rarely visited foreign country for me.
I am curious about your teaching experience at the American University of Cairo and about your life as an American professor living in Egypt in the years following 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, and the invasion of Iraq…
When I first arrived in Egypt, in August 2000, the Middle East was in its most placid period in many decades. But that actually changed a full year before 9/11, with the beginning of the second Intifada. After a peaceful first four weeks in Cairo, there were suddenly street protests and a great deal of anger in the air.
9/11 took things to a new level, of course. The attacks occurred on a Tuesday afternoon, Cairo time. I was taking a nap, my sister-in-law phoned to tell me the news, but it was only partial news at that point. I went downstairs to the apartment of a colleague and saw the towers collapse, and then followed the news with him all that day and the next day.
The university was closed for the next two days, and there was much apprehension everywhere. When campus reopened, we had metal detectors for the first time, and still have them today. It was not pleasant to hear of people celebrating the attacks downtown while watching televisions through the store windows. But the Egyptians I knew personally were all especially kind to me at the time. Some even seemed worried that I would hold them personally accountable, as Arabs, for the attacks.
Perhaps I should back up a bit and mention that Egyptians on the whole had seemed very happy about the election, one year earlier, of George W. Bush. His father was viewed as fairly pro-Egyptian for a U.S. President: partly because he had forgiven some debt for Egyptian participation in the first Gulf War of 1991, and partly because Bush Sr. was viewed as tougher on Israel than other recent American Presidents. However, it didn’t take the Egyptian public long to start disliking Bush the Younger, and by the end he was detested, here as throughout the region.
But despite this difficult period in history, tensions for me personally in Cairo have never been especially high. You have to remember, first of all, that there are tens of thousands of Western expatriates living in Cairo at any given time, along with however many tourists are here on any specific day. So, it’s not as if I stick out like a sore thumb. And even when I do, they tend to think I’m German for some reason, not American, which perhaps makes me seem more innocent in their eyes under contemporary political conditions.
There have only been a handful of ugly incidents for me in ten years here. A little boy made pig snorting noises at me one day my first year, but his father quickly stopped him. Another time, a taxi driver became very angry at me about Bush the Younger in a way that crossed the line and became a bit personal. The only truly creepy incident was a guy who approached me, on two different occasions, at a downtown shisha café, and tried to psyche me out by saying “I have a problem with America” and then staring into my eyes for minutes at a time and refusing to leave.
But that’s all, and I’ve had things at least as bad happen in the United States: drunk frat boys driving by and yelling threatening things, or whatever. Moreover, these incidents are entirely cancelled out by the warm hospitality that I have received from Egyptians on countless occasions. No one should hesitate to travel or even work here.
Your background is in philosophy, but you have written about Marshall McLuhan. What attracted you to his work?
Initially I was interested in Jean Baudrillard, who I still think has some important underused insights, despite his tendency to be viewed (even by my friend Latour) as the most horrible of the postmodern sophists. In Chicago I once heard someone say “Baudrillard stole all his ideas from McLuhan,” and though my first instinct was to defend Baudrillard, this made me think that I should read McLuhan too.
I then proceeded to buy the first work of McLuhan I ever saw on a shelf. It was one of those nicely produced pictorial books: probably The Medium is the Massage, though it might have been War and Peace in the Global Village. Despite the unconventional style of those books, it was immediately clear to me that this was serious thinking, not fluff. I no longer remember where or when I picked up Understanding Media, but I immediately liked it too. However, it was the Marshall & Eric McLuhan Laws of Media: The New Science that really blew me away. And I do remember exactly when I found and purchased that book: the summer of 1993, in Iowa City. I was immediately drawn in by the tetrads, which even some McLuhanites still don’t appreciate. Hence it was a pleasure to meet Eric McLuhan himself a few years later, and we still sometimes correspond now and then.
Not surprisingly, what I most like about Marshall McLuhan are two factors that are crucial for my own work: (1) his respect for the power and efficacy of individual things, and hence his refusal to put the human subject at the center of everything as in most modern philosophy; (2) his respect for the power of the formative background over the surface figure, and his resulting greater interest in rhetoric than in dialectic. Rhetoric still has a bad name: it’s “mere rhetoric,” you know. But rhetoric is really the art of the background, and if philosophy is not the science of the background then it is nothing. Even Socrates, the supposed champion of explicit dialectic, is actually a rhetorician insofar as he thinks we must know what virtue or friendship is before we know what its qualities are. And given that any explicit statement about anything means enumerating a list of its qualities, Socrates is pointing us toward a deeper reality that dialectic cannot reach. Aristotle, too, puts enthymemes not only at the center of his Rhetoric and Poetics, but possibly at the center of his entire philosophy— if, like me, you interpret primary substance as that which is not just a material basis for qualities, but as something deeper than all qualities.
Rhetoric is not “mere rhetoric”: it was half a day’s instruction in the Lyceum, and Aristotle wasn’t just teaching rhetoric for “regrettable practical reasons” such as that “we live in an imperfect, irrational world.” No: in some ways the background medium (in McLuhan’s sense) really is the subject of all philosophy. Heidegger even calls it Being.
In my opinion, McLuhan was one of the most significant figures in the humanities in the entire twentieth century. We’ve barely begun to catch up with him.
Not only have you written about McLuhan, you also compared his work with phenomenology. In fact, you wrote a very interesting article for Explorations in Media Ecology entitled “The Tetrad and Phenomenology.” I am fascinated by this connection. What can you tell us about the points of contact that you have explored so far?
As can be seen from the title of that article, the McLuhan tetrad is where I see a point of contact with phenomenology. Fourfold structures recur constantly throughout the history of Western philosophy, from Empedocles through Plato and Aristotle and beyond. The four terms of these structures are almost never derived empirically by looking at the world and noticing four different kinds of things. Philosophers rarely do business in that way, after all. Instead, quadruple structures in philosophy generally come from the intersection of two distinct dualisms. So for instance, if you look at Aristotle’s famous four cases, the Scholastics explained them by first making a distinction between intrinsic causes (material, formal) and extrinsic causes (efficient, final) and then you can split these further between the causes that provide the basis for a thing’s existence (material, efficient) and those that point outward (formal, final).
One of the purely scholarly achievements of which I am most proud, though it has barely caught on yet, is to have finally deciphered Heidegger’s own mysterious fourfold, das Geviert, which is introduced explicitly in 1949 in Bremen (other than a brief mention in his overrated Beiträge zur Philosophie). What are the two dualisms at work in Heidegger’s fourfold? One of them is purely obvious, because it dominates Heidegger’s entire career: the interplay between veiling and unveiling, concealed and unconcealed, etc. The second one is slightly harder to find, but recurs throughout his career from 1919 onward. This is the difference between “something at all” and “something specific,” or in its later and slightly different version “beings as a whole” and “beings as such.”
I have interpreted this latter distinction as borrowed from Husserl’s distinction between intentional objects and their myriad admubrations (Abschattungen) though in fact I think Heidegger weakens Husserl’s dualism. The Heidegger of 1919 has a fourfold in which both the concealed world (Ereignis or “event,” he already calls it) and the world of presence (Vorgang or “occurrence,” as he calls it) are further split in half. For example, a tree as present to us is both something at all (an object in general) and something specific (having specific tree-features), and the same holds for the tree as an “event” deeper than all presence. This is already weaker than Husserl’s distinction between intentional objects and adumbrations, but it is weakened still further in 1949. There, Heidegger changes the second dualism so that it’s one between the world as a whole and specific things. I call it “weaker” because each time he steps he moves one step further from grasping the internal dynamics of individual objects. All of this is discussed in my forthcoming book The Quadruple Object, which will appear first in French in November 2010 as L’objet quadruple.
Now, let’s get back to McLuhan. The “tetrad” in Laws of Media is not identical with Heidegger’s fourfold, but there is an obvious common point. Heidegger is concerned with the layer of reality that withdraws, and so is McLuhan when he speaks of background media that are not perceived as long as we are inside them. Furthermore, both of them are concerned with how the ground reverses into figure, and vice versa. McLuhan has far greater talent than Heidegger for applying the method to specific cases, though. He also does not suffer from the sort of judgmental romanticism that would lead him, like Heidegger, to despise all entities made of plastic or aluminum and evict them from philosophy altogether to make way for hand-carved peasant shoes and genuine Black Forest Lederhosen. McLuhan can analyze absolutely anything, whereas Heidegger shirks this duty deliberately, filled as he is with contempt for telephones and Disney characters. In this sense, McLuhan and Latour are a lot alike in their whimsical openness to even the most trivial products of popular culture.
My biggest objection to the McLuhan tetrad, of course, is the claim that it only holds good for human artifacts, since they alone have the structure of a language. I fail to see why anything linguistic is necessary for the interplay of depth and surface to begin. I see reality per se as already constituted by this drama.
I am actually convinced that McLuhan was not a determinist, as many have argued, but an existential thinker along the lines of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty…
I’d have to hear more to see if I agree or not. But I certainly agree that McLuhan is not a determinist. In fact, I had never even heard this critique of him until I started spending time in Britain, and there almost everyone says “McLuhan is a determinist.” I don’t know the history behind that meme, but the notion does seem especially widespread in the U.K.
In one sense it’s not hard to see why people see determinism in McLuhan’s thinking. Our apparent range of options for decision is just a surface effect for McLuhan, after all, and what matters is the deeper medium that establishes beforehand what is and is not possible for us. What words we say on television are of little importance, since the medium itself does the real work, etc. And it’s easy to understand why this might sound incompatible with deliberate human action.
Fair enough, but the real question is this: how does one medium replace another for McLuhan? By a mechanical, deterministic process? By some impersonal law of history to which we are enslaved? By no means. Certainly, for McLuhan the previous medium overheats and reverses into its opposite. But it is not the case that there is only one possible reversal in any situation. McLuhan spends much time praising artists as the ones who are able to take the clichés from the rag-and-bone-shop of history and turn them into new media. But this takes work, sometimes fails, and in any case it always allows for multiple options. Which of the many dead clichés in our environment will we transform into a new, living medium? No impersonal, mechanical law of history will tell us what to do here. In McLuhanite terms, there was no a priori reason why the worldwide web needed to appear when it did, or needed to appear at all.
If some determinism can be found in McLuhan through the dominant action of background media on visible figures, freedom can also be found at the point where clichés are turned into archetypes. That takes work for McLuhan, and it’s quite often good, old-fashioned individual work. Where’s the determinism in that? It sounds to me like the very opposite of determinism.
Are there other points of contact between communication and philosophy which in your opinion remain unexplored?
There certainly must be. Just in the past few months, I’ve been really dazzled by the way that Levi Bryant is bringing Niklas Luhmann and the autopoiesis theorists (Varela, Maturana) even more into the philosophical sphere than before. Ian Bogost also did good work in his book Persuasive Games talking about what he calls “procedural rhetoric,” as exemplified by videogames.
But more generally, I would like to see a revamped version of the philosophy of language, grounded in a deeper theory of the interaction between all things, including inanimate ones. The “linguistic turn” in philosophy, which I always detested, was just another way of cementing the privilege of the human-world couple in philosophy. Worse yet, it felt so proud of itself for making a big improvement: “no more lucid Cartesian subject witnessing everything directly. The philosophy of consciousness must be replaced by the philosophy of language.” Big deal. It was still the same old privilege granted to the human-world duality, with interactions between inanimate things left to the natural sciences. In this way, the universal mission of philosophy was voluntarily abandoned, and philosophy became a besieged human fortress with heralds on the walls crying out: “Now hear me, Science! Hear ye, oh hear ye! Do as you please with the world out there! But you will never explain what happens inside this human fortress!” But now the dark hordes of cognitive science have approached the fortress and are launching stones deep inside the wall. It was a stupid strategy for philosophy all along, never a workable one. There is nothing uniquely special about human reality that would make it immune from scientific explanation. The real problem is that the natural sciences never even do the job on inanimate matter. They give us plenty of practical know-how for calculating and modelling the workings of the inanimate sphere, but only at the cost of abandoning any metaphysical knowledge about these things, and at the more tangible cost of telling us nothing about larger-scale entities found in the human sphere: nations, armies, traditions, songs. They can only encompass these things in the manner of reducing or eliminating them— by turning the human mind into physical pulp governed by physical laws. Well, the mind is pulp in one sense, but in another sense it is an object of a very different sort, just as neutrons are.
But to return to your question, we probably need something more like information theory than like philosophy of language in the previous sense, because the latter has no hope at all of embracing the non-human sphere.
Speculative Realism was a four-person movement prompted by the appearance of Quentin Meillassoux’s Après la finitude in 2006 (now available in English as After Finitude). Ray Brassier really deserves the credit for this. My recollection is that Brassier was always frustrated with the direction of recent continental philosophy, and had been hoping for quite awhile to organize a new sort of philosophical group. I visited him briefly in London in early 2006 (having met him less than a year earlier). He mentioned Iain Hamilton Grant and asked if I knew him; I said that I did not. Brassier spoke highly of Grant’s lecture at Middlesex University, which had occurred one semester before my own lecture of April 2005. I seem to remember Brassier making a vague remark about linking up me and Grant and presumably himself for some sort of event, and from the look on his face the wheels seemed to be turning. But it didn’t fully register at the time, and it’s only a vague sort of half-memory.
A few months later, Brassier returned from Paris with a copy of Meillassoux’s newly printed book. He didn’t have time to read it for several months to come, but had looked it over just enough to grasp the basic premise of the book, and thought it would be right up my alley. On his recommendation I ordered it, took it with me to Iceland on a conference trip, and devoured the work in a couple of days. My report on the book prompted Brassier to propose formally that the four of us, who seemed to have much in common in our rejection of Meillassoux’s “correlationism” (a better term for my own “philosophy of access”) should participate in a joint public event. The idea excited me. Immediately I googled both Grant and Meillassoux while still in Iceland, sent emails to both of them, and they both responded warmly and positively. The inaugural speculative realist event occurred in London in April 2007, at Goldsmiths College. The follow-up event in Bristol in April 2009 included Alberto Toscano in place of Meillassoux, who was unable to attend. But the group has done its work, and will not meet again: for we have now entered the “diaspora” phase of speculative realism.
It was a nice little assembly, and one that has had a lot of influence, especially among the younger generation of continental thinkers. But in a sense we always had too little in common to function as more than a loose umbrella group, united mostly by what we all dislike: correlationism, the notion that philosophy can only talk about the basic pair of human and world and their mutual interrelation. It makes no difference whether you say that there is an unbridgeable gap between the two poles, or deny such a gap, or try to finesse it in some subtler way. As long as you are concerned only with some permutation of this particular gap, then you are a correlationist.
But the four of us don’t even agree about what’s wrong with correlationism! For example, Meillassoux is mostly bothered by the finitude of this correlation, its inability to grasp the absolute. But for me that’s inescapable, just as it is for Kant. Meanwhile, what bothers me about the correlate is that it’s restricted to the human-world interplay, inapplicable to object-object relations with no humans present. But for Meillassoux this is inescapable, and must be viewed as the rigorous starting point for all serious philosophy. Moreover, our solutions to the correlationist problem are completely different. This is the sense in which “speculative realism does not exist,” which I think Brassier said somewhere recently, and correctly so. The term is merely a rigid designator for four specific people who worked together closely for a couple of years.
As for Object-Oriented Ontology, that’s a more tightly woven group, with much more in common among its members. It’s structured as a sort of “power trio” with me, Ian Bogost, and Levi Bryant (though here the metaphor fails, because I don’t know who would play “guitar,” “bass,” and “drums” respectively in such a trio). The term was invented by Levi in the summer of 2009, as a variant on my own “object-oriented philosophy” term, and Levi’s version of the phrase is catchy and has now stuck.
We had our initial public event in Atlanta in April 2010, at Georgia Tech. What we all share in common is that, unlike the rest of the speculative realist universe, we all view individual entities as the subject matter of philosophy. All human, non-human, real, and imaginary objects must be brought together in a single philosophical theory, rather than merely eliminating the inconvenient ones (such as Popeye, unicorns, corporations, and armies) by using the empirical sciences to claim that some of these simply have no reality at all. In fact, the other three forms of speculative realism are to some extent anti-object-oriented philosophies: Brassier’s because of his scientism, Grant’s because he is interested in a primal creative force that precedes all individual entities, and Meillassoux’s because he actually thinks the human-world correlate is the correct starting point for philosophy— he simply thinks it needs to be radicalized.
Where we go next, it’s hard to say. Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects and then Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, joined by my own books, will make three authors openly fighting under the OOO banner. And recently Timothy Morton has jumped on board, and is most welcome among us. I think you need multiple versions of anything before it becomes fully real, and thus I think the appearance of the new Bogost and Bryant books will take the movement far beyond what I was able to do by myself.
What are you currently working on?
At the moment, I am working on two things: an article on philosopher of mind Thomas Metzinger for Cosmos and History (due in August) and a book on Quentin Meillassoux for Edinburgh University Press (due in October). The Meillassoux book will also contain, as appendices, an interview with Meilllassoux and numerous excerpts from his mysterious unpublished masterwork, L’inexistence divine (The Divine Inexistence). I’ll be in Paris for all of August 2010, finishing up that project.
Six of my books are now available on Amazon.com. This includes my four books already published, as well as the chance to pre-order my two books set to appear on the same day in November. One is called Circus Philosophicus, a mythical presentation of my philosophical ideas. It is a strange book, unlike any other people have seen before, and is one I wanted to write for the past decade before the opportunity at last arose. The other is called Towards Speculative Realism, and contains most of my unpublished essays and lectures from 1997-2009.
Three other books are already in press but not yet available for pre-order on the web. One is L’objet quadruple, my first book to appear in French, also in November. In spring 2011, the English version of that book will also appear as The Quadruple Object. At around the same time, The Prince and the Wolf: Latour and Harman at the LSE will appear in print. This work is the transcript of my debate with Bruno Latour at the London School of Economics in February 2008, with a helpful foreword by Peter Erdélyi, who organized that event.
But the work never stops. I also have two further contracts for books to be written in 2011. The first is Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, which will deal with a small number of H.P. Lovecraft’s greatest stories. Mallarmé and Hölderlin used to be the literary figures of choice in continental philosophy, but it feels to me like Lovecraft has become the new central literary referent in our circles. It was stunning to realize, for instance, that all four of the original speculative realists were Lovecraft fans, all of us having discovered him independently.
The second is called Treatise on Objects. In this book, you will find the most full-blown, systematic presentation of my philosophy so far. In many ways it will pick up the torch of ‘ontography’ as introduced towards the end of The Quadruple Object.
Beyond those two books the horizon is dark, and I cannot see what is coming.
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