A Response to Jon Cogburn
Jon Cogburn recently received a review copy of my forthcoming book on Graham Harman’s Object-Oriented Philosophy, the preface for which is already available online (here). On Friday, he decided to pre-empt his review by commenting on this “crapulent” preface, and the correspondingly “obnoxious” postscript written by Ray Brassier (here). The comments are most definitely negative, and have been further reinforced by Graham Harman (here). Daniel Sacilotto has already contested these comments (here), as have a number of people (most importantly my editor, Robin Mackay) on the comments thread (here), but I feel compelled to say something in response myself, if only because of the way Jon’s post positions me.
Where to begin then? I suppose in the same place Jon does: with the fact that I am an ‘early stage academic’. In fact, let’s be blunter: I am unemployed three years after receiving my PhD, and I have yet to land a single interview, let alone a teaching position. Am I bitter about this? Well, yes, somewhat. What do you expect? Do I blame Graham Harman, Speculative Realism, or anything associated with it for this? Well, not really, no. I’ve written about the structural problems of academia as far as I see them before (here), and no doubt there’s a bunch of more specific gripes I could list if I were so inclined, but I suspect that’s the same for anyone in a position similar to mine. The current state of the profession is pretty dire. However, I’m also aware that the choices I’ve made have contributed to my situation: Should I have spent so much time blogging in the first place? Should I have narrowed the scope of my research? Should I have focused on producing as many publications as possible, regardless of whether I was interested in them? Well, yes, probably. There are various reasons I’ve made the decisions I’ve made, but the story I’d have to tell to make sense of them, let alone justify them would be excessively personal. The crucial point is that if I have made mistakes, they are my mistakes.
There’s a lot I disagree with in Jon’s comments, and I’ll elaborate on these disagreements a little shortly, but the worst aspect of Jon’s post is that he refuses to recognise the crucial point just made. He goes to pains to say how much he respects me and my work, only to disregard that respect when it comes to actually addressing me. Under the guise of sympathy for my situation, he attempts to explain away my opinions and choices as the result either of emotional bitterness, pedagogical negligence, or malicious external influence. This combination of speculation about my psychological state and casual accusations aimed at my associates is profoundly patronising. This is not what I expected from Jon when I asked him to review the book. In the comments on Dan’s post he claims that he is simply trying to “to stick up for younger academics like [me] when they are so badly served by people with an agenda.” If this is what Jon considers sticking up for me, then I’d kindly request him to stop.
Moving on to disagreements, there’s an awful lot in Jon’s post, and I’m not going to discuss all of it. However, I take it that there were five principal complaints, and I’ll try to address each of these briefly.
It is no secret that the conclusions of my book are harsh. However, it might surprise some people just how harsh they are. It is not simply that I find Harman’s metaphysics to be deeply flawed in both its essence and its execution, but also that I conclude that his philosophical approach exemplifies certain conceptual and sociological problems that are holding back anglophone Continental philosophy (these are the ‘pathological dynamics’ to which I refer). I don’t expect everyone to agree with my diagnosis of the Continental tradition and its pathologies, and indeed, expect some people to quite vehemently dislike it. However, I’ve gone to some lengths to explain the diagnosis in the book, and I’ve got enough background in Continental philosophy (MA in Continental Philosophy, PhD on Heidegger, papers on Hegel, Deleuze, etc.) to make this more than the wannabe-analytic sniping some will suggest (for my thought on ‘the divide’ see here).
Now, although these are not premises of the book (it is not an ad hominem attack), I did not want those who might be surprised by them to feel they had been misled about the book’s contents. It is for this reason that they are announced in the preface, as part of the description of the overall structure and content of the book. Nevertheless, Jon feels that this was inappropriate, and that, in particular, the term ‘pathological’ should never be used in this context. To be quite frank, I can’t see what reasons he has for this other than his opinion that these conclusions must be false; I might add, without having yet read the reasons I give for them in the book. Of course, he has a bunch of things to say about academic norms governing publishing, and how violating these norms is a terrible career move for me, etc. etc. Despite my avowed obsession with the normative, I honestly couldn’t care about the norms that Cogburn invokes here. This isn’t because I think academic norms are a bad idea, or that I’m a philosophical loose cannon who doesn’t care what those pen-pushers in city hall think, but simply that any norms that preclude this sort of severe criticism a priori are in conflict with academia’s commitment to the pursuit of truth, no matter how unpalatable it may be for some. Putting it as simply as possible: there should be no a priori limits on just how wrong I’m allowed to think Harman’s ideas are, or those of anyone else for that matter.
2. Performative Contradiction
Following on from his concerns about the appropriateness of my conclusions, Jon raises the following question: “Why write a four hundred page book about something dynamically pathological?” Well, this is a question that has bothered me a lot. It’s also a question that many people have asked me in one form or another during the writing process. Jon’s insinuation that I have been encouraged to write this by ‘people with an agenda’ (perhaps the shady cabal he refers to as ‘Brassier’s people’ in the comments) couldn’t be farther from the truth: every time I delved further into the material, every time the manuscript expanded, there was always someone to tell me I shouldn’t be wasting my time with it, or should at least be finishing it as quickly as possible. The difference between these people and Jon is that the former thought I shouldn’t be wasting my time on Harman, whereas the latter thinks I shouldn’t have wasted my time critiquing Harman. The point of the preface was to try and address both camps, and to explain why I had taken the time to thoroughly engage work with which I deeply disagreed.
Perhaps the oddest thing about Jon’s comments on the preface, then, is that he ignores the answers to this question that are explicitly provided in it. Moreover, he even goes so far as to say that he thinks it is impossible to provide an answer, and that the very attempt to thoroughly and charitably engage work with which one disagrees amounts to a performative contradiction. It’s worth trying to unpick this a little bit, because it makes sense of other aspects of Jon’s comments. Jon’s opening gambit is to declare that ‘polemics in philosophy never succeed’; a position he ascribes to Leibniz of all people – a man who famously wrote a chapter by chapter rebuttal of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The reason he gives for this is that only those who already agree with the conclusion of the polemic will grant “the uncharity needed for the polemic to be rhetorically effective.”
The important question here is precisely what Jon means by ‘uncharity’, because he repeatedly implies that my book is uncharitable; again, despite not having actually considered its contents. You might think that this is what an actual performative contradiction looks like, perhaps because you think that interpretative charity involves ascribing to someone the strongest and most coherent position that is consistent with their claims. This would imply that assessing the charity of an interpretation involves actually comparing it with the source material, and contrasting it with alternative interpretations; something which Jon has so far failed to do in commenting on the content of my interpretation. However, Jon seems to think that charity involves something more than this, and that this supplement provides a criteria sufficient to judge my interpretation as uncharitable without having actually read it. The closest he comes to elaborating the relevant supplement is the following passage:
“And the sad fact is that it’s astonishingly easy to read systematic philosophers uncharitably. You don’t focus on charitably construing arguments for interesting non-trivial parts and finding interesting implications, but rather characterize the whole thing in all of its craziness. For the way to charitably read a systematic philosopher, consider Brandom on Hegel. Brandom really carefully works out what we can learn today from Hegel’s deconstruction of the concept/intuition dichotomy. But if he wanted to engage in anti-Hegelian polemics, he could easily pick some other part of the edifice and paint a cartoon picture of the rest. For the latter, consider Russell on nearly any systematic philosopher he doesn’t like. But what’s the point of doing that? As Leibniz realized, while it’s easy to read systematic philosophers uncharitably it’s never worth the effort to do so.”
Here Jon seems to imply that I have decided to consider some aspects of Harman’s work in isolation from others, and have thereby presented a caricature of his thought. Anyone who has read the paper which forms the first part of the book (available here) will have some impression of just how much work I have put into carefully ‘construing arguments’ for the various parts of Harman’s system. The remainder of the book goes even deeper into these various parts, and, though it does draw a number of conclusions about the overall shape of Harman’s philosophy as a system, does not depend upon any one holistic criticism of it. This is precisely why the book is so long. Once more, there seems to be no good reason for Jon to think that this constitutes a systematic caricature unless he’s actually read it. However, I think there’s a reason that Jon has chosen Brandom’s reading of Hegel to exemplify charity here. I think what he means by a charitable reading of a systematic philosopher is actually what Brandom means by a de re reading. As opposed to a de dicto reading, which focuses only on what the philosopher explicitly says, a de re reading tries to move beyond this by trying to grasp what it is they were talking about, which means using one’s own understanding of what is being talked about to supplement and organise the interpretation.
However, the problem with de re reading is that it necessarily implies that one takes the philosopher in question to be essentially correct in the way they grasp the thing in question, insofar as it means projecting one’s own beliefs (what one takes to be true) onto them. This means that one cannot present a de re interpretation of a philosopher with which one disagrees on every substantive issue, or, at least, on every substantive issue with regard to which they are supposed to have contributed something novel. If this is the criterion of charity for reading a systematic philosopher, then it is a priori impossible to charitably read anyone whose work one thinks is systematically wrong. Furthermore, if this criterion of charity is supposed to be the norm of academic debate, then our discourse is artificially restricted to shallow disagreements based on enforced pleasantries, demanding of us, like children, that ‘if you can’t say something nice, then you should say nothing at all’. Once more, even if this does not discount the possibility that someone could truly be systematically wrong, it discounts its relevance for the pursuit of truth. It is the relevance of pursuing such deep disagreements that I defend in the preface:
“It is all too easy in contemporary philosophical discourse to use the mere fact that one seriously disagrees with another’s ideas as a reason not to explore the nature of the disagreement any further. But it is worth remembering that doing so can improve our understanding of the relevant issues and stimulate the evolution of our own ideas. This is certainly what I got out of exploring my disagreements with OOP/OOO. However—and this is where things took an unusual turn—these theoretical gains did not come from uncovering useful philosophical insights or novel dialectical distinctions lingering beneath the surface. Quite the reverse: whenever I began to address seemingly simple ideas that struck me as problematic, their flaws would turn out to run much deeper than was initially apparent. Time and again, I discovered that I couldn’t pull on a single loose thread without unravelling the whole fabric. This implied a profound asymmetry between the amount of effort required to articulate the relevant ideas and that required to effectively criticise them. If nothing else, this asymmetry was productive: it forced me to sharpen my understanding of foundational concepts (e.g., existence, relation, causation, etc.) and to address the methodological issues underlying metaphysical debates involving them (e.g., what it means to talk about ‘reality’)”
Jon seems to consider every element of the preface but this, preferring to chide me for failing to live up to academic norms that elide the possibility that anyone, not just Harman, could be systematically wrong in a way that was a) important to point out, and b) nevertheless potentially enlightening. The closest he comes to actually considering this is in the following passage:
“Again, if it’s worth writing a 400 page book about, it’s worth writing it charitably. And again, Wolfendale dimly realizes this. At one point he writes that “a deeper exploration of OOP’s flaws yielded deeper theoretical insights that can be applied elsewhere” (xv). Why not stick with that? Why call someone’s entire scholarly output pathological?”
This brief acknowledgement is immediately folded back into the earlier complaint about my use of ‘pathology’, which is now deemed sufficient to demonstrate the uncharity of my reading all on its own. However you read it, the impossibility upon which the supposed performative contradiction is based has nothing to do with the possibility of my conclusions being correct, but rather with the propriety of them being expressed.
Next, there is the matter of my explanation for why I began writing the piece on OOP in the first place, which I trace to a particular email exchange between Harman and myself and its referencing by Levi Bryant. I have discussed this exchange online before (here). It is part of my online history with OOO, and is open for all to see. This seems to be the part of the preface that Jon finds most unprofessional:
“Why is any of this relevant? Why didn’t someone at Urbanomic tell a kid fresh out of graduate school to take this kind of thing out? At the very least it colors everything that follows. I’d much rather read the book as a contribution to the ongoing debate about the “return to metaphysics” in Continental Philosophy. But we have this huge epistemic red flag at the outset that the whole thing is a sublimated act of revenge.”
It is worth pointing out that Robin (the ‘suit’ at Urbanomic) did try to convince me to remove this bit, and that it was initially slightly more detailed before he cut it down. That it remains is entirely my own fault. So, why did I include it? As I say above, this is already online. I have no doubt that if I hadn’t talked about it, some people would have raised it anyway, along with whatever other aspects of my online and offline history could be used to accuse me of writing the book as a personal vendetta, in order to portray it as a deliberate misrepresentation of Harman’s views (as ‘a bucket of spittle’ perhaps?). I’ve already seen this happen a lot on the internet and elsewhere, and I decided to pre-empt it by being as honest as possible about my motivations for writing the book. I suppose the irony of Jon’s commentary is that it pretty much manages to do everything I was trying to pre-empt by presenting itself as a concerned attempt to educate me about academic mores.
The preface contains the genuine story of why I began writing about OOP and why I persisted. It might not be excessively personal, but it is necessarily personal, because anything less wouldn’t be sufficiently honest. Unfortunately, Jon interprets this story in entirely the wrong way. He seems to think that the real issue is that I am bitter about Harman not responding to my blog posts about him. Though this bothers some people, it has never really been important to me. I don’t believe anyone is obliged to respond to anyone else on the internet, whether they’re an academic or not. I said this during the original online exchanges and I repeated it in the preface. I did dislike Harman withdrawing his offer to respond to a short blog post and insisting he would only response to a proper publication – partly because I dislike having the goalposts moved, and partly because it seemed to conflict with his public endorsements of the medium – but it really wasn’t a big deal.
This isn’t to say my motivations were entirely pure, but neither were they especially malicious. As I say in the preface, I can’t turn down a challenge, and questioning my sincerity and my commitment to serious debate is a serious challenge in my book. I’ll admit to a small amount of pride and greater amount of satisfaction in meeting this challenge to the best of my ability. I have never before had the opportunity to work out a disagreement so thoroughly, and it was good, even just once, to do so. I don’t take this to be particularly virtuous, but neither do I take it to be particularly vicious. If the work can be said to have virtues, they are the sincerity and seriousness it strives for. If the work can be said to have a vice, it is the self-indulgence it evidences in its pursuit of these virtues. These virtues and vices emerge directly from the motivations that precipitated the book, but they are not limited by them. This explanation of the origins of the book was not meant to be a justification of it, but rather to provide enough context to defuse accusations that it is a ‘sublimated act of revenge’, and thereby clear the way for the real reasons I take it to be worth the effort of writing and reading.
In retrospect, I would make one correction to this part of the preface. It was important for me to include the quote from Levi’s blog for the sake of accuracy, but I would hate for it to be read as indicating any animosity for Levi or his work. As I mention in the preface, our blog debates have been very productive for the development of my own ideas, despite (and perhaps because of) my occasional frustrations. Moreover, I’ve seen his ideas evolve in quite a different direction from Harman’s. This isn’t to say that I don’t still substantially disagree with him, but if you read the book you’ll see that many of the criticisms of Harman’s position simply don’t extend to his, and he’s largely mentioned in this regard.
4. Speculative Realism
This is where we get to Jon’s comments about Speculative Realism and Ray Brassier’s postscript. Jon seems to be most personally offended by my comments about SR and Brassier’s autopsy of it, which is perhaps understandable given his avowed affiliation with SR philosophical movement. Here’s Jon on that part of my justification of the book that deals with Harman’s relation to SR:
“As far as I can tell, Wolfendale does kind of realize how petulant the kvetching about Harman and Bryant is, and as a result there is a second justification for why he is writing four hundred pages on something he doesn’t take to be worth writing about. Here he justifies the existence of his book as an act of social justice:
as OOO [Object-Oriented Philosophy]’s popularity increased, it began to dominate online discussion, gradually narrowing discursive parameters and alienating many who had been actively involved in the online SR [Speculative Realism] community. The SR trend slowly transmuted into the SR/OOO [Speculative Realism/Object Oriented Ontology] brand as Harman asserted himself as its spokesman, and the community’s unique dynamic dissolved as a result. This gradual collapse demanded a proper explanation and remonstration: a philosophy that prospers by hijacking discussion and stifling dissenting viewpoints, more or less deliberately, deserves to have its approach analysed and its strategies exposed (xiv).
So what we’re going to get is 400 pages of expository muckraking with the point of showing how Harman single-handedly killed a nascent movement? Not only would this not justify a philosophical (as opposed to historical or sociological) critique of Harman, there are two problems with it. First, Wolfendale endorses Brassier’s obnoxious afterward to his book, where Brassier argues that there never was any such thing as Speculative Realism. How could Harman have single handedly killed something that didn’t exist? Second, and more important, the problem with the passage is that nothing in it is true. I know. I was there too.”
Leaving the question of the postscript to one side for a moment, it is important to emphasise that the preface contains the only discussion of the SR blogging community in the whole book. The book involves no muckraking, if that’s taken to mean trawling through blog posts and airing grievances. There is only a substantive critique of OOP along both philosophical and historical/sociological lines, which includes an attempt to explain the SR phenomenon and OOP’s relation to it. It is all too tempting to be dragged into such muckraking in the here and now, especially when faced with such claims as “Brassier and a number of students associated with Brassier turned on Harman for various personal reasons.” However, this would not only further distract people from the actual content of the book, but would simply serve to repeat the dynamics that, in my humble opinion, dissolved the original online community to which I refer. Confronted with Jon’s brute experiential rebuttal, all I can do is reaffirm my statements, and suggest that there are others whose experience was closer to mine than to Jon’s.
Turning to Jon’s comments on Ray’s postscript, let’s take the most vociferous quote:
“What can Wolfendale possibly be thinking having Brassier do an afterward? If Speculations is as much a joke as Brassier implies, and Wolfendale’s own book is an expansion of an article in Speculations, then what does this say about Brassier being in said book? The mixture of hubris and lack of self-knowledge on display is mind-boggling.”
I asked Ray to write the postscript to the book, and I specifically asked him to use the opportunity to finally give his own account of the Speculative Realism debacle. Why did I do this? Well, you may have noticed that his only public comments on the matter are some characteristically acerbic remarks given in response to interview questions. Many people have commented that this is strange given that he organised the original Speculative Realism workshop, and even coined the term to loosely group the projects of the four thinkers in attendance. Without delving too deeply into the reasons for Ray’s silence, it has allowed a number of misunderstandings about him and his work to flourish, and a misleading narrative framing his involvement in SR to spread. It would not be inaccurate to say that Ray’s online and offline reputation has in many ways been managed by proxy for him. He has become a character in someone else’s story, and not a pleasant character at that, if Harman and Jon’s most recent comments are anything to go by. In asking Ray to write the postscript, I wanted to give him a chance to tell his own side of the story, both because I think it deserves to be heard in its own right, and because I think it complements and reinforces my own points about the failure of SR to form anything like a cohesive philosophical position.
I’m not going to discuss Ray’s postscript in detail here, as I’d prefer people just read it and draw their own conclusions. However, I will note that Jon takes the point about Speculations out of context. Ray says nothing bad about Speculations, those who produce it, or those who publish in it, myself included. The essence of his point is simply that the mere existence of Speculations (which is explicitly labelled ‘A Journal of Speculative Realism’) isn’t sufficient to establish SR’s existence, and that declarations of the latter’s existence from within its pages don’t change this. This is part of a broader argument, but if you want to understand it you’re going to have to read the postscript yourself.
There’s a lot I could say in response to Jon’s claim that SR obviously exists, and that to say otherwise is either trivially false, or worse, contradicts my claims about the collapse of the SR blogging community. There’s no doubt that there are people who self-describe as speculative realists, and that there are CFPs, conferences, and art exhibitions where it gets referenced liberally. However, if all SR means is a renewed concern with metaphysics in the Continental tradition, then there’s no clear reason why it doesn’t include people like Deleuze, Badiou, Zizek, Stengers, and the like. If nothing else, this is amply demonstrated by the extent to which these figures (and people influenced by them) form the most natural interlocutors of those who count themselves as speculative realists. What is it about the work of Meillassoux and Grant that warrants them being categorised separately from these other figures, as somehow more appropriately listed beside Harman than any of the others, other than the fact that they attended a workshop together in 2007? There are others who have come to the SR label later, such as those interested in Whitehead, Latour, and various strands of so called New Materialism, who genuinely have more in common with OOP/OOO than these figures, but if SR is taken to index these commonalities, then it has by far more to do with OOP than any of the other work it was originally supposed to index (hence the inevitable slippage to ‘SR/OOO’).
The claim that SR doesn’t exist is simply the claim that there isn’t any distinctive philosophical common ground indexed by the intersection of Meillassoux/Harman/Grant/Brassier. However, this is entirely compatible with the claim that at one point it looked like there might be, and that this promised a potentially new philosophical trajectory that would be genuinely distinct from extant trends. The sense in which SR can be said to have ‘died’ is simply the sense in which this promise proved to be false. This sort of thing happens. It’s precisely what Badiou tries to capture in his account of fidelity, wherein one simply has to commit oneself to the existence of an Event despite its occurrence being indiscernible. Sometimes the fidelity pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t.
I can’t justify this claim much more without impinging upon the content of the book, but there is one point from the book that I’m happy to divulge, as I think it demonstrates the failed promise of SR better than anything else. If there was one thing that was supposed to bind SR together as some sort of joint inquiry, it was Meillassoux’s critique of correlationism, and if there was one element of that critique that was emblematic of this supposed unity it was the analysis of the arche-fossil with which After Finitude begins. What we had there was a powerful and direct image of what was supposedly wrong with the dominant philosophical consensus: that it could not take literally natural science’s claims to think a world prior to the emergence of thought. The problem for this supposed unity is that OOP can’t take these claims literally any more than Husserlian phenomenology can. This is not because of some illicit anthropocentrism on its behalf, but simply because it doesn’t take natural science to grasp the spatio-temporal reality of objects (e.g., “the earth is 4.54 billion year old”) any more than their real non-spatio-temporal qualities (e.g., “the earth’s core is primarily composed of an iron-nickel alloy”). I elaborate this point in much more detail in the book, but for now it is a good symbol of the failure of SR to become more than an ad hoc label as I can find.
This post is already longer than I intended, but I have one final thing I would like to contest. This is the characterisation of my own views that Jon presents in a footnote to his post, which he uses to discourage post-phenomenological metaphysicians from associating with me:
“I should say that it’s weird for me to see people who are into the metaphysical strain of post-phenomenology take Wolfendale as an ally. As far as I know, he is pretty resolutely a Brandomian anti-metaphysical quietist, which is as close as an analytical philosopher can get to high church phenomenology. It will be interesting to see if reading Harman has brought him around on this one. I know that Brassier has his sights set towards Pittsburgh as well. I actually think that Pittsburgh Hegelianism leads to the real thing, as articulated in books like Stern’s Hegelian Metaphysics, but I realize that smart people of good will disagree.”
Strangely enough, this is the part of Jon’s post that surprised me the most. He’s read a good bit of my work, and I have absolutely no idea how he could characterise me as an ‘anti-metaphysical quietist’ unless he’d simply forgotten about it and decided to simply subsume me in Brandom’s position. Here’s a few things about me, for those who don’t know: 1) my thesis (see here) tries to extract Heidegger’s methodological insights about metaphysics and the question of Being from the phenomenological baggage that vitiates them (i.e., I’ve fought my fair share of the battles against high-church phenomenology); 2) my undergraduate and masters dissertations were both written on Deleuze’s metaphysics, a position I continue to espouse and develop (see here); 3) I wrote quite an extensive essay on the question of what metaphysics is and how my own position differs from Brandom’s a few years ago (see here); 4) I have studied Hegel’s metaphysical system in some depth, and have presented papers on it (see here); 5) I list metaphysics as an AOS on my CV, non-ironically; 6) I am currently teaching a course on metaphysics for the New Centre of Research and Practice (see here); and 7) the book Jon has been sent to review is almost exclusively about metaphysics, what it is, and what Harman’s work shows us about how not to go about it. If that isn’t good enough to get me taken off the ‘anti-metaphysician’ watchlist I’m not sure what is.