Thursday 7 June 2012

More on Harman and In/Civility

Further comment on:

Baklazh, I can see where you're coming from with Graham's latest post -- it certainly doesn't exude temperance and it does come across as something of a missive. 'Idiotic' is rather an undiplomatic choice of words but then again he didn't call anyone in particular AN idiot, he called the particular idea under consideration 'idiotic.' Hence this was not strictly an ad hominem attack -- it was an attack on an idea. Contrast this with Alex's original post which was extremely personal and almost completely ad hominem...

It's worth bearing in mind that pretty much exactly the same critique that Alex constructs above has been leveled at these guys again and again over the past few years. Therefore, they're not necessarily responding to anyone in particular when they say things like this. It's the idea in abstraction, not any particular enunciation of it. It might be new for some readers but for them it's a zombie meme that just keeps coming back again and again -- hence the frustration and the terse responses.

It's unfortunate that that blogging lends itself so much to this kind of brusqueness. The 'filters' that normally crop up automatically in conversation by being in the same room as someone, looking someone in the eye -- basic civility -- often fail to arise when simply sat at a computer facing a bunch of words. That said, this isn't really an excuse. We shouldn't just say 'boys will be boys'. Bad behaviour is bad behaviour.

But then it's not always easy to judge beforehand where the line is between being pointed and being rude. I hope that my own choice of words from my post above -- principally 'maelstrom of nonsense' -- weren't taken personally by anyone but frankly I stand by the sentiment as nothing anyone has said has changed my mind. We all owe it to each other to be civil but not to the point where we cease to be honest.

And, in the spirit of honesty:

While I find a great deal wrong with OOO/OOP, etc., the above arguments are badly constructed. They stem from a refusal to examine the relationship between ontology and politics, taking the two to be fused, axiomatically, and assuming that anyone who says otherwise must be some reactionary, rationalist, 'liberal bourgeois' fossil.

The whole original post stems from making graspingly inferred assumptions about Mr Harman's personal political convictions, or lack thereof. Harman apparently had a 'better the devil you know' attitude towards Mubarak before the revolution. That is his sin. Fine. And we are to infer an entire worldview from this kernel. Very well.

However, a lot of the conclusions drawn from this just don't make much sense to me. For instance: "if everyone in Cairo were clones of Harman, the revolution would never have happened." What this fails to mention is that Graham is not Egyptian! He's a foreigner! He lives there but frankly Egyptian democracy is none of his business. He's not a part of it and from what I recall Egyptians weren't that keen on outside influence during the revolution. If he spent all his time spouting off about what Egyptians should or should not be doing I'm quite sure that the critique would be turned around by 180 degrees and he'd be accused of being an imperialist, forcing his ideas upon others!

In other words, while the hypothetical is undoubtedly true it's equally unfair and beside the point. For me, as a student of international relations, this critique (so typical of political theory) ignores the fact that we live in a world of political multiplicity. We're not embedded in a continuous, unbroken fabric of political solidarity and praxis. For better or worse, our actual political agency is relative to our membership of political collectives to which we are not necessarily geographically local. Judging a person for non-participation in a process that has no real place for them seems harsh.

Moreover, Graham's pre-revolution attitude ('better the devil you know') was shared by vast numbers of Egyptians -- including Egyptians who eventually participated in the revolution. So, sure, if absolutely everyone held that attitude nothing could have happened but, evidently, the prevalence of such an attitude is not necessarily an impassable barrier to revolution. Are we to label everyone outside the vanguard apolitical, bourgeois apologists? I'd advise against it.

That said, while Alex is probably reading a little too much into this one interview I think 'liberal bourgeois' probably does sum up Graham's attitude, at least judging from what he's published. He might not disagree. But, you know, so what? What difference does it make? Does that do anything whatsoever to discredit his philosophy? Not necessarily.

What Alex needs to specify is why political predilections are of primary importance in assessing the validity or verity of an ontological argument. That they are primary is simply assumed. There is no substance to this assumption at all. THAT is the crux of the philosophical disagreement, quite apart from the sturm und drang of personal slights, perceived and misperceived.

"Harman’s self-stated goal is to remove politics from ontology, creating a new kind of pure ontology in which, as he says in the interview, philosophy should not be the handmaid of anything else."

Does Alex mean to suggest that philosophy SHOULD be the handmaiden of politics? If so I'd genuinely love to read the reasoning behind that. I completely disagree but I'd like to read an actual argument specifically in favour of this position. I've heard it said many, many times but never heard anyone actually say WHY. Why is politics the master signifier? Why is politics the trump card?

If only someone would make this case rather than alternating between being rude to other people and complaining when they're rude back -- then we'd be getting somewhere.

As I've mentioned a few times, the critique Alex levels only makes sense if politics and ontology are fused -- if ontology is and must be determined by political considerations. If they're not fused then political reasons cannot in and of themselves sunder ontological claims. And if they're not fused then conflating political personhood and ontological object-hood is just a basic category error.

In my previous comment above I went through a few ways in which politics and ontology can be separated without pretending to create some impenetrable firewall between the two. I won't repeat myself too much but it suffices to say that the 'purity' of ontology is a complex question, not one to be hastily judged one way or the other without consideration.

Friends, some consideration, please!

Let's both be a bit nicer to each other and not take others' criticism of our ideas so personally.

Sunday 3 June 2012

Maelstrom of Nonsense

Comment on:

Wow. Quite a maelstrom of nonsense we've got going on here! Difficult to know quite where to jump in.

Might as well respond to Alex's last comment: "if ontology and politics are entirely separate domains" -- nobody seems to be making this claim. Ontology and politics aren't 'domains.' Ontology is the philosophical study of what is, politics is the process through which people form, contest and contest the formation of collective human being. 'Realm' [or domain] doesn't seem to be an appropriate term. It implies a divided spatiality that is difficult to conceive of and it implies a juridical separation that just misses the point. They are simply different practices practiced in different places for different reasons. They're different things.

The claim being made is that accounts of what is (i.e. ontology) should not (a) be determined by politics and cannot (b) determine any political position, practice or possibility.

This does NOT mean that ontology and politics are hermetically sealed realities, totally parallel to each other. In fact they meet in a variety of ways. To describe but a few:

-- Firstly, our accounts of what is profoundly shape how we understand ourselves, the world we live in and without an ontology all politics -- and all life, really -- would be literally unthinkable. Moreover, any political movement that lacked any grasp on reality would fail immediately. In fact it could never come together in the first place. Therefore, politics presupposes ontology.

-- Secondly, while accounts of being cannot determine any political thought or action that might derive from them there are certainly some ontological claims that are heavily politically loaded; e.g. Thatcher's claim that there is no such thing as society. Ontology can be politicised, it can be politically significant but that doesn't make ontology altogether political. You can only politicise something that isn't first of all political.

-- Thirdly, while we might say that there is being with no human beings there surely is no ontology without ontologists. Ontologists engage in ontology and produce this ontology, criticise that ontology, etc. Ontology is the name of their practice not their research subject (that's 'being'). Therefore, as fallible, embodied, emplaced, 'thrown' human persons no one should ever claim that their ontological pronouncements issue from a non-position, outside all social influence or historical particularity (or politics). Anyone claiming such a thing in this day and age would be a comical fossil at best and a tyrant at worst. Fortunately, neither Harman nor Bryant nor anyone affiliated with them make this claim.

Politics and ontology can be intertwined in many ways but they're still different things and one can quite easily talk all day about ontology without getting into politics. Ontology readily bumps up against politics and is easily politicised but that does not mean that it SHOULD be politicised -- and it certainly shouldn't be politicised all the time.

So, our accounts of what is (our ontologies) must be generated, influenced and informed by much, much MORE than politics alone. This doesn't make these things hermetically sealed discursive jurisdictions -- far from it. But it DOES mean that any given politicisation of ontology must be undertaken FOR A REASON. It is not the default position.

Ontology isn't always already political -- nothing is. Nothing is political which isn't first politicised.

And this isn't 'apolitical,' by the way. The really apolitical position is that which says that 'everything is political' as if politics were some smoggy, unbreakable shroud enveloping absolutely every being, everywhere from miserable cradle to wretched grave.

Politics is a pretty inglorious business most of the time. I really don't understand why so many people take it as the master signifier to end all master signifiers. I'm really rather GLAD that politics is not omnipresent. A world in which it was would be a true dystopia. Fortunately it only exists as a utopia of the foolish.

And as for the claims that granting reality to corporations justifies their political enfranchisement ... well, my mind boggles at that. That would only be the case if ontology and politics were fused. Only then would the granting of ontological thing-hood simultaneously be the granting of political personhood.

And they're not fused...