Mirrors of production

by craigepplin

“Why do these philosophers, when holding up a mirror to nature, see the mode of production reflected back to them?” Embedded within this question, taken from the opening page of Alexander Galloway’s recent article “The Poverty of Philosophy: Realism and Post-Fordism,” is the central conceit of his argument, namely that the philosophers he critiques reproduce rather than contest the post-Fordist mode of production. These philosophers are largely those who are commonly grouped around the terms Speculative Realism (SR) and Object Oriented Ontology (OOO). Among them, Quentin Meillassoux and Graham Harman attract most of Galloway’s attention; in a follow-up post he specifies that it is the Deleuzian and Latourian sorts of anti-correlationism that he particularly rejects.

What Galloway finds objectionable in the form of realism espoused by these philosophers is the formal homology between their respective ontological systems and the post-Fordist system of production. I’ll cite his opening presentation of the conundrum, which directly precedes the quote above:

Why, within the current renaissance of research in continental philosophy, is there a coincidence between the structure of ontological systems and the structure of the most highly evolved technologies of post-Fordist capitalism? I am speaking, on the one hand, of computer networks in general and object-oriented computer languages (such as Java or C++) in particular and, on the other hand, of certain realist philosophers such as Bruno Latour, but also more pointedly Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, and their associated school known as speculative realism.

The bulk of Galloway’s article is devoted to proving this “coincidence” and furthermore pursuing the claim that it is hardly coincidental at all. Rather, in his reading, the homology between the two stems from the purported ahistoricism of contemporary realist philosophers.

This isn’t the first time that Galloway has leveled a form of this critique. Last year he asserted that Harman’s late positive appraisal of the radicality of the Arab Spring was symptomatic of a flaw in his philosophical system, namely that it is apolitical through and through. To sum up Galloway’s critique in my own words (and drawing on both the post and the later article): Harman believes you can cordon off ontology from politics, but if that’s the case then why does the realist ontology so closely resemble the dominant mode of production? The realist ontology of the folks associated with SR and OOO, in other words, would be reactionary from the outset, which is why, as Galloway puts it, “if everyone in Cairo were clones of Harman, the revolution would never have happened.”

That last statement, of course, may well be correct. Or rather, it likely is. However, it remains to be seen whether this owes to something inherent in Harman’s philosophy, or if is simply the case that he is not a political agitator. To put the question differently, is there something that is, by necessity, politically retrograde about SR and OOO?

I can probably answer that question indirectly by discussing my own interest in it. I have previously written on this blog both about Harman’s philosophy and, more so, about Latour’s. The latter was the first philosopher to interest me in taking seriously the actions of nonhumans beyond the fold of the Hegelian “for us.” Latour’s books on the construction of knowledge, stretching from We Have Never Been Modern (1991) through Pandora’s Hope (1999) and up to Reassembling the Social (2007), have helped me understand how human knowledge itself emerges through a host of mediators, each of which makes a difference in (that is, acts on) whatever knowledge is produced. Human knowledge occupies the same world, sphere, and plane as the nonhuman objects it seeks to know, which means that knowledge comes to name just one more sort of relationship between one and another. Knowledge is, in these terms, a relationship that makes possible numerous actions and movements in a fashion not unlike the way that magnetic fields or computer algorithms set up relationships that, similarly, produce other sorts of action and movement. The advantage of thinking in these terms, as Latour might put it, is that it yields a more detailed understanding of how knowledge happens than does a philosophy that sees nonhuman objects as inert repositories of human social relations. They are that too, sometimes, but they are also something richer and far more complex.

In this sense, when Galloway asks, toward the end of his article, “What kind of world is it in which humans are on equal footing with garbage?” (in reference to a Harman quotation), my own thoughts went to a film I’ve discussed here before, Jorge Furtado’s Ilha das flores, whose dry, monotonous narrative voice traces the path of a tomato from grocery store to garbage dump. The voice alights on numerous actors in the network it draws, emphasizing the effects that each exercises on others. We can and should pursue the political question of how to transform this network so that its various elements can exist better–and Furtado helps us do so by brilliantly drawing attention to the ways in which unjust class relations become manifest around garbage–but this is a different question than the one about “equal footing.” In my understanding, this term is used by Latour and others to say that (in this case) both humans and garbage act and exist, not that they have the same ethical standing or should have the same rights.

At the same time as this would seemingly place me in the camp critiqued by Galloway, I sympathize with a central aspect of his argument, which is actually the one that has been most roundly criticized in the many reactions to his piece: that his argument hinges on the resemblance between contemporary realist ontologies and the dominant technologies of contemporary global capitalism. Levi Bryant has offered, as a rejoinder, that in fact “everything resembles everything else. There are no two things that don’t resemble one another in some respect or capacity.” This is true enough, but at the same time some things resemble others more closely or more insidiously or more significantly. Part of thinking in formal terms (and we all do so: therein lies the affinity between philosophy and the arts), involves pointing out the similarities that we think are significant and then seeking to explain them. Galloway has found a formal similarity between a certain pattern of thought and a certain mode of production, and he has accounted for it, basically, by claiming that the one is a mirror of the other, that it reproduces rather than critiques hegemonic social relations today.

He’s certainly not the first to work in such a way. Fredric Jameson, for one, has often executed a similar move with films and novels, as have others who work in the Marxist tradition. Informed by this tradition, I did something similar in an article published last year, wherein I noted a formal similarity between the movements of the camera in Carlos Reygadas’s films and certain characteristics of contemporary capitalism. One can certainly take issue with the conclusions that are drawn upon establishing these instances of resemblance–and we should always take care not to argue reductively about them–but if we were to forego our tendency to find resemblances we’d be left with a poor sort of thought. Or, more strongly, we’d be out of thought altogether.

Galloway’s article ends with a salvo to historical materialism, as an alternative to the sort of realism he rejects. “What does materialism ultimately espouse?” he asks. “That everything should be rooted in material life and history, not in abstraction, logical necessity, universality, essence, pure form, spirit, or idea.” I agree, and I think we should all agree, with the imperative to historicize and thus to show how contingent essences (etc.) ultimately turn out to be. However, I don’t think that to do so implies throwing out the insights of contemporary realist philosophy. Much to the contrary, I find in the work of writers like Latour and Manuel DeLanda (among others) the possibility of historicizing even more precisely, for they understand objects not only through the lens of human society and class structure but also as complexes of nonhuman forces and relations that exceed “our” purview.

In other words, let’s exercise historical critique–to the fullest extent possible.