Volume 16, Number 1 (January 2020)
Interview by: Jon Baldwin
Jon Baldwin: You have spoken of Baudrillard being “a favorite author of mine during the early 1990s” (Harman 2010: 208). Can you talk through your early reception of Baudrillard?
Graham Harman: Literally my first-ever class in graduate school was given by Alphonso Lingis at Penn State. It was Fall Semester 1990, and I think the course title was “Philosophy for the 21st Century.” Since my undergraduate education at St. John’s College in Maryland was America’s most remorselessly classical curriculum (ending chronologically with Freud and Husserl), this was the first class I had ever taken on more recent philosophy, and I was eager to dive in.
The announced syllabus featured Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, some Baudrillard, some Serres, and some Bourdieu. We never actually got to Bourdieu, and only covered the three others. The reason I can’t remember which Baudrillard we read in class (though it was probably Mark Poster’s Selected Writings anthology) is that I was so fascinated by Baudrillard that I soon began reading him well beyond the course syllabus. It would be no exaggeration to say that Baudrillard was the great intellectual discovery of my first year of graduate school, until I picked up on Levinas the following summer, again under the influence of Lingis.
At the time I was not a realist philosopher, which happened consciously only in 1997. So Baudrillard’s “everything is a simulation” side didn’t bother me at all then, though it still doesn’t bother me now. Why not? For the same reason that Husserl’s idealism doesn’t bother me. There’s a lot more going on in both Husserl and Baudrillard than the suppression of the real.
In particular, what fascinated me about Baudrillard was the notion of seduction. How does this idea help radicalize our conception of the subject’s relation to the object? Among other things, it undercuts the intellectualist idea of the subject, which still dominates Husserl. Though I didn’t know it explicitly at the time, Baudrillard first planted the idea in my mind of an amorous and theatrical human being whose life is constituted by fascination with objects rather than by an aloof, cynical, and “critical” transcendence of the world. Only in the past five years have I really returned to this idea in force, in my recent work on Michael Fried, Max Scheler, and Dante. Kierkegaard is another thinker soon to be thrown into the same mix.
Jon Baldwin: You also note how Baudrillard “is viewed in some quarters as the most frivolous author in recent French philosophy” (Harman 2016: 129) What might account for such dismissal?
Graham Harman: It comes, again, from his anti-realism. When The Gulf War Has Not Taken Place first came out, I was delighted by it. I think it was the first book in my life that I read cover-to-cover in French (other than whatever we read in undergraduate French: The Social Contract, I think) and the style was obviously beautiful. Then I started noticing that my more left-leaning friends were calling the Gulf War book “disgusting.” Since the Iraqi death toll in that war ran into the hundreds of thousands, I could see their point; Baudrillard’s book made more sense from the Western TV spectacle side of the war, while on the Arab side it was mass death of a more traditional sort. Nonetheless, I found the conceptual apparatus of the Gulf War book to be mesmerizing.
It hasn’t been sufficiently discussed that Baudrillard is a very good writer. That is not true of most recent French thinkers. Derrida has his stylistic fans, but I am not one of them. He’s what happens when a philosopher reads too much James Joyce for his own good and then fails to digest it properly. Foucault is clearer, but lacks the true stylistic gifts. Those two were the dominant figures in the French philosophy of the 1990s. Deleuze and Guattari have some of the most fabulously irreverent passages of the past century and more, but I still think Baudrillard is a better writer than those two guys. I think I’d rate Baudrillard and Levinas as the two best stylists in post-war French philosophy – and not Merleau-Ponty, who has some great sentences and images but then inevitably returns to pages more of undistinguished academic prose.
But to return to your question, it’s ironic that Baudrillard is widely dismissed in continental philosophy due precisely to the extreme anti-realism of his position. What’s ironic about it is that mainstream continental philosophy is entirely anti-realist in spirit. They just don’t like it when Baudrillard comes out and states it so bluntly, because their game is to say “but of course we believe in an outside world,” while maintaining idealist positions nonetheless. Baudrillard forces the issue in a way that makes them uncomfortable.
Jon Baldwin: In Passwords, Jean Baudrillard revealed that the analysis of the object had remained the “horizon of my thinking” (Baudrillard 2003: 3). This focus exhausted the disciplines available at the time: psychoanalysis, Marxism, and semiology – and contributed to the development of Baudrillard’s work: “the advantage of studying the object was that it required you to move across these disciplines; it forced a cross-disciplinarity on you” (Baudrillard 2003: 4) In your development of Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) can you identify areas of thought that are exhausted that OOO might replace or supplant, or areas of influence that you bring together? (Of course, appreciating the limitations of the interview format.)
Graham Harman: So far, I’ve forgotten to praise Baudrillard for his general shift toward objects, and your question reminds me that I need to do so. Baudrillard’s habitual focus on objects made him a rarity on a philosophical landscape that was obsessed with the tribulations of the subject, even when it claimed to “radically decenter” this subject. Maybe that’s why I instinctively felt, even as a 22-year-old who was years away from formulating OOO, that Baudrillard was somehow more advanced than Derrida and Foucault. These were the reigning continental monarchs of the time, though they have never sparked my interest very much.
Quite often, people ask why I use the term “object” rather than “thing” or “entity” or Ian Bogost’s “unit” from his fine book Unit Operations. My standard answer is that I owe an intellectual debt to the broadly Austro-Hungarian tradition of Husserl, Twardowski (who was Polish), Meinong, and Brentano, and that “object” was the technical term of choice in these circles. But I may have forgotten the extent to which I am indebted to Baudrillard himself for my preference for “object.” Perhaps it was Baudrillard who made this word sound so exciting to me for the first time.
There was a time when it looked like Baudrillard might be among the first late 20th century French thinkers to fade away. Not that I ever thought so: at DePaul University I casually told one of my professors (Stephen Houlgate, now at Warwick) that I thought Baudrillard had more staying power over the long haul than Derrida or Foucault, and I still remember the look of shock and dismay on his face, though he was and is a Hegelian with no particular investment in recent Frech thought. But I think Baudrillard’s future is looking fairly bright these days. On top of the purely philosophical considerations I’ve already mentioned, there’s the additional fact that the future looks like it will belong to simulation (and hence seduction) more than we’ve known so far.
One more point… Baudrillard is right about how the theme of objects forces an interdisciplinarity on you. Why has OOO taken off in so many more disciplines than any of the other variants of Speculative Realism? It’s because every discipline is feeling the pressure to become object-oriented. There is no field of human inquiry that does not have to wrestle with the question of what its basic objects are, and what happens when they interact.
Jon Baldwin: In your article on Baudrillard, Object-Oriented Seduction: Baudrillard Reconsidered (Harman 2016), you focus on Fatal Strategies, and write that “[w]hile critical discussion of OOO focuses almost solely on the withdrawal or withholding of real objects from their relations, this philosophical current [of Baudrillard] also has much to say about what does not withdraw: namely, sensual objects.” (Harman 2016: 129) What might be the contribution of Baudrillard to certain elements of OOO and what, from an OOO perspective, would be lacking in Baudrillard?
Graham Harman: Baudrillard’s great strength is his fascinating description of how the human subject reacts to what OOO calls the sensual object: an object that is not real (not even if it correlates with something real), but which still captivates us, lures us onward. He has a real genius for this topic, which places him in a lineage something like Augustine-Dante-Pascal-Kierkegaard-Scheler. As mentioned, Husserl also works with sensual objects, but treats the thinking subject as a calm intellectual observer. Husserl is more in the tradition of Kant, a completely anti-theatrical tradition in which subject and object must not contaminate one another under any circumstances.
There are two things lacking in Baudrillard from a OOO perspective. The first is that he is so preoccupied with the object’s seductive relation with us that he misses the relation in the very heart of things between objects and their own qualities, which they both do and do not possess. This is the place where Husserl is pure gold: the blackbird flies through the garden, showing different profiles at different times, yet remains the same bird all the while.
The second point lacking in Baudrillard is the more obvious one: an impoverished sense of the real, which he deliberately suppresses (like Husserl) while finding many treasures as a result. Nonetheless, philosophy must also account for the real as that which has nothing to do with us. Let me add one qualification first: simply by speaking of seduction, Baudrillard is already a half-step beyond appearances, since what seduces us is not the pure surface of things, but the idea that something is hiding just beyond that surface, calling us like a siren. Yet Baudrillard shares the weakness found in most philosophers since Kant, which is his inability to talk about object-object relations, something that is usually just left to the natural sciences, as though philosophy had no right to venture into this forbidden territory.
Jon Baldwin: “The concept of seduction is what Baudrillard proposes as the best means of overthrowing the reign of the subject.” (Harman 2016: 132) Can you elaborate on the importance of this manoeuvre?
Graham Harman: I’m glad you asked, because more can be said about this than I said in the previous answer. In one sense, seduction address the relationship of the simulation to us. From a OOO standpoint, what happens is that when I am seduced by something, when I love it, I and the seductive object become a new compound object closed off from the outside world. We know how amorous couples often close up inside each other so that nothing from outside can enter. But it’s not just a question of human eroticism. My love for swimming in the sea here on the Aegean coast of Turkey, or eating figs from the tree in the yard, also form new compound objects of sea-me and fig-me. Philosophy so far in its history has done little to explore the contours of such compound objects.
There is also the “aesthetic” dimension of seduction, in the OOO sense of aesthetics as described in Chapter Two of my new book Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything. Seduction is very much an aesthetic phenomenon. For OOO, aesthetic experience occurs when a wedge is driven between a sensual object and its sensual qualities in one of a number of ways, with metaphor being among the most prominent. But let’s say I’m seduced by a mysterious light out in the harbour. With a normal, non-mysterious object, we tend to identify the object with its sum total of qualities, which is all that empiricist philosophy knows about. What phenomenology discovered, well beyond Hume’s position, is that the object is something different from its sum total of qualities. Husserl tried to show how we separate objects from their qualities by theoretical means, but the aesthetic way is more powerful. What happens with the mysterious light in the harbour is as follows. The palpable qualities of the light, such as its color and intensity, no longer seem to tell the whole story. There is something inscrutable in the light itself that seems to go beyond its measurable features. But since we don’t know exactly what that is, it takes on the form of an inscrutable real object in tension with its sensual qualities. But as OOO shows, real objects are inaccessible, exceeding us absolutely. So, what now serves as the support for the sensual qualities of the light, since qualities cannot exist without an object? It is I myself, the only real object still on the scene.
This is the seductive nature of aesthetics, and shows us the small taste of realism found even in Baudrillard. Elsewhere I have called this the theatrical nature of human existence, inspired by the acting system of the great Russian thespian Konstantin Stanislavski, in which the actor can and should become pretty much anything.
Jon Baldwin: You mention that “Baudrillard might have criticized OOO if only he had lived to know about it” (Harman 2016: 139). How would this critique have developed?
Graham Harman: I’m less sure of what his specific criticisms might have been than of what he would probably have considered superfluous: the OOO concept of vicarious causation. Since the real does not play a very prominent role in Baudrillard’s philosophy, he would not have wanted to invest much energy in discussing the mechanics of how two mutually withdrawn objects might have come into indirect contact. Yet this is absolutely central for OOO. It’s also unlikely that Baudrillard would have seen much of interest in OOO’s fourfold, since this requires a split between objects and their qualities that does appear in Husserl but not in Baudrillard.
Nonetheless, there is still a slight taste of vicarious causation in Baudrillard’s concept of seduction. If one is seduced by a person’s clothing or shoes, for instance, this does not make one a fetishist. Why not? Because the clothing or shoes are merely means to drawing us towards something deeper, more difficult to put one’s finger on. That’s the one touch of the real that we do get from Baudrillard.
Jon Baldwin: Levi R. Bryant has explained that ‘ontological realism’: “is not a thesis about our knowledge of objects, but about the being of objects themselves, whether or not we exist to represent them. It is the thesis that the world is composed of objects, that these objects are varied and include entities as diverse as mind, language, cultural and social entities, and objects independent of humans such as galaxies, stones, quarks, tardigrades, and so on. Above all, ontological realisms refuse to treat objects as constructions of humans” (Bryant 2011: 18). Is this a fair summary, and moving to theology, is God an object?
Graham Harman: Bryant’s summary is a good one. The problem with so much realist philosophy, and the reason why OOO finds few allies in traditional realism, is that there is a tendency to rush from “reality exists outside the mind” to “and we can know it!” The latter statement is false, in my view. No realism is serious unless it respects reality so much as to recognize the impossibility of translating it flawlessly from its own place into some knowing mind. The typical realist ontology is just an alibi for triumphalistic recourse to some supposedly privileged road to knowing the real: usually contemporary mathematics and natural science. It is less a philosophy than a violent police action designed to crush relativists. But as I see it, the real threat is not relativism, but idealism. The impossibility of perfectly translating the real into any knowledge of the real makes a certain dose of relativism unavoidable.
But there’s another problem with how realism is usually formulated. People say realism means that a world exists “outside the mind.” But why just outside the mind? Is the mind really the only thing with an outside? No, it isn’t. Reality is also that which exists outside any causal interaction. To speak again of the classic Islamic example of fire burning cotton, the fire and the cotton are not fully deployed in this interaction even when the cotton is destroyed by it. Every interaction involves withdrawal of its terms from the interaction; objects are a surplus beyond all relation, not just a surplus outside the human mind. If you asked me to define the Kantian prejudice that holds almost all philosophy in thrall even today, I would say this: the idea that the human-world relation is somehow radically different in kind from world-world relations, meaning the relations between things in the world that happen not to be humans. Any supposed “realism” that focuses only on the fact that human knowledge is fallible is not a bona fide realism: they are just “realisms of the residue” as found in the likes of Jean-Luc Marion. To get beyond this, we need to recognize the real that haunts inanimate causation as well. This is the problem that Kant never solved or even saw, and we remain his prisoners until we do so. The German Idealist tradition, which thinks it is enough to repeatedly beat up the thing-in-itself, does not address this more important problem in Kant.
I almost forgot to answer your question of whether God is an object. If he is real, then yes. (If unreal, he still exists as a sensual object.) The criteria for real objecthood in OOO are simple. Something is an object if it cannot successfully be reduced downward to its components (undermining) or upward to its effects (overmining). Of course, it is never possible to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that any particular thing meets these criteria. Since God seems –to me, at least– like the clearest example of an important object of whose existence we can never be certain, then God is a great example of an object.
Jon Baldwin: Some thinkers are quite keen to be done with theological discussion – a turn away from the ‘theological turn’, and Christopher Watkin has noted that some translations of Quentin Meillassoux, your early fellow in speculative realism, tone down the religious connotations in some of his work and concepts. Why might this be the case?
Graham Harman: Watkin is right. Meillassoux’s natural readership, like Badiou’s, is a materialist, leftist, atheist readership. But then Meillassoux’s After Finitude turns out to be the gateway to a crazy-sounding theology and eschatology. I really admire Meillassoux’s courage in taking that step; moreover, it’s something he’s really convinced of, not just a clever athletic feat. He lost a number of mainstream materialist-leftist-atheist readers as soon as he allowed for the publication in English of those excerpts from The Divine Inexistence (contained as an appendix in my book Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making).
I have a different sort of problem with Meillassoux’s theology: not the fact that it’s a theology, but that it’s structured as a proof. It’s certainly refreshing, after decades of postmodern sceptical methodologies, that Meillassoux reasserts his right to prove things using rational means. But he’s wrong to think that proof is the medium of philosophy in the way that it is of mathematics (here is the mathematicist bias he shares with Badiou). As I see it, Whitehead exposed this conception of philosophy as a mere modern prejudice. What are the most convincing “proofs” in the history of philosophy? There really aren’t very many, unlike in mathematics which lives and dies with proof. Nearly everything in philosophy that seems to have been proven is reversed by some future philosopher, which isn’t how it work in mathematics, where proofs are expanded or generalized rather than resisted. Whitehead contends –and I agree– that logical deduction is only a subordinate method for philosophy, whereas the primary method Is what he calls “descriptive generalization.” Philosophies fail not because they are illogical or make mistakes, but because they are insufficiently broad and coherent.
The most influential philosopher in history is Plato, but how many of the “proofs” given by Socrates in the Dialogues convince anyone today? Does anyone bow down before the ruthless logic of the proofs for the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo, for instance? Plato is powerful because he established the basic circle of possibilities for philosophy in the West. My worry about Meillassoux’s self-conception is that he thinks he should be followed because his proofs are right. But that’s not how philosophy progresses over time. It is exceedingly unlikely that, three centuries from now, people will be saying: “Meillassoux was a great philosopher because he proved once and for all that God does not exist but might exist in the future, and that God’s advent must be preceded by a Christ-like mediator.” Philosophers are usually not influential for the reason that people agree with their conclusions. If Meillassoux’s work lives on, it will more likely be due to certain more basic innovations that others can put to use in ways he never foresaw: such as his use of Cantor’s transfinite mathematics to render moot the question of whether God’s sudden advent is “improbable.” There is also his clever way of trying to chart a middle course between strong correlationism and full-blown idealism. Though I have argued that this is an impossible manoeuvre, it might still find some advocates who do interesting things with it. In general, philosophers live on through being refuted by worthy heirs, not through convincing them.
Jon Baldwin: Sam Mickey (2014) has suggested that your metaphysics both precludes ontotheology (objects subsumed under God) and precludes secularism (objects explained according to natural laws). Therefore, OOO might be considered post secular or have sympathies with panentheist theologies. What are your thoughts on this and the wider theological implications of OOO?
Graham Harman: When Zizek first wrote about Speculative Realism (and not very well) in Less Than Nothing, he called me a “directly religious” philosopher. That was strange, since I have never written anything about religion, as far as I can recall. But Zizek’s instincts were somehow correct: I am not at all aggressively anti-religious and ultra-rationalist in the manner of someone like Ray Brassier. The religious spirit shares with philosophy the idea of openness. It may often degenerate into dogma and fanaticism, but so does philosophy on occasion.
I tend to resist suggestions of panentheism. When people are talking about God, we know very well what they are talking about: a supremely powerful entity that intervenes in history and judges souls, at least in the monotheist tradition. If we start to talk about the whole universe as being divine, it is unclear to me how that would differ from simply saying that the whole universe exists on equal terms in a flat ontology, and there’s nothing especially religious about that. If someone were to attempt a OOO theology, the main obstacle would be that OOO requires a partially ignorant God, just as all other entities are partially ignorant. The withdrawal of terms from their relations has no exceptions: not God, and not the human mind.
But I hope philosophical theology continues to thrive. That field is filled with serious people, in my experience, and they are an excellent bulwark against the inherent defects of the current ultra-rationalist revival–– which will eventually be seen to have been mostly a product of the post-postmodernist Zeitgeist.
About the Author:
Jon Baldwin is from the London Metropolitan University.
Graham Harman, Southern California Institute of Architecture, is renowned as the founder of Object-Oriented Ontology and has produced a series of works including Towards speculative realism: Essays and lectures (2010) and Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (2018)1 .
1 – In ‘Baudrillard and Existentialism: Taking the Side of Objects’ Alan N. Shapiro has outlined Baudrillard’s concern with the object, such as the design-oriented semiotic analysis in his first book The System of Objects (1968), the discussion with prominent architect Jean Nouvel in The Singular Objects of Architecture (2000), and the theory of objects in works such as Impossible Exchange (1999) and Passwords (2000). In terms of existentialism, Shapiro considers Sisyphus and his rock: “The rock is the embodied metaphorical object par excellence. To abide with the rock is to take the side of the object.” (Shapiro 2016) Shapiro concludes that, “One important question still to be addressed is what is the relationship of the perspective outlined here of ‘taking the side of objects’ to that of so-called ‘object-oriented ontology’ or ‘ontological realism’, as represented by authors such as the American philosopher Graham Harman or Levi R. Bryant.” (Shapiro 2016) This interview, with the leading proponent of object-oriented ontology, might begin to focus on this question.
Baudrillard, Jean (1988) Selected Writings, ed. M. Poster. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Baudrillard, Jean (2003). Passwords. New York, Verso.
Bogost, Ian (2008). Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Bryant, Levi-R. (2011). The Democracy of Objects, Ann Arbor, Michigan: Open Humanities Press.
Harman, Graham (2010). Towards speculative realism: Essays and lectures. John Hunt Publishing.
Harman, Graham (2015). Quentin Meillassoux: Philosophy in the Making, 2nd edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Harman, Graham (2016). ‘Object-Oriented Seduction: Baudrillard Reconsidered’. In Joke Brouwer, Lars Spuybroek & Sjoerd van Tuinen (eds.), The War of Appearances: Transparency, Opacity, Radiance. V2_Publishing. (128-143)
Harman, Graham (2018). Object-Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything. London: Pelican.
Meillassoux, Quentin (2008) After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, trans. R. Brassier. London: Continuum.
Mickey, Sam (2014). On the Verge of a Planetary Civilization: A Philosophy of Integral Ecology. Rowman & Littlefield International.
Shapiro, Alan, N. (2016). Baudrillard and Existentialism: Taking the Side of Objects. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 13: 2.
Stanislavski, Konstantin (2010). An Actor’s Work. New York: Routledge.
Zizek, Slavoj (2012). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism. New York: Penguin Random House.