Last week, I promised that I would confront Harman’s metaphysics in more depth. I find it difficult, however, to intervene in this philosophical debate head-on—primarily because I am generally happy with Harman’s framing of the realist side of the issue. Instead, I am going to approach it obliquely, by casting it into a relationship with my own line of work. My question is therefore this: what happens when historiography, and the theoretization of history more generally, is faced with a Harmanian metaphysics? It will be the object of this and my next three posts to figure this out.
One note. I do think that the Kantian objection to speculative realism is by and large unanswerable; that is to say, we remain unable to make verifiable statements about objects outside of our experience of them, no matter how many thunderous polemical pronouncements the realists might bring to bear. Furthermore, SR is not well-served by its tendency to rebut such objections by asking “What is it about you that makes you a correlationist or a non-realist?” It is offensive when Fichte claims that idealists are idealists because of their noble free spirit and dogmatists are dogmatists because of their lack of it; the reverse move is equally so.
I also think that the Kantian critique is irrelevant, at least so far as this particular project is concerned. I am content to employ the old skeptical suspension of judgment with regard to the existence of “the great outdoors” (as Quentin Meillassoux calls it). But if talking about objects in Harmanian fashion serves some kind of aesthetic or pragmatic end—as I believe it does—then we should not feel obliged to convert the suspension of judgment into a dogmatic negation. I offer my observations, then, in the spirit of improv, where the greatest commandment is that one should never say “no” but rather “yes, and.”
It would be out of place to recap Guerilla Metaphysics here, since I am hardly a qualified interpreter, but it is crucial to emphasize the linchpin of Harmanian metaphysics. At the core of it is the idea that the object is an inaccessible black box surrounded by an inexhaustible penumbra of qualities that interact causally with other such penumbras. Whether the object in question is physical or not doesn’t matter—all objects share the same basic structure. Harman suggests that the object’s inaccessibility is bound up with the inexhaustibility of its properties—like a row of shark’s teeth, the object is always ready to produce new external sites of interaction.
What if we were to think about historical events, people, ideas, and so on as objects interacting with one another along Harmanian lines? When
I will try to flesh out this model in subsequent installments. But it is worthwhile to figure out precisely what is at stake in adopting this model, this sort of junction between history and theory. One thing that seems certain is that in recent decades, the quality of the debate surrounding the implications of theory for history has been distinctly underwhelming—while historians are now in some sense accustomed to relying on theory in their work, when they finally talk about it methodologically, nothing is gained. Typically one of two options is adopted. In one, the historian curls his lip and condemns “postmodern trendiness and relativism” (a sentence to that effect appears to have been obligatory for monographs from the early ‘90s). His answer is a dogmatic statement that yes, history exists outside of us, and yes, we are really discovering truths, and yes, though we may make certain caveats that would conduce towards historiographical modesty, we must still be realists. There is of course no substantiation for this claim—it is of the same order as rooting for the Red Sox. The other option is a rather unsatisfactory wholesale regurgitation of the mid-‘80s Continental consensus, where traditionalist pieties are gleefully overturned and a Judith Butler-style bricolage assembly of theoretical frameworks is trucked in to fill their place. If the first option fails because of its dogmatism, the second fails because it is (deliberately) irrelevant to history as it is practiced. The historical craft, regardless of the actual metaphysical assumptions that might inform a historian, depends on a certain kind of “as if” relationship to one’s sources: it is impossible to achieve the sort of responsibility and investigative incisiveness that historians require unless one acts “as if” he is discovering the actual past rather than an individual or social projection. (A thesis thoroughly in line with, for instance, Foucault: a discursive system like modern history-writing must assume its contact with real history as a condition for the meaningfulness of its statements.)
Harmanian realism provides a way of thinking historiography theoretically which does not doom itself to fruitlessness. It merely says: the externality and inexhaustibility of causal relationships affects not merely historical objects but historians themselves. Even if Bob finds in slavery a valid field of research for cliometrics, this does not prevent Jane from taking it as the proving-grounds for a critical cultural history. Thus realism operates equally on both levels of theoretical interest—the relationship between historians and their sources and the more multiform confrontations between the sources and the “primary qualities,” the raw matter of history. If the same basic mode of interaction applies in both cases, we are led to the conclusion that the levels are a distraction. The historian is not a uniquely privileged interpreter of history—she is a historical object, enmeshed, like other objects, in a sea of meaningful and reciprocal interactions.
Next time: Speculative realism, Marc Bloch, and Foucault.