Ontological Methadone: A Review of Peter Wolfendale’s Object-Oriented Philosophy
The initial chatter around Pete Wolfendale’s book generally seemed to fall into two camps. The first being that the text was merely a massive pile of vitriol directed towards OOOers with the second being the question ‘Why would Pete devote so much of his time to a provocation that may well go unanswered?’ Wolfendale addresses the second question first in the preface (ix) while the issue of reception is more indirectly approached in the introduction (7) but these concerns feed into one another. Those defensive of Harman, and/or the Object-Oriented approach generally, could take the book’s rigor (and length) as a sign of Wolfendale’s rancor for OOO/OOP whereas those sympathetic to the critique could merely take solace in the polemical moments of the text thereby eliding the painstaking vivisection performed throughout. But leaning too hard either way reinforces the starting point of both sides and little else. Rigor and a polemical tone are of course not contradictory (I suspect one would have a much harder time finding examples that are not both rather than the other way around) but work to make the text alluring to critics and sympathizers. Switching between a rather straight-forward analytic style and a polemical one makes the text surprising for those that would only expect only vitriol or only analysis, it brings along readers from both sides of the debate who could claim to have ‘heard it all before.’
Wolfendale is explicit about his positions and even the points where he agrees with Harman though they are few and far between (35) which, at times, and as Dominic Fox points out, leaves the impression that Harman and Wolfendale are like ships passing in the night: their views of philosophy in general are too different. On the other hand, given philosophy’s universal address, to my mind philosophy needs to, at the very least, adequately provide a structure to translate between its own fields and it would appear that without epistemology, which Wolfendale so greatly champions, this is awfully difficult. This apparent failure to communicate, as well as the responses to the text already mentioned, indirectly point to a strange assumption in academia and one that I’ve seen in philosophy and theory. There is often an assumption that the theorists or philosophers one chooses reflects one’s personality and conduct in academic and extra-academic affairs. To put it somewhat jokingly, the assumption being something like Hegelians are tyrannical jerks, Derrideans are all friendly animal lovers, and Deleuzians are open-minded sex-weirdos. While this will (hopefully) invoke laughter, it is incredible how the attitude of a philosophy’s utilizers are always-already behaviourally coded and, how this cuts down the kinds of arguments one makes from the get go. I would hope that a text like Wolfendale’s demonstrates how this doesn’t hold up at all. This is particularly evident in his extensive footnote on the analytic continental divide (404-405).
Since Fox has already done a great review of the text (linked above) this allows me to focus less on the specific critiques of OOO and more on how the text expands beyond being a specific critique of Harman. The book is to be praised for the depth of its historical conceptualization and the breadth of its contemporary conceptualization in that Wolfendale demonstrates how OOO falls in regards to the development of post-Kantian thought (with particular regard to the noumena-phenomena relation in Kant and Husserl and the consequences it has for Heidegger) as well as how OOO is part of a broader trend of ontological liberalism (209-299). This is, I hope, far less egregious then it sounds given the fact that nearly a quarter of the book is dedicated to this problem.
One important aspect that applies to both of these threads is how OOO consolidates correlationism instead of taking it on via different means (6). Wolfendale argues that setting up a world of withdrawing objects effectively atomizes correlationism instead of attempting to repeal it. This circles, but does not explicitly engage, the problem of the place of epistemology of contemporary continental philosophy. While Wolfendale’s approach is clearly one that favors the importance of epistemology, it is worth asking, perhaps appealing somewhat to meta-philosophical issues, what is it about epistemology that makes current philosophy so allergic to it. By setting up the discussion of epistemology via modality (65) as well as through scientifically geared analytic philosophy (184-186), I worry that too many will refuse to listen to what would already be a strain on their ears. A challenge to Wolfendale here would be that to say that while he adequately critiques ontological liberalism for its lack of its distinctions, he could make room for an attempt at outlining what method or capacity such philosophers value as their privileged form of access to the world whether vitalistic, intuitionistic, etc. since, as it stands, the lure of such approaches is presented as merely stylistic.
This is no doubt due to the environment of ontological liberalism already mentioned which could easily be the topic of its own text. In not articulating the resources of one’s own position, Wolfendale argues that the world would had been metaphysically deflated become ontological re-inflated (235) first in a more cautious fashion in figures like Meinong (209) and becomes more and more flagrant leading up to the contemporary moment with figures like Markus Gabriel (267) or the numerous new materialists (380-382). Wolfendale demonstrates how this renewal is possible through Badiou – a figure some might see as an unlikely suspect for the charge – via his being of the multiple formalized in set theory (225) as a way of expressing an ever narrowing gap between being and appearance. That is, questions of existence become gradually ontologized in a way that replaces the structure of metaphysics (228-229) but this structure is one bent for political, aesthetic, etc ends instead of being a truly generic structure, a structure which Kant did not make impossible but cautiously covered in caveats before pulling it slowly out of the rubble of dogmatism in his Opus Postumum. (As a potentially interesting aside, I addressed Badiou and Meillassoux’s liberalism through a critique similar in conclusion, but radically different in approach, in my talk at Incredible Machines last year).
Strong correlationism is possible by ontologizing human affairs but by indirectly making them givens of experience but, since the gap between being and appearing is so ‘self-evidential’ the given structure of the world becomes human, all too human. It is why ontological liberalism makes the fact that everything exists a profound statement (245) rather than a pragmatic one. Again, this points to the important and more actionable distinction of modal and epistemic (93) treatments of things in the world and our knowledge of them. Strong correlationism, or the atomization of correlation in OOO, erases the distinction in a way that claims to do justice to the world which, in fact, only makes the world our access or description of it in the guise of the opposite.
It is in this vein that Wolfendale sets up his text as an obituary for Speculative Realism pointing out that what sets Harman apart from the other would-be horsemen of the correlationist apocalypse (Meillassoux, Grant, and Brassier) is not that they support materialism while he does not, but that Harman rejects any truck with epistemology (401-402). Brassier’s postscript flushes out this argument as well as repeats the funerary sentiment of Wolfendale’s closing words. As someone who “enthusiastically leapt into the melee, enthused by the renewal that SR seemed to promise” (406) some six and a half years ago (!) I cannot but wince in acknowledgement. This is not to say I am in full agreement with Wolfendale’s philosophy and I hope the above does not read like a love letter. While Pete and I share commonalities (such as our appreciation of things ranging from Post-Kantian thought to Schwarzenegger films) our view of how to approach philosophy is quite different though we see many of the same problems. What Object-Oriented Philosophy demonstrates both directly and indirectly is that a shared conceptual enemy (such as correlationism) is insufficient for philosophical community physical or virtual. Likewise, it would be silly to band together under a banner of anti-OOO and this is not what the text calls for. It instead calls to examine how OOO and ontological liberalism serve to attempt to solve philosophical problems by aesthetic or rhetorical means in the name of ontological fairness and asks whether this is good for the philosophical enterprise writ large. The purportedly liberal or pluralistic attitude of philosophy in fact hides the most pernicious forms of structure which Speculative Realism attempted to undo at its core by re-engaging with the sciences, crossing the analytic-continental divide, and eschewing the slow bureaucracy of mainstream academia.
To say everything matters philosophically is not the same as to say as everything matters equally for philosophy since philosophy is a particular practice and not, pace ontological liberalism, an attitude. In other words, if philosophy is to live up to its history, it should be viewed as attempting to maximally understand the cosmos in a methodologically rigorous sense and not make us feel a certain way or hide the place from which a particular philosophical inquiry occurs. If we say everything matters disagreement, which fuels augmentative discourse, disappears. To treat the ‘everything’ above in terms of the structures of philosophy however leaves open (in a way sneakily foreclosed by ontological liberalism) the deep connection between theory and pragmatics that allows for productive exchange. It is here that Wolfendale’s text excels – epistemology is not an irremediably anthropocentric gesture but is the cost of coherence and that, by which, philosophy can continue to be philosophy while producing consequences simultaneously for itself and beyond its foreseeable borders.
Filed under: Badiou, Brassier, Deleuze, Harman, Hegel, Heidegger, history, Iain Hamilton Grant, Kant, Meillassoux, ontology, Speculative Realism | 8 Comments
Tags: Iain Grant, Markus Gabriel, ooo, oop, pete wolfendale, ray brassier