I have been watching the March 2017 talk with Slavoj Zizek and Graham Harman titled “Duel and Duet” and I was not disappointed at the intellectual stimulation value. Zizek, as most of you know, is the Marxist genius, and Harman is the obvious philosophical windbag stereotype. For those of you who don’t know, Harman belongs to a school of philosophy known as “Object-Oriented Ontology” (OOO) a kind of post-modern school. Object-oriented ontology, following Bruno Latour (who is notably an anthropologist) is a recent conceptual approach involving rethinking the role of objects in metaphysical schemes, how most approaches before the advent of postmodernism were concerned with the role of the human in the universe. Thus a lot of OOO tends to vibe well with environmental philosophies, Derrida, rethinking the relationship of the animal with the world, often Deleuze is thrown in there, etc. I have seen people do good things with OOO, but it often has an element of something that I hate. I couldn’t put my finger on it until tonight when my guy Zizek got up there and sparred with Harman.
In the talk, Harman begins by restating what OOO is, distinguishing it from “naive realism”, talks about how he thinks Zizek is more sophisticated than other philosophers, but then proceeds to critique him in several arcane respects. First he brings up the philosophical problem of essences. Harman sees no problem with essence as such, but thinks that essence is only knowable indirectly. So the essence of humans is different from other things, but…in fact, I don’t know exactly what he says about humans being different than other things. On the one hand, he says that humans are objects like any other object in the material world, and that we shouldn’t inscribe the difference in humanity into philosophy itself, that Western philosophy has inherited this gap between Creator and Created in medieval thought.
First let me reply to Harman. Harman thinks in such a dualistic way, even though he is trying to get beyond dualisms. Humans are subjects and objects, knowable and the knower. That is what makes us different- we are the knowers. We perceive things, we are existential beings who feel pain. Isn’t that a DUH???
For Harman, nothing seems to be a duh. The problem of essences he speaks of turns into the question of what is culture, with reference to Edward Said’s Orientalism. Harman says Said goes to far in his critique of Orientalism, saying there is no essence to the Orient. He says that when one claims to know something about it, then it becomes a problem. He then (in my view correctly) says but what about Culture and the difference between East and West as cultural systems?
To me, Harman is wading too deep into the waters of anthropological theory here. ***On the one hand, I believe that philosophy should have an open and engaging dialogue with anthropological theory, where many insights have occurred relatively unknown to professional philosophers***. That was one of the main ideas I had while watching this talk, because obviously Harman is a disciple of Latour, the philosopher cum anthropologist par excellence.
I realized my problem with OOO goes back to Latour and the whole “we have never been modern” thesis, which Zizek goes on to critique at the onset of his talk immediately. It is clear throughout the talk that Zizek is on a different level than Harman. Zizek’s whole style is to engage the audience immediately, claiming that differences between two philosophers does not matter so much as clarifying what is the problem. Zizek’s sense of responsibility in his thought is far superior to Harman’s. Harman in my mind (and this is kind of a straw man, because I haven’t read his books) fills an intellectual gap, sees OOO as superior, and proceeds to critique Zizek not understanding fully his whole approach, which takes into account the zeitgeist of the time, etc. Harman’s points become as DRY and emotionless as the subjectless ontology he philosophizes. Zizek’s motivation is an IDEAL, that is what makes him truly an idealist. It seems Harman doesn’t understand Hegel at all.
Back to my critique of Latour. Latour’s whole approach is based on a need to understand the non-human. While this is a great approach, it was essentially a copycat version of other developments in anthropology, such as Viveiros de Castro’s perspectivism (as far as I can tell). Perspectivism is a theory which looks at the Amerindian view of the human being as not separate from nature, etc. and is a brilliant theory of the way Amerindians see the cosmos and how we can use that. Latour is a post-modernizing of that approach, which has consumed anthropological high level theory as the “ontological turn”. Yay more philosophy in anthropology! It seems we have also inherited the bullshit
Finally, a response to Harman on culture and Said. Yes culture exists, and your about society not existing being conservative ideology is a great point. But one can’t merely just drop this point in for the sake of argument itself. Its a complex topic, one which Said has contributed more to than you. I found the same problem in Said’s work, his lack of acknowledgement of Difference in culture. Which is why I find my biggest problem sometimes with postmodern philosophy is that none of them seemed to have read the Upanishads.
In short, this video has given me insight that anthropology and philosophy need to engage FULLY with non-Western philosophies and ontologies. The problem of essences has already been dealt with by Madyamika-Prasangika school of Buddhism- essence is always changing, therefore there is no essence, only relative identity. Landzek’s post about this subject raises the question of philosophical EGO- a running theme in some of his posts (see the post on his blog about Obscurantism which I will link to ). He ends by saying philosophers should not worry about bruising the egos of others in dialogues. Often it is the most personal that is the hardest to put into words. That is what non-Western philosophies often handle best- the *emotional core* that has been strayed away from, even in postmodern ontologies.
I return to a conclusion from my previous post- we don’t need more theories, we need more open debate, more compassion, more EMOTION, less objects and ontologies.
Link to Landzek’s Constructive Undoing blog-