Friday 15 November 2013

Between aesthetics and reasoning – Brown reviews Harman and Morton

Terence Blake approvingly posts a review of Harman and Morton by Nathan Brown in Parrhesia. It's definitely an interesting review. I don’t agree with every bit of it but it raises some important points. The general accusation seems to be that of style over substance – aesthetics over reasoning. I like what James says at the start of A Pluralistic Universe: 'the distinctive quality of a philosophical truth is that it is reasoned.' There seems to be a generation of theorists who, one could argue, in rejecting Reason have forsaken reasoning too. It's a matter of rigour in a very specifically philosophical sense. Derrida's writing is notorious for its overstylised self-indulgence but there's no doubt that he was rigorous in his argumentation, in his own way. Rigorous to a fault, if anything! He worked incredibly hard to work through his analyses. His process was exhaustive and exhausting. His 'truths,' whatever their value, were most definitely reasoned.

I wonder whether this new philosophical aestheticism results in some way from Deleuze's claim that philosophy is the creation of concepts. I know that he meant something very specific by 'concept' (he had a rigour of his own) but that definition of philosophy has been taken very loosely by many people. It's seemingly become accepted that philosophy is the creation of concepts any-old-how. I am an unrepentant Jamesian in this respect. A philosophical truth or a philosophical concept must be reasoned. There is no one mode of reasoning called Reason but that doesn't absolve philosophers from the duty of reasoning. Every philosopher must construct their own version of reason and this may be something of a Sisyphian task but it cannot be avoided. No reasoning, no philosophy. Reasoning involves not just a series of utterances outlining an idea but a proliferation and working through of problems. It's not enough to paint a picture, that picture has to be closely scrutinised; the canvas has to be worked over again and again. Philosophy should be hard work. Producing concepts via aesthetics (or “riffs”, as Brown puts it) just seems a bit too easy – and, much more seriously, the end product is compromised as a result.

I suppose I'm a bit of a Platonist too in a very specific, methodological sense. Plato's dialogues are hard work. They are twisting, winding roads. There is no slick, smooth, polished superhighway in a Platonic dialogue (or, at least, there is none until the end – each dialogue is the construction of such a superhighway, a well-oiled cosmic escalator leading out of the cave). Contrasts and disagreements have to be worked through, there's no shortcut. Okay, interlocutors aren't all given a fair hearing, there are clear favourites, the field is tilted and the conclusion of the argument is usually fairly predictable. But the point is that the argument is worked through, it isn't just sketched out and put into circulation. Philosophy is a journey, a process, a travail – it isn't a product or a commodity. Yes, that’s the best word for it: philosophy is a travail in both senses of that word. It takes us back to the days when travel was hard work, when the roads were bumpy, muddy and potholed and, often enough, there were no roads at all. Philosophy qua aestheticism is an ironic, postmodern philosophy that skates about on the surface of concepts without giving a great deal of thought to what made that surface so smooth. It can be exciting, yes. Thrilling, in fact. But it’s like a sugar rush; it quickly gives way to fatigue and regret.

I suppose it would be unfair to hang this ‘philosophy qua aestheticism’ sign on Harman and Morton without a serious caveat. There is reasoning in their texts, undoubtedly. Genuine conceptual creation, too. There is philosophy. But I would agree with Nathan Brown, as I understand him, that there isn’t enough philosophy; that an interesting and suggestive lashing together of this and that is not enough; that difficult questions have to be worked through, they can’t be fobbed off; that superficial iterations of complex ideas is dangerous; that thinking of philosophical texts as objects in circulation does a tremendous disservice to philosophy. Every philosopher may lean on it to some extent but such freeform ice-skating can only go so far. If it isn’t held together by the laborious processes of philosophical reasoning, of whatever kind, then it produces texts that are shallow and misleading. And OOO, I would agree, sometimes skates too much and labours too little. That is what makes it so thrilling and wide ranging but it’s also what makes it oddly unphilosophical at times.

That said, OOOers are certainly not the only ones guilty of this sort of thing. Manuel DeLanda’s A New Philosophy of Society is a stunning book – stunning in part because it contains almost no philosophy whatsoever. Indeed, philosophy seems to be something he desperately tries to get out of the way early on so that he can get on with stitching together these concepts out of various elements of historical sociology. It’s an interesting and conceptually suggestive read but it’s not really philosophy as I'm prepared to understand it – it's more of a prolegomena to a new philosophy of society.

I’m about to read William Connolly’s new book The Fragility of Things (I’ve ordered it but it hasn’t arrived yet). While Connolly’s books are generally enjoyable reads I find them to be quite superficial (see his book Neuropolitics in particular – a text largely undeserving of its title). My preconception of this book is that it will largely follow the philosophy qua aestheticism scheme that I’ve outlined above. So, this isn’t something particular to OOO. I think it may have more to do this specific aspect of Deleuze, far from the best aspect, that has been extracted, simplified and rather impoverished – the idea of philosophy as the creation of concepts any-old-how.