So, I understand how this book developed in the context of continuous blogging, etc., and I will immediately set out my stall and say that I don’t think it is any the better for it. It is mentioned that this book was written in an impressive (or “impressive”) 86 hours and something minutes. I am trying not to be snotty about this, but I mean… don’t shout about it. The reason I say this is because, well… those 86 hours… they show somewhat. I am not saying it is bad, and there is the occasional almost-striking turn of phrase, and to a point there is a certain amount of clarity to the writing. This is what brings me to my main issue, and primary intuition about Harman as a philosopher.
Up until chapter seven, the prose is lucid, and the ideas are coherently communicated. I confess that though I am a giant fan of diagrams, those included in the body of the text are unhelpful – at best. When chapter seven begins, however, I felt that this book would have benefited from a period of longer exchange with some similarly-minded philosophers. I say this because Harman is simply better in dialogue. He seems to thrive on it. While reading Towards Speculative Realism, I continually had pencil in hand, and was jotting down notes about whatever philosopher he mentioned (“FIND AND READ”) who was until that point unknown me, and then when I did go to read them, I felt I already had a handle on the topic or approach that made them citation-worthy. This says nothing for his analysis in Tool Being, which I consider nothing less than revelatory for me. For years I have engaged with Heidegger in my reading and study, but never moved beyond my – to borrow a phrase from Harold Bloom regarding Heidegger – “cheerful abhorrence”, until I read Harman on Zuhandenheit and the tool-analysis. I still don’t like Heidegger, but I can articulate my dislike a little more coherently.
Back to the internet point. Writing on the internet inclines one towards journalese, for which Ray Brassier seems to have little beyond contempt. Fair enough. I think his distinction between philosophy and talking/writing about philosophy is insightful, but not in a particularly qualitative sense. Rather, in a sense which most of us understand from our own experience of philosophy on the internet. That is to say this, here, now, reading and writing about philosophy online is a prelude to philosophy. It is a way to try things out. It’s the sandbox. Now, perhaps you can have a negative stance regarding this. I don’t. My understanding is that we all engage in some sort of philosophical activity online as we don’t get enough of it in real life (“people have stopped inviting me for coffee because I do nothing but talk about Bruno Latour”), or because it’s easier (“I fear human contact”), or whatever. But basically, I think we understand the strengths of this medium. We hear enough about its limitations. I wish to mention something else, which is that a medium has its own specific temptations.
For the blog, the specific temptation is that everything we do becomes a work in progress. To coin a phrase that makes me sound like a prick, it’s more about process than product. We work towards things. The sin I am discussing, I suppose, is provisionality. I am guilty, and it’s there in black on grey in my “About” page. Permanent parabasis is what Schlegel calls it in one of his fragments. Though he was discussing irony, I think the comparison is relevant. Irony is an effect of knowing too much to settle for one view, opinion. It is a surfeit of co-ordinates. Now, this is undoubtedly liberating for some; as we are freed from the constraints of grounded thought, we swing from tree to tree in this new realm of a more complex dimension. Orangutans of thought (I seriously love orangutans, so that is high praise). BUT – you could smell that coming – it obviously doesn’t function at all times, and for all people. Sometimes you need to set your jaw against the world, and confront it (and I suppose I mean that in the way Harman suggests the term, I guess…).
When Harman begins to confront, instead of skating along on the deferred promise of ‘in the next chapter I will…’, the pay-off simply isn’t there. This is, I believe, a result of this “temptation” of parabasis. When given the focus of confronting the ideas of others, he does so honestly, and with intellectual sincerity. He does not misrepresent for the sake of point scoring. It seems to me, however, that he is curiously flippant about his own ideas. This could be mistaken for confidence, a kind of brazenness whereby he knows what he thinks, and it’s awesome, so a brief exposition is all that is necessary. I wonder whether this is really so. Chapter 7 (“The New Fourfold”) onward is, to my mind, the meat of the book, and the reason why I was so looking forward to reading it. But this final third is, however, strangely cursory.
- Continued in part two.