Category Archives: anti-dialectics

Three Questions for Tim Morton on Object Oriented Ontology, Ecology, and Hegelianism

Tim Morton is Hyperobjects (U Minnesota P, 2013), Realist Magic (OHP, 2013), The Ecological Thought (Harvard UP, 2010), Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007), seven other books and over eighty essays on philosophy, ecology, literature, food and music. He is Rita Shea Guffey Chair of English at Rice University.  He blogs at Ecology without Nature.

C. Derick Varn: What do you think are the immediate practical implications for treating what we currently call “nature” as inter-related biological objects?  Recently, I have seen you post that Graham Harman’s return to Heidegger was important because of the way philosophers like Derrida have used Heidegger.  Why do you think this is important? A few times on your blog, you have been writing the troubles with Hegelianism in Continental. Why do you think Hegelian thinking has been so problematic?

Tim Morton:  First I’ll say some things about Hegel, as Hegelianism is on my mind these days. You know how people become like their dogs? Or vice versa? Something similar happens in philosophy. This is in fact a Hegelian insight: ideas code for people to have them. Phenomenologically speaking you could say that you are attracted like a bee to honey to a certain kind of logical content of an idea. Ideas are somewhat autonomous from the person who thinks them, a little bit like the meme idea. So you are as it were a host for an idea. Different ideas select different hosts.

In my twenty-five years in the academy I’ve made some observations, totally amateur ones, about the kinds of host that ideas select for. One interesting feature seems to be that very often there is a blind spot in the person who becomes the idea-host, a blind spot that has precisely to do with the strange symbiosis between idea and idea-haver. The style of the host reveals something unconscious about the idea parasite.

So for instance, Derrideans (I am one) ca be religious control freaks (an interesting example would be the atheist side of the “radical atheism” debate).

Foucauldians can be power trippers who frequently use pathologization to control groups (discipline and punish!).

Hegelians have a tin ear for how they sound.

This last one is the key to my sense of the issues with Hegel, and this is the irony. It was Hegel who after all gave us this magnificent idea, and I think it’s a true idea, about ideas and their hosts. The very people who most fervently endorse Hegel are quite tone deaf when it comes to issues of “subject position” (in Althusserian) or “style” (in phenomenologese). They are deaf to their guy’s big discovery. I find this irony not accidental. Let me explain what I mean.

This feature—of how ideas select their hosts—is not extrinsic to philosophy, to the content of what is said. Indeed, as Hegel himself argues, quite brilliantly, it’s part and parcel of it. There is a symbiotic relationship between idea and host.

How do Hegelians sound?

If you are not a Hegelian, this is how they sound, sometimes. It is as if someone has hidden a little ball under one of three cups, and is asking you to guess which one. They already know where the ball is.

That’s the opening move. But then it goes on. There is a certain way of turning over the cups. A certain procedure must be followed, even though you are supposed not to know where the ball is. The ball hider (the Hegelian) himself (and I’m going to say “himself” as I associate this style with a certain masculinity), the ball hider also goes through the motions, like a parent with an infant: “Is it under here? Noooo….Is it under here? Noooo…aha! Here it is!”

It is as if the rules of the game are to hide the rules of the game, yet to reveal that they have been hidden. It is also as if there is a pre-programmed suspense as we build from (say) sense-certainty to the final glorious self-unfolding of the Absolute.

When I pointed this out, in particular about the introduction to the Phenomenology of Spirit, I was immediately policed by a Hegelian online, in the following rather revealing terms. “He [underline he] who has made this remark has fallen at the first hurdle.” Tin ear, you see? Because he (the policeman, emphasis on man) has admitted that it is a game with a pre-programmed outcome. And that winning the game means becoming a Hegelian.

A journey with a known destination: like a Romantic piano sonata, in two ways. First you always return to home base (the tonic) no matter how much modulation happens: the adventure is to get really far out and then to return, like Shiva recognizing himself after an aeon of being everything else in the universe (to put it in provocatively orientalist terms that Hegel is allergic to). Secondly, because of equal temperament, your journey always occurs in a world of brown.

Equal temperament is the way to tune piano strings (and hence, in piano-centric modernity, all other instruments), slightly fudging the harmonic ratios between them to enable maximum journey possibilities. If you don’t do that, you end up with “wolf tones” (interesting use of a nonhuman, even threatening, “wild” animal) that sound like interference patterns between notes. Of course these wolf tones are quite lovely in their own right, but equal temperament bans them in advance in order to initiate the hide and seek journey.

The story of Western “classical” music since the advent of the Anthropocene, from Beethoven to Schoenberg to La Monte Young, has been the story of the gradual liberation of the piano from having to tell human emotional narratives in a pre-programmed sepia world. A rather object-oriented story if you like.

When you drop the human storyline, what you end up with quite quickly, in the move from Cage to Young, are drones and pure sine wave tones, whole number tuning called Just Intonation, and an emphasis on timbre (the physicality of a sound) rather than melody. What you end up with, in Hegelian, is the disturbing “narcissism” of A=A, the night in which all cows are black (both Hegelian terms as you know). What you end up with, in other words, is a moment at which the search for the Absolute has not even begun.

A=A is the nadir of “not getting it,” of “falling at the first hurdle”—or of not even trying to jump over the hurdle. Of simply sitting down and “occupying” the racetrack as it were, staging a sit in against this stupid pre-programmed race. It is labeled as “narcissism,” for instance in Žižek’s attacks on Buddhism, and I find narcissism to be the label of choice of the young Hegelians who are out in some force online at present. Hegel dismisses A=A as a parasite that finds a host in a primitive form of consciousness that he calls Buddhism.

The (wounded) narcissist tends to accuse the other of narcissism precisely insofar as he is disturbed by a loop whose echo he finds within himself. Thus while Foucauldians can be power trippers, Hegelians can be narcissistically deaf to how they sound in the ears of the other. And a symptom of this is their overuse of the term narcissistic to describe opposing views. This overuse is a symptom of the necessity of the dialectic to disavow A=A, to discover that A=A, like a little ball under a certain cup, is always already caught in the dialectic that will propel the story forwards to the self-realization of the Absolute. A=A is thus both inside and outside of Hegelian thought, a parasite that does not sit well in its Hegelian host.

What in A=A is Hegel afraid of, if we think like Freud for a moment that all philosophies are forms of paranoia, attempts to explain the world to defend against—what? A gap, a void, precisely the Kantian gap between phenomenon and thing. The basic Hegelian move against this gap is to assert that since I can think this gap, there is no gap.

OOO disturbs the Hegelian for two reasons, then. First OOO returns to the Kantian gap, as if Hegel had never mattered. The idealist solution to the Kantian gap is claimed to be false. Secondly, and this is more damaging to the Hegelian “narcissism,” the gap is located precisely in a thing, as the existence of a thing as such, without “my” (human) subject–world gap to make the thing real—or indeed anything else, since objects are ontologically prior to relations. Thus A (a thing) just is A: A=A. This “location-in-the-thing” bears an uncanny resemblance to the Hegelian discovery of its dialectic in the thing, but with a crucial difference, which is precisely that the rules of the game are not decided in advance as idealist rules that make knowing the gap more real than A=A itself.

This is the quintessence of the OOO move. To return to A=A, to occupy that position, as it were, is to have exposed Hegelianism for what it is: a pre-programmed ruse that knows in advance that A=A must be disavowed/sublated, and the exact procedures of that disavowal/sublation. It goes without saying that this is caught up in a certain resistance to anarchism, which is why I use the term occupy.

The phenomenon–thing gap is not absolutely nothing at all—it is more like what is called nothingness, a meontic nothing as Tillich says. This is the real fear of the Hegelian, which is a fear of a weird presence in and as nothingness. The phrase A=A contains something. “Equals A” is something that happens to “A,” as it were. There is a slight distortion or movement of trace within that very formula, a happening of something. (Derrida has written on this with reference to Hegel explicitly.) A=A has something of the flavor of “This sentence is false” (the Liar). A contradiction that is already present, that turns the sentence into a strange loop or spectral, plasmic entity. Again, this differs from the Hegelian contradiction in the thing, insofar as I do not know in advance that A=A is simply an opaque blindness in me to this contradiction, but rather that A=A is already contradiction, or rather a double-truth (dialetheia), both true and false simultaneously. This is what the Hegelian narrative forecloses.

A night in which all cows are black still has cows, if we take the image as hiding in plain sight something on its own face—it’s not absolutely nothing at all. There are these cows everywhere, these ungraspable cows. It’s a universe of entities—I can think them, but I cannot directly perceive them, yet they are (physically) real: the Kantian universe where there are raindrops that are raindroppy, I can think them, they are not popsicles, but I can’t access the things in themselves. Which is also the OOO universe, in an expanded sense—to get from Kant to OOO all I do is repudiate the copyright control the (human) subject has on the phenomenon–thing gap and allow it to exist everywhere. So that there is a cow–night gap, a cow horn–cow gap, a cow stomach–cow tail gap, and so on. Even an A–A gap, or a cow–cow gap.


To exist is to be ever so slightly different from yourself, which is the secret of “narcissism”—autoaffection in the end is equal to heteroaffection. The most phobic image of A=A in Hegel is a Hindu image that he takes to be an image of Buddha “in the thinking posture” (as he puts it): baby Krishna inserting a toe into his mouth and sucking it, wondering why it tastes so sweet (Krishna Narayan). Hegel calls this “withdrawal into self,” a phrase with a contemporary and uncanny resonance with OOO: to exist for OOO is indeed to be withdrawn-into-oneself (Entzug). And Buddhism is the religion of this “being-within-self” (Insichsein).

Thus anything that looks like self-pleasuring is suspect for Žižek. So it is better to have an empty ritual than one suffused with (the wrong kind of) meaning, because that would betray something “narcissistic” about that meaning. New Agers are to be roundly condemned. This assault on autoaffection has so spooked actual Buddhists that it is common to defend oneself against it: “I am a Buddhist but I’m not one of those New Age Western Buddhists.” Thus a robust defense of Buddhist against Hegelianism must start with a shameless occupying of the dreaded narcissistic position.

There are numerous positions within post-Hegelian Western philosophy that can be used in this deployment. For instance, consider Zarathustra’s “Love your neighbor as yourselves, but first be such as love yourselves,” which sounds like it comes straight out of a Buddhist manual on what is called maitri, or even “worse,” from a self-help book. Then there is Derrida:

 Narcissism! There is not narcissism and non-narcissism; there are narcissisms that are more or less comprehensive, generous, open, extended. What is called non-narcissism is in general but the economy of a much more welcoming, hospitable narcissism, one that is much more open to the experience of the other as other. I believe that without a movement of narcissistic reappropriation, the relation to the other would be absolutedly destroyed, it would be destroyed in advance.   (“There Is No One Narcissism”)

A fear of nothingness that is precisely the fear of an uncanny presence, a presence that is the starting position of Hegelianism itself, A=A. A presence that is me but I disavow it, “destroy [it] in advance” (Derrida). There is something homophobic about Hegel’s deployment of the image of Krishna sucking his toe. He goes on to deplore the fact that lamas (Tibetan incarnate teachers) are brought up in a feminine passive way. It is as if what is being warded off is that phobic sequence popular in nineteenth century sexology and diet: narcissism >> masturbation >> excess energy >> more masturbation >> homosexuality. This is why Cornflakes was invented. Young boys who eat too much meat are prone to an excess of psychic energy which results in this pathologized narcissistic loop.

I object to Hegelians because they think I am a narcissistic cocksucker, and because they claim this is bad, and because they claim that they are not. The ecological project—namely the transition to a genuinely post-modern age—depends very much on our admission that we are all narcissistic cocksuckers.

This helps me to answer the other questions. Let’s consider Harman’s turn to Heidegger in spite of, or around, or underneath (or whatever) Derrida. That has to do on the one hand with the idea that nothingness is not just a feature of sentences. And it also has to do with an intimacy with objects, an intimacy that Heidegger calls the “ready-to-hand.” Here I will simply quote the wing mirror of your car, which is an object-oriented ontologist: “OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.” It is this closeness that makes them impossible to grasp, an intimacy, not a distance, a distance that must only be a feature of some kind of aestheticizing technology of framing. For Heidegger, this distancing is already at work in Plato’s Idea, but for OOO, it is also in pre-Socratic materialisms that seek to reduce the inherent inconsistency of things by positing some kind of thing (such as measurement for Protagoras or the flux for Heraclitus) as more real than other things.


Since here we reach a terminus of Western philosophy, it isn’t surprising that Harman has reached out to nonwestern ones such as are found in Islam and Buddhism. Foucault: “it is the end of the era of Western philosophy. Thus if philosophy of the future exists, it must be born outside of Europe or equally born in consequence of meetings and impacts between Europe and non-Europe.” This is in marked contrast with Laruelle, who without reflection repeats the basic Hegelian gesture of recounting the history of philosophy as the story of (white) Western philosophy.

I see the OOO intimacy with nothingness—the ungraspability of the thing—as part of a transition through and under nihilism, which Heidegger started, and which deconstruction continues, and which I believe OOO begins to complete. The post-modern ecological age is an age that will have transitioned through nihilism. My objection to eliminative forms of realism is not that they are nihilistic, but that they are not nihilistic enough. They are not nihilistic enough because they disavow the intimacy of things, an intimacy that is not based on constant presence (metaphysics of presence) but that is precisely ungraspable as such.

Now I can answer the first question. I take ecology to be the thinking and practice of this intimacy, the intimacy your car tells you about on a regular basis. Nature is an “object in mirror,” as it were, that is taken to be over yonder, underneath me, in my cells or in my atoms, “over there” in the wilderness. To riff on the wing mirror statement, Nature appears to be “as far as away as it appears” to the human.

Nature is in this sense the opposite of ecology, and it is not accidental that the modern concept Nature is born at the inception of the Anthropocene, as a kind of “schizophrenic defense” against the actual direct intervention in Earth’s crust by humans. A fantasy that prevents us from seeing how we are always caught in things, even as (and ironically especially when) we feel as if we have achieved escape velocity from them, like Oedipus fleeing his supposed Corinthian father.


Rice University

Interview with SDV Duras on Delueze and the near future

SDV  Duras is an engineer and philosopher who after spending the 1970s as a revolutionary, partially retired during the 1980s and underwent a new education and training in phlosophy and media. Beginning to become cautiously active again in the last dozen or so years. The neoliberal counter revolution was well under way, the appropriation of the radical specificity of race, gender, consumerist and other identity based politics was noticeably central to the neoliberal turn. By the late 1980s it was clear that an academic career was not a sensible option, instead he became an engineer (analysis, design and code). He suppose it’s marginally interesting that he is the person that the neoliberal counter-revolution was designed for, which is why the socialism, communism and the philosophy derived in part from the exemplary lines of thought Marx and Deleuze have been essential to constrain and humanize my behaviour throughout the neoliberal period. 

C. Derick Varn:  Deleuze as well as Deleuze and Guattari have benefited from increased usage in the last two decades; however, it seems like Deleuze may be the one of the philosophers that is often attacked on whatever superficial grounds and even defended and applied on superficial grounds.  What are the problems you have seen in the way Deleuze is applied in the academy right now?

SDV Duras:  As Deleuze pointed out politics, like life, is an experimental activity.  However the loss and absence we can see with Deleuze is that whilst he was alive he never succeeded in breaking out of the confines of the academy. Even now it’s not clear that his texts have escaped from the academy. As such he never succeeded in applying the techniques of his work to life as it is lived. So that Deleuze never managed to work towards criticizing the ordinary objects of life, the literature of his time, cinema, television, the fleeting and imaginary concerns of the public and private spheres. In a sense we know that Deleuze wanted to take sides – and yet there is a sense in which he could not as there is always an ambivalence in the engagement. As Benjamin writes in One-Way Street“He who cannot take sides should keep silent.” 

By the mid-70s translations of Deleuze and Guattari work began to appear, both from the USA and more local translations. The adoption of Nietzsche as a counter-cultural figure took place during this period, Nietzsche was unconvincingly presented as the founding father of the counter-culture. Shortly after this in 1978 the English translation of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus was published, copies arriving in the UK when it was remaindered in 1979. Arguably a more significant moment was the publication of Rhizome and the accompanying academic dossier on their work in I&C no 8 published in 1981. What is important about this dossier is that it marks the moment when the English speaking academy began to take ownership of Deleuze and Guattari. In retrospect the publication appears at the moment when the themes began to be discussed and defined which were to remain central to the way the work was appropriated, even now, thirty years later. With the not insignificant difference that the writers in I&C assumed, as we all did, that the work was on the side of human emancipation. It took only a few years before the readings implicit in the I&C would be presented as the correct and true readings of the texts. To put it in another way the words,  the meanings tentatively established in the 1980s and made concrete in the 1990s have been maintained as the orthodox readings ever since. Mistakenly thinking that the work was not appropriable by the right, by those who are necessarily against human emancipation, who are knowingly or unknowingly for hierarchy and control.

The right wing appropriation of the work  began to emerge in the 1990s. And yet we can see how this tendency was evident in the earlier Nietzschean counter-cultural appropriation. The possibility certainly existed in the texts but we misunderstood how it might be used and what the right might actually look like. The conservative and liberal meanings of this interpretation of the texts have gradually become more obvious. Careers began to be established, a school of Deleuzeian studies developed and over the last twenty years the Deleuze information industry with its academic support network was introduced.  The academy established a way of reading the Deleuze and Guattari texts which directly enabled the right to appropriate and take ownership of the aspects it required to maintain the dominance of their line of thought. The first secondary journals and books dedicated to Deleuze and Guattari  begin to appear in the 1980s, which developed into a stream in the 90s and in the 21st Century a flood. During this period the right wing appropriation and the conservative tendencies in the academy were reinforced exactly  as the dominant neoliberal ideology required.  Even now as new intellectual fashions develop and Neoliberalism has failed this tendency continues.

Negri’s worry about the institutionalization of Deleuzian social and political philosophy is worth remembering here, which is to say that the difficulties of molecular  revolutions have with creating links between consequences. Which is to say the difficultly of actually taking power. As Guattari said… “… will these micro-revolutions…be put away to restricted sphere of the social sphere ? Or will they be articulated in new  social segmentations that won’t imply the restitution of hierarchy and segregation ? In short will all these new micro-revolutions set up a new revolution ? Will they be capable of assuming not just local problems, but the management of big economic sets?”  As we know so far at least there has been no sign of a new revolutions being enabled by this and as these incoherent sentences of Guattari suggest the danger of new-fascisms, new hierarchies and segregations should concern us.

CDV:  Many Anti-Oedipus’s notions of territorialisation, deterritorialisation, and reterritorialisation under  capitalism have obvious correlates in identity politics.   Do you think this is strength in way to understand the way identity functions as a means of territorialisation which corresponds to the strategic essentialism, and then expansion of the notion of the pime identity (deterritorialisation corresponding to de-essentialization) and problematic reterritorialised (separatism, chauvenism, etc)?  What would be the function of identity politics in this context?

SDV:  The retreat which the specific intellectual and identity politics represents was recognized at the beginning of the neoliberal period with the argument from some feminists that a vote for Thatcher was a vote for women. As the Thatcher case demonstrates questions of identity, territorialization, ecology and the minor always have an explicit danger of a reactionary turn, because there is no central engagement in human emancipation. Whether this is essentialist or anti-essentialist depends entirely on the relationship to the universal of human emancipation and the relationship to power. For such a politics to have any usefulness it must maintain an explicit reference towards the universal of human emancipation and construct a  politics that is not ‘afraid of power’. What Thatcher demonstrates is that all such politics can entail a becoming-fascist a becoming-reactionary… Who after all has been concerned by the eco-fascism(s) that we have all come across.

CDV:  What do you think of Ian Buchanan’s notion that the form of the Deleuze and Guattari’s thought is a formal dialectic, but one that is divorced from Hegelianism?

SDV:  It’s not a particularly interesting and useful rereading,  I think that in themselves Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari are anti-dialecticians. Not merely against Hegel but against the dialectic itself. It is rather up to us to reintroduce the important Hegalian-Marxist moment back into what is a Spinozist-Marxist line of thought. Aline of thought wants to be just as much post-Hegelian as they want it to be post-Kantian.

However in doing so whilst Deleuze can address the Althussarian moment in Difference and Repetition he cannot begin to take into account the key radical question that Guy Debord asked in the mid 60s – “All the theoretical strands of the revolutionary workers movement stem from critical confrontation with Hegelian thought” – In the present crisis there is still no evidence that a non-Hegelian revolutionary or radical thought will provide an emancipatory moment for humanity.

To often the careerist secondary readers of Deleuze and Guattari maintain a liberalism, in the European sense of the term, as required by the academy.

CDV:  What key concepts in Deleuze do you find useful to lived, embodies, everyday activism?

SDV:  This is genuinely difficult question, I think that this rests on the politicisation of everything. Which extends beyond the personal is political, into the everyday and beyond science. So then, not just the politicisation of philosophy but the recognition and acceptance that ‘everything is political’. This concept is founded on the way that Marx directed philosophy and everyday life towards the political. And towards the way that because everything is political there are no apolitical domains and fields. For us it is not just in the everyday but also within philosophy that there is no separation of truth from falsity, but instead there is the necessity to analyse, question and work to change the material conditions, to challenge the everyday order in the attempt to construct a new world. This describes in a few sentences the heart of the left wing version of Deleuze, which is the one Badiou references as Democratic Materialist, rather than the right wing variation that Zizek references, it is this one that exists most obviously in Difference and Repetition and in Nietzsche and Philosophy- these are political texts which show the extent to which Deleuze is beholden to Marx and Marxism. A relationship which is made more explicit in the joint project with Guattari.

To be precise then a more political reading of Deleuze is possible as this suggests, but it requires that we accept and work with the extent to which he is a Marxist. Which requires that we do not merely read the Marx from Deleuze’s public sympathy with the Italian Marx of the Autonomia line of thought, but equally understand the readings possible from the other Marxisms…

CDV:  What have you have you seen in Deleuze that is easily appropriated by the right?

SDV:  Examples are easy with this question – though see below for some enhancements to this response
To begin with see the work of Brigadier-General Aviv Kokhavi, who in his use of Deleuze ‘inverse geometry’, which he explained as ‘the reorganization of the urban syntax by means of a series of micro-tactical actions’. This is not the first use of Deleuze and Guattari in military work – for that see Manual DeLanda ‘War in the age of Intelligent Machines’  a book I once discussed with an American Colonel whilst flying into Washington in the 90s. Equally critically see the pro-capitalist aspect of Deleuze and Guatari  developed by Bard and Soderqvist in Netocracy the quintessential appropriation for a form of network capitalism that creates a horrifying class antagonism between netocrats and consumers. In all these cases the uses made are  possible because their work can be considered as being the ideology of a newly emerging ruling class, or to put it another way we have to prevent the appropriation of the work by the emergent class by imposing a universal of human emancipation on the work. It does not exist in the work itself….

CDV:  What do you make the figure of Nietzsche in Deleuze’s work?  Is Nietzsche’s presence there a problematic point or a liberating poiny or something else entirely?

SDV:  This inevitably leads towards an understanding of Deleuze’s work which asks whether a Marxism founded on Spinoza and Nietzsche and written against the dialectic is feasible. To understand Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche it is crucial to recognize the status and use made of Marx, especially in the Nietzsche book and in Difference and Repetition. Deleuze’s strong readings of Spinoza and Nietzsche are founded on a Marxist reinterpretation. A central aspect of Deleuze’s practice is to establish and renew a critical position by respecifying what the philosopher is, through making the philosophers problem explicit and then reproducing the system the philosopher maintains. The critical thing is to recognize that Deleuze’s philosophical practice always works with strong readings of other figures, texts really, Nietzsche, Kant, Leibnitz, Spinoza and so on.   The misreading of Nietzsche is particularly influential but in fact Nietzsche remains the same dubious reactionary figure that he always has been.  The reactionary heart of Nietzsche is eradicated by the use of Marx. To the extent that we might argue that a new problem emerges at this point, one founded not on  a phantasy of a Nietzschean and Spinozist form of Marxism but rather on what the precise relations are with the other forms of Marxist and non-Marxist radical thought.. And then to consider what happens when people move from Deleuze back to Nietzsche ?

CDV:  Working in the sciences, do you think motivates the rejection of Deleuze’s work in the sciences?

SDV:  There is no acceptable philosophy of science or engineering in Deleuze’s work. He co-opts and produces a series of strong readings but as with the appropriation of Nietzsche we are dealing with readings which cannot be utilized without a recognition of the specificity of the reading.  The false difference between Minor Science and Royal Science is the classic representation of the core of the problem science represents and explains why a philosophy of science founded on the work hasn’t developed. Minor science is science as employed by artisans, engineers and is operated by problematics, (ambulant, itinerant, nomad science) which is posed as oppositional, different from Royal science, state science.  They argue that minor science works by pushing systems into intensive states in order  to follow traits in material to reveal their virtual structures  or multiplicities. The examples supplied in ATP are hydrodynamics, metallurgy, masonry. Minor science works by focusing on on material and forces rather  than matter form structures of hylomorphism. Royal and State science, also referenced as major science is founded on a critique of the positivist interpretation of classical mechanics.  It functions by extracting constants from variables of extensive properties, and the establishment of laws, standard laws and phenomenological ones. Except scientists and engineers are not positivists and haven’t been for many decades, probably they never were…In a sense then the minor and major science difference here avoids the actual issue of state science which is touched on in ATP… A moment that has passed… Which is to say that where they imply an understanding of Georges Dumezil and his definitive analysis of Indo-European mythology, specifically of political sovereignty which has two poles, the king and the jurist. For whilst I accept the Deleuzian proposition that says that science, state and in fact minor science has supplanted religion as the juridicial pole, as the pole of legitimation, and whilst the king even in our liberal parliamentary democracies has remained fundamentally unchanged as the despotic pole, as power. Except that whilst clearly the structure has remained unchanged that the media, the spectacle itself has supplanted both science and religion to become the jurist-media, the acknowledged legislator, the creator of pacts which the ‘king’ is beholden to… the jurist-media, the jurist-spectacle… So that where science as they imply as the juridicial pole was never simply state science, figures such as Newton, Galileo and Einstein obviously but really minor science as well….

In other words the model is explicitly flawed… and the flaw needs naming.

CDV:  Do you think Debord complements Deleuze in your understanding of the spectacle?

SDV: Yes, nothing in Deleuze’s work has the clarity of insight that is available as a consequence of the work of Guy Debord and his successors. To briefly consider two lines of thought of current concern; what Hegelian-Marxists like Guy Debord force us to do is address the long term nature of the ongoing crises of capitalism, the almost 100 year old solution to an earlier crisis of capitalism that is the spectacle, that is mass-consumption. Perhaps given out concerns here though equally critical is the insistence that ‘representation’ is important.

What is offered is a focus on everyday life, on life as it is actually lived which the more traditionally focused philosophical work of Deleuze cannot address.  The hidden question which Debord raises, which has not yet been properly addressed by Deleuzian thought is whether a radical left politics, can ever be constructed without addressing and accepting some aspects of our Hegelian-Marxist past. For what if Debord is correct when he says that the ‘…revolutionary workers movement  stems from a critical confrontation with  Hegelian thought…’ This question asked in the mid 1960s was never addressed…

CDV:  Do you find accelerationists readings of Deleuze to be dangerous to radical political praxis? 

SDV: Do I need to say that accelerationism has the strong smell of Italian Futurism about it ? A futurism which was really addressing and resurrecting a nasty imperial past.

Accelerationist readings are particularly dangerous because they always  produce a potentially reactionary appropriation of the work. Not so much as a turn towards a worshipped  future singularity, but rather because they constitute a medieval turn towards a seemingly endless aristocratic past and future. Founded not on the analysis and anticipation of progress but rather of a series of masked gestures towards the past. Accelerating ever faster towards the medieval eventually with a new Tudor future, with new unbermensch’s reminiscent of King Henry composing music and art…. There is nothing in an accelerationist co-option of Deleuze that does not end up in a glorious monarchy and perhaps worse in a love of a future Oriental Despotism.

CDV:  Anything you’d like to say in closing?

SDV: In the current political and economic crisis it seems vaguely foolish to assume that a specific philosophical and political position is strategically correct. Rather we should accept that in world where everything is political notions of philosophical correctness have less meaning than they used to. Instead we live with the necessity of accepting that everyday life and the political are experimental activities with a requirement that strategy and tactics are lived with, along with the need for a  modicum of solidarity. All of which is  impossible given the naive tendency towards believing philosophical discourse is related to truth, which as everything is political cannot be considered correct. Curiously Henri Lefebvre argued once that everyday life is non-philosophical and that Marxism (as a philosophy and science(smiles)) should construct a philosophy/science of everyday life, of lived experience and yet the limit of this is that what he is referencing is life after 1929 and the growing dominance of mass-consumption, an affluent society which today is in the process of changing quite dramatically.  Yet surely this philosophy/science could perhaps protect us from the study of proletarianized academics working for the furtherance of the control society… because …

…Lived experience has always contained a distanciation, has always been  emptied by representation(s). I think it was Benjamin who first noticed people standing with cameras in front of paintings trying to preserve an experience they cannot imagine or have.  What this means is that in the integrated spectacle we live within, both representation in general and in the specific forms already referred to, are pure forms of separation. The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes image (Debord) “…when the real world has been transformed  into an image and images become real, the practical power of humans is separated from itself and presented as a world unto itself…”  It is this which has become the end goal, the meaning of our network society, the manipulation and control of perception, memory and consequently action in our disparate communities. Humanity separated from their commons, their language, their data,  their thinking itself. This is the final expropriation, which empties the world of meaning, tradition, beliefs, contents, from the commons in their entirety. In it’s latest neoliberal incarnation it is the negative side of the post-modern understanding that culture is a resource rather than something which owns and creates the human subject. What happens to this now that the neoliberal phase is over is the source and cause of these words.

The responses to these developments have been particularly interesting. We live in a world cursed by the growth in hideous absolutisms. All of which generate rational and even sometimes sensibly angry responses, the violence of geopolitics; the life-destroying dogmatism of Islam, reactionary Christianity and religions in general; the destroyed financial markets with the most extraordinary levels of incompetence and what appear to be naive manipulations which have undermined the social and political economy and condemned material producers to starvation, ever growing slum cities and political administrations that are not capable of engaging in democratic debate and instead impose decisions along the lines defined by the network society, capitalism.

This list of absolutes is no surprise in a sense its inevitable and could be extended quite easily.  Will these absolutisms begin to end as the crisis of neoliberalism begins to resolved itself ? What will post-neoliberalism look like ? What is the relationship between them and the integrated spectacle ? What is the relationship between these despotisms and the control society ? Sadly I don’t think we can avoid post-neoliberalism, the left has been so weakened by the neoliberal period that it needs this crisis to merely reestablish itself in some form or another.

For the spectacle has generated these absolutisms especially those that believe they are rejecting it…. In our world the necessity of addressing the integrated spectacle is crucial if we are to make any social and political progress in the next few decades. In a world where all information is virtually image, the information and its still expanding and translucent nature necessitates a belief in a total consciousness. This totality is supported  by the technological developments that enable the integrated spectacle to exist, that have supported the globalisation of capitalism, so that the  false imaginative consciousness, for that’s what it is,  can no longer recognize what is possible, let alone impossible or even nothingness. The integrated spectacle reified and objectified (‘objects all the way down’) can only work towards its extension, the commodification of everything. In this sense then the integrated spectacle and the control society are one and the same thing. Two concepts which are differently named because they emerge from an unnecessary and irrelevant difference. But the control society evades the necessity to address the spectacle, always addressing its organic constituency rather than the world we actually exist in.

Marginalia on Radical Thinking: Interview with Rosa Lichtenstein

Rosa Lichtenstein is a “Wittgensteinian Trotskyist” who runs the website Antidialectics.

Skepoet: Your larger project seems to be aimed explaining how Hegelian readings of Marx, starting with Engels, have had major philosophical and political problems for working class politics. When did you start to see problems in Dialectical Materialism?

Rosa Lichtenstein: I began to read Hegel back in the 1970s, but when I started a degree course in Philosophy — which was delivered largely by leading Fregeans and Wittgensteinians, who introduced me to Analytic Philosophy — I soon rejected not just Hegel but all forms of traditional Philosophy as a “house of cards”, to paraphrase Wittgenstein.

In the early 1980s I began to take an interest in Marxism, particularly after reading Gerry Cohen’s book, since I saw that one could accept Historical Materialism (a theory that had interested me years earlier, but which I rejected because of Hegel’s influence) without any reference to Hegel, or his ideas. I then drifted into revolutionary politics for a few years, joining a party which, at that time, seemed to me to be the least affected by Engels’s philosophical theories. However, soon after joining that party it did an about turn and began to push Engels’s ideas. This both dismayed and alarmed me. Despite this, I found I could still agree with their political line (and still do), so I just ignored this regrettable development.

Unfortunately, in the early 1990s, in the fight against the UK Poll tax, the party began to change. As a result, I was able to witness at first-hand the baleful effect that Dialectical ‘Logic’ can have on revolutionary politics — in this case, on local party activists. Several of the latter (in the run up to the defeat of that tax, and the under direction of the party leadership) began to behave in a most uncharacteristic and aggressive manner, especially toward less committed comrades.

These activists now declared that ‘dialectical’ thinking meant there were no ‘fixed or rigid principles’ in revolutionary politics. Everything it seemed had now to be bent toward the ‘concrete’ practical exigencies of the class struggle. Abstract ideas were ruled-out of court — except, of course, for that abstract idea. Only the concrete mattered, even if no one could say what that was without using yet more abstractions.

In practice, this novel turn to the ‘concrete’ meant that several long-standing members of the party were harangued until they either abandoned revolutionary activity altogether, or they adapted to the “new mood” (as the wider political milieu in the UK was then called by this party). In the latter eventuality, it meant that they had to conform to a suicidally increased rate of activity geared around the fight against the Poll Tax, whether or not they or their families suffered as a consequence. At meetings, one by one, comrades were subjected to a series of grossly unfair public hectoring sessions (in a small way reminiscent of the sort of things that went on in the Chinese Cultural Revolution — minus the physical violence). These were conducted with no little vehemence by several party ‘attack dogs’ until the ‘victims’ either buckled under the strain, or gave up and left the party.

‘Dialectical’ arguments of remarkable inconsistency were used to ‘justify’ every convoluted change of emphasis, and counter every objection (declaring them one and all “abstract”), no matter how reasonable they might otherwise seem. Comrades who were normally quite level-headed became almost monomaniacal in their zeal to search out and re-educate those who were not quite 100% with the program. For some reason these comrades left me alone, probably because I was highly active at the time, and perhaps because I knew a little philosophy and could defend myself.

In the end, as is evident from the record, the Poll Tax was defeated by strategies other than those advocated by this particular party, and the “new mood” melted away nearly as fast as most of the older comrades did — and, as fate would have it, about as quickly as many of the new members the party had managed to recruit in the meantime. I do not think that the local party has recovered from this period of “applied dialectics” (from what I can tell, it’s about a half to a third of its former size, and thus nowhere near as effective). Indeed, the national party is a fraction of its former size, too.

I have discovered since that this sort of thing is endemic in all forms of Dialectical Marxism, and has been for many generations.This series of events set off a train of thought. As is apparent to anyone with unblinkered eyes, so I thought, Dialectical Marxism is one the most unsuccessful major political movements in human history. Given its bold aims, its totalising theory and the fact that it is supposed to represent the aspirations of the vast bulk of humanity, the opposite should in fact be the case. But it isn’t. The record of Trotskyism is, if anything, even worse; in fact, it’s disgraceful. And I say that as a Trotskyist!

Although at the time I had no way of proving it, these events suggested that an allegiance to Dialectical Materialism might have something to do with this wider, but suitably ironic “unity of opposites”: the long-term failure of a movement that should in fact be hugely successful.

The thought then occurred to me that perhaps this paradoxical situation — wherein a political movement that avowedly represents the interests of the overwhelming majority of human beings is ignored by all but a few — was linked in some way to the contradictory theory at its heart: Dialectical Materialism.

Perhaps this was part of the reason why all revolutionary groups remain small, fragmentary, and lack significant influence, I thought. Could this theory also be related to the unprincipled (if not manipulatively instrumental) way that Disciples of the Dialectic tend to treat, use or abuse one another?

Other questions soon followed: Could dialectics be connected with the tendency almost all revolutionary groups have of wanting to substitute themselves for the working-class –, or, at least, excusing the substitution of other forces for that class, be they Red Army tanks, Maoist guerrillas, Central Committees, radicalised students, or ‘sympathetic/progressive’ nationalist leaders — on the grounds that it is certainly contradictory to believe that forces other than the working class can bring about a workers’ state?

But, hey, that’s dialectical logic for you. It should be contradictory!

Indeed, I wondered, was this theory also used to justify and/or rationalise all manner of opportunistic and cynical twists and turns (some of which took place overnight) — like those we witnessed in the 1920s and 1930s in the manoeuvrings of the CPSU and the CCP –, and which helped destroy several revolutions, dismantle and dissipate workers’ struggles,  indirectly helping to cause the deaths of millions of proletarians in the lead up to WW2 and the fight against Hitler, and, indeed, since?

It seemed to me that researching these and related questions might also help explain why revolutionary socialism has been so depressingly unsuccessful for so long. And my researches since have confirmed these suspicions, and much more.

It’s worth adding, though, that I do not blame this theory for all our woes. There are objective reasons why the ruling class still controls the planet. But this theory must take some of the blame. It seems ludicrous to me to believe that, if truth is tested in practice and practice has failed us for so long, our core theory, materialist dialectics, has nothing whatsoever to do with this.

S: What do you make of other non-Hegelian Marxists such as that of G.A. Cohen and the “analytical” Marxists or the Althusserian “structural” Marxists?

R.L.: Well the Analytic Marxists certainly weren’t analytic enough, in my view, and, except for one or two of them, weren’t even recognisably Marxist! However, as I pointed out above, Gerry Cohen’s book is for me a landmark work (if we ignore his Technological Determinism and his Functionalism), not least because of the clarity of his argument — an approach other academics would do well to emulate.

Unfortunately, I have no time for Althusser (or for those who look to him for inspiration). It seems to me that he/they are still mired in a traditional approach to philosophy.

S: Why do you think that dialectical materialists refuse to abandon dialectical materialism?

R.L.: There are at least three main reasons, all of which are inter-related, I think. The first is rather complex: The vast majority of those who have led the Marxist movement or who formed its core ideas weren’t workers; they came from a class that educated their children in the Classics, the Bible, and Philosophy. This tradition taught that behind appearances there lies a ‘hidden world’, accessible to thought alone, which is more real than the material universe we see around us.

This way of viewing things was concocted by ideologues of the ruling-class. They invented it because if you belong to, benefit from or help run a society which is based on gross inequality, oppression and exploitation, you can keep order in several ways.

The first and most obvious way is through violence. This will work for a time, but it’s not only fraught with danger, it’s costly and it stifles innovation (among other things).

Another way is to win over the majority (or, at least, a significant section of ‘opinion formers’, bureaucrats, judges, bishops, ‘intellectuals’, philosophers, teachers, administrators, editors, etc.) to the view that the present order either: (1) Works for their benefit, (2) Defends ‘civilised values’, (3) Is ordained of the ‘gods’, or (4) Is ‘natural’ and so can’t be fought, reformed or negotiated with.

Hence, a world-view that rationalises one or more of the above is necessary for the ruling-class to carry on ruling in the same old way. While the content of ruling-class thought may have altered with each change in the mode of production, its form has remained largely the same for thousands of years: Ultimate Truth (about this ‘hidden world’) can be ascertained by thought alone, and therefore can be imposed on reality dogmatically and aprioristically.

Because of their petty-bourgeois and/or non-working class origin — and as a result of their socialisation and the superior education they have generally received in bourgeois society — the vast majority of the individuals who have led the movement or who have been central to forming its ideas have had “ruling ideas”, or ruling-class forms-of-thought, forced down their throats almost from day one.

So, the non-worker founders of our movement — who had been educated from an early age to believe there was just such a ‘hidden world’ lying behind ‘appearances’, and which governs everything — when they became revolutionaries, looked for a priori ‘logical’ principles relating to that abstract world that told them that change was inevitable, and was thus part of the cosmic order. Enter dialectics, courtesy of the dogmatic ideas of that ruling-class mystic, Hegel. The dialectical classicists were thus happy to impose their theory on the world (upside down or the “right way up”) since that is how they were taught ‘genuine’ philosophers should behave.

[You can see comrades (and others) regularly doing this sort of thing over at the Facebook site you help set up (and across the internet on various discussion boards and blogs), and right throughout academia. Such individuals scarcely devote any thought to how or why they can so effortlessly derive fundamental theses, true for all of space and time, about 'Being', 'consciousness', 'subjectivity', 'essence', etc., from a handful of words, in the comfort of their own heads. Unfortunately, as Marx noted, the ideas of the ruling class always rule.]

This ‘allowed’ the founders of Dialectical Materialism to think of themselves as special, as prophets of the new order, which workers, alas, could not quite understand because of their defective education, their dependence on ordinary language and their reliance on ‘banalities of common sense’.

In which case, dialecticians are not going to relinquish the pre-eminent position adherence to this theory bestows on them — as High Priests of the Revolution.

The second reason is a bit more down-to-earth: Because Dialectical Marxism has been so catastrophically unsuccessful, and for so long, revolutionaries have had to convince themselves that (a) this isn’t really so, and that the opposite is in fact the case, or that (b) this is only a temporary state of affairs. In view of the additional fact that they also hold that truth is tested in practice, they are forced to adopt either or both of (a) and (b), otherwise they’d have to conclude that history has refuted their theory.

Now, because dialectics teaches that appearances are “contradicted” by underlying “essences”, it is able to fulfil a unique role in this regard, motivating and/or rationalising (a) or (b): things might appear to be going wrong, but those invisible underlying ‘essences’, that dialecticians alone can access, tell them the opposite. Alas, this prevents them from addressing the serious theoretical problems that afflict Dialectical Marxism. [That is, if they even acknowledge there are any problems!]

In this way, dialectics provides comrades with much needed consolation in the face of long-term failure, convincing them that everything is in fact fine with their core theory, or that things will change for the better — one day. This then ‘allows’ them to ignore the long-term failure of Dialectical Marxism, rationalising it as a mere “appearance” and hence either false, or illusory. So, confronted with 150 years of set-backs, defeats and disasters, and in the face of their belief that truth is tested in practice, revolutionaries almost invariably respond with a “Well that doesn’t prove dialectics is wrong!”

So, just like the religious, who can survey all the ‘evil’ there is in the world and still see it as an expression of the ‘Love of God’ — and who will make all things well in the future –, dialecticians can look at the last 150 years and still see the ‘Logic of History’ moving their way, and that all will be well in the end, too. This means that the theory that prevents them from facing reality is the very same theory that prevents them from examining it, inviting yet another generation of failure by masking these facts.

Apparently, the only two things in the entire Dialectical Universe that aren’t interconnected are the long term failure of Dialectical Marxism and its core theory!

So, just like the religious, dialecticians are not going to let go of their source of consolation, and cling to it like terminally insecure limpets.

The third reason is connected with the other two: Just like the Bible, which provides its acolytes with ample excuse to accuse others of not ‘understanding the Word of God’, Dialectical Materialism, with its sacred texts, provides its adherents with an obscure theory that ‘allows’ them to claim that other theorists do not ‘understand’ dialectics — or that they ignore and misuse it — and that only they can truly comprehend it. This then ‘allows’ them to anathematise and castigate other comrades as anti-Marxist. In short, it puts in the hands of inveterate sectarians (of which Dialectical Marxism has had more than its fair share) an almost infinitely pliable, ideological weapon capable of proving almost anything at all and its opposite (often this is done by the very same theorist!) — simply because it glories in contradiction.

Abandoning this theory would deprive our ‘leaders’ of the use a very powerful ideological tool which helps them to control the movement by, oddly enough, keeping it small, and thus easier to control. Hence, despite the fact that we have witnessed over 150 years of comrades devoted to ‘building the party’, very few can boast membership rolls that rise much above the risible. The only thing we seem to be good at is falling out with one another, and splitting. Hence the apposite nature of that Monty Python sketch (about the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, etc.). Dialectical Marxism is now a standing joke among workers and the wider populace.

S: Do you think this theory had a direct affect on Marxist politics in the Soviet and Sino-Communist systems, and not just as a sui generis rationalization mechanism for acting against Marxist principles?

R.L.: Well, it certainly helped the leaders of the communist movement sell contradictory tactics and strategies to the cadres, and thus to the whole movement. No theory (other than perhaps Zen Buddhism) can so readily be used to derive any conclusion you find politically expedient and its opposite (often this is done by the very same individual, sometimes on the same page, or even the same paragraph — or, in Stalin and Mao’s case, in the very same speech! — I give numerous examples at my site). So, it’s an ideal weapon in the hands of opportunists of every stripe.

As I noted earlier, it also helped the leaders of the communist movement rationalise their own substitution for the working class. After all, what can be more contradictory than a Workers’ State where the working class has no power, and is oppressed and exploited for its pains? But, that’s dialectics for you…

S.: Do you think that lingering Hegelianism affects the early chapters of Capital or do you think that is where the clean break begins?

R.L.: Marx certainly held onto the jargon, with which he tells us (in the Postface to the second edition of Das Kapital) he merely ‘coquetted’.

However, in the very same Postface, he supplied his readers with the only summary of “the dialectic method” he published in his entire life. Sure, it was written by a reviewer, but he endorsed it as his method and “the dialectic method”. In this summary there is not one atom of Hegel to be found. No ‘contradictions’, no ‘unity of opposites’, no ‘quantity passing over into quality’, no ‘negation of the negation’, no ‘totality’, no ‘universal change’, etc., etc.; and yet he still calls this “the dialectic method”. So, “the rational core” of “the dialectic” contains no trace of Hegel. To put Hegel on his feet is therefore to crush his head. Marx’s dialectic thus more closely resembles the dialectic method of Aristotle, Kant and ‘The Scottish Historical School’ (of Ferguson, Millar, Robertson, Smith, Hume and Stuart).

I prefer not to call it a break, since that would imply I agree with Althusser over his ‘epistemological break’. Marx isn’t interested in epistemology, and it’s not hard to see why. But, maybe more about that another time.

S.: I know you have written on this in some detail on your site, but could you talk about the your view of the unexpected radicalism in Wittgenstein. Particularly on how you see Wittgenstein’s project as similar to Marx’s.

R.L.: I don’t think Wittgenstein’s project is at all the same as Marx’s; there are a few superficial similarities, but that is about as far as it goes. Having said that, there is evidence that some of Marx’s ideas filtered through to Wittgenstein via Piero Sraffa. In the early 1930s, after long discussions with Sraffa, Wittgenstein began to adopt an “anthropological view” of language, which connected it with how we have developed as a species and how it is used as means of communication, rather than as a means of representation (which is how he pictured it in the Tractatus).

Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t use Wittgenstein’s ideas to help improve Marxist theory.

However, in another sense, his work is among the most radical ever to have appeared in the entire history of philosophy. That’s because, if he is right, his method brings to an end 2500 years of philosophical speculation, branding it as self-important hot air (my words, not his!). The only legitimate role for philosophy, as he saw things, is to help unravel the confusions we fall into when we misuse language, or when we confuse the means by which we represent the world for the world itself. Or, as I put it, when we fetishise language, so that what had once been the product of the relation between human beings (language) is inverted so that it becomes the relation between things, or those things themselves. Dialectical Marxists call this ‘reification’, but fail to see this neatly depicts what they have done with the concepts they unwisely inherited from Hegel.

By-and-large, traditional philosophy has always been seen as way of obtaining fundamental truths about ‘reality’, ‘being’, ‘god’, ‘consciousness’, ‘mind’, etc., — all derived from thought or language alone. This is indeed how it is still viewed today, especially in what is called ‘Continental Philosophy’. Even Analytic Philosophy has regressed and has now largely returned to occupying this traditional role. So, the main function of philosophy these days, it seems, is to produce a theory of mind, or of perception, or of language, or of ‘consciousness’, or of time, or of alienation, or of ‘agency’, or of ‘subjectivity’, and so on. Again, if Wittgenstein is right (and I for one think he is), this is completely misguided — which is partly why his work is so unpopular with academic philosophers (and dialecticians!). If his method actually caught on, they’d all be out of jobs.

S.: Why do you identity yourself as a Trotskyist given how much influence Hegel had on Trotsky’s writing? Do you think the historical record discredits non-Leninist Marxism, Maoism, and various forms of Stalinism in a way that it doesn’t discredit Trotskyism?

R.L.: I’m not too sure Trotsky was all that familiar with Hegel’s work, but, for the sake of argument let us suppose he was. Why do I call myself both a Leninist and a Trotskyist if I reject a theory that was central to the life and work of both Lenin and Trotsky? In answer, it might be helpful to consider an analogy: we can surely be highly critical of Newton’s mystical ideas even while accepting the scientific nature of his other work. The same applies here.

In answer to your second question, I think that Trotsky helped preserve the proletarian element in Marx’s revolutionary socialism — what Hal Draper called “Socialism from below”. The alternative, “Socialism from above”, is socialist in name only. The imposition of state socialism on the working class simply means that workers have to struggle against that imposition to create a classless society, one in which they are no longer exploited or oppressed — which is what we have seen, and are still seeing, in all those states set up by the Stalinists and the Maoists.

Now, I have much more time for some forms of non-Leninist Marxism, since they tend to emphasise the centrality of the working class in freeing itself from class oppression. I just disagree over the means by which this might be achieved.

S.: What do you make of the argument that the reason why James Burnham became a reactionary conservative was his rejection of the dialectic? It is obvious you would reject it, but what do you think the actual issues were with Burnham?

R.L.: Well, if you are a Trotskyist, the vast majority of dialecticians are anti-Marxists or are counter-revolutionaries, namely the Stalinists and the Maoists. On the other hand, if you are a Stalinist, the vast majority of dialecticians are anti-Marxists or are counter-revolutionaries, namely the Maoists and the Trotskyists. Alternatively, if you are a Maoist, the vast majority of dialecticians are anti-Marxists or are counter-revolutionaries, namely the Stalinists and the Trotskyists. [I know they do not see things this way, but I do.] So, adherence to dialectical materialism is no guarantee that you will always stay on the straight and narrow. In fact, the vast majority fall by the wayside even while remaining faithful to this theory.

Of course, the counter-argument is that these other groups ‘mis-apply’ the dialectic, or they do not ‘understand’ it — but they all say that of one another. Moreover, there is no objective way of deciding if and when the dialectic has been, or can be applied ‘correctly’. In fact, if truth is tested in practice, the weight of evidence (from the history of all wings of Dialectical Marxism) delivers a very uncomplimentary verdict.

As far as James Burnham’s later trajectory is concerned, I think the way he was treated by Trotsky and his allies in the US-SWP (coupled with the shock to his system delivered by the Hitler-Stalin pact and the invasion of Finland, compounded by the way these were received and interpreted by Trotsky and the US-SWP) disturbed him so profoundly he abandoned his socialism. Although I condemn this turn in his political career, I can sympathise with him to some extent. That is because I too have been treated with little other than contempt, derision and misrepresentation by the vast majority of fellow Marxists (and this is especially so with respect to fellow Trotskyists) with whom I have debated this theory. In Burnham’s case, he reneged on his socialist principles; in my case, it has had the opposite effect, and has made me more determined to press my case.

S: Why do you think so much of “Marxist discourse” has been relegated to Humanities departments and the sectarians whose relationship to the broader working class seems thin at best? Is this solely the result of dialectics?

R.L.:  I think left intellectuals have largely come to distrust the working class (by their actions, not necessarily their words), and have retreated into a sort of enclave. Framing socialist theory in Hegelian and post-Hegelian terms hasn’t helped. You can see the results for yourself in the tangled mess that comes out of France, or out of Zizek, for example. How many workers are going to read that? Compare this with the attempts made by left intellectuals sixty or seventy years ago, when they made genuine efforts to speak to workers in terms they could grasp. Chomsky made this point rather well a few years ago:

The problem is that the more that left intellectuals do this, the more they become divorced from working people, and the less faith they have in them. It’s a vicious circle. I not only agree with Marx on this, I have tried to follow his advice:

“The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it, as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are onlymanifestations of actual life.” [The German ideology.]

Of course, it’s up to others to decide if I have indeed fully followed on that advice. And the sectarians you refer to have decamped into their own closed circles for reasons I spelt out in an earlier reply. Dialectics has simply made a bad situation worse, I think. There are also other reasons why this has happened, which are connected with the class origin and current class position of those who lead the sectarians, as you call them. [I have detailed these in Essay Nine Part Two at my site.]

S:  Why do you think Continental philosophy, and not just that of the Marxist tradition, has been so resistant to developments in classical and modal logic?

R.L.: Not just these forms of logic, but temporal, epistemic, and deontic logic, to name but a few.

It’s hard to say, but I think it stems from Hegel’s insecure grasp even of the logic of his day, and his negative judgement of it. Since then, left intellectuals, by-and-large (but there are notable exceptions, such as the work of Graham Priest) have been suspicious of logic. There is also an element of the fear of mathematics (which modern logic looks suspiciously like), I think. But, we perhaps need the help of social psychologists on that one.

S: What do you think a Historical Materialism without dialectical materialism would look like, exactly?

R.L.: It would look very much like Gerry Cohen’s formulation (minus the Technological Determinism and the Functionalism, as I noted earlier), perhaps admixed with the work of Alex Callinicos in this area (for example, in his Making History) — if, that is, we ignore what he has to say about ‘agency’.

S:  Anything you would like to say in closing?

R.L.: No, I think I have said quite enough!

Marginalia on Radical Thinking: An Interview with Graham Harman

Graham Harman is a professor of philosophy at the American University in Cairo, one of the prime-movers of Object-Oriented philosophy and Speculative Realism as development in post-Continental philosophy, as well as an excellent writer on Latour and  Heidegger as well as H.P. Lovecraft.  He blogs at Object-Oriented Philosophy.  Between his recent travels and his following the Egyptian election, he took the time to answer these questions for me which range from his philosophy to what he sees as a real failure of imagination of the left. 

Skepoet: I am interested in your idea that I heard best expressed in the keynote speech you gave at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin (on February 2, 2012) that the idea of “connection” was “once but no longer liberating.” What interested me in this is its emergence in a time of both network theory and a resurgence of interest in Hegel. While your keynote speech pretty clearly articulates your view on the way networking has become ossified, I want to ask why this knowledge of relations and connection was once liberating.

Graham Harman: There were numerous problems with the traditional conception of individual substance, and no doubt the turn to relations had a great liberating force for that reason.

According to the reductionist view, only the ultimate tiny components of the world have reality, and there is something purely accidental about any combinations of them. Consider Leibniz, for whom (despite his notion of monads as reflecting each other like mirrors) there is an absolute difference between “substance” and “aggregate.” For Leibniz a person is a substance, but a circle of people holding hands is not. A diamond is a substance, but two diamonds glued together is not. A tree is a substance, but the Dutch East India Company is not. The mistake here is to think that if something is built of pieces, then it does not deserve to be called an autonomous real thing. The reason this is wrong is because things are not entirely dependent on their pieces. You can replace or remove a few ships of the Dutch East India Company without changing the nature of the company. Obviously, there are certain boundaries of change that cannot be crossed, and it may be difficult to know where to draw the line. If the Dutch East India Company still existed today but used only air transport, and had abandoned business to become a human rights watchdog, would it still really be the same company? But there is equally little reason to hold the opposite view, so that when one hair falls from the head of a single sailor, the company is no longer the same.

A related view considers only natural things as real, so that anything constructed by human artifice is deprived of anything more than accidental status. Or perhaps durability is used as an implicit criterion of the real, so that events such as the 1969 moon landing or snapping one’s fingers are excluded from the ranks of real entities. Sociology and geography become less real than particle physics insofar as everything is supposed to be “grounded” in that more ultimate discipline.

On all these points, the relational view has a strong hand to play against traditional substance. The coalescence of tiny things into a larger one, or the specific local effects an object might have at a fleeting moment, also deserve to be bona fide topics of philosophy— not just empty surface effects waiting in a prison cell for scientistic elimination. There is also the fact that many philosophies of substance tended to assign permanent essences to things, and this had dubious political consequences. If you speak of “the Arab mind” or “the feminine essence” as if these were eternal and knowable constants unchanged across the centuries, rather than as historically produced phenomena, then there are obvious problems. Relationality was supposed to free us from this bad sense of essence. Philosophy shifted from a fascination with the deep, the real, and the substantial to a preoccupation with performances, events, and surfaces that hide no “true” reality underneath. The rights of history were reclaimed, and objects were made to enter into the fray of the world. All of this was liberating indeed.

But it is seldom remembered that every revolution has a limited shelf life. There comes a point when each revolution transforms into the next stale orthodoxy, an empty litany of banal slogans fighting yesterday’s wars. And I’m afraid we have now reached that point with relationality. Now that relations and events have become king in continental philosophy, these battles have largely been won. Rather than endlessly using these theories to beat up the decreasing number of reactionary holdouts, we ought to take a closer look at the problems with relationality itself.

First, there is a simple metaphysical problem: if everything were defined by its relations, then nothing could ever change. Aristotle already showed this in the Metaphysics when speaking against his rivals the Megarians. If I am defined as the person who is sitting on this green stool in Room 208 of the Hotel Braavo in Tallinn, Estonia, and wearing this particular blue shirt at 5:30 PM on June 1, 2012, if there were nothing left in reserve in me beyond my deployment in this specific situation, and if the same were equally true of everything else (as a fully relational ontology requires) then everything would be frozen in its current state. The reality of everything in the universe would be adequately and exhaustively deployed in its situation in this very instant. You can’t get out of the bind by simply positing some sort of magical élan or conatus that would provide a principle of change, because this would merely amount to saying “the world changes by means of a changing faculty”— no better than the famous vis dormitiva of Molière’s comedy Le Malade imaginaire, in which a sleeping pill is said to cause sleep by means of a faculty for causing sleep. For change to be possible, there must be a reservoir of reality not exhausted in the current relational state of a thing. There is also the further point that everything is not related to everything else. Some things and people interact and some do not, even when in the closest physical proximity. This proves that holism is not true. But if everything is not related to everything else, then there is already a buffering principle that isolates things from each other. Any philosophy needs to account for such buffering.

Next, it is especially surprising when the political Left embraces relational ontology (I am astonished that Peter Hallward defends such an ontology), because nothing is more politically reactionary than the idea that we are all exhaustively the products of our context. If I am nothing more than the logical outcome of neo-liberal, late capitalist America, then in the name of what am I supposed to rebel against it? I should instead be profoundly grateful to this system that produced me, since under a different system I would simply vanish and be replaced by a different entity defined by its different relational context. Political transformation is not supposed to be a form of suicide, but a form of liberation. And there can only be calls for liberation if there is something to be liberated— something that does not deserve to be stifled and oppressed by its currently mediocre or horrible conditions.

The problem with the old theory of objects outside of relations is not that they were outside relations, but that one also thought they could know what these things were, and then use that knowledge as political or epistemological leverage. For example, despite the possible objections of Edward Said, there probably is a real thing approximating what we call “the Arab world,” a real cultural structure that channels the individuals who inhabit it in specific directions without their conscious choice. Or “the American mindset.” Or “the age of Romanticism.” Not all such claims will be accurate, of course. If someone speaks of “Des Moines grunge rock” as if it were a genuine musical style, then this is probably just a ludicrous marketing gimmick. In principle, it might be nothing more than a similar gimmick to speak of things like “Southeast Asian culture” or “the female approach to love.” Maybe so.

Nonetheless, if things are not purely relational, then it  also follows that things have essences. I am not the same person as you are. My individual qualities do not erupt into the world for the first time only once they have an effect on something else. I thrived in Egypt, while other expatriates gained nothing from being there; presumably there are things about me that Egypt successfully addressed, while those same traits were absent from the others. Matisse became an artist by accident at around age 21, and van Gogh even later in life. Yet it would not be nonsensical to claim that both of them had artistic gifts preceding those biographical dates, at least for a little while in advance. There is also a reason why it was Matisse and van Gogh rather than any other two people selected from their generation at random. This points to an essence, a reality in the two artists that is not exhaustively deployed in their total artistic catalogs or in their public “performativity,” no matter how unpopular essence has become in philosophy.

There are really just two problems with essence, and it is frankly not that difficult to remove them from your metaphysics while keeping the term “essence.”

1. The idea that the essence can be known. In other words, there is no political problem when we simply speak of “the Arab world.” The political problem comes from thinking that a certain elite group of Orientalist scholars from Oxford and Cambridge can identify the features of that Arab world, and use those features to proclaim that it is essentially Arab to be undemocratic, sensually corruptible, fanatical, retrograde, disorganized, and so forth. This would be an attempt to identify the essence of the Arabs with certain tangibly determinable traits, most of them negative. But in a philosophy like mine, the essence of the Arabs is no more knowable than the essence of van Gogh, a cat, a table, or a neutron. Orientalism results not from calling the Arabs dark and mysterious, but quite the opposite— it comes from explicitly identifying them as undemocratic, sensually corruptible, fanatical, retrograde, and disorganized. The minute you realize that everything is withdrawn from immediate access and can only be known obliquely, an automatic dose of caution and humility is injected into your knowledge.

2. The related idea that the essence is eternal is also a problem. Consider the Scandinavian people, who once produced an endless supply of ferocious Vikings, but are now often viewed as the “peaceniks” of Europe, champions of human rights and social and gender equality. Obviously, one must analyze the history here. If you were simply to say “the Scandinavians are such a civilized people,” this would be no more and no less true than saying “the Scandinavians are brutal marauders with no respect for the sanctity of monasteries.” We must recognize that Scandinavia will follow a different future path from Japan, Kenya, or Lebanon, because these places all have different cultures and histories and different aspirations. But this essence of a culture, like the essence of a person, eagle, army, or coffee mug, is not so easily pieced together from a list of explicitly proclaimed properties that one knowingly ascribes to them.

Stated more technically: metaphysical essentialism is politically harmless, but epistemological essentialism is not.

There is a certain hollowness to the relational standpoint that is not difficult to hear once you tap on it solidly. It has become both metaphysically and politically harmful, and the pendulum is about to swing in the other direction.

People speak of “fashions” in philosophy only in the negative sense, in order to dismiss shallow opponents who always latch onto whatever is trendy. But there is a deeper sense of fashion in philosophy that demands our attention. The world is a mysterious place, and it is not made of propositions. It follows from this that a proposition that is fresh and liberating in 1965 can become the most banal academicism by 2005, if not sooner.

For this reason, it is really quite important to be a trend watcher in philosophy, because trends give us a good sense of where the current boundary lies between fresh statements and platitudes. There is nothing superficial about, say, cheering Deleuze and Badiou in one decade and denouncing them in the next. Philosophy is historical because any statement can turn into a platitude once the surrounding conditions have changed, and philosophy is more about outflanking platitudes than about making eternally true propositions. I don’t believe we are capable of the latter— not because there is no reality, but because reality is not made of statements, and hence every statement is doomed to become an empty platitude someday.

And incidentally, this has nothing to do with being a contrarian. Contrarians simply reverse whatever the mainstream is saying, and therefore are merely parasites on the mainstream. Yet real innovators cannot just reverse the mainstream, but have to dig a new stream where no one was expecting it. It takes a great deal of vision to do this, because it is all too easy to fall into the pre-existent trench wars of the time and place into which we are born.

S:  Similarly, I became aware of your work because of my rejection of the idea of nature as an undifferentiated (thus not understandable) totality that could only be comprehensible by positing a schism that removes humans from the totality falsely. This while coming from a Hegelian background, and not so much a Heideggerian one like yours, but this is effectively the similar problem of the false implications one can draw from misunderstanding the relations between objects/subjects as a relations between independent realities and not something completely formulated by the structure. Why do you think this Gaia hypothesis/Romantic view of nature is so easily matched with the Newtonian/machine view in a way that viewing what we call nature as a relationship between subject/objects or an ecology of those relation may not be so amendable?

G.H.:  I regard Bruno Latour’s views on this topic as definitive. We Have Never Been Modern (1991) is the best account of modernity I’ve seen, and I am often stunned at how little headway it has made among philosophers, as opposed to Latour’s more devoted clientele: anthropologists, geographers, sociologists.

For Latour, the modern world is based on a false dualism between nature and culture, and an equally false effort to purify the two from one another’s residues—all of this accompanied by a hypocritical multiplication of nature-culture hybrids at the very moment of denouncing them. The mission of We Have Never Been Modern is to expose the trickery of these dualisms, and Latour succeeded in that mission flawlessly, though he was only 43 years old at the time, quite young for a philosopher. I cannot stop admiring that book.

Just as the mechanist view is based on an overvaluation of the “nature” pole of reality, the romantic view overvalues the pole of “culture,” or rather of “spirit.” Both strategies are totalizing maneuvers. For the first, nature is a gigantic clockwork system of dead matter that engages in stupefied collisions. For the second, nature is a holistic system of vital interconnectivities. The true situation, by contrast, is that there are simply objects (whether they be plastic, organic, or sandy). These objects are not holistically intertwined; indeed, they have great difficulty making connections, and only some combinations work. Everything does not affect everything else.

However, I’m not sure that any of this speaks against the Gaia Hypothesis. As far as I’m aware, Gaia is not making the massive romantic-metaphysical claim that the entire cosmos is one weeping, pulsating, vital organism. It seems to be the more limited hypothesis that the earth can be viewed as a living organism. This is something that must be decided on the evidence rather than on the basis of some programmatic aversion to romanticism or vitalism. I heard James Lovelock lecture in Dublin in April 2009, and found him perfectly tough-minded— indeed, even a bit grim.

S: Am I to understand you as being somewhat agnostic on the Gaia hypothesis?

G.H.: Only in the sense that I’m not a technical expert on climate change arguments and so can’t say whether Gaia is the right model for understanding global warming or not. But that wasn’t my point. My point was that you can accept Gaia without accepting a metaphysics of spiritual holism in which everything is a big happy organism of mutual interconnectivity. You could be convinced by Lovelock’s argument that the earth functions as a single organism, while still being “parsimonious” and rejecting any claims that there is some sort of world-soul governing the universe as a whole. Stated differently: Gaia is a scientific hypothesis, not a metaphysical one.

But that doesn’t mean it has nothing to teach us about metaphysics. What Gaia teaches us is that some objects might be deeply unified even though at first glance they look like a mere aggregate of multiple entities. If our planet functions as a single organism, then perhaps even larger or more complicated ones do as well. Perhaps entire galaxies or even fields of peas are a single communicating organisms. It doesn’t follow that we must immediately shoot the moon and assume there’s something called “the universe as a whole” that also functions as a single organism.

S: One point I have always wanted to get clarification on is at what point a system becomes an object in your view?  This seems vital to the project of trying to avoid both hyper-reductivism and the privileging of subjects.

G.H.: A sensual object is anything that we regard as a sensual object. We ourselves are the judge of this, because there is no reality principle at work in the sensual sphere apart from what we regard it as being. As soon as I acknowledge Popeye walking around on screen, a unified character enduring through various motions and changes of posture, then Popeye exists as a sensual object. There is nothing “inflationary” about this, because I am simply saying that Popeye must be taken into account, not that there is a real man named Popeye. I suppose certain cases of self-deception are possible even here, but that’s more a problem of faulty introspection than of bad epistemology.

However, as concerns real objects, your question is legitimate. Here we do need to make sure that the gates don’t open and let Popeye, unicorns, and square circles enter our farms and valleys. And we do this by saying that a system is a real object when it has intrinsic qualities that cannot be undermined or overmined.

If all the qualities of the morning star and the evening star turn out to be nothing more than qualities of Venus, then we have successfully undermined these two, and neither is a real object. They are relational phantasms generated by our own interactions with Venus.

If all the qualities of witches turn out to be nothing more than qualities of various disconnected phenomena that people have directly experienced (dead babies in the village, drops of blood near the well, a scarlet fever epidemic) then the supposed object “witch” has been successfully overmined, and the witch is not a real object. Note that Hume and his heirs treat all objects as if they were nothing but witches, breaking them up into symptoms, or into “bundles of qualities.” Despite his jovial demeanor, Hume is a cruel judge, condemning all real objects to be burned at the stake.

But the best we can do is build certain fallible methods to determine what can and cannot be undermined or overmined. That’s because, by definition, there is no direct access to real objects. Real objects are incommensurable with our knowledge, untranslatable into any relational access of any sort, cognitive or otherwise. Objects can only be known indirectly. And this is not just the fate of humans— it’s the fate of everything. Fire burns cotton stupidly, paying no heed to its color, smell, or beautiful purity and softness. Fire interacts with the cotton only insofar as it is flammable. And the same holds for all relations.

S: Why do you think Latour has had so much difficulty being taken seriously by philosophers and has had so much more appeal to anthropologists and sociologists?

G.H.: An excellent question! Perhaps the best way to answer it is to look at what has succeeded in philosophy in recent decades, and then think about how Latour might be a square peg in the eyes of the reigning trends.

We can simplify recent continental philosophy into four basic tendencies:

1. There is phenomenology in the widest sense: including Husserl and Heidegger, then Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and Gadamer, and one must put Derrida on this list as well. Then there is a handful of more recently favored examples such as Michel Henry and Jean-Luc Marion.

2. There is also a separate, Hegelian strand in continental thought. The Frankfurt School can be placed here, and in a different way there is the marked Hegelianism of Žižek, Badiou, and Meillassoux (though Meillassoux is now claiming that I am the one who is stuck in the elevator with Hegel, while Meillassoux himself has moved elsewhere, towards dead matter without a thinking subject). In yet another sense, Judith Butler also belongs to the Hegelian trend, and Butler has to be taken seriously even if her writing isn’t one’s cup of tea. (Butler’s impact has been even more widespread than Latour’s, and she’s also one of the smartest people and best listeners you’ll ever meet.) And I think we can put Lacan here too, or at least Lacan as retroactively read from Slovenia.

3. There is Michel Foucault, who of course wasn’t born in a vacuum, but who does stand somewhat apart from the other trends we’re discussing. Here the subject is not a unified and eternal ego-pole, because it is the historical product of discursive and disciplinary practices that must be studied in detail.

4. Finally, there is the group centered in Deleuze and also containing Gilbert Simondon. The conventional wisdom is that Deleuze can be read as a fusion of Bergson with Spinoza, and this is a case where conventional wisdom hits the bull’s eye. (Dan Smith, one of the best Deleuzians, tells me that Deleuze is actually Spinoza plus Leibniz. But I see nothing at all Leibnizian in Deleuze’s contempt for autonomous individual substances, and also don’t see how one can ignore the deep Bergsonism of Deleuze. In fact, the reason I don’t think that Deleuze is one of the very greatest philosophers is because I don’t think he fully overcomes the gifts that Bergson already gave us.) This group also tends to appropriate Whitehead to itself as a “process” philosopher, even though Whitehead has little in common with Deleuze, as will one day be seen more widely.

This looks like a marvelous diversity of options. But where could Latour possible fit in this schema? For the phenomenologists, the Hegelians, and the Foucauldians, the human subject stands always at the center, despite the constant assertions of many that they have overcome the Cartestian cogito. The human subject might not be so central for Deleuze and the others in Group 4 (though some interpreters still disagree). Yet even in Deleuze’s case there is still no room for the determinacy of individual objects. Some Deleuzians protest loudly at this, but Deleuze is all about becoming, lines of flight, trajectories, pre-individualities, virtual depths and vertical causation rather than horizontal causation along the surface of individual things.

So in the first place, Latour’s philosophy is a theory of individual actors of every sort, engaging in duels with one another, or in trials of force. They are not just phenomena in consciousness, but bona fide autonomous actors. These actors include atoms, skyscrapers, armies, national anthems, canoes, and cartoon characters. The only really object-oriented continental thinker in the four groups above is Husserl, and for Husserl there are intentional objects in consciousness, not actors independent of consciousness.

Whitehead is another object-oriented thinker, and Latour and Whitehead do have a great deal in common. But Whitehead has already been hijacked by Deleuzians, and thus he has not helped make an opening for Latour, since people are too ready to turn Whitehead into the proto-Deleuzian that he is not. And now there are efforts to turn Latour himself into a Deleuzian, which is not what Latour is either. We are well into the “Deleuze is compatible with everyone and foresaw everything” phase, the lack of a challenging outside, which always announces the closing decadence of any philosopher’s vogue; Derrideanism got this way by the early 1990’s. And now the Deleuze industry is finally on the point of overheating and excess inventory, and soon there will be layoffs and plant closures.

On one level it’s a shame, because Deleuze was such a liberation in the mid-1990’s from the all the excesses of Derrideans. But this is how the life cycle of popular philosophers works: all are doomed to overthrow by some future young generation. The really great thinkers are simply the ones who can bounce back from the collapse of their fashion. People keep coming back to the great thinkers because there is no alternative—there is something in those thinkers that you can’t forget, that you can’t get from anywhere else, even when they are no longer the latest style. Over the next twenty to thirty years, we’ll learn for the first time what Deleuze is really made of. Can he bounce back and remain an obligatory thinker even after Deleuzianism has become as dated as disco and lava lamps? Even now, we’re in the midst of seeing whether Derrida can clear this hurdle. And if speculative realism is successful, then someday it will happen to us as well. Our words will all look like annoying, imprisoning clichés at some point in the future, and (assuming we succeed to that degree in the first place), we will be a new orthodoxy that one must overthrow to build anything new. Fifty to sixty years from now, our grandchildren can see if we’re able to bounce back from that coming traumatic blow. And then Tristan Garcia and his peers will be fed through the same furnace a generation later. This is, inevitably, the price to pay for a successful philosophy.

But to return more specifically to your question… In the second place, the human being is of no central importance for Latour. We are just one actor among others. It may be true, as I’ve heard Manuel DeLanda claim, that Latour still requires a human observer for any network of actors to exist. In a sense, yes, this sometimes seems true of Latour. But I see this as an artifact of his focus on the philosophy of science, and science by definition always involves humans. There are other passages where Latour clearly states that objects interpret each other just as we interpret them.

To summarize: Latour like Whitehead has a flat ontology in which all entities are equally entities, and in which human knowledge and perception are not privileged forms of relation. But for most of the recent successful continental philosophies, either the human was overtly privileged, or if this was not obviously the case (as in Deleuze), then there was still a focus on “becoming” or on pre-individual forces and fluxes rather than on fully-formed individual things.

Object-oriented philosophy does the opposite, and thus it has found a living ancestral hero in Latour. Garcia never cites Latour and doesn’t seem to read him, but the increasing visibility of Garcia will probably also help the fortunes of Latour in philosophy, simply by helping shift attention away from the privileged human towards the multiplicity of both human and non-human actors.

So, why has Latour succeeded in anthropology and sociology nonetheless? For obviously enough, those disciplines have always been even more human-centered than philosophy. Perhaps it was through their very excess, the extremity of their anthropocentric illness, that they were desperately in need of an antidote. Perhaps this is why Latour became a necessary cure for them, and why so many of them remained Latour addicts even after the disease was cured.

S: What do you make of the recent turn from Heidegger to Hegel in many circles? Do see you this as merely due to mystification by other academics? Fear of political contagion? Or real, substantive difference? Or bits of all these?

G.H.: I do think political reasons are partly responsible, though not in the sense that “Heidegger was a Nazi, and we must have nothing to do with Nazis anymore.” A few scandalous books still say this sort of thing, such as Emmanuel Faye— but who in philosophy takes Faye seriously? Heidegger has received a fair hearing from philosophers despite his Nazism, and I must say that Heidegger deserved this fair hearing, despite his execrable politics. He was simply the greatest philosopher of the past century, and we can’t afford to get rid of him, even if it would feel good in some ways to give him the boot. If he were any less a thinker, he would already be an outcast, but he forced himself into the party through sheer genius. And he won’t be leaving the party, so get used to him.

But the political factors at play in the shift to Hegel are less negative ones against Heidegger than positive claims in favor of Hegel. Hegel stands for the elimination of the unknowable thing-in-itself, for the rationality of the real. In Hegel’s own case, this famously leads to a form of conservatism: the way things already are has a certain internal logic to it. Thus it is that (non-Marxist) Hegelians have not generally been revolutionaries. They tend to feel well-adjusted to their surroundings, and are often very happy people. And no wonder, since they do not feel haunted by the tragic, ungraspable residues that eat at the souls of Heideggerians.

But if you eliminate the thing-in-itself, then at least you eliminate the sense of a non-human element of fate or destiny that efforts at political change would otherwise be stumbling over. Politics becomes the sphere of what is knowable, and with Hegel the sphere of the knowable and first philosophy are one and the same. Thus, the turn to Hegel has obvious political motives to accompany the non-political motives of those who are convinced by the critique of the an sich in German Idealism.

Yet as I’ve said, there is nothing inherently “Left” in Hegel, and even something pretty conservative. To make Hegel worthy of the Left again, it is necessary to restore some contingency and decision-making power to the mix. And this is precisely what we find in three of the most powerful Hegelian thinkers of today: Žižek, Badiou, Meillassoux. In Žižek there is the mad human subject that punctures the fabric of the world and makes its own decisions. In Badiou there is the sudden event that breaks with the state of the situation and commands our fidelity (and all of Badiou’s “events” are recognizably “Left” events that pose little intellectual challenge to anyone who is already radical enough to admire Mao). And in Meillassoux there is the destruction of the principle of sufficient reason, the metaphysics of contingency, and the view that just as matter, life, and thought emerged suddenly for no reason at all, so too a world of justice might one day appear in which God and a Christ-like mediator resurrect all the unjustly slaughtered people of the twentieth century and earlier times.

In all of these philosophies, the subject remains at the center, and frankly it is always a privileged human subject despite Badiou’s various attempts to deny this. In such philosophies, politics may be a realm of sudden upsurges and surprises without any reason outside the subject itself. Yet they remain philosophies dominated by the subject, and too little aware of the political role played by non-human things. So, go ahead and call Bruno Latour “Roman Catholic and neoliberal” all you like. In the long run he may still have more to teach us about politics than these others, who are simply putting a new “contingency” spin on an already well-digested Marxism that has had more than enough problems of its own.

Q7: I was reading a dialogue you had with the blogger K-Punk on the failure of leftist imagination. While as a person in the harder Marxist tradition, I may be an offender, I actually found that I agreed with you on how severely limited the imagination of the left: not just the Marxian left either. Has Occupy changed your mind or expanded your thoughts on the matter? Or perhaps your direct experience of the so-called “Arab Spring?”

K-Punk (Mark Fisher) is a friend, and I greatly enjoyed his book Capitalist Realism. It is undeniably true that the political imagination has become paralyzed (though I doubt this is more true of politics than of other fields). I saw parts of the Arab Spring up close, and the events of that period taught me something, as genuine events should. There were plenty of protest movements throughout my time in Egypt against Hosni Mubarak, against torture, against the Emergency Law. And one could always agree with these criticisms while still thinking that “for now, Egypt is probably better off than it might be under other circumstances.” But in January 2011, I like others was shocked into realizing suddenly what a wrong-headed attitude that was. Mubarak became for me, retroactively, something terrible that always had to be thrown out all along. The Revolutionaries showed me this through provoking a brutal response that showed the truth of the situation in Egypt, which I now see that I had accepted too lazily as a given. Indeed, I had been guilty of a failure of imagination, which is what philosophers should always be ready to avoid. The killings by snipers, the use of plainclothes thugs on camels and horses, and the cynical machinations of Mubarak in response to calls for his ouster, may simply have brought the pre-existent life of the Egyptian dungeons onto the street, as one of the human rights groups remarked at the time. But it took the events on the street to shake me from slumber, and I have not yet recovered from that experience.

Nor did it stop with the departure of Mubarak. In March, one month after Mubarak’s departure, we had the grotesque “virginity tests” on female protestors at the Egyptian Museum— effectively rapes of which no one was convicted. In the autumn of 2011 we had the massacre of peaceful Copts and their Muslim supporters in the Maspero neighborhood of downtown Cairo, and even worse, the bloodcurdling call on television for Egyptian citizens to come out and protect their army from the marauding Copts. In February 2012, we had the Port Said massacre of the pro-Revolution Ahly Ultras after a football match, an incident for which remnants of Mubarak’s apparatus were no doubt responsible. And now we have the upcoming June runoff election, with the terribly painful choice that seems to pit religious fascism against military fascism. Nonetheless, one must have hope. And having no voting rights in Egypt, I am at least spared what looks like a miserable decision between the two candidates.

Egypt was a great moment for the Left, and I even think it was a great moment for Badiou. Rarely have I seen such a great example of a Badiouian “event.” There was a bit of a backstory to the Egyptian Revolution, of course (the murder by police of blogger Khaled Said in Alexandria in June 2010, the Revolution in Tunisia just before Egypt’s). Nonetheless, it met many of Badiou’s criteria for a sudden event not previously inscribed in the situation, and it did command fidelity for any clear-thinking person who could sense what was at stake. We Americans were also clearly implicated in the counter-Revolutionary currents in Egypt, including our unlikely President Barack Obama (someone I like a great deal and whom I have supported, whatever complaints might be made about him).

Having said all of that, it is always important to avoid what I have called “the taxonomic fallacy.” The taxonomic fallacy is the belief that one particular entity or kind of entity can perfectly incarnate some ontological structure. The concept is not that different from Heidegger’s or Derrida’s critiques of “onto-theology.”

For example, the scientistic wing of speculative realism (Brassier and his associates at the journal Collapse) sometimes say that since speculative realism favors realism, then it must favor science against the humanities and listen to physics and brain science rather than sociology and literature. This is an obvious philosophical blunder. For the humanities also deal with what it is real, even if we are speaking here of large-scale realities such as nations and literary styles rather than particles and fields or neural activation patterns. At the same time, the natural sciences are also perfectly capable of failing to confront the real, as when they reduce bona fide mid-scale entities to an ancestral narrative of micro-sized physical subcomponents. The lesson of realism is not that certain human disciplines are realist and should be praised, while others are anti-realist and should be denounced. Instead, the lesson is that we should beware the tendencies of anti-realist currents in all human research, the natural sciences included. Otherwise, we commit the taxonomic fallacy in the typical manner of Brassier and his followers.

And this was one of the things I said to K-Punk in the exchange on his blog, or at least one of the things I was trying to say (I haven’t read that debate since it was posted). If we say that “capitalism” (or fuzzier still, “late capitalism”) has paralyzed the political imagination, it still does not follow that all capitalism oppress the imagination while all Left academic activity liberates it. As I asked K-Punk rhetorically, is Fredric Jameson really more imaginative than Steve Jobs?

We may live in a world dominated by “late capitalist” enterprises such as Apple, Amazon, Starbucks, and Facebook. And these companies can usually be found to have some blood on their hands, simply because you can’t grow that large without taking advantage and cutting corners (who wasn’t disturbed by the New York Times exposés on Apple’s metal-polishing practices in China?). Nonetheless, when that much money is poured into something, it’s not just a sign of exploitation and the sickening concentration of wealth, but also the sign of vitality. “Follow the money” is not just a maxim that allows us to point fingers at the morally corrupt. It is also a desperately needed reality principle that shows us where the energy can be found, not all of it bad.

And like it or not, Apple and Amazon are stirring up more interest, even among intellectuals, than most academic critiques of capitalism. Is that just because we are all a bunch of brainwashed idiots locked in on our own trivial conveniences? Hardly. It’s because these companies are also doing something exciting that addresses where consciousness really is today, and which it didn’t know that it wanted. Did I know in advance that my brain would catch fire as soon as I had a smartphone and a tablet computer? Not at all. I initially thought both of these things were consumerist pseudo-needs, just like the academic Left still does. But I was wrong, and so were they. To have the right electronic device in your hands can sharpen your brain as much as the discovery of an important new author. We should of course be aware of how the relatively cheap availability of such products leads to explosions, lung disease, and suicides among Chinese factory workers, and it’s a terrible failure of imagination if we close our ears to such reports. But it is also a grievous failure of imagination to be always on the side of the critics and the grumblers. Life has to be optimistic, or it becomes merely reactive. And I really fear that the Left is becoming the permanent homeland of the critics and the grumblers. The Left has its moments (Egypt for sure). But we should not commit the taxonomic fallacy of holding that to grumble is always a more profound political act than to put all the books of the world on an easily accessible website.

What I also miss on the Left, for instance, is a sufficient appreciation of 1989 (the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 is old news by now, but ’89 is an earthquake that many of us still remember). It is frankly a failure of imagination to try to explain away 1989 by griping about how Central Europe was simply recuperated into a banal consumer capitalism and nothing changed, or that at least political discourse mattered behind the Iron Curtain before ’89, and so forth.

Don’t underrate the obvious: would you want to live under Honecker or Ceauceşcu or Jaruszelski? If you can’t answer that question quickly, then you’ve had a failure of imagination, and I would recommend that you make some more friends from the former East Bloc. They will set you straight, and you will be ashamed to say the sorts of things to them that you might say among grumbling Western academics. But it’s a lot easier to forget and ignore what the years before 1989 meant in the East, because it’s a lot more fashionable to complain about late capitalism.

There is something to be said for making a virtue of necessity. The Leftisms we know were born amidst nineteenth century philosophical idealism, and it is hardly any wonder that they appeal to that idealism ever more explicitly as time goes by. But my sense is that the contemporary capitalism they detest harbors a fresher and more imaginative principle of reversal than the ones for which they call, which tend to be little more than Maoism or Stalinism—or worse yet, condescending grumbles without a program (at least the Maoists and Stalinists put their cards on the table and risk being harshly judged).

S: Do you think your concept of vicarious causation has political implications?

G.H.: I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll think of some, or maybe others will think of them for me.

What I most resist is the idea that philosophy should be the handmaid of anything else. I suppose we all agree now that philosophy is not the handmaid of theology. But now there are those who want to make it the handmaid of the Left, or of ethics, or even of brain science. Consider Thomas Metzinger’s appalling and shallow vision that brain science will solve all the traditional philosophical problems, but that we’ll still need philosophers to sit on ethics panels.

Philosophy is the handmaid of nothing, not even the handmaid of climate change. Does that mean philosophy is apolitical? No, it means that philosophy should play a longer game when it comes to politics. Locke, Rousseau, and Marx all had their real political effects long after their deaths. We’ve become too addicted to the specifically recent French model of the philosophe engagé, which is just one model among others. It is not necessarily one that can be exported outside French social conditions— the French politics of radical manifestoes and “clear and distinct ideas” does not work well in America, just as dry, ultra-technical German philosophy succeeds only when the social prestige of university professors is guaranteed in advance, which is not true in the United States.

Even from attending university time management workshops you can learn the valuable distinction between “important” matters and “urgent” ones. The urgent matters are those that must be taken care of right now, without delay. Climate change is one of those, and many of the other causes of the Left are urgent, since they deal with addressable exploitation going on at this very minute. But it does not follow that the mission of philosophy is to deal with urgent matters. Philosophy is not governance, but it is also not activism or militancy (I openly reject Badiou’s concept of philosopher as militant).

It is far from clear that philosophers can even be of use to activists, who are generally driven by facts on the ground that no philosopher is in a position to know, unless that philosopher happens to be an activist as well as a second occupation. Philosophy should not be “apolitical,” because politics is one of the important spheres of human life. But it does not follow that philosophy must always address the urgent political issues of the moment in which it is written. Urgent issues have a way of changing from decade to decade, while any philosophy worthy of the name ought to be readable fifty if not one hundred years or more after it is written. Feel free to appreciate the philosopher-activist. But do not demand that the philosopher be an activist.

Franz Brentano, one of the most underrated philosophers of all time, makes the claim that the great periods of philosophy have been periods when philosophy was committed to a purely theoretical standpoint, rather than used for ulterior motives such as political ones. Like all sweeping claims of this kind, there are surely counter-examples (though the remarkable contrast between the philosophies of reactionary Germany and revolutionary France at the time of the Revolution is widely known). But let’s take Brentano seriously for a moment. Is there not something to be said for the philosopher not getting too closely entangled with the passing events of the day? There may be times when this is irresponsible or even reprehensible. But if you find that you must act, whether by joining the resistance or denouncing a tyrant, is it really qua philosopher that you act, or only qua human citizen? And when you do resist or speak out, is it really the case that in doing so you must be informed by your metaphysics? Pure theoretical contemplation has a bad name these days, but it has its place under the sun, even an important place. We should no more expect metaphysics to save democracy, immigrants, and free speech than we should expect a mountain to dodge a cannonball shot at its face. The scale of movement is much slower. You can’t expect tap-dancing from a whale. What you can expect is that eventually, the movements of the whale will throw powerful waves against the tyrants living on shore.


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