Continental philosophers['] rakish berets and lugubrious Black Forest climbs cannot mask a fundamental bookishness--one that makes little contact with the world itself.Pronouncements about the supposed bookishness or disconnectedness from reality of Continental philosophers appear at regular intervals in Graham Harman's text, though they become increasingly strident as the book approaches its messianic, nearly Nietzschean, conclusion. Harman loves to list the boring linguistic-turn preoccupations of his colleagues and then ambush the reader with lurid, exotic images, painted in Kinkade colors and hawked like trinkets at a bazaar. This approach is vital for Harman, because he seeks to demonstrate, as tangibly as possible, the advantages of his object-oriented realism over the subject-oriented philosophical status quo. Everywhere Harman reasserts the binary: object versus text, tiger versus book, living pulsing object-world versus dry imaginary subject-world.
... It would cheer the hearts of many to find some way to work back toward objects without implicating ourselves in the rubble of ontotheology. For along with the intrinsic value of such a program, it would also provide hope that we might someday be free of the endless spiral of increasing critique, irony, intertextuality, collage, deliberate fragments, scare quotes, questions of the question of the question, tracing(s) of the possibility of impossibility of impossibility of possibility, and other painfully reflexive contortions. The way to exit this dark and stagnant tunnel is not to turn around and resign ourselves to the regime of all the purported reactionaries. Instead, if merely navigated all the way to the end, the tunnel in which we stand issues directly into fertile valleys, volcanic landscapes, caravan routes, fields of pillars and windmills, and exotic ports.
- Graham Harman, Guerilla Metaphysics (2005)
In the coarse environment of the business room stood a glass bookcase covered in a green taffeta. It is this storehouse of books that I would like to speak of. The bookcase of a man's early childhood remains his companion throughout his whole life. The arrangement of the shelves, the selection of books, the colors of the spines are experienced as the color, height, and arrangement of world literature itself. Indeed--those books that did not stand in one's first bookcase will never squeeze through into world literature, as if into existence. Inevitably, every book in one's first bookcase is a classic, and not a single spine can be done without.
- Osip Mandelstam, The Noise of Time
Man is but the imprint of his native landscape.
- Shaul Tchernichovsky
This post is intended as a skirmish of sorts, though by no means as a totalizing critique (I hope to develop a deeper and more positive engagement with the book next month). For what lurks behind Harman's insistent hostility to textual approaches is a fundamental act of bad faith. It is the equivalent of the classic Internet suggestion that one's opponent never leaves his mother's basement. Like Rousseau, Harman writes books to accuse his opponents of being too bookish. "You need to get out more," he tells us, holding out a volume of philosophy that he presumably expects us to read with some care and diligence. This last point is key. What Harman is offering is an approach to philosophy, specifically metaphysics--no more and no less. His book is no more about tigers and bonfires than it is about Gilbert and Sullivan; at stake, ultimately, are objects and subjects and causality and epistemology, the dry wagers of any metaphysical debate. His hope is evidently that we will succumb to his (excellent, if rather purple) style and concede that his arguments and examples are more real or more embodied than those of his opponents. They aren't; they're just words.
After all, books are objects--they deserve to stand proudly alongside trees and planets. The words in books are also objects, produced by the very embodied stamp of the printing press; the experience of reading is always an experience of interacting with a physical object--whether fading, electronic, or recycled--not to mention any number of non-physical ones. I grew up, not in baseball diamonds or city parks, but amid imposing bookshelves, bookshelves on every wall, bookshelves above my reach. I am but the imprint of this printed landscape. I don't need tigers to remind me that books have a life of their own--they're placed by invisible hands, annotated by faraway people, they even interact there on the shelf. So why not leave me to my books? I might be a good realist, I might abandon the subject with the best of them, but I cannot escape my imprinting.
Harman's tactics make it seem as if there is no room in his metaphysics for collage, irony, intertextuality. But of course there's plenty of room. Though we haven't quite been able to picture to ourselves what intertextuality without a reader would look like, there is hardly anything more object-oriented than the discovery of the mysterious connections that unbeknownst to us link Moby-Dick to the Bible or the Origin of Species. That we have not phrased it this way is not the fault of bookishness; it's the fault of subject-centered philosophy, which may well (I hesitate to commit) be worth getting rid of. Whatever remains will be the world already being explored by the history of the book, in which watermarks and printer's inks and metaphors and marginalia all constantly compete for interpretive attention. The world of books is the real world; it is Harman's world, and mine.
Unless a rapprochement with this world is speedily arranged, in fact, Harman's realism will inevitably be trapped in a performative contradiction. It is difficult for the supposed outdoorsman to maintain that questioning the question is too nerdy if his primary duties as a philosopher require the same poring over Heidegger and Deleuze. Why dig around in books if you like tigers more? And if you happen to like both, why not leave both of them some space?