[Note: Any time I post something this aggravating, I get lots of hostile e-mails. Please say it here (comments aren't moderated) or on your own blog instead. I'm sorry; I wish that I had time/emotional energy to answer, let alone read, all of the angry e-mail my blogging sometimes generates. But I don't.]
I just got an advanced copy of Peter Wolfendale's Object-Oriented Philosophy: The Noumenon's New Clothes. I was pretty excited about it because I've been a fan of Wolfendale's blog for a long while now and also quite enjoyed large chunks of his dissertation on Heidegger as well as some of his takes on Robert Brandom. We have a pretty fundamental disagreement about the latter's quietism, but I continue to find Wolfendale to be an interlocutor from whom I can learn a lot.
Since what I'm about to say is negative let me also preface it with a story of my own. My first publication was something I wrote with Roy Cook in graduate school. The first place we sent it was Analysis and they accepted it with revisions. So this seemed easy enough. And it generally is for people, as long as they are co-writing with Roy Cook (the guy's phenomenal). But after that I moved to Louisiana and it was over two years before I got anything else accepted. It was one of the darkest periods of my life. That is, as I faced the possibility of instantiating the Bob Dylan line about thirty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift, it became a little bit maddening. Weirdly, the psychological issues had a pronounced negative effect on my prose, and my first two single-authored papers published (here and here) just have a nasty tone. I find looking at them today really unpleasant. The frustration of what I was going through as an early stage academic with zero job security is just too manifest. I've long since had a chance to apologize to the papers' targets for the tone of the papers, and both were mensches about it. But I can't go back and rewrite them.*
It's generally a mistake to delve into people's psychology too much, unless doing so helps you be more charitable. So I'm going to try see the preface (available now online here) of Wolfendale's book in terms of what I myself went through. Moreover, in my case the reviewers and editors at Philosophical Studies and Synthese at least helped me tone down the paper a bit before publication. It's pretty clear that the suits at Urbanomic Press did not extend the same bit of professionalism to Wolfendale.
So now here is the weird thing. At the very outset of a four hundred page book ostensibly about Graham Harman's philosophy we get phrases like "the pathological dynamics typical of Harman's work" (xvi). Please pause and consider that. Why write a four hundred page book about something dynamically pathological? Seriously, polemics in philosophy never succeed, for the simple reason that only the already converted give the polemicist a pass on the uncharity needed for the polemic to be rhetorically effective. For a good example of this performative contradiction in action, check out Bertrand Russell's introduction to Ernest Gellner's old attack on "linguistic philosophy."
I should say that it is to Wolfendale's credit that he is aware that he instancing such a stark performative contradiction. He notes:
it [the book] undertakes a long and detailed discussion of a single philosopher’s work, and yet it aims to show that his work does not warrant such serious attention. Why read, let alone write, such an odd book? A brief explanation of its origins might shed some light on the matter (ix).
To be fair, with Leibniz I take such an explanation to be an impossible task. But it's still unfortunate that what we get after this admission is mostly an attempt to set the record straight with respect to how Harman and Levi Bryant purportedly mistreated Wolfendale in various internet exchanges. According to Wolfendale, Bryant said something ugly or misleading once and Harman did not read all of Wolfendale's blog posts and respond to them expeditiously enough:
. . .after our blog exchange had become somewhat one-sided, Harman made me an offer:** either (a) summarise my objections in a single blog post that he could address more easily, or, better yet, (b) summarise my objections in an article in a formal publication (e.g., in Speculations, a journal specialising in the nascent ideas of SR). At the time I replied that, despite having expended considerable effort addressing our differences online, I could not commit to writing an article for publication, which I considered would take far longer and would demand far higher standards of thoroughness. At the time, I had not read all of Harman’s published books. Thus, without ruling out a more extensive engagement in print, I demurred from making any promises for the near future.
Harman’s response to this was to withdraw offer (a), on the basis that he had less to gain (and more to lose) from a blog exchange than I did. Admittedly, this irked me a little, not least given Harman’s enthusiastic advocacy of the blogosphere as an appropriate venue for philosophical debate; but no one is obliged to respond to anyone else on the Internet. That’s just how it goes. I resolved to write an article when I had the time to do it properly. However, a short time later Levi Bryant referenced this exchange between Harman and myself in public, in a less than flattering way:Now, it is almost certainly the case that his misrepresentation of my response to Harman was down to a miscommunication between Harman and Bryant, but this did little to assuage my irritation (xi).
at the risk of breaching blog etiquette, Pete was recently asked if he wouldn’t care to carry out this debate in a formal setting. He responded by claiming that he holds his published writing to a higher standard than his blog writing and that we just don’t have enough in common to have a debate. This raises the question of why Pete has obsessively and endlessly written lengthy posts on OOO, striving to undermine our positions, while withdrawing from any sort of serious debate with us. Perhaps Pete should take the time to determine what our arguments are, rather than treating us as fodder or matter to run through the machine of his Brandomian-Habermasian mill from afar.
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.
As much as Wolfendale and Brassier complain about "continental philosophy," Wolfendale is here instancing one of the worst things about the continental blogosphere since Speculative Realism, where people not academically employed have absolutely no idea how little free time academics have and as a result take great umbrage when named philosophers don't read their material.
This doesn't happen in analytic philosophy. I've published something like six papers on Michael Dummett and never expected that he would read any of them. The man couldn't possibly have read and responded to everything everyone says about him. Note that Graham Harman gives around fifty presentations a year in multiple continents. 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. These people suffer some combination of: (1) not knowing that ought implies can, (2) thinking that they have a greater claim than all of the other myriad people writing about the philosopher in question, (3) having no concept of how little free time academics have, and (4) having no concept of how little read and cited the vast marority of published academic work is. Nobody complains that Metallica doesn't link to the youtube page for their band. Why do people in the philosophical blogosphere find the analogous move with respect to successful philosophers reasonable?
On (4), note that the average published humanities paper is cited one and a half times, and this is mean (very few papers being cited thousands of times counts for most of it) and one of those citations is the author citing her own paper. The overwhelming number of published humantities papers are never cited by anyone. Given this, it makes no sense to complain that nobody is citing your papers or blog posts. I know from experience that it's a drag to create into the void, but I also know that getting overwrought about it is nothing more than a recipe for unhappiness. When you figure something out about the world you are part of matter becoming spirit, the universe becoming self-conscious. What could be better than that? So what if no one shows up?
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.
Brassier and a number of students associated with Brassier turned on Harman for various personal reasons. Much of this has everything to do with typical dysfunctions that accompany the fact that people aren't dealing with one another face to face when conversing in the blogosphere, and this (especially in the early days of the internet before we were aware of the dangers) makes it almost impossible to follow the principle of charity. It's very sad in retrospect. Part of what was so interesting (sociologically!) about the Speculative Realism event is that the internet allowed all of these graduate students like Wolfendale to seize the means of (re)production. And this ethos expanded outwards in a punk rock mimeograph way, with journals such as Collapse and Speculations. It was really exciting, and lots of people in the biz noticed (just look at the roster of authors in the recent issues of Speculations).*** But the internet eats its own.
If you want to blame Harman alone for this, as Wolfendale does, go ahead. It seems transparently absurd to me, but I have zero interest in litigating the issue with anyone vested in granting such luciferic power to one man. A second issue (added to internet dysfunction and Brassier's weird petulance) is the fact that some of the other canonical people involved in the blogosphere didn't finish their Ph.D.s (after attending two and three programs in some cases), some of them did but didn't get academic positions, and some who did didn't get research jobs. Seizing the means of publishing production is not enough. Seven years after the event, people willing to identify as Speculative Realists don't have any representation in Ph.D. granting instutions. Because of this, there is pretty strong pressure for people working on the new metaphysics to not identify as Speculative Realists. I've actually seen this at conferences, where a professor from a top SPEP school asks someone if they're not a Speculative Realist and the person replies that of course they are not.
Again though, these are largely philosophically irrelevant accidents of biography married to job market dynamics. I only point them out because Wolfendale's claims are not just irrelevant but also false. There are philosophically relevant dialectical pressures that led to different directions in the movement. From this perspective, for the most acute account of what's happened to Speculative Realism as a result of different forms of dialectical unfolding please read Robert Jackson's excellent piece here, which among other things pretty conclusively refutes Brassier and Wolfendale's death notice. Or one could read the first half of Mark Ohm and my Speculations piece (which on its own renders Brassier's what-could-SR-possibly-be? afterward to Wolfendale's book all the more risible). Or read the introduction to that volume by Ridvan Askin, Andreas Hägler, and Philipp Schweighauser. The narrow focus on Speculative Realist aesthetics in some ways brings things clearer into focus than Jackson or Ohm and my take. I've also found skholiast's musings on the supposed death of Speculative Realism to be an interesting account from someone still fighting the good fight in the blog trenches.
So Wolfendale's first reason for writing four hundred pages about something he inconsistently claims to be beneath notice involves a purely personal revenge. His second reason is in some sense political, avenging all of the poor Speculative Realists who were somehow silenced by Graham Harman. But, no matter how unfair either is, both are philosophically irrelevant. His third reason for writing four hundred pages on something he takes to be beneath notice is that his expose is going to show what's wrong with Continental philosophy more generally:
. . .though seemingly idiosyncratic, a more synoptic analysis of OOP revealed that it condenses and exemplifies a number of important conceptual and sociological dynamics distinctive of contemporary anglophone Continental philosophy, giving us a unique opportunity to address the latter's problem in microcosm (xiv-xv).
Good to know that's all sorted out! Note that Brassier recapitulates Wolfendale:
There is no little irony in the fact that this promise, briefly kindled in April 2007, was prematurely snuffed out as a result of the attempt to render Speculative Realism palatable to an audience whose sensibilities were already shaped by Continental philosophy - an audience that equates representation with repression, objectivity with oppression, and naturalism with scientism (421).
Note how Brassier is constitutively unable to accept that his opponents might have actual arguments for, for example, how naturalism invariably leads to scientism. One can disagree with this without thinking that people who hold the view are fools.
[And again, if Brassier's claim resonates with you at all, please read the first half of my Ohm and my paper. I'm an analytic philosopher. Over half of my papers have logic symbols in them.]
For Wolfendale and Brassier, Harman has somehow taken all of the sins of Continental Philosophy on his own wretched shoulders. The impression one gets is that if they can just use this doorstop of a book to get the nails through his damned flesh, then the continental philosophers will finally develop the analytic acumen to differentiate representations from repression, objectivity from oppression, and naturalism from scientism, etc. etc. etc. and there will be peace in the Kingdom at last.
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?*****
And Brassier is completely wrong about the supposed irony involved. The popular kids are not going to suddenly think you are cool because you pick on some other nerds as bad as the popular kids picked on you. It never works that way. If those of us interested in post-phenomenological strains in contemporary continental philosophy***** gather ourselves into a circular firing squad it's just going to hurt all of us. Note, for all of Brassier's making fun of the journal, Wolfendale himself and two of the good people at An und für sich have published in Speculations. 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.
Yes Brian Leiter might selectively quote us, as he has Brassier, but those who read Leiter approvingly, as well as most of his continental critics, aren't going to differentiate the people into Lauruelle from the people into Whitehead from the people into Harman from the new materialists from the dark ecologists from the speculative naturalists from the bleak theologians from the continental Sellarsians, etc. etc. etc. For hostile analytics it's all just gobbleygook outside of the reservation Leiter has constructed around his version of "continental philosophy." For hostile continentals it's all just people who don't understand Husserl well enough. Mainstream analytic and continental philosophers run the gamut from disinterested to hostile. When we let our own blog wars blow up into actual publications we've just done their job for them.
One of the things I love about Leon Niemocynski's After Nature blog is that there are posts like this where I get a sense of all of the good philosophers working in the various strands of what might be considerd a broader "back to metaphysics" movement in continental philosophy. Of course I could respond like Brassier does in the Afterward. What do you mean "back to metaphysics?" Does this mean that David Lewis is a continental philosopher? But such rhetorical questions would not only be stupid (there are resources in these traditions not available to Lewis, which is why a good Lewisian like myself studies them) and unfair, but also reinforce the worst prejudices of a status quo that has no time for things on the margin, such as Brassier's own work.
Wolfendale has long struck me as one of the brightest philosophers of his generation, but his book's crapulent preface fills me with dread.
**Wolfendale footnotes private correspondence from Harman here without stating that Harman gave him permission to do so.
***One more thing that renders Brassier's snark in the afterward mystifying. After comparing Harman to Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard, Brassier writes:
Moreover, a sceptic might be forgiven for querying the reliability of a witness testifying to Speculative Realism's indubitable existence form within the pages of a publication whose official subtitle is 'A Journal of Speculative Realism'.
This wouldn't be so risible if: (1) Brassier's afterward gave any evidence of having read the articles in the journal in question (please see the citations above), and (2) Brassier were fit to clean the shoes of many of the philosophers who have published in the journal. This latter point is not to insult Brassier. I'm not fit to clean the shoes of Lee Braver, Manuel Delanda, Markus Gabriel, Adrian Johnston, Paul Livingston, etc. etc. etc. But I don't pen bitter invective presupposing that all of these people are fools.
****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.
*****The Meillassoux book? The two Latour books? The Lovecraft book? The essays in Towards Speculative Realism? Pathological???? Come on.]