February 20, 2008

Goodbye to Continentalism

Me on Graham Harman on the Frieze website.

See also Dominic's Badiouian take on some of Graham's preoccupations.

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February 10, 2008

Speculative Real


There was an excellent symposium devoted to Graham Harman’s work on Bruno Latour at the LSE this week. Graham characterised Latour as a ‘secular occasionalist’. Occasionalism was a philosophy originally associated with ancient Islamic thinkers, who thought it an abomination that one thing could directly affect another. Even for fire to burn cotton, they maintained, it was necessary for God to act as a mediator. Graham’s theory of objects, arising from his deliciously aberrant reading of Heidegger, emphasises the opacity of objects, the way that a subterranean region of themselves is always retained that does not enter into any external relations. In this way Graham restores the mystery of causation, makes the taken-for-granted fabric of commonsense experience the focus of cosmological speculation once again: how is it that one object can affect another?

Speaking from the floor, Peter Hallward posed a question which aimed to challenge Graham’s refusal of relationality. Peter asked us to consider the example of a chess set, arguing that the existence of any individual piece – a rook, say – can be explained and accounted solely by its relation to all the other pieces. But, far from being an objection to Graham’s philosophy, this example demonstrates its significance. Even though a rook might only have been manufactured to become part of a chess set, and even though its meaning is dependent upon its relation to all the other pieces, this by no means exhausts the ‘being’ of the rook. As an object, the rook is not reducible to its function as a chess piece: for instance, termites or micro-organisms may already have made it a habitat.

This struck me as one way of getting to the Lacanian opposition between the Symbolic and the Real. The Symbolic is about relations; at this level, an object is a signifier, whose function is determined – and exhausted – by its relations with other signifiers. But the signifier is also a particular form: in the case of language, the letter; in the case of a chess set, the pieces. This level of form, which lies beyond human meaning but upon which human meaning depends, is the asignifying, non-sensical Real. The ‘real’ in Graham’s version of Speculative Realism can be seen, then, as a Lacanian Real.


A recorded version of the symposium is now available here.

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'The place I made the purchase no longer exists'


A few readers have kindly drawn my attention to this: Mark E Smith reading Lovecraft. This is apt, because my presentation at the conference on The Fall at Salford in May will be entitled ‘The Place I Made The Purchase No Longer Exists: The Fall and The Weird’. It will focus on some of the songs (‘Various Times’, ‘Wings’, etc) that didn’t really feature in my posts on The Fall’s pulp modernism.

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Can't stay long

The whole world seems like a conspiracy to stop me from writing at the moment. Because of call centre rhizomidiocy and corporate incompetence, my broadband connection was prematurely cut off and will not return until the end of February. But this is only one consequence of the trauma of moving.

After I moved back down to the South East last weekend, I worked out that I’ve moved something like sixteen times in the last twenty years. This is by contrast with my mother, who has only moved twice in her life, and has never lived outside a three-mile radius of her first family home. The stability that I took for granted as a child will never arrive. No doubt this is in part an effect of class mobility, of moving away from a rooted working class world in which you are expected to live and work in the town where you were born. But it is also an effect of post-Fordism, a feature of what Jameson calls the ‘fungible’ present of late capitalism. Even if I had stayed in my home town, I could not have remained in the ‘rooted working class world’, because it no longer exists. The stable Fordist town (dominated by a few firms that would employ people for their whole working life) has disappared. The ‘pit town’ about which scholarship boys such as Dennis Potter’s Nigel Barton felt so painfully ambivalent is of course long gone. But what remains – and it has become even more widespread – is Barton’s vertiginous sense of existential dislocation. Mobility is perpetual, but instead of being associated with movement between classes, it functions now as an alibi for class divisions that have reasserted themselves just as, in Barton’s (and Potter’s) youth, they for a brief moment became more fluid.

Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character begins with a powerful comparison between two generations of an American family: an older generation whose working lives were predictable and poorly remunerated, but who measured improvement in terms of small gains that their steady income allowed them to save for; and a younger generation – their children – whose college education projected them into the post-Fordist world of consumer-driven debt, ‘weak ties’ and itinerancy. The motto for this world, Sennett says, is ‘no long term’. Still, nostalgia for the ‘old long term’ should be qualified by a recognition that the ‘long term’ wasn’t actually that long, as Sennett explains:

    The “long-term” order at which the new regime takes aim, it should be said, was itself short-lived – the decades spanning the mid-twentieth century. Nineteenth-century capitalism lurched from disaster to disaster in the stock markets and in irrational corporate investment; the wild swings of the business cycle provided people little security. In [the] generation after World War II, this disorder was brought somewhat under control in most advanced economies; strong unions, guarantees of the welfare state, and large-scale corporations combined to produce an era of relative stability. This span of thirty or forty years defines the “stable past” now challenged by a new regime.

That ‘old long term’ was symbolised by solid wooden furniture, permanently nailed together, the new era by flat-pack kits. While the rooms change, the objects – heaved from flat to flat – provide the continuity. Records and books are relics of that old stability, the very solidity that is their appeal a problem, a drag, in the age of digital ether. Moving from one rented property to another, from one job (and ‘skill set’) to another, it’s unlikely that I will ever have a ‘home’ in the sense that my parents have one. This provokes ambivalent feelings: I’m well aware that keeping on the move revivifies at least as much as it drains, that the old, limited horizons were constraining, but the thought that there could come a point when I won't move again is increasingly alluring.

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