Deviant Intellectual Heirs

Posted by | Chris | 27.12.10 | 4 Comments

It's been a real pleasure to read a couple of chapters of The Speculative Turn. The first Harman chapter and Grant's response give a real sense of the kind of exciting argument taking place in the aftermath of Speculative Realism; arguments for realism competing in their renegade and heterodox take on philosophy.

Harman's chapter repeats in condensed form some of his recent arguments about philosophies which undermine and overmine objects. Objects are considered either as merely surface effects of some deeper becoming (undermined), or as the bundles of qualities, events, actions and effects which explain away the weirdness of objects (overmined). Harman's primary target in this chapter is the undermining ontology (as he sees it) of Iain Grant - a naturephilosophy of rumbling productivity which makes horses and minerals ephemeral appearances with no power or autonomy of their own.

What is made wonderfully apparent in this chapter (and in Grant's reply) is the way in which despite all of their agreements - and there are many - what separates them is their attitude to substance and power, with each of them coming down on a different side of the argument between Aristotle (Harman) and Plato (Grant).

Harman's chapter proceeds by elucidating comparisons between Grant and Giordano Bruno, another philosopher for whom objects are appearances of a deeper becoming. What Harman opposes in this is the way in which objects are rescinded any power of their own, being mere accidents of the real power underlying everything. Objects have no autonomy or independent existence under such an conception according to Harman and might be said to barely exist at all. What has reality, at the cost of the autonomy of objects, is the primordial becoming subtending the appearance of those objects:
Much as with neo-Platonism, things happen only vertically by retardation, contraction, or emanation from some more primal layer of the world. There is little room for horizontal interactions, as when fire burns cotton or rock shatters window.
Grant's reply is brief, though characteristically dense, and repeats his often quoted- for his students at least - arguments about the dependence or antecedence of bodies and powers.
The thoroughgoing contingency of natural production undermines, I would claim, any account of permanently actual substantial forms ['objects'] precisely because such contingents entail the actuality not simply of abstractly separable forms, but of the powers that sculpt them.
This argument is one that I'm inclined to side with Grant on, but one that is also a continuing project for me. Grant's reply is not long enough to be really satisfying. He mentions briefly that any consideration of the implications of Harman's retooling of occasionalism must wait for another time which only makes me want to read more. Grant's book has probably arrived from the Book Depository for me by now, but in Bristol which is annoying.

One little phrase used by Harman in his introduction really made me smile, and gave me something to aspire to. Speaking of the book in the context of his dystopian imaginings of the philosophical landscape in 2050 divided between the four schools of Speculative Realism he says: "we can get down to work and move slowly toward the epic battles of four decades hence, to be carried on posthumously by our deviant intellectual heirs".

Looking then to increase my deviancy I wonder what to read next; may Shaviro vs. Harman for round two?


4 Responses to “Deviant Intellectual Heirs”

  1. Chris
    27/12/10 13:37

    Published on his blog at almost the precise moment I posted here, Graham Harman's response to Iain Grant's response:

  2. peter
    2/1/11 11:17

    What are your thoughts on the reply to the reply?

  3. Chris
    2/1/11 14:51

    As a short blog entry it's not surprising that it doesn't go much further than restating the problem from Harman's point of view.

    The final paragraph is particularly interesting:

    "To say that the individual entity needs conatus is to skip the whole problem of how an actual thing can become something other than it is now. It is to assume that actuality itself is lacking in tension, so that it therefore needs to borrow its principle of change from the outside. I hold, instead, that its principle of change comes from the tension in its own components, which are themselves also actual, but which form the larger thing only through a sort of uneasy, transient truce."

    I would strongly disagree that powers entail "assum[ing] that actuality itself is lacking in tension". The actuality of powers would result precisely in tension since it would be the equilibrium of two (or more) opposing powers. This would in fact be the "uneasy, transient truce" Harman himself evokes, a phrase which is redolent of the kind of criticism Grant makes; i.e. that substance is the product of powers.

    Another question Harman raises repeatedly though must be answered: how is form differentiated from power? A plurality of powers is a necessary, although perhaps not sufficient start. There's a project in this problem.

  4. peter
    3/1/11 16:19

    i would strongly argue against a simple binary reading of a powers ontology as too simplistic. and the the singular reading i think is ruled out too. i think a multiple or plural reading is the only one (how ironic). i also agree that powers can definotely have tension.

    plato, in the sophist, proposed my favourite defintion of powers: dynamis - the ability to affect and be affected. if this is taken alongside nietzsche's assertion that a force is nothing other than its act (it is not a doing-doing - what he called seprateing the lightning from its flash, in the genealogy of morals) you get a very dynamic reading of powers that, if nothing, is too overly tensile - hence grahman's qs to iain at the first conference: how and why does the productiveity produce individuals? (my own crazy hypothesis before i indefinitely shevelled a powers ontology on the ideas shelf was attractors)

    A third consideration. (and this one led me astray when i wrote my dissertation) Foucault, in the history of sexuality, asserts that powers are not a substance but relations. this is because if powers are nothing but acts then they must have something to act upon, therefore there must be relations to something. but then what is the nature of this relation? deleuze argues, i think concretely, that this must be a differential relation, otherwise there'd be no exterion or force, it'd be a harmony or equilibrium, which then wouldn't be a power or force, it'd be a nothing.
    at this point i became obessed with the nature of difference in general and finding it ubquituous amongst the sciences almost failed heroically to finish my dissertation.

    it should be noted that a powers ontology, as slipshoddly spawned here by myself, contains: powers (or forces or energy, whichever one you want, or they can mean specifically vague meanings if you wish to mudy up the waters in a deleuzian manner), relations, and difference, with each one intertwining and defining the other.
    i.e. relation describes the power, power describes difference, and difference describes relation... and so on...
    but i think, and feel, at this point, that i haven't really described anything, except perhaps a perplexing plurality. and of course i haven't even mentioned the words pattern or field, nor defined attractors...

    and of course
    grounds.(or should that be the ungrounded?)

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