sábado, 11 de octubre de 2014

On Wolfendale and his Critics - OOO


\-On OOO-/

      I have become quite upset at the recent criticism directed at Pete Wolfendale's comprehensive critique of Harman's philosophical program, criticisms waged by both Jon Cogburn and Harman himself. Now, I am good friends with Pete and with some of the folk more sympathetic to OOO and its philosophical virtues (Levi Bryant notably, is my friend). And, despite some agitated polemics with their crowd, I have tried to express my disagreements always in a civil manner, on philosophical grounds.

    What is conspicuously missing from all of this recent commentary on Wolfendale's work is an actual engagement with the philosophical contentions made by Wolfendale, though Cogburn has gone through it. Instead, his post and Harman's read like severe indictments to Wolfendale's motivations and temperament as a thinker, alongside those of Ray Brassier, who was a direct inspiration - as well as the most sympathetic figure among the original SR crew - to Wolfendale's project. To be fair, Harman has not read Wolfendale's book, so he's working on the provisional previews offered by Cogburn. This is problematic in itself, since he is endorsing a criticism of a book which he hasn't read, and is more explicitly disputing Ray's contribution though he hasn't read it. But let's leave that aside.

     Let me get right into the issue; Cogburn questions the motivations behind Wolfendale's monograph, by drawing attention to the lyrically charged verdicts posed in the preface of the book. Now, obviously ,the justification for these severe verdicts would have to be supported by the book itself. Yet Cogburn preemptively writes:""only the already converted give the polemicist a pass on the uncharity needed for the polemic to be rhetorically effective"
    That is just not true. One can be polemical and yet genuinely impartial or even sympathetic to the views one is raising polemics about without being uncharitable. Why assume that polemics entails uncharitability? Can no one disagree on charitable grounds? That seems gratuitous to me: if that is true, then it threatens not so much 'polemics', in the sense of agitated debate, but disagreement or consideration of counter-argument tout court. Unless we pathologize critical engagement, it will be necessary to accept some debate is charitable and fair. Cogburn claims about any text being addressed that " If it's worth reading, it's worth reading charitably." So either charitable criticisms are possible, and then he is just begging the question about why Wolfendale is uncharitable, or else the only charitable engagements are non polemical ones.
    Cogburn continues questioning the motivations and pertinence of the background debate that led to Wolfendale's book. He calls attention into the claim that this extensive engagement seems oddly against the verdict that Harman's work is unworthy of philosophical esteem. What Cogburn misses from Wolfendale's account is that it was Harman who requested that if a debate were to be had with the philosophical detail Wolfendale imposed in the blogosphere, such a debate would be better suited for a formal kind of publication. And this because the payoff for such a discussion in the blogosphere and with a relatively unknown interlocutor would be not be appropriate or sufficiently beneficial for Harman. I cannot but conclude that, in writing these background considerations, Wolfendale is simply making clear that by writing the long book he is in fact just agreeing to carry out the polemics in the medium Harman himself determined, with the degree of rigor expected of the medium.

     But why do this if you so much consider Harman's position as fundamentally confused and unworthy of philosophical esteem, you ask? Well, one might think it is important to make explicit why a particular position that is gaining relative influence be addressed concretely on its perceived philosophical grounds and virtues, so as to deem whether this popularity is warranted or not. That is, to evaluate whether Harman's work is persuasive because he has actually cogent philosophical theses, or whether instead it is merely because, as he says, "I write often, in an engaging fashion, and don’t imply to my potential audience that they are irrational idiots. If you seek influence for your ideas, these three steps are a good start."  That seems like a healthy enough philosophical practice. 

   Next, Cogburn targets those who, from outside academia, take issue with the fact employed professors might not have time or desire to respond to every objection leveled at them. Cogburn writes:

"Yet a whole bevy of people routinely heap scorn on people like him because they doesn't stop everything to respond to every blog post or paper ever written about them."

     This is fair and true. But the question that rises becomes: is Wolfendale one of these people? I don't think so; he is not demanding a response from anyone, but simply engaging Harman through the medium that the latter deemed most fitting for the debate to ensue.

      But again, what is most conspicuous about Cogburn's text is that no serious mention is made on the philosophical indictments leveled against Harman, though they comprise the bulk of the book in question. This is particularly serious considering Harman's own response. I agree with Harman that Brassier's aversion to the blogosphere goes too far, that in doing so he is rhetorically excessive, and that it must accept at least of exceptions deemed of quality lest he deem Wolfendale's own ventures as obsolete.

     The issue is this: Harman accuses Brassier of resenting that his plot to make those involved in the Goldsmith conference more visible worked. Brassier, so we are told, is the victim of a mixture of dogmatism and resentment. Dogmatism, because he refuses to accept the philosophical import of the social sciences and praises the reality of physics only (something, to my mind, which Ray has never endorsed; he in fact thinks the connection between the social and natural sciences to be of paramount philosophical interest) Resentment, because others publish more works and have fallen behind the OOO cause than his own program. Thus, Harman concludes, Brassier cannot but be but the most interested party in seeing the whole Speculative Realism house burn down, while Harman and his copious readers run the show.

    But Ray's text, which again Harman has NOT read, does not complain about the relative popularity of OOO, or criticizes the exposure to the work of the authors involved in Goldsmith's: he questions not the desire to expose the body of work of those involved (a generous enough goal), but the feasibility of characterizing "speculative realism" as a philosophical movement on the grounds of actual philosophical content, and more particularly, Harman's philosophy, since all the other three members have parted ways with the term.

    First, because the term 'speculative' does not bind these authors in any meaningful sense. Meillassoux explicitly calls 'speculative' any philosophical position that is non-metaphysical in scope, to designate a kind of dialectics that makes no assumptions about what there is. In this sense, neither Ray, Iain nor particularly Harman, are speculative, since the latter explicitly endorses metaphysics as first philosophy. That the conference was named after a particular program should indicate nothing but an anchoring of the congregation on Meillassoux's own program, but not the sudden emergence of a movement.

   Second, because the 'realism' involved in each case is immensely different, and incompatible. Grant proposes a process ontology following Schelling, Harman an ontology of objects, Brassier a scientific realism, and Meillassoux a kind of mathematical Platonism inspired by Badiou. There is more in common between Badiou and Meillassoux, or between Sellars and Brassier, than between Meillassoux and Brassier on what they take realism to be (or 'materialism', for Meillassoux). The aversion to correlationism is common to many realists, analytic and continentals, even if they do not share the same terminology or address the same authors. 

     So, Brassier argues, 'speculative realism' designates little but a sociological construct, not a philosophical movement. That much interesting work has resulted from this sociological construct is not in dispute, but only that the phenomenon as it stands does not exist as a philosophical movement, but as a series of divergent positions grouped for contingent reasons, and specifically an identification of it with OOO and Harman's project.

What is truly baffling to me, is thus the following line of attack:
"Meanwhile, Brassier has not published a substantial piece of work since 2007, an eternity in our fast-moving period of blog-driven philosophy discussion. There have been perhaps 20 new books by OOO authors in that same time period, 8 of them written by me. Brassier writes deeply unpleasant, insecticidal prose, filled with expressions of contempt for the irrationality and pathetic emotions of others. He proclaims derision for the blogosphere, yet inhabits it as he pleases through biannual angry interview eruptions and through the daily work of his surrogates. He truly believes that physics is a real discipline but sociology is not, and that an object does not exist unless it is the object of a possible (natural) science. He has expressed a significant degree of contempt for the role of aesthetics in intellectual life. In my admittedly more limited experience of Wolfendale, he shares each of these traits."
     Does publishing less books or articles show one is less productive or relevant philosophically? Does this not obliterate questions about the standard of what is being published? If anything, this confirms Brassier's thesis that, according to Harman, an author's philosophical import, or that of the position he-she defends, should be measured against the standard of the amount of talk about it or publications on the subject by those who address it critically or in support. But this assumption is  truly perverse: Wittgenstein might have written a fraction of the books written by Deepak Chopra, but this says nothing of philosophical accomplishment, or the cogency and virtue of the their respective projects. What is again conspicuously missing from Harman's post, as it is from Cogburn's, is any real engagement with the philosophical content of Wolfendale's contentions with OOO. These should be the grounds for debate: after all, they comprise basically the totality of the book's content.

      Much more could be said about this unfortunate first wave of responses to Wolfendale's work. It is no secret that I am sympathetic to both Brassier and Wolfendale's Sellarsian tendencies; but that is well besides the point. The point is, it is the philosophical content of Harman's work that is being examined, and it is to this examination that criticism or endorsement should be primarily addressed. With that said, whether Wolfendale's position is charitable or uncharitable, whether it effectively is the work of philosophical fairness or of a compromisingly 'colored' vendetta, is an open question. But this should be decided on philosophical grounds, not on those Cogburn and Harman present in these posts.

4 comentarios:

Jon Cogburn dijo...

I should just say that I agree with everything you write (except for the spelling of my name). Brassier does give howlingly bad arguments in the afterward, but his conclusion "Speculative Realism doesn't exist" is no more *philosophical* than when Brian Leiter says the same thing about other areas of continental philosophy.

The only substantive claim I could possibly make about the book from the preface and afterward is that it wasn't properly edited by Macky and crew at Urbanomic. I don't think anyone who deals even slightly with academic publishers (I've reviewed books for Oxford, Acumen, Routledge, Rowan and Littfield, etc. and published with Routledge, Edinburgh, and Open Court) would doubt this for a second after reading the preface and afterwards.

I have no idea if Urbanomic is a vanity press or if the anti-Harman animus led them to serve Wolfendale so badly. Anyone who has followed his blog (as I have) and who has read the preface (it's on-line) should agree.

Urbanomic's lack of professionalism does give me some solid inductive evidence that I as a reader am going to have to do far more work than I would otherwise have to do to read Wolfendale's arguments with the charity that every author deserves. Normally the independent reviewers give you detailed advice about how to make your book maximally charitable and readable. As part of this, they correct you when you make bone headed mistakes like he does in the preface and Brassier does in the afterward.

Nothing I'm saying about this should be the least controversial. I hate to admit this, but to the extent that it is, it shows that Brassier was on to something with his dismissal of the on-line ethos pervading Speculative Realism, Accelerationism etc. Ironically, the journal Brassier dumps on (Speculations) actually follows best practices with respect to editorial reviewing.

In any case, I didn't take my comments to be a review of the book. I reserve the right to attack Leiteristic dismissals of whole areas of philosophy (Brassier on SR), and to stick up for younger academics like Pete when they are so badly served by people with an agenda.

Daniel Sacilotto dijo...

Thanks for the response, and apologies for misspelling your name.

About the arguments presented by Ray in his text, I don't agree they are 'howlingly bad'. He questions whether there is anything that binds the network of phenomena associated with SR besides sociological considerations and lots of talk. He takes issue with how neither on the side of 'realism' nor on the side of 'speculative' such a wedge exists.

Most of the thinkers associated by this trend are not 'speculative' in any meaningful sense. Meillassoux calls speculative any position that is non-metaphysical in scope to defend a kind of dialectical methodology: but neither Ray, nor Iain, nor Harman, are speculative in that sense. What would it mean to call their respective positions 'speculative' anyhow?

On the side of realism, it is even less clear that there is a common bind that runs deep enough so as to include those who have been, and exclude those realists who haven't (like the ones Ray mentions; including analytic metaphysicians)

As I understood it, your claims about the ill-editing of Urbanomic, at least in your post, were supported by the claim that you found Wolfendale's background exposition inadequate insofar as it colored the text too much.

Though perhaps some of the rhetoric is indeed overly charged and better reserved for the end of the book, when definitive verdict can be made on philosophical grounds, I take it that the bulk of the text serves the timely purpose of showing that Harman himself solicited this form of exchange, and Pete rising to it in the most thorough form possible. That is virtuous to me.

If the preface colors the text too much for your liking, I think that is fine, and it's a fair criticism. But I think the truly important thing is the philosophy, and see whether Harman's work has indeed been addressed fairly and whether its dismissal is warranted.


Jon Cogburn dijo...

Yeah, thanks for this and your OP. I do agree with what you write and no worries about the name misspelling.

For what it's worth, I am going to read Wolfendale's book and do a series of posts. I think I have a pretty good track record of charitably engaging with thinkers who I disagree with, so we'll see.

It may be the case that I am too scarred by experiences with Brian Leiter doing what strikes me as the same thing Brassier is doing. However, from this experience people saying you don't exist is usually code for people both wishing that you didn't and using the assertion to try to bring this about.

I think the articles in Speculations and Collapse are among the most exciting things to have happened thus far this century in philosophy. I'm fine that there are huge philosophical disagreements between various of the original four SRists and people who read their work. This seems really healthy to me. But as far as I've seen these last few years, Brassier's eliminativist (wrt SR, not wrt the stuff the Churchlands don't like) rhetoric has only served to get mainstream analytic and continental philosophers to ignore anybody who is on the margins of commonly accepted null hypotheses, including Brassier's own interesting work. The afterward to Wolfendale's book just ratchets this even further up.

Sorry for being redundant, and thanks again for your interesting thoughts.

skholiast dijo...

I think it bodes ill when philosophy turns sociological. What I mean is: the oft-remarked puzzler "why write 400 pages about something not worth writing about?" is a sign that the difference between two criteria is being elided. SR "as a brand" is obviously a social phenomenon; it is a chapter in the reception of SR as a style of thinking -- a set of specific tropes, turns of thought, problems, reiterated questions, and so on. One may respond that such a set of moves does not exist, or is insufficient to qualify as a "movement." Fine. But while attention to the "brand" -- "my God, how could this be so popular?" may be a reasonable sociological question, in asking it the subject has changed. I don't mean to imply that there is a hard-and-fast border. "Philosophy has to 'think its time'," to paraphrase Badiou, sure. But it strikes me that this responsibility is a continental -- in particular, a Hegelian -- inheritance. I have a hard time seeing how the Analytical -- let alone the scientisitic -- stance can avail itself of this Hegelian moment, thinking the temporal ascendancy (legitimate or not) of a philosophical style in a properly philosophical (as opposed to sociological) manner.