Graham Harman on “Object-Oriented Mythography”

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Well that was quick!

We could all learn a lot about intellectual generosity and rhetorical tone from Graham Harman, who has responded with lightning speed to the three essays engaging Object-Oriented Ontology, speculative realism, etc. that appear in the current issue of The Minnesota Review. The cluster edited by Andrew Cole, “The Medieval Turn in Theory,” includes pieces by Kathleen Biddick (“What Does ‘Deconstructing Christianity’ Want?”), Amy Hollywood (“Derrida’s Noble Unfaith”), Andrew (“The Call of Things”), D. Vance Smith (“Death and Texts”), me (“Object-Oriented Ontology”), and Maura Nolan (“Medieval Sensation and Modern Aesthetics”). The cluster represents a diverse blend of approaches and perspectives, though a common strand across several of them is an engagement with OOO and those other modes of vitalism, new materialism, etc. that have made a discernible impact in medieval studies in recent years (in the work of Kellie Robertson, Jeffrey Cohen, Eileen Joy, Karl Steel, Myra Seaman, Anna Klosowska, J. Allan Mitchell, and others; check out the collection Speculative Medievalisms: Discography for a sampling of this work).

Andrew’s essay, “The Call of Things: A Critique of Object-Oriented Ontologies,” is the most directly critical of the bunch and provokes the lengthiest response from Harman, who generally liked the essay but disputes Cole on a few points (e.g. on Fichte and Latour, and around various questions of historical exclusion). Harman also responds to Vance Smith’s essay, objecting to his supposed conflation of human and objective finitude and correcting him on some of the finer points of meta-OOO-speculative-realist-intellectual-historical periodization that I won’t pretend to comprehend.

Harman’s response to “Object-Oriented Mythography” takes up a strand of my essay that pointed to the mythographic mode as a kind of rhetorical dodge around difficult questions of theology and faith. Why should we believe the new philosophical/speculative myths that OOO asks us to embrace? And given their reliance on mythography as an argumentative mode, why don’t Harman and others talk more frankly about their investment in their readers’ beliefs and faith rather than in their own logic and argument? (Bennett, I think, does talk about these implications of her work, especially in a few passages I flagged in the essay.) I didn’t really put it that way, but I suppose that’s part of what I meant, and Harman rightly seizes on this aspect of my argument:

Holsinger mentions a possible tension between myth on the one hand and both secularism and realism on the other. I don’t see it that way. The point of myth and metaphor (for me at least) is not to move towards the realm of theology or of creative inner ideas at the expense of reality, but to indicate that reality itself fundamentally cannot be expressed in discursive terms. This is no artsy-fartsy turn away from mathematism and scientism, but simply an attempt to revive Socrates, who adamantly resisted both claims to wisdom and claims to reduce virtue, friendship, whatever to bundles of discursively accessible qualities. (“But Meno, how can I know the qualities of virtue before I know what virtue is?”)

And further on:

Plato wrote myths because Plato like his teacher was a lover of wisdom (not primarily a mathematician, a knower). There is a cognitive value to myth that is too often overlooked. It is ironic that, as Holsinger mentions, analytic philosophy has done a much better job of producing myths in recent decades than the continental tradition, since one might have expected precisely the opposite.

The point I would make in (counter-)response is that myth is so often an unacknowledged inflection of reality in this work, and that yes, while there may be a cognitive value to myth, it would be interesting and useful to see Harman and others outline precisely how this value functions at the level of argument and example. In a private response on Twitter to “Object-Oriented Mythography,” Ian Bogost tells me his next book (the follow-up to Alien Phenomenology) will be explicitly mythographical, so it could be that we’ll see similar issues taken up there.

The irony flagged by Harman above may also be a bit dubious. I didn’t suggest that analytic philosophy has done a better job of creating or engaging with myth. I suspect the opposite, in fact: to take the French tradition, the writings of Derrida, Irigaray, Barthes, and so on are positively saturated in the language of myth. Aside from the obvious case of Barthes’ Mythologies (on which see this balanced reassessment by Richard Brody from last year’s New Yorker), Kristeva’s Tales of Love sought to create new myths of maternity and embodiment while revising inherited mythographies of the feminine, and Monique Wittig’s Le Corps Lesbien elaborated a new carnal mythology around an idiom of lesbian desire. My point in drawing this contrast, rather, was that you often find analytic philosophy proposing new myths as thought experiments, or constructing alternative worlds for the sake of a circumscribed argument–but analytic philosophy seems to know why and with what limitations it’s doing so, and is quite forthright about the provisional and rhetorical character of myth in its disciplinary idiom.

I also don’t understand Harman’s “cannot,” as in “reality itself fundamentally cannot be expressed in discursive terms.” Cannot is a serious modal, and the flat-footed pedant in me wants to object on the simplest of terms. Of course reality itself can be expressed in discursive terms: read the latest issue of Science, Nature, or Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and you’ll see many examples of reality being expressed in the discursive terms of genetics, biochemistry, interstellar physics, and what have you. (I know, I know: I cannot reduce OOO’s version of “reality” in this way; but you know what I mean.) When a contemporary philosopher (whether analytic or continental) turns to myth as a way of limning her particular version of reality, she is making a discursive choice: one among many she might make, and I suppose one of the motivations behind my article was the desire to prompt OOO/SR to elaborate on the implications of its choice of myth as a dominant or at least prevalent mode in its own discursive vision of reality.

In any case, I appreciated the thoughtful reaction to the TMR piece. It was a pleasure to read such an immediate but serious response.

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2 comments on “Graham Harman on “Object-Oriented Mythography”

  1. Myra Seaman on said:

    I particularly appreciated your Minnesota Review essay, Bruce, given my increasing desire for this kind of recognition from, if not Harman and co. themselves, at least from those among us developing a medievalist-informed OOO/SR. (My sense has been that “other modes of vitalism [and] new materialism” acknowledge this influence more willingly.) My talk at NCS Portland (“Reckoning with Divine Things”)

  2. Myra Seaman on said:

    [OK, I hit \"send\" by accident...]
    was a first draft at trying to make a case, largely through turning attention to what seem to me generally neglected passages/views among these thinkers that make room for a medievalist OOO/SR that I would like to see us developing.

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