Sunday, April 7, 2013

Object-oriented ontology

Posts like this from Jon Cogburn have made me interested in object-oriented ontology (and speculative realism), despite my general lack of interest in ontology (and philosophical speculation). Now he's co-written a paper with Mark Ohm that explains what it's about in a very accessible way, and makes it sound quite intriguing:
Besides a deep fondness for H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps the only non-trivial belief held in common by the original four speculative realists (Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman, and Quentin Meillassoux) is the Hegelian conviction that metaphysics buries its own undertakers.
I'm no Hegelian, but I do like Lovecraft. And Cogburn and Ohm go on to say other things to which I'm sympathetic, such as this:
Until very recently nearly every English major in the United States was subjected to a “theory” class where students worked through Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction. Assignments invariably involved writing different interpretations of random texts according to whatever hermeneutic of suspicion was being covered at the time: Freudianism, Marxism, Structuralism, Deconstructionism, etc. Now that “theory’s empire” has begun a period of decline in literary study, the benefit of hindsight reveals what was lost during its ascent.
            Simply put, such approaches systematically robbed their practitioners of  the ability to say anything illuminating about specific texts. This is because the central idea of theory was to mine the hermeneutics of suspicion so as to give critics general procedures to unmask “what is really going on” in any given text. But when applied to works of art the effect is too often that of wearing blue tinted glasses and then saying that everything is blue, or evidence of class struggle, the will to power, castration anxiety, the failure of the metaphysics of presence, phallo-logocentrism, etc., etc., etc. But what really happened is that one too often either cherry picked works that could easily be read in terms of one’s hermeneutics, or one ignored everything about a work that did not validate the story. The end result is that there are no longer any textual objects, but rather just an encompassing textuality equally present in Dr. Seuss and the Constitution of the United States.
Which is similar to Rebecca Schuman's claim that in graduate school:
you’ll never have time to read books, and when you talk about them, you’ll mostly be using made-up words like “deterritorialization” and “Othering”—because, as Ron Rosenbaum pointed out recently, the “dusty seminar rooms” of academia have the chief aim of theorizing every great book to death
I like the anti-theory elements of all this, anyway. Cogburn and Ohm offer a fictionalist reading of the Bible, which is interesting but leads to some odd claims (along the lines of "it's fiction but it's true"). Fictionalism in ethics and religion seems to me to be a step in the right direction (depending on where you're stepping from, obviously), but not the whole truth. Not that I can say what the whole truth is myself. Mostly I just want to encourage people to read Cogburn and Ohm's paper, and Rebecca Schuman argument against getting a PhD in literary studies. Or to say 'Like' to both of them, at least.


  1. i took that class. it was one of the big things that drove me to switch my english major to philosophy.

    i would have been fine with theorized reading, let's say, but the reading itself was just bad because of the pedagogical imperative to cram in so many quick encounters with 'tools' to use for reading.

  2. Philosophy's gain then.

    Something like that course could be quite good, I would think, as an introduction to various theories and ways to read things differently through them. But it would depend on how much was crammed in, and on the theories (and other readings) in question. It obviously has not been a good experience for some people.

  3. Ah, the old blue spectacles! Handed down from H. J. Paton and still useful.


  5. One of the main things that persuaded me against studying Eng Lit at post-grad level was that that was the point at which literary theory really started to dominate. So far as I could see, the various theories du jour (semiotics was still very popular back then) were simply a contrivance ensuring English Departments would always have something "new" (and hopefully controversial) to say about books which had been comprehensively analysed over several centuries.

    So, yes, I have a fair amount of sympathy with Schuman's view.

  6. I wasn't tempted to study English at the graduate level (I wasn't qualified to do it either), but I had the same impression. When I was a (post-)graduate student at the University of Virginia Richard Rorty's classes attracted a lot of students from English, and many of them seemed to want a sort of bluffer's guide to philosophy and to be able to say impressively clever things. They showed no interest in other philosophers, although one or two of this type found their way into Cora Diamond's classes sometimes. I would quite like a bluffer's guide, too, and certainly would like to say impressively clever things from time to time, but at least I'm a little bit embarrassed about this kind of superficiality. Some people outside philosophy are quite open about wanting to know only the most fashionable philosophy and wanting it precisely to be able to say something "new" (which of course is unlikely to be new if you're always following fashion).


    2. Touché. At least I never do say impressively clever things, so I'm not part of that problem.

      It's a problem of academic culture, I suppose. Not one that is much of a problem in analytic philosophy, I think, although it has its own ways of showing off. Maybe we should thank Wittgenstein for pretending not to have read anything. Although there is also probably some connection here with analytic philosophy's isolation from the other humanities, which is not a good thing.